Thursday, November 10, 2005


I've been in the oddest online conversation today...all about the phrase "personal relationship with Christ."

Actually, it's moved way beyond conversation into outright bitch-slappage. On one hand you have the anti-PRWC Christians, who do not perceive that they have a PRWC and who find Christians who say they do have a PRWC to be hurtful and judgmental and sanctimonious; and then you have the pro-PRWC Christians, who feel that the anti-PRWC Christians are trying to invalidate their very real experience of Christ's imminent presence.

As a personal Christ might say: Oy gevult. (It seems that there is no topic that you can't get two Christians to fight over.)

To paraphrase the song, I've looked at Christ from both sides now. The first half of my life, my relationship with Christ was in large part mediated through the Church; through my baptism, through my hearing the Word and partaking in the Sacrament of the Altar, through my relationships with other Christians. I had a sense of a close relationship with Jesus -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- but the Godtalk of my more evangelical friends seemed a bit presumptuous and subjective and overly familiar; what a friend of mine calls the "My Boyfriend Jesus" Syndrome. It seemed hard to reconcile My Boyfriend Jesus with the image of the Cosmic Christ one finds in, say, the letter to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers [i.e., spiritual beings, like angels] -- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

Fast-forward 20 years. I'd jumped off the Christianity bus; was pursuing a new, irreligious way of seeing the world. And then...something happened. Something far more real than my sensation that other people are reading this post. My evangelical friends would call it a "born-again" experience; that term is far too loaded for me, so I call it a transformative encounter with Christ.

I don't know why some Christians have this type of experience and some people don't. Maybe I'm a hard case who needed a special divine YOO-HOO -- REMEMBER ME? to break through my bitterness and skepticism and inward-turned focus.

But from where I sit now, I don't see a conflict between these experiences of Christ -- the Christ we meet in the Word, the Sacraments and in one another, and the Christ who shows up in unexpected ways. I feel a certain sadness that this seems to be such a polarizing issue.

Sometimes I call Jesus The CEO, and seem to make light of our relationship; and sometimes, frankly, I do experience Jesus in this lighthearted manner: Christ as "the happy heart of God," to paraphrase Luther. On the other hand, there have certainly been times in my life when my experience of Christ has been the Christ of Colossians, where all I wanted to do in response was fall on my face in awe. There are days when, like Peter struggling with his netload of fish in his foundering boat, I want to say, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful woman!"

But most often my experience of Jesus -- my PRWC -- reminds me of something I read about Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was probably one of the more improbable objects of admiration and loyalty among the Union troops: He was average-looking; usually unkempt; an uninspiring orator; had had a checkered career, to say the least, in the Army until Lincoln promoted him. But this is what Grant did: Some humble private would be on the march, doing the things soldiers do on the march -- stopping to light a smoke; fixing a shoe or a wagon; maybe going behind a tree for a whiz -- when suddenly he would would look up, and there was the head of the Union Army. No retinue of fawning officers, no prancing steed; just another soldier in a dusty, bedraggled uniform, chewing on an old stogie. Grant would talk to the private; maybe ask him where he was from, or discuss the day's activities, or talk to him about horses -- Grant had a thing about horses -- or simply thank him for his service. And then he'd walk on and talk to another soldier. Grant's soldiers saw him not as top Army brass, but as one of them; someone who walked with them, who shared their lives and privations, who cared about them. And they honored that humility and respect by putting their lives on the line for Grant, over and over and over again.

My "personal relationship with Christ" frankly doesn't mean very much, because it changes as quickly as my situation and my mood. What counts is Christ's personal relationship with me and with all of us; and the fact that he is the One Who Suffers With Us, who gives up the prerogatives of divinity to walk with us along the road and give us comfort and hope. How we experience his sharing in our journey is, I think, unique to each of us. But all of us who claim Christ do so in faith that, somehow, he is with us, even if we don't understand it or feel it. And I believe someday we'll all be able to look back and see that clearly, and give thanks.


Emily said...

I share your feelings of frustration, and I had a quiet but powerful transformative experience in my 20s--but I do think it was the formation of the formal church through baptism and communion that prepared me for it when it happened. (Although I'm sure God could have made it happen anyway).

HereISit said...

My husband, who was raised Lutheran, went through a long period of "no faith" but genuine quesioning. When he had a faith experience and felt touched by God, he didn't describe it as a transformation or a conversion. He said, "God gave me my faith back." I guess that would be true to the Lutheran tradion and use of language, wouldn't it? But that was how he experienced it.

I do think that most of the differences we have with others is linguistic in nature. However, as you point out, are we looking at this from what WE do or from what GOD does in this relationship with God.

And, yes, some people seem to come across as judgmental if our experience isn't like theirs. This is a stumbling block for many! We can call people like that judgmental or we can look at their genuine concern for others.

bls said...

I'm always sort of glad that I was out of the Church for 30+ years. I missed all this drama, and the sturm und drang of religion in the late 20th Century. In addition, living on the East Coast, "fundamentalism" is like a foreign language to me.

As a result of that, I have totally fresh eyes, and had no real positive or negative expectations. I could take things as they come, and as they are, without having to fight with anyone or with my own preconceptions. I rarely even have an issue with the "cultured despisers of religion," even.

I'm lucky, I think. Good post, BTW.

LutheranChik said...

Emily: My early experience too, played a role in my experience later. I really see these things as part of a whole and not as antagonistic opposites. But it's illustrative of "Meanings are in people, not in words."

LutheranChik said...

HereISit: Good observations. BTW, I love your screen name. Here I sit, too...which is why my physique looks as if I once delivered quadruplets (an event I would have surely noticed, I think), and why (screeching, apocalyptic metal-fatigue noise in my head) a gym membership might be in my future.;-)

LutheranChik said...

Bls: Thanks! And from my theological-baggage-laden perspective, your "beginner's mind" is a real gift. (I think you'd have a great time in our LMTP classes with our OT and NT profs.) It's just sad that the rest of us tend to be so jaded by our experience that every word and phrase of Godtalk seems to be ideologically loaded one way or the other, and talking to one another is like walking through a minefield.

deb said...

I like the way you see things. I think that how people involve themselves with their beliefs is a very personal thing, and cannot be equated between two or more people. Personal is just that. The enforced homogeny of religion forces people into judgemented and judgementle roles, which is not the point at all.

Good post.

J.C. Fisher said...

At the beginning of my discernment group early in the fall, I asked the group who among them had had a "born-again" experience.

I---of the ultra-snark, uber-hermeneutic-of-suspicion---was the only one.

Go figure, huh?

In my 20s (already some years after my b-a exp., at age 12), I came up w/ a phrase that, I think, still fits: "I usually think of God/Christ as a 'What' . . . but I reserve right---when I most need to---to think of God/Christ as a 'Who'".

I've been Who-ing a lot lately (not to be confused w/ "whoring"---not just yet, but who knows? *g*).

I don't think it much matters, though:

"Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly w/ your God" . . . with or without the first-name basis! ;-p