The Night I Met God
This is one of my first childhood memories.
My mom had tucked me in and I was staring at the ceiling when, suddenly, I was in the presence of God. I felt loved. I felt safe. I felt happy. I felt things too wonderful to describe. I wasn’t lying in bed. I was lying at the end of the rainbow.
The sensation was so intense that I had to tell someone. I got up and shuffled across the hall to my parents’ room. They looked at me bleary-eyed, probably wondering why I wouldn’t go to sleep. I spurted out the first words that popped into my head:
“I feel like nothing bad could ever happen to me!”
They had no idea what was talking about, of course.
“That’s nice,” they said. “Go back to bed.”
I did. I lay there, letting God wash over me like star shine, slowly fading to black.
It has been over fifty years but I still remember that night. Why? Of all the hundreds of nights, why does that one stick with me?
Because it was my first encounter with God, my first taste of wholeness. Like all human wholeness, it came as a gift. I had not been praying or reading the Bible or thinking about God at all. The arms of love appeared from the sky, wrapped themselves around me, and made everything unshakably okay.
I’ll bet that you have experienced wholeness too. It may have come when you were out in nature. You may have experienced it in a relationship. Maybe it surprised you in the midst of a crisis. The love of God wrapped itself around you and made everything okay. There was a glorious moment when deep peace that filled you entire being. You felt like nothing bad could ever happen to you.
Wholeness Is Fleeting
Unfortunately, these experiences are the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, everything is not okay—not by a long shot. Your relationships are strained. You are overweight. Cancer threatens. Politics make you crazy. You’re in a car crash. You owe money on your income taxes. The kids are in trouble. Your life seems like a story without a plot.
You’re the opposite of the boy who burst into his parent’s room exclaiming, “It feels like nothing bad could ever happen to me!” The one thing you feel sure about is that bad things will happen to you.
Everyone feels this. The normal way to deal with all this is to bury your head in the sand. This can take many forms. Throw yourself into your work. Start a hobby. Become a Netflix addict. Dissolve yourself into your Facebook feed. Sneak off to look at porn. Eat ice cream. Drink too much.
You can even use religion to avoid facing this troubled world and your broken life. As a fan of the Simpsons, I call this the Ned Flanders syndrome. The more religious you become, the more you turn into a cartoon character.
There are billion dollar industries that reap their profits from problems caused by these futile attempts to manufacture wholeness. Some bring temporary relief but none provide a solution. Why? Because they treat symptoms, not the disease. It’s impossible to stop the haunting question: “Is this all there is?”
So is it hopeless? Are you condemned to a lifetime of gray despair punctuated by a few exhilarating flashes of full color wholeness? Is the best you can do to stay distracted and try to ignore the gray? Or could there be a way to make wholeness a way of life, to make every moment full color and three dimensional?
Jesus taught a way of life that makes wholeness the norm. He showed how we can live in God’s presence today, tomorrow, and forever. He called it “the Kingdom of God,” “eternal life,” “salvation.”
You’re skeptical. If Jesus offers this, why are most people who follow him just as goofed up as everyone else? There is actually a simple reason for this. Somewhere along the way, we stopped thinking of Jesus’ teachings as a way of life and began to regard them as a formula to get us into heaven when we die. We don’t experience wholeness as a way of life because we don’t think that is what Jesus came to offer. We focus instead on being sure our get out of hell free card is punched.
The Myth of the Conversion Experience
The Jesus I learned about growing up had very little to say about my life on earth. What mattered was not what happened while I lived but what happened after I died. God loved me, of course. But because I had sinned, God had no choice but to roast me in Hell for all eternity. Thankfully, God devised a way to roast Jesus in my place. If I said the right prayers, believed the right doctrines, and went through the right rituals, then the magic of Jesus’ sacrifice would be applied to me. If I got it wrong, I was back to roasting. I tried not to think about this.
I now see this as a terrible distortion of Jesus’ message. I have written more about it in Hard Reset, but for now, I just want to point out that when you follow this way of thinking, everything comes down to the “conversion experience.” The Catholics have their version and each branch of the Protestants has theirs.
Among other problems with the “conversion experience” is the idea that the teachings of Jesus are focused on a one-time event. Conversion flips a switch so that you will go to heaven when you die. Theoretically, a conversion experience should also make you a better person. The problem is that it does not. Survey after survey shows that any way you measure human wholeness there is no difference between the “converted” and the “unconverted.”
Jesus taught a way of life, not a conversion experience. His words to his disciples were simple: “Follow me.” Following is not a one-time event. It is a way of life. Just as there is no shortcut to physical health, there is no shortcut to spiritual health.
Some people can point to a dramatic conversion experience when the lights went on. As exciting as this is to hear about and as wonderful it may have been, it was just a flash. The trick is not turning the lights on. The trick is leaving them on. How do the lights go on and guide us every moment of every day?
It requires a major shift in thinking, life, and relationships.
Following Jesus: A Shift in Thinking, Life, and Relationships
Human existence involves three layers:
- What we think about our world,
- How we live our lives in the world, and
- How we relate to other people.
The foundation of our lives is the assumptions we make about the world. There are many variations on this, of course.
Next, based on our understanding of the world, we live our lives.
Then, based on what we believe and how we live, we decide how to treat others.
The layers are interrelated. How I view my world affects how I live my life. How I live my life becomes the basis for how I treat others. Here is the model I grew up with.
If you grew up in evangelical circles will recognize this. If you grew up in a different kind tradition your boxes will be different, of course. You might find it useful to fill one out for yourself.
How My World Fell Apart
The problem with my model is that as I began to look at it more closely, it fell apart. As Oswald Chambers put it, “The first thing that goes when you begin to think is your theology.” The more I examined the assumptions my life was based on, the more I questioned them.
My world made no sense. God was a heavenly jihadist, bent on blowing up the world. He would redeem a few people but damn the rest to eternal torment. How could I square this with a God of love or Jesus’ command to love my enemies? It didn’t make sense to my mind and it certainly was not what I saw in Jesus’ teachings.
My life made no sense. Since the world was soon to be blown to bits all that mattered was getting into heaven. The teachings of Jesus were not presented as a way to live but as a way to escape Armageddon. How I lived was unimportant. I went to church because that was what “saved” people were supposed to do.
My relationships were fragmented. Since the God divided people into two groups, I followed suit. People were “saved” or “damned.” My job was to get them into the “saved” category. This introduced awkwardness into my relationships. “Hey! Thanks for inviting us over to dinner. Sorry you’re going to hell.”
How I Got Stuck with Jesus
I was faced with an awful dilemma. I had built a good life based on the old assumptions. But I knew if I kept living by them I would be a fraud. My life was based on a framework I no longer believed.
In the Movie Wall-E, humans lived on a space ship where every need was cared for by robots. Robots brought them food and wiped their noses. They were shuffled around on floating scooters. Over time they quit walking. Why bother? They grew flabby, their muscles atrophied and their bones weakened.
Stepping out my religious tradition was like stepping off one of those scooters. I was wobbly. In fact, I fell flat on my face. But I got up and began to crawl. I started exploring. I discovered that Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. I read the Bhagavad Gita and found much to affirm. I read Emerson and Thoreau with admiration. The truth is I tried very hard not to be a Christian. The problem was I couldn’t.
Call it my background. Call it cultural blindness. Call it whatever you like but I am stuck with Jesus. I find the story of God incarnate, loving, redeeming, and saving the world, to be irresistible. It rings true. Like it or not, I’m a Jesus groupie. But I have taken a fresh look at what that means.
A Life of Wholeness
Here is my new picture. It’s not perfect but it’s much better than my old one.
My Idea of the World. I begin with a God of love, so everything God does—including judgment—is an expression of love. Judgment may be painful but is always a tool of mercy, both in this age and the age to come. I explore these ideas in Hard Reset and the Curb Your Dogma podcast.
How I Live. I regard my life as an invitation to enter the love of God—to experience the Kingdom of God here and now. This has implications for the world to come but my primary focus is on eternal life right here and now. I don’t aim for the day that God will whisk me off to heaven. I pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Seven Habits of Wholeness are how I make this a way of life.
How I Treat Others. I focus on loving others, not converting them. I trust that as I am made whole in the love of God, others will see the mercy I have found.
What the Seven Habits of Wholeness Did for Me
The Seven Habits of wholeness are a way to live. You may wonder why there are seven. Couldn’t there be six, or four, or twelve? Of course. Jesus never named or numbered his teachings. I grouped Jesus’ teachings under seven headings so that I could focus on practicing one each day of the week. I found that everything Jesus taught fit nicely under these headings. There is a logical flow. But it’s not the labels or the order that matters. It’s doing them.
I have been practicing the Seven Habits for over two years now and I love how they are shaping my life.
By making brokenness a door I am learning to make peace with discontent. Like Jagger, I can’t get no satisfaction, but unlike Jagger, I am learning to be okay with it. I have discovered that my longing is a holy invitation to meet with God.
By trusting Jesus I am set free from my obnoxious habit of trying to explain everything. I enjoy trying to make sense of the world but I am quite certain that many of my explanations are wrong and there is much I will never understand. It’s okay. Jesus is not counting on me to figure it out. He invites me to trust him.
By hoping in God my heart is filled with expectation. I’m like a kid at Christmas. I see God’s Kingdom poking through the wrapping paper everywhere. I live in anticipation of the soon-coming King and the glory to be revealed.
By letting God love me a frowning world is being turned into a smiling one. I no longer wonder what I’ve done wrong when bad things happen. I look for God’s love in all things—and find it.
By loving everyone I am set free from the weight of unforgiveness and discrimination. I open my heart to everyone and let the love of God pour through me.
As I discover my uniqueness and find ways to serve others I shine. I feel God’s pleasure in me.
Through everything, I am at rest. I am not slaving away to make something of my life. I am entering the life of God.
The Seven Habits are not the only way to follow Jesus. Whether you choose this approach or some other, the main thing is to make following the Master a way of life.
Why Wholeness Is the Answer to Everything
Wholeness is not an escape from this world; it is the presence of God with you in it. Wholeness won’t put a dopey grin on your face. You will still experience both sorrow and joy. But in both you will have peace.
When you live a life of wholeness you will find to your delight that you no longer need your addictions and distractions. The results will astound you. All kinds of bad habits will fall off like autumn leaves. For example,
- You’ll lose weight since you won’t need to self-medicate with brownies and ice cream.
- Your finances will improve because as you experience God’s presence, you won’t feel a need to buy things to fill the emptiness.
- Your marriage, family, and relationships will improve because as you experience the love of God, you will begin to treat those around you in a very different way.
- Your stress level will go down and your blood pressure will drop since you won’t be filled with fear about the future,
- Life will just plain be a more fun because you’ll be swimming in the ocean of God.
Why does one change make such a difference? Because are no longer treating symptoms. You are dealing with the root. Wholeness is a systemic solution. Good trees bear good fruit. In the weeks that follow, we will be focusing on the seven core teachings of Jesus that I call the Seven Habits of Wholeness one each week. My prayer for you is that they will become a way of life.
P.S. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to follow him.
You may have lots of questions about Jesus. Maybe you don’t believe that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity, or that he was God incarnate, or that he literally rose from the dead. That’s okay. Lots of the people who followed Jesus weren’t sure about him when they started. Jesus didn’t give people a test of orthodoxy before he let them join him. He just invited them to come along. Don’t get hung up on all the voices telling you that you have to believe this, that, and the other to follow Jesus. Just follow. You’ll learn as you go.
P.P.S. Keep Jesus Weird
There is a lot of fear when it comes to following Jesus. People think that only the experts know how to do it right and that you would be a fool to follow your own heart. This is an insult to the sovereignty of God, the glory of Christ, and the power of the Spirit.
I offer the Seven Habits as an tool that has been useful for me. Please modify them any way you like. I hope they will help you but you must follow Jesus for yourself. No pastor, priest, or former seminary professor can do it for you.
My goal is not to get you to believe what I believe or behave as I behave. My goal is to help you make your own living connection with God so you can discover wholeness. The one Spirit is at work in us all, guiding us home. We will not arrive as clones, assembled by religious machinery, but as sons and daughters, free and unique, each with a story to tell of the God who loved us.