I was in a staff meeting for a secular job once, and our company was exploring ways to help us “get in touch with ourselves spiritually.” Even with two master’s degrees in religion, I wasn’t totally sure what that meant. But I was happy to be employed, so I pasted a smile on my face and took a deep breath.
A nice young lady was leading the session. As she began, she asked us to relax, open our palms upward, and try to “center ourselves.”
Okay, already I’m lost. When you say, “center yourself,” all I can think of is the center of me. Which is my stomach. Which means you’ve now made me hungry by the power of suggestion.
Not saying this happened necessarily. But if my stomach happens to growl during your little calming exercise, that’s on you, Missy!
Suddenly, as I’m sitting with my eyes closed and trying not to dose off, I heard an odd, resonating sound…
I looked behind me and the young lady is playing what appears to be an old-school bedpan. I later discovered it’s more specifically referred to as a “handpan.” It’s a bowl covered on the top with metal, with indentions going around its circumference. It sounds a little like one of those steel drums the guys play on ocean cruises to the Bahamas. I half expected someone to pass a tray of margaritas around the room.
It’s a tribute to the indomitable spirit of humankind that no one around our table started snorting in laughter. The fact our eyes were closed kept us from making eye contact, which would have done us all in for sure. The young lady told us how vital we each are to the company and how unique we are. The irony of that statement was heightened by our matching uniforms and dress codes.
When the exercise was over, the young lady asked how we all felt. Most everyone responded, “Oh, so much better,” “That was awesome,” etc. Only a few of us realized we’d just witnessed a modern-day retelling of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone “felt” what was expedient to feel. I kept my job thanks to the fact no one can see your eyes roll when your eyelids are shut.
Truth is a free-for-all these days. We’ve decided that anything we like can be true because our opinion is all that matters. We’ve decided there is no real God to judge between us as to what’s right and wrong. So we just make it up as we go.
It’s sort of a “Spiritual Jazz,” where we improvise our ethics and riff on whatever religious idea hits our fancy at the moment. Sounds cool, except it’s the very reason we all feel lost. We’ve wandered from the values and truths God established to guide and protect us. Now we can no longer find “true north” and don’t know the way home.
But before you can ever come home, you have to be willing to abide by the “house rules.” You remember what your parents said:
“As long as you live in this house, you’re gonna abide by our rules. If you want to live some other way, get your own house and make the rules!”
At the time, it sounded like they were just being tyrants. But underneath the ultimatums was an understanding that without mutually accepted values, our house could never be a place of peace. Only chaos.
We all love the image of the Prodigal Son coming home to his father. But the context implies the son was coming back to live again under his father’s rules. He didn’t bring his wild friends and former lifestyle with him. He returned as a willing slave to the father’s will. Because of that submissive spirit, the father restored him to his prominent position in the household.
If we want to come back home, if we too wish to be restored to a right relationship with the Father, we must first embrace an old-fashioned Bible word: repentance. We must turn from our will and submit to God’s. We must agree with him that his way is right, his values are supreme.
Funny thing is, as a pastor for over 30 years now, I’ve discovered most people don’t like “repenting.” They don’t like being told what they want is wrong. Therefore, it’s a real temptation to stick to “feel good” sermons. While there’s nothing wrong with a sermon that makes people happy, people also need to swallow some spiritual vitamin pills occasionally. But lazy pastors avoid that medicine.
For instance, you preach on the wonders of heaven… without ever mentioning how to get there.
You focus on group therapy topics like “Strengthening Relationships” and “5 Steps to Success.”
What you don’t preach on is turning from sin, dying to self, or the need for personal holiness.
But for every comforting passage like “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14), there are probably 3 more passages where Jesus told us we desperately need to change. The same Jesus who said, “Suffer the little children to come to me” also turned over some tables in the Temple when crooked priests were cheating the poor who came to worship God. Jesus loved people, but Jesus could also get angry at people.
Just as much as God is love, he is also holiness.
The greatest love verse in the Bible is also a warning. “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that we might not ‘perish,’ but have everlasting life.”
You can’t preach heaven and ignore hell.
You can’t preach God’s love and ignore his righteousness and justice.
If you do so in the name of Jesus, you are tacitly telling a lie.
Many recent polls of self-proclaimed Christians show an amazing ignorance of Biblical teachings. To find the cause, you need only look to hundreds of “Hallmark Card sermons” that preach only happy thoughts and ignore God’s tough love. And if you want large crowds and lots of money, this is the successful pastor’s “secret sauce.”
To many pastors and church people, Jesus has become their own spiritual sock puppet. They stretch him onto their hand and manipulate him to say anything they want. They ignore his actual teaching and put whatever words in his mouth that make them feel good.
The true purpose for Jesus’ followers was to change the world:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” – Matthew 19-20
Instead, we’ve turned it into a weekly morphine injection to keep the patient comfortable. Too many churches are nothing more than “spiritual hospice care.”
The apostle Paul bristled at one church that turned away from the true Gospel only to replace it with their own:
“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” – Galatians 1:6-8
But folks don’t like it when you don’t dance to the tune they’re playing. Even Jesus noticed that response to his own teaching:
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; We mourned to you, and you did not lament.’” – Mathew 11:16-17
I’m sure that in comparison to some others, I sound extreme. So how ‘bout I make a deal with you? Feel free to believe whatever you like. You can believe that when we die, we all get angels’ wings. You can tell folks Jesus taught, “God helps those who help themselves,” even though that’s nowhere in the Bible. Not only that, but you can say all religions are simply different paths to get to the same God. And if you want to believe “all dogs go to heaven,” go ahead. That is your right as an American and as a human being.
Just please don’t call what you believe “Christianity.” Because it’s not.
That’s not what Jesus taught, no matter how much we want to hear it. You don’t get to pull his strings, and you don’t get to put your hand where it doesn’t belong and move his mouth to your own music.
Christianity is what Jesus said it is. Only Jesus gets to define it. Feel free to improvise whatever tune you like. But don’t expect Jesus to dance to it.
Any other song is sent from a siren, sung to lead you off course and toward an eventual shipwreck.
Oh, and I’ll bet she’ll be playing that song on a handpan, too!
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.