I Am Christianish
- 2009 4 Aug
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following excerpt is taken from the prologue of Mark Steele's third book, Christianish. ©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.
At approximately three o’clock, on an otherwise uneventful afternoon, random disaster landed in my living room, scarring my wife’s affenpinscher permanently. In a collision of arbitrary calamity—the sort of incident one reads about in a James Frey memoir but does not believe—my wife accidentally cut off our dog’s tongue with a pair of grooming scissors.
The dog was named Scout in honor of the little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, though he is neither a girl nor currently inside any fancy books. It must first be respectfully noted that the dog’s tongue is his talent. It is his method of showing affection, and he wields it with a flourish like the caricature artist on the boardwalk waves pastel chalk before sketching your oversized head on the body of a miniscule muscleman. Scout’s lick was his love. It was all he really knew how to do—that tongue was his Sistine Chapel.
Of all the human beings who could have fathomably been the bearer of this specific catastrophic misstep toward my dog—a cutlery juggler, a careless balsa whittler, the lady who runs the paper shredder at Kinko’s—the least likely and the worst emotional choice is the human who actually did the deed. That would be my wife, Kaysie.
The reason Kaysie is the worst choice as the cause of this particular accident is because there is not a human soul on the planet who loves the dog more. In fact, the atrocity occurred during an act of kindhearted affection. Kaysie was grooming Scout with great precision and detail—prettying him up because, after all, he is named after a girl. She was only slightly distracted by the fact that her back was aching, she was about to leave town for five days, and she had just received word that a loved one had passed away. Still, she forged ahead with the necessary grooming. She took a clump of his doggie hair between the blades, and then—just as she squeezed—Scout whipped his face around, jamming his tongue in the middle of the shears themselves.
The rest—as you would imagine—was gross.
Scout was rushed to the vet where they angrily asked how this could have happened. I don’t know how this happened! The dog was licking an envelope while I accidentally slipped it in the paper-shredder. What do you think happened?! The vet quickly gave him ten stitches. Ten. I reiterate this because the vet also reiterated this, making sure we fully understood that Scout was a tiny dog and that he should have never been subjected to such terror. Ten stitches, the vet insisted, were ten stitches too many.
He chewed them all out overnight. The determination was made in the morning that Scout would need to have the dangling participle removed altogether. The tongue-ectomy was performed. A fourth of his slobbering member was omitted. From then on, he yelped with a lisp. It’s a good thing my name is Mark.
So, Kaysie felt horribly and she shouldn’t have, because it wasn’t her fault. It was just the rotten way everything sort of fell together in light of the chaos that was going on around her mixed with the flitting nature of the dog. But that doesn’t change the fact that it did indeed happen. It doesn’t change the fact that Scout’s tongue is now gone for good.
I understand Kaysie’s guilt and grief because I have also played a part in someone’s catastrophe. Several someones, in fact. I have played a part in many needful things being removed.
The scissors I wielded were not tangible. They were different things in different seasons of my life: the cutlery of my inconsistent ways, my sarcastic tongue, and my resistance to maturity. In too many moments, when I knew full well that someone was watching, I selected selfishness—to make decisions in a manner that would benefit myself most of all. I tossed about my acidic words like Agent Orange on a rice field. I snubbed my nose at others whose sin or failure was simply a nuanced variation of my own. I aimed for godliness as an idea, but was quick to snag the do-over of grace when my intentions proved
faulty. I judged. I condemned. And I thought it was okay because the people of the church were still impressed with me.
But the world was watching.
Funny. I always thought my attempts at godliness wouldn’t make all that much difference to the world. In light of the mammoth sunshine of Christ, I was at best a tiny blip of a moon. Miniature and reflective. Barely a dust mite in light of that massive star. Unfortunately, that tiny moon is capable of blocking out the light of the sun almost entirely. It’s called an eclipse, and it is what happens when the vastly smaller moon is hovering too close to the observer and in front of the sunlight. Yes, most nights we moons reflect the light, claiming its grandeur as our own—but occasionally, through a sudden collision of random happenstance, we make the sun seem to completely disappear.
This should come as no surprise to me because my own faith journey was marred by a number of moons blotting out the light. One religious leader in particular had many profound God-ideas that transformed me—but he also used to call me “lard-ass” on a regular basis. He was joking, of course, but due to my ongoing neuroses regarding weight gain, I was never able to hear any truth out of his lips past the moon of that repeated statement. This was unfortunate, because I wasn’t very large and my derriere was made of neither margarine nor shortening. He also had some very good things to say.
This knee-jerk reaction to criticism and insults developed a defense mechanism inside of me. Ironically, this defense was my wit. If I could insult and get a laugh before the other person, then I never had to be called fat or weak or worthless again. So I manufactured the very same set of scissors that had cut me. Kindness had been ripped from my person and replaced with something akin to coarseness. A leathery coating of intellect and cleverness that would hide the ugly fear and mask it with uglier pride. This was my weapon—and I daily saved myself by harming everyone else.
The root of the problem—and the real damage—is that while I lived in this dysfunction, I called myself Christian.
I never really liked the name Christian. I was told it meant “little Christ” and as a thirteen-year-old, that sounded (at best) presumptuous and (at its basest) freakishly cocky beyond all measure. In all honesty, I didn’t want to be a little Christ. It seemed both insulting to God and too much pressure for me. I didn’t want to be a souvenir of Jesus. I didn’t want to be His homeboy—a bobblehead version you buy at the gas station that cheapens the real deal. I wanted instead to be a follower of Christ. I’d heard that phrase bandied about and I thought it sounded accurate. And cool. I would vastly prefer to be an arrow pointing to the Great Question, rather than have someone mistake me for the answer.
My take on the matter was unfortunate because the truth actually lay somewhere in-between. No, I do not believe Jesus desired for me to be mistaken for Him. He did not intend for my singular actions to be the sole picture of who He truly is. But He did and does fully urge me to pursue being one of the many earth-pictures that cause people to see Him at work in their lives.
This was a risky move for God. By making each and every one of us who calls himself “Christian” an active parable of His love, He is hazarding the chance that some (or even one) of us won’t take that symbolism very seriously. Somehow, in the scheme of the passage of time, we have placed the issue of “example of Jesus” into the hands of evangelical religion as a whole, living as if “together, somebody’s got everything covered.” But this is not reality. Reality beckons a weak-link theory: that even a singular one who calls himself little Jesus, and yet lives the opposite, damages the whole caboodle—and in effect, damns the world that is watching.
In a crude analogy, we’re advertising Coca-Cola by saying it tastes like turpentine and then growing antagonistic towards those unwilling to take a swig.
And yet, God took the risk anyway, because He knows that the other end of the spectrum is also true. As much as it damages the reputation of Christ for those who call themselves Christians to live the antithesis of His teachings—on the flipside, it makes quite a statement when a flawed human makes a right decision with nothing in it for himself other than taking a stand for Christ. It is the single most tangible way to prove the intangible. This was God’s plan: that when the world looks at each of us, they would not simply see a follower of Him. In some miraculous and unexplainable way, God knows that when the world stares at a flawed human who somehow occasionally chooses holy and unhuman actions, they see a picture of Jesus. It is the one true arrow that God’s grace allows us each to be. A conduit for a relationship between someone else and God. This is why He took the risk. This is why He took the risk on me.
But something happened along the way.
Somewhere along the road of offense and defense, I stopped being a little Christ and instead began filling out the application that I had labeled Christian. It was not a definition based on the actual namesake, but rather, on those who frequent the clubhouse. And in the midst of being an American Christian among all the other American Christians, I stopped truly searching the nuances of who Christ was and is in order to fully grasp what a little Christ might, indeed, act like. Certainly, I soaked in the Word of God in seasons. I knew the key stories—the greatest hits: the miracles, the Beatitudes, the Passion Week, and whatnot. But I chose not to apply the reality of all the truth in between His words and actions into my own behavior. I allowed Jesus to seep into my church world—but not my relational world, my romance world, my business world, my creative world, my habits, my mouth.
I read His words.
I learned His words.
But I did not fully belong to Him.
Because of this, I became a sort of half-breed. I segregated myself—splitting my soul into two segments: one that would openly serve Jesus and one that would secretly protect myself. I became like people I deemed my-kind-of-godly instead of becoming like Jesus. I pursued Christian success instead of pursuing Christ. I spoke witty insults as commonly as profound prayers. And, in the process, I called myself a Christian without ever becoming a little Christ at all. I became something else.
Not truly Christian—but rather, merely Christianish.
As a church community, it is time we asked ourselves a startling question: what if we’re not really following Jesus at all?
Our Christian intention has sharp edges. It has the ability to mold and shape, but also to stab and permanently damage. We have been wagging these blades carelessly for far too long while distracted by some very non-Christlike habits, behaviors, and dysfunctions. Because we are unable to notice our own distraction, we keep on waving our razors, impressed with our own cutlery skills until we suddenly find ourselves the benefactor of unintentional but irreversible wounds. And I don’t simply refer to wounds made by a few. They are made by us all. By you. By me—by Mark Steele. Yes, we do our best to remedy these wounds, calling our efforts misunderstood and leaning on God’s grace—in hopes that we can pick up off the floor that which we amputated and use the excuse that we handed it back. But it’s not enough, not even close to enough.
THE WRONG ROAD
How did modern evangelicalism lose its balance? How did some behavior fall into an accountability category while other distractions remained unaddressed and, therefore, socially and religiously acceptable? For me personally, my efforts had become more centered on how to cope with my own dysfunctional life, and less concentrated on what it really means to follow Jesus. I was more than off-balance. I was traveling the wrong road completely.
To this end, I recall how poorly my sense of balance was when I first began rollerblading. My roommates and I used to lace up and blade through the Saturday streets of downtown Tulsa while blaring Spin Doctors from our Walkmans. The first time we adventured as such, I expected myself to have zero difficulty. I had, after all, gone to the roller rink with Harold Johnson every Saturday afternoon from age nine all the way through to age twelve. In Columbus, Georgia, this weekly intersection of pinball, couple-skating, and gorging ourselves on banana flavored Now and Laters was the hot ticket. And I could do it all: dodge cones, speed race, or skate in reverse if the Dukes of Hazzard theme was playing to inspire me. How different could these new-fangled rollerblades be from those old four-wheel jobs?
The answer? Different enough.
Where I had spent a half-decade of my youth learning to stop on my toes, the rollerblade had no such mechanism. This greatly affected the way I stopped in downtown Tulsa. Roller blades were designed to stop by turning my feet into a V. This was difficult to master, so instead, I just kept throwing my body into lampposts.
At least seventeen times.
I literally stopped the momentum of my body by throwing myself into lampposts on purpose. My reasoning? Less bodily damage than throwing myself into moving automobiles.
After eight months of working with the rollerblades, I was no longer a novice. I had mastered the stop, the sharp turn, and every move necessary to adventure my favorite rollerway: Riverside Drive. Riverside is about six blocks of nonstop sidewalk alongside the river with no roadway interruptions. It is a great place to get your jog on, your rollerblade on, your freaky-skintight-biker-pants on. (I don’t wear them myself for fear of skin overflow.) One fateful day, I decided to take a long roll down to the very end. This was a relatively big deal because I had never rollerbladed the yonder forbidden turns, though I had biked farther. So, I parked my car and began blading south, whipping past elderly speed-walkers and children on bikes with training wheels—thinking them fools for their slowness and feeling the clean, cold pavement whisk by underneath my rubber wheels.
As I rapidly approached the point where I had previously always turned around, I decided to forge onward, but I knew from my experience biking the path that this would require bravery. I was gaining momentum, and I knew that to keep going meant that I would have a sharp ninety-degree turn to my right followed by an immediate sharp ninety-degree turn to my left underneath a bridge. These were intense moves at this speed and I was not certain I was up for the challenge.
But I determined to go for it.
The curve came, and I leaned my body down to the right—fwoosh—and made the first turn. Then, sure enough, I shifted my body weight just as precisely the other way—sweesh—and made the second turn. I could feel the wheels trembling, my leg muscles straining—it was possible that I was about to bite it. But I did not. Because I had trained. I knew well that the road in front of me was going to hold massive twists and turns and so I had prepared myself to handle them appropriately.
What I did not realize was that, underneath the bridge in the shadows, the pavement turned to gravel.
My wheels hit the tiny stones and I flew—literally flew several yards, arms outstretched like a flying squirrel—into sand and pebbles. I felt them embed into my hands, chest, and legs. That sensation of flesh ripping. You know that sensation.
I lay there, moaning. I staggered up, knowing that once the wind hit all of the scrapes and open wounds, I would be doomed. The wheels on one of my blades were now crooked, and my shorts were ripped. Oxygen did its thing, and suddenly all sorts of places on my body were bleeding.
As I stood there, in great pain and pouring plasma like a Monty Python sketch, I realized how wrong I had been to think myself prepared. I had deceived myself into thinking that the way to travel a unique road was by simply getting better and better at rollerblading. The problem was that this road was not a rollerblading road at all. To traverse it would not require a refinement of the old method. It would require a completely different method altogether.
I skated with one leg while dragging the other a full mile-and-a-half back to my car. It was mosquito season and a small nation of them suddenly realized the picnic of my body. I looked like one of those beekeepers in the Guinness Book of World Records, but without the sense of accomplishment. Every time I approached an elderly speed-walker or a training-wheel child, their eyes grew wide in horror. One mother shielded her child’s face from looking directly at me and, if I am not mistaken, assumed I was a horseman of the coming apocalypse. I probably should have said “help” to one or more of these people. Instead, to each of them, I uttered the same word:
Once home, I stood in my shower while one of my roommates threw large cupfuls of hydrogen peroxide at my body and I bit down on a pencil.
Great pain. Great scars.
And I had thought I was prepared.
This is the difference between Christianish and Christ-follower. We have trained ourselves to cope well on a Christianish path: a path where we please the right godly people and don’t feel guilt when our failings are seen by the world at large. Yes, our methods work on this path—but it’s the wrong path. It’s not the approach to Jesus that we are supposed to take—that we are created to take.
So, we fall into confusion over why life doesn’t work and why our faith doesn’t feel right and why nothing true is coming from our so-called Christianity. We attempt to fix it by refining our current method. But here’s the catch: The method won’t work on the right road, because it is a method built for the wrong road.
We cannot change the dysfunction of our Christian walk by simply trying to become better at the wrong we are already living.
We must switch roads. And, in switching, we must discover the new method of living that truly works on the right road.
There is only one way for me to discover the right way to travel the right road.
The way is not a church.
The way is not an ideology.
The way is not a Christian.
The way is Jesus.
In my path of becoming functional in a dysfunctional faith, I crashed and burned quite often. I became and remained the lukewarm that gets spit out. The vomit to which the dog returns. The goat that was separated from the sheep. I nodded and even verbalized amen at each and every one of those stories, tsk-tsking internally at the target of the moral, never once interpreting that the antagonist might just be me.
I was at risk of becoming the one at the pearly gate whom the very Jesus I thought I was serving says He never knew. I lost the plot altogether, grasping at the path toward eternity that fit most nicely into my temporal goals.
FROM CHRISTIANISH TO CHRIST-FOLLOWER
So, the question begs: How does the transformation begin? From Christianish to Christ-follower. What is the road? And what is the method? It is certainly a painful road. A gravel-laden path that requires going back to the very beginning and digging deep into Jesus’ words and actions during the time He walked and breathed on planet Earth.
When you look at the New Testament from the Jesus perspective, it breaks down quickly into eleven key components of His history:
1. How He came into the world.
2. How He was tempted.
3. How His enemies responded to Him.
4. How He ministered to the common man.
5. How He made His living.
6. How He responded to His enemies.
7. How His friends responded to Him.
8. How He loved.
9. How He performed miracles.
10. How He died.
11. How He left.
The truth is here—not merely in the verses we have memorized, but in the manner in which the Savior spent His days. For me to become the true definition of a Christian, it will require breaking His thoughts down—and being willing to transform my own behavior into what I discover. It will require facing the music—and then doing something about it. It will require unlearning and baby steps. I have no idea what that sort of experiment will entail.
But I’m going to find out.
I now set out to find the right road.
The functional method.
I will be a Christ-follower.
And leave the stench of Christianish behind for good
I Am Christianish
- Have you found your Christian efforts leading to dysfunctional lifestyle patterns? Describe how.
- Does the idea of attempting to do the right thing when you are actually on the wrong road resonate with you?
- When you search your motives, do you find that you are trying to please Christ, or do you find instead that you are attempting to earn your Christianity?
- How does the following comment relate to your life: “I segregated myself—splitting my soul into two segments: one that would openly serve Jesus and one that would secretly protect myself. I became like people I deemed my-kind-of-godly instead of becoming like Jesus. I pursued Christian success instead of pursuing Christ.”
© 2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? by Mark Steele. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.
Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? by Mark Steele
David C Cook/August 2009/ ISBN 978-1-4347-6692-2/288 pages/softcover/$14.99