One of my favorite books is Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. It was one of those books that I started reading, and then couldn’t put down. It’s so honest, and so human, and it really resonated with me. It was something I could relate to. I always wondered why Christians seemed to be so much more spiritual, and mature, and had it all together so much more than I did. In fact, there were so many things in there that I could laugh at, and understand without an explanation, that I wondered whether he had gotten inside my head, and into my life, and wrote about the experience.
He begins Chapter 7, Grace, The Beggar’s Kingdom, by saying, “I was a Fundamentalist Christian once. It lasted a summer.” He describes working at a camp in Colorado, where the disciplines of the faith were pretty strict, and pretty easy to follow with the support of six other guys with whom he shared a cabin. I roared with laughter at his description of their lifestyle, fasting, praying together twice a day, memorizing large chunks of scripture and fearing, after they split up at the end of the summer, that they’d become drug pushers or some other kind of heathen without each other’s support.
“I believed if word got out about grace, the whole church was going to turn into a brothel,” he said.
The contract that he makes with his friends to keep up the spiritual disciplines from the summer falls apart quickly after he gets back home. First, he neglects his Bible reading, then he is tempted to smoke a pipe, and then he gives up fasting and starts watching television again. Eventually, he stops writing to his friends, because the letters he gets from them leave him with the impression that he is failing them.
This description brought to my mind one summer when I was in college, probably a sophomore or junior, and I chaperoned a youth group, from a small church that a friend of mine was pastoring, at the Summer Youth Celebration at Glorieta. I’d been in kind of a funk, spiritually, for a while, for a variety of reasons. At Glorieta, the worship is powerful and emotional, the preaching is convicting and compelling, and without the influences of the outside world to interfere, spiritual progress can be made quickly, or so I felt, anyway. I spent long hours of the free time in the prayer garden, and made lots of committments to “do better” with things like reading my Bible daily, praying, getting involved in more church things and committing myself to student missions for a summer instead of doing something to earn money. It was a lot harder than it seemed it would be while I was walking among the flowers and trees on the side of the mountain in New Mexico. By the time I got to the orientation for student missionaries ten months later, I felt I was a spiritual failure, surrounded by a bunch of Christians who had it all together. And there I was, facing a summer of being a spiritual leader.
Then, I had a Romans 8 experience.
I found out, in the day to day grind of the work I was doing, that not everyone rose to the occasion with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. My partner didn’t, that was for sure. The youth pastor of the church where we served as a team wasn’t always at his best, either. Neither was the pastor, who struggled with the burden of serving in a church that had seen better days and put a mountain of pressure on him to perform, and restore them to their former glory. By the standards that I would normally have measured things, that summer was a failure. We didn’t baptize anyone, the VBS we conducted was smaller than the one they had the year before, and so forth.
A card I received from an older lady in the church who had committed to pray for us during the summer put things into perspective.
“I hope, through all the difficulties you faced this summer, you have learned how to depend on Christ.” It was accompanied by this verse:
“There is, therefore now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus….”
That put things into perspective.