The Christmas pageant in the Episcopal church was a carbon copy of similar pageants around the country. Only in this one, in this year, at a critical moment, a little nine-year-old girl said something that the people would never forget.
Peel back the outward layers of churchiness, stick a microphone to heart of Christians, and ask, ''Why do you really want to go to heaven?'' The answer, “to be with Jesus” will, I suspect, be low on the list, if it makes the cut at all.
Yesterday I stopped at McDonald’s on my lunch break to grab a cup of coffee and write about the victorious Christian life. I had just cashed several checks from folks who’d ordered my book of sermons and meditations. As if divining that my wallet was full of cash, twice the number of local homeless people stuck out their filthy hands to me as I walked from my truck to the McDonald’s. But, by God, I was eager to write, so I just quickened my step and played deaf.
No sooner did I get my cup of coffee, find a table, and begin to type my ideas into my iPhone than out of the corner of my eye I spotted a pair of long tan legs, crowned with hot pink shorts, saunter into the establishment. I was three sentences into my article when my train of thought totally derailed in a crash of testosteronic proportions.
While my eyeballs were still locked on the legs, I reached for my cup of coffee but, not looking where my hand was going, I hit the side of the cup, tipped it over, and spilled half the hot java all over the table, and even on my lap. Now this was a public place, of course, so I was forced to settle for an under-my-breath, profanity-riddled implosion of anger at my lack of grace.
I grabbed some napkins and began sopping up the mess. Some of the coffee had splashed on my iPhone, so I worked on it first. As I dried it, I pushed the button to open the lock screen and saw there the date, April 25. I didn’t need to see that, not at this moment. I don’t care for this month. You see, every time the fourth month rolls around, I get to hear, for thirty days, all day long, in various contexts, the name of my ex-wife, April. Already frustrated from the coffee mishap, seeing her name did nothing to improve my mood. Indeed, I found my mind retreating to another, much bigger mess, marked by black days of heartache and fury.
With only a few minutes left in my half-hour lunch break, I strong-armed myself back into the article on the victorious Christian life. Then, wouldn’t you know it, my phone rang. I saw the number. “Dear God, not him,” I mumbled. It was my least favorite customer, the type who always finds a dark lining in silver cloud. He alone has the knack of making me wish I had a different job, a better job, one in which I could be bossing people around instead pretending to be patient with the likes of this scrooge. So I ignored the call. I had work to do.
Then I saw that I had three minutes left on my lunch break. Three whopping minutes. So I threw my coffee-soaked wad of napkins into the trash, shoved my caffeinated phone back into my pocket, and marched past she-of-the-tan-legs into the hot San Antonio sunshine. I walked over the asphalt, climbed into my Freightliner, and sat there ruminating.
I’d meant to use my lunch break to write a critique of the so-called “victorious Christian life,” the warped view of dynamic Christian living in which the believer daily overcomes one sin after the other, until his bio consists of one long string of spiritual conquests.
As I sat in my truck, I realized, for the millionth time, that my own bio consists of one long, string of spiritual defeats. The hungry I ignore. The women after whom I lust. The anger I indulge. The past I cannot seem to get past. The people I despise. I sin more in thirty minutes than those of the “victorious Christian life” supposedly sin in thirty years.
But I also realized, for the millionth time, that that’s okay. They can have their life of faux spiritual victories. For as much as I sometimes hate myself for the stupid things I do, the destructive words I speak, the immoral thoughts I entertain, there is one who does not hate me. In fact, he loves me through it all. He has already conquered the sins against which I daily struggle. He has already washed away the filth of anger and lust and ingratitude in which I find myself wallowing. Jesus—he is my victor, no matter how many defeats I suffer. On that bloody cross, in his own seeming defeat, he made me a victor by welcoming me into his kingdom of grace and mercy.
And that, dear reader, is the only victorious Christian life I will ever live.
Crouched inside my conservative heart is a little monster that cheerleads on the liberal agenda. The more pornography spills its sexual sewage into our culture, the more he whoops. The more Miley Cyrus twerks; the more benedictions Obama pronounces upon Planned Parenthood; the more LGBTs couple up, wed, and adopt children, the louder my monster claps. He could flip through channels all day long, watching example after example of the cultural corpse decaying before his eyes, and greet his disgust with gusto. Perhaps I am the lone conservative who cloisters this inner, liberal-loving monster. But I daresay that every right-leaning thinker suffers this trollish beast. I sensed his awakening the other day, and could almost feel his lips smirking, as I studied an article that detailed, quite convincingly, the various ways that sexual “freedom” has undermined the stability of marriage and family. And the thing is, I wholeheartedly agreed with the author’s arguments. It is my firm conviction that he’s logically, biblically, and ethically spot-on. In fact, I’ve echoed his sentiments in my own teaching, writing, and everyday conversations. I loathe the fact that America is slouching toward Sodom. Yet, alas, the monster closeted in my soul laps it up.
Why? For what reason would a conservative Christian find secret religious delight in society’s moral degradation?
Some might say I’m just a hypocrite, one more right-winger who publicly lambasts the very thing he privately loves. And, no doubt, I suffer from that vice to an extent. Lord knows there are few, nay, no men whose words and actions exhibit perfect, perpetual integrity.
I suspect, however, that something else is afoot. I think the chief reason that a faction within me welcomes the disintegration of the American ethos is this: it makes me feel so much better about myself. The smut makes me quite smug. The dirtier things become round about me, the cleaner I sense myself to be. The more porn there is, the more chaste I think I am by comparison. The more homosexuals come out, the more I deem heterosexuals the ethically superior group. The monster within, you see, uses all this when he fulfills this vocation: he is a priest before an altar upon which sits an icon of myself. And to me, his lord, he offers up the sacrifice of self-affirming praise.
I am caught, therefore, in a dilemma. For on the one hand, God calls me to speak the truth in love, to speak out against evil in all its manifestations. But on the other hand, the more evil manifests itself, the more ecstatic my inner monster becomes. What’s a man to do?
Here are my two goals. I shall endeavor, first of all, to see in every manifestation of evil, a crime scene that has my fingerprints all over it. For if there is a problem in society, it is my problem. Every man is my brother, every woman my sister, every problem in society is therefore my family’s problem. If I wish to be part of the solution, I must first acknowledge that I am part of the problem. Rather than isolating myself atop a mountain from which I can decry the iniquities in the valley below me, I will confess that daily I drag my feet through the muck of that valley floor. Along with the abortionists and crack whores and pedophiles and gossiping Grandmas, I am dirtied by sin, plagued by vices, and desperately in need of the Christ who will once and for all shower away my filth and envelop me with his own sacred skin.
And I shall also endeavor, as one who knows the author of all good, to continue to speak out against evil. But I shall speak as a sinner to sinners, as a sick man to comrades in calamity, as a dying man to others who teeter on the brink of the grave. Before I speak against evil, however, I will ask myself: are these the words you would choose if your son or daughter were the object of this address? If not, I will zip shut my lips until I learn to speak the truth in love, for ‘tis better to be mute than to screech orthodoxy in the tones of a finger-wagging Pharisee. As a brother of mine recently commented, “Loveless truth is just as harmful as truthless love,” (Bill Cwirla).
Yes, I confess that my inner monster finds secret delight in society’s moral degradation, but I also profess that I abhor that demonic, immoral delight within me. That is not the man God created me to be, nor the man I desire to be. I wish, and therefore I pray, to be a man who bears the icon of his Creator—the one who, in his fathomless love for mankind, leapt from heaven, enveloped himself in our skin, and befriended the sinners, especially those whom the religious folk of the day shunned as the morally degenerate. And in the mercy of that friend of unfaithfuls, Jesus the Christ, I shall lay hold of peace, as do all those who rest not in their own worth or morality, but in the bleeding wounds of him who died that in him we might live in, but not of, this world.