Any Book But the Bible. Any Leader But Jesus.

Last week, The New York Times published a follow-up story marking the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn. All three died on Oct. 8, 2009, in Sedona, Ariz., as a direct result of partaking in a “sweat lodge ceremony” conducted by James Arthur Ray. Ray is well-known as a self-styled spiritual guru who (according to The Times), “has made millions of dollars leading self-help seminars across the country.” He was indicted on manslaughter charges Feb. 3, 2010.

In his article entitlted “After Sweat Lodge Deaths, Fewer Tourists With Spiritual Needs,” Marc Lacey employs a somewhat-sardonic tone to make the point that spiritual renewal is big business in Sedona. According to Lacey, “far fewer crystals are being bought, spiritual tours taken and treatments ordered, from aura cleansings to chakra balancings.” Lacey goes on to cite some decidedly non-metaphysical statistics, such as the fact that the deaths of three people have cut into business at Angel Valley Retreat by as much as $35,000 a month. And Deidre Madsen, who owns a New Age travel company specializing in tours for spiritual seekers, says that she has been “shocked at the impact. My business is down 20 percent.”

While I believe that Lacey is quite right to feel disdain – as the tone of his article seems to suggest – for the blatantly obvious self-interest that spiritual charlatans have in amassing filthy lucre as they lead others astray (even to the point of loss of life), I couldn’t help but think that the overall-mocking attitude was inappropriate somehow, a sarcastic point made at the cost of overshadowing the tragic episode at the center of this story. Confronted with the tragic deaths of Brown, Shore and Neuman, three very real human beings, all three of whom really did die that day, the anniversary coverage in The Times focused more on taking easy potshots at the various forms of spiritual fraud being perpetrated against tourists who are looking for abundant life, albeit in all the wrong places. So it is that we read precious little about the impact that these three deaths had on family members, close friends and communities. Perhaps it is most telling that Lacey does not even mention the names of the victims until the 19th paragraph of his story.

In contrast to The Times coverage, I’d prefer to keep the names of these three souls foremost in our minds as we consider the idea that we, as Americans, are indeed a very spiritual people, literally aching for renewal and redemption. Because we were made in the image of God, our hearts long for eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11); we all have an inner sense that tells us that this mortal life is most certainly not all there is. As we experience struggle and frustration, we have the persistent, nagging thought come back to us time and time again, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” In short, we all share an inner desire for the day when our work will not be routinely frustrating and/or purposeless, when our bodies will not decay over time and die, when relationships with others will not be damaged and destroyed by sin, when all things will be renewed. Gosh, if only someone – like James Arthur Ray, perhaps – would just show us how to achieve a new level of transcendence, our lives might become meaningful and productive in ways we can only dream of now.

I’ve been there.

I, too, have gone looking for spiritual renewal in all the wrong places. As a teenager, it just seemed natural to me that the faith of my parents could not possibly be right, so I rejected the authority of Jesus Christ and walked away from my Baptist upbringing right around the time I was able to drive. (How convenient!) I spent several years during and after college “dabbling” in Buddhism, reading the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu, flirting with The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda, and looking deeper into just about anything remotely spiritual that happened to cross my path. Desperate for a transcendent knowledge of the soul and thirsty for living water, I quite foolishly walked away from the only source of both. As a consequence, I really wrecked my life in ways that I am (to this day) ashamed to own up to; I still live out the consequences of decades spent apart from Christ each and every day.

And so it is that I remember when I first read of the tragic deaths of Brown, Shore and Neuman about this time last year, and I can recall an overpowering feeling…an affirmation of the timeless truth that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Had God not very dramatically reached into my life, very visibly healed me, and then very patiently drawn my rebellious heart to Himself over the course of several years, I could easily have been one of the corpses dragged out of that sweat lodge in Sedona. Far beyond the oft-repeated, over-simplistic spiritual platitude that says that “we are all brothers under the skin,” my personal identification with these victims of a controlling, self-interested con man was reinforced by an inner conviction that told me plainly: “That could very easily have been you, Warren. You ought to be on your face in gratitude before the Lord Jesus.”

What is it about the human condition that we are all irresistably drawn to seek after the eternal and the transcendent…but at the same time we are almost universally predisposed to reject both the love and the authority of the one and only God-Man, the long-awaited Redeemer, the only Person in all of human history Who was able to conquer the grave? No other figure in any major world religion has ever even claimed to have conquered death, a fairly unpleasant yet unavoidable reality that affects 100% of the world’s population. Doesn’t that fact alone – victory over death – make it seem like Jesus ought to be Someone that we would all be very interested to learn more about? Isn’t a claim of bodily resurrection something we ought to at least seriously consider?

Jesus, for His part, was not at all surprised by the rejection He encountered as He walked through roughly three years of earthly ministry (John 2:23-25). If it were not an ultimately-tragic story, one with eternal consequences, it might be somewhat amusing to consider how many of those who encountered Jesus in the flesh had been desperately longing for the return of the promised Messiah…and yet they looked their Redeemer square in the eye and somehow thought it better to go looking elsewhere. “Suffering Servant? Uh, yeah…not so much. But thanks anyway!”

I think at least one of the reasons we reject Christ as the answer to our deepest longings is, very simply, a deeply sinful heart, along with a fleshly predisposition toward listening instead to “the god of this age.” Yesterday, Keith Simon preached a sermon in which he explained clearly how Satan uses deception and our own hardened hearts to lead us astray time after time. Truly, we are indeed “a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9-10). Having been led astray as a teenager, only to return to Christ in my late 30’s, I found myself wanting to jump up a few times yesterday and shout “Amen!” only to be reminded that I am now a Presbyterian. If you have time to listen, you can find Keith’s sermon from Oct. 24, 2010 (“Satan and His Strategies”) here.

One thing that has become very clear to me in the last decade or so is that we are all, every single one of us, worshippers. We want to worship something, and our sinful hearts, absent the work of God, will trust someone – anyone! – to lead us into the spiritual renewal that we all so desperately crave…as long as it’s not Jesus. We will sacrifice time, money, even relationships to pursue spiritual renewal and transcendence. We will gladly follow false leaders into sweat lodges, barricade ourselves within wilderness enclaves, and give our complete allegiance to the very worst sorts of mind control. We will even, it turns out, sacrifice our very lives. And yet, we resist the One who calls us to sacrifice our lives in order to find them (Matthew 16:24-25).

“Yeah, I’ll buy that new book today.” “OK, I’ll book my flight to Sedona…and figure out how to pay for it later!” “Yes, I’ll trust this guy over here wearing a very expensive suit.” “Sure, I’ll be open to the influence of Eastern mysticism and pantheism…why not?” But the one thing that most of us will ferociously resist, whether for a season or (more often) for a lifetime, is the call to trust the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and learn to worship Him in spirit and in truth by praying and reading the Bible, God’s amazing, gracious gift to all of humankind.

“Anything but that,” right? Better by far (apparently) to head into the sweat lodge ceremony with James Ray, or stockpile food, guns and Bibles in an apocalyptic commune with David Koresh, or line up for a cup of purple Kool Aid ladled out by Jim Jones. While the events we’ve witnessed in 2009 at Sedona, in 1993 at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or in 1978 at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown are by far the most tragic, attention-getting episodes of spiritual seekers being lured to an untimely demise, they are most assuredly not the norm. More often, I think, human beings enter into eternal death in a far less dramatic manner, simply by asserting their intellectual and/or spiritual pride. The enemy of our souls has, over thousands of years, repeatedly demonstrated his eager willingness to harness and encourage that kind of “rugged individualist” attitude.

2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (ESV, emphasis mine)
“The Light of the Gospel”
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

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