Room to Breathe

Last year I rediscovered J. B. Phillips’ classic little book, Your God Is Too Small. I still highly recommend it as it corrects so many misconceptions about God on the basis of which many people have understandably left the faith. If the things they have come to believe about God were true then of course they must leave the faith. But of course they are not true. It’s like abandoning a life-long friend on the basis of a nasty rumor circulated by his or her enemies. We believe the lie and walk away.

But there is another reason why people leave the faith, or never experience the faith in its fulness even though they may have spent a life-time in church. Perhaps especially if they have spent a life-time in church. It may also be the reason why Christians have so often “shown up” as mean-spirited, cold, authoritarian, judgmental, thin-skinned, irritable and even violent. Clearly something has gone wrong. Maybe it was bound to happen.

I’d like to offer for your consideration the possibility that our God is not too small, but the box in which we keep Him is too small. In fact, the box in which we live our whole lives may be too small. I’ve come to believe that many of our problems in life and faith can be traced to nothing more sinister that a failure of imagination. Consider the simple illustration of the transition from flat earth to round earth visualization. To us the earth seems flat. It takes imagination to believe that the earth is round. Once we do, our whole consciousness changes.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your [flat earth] philosophy”. Thus spake Hamlet, and I think it is true for us. Our philosophies tell us what is possible, not just about this world and our lives, but also about God. I would invite us to consider the possibility that there is nothing wrong with God. But we have tried to contain Him in a space far too small for Him to breathe His life-giving Spirit over our often chaotic and brittle lives.

If You Want To….

I want to write a brief follow-up to my sermon Sunday in which I emphasized the essentially voluntary nature of discipleship.  Jesus said, “If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps….” Luke 9:23 (J. B. Phillips).  

I remember when it first dawned on me that not every child wanted to be my friend.  I was three years old.  One of the four-year-olds had thrown me down on the playground. How could this be?! I wanted to be friends with him!  Later in grade school I learned that not every brown-eyed girl I loved wanted to be my one and only forever girl-friend.  Sadly, this applied to the blue-eyed girls too..

After a season of revival in America and the world over, the number of people choosing not to become or remain Christians seems to be growing.  Likely, what they have seen of Christianity has been distorted, and to a large degree those, like us, who bear Christ’s name bear some responsibility.  But even Jesus — the most beautiful example of life in the Kingdom — was thoroughly rejected, tortured and killed, just as He had said He would be a few verses earlier.  

How does one become the kind of person that doesn’t want to follow Jesus Christ?  Some might say we were born that way–original sin.  But most of the children I have known find Jesus very attractive, and would gladly follow Him, up to a certain age.  

We are all becoming a certain kind of person, the kind of person who makes the choices that we make every day.  There is no real mystery in our behavior; we are just that kind of person who does those kinds of things. Ask someone if they sometimes tell lies.  Most will admit they do.  But few will admit to being a liar.  Granted, it is a tough word to say.  Perhaps it is easier to say, “I am the kind of person who, under certain conditions, will lie.”  

Our current behavior reveals a lot about who we are right now, if we have the eyes to see it. However, the person we might become is less obvious. Who could have predicted that over 90% of the Christians in Germany were the kind of people who could, under the right circumstances, become Nazis?

How does one become the kind of person who, when presented with the option of following in the footsteps of Jesus, says, “No thanks,” or in the modern idiom, “I’m good.”  Perhaps that’s the reason they don’t need Jesus.  “I’m good enough without Him”. I don’t think this is a dodge, but a sincere belief. The question is, how it came to be formed.

In “The Great Divorce” C.S. Lewis depicts a bus load of “ghosts” arriving on the edges of Heaven, where they meet a variety of its inhabitants.  It’s not clear exactly where they have come from, perhaps purgatory, perhaps Hell.  But two things become obvious: 1) these ghosts are being given the option of staying in Heaven, and 2) most choose to go back to where they came from.  Lewis helps us see how it is possible for a human soul to become so malformed as to prefer Hell to Heaven.  Heaven is just too strange, too real.  In one case, Heaven seems offensively unjust and unfair to the ghost who encounters a forgiven murderer.  Though several of the ghosts are quite religious, it is clear to all that they would be miserable in Heaven, and they choose in the end not to stay.

This portrayal challenges the notion of God condemning sinners to Hell against their wishes and invites us to consider the very real possibility that Heaven would be a place of misery and even torture for those who do not want to be there. Whether Lewis’ fancy is accurate or not, it does remind us that Heaven in not whatever we want it to be, whatever we liked here on earth, just better and forever–the great golf course in the sky that we sometimes hear about in funeral messages. There is nothing in Scripture to support that notion! Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and those who don’t have much use for Him even in small doses now are unlikely to enjoy His company for eternity.

How do we become the kind of people for whom the real Heaven would in fact be Heaven? The Lord’s Prayer gives is a clue when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Whatever else, we can say with certainty that Heaven is where God’s will is done. Are we the kind of people who embrace God’s will here on earth?

It’s the little choices we make every day that form us into the kind of people we are, who then make the kinds of choices that we make; and on it goes, everyday each of us becoming more and more the way we are, firming up a character. Life goes on, day by day. But we never know when life will present us with a choice that has huge, even eternal consequences. Mysteriously we don’t seem to be able to choose but one option. We might not even realize there is more than one.  It is terrifying to consider that we could reach the place where we are unable to say yes to God, or to the good, because we can no longer see any advantage to it. The wrong way seems to be either the right way, all things considered, or the only way. We might not realize we are making a choice at all.

I beg us all to look for as many opportunities to say yes to the promptings of grace that come our way, to choose the Jesus way, in every decision. To practice building the habit of saying “Thy will be done.” Our little choices are what have made us the kind of people we are, and they will keep doing so for all eternity.

Jesus offers us the gift of discipleship. What a privilege to be invited into the curriculum of the Kingdom, where His will is done, and we love it!