Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love (Revelation 2:4, NKJV).
I hope you will allow me some leeway in today’s homily. I want to invite you to journey with me, a journey that started forty years ago today. It is my journey, yes, but we may find it intersects in ways with your journey as well.
It was August 25, 1973, a Saturday, and I was trying to find a way to get out of a commitment to my friend Steve to go to an outdoor concert at his church. I had three lawns to cut that day, but amazingly I got them all done before Steve came to pick me up, so I was stuck. I had to go.
It was a beautiful afternoon. A stage was set up in the parking lot of Centerville First Baptist Church, and various local “Jesus music” groups were singing and sharing testimonies. I don’t remember anything that was said or sung that day, but I do remember the other teens my age. They were laughing and smiling—genuinely happy without having to drink or smoke anything to make them that way. By the end of the afternoon I said to myself, “These guys have something real, and I will give up anything in my life to have what they have.” That “something real” was Jesus. That day I met him face-to-face with his grace and mercy and forgiveness.
I threw myself into that church. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night services. Saturday night youth coffee house. This was in the height of the Jesus People and charismatic movements. This small Ohio Baptist church was bursting at the seams with those hungry for Jesus and eager to learn from Scripture how to follow Jesus in their daily lives.
When it was time to head to college, I chose Oral Roberts University, a charismatic university in the far-flung reaches of Oklahoma. (It was 1976, not 1876, yet my friends still thought that most people in Tulsa would be riding horses, and some of them were—really—concerned about Indians.) There I studied broadcasting while continuing to seek the Lord with all my heart. I was startled to meet others who, though they professed to be Christians, did not have the same zeal as I. They didn’t have daily devotions, they didn’t go to Sunday night vespers. Many were not even “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” I began to judge these as lesser Christians. After all, they didn’t believe the way I believe, the way I had been taught, so they must not be as good of a Christian if even Christian at all. But it was ok, because those who came to preach in our chapel told us just how much God wanted to bless us and do all sorts of good things to us if we would only give more and dream big dreams. By the end of my four years, I had found myself (if I were to be honest) somewhat lazy in my faith as well.
Graduation gave way to marriage, then children. We found ourselves moving several times between Ohio and Oklahoma, with a one-year exile to Orlando. Each move brought a new church home, always staying in evangelicalism. (Including six years in a Methodist church—but it was a charismatic Methodist church …) And with each stop I felt farther and farther from the God whom I loved.
I was no longer experiencing discipleship. I was being pampered and coddled. Instead of being shown how to love one another, even when it is hard to do so, I was told just how special I was to God. Instead of communion being the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, it was about how partaking would bring me healing and strength and blessing. I was told that if I believed the right beliefs (which seemed to be a moving target), Jesus would come into my heart and be my personal savior, with the emphasis on personal. Leaders of these churches planned and worked to meet my “felt needs.” Evangelical books I was given to read were just self-help platitudes with scriptures dropped in here and there. Worship songs talked about how good it feels to be loved by God rather than the rich theology of those dusty old hymns. There was very little theology, as a matter of fact, very little need to train my mind to think of God. After all, God thinks good thoughts of me all day, and that is all that matters.
On top of this, I spent many years working in Christian media, both broadcasting and publishing. While no one actually spoke these words, we knew that in order to increase our business we must manipulate people into buying our books or listening to our music using faith as the tool. We did it again by dealing with “felt needs.” I came to a place where I felt dirty and cheap, using Jesus to sell things no one needed.
In Douglas Adams’ humorous sci-fi novel The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, he introduces us to the ultimate torture chamber, the Total Perspective Vortex. Victims put into this box see the entirety of the universe and themselves in perspective as a tiny dot on a tiny dot. It is designed to drive men (and other various creatures in the universe) mad. Zaphod Beeblebrox, sometime president of the galaxy, is placed in the Vortex by a ghost named Pizpot Gargravarr.
The door of the Vortex swung open. From his disembodied mind Gargravarr watched dejectedly. He had rather liked Zaphod Beeblebrox in a strange sort of way. He was clearly a man of many qualities, even if they were mostly bad ones. He waited for him to flop forward out of the box, as they all did.
Instead, he stepped out.
“Hi,” he said.
“Beeblebrox …” gasped Gargravarr’s mind in amazement.
“Could I have a drink please?” said Zaphod.
“You … you … have been in the Vortex?” stammered Gargravarr.
“You saw me, kid.”
“And it was working?”
“And you saw the whole infinity of creation?”
“Sure. Really neat place, you know that?”
Gargravarr’s mind was reeling in astonishment. Had his body been with him, it would have sat down heavily with its mouth hanging open.
“And you saw yourself,” said Gargravarr, “in relation to it all?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah.”
“But, what did you experience?”
Zaphod shrugged smugly. “It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby? I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”
Zaphod survived the Vortex because he was not a tiny dot on a tiny dot in relation to all of creation. As far as he was concerned, the universe did not exist without him. He was the center of everything that existed.
That was what I had become: the center of my universe. And what a small, crowded universe it was. There was no room for fear and awe of God—God, no doubt, was in awe of me. After all, that is what I was being taught at every turn. And I was sick of it. With no sacraments to serve as anchors, my ship was adrift on the endless sea of me Me ME.
My first love had turned into a plodding existence, saying and doing all the right things so as to fit in with all of the others who passed through the Total Perspective Vortex and came out smiling smugly that they were they center of all things. I had become Mary and Joseph, walking three days back to their hometown before they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them. He was about his Father’s business, while I was about my own.
I longed for, yearned for, a return to my first love. I sought programs and activities and services to get me there. I got up earlier and prayed more and read more and did more. I fasted and confessed and … and then I just gave up. That is when God met me. About six years ago the Lord began emptying me of myself. He began to strip away the nice Christian wallpaper I had put over my real self. He helped me to see that I really am just a tiny dot on a tiny dot in the vastness of things, and that was freeing to me. For with myself so small, I could once again begin to see just how big and wonderful and awe-full God truly is. Now I find silence to be louder and sweeter than Christian noise, and I find it much more peaceful to have simple dreams than big dreams.
So I have come to the 40 year mark of my journey of faith with barely any faith left. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they finally assembled before Joshua at the edge of the Jordan, ready to enter the land promised to them. I’m sure it took those last several years to get everyone fed up enough and tired enough and hungry enough to leave the familiar wilderness for the unknown. And once they crossed over, things were not easy for them. There was much building and fighting and learning and praying and believing to be done. The last several years of my life have been years of upheaval and tumult and pain and hunger and a longing for Jesus as he knows himself to be, not as I think he is in my own Total Perspective Vortex. I will not be the center of things when I cross the river. And I am now prepared to cross over.
I am at the river’s edge. But for me, the river is not marked Jordan.
It is the Tiber.
Let us pray.