Recently, I was invited to speak for Inter-Varsity at a university in IL. In a week. Oh yeah, and it’s Easter tomorrow, too. There’s a rapidly closing window for working on what to speak on, and keep up with everything else going on. So I got to thinking tonight about how I used to be as a new college student when I first started at Central Christian College of the Bible back in 2006. So I headed down to a local coffee shop and cracked open a couple of my old journals. I’m reading them right now as the alt-rock 90’s moans over the stereo and the sun sets over the Mississippi town of Hannibal, Missouri. I remember being so sure of my world. And even when I say I’m worried or nervous about change, I dont think I even understand the depth of what ‘change’ can really even mean. (I probably still don’t). I remember being laser-locked sure of who I was and what I was going to do. I remember (don’t get mad if you read this, mom) being so happy when my parents finally (FINALLY) pulled out of the campus parking lot and I was alone in my dorm room. And I remember as the months ticked by feeling nostalgic and homesick and really lonely. It’s an odd paradox to be existentially secure and yet emotionally askew all at once. It’s hard to gun through religion classes and yet be so personally unstable. But then again, at the time, you’d never even begin to be able to put it all down so succinctly. Hindsight is 20/20. And I can see 20/15 (It’s a fact, by the way).
It’s funny because now I am not in my degree field. I am more insecure than ever. I have real worries to bother over and the dull grind of responsibility drones on. I find myself envying friends around me who went on- got off on their own over seas; actually got nice jobs; got on to their Masters programs… while I struggle with bills and next to minimum-wage work in somewhere in middle America. I believe I chose this, though. I believe there are only a few really important decisions you get to make in your life- and I’ve made good ones. Right ones. I’m proud to say I’m a fighter like that… (it must be the Irish in me…). I wanted to survive cancer- I live today. I did the long work to get through college. I married for love. I work places where I can honestly say I sleep well at night now. I bought my house and I try to do right by the people around me. But, if you can believe it or not, I say this all, a poor man. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, even physically drained. I know, first hand, what it means to be poor in spirit.
I remember going from this little bubble of a world where things made sense and the lines and rules were all pretty well inked in and well defined- into a new microcosm where nearly everything I had believed in and sought after was a caricaturization. It was almost satire, in a way. I mean, you go from a world where believing and being honest about yourself and religion and Jesus is king to a place where there’s suddenly whole dorms full of other angsty people just like you who are all convinced they’re right. The surety those little dorms hold is stifling. It’s odd, really.
There’s something I want you to know. If we’re honest, there’s no limit to the truth we are really hunting after- claiming. God is that big. BIG. What I mean is, I was so sure of how things were- who I was, why I was there in college, how to interact socially- what to believe, what not to believe. And surety is gone now, and yet, somehow, I still remain. And so does Jesus.
I think it should go as a little known fact that what we believe in- about Jesus and all IS really true. IS really REALLY real, after all. And because it is, small-minded religion- from the cloisters to the dorms- the schools to the offices- the 9-5’s and daily texts- its just that. Only that. Small-minded religion. And Jesus’ business is not small minded. Or religion, for that matter.
I remember once, while at Central, driving back from hanging out with some friends in Columbia, Missouri, feeling so cold. (And not because there was ANOTHER ice storm underway). I took a few steps down the street on the way to our favorite hang out, and I suddenly felt like the warm blanket of my assumed culturally-formed Christian religion had been stripped away- the last thread blown away with a chill northern gust. And I felt so alone. In the middle of the all the classes and ‘other Christians’ and the ‘Bible-college’ atmosphere and the weekly chapels and the Bible studies and the ridiculously vigorous debates over baptism only and speaking in tongues (oh my!)- all of it felt suddenly alien. As if I had somehow found myself now outside the cozy confines of the church I had always known- which had always accepted me- always been known by- now staring in. With a horror and sudden revulsion, I found I found the whole Christian religion thing cheesy and shallow. (Even right now, as I comb my old journals, I feel slightly full of myself with all the dumb euphemisms I journaled.)
And my journey continued from there.
And what I think is really scary. What I find truly terrifying, is how I am not alone. The church in America has been kinda slumping lately. Christians are assumed to be naive or ignorant in our world. I know the sorts of people who become pastors fresh out of Bible colleges- the assumed places most church crowds I knew growing up considered teen heaven. A ‘safe place’ which if you could only get your teen to, they would somehow be incorruptible forever and ever Amen. When you get out, though, you either take the blue pill, and find yourself not only incapable of paying most of your adult bills in life, but a potential poster child for a failing religious system with few avenues for grappling with just how much the world around has changed in spite of church culture over the last few decades- or, OR- you get out disillusioned. At best you can still quietly fake your way through the motions- at worst, you are a full blown rebel- purposefully stirring the nice, safe ideological worlds of your friends and family over the social media lines.
I think there’s this assumed mentality so many of us are taught to assume when it comes to religion and ‘the world’.
For my birthday, my wife and I went on a road trip to- you guessed it- Columbia, Missouri… (hey, i’m sorry, but when you live in the middle of nowhere- somewhere, anywhere, with a real mall and a couple nicer chain restaurants is suddenly a destination highlight. It’s sad, but true.) We went to Red Lobster, because I love seafood, and while there, our busboy ended up being a former classmate from Central. As we talked, it became crystal clear that while he agreed there was something elusively missing from the world we knew within Christianity, his priority in life was to be a deacon- in all the first-century, NASB accurate ways he could muster. Even if that meant he worked a part time job busing tables while his wife stayed at home in a cheap apartment nearby.
Was THIS it?
IS THIS IT?
I mean, don’t get me wrong- I worked at a gas station in Taylor, Missouri for over two years after graduating with a degree. Is this it? All of the training and worried prayers- all the abstinence-only talks and CIY’s, mission trips and children’s Christmas pageants and THIS is where we end up? REALLY.
It’s easy to rant this line of logic. Many of the people my age who understand their predicament have and are. But I think there is something sinuously more subtle going on here which ought to go on the record.
Looking back at my life captured by my own hand in these journals leads me to epitomize how it seems as if i’m cursed to minimum-wage life for the next 20-30 years because of one, single entry a long time ago. Back when I was still in Middle School, actually. I wrote a sort of prayer, actually, to God about how I wanted to be an evangelist. His Evangelist. And the most terrible thing about children’s prayers is how frighteningly often they are answered. It I were smart it would have been financial security or success- heck even a nice bank job would be better than where I’ve been… And for years I feel as if I’ve been doomed by that one single little honest prayer. Because beneath all the cheesiness and hallmark crap- past all the glowey, halloed Touched by an Angel episodes- I think I actually meant it. And God heard.
But only recently- as in, oh, about an hour or so, I realized it didn’t stop there. God didn’t just hear that one prayer that one time years ago. Do you know how many entries I’ve written since then? I have five more journals! Cover to cover! Pages front to back! Writing! I’M STILL WRITING. RIGHT NOW. YOU’RE READING IT. And he hears.
A lot of times, when we feel safe and secure, we get this one idea fixated inside our heads- our hearts and minds- even ours souls sometimes, too- about how there is this one way or thing we are going to be like- and so we arrange all our pieces like chess in order to capture this one, singular elusive king. We chase the proverbial Hitchcock ‘mcguffin’ for years- only to find life during and afterwards far different from what we first imagined. Unforeseeable altercations and circumstances arise. which deeply affect us seconds after we obtain our goal. Swallowing us up like some great wale. The thing is that while we thought it was this one thing we fought and struggled and died for, all along we had been writing- crying out for so many ways and things- and if we could only step back just a little we would get the feel for our own heart’s cry- our own soul’s unsearchable longings- a glimpse of the pattern in the sacred fabric of who we really are beyond and passed all the creeds and denominations and philosophies we cling tightly to.
Our lives are not our own. We have been bought with a price. And all along the way, God our Father has a plan and purpose for us. For hope and a purpose greater than any we are told we ought to want along the way. Truth is REALLY truth. And it cuts deep- beyond joint and marrow into our own souls. It gets past religion. It gets passed theology and separation of church and state arguments. It gets right down into the nitty-gritty of who we are.
And the real question is… who do you say God is?
Because he’s the one listening to all those journal entries. He’s the one with all those plans for you. It’s HIS truth cutting down like razors into you. And we’re not just looking for Sunday school answers here, either. How you live your life actively reflects how and who you really and truly believe God is.
There is no formulative answer.
One of my favorite modern Christian authors is Brennan Manning. And somewhere in one of his books, he says something to the affect of, “Don’t tell me about the God you’ve been taught exists or the one you’re read about in your Bibles. Rather, remember the real God you met only in real life. And then reflect on what your faith is.”
So who is he?
The answer will mean everything for you.
Like what you read? Join in with your own insights, stories and art- send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks and God bless -Ryan