JULY 3, 2019
I have a preacher friend who is perfect.
His tie is never crooked. He’s thin. He has hair…without one hair out of place. He never stumbles over his words. He’s always smiling, nice, and loving. He really irritates me. Of course a part of that is envy, but the other part is my belief that nobody can be that together. I would speak in tongues…if only he would stub his toe on the pulpit and yell, “D__n!” (The reason I wrote “D__n” is because I’m neurotic. Paul Tournier, the late Christian psychiatrist, said that a definition of a neurotic is someone who can’t say “damn” without feeling guilty about it.
Or I’d feel even better about my friend if he would just get arrested for drunk driving. “If you were arrested for drunk driving on Saturday night with your arrest published in the local Sunday newspaper, would you go to church that day?” That’s the question my late mentor, Fred Smith, often asked. The answers he received ranged from “Fred, are you nuts?” or “I think I would wait a few weeks” to “Maybe a church in another country.” I was a pastor when he asked me that question. My answer was, “Of course I would go because I need the job…but my sermon would be interesting.”
Fred would then say that not going to church after an arrest would be like not going to the hospital after an accident: “When they came in the ambulance, it would be like telling them to leave you alone. It would be like saying that you’ll come to the hospital, but first you have to tape-up the broken ribs, change out of the ripped pants, and put on a clean shirt without all the blood stains. It would be like saying, ‘Let me go home and get cleaned up, then I’ll go to the hospital.’”
Of course Fred was making the point that the church isn’t a gathering place for saints…but a hospital for sinners, the wounded, and the needy.
You know about Paul’s “thorn” in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul didn’t tell us exactly what that thorn was because, I suppose, God wanted us to feel free to insert our own particular “thorn”—any sin or sickness works—into that truth. Paul asked God to remove the thorn three times (“By the way, Lord, I’ve mentioned this before”) and each time God refused saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Then Paul said something astonishing, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me….For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
I remember one time receiving a funny letter from an “evangelist.” He wrote that he paid a man, Sam, to sit on the platform during his evangelistic meetings. “Sam is drunk most of the time and his red runny nose; rumpled, unwashed, and smelly clothes; and shaking hands made him a perfect example of the dangers of drinking alcohol and refusing to become a Christian.” The evangelist would often refer to Sam in his sermons as a living example of sin. The letter closed with, “Sam died recently and I have an opening. I was wondering if you would be interested in applying for Sam’s position.”
Frankly, I would have taken the position on the condition that I preach the sermon. Using Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7 as the text—“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us”—I would say, “Look at me! God likes me a lot and it’s obviously not because there is a whole lot to like. There’s something really weird about a God like that. Let me tell you about him!”
Do you know what I believe to be one of the biggest problems in the church? It’s sanitized saints. We really do clean up pretty well…and that’s killing us and the “witness” God would have us make to the world.
Did you know that Thomas Jefferson (yeah, that one) was a Humanist? In fact, he created his own New Testament by removing all the references to anything miraculous or supernatural. I’m convinced that, given half a chance, a lot of Christians would do the exact same thing with our Bibles. We would remove all references to our family as liars, con artists, hypocrites, adulterers, thieves, prostitutes, drunks, and cowards, etc. That would be as bad as Thomas Jefferson’s edited New Testament for the same reason—we would remove everything miraculous and supernatural.
I used to love listening to George Beverly Shea sing his song, “The Wonder of It All.” In that song he named the wonders of sunrise, springtime, harvest, sky, stars, and sun, but sang that the “wonder of wonders” was “just to think that God loves me.” Sanitized saints find that song offensive. If we wrote songs (and we don’t do that very well), our lyrics would suggest (it’s not what we would say but what we really think), “Of course God loves me. It’s his job description. Besides, what’s not to love?”
There is the miracle of God’s love but it’s not so much that he makes a drunk, sober; a liar, a truth teller; and a terrible mother or father, a good one. He sometimes does that, but the real miracle is that God loves drunks, liars, and bad parents who know it…and he will continue loving them even if they stay drunk, keep on lying, and never get parenting right. You probably know my principle by heart: The only people who get better are those who know that, if they never get any better, God will love them anyway.
My friend, Jeff Taylor, one of the most gifted musicians I know, recently sent me a CD of one of his friends, Dennis Parker. Jeff and Dennis both tour with Ricky Skaggs, and Jeff often works with Buddy Greene. The CD, Songs Under the Air Conditioning Unit, is a mixture of testimony and songs, and it’s so good I can hardly stand it.
Dennis is a Grammy award-winning musician…and he is a drunk. (I use “is” because most alcoholics say that once one is an alcoholic, one is always an alcoholic even if a sober one.)
The testimony on the CD is one of the most authentic and honest things I’ve heard in a long time. Dennis talks about his life and says that it’s amazing how something that is dysfunctional to everybody else becomes routine and normal to a drunk. For a time Dennis was homeless and living behind a Costco in Nashville. The only thing he owned was a broken-down bicycle that got him to the liquor store for more vodka. His words haunted me. “Up was down and down was up,” he said. “I knew what I wanted…but didn’t. I could…but I can’t. I want to be…but I won’t. I am…but I ain’t.”
I’m not a drunk. I just can’t get that stuff down. However, there have been times when I’ve thought the same thing and I was stone-cold sober.
What about you? Do you ever think that, as a Christian, you have to be a member of “God’s secret service” because people would be shocked if they really knew you? Do you ever feel the confusion and doubt, struggle to be what you know you ought to be, and are afraid to tell people you’re a Christian because they would laugh?
For God’s sake, stop it. The truth is that we’ll never get sanitized until we get home. And when we pretend we are, we lose the power of our message to the world.
What to do?
For God’s sake, stop it!
That’s what he told me this morning.
Then he told me to tell you.