The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

What I learned from church that didn’t ring true …

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Blog friend Glenn Hager invited me to synchro-blog with several others on the subject What I Learned From Church That Didn’t Ring True and What I Have Been Learning Lately. Check out other bloggers’ excellent thoughts via links at the end of this post (below). Thanks, Glenn, for including me. I’m two days post-synch, but my WILFCTDRT is (drum roll):

Eggshell by Susan LightJesus doesn’t matter much!

Before I explain, I should add that I also began un-learning this from church. For “church” means lots of things: a Sunday morning worship gathering, a collection of people, a huge institution, or the people we know who follow Jesus and show us the changes he brings in the heart. Watching Jesus work in friends’ lives has been pretty wonderful education; much of what follows came from that. And that’s “church,” too.

OK, deep breath, here goes:

Everyone with whom I ever went to “church” would insist that Jesus was critically important. And I suppose they were all correct, if Jesus were seen as the death-and-resurrection key to theological orthodoxy. Jesus was important as the ultimate theological widget (as in accepted him as my personal Savior). But about Jesus as a person, as a role model – there wasn’t so much interest. It was Jesus-dead-and-after that mattered.

What mattered? Being “Biblical” mattered – although “Biblical” often meant “preaching our systematic theology (with Bible illustrations.)” Making your church bigger mattered a whole lot. Getting people “saved” mattered. Being nice mattered, most of the time. “Taking our stand” meant we were “unashamed of Christ”; that mattered. Sunday School, of course, that was unquestionably pre-Moses. Youth ministry, too. All of it.

I burned out. A counselor told me I needed to learn delight. This was bafflingly not important. I knew little of how to do it. On the way home from the counselor’s, I stopped for some highbrow coffee and read the New York Times. It was a start.

Something rang true there. Years earlier, I had been so powerfully attracted to the beauty of Jesus himself. But somehow, while fulfilling my own expectations (and sometimes those of others) of what Christian life and life as a pastor should be, that delight had become smothered by obligations that I despised yet assumed to be necessities.

Following the clue, I began preaching from the lectionary to trap myself into looking at Jesus each week. I figured if I preached what he preached and did, I’d learn something about what mattered to him. And as I worked through Mark and then Luke, it seemed like this Jesus I found there was full of startling, amazing, compelling beauty. I found myself shocked, again and again, by what mattered to Jesus, and how different it was from what had mattered to religious me.

He was about loving well. Week after week, Jesus trapped me into learning about love. It was embarrassing. If I had been picking the sermon topics, I’d have thought it was way over-done. But I was preaching on it again and again because Jesus kept preaching on it again and again.

So love mattered. And poor people apparently mattered – I watched him find them everywhere he went. He talked to prestigious people when they sought him out (eg., Nicodemus), but he went looking for poor people. And for dissed people. And sick people. Women (who mattered so little). Foreigners. Children.

I kind of knew this, but he was far more radical than I’d seen before.

For I had learned from church that Jesus’ priority was getting people “born again.” But Scripture only catches him using the term in one conversation (count ’em: ONE!)—and that in a conversation with a sophisticated religion expert, not the cashier at the convenience store. “Saved”? Maybe four or five times in the three-year record.

“Poor” and “rich,” by contrast, those are huge in the gospels; he talks of them almost constantly. And as I studied them, I realized that in my world, I’m the rich. “Taking my stand”? He takes it, all right, but not like I’d seen it. Where the religion I knew took stands against the habits of rule-breakers, Jesus took stands against the religious! And as I studied them, guess what? I realized that in my world, I’m the religious. They (and I) had befriended insiders and confronted outsiders. He befriends outsiders and confronts insiders.

More than a few insiders despise him because he isn’t “clean” enough for them; he simply won’t keep commandments if they separate him from caring for people (shrugging off not only tradition, but Bible commandments themselves; I found this unbelievable—how had I missed it?) He cares nothing for patriotism or looking successful or drawing crowds or getting “decisions” or power or “family values” or systematic theology or literal translations – or all those things that I’d learned as shibboleths, to be whispered self-effacingly by successful pastors.

Now this was intoxicating, but also quite alarming, for it suggested that following Jesus was something quite different than I’d assumed. Sometimes I still find myself thinking: What will become of me if Jesus himself matters so much that his priorities become my priorities? I’ll look like a failure. Like he often did. At least, until the death-and-after part.

Wanting his priorities to be mine – that’s what I’m learning, I guess, if you can say it like that. It is frightening, ignominious, and quite apparently unsuccessful.

And sometimes, arrestingly beautiful.

Thanks for the chance to puzzle it through again. I’m reminded how very much I need to stick with it.

Others bloggers in on this synchroblog:
Glenn @ Re-dreaming the Dream: Synchroblog (Introduction)
Erin @ Decompressing Faith: Think Of It As “Agapeology.”
Alan @ The Assembling of the Church: Here I Am To Worship.
Heather @ A Deconstructed Christian: 15 Things I Learned From and Another 15 I Am Learning Lately
Jim @ Lord, I Believe; Help My Unbelief : Some Ecclesiastical Paradoxes
Lew @ The Pursuit: It’s A Grace vs. Works Thing
Lyn @ Beyond the 4 Walls: Learning To be “Proper”
Paul @ One For The Road : A Gracious Voice
Sonja @ Calacirian: Losing Her Religion and Keeping Her Faith
Benjamin @ Justice and Compassion: Pithy and Provocative
Julie @ Onehandclapping: Faith, Certainty, and Tom Cruise
Aaron @ Regenerate: Hope
Monte @ Monte Asbury’s Blog: Jesus Doesn’t Matter Much
Rachael @ Justice and Compassion
Rachael Stanton
Glenn @ Re-dreaming the Dream: Unsaid Communication
Glenn @ Re-dreaming the Dream: Reflections About Refugees (Summary Reflection)
Tags: , , , , , , , Monte Asbury

9 Responses

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  1. […] is my (belated) response to Monte Asbury’s post that I stumbled on a few weeks back about ‘What I Learned From Church That […]

  2. […] A quick link before I go to bed. I’ve not been reading the post-evangelical / emerging-church blogosphere much lately (it’s too big) but somehow stumbled on this: What I Learned From Church That Didn’t Ring True And What I Have Been Learning Lately […]

  3. Thank you, Monte. I very much enjoyed reading this marvelous spiritual colloquy. You all’s expositions and experiences certainly come in handy for this shut in. To me a church isn’t a building or an administration or a denomination, it is whenever two or more are gathered with love. One of my favorite illuminations of all time is from Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware, in which a character explains: Love is the water of life. The Church is just a jug that I carry it around in.

    Monte says: Many thanks, Servant! Frederic’s book looks thought-provoking. I read some of the reviews at your Amazon link. Glad for your visit, and your comment!


    August 5, 2007 at 4:06 pm

  4. […] Monte @ Monte Asbury’s Blog: Jesus Doesn’t Matter Much […]

  5. Glenn, Meg, Karen – You get it! Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. Glenn, kudos for community-building. Great idea!


    August 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

  6. […] Monte @ Monte Asbury’s Blog: Jesus Doesn’t Matter Much […]

  7. Monte – I don’t even know what to say…

    Oh my, thank you for verbalizing this…it is amazing to read about as God has been doing a similar thing in the lives of myself and some close friends…it reminds me of a verse that John Piper loves to say – “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – so “beholding is becoming” – and wow, reading in the Gospels can be a scary thing but praise God that He is in the business of transforming us to becoming like Christ…hm…

    Thanks again Monte!!!!! SOOO COOOOL!!!!!


    August 4, 2007 at 9:10 am

  8. thanks Monte for your wise words! here’s to many more highbrow cups of coffee and readings of the New York Times!


    August 3, 2007 at 7:21 pm

  9. Monte…

    Wow! So that’s what was missing! Ironic, isn’t it?

    “He cares nothing for patriotism or looking successful or drawing crowds or getting “decisions” or power or “family values” or systematic theology or literal translations – or all those things that I’d learned as shibboleths, to be whispered self-effacingly by successful pastors.”

    He is still revolutionary, isn’t he? People, myself included, still misunderstand him and just don’t get him.

    Thank you for a wonderful, honest post!


    August 3, 2007 at 7:18 pm

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