I want to share this (rather long) reflection from one of my recent seminary seminars. We had the privilege of listening to Dr. Leonard Sweet for two days. His message, and mind, are gifts from God and if you haven’t yet read this book, “I Am a Follower” I would strongly recommend it. This reflection is personal and I pray that all of those who have lived life with me will take heart that I speak to the corporate church as a whole, but still let the Spirit challenge when needed. Grace and Peace
There are three times in my life Jesus showed up in a very physical way and said, “Follow me.” Remembering these times isn’t out of the ordinary for me. I think about these moments anytime I question why God has chosen me to love. What I realized this time; however, was just how easy it had been to say yes to Him. The first request to follow was when I accepted Christ. The last request was my call into ministry. The second time? It came at the end of the ugliest day of my life.
Of course, Jesus is asking me to follow Him every day. What is unique about these times is the added glory of a more physical presence to abide in. Since reading “I Am a Follower” by Dr. Leonard Sweet over a month ago, I have been struggling with my reaction to the book. I have read it a few times since, in hopes of changing my initial review. What was causing me to struggle was the fact that this topic seemed too common sense for me. The issue of leadership within the church is a deadly one, no doubt. The focus on attendance, number of salvation prayers repeated, and the resulting pastoral pride should be a place of shame for the church today. The fact that the average Christian looks nothing like the “Big J”, let alone a “Little J” is disheartening. And then something occurred to me, I was being naive.
As we sat around in our Spiritual Formation group and everyone was talking about how moved they were by Dr. Sweet’s message, I felt almost embarrassed in not sharing in their same sense of excitement. Graeme Seller (our previous instructor) had left me in a state of shock and awe, but Dr. Leonard Sweet speaks and I come away almost shrugging? So I reflected more, re-read parts of the book, looked at the seminar notes, and it finally started to make sense.
Being a Christ-follower first, faithfully, and fervently has been completely missing from my church experience. I identified this issue of lack of “follower”ship a few years ago and studied it in depth. The notion of being a “Christ-follower first” shaped and moved me deeply during that time. This seminar hadn’t challenged me the way it had others, because the story was already deep seeded within my heart. The seminar, and reflection on it, did wake me up to something very important. I can’t let the extraordinary in my life become ordinary. If a fellow Christian’s passionate work changes me to my core, I owe it to the Spirit to continue to fan the flames on my own heart so others might catch on fire too.
The church continuously drove me away during my life due to the issues addressed in Dr. Sweet’s book. I wanted to conform to Christ, and found myself instead conforming to the leaders in the church (who looked little like Jesus from where I was sitting). I wanted to do the things Jesus had created me to do, but I ended up just doing what the rest of the body was doing (which was often what the rest of the culture was doing). I wanted refinement, but was given no safe place to share my confessions. I wanted healthy community, and I was given social cliques. How can I expect to help make the changes I believe God desires to see in the church if I have already chalked these failures up to common knowledge?
It is an honored blessing that we serve a God who shows up in our lives and says, “Follow me.” My calling and salvation prayer are two of those times that embodied His beautiful presence. But as a church, are we allowing Christ to step in at times when it could be us? The ugliest day of my life, as I described it, came during a great time of depression. I was around the age of 23. I was just recently out of rehab for drugs, and I was using again. I had moved three states away from my family, despite their desperate pleas for me to stay. And that’s just the surface of the darkness.
On this day, I was crouched in the fetal position on the floor of my empty apartment. I was begging for an answer from God. I was begging for help. I had no one, and I knew I couldn’t go on. And right then, I heard Him. “Get up. We’re leaving.” I looked up to see Jesus Christ standing there beside me. His hand was reaching out to mine. He was inviting me to follow Him. I said yes to his request that morning without hesitation. I said yes as if I didn’t know that following Him meant doing the most difficult thing I’d ever done before. It was 4 a.m. and by 11 a.m. we—Jesus and me—had packed as many of my belongings into my car that would fit, called my mother to tell her I had relapsed, and drove back home to Minnesota. I experienced, for the first time in my life, complete surrender. I left behind, what I believed, was everything true in my life without as much as a goodbye. I even remember the moment that the palpable presence of Jesus left my car. It was as we crossed that last state line; as if He knew that was my point of no turning back.
Although in some ways I cherish that morning, I have always thought Jesus would have rather shown up as an embodied Christ follower. The Christian should be the place to break strongholds—pride, greed, consumerism, judgment, shame, lust—but too often it is what contributes to them. I want to be a Christ follower first. People say this, and when they do I become to think believers are aware of the problems we’re facing, even when that isn’t the truth. When saying yes to the church’s request to “Follow us as we are following Christ” becomes the easiest yes a person will ever utter is the moment at which we’ll know we’ve finally figured it out. And until then it is up to me [us] to remain actively passionate about the Spirit’s desires before allowing anything so extraordinary to become ordinary ever again.