Losing the Label

The old scientist told us he spent his early years studying beetles. 

But that all blew apart one summer when he retreated to his cabin, high in the mountains of Scotland, to work on his beetle collection (he didn’t explain how one does that). There, on a lazy summer afternoon, he spread his cases of beetle specimens on tables and sawhorses in the grassy clearing near his cabin. 

Then, as he bent over to work on a particular display, puffing his pipe, an eagle swooped down and shrieked; its enormous shadow darkened his field of sight. In that seismic moment, when he looked up at the majestic wingspan, he knocked his specimen cases to the ground. Beetles popped out of their spaces and were instantly “gone with the wind.”

He told us he never looked down again. He devoted the rest of his life to eagles.

My Eagle

I understand. I’ve been known as a “Christian” since one Sunday morning in my 12th year when I “accepted Jesus” in an emotionally intense service. Later, when our family drove down to my grandparents’ farm for lunch, my Grandma smiled, pulled me into her apron, and said, “Gonna be a little worker for Jesus, aren’t you?” 

But I did not want to work for Jesus. I wanted to be a boy. And I knew God didn’t need me. But, like a beetle pinned to velvet, over time I fell into squirming and then soul-deadening conformity with my religious culture.  

Then one day, without warning or permission, The Eagle dropped from the sky and screeched over my beetle boards. From that moment, I started losing my identity as a “Christian.”  

Why?

The Christian label implies the search is over, that it’s all been established and stuffed; Christianity has become the taxidermy of the Christ. That label also isolates Christians from those who are not. But the main problem is the exchange of institution over family. 

Is Christianity a Family?

When the Bible references the relationship between God and His people, it speaks the language of family—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. 

But while Christian culture uses those terms, family is simply not its first language. I mean, my dad never pleaded with me to become a Chinn. Nor did he ever explain the rules of being one. I never made a decision to accept Dad. 

And although Jack Chinn died, he is still here. I see him every day in my mirror; I hear his voice every time I speak. In an astounding mystery, now I am him. In a very real sense, my brothers and I and our tribes now comprise his body in the earth. Over the years, Dad has been formed in each of us. He will be with us forever.

     Shouldn’t a relationship with God be at least as natural and familial as that?

      Look; I don’t have a Chinn “worldview.” My memories of Dad and the documents of his life—his war diary, letters, hometown newspaper articles, taped messages, etc. —do not form a grid through which I measure other people or perspectives. 

       Furthermore, if I must proclaim my parentage to everyone I meet— “Excuse me, sir; I’m Jack Chinn’s son. Could I share what my father said?”—the village will soon and correctly consider me nuts. 

High Flight

There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to become Christian (or Muslim, socialist, vegetarian, or Texan). But the cerebral or conventional approaches to faith are dead beetles compared to His life being birthed in us (Galatians 4:19).

You don’t have to groan, grovel, or grunt your way into the Lord’s family. We are all free to be fully human. You can soar up into a high-altitude life, confident in your paternity, and knowing you can live far above the claustrophobia of religion, politics, self-preservation, fear, and futility.        

      Settle it once and forever; like an eagle, you were created for the updrafts of grand adventures. Ironically, that life was best described 80 years ago, not by a theologian, but by a military pilot, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Read his poem, High Flight, as a sketch of soaring in full confidence into the Presence of God:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

10 thoughts on “Losing the Label”

  1. Oh yes, Ed! Your words strummed the strings of my heart! I completely agree with you. Institutionalized Christianity is so very foreign to the God and Father of us and our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I love it that He, Father, Son and Spirit, in Triune Oneness is always in my mind — even when I’m not thinking of Him. He is on my tongue and the words that flow off it, even when I’m not speaking of Him. Like my my earthly father, those who are still alive and knew him, can hear his tone and inflections when I speak — even when I’m not speaking of him.

    The Bible says: “He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1 Cor. 6:17). He and I walk together, think together and talk as one person so much of the time. THAT is my primary form of prayer so much of the time. As a “son of peace,” I walk into an encounter our visit a home. He enters with me as aura of peace and encouragement. I look for Him in different forms when I encounter family, friends or strangers. When I (we) come near another “Presence” of “the Son and Prince of Peace,” a joining of common fellowship happens. It’s amazing!

    When I encounter a fellow follower of Jesus who is too institutionalized in his/her Christianity, many times I have difficulty finding “the Son of Peace” in them, because so many have an agenda or a template in the lens of their view of me. They want me to attend their church meetings, or analyze how “holy” I am. It makes me sad to see that humanized “programming” in my brother or sister. I wish they could act more like “the Father of our spirits,” so we could find a common flow of life and delight as His kids.

    So thank you for this wonderful word picture that brings us this reminder of who we are and how unnecessary institutionalization is.

  2. I feel honored to be identified with Christ. But I do struggle with its exclusivity because of sincere and goodhearted people of other faiths and of no faith, who, by shunning Jesus Christ, have a bleak afterlife according to the Bible. From my experience coaching people online and my understanding of the Bible, it can’t be right to be Christian and Muslim. They aren’t compatible. To be one is to oppose the beliefs of the other. I saw this played out with a young man from Egypt who was unable to shake the loving grasp of God’s Holy Spirit as he put his life on the line for Christ at the great cost of surrendering his familial relationships. Jesus redefined those relationships for us when He said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

    1. Thanks, Tim. I too am honored to be identified with Christ. My concern relates to the culture that grows up around the living core of our faith. It does become a sort of taxidermy of the we love and seek.

      So much of all this really comes down to what we see. I look forward to more lunches with you to explore what we each see about Muslims…Methodists, and Mormons! 🙂 I know we both want to see them the way the Lord does.

      And I also know I don’t see as clearly as I must.

  3. Ed,
    Our long and enjoyable friendship has endured and grown because of articles like this. Your writing style says a lot about you. You are one of the luckiest people I know. First because you have found your foundation in faith, and next because you knew from a young age that you would be a writer. I consider it a privilege to have been behind the scenes in some of your work. I often reflect upon the wonderful talks we have shared while under God’s canopy of stars when the hot tub temperature reached elevated degrees nearly as high and hot as the thoughts you put on paper. “bon travail”

  4. Thank you Ed for showing us that our walk with God is one from our heart and not necessarily to a proscribed set of beliefs we are taught. Such a relationship from the heart allows us to soar with eagles and beyond and proceed through life with the words from Micah 6:8 as follows:

    “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

  5. Dean Hockenberry

    After reading this I went to my Bible and reread Matthew 5 in order to get Jesus take on this subject. The things we see that indicate a person is a Christian we’re not mentioned by Jesus. There was no mention of types of clothes, jewelry, hairstyles, mannerisms or local affiliations to a group of believers. The Christian Jesus described would not fit in such a small well defined box. It becomes easy to see what the world see’s when they look at what we call Christ’s church. Christ’s life and relationship to God compelled him to spend his time with the lost and broken. His ministry was in sharp contrast to the religious system God’s chosen people practiced.

  6. Whatever shall we call ourself? Or is it “selves,” plural? You see, already, a tangled mess of words. Or is it, “mass of words”?

    I’ve always preferred the underground lifestyle. Toads, moths and lizards live a very unannounced life. They just—well—blend in. No fanfare. Instead, a quiet realization of, “Oh! Would you look at that! A toad!”

    Not that words serve no purpose. Of course they do, like a picture frame displays fine art. Rod Stewart sings the preeminent version of Tom Waits’ love song, “Picture in a Frame”: “The sun come up, it was blue and gold, ever since I put your picture in a frame.”

    Framing does make a difference. “Would you look at this!” it says. But a frame is not the Thing. No, the frame points to the Thing.

    Astronomers love the stars. Doctors love medicine. Biologists love toads and moths and lizards. They love things that shine brightest to them, and they frame that Thing, helping frame that picture so the rest of us can see.

    Words, are sometimes challenging. The linguistic Christian-ese, is difficult because we humans try to embrace great mysteries. What shall we call ourselves? And what does it matter, except for linguistic shorthand? What really matters is not the frame itself, but the Thing it points to, hidden away and worth seeking.

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