The most memorable gift I’ve ever received is a used fleece jacket previously owned by climbing legend Fred Becky. Fred is to climbing the Cascade mountains what Babe Ruth is to hitting baseballs, or LeBron James “is” (hahaha) to basketball – Fred’s a legend, one who’s mastered his craft utterly. At ninety years old, he’s still seen in the Patagonia store in Seattle, and roaming the Cascade mountains. When I opened the gift and heard the name of the previous owner, the garment took on new meaning as I pondered where it had been. Early Winters spire? Cathedral Peak? Mt. Becky?
Somehow, we think that using the master’s gear will improve our craft, if only slightly. It won’t. An average baseball player with a super-star’s glove is still average. I put the Becky top on, went climbing, and lamented the inevitable truth that I’m still average, even with the old man’s jacket. Now I wear it to write, because Fred is also a great author of mountaineering guide books. … … Nope. No magic powers there either.
It’s obvious of course. We need skills first. And skills don’t come magically, through uniforms, or pills, or incantations. They come through the day by day transformation that is a byproduct of showing up consistently. Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10000 hours to become great at something. The line from Norman Maclean’s classic “A River Runs through it” says it this way: “all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy”, which is true whether you’re playing the cello, hitting a fastball, or climbing a spire. Cool uniforms, expensive instruments, high tech bats, and Fred Becky’s parka, will never compensate for lack of skill.
The same is true of faith. Called to be nothing less than the very presence of hope, life, joy, and wisdom in this parched world, Christ followers can easily obsess about the clothes and equipment, thinking they hold the key to our fulfillment, or at least our effectiveness. That’s why churches often get stuck in the mud of arguing about minutia, as if the right curriculum, or music, or vision statement will magically create saints. These arguments are the equivalent of searching for the right jacket to make me a better climber. The tragedy is that we should know better.
Israel thought the ark of the covenant‘s physical presence was the key to their robust health as a nation.
Israel thought the temple of the Lord was a safe place, because God lived there, not realizing that God had left a long time ago because of idolatry.
The early church thought that keeping ceremonial laws were vital to being faithful, when in reality they were a distraction.
And so it goes. This is a main reason young adults have had it with the church – it seems shallow. The most challenging thing about leading a church is my fear that people who attend will think that the “parka” of attending a growing church, listening to teaching, and singing some excellent worship music will, de facto, enable them to be the presence of Christ in their world.
Nope. They need what all of us need… what Eugene Peterson calls “A long obedience in the same direction” – which means developing:
1. habits of seeking revelation- We’re told that our transformation, “from glory to glory” is a byproduct of “turning to the Lord”, and so I need to consciously look for the presence and revelation of Christ. The good news is that this presence is never far from us if we’ll pay attention. Text. The human soul. Culture. Creation. All are the means through which Christ is calling, wooing, revealing.
2. habits of intentional response- it’s James who warns that it’s easy to confuse receiving revelation with being transformed. Transformation comes, not from revelation, but from response. Filling notebooks with doctrines just becomes another piece of clothing; attractive to some, repulsive to others, but with no real transforming power. Or as Jesus put it, “if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them!”
3. habits of radical grace- Lots of people drop out along the way because they stumble, but this is absurd because the truth is that all of us fall along the way – even that guy with the big Bible who yells from the pulpit, and that perfectly dressed woman who prays with such fervor that her eye shadow starts to melt. Beneath the veil of propriety, everyone has their stuff – doubts, failures, sin that’s o so hard to overcome, body image issues, the non-identical twin sisters of pride and insecurity. There’s a whole soup of struggles. But there’s the grace that says, “I never loved you because you performed for me – so why are you doubting my love for you?” Why indeed. I need to learn how to bask in abundant grace so my failures don’t derail me.
4. a faith in the journey’s success- I need to embrace the reality that God will bring this work to a good completion, as both Paul says here, and Julian of Norwich says here. I keep going when I believe that the end will be worthwhile. I quit when I begin to doubt that. God knows this, and paints the picture of a world free of suffering, where hope, beauty, joy, celebration, and abundance reign. If that’s the story God is writing, I want to be in it, want the whole world to be fully in it, and this is what keeps me going to board meetings, keeps me shepherding a flock, keeps me showing up, instead of withdrawing into my smaller world of outdoor pleasures.
None of these qualities, though, are obtained by buying or changing clothes, because clothes don’t make the person. Habits make the person. And habits, done with a whole heart, are art. And art, as we now know, does not come easy. But the result, to the extent that we take these practices seriously, is the very beauty of Christ expressed through each of us. Slowly, yet ever more, we’ll see service, joy, generosity, hope – all blessing our world, because not our clothes and equipment, but our very bodies have become temples and sacrifices.
O thou Christ
Forgive my lust for new trinkets, as I shop for just the right book, or song, or conference, or mentor, or Bible study, or church to make me whole. Thank you for the reminder that you alone make me whole, and that pursuing you and intimacy with you, as mundane as that often might be, is the only true path to wholeness. I commit, once again, to seeking you through those practices – and thank you in advance for the grace of transformation that will unfold, no matter what I’m wearing.