Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Confession

It is quiet here. Darkness slips across the world outside as we sit quietly in this significantly insignificant place. This is no building of stone and authority. No grand intimidating arches or veils of stained glass can be seen. Confessionals are conspicuously absent from the modest room, replaced irreverently by simple furniture on a worn carpet floor stained with the comings and goings of everyday life.

We bring no offering. No incense or holy water. No empty piety or false modesty. Such things are unnecessary here. Extraneous. They are the trappings of a system which cannot contain this place.

Only two broken men. And stillness. Offering enough perhaps.

He casts his eyes down and leans forward as he exhales and clenches his hands. The silence of the room generates its own mass, settling on the man’s fallen shoulders like wet snow on a weakening roof. Bowing under its weight, he shifts anxiously, waiting for an ebb in the silence to muffle the starkness of his words.

He speaks, tentatively at first. A jumble of hesitations, distractions and defensive incantations to protect him from the judgment he has poured out on himself and which he fears to find reflected in me. I hear the echoes of other, more unctuous voices behind his own.

He begins to pick at scabs left by the empty balm of religion, recalling endless repentances, prayers and promises. Each followed by the pain of failure and the despair of hopelessness, the fear abandonment by God. A fear too often given flesh by those who claim to represent Christ, but pull up stakes when the performances of their disciples prove less than stellar.

Only a little time passes before the wound ruptures and a stream of lust, lies and fear drains into the stillness of the room. For a few moments it hovers there between us, yellow and fetid. Raising his eyes for the first time, he looks for some sign of judgment in my eyes - something to confirm the guilt that consumes him, to make it sacred, a vehicle of atonement. That particular comfort will be denied him.

Instead, I ask if he will hear my confession. Confusion spreads across his face and he nods mutely as I recite my own list of sins. The list is current and it is not small. There is no pride or bravado in the sharing, no affected shame or tears. It is the truth, no more and no less.

Neither of us speaks for a few moments. Eventually a relieved, awkward laugh escapes him and he makes a blithe comment about the expected brevity of my career in the church. I agree with him and we share the laughter. He looks at me seriously, solemnly and asks with some hesitancy if God really forgives so freely.
Opening my mouth to speak, I stop short, unsure of how to respond. As for me, I believe God forgave all of humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ. I believe that He forgave us in the cross even before time, space or matter ever existed; when it was simply Father, Son and Spirit in the everything of eternity. I believe that the love and light of God in Christ penetrates and transforms every darkness. What could possibly stand in the way of so great a love?

I think some would answer: a justice of equal greatness. Perhaps they are right. I can only respond with the words of James 2:13, “mercy triumphs over [rejoices against, exults over] justice [judgment].”

“I believe that he does.” It is all I can say. Ultimately, I suspect it is all anyone can say.

We are the same, this man and I. Tragically broken souls struggling through the discharge of a diseased world, we gasp and strain for air, coming up most often with mouths full of infection. In Christ, we are healed but the sickness surrounds and gags, threatens to suffocate us with hopelessness.

We are called to light, love and healing, but that calling draws us through the darkness of hatred, selfishness and despair. We are agents of redemption to the precise degree that we are willing to descend into that darkness and become sacrifices. And he is deluded who believes that the business of redemption can be done without soiling hands and hearts.

Simple Faith

Tonight as I drove home, I was listening to a message given by a popular, nationally syndicated minister on the local Christian radio station. I should have known better, but tonight I experienced a weak moment. Over time, I have discovered that most “popular, nationally syndicated ministers” say the same things. And most of them read (and write) the same books. Judging by their seemingly endless cycle of similar messages, they must work from some common “approved list” of conservative Christian topics. Sadly, I am not a fan of reruns.

However, as irritating as the mind-numbing repetition may be, my primary struggle is with their utter conformity to the prevailing winds of church culture. I consider myself to be evangelical and even – on my off days – a conservative. But I find myself more and more frustrated by the starched and pressed adherence to the conservative religious bandwagon so consistently rolling off the mainstream Christian media assembly line.

Itching ears. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But I’m not objecting to the continual proclamation of the eternal truth of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the world and his message of God’s love and calling to love others. We need that. It’s the only good news worth talking about. I’m objecting to the freeze-dried, pre-packaged, bulleted list of “stuff to work on to get your life in order before God” that spews out of the extremities of the FM band between the hours of six and nine p.m. every weekday night.

Nobody ever promised our lives would be in order. Certainly God never did. He didn’t promise success either, not the kind of success we imagine. One glimpse of the cross will tell you that God’s success looks rather uncomfortably like failure. God never promised financial security (Jesus had nowhere to lay his head), perfect families (from all the evidence of His children, God’s household is a wreck), great marriages (have you read Hosea?) or any of the other magical carrots dangled from the end of any preacher’s religious shtick.

Life with Christ just isn’t that easy… or that hard.

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to misery is surfaced with religious regurgitation. The architects and organizers of the Christian religion have done more damage to faith than all the atheists and pagans in history. Their efforts to distill faith in Christ into an orderly, well-groomed, respectable religious occupation have largely been successful only in enslaving people to religious rules and regulations. And I’m not directing a spotlight on the Roman Catholic Church (the whipping boy of the protestant masses). In the last 500 years, Protestants have created their own intricate structures, organizations, ritual, dogma and religious language which – while perhaps more diverse – have proven no less damaging to faith. I suppose it is simply the nature of religion.

Faith is simple… and awkward. It works exactly opposite to the way the world functions. There are no lists, no manuals (the Bible is not a manual, it is narrative and proclamation), no black and white regulations or 12 Step programs to follow. It is simply trusting Jesus wherever you are and trusting the Holy Spirit inside to lead you as you go.

Unfortunately, that means there are no general-purpose, one-size-fits-all religious programs on how to “do” life once you set foot on the road of faith. Anyone who says otherwise is either tragically misinformed or requesting a donation.

Life in faith is at once magnificent, frustrating, relentless, beautiful, offensive, vibrant, sad, joyous, sacred, and profane. It is a promise overcoming the curse and the triumph of love over justice. It is life constrained only by love.

Affliction and Comfort

I don't like cliches. I like the religious variety even less. However, like alcohol, they're only sinful if used irresponsibly or in large quantities. (Relax, it's a joke.) And to be fair, faced with responsibility for 52+ messages a year, ministers are often hard pressed to avoid them completely. No harm. No foul. All is forgiven.

Forgiveness notwithstanding, however, if we're going to play with cliches, we need to serve them wisely. Otherwise, we may inadvertently find our serve returned with a side of humble pie. In a recent message by someone I greatly respect, my attention was captured by one of these potentially dangerous cliches. In this particular instance, the phrase was used in an encouraging and positive way. However, it has - at other times and places - been used for mischief. Though slightly modified for each particular situation, the root of the saying is as follows:

" comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable..."

Perhaps originally penned by Peter Dunne with reference to the newspaper and thereafter sometimes adopted as a justification for many journalistic endeavors - both positive and negative - the phrase has been borrowed not infrequently by pulpit pounders across the world as a raison d'etre for preaching caustic messages. It is an obvious but unfortunate observation that some who adopt this phrase seem far more interested in "afflicting" than "comforting". It is further lamentable that the tendency is to rationalize the afflicting of the afflicted instead of the comfortable.

Maybe an example is in order. In my experience, many preachers follow this phrase with a detailed exposition of sinful practices and people who should enter politely and silently into their affliction as lambs before their shearers are silent. This list typically consists in all the notorious big hairy sins: fornication, homosexuality, substance abuse, rowdy music, lack of patriotism and disagreeing with the doctrinal statements of a particular church organization. In other words, the pet peeves of a church organization and its leaders.

There are a number of problems here, not least of which is the arbitrary ranking of sin. Worse still, such an approach is really just preaching to the choir. The comfortable aren't being afflicted, they're being coddled into an attitude of superiority.

"I may be a misogynistic, judgmental tightwad," says respectable, well-dressed Wilson, "but at least I'm in the right camp and I'm not coveting Harold's... well... anyway. God Bless the USA!"

Forgive the offensiveness, but I'm trying to make a point here. There is no value in inflating people's sense of self-righteousness. That's just comforting the comfortable. And if we're not careful, we may find that we're simply handing out stones for afflicting.

More significantly, when we take a look at the Gospels, we find the majority of conflict occurring not between Jesus and sinners but between Jesus and the "religious folk" of the day. The Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes seem to receive the uncomfortable side of Jesus far more than anyone else, apparently due to their own self-righteous egotism (their own "comfort", if I might be allowed to suggest it). And the sinners seemed to feel right at home with Jesus, as though he came just to meet them in their "afflictions" (Matthew 9:13, 11:19). Jesus generally had little quarrel with "sinners".

"Ahhh," you say, "but what about the Sermon on the Mount? That was clearly directed at more than just the religious folk. And Jesus has some rather strong words for sinners there."

Perhaps. But I'm still not entirely sure that the Sermon on the Mount wasn't given at the expense and to the frustration of the Pharisees and scribes (see Matthew 5:20). Regardless, until we're ready to commence with the nasty business of lopping off hands and gouging out eyes, I'm going to assume that neither of us is taking that passage too seriously. However, if on the off chance you feel like you are taking it seriously, I'll be holding you to Matthew 5:42. Thank you very much. Because my wallet's looking a little thin these days. Perhaps I should get back to my point.

No matter how you cut it, it can be fairly easily established that Jesus directed most of his "affliction" to those who were comfortable in their religious arrogance and self-righteousness. And many of the "afflicted" who received his comfort were sinners. And what is that marvelous smell? I think it just may be fresh pie baking in the kitchen.