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July 2019

Freaky, Freaky People

8B9937D6-6217-459F-B98E-450EC8C16E03In 1971, Canada’s psychedelic rockers Five Man Electrical Band had a top ten hit entitled “Signs.” I had the record, both the 45 RPM disc and LP on which it appeared, entitled “Goodbyes and Butterflies,” and my friend and I regularly drew it from its slip-sleeve and spun it over and over on the mustard-colored portable Zenith with the drop-down turntable that I had in my basement bedroom. I was 14, on the cusp of the teenage years, and the words of the song produced some empathy in me for the then ubiquitous “hippies,” a word often used in the pejorative in my home.

I missed Woodstock. I missed the Summer of Love. I missed the civil rights milestones, like Selma. I was born too late. That’s not something to lament and yet, oddly, I do.

“Sign said: Long haired freaky people need not apply,” sang guitar player Les Emmerson, going on to address the put down the narrator faced in trying to get a job, eat in a restaurant, or walk onto someone’s property--all because of hair length. And then there were all those signs saying “do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?” Not cool, not cool at all, and we nodded in assent to this sticking it to “the man.”

Hippie was not a term that had any currency in high school. It was “freak.” The long- and frizzy-haired guy and his chick hang-on in the black cape--a mysterious couple that always seemed to be loitering under the trees while we sat in geometry class sweltering in then non-air conditioned rooms--were simply freaks, and while we treated them with some derision, as weird, we also quietly respected them for their independence. We labored over Pythagoras’ Theorem; they, well, over each other.

My teacher stood at the window, hands on her hips. “Look at them,” she said. “Disgusting.” She shook her head. No, I thought, just sadly weird. Respectfully sad in a way I could not articulate.

I grew my hair long, bought a pair of moccasins, wore ripped jeans. I thought it gave me outsider status and dared to think I might be cool. Yet I declined the regular offers of joints and LSD by high school pushers. I wasn’t a freak. I was an imposter, a wannabe; grace kept me from ever dropping out and turning on.

Author Flannery O’Connor once said that “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” In 1960 when she wrote those words, she was pre-hippie, though not pre-freak. Even then, in a South she described as “hardly Christ centered,” she recognized that it was “Christ-haunted,” adding that “[t]he Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” She said “the freak can be sensed as as a figure for pure essential displacement.”

I know O”Connor didn’t have in mind the freaky kids in my high school, the non-conformists. And yet like the grotesque characters of O’Connor’s stories, they too were displaced, and as we had some sense of the whole man, we knew they were outsiders. Off. Weird.

Even at 14 I understood that I was made in the image of God, even if I did not know what that meant. I had read Genesis 1 more than any other passage of scripture, and I accepted as a given that it was true, that at least I was made and not a cosmic accident, no matter what we were told in science class. Made for what I wasn’t sure. But I felt confident that the displaced, freaky couple under the trees were somehow “off,” that they had lost a reference point for life beyond themselves. That went up in smoke somewhere under the trees where the wind snapped the flagpole rope and, carrying the slightest odor of marijuana, wafted in the open windows. These latter-day beatniks had some attraction for me, yet I was very much afraid that I had been formed in the image of God and not in an image of my own making. I was still trying to figure that out, the freak tugging at me. But God had set up camp in me.

Oswald Chambers once said, “When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ and say—‘I will not,’ He will never insist; but I am backing away from the re-creating power of His Redemption.” In high school “I will not” had some attraction to me. The freaky, freaky people in the corridors of my school, the outsiders, were a society of “I will nots,” and their anti-establishment mantra appealed.

For whatever reason sometime during my junior year I began reading Christian books--missionary stories on my mother’s bookshelves, Jay Kesler’s “I Never Promised You a Disneyland,” Barclay’s commentaries, and InterVarsity’s now defunct HIS Magazine--all of which brought down into reality the Bible stories and sermonizing I heard as a kid but which seemed like fairy tales about some far-away place and not my life.

Perusing the record store bins one afternoon, I found a treasure: Larry Norman’s “In Another Land.” Norman was dressed in black with shocking near white shoulder-length hair on a background of what looked to be another planet. A genuine Jesus-freak.

When I played it at home, when I heard Norman sing, “He’s an unidentified flying object,” all I could think was “wait until the freaky, freaky people hear this.” Just wait. That did it for me.

Our Jordan River

Francis4“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” (Heb. 11:1-2)

One of the earliest sayings at L’Abri, the Swiss-based ministry of Americans Francis and Edith Schaeffer, was “put your feet in the Jordan.” By it ministry workers drew attention to the practicality of faith: faith first, then action based on faith.

Schaeffer was a pastor of churches in Pennsylvania and in St. Louis in the 30s and 40s in what was then the Bible Presbyterian Church. Sent by a mission board to Europe in 1948 to assess the state of the post-WWII church and what could be done to assist it, he witnessed the physical devastation of the war as well as the spiritual devastation caused by theological liberalism.

Later in 1948 that same mission board sent Schaeffer, his wife Edith, and his three daughters-Priscilla, Susan, and Debbie—to Europe, both to strengthen existing churches and continue a work with Children for Christ, neighborhood bible clubs for children that they started in St. Louis. That work continued for a number of years, but the doctrinal squabbling in the denomination ultimately led to a crisis of faith for Schaeffer.

Then living in Champery, Switzerland, Schaeffer paced back and forth in a hayloft, re-examining everything that he believed. Ultimately he emerged, confirmed in his faith, to sever his ties with the denomination and begin L’Abri, a ministry of hospitality to any who would come, providing honest answers to honest questions. You might just show up at the Schaeffers’ home, be offered a meal and a place to sleep, and have your questions engaged. The Schaffers wanted their lives there to be a visible manifestation of the Gospel, a true spirituality.

Because the canton they were living in at the time was Catholic, Schaeffer, being Protestant, faced opposition to his ministry, and so he was ejected from the canton in 1955. Exiled, you might say, uncertain whether they could even stay in Switzerland. Over the years the Schaeffers referred to this exile many times, much as the Jewish people might look back to the Exodus or to the Babylonian captivity. Ultimately, however, in God’s providence, they were given permission to live in the neighboring canton, which was Protestant, and purchased a modest chalet in a village named Huemoz. For many years, not having the use of a chapel, they held church in their living room.

Looking back at that first Sunday in Chalet le Melezes, nine years later, preaching his last Sunday in the chalet before moving to a chapel, Schaeffer reminisced about that first church service in 1955. “We met here. It was a very strange moment,” he said. “We had no permission to live in Switzerland or in the Canton of Vaud. For all intents and purposes we were still ejected. The house was not bought, nor did we have enough money to buy it. We were here, and that was all. Our ties had been cut off with the situation in the States. In a way the room was a fitting symbol of our situation. We were here but almost suspended in space as far as anything that the natural eye could see.. . .There were no resources, we weren’t allowed to go back to Champery to preach. The whole thing was a moment in a very thick fog.”

Schaeffer said that as far as the natural eye could see, there was nothing. He looked to his congregation, which consisted of his wife and three daughters, his son, a toddler, and three other people. That was his church. Somewhat like the Israelites, there was exile: an unknown future, little money, and a yet a calling and promise of God’s faithfulness.

He couldn’t see then all the lives his family would impact, all the many who came to faith because of his witness, all the books he would write, his involvement in the pro-life movement, and so on. He was just a pastor with his family—no church building, not much of a congregation, no financial resources, and no home. But he felt certain that L’Abri was a work that the Lord called his family to.

Faith. The assurance of things hoped for. But does it work? Is faith practical? This was a real question for Schaeffer as it is for us.

Schaeffer often spoken of how salvation extends through space and time. Col. 1:19 says “For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” This is forward-looking. This is comprehensive (“all things”). God not only justifies us by His finished work on the cross, but He keeps on saving us through sanctifying us and eventually glorifying us in Heaven. If I believe on the Son, He promises me eternal life, faith not performance being the instrument of His deliverance.

So our faith in what God will do, in what He will accomplish, extends to everyone and everything. Schaeffer often talked of the separations caused by sin—between God and man, man and man, man and nature, and in man himself. Sin has social, ecological, and psychological consequences. In many of his books he addressed the brokenness in different areas of life and applied a Christian worldview. In recordings of Saturday evening discussions at L’Abri in the 1960s Schaeffer addressed race relations, homosexuality, technology, the environment, animal rights, artificial intelligence, and more—all marked by brokenness. Through salvation God will bring substantial healing to each of these divisions, to all of this brokenness, he said, until He finally restores all things in a new heaven and new earth. So when we say that we have faith in God, we mean something far-reaching. God will reconcile all things to Himself. He is going to heal everything, set everything right.

Schaeffer also talked about the practicality of faith. 1 Jn. 5:4 says “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Faith overcomes. Do you feel like that? I don’t always feel like that. And yet there it is. Schaeffer insists that faith is very practical, to be acted upon. He says we are to use it, to exercise it, trusting the Creator moment by moment. So we have to ask ourselves: am I trusting God in this very moment? with this relationship? with this illness? with my job? for the salvation of a family member? for the words I speak? for the very next thing I do? Or I am relying on myself or living like a Christian atheist, professing faith but not acting on faith?

If you read the rest of Hebrews 11 each of the many persons listed there had to exercise faith in an unseen God moment by moment, whatever their circumstances. Noah, subjected to taunts by everyone around him, built an ark, no small thing; Abraham left his homeland and went to a strange land; by faith Moses left Egypt. And the author goes on, indicating that this is only a partial list of those who acted by faith. By faith.

And if you read farther down in Hebrews 11, speaking of the people of faith mentioned, the writer says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” These words must have resonated with the Schaeffers in 1955, when they did not know where they would live or how they would continue. And they likely resonate with us as well, as we live in a world that does not share our beliefs, as we feel like exiles and strangers here with a world that often seems upside down.

The Schaeffers had plenty of opportunities to exercise their faith, to see its practicality. Early on they had determined that they would make no pleas for financial support but would just pray and ask God to provide the funds and the workers for the ministry. They exercised their faith. And God did provide---usually just what they needed and no more.

When they were ejected from Champery, Edith Schaeffer had eventually located Chalet le Melezes, but it was for sale, not rent, and they had no money to buy it. She prayed for a sign, an audacious and very specific prayer for $1000 to be sent by 10:00 a.m. the next morning. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Edith, an American couple, the Salisburys, had come into some money and decided to invest it in God's work. They had been praying about it for three months, and they felt certain that they were to send the Schaeffers the money—exactly $1000 for work with youth, which it largely was at that time. When Helen Salisbury wrote a letter telling them that they were sending the money, it was late evening, and they were going to bed, planning to mail it the next day. But Art Salisbury felt that he must mail it that very night. He rose and drove through a blinding rain storm to mail it right then at the main post office.

Consider the timing. The coincidence. Consider the prophetic confirmation that it be used as a house for young people. All came together in a very specific, very timely answer to prayer. While more remained to do, God answered their very specific prayer in a very specific way. Faith was practical. And that was only one of many such occurrences.

Put your feet in the Jordan. In Joshua 3 the Israelites are on the brink of going into the Promised Land, near the end of their long exodus out of Egypt, standing at the edge of the Jordan River, and Joshua says that as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water, the waters parted and they were able to cross the river: faith first, then action upon faith. They put their feet in the water. The Jordan River is not what it once was, its flow greatly diminished by all those taking water from it. But back then it flowed briskly and they likely would have drowned in it. But they entered, in faith. And God held the water back.

Put your feet in Jordan. Believe and act on faith. We can have confidence as we obey. Today, we cross the Jordan not with priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, but with Christ, our High Priest. He goes before us. And so this call—put your feet in the Jordan—is a call for us as well: to believe, to have faith but also to act upon that faith in the moments of our lives—in whatever situations God has brought us into. How is it that God is calling you to act on your faith?

I’ve been challenged by a recent book I read called The Christian Atheist. The subtitle is Believing in God but Acting As If He Doesn’t Exist. The author’s exhortation in the book is to do more than believe but to act on what we believe. Like if we believe people are going to hell without the Gospel, then why do we hesitate to share the Gospel with them? Or if we believe in prayer, then why do we act as if God doesn’t answer prayer? He challenges us to go beyond first-line faith, to step over the line.

"In every moment of time," Schaeffer said, "our calling is to believe God, raise the empty hands of faith, and let fruit flow out through us." Empty, because we don’t even supply faith. God does. Schaeffer might also have said, “In every moment of time, put your feet in the Jordan.”

What is your Jordan River? Step out on faith. Step across the line. Trust God, even for a little, and then watch what happens. Expect something to happen. Watch for it.