Buddy Christ: Conductor of the Great Guilt Machine

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There is a great degree of peace that comes from not only knowing who you are, but also in finding a Christian community that embraces who you are while helping you to improve your obedience to Christ.  In my personal journey of faith, I have experienced this peace most poignantly after making a transition from what has come to be known as a “low church” setting to what is called the “high church” setting.  Let’s get the formalities out of the way, first.  High church most commonly refers to how a church conducts its worship services.  They typically incorporate the church calendar into a pre-determined order of service and annual order of services.  They typically incorporate some form of worship vestments, ritual, and other such accoutrements.  They typically conduct their worship in buildings that one could consider more architecturally sacred or traditional (as much of the liturgy actually plays off the layout of the worship space).  All of this informs the “high church’s” ecclesiology and theology as well.  Just how that liturgy informs one’s theology is precisely the point of this post.

First, perhaps most importantly, I do not intend to speak pejoratively of the Low Church tradition.  I have not come to think of “low church” as meaning unsophisticated or less intellectual, which is often the case when folks use the term.  I use the terms low church and high church in their appropriate sense, as described above.  Nonetheless, there is an interesting shift in perspective that seems to have taken place in my move to the high church.  Indeed, it is the reason making the move has proven so spiritually healthy for me. 

Much of the Low Church practices what I like to call “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.  For the sake of clarity, I am not accusing all Low Church Christians of practicing “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.  In fact, I have healthy relationships with a number of people that seem to be able to function within the Low Church tradition without being affected by “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.  Now, in fairness, I have many, many more friends in the Low Church that are completely and irrevocably invested in “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.  And, frankly, it serves them well.  Until you have been part of a congregation comprised of the poorest of the poor – the dregs of society, that comes together on Sunday and rejoices that they have a Savior that is friend and brother, I am not sure you can really appreciate the value of the Low Church.  However, though I have seen plenty of my own personal poverty, I am not wired like anyone that benefits from “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.

Here’s the inside track on “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity.  These Christians actually have a relational experience with Christ that functions in the place of deep, fulfilling human relationships.  However, if you can imagine the relational guilt and frustration that comes from having a close friend snub you, then you can understand how the Low Church brand of “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity became a toxic environment for me.

I have never felt guilt over anything like I did when I would hear friends; pastors or relatives speak of their “relationship” with Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t whisper in my ear throughout the day like my bff.  He doesn’t greet me in the morning with gentle encouragement like my wife.  He doesn’t hold me in his arms and comfort me like a parent when tragedy strikes.  Jesus isn’t my best friend.  And until I figured out how that played into who I am, I lived a guilt-ridden existence. 

I have prayed much penance, and I have performed much personal punishment, and I have cried out in anxiety on many occasions, because I was left thinking that Jesus didn’t want to be my best friend since I didn’t experience those things.  You can imagine how distressing that must be since another essential doctrine of the Low Church is how damn much Jesus loves everyone and everything, except apparently (I thought) for me.  So, needless to say, once I was able to remove myself from that environment, life got a bit better.

Consequently, the high church seems to fit who I am.  I don’t know if I have some raging, uncontrollable ego; if I am incorrigibly greedy or if I am just so stubborn (perhaps none?).  Nonetheless, I need God to be bigger than me.  I need God to be transcendent and awesome.  I need church to be sacred and the things of Christ to be holy.  I need there to be deep reverence and ceremony – not because it is “better,” “smarter,” or more “correct.”  I need those things, because that is who I am in Christ.  It is how my heart worships.  I get lost in the wonder and mystery and terror that are the worship of a holy, awesome God in a high church setting.  Jesus isn’t my buddy; he is my True Lord, my High Priest, and my Exalted King.

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18 Comments

  1. This is similar yet different than me. I actually did have what we might call that “Jesus is my buddy” kind of feeling almost everyday in high school. I had it when I led worship, when I prayed, or when I played by myself. It was really very intimate.

    My two years in Master’s Commission sort of ruined it. The summer after my first year I began to crash all through my second year and on to now; I’ve had a steadily growing sense of absence.

    While I’ve had the “guilt” feeling about it more I’ve had a feeling of abandonment. As if God has left me. But that’s not entirely accurate. I still have periods of intense love and affirmation, but it is far more spread out and slightly ambiguous. I actually do think that God has done this to grow me. Such a feeling is in continuity with the bulk of Christian spirituality and conforms to a “Word” I had received. Rowan Williams titled his history of Christian spirituality “The Wound of Knowledge” and that’s pretty much how I feel.

    On a similar note, having been raised my whole life a Christian, I’ve never had a “Conversion Experience” which I think disqualifies me from being truly evangelical.

    Excellent and revealing post Shawn.

    Reply

  2. Tony,

    I appreciate your transparent nature, because, honestly, I think there must be more people who feel that kind of abandonment than admit it, which has always bothered me. I wonder how many Christians leave whichever iteration of Christianity they experience (because, let’s be honest, those who benefit from “Jesus is my best friend” Christianity would flounder in the high church) feeling let down and never get direction to seek out the other forms of Christianity. How are we at fault? I wonder if a (hypothetical) unified catholic Church that took these things into account and offered appropriate support wouldn’t close the back door of our churches (to borrow terminology from the church growth movement).

    “The Wound of Knowledge” sounds exactly like what I experienced, and what those old Pentecostal ranchers warned that college would do to me. :0) However, they didn’t have the appropriate experience to know that it was coming anyway. They just think it is something that you stave off with hard workin’, hard prayin’, and hard preachin’.

    peace

    Reply

  3. Shawn,

    This is a good and gracious reality check (and an incredibly cheesy picture blending the worst of Evangelical and RC kitsch). A sentimental Jesus as our best buddy is not adequate to the reality of the world in which we live and, when we are honest with ourselves, the realities of our own hearts. We need someone bigger and wilder.

    C. S. Lewis has a wonderful image in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer in which he compares our spiritual lives to slogging through a dense forest. We know more or less in what direction to go, but it is often slow or difficult or boring. But, every now and again we come upon a “patch of Godlight” in which there is a differnt kind of warmth and clarity. As you might expect of Lewis, he warns against the temptation to camp out in the patch of Godlight. That would not be good for our continued maturing in Christ. Rather, we soak it in when it happens with thanksgiving and then get one with the more mundane day-to-day reality of slogging through the forest. Thus, many if not most of us are sustained by the memory of the last patch of Godlight and the anticipation of the next. in any event, faithfulness is not about how we feel.

    The prayer masters of old spoke of God’s
    “consolations” which cannot be manufactured but only received by God’s grace. Of couse many of those same masters spoke of “desolation” and the “dark night of the soul” as being part of the process.

    I also grew up in the church and have no one conversion experience to point to. And much of the time believing, prayer, and obedience feel like a slog. But, thanks be to God, by God’s grace, I have also had a handful of powerful and (trans)formative moments of consolation.

    Reply

  4. Shawn, thank you for this post. It was incredibly well written and honest. I also appreciate that you explained the terms “high” and “low” and managed to also explain some of what can be seen in a “low” church setting without bashing those who relate to and benefit from that. I know I already said this but I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you for writing it.

    Reply

  5. I went to a private Christian high school, and got to deal with this sort of thing all the time. To get in, I had to fill out a form which asked me to describe my “conversion experience.” I felt vaguely guilty, since I had never had one. Every real Christian who had truly “given their heart to the Lord” was supposed to have had some powerful, emotional “conversion experience.” This would be reiterated at the chapel services we had to go to every week, when we were supposed to get all emotional while singing contemporary worship songs.

    I forget now how I dodged the question on the form, but the form itself became a sort of personal symbol for my misfit status. Whenever I felt out of place during a group prayer or worship service, I saw myself back in that school office wondering what was wrong with me.

    Reply

  6. Jordan,

    re: “Whenever I felt out of place during a group prayer or worship service, I saw myself back in that school office wondering what was wrong with me.”

    Well, you do sort of look like a cat.

    Reply

  7. what a fantastic post. way to share your story.

    i come from evangelicalism, had a ‘conversion experience’…even led worship in the rock genre.

    now i go to an episcopalian church.

    you’ve inspired me to sort through my own experience and blog about it. thanks.

    Reply

  8. I was one of those Christians who had the unusual mystical experiences with Christ. I had heard his voice, strongly felt his presence and occasionally carried to ecstatic heights in prayer. So I always felt comfortable at the group meeting where people shared their concrete personal relationship with Jesus. Though I would never speak of my inner life in public. Later I would meet folks who felt guilty for no such experiences. Though I was a little surprised that they did not feel these things, I agreed with them that such experiences were not central to their Christian walk, I just thought of mine as icing.

    It was years later that I realized that some of us are just prone to those experiences no matter what are religious/philosophical stances are. I came to conclude that it was more of a mental disposition trait than an actual transportation to a spiritual realm.

    Last night, over a fine heavily-hopped pale ale at a local pub, a buddy asked me if I ever look in the mirror and have that strange feeling of not recognize your own face. I told him I have had it about a handful of times over the years and how the experiences were always pleasant and pushed me into deep reflection. Well, he said he had it daily since he was young and he hated mirrors because of it. The experience was not pleasant for him.

    Neither of us were experiencing something spiritual, I think, but instead we were discussing the geography of the minds we walk around in.

    Reply

  9. @ Sabio,
    “Wow, Shawn can actually write in plain English, be forthright, deeply personal and moving ! Well done chap ! (I like your non-”academic” side much better)”

    Thanks, Sabio. I’m sure I don’t need to explain it, but I think 90% of the academic writing/reading done in this world is at the behest of a university. The other 10% of us that do it for fun/enjoyment are probably clinically ill. So, I’ll take your encouragement and try to balance out the academic stuff with more personal stuff. BTW, I just knew all of my academic research was in plain English, forthright, deeply personal and moving – so I have to get over that initial disconnect with your statement. 😉

    “I was one of those Christians who had the unusual mystical experiences with Christ. I had heard his voice, strongly felt his presence and occasionally carried to ecstatic heights in prayer.”

    I appreciate these little glimpses into your background. I hope I didn’t leave the impression that I never have “mystical experiences.” In fact, I think my own personal mystical experiences have driven much of my academic foray into the field. However, I am sure that you’ll agree that the occasional mystical experience does not constitute the kind of ongoing relational contact that some Christian’s experience, which, of course, is what I have never had.

    @ Matt,

    “This is a good and gracious reality check (and an incredibly cheesy picture blending the worst of Evangelical and RC kitsch). A sentimental Jesus as our best buddy is not adequate to the reality of the world in which we live and, when we are honest with ourselves, the realities of our own hearts. We need someone bigger and wilder.”

    I honestly cannot teach anything (well, say anything even, really) about C.S. Lewis’ picture of Christ in Aslan without getting choked up. When it comes to discussing the conversation about Aslan that Lucy shares with Mr. Tumnus where they draw out the sentiment that though he is good, he is not tame; I am often moved to tears. That is the Christ I have come to know in Christianity. The tension drawn out between One that is all at once so wild, even terrifying, and also so good is central to my conception of God. Thank you for your constant encouragement. I am always very thankful for the words of wisdom and experience that you lend to our conversations.

    @ Summer,

    Thank you. As you have noted, there is a great deal of value to be taken out of Low Church traditions. I would be doing myself and our readers a disservice to try and deny that. There are some things about the Low Church that I miss. I’m not going to be invited to participate in a worship band in the cathedral any time soon, and I love to play the bass in that context. So, as we already knew, all of life is a trade-off.

    @ Jordan,

    I teach in a setting like that (with perhaps two differences – we are inter-denominational and we are college-prep, so my classes are run as much like college courses as can be done with 16 and 17 year-olds), and I wage a personal war against the people and practices that create that kind of situation for my kids.

    @ Joey,

    I am honored to have inspired you!

    Reply

  10. Irony !

    BTW, I just knew all of my academic research was in plain English, forthright, deeply personal and moving – so I have to get over that initial disconnect with your statement. 😉
    — Shawn

    Sorry. Is it me? I don’t know what that means.

    the kind of ongoing relational contact that some Christian’s experience
    -Shawn

    What do you think that “ongoing relational contact” is Shawn? How do you analyze that since you don’t have it? I spoke to the Lord in prayer many years — I would have alone time with God in the mornings for a Bible reading followed by long prayer. I would search for that feeling shift in my heart as a sign of the communications (since I rarely heard voices) and called that a deep personal relationship because I felt guided, felt deeper in touch because of reading his Word and felt I had surrendered and felt forgiven. Was that “ongoing relational contact?” What is the believer doing in their mind, do you feel if they don’t have something special that you didn’t?

    Reply

  11. Sabio,

    No, you understand. Yes, I would call what you have described as “ongoing relational contact.” However, I would also differentiate between what you have expressed and those momentary or fleeting mystical experiences that leave you changed. I believe what I am trying to describe as a “mystical” experience is what Matt was getting at with his comment when he said – “consolations” and “patches of Godlight”.

    I have had those momentary experiences when I feel one with God. It is like my whole being has been absorbed into the presence of God, but it is far more existential than like I imagine having buddy Jesus walk around with you all day must be.

    and, you caught me, “How do you analyze that since you don’t have it?” I am basing my statements off what others have told me. So, there may certainly be a breakdown in communication in those regards.

    Reply

  12. @ Shawn
    I seem to agree with you, to put it way too simply, but that there two different mind states

    (1) Personal
    This is the daily walk with Jesus experience of praying, reading, searching feelings and feeling forgiven, connected and personal.

    (2) Unitary or Absorptive or …
    Mystical states which are very different than normal states of self-talk and emotions and hard to describe.

    I still have #2 but not #1.

    and, you caught me, “How do you analyze that since you don’t have it?” I am basing my statements off what others have told me. So, there may certainly be a breakdown in communication in those regards.
    — Shawn

    I wasn’t trying to catch you. I was curious. Maybe I didn’t ask clearly. So, if you don’t have #1, how do you explain (to yourself) what others who claim to have #1 are doing. Here are the options I see (expand them please if you have others):
    (a) they are imagining this phenomena
    (b) they are really having a personal relationship with Jesus/God that Shawn doesn’t have.

    I get how you feel the high church stuff gives you a grounding you felt you missed in light of #1.

    Reply

  13. Sabio,

    In light of my own mystical experiences (I was a full-functioning Pentecostal, don’t forget), I tend not to question things people say they experience too much so…

    “Here are the options I see (expand them please if you have others):
    (a) they are imagining this phenomena
    (b) they are really having a personal relationship with Jesus/God that Shawn doesn’t have.”

    I would answer (b).

    However, I must also confess that it is not purely a “generosity” issue. If a schizophrenic tells me that there is someone in the room talking to him, I believe that he is experiencing someone talking to him. If someone distraught with grief tells me their recently lost loved one visited them in the night, I believe that they experienced their loved one’s visitation. I don’t feel the need to always qualify those experiences with what “actually happened.” I am no materialist.

    and just as an aside:

    “I wasn’t trying to catch you. I was curious. Maybe I didn’t ask clearly.”

    I didn’t have a negative feeling about this, I wasn’t really trying to “get away” with something, and I don’t think you were being confrontational. Sorry I worded my response poorly.

    Reply

  14. BTW, I was a charismatic tongue speaker too, if you forgot. I would put those experiences in a totally different category of mind activity. They were not “mystical” in the way I previously used the word. Were they for you? Wouldn’t you agree they deserve a third category? Actually, I think the amount of categories is probably a bit larger too.

    So, If you think the answer is (b) then how do you evaluate believers who have a personal relationship with Krishna (for instance). Same question — they pray, read, imagine the feeling of communion and feel personal deepness and love. You generously feel those who call themselves Christians must be feeling what they tell you they are feeling. What do you do with Hindus doing the same? How, in your honest moment (when they aren’t listening) do you evaluate them?

    Reply

  15. Sabio,

    I would stand by my claim that charismatic experiences are “mystical,” because of the intent and theological purpose behind why we have them. However, it is not a point that I think prevents me from understanding what you’re saying, and I would agree to an extent.

    I have been thinking about your question for a few days, and I think the simple answer is that I think people who claim to have experiences have them. So, I do think that Hindus claiming experiences with Krishna (do they do that? I don’t know) are having experiences. I’m not going try to qualify what the experience was actually about. Something I do find extremely interesting, along these lines, is the testimony of those who have been Muslim or Hindu and had a visitation (in the form of a dream or vision) from Christ – that sent them seeking for this “Jesus” person. I wonder if there are any Christian’s turned Buddhist that would cite such experiences?

    Reply

  16. A slight change of direction. Let me give some background only to make sense of what I’m going to say at the end…which has everything to do with those personal experiences attributed to Christianity.

    I come from a background where baptism is chosen by the baptized as an initiation into Christianity.

    Now I’m in the Episcopal church, which baptizes infants.

    I have a strong appreciation of catholic theology regarding the baptism of infants, but other theological hang-ups leave me unwilling to baptize my kids without their own desire. These stem from a stubborn belief that grace is big enough to not worry about their discipleship and a strong belief that baptism is an act of political allegiance…which can only be taken willingly.

    I don’t want this to become a referendum on baptism and hijack this excellent post…all this was preface for this part:

    My son Kyler just turned 12 and was telling me that he wanted to be baptized. I asked him if he understood what baptism is and talked to him about death, burial and resurrection. To be fair, I gave him as many reasons not to get baptized as reasons to get baptized. Counting the cost.

    In particular, I told him this:

    One day you will wonder why you got baptized. You will look out at the world and think to yourself: “I’m not sure God exists. I’m not sure that I’m willing to follow Jesus past this point.”

    And that is when I and the rest of the Church will say to you, “It doesn’t matter. You are no longer your own. You made a promise and you are bound to keep it no matter how you feel. That’s the faith you signed up for…to die to yourself and to live by things unseen (or in this case, unfelt).”

    This attitude of mine is probably a reaction (overreaction?) to the emotionalism of my youth…which never served me well in times of depression or serious paradigm shifts.

    It’s time to see Christianity as something more like adoption or marriage or citizenship (metaphors that are scriptural). To break an adoption or a marriage or citizenship, it takes more than a vague feeling that you made a commitment that you no longer want to keep, or that you’re not sure you fit in.

    No, it takes an act of will that says: “I’m not going to keep my promises anymore.”

    Of course, there are reasons that certain promises can be broken. However, the very nature of all these promises (especially, in my experience, getting married or having children), are that you have NO idea what you’re getting into when you make them.

    It is no small thing to break a promise. Especially in a Jewish religion such as Christianity. YHWH is a promise-making God.

    Reply

  17. Writing that out made me realize something funny…

    Before someone is baptized, I see their feelings as fairly important in the equation. They are an individual, so to speak.

    After someone is baptized, I see their feelings as secondary or tertiary. They are interdependent, so to speak.

    It appears I believe that crucifying yourself high individualism might be a significant political meaning of baptism in this age.

    Reply

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