Spiritual Baseball: the unlikely path to intimacy with Jesus


Snark MeterrealMID.003Every once in a while you meet someone and immediately sense they are wise and grounded. One of those for me was a Roman Catholic youth pastor. We met some fifteen years ago at an outdoor cafe. While the coffee cooled he made small talk by mentioning the Protestant activities his children were involved in: Awana, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, and attending a Christian high school. I laughed and probed just a bit: Was he a wanna be Protestant? He laughed back and said, “Absolutely not. It’s just that it is pretty hard to come to faith in my Church.” His answer baffled me. Why, I asked, would he choose to be involved in a church in which it was hard for his children to come to faith? How, I wondered, did he not see himself as making my point for me? The jovial youth minister grinned again, handed me a pen, pushed a napkin toward me and said, with the hint of a smirk, “Make a list of your ten favorite authors.”

I scratched names on the napkin until he reached over and grabbed the pen, and said, “Ok, I’m stopping you at fifteen. I notice that of your fifteen favorite authors, thirteen of them are liturgical Christians.” I had never heard the word ‘liturgical’ and didn’t want to admit it, so I glossed over that detail and asked him what his point was.

He asked, “Why do you like those authors: Nouwen, Lewis, Temple, Wesley, Chesterton, Wright, Manning, Stott?”

“I guess because they write as if they have intimacy with Jesus,” I said.

He answered without hesitating, “Exactly,” he said, “I’m in my Church because it is how you become intimate with Jesus.”

“O, come on!” I objected.

He pointed at the napkin and reminded me it was my list. He then said something that took me a decade to understand, “If you want true intimacy with Jesus, it will probably happen in a liturgical church: Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, old-school Lutheran.”

We sat there another half hour and I decided that what he was saying is that if the spiritual life were a game of baseball, then first base is a relationship with Jesus. If one does not get on base, nothing else matters. That was why his kids were in evangelical activities. Second base might be knowing the Bible. Third, giving your life away in service for God and the Kingdom. But a “home run,” in the Christian life, is intimacy with Christ…what the Orthodox masters call “theosis” – a fulfillment of the image of God. I left that meeting wanting to “make it home,” but without the least awareness that, for millions over the last 2,000 years, the “home run” I longed to experience has been a common one in liturgical traditions.

And yes, I do realize that statement sounds arrogant and just plain incorrect to evangelical ears. After all, every evangelical church in America has a healthy collection of members who left the liturgical world precisely because they hadn’t gotten “on base” in a liturgical church.

What you may not realize is how non-normative the American 4 song/sermon worship format is in the scope of things. For 3/4 of Christian history, the liturgy was the only form of Christian worship. Even today, nearly 3/4 of the Christians on the planet worship God in the ancient pattern of Word and Sacrament. That doesn’t make the liturgy better, worse or more or less biblical, it does say that what most Christians know as “worship” is a bit of an outlier.

I am not saying that liturgical churches are perfect or have more holy people or that there are not dead liturgical churches…I’m fairly sure that dead liturgy might be the worst sort of dead. Just that for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

…for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

I didn’t understand what my Catholic friend was talking about precisely because I had been to a liturgical church a few times and found it repetitive and, frankly, numbing. What I discovered was that the power is precisely in the repetition…that, as a rough rock in a stream becomes a smooth stone from years of water flowing over it, the Christian is formed into the image of God when we surrender ourselves to the three-fold pattern of daily immersion in the Scriptures, weekly feeding in the Eucharist, and the annual cycle of the Christian year, combined with contemplative practices like those of the desert fathers. I have found that these are re-orienting my perception of reality, the way I view time, life, and the world around me, in ways that words on a page cannot fully capture. It is freeing me to love those who oppose me and work for the good of those who seek my harm.

You may not be interested in walking the path to the ancient Church, known in Anglicanism as “the Canterbury trail.” I was not either. Ironically it is a journey that has given a depth to my walk with Christ that I never imagined. Like someone who has never tasted ice-cream, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What about you? If you have walked with Jesus for several decades, is intimacy/spiritual union something the church you worship in is nurturing in you? In what ways, corporately and individually are you finding intimacy with Jesus? Or have you, like many, given up on intimacy with God as having a corporate expression? If so, I invite you to the sandlot to play ball.

Batter up.


14 thoughts on “Spiritual Baseball: the unlikely path to intimacy with Jesus

  1. I come from a Calvinist background (Dutch Reformed) which, while placing a strong emphasis on liturgy, has stripped it of all symbolic meaning (at least in South Africa). For me it has become a dead liturgy and for many others as well – many churches in SA have thrown out the liturgy completely and become more evangelical in their approach. Funny thing is, I don’t feel at home in these “renewal” churches either.

    Reading Robert Webber’s Worship is a Verb in which he emphasises over and over again this worship model of Word and Table to which you also refer, I’m starting to realise why that is. I need the liturgy for the sake of my relationship with God. The evangelical style of worship is fun, sweeping you along with music and charismatic preaching. The Calvinist tradition has a depth of theological teaching. But neither is what I need in my walk with God right now. Problem is, I can’t seem to find the kind of church that you and Webber are talking about.

    • Hi Kokkie,

      Thanks for commenting from the other side of the world!

      You are describing a recurring problem: how to embrace all that has been right with the body of Christ in our worship without getting stuck in the limitations of the particular forms. Everything has an unanticipated downside…rote liturgy vs prayed liturgy. Calvinist theology that lifts up grace vs theology that assumes superiority to others. Evangelical liveliness vs shallowness. Symbol as everything vs symbol as nothing.

      Some is different strokes for different folks. But some really is a polarity of ecclesiology which insists on maintaining traditions vs one which insists on doing whatever fills the pews. My gut tells me that those polarities that are really damaging to us all: believer and unbeliever alike.

      In our little corner of the world we are trying to figure out how to have the container of the safe, vetted words of the church with the music of the young. It works great for us at camp, where we have 60 churches worth of talent to draw from. It is a struggle in our tiny mission church, where our bench is always thin, due to size.

      Thanks for thinking this through with us. Blessings!

      • You make an important point about polarity. We tend to opt for the one extreme or the other. Over here (but I’m sure it’s not just a local problem) some churches tried to address the problem by alternating services, being traditional one week and more informal the next. Sadly the result is similar to having your youth and children’s ministry separate from the “adult” church – you end up with two congregations, each only meeting every other week.

        If I step back from my own experience for a moment I think a big part of the problem is the consumer mentality with which we come to church. We want what we’re used to or we want what’s fun. We seldom remember that it’s supposed to be about God and about what will make us grow closer to Him. I’m guilty of that myself, though I rationalise and cite more “noble” reasons for not embracing a particular style of worship.

        • In the US liturgical churches tend to offer differing services at different times. Changing up services every other week sounds like a good way to make the “consumer” upset. It sounds like the worst of both worlds.

  2. Hello Matthew, thanks for some real good writing this morning. I grew up in Catholicism of the 50-60s and believe me, the seemingly meaninglessness drove me away as a teen headed to college. Walked ‘in the desert’ for about 10 years before actually attending church regularly and then it was an Episcopal church. Amazingly enough, my generation thought that we had to ‘expose’ our kids to church (so they could decide for themselves), so to church we went. It was familiar (the liturgy) so it was okay. However, through various Episcopal churches, during moves around the country, I came to experience quality adult Christian Education. Like the subject of your post said, talking about his kids, I found out about Jesus – and realized he was pretty absent from my Roman Catholic upbringing – at first I found him a little unnerving… : ) But my greatest gift, as I lived into my Christian walk, having by now become an Episcopalian, was to hear people I met – some strangers and some friends express what drew them to the Episcopal tradition – it was the liturgy. It was the liturgy that fulfilled their longing and made sense of what they knew but felt was incomplete. Now, for me, this was an insight that helped me understand how, for years, the liturgy – a well worn friend but still not the core of my “church” experience now had a significance both theologically and spiritually that I was finally able to embrace, seeing it through the eyes of others – experiences sometimes rather dramatically told.


  3. Excellent post. You and I are definitely twin brothers of different mothers. I recall my days as volunteer staff at a mega-church, and attending a traditional Episcopalian funeral. I remarked at how dry and meaningless the entire affair seemed. Years later, after becoming increasingly frustrated with my own relationship with evangelicalism, and with post-modern, “autonomous”, churches, it was in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer where I found peace…peace with myself, and peace with God.

    I love your quote, “…for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.” Sometimes I think we WASP’s are so vain, believing that everyone worships like we do, or at least they want to do so, whether they really know it or not. There is a richness in ancient liturgy, in the Table, that we forfeited years ago in hopes of out-entertaining the world, and subsequently, winning the war for BITS (butts in the seats). My prayer is that we would all mature to the point where our own personal preferences don’t determine how we worship; but that our desire for intimate encounters with God would be what we’re pursuing.

      • I merely ask because you say that “nearly 3/4 of the Christians on the planet worship God in the ancient pattern of Word and Sacrament” but that “what most Christians know as ‘worship’ is a bit of an outlier.” It would seem if only 1/4 of Christians don’t worship in the old way, then it is not “most” Christians whose worship is an outlier?

        • Seems like Matt meant to say “most evangelical Christians” or “most North American protestant Christians.” Often, Matt and I know, we say Christian and mean “evangelical protestant” while other types of Christians get special names!

          • Tim, you hit it on the head. In Arizona even Roman Catholics say, “Which are you, a Christian or a Catholic?” I usually fight the issue and go into my pizza routine “there are lots of kinds of toppings, but it’s all pizza…half of the Christians are pepperoni (Rome), 1/4 feta (Orthodoxy) and 1/4 cheese (evangelicals). But sometimes I just fall into it myself.

  4. For us, the real intimacy comes when Jesus shoves Himself down our throats in His Supper.

    He so dearly wants to be in us that He does it, physically…tangibly.

    Even when we feel distant or unloving towards Him.

    Thanks, Matt.

    • Amen. Although I would say “offers himself to us” rather than “shoves.” Grace always seems to me to be the aroma of what is cooking in the kitchen rather than being force fed. I had to force feed my kids because I was trying to get them to eat pureed vegetables. Grace, to me, draws me in…so much so that I am continually confused into thinking it was I who wanted to come…rather than a victim of a love that will not be denied.

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