For a long time radical was one of the more important words in my faith vocabulary.
To look at me is to look at the antithesis of the word radical – clean cut, professional, a master’s degree for God’s sake and I could keep going – but that didn’t stop me from coming to believe that to be a person of faith was to be a radical.
I, like so many others before me and since, became convinced that a real commitment to Jesus meant that my faith needed to be lived out in bold strokes and bright colors that everyone could see.
The more I thought about it and the more I talked about my faith, the more I convinced myself that true Biblical faith was about imitating those stories where people gave up everything to follow Jesus.
And I was drawn – actually it was more than drawn, I was captivated and I was compelled – by those stories of men and women who left their nets and their lives and their families to throw their lots in with Jesus. I read again and again those call stories in the opening of John’s Gospel – the ones of the people who couldn’t help but follow after Jesus and his invitation to come and see.
If you wanted to know what it meant to take Jesus seriously, if you wanted to see a faith that was committed and a life rooted in real and actual beliefs, there were few better examples than people who took a bold step to see just what Jesus was about. Real faith, not the watered down kind the Americna church I was a part of had settled for, that faith was about bold and radical and risk-taking ventures for God and those were the ones I kept going back to in my heavily edited and carefully scripted Bible.
I was haunted and convicted by the high standards of the Old Testament prophets and the ethical demands that Jesus laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. I spent most of my time reading Bonhoeffer, the quintessential modern saint who famously said that when God calls, God bids you to come and die. When I wasn’t reading Bonhoeffer I was meditating on my own rich Methodist tradition and its call to a sanctified and holy life.
“We will have a holy people or we will have no people” – Francis Asbury.
The Jesus movement, at least as I saw it, involved courage and it demanded faith. But what it required most was doing something bold – leaving people and stuff behind to become part of a radical community that looked different and lived differently. It was a community that bore very little resemblance, at least in my mind, to the ordinary lives of the people I had grown up around – the ones who taught me in Sunday School, the people who had prayed for me through high school when I had stopped doing it for myself, the loyalists who would later stand up and extend their hands over me at my ordination.
After all, no one, Jesus once told a crowd, who puts a hand to the plow and looks back at all is fit for the kingdom of God. You are either all in or you aren’t in.
I’m, of course, not the only person who has ever been led down this road – and it wasn’t all bad.
The call to radical and bold faith led me to take my faith more seriously that I ever would have had I not been reading these stories. It led me to take prayer more seriously and led me to try to judge everything I was doing in light of my deepest convictions and desire to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
Later it led me to take seriously the inkling that God might be leading me away from journalism and towards a life of leadership and ministry. After seminary it led me to spend a year in urban ministry attempting to live out my beliefs as part of a community of people trying to join their deep Christian faith with being good neighbors in a community that desperately needed both.
But there was one problem, and the problem was big.
When we define faith around anything besides faithfulness and obedience
to the way of Jesus we inevitably miss the mark.
And whether the term is radical or counter-cultural or whatever the kids are using these days, as the wise Church Historian Ted Smith would later teach me, when we use these terms we are ultimately defining ourselves against something. And when we define ourselves against something we are defining ourselves against the Gospel.
The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus is not against us but for us – he came into the world, after all, not to condemn it but to save it, not to obliterate it but to redeem it (John 3:17).
While I was searching for a faith that looked a certain way, I was also missing the committed and radical faithfulness that was all around me. I missed the commitment of the church leaders who prayed for me from the time I was born until their bodies wouldn’t let them do it anymore. I missed the business leaders, who despite their suits and ties, were putting their faith and their lives on the line to live with integrity when every other force was telling them to do just the opposite. While I was wondering why they weren’t at as many Bible studies as I was, they were living its message every single day – love justice, do mercy, walk humbly with your God.
While I was interrogating them, what I was really doing was missing the chance for them to be my teachers. I missed the stories of how their faith got them through worse things than they could ever have imagined, I missed the chance to hear how they advocated for social justice by marching with Dr. King, I lost out on the opportunity to learn compassion from people who had helped thousands make their way out of indescribable grief and I missed out on the vision of those who were able to see the depth of God’s love for difficult people when everyone else only saw the worst.
Faith isn’t about abandoning everything in search of God as much as it is about letting God in the messiness and reality of the life you are currently living.
It is true that the Bible is full of stories of people who did do the bold and risky thing for God, but it is also full of stories of people who Jesus healed and changed and then sent right back into their lives with the invitation to live differently.
He didn’t always tell them to leave their families and their houses, but instead told them to keep living where they were, to keep working in their jobs, to keep being part of the fabric of their towns – but to do it a new way, a way that pointed to the power of their experience with the God who had come to them. He invited them to a new way of a life, a life shaped by their faith, a life reoriented by faith’s imagination and purpose, a life that reflected what was possible when God showed up with the gift of presence.
It isn’t always about being radical. But it is always about living the life you have been given. It’s about being faithful and its about being real – no matter how uncool it might look.
That’s a lesson I wish I had learned a long time ago. What have you learned about faith that you wish you figured out a whole lot earlier?