- 2009 11 Aug
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith by Jen Hatmaker (NavPress).
We see a church that equips believers and values biblical teaching. We believe that the truth of Scripture is relevant and transcends time and culture.
- Vision for Austin New Church, founded March 30, 2008
Value: Growing in understanding of God’s Word. John 21:15-23
Black and White, No?
No matter how many Februaries my son Gavin navigates in public school with the monthlong focus on Black History, he cannot grasp the concept of racism. His only exposure to the world has been his multiracial school of many colors. No amount of instruction has made any sense to him. In first grade, he came home chattering about “Martin,” and deep discussion ensued. When I asked why Martin was so mistreated, Gavin could offer absolutely no explanation. So when I gently suggested it was his black skin color, Gavin rolled his eyes and retorted, “Jeez, Mom. He wasn’t black. He was brown.” Indeed.
In February of second grade, he came home with fresh indignation. “Mom, thank goodness we didn’t live in Martin’s time, because me and Dad couldn’t be together!” Recalling the previous year’s confusion, I asked why they’d be forced apart. “Duh! Because Dad has black hair!” The term black obviously applied to any old body part; the civil rights crisis seemed fairly broad in his estimation.
Last year in fourth grade, when surely the world had ruined his innocence on this matter, I anticipated a new understanding come February. But instead, I received this weird statement: “Whew! Good thing we live in the new millennium, Mom. If we lived back in the olden days, me and Noah” — his very white, blond, blue-eyed friend up the street — “would’ve had to go to different schools!” I asked why he thought they’d be separated, and his answer was, “I have no idea, but for some reason no one got to go to school together back then. They just split everybody up! It was a crazy time, Mom.”
Half of me is thrilled my son is so utterly naïve about racism, and the other half is wondering why he cannot grasp the simple concept of skin color after six years of instruction on the issue. (This lingering confusion comes from a boy who held the E on the Martin Luther King Jr. acrostic during the class poem, standing for “equal rights.” Touché.) Then it occurs to me that he hears these terms and studies historical events without discerning the underlying cause because he has no personal exposure to the central issue.
The facts have nothing to stick to because he misunderstands the main point.
Likewise, I still can’t believe it, but I managed to attend church three times a week as a fetus, fulfill the pastor’s kid role, observe every form and function of church, get swallowed whole by Christian subculture, graduate from a Baptist college, wed a pastor, serve in full-time ministry for twelve years, become a Christian author and speaker — and I misunderstood the main point. I am still stunned by my capacity to spin Scripture, see what I wanted, ignore what I didn’t, and use the Word to defend my life rather than define it. I now reread treasured, even memorized, scriptures and realize I never understood what they really meant, like my son who interpreted the civil rights movement as a spitting contest over black hair and arbitrary school-attendance policies.
Let’s back up a bit. Until two years ago, my life resembled the basic pursuit of the American Dream; it just occurred in a church setting. I subscribed to the commonly agreed-upon life route: Go to college, get married, have kids, make good money, progress up the neighborhood ladder, amass beautiful things, keep our life safe and protected, raise smart children to be wildly successful and never move back home, serve at church more than makes sense, and eventually retire in comfort. This kept me relatively safe and prosperous, just the way I liked it. Outside of tithing, we spent our money how we wanted (on ourselves), and I could live an “obedient life” without sacrificing the lifestyle I craved.
And to enlarge the church portion of that philosophy, I basically considered the church campus — Sunday morning, the entry level — as the location and means to transform the average seeker into a believer. In other words, if you need something spiritual, some help, guidance, understanding, then come to us. We’ll build it, and you come. Once you do, we will pour out our lives attempting to disciple you and build spiritual health into your life. My husband, Brandon, and I spent every waking moment with Christians.
We were servants of the weekend attendees.
That point of view alone kept us so busy doing church; there was a season when Brandon was gone five nights a week leading various Bible studies and programs by his own design. We assumed this was part and parcel of the sacrifices of ministry. The pace alone suggested we were on the right track. While we sincerely believe it takes all kinds, it never occurred to us to rethink, reimagine, or reconsider if there were another way. I would have answered confidently that, yes, I was handling the gospel obediently, and I planned on continuing in this manner pretty much forever.
Looking backward, I can better identify the tension that lurked at the edges. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was . . . something off for me. That something was fueled by several particulars that challenged my concept of success, beginning with the nagging sensation that Brandon and I were far too consumed with worthless things. We spent an unhealthy amount of time dreaming about our next house, our next financial increase, our next level of living. Next. We were the opposite of counterculture. We were a mirror image of culture, just a churched-up version. I was vaguely aware of this, but we had so few around us who questioned the American Dream, it was easily dismissed.
There were other question marks. Like why wouldn’t people commit to our church programs, despite the endless work poured into them? And why did 70 percent of the initial enthusiasts drop out by the end? Why did the same people end up doing everything? Why did so many leave claiming they needed more when we were all working eighty hours a week to meet their needs? Why couldn’t I recall the last person I led to Christ? Why did I spend all my time blessing blessed people who should be on the giving side of the equation by now?
Why did I feel so dry?
Reader, Beware: Life-Altering Prayer Ahead
Why did I feel so dry?
This question became the catalyst for revolution. I distinctly remember it: It was January of 2007, and I’d had two months of rest from writing and traveling. It was a sabbatical of sorts, and I was stunned to discover that I felt neither rested nor restored. I’d expected to emerge from that short season with all cylinders firing again. I had anticipated the break for months, with no events or writing deadlines in sight. Certainly it should have been the remedy to cure me of exhaustion and apathy.
I was in church that Sunday singing a popular worship song: “My heart is dry but still I’m singing.” And I realized that was it. My heart was dry. Like dry as the desert. I felt spiritually malnourished, as if I was parched. Was I just still tired? Did I mismanage my sabbatical? How did I blow this gift of rest? What more could I possibly want from this life? My existence was charmed by any standard. What was wrong with me?
I later read a perfect summation of my angst by Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution:
I developed a spiritual form of bulimia where I did my devotions, read all the new Christian books and saw the Christian movies, and then vomited information up to friends, small groups, and pastors. But it never had the chance to digest. I had gorged myself on all the products of the Christian industrial complex but was spiritually starving to death. I was marked by an overconsumption but malnourished spiritually, suffocated by Christianity but thirsty for God.1
That was it, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time since I was unable to determine the cause, only the consequential hunger.
Let me paint the picture later that morning: I was driving home with my three kids. It was not a holy moment. It was not some silent, sacred encounter with the Spirit. There was no fasting or meditation happening. As my kids were squawking in the back, I prayed a one-line prayer (and I strongly advise against this prayer unless you are quite ready for God to take you seriously and wreck your life): “God, raise up in me a holy passion.”
That was it. Nothing before or after it, except me immediately telling my sons if they didn’t stop fighting, I was giving their Christmas presents away to poor kids. (And before we move on, this is just how I parent, okay? My kids get plenty of warm, fuzzy love from me, but admittedly, last week after my fifth grader opened up a fresh, sassy mouth to me, I told him to get a shovel, go to the backyard, and dig his own grave. In my house, back talk is grounds for homicide. He got the point.)
Let me tell you what I intended by that prayer: I meant “God, give me happy feelings.” I was not seriously asking for intervention that would require anything of me. Hardly. “Holy passion” meant “pull me out of this funk with Your magic happiness wand.” Was that too much to ask? Can’t a girl get some cheery feelings about her wonderful, prosperous life? Evidently not. Because what happened after that prayer was so monumental, so life altering, nothing will ever be the same.
It started small that very week. Like a little flicker deep within somewhere. A tiny flame that sparked and caught but had not yet engulfed my life or done any significant damage to the worldview I had constructed. Not surprisingly, it began in the Word, where God and I have always done our most serious business. He turned my undiagnosed tension into a full-blown spiritual crisis.
Holy Passion Meets Remedial Shepherd
I can’t remember exactly what drew me there, but I recall a sense about reading John 21, when Peter declared his love for Jesus three times after His resurrection. You should know I’ve studied that passage approximately forty thousand times. I’ve done plenty of teaching on it too, raking old Peter across the coals real good. In fact, I remember saying, “Peter completely missed the point here.” Hello, irony.
So for that weird Holy Spirit reason that we find ourselves in a certain passage or a certain job or a certain relationship, I ended up in John 21 that January. Although I’d all but forgotten my prayer, when I turned to that chapter, an eerie sense of the Spirit fell on me like a heavy blanket. The room gave up its oxygen, and I couldn’t breathe right. Suddenly, there was me, the Word, and the Spirit — and nothing else existed. Before I read one word, I knew something important was happening. It became a sacred encounter, activated by a decidedly unsacred prayer earlier that week.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (verse 15)
And like it was supernaturally edited before my eyes, the verse read, “Jen, do you truly love me more than anything?” I don’t know how to explain Jesus’ presence — intense and terrifying and gentle at the exact same time. It was an indescribable appointment.
I do, however, know how to describe my reaction to the question: shock. Seriously? Do I really love You? Are You serious, Jesus? To be honest, I felt a little insulted, kind of injured. Only because I really love Jesus.
Usually He would call me on some nasty trait. (Like, oh, I don’t know, let me just pick something hypothetically — like being stubborn as a donkey and digging my heels in and dying on every hill even when there is no logical or decent reason to care about the issue, much less be willing to die for it. Hypothetically.) These disciplinary moments I had coming. There was no shock involved. (What?! Rolling my eyes at people isn’t Christlike, Lord? I had no idea.) I can typically spot the medicine I’m about to get a mile away. In other words, I’m aware of my “troublesome areas,” as my husband calls them.
But to have my love for Jesus called into question was surprising, and not in the good way. I am a big bag of trouble, no question, but I sincerely adore Jesus. I told Him as much too. With no small amount of indignation, I touted my affection for Him with all the self-righteous, sanctimonious ire I could muster. It was a compelling presentation, Oscar worthy, but it did nothing to end this train wreck of a conversation, because the next statement was worse:
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” [Which was exactly what I said but with more melodrama.]
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
“Jen, feed My lambs.” What? I started to wonder if Jesus was just messing with me. Because I was so busy feeding the lambs, I wished some would wander off into greener pastures so there would be fewer in my flock to keep up with. If that sounds mean, sorry. But I tended some dysfunctional sheep who were prone to wander and play with wolves. They were a full-time job, and I was a mediocre shepherd at best. But Lord knows I tried hard. Or I thought He knew.
“I do feed Your lambs! I feed them spiritually. I herd them into Bible studies and unleash a campaign of harassment when they wander. I counsel and pray and cry and struggle with them. Everyone I know has my number and evidently isn’t afraid to use it. I don’t know if You’ve noticed, Jesus, but I write Christian books You told me to write! I travel and feed sheep all over the nation! What the heck is this?” (I was obviously feeling entitled to a little gratitude. Please bear my arrogance for a few more paragraphs because I was about to get schooled.)
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” (John 21:16)
“Jen, do you really love Me in a true way?” This was the moment the back of my throat tightened, and I could feel tears starting to burn. The thing is, I had a decent concept of how to answer Jesus usually:
“Will you let Me work on that sharp tongue of yours?”
“Will you write a book for Me?” (He was artfully vague on how many.)
“Will you stop obsessing over predestination? I told you I’m fair.”
But this? “Do you really love Me?” I was at a complete loss. Because my drift is to slip into self-condemnation and doubt (I am a recovering legalist and old habits die hard), I started to think perhaps I didn’t love Jesus at all. Maybe He was exposing the worst secret I’d ever kept from myself. Was I just in this Christian thing for notoriety? For selfish reasons? For money? Oh, wait. That couldn’t possibly be it. But perhaps the affection I felt for Christ was fake or forced?
A few minutes and several thousand tons of overreaction later, I’d decided I didn’t love my husband, my kids, my family, or my friends; in fact, I was so deceived on true love that it was likely I was a sociopath. At this point, I was giving Jesus a migraine with this conversation. He was having a hard time getting through to me.
Peter [Jen] was hurt because Jesus asked him [her] the third time, “Do you love me?” . . . “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
In my utter ignorance, I thought this was about doing more of what I was already doing, or maybe just a better job of it. I was trying to figure out which sheep I was neglecting or how to be an improved shepherd to my little flock. Longer prep time for my messages? Better e-mail communication with my small-group leaders? Was this about the conversation when I told that girl to stop whining about her ex-boyfriend and grow up? Maybe that wasn’t how Jesus wanted His sheep to be fed. I should definitely work on becoming more kind and precious. Basically, I was brainstorming how to improve my current performance, never imagining a whole new stage.
Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. I told Him, “I thought I was feeding Your sheep, but I’ll try harder.” And from the depths of heaven, this is what I heard: “You do feed souls, but twenty-four thousand of my sheep will die today because no one fed their bellies; eighteen thousand of them are my youngest lambs, starving today in a world with plenty of food to go around. If you truly love Me, you will feed My lambs. My people are crumbling and dying and starving, and you’re blessing blessed people and dreaming about your next house.”
I couldn’t have been more floored if I’d come home to find Jesus Himself making homemade salsa in my kitchen. I did a little checking, and those statistics were spot-on. It dawned on me that Jesus was asking me not to do more of the same but to engage a different charge altogether. He was enlisting me in the cause of my generation, the mission of God’s true church.
All of a sudden, I saw my exact reflection in Peter: devoted but selfish, committed but misguided. And that is not going to be enough. It won’t suffice to claim good intentions. Saying “I meant well” is not going to cut it. Not with God screaming, begging, pleading, urging us to love mercy and justice, to feed the poor and the orphaned, to care for the last and least in nearly every book of the Bible. It will not be enough one day to stand before Jesus and say, “Oh? Were You serious about all that?”
Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith
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