Friday, April 17, 2009

Domesticated Jesus

I'm excited about a new project. This week I received a contract offer for a new non-fiction book, "Domesticated Jesus." It will be published by P&R. Here's a sample, the introduction. Here's your chance to give me feedback in an early stage before it comes out in print. Thanks. Here's the intro:

Domesticating the Lord of the Universe

“DJ.” I might as well call him this, because effectively I’ve reduced the creator and master of the universe down into a concept so small I’ve nicknamed him. Domesticated Jesus. It’s a horrible name really, and my use of it hardly reflects his worth. But to say it, to write it here is so shocking that perhaps that’s the point after all. What we’re doing, unconsciously to a large part, is to bring down what is huge, wild and untamable and repackage him so that we can function.
To come to grips with reality will mean I’ve got to change, open my eyes and come to terms not only with his greatness, but also my smallness and that’s the grind. Sin has done this to me, landed me in this spot and so I’m vowing forever to fight this ironic switch, the one that’s been with mankind since a snake convinced my ancestors that they could be like God. That switch, of course, is the essence of sin: anything that makes a big God small and makes my small self big.
And in the process, I’ve domesticated the Almighty.
Tamed him. Advised him.
Put him in a box. Fenced him into a safe pasture.
Expected him to function like a divine vending machine.
I like that because I get to be in control or at least sit on a deluded cushion of mental comfort where I’ve convinced myself that I’m in the driver’s seat. The truth is, every time I come face to face with just a fraction of the reality of who Jesus is, I realize just how horribly weak my version of him has become.
And that sickens me. Shocks me.
And it should.
I’ve started writing this on a memorable day. It’s Easter. A day we celebrate a God who became man, died and beat death at its own game. I love Easter. At least for a day (or a few moments for some of us) the veil seems to lift and we acknowledge with our lips that God himself is with us. Alive. Seeing all. With us. Desiring to interact with us. And not just to hear me speak. Intimacy purchased with blood spilled beneath a Roman cross.
Easter is a fitting day to begin a new project like this one because it carries with it the hope that reality may rise in my heart as certain as the resurrection that we celebrate.
Right now, I’m sitting in an African airport waiting to board my plane. It’s shameful in a way that I’ve trivialized this most precious of Sundays for something as mundane as travel. Is this even more evidence of the pathology within me (and all of the church) where I bring down the big and make large the small?
A few moments ago my wife eyed my brown journal with a look of suspicion. I should tell you that we’re off on a trip to celebrate twenty-five years together. That’s twenty five years with a great deal of “putting-up” on her part. Medical school, surgical residency, giving up life in America because of my missionary dreams. So maybe her suspicion is deserved. This is supposed to be a vacation, not a working retreat.
I faced her. Honesty has worked wonders for our first twenty-five years. “I’m starting a new book.”
She’s heard this line a dozen times from me, each time the truth. “Fiction or non-fiction,” she asked.
“The close second,” she said, referring to a conversation we had earlier in the day. “Hope,” Pastor Crumley said, “runs a close second to love.” (Remember 1 Corinthians 12? Now remains faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.) I had told her that “The Close Second” would be a great title for a book on hope.
“Nope,” I said. “Domesticated Jesus.”
She didn’t hesitate. “I don’t like it. It makes Jesus sound effeminate.”
I don’t like it either, and that’s the point.
To even associate the name above all other names with a word like domesticated is offensive to the delicate Christian ear.
If this offends you, good. It should. I hope that my use of this distasteful title will shock me (and you) into a healthy pondering of just what we’re doing in this life we’ve identified (perhaps too generously) as Christian.
So how have I come to associate a word like domestic with Jesus?
I’ll state the obvious. Domestic. Tame. The unruly is gone. Away with unpredictable behavior. Wildness is only used in the past tense here.
The first animals that were domesticated were done so for milk. Mmmm. Keep those cows contained. Train them to stay in line. Hold still…and give me just what I want. Everyday. Twice a day in most cases.
If an animal is domesticated, it is here to serve me. My needs are central. Of course this may not always appear to be the case at first glance. I once heard someone ask what an alien would think after landing on earth for the first time in the center of an American city park. Dog owners leading around their little precious fur-bearing gems and picking up after their every little indiscretion. The alien might ask, “Who has domesticated whom?”
I’m going to ask you a favor. Indulge me while I seek to explore the ways that I have domesticated Christ. Yes, yes, I can hear your protests and believe me, they are my own. Jesus Christ cannot be domesticated!
I understand that. And my point is simple. While Christ cannot be tamed, I have effectively done just that, but only in my head. I domesticate him in the way I think about him, letting him into my life, but only so far until my control is threatened, and in effect, I send him back to his room.
When you domesticate an animal, you place limits on its location. You fence it in so that it can serve you. Have I not done this in my attitudes about Christ? Have I not invited the most holy, powerful, creative entity in the universe into my life and then relegated him into a slot so that he can participate in my life when it is most convenient to me or when I am hungry?
Some of you are offended all ready. It is not my purpose to spit on the image of Christ. My purpose is honorable; it is to exalt him, to find him as the grand treasure that his is and to challenge myself (and you along the way) to see him every day, to a greater extent, in reality.
To do that, I must peel away, layer by layer, the belittling mental images that have clouded my vision like a mature cataract blocking away the brightness of the sun’s rays. I promise to step on my toes first and if I tramp on the feet of God’s family it is with the hope that we may discover and savor the wonder of all that Jesus is.
I am an honest seeker and I invite you to sit with me and humor me as I extend this metaphor. My hope is that you will read these words as they are intended. I am no theologian unless you can stretch your mind to think of a Sunday arm-chair quarterback theologian of sorts.
Oh, I have years of biblical training to be sure, but I’m hardly qualified as a biblical authority. My expertise is in the area of medicine, surgery to be exact, and I’m sure a clinical aroma will seep into these pages before it’s all been said. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve found myself drawn as a storyteller (and I believe God is doing the drawing in this case). So this is the platform in which I intend to explore this subject with you: fellow seeker, pained by my own failure to see Jesus as he really is, clinician familiar with the pathology of human experience, and finally as a storyteller with a pen ready to illustrate our plight.
I write as a believer in Christ. This needs to be understood from the outset. I will borrow heavily from the New Testament, a book that is both authoritative and divine. Perhaps this is the stumbling block for many of you, one that must be overcome if we are to reach the same place together in the end. It is not my intention to validate this starting point. Many others far more qualified than I have written on the historical reliability of the Gospels and the Bible. I refer you to them to address these issues.
If you are not yet a believer in Christ (and here I use the term synonymous with true Christian, one who has placed his or her faith securely in Christ for salvation) then this book is a wonderful place to start as the ultimate question for every person is this: Who is Jesus?
If you’re not a Christian, I applaud you for even picking up a book by this title. Perhaps more likely, a well-meaning Christian friend shoved it into your hands. Consider this a safe place to begin an exploration. Here is your chance to find out what Christians really think without the I-know-all-the-answers-b-s. I’m an “insider” to the Christian movement. I grew up in the church and have spent years as a Christian missionary on foreign soil, so if anyone (outside of a seminary ivory tower) qualifies to offer an authentic opinion as to what we believe, I’m it. Some of what I say will apply mostly to Christians, so for that part, please assume the fly-on-the-wall mental posture and enjoy the fact that I’m trying to stir the pot and make Christians get real about what they believe or at least claim to believe. The world has seen enough phonies. I hope that this book can help you see that some of us are for real.
That said, I want to make something absolutely clear. A true judgment of Christianity should rest solidly on an investigation of Jesus himself, not on what I or any follower of his can say. We’ve certainly screwed up his message enough over the years and have proven that Christians are the biggest stumbling block to many sincere seekers.
If you are a Christian, then this book is also for you. My hope is to rattle the cage of your faith a bit, to challenge you to think critically about how much the Jesus you serve resembles the real deal, the Jesus of the Bible. I wish that you will think of this as a conversation with a friend, a fellow seeker, honest enough to ask tough questions. I am an imperfect fellow, stained from my own experiences, both good and bad. Think of me as a comrade in arms, nestled down with you in the same trenches of life, whispering together about some of the questions that have dogged humans from the beginning.
Here’s my problem. I’m terrified of putting this down on paper.
There. I’ve admitted it. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, both spiritually and intellectually. How is it that I possess the boldness to proceed into waters that scare me and threaten to derail my own faith?
Because I think we all have a similar, yet unspoken fear. And we need to get it out and talk about it. Christians don’t have to hide and pretend there is no disconnect between our experience and what we see written in the pages of the Bible. We read stories of miracles, see a man who commanded waves and wind (and they obeyed!), took authority over demonic spirits, spoke breath into the dead and we wonder, do I really know Jesus?
If I have to be transparent (and I do, or this project will fail. as the foundation of our relationship is that I’ll be honest with you and you, in turn, need to be honest with yourself), I’ll admit that I’m terrified that if my eyes are opened someday to see everything in the light of truth, that the way I see the Jesus that I claim as Lord is but a dim reflection of reality.
This fear is what drives me onward. I want to know him.
I’m afraid that I can never do justice in describing or explaining the majesty, power and perfection of Jesus. That’s the nature of human discussions, I suppose. No matter how high above my own experience I reach, I’ll never be able to adequately pen the qualities of a perfect God. And so, even my attempts to expose how I have domesticated Jesus will do just that: I’m bound to domesticate him further, to wrap him within pages of description implies that he is small enough to describe. To have humans speak of him, to write of him, implies that we can in some way wrap the human mind around him.
Of course, that’s impossible.
And that is, in part, my point. It’s what I want to challenge myself to see, and you to hear. I want to raise my own awareness of my sinful tendency to make the big small and the small big.
This is the essence of my working definition. I am domesticating Christ any time my behavior reflects my belief in a saving Christ who is too small to handle my day-to-day problems of worry or anxiety. I am domesticating him anytime I wallow in guilt because, in essence, the power of the cross has been diminished in my thoughts. It has become insufficient to soothe my conscience.
Domesticating Jesus is so much more than just not recognizing his infinite power and falling on our faces in awe. He obviously doesn’t reveal himself in his glory, at least not in his full glory or I promise, I’d never get out of a facedown posture (of course, I wouldn’t survive a millisecond of his revealed glory, so even that statement is ludicrous). But these essays are about how I domesticate him everyday in so many ways, in the little things like doubt, anxiety or fear about the future.
From the start, I’ll share my bias. Not one of us on this side of Heaven will ever really understand Christ in all his glory. But every one of us can make an effort to remove a few of the filters that have dimmed the true light and replaced it with something else altogether.
Bias number two. I don’t have all the answers. If I accomplish my goal, you’ll be asking more questions at the end of our time together than before. Questions, I believe, are the essence of living faith, an irony that has seemingly passed right over a large number of us as Christians. Don’t think. Just believe.
Hooey. I could use cruder terminology here, but here at the beginning of our time together, I don’t want to risk turning you away.
I seek freshness. Honesty. Transparency.
Maybe if I use this approach, we can link hands so to speak, and make a baby step or two along a path towards a true Christianity. A Christian faith one notch purer to the one we started with.
So pull up a chair, fellow traveler. Let’s sit together to reason about a horrible thing that I’ve done.
I’ve domesticated the Lord of the universe.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Coffee is good for you!

OK, some of you would expect something very spiritual out of me this weekend. After all, Easter weekend is the pinnacle of our faith. And by posting this now, I am in no way making light of the awesomeness of the Easter holiday.

But, I've just found out some great news about my favorite morning

You might think that a missionary might be the most tolerant, able-to-drink-any-swill type of person. But Kenya changed coffee drinking for me. And here is my confession. I've returned from Africa as a coffee-snob. Sadly true. Kenya coffee beans are some of the best in the world, and when I came back here to the good old USA, I just couldn't get enthused about the old name brand coffee here.

Here's the great news.

Coffee is good for you. Less chance of parkinsons, diabetes type II, cirrhosis. And it enhances athletic performance.

So in your face, coffee-maligners! I knew Coffee had to have an up side. Now, I've got a little medical proof.

So does that justify my addiction?

OK, I'm off my soapbox now. I need to go back to revising my next novel, "The Six Liter Club." (More on that later!)


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Decisions, decisions: Am I called to Africa?

I never really thought I'd be at this place at this time in my life. Here I am, a few years shy of fifty, but feeling a bit unsettled, wondering about the proper direction in my professional life.

The background: I finished surgery training and joined a very successful surgical practice in 1991. I worked that job, falling into step comfortably with the perks that go with it. I had the country house, a three-sixty degree view, twelve acres, plenty of time off, good church, and a nice community with good schools for my boys. Twelve years and lots of surgery in the tank, not to mention a little niche in the Christian book market for medical-theme related suspense.

And then I had to go and visit Africa on a short term mission to fill in for a surgeon in need of a break.....

I had the sense within a few weeks of arrival on the dark continent that the whole family needed to experience this. Service to a needy people. People who had no sense of entitlement like my patients back home. People grateful for whatever I could offer to relieve their physical misery.

I presented the idea to the family. With a lot of discussion (and a few details that needed to fall into place like someone offering to buy the doctor-house in the country) we all agreed: the Kraus family would spend a year in Kenya.

A year turned into four with a year back in the states to untie my business connections. By my own admission, this mid-life move was "career suicide." I left a job as a full partner with great benefits to take my family across the world and resettle in order to serve the poor.

My boys attended an international Christian school run by our mission. A phenomenal experience. Kenya was a boy-heaven place to grow up. Camping. Riding motorcycles among the giraffe and zebra. Service opportunities like helping to build mud huts for the community. Planting trees to promote reforestation. Climbing Kilimanjaro. Scuba diving in the Indian ocean. Killing birds for their supper with dart guns.

My work was stretching. I became general surgeon, urologist, plastic surgeon, pediatric surgeon (occasionally), trauma surgeon, neurosurgeon and even an obstetrician occasionally. But there was definitely a joy in the service. Rewards in Kenya were different. Grateful patients. The satisfaction of creating a solution in the midst of little provision. And then, there was the excitement of reaching out to a completely unreached people group, being the first Christian that many Muslims had ever met. Scary stuff, but also full of opportunity.

And patients facing tough physical crisis were coming face to face with faith decisions. Love was building a bridge strong enough to carry the gospel into thirsty hearts.

My wife? She made the best of the situation, provided the glue for a busy family functioning within a culture sans the ultra conveniences of frozen instant prep foods, a nice house (definitely not the doctor-house we left!), endured the bad roads, the government corruption, the constant stream of beggars at our door and frequent petty theivery and mostly smiled in the process. She worked in the international school where my children attended, teaching sewing and tutoring students who were falling behind. But the years of inconveniences took their toll. After our second son graduated from high school, we returned to the US for a needed furlough. Now, she would return willingly, but I understand she would be quite delighted if we made a decision to stay in America where life is easy and predictable.

Now, we've been back for eight months and I'm asking God again about his calling. Are we to return to Kenya?

In the US, I've been working as a surgeon an hour from home, as my old partnership job had long been filled by others with a vision for practice-building in America. So now I find myself fully qualified, mid-life without full time work, living far beneath the typical surgeon standard. It's not hard to see how my decisions for missionary service have impacted my family financially.

Do I regret service in Kenya and the impact it had on me and my family? NOT FOR A HEARTBEAT.

Unequivocally, the years in Kenya set the stage for my oldest sons to attend prestigious universities here. They learned so much more than they could have learned if they had been exposed only to western, doctor-rich, US culture.

Now the question returns: what about the future?

For a number of years, I've discounted the need for a heavy emotional experienced-based "call." Too many Christians sit on their backsides when opportunities for service abound, waiting for some heavenly experience to constitute a divine "call."

Before I left for Kenya for the first year, I remember looking at Galatians 6:10 which says, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people..." I thought, OK, that's all the "call" I need. I have opportunity to do good, so I should do it. It was that simple. Oh, and he had to reassure me by providing all the other small answers: I needed to raise support successfully, we needed to sell the house etc. But the "call" issue was simple. I had opportunity and the means, so I went for it.

Now, I'm struggling with the same questions. My wife and third son are back in the USA with me and are loving it. Thoughts of returning to Kenya drag up memories of all the work of packing, moving, organizing, arranging, changing schools (again!), disrupted schedules, breaking friendships, and mental adjustments, adjustments, adjustments.... It is not easy for the missionary in foreign service to make these kind of life-altering decisions that impact not only themselves, but more importantly, the family.

There are three things important in considering a "call." Competency, character, and chemistry. Am I competent to do the job? Do I have the character to bring the love of God into the situation? Am I able to work well with the people? How are my relationships with other missionaries and the people I am serving?

More importantly, God calls married couples as couples, not individuals. I have to consider my wife and my son. What is best for them?

Part of the reason for my struggle intensifying now: An opportunity to practice with my old group in town may open up for me in the near future, but will come with strings: they will want at least a three to five year commitment that I won't "jump ship" again in mid-stream, heading off to serve in Africa. Can I give them that kind of commitment? To sign on the line and reenter my old surgical practice (a great practice, by the way, with opportunity to be light and salt here in my community) will effectively close the door on Africa.

Practice in Africa turned me into a very broad (experience, not fat!) surgeon, something I cannot be in the US. It is something I miss. But I must think of my family. What is best for my wife, my son?

God isn't in the business of writing an answer in the skies (not often, anyway). Would you pray that God will make this important decision clear?

Thanks for your support as my readers, but also as fellow prayer-warriors. We fight not against flesh and blood....