"Like every believer I know, my search for real life has led me through at least three distinct seasons of faith, not once or twice but over and over again. Jesus called them finding life, losing life, and finding life again, with the paradoxical promise that finders will be losers while those who lose their lives for his sake will wind up finding them again." Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church
I held her in the rocking chair. Her little purple face bruised from a fast delivery. Baby noises. Nothing quite like them. The room was dark. Her big eyes stared up at me, surely an odd experience after having been in warm, comfortable darkness for nine months. I can still feel that tiny hand squeezing my index finger while I rocked her in that hospital chair on her first night in the world.
I held her in the water almost ten years later, the two of us standing in the church equivalent of a giant jacuzzi. Her beautiful little woman face. About to be delivered again. The sound of her "I do" after I asked her if she believed that Jesus is the Lord. Nothing quite like those words. Her tender eyes stared up at me, an odd experience after having learned some of the hard lessons of life for the past ten years. I can still feel my hand on her bony shoulder while I eased her under the water as she committed her life to Christ.
Her brother, our boy, was baptized months later, just before his voice went from soprano to bass overnight. Even today when I look at him, I still see his toddler face asking me to take him to "Bugga Kaning." [Translation: Burger King.]
It was during that decade of their early childhoods that I went from finding my life, to losing it, and finding it again. But in order to make that leap of faith, I had to stop caring about church.
Earlier this week, on Monday evening, I played racquetball with what is becoming my regular group of guys. They are all ten to twenty years older than me, and they wipe up the court with me most of the time. One of them, Bill, sent a ball at over a hundred miles an hour right into the back of my left leg. Doubles is brutal. As I sit here in my office, the sun shining through the window, the cool air of an autumn morning, I can feel the yellow-green-blue-purple bruise on the back of my hamstring. My lower back is sore. I have a bruise on my left hand from hitting it with my own racquet two weeks ago. The blister on my left little toe is wrapped in a trusty bandaid. And I have never felt better in my life.
Back in middle school and early high school, racquetball was my life. I gave it up late in high school. It was probably girls. I played every once in a while in college and my twenties, but not much. Now its back, and its great. In spite of having an older body that gets sore more than it used to, I have a mind that understands the game better than before. It's almost a different experience. I found it, lost it, and found it again.
It was during that time in middle school and early high school that I started taking church seriously. I think I met God from time-to-time. But most of the last 25 years have been spent doing church more than living Jesus. Except for the last four.
In January and February of 2007 I took a sabbatical that not only kept me in ministry, but it renewed my faith, perhaps even giving birth to it in a way I had never known. Part of the sabbatical was a two-week pilgrimage with other ministers to Israel where many of us discovered that we were Christians because we were preachers, rather than the other way around. It was during that couple of months of getting away from the business of church that I discovered the importance of God.
Fast forward two years. Reese and I stood in the water, my hand on her bony little shoulder, asking her if she believed Jesus is Lord. By that time I had come to realize that what I wanted to pass on to our children was not a brand name, not an institutional machine, but the grace of Jesus Christ. And not only pass it on to them, but embrace it myself. The question for me shifted from "How do we do church better?" to "What is the Gospel?"
Today, I love the church, but not for the sake of the church. I love it because it is the gathering of those who follow Jesus. We have been conditioned in Western Christianity to advertise church; maybe what we need is to simplify the message back to living Jesus.
This afternoon I am going to go play racquetball with the boy. Today, the game is not about the competition as much as it is about the joy of sharing time together, and the deepening of relationships that only comes from sharing time together around a common interest.
I think the same could be said for church. Especially when the focus is no longer on church, but on living a life shaped in the image and likeness of Christ with those who share the same commitment.
by Jeff Christian