You probably have some human faces pressed together in your pocket. A penny portrait of Lincoln. A Jefferson nickel. A quarter icon of Washington. We do like our money to have a human element to it.
This black-and-white photograph, taken in the l890’s, perfectly captures in a single image what it means to flourish as a human being in an imperfect world. We may not be challenged by any physical disability, but all of us are lacking in one way or another. And our impairments are the very reason God pairs us with others. In those pairings, in those dependent relationships, we learn that we not only need others, but are in fact created to need others.
While wombs become killing fields,
and a holocaust smokes out of our nation’s heart,
where are You, O God of life?
If we make a list of the moments in our lives that have shaped us as individuals, our list will comprise good and bad things we’ve done. On the “Good List” might be getting married, having children, earning a degree. On the “Bad List” might be going through a divorce, betraying a friend, getting a DWI. Things we do, actions we take, alter the course of our lives. They shape us (and sometimes warp us) into the people we’ve become.
If we’re going to raise well-adjusted children who have a shot at doing well in the world, having healthy relationships, and avoiding the toxic temptations of this life, then a good first step is to stop trying to boost their self-esteem.
When we got home from church, Mom would walk in the front door, pull on her apron, and go to work in the kitchen. A little while later, we’d all take our places at the table for the Sunday meal. It might be chicken fried steak. Or baked lasagna. Or hamburgers.
In a cartoon in The New Yorker this week, a patient sits expectantly on the table as his doctor glances down at the charts. “Here’s your problem,” the physician says, “it looks like you’re paying attention to what’s going on.”
If there’s one thing that we in the church do extremely well, it’s ignoring the greatest threats that face us. We roll massive Trojan horses inside our sanctuary walls while feverishly battling the mosquitoes that buzz around us. And once we wake up and grasp the true danger—if we ever do—the damage done is often incalculable.
When reading a book, especially a controversial one, it’s useful to treat it like a house we’re considering buying. From the curbside, it may bedazzle the eyes, but there’s more to a house than its walls, windows, and roof. So we step inside. There too we may see some attractions: fresh paint, new flooring, fancy fixtures.
In conversations with other Christians about the vast number of world’s religions, I usually encounter two different convictions.
Our deepest fear, writes Marianne Williamson, is not that we are inadequate. Or that something will happen to our children. Or that we’ll be raped or murdered or robbed.
Here’s what will happen. Maybe you’ve already been through it. Or maybe you’re living through it right now. I don’t know what will trigger it—I’m no prophet—but I do know, sooner or later, something will.
One of the reasons social media works so well is because we all like to talk about ourselves. It’s a basic, universal fact of communication. The difference in social media is this: we can talk about ourselves to a massive crowd inside our minuscule screens, feel our confidence balloon as “likes” multiply like rabbits, and—thank goodness!—no one is there to rudely interrupt us by talking about themselves.
The only politician mentioned in the creeds of Christianity is the one responsible for executing its founder. Of Jesus we confess that he was crucified for us “under Pontius Pilate” (Nicene Creed) and “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” (Apostles’ Creed). That is the church’s political statement every Sunday.
If I hand you a blank sheet of paper and ask you to make a list of what’s wrong with the world, where would you start? Maybe you’d reference recent headlines: assassinations of police officers, systemic racism, the rise of radical Islam. Or maybe you’d start the list with other wrongs, such as generational poverty, sex trafficking, child abuse, abortion, or political corruption.
Yesterday afternoon, the first reports of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, started coming in. The driver of a truck decimated scores of innocent people in the street. Eighty four people are dead, including several children, and many more are wounded. Like everyone else, I was shocked, sickened, and angered by this horrific slaughter. I also felt something else, something I can’t find a single word to express.
It can seem, in times of violence, when people are calling for political, cultural, and legal changes, as if the church is largely irrelevant. Worse yet, the church can make herself seem irrelevant if she embroils herself in political, cultural, and legal changes, and forgets her primary calling: the preaching of Christ and him crucified.
Gutless, spineless, yellow-bellied girly-men. Such words hardly come to mind when you gaze upon the prophets of old. These men were, well, they were men, and you knew it. Sir Robin of The-Search-for-the-Holy-Grail fame would not have made the cut. They all had their weak moments, but mere moments they were.
They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent. Each step up took them closer to the abbreviated, fatal fall to come. The criminal stood above the trapdoor. Moments later, it would open to rope him into eternity. An officer asked him if he had any final words. “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,” he said.
Something happens inside churches where outrage over society’s immoralities seasons every Sunday sermon. It’s rather unexpected, and rarely noticed. The more a preacher makes a habit of lambasting the evils of a culture; the more he makes the necessity of a morally pure life the center of his sermons; the more he directs his flock to the keeping of the divine law as their defining characteristic—the more he does all this, the more that preacher actually urges his church to adopt the ways of the world. It’s as sad as it is true: the more law-centered a church becomes, the more like the world it becomes.
The way of the world is the way of the law. That law may sometimes be in synch with the divine law, such as when societies prohibit murder and stealing. That law may sometimes be of the world’s own devising. Either way, these outward laws reflect an interior disposition: my identity, my self-worth, the means by which I find fulfillment in life, is determined by what I do. Maybe I follow the rules of my group within society. Maybe I become a law unto myself by making my own rules and following the dictates of my heart. In the end, it’s all the same. My self-understanding arises out of my behavior. I am who I am because I do what I do. The way of the world is the way of the law.
And the way of far too many churches is the way of the law as well. Beneath the surface, legalistic Christians are little different from those they often deride. Their identity as Christians, their worth, the means whereby they find fulfillment in life, is determined by the morality they choose and the immorality they avoid. The Christian life becomes little more than following a list of do’s and don’ts. Moral outrage over society’s evils becomes a favorite pastime because, to some degree, it boosts their own feeling of intimacy with the great Moral Divinity before whom they bow the knee. The self-understanding of the law-centered Christian arises out of his behavior. He is who he is because he does what he does. The way of such Christians, and the way of such churches, is the way of the law.
Thus, the more law-centered a church becomes, the more it and the world become kissing cousins.
What then, shall preachers stop preaching the divine law? By no means. The law must be preached. God’s commands for how we are to live must be proclaimed. Evil must be pointed out. Sinners must be called to repentance. This is what the law does; and, oh, does it do it well. It always teaches right from wrong, it always commands, and—because we are sinners—it always accuses.
And there is one more thing the law does: it never gives us what we ultimately need.
The law can tell us, day and night, what to do and what not to do, and we will never do it perfectly. The law can instruct and warn, urge and command, entice and promise, but it cannot say, “You are loved by God.” It cannot say, “You are forgiven.” The law cannot say, “You have peace with God in Jesus Christ. He has kept the law for you. He loves and embraces you as you are. He welcomes you as a brother or sister.” The law can do many thing, but it cannot deliver the good news we need more than anything else.
It is the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ that gives us fulfillment in life, for it fills us with God himself. This good news is that we are who we are because Christ is who he is: our friend, our brother, our Savior. Our identity is not that of law-keepers or law-breakers but the friends of Jesus. Who we are is swallowed up by who he is.
What we ultimately need—what everyone needs—is reconciliation and peace with God in Jesus Christ. And that’s what we have. The cross was the pulpit from which Jesus preached his love and forgiveness to the world. And that message is still to permeate pulpits every Sunday.
The more grace-centered, Gospel-focused a church becomes, the more unlike the world it becomes. And the more it proclaims to the world what it truly needs to hear.