The Gospel Life: A Path to a Scary Place (why you might not want to follow Jesus)

by Aaron Alford

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Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was eager to get his feet wet in missionary work. He was passionate and knowledgeable about what he was getting into, and eager to really do the work of a missionary. He was not interested in the kind of “missions as tourism” trip that is becoming more prevalent in the Church these days. He wanted to go where there was real need, and real darkness, with a mind to pursuing missions as a long-term vocation.

His parents, however, who are Christians themselves, were not so excited at the prospect. When he told them of his dreams of missionary work, he was met with baffled confusion.

“Why would you want to go somewhere dangerous?” they said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” was his response.

I would like to be gracious with his parents. No parents want to see their child, even their adult child, in danger, but their response really got me thinking. It seemed to me that their response was indicative of a common attitude in North American Christianity, one that I can’t say I’m immune from myself, and that is the desire to stay safe. But as I look more closely at that desire, I realize it’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith.

Really, if the goal of your life is to remain safe and secure, why would you ever choose Christianity as your religion? Why would you put your faith in a God who offered himself to torture and crucifixion? Especially when that God says, “Take up your cross and follow me”? Why be part of a movement which is, arguably, most effectively spread through the martyrdom of its adherents?

I mean, there are plenty of other religions of which you could be part, should you desire to live a safe life. Buddhism is pretty rad. They’re generally pretty zen. There’s plenty of self-improvement, and a strong inclination toward letting go of the worst aspects of yourself. You don’t even have to be a full-on Buddhist. I know people who, though they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhists, follow some of the principles of Buddhism, and they’re great people. People I want to learn from, even. There are probably plenty of Christians who would make excellent Buddhists.

I’m no expert in world religions, but I’m pretty sure Sikhism doesn’t involve following a god to his violent death. They’re monotheistic, they have a strong moral code, with an emphasis on selflessness and hospitality. They even practice baptism. All of that, and they have amazing food! Definitely a plus on the food side, if you’re a fan of curry.

There’s also Islam. If you love Jesus, you get to keep him in this one. You even get to keep the idea that Jesus will return someday. Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, they just don’t believe he was actually crucified. Most Muslims believe he was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion, so that he would not have to suffer. Consequently, it might be easier to follow a Jesus who didn’t actually suffer when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Perhaps the ultimate death-free religion is one that barely qualifies as an actual religion at all. This one’s founder didn’t have to meditate for hours or endure undue hardship. Instead he wrote science fiction pulp novels and died in secrecy while living on a big ranch in Southern California. Before that, he spent several years sailing around the world on his private yacht. So maybe Scientology might be a better fit for you. They too have a strong focus on self-improvement and feeling good, so that’s nice. (I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re poor, however. All that self-improvement can cost a lot of money!)

So if you just want self-improvement but aren’t really into suffering or being in scary places, why on earth would you be a Christian? Especially when you have all these other options? With that in mind, I would urge you, if you’re just not that into self-sacrifice unto death, or suffering in general, to please consider another religion. At the very least, please feel free to stop attending Church services and instead sign up for an enrichment class at your local community college. Really.

Even Jesus himself would beg you to reconsider following him. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter Nine, he says:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Later, in chapter fourteen, he is being followed by a great many people, and it seems he decides to thin the herd:

“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’”

Christ himself would urge you to really give all of this serious consideration before committing to following him. He would ask you to make sure you get a good look at the big picture before you put that “NOTW” bumper sticker on your car.

Because if you’re not going to follow Jesus to the cross, then guess what: You’re not following Jesus at all. You may possibly be on the path he walked, but you’re sitting in the middle of it, having a nice little picnic, and probably getting in the way of the more serious hikers.

If your Christianity does not include the option of pain, of actively pursuing self-sacrifice, if it does not include a mandate to go into dark and dangerous places, then your Christianity is devoid of Christ himself, and you should probably consider aligning yourself with a more comfortable belief system. To paraphrase Jesus: Don’t take up residence in a house you’re not going to finish building.

If, however, you would like to be swallowed up into an infinite, wildly dangerous Love, then follow the One who is not safe, but who is Very Good. Follow the One who will demand absolutely everything from you, the One who will call you to suffering and death. Follow the One who will set your soul ablaze with an all-consuming fire, with a Love which will indeed burn, burn, burn. Follow the One who will lead you to lay down your life for the lowest of the low. Follow him when he leads you into suffering. Follow him when he leads you to share in the pain of your neighbour. Follow him into death. Because here’s the other part of suffering: The joy you will experience will be much greater than, but directly linked to, the amount of sorrow you let in. That’s true not just for the next life, but for the one you’re living now. So take up your cross, and follow him not just to death but also to resurrection. Follow him into unspeakable joy.

Wherever he leads you, following Jesus is always a path to a scary place. Why would you want to follow a God so dangerous as this? Indeed, why wouldn’t you?

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The Gospel Life: A Holy Family

by Aaron Alford

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“A Quiet Moment”, by Timothy Schmalz

Recently I heard a message that made me think of something I’ve always taken for granted. Christians accept that Jesus, as the Son of God, was incarnate of the flesh and born of Mary as a human being. But how much thought have we given to the life he chose to lead after his birth and before his public ministry?

As we look through the Old Testament, we see many prefigurements and foreshadows of the miraculous birth of Christ. In the book of Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman and proclaims to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” Her child, Samson, is dedicated to God even before his birth, and is raised according to the vows of a Nazarite.

Hannah was also thought to be barren when she prayed for the gift of a son. God heard her prayer, and she gave birth to Samuel. In gratitude for such a miraculous birth, Hannah gave her child to the Lord’s service, and Samuel, who would become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, grew up in the Temple.

In the New Testament we see John the Baptist, another child of remarkable beginnings, whose mother Elizabeth was well past the age of conceiving. He too is dedicated to God, and lives a life quite apart from the world. Most scholars agree that he would have been part of the desert monastic community of the Essenes.

Yet Christ himself, the most miraculous of all miraculous births, dedicated to God though he was, did not grow up in the Temple, nor did he take the vows of a Nazarite or live a life of monastic asceticism. As far as we know he did not spend any significant time as part of a community such as the Essenes. It certainly would have been a valid choice for him to be set apart in such a way, and perhaps would even have been an asset to the ministry he would begin later in life.

But this was not the path he chose for himself. Instead he lived most of his life in complete averageness in the unremarkable town of Nazareth. For thirty years (give or take), he lived a quiet life among family and friends who knew him simply as Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter.

Why?

Of course we cannot know every reason, but I believe one reason is that he came to show us just how holy and beautiful a thing a family is. Christ was not made holy by being separated from a family, but instead made the family itself holy by becoming part of it.

Not only did he become part of a family, but in his infinite humility he subjected himself to all that being a son entails. He learned to walk by holding Joseph’s pinky finger and wobbling toward his mother. He learned to talk from staring into his mother’s eyes and listening to the strange sounds coming out of her smiling mouth. Perhaps he learned patience by watching his father at work, carefully crafting his wooden creations, smoothing out each line and correcting each corner. Perhaps he learned grace by watching his mother bring a warm meal to the family down the street who had fallen on difficult times. Joseph was not a priest, and Mary was not a prophetess, but Jesus’s first earthly experience of love came in the embrace of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps he learned to love, just as he learned to walk and talk, by watching the way Joseph and Mary gave of themselves to one another.

“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” -Luke 2:51,52

In the life he chose to live, in his obedience to his earthly parents, Jesus assures us of the sacred calling that being a mother, a father, and even a child is. Mary too, in pondering “all these things in her heart” points to the high calling of parenthood.

There are many exceptional people and Christian saints who overcame less-than-perfect and even horrible childhood and family situations to become great examples of love and faith, but there are many more who were able to become exactly who God intended them to be because of the families in which God placed them. It’s in a family where we learn virtues such as sound morals and Christian doctrine, and perhaps these are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about what we want to teach our children. The most important thing, however, the first and best among anything else a child can learn, is love, for love is the source of all that is holy. Not only must we teach children honour and courage, but we also have to live out grace and humility before their watching eyes. When Joseph fell short and asked his wife’s forgiveness for an unkind word, little Jesus was watching. It is in seeing this day-to-day vocation to love —the calling of every family— that children remember the delectable scent of holiness. They will remember it just as warmly as your home made cookies, and they will want to live in it. That kind of love can make a saint out of anyone. So what saint may you be raising?

As a parent, you have been given the highest and holiest of callings: to teach another human being to love. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t back down from the task. God himself has assured us not only of the sacredness of the vocation, but his faithfulness to meet us there. He will give you the grace to live it, if you have the humility to accept it. No family is perfect, but love can make any family a Holy Family.

Pinching Tents: The Joy of Mistakes.

by Aaron Alford

The priest is coming to the most important part of the liturgy.  He lifts his hands to pray, opens his mouth, and says, “I’m sorry.  I forgot part of the liturgy.”  He smiles sheepishly as the congregation chuckles quietly.  “This happens when you haven’t been ordained for very long!  I’ll have to go back and do that over again.”

A subdued atmosphere of prayerful worship has fallen over the worshipers at the small non-denom church.  The musicians have just finished one of those intimate songs that brings everyone into that special place of quiet worship.  They strike the first chord of the next song.  Well, one of them strikes that chord.  The piano player strikes a completely different and discordant chord.  The bass player tries desperately to find the notes to play, and realizes he has to choose between what the acoustic guitar is playing or what the piano is hitting.  The drummer is thoroughly confused.  The leader suddenly breaks out in uproarious laughter.  “I’m sorry folks!  Let’s… uh… try that again!”

A youth pastor is speaking to a room full of young people.  He has a message to give to these teens.  He begins to review what it is they’ve been discussing through this important series.  “We were talking about Lot,” he begins.  “…and how Lot chose to go pinch his tits…”  His face freezes in horror.  “Excuse me!  ‘Pitch his tents!’  I hope this isn’t on video tape,” he chuckles.  But it is on video tape, and within minutes he’s a YouTube sensation

I’m sure you’ve been in one of these kinds of situations, either as a direct participant in the awkwardness or as an awkward observer.  I always find it interesting to see the reactions of the perpetrators of the mistake, and of the people watching it happen.  Most often, the reaction is one of humour.  Sometimes it’s compassionate cringing.  I don’t know about you, but I love these situations.  There’s something so incredibly human about them, especially when they happen in the context of corporate Christian worship.  They can be great reminders of just how small and silly we really are.

You may attend a very ‘casual’ church, where such moments happen at least once every time you gather.  You may attend a more liturgical or program-oriented church, where such moments are rare.  However we worship, we usually have some kind of liturgy, even if we’re uncomfortable calling it that.  There is a certain rhythm and cadence we become familiar with, and when something happens that disrupts that rhythm, it changes everything.

These moments, whether we realize it or not, are not merely interruptions in our worship.  I believe they are encounters with grace.  They are moments when something happens that is beyond our control.  A bad note, a technical glitch, perhaps even a congregant disrupting the service in some way.  How we react to these moments can reveal a lot about what we think of ourselves and what we think about the God we worship.  These moments can remind us that we may be in danger of worshiping worship, of thinking somewhere in the depths of our minds that we are not coming to meet a God that is already present, but somehow conjuring his presence through our magical incantations.  How dangerous it is to confuse worship with sorcery!

Let me digress here to make it very clear what it is I am not saying.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t have liturgies and rhythms to our corporate gatherings.  What I am saying is that these rhythms are not so much for God’s sake, but for ours.  Rhythms and liturgies can help us move into a frame of mind from which we can more deeply give of ourselves to the Father, and in which we can more deeply receive his love and his graces.  I think God enjoys our liturgies very much, but he enjoys them as a Father enjoys playing games with his children.  Games are a means to enjoying one another in a spirit of loving playfulness and tenderness.  These liturgies, these games, are not ways of winning his approval or of wooing him into our presence.  They are to woo us into his presence.

And that’s what’s so important to remember when we mess up the game.  We haven’t lost him.  His Spirit doesn’t up and leave when the band plays badly or the priest preaches blandly.  The Spirit is there, inviting us to remember our childlikeness, to remember God’s Fathering presence with us.  It’s okay to make these mistakes into moments of joy.

Let me tell you about the particular church service which inspired this article.

The band was playing well, but there was a problem at the sound board.  Nobody could hear the singers.  The lyrics to the songs appeared on the screen a little too late and a little out of order, and the order of service was peppered with small, awkward moments of forgotten details.  When someone came to the front to share a deeply moving story, many people couldn’t hear it because he couldn’t get it into his head to hold the microphone up to his mouth.  The guest speaker was struggled to find the words he wanted, lost his notes, and gave a scattered sermon that went a bit long.

A visiting friend sat next to me.  “Well,” I told him after the service, “it’s not usually like that.  We’re usually a little more organized.”

His response surprised me.

“I liked it,” he said.  “It made it all feel like… family.”

I smiled, and felt an inkling of pride (the good kind, I think) to be part of a church whose heart could shine through in such moments of failure.  I also inwardly repented of feeling any embarrassment at our lack of professionalism, of believing in the slightest that God’s presence depended on our performance.  In our church’s most awkward hour, the Father was there, enjoying the family he had made, and my friend sensed that.

Should we strive for excellence in our corporate times of prayer and worship?  Of course we should, because the Father loves it when we give him our very best, and we should be making mistakes because we’re trying our hardest.  Just remember that he loves the beautiful things we give because he loves us.  Not the other way around!

Perhaps it would be good for me to remember this principle not just in times of corporate worship, but throughout my life.  God’s presence in my life does not depend on my lack of mistakes.   Instead, I am invited to be present in his life.  Whatever mistakes I make, even mistakes made by others that disrupt and frustrate me, are nothing more than invitations to grace.

When I see them that way, I realize I’m receiving about a thousand invitations a day.

p.s.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s the aforementioned YouTube video: