Colossians 2:8-10 (the message)
Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too. His power extends over everything.
Creator is not a package deal we can inspect, define and unwrap. He can’t be delivered to us for consumption in our church attendance or ritualistic worship and religious duties. I have come to believe church attendance and developing the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer are quite necessary, but not an end in and of themselves.
How can I say that? Well, let me ask you a question. Smile. Can you identify a time in your life (even now perhaps) when though you were going to church every week and opening your Bible to try to read God’s Word and pray you felt empty anyway? Even if you can’t put it into words, can you admit to a pervading sense of emptiness inside? All the while in the throes of the Christian life? I certainly can and that is why I write so plainly this morning…plainly because I see in the scripture above Jesus intends for us to be clear about Him. And like everything of the universe, He intends for us to experience Him filling our emptiness.
So, how come so many of us are willing to live this Christian, church attending, Beth Moore (and I like her) Bible study life but settle for the emptiness? How come we accept that even though this Bible we are trying to read and glean from is exploding with invitations, commands and promises for fullness and power in our personal lives we are merely reading about it? Admiring the power at work in someone else’s life…praising God for the miracle in someone else’s life…wishing for the life-changing fullness we see…yep, in someone else’s life? What will it take for us to become fed up with our less than promised living? What will it take for our church attendance and Bible studies to translate into our own explosive experience with Creator?
Here is what lights up my insides this morning about the scripture above: You don’t need a telescope, a microscope or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. Being real, I yearn for more than neatly packaged Christianity. I have moments sitting in church (and I attend a really, really good one!) when I pause and absorb the atmosphere, the people around me and my own heart. I know for a fact the thing we all know but will never say…church, even ones where there is freedom of expression in worship, can so easily be a spectator sport. Even while we appear to be participating! I can sing, lift my hands, shout praises, teach sunday school, easily find the scripture reference in my leather Bible and nod my head in agreement with the sermon and yet all the while nothing is changing inside of me. I came empty. I leave empty. Except I hardly recognize my wilted spiritual life because most of the people I know are having the same experience. It’s on paper. It’s lacking what the Bible clearly, with crystal clarity, intends for us to have as Jesus-surrendered children of Creator. He doesn’t promise problem free living. He doesn’t promise sunshine and lollipops all year every year, but He most plainly promises fullness and power. A nearness you can experience day-to-day.
We all yearn deep within ourselves for a filling of the empty places inside. We try every which way to find rest for the search. Food, looks, homes, position, wealth, control and manipulation and the list goes on and on. But most disheartening of all is to look to God to fill the emptiness and yet remain empty. What is happening? Aren’t we doing it the way we are so often taught? For the most part, yes. So we get out our telescopes as if He is afar from us. We break out our microscopes as if we can take Him apart and explain Him. As if understanding Him, defining Him and receiving Him in pristine packaged form might fill the emptiness. And no matter how much we know intellectually about the Bible, no matter how much we can explain the art of prayer, fasting, tithing or serving to someone else, our own praying, fasting, tithing and serving has yet to produce in us the things we are promising those we ardently attempt to convince. Meanwhile we let someone else’s experiences with Jesus serve as a substitute for cultivating our own. It’s murky and tiresome. But we don’t want to say that aloud! How could we ever admit to the seemingly spiritually fit person sitting in front of us that we feel let down? We wanted to experience joy and peace. We hoped for change and power and freedom to be ourselves and know Him so personally but year after year we know Him only to the extent we hear and read about the experiences of the few “chosen and called” to hear His voice and live in such deep spiritual waters. You know what? I don’t accept that. Not even a little bit. Not anymore.
I don’t accept that because I am in fact so ordinary. I know about the emptiness and the frustration that comes with the neatly packaged version of knowing God and I know the shift that can happen when being loved by God gets gloriously messy and spills out of the box. I think going to church is great and honestly, I feel like finding a truly life-giving church is a necessity. Letting God lead your heart and life to the church He picks is vital. He knows just what you need,what your family needs, and where He wants to give it to you. The scary part is that might mean breaking loose from the church mama and daddy attend. Been there. It might mean a different kind of church than the one you grew up attending. Been there. It might mean a lot of things, but almost always it means being so hungry for fullness that you’ll follow Him wherever He leads. I believe Bible studies and prayer groups are good, too. What chance do we have if we aren’t opening the book at all? Participating in worship, whether that means hymns and an organ or a full-out band and lights like a concert, is another really good place to start. But the truth is we can do these things and still leave empty. We can smile our Sunday lipstick smiles, share our prayer requests and praise reports and even take notes during the sermon. And still leave empty. Unchanged. With no more passion and hunger than when we entered.
So where is the catch? What’s going on? Is it the Pastor? Is it the music? Is it a lack of programs or too many? I mean is it God?! Maybe in the end promises for filling the emptiness, promises for His power are meant for someone else. We resign ourselves, deep inside, to keep doing what we’ve always done and grow okay with the same old results. Or lack thereof. It’s not so different, after all, from the person beside us. So, this is it. This is the box of Christianity we live in. Less than what we hoped for but pretending it’s more. Sigh…
I pour out my heart this morning in such a frank way to encourage you that no, this is not it. I encourage you to see for the first time or perhaps the one millionth that procedure, tradition and the motions of attendance, worship and study groups are not Jesus. They are things we do and choose in our pursuit of Him. And that’s okay and good! But they are not HIM. Colossians says when we come to Him (Jesus), that fullness comes together for us. So, if we are not experiencing that fullness for the empty places deep within, the places that can only be satisfied with a real encounter with God, does that mean the Bible is untrue? Or does that mean somewhere along the way we’ve been using our telescopes, microscopes and horoscopes rather than just coming to Him. Perhaps we have been leaning too hard and too long on church attendance and our Pastor’s message and the functions of religion rather than taking up responsibility for our own personal growth. There comes a time when church and study groups should be complimentary to what we have going on between us and Jesus all week long. Have we made it complicated because the simplicity of offering ourselves all week long, not our doing on Sundays, is somehow less desirable?
It’s not satisfying to live with unmet longings for Creator. Period. But we don’t have to live that way. Just because most people do doesn’t mean you have to and it doesn’t mean I do. I won’t.
I won’t spend my life and energy and hopes for the real thing, the “more” of God that I read about in my Bible and still live empty hearted. I will not do it. I believe He’s real. Amazingly close. I believe there is real power in the words I read in my Bible. I believe as my heart struggles and cries out He listens. I believe that His nearness is as close as my Monday morning hunger for it. That simple, really. I am far, far, far from special or extraordinary. My experiences of His nearness, His presence, and the filling of the empty places inside are not the result of any peculiar quality inherent to me. It’s a hunger for His presence, the only place I can be filled. The only place where my personal emptiness is rushed upon with a grace and love and mercy I cannot contain. My own personal desperation and pain paved the way for a hunger that cannot be remotely filled by anything or anyone other than Jesus. Not Sunday morning Jesus. Monday morning Jesus. There have been times I shared my story, my discovery of Him, with someone and I see and hear a form of admiration that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve had to throw cold water on that thinking right away. Because in the end it’s just another excuse. We like to label the really ravenous as “special” so we can let ourselves off the hook. No, there is only desperation for wholeness so strong that we climb outside of the box of familiar to find Him in ways we have not known before.
I like church a lot. I like worship at mine in particular because I’m a loud, full-out band kind of girl. Smile. I like serving and fellowship and community. I like small groups and special events. Creator has saved me, reached down to me, held me up over and over and over in those places and times. But the only thing that ever filled the empty places, the only times power has washed over me in life-defining ways that honestly changed the course of my life, were found in the simplicity of coming to Him. Just Jesus. Just me. Stripping away the pre-packaged mindset of how to do the Christian thing. Forcing myself to shut up and stop talking. Determined to cut through the stuff of doing and get to His heart. His nearness. His presence.
It can be found in your church seat (I hope), but discovering His presence, His nearness, in your PJ’s at a messy kitchen table on a Monday morning is born of a hunger for more. And when we are hungry enough for more, for the Bible account of Jesus experience, we will push past our motions to the places He is to be found. We will be filled and yet wanting more. It’s not meant to be complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard on our flesh or selfish, set against God, nature. God makes Himself and His desire to fill us plain in His son, Jesus. We can live life defined by the experiences of others or we can let our hearts become fiercely determined to have our own. Let’s go to church. Participate. Serve, give, tithe, fellowship and respond. Take notes! But then let’s take it past Sunday to Monday morning. No one watching or judging. No automatic church-world, pre-packaged motions needed. We can bare our hearts in silence. Come just as we truly are. Wait for more.
Jesus will not disappoint us.