By Ashley Barker
Originally appeared in The Cry: The Advocacy Journal of Word Made Flesh vol. 10, no. 3 (Fall 2004)
Following Jesus is the ultimate rebellion. If we are willing to follow that quiet voice of Jesus above the loud agendas of peers, parents and all the powers that be, we can find ways to live deeply in a shallow world. This rebellion is not about the superficialities of what clothes, music or body art we might choose; it is about a whole life of surrender to discerning the will and heartbeat of our Lord and responding faithfully. Even to taste such a life has no equal.
Yet too many are succumbing to the powers and missing out on life. Is it not true that so many of us are more like the rich young ruler than any other New Testament character? They are well resourced, bright, charming and able to engage in religious discussion, but few are able to even comprehend what Jesus is inviting them to do and be. Seriously, what if Jesus said to you, “Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
What voices inside us would rise up to squash a response before we could even consider it, demanding that we cling to what we already have? Too many are leaving Jesus “sad,” for all they have is “much wealth.”
By inviting the rich young ruler to “go,” Jesus was underlining His own authority. As with many of us today, the question of control and authority would have been important ones for the rich young ruler. “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” was his question. He wanted Jesus to give him a foolproof way to inherit eternal life, just as he had inherited his wealth; but in the end, he would not obey Jesus. This is not true faith.
As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski has noted, there is a difference between magic and true religion. Magic attempts to manipulate spiritual forces so that supplicants can get what they want. But true religion is about surrendering to God so that God can do through the supplicant what God wants. The rich young ruler would not surrender all to Jesus, and his lack of obedience is evidence that he was more about magic than true faith.
The struggle between faith and magic is as real today as it was in previous ages. I witness obvious attempts at magic most days here in the slum of Klong Toey (Bangkok, Thailand), where I live with my family as a Christian worker with Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH). Some magic I understand as simple transactions, such as the use of spirit houses. In most neighborhoods these little doll house-like structures are set on poles and are complete with miniature furniture and people in them. Neighbours give fresh fruit and burn incense for good luck and as a way of appeasing the local spirit. Although I obviously don’t agree with this, I can see the way it works in my neighbors’ minds.
There are still other attempts at magic here. Down at the local market most nights, for example, you can see middle-aged men wandering around with magic belts. Variously sized phallic wooden carvings hang from these belts. I am told they are to help fertility and understand it as an ancient, magical form of Viagra.
Sometimes it is easier to see magic in cultures other than our own. Perhaps in the context of a globalized, consumer-driven culture, we have become more vulnerable to magic than we care to admit. Whole economic systems are built around getting what we want. Certainly, the new-age religions have been exploiting this instinct with all kinds of paraphernalia for sale. Much contemporary Christianity is also more like magic than true faith. Simply wander down the aisles of almost any Christian bookstore, and you will find numerous books that attempt to manipulate spirit forces with right formulas. The authors of such books promise that if you just follow this strategy or prayer, or understand this truth, you can get what you want. Many contemporary sermons are similar: “how to drug-proof your kids,” or “how to be happy though rich.” With consumer-driven magic on the increase, it is no wonder community worship songs such as I Surrender All and Trust and Obey have been replaced by All Things Are Possible and a myriad of “God-is-my-boyfriend” songs. These are not about surrendering all to Jesus so that God can do through us what God wants. They are consumers’ attempts to get what we want. Such magic, however, doesn’t fulfill us, and we keep searching for more to consume. “If I only had the right book or program or insight, then God would give me what I want.” This is a long way from Jesus’ command to “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
Without Tony Campolo’s invitation at a youth rally to “go anywhere in gratitude to Christ,” I doubt Anji and I would be serving Christ in Klong Toey slum today. We were 18-year-olds then, grateful for the opportunity to be part of God’s answers in the world. As we watch 90 slum kids hear about Easter for the first time, mouths wide open, trying to comprehend a mystery at our English camp in Klong Toey, I know we would not swap our lives today for anything in the world.
Because so few Christians actually follow through on such invitations, some question their value. Given the scandals of church, school, business and politics, inviting and giving commitment is simply not in vogue. When heartbreak and exploitation are very real fears, “Don’t be naive; keep all your options open; you’ll only get hurt,” seem to be the dominant message. Yet, only isolated and fearful religious consumers can result from this belief system.
Inviting commitment “to go anywhere for Christ’s sake” is not so much the problem. The real issue is the lack of belonging to a discipleship community that can nurture this commitment. It is one thing to make a public commitment to go anywhere, but it is quite another to journey with a Christian community willing to discern with us the smaller decisions along the way. Like a rocket that needs a lot of fuel to get off the ground and into orbit, we need to commit all we have to a direction.
We must hide Jesus’ words, “Come and follow me,” in our hearts. In addition to this commitment, we need a discipleship community that is able to help us make the adjustments and tough choices, and to help us navigate our way to the destinations that are beyond the pressures of gravity. The dominant global culture hates us for committing enough energy to get airborne, never mind taking navigational advice. Yet we need both if we are to fulfill our God-given vocations. Without commitment and community, the powers will have their way with us.
We simply could not have followed through on such lofty teenage aspirations if we hadn’t been a part of a Christian community. Being part of UNOH has provided a place for mutual discernment, preparation and accountability for our whole-of-life vocation. Belonging to the UNOH community for over eight years and serving in a poor neighborhood in Melbourne before we moved to a Bangkok slum, was a grace that gave us every chance at hearing and obeying Jesus above the other voices.
Although not disputing the authority of Jesus or the rightness of Jesus’ invitation, the rich young ruler would not go. Instead, he chose to stay. Those of faith (not magic) must “go” and obey this commission, especially those of us who have inherited wealth. Abandoning ourselves and everything we have to Jesus is the only way to be Jesus’ disciples. Go on, be a real rebel!
PRACTICAL TIPS: SERIOUS DISCIPLINES
Surrendering all to Christ and experiencing the grace of obedience does not happen by chance. There are some disciplines of spirituality that have been taken seriously over the centuries that we would be foolish to ignore.
Take seriously a regular time and place. We can’t leave our relationship with Christ to chance. There is too much pressure taking us away from quiet space with Christ to try and fit it in when we have time – we inevitably don’t have time and space. Finding a regular sacred space (location and time) helps us to nurture an authentic relationship with Christ. Where we spend our best time and energy does reflect our priorities. For example, UNOH creates a collective time and space for prayer each morning, where the whole community prays and shares Communion. Most monastic orders have prayer rhythms for each day, week and year. In some sense it doesn’t matter what time and space we create; it is important that it happens and that others can keep us accountable for it.
Take solitude seriously. It is too easy for our pain and aloneness to be drowned out by activity, noise and our own internal dialogue. We need to come face-to-face with our Lord in silence. We need to have a lived experience of God saying to us, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a). Our hearts do not have to be in a desert wilderness for such solitude. We must cultivate solitude of the heart, practicing the presence of God, intentionally seeking God in the quiet. We will miss the guidance of God amidst our own angst if we do not. Further, without cultivating the habit of moving from loneliness to solitude, we will become dependant, take external events personally and project our own mess onto the rest of the community. Without silence before God, we will suffocate our fellow workers (and others we serve), expecting them to fill a hole in us that only the Divine can fill.
Take Scripture seriously. We must enter the world of the Scriptures if we are to meet the real, risen Christ, and not just an idol that makes us feel good. Although scholarship has some value, we must seek the Spirit’s guidance in being mastered by the text rather than trying to master the text. Indeed, we must trust the Holy Spirit, Who inspired the Scriptures in the first place, to guide us in our reading and praying of them. The Scriptures are the most trusted revelation of God we have. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul the apostle writes to his colleague, Timothy,
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
If we are to be a genuine light, responding to God faithfully, we need to be engulfed by God through the Scriptures.
Take spiritual guides seriously. We need each other if our light is not to be overcome by the darkness. All alone, we can delude ourselves and justify almost anything. The wisdom and guidance of peers, key leaders and mentors can help us discern reality, ask tough questions and clarify whether we are hearing from God or our own imaginations. Support and accountability by those concerned for our long-term well-being are essential if we are to sustain light in difficult places of discipleship. We need companionship with others if we are to see the way forward.
Celebrate: Don’t take ourselves too seriously. In the scheme of eternity, we are not that important. So any progress made or a coming together should be an excuse to party. Jesus was always partying or hanging out with people who did. In the movie Titanic, it was perhaps the celebrating below deck that most contrasted with the formalities and pretensions on the top deck. Generous and celebratory lives demonstrate the joy of this life. Those who can laugh in the face of adversity are those who find enough reasons to continue. Celebrate life!
Ashley Barker is the founding director of Urban Neighbours of Hope. Based in Melbourne, Australia, UNOH is a missionary order working among the poor. Ash, his wife, Anji, and two children, Amy and Aiden, are currently serve in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, Thailand, planting UNOH’s first overseas community.