Extreme

Oct 09, 2009 |Mike Ensley
The Marks of Manhood

I know I'm a Christian, but am I Christian enough?

I know I'm a Christian, but am I Christian enough? Am I doing enough stuff for the kingdom? Am I having a big enough impact?

The answer is usually no. If you compare my life to last Sunday's sermon, it's no. Pick up any Christian book at random and hold me up to it — still no. All my life I've heard about what great people Christians are supposed to be; how immensely effective, how radically different, how earth-shaking and extreme. It's kind of intimidating, especially when you recognize what an ordinary person you are.

I was always told God wanted to do "great things" in and through me, world-changing things. They said God wanted nothing less. They said nothing was worse than an ordinary Christian, and the greatest judgment against us as believers was that we looked just like everyone else.

So I went along to rallies for purity and evangelism techniques; I read lots of books over the years, trying to become the kind of person that God could use in the biggest way possible. I believed my impact must be huge, my resolve flawless, my character immaculate, my story something for the history books.

I've never been good enough.

Still Just People

"We look just like everyone else!" That's the most common condemnation of American Christians that I've heard.

I started wondering, though, why is it so awful that we aren't immediately discernable from everyday folk? Should we be so different, so out of place and off-putting that you see us coming from miles away?

My family was sort of like that when I was a kid. We were so very Christian. We didn't watch PG-13 movies, and we didn't listen to music that wasn't about God. We were so fixated on separating ourselves that I really looked at other people differently. One time at a friend's house, I noticed a couple of six-packs of Budweiser in their fridge. From then on, in my mind there was this cloud of evil surrounding their family whenever I saw them.

Years later, as an adult, I went somewhere with my parents, and as we got out of the car, another vehicle pulled in next to ours. This car was bedecked with bumper stickers promoting Jesus and warning about hell. The doors opened and out wafted that cheesy praise music we'd grown up listening to, along with a pair of little kids wearing shirts with popular candy or soda logos altered to say something religious.

My mom looked at me and smiled knowingly, not in judgment of these people, but just in the mutual recognition of seeing ourselves in them and realizing how hard we had tried to look righteous — and how wide we still landed from the goal. We'd strained out every gnat and the camel still got through (Matthew 23:24).

Throughout all the sermons and seminars about who I should be and what I should be doing, there were so precious few times that a person stepping into my life and showed me how to love Jesus. Not talked at me about it, but showed me.

The first place I started to experience genuine faith and relationship was among addicts, people who had wrecked their lives with alcohol, gambling and prostitutes. They embraced grace out of necessity; they could be real because they had nowhere to run. I could finally know my broken self (and allow it to be known) because of their humility. The miracle about that small circle was that Jesus started to be a real person, not an unending project.

That's not to say authentic faith requires a boatload of sin and mistakes. I once met a young woman who, though she had always been a "church girl," amazed me with her humility by saying, "It takes just as much grace to keep me from a life of sin as it would to get me out of one."

The Inconspicuous Movement

As a high school student, I was told the story of a 15-year-old kid who walked off alone into the African jungle with nothing but a Bible and a stick. Apparently, he came back some weeks later, having led an entire village to faith in Jesus. The teller of this tale obviously wanted me to contemplate my own influence as a Christian teen, which certainly didn't measure up to Jungle Boy.

It seems like we're always trying to make a huge impact, to transform the whole world, country or community all at once. In our pursuit of grandeur, though, the all-too-important little things get pushed aside.

Years ago, a Billy Graham crusade came to my area. It was exciting because Billy Graham has lived an amazing life and has truly lived up to a world-wide calling, and I don't think anyone could ever dispute it even a little bit.

Yet when the crusade was over, it was over. I remember watching it on the news, as hundreds and hundreds of people crowded down onto the football field to answer Billy's relaying of Christ's invitation.

A friend of mine was on that field; he had volunteered to pray with those who wanted to be saved. In that throng, he said he didn't find a single one. In fact, most claimed to already be Christians. Everyone he encountered simply wanted to see Billy Graham up close.

The church I attended planned a huge "ministry fair" the very next Sunday. Every group and project and ministry our gathering had to offer would be on display for the dozens of new converts sure to show up. Nobody showed.

"Churchianity" is so much pretty faces, big names and cheap exploits aimed at (supposedly) changing the world. Billy Graham doesn't reflect that at all. But even when the real deal rolls into town and preaches the real Jesus, what hope does he have if the name Jesus conjures up the fakeness of facade?

Looking back, I feel like all that time I was being pressured to impact my campus, evangelize my peers and do my part to change the world, nobody was teaching me to just be a man. I had so many obligations as a "raised Christian," that there was never really the freedom to explore the question of why I loved God. It only made sense that I wouldn't be much of a world-changer at all.

In my experience, the most noticeable Christianity is usually the most phony. The public face of our faith is crowded with whitewashed celebrities and spiritual fads, all vying for our attention, adoration and allegiance.

Frankly, I'd rather be a plain everyday man who loves a few people really well, and gives somebody an intimate glimpse of the real Jesus by giving them a look into the real me, the one God himself is making just right.

Our Addiction to Offense

People are addicted to offense. It's fashionable to be offensive. The entertainment world has been in a game of pushing this envelope for nearly a century, and we eat it up. We plug into television, movies, radio and blogs just for the kick of watching somebody stick it to somebody else.

But then we get offended, and it's bloody murder. People wail and rage and call for firings and boycotts — even violence — just because somebody finally pushed their precious little button. Offense is simultaneously the most celebrated and most reviled thing in American communication today.

I went to a bunch of youth ministry conventions last year, and I can tell you the trend has certainly caught on in the big business of Christendom.

I realize that the Gospel is going to offend people, as are many of the spiritual realities we have to acknowledge. It's something we shouldn't shrink from, but there is no inherent virtue simply in being offensive.

One of the regular exhibitors at these conventions advertised T-shirts teens could wear to boldly declare their opposition to alcohol, drugs and other commonly excused evils. There was even a shirt (most heavily marketed to young girls) that shouted in bold-type, loud-colored letters: "I'm a virgin!!!"

The promo for this particular shirt featured a teen girl in a defiant pose, gnashing her teeth like somebody screaming in the front row at a punk concert.

First of all, there's just something oxymoronic about in-your-face virginity. Secondly, there's no way to win when we start playing on the world's game board. You can't truly impart to the next generation how precious and sacred their sexuality is when you are simultaneously drafting them into the culture war by appealing to their desire to get noticed.

This is just one of many ways in which I've seen people trying to offend the world with their faith. What do we hope to accomplish? I feel like there's a desire to "hit them back." We've just got to offend a world that has been so offensive to us.

Several years back, a racy fast-food commercial featuring a scantily-dressed and suggestively-posed young starlet had sparks flying. One of the pastors at the church I was attending offered a Sunday morning rant about the commercial. He made a special point to declare his own personal disgust and offense. Brow furrowed angrily, he swore never again to darken that drive-thru window with his SUV.

Does anyone in this world really care if Christians are offended? Is anybody ever threatened when we protest or boycott? On the contrary, the outrage of the "Religious Right" is good for business. Think of any movie or book the Christian community has declared war against — hasn't religious wrath only been a boon to them?

I wonder if God doesn't allow there to be some degree of impotence to the rage of Christians, especially when we forget that we are in this struggle for the sake of others. Plus it's probably just too much contradiction for us to be wrathful when a primary characteristic of our identity as Christ followers is the wrath we've been spared.

And then there's the wrath we reserve for each other.

The Endless Debate

I'm a creationist, and I always will be. Our little planet is just too ingenious, too artful — too perfect — to be an accident of the cosmos. But I'm sick of having to act like I know how God made the world.

I don't think the difference between a hundred billion years and six days is that significant to Someone who's existence is infinite, especially when He's working by himself. And I don't think I need to prepare myself to debate the issue one way or the other, simply out of a need to pick a side and think I'm right.

There is a lot about this faith that I don't know. I don't know the sequence of events that will lead us to the true end of time. I cannot describe the relationship between free will and divine orchestration in the process of salvation. I couldn't tell you why miracle healings are so uncommon when Scripture makes it seem it should be otherwise. I don't know if we'll see our favorite animals in heaven, but I like to think we will.

Based on my upbringing, my perceptions and gut reactions, I've found my leanings on all these topics and so many others, but the truth is I don't know the definitive answers. Neither do you.

There is something invigorating about faith in the face of reason. Somebody once said to me that faith is "trusting in God when life gives you reasons not to." Tweet This The fact that faith sometimes looks like fighting reality can be what makes it special. You get closer to God, you're more wholly yourself, and the peace you have is beyond reason because it doesn't arrive by logic.

But like all good things, there's a perverted imitation we gravitate to in the flesh. In this case it's this cathartic experience we get by embracing dogmas and the illusion of superiority they give us.

Why do people need to argue things they just don't know? A man once proclaimed among a group of friends that the concept of "age of accountability" wasn't biblical and that a more biblical view was that anyone who died as a baby or small child automatically went to hell.

Your automatic response might be to find logic and merit in his argument. But do you find necessity? Especially considering he said these things in the company of a family who had recently suffered a miscarriage? I don't know if he asked himself whether it was worth it to possibly plant a tormenting thought in their hearts, just to make his point.

Paul said God's ways are unfathomable, that His paths are beyond searching out (Romans 11:33). Some people make it seem, though, like it's anathema to admit there are things you don't — that you can't — know.

The church today is more segmented than a stained-glass window, but there is freedom to go forward with some of the truth and acceptance of unanswered questions. It's called faith.

The Uncanny Ordinary

I say none of these things in defense of mediocrity. I would never want someone to be inspired by my writing not to take Jesus seriously. I also believe that many of the things I'm complaining about are simply the symptoms of seeking, under the weight of our imperfect flesh, to be devoted to Him. It's not all bad.

Some people are indeed called to a world-impacting service to Christ. Many of us will have to settle for something a little more ordinary. Love one person with the love of Christ, though, and you change his whole world. It may take a lifetime just to learn to do that. God gives some of us five talents and some of us just one. The return doesn't matter to Him as much as what happens in the hearts of His trusted servants.

God takes just as much pleasure in the bold history-maker who stands up for Him in the face of a rebellious world as He does in the intimate, private decisions you make every day to move a little closer to Him, to love the people He's given you a little better. You might not get the whole world — or even your whole town — talking, but in the end the only words that matter are, "Well done."

Copyright 2009 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

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