“Imitate Christ”

For most of my life I have failed to understand the command I sometimes hear from Christians to “imitate Christ.” I know this comes from Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11:1, where he says, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It also makes sense from a Jewish perspective: disciples’ main goal is to become like their rabbi. But the way the command is implied in modern conversations and messages has long frustrated me.

Nowadays when most other Christians say we should imitate Christ, I’ve understood them to mean we should act, speak and think exactly like him. I hear them say we should be factory-manufactured copies of Christ. In short, I hear them say, “Be Christ.” While I agree we should imitate Jesus, I disagree with many people’s meaning behind the words.

I hear this underlying message often. I hear it in the words, “Be Christ to the poor.” I hear it when people urge, “Be Christ to the unbelievers.” And I hear it when they say, “Be Christ to your enemies.” While I can help each of these groups of people by God’s grace and power, I cannot “be Christ” to them.

I am a sinner whom Christ redeemed and freed from the bonds of slavery to sin. I was “dead in [my] transgressions and sins, in which [I] used to live when [I] followed the ways of this world,” but now God has made me “alive with Christ” and He has “raised [me] up with Christ and seated [me] with him in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:1-2, 5-6). I have been redeemed. I cannot be the redeemer.

I am also a recipient of our heavenly Father’s grace. And like Abraham, I receive His grace in order to give it to other people. I am a conduit of God’s grace. I cannot be the source of grace.

I am part of Christ’s body. There are many parts to his body and I am but one. I am unique and I am following his lead. I cannot be the head and control the whole body.

I cannot be Christ. But I can follow Christ and learn to “imitate him” more in time.

I said all that to say this:

For so long I have heard a rebuke in the church saying, “Difference is bad!” I have been urged to follow a certain lifestyle, spend my time with certain people and only do certain activities and tasks. I must stay in the boundaries of tradition “because Jesus commanded us to be holy.” “Holy” in this argument means “perfect,” which in turn means “the same as other Christians.” Or, more accurately, “wear the same mask that other Christians wear.”

I have tried to live this way. But it only restricted my freedom to be myself, while Jesus teaches, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In spite of all my efforts to fit my thoughts, appearance, words and actions into the stencil crafted by the American church, I could never succeed.

I’m learning this is because I am different from other people.

I am intellectual. I think deeply and constantly–indeed, I think too much. I over-analyze people and situations, and I tend to ponder a decision too long to ever make one. I also tend to say awkward sentences in failed attempts to sound poetic.

I am sentimental. I keep objects because they remind me of people I cherish. I cry often when I hang up the phone after talking with my father, mother or brother because I wish to see them again. And I care too much how other people feel.

I am knowledgeable. I enjoy nothing more than learning information I deem beneficial. I carefully observe my surroundings wherever I am. And I often choose to read a book instead of spend time with people.

God has made me unique. Fighting my personality and peculiarities has accomplished nothing but exhaustion, frustration and anxiety.

God has given me gifts. He has made me different to help other people grow and worship Him more. He has empowered me to show His glory and majesty in ways without which other people would not see Him as clearly.

God has shown me specific love. He has given me grace and forgiveness in each of my specific failures and has comforted me in ways I specifically need and crave. He does this so I can forgive and comfort other people, who will always look and act differently than I will.

Instead of grace and forgiveness, I have learned judgment from many people in the church. Difference isn’t tolerated and yet it isn’t punished outright because punishment is taboo in the church. As a result, the only remaining response to difference is judgment. People in general have long responded in contempt when I said or did something they did not understand. And tragically, misunderstanding in the church tends to lead to judgment. Instead of inviting me into their midst with love, mercy and acceptance, they rejected me because I had failed to adhere to their standards, and this resulted in painful exclusion.

Having said all that, I must admit I am a culprit of it all. As much as I despise being the one on the outside, I have been the one to keep other people outside innumerable times. We all, myself included, need our Father in heaven to guide us and empower us to show impossible grace to the people around us. Each of us is different from everyone else; the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can use our differences to better love and encourage one another.

When I submit to God’s endless love and grace, I shine in my differences with His glory and reveal the gospel of Jesus to the world. The same goes for other people, so I need my Father in heaven to help me give grace to them. No lifestyle, passion, personality nor past can stand between any person and God. God has redeemed us in our differences–let us pray He will help us use our differences to encourage, empower and embrace the people we meet.

Let Your kingdom come, Father, and Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from condemnation.

Holding my breath

When I speak with people, I hold my breath.

Well, I don’t always hold my breath. I think it started recently, after I moved to Wenatchee. I noticed it a couple days ago in one of those forgettable moments. After parking my car I was walking back to the office where I work, and on my way I passed a guy on the sidewalk walking the other direction. I nodded at him, drew in breath and held it, and muttered “Hi.”

“How’s it going?” he said in response, then kept walking before I could answer his question.

As we walked away from each other, I let out my breath.

To be honest, I don’t know why I held my breath in that moment. And from what I recall, I held my breath when I spoke with other people this morning as well. In fact, I feel as though I have not drawn in a breath for the past two weeks, which is when I first arrived in this city.

I hold my breath in those moments because I want to be acknowledged. I’m afraid the other person won’t respond. Many times I feel sad when people don’t respond to me. It seems like they are ignoring me, and I don’t enjoy being ignored. I know what I have to say is worth hearing. It must be. After all, I’m saying it. (I hate myself a little for being so haughty.)

But that isn’t the main reason I ignore my need to breathe–it’s merely what I like to tell myself so I feel like I’m valued.

The reason–or at least a deeper reason–is discomfort. I don’t know many people here and I don’t like that. It’s uncomfortable. Wherever I go, I feel like I don’t belong. And I know it’s true: I don’t belong. There is no way I could since this is only my second week in the city. Comfort comes from familiarity, and I must endure this discomfort to get past it. There is no other way for me to gain comfort while I live here.

I say “gain” deliberately. Comfort, I’m finding, is something added to my mindset. Comfort isn’t a default setting: it grows like a tree in a backyard. Most thoughts and feelings I cultivate, but comfort isn’t in my care. I don’t control comfort. It simply grows; and like all times I’ve felt out-of-place, it won’t seem like long before I can’t remember the last time I felt uncomfortable here.

Comfort comes from trust. It comes when I trust I know the area around me and the people around me. But there is a deep comfort which I can have even as I sit in my as-yet-ungrown garden of discomfort. This deep comfort comes when I trust God to take care of me where I am. It comes when I remember He is with me in all I do. He is always leading me and helping me grow in faith, humility and wisdom. Sometimes God places me where I feel I belong, while at other times (like now) He gives me just enough peace of mind to allow me to keep moving forward. Deep comfort is available when I choose to trust Him, and circumstantial comfort grows in His time and through His work, not mine.

For now, comfort hasn’t pushed past the top layer of soil. So I’ll keep holding my breath, trusting my good Father to give me a chance to breathe again precisely when I need it.

Vagabond Christian

The song “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit soundtrack is stuck in my head, and its haunting my thoughts. Though I’m a big fan of the Lord of the Rings, this isn’t the reason I’m thinking so much about it.

Like Bilbo in The Hobbit, tomorrow I’ll be going on an adventure. It won’t be a quest to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon (I could include so many more quotes from the movies), but it will be an adventure nonetheless. I will move to Wenatchee, WA, tomorrow, a city of which a week ago I knew nothing. After losing my last job in August, I have now moved on to another job in the center of the state. And if you know much about Washington, you know the center of the state has little in common with the green, urban, ocean-hugged west side. This will be a new experience for me. A new chapter has begun in my life.

Yet I cannot claim this accomplishment myself. God has done all the work. He has provided for me yet again. In February I told Him I was desperate to get a job, so He answered with a job in an architecture firm near Seattle. That required moving north, but I was still near many friends and my family, not to mention several large cities. Then I lost my job at summer’s close, and prayed the same plea to my Father in heaven. Again He answered, but now He is pushing me further away from comfort: this time, He is leading me to a city where I can think of only one person in a fifty-mile radius whom I know, where there is much more land taken by mountains than by skyscrapers, and indeed where I couldn’t point out on a map six months ago.

My biggest concern isn’t any of those things, though. My biggest concern is what I will do to connect with the body of Christ, his Church.

When I moved to Redmond in February, a dear friend from college who lived nearby introduced me to a church of which he seemed very fond. I quickly grew to enjoy the group of people also, and made plans to become more involved in the community. However, when I lost my job, I had a hunch my time with those people would not last much longer–and when I received the offer for the job in Wenatchee, my hunch was confirmed.

Now that I will move to a city where I had never been before last week, what do I do? And what do I do with the people I met and befriended in Redmond? For that matter, what do I do with the people in all the churches in which I have been part?

This is the reason the constant relocating is causing me to feel weary. I moved to college. I moved away from college. I moved for a job. I moved away after losing the job. And now I am moving for another job.

That is quite a bit of moving, and I am losing energy to establish myself. My resolve to plant roots is wearing out.

I don’t think the moving itself is causing this fatigue. If I planned to wander from area to area, I am certain the travel would invigorate me. But I haven’t planned these moves. Each time I relocated, I expected to stay in the location for a long time. Yet never yet has that been the case. Each time I hope to stay somewhere, the hope uses some of my vitality. And with so much vitality gone, I don’t know if I will retain the ability to feel like anywhere is home.

When I feel this discomfort and disillusionment, Jesus’ honesty about his life comforts me: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Even now, as I prepare for the long drive tomorrow, I plan to bring blankets and a pillow in case I need to sleep in my car. As of now, I haven’t signed a lease on a place to live, since Wenatchee is experiencing a miniature modern-day exodus: masses of people from the northern regions of the state are seeking shelter after their homes burnt down earlier this year. This is making places to live hard to find. I will stay with the one person I know in the area for a little while, but I fear overstaying my welcome and as such am prepared to rest my head on my steering wheel.

Even as I think about it, though, my fear is losing space in my thoughts to the excitement. This is an adventure–a real-life adventure! Uncertainties, dangers, constant travel, a dragon: all of it comes with being on an adventure (though the dragon might not be in this one). My future looks dark, yet I am eager to follow God as He guides me through the darkness. He has always provided for me before, and I know He will continue to provide. His provision will at times come in unusual forms, but it is provision all the same.

Soon, for a while, I may have no place to lay my head. But this is a worthless loss compared to the joy of following my Lord. He is the Suffering Servant, and he has called me to follow in his stead, even to follow him to death. I will learn more what it means to suffer as I follow him, and I will also learn more what it means to live in his Kingdom, a kingdom where shalom–peace–comforts and satisfies all.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In this world you will tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

// John 16:33