I knew a woman who was allergic to dust-and just about everything else. Elaine was a veritable canary in a coal mine: Put her in a house with any spore count that registers and you could skip the take-home test kits.
I have developed a hypersensitivity of a different kind. I sense when Jesus is slipping away from a place. I know that sounds prideful, but the only reason for my acuteness is that I slipped away for decades.
My condition manifested not long ago at a formal seminary dinner. Conversations around the table broached every subject under the sun but Jesus. The after-dinner speaker waxed of venerable "traditions." Something wasn't sharp somehow.
I don't think I'm imagining this. At a banquet of truckers for Christ, I knew right off the bat that it was all about Jesus and not about the organization; the excitement for Him was palpable. You don't know off-white until you see white next to it.
Meanwhile, back at the seminary affair, a pastor at my table said triumphantly that a congregation he works with used to be "evangelical" but is now "Reformed." I couldn't share his enthusiasm. I wanted to say: "Do you even understand what a small club ours is? Outside these walls, no one has even heard of 'Reformed.'" (I wondered what the floating waitresses thought of our celebration of "Reformed schools.")
I cannot get excited about greater market share of the "Reformed" brand. Just give me Jesus. If you think that's naïve-or even dangerous-I'll tell you what I think is dangerous-identifying myself in public for the hundredth time in a row as "Reformed," rather than as a believer in Jesus. Not just dangerous to my hearers but to me. I might start believing it! Let me get a little guts and call myself by the name that gives offense: "Christian." By the name that saves: "Jesus."
When I am asked to speak at retreats (which may be less after this), they want to know if I'm "Reformed." Oh, I understand the question is just a shorthand way of ascertaining my orthodoxy. Any crackpot can say he loves Jesus. Still, which doctrine is it exactly that we fear? Is it Pelagianism? I admit I will talk to the women about pressing into Christ. Is it that I will have too much to say about the Holy Spirit? I promise to say only what's in the Bible.
If habitually calling ourselves by our denominational names is not exactly what Paul rebuked in 1 Corinthians 1:12, then what is it? "I am of Wesley," "I am of Calvin."
A mission-support worker to the Ukraine wrote that during one of his stays he attended an adult Sunday school class where the topic for weeks was Reformed theology. "I'm not taking issue with Reformed theology," he wrote me, "but it saddens me that we Westerners come into a foreign land with the desire to inculcate some system of Christianity in people who have essentially no knowledge of the faith and even less experience in thinking 'body of Christ.' OK, fine, teach the Bible as you understand . . . , but don't put labels on that which will, for certain, have believers thinking 'we and they.'"
I spoke at a retreat last year, and we had a good time together, and the women broke precedent by inviting me back. A week later I got an email with an apology: The women's group had to invite a speaker from another Presbyterian denomination. Never mind that there's not a dime's worth of difference between our two Presbyterianisms. And never mind that I can talk all day about Jesus without needing to veer into controversial waters.
The Lord shared His heart with Isaiah: "This one will say, 'I am the Lord's,' another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, 'The Lord's,' and name himself by the name of Israel" (Isaiah 44:5).
Will there be a day when no one will say, "I'm Baptist," "I'm Lutheran," "I'm Reformed." They will say, "The Lord's."
When I told a friend about my disinvitation from the retreat, he said, "Nothing will cure that but persecution." And then he added, "Or revival."
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