Friday, September 08, 2006

The Hard Stuff of Real Lives

Giving real hope to real people in the real world . . .

That motto is not original to BCC, but oh, I hope to God we make it our own.

A week or so ago on another blog I conversed with a guy named Matthew who said he had done the whole Christianity thing with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and didn't get anything out of it but an empty silence and a failed marriage. He poured out his story of devoting years and years to faithful pursuit of a relationship with Jesus, of studying his Bible and believing wholeheartedly in what it said, of praying daily with a fervent and devoted heart, of attending church with commitment and openness. Of begging God to take away the same-sex attraction that had been plaguing him since as long as he could remember. Matthew believed his desires were sinful and out of faithfulness did not act on them, and day after day for years and years pleaded with God to take those feelings away. He tried counseling and community. He even tried marriage to a woman. When he was finally able to come clean about his inner struggles, almost nothing he had committed himself to survived the fallout. His marriage was over. And so was his faith.

Matthew says he trusted God and tried truly, sincerely, honestly to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says he was repentant and obedient. But God never kept up His end of the relationship, so Matthew gave up. In his mind now, there probably is no God, but even if there is, He ain't worth having faith in. You can't have a relationship with someone you can't see or hear, he says. He tried.

What do we say to someone like Matthew? He's not alone. There are millions of folks like him. What do we say to the Matthews of the world? To the pre- and post-Christian skeptics?

I tried to say a few things as respectfully and helpfully as I could. He was asking questions, and I felt obliged to offer some answers. But I was way in over my head. I was humbled not just by the difficulty in finding "the right words" for an experience like Matthew's, but just by the very idea that a few paragraphs of "insight" in a blog comments section could adequately address, much less honor, his decades of pain and struggles.

This week, at Common Grounds Online, pastor/author Les Newsom posted about his conversation with a seeker-skeptic who wanted to know why God was hiding. Newsom is a very intelligent guy, one with a great pastoral spirit, and he was able of course to work some philosophical ju-jitsu and turn the tables on the asker. Using sound biblical insight and practically flawless logic and rhetorical eloquence, he spoke the truth that it is not God who hides, but us. It was as perfect an answer as one could provide.

Yet I'd be willing to bet it did not suddenly make the skeptic go, "Oh, yes, I see. You're absolutely right."

Words can be very, very cheap. Even the best ones. Even the truest ones. Yes, it is true that God's Word will not return void, but oh how inadequate even our best words can be in "making someone believe." The Bible says that faith cannot come without hearing, so the Church must be dedicated to preaching, but isn't it humbling -- or, at least, shouldn't it be humbling -- to know that it's not our words that work faith in a person, but God's grace?

I'm a words guy. I'm big on words. I want to make a living with my words. I try to get my words published and have had a little success. I fill up too many blogs with words. I fill up a computer file with fictional words. I speak words when I'm teaching. I speak words when I want my wife to know how I feel. I speak words when I'm caring for, instructing, or disciplining my kids.
The world is not short on words, and some of us are trying to speak as many as we think appropriate in the best way we know how.

But words don't save. The Word does.

I'm a fan of apologetics, by which I mean the system and study of providing answers and evidence in defense of the validity and truth of the Christian faith. Apologetics are helpful in evangelism. But I've never heard of anyone argued into or really even intellectually convinced into the kingdom. That can often be the first step, but it's never the only one. Jesus doesn't require we love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength by only changing our minds. He changes the rest too.

So how do we do this? For the Matthews of the world, and for everyone else? People are looking for sound words, for true words, but mere words aren't working. That there's a new "religious" best seller on the New York Times list every few months certainly proves that. Clearly not everyone was driven to a purpose that ultimately satisfied or they would not have then latched on to finding their best life now. The Church has an abundance of words.
What else we got?

One of my favorite blog-buddies is a guy by the name of Michael Spencer, who's been writing under the nom de plume The Internet Monk for more than a few years. I don't just consider myself a friend of his (he's also the founder and moderator of the Boar's Head Tavern blog, the guy who invited me to be a "fellow" in that conversation), I consider myself a fan. He's a great writer with a lot of hard-earned wisdom. This week he highlighted a post from the Internet Monk archives. It is called To Know We're Not Alone, and I highly recommend you read it. Here's an excerpt:
His face comes back to me across the years, and as I think about my own brokenness, failures, and the desire for common humanity that drives me to nail my thoughts to the door of the world, I wonder if he wasn’t showing me the face of every man and woman I’ve ever met.

You see, the invitation concluded, and that preacher began talking. His words were nervous, not the sure and confident tones of the sermon, but the halting, breaking, fearful tones of the guilty confession. He wasn’t in preacher-speak. He was speaking differently. Humanly. It bothered me.

In my church, our pastor seemed super-human. He was God’s man. A Spirit-filled man. He was different than all of us. He spoke differently. He dressed in suits all the time, even on hot summer days when he was doing yard work. He knelt behind the pulpit when he prayed, even though it was a very large church. He cried and shouted in the pulpit. He declared the Word of the Lord, and pled with sinners to come to Jesus. He was an embodiment of heaven’s man on earth.

He was not like the rest of us, and we knew it.

He did laugh, but not in the same way or at the same things. His wife was saintly, and always dressed like royalty. He could be tender, but he could also be frightening. You knew he spent hours with God, and was different as a result. He was a holy man.

As a young preacher-boy, I wasn’t a thing like him. I’m not sure that I wanted to be. I had walked the aisle and “surrendered” to preach, but could I ever be like that? Holy and separate? Anointed with power? I did believe, I am sure, that being a preacher meant I would be different. God would give to me…..something. The mantle of the prophet. The fire of the preacher. A light in the darkness. I wouldn’t be like other people. I would be safe and protected.

But this evening I was looking at another preacher, not my pastor. And he was not supernatural or holy or other-worldly. He seemed small and frightened. He was talking about his wife. He’d come home, and found his wife with another man. He just said this, to the whole church, as if they must know. He wept. His fear and self-loathing oozed out of him and into the atmosphere of that revival. Everything changed.

His wife was not present, though we all looked around to see her. I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one. I wanted him to stop talking. He was scaring me. Real humanity, and the mess of a broken marriage, weren’t welcome in this revival, or in my world.

He said he and his wife had a lot of trouble, and he’d been taking medicine. But the medicine hadn’t done any good. Now his wife was with another man, and he wanted the church to pray. We did not know what to do with this. It was too much. Too much. Too real . . .

. . . I did not realize until many years later what had happened that night. The preacher was calling out of his darkness, calling into a room of other people, looking for something. What? He was looking to know he was not alone. He wanted to know if anyone else knew and understood what it was like to be human, to hurt and be a failure. To have failed at marriage and now, to have failed at being a “good Christian.” Did anyone care that his life was a wreck, or would they just condemn him? Would they pray for him, or did they just want him to go away?

I have no idea what he found. In me, he found the shock that comes from being confronted with my illusions. I wanted this to be a freakish exception to the rule that God makes us all better and makes everything all right. I wanted this to be a bad dream that would go away, because I did not want to think about the waking realities of infidelity and mental illness and desperate, despairing people. I did want to think that the man standing in the pulpit with the answers might not have all the answers for himself.

My faith rejected such a vision. I thought of that preacher as a sick fool. Today, I know better. He was a window into my own soul. A picture of the human race. A representative of the our true nature. And even more, he was, for that moment a sacrament of honesty in a religion of pretense. He stood there, falling to pieces, asking, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?” But we couldn’t let the secret out. We had to say the “amen,” and go home to a religion that protects us and makes us better.

Some twenty years later, that preacher took his own life. I do not know his path, I only know that in the end, he could not live with himself.

How many times did he stand and tell others to trust in a God of love, mercy and grace? And what did we hear? Did we hear the truth….or did we hear, instead, the invitation to paint ourselves in colors of self-deception and denial, and pretend another week, another year?

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

I couldn't have said it any better, and coming as it does as the result of a severe life lesson grounded in personal pains (and not just mental ruminations), I am content to have provided a lengthy excerpt of his piece at the expense of more of my blathering. ;-)

This is why the Jesus + nothing Gospel is vital. This is why a works gospel is worthless, whether its coming from a Pharisee in 1 BC, a fundy hellfire preacher in 1975, or a pomo pastor-buddy in 2006. Jesus must be the point of our work and words . . .

. . . and we must mean them. I don’t mean be sincere about them or do them well. I mean we must mean them. And that is the missing ingredient in all of these real stories of real hurt in the real world. The real hope. Hope that is real. Not just words of hope. Yes, those too, but the authenticity, the pure religion that makes the words real. What is missing, then, is the living witness of the church. The community cannot just be about dispensing kingdom words but about living out the kingdom life and doing the kingdom work.

Will we respond to the Matthews of our community with just good advice? With some clever apologetics and airtight theology? Or with grace and relentless support and a consistent witness that we still believe this stuff and know it makes a difference and are going to keep trusting Jesus is faithful even if they won't? Will we carry on with love? Or with resentment or dismissal or avoidance? Will our testimony be desertion? Or the bearing of burdens?

The people who enter our doors and “test drive” our community had better get more than words for their trouble. Some of them can subsist on good words for a while. But the substance of lives troubled by broken families, broken hearts, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, adultery, pornography, grief over lost loved ones or prodigal children or prodigal parents, lost jobs, lost joys, secret sins and secret shames, doubt and hurt and need and guilt will not be healed by words, but by the living witness of the Body of Christ being the body of Christ to them. The friends of the crippled man didn’t just tear the roof off the sucker so their friend could hear Jesus better; they lowered him down into the middle of an astonished audience so he could be healed.

Jesus Christ came to preach the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, and everywhere he went, he testified in word and deed to the freedom life in the kingdom gives to the hurt, lost, and lonely. If we, the community the Bible calls the Body of Christ, will be true to our namesake, we will do no less. Our open door must be like the hole in the roof of that house – the place of dramatic entry into a place of real hope for real people with real hurts.
BCC cannot just be about giving people good advice to live their generic lives more successfully; we must be about living the Gospel in a world of hard stuff.

But prove yourselves obedient to the Message, and do not be mere hearers of it, imposing a delusion upon yourselves. But be ye doers of the word...
-- James 1:22


At 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incredibly powerful excerpt. I absolutely agree in the power of words. I'm going through a phase right now where I'm not speaking at all. I've retreated inward for awhile to do a little searching of my own. This breakup at BCC was actually a good thing for me. It made me realize I had to go back and learn how to listen.

I'm a believer that our ears can be our greatest asset and tool for change. Why is it that we as Christians are in such a hurry to find "the answer"? Sometimes people just need to be listened to. They just need an advocate. Not a person to change their life...just someone to give them the time of day to hear their pain.

That's half the battle I've found. The deeper my faith becomes, the less "answers" and "words" I have. For it is something I cannot taste, touch, or see that leads me back to Christ. It is an incredibly peaceful yet intense feeling of faith (and desperation and yearning) that calls me back to God on a near daily basis.

I really don't do this deal perfectly. Matter of fact...I fail most every day. But one of the most powerful things I've learned recently is that you don't always need "words". You just need a set of ears...and the right heart.

Love your blog...always challenges me in my own journey. Thanks for posting.

Dan in Antioch


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