Monday, September 17, 2012

First Impressions


Author, storyteller, and pastor Philip Gulley says that for a brief period in his life he was a Cub Scout. He joined under the false impression he would be given a pocketknife. His scoutmaster was the Pastor of the United Methodist church in town. Each week he required them to repeat the law of scouting. So they all said: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Then he would add, “Just like Jesus.”

He explained how Jesus was like a Boy Scout. He camped outside, cooked over a fire, helped people, was kind to the elderly, obeyed his mother (I might add, except for the time when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and his parents spent several days looking for him, which, by the way, is the only childhood story we have of Jesus), and went to church. Gulley says that image of Jesus as Scoutmaster stuck with him for several years. 

Most people reading this were taught about Jesus from an early age. Many people live their whole lives with these childhood, Cub Scout, Sunday School images of Jesus, and never serious examine or question them.

Isn’t it strange how many Christians allow these first impressions of Jesus to solidify into firm convictions and dogmatic doctrines? We wouldn’t do this with other persons we first meet. We know that people are complex and that often our first impressions are mistaken. Or if we are not mistaken, our first impressions only skim the surface and never capture the fullness and complexity of the person. We know that only time and the deepening of the relationship that involves multiple encounters will reveal other aspects and dimensions of the person.

And yet, while many of us know this, and are willing to have our first impressions altered and changed with regard to persons we have come to know, we are not willing to do that with Jesus of Nazareth.  

I sometimes wonder how many people worshiping in churches across our country on any given Sunday hold to the same views, the same beliefs, the same images and ideas that were first impressed upon them by parents, Sunday School teachers, Cub Scout leaders, pastors, church training leaders, etc. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with first impressions. We have to have a beginning. We have to start somewhere. And it is certainly possible that many of these first impressions may have been positive, healthy, and transformative images of Jesus. I hope so, but then, maybe not . . . probably not.  Therefore, it is vital to our spiritual health and growth that we be open to reassess our understanding and beliefs, and our values, practices, and lifestyle based on these beliefs. 

I am no one’s judge, but it seems to me that very few Christians are open to having their beliefs questioned and challenged. I suspect that such closed mindedness is a major component in their spiritual stagnation. They haven’t grown in years. They keep repeating the same negative patterns and attitudes, they keep harboring the same biases and prejudices, they keep perpetrating the same shallow and superficial answers, and they become very defensive and protective of their beliefs and way of life.

In Mark 8, Peter, acting as the spokesperson for all the disciples, confesses Jesus to be the Christ. In the next statement Mark says, “And he (Jesus) sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8: 29–30). They really had no idea at this point in their relationship with Jesus what kind of Christ he was. While there was no standardized portrait among them, the picture of a royal, Davidic deliverer was fairly popular in the Palestinian Judaism of Jesus’ day. Their first impressions lacked understanding and depth. So when Jesus speaks about rejection, suffering, and death, they were not ready to hear it (8:31–32).

When I was in seminary in Indiana years ago, I pastored a small rural congregation and lived in their parsonage. Everyone around me had a garden, so I decided to have one too. I made a good start. I set my boundaries, tilled and worked the soil, planted, and then became totally preoccupied with school and ministry and family, pretty much in that order, and completely forgot about the garden. Well, do you know what happened to all my plants? They were overtaken by weeds, by these strange plants that came up all on their own, and they strangled and suffocated and choked out the good plants (Sounds like a parable doesn’t it?). They drew the life out of them. The good plants did not have space or room or opportunity to grow.

Some Christians have hardly grown in their relationship to God and to what God is doing in the world because they have allowed their first impressions, their early images of God and beliefs about Jesus to strangle out any new images and beliefs that could make their relationship to God and God’s kingdom more dynamic, vibrant, and transformational. Old images choke out the new. The result: Enthusiasm wanes. Dreams die. Energy dissipates. And spiritual entropy sets in. Or worse, spiritual energy gets misdirected causing more harm than good.

If the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, that Jesus called the kingdom/reign of God, if that gospel is going to heal us and change us and propel us into a new, more transformative state of spiritual awareness and consciousness, then we must lose, we must let go of some of our biases, first impressions, and childish beliefs and create some space, some opportunity for some new ones, more mature ones, to take root, grow, and flourish.    

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