Have you ever climbed a mountain? Based on the pictures in promotional church pamphlets, it looks exhilarating. It’s not. It’s exhausting. I mean, there is a rush when you reach the summit, but then you immediately feel the need to lie down and take a nap.

Which is exactly what I did after climbing Yosemite Falls. I carried a pack full of camera gear and water up the steep incline of the 3 mail trail. It must have weighed 60 pounds. When I reached the top, I lied down on a rock next to the river, a stone’s throw from where it crashes over the edge of cliff to the valley below, and fell asleep. It was the sweetest nap I’ve ever taken.

mountain top christianityWe often call our most intense encounters with God “mountain top experiences.” These are the good times, spiritually speaking. We feel close to God, hear from him personally, and experience significant growth. Spiritual experiences like these are necessary and valuable seasons of every believer’s life. But they are exactly that – seasons. So what happens when we chase these spiritual experiences all the time?

Bouncing from mountain top to mountain top is not how God intends for us to live. It is not normal to live that way. Instead, God wants to meet us at every elevation, whether that’s at the glorious summit or in the deep valley. Your life happens where you are, not where you think true spirituality demands you to be. Learning to be present to God in the face of your life’s circumstances is one of the most crucial lessons of your journey of discipleship.

Mountain top Christianity is an illusion. You’ll burn yourself out chasing the peaks, and you’ll foolishly come to believe that no true Christian can reside in the valley. Psalm 139:8 declares, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God is where you are. He desires to meet you in the good times and the bad. Jesus took on human flesh to show us that God has run to us, that he intends to meet us in our need, to rejoice with us, to mourn with us, to help us along the way.

If you keep pursuing mountain top Christianity, an overly experiential perversion of the faith, you will eventually fail to encounter the risen Christ at all. Your faith will become about the experience rather than the Person. The reality of your journey with Jesus is that you will find exhilaration on the heights, but you will find nourishment in the depths. Do not neglect one for the other. Rather, abide closely with God no matter the geography.

shadow

A good filmmaker knows how to terrify his audience with just a shadow. You never have to see the actual monster to be gripped with fear, just the long dark outline suggesting how horrible and mutilated the beast is. Of course, this same effect is used as comic relief when the strange shadow turns out to be a cuddly kitten.

We are frightened by shadows because we fear what might be casting them. Rarely, however, do we mistake the shadow for the real thing. But this is precisely what Paul warns us about in Colossians 2:16-17. He said that the food laws and holy days of Judaism were not the real thing that devout Jews thought them to be. The real thing, he said, is Jesus.

Jesus is the reality to which religion points. All the things that we might think are so important – obeying religious laws and customs, observing holy days – find their fullness in Christ. Religion is good and true as long as it is centered on Jesus. It is good to obey the rules, but only if we are acting from a heart that is devoted to Christ. Christless religion is like grasping at shadows. It’s not that religion, ritual, or rules are unimportant. Nor is it that they mislead us. It is that they are empty apart from Jesus.

If you feel that your religion has grown stale, that the rituals of what you do at church or in your daily devotions has become mere routine, it is time to lift up your eyes and see who is casting the shadow. Jesus is the real thing. It’s time for you to re-center your life and your religious activity around him. We drift so easily. We so quickly relapse into following shadows instead of worshiping the reality. Here is a prayer to help you re-center around Jesus.

shadowJesus, you are the reality;
You are the fullness;
You are the truth.
Center me around yourself.
Take your throne again
In the depths of my heart.
Cast your shadow across my life.
Fill my empty religion
With your holy presence.
Capture my imagination,
My devotion,
And my desire.
Be yourself in me
That I may find myself in you.
Amen.

Bad Religion – 2:16-19


16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In this paragraph, Paul warns the Colossians against the influences of bad religion. More specificially, he tells Christians not to let false teachers judge them by their religious observance or spiritual experiences. Many scholars believe that Paul had specific opponents in mind when he wrote the letter, likely a group of Judaizers (strict Jewish Christians who taught that salvation was open to Gentiles through Christ, but that all must obey Torah to be saved) like those who corrupted the Galatian churches. While this is quite plausible, I struggle to see that Paul is singling out any particular group or teacher, as he does in Galatians or 2 Corinthians. It seems more likely that the apostle is drawing on his long experience and warning the fledgling church about the types of false teaching that he has seen creep into churches elsewhere. He is alerting the church that attacks will come from both sides – from Jewish teachers and pagans alike.

In verse 16, he is clearly sounding the alarm against Jewish Christians who would seek to place Gentile believers under the yoke of Torah. Food laws and holy days were essential to the life and culture of Judaism, and Jewish converts would have sensed no need to abandon these. But Paul is clear that the Gospel does not demand Gentile believers take up these practices. No doubt he is remembering here the words of Peter at the Jerusalem Council: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”[i] Torah observance never saved anyone; therefore the Gentile Christians could not be condemned for failing to keep it.

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Made alive

Have you ever turned left when you should have turned right? All of us have gotten off track at one point or another. We’ve gone the opposite way we were supposed to, and the quicker we realize it, the sooner we can get headed in the right direction. When faced with the choice between two opposites (left or right, north or south, Ohio State or Michigan), it’s important that we choose the right one. (Go Bucks!)

We often think of death as the opposite of life, but that’s not the best picture of the truth. The relationship between death and life isn’t the same as the relationship between left and right, or in and out. Instead, it’s like the relationship between dark and light. Darkness is the absence of light, not the opposite of it. In the same way, death is the absence of life.

Made AliveIn Colossians 2:13, Paul says that we were made alive with Christ, even in the midst of our sins. That means that God has filled us up with the life of Christ, which is both abundant and eternal. There is no way for us to possess this life apart from Jesus. After all, Jesus himself said in John 14, “I am the life.”

Being dead in your sins doesn’t mean, of course, that you are biologically dead. It simply means that you are devoid of the abundant and eternal life that Jesus alone possesses and gives. It means that you are lacking, as we all do without Christ, the fullness of life that only the Author of Life can provide.

How can you become filled with this life? Through faith in Jesus Christ. You are made alive with Christ because he was made alive when God raised him from the dead. Placing your faith – your full trust, love, and obedience – in Christ means that you, too, will receive the benefit of his resurrection. But you don’t have to wait until you die to experience new life. You can have it today! Eternal life begins the moment you place your faith in Jesus. Choose life.

You Complete Me

I have to confess something: I never liked Jerry Maguire. Yes, there are some good lines. Cuba and Tom shouting “Show me the money!” at each other through the phone is a great scene. And Jerry Maguire has a noble purpose in making sports agency more relational. But the plot was hijacked by the romance which was, shall we say, overcooked. “You complete me.” Really?

Brought-to-Fullness-WebSadly, however, that may have been the truest line in the film. Not that any person can actually complete us, but that we believe: a) that we are at least half empty, b) that we can find our fullness in another human, and c) that romantic love is the only path to this fullness. “You complete me” is the teary-eyed plea of a narcissistic generation bent on finding love, not for the sake of the beloved, but for their own existential fulfillment.

While romantic love has its proper place, the only love that can fulfill us is the agape love of Christ. Paul says, in Colossians 2:10, “in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” This means that Jesus has done for us what no one else could do – make us truly and fully human. Our sinful inclinations, what Paul often calls “flesh,” are subhuman. They move us away from the purpose and glory for which we were originally created. But in Christ we are set back on track. Jesus puts us on the train to fullness.

In fact, it’s more accurate to say that, in Christ, we have already arrived. He has given us everything we need to complete the high calling of humanity. This means that the truest, fullest version of yourself is not the one who gives into sin and temptation or that looks for fulfillment in another person, but the one who lashes himself to Christ and follows hard after God. To be true to yourself is to be faithful to Jesus.

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