I used to wake up from a nightmare in which I was buried alive. If it were just a matter of dying, suffocation would be no worse to go than many other ways. It’s wasn’t the dying that scared me, It was being confined to a small space, unable to m ove, running out of oxygen, alone in the darkness.
This dream was no accident. Several years ago, my world started to shrink around me and start to choke me. I didn't understand this. I had a great family, a nice house, a loving church, good friends, and a secure future. If I was trapped, I was trapped in paradise.
But I could not deny what I felt. I was like a scuba diver overcome by panic. I tried to stay calm and breath, but I couldn’t. I tore off my mask and swam for the surface. Never mind if it was rational. Never mind if it was safe. The compulsion was too strong to resist.
I am finally starting to understand why I felt the panic. Imagine that you had been born and raised indoors. To you, the heavens are a layer of sheet rock, eight feet over your head. But somehow you had a sense that there is more. You feel suffocated but can’t explain why.
This is what happens when you feel the narrowness of your world and desire to open your mind to the vastness of the universe. First there is a terrifying feeling of suffocation. You feel desperate to escape. When you break free and step outside, the first reaction is terror. There is no ceiling. It just keeps going up and up and up. But it’s also exhilarating. The world is much more wonderful than you ever imagined.
After this episode, I will focus on the wide world that the Bible calls the Kingdom of God. But in order to enter God’s infinite space, you must leave the safe, narrow confines of your present world. It won’t be easy. Today I’ll share my story and explain why breaking up with church is hard to do.
I will describe the three pieces that make up a world. Then, I’ll tell how mine came unglued. I’ll go on to explain why the world feels so strange to most people today. Finally, and best of all, I’ll begin to describe a world we can all live in, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
The Three Pieces That Make a Coherent Cosmos
You were born into a world you did not make or choose. You open our eyes, look around and start asking some basic questions like, “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”
In answer to “Who am I?” you are given a name. You are ________. In answer to “Where am I?” You are given a family. Your family is your world. In it you learn what to expect from life, how to behave, and what you must do to survive. Welcome to the world.
You accept all this. You’re just learning to walk. This is no time to question the ground beneath your feet. The beliefs you learn as a child are deeply imprinted on your psyche. They can be changed, but it takes a lot of work.
Based on your beliefs, you go out and build a life. This lifestyle is a logical extension of the beliefs. As you think, so you are.
Based on the lifestyle you build, you make friends. As you grow, you notice that not everyone lives in your world. They don’t act like you. They don’t think like you. They don’t get you. It’s as if they grew up on another planet. Their customs aren’t the same. They speak a different language.
They are strangers. You can be polite. But drawing close to people from another world is like trying to establish a deep relationship with your dog. You can love them and admire them and appreciate them, but you’re simply not on the same wavelength. You are missing a tail and don’t know how to bark.
My Birth World
I was born into a world where God was real. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother playing Chopin etudes on the piano as I drifted off to sleep. I heard God in the notes. My mother read the Chronicles of Narnia to me at bedtime. We discussed C.S. Lewis as we did the dishes. My dad was a rock. We had as good of a father-son relationship as I’ve ever heard of. We worked and laughed and spent the summers fishing and backpacking. My parents taught me to think deeply, love nature, and enjoy life. It was easy to believe in a good God.
But the God I was taught about in my conservative evangelical church was strangely out of step with my family. My parents loved me no matter what. They might discipline me but I knew I could never do anything that would make them reject me. I might break their hearts but I could never stop their love.
The God I learned about was not like this. He saw me as a sinner and God hated me for it. If I failed to ask Jesus into my heart, it was off to hell with me. I asked Jesus into my heart, of course, but it left me uneasy. Most of my friends and this glorious planet remained under God’s curse. And any day now, the planet would be incinerated and billions of people who had failed to receive Jesus would be of to an eternity of torture. It was weird. My family revealed a God of unconditional love but my church said God was a ticking time bomb.
How do you build a life on a platform of conflicted belief? Since I loved my parents and family I enjoyed my life and lived as if God was good. Since I believed the teaching of my church, I got busy trying to to get people to receive Jesus and escape the angry God. This was logically incoherent but it was an accurate reflection of my incoherent beliefs.
Friends fell into two categories. The first was fellow believers. These were brothers and sisters. They did not need to be saved, so I could relax and have a normal relationship with them—well, sort of.
Believers were supposed to have their act together. Our lives were supposed to be a shining light to unbelievers. We were the “after” picture. Phrases like, “You’re the only Jesus some people will ever see,” and “You’re the only Bible some people some people will ever read” were common. If I yelled at my kids, struggled in my marriage, or looked at internet porn, I had to be careful. These things had to be handled delicately, or better yet, swept under the rug. Around church people I had to be my “saved” self, not my true self.
The second category of relationships was with unbelievers. Because these people were on God’s bad side, they were not brothers and sisters. These were my coworkers, classmates, musician friends, roommates, and the hundreds of “lost” people I bumped into every day. These people needed to be saved. My role to them was not primarily “friend” but “missionary.” It was a tough sell. At the same time, I had to tell them of a God of love and warn them that this God was about to torch them.
Lost in Space!
The more I followed the God of church, the more suffocated I felt. I now see that my torn, incoherent life and friendships where the result of a torn, incoherent God. To put it bluntly, God was a jerk. No wonder I was a mess! God was a mess! This is when the sense of suffocation began.
I had to get out but I didn’t even know what “out” meant. I exchanged suffocation for confusion. I was lost in space. But at least I had room to move.
Why You Feel Lost in Space
What if You Were an Aztec?
Imagine that you were born an Aztec in the year 1500. Your whole world is what we call Mexico. Beyond this is outer space to you. One morning, some white-skinned men show up announcing that they are from across the sea. This would explode your ancient world, exactly like an alien invasion would explode our modern world.
You have felt the same thing. The conquistadores showed up on your doorstep. Transportation, television, and, above all, the internet, have filled every room of the house with invaders. No one lives in an isolated world anymore. We must face a profusion of worlds. How do we handle this?
One solution is to raise the drawbridge. As Julie and I exited the interstate in Pennsylvania, we were startled to see an old man in a black suit with a long white beard driving a black horse and buggy along the shoulder. It was our first encounter with the Amish. We couldn’t help but stare. It was like seeing Neanderthal man.
The Amish have dug in and held on to their world, despite the invasion. It's hard not to be jealous. Their world may be small but at least it is coherent. Maybe you have settled for a similar solution. You don’t drive a horse and buggy. All you have to do is close your ears to voices that do not reinforce your world, be it Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, the Dalai Lama, or Cap’n Crunch.
It’s tough to maintain this. The modern world is too pervasive. Most people have accepted that life is a confusing mess. So what do the beliefs, lifestyle, and friendships of a modern American wind up looking like?
In our system of worlds, the one thing we know for sure is that no one knows anything for sure. We might check a box that says Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Atheist on a form, but we are a nation of agnostics.
Guardians of various religious and political dogmas see this and make apocalyptic predictions. They magnify every conflict as evidence to support their claims. They predict disaster and rally the troops to their cause. What will become of us? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
If you only listen to these voices, you’ll believe that things are worse than they have ever been. This is just plain wrong. Despite some painful exceptions, our world is getting along better than at any time in human history. Your life expectancy is longer than it ever. Your odds of dying in a war are extremely low, even if you serve in the military. Yuval Harari makes this point convincingly in his book, Sapiens.
What is going on here? Is global confusion better than the old system of rigid sects? Yes! Our world is being forced into the Kingdom of God, a world where there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The walls are coming down and we are slowly learning to think like one human family.
Though we cannot explain why, we are moving toward a life of love. Like Tarrou and Dr. Rieux in the Camus’ book, The Plague, we do what is right even though the world seems absurd. We can’t explain why but we are instinctively building a better world than the sectarian one we are leaving behind.
But how do you build a life on ignorance? It’s not easy. We do what is right by instinct, but it is a queasy feeling. We tend to retreat to our safe, small world, but we know it is an escape. The real world is complicated and its in our face. We don’t know how to explain it.
To avoid having to face questions we can’t answer, we stay busy. We are like water skiers. We avoid the depths by moving fast along the surface. It’s a weird way to live. On one hand, our lives are lived in luxury. On the other hand, life feels meaningless. No matter what we do, we wind up, at the end of the day, saying, “What was that all about?” At the end of our lives we say, “That was weird,” and die.
It's no surprise that in such roiling waters, friendships are difficult. How do you find common ground when the ground is constantly moving? It’s easy to find someone to play with. But we don’t just need someone to play with. We need someone to share our lives with. Someone who is willing to go deep with us and grow with us. Someone who will love us and not judge us. But how can we have deep friendships when we have no deep roots? Our friendships reflect our lives. They are shallow. They mainly consist of the next social event.
The Kingdom of God: A World For Us All
Jesus preached The Kingdom of God. Over the centuries this message has been transformed into a religion called “Christianity.” But Jesus did not come to start a religion to add to the pile of religions. Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not a religion with a claim to exclusive access to God. It is a proclamation that God’s love is universal, that God is drawing all people into oneness with himself and harmony with each other.
Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) This repentance is not turning from one religion to another. It is turning from all religion to a God who transcends religion. Jesus’ ministry demonstrates this.
When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman, he did not try to convert her to Judaism. He taught her about the Kingdom of God. When a Roman Centurion begged Jesus to heal his sick daughter, Jesus did not give him a lesson in the Torah. He just healed his daughter. The Apostle Paul was nearly killed on several occasions because he insisted that it was not necessary for Gentiles adopt Judaism to follow Jesus.
What does the world look like through the lens of God’s Kingdom? Glorious! Let’s zoom in and take a look, starting with beliefs.
Kingdom Beliefs: God is Love
God’s Kingdom is a kingdom of love. The invitation is to gather around God’s table as one human family. This is what the Bible means by ecclesia. Ecclesia is the love of God calling all people to oneness with himself and harmony with each other. Human harmony is not found in a common creed but in a common acceptance. We love one another.
Jesus never told his followers to all believe the same thing. He did say they must love one another. Religion is not the issue. Love is the issue. Religious differences will sort themselves out as we love one another.
God’s Kingdom is mysterious. Jesus’ teachings about it are couched in parables and raise more questions than they answer. Evidently, it is fine to have questions. If it was Jesus’ intent to answer our questions about God and human existence, he did a lousy job.
Jesus revealed that salvation is the heart of God, not the exclusive property of any religion. As people receive the love of God, they realize that they are part of the one human family. Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised or obey the Torah. Jews can continue to observe special days. Muslims can pray five times a day. Hindus can seek enlightenment. Christians can go to church. But all these things are peripheral.
The thing we all must do is love without judging. We must reject the foolish claim that our race or religion gives us an exclusive “in” with God. Failure to do this is what Jesus warned about so strongly in the gospels. Read them again and notice how Jesus’ harsh words are aimed at those who think they have an inside track with God. Sometimes this is because of wealth. Sometimes because of nationality. But usually, religion is the problem.
God’s love is the central fact of our existence, the core of our belief. This is an ocean, but here are three vital truths about God’s love.
1. God’s love is unconditional—no kidding. I grew up being taught that God’s love was unconditional. Then it was explained to me that most of the world would miss out on God’s unconditional love because they failed to meet God’s conditions. Huh?
Love is acceptance. If someone tells me that God loves me and then proceeds to tell me why God doesn’t accept certain people or gives me a list of things they must do to be accepted, they are talking nonsense. Either God’s love is unconditional or it is not. God loves us because God is love. God loves even his enemies. (Matthew 5:43-45)
2. God’s love is redemptive. Our world is a mess—no denying it. Our lives are a mess—no denying that either. How did things get so out of hand? Why did God make such a world, knowing it would go this way? Because creation is a work in progress. If God abandoned the world or destroyed it, we could rightly accuse God of injustice. But God did not abandon this world.
Redeeming love is the very center of the universe. Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. When we come to the end of our wild, rebellious ride, things won’t just be restored to the way they used to be. They will be better. We will know God more deeply than if our world contained only happy chapters. God isn’t just making all things new. He is making all things better than new.
3. God’s love is fire. Love does not mean that God keeps his hands off, like an absentee parent who sends checks in the mail. God is deeply involved. The incarnation settles any question of this. God put boots on the ground, or should I say sandals?
God won’t rest until we are everything we were created to be. Growth requires learning and learning requires pain. We can make life uncomfortable for ourselves if we fight God’s work in our lives. Jesus warned of fire, both in this age and the age to come. But we need not fear the fire. God’s anger is an expression of commitment, not rejection.
Based on the belief that God is love, how do we live?
Kingdom Lifestyle: Life Is Growth
In a world where God’s redeeming love is the center of our existence, how do we live? We get on with redemption! We grow up! We “put off the old man and put on the new man.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) How? By following Jesus.
That’s what the Seven Habits of Wholeness are about. We begin with brokenness, admitting our need. We confess that there is much we don’t understand about our lives and this world and trust Jesus. As we follow, we start to hope in God. We are amazed to find that God loves us so we love God with all our hearts. God’s love flows through us to our neighbor. We use our gifts to love others. We shine. In all of this, we are at rest because we realize it is God who is working in us.
It is not a set of beliefs that saves us. The love of God does that. But as we draw near to God, we discover truth. The more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Since we realize how vast our ignorance is, we refuse to judge others for theirs. God is infinite. We are children playing by the edge of the ocean. We love each and point to the ocean. God is making us new!
Kingdom Friends: Everyone Is Family
Because there is no division in the heart of God, there is no division in ours. We love everyone without distinction. We recognize that we are all works-in-progress. We go out of our way to help and encourage each other but don’t try to fix each other. Making all things new is God’s business. Loving each other is ours.
For love to be real, it must go beyond abstract love for “everyone.” Love must come down to “someone.” It must hit us in our homes and neighborhoods. Jesus said, we must love our neighbor. What does that look like?
The answer to this will be the topic of the next three podcasts. I’ll start next week by focusing on a topic that is a tough subject for many people: friends. In my life, religion was one of the greatest destructive forces of friendship. But what does friendship look like without religion?
This will be the topic of the next episode: Ecclesia: Two Trees Planted by the Water.