by Jonathan Merritt (a summary by Pat Evert)
Holy expectation I had a moral obligation to do as much for God as possible before He came back to rescue the chosen few and obliterate everyone else. This was essential to staying on the Almighty’s good side. Other days, church felt like pure drudgery, a predeath purgatory. After graduation, I sensed a call to serve God vocationally, and seminary seemed the most logical place to start. Ministry had become a job and that’s when the emptiness came. The God I met in the Bible loves surprises. I was ready to encounter this unexpected God. At Pentecost a wind swept through the room, they breathed it into their lungs, and when it came out again, it made words they did not know they knew. Sparks like struck flint flashed above their heads and made flames, and the commotion was so loud that people rushed from every corner of the neighborhood to see what was causing it. After a while, the uproar died down, but not before several thousand believed. “Call to me, and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.”
1 – Christ in the desert: Encountering Jesus in silence “If there’s anything you need, let us know and we’ll teach you to live without.” In Scripture, the desert is often God’s chosen meeting place. He called Abraham and commissioned Moses in the desert. He led John the Baptist to dwell there, converted Paul there, and allowed Jesus to be tested there. With God, the desert often becomes a sacred space, and in each divine desert encounter, the person leaves changed. Rest in God. Perhaps God had been speaking these words for weeks or months, but only now was I able to receive them. For the Christian, silence is more than an effort to retreat from noise. It is an opportunity to lean into God. To sense His presence in life, to notice the contours of His intervention, to express our reliance on Him. He needed to stop talking in order to fully hear what God was saying, in order to receive what God was about to do in his midst. learn to grow comfortable with God in lonely places, much like our Lord did.
2 – And a might wind blows: Encountering Jesus in His sanctuary God considers the whole world His sanctuary. “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” First, God has a penchant for imperfect servants. Jonah is not an exception; he is the rule. The Bible is a series of narratives where God uses short-tempered, shortsighted, and utterly flawed people to accomplish His will. There was Moses the fugitive, Rahab the prostitute, Samson the player, Jacob the deceiver, Naomi the depressed, Thomas the doubter, Paul the murderer, and Peter the impulsive. Each is an unlikely disciple, but God has a habit of restoring the world through broken people. “God can’t do that because it violates the system I’ve accepted.” But as the grumpy prophet reminds me, my limitless God loves breaking out of the prisons I construct for Him. Keep your eyes peeled, Jonah might say to me, for God will show up when you least expect Him. God wanted to wow me and woo me and love me and surprise me, but I wanted to manage Him. He wanted to expand my capacity to encounter Him, and I wanted to control Him. No wonder the relationship often grows strained.
3 – Cereal Snowflakes: Encountering Jesus in mystery at the end of the logical pavement is a stretch of asphalt called “mystery,” and it can only be traveled, not explained. He can be known but not comprehended, experienced but never fully explained. What the sun is to human eyes, God is to our human minds. Even as I embrace God and He reveals Himself to me, the mystery remains mysterious. Thus accepting that through it all God can still be trusted. In the repetition of the gift, I learn that God often comes in the mundane and the rote. Jesus shows up in the mystery of crisis and the rhythm of the ordinary. Faith calls me to welcome the mysterious, to rest in the uncomfortable tension of a God who is both known and unknown. This kind of faith doesn’t require an explanation for why I’m wandering in the wilderness; rather, it trusts in the God of the wilderness despite the absence of answers. The downside of their miracle meal was its sameness. The rub came when they hoarded food even though He promised to provide a fresh supply each morning. “Eat this fruit,” the serpent tempted, “and then you’ll know the answers.” For when I arise with the sun to discover life’s What is it? scattered on the ground, I can still trust that God has placed it there and that I will experience Him as I eat. Jesus is the true manna in the wilderness. He is the holy mystery, the divine What is it? He transforms my desires into opportunities to experience what truly satisfies. “Take and eat,” He said. Not “Take and understand.” clinging to God in the absence of answers? Often my greatest need is not to find an answer, but to simply be. To take and eat, knowing that the miracle isn’t in the gift but in the One who gives it. “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”
4 – Mountains beyond Mountains: Encountering Jesus in the Impossible when I am not daring to believe God for the impossible, am I missing out on miracles?
5 – A Thread Called Grace: Encountering Jesus in Honesty. Did my childhood abuse shape my adolescent and young-adult experiences, or were those parts of me already there? At everyone’s core— is a desire to be fully known. My secret was intended to shield me from experiencing more pain, but it only isolated me from those with whom I needed to share my true self. I became more a performer and less of a person. A group of my friends came to pray with me and over me. That evening, I became more “me” than I’d ever been. In order to release my secrets, I must uncurl my white-knuckled fingers from deep desires:
• My desire to be perfect
• My desire to be liked
• My desire to be in control
• My desire to be successful
Without releasing these desires, my shame will keep my secrets locked up and convince me they can never be disclosed. God was setting me free by calling me to a place of honesty. And through my liberation, He was freeing others as well. Honesty has a way of humbling us, and it has me. It has softened my heart. As I’ve been honest about the bruised and broken parts of myself, the openness has become a doorway for God’s healing.
6 – Dying to Live: Encountering Jesus in Waiting Periods of waiting are not passive, hands-in-pocket interims. Rather they are the times in life when God is preparing us for a spiritual upgrade. But a tree is always waiting. That’s all it knows how to do. And while the tree is waiting, the river is on the move. And so it is with God.
7 – The Last Lullaby: Encountering Jesus in Tragedy. “So this is how You treat Your friends; no wonder You have so few.” God did not create sheep to be dumb, but He did create them defenseless. Sheep are designed to respond to the voice of their shepherd. Jesus did not live like I’d expect a God-man should. He became a God who suffered— an unheard of concept to the ancients and one that is foreign to modern readers still. Buddha died peacefully at eighty years old, surrounded by his friends and disciples. Confucius also died an elderly man, and he’d gained prominence as a Chinese sage. Muhammad died in the arms of one of his wives having become a powerful ruler of many in Arabia. But Jesus’s life was snuffed out at a young age when He was executed by the most brutal means. Then I realize that unlike the song I sang in church as a child, Jesus is not “the all-time, undisputed, undefeated champion.” Instead, He is the Broken One, the Suffering Servant, the One who meets us with a visibly scarred body. And the longer I live, the more I find myself limping behind Him. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “The way you recognize the Christ— and His followers— is not by their muscles, but by their scars.” He’s witnessed how tragedy can forge unlikely friendships and even bring God glory. Chasing after Jesus in this perilous world often means being led to places I’d rather not go. But it also means that I won’t have to go there alone. When Jesus languishes on His cross, He teaches us that tragedy never has the final word.
8 – Revelation at the Ping- Pong Emporium: Encountering Jesus in Sacrilege Rather than a vibrant adventure of knowing and loving God, it is a rigid, formalized, power-seeking, oppressive way of trying to be good or look good or feel good. But faith knows better. Faith knows that God’s calling card is surprise and that what many label as Christianity is just baggage we’re forcing true faith to lug. No wonder Jesus found himself at bitter odds with the most “righteous” and “religious” people while He was on earth. He frequently disregarded the law and the religious establishment with such boldness that reading the Gospels often offends our Pharisee hearts as much as it did our religious ancestors two millennia ago. Jesus was a rule breaker and so were His disciples. What matters is how I love God and others. But the homecoming turns out much different than he expected, a contrast between true faith and the spirit of religion. The younger son returns to his dad — humbled and disgraced, asking for nothing except the father’s embrace — while the elder son is so consumed with anger that he can’t count to ten. What we often call religion pursues God for the wrong reasons (to be right above all rather than to be loving at any expense). But perhaps most devastating, it is focused on the wrong person (the worshiper rather than the worshiped). Despite the heavy burdens, I’d executed my religion with near perfection for years. But I’d wandered through life estranged from true faith. The religion I practiced was quick to condemn, slow to offer grace, and weighed down by need to be evermore holy. In my Ahab-like pursuit of piety, I paid little attention to those in need. When Jesus selected his friends and those who would inhabit his inner circle, He looked outside of the religious aristocracy. He picked outsiders and rebels, zealots and tax collectors, sinners and scandalous women. Jesus loved everyone, I am sure, but He didn’t seem to like the Pharisees. The Pharisees, like many of their modern descendants, sequestered themselves from nonbelievers, lawbreakers, and the lower classes. Jesus gets in line with them. Jesus did not just call sinners; He identified with them, befriended them, Maybe that’s one reason Jesus often had disdain for the religious establishment— because He spent so much time with people who’d been hurt by it. “No matter what form evil takes, abstain from it.” Jesus liberates me from the ball and chain of religion and releases me from a cold life of moralistic perfectionism. This kind of God is almost too incredible to accept, and yet there He stands nonetheless. I’ve neurotically worked my religious fingers to the bone and robbed myself of the joy of knowing Jesus in the process. I yearned to trade a system of divine formulas more concerned with constructing arguments than opening my arms to a God who transcends human logic. CHURCH pushed me from striving for God’s acceptance to relishing the living God; the hypocrisy and judgmentalism and oppressive where people have given up all pretense of being perfect.
9 – A Tableless Home: Encountering Jesus in Absence There is no human remedy for moments of spiritual darkness and silence.
10 – Easter Remembrances: Encountering Jesus in Church. The church had proved so out of date that it had become one of many options for their spiritual growth. At best, they were disinterested; at worst, disillusioned and distrustful. If God died for her, I felt like I should find a way to live with her. “Paul is saying, ‘All of you together are a singular temple for the Holy Spirit,’ that while in the Old Testament, God had a temple for His people; in the New Testament, God has a people for His temple. I should strive for a relationship with the church that is both permanent and personal. That’s why two of the primary metaphors for the church in the Bible are the Body of Christ (permanent) and the Bride of Christ (personal). Attempting to have communion with God and not His bride would be an act of cosmic divorce, faith communities can be as painful as they are grace-filled. Sticking with it isn’t easy. But as time goes on and new people join us, chemistry changes. We have a choice to run or stay. Maybe she would have learned how to forgive, how to suffer, how to love better. I’d forgotten that church was not a landing place but a launching pad. Not a finish line but a starting block. I’ve let go of the unfair expectations I’d placed on a community faith was learning to experience God in the everyday and the all the time, not just during Sunday gatherings. In order to experience Jesus in His fullness, to see Him as He is and not as I had imagined Him, I have to keep searching for Him in the unlikely gifts I receive each day.
+ A Prophecy in 13B To live with wide eyes. Expectant. Scanning horizons and peeking around corners, looking for God in the unlikely places and faces. Maybe today will be the day.