American Christianity is boring.
Let’s be real. Our Christian lives often resemble systematic, dried-up structures full of check-lists and brittle methods. Church on Sunday? Check. Bible class on Wednesday? Check. Got your Bible? Highlighter and pen? Copy of the latest Bible study fad? Congratulations – you’re set for a passionate relationship with Jesus!
I’m being sarcastic, by the way.
Even our worship is structured. The Holy Spirit is supposedly invited to unleash His breathtaking power on church stages. We cry: Spirit, pour Your fire on us as we lift our hands and faces to Heaven! Ignite us with a holy flame that burns so hot it’s white!
Only, can you do it in the seventeen-minute allotted time space? We’ve announcements to make, after all.
I say this with deep appreciation for planners and doers of Christianity. The logistics of an unstructured church service are severely impractical. We need Marthas (Luke 10:38-42). Heck, I’m Martha. Lordhavemercy, I even plan my bathroom breaks!
But this Martha is bored with the Christian life.
What happened to the passion and excitement that accompanied our initial discovery of Jesus?
When I was found by the Lord at twenty-seven years of age, I was metaphorically smacked by a semi truck. Everything changed. Jesus exchanged my old wineskins for new (Mark 2:22) and I was reborn a completely different woman. The old motives of status and wealth dried up like dew in the hot Texas sun and were replaced with new purposes such as worship and eternal life. My previous drive to develop a soaring corporate career now seemed pointless. Mornings typically spent sleeping in were instead spent outside under the soft glow of the slowly-brightening sky as I fellowshipped with my Savior, my Friend, my Passion. I was in love, plain and simple.
But then I signed up for American Christianity 101, and the love dried up.
I volunteered for just about every church task you can think of. I completed sixteen Bible studies in about five minutes. I vowed to complete YouVersion’s “Bible in a Year.” I did my chapters. Memorized my verses. Quiet time with the Lord. Thirty minutes. Every morning. After coffee. Clockwork. Check, check, check.
In an attempt to do more, I sought systems from professional Christians who would help me “grow” my faith. I memorized prayer methods touted as effective. Church tactics, Biblical strategies, and belief exercises ruled my day.
After all, productivity is our Western mantra. Do, do, do…right?
But something happened in this dizzying system. My love for Jesus slowly died. My passion for living faded. No longer allowed the luxury of unstructured time with God (that would be unproductive), I grew increasingly distant from the Savior. I began to anticipate the Rapture simply because its heralding meant I could finally be done.
As I drifted from this Precious God on the floating seas of Church activity and systematic Christianity, His face became smaller on the horizon. Life morphed from an exciting adventure with an unpredictable Savior to a large series of back-to-back tasks to endure and complete.
In the years since my initial flame with the Lord, I’ve desperately searched for the passionate high I once experienced; much like an addict seeks to experience the high of their first encounter with drugs. The fire I once knew remained elusive – it wasn’t in any sermon or podcast or Bible study or book.
Jesus had to be somewhere, but I couldn’t find Him.
The Change Agent
One day while haphazardly reading the Bible, I saw John 15 with fresh eyes. One part stood out. Read it with me:
[Jesus speaking:] “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
This said Jesus is the Vine, and we are His branches. In my non-botanist vocabulary, let me explain: He is the main body of a plant. If He were a tree, He would be the trunk.
We are the branches of the plant or tree. We come from Him.
Later I indulged in the work of one of my favorite authors, Rick Lawrence. In his book, Sifted: God’s Scandalous Request to Satan’s Outrageous Demand, Lawrence describes a moment he realized our current Western system of read-understand-then-apply the Bible – which he deemed the Application Mentality – simply didn’t cut it any longer. Attending a Christian conference where the Application Mentality was the brand of the day, Lawrence underwent a life-transforming moment:
I went to every general session and popped in to many workshops. I listened to some of the best ministry speakers in the world, all of them experts in what you might call the “tips and techniques” of the application mentality.
And in the middle of what I would normally expect to be an invigorating experience, I quickly realized my soul was being invaded by a pervading sense of dissonance. I was restless and, I had to admit, absolutely bored by almost everything I was hearing.
I knew in my head that the strategies they were dispensing “worked.” But the more I listened the less interested I was in stuff that “works.”
Disillusioned and suddenly feeling disconnected from the very people I’ve always relished, I found an empty seat in the cavernous atrium just outside the main session’s doors. Thousands of people were buzzing around me, chatting and hurrying along to their next application download, but I felt utterly alone among them.
Finally, I closed my eyes and whispered aloud: “Why, why, why, Jesus, am I feeling this way?” Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was desperate to understand what was happening inside me.
And into that liminal space I heard His voice, unmistakably whispering back to me: “You’re bored by everything but Me now.”
And then the little streams of my tears joined the Mississippi, and I quietly sobbed in my chair. You’re bored by everything but Me now. I knew it was true. The tips and techniques of an application mentality seemed like ridiculous distractions from the attachment I craved.
– Rick Lawrence, Sifted: God’s Scandalous Response to Satan’s Outrageous Demand
Did you hear that? Attachment. To Jesus. Not read-understand-then apply method. A relationship, not a system.
Oh my goodness. My soul is crying out for an attachment to Jesus, not simply a knowledge-based arrangement! While there’s nothing inherently wrong with our methods, they are a poor, dry, crusty substitute for powerfully dynamic attachment to the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5). Hear me: God’s Words, breathed on the sacred pages of Biblical texts, are transformational. Life-renovating. Meant to be ingested as energy-generating food for our souls (Matthew 4:4). Not simply something to put into a neat, little process. We can’t, as Lawrence pointed out, simply apply the Bible like we apply paint to our houses.
In God’s economy, relationships rule (Matthew 7:22-23).
Relationships: the Heat of Fire
Allow me to illustrate. My family is precious to me. I hold my husband, two daughters, and our pets close to my heart. Through the fire of many trials, I have learned and accepted that I need them. Without them, I would be a shell of a woman simply going through the motions of a lifeless life.
However, these familial relationships are messy.
We are a chaotic cluster of fragile feelings, intense emotions with enormous ranges, complicated pasts, perplexing hang-ups and fears, unattractive motives, and uncontrollable moods. Additionally, this complex mess is planted in the middle of a confusing, disorderly world. Talk about a powder keg.
Simply put, I cannot completely control familial relationships, or the world in which they inhabit.
Which makes me uneasy, to say the least. My first inclination is to eliminate from my life that which I cannot control. Isn’t that the universal response?
However, I need them. I absolutely cannot live without my family, which brings me to a conundrum: how must I change in order to preserve the precious relationships with those I love most? Yes, it’s a compromise. However, the simple, bothersome truth is: in order to maintain a relationship, I often must be transformed.
That, I believe, is what scares us about an attachment to Jesus. To maintain it, we must be transformed, and we must be willing to be dependent.
Our Western culture defies dependence and transformation. I live in Texas where you can’t turn a block corner without hearing our fierce, American spirit: Freedom! Independence! Like it or leave it!
Yet Jesus calls us to abidance (John 15:5-8), where alteration is inevitable and independence is forfeited.
Our fear of change results in avoidance. Put simply: it’s safest to steer clear of an out-of-control affair with Jesus and opt instead for the cleaner, manageable Application Method to Christianity. After all, the latter requires no change. It frees us to remain the same with a little “dressing” on top to make us more attractive.
However, the “dressing” of Biblical knowledge and application is merely superficial. It quickly melts under the heat of tribulation. Battle funk reveals our true identity, and without transformation, we are basically the same, stinky humans we always were.
The Jesus-is-Vine-We-Are-Branches concept comes into play here. Jesus says we are branches grafted into Him (John 15). In Sifted, Lawrence explains the process of grafting a branch into a vine. This is done to restore the branch’s life; although still alive, it’s typically attached to a dead tree. Without intervention, the branch will eventually die.
That’s us. Before Jesus, we’re the branches attached to the dead tree. Without Jesus’ intrusion, we’re headed for death.
Grafting is quite messy and painful. First, the branch – which has little to no fruit – is severed from its dead vine or tree. Any remaining leaves are stripped. Simultaneously, the new vine – or tree trunk – is vertically gashed with a cut that must be deep enough to accommodate the dying branch. (Must I pinpoint the obvious – Jesus Himself was gashed in the side on the Cross? (John 19:34))
The end of the branch must be sheared into a point in order to fit into the trunk’s gash. Once complete, the pointed end is shoved deep into the tree’s wound, and an adhesive agent is wrapped to ensure secure placement.
Weeks later, the wound is unwrapped – much like a cast removal from a broken arm or leg – to reveal a fully whole, attached, functional branch. Life-giving nutrients flow between the tree trunk and the branch.
What a perfect description of our abidance in Jesus.
Culture of More
In our culture of More, less production and more abiding in Jesus is truly counter-cultural. It just doesn’t make sense. Our lives are an exhausting treadmill of production. Unfortunately, this mentality has invaded the Church, and it’s suffering because of it. Our union with the Creator is dying. The branches are withering.
Dare I say: perhaps the Western Church of the 21st century produces little fruit because its priority is to do instead of abide.
Perhaps the Church is fruitless because we do more than we abide.
– Diane Watt, Scripture Seeds
It takes a willful “no” to stay connected to our Father. No, I don’t need that shiny house on the corner and accompanying mortgage which will require seven billion hours of work per week, leaving no time for a walk with Jesus. No, I don’t need to go to that banquet because I have an appointment to smell flowers at the park with God. No, I don’t need to respond to every message on Facebook because my Savior beckons.
Saying no to notorious demands of our day and age. Is this possible?
I don’t know. But I know what we’d miss if we didn’t take a chance.
My Hilltop Experience
A few weeks ago I was in a hurry. Sitting in traffic, my face and heart contorted with frustration. I was gonna be late, and this Martha hates tardiness. Sighing, I prayed.
“Hi God. It’s me. Lord, I’m tired. Can you help me? I don’t even want to be here.” I gazed bleakly on the endless lines of unmoving cars in front of me.
God whispered. Take the next right, I felt Him say.
Sighing, I shook my head and rubbed my temples. Sometimes God requires things that make no sense. Most the time I oblige, but it’s hard.
I decided to obey. Turning right, I followed an unknown, winding road which led me uphill. The car slowly inched as I wound a narrow, cluttered street. Completely lost and unsure what the Lord was doing, I glanced at the clock. Sigh. Late for sure.
However, as I approached the top of the hill an amazing site slowly opened: a magnificent view of the city stretched before me. What seemed like thousands of miles of awe-inspiring scenery extended as far as I could see. I couldn’t believe it – I’d lived here forever and never knew of this magical lookout.
I parked my car and gazed in wonder. On the radio, Chris Tomlin’s Holy is the Lord softly hummed. What an amazing discovery! I was suddenly filled with exhilaration. I bent over and blasted the volume, leaned back my head, and consumed God’s creation. A fire ignited in my chest as a fresh revelation spread through my body: God is utterly undefinable. The vast, wondrous weight of Creation is a reflection of His unfathomable character. The entire universe contains only a microscopic amount of His beauty.
I closed my eyes as Tomlin’s words echoed:
We stand and lift up our hands
For the joy of the Lord is our strength
We bow down and worship Him now
How great, how awesome is He
And together we sing
Holy is the Lord, God Almighty
The earth is filled with His glory.
It was all I could do to keep from bursting. In that moment, only worship mattered.
Miraculously, I wasn’t late. I arrived full of the realization that the Kingdom of God does not consist of tips, techniques, programs, or systems. It consists of abiding in Jesus. Had I not done so, I would have missed my hilltop moment.
Listen, Christian: join me. Nestle snug in the gaping wound of the Savior who paid everything for a union with you. He desires to inject you with life-giving, fruit-bearing nutrients. You’ll reminisce 10,000 years in Glory the fruit He produced through you. Don’t trade the exhilaration of abidance for controllable, safe programs and structures. Control is an illusion anyway. Your best bet would be to simply strap in for the ride.
The Tree of Life awaits you. Let the Father graft you into the vibrant, exciting, alive Vine.
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