When I was a teacher, my absolute favorite book to teach was The Great Gatsby. I loved exploring themes of excess and corruption, the mad grab for materialism, and the endless pursuit of this unattainable American Dream. Great discussions would ensue, and I always had several students tell me that this was their favorite book of the year as well. We all want something real to hold onto, yet we chase after all these fleeting things that don't satisfy. I don't think the problem is that we want too much though, I think we just settle for all the wrong things.
In our culture we're used to extravagance. We even come to expect it. I think God is even a God of extravagance. I just don't believe that His extravagance manifests itself through material things. We think we're blessed because we have so much stuff, but maybe we're mistaking distractions for blessings. Instead, I think He pours out his extravagance on us through His love and grace. God shows us His extravagant love by inviting us to be a part of the work that He's doing in the world. He doesn't save us so that we can maintain a comfortable existence, living as consumers within our little Christian subculture. When we do this, we end up just rotting, and instead of being "the aroma of Christ" to the world, we just stink. We become inwardly focused and do all we can to preserve ourselves, often in the name of preserving God's reputation.
I spent many of my college years and beyond questioning what being a follower of Jesus was all about. As a sophomore I toured with a drama team that traveled to churches on weekends during the school year and all summer. We probably went to fifty different churches that year. This was an eye-opening year for me as I saw Christianity as I had never seen (or at least noticed) before. I had so many conversations with people that spoke of a God that I honestly didn't understand. I remember listening to this man tell me about how they'll never have drums at their church because certain beats or rhythms were from Satan.
What does that even mean? Our team also received several bad reviews. You know, for things like showing up to a church wearing jeans. I alternated between wanting to scream and wanting to completely disengage. I spent the next few years trying to take down the walls that I put up that year from what I experienced in those churches. I know it sounds silly, that one year visiting some messed up churches had such an impact on me.
I suppose I tend to internalize a lot.
It was more than that though. I was also immersed in Christian college culture, which at times was great but other times contributed to the walls that I had built. Various circumstances left me battling cynicism and apathy, which is such a toxic cocktail. Looking back, however, I see the work of a loving God that allowed me to experience these things, allowed me to move from a place of comfort to a place of discomfort that would lead to change. I knew there had to be more to Christianity than just "getting saved" and then living life following strange rules and telling people about a safe God.
I started grad school at Cedarville a couple years after college and had a professor that completely rocked my world. My hope that God was working in our world in a substantive way was restored. He began in Genesis and explained how Adam and Eve were commanded to cultivate and take care of the world around them. God declared what He made as good, but then gave us the opportunity to cultivate what He had already made, to make advancements and improvements. After the Fall, all of creation was affected, not just individuals. We place so much weight on individual sin, but whole systems have been marred by sin. Hence the need for social and economic justice in our world. Individual relationships were not just affected by sin but whole people groups have been dehumanized. Hence the need for racial reconciliation. God, in His incredible extravagance, lets us be involved in this process. The Kingdom of God is not just about the future but is a present reality that God invites us to be a part of as His redemptive work in His world, whether that's cultivating beauty, working to restore dignity to those that have been marginalized, or any number of things that increase His image in our world. We're either working towards something or against it.
Whoa. I certainly didn't want to work against the Kingdom of God.
This sounded a bit different from not maintaining churches that are full of nice, neat people. Our lives are not about finding which church has the best music or preaching so that we can sit comfortably in our pews week after week. Our lives aren't about having the best theological arguments. In the Kingdom of God, life looks much different than in our world. Leadership is not about power but serving. We can give up our need to be right because it's not about us. We don't need to chase wealth but give with open hands.
I was absolutely floored with what I was learning. It started to make sense to me why it bothered me so much that Christians wouldn't drink but would tell a racist or gay joke. Why people didn't give a rip about the poor, but based their lives around acquiring wealth. However, it also magnified my cynicism for "maintenance Christianity," which I felt was all around me. I would end up in arguments with Matt about what I was learning and felt like I got blank stares when I tried to explain my thoughts to friends. I was so excited, but ended up feeling so utterly alone. I felt like I couldn't connect with friends and couldn't have a conversation with my husband that didn't end in complete frustration. I shut down in some ways and felt like I was in even worse shape than I was after that sophomore year of college. Yet at the same time, I still had hope that life could move beyond maintenance Christianity to mission.
Over the years, Matt and I reopened the dialogue and discovered that we are on the same page in more ways than we realized. Being in a place where we are now able to serve alongside each other and dialogue without worrying if it was going to explode into a heated fight is so freeing. The extravagant love of God has kept me from settling. The extravagant love of God has not allowed for me to become too comfortable, falling into the trap of American Dream Christianity. Each time we're heading in that direction, we find ourselves in places where we're forced out of those comfort zones. God has also showed us other people whose hearts He's stirring as well, who have encouraged and inspired us to keep listening and keep moving forward. We find ourselves now in the middle of the conversation, trying to discern what the next steps are. We're trying to determine how to go against our culture of hoarding all these good things for ourselves, and even for our family, and share this extravagant love of God that we've experienced.