I want to continue the Phil Rice story in unpacking one way that my family and I have been walking out Practical Spirituality in our own world.
While on the earth, Jesus did a pretty incredible thing [a pretty incredible series of things]. Though for now, let’s just focus on a single piece of the puzzle. Jesus, Emmanuel — God among us. This piece of who Jesus is has always resonated with me. Jesus, came to the earth, he left his home, he left his omnipresence, and he became a man. He did this in order to relate to me [you] specifically, he knows me, knows my culture, knows the human condition. He’s in. Talk about being spiritually practical [and actionable].
I love this about Jesus… but I’m having trouble with it… so take this as a Phil Rice wrestling through a thing, kind of thing [Mmk?].
So, if you’re up for it, I’d love for you to join me in walking through a few thoughts.
Jesus [Emmanuel] left his palace in the sky [the description of this place is pretty wild… you should check it out if you haven’t] — Ezekiel 43, Revelation 4, Revelation 21. He left his culture, his closest relationships, his servants [can’t relate there… or with the palace in the sky actually], his place of influence… and he came to a new place. He came to the earth, he was born into our world [like really born… slimy, bloody, bodily fluid born]. He lived the life of an outcast. He didn’t fit into his family. He didn’t fit into his culture. And he definitely didn’t fit with in the religious system [he didn’t fit in so much that those overseeing the system actually killed him].
Why did he come to us? Because we wouldn’t go to him.
So, why did Jesus come to us? Because we wouldn’t go to him. Every time God tried to reach in to communicate his desire for nearness with humanity, we eventually silenced him in one way or another. So he came to us.
No problem so far? Cool… well… here’s the Phil Rice wrestle… no… actually, here’s a brief story…
At the end of 2015, Becky and I said goodbye to an amazing church community here in Norman, Oklahoma. This community and its leadership impacted our lives in ways that have changed us forever. In the fall of 2015, it was decided that the organization would fold. Families and individuals sought the Lord for what was next [from beginning to end and beyond, an incredibly painful and challenging season of time for everyone involved]. In the end, people landed in one place or another. Many families joined other church organizations in the area, a few families continued meeting together regularly in homes, and then a few of us just waited. And, to be honest, two years later, Becky and I are waiting.
Waiting for what?
Something that Becky and I immediately noticed in January of 2016 was the state of our calendar… it was empty. For the first time ever [like…ever], it was empty. We went from being at the center of a large community of weekly gathering, passionately worshipping, friend inviting, communally praying, followers of Jesus… to just being… us. No plan, no strategy, no organizational mechanism to move us forward. We were us. And, you know what we found? It was so refreshing.
It wasn’t refreshing because we didn’t love our church community of 12 years and grieve it’s end. It wasn’t refreshing because we were so glad to be done with church. It was refreshing because there was space. There was space to listen to God and to one another. There was space to ask questions about what it could look like for Rice party of four to follow Jesus together. Those 12 years were a most incredible bootcamp. We were given tools, values, perspectives, and then… we were released into the wild with a piece of rope and a snickers bar. Going to find another bootcamp just didn’t feel like the answer for us, we were ready, we were waiting… we are waiting… but waiting for what?
Here’s the Phil Rice wrestle… the magnetic pull of organized church
Our family calendar reflects the values of our family, explicitly or implicitly. When Becky and I were part of a church community of 200 people, our calendar was magnetically pulled toward the center of the community — the relationships we were pulled towards, the activities we participated in, the practices we adopted. This would probably be true of anyone in any group. And… We loved it. We loved the people, we aligned with the practices. We were in.
But then we looked around. And we found that our calendar was filled to the brim with meaningful activities with other Jesus followers. We had created our own palace, filled with all the comforts of adoring Jesus in a culture that adores Jesus. We gaped when we realized the level of energy we [personally] were spending managing “discipling relationships” with people who were already followers of Jesus and how little of our energy went to knowing and discipling those still on the path to knowing him.
That’s not to say we didn’t reach out to people outside of our palace to invite them in. We did. But it just wasn’t their palace. It was’t their culture. Don’t misunderstand, we had individuals meet Jesus through our community of friends and join our community. Their lives were impacted, they were impowered, and I love their stories. But it took a lot of social bravery on their behalf to leave their culture and to come into ours. But what of their friends and what of their families? What if they weren’t as brave?
Is there another way we could approach some of this?
I can’t help but ask the question. Does the way we organize hinder many from experiencing God’s spirit through genuine, real relationship with the Jesus follower? Does the way we organize bar the Jesus follower from being the extension of Emmanuel, the God who brings relevance from within a culture, simply because there isn’t relational time on the calendar?
So here we are… in the midst of the wrestle
So here we are. Two years later. Just us. We haven’t joined a church. We haven’t started a church. Now, we do have close friends who also follow Jesus. We share meals and experiences with these friends. We’ve had book clubs with these friends. We are even in group therapy with some of these friends [are you part of a small group? … um… I go to therapy?]. But something really helpful is happening… there’s no magnetic pull to the palace at the center. Because there’s no center and there’s no palace.
Taking our cues and taking our time
In the spring of 2016, we spent some time in Portland with Paul Watson — read his book, it’ll change your life… not kidding. We walked away from our time with him with 3 things God spoke clearly to us.
- Be near to me
- Love my words
- Love your life
I can honestly say, if we’ve done nothing else these last two years, we’ve done these things. We have sought to be near to the Lord. We have continued to meditate on his words and we have listened for his direction. We’ve loved our life. We’ve given ourselves permission to love things, to enjoy things… What if I took this pottery class? Or I went to yoga in the park? What if we started this book club? How about a special dinner Sunday evenings with close friends and family, giving us space to remember God’s goodness together? What if my business went in this direction or yours went in that direction? And we’ve found ourselves among lots of different people. We’ve had real conversations about real things. We’ve listened. We’ve shared. We’ve received. We’ve offered help and experience.
We’re taking our cues from Emmanuel — God with us, God among us. We left the palace. And now we’re asking God, What does it look like to bring light and understanding to places without? We don’t have lots of answers, but we do have our questions, our compass bearing. So, I guess it’s not really waiting at this point. It’s simply listening for his voice at each step and knowing that we are on the path he has set before us.
I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments section. Please feel free to share how our process hits you personally. As I said, this is a journey— an un-plotted map on an extended adventure. We would love to glean from your experience.