[This post is part of a series: How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]
As the title of this series indicates, my aim is to describe how Jesus got hold of me–why I believe and why I follow. To this point, I have focused on why I have been convinced that Jesus is believable, and for the remainder of the series I shift gears to focus on how Jesus is followable and what my efforts to do so have looked like (both the misguided ones and those that have been better informed). I want to do this in three areas that have made each of us the kind of people we are: my relationships, my mind, and my habits. Though it isn't really possible to focus on these areas in a chronological order (as if my relationships took a certain shape before anything changed in my mind) I did want to look at them in this particular order, since it was my relationships that opened me up to changes in the other areas.
I remember a point when I hit a wall. I was a college student, and by that time, I had already been involved for years in Christian activities and efforts. I was attending a Christian university and my studies there were preparing me for a career I thought I would have in full-time ministry. Part of that training was that I spent a summer in a ministry internship with a good church.
Though it wasn't an instantaneous crash into the wall, I can look back on it now and pinpoint that time of my life as a point when the wall and I collided. The wall was coming at me in different forms: much of what I thought Christianity was about and had been planning my future around was proving unreliable; I was stuck in selfish patterns which felt like a rut with no way out; my relationships were unfulfilling, as I was nearly obsessed with trying to find people who could bring excitement into my life, make me happy, and pull me out of my loneliness.
It is never fun to hit a wall. One of my heroes says, "reality is what you run into when you are wrong," and I was running into a lot of it during that part of my life. I was steeped in Christianity, but the way I was living it wasn't working. Though I'm not sure what the implications of giving into the wall would have been, I can remember thinking, "If this is all there is to this stuff...I'd rather give my life to something else."
I have certainly made my share of poor decisions, but it was at that point when I made one that has turned out to be one of my best choices: I wrote a letter to the person I knew (though I didn't know him well at the time–he was just an acquaintance whom I'd had the opportunity to observe in different situations) whose life with God seemed to be the most authentic I had seen. He seemed to have the kind of stuff I wanted, even though my wall was proving to me that I didn't know how to pursue it.
My letter to him wasn't long or complex. If I remember correctly, I think it was about a page long and could be summed up as, "It seems like you have the kind of life with God I want. Can I spend some time with you?" I had no idea what his schedule was like, and–being someone many people looked up to–I thought he probably had people asking things of him all the time so there wouldn't be much chance of a real relationship. But–since I was at the wall–I had to give it a shot.
He wrote me back and invited me to get together with him when I returned to campus, and then when we met, he invited me to spend an hour with him each week throughout the year. Most often we spent our hour talking in his office, but I think he knew that I also needed to be with him in other situations. We went to lunch, rode around in his car, and went to ballgames...and each circumstance gave me the opportunity to be known by someone who lived what I wanted, and to see the kind of shape his life with God took regardless of where he was. His simple way of describing what we did was "doing life together."
Because of my relationship with him, my life changed direction that year, and here is the key: even though I didn't understand it at the time, what I gave up on when I wrote that letter was my attempt to live Christianity by myself. Prior to that, I had always had friends who were Christians, but never before had I given anyone permission to be part of my entire life to that degree.
Since then, I have had periods when my life with God has leaned back toward being something I have tried to do in a companionless way, but I have also had times when my relationships with others have been the most valuable part of my life. I have had stretches of stagnation as well as times of authentic change. When I look back at all of it, the most critical factor seems obvious: the kind of life I want inevitably stalls during the go-it-alone times, while the only progress I have ever known has happened with the helpful company of others.
Maybe you have hit the wall at some point too. I wish that everyone would have a friend as helpful as mine was whenever we run into it, because without him and the direction in which our ongoing friendship sent me, I don't know what role the crucified and risen messiah would have in my lifestyle today. It's likely that someone reading this hit their wall some time ago, then either couldn't or didn't have someone like my friend to turn to, and as a result has either accepted a lifeless version of Christianity as the norm or might have even given up on it altogether.
John Wesley said, "Christianity is essentially a social religion…to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”(1) Or, to put it into language we might be more likely to use in our day: disciples of Jesus do not, indeed cannot, exist apart from communities of disciples of Jesus.
So, just to help make this a bit more practical, below are some of the ways I repeatedly apply the lesson that I learned through writing that letter fourteen years ago. These are some of the relationships I enjoy and continue to nurture as part of this kind of life I want to live with God:
- With my wife: Though there has always been as-yet-unrealized potential for how we can best be helpful to one another in following our Lord, when I look back at our years together to this point, there is no doubt that she is the one most responsible for helping me continue to move forward. We have experimented with a lot of different ways of helping one another stay open to God. Over time–as long as we keep looking for them–we stumble into some that fit us pretty well. She knows me better than anyone, and in her loving, kind, yet red-headed firm way, we're continually getting better at helping each other grow.
- With a friend or two: I have had different friends fill this role at different points in my life, but I can see how I always need one or two friendships that are on a different level than the others. These friends are the ones whom I'm not afraid to give a glimpse of the good, bad, and ugly in my soul, and they have each known God and known me pretty thoroughly.
- With a group: One of the most life-giving things I've done over the past several years is to continually be part of an Apprentice Group with others in our church. Being with others in one of these groups each year has become a non-negotiable for me. It is a source of good friendships in which we have common weekly practices and allow the story of Jesus to constantly sink in to us at deeper levels. (If you are near Midland, new groups will be forming this fall. If you are interested, please let me know.)
Each of these kinds of relationships is a joy to me. I look forward to the chances I have to engage in each one of them. But...none of them happen without intentionality on our part. It is very possible, and looked at as acceptable among Christians, to float through our lives without the meaningful connections with others that are indispensable if we want to keep moving forward rather than staying stuck at the wall for the rest of our lives.
Next week, I'll try to describe the change that took place in my mind and what I do with it.
Scripture Readings for the Week*:
- Hosea 11:1-11
- Psalm 107:1-9,43
- Colossians 3:1-11
- Luke 12:13-21
A Prayer for the Week*:
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) From Wesley’s sermon, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4″
[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]