A Tree Planted by the Water

Last week I painted a picture of the Mountain of God. On this mountain we are warmed and energized by the same light. On this mountain, we move closer to God, closer to each another, closer to truth. There is no “us” and “them.” There is room for everyone. The mountain of God is not a religion. It is the end of religion, the triumph of the Kingdom of God.

The essence of the this Mountain is four relationships.

Isaiah's Mountain of God

  1. The relationship between you with God.
  2. The relationship between you and your close friends.
  3. The relationship between you and your neighbors.
  4. The relationship between you and your world.

It all starts with you.

The Mountain of God Begins with You

As a teenager, the image of a tree planted by the water spoke to me.

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
(Psalm 1:3)

I wanted to be a that tree. I wanted roots that went down deep into God. This was intensely personal.

The mountain of God begins with the individual. It is Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is Matthew leaving the tax booth. It is a widow, grasping Jesus’ robe to be healed. It is Thomas proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

There is no universal adaptor for making a connection with God. Each connection is unique and corresponds with the nature of the person. I can’t tell you how to connect to God and you can’t tell me. Your soul’s connection with God is a sacred secret, “a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).

Be Thyself

The only way you can experience God is as yourself.

Nature shows the way. Trees don’t try to be colorful like wildflowers. Stones don’t try to flow like water. Bears don’t try to sing. Birds don’t try to make honey. Nature’s glory is in the fact that everything is exactly what it is made to be. By being true to itself, every created thing, from the tiniest bug to the tallest mountain, becomes a brush stroke in a Divine masterpiece.

The most important thing you can be is yourself.

It’s Not Easy Being You

Being yourself is not as easy as it sounds. Human architects are everywhere, each one seeking to cram you into their design for the universe. If you don’t fall in line, you’ll ruin their picture.

Living on the mountain of God means regarding these human blueprints as the scribblings of a lunatic. It means refusing to be a brick in someone else’s wall. It means being true to your nature, which turns out to be the same as being true to God. Don’t expect this to be easy.

Religion Never Fits

Religions can’t make room for so much variety. They regard uniqueness as chaos. Only square bricks fit the design. You are given instructions for making a connection with God. The beliefs and behaviors that validate the connection are spelled out for you.

The result of this mass-produced, artificial connection with God is a mass-produced, artificial religious community that feels curiously like a modern shopping mall. Like malls, religious communities rely heavily on illusion. They are mostly false fronts.

But You Have a Home on God’s Mountain

The mountain of God is solid through and through. This is no mass production. There is not a single duplication. There is no illusion. The mountain of God is as wild as nature herself. Religion, with its static ideas of God and rigid blueprints, will never fit.

Read the gospels and notice something: The only conflict Jesus had on this earth was with religion. It was religion that killed him—or thought it did. Nothing on the mountain of God can ever die.

The Mountain of God is both free and orderly, both wild and harmonious. No human architect could fabricate such a wonder. It is a mountain whose architect and builder is God.

The mountain of God begins with each individual relationship with God. We must each learn to make this connection and be what God made us. There is no formula for how to do this. But there are three principles that can help guide us.

Three Principles for Making a Connection with God

  1. Trust your eyes.
  2. Take ownership of your soul.
  3. Feed Yourself.

Principle #1: Trust Your Eyes

Why We Assume a World Without Religion Would Be Chaos

Most people are scared of a world without religion. Religion might not be perfect, but at least it keeps us in line. Without religion, who will keep us from running around and murdering each other? Who will keep us from marrying our cats? Who will keep us from saying God is a marshmallow?

These kinds of questions reveal something disturbing: We do not trust ourselves.

Intentional Dependency

Our fear is no coincidence. For centuries, the church bred dependency. Only the Priest can turn the bread into Christ. Only the Pastor can rightly divide the word. The eyes of a layperson cannot be trusted. Our hearts are evil. Our minds are not sound. We need religion to keep us in line.  Turn us loose and all hell will break loose.

If You Can’t See, God Is a Monster

Imagine a God who makes a creature, pokes its eyes out, and says, “Find me.” If this is the nature of the God, we are living in a horror movie. The idea that our hearts don’t feel God and our eyes don’t know truth is terrifying.

God Is Not a Monster

God is not like this. We are created with a longing for God. With David we all say,

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God
(Psalm 42:1-2a)

We feel joy when we make the connection. It’s like a river breaking loose in us. We know truth when we see it. Truly, “the Kingdom of God is within us” (Luke 17:21). God is in our mouths and in our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:14).

We can no more escape God than we can escape our own flesh.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Jesus rejected the idea that we should rely on another person to make our connection with God.

  • Do not be called Teacher; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
  • Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
  • Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.

(Matthew 23:8-10)

It’s you and God. This is the most fundamental fact of your existence. Every time a soul surrenders its sight to another it’s the blind leading the blind. The follower blindly trusts the leader for light that only God can give. The leader blindly thinks he is the light.

You do not need a pastor. You do not need a teacher. You do not need a leader. All you need your beating heart, your seeing eyes, and the courage to use them. You are made in God’s image. You know the way home.

Fun House Mirrors

“But wait!” you say. “Can’t I deceive myself?”

Of course you can. We all have distorted ideas. These are the result of others telling us how to think and behave.

There are plenty of people willing to steal your soul from you by telling you what to see, from advertisers to politicians to to pastors. Make no mistake: Our minds are clouded by these like fun house mirrors. Here are five distortions.

1. Religious Experts: There are people who think that because I have a Ph.D. in New Testament and read the Bible in Greek that I see God better than they do. I actually know a Greek word for this idea: Baloney! I have a unique perspective, but so do you. So does every person. The world will become its three dimensional, full color self when each individual awakens to her own genius and reflects God’s glory in the unique way God made her to.

2. The Bible: I love the Bible because it contains the honest writings of people seeking God. The Bible is filled with questions and struggle. It is painfully real, like the Mountain of God. If you think it is obvious how to synthesize the Bible, just look at the sea of denominations and religions, each claiming to follow the Bible. Often these groups gouge out their eyes and shove the NT into one socket and the OT into the other. In this way, they claim infallible vision. This is not the purpose of the Bible. The Bible is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. It is not a replacement for our eyes.

3. Advertisers: Latest estimates are that the average American sees around 5000 advertisements every day. Each of these presents a take on reality. You’re too fat. Your clothes are out of fashion. Your job is a snooze. Your kids are missing the boat. Your car is too old… Is it any wonder we need antidepressants?

4. Politicians: The world of politics is very much like the world of religion. Each side presents the other as the apocalypse. Our side rides on white horses, armed with golden bullets. The other side is the Antichrist. This world is not one human family. It’s the Hatfields and McCoys.

5. Talk Radio and “News” Organizations: Close on the heels of the Politicians comes Talk Radio and news agencies which spin the politicians’ activities into a daily soap opera.

I could continue this list indefinitely, but you get the point. There are a lot of distortions out there. The common thread in all of them is that you must buy into their vision of reality. The moment you do this, you are under their power.

Is there any hope to sort out this mess? Yes! You. You are the light of the world. When you stop seeing what you are told to see and begin to see for yourself, the light of God shines on all this nonsense. You see these human power grabs for what they are.

But If Every Person Sees for Himself, Won’t There Be Chaos?

This world could not function at all if there was no consistency. But, in fact, there is consistency, one which spans all cultures and religions.

As Julie and I travel the country, we meet all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. One thing we have found to be constant, from coast to coast: People are good.

If I even hint that I’m having trouble with my trailer, five guys show up with tools, eager to help. If I ask a local where the best restaurants are, they take pains to tell me. Not once has anyone told me to go to hell.

People are not good because they are Christian. People are good because they are human. They are good because they are made in the image of God.

We all have our bad days, of course. These involve some form of rejection. We feel abandoned by others, maybe even rejected by God. We need love, not condemnation.

The atrocities of human history never occurred because people opened their eyes and used them. They occurred when people shut their eyes and surrendered them.

Trust your eyes.

Principle #2. Take Ownership of Your Soul

Ignorance Is Bliss

The beauty of blindness is that you can’t be held responsible for your actions. The ability to see comes with a weight. If you can see God, if you innately know what is true, you are responsible for your soul.

Don’t Leave the Driving to Them

I do a lot of driving. I don’t mind this, but I find it refreshing to get in someone else’s back seat and go for a spin. I can look around and enjoy the sights. Best of all, if they run a red light or get caught speeding or take a wrong turn and wind up lost, I’m not responsible. I’m just a passenger.

Joining a religion is like hopping on a bus. You find one you like, hop aboard, and leave the driving to them. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to make decisions. You sit back and relax. You can look out the window or put on headphones and zone out. If they wreck or wind up in the wrong place, it’s not your fault. You’re just a passenger.

As appealing as it is to offload your soul like this, it doesn’t work. The moment you got on the bus you gouged out your eyes and handed them to the driver for your fare. You don’t get a pass for this. You were not meant to get on someone else’s bus. You are made to drive.

Don’t Go with the Flow

Another benefit of abdicating  the responsibility for your soul is that you fit in. Group think offers a comforting sense of belonging. It is reassuring to look at the world through a shared set of eyes. But this comfort comes at a high price.

I greatly enjoyed the book Educated, by Tara Westover. Tara grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family. Her experience went far beyond what most of us experience in religious communities but the decision she ultimately faced was the same.

Tara had a choice: She could conform to the group-think of her family and be loved and accepted or she could think for herself and be cast out. Her father interpreted her lack of conformity to be demon-possessed and tried to exorcise the demon. Tara responded,

If I yielded now, I would lost more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay. I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon. It was me.

I’ll let you read the book to find out what happened. It’s worth your time.

The decision to think for yourself will be interpreted as rejection by those whose eyes you now share. This may mean the loss of wife and children, father and mother, brother and sister. It’s not that you don’t love them. Your new world will have room for them. But you can no longer be a part of their one dimensional world.

This is the tension Jesus experienced. His world had room for the Scribes and Pharisees. Theirs did not have room for him.

Interdependence

Taking responsibility for your soul does not mean you cannot benefit from the insight of others. Quite the opposite.

I might eat fruit grown by one person and eggs raised by another. I may live in a house built by craftsmen and drive a car made by a factory. Life is filled with give and take. We each bring our gift to the table and celebrate the abundance. We bring the gift of our true selves and share it. There is freedom. There is diversity. There is love. This is not group think. It is group potluck.

Every Person a Pastor

Probably the most damaging image to human beings taking responsibility for their own souls is that of the sheep and the shepherd.

If you ask most churchgoers, they’ll tell you they are a sheep. The pastor is the shepherd. The word “pastor” even means shepherd.

The role of the sheep is to eat, sleep, and be shorn. Sheep don’t think for themselves. They follow their shepherd. To fail to do so is to be a goat.

This image has become one of the most central assumptions of modern Christianity. There are sheep (laypeople) and shepherds (clergy). These are two fundamentally different classes of people.

When Jesus told Peter to shepherd the sheep, the command was not to create a dependent underclass. The command was to serve and empower them. The image has been badly abused.

Those in power gladly claim the title “Shepherd” as a mark of special authority and privilege. Masses of sheep are all too willing to surrender their souls for the convenience of not being responsible for them.

Yes, they who have responsibility for others should care for them like a good shepherd, even to the point of laying down their lives. This does not mean they should think of those for whom they care as inferior.

People should never think of themselves as sheep. People are shepherds, every the last one of them. Every person is called to care for and serve others. No one gets off the hook with God by saying, “I’m a sheep.”

Stop saying that.

Principle #3. Feed Yourself!

When you trust your eyes and take responsibility for your soul, you are ready to take your place on the Mountain of God. It’s time to sink some roots and grow.

“I Wasn’t Getting Fed”

One of the reasons people sometimes gave for leaving church was the statement, “I just wasn’t getting fed.” Usually they looked at me accusingly as they said this, as if I showed up with styrofoam pellets on Sundays instead of spiritual food.

Obviously, I didn’t appreciate the accusation that my sermons had no nutritional value. But the assumption behind the accusation was worse than the accusation itself.

The assumption was that God wants people to show up like sheep once a week to “get fed” by a shepherd. They had done their part. They showed up on Sundays and were shorn of some cash. I hadn’t done mine. They paid for a meal. I failed to deliver.

How did it come to this?

We would have little patience with a 40 year old man who could not feed himself. But for some reason, in the spiritual realm, it is fine, even expected.

What is needed is not new and better preaching, new and better music, new and better organization. What is needed is the abandonment of the whole system of religious welfare.

The best thing that could happen on a Sunday morning would be for each person to stand up, walk out, go home, and feed herself.

But how? We haven’t fed ourselves for so long we don’t even know where to begin.

Here are four suggestions.

Four Suggestions for Feeding Your Soul

1. Do What Brings You to Life

I used to think Julie was broken. I would read some great quote in a heavy duty theology book I was reading and wait for the oohs and aahs.

“Uh huh,” she’d say.

“Uh huh?!” What was wrong with her?

I look back with embarrassment on my ignorance. It turns out that I was broken, not her.

I foolishly assumed that the way God spoke to my soul was the way God spoke to hers. But Julie and I are on a very different wavelengths with God.

Julie is a here-and-now girl. Stick her in a garden with a spade in one hand and a watering can in the other and she’s in seventh heaven. Stick me out the gardern and I’m bored to tears.

God speaks to us on different wavelengths. Each person has a unique frequency. My sermons used to hit home for some people. For others they were a big snooze.

Imagine if every Sunday you ate macaroni and cheese for lunch. I love M&C. I would be fine with this arrangement. But not everyone likes macaroni and cheese. Most people would get bored with it. Why serve only one dish?

Not only do we have no tolerance for this question. We accuse those who complain of the bland menu of being unspiritual, or not appreciating “the Word of God.”

Every soul experiences God differently. What lights you up? What makes draws you close? Music? Nature? Literature? A beer and a hammock? Football? Needlepoint? Gardening?

God loves variety. Find what energizes your soul and light it up! Thank God for it! Be alive! Don’t feel even a breath of guilt that you are not in church eating macaroni and cheese.

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

2. Listen

A few years back I began to journal every morning. Someone gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way.” I loved it. I began writing long hand in a paper journal each morning, allowing my thoughts to flow freely. It was amazing what came out on the page.

You may find another way to allow God to speak to you. Maybe it’s meditation. Maybe it’s jogging. Maybe it’s Bible reading. However you do it, find a way to be still and listen. Let God “search you and know your heart.” Let God “try you and know anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23). Be open and honest with yourself.

3. Get the Help You Need

As you allow God to speak to your soul, certain things will come to light. You will find areas of weakness, regions of your soul that are malnourished. You may find pieces of your life that need a complete overhaul. Perhaps some things that just need to be hauled out to the trash.

My guess is that you already know where you need to begin. So begin! You don’t have rely on a one-size-fits-all Bible study. Go out and get exactly what you need, tailor made for your soul. Are you…

  • Addicted?
  • In debt?
  • Depressed?
  • In need of spiritual guidance?

Never before has it been easier to get help. It is literally at your fingertips. You just have to reach out and get it.

Maybe it is a simple as buying a book. Maybe it will involve getting help from a mentor. Reach out! People love to help.

Maybe you need a 12-step group, a yoga group, a weight watchers group.

Still stuck? Ask someone for advice! Find someone you trust and ask for ideas. They would love to assist. If you’re really desperate, ask me. I’ll give it my best shot.

The point is that the guidance you need is out there.

Whatever it is, do it! Stop sitting around whining that there aren’t any good churches or that your church let you down. The only one who let you down is you.

4. Get By with a Little Help from Your Friends (next week)

It is hard to put a price on the value of a close friend in your life.

What? You don’t have any close friends?

That’s awful! But you’re not alone. In fact friendlessness is epidemic. In the next episode I’ll address this all-too-common problem. Rest assured. Friends are out there.

The Tree Planted by the Water

The mountain of God is made of countless individual, unique connections with God.

I like Jeremiah 29:13

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”

But I love Jeremiah 29:14

I will be found by you,” declares the Lord.”

You aren’t just trying to connect with God. God is trying to connect with you. Not only this, God declares he will be successful. You and God are on a collision course. Relax.

Trust your eyes.

Take ownership of your soul.

Feed Yourself.

Make the connection.

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