This is a story of how I discovered my emptiness and slowly learnt to handle it. I had a big time learning how to know the difference between going to church and being the church; and between leaving the church and living the life of the church. I strongly believe Oliver’s answers will also help you on your journey.
Then we will know how to live as a soldier of faith knowing Jesus as the master builder of the church.
The Strangest Encounter
In the last few moments of my frustration, I had nothing else but get angry because of the whole scenario which I had encountered at this very point of my life. Diane and me had finally being appointed senior pastors of the church, Inner Life City, California, and at first it did sound very interesting to be at the peak of the whole thing. It seemed very true when a very good friend in the congregation congratulated me on my growing life in Christ. However, it doesn’t seem that way these days, and my frustration almost or even every time get to lash out toward Diane when I found out later on that what I had spent my entire time building up was nothing else but religion.
Truthfully, I hadn’t known this for over 17 years until that moment of frustration when a strange man walked into my life rearranging the whole thing I had ever known about this christian ‘stuff’ which I thought I had known so well but didn’t realize I was having this hollow place empty. To understand how it all began and how these experiences led to my big success, you ‘ll have to journey back with me to the time when it all started, and to the very end of it.
It was an amazing moment when we walked past the Bubble Gum Alley where chewing gums had been pasted on walls. We ‘re headed for the usual Sunday morning programme which lasts for about three hours, when I bumped into a grey haired man. Having apologized, I continued with Diane and few others toward the building where the usual service was taking place.
Consequently, I had this feeling burning inside of me when I sat on a chair near the usher wondering how angry that strange man must have been. Or was there anything that moved me to apologize properly? The reason for this strange feeling was that he didn’t look like someone who was going to church. So I decided very quickly to rush out the streets and find him out, inviting him over to church.
As quickly as possible; yes, it was that way, I rushed to find him and encourage him to come in, but I didn’t find him. I remember minutes back when I glanced back at him as he was sitting at the nearby coffee shop having a conversation with the coffee seller. Nice idea though, but I tried to shake it off; it didn’t work. So I journeyed as fast as I could in awareness that the service would begin in about thirty minutes time. Thirty minutes was sure too much to encourage someone on basis of Christian and church life.
The bench at the coffee shop wasn’t empty; as for sure, he was there scanning the lawn. Certainly, on Wednesdays there was a regular mowing of the lawn which was meant for golf. This moment it still looked as tidy as it was when I visited it some days back. The old man didn’t seem to be drinking or reading any magazine, and I honestly found it an opportunity to walk over to him.
Approaching him, I quickly called out, “Hello!” as I still was conscious of time. His reply was a very comfortable one, “Yes,” which brought a new apprehension filling me. Then I introduced myself to him.
“I’m very sorry to disturb, sir, but I remember bumping into someone and wondered if he doesn’t go to church. So I decided to come invite you in,” I explained as nicely as I could. His eyes stared toward the church-building; gave a brief smile and crossed his arms.
“As nicely as your proposal seems, I find it hard to believe if you carefully had inspected what you said,” he presented.
“Pardon me, sir,” I apologized. “But how do you mean?”
“I ain’t a church goer, that’s what I mean.”
“But you know how compulsory it is for Christians to attend church every Sunday?”
“Hmm! And I haven’t found that in the bible. Can you show me where you found it? I really need to know if the Bible says attending religious services is compulsory.”
Though that request looked like those ones which I had once asked myself when I was 18 years old, I quickly wondered who he was. Confidently, I settled beside him, forgetting that few minutes was left for me before I return back to the congregation.
“No, I’m really sorry. I’ve been struggling with this same thing for over 17 years. At the beginning when I became pastor of that church over there,” I explained, pointing to the structure which was few feet away from us. “I felt my heart had attained the very purpose why God called me. However, the glory of that which I treasured was no more: the emptiness overshadowed my sincerity in the whole thing. I tried to cover it with my activities, trying to act more spiritual and even attend services regularly just to make it look like it was alright. Toward others, it was looking good but I knew I had a problem.”
“Well, Bob, it seems clear that you’re just trying to hide yourself from him and that’s why your heart may look even messier. Possibly, you may be pampering that emptiness too.”
“Pamper? No, that’s not it. It sure can’t be it.”
“You’re right! The further I keep trying to serve him, it often become very awkward along the way and it makes me wonder if he’s at fault or he went away from me – ”
“Or you’re and you did,” he gently reversed the playing field. “Don’t think God gets away from us, it’s us who get away from him as we gradually succumb to our will and desires.”
Gradually, I began to wonder that all the moment when I talked with him, my heart kept burning. Suddenly, he dropped words which got me shocked.
“When’ll you understand that the Christian life isn’t about mere attendance to meetings or religious services but about living Christ’s life to the fullness of it? Or you haven’t discovered that our religious trappings aren’t that on which we can absolutely rely to fill that emptiness which seems to occupy our hearts. This isn’t the kind of life Jesus lived, is it? He lived daily in awareness of his Father’s presence, knowing his Father can’t be at fault. When we keep looking at God is the one at fault, we’ll just have ourselves feeling more empty.”
“Yes. Yes I remember living in his presence everyday and experiencing it in me daily. However, it doesn’t sound that way now; at least it looks good on the outside,” I expressed, pointing toward my chest. “But my heart doesn’t seem focused now. I become very active in Church and continually miss God’s presence. How can I be a Christian and still not get it right?”
“Confusing, right? But it can’t be any better as long as you’ve your attention directed toward something that can’t draw you any closer to God.”
“Really? You mean my becoming so active in Church and teaching sermons from scripture is certainly different from living the life of God’s presence?”
“Absolutely,” replied Oliver. “It ‘uld serve as a pretty cheap substitute for what is real. Our activeness in church doesn’t indicate our freedom from sin or that we live his life. And the fact that we’re good teachers, gifted with teaching ability doesn’t express that we live in his presence. Being in his presence comes from following him closely as best as he leads you.”
“Should it mean that if I keep teaching others, I’ll continually go away from him and never feel his presence?”
“I believe you know I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, but it almost sounded that way. You made it sound like teaching others is wrong and that we can’t be in his presence by doing so,” I queried.
“No, Bill,” he continued. “I’m only trying to help you stop finding his presence in regiment of rituals. His presence isn’t discovered in ‘doing’ but ‘living’. You find his presence in our spirit, not our ‘memory’. That’s what I need you to see – that his presence isn’t a certain place or activity but the spirit of Christ present in our hearts. All the freshness we will get will come from knowing his spirit in us. Therefore, what we teach others can seem more powerful when we live them. It doesn’t seem good to teach what we aren’t living at all. It ‘uld be like passing out sweet teaching from an empty bowl without life, only to find that these same people turn out like us. Sometimes, you mayn’t easily get to know how to reply your argumentators.”
Honestly, I really needed to rethink everything again, but what if God’s plan was for me to remain there: at least, I get paid through working there. It had been the place where I had spent my earliest years as the son of christian parents who played not with Christian teachings.
“But now, you seem to see that going to church is bad,” I blurted out sorrowfully.
“You didn’t hear me say that, did you?” questioned Oliver. “You just need to see that going to church isn’t compulsory nor is it even required. It isn’t easy to produce disciples in a crowdy place where their focus is on obligation and routines. These routines are very lifeless and equipping people when such considerations ‘re put in place could have a couple of things get mixed up.
“Mind you, Bob. Whether one is an attendee or not isn’t what matters but if he’s intimate with Jesus or not. Have you considered how many people live those teachings which they hear?”
“Yes, I would say most remained hard within them,” I confessed. “I haven’t even understood this Christianity completely.”
“No one can, but we just need to follow him as best as we can. You know we’re forever learning.”
A prolonged silence hung for a time. I had my intentions: if things become too tough, I’ll give up being a christian and ‘all leave California for New England. Breaking the silence, I blurted out, “It, at least, makes it obvious to discover that this church life isn’t about attendance but living. Even at a point, all these didn’t seem to make sense anymore. There’re so many rules and regulations, influencing me to conclude if we’re still under the law.”
“Is that what you struggle with?”
“It is. I’ve sort this relationship with Jesus years back but each moment when I find it, the next moment, I seem to be out of it. Maybe he got further away from me, or —”
“He’s loved you too much and ‘ll continually do,” corrected Oliver. “To think that God gets away from us isn’t at all true: it’s us who get away from him. You want to know why you still struggle? The reason is you’ve got the right intentions – finding God’s presence – but the way you try to seek it is very obverse to the way he’s planned for us. Have you wondered why you can’t find his presence in so many structures?”
I wasn’t sure I understood what he meant, yet I had to reply as best as I could.
“Maybe I must have. Perhaps, we aren’t performing enough to let his presence be there,” I guessed.
“Where is Father’s presence, Bob?”
“I know his presence isn’t in mere attendance but can be discovered as we learn to live daily in him. But, when I was a kid till today, I often think that when we go to church, we come into his presence. Though it sometimes sounded very foolish to me, but I had it as an instruction passed from my parents.”
“And it’s not something to sort out properly?” he asked with a raised brow. “Understand something, Bob, today’s system of church is performance based and it takes it very hard to discover any that help us grow closer to Jesus. Attending services doesn’t awaken the reality of being in his presence. It’s awakened through our willingness to follow him as best as we can.
“I met a guy who narrated how he got saved from organized religion. He said there was much props and devices to make everything look good, but on the inside, everything seemed awkward. Do you think people learning to live in Father’s presence ‘uld see things seem so boring and filled with manipulation?”
In growing interest, I answered, “No, they won’t. But why does mine seem so boring? I don’t get it at all!”
“Boredom could come for several reasons; but the popular kind which I found among many whom I’ve met isn’t due to anything else but that they don’t feel they’re doing anything that counts.”
“You mean the mechanical way of life?”
“Truly, that’s the same manipulative expressions I often feel everytime. I sometimes think it’s a result of my hunger that I’m beginning to experience it now.”
“You didn’t feel this way when your heart was in the mechanical thing?”
“No, I didn’t. Now, I feel that way. I know it’s because of my hunger to find out the reality of the Father’s life.” As he nodded, I checked my watch and found out the time was almost over. Had I stayed that long? I thought. We had talked for about two hours and I had an hour left.
“I would get to meet you another time, Oliver. As at this moment I’ve got to run as fast as I can. And one last question: Would it be good to introduce this way of life to the church?”
“Don’t be in such a hurry, Bob!” he warned. “Let this find a place in your heart as you find out answers to your many questions. If you begin teaching it first; even as it’s the surface, it ‘uld be a cheap substitute for living this incredible life in him. But when you begin living it first, you’ll find more people to equip on the powerful life of Christ.”
“Thanks so much, Oliver. I’ve got to run. ‘uld find you later.”
With that, I waved him and ran for the service before it becomes almost over. Things may go awkward but Oliver’s words ‘all stick to my heart. The last I saw him, he was conversating with the coffee-seller. Little did I know that this brief conversation and unexpected encounter ‘uld open ways to more answers to my many questions.