This is our story
I remember the first time I felt that I was in the presence of God. It was incredible, like nothing I’d ever experienced. I felt pulled away from this world and into a new one, all while staying right here, with two feet on the ground. The worries, troubles, and anxieties of this life started to look as small as the world below me when I take off in an airplane. I felt alone, but so beautifully united at the same time. It was silent, yet I’ve never heard a louder voice than God’s in that moment.
You may not be surprised to learn that this experience happened when I was alone. Many subsequent experiences with God have happened while I was alone. Eventually I came to believe that I didn’t need “Christianity,” “Organized religion,” or even the Church. I just needed me and God, that was where true spirituality was meant to be.
I was wrong.
The Whole Picture
What I have learned since then is that when I feel as though I’m swept up by God and caught in a beautiful moment with him, I am also caught in a far more beautiful story of all of existence, surrounded on all sides by people, culture, tradition, and history. Here’s how I experience it now:
Above me, God is there, smiling, drawing me further toward him. But when I look above me to the left and right, I see angels rejoicing at my salvation. Thousands of them, too many to count. And when I look beside me, to the left and right, I see other people, some belonging to ancient civilizations, some belonging to preceding centuries, and some have walked with me in this life. They are all pushing me, and I them, toward the God that is pulling us. Below me I see the world that hasn’t yet felt the pull of God and the push of his saints. They are part of this story too, they are part of the humanity that belongs with God, and not with sin.
In my experience, the Christian faith has become poisonously individualized. All the beauty of Jesus is drained if you force him to be your individual savior. Let us walk backwards through some of the history and tradition of Jesus and his people and see how he is no individual savior.
In 1975, Banner of Truth Publishing released a volume of works compiled during the 1940s by Aruthur Bennet. It was a collection of prayers from American and English Christians from the 17th and 18th centuries. The book is called Valley of Vision, I have a copy here on my shelf. It was given to me by Lanier and I read it alone and with my friends.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Church started to remember what they had forgotten: that God is for all people, and not just the rich and European. The Reformation saw a bombastic surge in the knowledge of God and his story being made available for all people.
In the 4th century, the Desert Fathers, a group of devout men, inspired by Origen of Alexandria, sought wisdom from God in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. They built a monastic society and lived together in harmony, seeking unity with God and each other.
In the 1st and 2nd century, the people of God were fueled by “the breaking of bread,” and the “public reading of Scripture” (Acts 2:42, 1 Timothy 4:13). The community was formed by their collective identity as the saved of Christ.
In preceding centuries, God and his story made its way through the people of Israel through collective storytelling, remembering, and tradition keeping.
In all the history of God’s people, and from the design of God himself, people are meant to be together, sharing his blessings and living his story.
So what happened? How did we end up so isolated?
In the enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th centuries, the people of God took a confusing turn away from each other and into their own little corners. Thus we get the Invictus line “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Now we just want to be alone, and triumph as an individual, we feel as if the group of God’s people somehow invalidates our own experiences.
We Need Each Other
We need to wake up from this. Individual faith cannot exist, nor should it. When you are alone on a mountain with your bible, you need to remember that thousands of people were involved in the writing, copying, translating, printing, publishing, and distributing of that bible. Without each other, none of us would have ever even heard of God. We would be stuck in a vague awareness of his essence, as Romans 1 describes. So God gave us each other. And we need to be aware of one another and rejoice in and with one another, and submit ourselves to each other.
This means looking around you to the people of God in your world (those you know now and those you don’t yet know). But it also means looking behind you to the people of God in history, with all of their flaws, virtues, and strides.
We are not just individually saved. Yes Christ has saved me, but that is not the whole truth. Christ has saved us.
Tune your ear to hear the story that God is telling, and that we are all telling. Become a part of it, and recognize and rejoice in the other parts of it.
Get a copy of Valley of Visions and read a short prayer each night. Get some ancient Christian poetry, connect with the Mothers and Fathers of our faith. Listen to an old hymn and think about the people who sang it. Find a West African worship song and consider what God’s people are doing around the world. Text a friend and ask her or him to meet up soon and talk about Jesus.
You are not an individual, we are a people.