Updated: Feb 6
As a southern woman, I was taught the art of perfection. I was groomed to be polished – defined by acting with grace and being well mannered. The fear of changing the status quo was communicated by the celebration of history. Southern men were asked to protect the image of our culture. Southerner's value family, faith and patriotism. We worship a romanticized past. All of this creates a perfect picture. The picture is painted with various landscapes. The core of the picture is an idealized view of how we perceive ourselves.
This picture of perfection is carried into the church. I learned about God at an early age, like every good southern child. My family tried to foster my faith through Sunday School and Christian camps. I loved going to church. I even pretended to be a priest when we played "wedding." I believed in God, I just didn’t want – or didn’t fully want to understand – to follow God’s call to love my neighbor. I was willing to love my family, friends and those neighbors I understood. The radical call to love my neighbor and Jesus’ explanation that extended that love to all people frightened me. Following God, meant engaging with the world and that was not something I wanted to do.
But my refusal to obey his command to love my neighbor, all people and the world deprived me of the richness of knowing Jesus. I didn’t know Jesus, because I was afraid to get messy.
Engaging in the World
Freshmen year of college, I joined a bible study with the ministry in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My friend’s discussion about racial injustice and poverty challenged my world view. I just wanted to believe in Jesus, to feel his comfort and to continue to live my picturesque life.
My judgmental opinions about the rest of the world broke through my nice façade when I joined our fellowship delivering thanksgiving meals to low incoming families. It was okay to give to the poor. Writing checks and serving the homeless allowed me to pretend to care for the world. But engaging in the systematic poverty that forced the children I met that day to use broken lawn chairs as furniture made me uncomfortable. My culture had taught me that anyone could succeed. My culture had taught me the world was fair. My faith had taught me that my only responsibility was to write checks and to say brief one-line prayers.
In the face of those children, my culture’s teachings seemed false and my faith seemed inadequate. I was forced to choose to sit down on a broken lawn chair and to fall in love with these children, throwing out my neat faith or to hand over the meal and walk away from God’s call to love his people that would cost me more than dinner.
I was afraid to engage in God’s heart for the world because the pain did not seem worth it. Through bible studies, service projects, long conversations about theology at the dining hall, my picture of God began to expand. He wasn’t just a ticket into heaven. He wasn’t just my personal comforter. He was so much more. As I met the real God – who was too big for my world view – loving God meant loving the entire world.
For some of us who live in the South, we want the freedom to sit in the pew every Sunday, to believe in Jesus, know that he died for our sins and be allowed to disengage with God’s heart for his people. Afraid of what might happen if we begin to engage with Jesus’ heart for the world, or unaware of God’s call for us to love all people, our culture misses God’s invitation to experience the richness of his kingdom.
God is the creator of heaven and earth and we are his. His son’s death allows us to experience the richness of heaven. And that belief must lead to action. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:4-10)
To know God fully, we must be brave enough to follow him.
God is calling us to believe in the gospel and to do the works he has prepared in advance for us.
Saying yes to loving all people has shown me God’s kingdom. When I chose to sit down on the broken lawn chair, the children welcomed me into their home. Waiting for their parents together showed me a glimpse of their lives. There was no neat message. I wasn’t the white savior to bring these kids out of poverty. They were not precious beacons of hope that taught me a secret about Jesus. We were just messy people engaging in conversation. As the walls that separated us began to crumble, I experienced the hope of the kingdom of God and the richness of partnering with God.
The Richness saying Yes
The journey begins when believers choose to believe in the gospel. I believed in God before my freshmen year. But it wasn’t till I started to follow God that I became God’s disciple. Boiling down the great commission to making converts creates the lie that Jesus’ work in our lives is finished. This bastardization of the great commission has led many to believe the gospel without knowing Jesus and experiencing God’s kingdom.
We are called to be Jesus’ disciples. We are called to follow him into our world. He gentle walks with us giving us opportunities to say yes to knowing his father more fully and to say yes to being his hands and feet in this broken world. He wants us to continue to press into the journey even when he takes down roads we don’t expect.
We can’t just believe that Jesus died for our sins that belief must compel us to engage in this messy world and love all people. The journey to say yes to being God’s disciple isn’t easy, but it is worth it.