by Jeremy Olimb, Pastor of Adult Discipleship
My wife and I have come to an understanding on a great many issues in the 20 years we have been married. These kinds of mutual conclusions are key to a strong, long lasting marriage. Which side of the bed is yours? What is the acceptable air conditioning temperature in the house in August in Arizona? Does the toilet paper go over or under? These are big, foundational agreements that bring harmony to a household. One of the key mutual conclusions since the early days of our marriage is this…no one wants to sit through a long, protracted, morning after recap of the nutty dream you had last night.
We have agreed to allow each other the gift of not having to pretend to be interested in the random, garbage heap of ideas our brains stewed together and served up in the middle of the dark night. We have been freed of trying to stay engaged as the story caroms from Abraham Lincoln giving a speech in our living room to running while your legs are so heavy. We have been delivered from pretending to laugh and agreeing when we say…”it was so crazy!”
Unfortunately, you and I, Reader, we haven’t come to the same understanding.
On a semi-regular basis, I will find myself in the middle of a dream in which I am attending a musical performance. In the dream, the musical act in question is one of which I am a huge fan. I know all their music. I can sing along to all words in all the songs. I know the names of the band members and facts about their lives. I am familiar with the set list of songs they will most likely be singing that evening.
In a substantial crowd, awaiting the start of the show, things take a turn. At this key moment, someone connected to the band approaches me telling me they are ready for me. I am then ushered on stage and an instrument is placed in my hands. Sometimes a guitar, sometimes in front of a keyboard or behind a drum set.
Fear sets in and I find myself in a panic as I realize what I had been prepared to observe and appreciate from a distance, I now am expected to play a part in. And I am woefully unprepared for the moment. I cannot play a single music instrument. I hum poorly. In this moment, there is a thunderous realization about how vast a gulf spans between knowledge of a subject and the ability to perform.
This dream, all too often, feels analogous to my Christian faith. I immerse myself in blogs and podcasts and music and books. I read and listen and think and talk about Jesus all the time. And yet, when the moments in life come along that require me to act in a Christlike way, I find myself woefully unprepared.
Frozen and overly analytical or, maybe more commonly, reactionary and moving without concern to Christlikeness at all, I can find myself stumbling from moment to moment in life, wondering why I can’t seem to see the kind of transformation of my character and attitudes that I desire. Wondering why I do not naturally behave like Jesus when put to the test of my day. Wondering why I am often looking back to dissect what went wrong rather than forward to the next opportunity to be the kind of man Jesus was.
Maybe you feel like that too.
Last summer, we embarked on our first, long family road trip. We drove 2000 miles from our home outside of Phoenix and toured the state of Colorado, visiting all four of it’s national parks. In the middle of the trip, we took a day with our two young sons to visit a water park outside Denver. The park was a wonderland of joy and excitement for our family. What the water park folks don’t tell you when they happily sell you a ticket, is that the entire park is build of steep hills and winding staircases. They also
neglect to mention that many rides require a family size inner tube that seats up to eight people, weighs approximately three and half tons and could only be carried through hernia inducing effort.
Halfway through the day, when we finally stumbled by the entrance to the Lazy River, I was near total collapse. I mumbled something about it sounding relaxing and convinced my family to follow me into the gentle flow, flopping onto a tube of rubber to catch my breath. It was glorious. The slow float. The complete lack of effort required. Of course, my young, energetic sons were bored with it after just ten minutes and began the negotiation of moving on to more exciting waters.
As the exit point for the river approached, we were unprepared for what was to come next. As my sons stood up in the water to move toward the stairs leading out of the water, the force of the “lazy” river became immediately apparent. And frightening.
My youngest son was knocked off his feet, his head disappearing under the water. My older son was doing his best to hop in the current, keeping his feet under him while yelling about the situation with his little brother as the current was already quickly pulling them out of arms reach of each other.
My wife’s mother instincts kicked in as she launched herself off her tube. The current proved too much for her as well and she was wavering on the edge of losing her footing while she dug under the water for our youngest, our oldest already out of reach but slowly attempting to bounce his way toward the staircase.
I was still in a daze as it all happened at once. Chaos was already reigning by the time I managed to gather my wits and enter the fray. Legs down on the bottom of the concrete channel, I was shocked at the power of the water I once perceived as lazy. In one bold move, I widened my stance to brace myself and gathered my wife under my right arm and reached for my son with my left. Moving to the left side of the channel toward the stairs out, I managed to push them onto the first step while looking over my shoulder for my older son who had already been pushed well past the exit point.
Jumping back into the current, I was able to cover the distance to my son as I was back traveling with the flow but upon reaching him and digging in my heals to turn us back toward the exit upstream, I realized a component of this journey I had not considered.
Behind us and in that moment, already overcoming us, was the mass of other people enjoying their ride on the river. With my son tightly in my gasp and my strength concentrated on fighting the invisible current desperate to overcome my effort, my focus was on the stream of society bobbing toward us. Most of them were completely oblivious to our plight, while others were annoyed at the way our presence was impeding their flow. Still others caught my eye and smiled in a knowing way.
Eventually, we managed to make it out of the river and onto the safe shore. We stood for a moment, catching our breath, and watched the people pass by us in the channel below. They laughed and relaxed and chatted. It struck me how obviously fast the current was from this vantage point and how invisible that force was when we were riding in it.
In the days that followed that moment, I thought about the experience several times. It occurred to me how much that experience captures my attempts to live the Christian life amid our culture.
There is a constantly pushing, overwhelmingly powerful, nearly completely invisible current that ungirds our entire way of life. This is not unique to modern, Western cultures (although one could argue there are more current accelerators available now than at any other time in history in the mass media and internet connected age in which we live) but is part of human life that extends through any place people have gathered together to form a society at any time in history. Our experience of this force’s existence is as old as humankind, but our specific current is particular.
Like a fingerprint to an untrained eye, this phenomenon will look similar across places and people groups and times but with deeper concentration and study, distinct patterns and influences will begin to surface.
Most of the time, this current is quietly moving us in the direction it desires. Shaping our collective values, our shared consciousness. It is defining for us what we should value, what we should discard and what we should chase. It hones the story that stands under our feet. The one that makes sense of our world. That defines what is good and what is evil. That dictates who are the righteous and who are the wicked.
This force is invisible, and that’s it’s greatest power. These presuppositions that are shaped for us are not presented in a marketplace of ideas to compete for dominance of thought. They do not allow themselves to be critiqued or honed.
This current claims to be something much deeper. It claims to be the foundation that defines the way of all things.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, refers to this as the “course of the world” (Ephesians 2:2). Theologians have referred to it as the Spirit of the Age but however we describe it, it is fighting to define the lens in which we view and process the world that surrounds us.
Paul doesn’t present this reality as some innocuous force to just be conscious of but instead describes it in much more stark and frightening terms. He says that the “course of the world” is set and directed, guided and shaped, by the “prince of the power of the air.”
Satan stands at the helm of the order of the world that flows quietly under our feet. He drives the current that asks to us sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
This explains why, when we look around at our churches and even our own lives, we see people who are deeply swayed by political currents. People who are drifting into enlistment in holy wars led by prophets of the Left and the Right. People who are floating into complacency or anger or apathy or cynicism by the social media that flows through their day. People who are caught in the eddies of consumerism and individualism.
It’s no accident that we struggle within the church with the same ills that plague our neighbors. We are not immune from the deep sway that the course of the world empresses upon each one of us. The forces of our cultural waters, over time, deepens the channel and reinforces the momentum of our sin patterns. Our sin impacts us and our neighbors and, bit by bit, helps reinforce the cultural sin patterns that plague us all.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr, in his article, Sin: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, picks up the water imagery this way.
“Victims victimize others and even themselves. In this way sin gains momentum. Worse, all sinful lives intersect with other sinful lives—in families, businesses, educational and political institutions, churches, social clubs, and so forth—in such a way that the progress of both good and evil looks like wave after wave of intertwined spirals. Where the waves meet, cultures form. In a racist culture, racism will look normal. In a secular culture, indifference toward God will look normal, as it does in much secular education. Human character forms culture, but culture also forms human character. And the formation runs not only across regions and peoples, but also along generations.”
It’s here, riding on the particular wave of our particular culture, that we find ourselves. Shaping and being shaped.
And it is not until we attempt to stand up and plant our feet, do we feel the often-shocking ferocity in which the stream fights back. The pressure builds to just go with the flow.
Be a consumer. Defend yourself. Don’t tread on me. Fight for your rights. You do you.
Standing in the middle of this roaring river, desperately attempting to participate in the story described in the scriptures, we wonder why it is so hard to act like Jesus in the moments of pressure. Loving my enemies seems like a fantasy in the river that says, destroy. Being generous at great cost seems impossible in the river that says, consume. Humility is rare in a river that encourages bluster. Love that risks the safe and the rational can not be found in a river that promises security. But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.
Jesus himself lived a culture shaped by it’s own stream. The cultural forces at play in the Judean countryside were no less real than the ones that fill the air of our day. And yet, Jesus was able to position himself in the stream of the Kingdom and offers to us, the key to follow him into the that stream as well. The key is one that has been known and used by the historic church from the earliest days and yet, is one that has largely been abandoned by the modern, western church. The spiritual practices of Jesus are on display for us in the New Testament and were practiced in deeply intentional ways for centuries across Christian traditions.
Largely abandoned in our Christian practice, is it any surprise that we find ourselves leading lives more shaped by the streams of culture than the streams of the Kingdom? Is it any surprise that we struggle to respond, think, and act like Jesus in the heat of the moment? We want to be like Jesus but do nearly nothing Jesus did.
The church has been given the tools of rebellion against the forces that lay claim to us and our communities. We must choose to pick them up.
Fasting, the weapon against gluttony. Scripture, the weapon against personal authority. Generosity, the weapon against greed. Community, the weapon against individualism. Prayer, the weapon against rationalism. Chastity, the weapon against oversexualization. Silence, the weapon against unkind words. Secrecy, the weapon against gossip. Lament, the weapon against apathy.
On and on, the classical, historic spiritual disciplines offer us connection to the stream of the Kingdom and put before us, the required reliance on the Spirit to root us in those restful waters.
The reason we struggle to refuse influence of the spirits of the age is because we have refused the influence of the Spirit of the Kingdom.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.Matthew 4:1-2
As someone who has grown up in the church, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is one that was remarkably familiar to me. I developed assumptions about the story over the years. The summary I told myself about the story was as follows.
Jesus went to the desert to test himself by fasting. Satan, upon sensing his weakened state, attempted to trick Jesus but Jesus, even at his weakest point was able to withstand the greatest temptations Satan could muster up, thus proving his deity.
In the past few years, as I have pursued these ideas about spiritual disciplines, the summary has shifted.
Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, knowing how impossible his mission was without the Spirit of the Lord empowering and filling him, headed to the desert to pursue God. Through prayer and fasting, he found himself closer to the Father than at any other time.
Satan, in a massive miscalculation, tries to tempt him with power and influence, neglecting to understand that this is not a moment of vulnerability for Jesus but one of immense power.
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.Romans 8:5
Our minds, when set on the Spirit, will be filled with life and peace.
A mind set on the Spirit practices the habits that draw us into the stream of the Kingdom of God.