Perhaps your experience was something like mine of growing up in religion. I was raised to have a sense that a religious life was something part family, part duty, part social life, part time alone, all generally arranged as a menagerie of “externals.” That part of our conversation with God involving “I” was generally taken to be something very personal and not invited, or wanted, as something to be shared.
Of course you could walk that personal path openly, but it might mean being a bit misunderstood by those around you.
Life in the church was often about “life as expected.” Thankfully that life was also about making sure that church events had some smidgeon of fun and socializing, with some efforts being made to scratch at the deeper, more curious questions of life; there were also nods to put to bed the nagging conscience, so that there was always a “should” lingering along the edges of a deeper life with God. And that is why we had our “tickets punched” at the religion booth down at the church.
I was certainly taught that “going to church” was supposed to mean something, but was never really given any sense of what that conversation was meant to be much beyond these externals. There is no blame here, simply a recognition of the “spirit of the age.” In my case, Lo and Behold, this little delinquent began listening to what was being said in Church, as I sometimes flipped paper footballs across the aisle as an acolyte and sat in the choir stalls making jokes; in the midst of the rambunctiousness I felt the sun rising on a conversation that God was actually having with my life. I was as surprised by this as the folks with whom I was going to church, my family and friends.
Finding this introduction to God’s presence unavoidable, I looked for mentors and models who seemed to have some taste of that peace which passeth all understanding; I wanted what they had. And so I dove in and began the search; I made something of a hobby of buying books and collecting stories of folks who had had conversion experiences, who had turned a kind of corner in life; for me, as teen-ager, a young man, and now a minister, there was a kind of proof and evidence in hearing about what other unsuspecting believers had experienced of You – of God. Here is one of the stories I found:
Manfred George Gutzke, was a Canadian Bible professor, who had been a boxing champion of the Canadian Army in his youth, which meant that he was a big and powerful man. Everything about him seemed oversized: his huge hairless head, his enormous eyebrows, his low gravelly voice, his sweeping knowledge of the Scriptures. He would often leave his students spell bound by his knowledge of the Bible and the stories of his life. Over time he became a teacher of preachers.
But it was not always so, Manfred Gutzke had not started out religious in any formal sense. For many years he was an agnostic. Yet in the years when he was teaching in a one-room rural school on the prairies of western Canada, he began to be a seeker, wondering whether there might be a God and he could know him.
He was especially impressed by a devout farmer who moved into that small community. This man sold two cows and donated the proceeds to missionary work on the annual missions Sunday. This was cause for amazement at the small prairie church, where most of the farmers came because there was nothing better to do on a Sunday morning. Most of them stood outside and gossiped with their friends until long after the service began. But this new man arrived carrying a Bible, went straight into the church, and bowed his head in prayer.
This kind of faith, something direct, something with a simple trajectory, made an impression on the young teacher. One afternoon after school, making his way across the fields to his boarding house, [Gutzke] was struck by this thought: If God exists, then he can see me right now!
“I stood in that field,” he writes, “and pondered that thought. If God exists, he could see me. So, I took off my hat! That may seem strange, but like most men in those days I wore a brimmed hat, and I always took it off in the presence of women, older people, or other important persons. So I took my hat off to God and then I prayed: God, I do not know whether you are there or not. And I don’t mean anything bad by that. I just don’t know. But I want to know, and you know that too. So please show me if you are real.”
“I felt,” he said, “as if something very important had happened.”
Then he put his hat back on and made his way home.
Manfred Gutzke had turned one of the corners that I found myself turning as boy, then a young man, and still turn as a pastor and priest. And still, to this day, those corners might feel like first steps; feeling like a young man standing in a field and taking off his hat.
Manfred Gutzke paid attention to God—the God who was already paying attention to him. And before much more time had passed, he would come to prove in his own life the affirmation of Jesus, “Seek and you shall find,” and the promise in Hebrews 11:6 of a God who “rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Story found in Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life (IVP, 2008), pp. 79-80
Sometimes our knocking at the door where Jesus is waiting is simply like hitting the reset button in our lives; taking a moment to remember that first sense of “naiveté” and innocence that we felt when we realized that God IS God. Lent is a time when we are all giving one another permission and encouragement to press that reset button.
You don’t have to . . . but you can; Jesus is giving the invitation to return to the field, to the place and time, where we may have found ourselves taking of our hat and thinking of the farmer, the cows,can go back out into that field and think of the farmer, his cows, the church and the missionaries, and how the good Lord is watching all of this all of the time. Even at the end of the busiest of the busy days, God is watching the farmer and the cows and the young man in the field, just as God is watching me and you and all those with whom we live.
Each day that we live we are one day closer to meeting that watcher on the other side of the door that is both deep within our hearts, as well as standing in the midst of our daily words and actions.
Jesus is telling his friends that the Watcher on the other side of that door is a friend, is as curious to come to know, perhaps just as we are curious to know him. And that to truly live, live that life toward which the externals is pointing, is to knock on that door, take off our hat, and get to know Him. No real living begins until such an introduction takes place.
I have always been simply fascinated with Helen Keller; the woman who was born blind and deaf, and yet through some miraculous events came to discover not only other people living on the outside of her prison, but God living with her inside her prison. She once said,
When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.
Helen Keller in The Faith of Helen Keller. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 1.
My friends – there is not another day; it is today. Our eternal life with God is today. Don’t simply settle for staring at the closed door and calling it religion. Knock, as the man says, and the door will be opened.