“Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.” – Mark 14:54
Hartzo the Magician – at least, I think that was his name – was a touring illusionist “back in the day,” as they say. When I was a kid, he came to my home town in Nashville and my pal Buddy (yes my friend’s first name was really “Buddy”) and I went to watch and wonder at the magic. Looking back, it was pretty standard fare: rabbits, doves, card tricks, assistants being sawed in half (that still looked real, I don’t care what anyone says), the usual.
Then came for the moment Hartzo asked the audience for two volunteers. I don’t know what possessed us, but without any mutual prompting Buddy and I leaped from our seats – we were conveniently on the aisle – and began running to the stage before Hartzo could
choose anyone else. As we smugly marched up the steps while Hartzo made some joke about our enthusiasm, I remember thinking how much I preferred being in the middle of “the action” rather than on the sidelines.
This has remained true throughout my life. Somehow, I’ve always found my way onto the
field rather than staying on the sidelines, both literally and figuratively. I’ve never been a comfortable spectator in my own life. Sometimes this has led for interesting (euphemism for “challenging”) life experiences, but mostly, it’s worked out.
Of course, as we grow older most of us spend an increasing majority of our lives on the sidelines. Sports is a great example. Allow me to channel Dennis Miller: “With-the-recent-NFL-‘Lockout’-now-finally-resolved-so-that-obnoxious-billionaire-team-owners-can-tell-their-third-trophy-wives-they-held-their-ground-against-those-pesky-start-up-millionaire-players (who, as it so happens, are the very reason you and I shell out $198 for a seat, $9.50 for a hotdog, and $4.75 for a flat beer at an NFL game in middle of scorching heat in September or bitter cold in mid December, but why quibble about facts?) over-a-few-ownership-points-which-at-the-end-of-the-day-won’t-make-a-material-difference-to-either-side’s-Fiji-vacation-plans-those-of-us-on-the-sidelines-are-now-free-to-set-up-our-make-believe-“we’re-so-macho”-Fantasy-Football-teams-and-scream-at-television-screens-every-weekend-until-January-about-the-bonehead-play-Yasshmhahil-I-Can’t-Pronounce-His-Last-Name-just-made.”
Whew!!! I think you get the picture. We live to watch others do what we only wish we could do.
Life is easier on the sidelines. Never having to make real decisions, or stick with the decisions we make. Wishing for things we can’t quite bring ourselves to reach for. Wanting forever but afraid of tomorrow. Safe distances.
Do you know people like this? I do. They keep the most exciting, challenging and even transcendent possibilities in their lives just out of reach, at safe distances. Perhaps they fear being hurt, or perhaps they lack the confidence to pursue their dreams because they fear failure. Or maybe they just can’t suit up and step onto the field.
Regardless, they set up endless barriers between themselves and the amazing fate that could be theirs if they only had the courage to believe. This is true in our Faith walks as well. Indeed, it’s been the case since the first followers of Christ professed their devotion but seemed to lack the backbone to exercise their desire.
The core issue is found in our ability (or lack thereof) to follow into the unknown, or
the dangerous. We resist. We argue with ourselves. We lie awake at night and wrestle with what we should or shouldn’t do. For Believers, many times these contemplations center on how we should respond to God’s call.
The “following” theme appears throughout the New Testament, most prominently in the
Gospels. Matthew offers twenty-four examples alone. And the theme of following in Matthew isn’t limited to merely being close to someone, marking their footsteps
at safe distance. Rather, it calls for a relationship; a relationship between us, God, and other followers. A relationship of intimacy, not distance.
Mark also discusses following Jesus – fifteen times in his short Gospel, connecting it to an emphasis on discipleship. In Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus appointed the Twelve to be “with Him,” that is, to engage in daily interaction and to follow wherever He led. Jesus sought the allegiance of His followers in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision. Simon, Andrew, Levi, a Galilean multitude, large crowds, some disciples, blind Bartimaeus, and a number of unnamed women all followed Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.
Yet even in the Scripture we see the shortcomings of our ability to stay committed. Take the example of Peter. On the eve of Jesus’ arrest, after three years of being as close to Jesus as anyone possibly could, Peter shifts his focus, deciding to step to the sidelines. In Mark 14:54 shortly after Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter followed Jesus at a distance: “Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.”
Peter thought he was playing it safe. He was watching from the sidelines. Yet he was actually in greater danger because of his fear. Just like following Jesus’ example of God’s Plan requires more than physical proximity, removing himself from Jesus and staying “at a distance” required Peter to do something more than physical detachment. In trying to protect his life, Peter in fact endangered himself even more by placing distance in his relationship with Jesus. That distance left him vulnerable – like losing sight of the driver who knows the way – and Peter quickly drifted off course. The very next time he appears in the text he denies Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72).
Believers, members of this great body we call the Church, are followers of Jesus’ example
– perhaps not physically but certainly from a relationship standpoint. God asks for our allegiance in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision. He pleads for our fellowship if we will only agree to follow where He leads.
Like Peter, however, we too often follow the right person but at the wrong distance. We do this out of fear, and that fear makes us vulnerable to doubt and insecurity.
There are many reasons many of us keep distance in our lives, both in our relationship
with God as well as our relationships with one another. Do any of these resonate with you?
- Fear of being associated with something uncomfortable. Like Peter, we often permit distance in our relationships because we prefer the approval of people more than the approval of God. We routinely follow God at a distance and utilize him only when we have needs – say, an emergency, or in times of financial hardship. Perhaps we’re embarrassed to be close to God or to someone others might not approve. Yet when our need is greatest, we seek what we hide from.
- Busyness and distractions in everyday life. We allow the seemingly urgent things in our daily lives to crowd out the truly important things God is pointing us to.
- Time. How often have we thrilled at the initial excitement of a new relationship, unable to separate ourselves from the object of our affection for even a moment, only to find that as the journey turns into a lifelong marathon we find we’ve
drifted apart? Remaining close over time requires diligent work from both parties.
Any or all of these can highlight the distance we put into our lives; distance from loved ones, distance from God, watching our lives from sidelines. How do we recognize this distance, and more importantly, how do we close the gap?
I was in an airport yesterday (actually, I’m in airports every week, but that’s another story) when I saw real-life example of how we can so easily close the distances in the relationship spaces of our lives. A mother and her five or six year old son were walking through the busy concourse and the child kept getting distracted and wandering off. The mother, apparently exhausted with trying to keep up with her son, finally just stopped in the
middle of the concourse and watched as the child continued wandering several yards ahead.
I smiled when I saw this, know what would come next. The child suddenly looked around, no longer able to see his mother. Realizing he was alone and sensing the distance that had grown between them, the child quickly ran back to his mother, enjoying the safety of being close to his protector. When you and I become aware of being separated from God or a loved one, do we rush back or continue drifting, perhaps placing even more distance between us?
Here are a few things I’ve found that work for me when I find myself drifting to the
- Re-establish your bearings. Determine when and how the distance began to form and how far you’ve drifted from God, or from someone you love. As in all relationships, the sooner we recognize the distance the easier it is to adjust our pace or direction and close the gap.
- Admit your shortcomings. Our grievances against others prevents closeness in that relationship. If something you are doing is generating distance between you and God, confess it and seek restoration.
- Schedule regular time to communicate. Building a relationship with a loved one requires regular and transparent communication. This exchange is the very heart of any relationship, and its absence is a clear indication of distance. Similarly, we need regular communication with God to establish a full relationship. All too often, we allow our communication with God to be crowded out of schedules overloaded with meetings, events, carpools, and kids’ activities. Just as we hold our feelings back from another person, we often hold our honest feelings back from God in prayer. Or sometimes, we simply talk more than we listen. Schedule time each morning before a busy agenda distracts you from this priority, or every evening after dinner or after the kids are in bed.
- Pledge to follow. A lifelong journey with another person requires agreement on the route and destination. Some believers have diverged from Christ’s leadership, and have decided on a different direction for their life, their kids, their career, their time, and their priorities. As difficult as it may be, tell God you want to follow Him more closely, wherever He may lead.
Fortunately, Peter’s story had a happy ending. After denying Jesus, the rooster crowed a
second time, forcing him to get his bearings and realize that distance existed in his relationship with Jesus. He confessed his shortcomings by weeping bitterly for denying Jesus. Luke and John write that Peter fellowshipped with Jesus following the resurrection, and boldly accepted Jesus’ challenge to take the Gospel to the world. As far as we know from the recorded life of Peter, he never permitted such dangerous distance
to form in his relationship with Jesus again.
Staying at a safe distance may seem comforting. In fact, it can be the most dangerous place of all. Get engaged with the passions of your life. Follow the direction of where God
is leading you. Being a spectator in your own life is, ultimately, the loneliest seat in the stadium.