A Lifeboat, the Circus, and a Relational Jesus

I just finished the book Searching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller.  I came across this book in a most unusual way.  While vacationing for the weekend on my wedding anniversary last month, my family and I stayed in a hotel in the Des Moines area.  Since I have recently relocated to a small town 100 miles away, the idea of returning to an old familiar stomping ground to stay at a hotel where I knew we would all have fun, sounded great.  One morning, after a free continental breakfast with 60 other hotel guests packed into a room the size of a large closet, I decided to go out for a walk and stretch my legs.  I walked across the street to the near-by movie theatre and went inside.  All three of my children were with me, so I wanted to see if the theatre had an arcade.  Anything to pass some time and keep them busy.  When I walked in, I noticed that a church had set up in the theatre (after all, it was Sunday morning).  I was greeted by a nice young lady behind a folding table with a name tag ... Nicole I think.  She welcomed me in and handed me a new visitor bag, and inside was the book that I mention above.  I let it stay on my desk for a number of weeks after my family and I returned home.  But finally, one night, I cracked it open.  After all, maybe God wanted me to wander into a movie theatre with a church in it and pick up this book, right?

Searching for God Knows What is exactly what the title suggests.  Miller has written this book (I think) for people who are looking for something better than what they currently have, but don't necessarily realize yet what it is they truly need.  Miller is aware that there are many people who have no interest in the church.  He knows that there is a portion of the population that pays no homage to the pious religious types that frequent churches.  Instead, he talks in a straightforward fashion about what it might be like to actually know God, and what this could mean for our lives.  Before you attempt to lump this book into a pile with the rest of the emerging church "God is good, religion is bad" books, I suggest you give it a read.  It really is something unique. 

Donald Miller opens by telling stories from his own past.  He discusses a class he had in elementary school, where his ethics teacher posed a question to the audience.  Her question was this: if you were stranded in a lifeboat with a small group of people, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save everyone else, who would you choose to discard?  I'm not sure that I have ever had a class like this in grade school.  I'm not sure what I would do if my 9-year-old came home and told me about something like this.  It is odd to say the least.  Miller admits that he cannot remember who they decided to throw overboard.  He said that they began asking questions like what were the occupations of the people, how was their physical health, etc.  The idea of each person having his or her own unique value and being equal never came up - only how each person stacked up compared to the other people in the boat.  My daughter recently studied the Titanic in her own 3rd grade class.  I wonder if situations like this actually happened on that night in 1912.  I really do wonder about it.  Would you or I have been tossed into the water?  What would the criteria have been back then?

Miller tells this story to illustrate the point that people nowadays (and in days past also) pay far too much attention to external comments coming from others around them.  If we work hard and someone tells us that we did a good job, then we feel uplifted.  But if the very next day, someone tells us that we could have done a little better, we are devastated.  We are constantly being judged, and in many cases even doing the judging ourselves (whether we like to admit it or not).  This world is our lifeboat, and we are always sizing up the competition.  Sometimes we consider ourselves a winner, and sometimes a loser.  And these  little lifeboat scenarios keep repeating over and over.  Miller argues the reason we do this is because we have lost our direct connection with God ever since the Fall of Man thousands of years ago.  Since the time that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, our connection to God (at least to some degree) has been impaired.  And so it is that you and I have begun to rely on other people's opinions to define us.  We want desperately to win at the lifeboat game.  We want to be the last one in the raft by the time the Coast Guard comes by with the rescue helicopter.  The best house, the nicest car, the most adept at work ... you get the picture.  The lifeboat presses on.

Miller then switches gears and begins to talk about his memories of the Circus when he was a child.  How stressful it was to watch the trapeze artists, and by contrast, how relaxing it was to watch something as solid and massive as the elephants.  No tight-ropes for these animals.  Just a few cheap gags for the audience, and then back to their cages for food and water.  And when it was over everyone applauded the performers.  If you could walk the high-wire, or ride your motorcycle around and around in a metal cage, or even if you were simply the bearded woman - at least you accomplished something and filled a niche.  People rewarded these circus acts with praise.  His point was this: that we are all running around like we are in a circus.  Performing for one person or another, for one job or another.  Always trying to be the best at something.  To fill a niche.  The joke is on us, however, because the harder we try to obtain "applause" at something, the more we crave other people's opinions.  This is fine as long as we are receiving praise, but it also means we fall that much harder when we experience rejection.  The lifeboat still matters to us.  We run around like monkeys (as Miller says) in this circus, hoping to rise in hierarchy up the ladder and stay in the boat.  I wonder at times, whose boat is it anyway?  God didn't create it.  I think you and I did.  I think we were never meant to exist in a lifeboat.

So how do we escape?  When I was in grade school, I was truly awful at little league.  I'm happy to say that my kids seem to be superstars at baseball, but as for myself - no dice.  I would always throw the ball to the wrong base.  Once I even swear I saw my coach throw his hat on the ground after just such an occasion.  All the while the "grown ups" in the stands going berserk because their little Timmy wasn't able to make the winning play at a baseball game for 4th graders.  At times like this, I would simply go home with my parents and cling to my mother or father for support.  I felt better at home, it always relaxed me.  My mother would cook one of my favorite meals and I would sit by my Dad in front of the T.V., and life would be okay again.  My success didn't come from anything I personally accomplished, but rather from my relationship with my parents.  Searching for God Knows What makes a similar point.  We need to re-establish our link to the God that can rightfully supply us with the only interior voice that matters.  Knowing Jesus is a relational thing, not a quantifiable one.  Miller says on page 161, "In a culture that worships science, relational propositions will always be left out of arguments attempting to surface truth.  We believe, quite simply, that unless we can chart something, it doesn't exist.  And you can't chart relationships." 

Many of us have come to prefer the lifeboat.  At least the pain it provides is comfortable and "reasonable" to us.  It doesn't involve any of this emotional God stuff.  But the problem is that it doesn't accomplish anything in our lives.  If we want to get out of the lifeboat and quit the circus, then the key to our escape lies in our ability to get to know someone, rather than to accomplish something.  And that is the catch.  Miller says that the mystery of the Gospel is that salvation comes through a relational Jesus, and not a rule book Jesus.  Now don't misunderstand.  Miller still mentions baptism and repentance as important components of the Bible, but he mentions them in a way that buttresses a relationship with Christ.  Not in a way that attempts to earn our way to God of our own accord.  The nature of a gift is that you don't earn it, it is merely extended to you.  And this is what God's grace is.  

On the last page of the book Miller gives the following invitation to his readers, "I hope you will join me in clinging to Him."  He is speaking here of holding close to Christ in a truly relational and personal sense.  And I think that is often what we need to do.  When the line between the "churchy" things that need to be done, and the personal things that bring us closer to God becomes blurred, err on the side of simply clinging to Jesus.  Pray to Him, talk to Him, love Him.  It's okay if you don't have a PhD in New Testament theology.  God gives you permission to leave any such placard or diploma behind in the lifeboat.  The closer He draws you to Heaven, the sooner you will begin to see doctrine as a road map which helps you along to something greater, but doctrine is not the greater thing itself.  The end goal is a relationship with God, not just a knowledge about God.  And He doesn't care if you don't always throw the ball to the correct base.

Too bad we couldn't just get away with memorizing Scripture and going to church.  It would seem easier that way sometimes I think.  But then we are back in the lifeboat.   



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