I’m a little terrified of my friend Nathan.
He’s not physically scary. I mean he’s kind of a brawny, weight lifting type of guy, much like myself if you’ve seen the video from Cross Point. And he has a breakdancing ministry in inner city Atlanta so clearly it’s not a pop n’ lock issue. It’s just that he tends to ask tough questions. He tends to say things that make me uncomfortable. And that’s exactly what he did at Willy’s a few weeks ago.
We went there for a burrito because unlike Chipotle they don’t charge you for chips. (At this point in the history of burrito consumption, I feel like charging extra money for chips is like a restaurant asking you to pay for the use of a fork. Boggles the mind really.) During lunch I was telling him that I felt like I had hit a spiritual wall. I was stuck. There wasn’t any one thing I could point my finger at, some neon issue I had jumped back into with both feet, but for some reason I just seemed off kilter.
After hearing me ramble for what probably felt like 19 years, Nathan asked me simply,
“Where is all this stuff going? Your quiet time, your study, your reading, your Bible work? Where is the outward expression of your faith? Who are you serving right now?”
Ahh come on. I don’t want tough questions. I want easy friendships where I show up and you show up and we tell each other how awesome we are. “You’re a fantastic Christian!” “No, you’re a fantastic Christian!” I don’t like questions like that.
But as I thought about what he asked, I was confronted with the reality that I really only want to follow the first and greatest commandment. Are you familiar with that one? In Matthew 22:37-38 a guy named Jesus says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”
I am down with that verse. When I read it, I think to myself, “Yes, that is what I am talking about! I will focus inward and learn to love the Lord with all my heart and my soul and my mind. This is fantastic. I can twist this into some sort of God-flavored self improvement course. This will be like a Biblically based version of that productivity book I’m reading right now, ‘Getting Things Done.’ I’ll find a quiet spot, cocoon myself in self effort and just go to town growing my faith in a little greenhouse of me.”
That’s what I want to do. But Jesus doesn’t stop thought there. I want him to. I want him to drop a hard period at the end of that sentence and move on to walking on water or multiplying fish with his bare hands. “End scene Jesus, end scene!” I want to shout. But He doesn’t get down that way. He follows verse 38 with this gem about the second commandment:
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Nards! Really? There’s a neighbor involved? Can’t I just go on a deep spiritual retreat to a cave in the desert where I grow a beard, and live alone as I work on my faith, perhaps keeping a wolf as my only companion? I’ll name him “Timber” after the one Snake Eyes had in GI Joe. Can’t I turn the Bible into a self help book and God into a self empowerment guru? Can’t this faith thing just be about me?
But it’s not. There’s a second half to that thought. There’s a neighbor and a call to love and an outward expression of faith and Nathan challenged me on it.
The truth is, I sometimes want my faith to be like a bonsai tree, the miniaturized versions of trees made famous in the Karate Kid movie. I want to manicure it and study it and prune it and move piece by piece around with tweezers, never once taking my eyes off the small little tree and refusing to admit there is a forest outside my window. Never once admitting that there are deep woods all around me. Never once realizing that I walk through groves of trees every day that need to be loved and served.
Is there an inward direction to faith? Is there a place for being deliberate about your heart and your mind and your soul? Without a doubt. I don’t think Jesus made a mistake when He called loving the Lord the most important commandment. I think the internal life is a critical part of our faith experience. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He didn’t end the thought with that foundation. He didn’t end the thought with a single tree. He jumped into the forest. He finished by calling us toward our neighbor. He ended by calling us toward outward love.
And whether I’m afraid or lazy or selfish or a million other things, I can’t escape from the fact that He wants me to have more than bonsai faith.