If I ever make it to Greece, one of the places I most want to go is to the Monasteries of Meteora. This is a place of great value to the Greek Orthodox Church, both because of the monasteries and because of the massive rock formations upon which they are built. The views are incredible, and I imagine it would be a fantastic place to pray and reflect.
I read an article a few years ago about Meteora, where someone compared their approach to the modern seeker-sensitive churches. It’s quite a contrast, and the hard-to-reach location isn’t even the primary reason for the contrast.
Can you imagine going to a place like this to worship? After all the journey involved in getting there, you would be greeted inside with a fascinating collection of artwork. Though the lives of significant Christians and Biblical stories, such as the Transfiguration, are well represented, it is the Wall of the Martyrs that most interests me.
If you were on the fence about becoming a Christian, the art would confront you with graphic depictions of what had happened to those who had decided to follow Jesus. There are many horrific images of suffering and execution.
I think there is some wisdom to this. After all, what Jesus said to his followers was, “You must deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me,” and not, “Grab your favorite flavored latte and plop down on a comfy seat in our air-conditioned sanctuary to watch the show.”
Would-be disciples, beware!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for modern conveniences and for the ways our settings can enhance our experiences. But do we make it clear enough to new Christians that to become a Christian is to step into a life of risk? Do we even realize this truth for ourselves? In fact, I think we would be hard-pressed to produce many instances in our churches of people doing anything that even resembles risk-taking to the degree we see in the New Testament.
I’m thinking, for example, of the time when Paul set out for Jerusalem. He met with the Ephesians elders, letting all of them know he would likely never see them again because he was convinced by the Spirit that this journey would involve–at the very least–prison and hardship. They were weeping, concerned for his life, but he went anyway. In fact, it was in this context where he challenged the elders to “keep watch over yourself and over all the flock of which the Spirit has made you overseers.” In context, this was hardly a light responsibility.
Frequently, what you see the early Christians request of each other is prayers for boldness. When Peter and John were threatened by local authorities, they didn’t ask for the threat to be removed or for the wisdom to avoid the situation. They asked God for the boldness to face it head on, to keep proclaiming the message so that it could be heard and understood clearly. This desire for courage is mirrored again by the early martyrs, such as Ignatius in his letter to the Romans which he composed on his way to being torn apart in a public arena.
I think part of what makes this sort of scenario seem foreign to us is that we are (generally) under no threat of martyrdom. Certainly not by our government, anyway. But just the same, faithfulness to Christ should cost us something. I’m no sadist, and I don’t suggest seeking out misery for its own sake, but when is the last time you really felt you had to give up something precious for the sake of the kingdom? More than that, how do we work at creating a culture within our churches where we value faithfulness to God so strongly that it requires occasional risk from us?
A few thoughts for how we might move forward:
- Get involved in a ministry that puts you around people with whom you would not normally associate. At my congregation, we have an active prison ministry that has helped us get out of our comfort zones in several ways. There are usually places around, such as soup kitchens where you can serve the homeless. In Nashville, the Room at the Inn program is a highly treasured opportunity to interact with the homeless during the winter. On a personal level, in 1992 when many Kurdish refugees were coming to the U.S.A. because of the very real threats of Saddam Hussein, my family decided to get involved in helping the refugees get settled in there. It has led to some significant life-long friendships, and many incredible life lessons for me, though we were truly afraid the first time we went to meet them. There are so many ways to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. In my experience, the higher the risk involved, the higher the reward.
- Commit yourself to church work in such a way that you are forced to deny yourself something significant. My favorite quote about generosity is from C.S. Lewis who contended that there should be things that we want to have but cannot have because our charitable expenditures exclude them. There should be vehicles we want to buy and vacations we want to take that occasionally must be put on hold because our commitments to the Kingdom come first, both in our time and our money. Giving God your first fruits looks a lot different than giving God whatever grocery money you have leftover, or whatever you can do on the weekends that your hobby or children’s coach hasn’t already claimed your time. If you can do all that you’re doing for God without having to say “No” to yourself in any significant way, then you aren’t doing enough.
- Rather than starting a new study of something you ought to do, try doing it instead. I’m preaching to myself here. I would much rather read a book than get up and act. Similarly, there are things I value about Sunday School classes, but I think we sometimes fail to move from conceptual ideas to concrete realities. How many times have churches taught a well-attended Evangelism class, for example, and then failed to actually go out and do any evangelism? At some point, if you’ve been reading book after book, and attending church, and listening to lessons Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night for the last few decades, doesn’t it seem like the amount of time you’re serving ought to start catching up with the amount of time you’re talking about serving? Can you really stay forever in the mode of needing to learn without also needing to act? And if the thing you’re going to try makes you genuinely uncomfortable, to the point that you’re having to ask God to help you through it, then you’ll know you’re starting to get into the territory of “boldness” that the early Christians prayed about so much.
I’m convinced we’ll always need to keep asking the question: What does it look like for me now, in this place, to deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Jesus?
The right answers to that question should require action that should be inconvenient.
Would-be disciples, beware!