Walking through the front door of a church building [for the first time] was like passing through a portal to a different world. So much was unfamiliar. For the first time I heard about “propitiation,” “puppet ministry” and “potluck suppers.” I stood for “fellowship,” knelt for prayer and sat on a hard wooden bench (which they called a “pew”. I saw more polyester in one morning than I had my entire life. I experienced church snack time, which consisted of little pieces of cracker and small plastic shot glasses of grape juice. A man explained that we would be singing hymns 11, 52, 17 and 63. I almost yelled out, “Bingo!”
But it’s now 17 years later. I’ve gotten married. I have two kids. I’ve gained a few pounds. And I’ve gone from having never walked into a church to having 17 years’ worth of Sundays in church buildings. And with all that experience (not to mention the few extra pounds) under my belt, I can tell you that there is something very familiar about most of the Christians I’ve met. Unfortunately, it’s not that they remind me of the people who populate the pages of Scripture. Instead, they remind me of a little girl named Emily.
Little Emily looks cute in her souvenir shirt that proclaims, “My parents went to Florida and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” But there’s something sad about it too. She missed the journey. She didn’t get to take part in the adventure. While others broke out of their dull routine, Emily missed the excitement of doing something different. She didn’t get to play in the waves or hug Mickey. She didn’t get to experience the joy. Even the horrifying incident when the tire blew out and Stan, the self-proclaimed “Good Samaritan Redneck,” rescued the family in his Sanford and Son pickup truck has quickly become a fond memory for everybody. Everyone except Emily. She missed the journey.
As I’ve gone to church and met Christians and lived as one myself, I’ve realized something.
We are Emily.
When I read about the lives of the first Christians in the pages of the New Testament I see people who actually went “on vacation to Florida,” who truly experienced the ups and downs of the trip. But when I look around at Christians today, I see people who just wear a T-shirt for an adventure they’ve missed out on. We’re missing the journey. We’re stuck in the same dull routine. We’re missing out on the joy and fear and laughter and doubt and mystery and confusion of following Jesus, of taking great risks for God, of praying dangerous prayers, even of being spiritually attacked.
We wander around with lifeless shark eyes.
The more honest among us find ourselves asking questions like: Is this all there is? Is this really what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”? Is this the life Jesus died for me to have? Didn’t Jesus pay too high a price to buy me this life? Am I just supposed to be miserable until I get to heaven?
I think the word that best describes how many feel about their Christian lives is not abundant, joyful or purpose-driven, but disappointing.
And when I met Christians for the first time as a sophomore in college, I was disappointed. I was disappointed at their disappointment. And I swore I would never be like that.
But I have to be honest.
Over the years I have, at times, descended into the world of the “T-shirt wearers.” I have found myself going through the motions. I’ve lost my purpose and passion for so long at times, I had to put them on the back of a milk carton. In honest moments I’ve asked those same despairing questions. I’ve been disappointed.
And I’ve wondered if maybe God is the problem. I mean, He does want everyone to say yes to His offer. And if someone is trying to sell me a new car, vacuum cleaner or cell phone, I don’t expect them to be completely honest. They’ll exaggerate the benefits, ignore the problems. It may still be a great car, vacuum or phone, but I’m not getting the whole truth, and I know it.
Maybe God is like that.
The benefits He claims to give to those who say yes to Him include abundant life, pure joy in the face of trials, peace that surpasses understanding, power to heal the sick with our prayers, assurance that we will never be tempted in a way we can’t handle, fearlessness and the promise that we will do greater things than Jesus did.
How many Christians would say these things are a good description of their lives? More personally, does it describe yours?
So maybe God is the problem. Perhaps He’s just a master salesman. After all, he’s good at everything else. But I don’t think so. Actually, I think we’re the problem. And I think there’s a solution. I think we need to go on vacation.
I love vacation. And, when I’m really living it, I love the Christian life. It’s helped me to approach my days with a sense of anticipation, and it’s allowed me to break out of my routines and experience adventure.
But, like a vacation, following Jesus is not a perfect life of nonstop thrills. There are some boring and bad parts. But still there’s something different about them, simply because I’m following Jesus.
So why are so many Christians disappointed? Is it possible that we, like Emily, are missing out on the journey? Is Jesus calling us to live life with authentic spiritual passion, but we’re just wearing the T-shirt, practicing a souvenir religion?
Jesus asks people to follow Him. He’s going somewhere, and He wants us to go with Him. He promises that those who follow will experience life fully alive.
Here’s the best I can figure. The life God authored for us and offers to us, is this:
To live life with Jesus, and to live the Jesus life.
To live life with Jesus is about the inward life. It’s me experiencing the presence of Jesus. It’s soaking in all of Him that’s out there. It’s God impressing Himself on me. It’s God changing me.
To live the Jesus life is about the outward life. It’s me being the presence of Jesus. It’s releasing out all of Him that’s in here. It’s God expressing Himself through me. It’s God changing the world with me.
Since moving to Virginia Beach, I’ve developed allergies. Recently my wife bought a humidifier for our bedroom. Each morning I have to fill the thing up with water, and the rest of the day it releases that water into the air. I’ve learned that the humidifier can be turned on and running hard, but it accomplishes absolutely nothing if it’s not filled with water.
The Christian life is something like that humidifier. I admit it’s a simple analogy, but it helps convey the give-and-take there is in following Jesus. Repeatedly I need to be filled up with Jesus (which happens as I live life with Jesus), and then I need to continuously release Jesus (which happens as I live the Jesus life). I release Jesus because my purpose is to serve others, to touch them with God’s love. But I can only do that if I’m filled with Jesus. Otherwise I can run hard, but I won’t accomplish anything.
We’ve been invited to live life with Jesus and to live the Jesus life. To do that, we need to understand what it means and overcome what holds us back. Then we can lose the T-shirt and experience the adventure.
Excerpted from I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (Baker) by Vince Antonucci. Used with permission.