Losing My Way . . . Again
(The following was written more than a few years ago; I really don’t know when. Maybe ten years ago? I started writing about this topic some years later and then realized I was merely re-writing what I had already said. So rather than reinvent the wheel, I offer the wheel once again, with some more recent thoughts and observations to follow.)
I have lost my way. Again.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, before I became a Christian, I was a Freak. A Freak in those days was not merely someone who smoked marijuana and perhaps did other drugs; a Freak was a person who had rejected the culture and lifestyle of the day and was now living a quite different existence. Hippies wore the clothes and did the drugs, but they were part-timers: they didn’t reject the lifestyle but continued to value the same things they had previously. Freaks looked down on Hippies, considering them to be insincere and inconsistent. Hippies were the Samaritans of the drug culture. Freaks, we told ourselves, were the real deal. Stoned snobbery.
As a Freak, I lived a pretty austere lifestyle. Along with a roommate whom I rarely saw, I lived in a one-room cabin in the woods with no running water and no telephone. Whenever possible, we took baths in a creek that was a hundred yards further into the woods and down a hill; in the winter, we showered at work, a friend’s home, or at our parents’. We had an outhouse with a fingernail of a moon cut in the door. No telephone meant visitors were rare: if someone wanted to see me, they had to drive the 25 miles or so out of town and hope that I would be there.
I drove a simple vehicle – a VW Bug, of course – and had few possessions. When I moved to Colorado once, everything I owned fit in the back of my VW. My primary possessions were a huge collection of select albums – vinyl – and a stereo system with speakers the size of a file cabinet (I still have them, 30+ years later, along with the turntable). My wardrobe was simple: jeans, t-shirt, boots, and an old, dark, drab sports coat. I didn’t spend any money on haircuts: my mane was past my shoulders and my mustache was thick and long. Long hair was a badge of defiance and a celebration of freedom.
Although I had three or more years of college behind me, I pursued no career, had few ambitions, and proselytized anyone who would listen to me. I believed in marijuana and the lifestyle associated with it. This was before it became the focus of “venture capitalist” and other criminals driven by profit. We were outlaws, not criminals, wanting to live outside the law and selling drugs at cost. Marijuana missionaries.
I was an atheist and a nihilist, finding no basis or sense in the morals and values of the culture. If tomorrow we die, why not eat, drink, and be merry? Why spend so much time trying to “do something with my life”? I was Koheleth with a bong. I stayed stoned for more than five years, usually all day every day. I liked my life and the rejection of culture for which it stood. I didn’t make much money but it was more than enough. I had all I wanted and wanted all that I had. I traveled light.
Then came Christ; on His heels, like a spiritual carpetbagger, came Christendom.
Once I overcame my resistance to Him – or, rather, once He overcame my resistance – I was deeply committed to Him and His kingdom. I found in Him a meaningful substance for the form I had been living: Jesus had placed little to no value on the worldly priorities or culture of His day; further, He encouraged His followers to do the same. The lifestyle He called for resonated with me: I had rejected the culture because it seemed to be stupid to work so hard for something that was meaningless. Now, however, Jesus was telling me to reject it because of a different, higher, eternal set of values and purposes. I liked this concept a whole lot.
But with Christ comes Christendom, or so it did for me. I was welcome in the kingdom but it was obvious that I didn’t understand some of the basic niceties about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Christians didn’t have shoulder-length hair or ponytails. They didn’t live in cabins in the woods; they didn’t wear boots and jeans to church. They didn’t listen to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. My education and indoctrination were about to begin.
(Not having grown up in a Christian home, there was much I didn’t know about what was appropriate or acceptable behavior in the church. Shortly after becoming a Christian I learned that tithing was expected. The next time they passed the plate in church, the smallest bill I had was a fifty or hundred so I made change from the plate. I quickly learned that this was not done, although no one could tell me why not. I still don’t know why not.)
The long hair was the first thing to go, followed shortly thereafter by the Army fatigues and ratty sports coat. The mustache got trimmed and thinned, jeans and t-shirts were replaced by khaki pants, dress shirt and tie for church, and – for the first time in over five years – I began wearing socks and shoes in the summer months. Most of my music “had to go” since, as I was to learn, it was demonically inspired if not downright possessed. I also began listening to music at a much lower decibel level, which was fine since I didn’t like most of the Christian music anyway.
I was learning to be a Christian. I was “fitting in” with the Christian subculture. Being naïve, I thought I was doing the right thing and honoring God.
Thirty years later I sit in my professional chair in my professional office, typing on my professional laptop and looking out my professional window. I have four cars, four televisions, four computers, and an mp3 player; in the garage is a lawnmower, a weedeater with attachments for edging and blowing, power tools, and a dismantled trampoline. I have a mortgage, two graduate degrees, three tennis racquets, and three sets of golf clubs. Two digital cameras. Indoor plumbing. I am a well-respected man about town, one of the acceptable people. I am a Christian.
In short, I have conformed to the world. Not just “the world,” though: I’ve been conformed to the “Christian world” system. I left my cynicism at the gate of the kingdom, believing that there would be no need for it in the community of God’s people. It never dawned on me that the values and priorities of the church might be harmful to my spiritual health.
When I was a Freak, there was no mixing with the world and it was easy to identify those who “sold out” to capitalism and the culture. I thought Christendom was going to be like that, too: Christians would be very different and easily identifiable in the world. If I did what they did, I assumed, I would be living the Christian life and would be set apart, too. I thought the Christian community would be quite distinct and I turned my attention to knowing God. I thought that somehow the world would know that we were Christians by some spiritual awakening they would have when they were around us. That they would “know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” and that the deep, profound love would be so distinct from and superior to the world’s love that nonbelievers would stand in awe.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, even for me. Most of the time there doesn’t seem to be much difference at all. In being conformed to Christendom, I’ve been more conformed to the world than to Christ. I let it happen; I encouraged others to conform, too.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Rom 12.1-2
For most of my three decades as a believer, I have focused on and vigorously pursued being transformed by the renewing of my mind. Almost everything I experience is filtered through and evaluated by the biblical worldview I have developed. I know the Bible and I know theology. Scripture comes to mind when I’m not even thinking about it. I am usually just a notion away – at most – from seeing things from an eternal perspective.
And I am amazingly immersed in the world.
What I have not focused on has been the negative part of Paul’s admonition: not being conformed. The Greek word for “conformed” is syschematizo which, according to one lexicon, means
to shape one thing like another and describes what is transitory, changeable, and unstable . . . to conform one’s self (i.e. one’s mind and character) to another’s pattern, (fashion one’s self according to) . . .”
syschematizo means not only to conform to the external form, but (from Aristotle onwards) to assume the form of something, to identify oneself essentially with someone else.”
In my head, I believed I was conforming myself and being conformed to Someone else; my actions, however, testified otherwise. The “someone else” was the image of the Christian as determined by the evangelical community in general and local churches and parachurch movements in particular. I became distinguishable by how I thought and what I professed to believe in, but I am indistinguishable when it comes to all the trappings of the culture in which I live. I am part of the establishment – or, as we said in the ’60s – the Establishment.
As a Christian in the world, I am about as non-threatening and docile as can be; as a Christian in the church, I am threatening only to other Christians when I question the status quo. But churches and organizations have a way of marginalizing people who don’t conform to the world of the church. I don’t want to be rejected by the Christian community – surely they are right and I am wrong – and I’ve never wanted to reject the Christian community. So I have conformed.
Douglas Moo, in one of his commentaries on Romans, says that
Rom. 12.2 is not concerned merely with making various concessions to this age, or coming down to the same level. It warns against being absorbed by it, surrendering oneself to it, and falling prey to it. To do so is to yield oneself to its power (cf. 1 Pet. 1.14) . . .
“Remembering that we belong to the new age Christ inaugurated, we must seek to live out the values of that new age, allowing the Spirit to transform our innermost thoughts and attitudes.”
The church in general has been domesticated and boiled like the proverbial frog. We may cause some consternation politically from time to time, but we are no threat to the system itself because we have become the system and the system has become us. Our message is about preserving and protecting what we have, not about being willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We like the status quo, especially financially and materially.
Our educational systems are largely patterned after secular learning theories, having long ago given up on the model established by Christ in His discipleship of the twelve. Our seminaries and Sunday schools are modeled after secular programs, not biblical ones, and we believe that knowledge transforms people. The Christian life is about producing a product through spiritual disciplines, 40 days of purpose, and quiet times. It’s about the destination, not the journey; the product, not the process. Teaching and lecturing is safe and clean; discipleship is invasive and messy. Our spirituality seems to be measured more by what a person knows than by how much a person loves.
In many churches worship has been replaced with entertainment and excitement. It’s about having a certain feeling or a “good experience,” not about meeting with the living God. Being enraptured during the singing and sleeping during the sermon. Hoping that the message will be something “practical” that will help me with finances, depression, marriage, my children. Rarely is the focus on who God is in Himself, totally apart from anything He has done or will do for us. Church is about self-improvement and living better lives. Oh, yeah: it’s about God, too.
The church since the Enlightenment has subscribed to and become immersed in modernism: we say that we do not believe that man is the measure and final authority, but we have to understand before we obey; worse, we feel entitled to explanations from God. Whether it’s modernism or postmodernism, it is simply the church absorbing and being absorbed by the cultural philosophy of the day. One is no better than the other: they are both worldly, only in different ways.
The Bible gives us a worldview or philosophy that stands in contrast to both modernism and postmodernism. The priorities of the Kingdom are very different than those of capitalism, socialism, democracy, or any other political, philosophical, or religious system. Christians are not to love the world (1 Jn 2.15), be entangled in the affairs of everyday life (2 Tim 2.4), or be caught up in the love and pursuit of money (Heb 13.5).
Christians are to be characterized by the fruit of the Spirit –
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” – Gal 5.22-23
Jesus provides a description of citizens of the Kingdom:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Mt 5.3-10
This is radical stuff, a rejection of the world’s values. This is what my character – our character – is supposed to look like; this is what my life is supposed to look like. But my character and life do not look like this: they look like the world; they look like the church. The two are only differentiated with great difficulty.
Paul’s primary command in Rom 12.1 is for believers “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” Moo comments,
We can present our bodies to the Lord as genuinely holy and acceptable sacrifices only if we ‘do not conform to this world’ but ‘are transformed by the renewing of the mind.’
In other words, my offering may be “living” but it is hardly “holy,” tarnished and burdened as it is by a lifestyle more reflective of the world’s values and priorities than the biblical standard. My unholy life resembles the average successful businessman more than it does my Savior and alleged Lord, Jesus Christ. Rather than rejecting the world and all that it offers – things destined to perish – I have embraced the nice things of life and “upgraded” my Christian lifestyle to one more likely to meet the approval of the world. The world of the church.
For thirty years I have called Jesus Christ my Lord, believing that I had resisted the pull of the world and obeyed the call of Heb 12.1-2:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
But I have not laid aside every encumbrance; I have collected encumbrances as though they were essential for my life. I have been entangled in the sin of worldly possessions, “fattening myself for the day of slaughter” (Jas 5.5). What God said through Isaiah of Israel and Judah, what Christ said to the Jews of His day – this can be said of me, as well:
THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.” – Mt 15.8
How now shall I live?
It is difficult to articulate how indicting and crushing this realization is for me. I have made a lot of decisions, professional and otherwise, predicated on my life being a sacrifice to my Lord. Now, however, it is painfully clear that I have been self-deceived: my life has been compromised all along. I have not been willing to reject the world and have instead become a poster-boy for it. Perhaps I have been indoctrinated by the subtle, authoritative-but-not-biblical teachings of the church, but it has been my choice to follow. I am responsible, just like everyone else.
What I had always believed to be the purpose, meaning, and raison d’être has not been the life that I have lived. I am not who I have believed myself to be; my sacrifice has been unholy and unacceptable. I have no doubts about my salvation, but my service has been exposed.
The sense of futility and waste is haunting. I feel like a fool, like a man who has awakened from a deep sleep to find that all he has worked for has gone up in flames. I am safe but all is lost. I’ve been a happy, Christian, idiot.
All I can do, I suppose, is start over.
My wife and I recently took a vacation to New Mexico to ride our motorcycle, get away from the Texas heat and humidity, and to clear our heads. For my wife, it was like a homecoming: she taught for four years on a Navajo reservation following college. It was her rite of passage, a time in her life when she parted company with her parents’ values and beliefs and established herself as an individual. She began owning her own life during that time in New Mexico.
She cried as she sat at breakfast our first day there as she remembered that time forty years earlier. Happy tears but tears of longing, too.
I told her that I couldn’t get back to my own time because it was lightning in a bottle. It could never be recreated or recaptured. It was gone and would stay gone.
I did not cry as I explained this to her.
Throughout our vacation, though, I kept thinking about what I felt I had lost. Certainly it was the community and connections my friends and I shared being freaks. There was a genuineness and openness I’ve not found since – or, to be fair, I’ve not found as consistently as I did at that time.
But I realized something important as I directed the Street Glide over the hills and around the sharp turns in northeast New Mexico. I wasn’t so much remembering with fondness the environment back then – although that was important. I was missing who I had been. Because who I was back then felt in harmony with who I’ve always been but haven’t always lived. For five years or so in the early 70s, however, I was who I was. I was integrated. Without internal conflicts and doubts. I was at peace with myself and those around me.
That’s what has been lost in my years of living what I was told was the Christian life. It’s not what I see in the Bible but I’ve too often gone against my own judgment, fearing that I was wrong.
I don’t think I was or am wrong anymore. I know some things about myself that I need to honor once again. Things that other Christians may not understand or be comfortable with; things that I know are not unbiblical but are unworldly.
I’ve never really fit in as a Christian, although outwardly I seemed to conform quite nicely. Inwardly, however, I’ve been at war with myself and with what I was seeing.
I think fitting in is highly overrated. All Christians, according to Rom 12.2, are supposed to be nonconformists. We’re not but we’re supposed to be. That has always suited my temperament and personality. It’s time I get back to that again.
Here’s to not being conformed to the world or the worldliness of the church. Time to get back to being me.