We are always talking about God, constantly, but not to Him. This is one of the things that I think cultivates religion in people, instead of relationship. We hold Him at arm’s length, instructing others on how to hear and follow a Person that we won’t get close enough to hear and follow. As a result, our prayers are professional and lack heart and sincerity. We’ve perfected the art of sounding sincere.
This is one of the things that is making ministry ineffective, irrelevant, dull and predictable. If our heart is to see lives transformed by the redemption of Jesus and power of the Holy Spirit, it starts with our own story. Perhaps true, honest ministry is always an overflow of what is happening inside of us. Perhaps it was meant to be a present tense working out of His voice in our life now, not a regurgitated outline of study notes that have no personal relevance or bearing on the conveyor. Perhaps anything other than true hearing and following feels like a spiel, rings of falseness and sales tactics, comes off as condemning and legalistic. Or maybe it seems gracious and sincere, but lacks staying power and people forget what we’ve said as soon as we stop talking.
Maybe I am too harsh. But if you look around, it won’t take long to realize that our country, God bless her, doesn’t want to hear anymore spiels. Her citizens are tired of sales tactics, oppressive requirements, pointed fingers, people who don’t come through. We change the channel when commercials come on. We record what we really want to hear and see, for later. We text so we can think about our response before giving it. We hit “like” to show our support. We’ve grown sophisticated in our cynicism.
Perhaps those of us who love Jesus need an awakening to His love for us, shed abroad in our hearts. Perhaps this is an emergency.
When I went to Mexico this kind of awakening happened to me. I was there at worship one night, on the base where we were living, and everything had been going wrong. Most people on the base were sick with strep throat. Sick people were working in the kitchen, preparing food. I confronted someone about this and a vague announcement was made, but still, sick people were preparing the base meals, causing more people to get sick. I was angry about this. Sick people were coughing all over each other in class, coming to class with fevers. My husband, who never gets sick, was flat on his back in bed with a high fever. My kids were sick. My son was really sick. He had gone through one round of Mexican antibiotics to kill the strep, but it had not worked and it came back even stronger. I had stopped sleeping. Insomnia is something I deal with sometimes and it wreaks havoc on everything in my life. Our family was having trouble adjusting to the lack of air conditioning during the day in a very hot climate, to the unhealthy diet on the base, to the cold showers and cockroaches and lack of laundry facilities. We wanted more emotional support and couldn’t find it. We voiced this need and were chastised and then ignored. We were constantly praying for financial provision, trying not to worry, realizing that the pace that was expected of us was not realistic. I struggled with the lack of privacy that comes from living in community. I was exhausted, confused, angry, felt rejected. I was struggling to keep things in perspective.
God had spoken to us and confirmed it a thousand times in the months before going to Mexico, and we knew we were supposed to be there. But of course, reality is always a little (or a lot) different from what we envision. It was a beautiful country, an energetic and interesting city. I loved the other students on the base, the young people in whom I saw a younger version of myself. I loved the conversations with them, sharing my experiences and praying for them. When I was out walking the streets, trying out my bad Spanish, smiling at the natives and thinking and pondering, it was great. But this living in community thing, difficult living arrangements, constant sickness and emotional need, always being with people, after a comfy middle American lifestyle in which I was in control of my time and diet and amenities and interactions, was hard. And we hadn’t even done any ministry in the city yet.
I was at worship that night, and I had no joy. I had no vision. I had nothing. I stood in the back of the room with my eyes closed and my hands half-lifted, quiet, exhausted, alone, sure we had picked the wrong organization, ready to go home. I was listening for Him to speak to me. I don’t remember what song was being sung, or who was there. I only remember this. Something happened to me. Slowly, ever so slowly, while I stood there stock still, my heart started to fill with something. It was an actual experience, a tangible feeling in my body. Soon I had tears coursing down my face. Fuller and fuller my heart grew, and it almost felt like waves of something washing over me with greater and greater force, but gently too. It was warm. And with so much thick peace and deep joy. It’s hard to explain. There was a calmness, a deep certainty of who I was. I started to see this whole love story play out. It sounds so cheesy when I say it out loud or type it, but what I saw was potent. This whole intense love story full of adventure and beauty and speed and variety and peace and inspiration. A story that inspired stories. It was my story, or rather, what was meant when He made me.
It was incredible.
I stood there, motionless, for the better part of an hour, listening hard to what was being spoken to my soul without words, rivers pouring down my face, eyes tightly closed, hands half-lifted, and I was powerfully filled and bathed with something I had never felt before, not like that.
The love of God.
I went back to our base apartment, woke my sick husband up, tried to put into words what had happened, what was continuing to happen, as tears were still freely pouring down my face. I went to sleep that night with peace and when I woke up it was still there, large and humming in my center.
This changed everything. No, we still weren’t going to be able to do the 3 month outreach with our fellow students after the classes ended. Our family couldn’t handle it. Yes, I still got annoyed with the irresponsible way things were sometimes handled. And we moved off base into a house, which solved most of the issues we had with living conditions. I never became close friends with any of the leaders who were closer to my age and season in life. And the mentoring we originally thought we were going to Mexico for, well, that never happened.
But something else did.
I found His love. In my heart. For myself, and for others. And it has stayed with me.
I should also mention that lots of little good things happened too. Like we fell in love with Mexico. We established some solid connections with other ministries there, for future opportunities. We even left that organization with some future plans to go back and work with them in a different capacity. We learned what our limits were, what our family necessities were. We made friends in the community, when we lived in the house. Local pastors and storekeepers and vendors and our landlord and an old lady that sat on her porch every day. A small group of them showed up on our doorstep the day we left, with gifts and blessings. I became good friends with many of the students we were in class with, and correspond with them frequently now. We learned to live by faith. Whenever we had a need, we learned to go to God first, to pray, and it was always met. Groceries, bills, shoes. And we learned to go without certain things we had always been used to. We learned gratitude for honest policemen and clean water.
But the most permanent thing happened without any effort on my part. In my heart. God’s love happened.
Brennan Manning talks about a similar experience in chapter 2 of his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. The chapter is entitled The Day I Met Jesus:
“After eleven minutes of praying and genuflecting, I checked into the twelfth station, “Jesus died on the Cross.” The rubric in the book said “kneel.” As I sank to my knees, the Angelus bell from the cloistered Carmelite monastery three miles away sounded in the distance. It was noon. At five minutes after three, I rose from my knees, and went in search of a Bible. I had never read the Bible before but knew that I had to read the Gospels…
“During those three hours on my knees, I felt like a little boy kneeling at the seashore. Little waves washed up and lapped at my knees. Slowly the waves grew bigger and stronger till they reached my waist. Suddenly a tremendous wave of concussion force knocked me over backward and swept me off the beach reeling in midair, arching through space, vaguely aware that I was being carried to a place I had never been before – the heart of Jesus Christ. When He called my name, it was not Richie or Brennan, but another word that I shall not disclose, a word that is my very own name, spoken with infinite love. It is the sweetest sound I shall ever hear, the name by which Jesus knows me. It must be what Mary Magdalene responded to when Jesus in the garden said simply, “Mary” – except that in my case He did not call my by my given name.
“In this first-ever-in-my-life experience of being unconditionally loved, I moved back and forth between mild ecstasy and hushed trembling. the aura was what George Maloney years later would describe as “bright darkness.” And bewildering strength. The moment lingered on and on in a timeless now until without warning I felt a hand grip my heart. I could barely breathe. It was abrupt and startling. The awareness of being loved was no longer gentle, tender and comfortable. The love of Christ, the crucified Son of God, for me, took on the wildness, passion, and fury of a sudden spring storm. Like a bursting dam, spasms of convulsive crying erupted from the depths of my being. He died on the Cross for me! I had known that before, but in the way that Cardinal Newman describes as notional knowledge – abstract, far away, largely irrelevant to the gut issues of life, just another trinket in the dusty pawn shop of dogmatic beliefs. But in one blinding moment of salvific truth, it was real knowledge calling for personal engagement of my mind and heart. Christianity was no longer simply a moral code but a love affair, the thrill, the excitement, the incredible, passionate joy of being loved and falling in love with Jesus Christ.
“At last, drained, spent, feeling limp and lost in speechless humility, I was back kneeling at the seashore with quiet, calm waves of love sweeping over me like a gentle tide saturating my mind and heart in a tranquil mode of deepest worship.
“When at 3:05pm I rose shakily from the floor, glanced at my watch in disbelief, resonated with awe and wonder and, unable to find a Bible, returned to my cell and unpacked my bag, I knew that the most thrilling adventure of my life had just begun. It was a new mode of existence and Paul describe it well in Colossians 3:11: “There is only Christ: he is everything.”‘
I can relate to this almost exactly. And since I’ve returned from Mexico, I’ve sought out authors and people who have had a similar experience. I find that they are in all kind of places and churches. I’ve also found that they are unconventional, honest, and effective. Across the board. Heidi Baker writes books about this love. She is a strange bird, but has had huge impact in Mozambique and the world, and her words resonate deeply with what is true. Perhaps it is just that she doesn’t care what anyone think, and most of us do. Ken Gire writes about this. C.S. Lewis and Mother Theresa and G.K. Chesterton. I’m sure there are tons more. I’m in process of hunting them down.
And I once saw this teenager with dredlocks stand on a stage and talk about Jesus, and, I kid you not, his face was glowing. I remember being jealous. I have never forgotten the way his voice sounded when he said Jesus Christ loves me. He loves me! He had tears shining in his eyes and a flooding joy that filled the room. That happened before I went to Mexico. Foreshadowing, I guess.
This experience of God’s love in my life, in other people’s stories, is always a game changer. And it has stayed with me in a way that is hard to explain. It has helped me with patience, peace, joy, kindness. It has served as a filter for my words and His. It has changed my conversations about Him, into more prayer with people, more talking to Him. It has given me a desire to spend more time with Him, in prayer and seeking out His voice. It has led me to ask important questions of myself and friends. To respond to people differently than I used to. To have more discernment and discretion. To be honest. To let go of control. To be willing to press through. It has given me wisdom I didn’t have before. A love for myself that I’ve always struggled with. A daring bravery. It has lent a vibrant color to everything that is happening. It has given energy and affirmation and confidence.
Sometimes it fades and I start to get hungry and go back and immerse myself even more in His Word, quiet, listening, prayer, fasting, seeking, and it comes back. I never want to lose it.
I guard it.
The Bible says in 1 John 4, that God is love, in the same way that someone is John, or Fred, or Martha. It is who He is.
“Now, unlike ourselves, the Father of Jesus loves men and women, not for what He finds in them, but for what lies within Himself. It is not because men and women are good that He loves them, nor only good men and women that He loves. It is because He is so unutterably good that He loves all persons, good and evil…He loves the loveless, the unloving, the unloveable. He does not detect what is congenial, appealing, attractive, and respond to it with His favor. In fact, He does not respond at all. The Father of Jesus is a source. He acts; He does not react. he initiates love. He is love without motive.” Brennan Manning
Perhaps this is one of the things we need badly. More interaction with Him, less talk about Him. More quiet listening. More of His love. This country is full of tired ministers. I read a statistic that 1500 people are walking away from full-time ministry every month. The statistics about people who don’t go to church anymore and once did are staggering. Honestly, it’s not even about church. Church is cool, but much of what we call church today is a manmade institution. If you go back and read about the early church, you’ll be astonished at the incongruity of lifestyles. He is gracious and has met us where we are, in our modern ideas and insistences. So I’m just using church as my indication that something huge is amiss in congregations all over the U.S.
I believe that it is a shortage of God’s love being shed abroad in our own hearts. A closeness with Him.
This is something that we can ask for and have. Paul had it.
“Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:5
And if you’ve never read the book of Acts, it literally reeks with love, effective ministry, hearing, following, and adventure.
Encountering God’s love changes everything.