Degrees of Separation, Part 2
Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers…for he had cured many…whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God?” But he sternly ordered them not to make him known. Mark 3:7-8,10-12
In a land long ago and far away when my siblings and cousins gathered at my grandparents’ house, we could watch whatever we wanted on television under two conditions: (1) it was showing on one of the three channels available, and (2) it did not conflict with the Evening News, the Lawrence Welk Show, or a Billy Graham revival. Although by today’s standards our options were severely limited, the inability to watch something when Billy Graham was on TV was particularly galling to me. My memory is of a tall man with wavy hair and a strong southern accent who stood before enormous crowds preaching fire and brimstone sermons with certainty and resolve to sinners in need of salvation. He always had a dead-cat Bible (a leather-bound Bible that fell over his palm like a,,,well, you get the picture) in one hand as he gestured accusingly with the other.
As it turns out, and much to my chagrin, my central message in this series of Life Notes is not far from Billy Graham’s central message: we must develop a personal relationship with Christ, and just being a church member is not sufficient. I do, however, believe my circuitous path leading to that conclusion differs from Rev. Graham’s path. Even so, I was taken aback recently when watching one of his old sermons by how much I agree with his conclusion in spite of his reasoning in getting there. He said, “Religion without a personal encounter with Christ will not save the soul. It won’t bring the peace that your soul longs for.” Personally, I do not believe our souls need saving; rather, our conscious self needs to awaken to its already existing and eternal union with the Divine. To so awaken, however, we need to develop a personal connection to the Christ.
With respect to the current topic of degrees of separation, I think Rev. Graham’s insistence on developing a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is spot on. We simply must find ways to bind ourselves to the source. Unlike Dr. Graham, however, I disagree that reciting a particular prayer, as he insists, will get us there. Such a prayer, like the Bible, preachers, and churches, is one or more degrees separated from Christ. The thought that reciting a standardized prayer will make us followers of Jesus makes about as much sense to me as reciting a short poem to another will, in and of itself, establish a relationship with them. It may, however, be a first step. Of course, Billy Graham, through his organization (now operating under the face of his son, Franklin) is more than happy to guide followers through the ins and outs of developing such a relationship, at least as they understand it.
I am not challenging Billy Graham’s position as one of the most popular and powerful evangelists of recent history, nor do I wish to criticize or convert his followers. I am thankful on behalf of any who found their way to God through his message. There are others, however, that found his message, his platform, and his methods to be off-putting, myself included (especially when there was something better on TV).
My issue, when it comes to spiritual development, is the distance from the source. It is too easy to confuse following a person who preaches in the name of Christ with Christ, particularly when that person is charismatic. To induce fear that eternal damnation awaits those who believe differently is a patently un-Jesus-like thing to do. There is no evidence that Jesus ever made a big deal about his ministry. In fact, he often told those he healed not to tell anyone about it. While he drew large crowds, he did not seek them out. Rather, they sought him. They needed what he offered – healing, hope, love, acceptance – and many traveled great distances to receive it. No self-promotion or 800 number with operators standing by was required. There is no evidence his voice or preaching methods were charismatic. His charisma came from the impact received by the lives he touched.
Whether it is Billy Graham or another of the charismatic televangelists promising salvation via a prayer and a modest donation, developing a true, life-changing relationship with the Christ is a healthy choice regardless of whether we consider ourselves church-folks or even Christian. The challenge is how best to develop that relationship. More next week…
This is the 12th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.