Embracing Awkward

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  • The Normal Christian Life

    Baseball was not my sport, but from 1986-1992 I tried. My last year was particularly memorable because I was our starting pitcher that season. If you’ve ever seen a toddler throw a toy in anger then you’ve seen me pitch. There was more walking going on than a mall full of senior citizens. 

    The other thing memorable about that year was a teammate named Michael. All Michael wanted to do that season was hit a home run. The problem was that every time he stepped to the plate be did the exact same thing. He would grip his bat, close his eyes, and swing as hard as he could for the fences. Michael struck out every at bat that season. 

    Whenever I think about the way a lot of us approach the Christian life, I think about Michael. Like him, we are drawn to the visibly dramatic, heroic even. Whether in private, waiting for our time in Scripture and prayer to reach the sudden euphoric heights of a dubstep remix, or in public, wanting to be known as the one (read The One) who's a little more important, a little more gifted, than your average Christian. We swing hard for the fences. Our motives are mixed. 

    The problem is that the normal Christian life feels much more like showing up and trying to get your bat on the ball than hitting a home run. It’s more about hanging in there and making contact. Keeping your eye on the ball. Remembering that it’s a long game, so you’ll need patience. 

    To change metaphors, the normal christian life is less exclamation points, more commas and semicolons. A friend of mine, Tom Cannon, likes to say if he could make one Christian bumper sticker, it would be this: “Perseverance beats zeal every time.” 

    In terms of our relationship with God, this means that hearing from Him happens less in the dramatic display of earthquakes and fires, more in the undramatic still small voices of the means of his grace. Tending to them with a settled disposition, both alone in the quiet of some sacredly familiar place, and especially together in the quirkiness and quaintness that is God’s people, the church. 

    In terms of our relationship with others, this means that perhaps it’s better be known as the person who shares Christ less in the form of being single handedly responsible for copious amounts of conversions, more in the form of being known as an incredible listener. As Eugene Peterson provocatively writes, The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?”

    In terms of our relationship with ourselves, this means that we begin to be as patient toward our own growth (or lack thereof) as Christ is. There isn’t a parent alive who looks at the stumbling efforts of their children as they learn to walk and thinks, “Get it together!” Instead there is much joy in the stumbling, because the stumbling expresses the desire to walk. And there is much patience in the stumbling, because all there is to do when they fall is to help them up again. And again. And again. Do I realize that's how God looks at me?

    The reason this is a big deal is our view of the normal Christian life is currently dominated by a culture of celebrity pastors, authors, and speakers. I’m thankful for these men, and for their conferences. So many have helped me grow as a Christian.

    But the worst thing to be in a world of celebrities is normal. So we learn to despise the ordinary, both in terms of how we serve Christ, and in terms of what following him looks like. 

    No one understood this better than William Still. He was a pastor in Scotland in the late 20th century, and his story is an interesting one. Like Jesus, at first he drew a huge crowd, so big the papers wrote stories about him.

    But then, like Jesus, the crowds went away. Because the words he was saying, Jesus’ words, were simultaneously too hard and too boring. 

    Still once wrote to fellow pastors: “Your quiet persistence – this charge, or parish, or living is not a mere stepping-stone to a better appointment: God has caused you to become pastor to some souls here who are as valuable to Him as any in the world – your quiet persistence will be a sign that you believe God has a purpose of grace for this people, and that this purpose of grace will be promoted, not by gimmicks, or stunts, or new ideas, but by the Word of God released in preaching by prayer.” 

    Your quiet persistence.” That’s what makes us uncomfortable. Noticeable. Immediate. Those are the words that drive us more than we’d like to admit. But Jesus seems determined to make us like himself. Driven far more by the the small acts of healing grace that go unnoticed by the crowds. The quiet withdrawal to places where he could talk to the Father who loved him. The settled commitment of being with God’s people no matter how messy. He’s at both more mundane and more mystical than we want him to be. 

    Spiritually speaking, we’re all Barry Bonds. We want awesomeness more than we want faithfulness. But the Lord is making us into Cal Ripkens. Teaching us that it’s more about showing up than showing off. Showing up with the hope of the gospel, day in and day out

    Like Lady Gaga, we live for the applause. And when he is finished with us, we will still live for the applause. But it will be a different kind of applause: the applause of heaven. The bad news is it’s barely audible except to those who strain to listen. The good news is it’s the only applause that lasts forever.