APRIL 5, 2016
In case you wondered, I still can’t hear and everybody who talks to me still sounds like Donald Duck. So many of you have told me that you’re praying about my hearing and I’m thankful. I can’t tell you how often I’ve said to God, “Okay, I’ve learned what you’re teaching…now, can I have my hearing back?
But frankly, it’s not working. God seems to be as hard of hearing as I am.
Shortly after I had a heart attack a good many years ago, I spoke at a conference where my friend, Buddy Greene (the Nashville recording artist), sang. “You have to watch Steve on this heart attack thing,” he said to the audience. “He’ll milk it for all it’s worth.”
Buddy was making a joke, but at the same time, he was right. I’m a preacher and know that all of life is “grist” for the sermon mill. All of life is the reality from which we give our witness to the world. Phony Christianity has no power because when we pretend to be different than we are, lie about our pain and minimize our sin, Jesus leaves the building…and so does everybody else.
My friend Rusty Anderson once told me about a famous “celebrity” preacher who called him. The preacher had been arrested for drunk driving and was devastated. “Rusty,” he said through tears, “I’ve lost my platform.”
“No,” Rusty replied. “You can’t lose something you never had. You never had a platform. Now you do. Don’t waste it.”
I’ve talked a good deal about my hearing problems. (Much of that as explanation for my irritation and why I’m not my normal, sweet, kind and gentle self.) The interesting thing is the number of people who told me that they went through the same thing and identify with me. I had forgotten, but the same thing happened when my brother died. So many people came up to me, called or wrote, to tell me about their loss of a brother or sister. And even when each of our German shepherds had to be put down, a whole lot of people shared with me how hard it was for them to say goodbye to their beloved dogs.
My response to them was often, “You too?”
Let me tell you a truth that I think the Holy Spirit revealed to me (it, of course, could have been indigestion). If there is not a “You too?” response to our witness to Christ in the world, we would be better off playing tiddlywinks.
I wrote an entire book, by the way, on the subject of masks and pretending to be what we’re not. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond what I wrote in that book. I’m talking about our laughter as well as our tears, our faithfulness as well as our unfaithfulness, our pain as well as our joy, our worship as well as our recreation, and our fulfilled dreams as well as our shattered ones. I’m talking about living open lives without the pretense of being anything other than what we are…and being willing for the world to see.
Augustine said, “If you want to be great…be.” I’m not sure about that, but I do know that if you want to be effective in witnessing for Christ…be. A major part of our witness to the world is the importance of a “You too?” response.
One of the really interesting things about the apostle Paul’s writings is how he was willing to allow people to see the “real Paul” in all his messiness, anger, love, sin, faithfulness, tears and joy. This is all over the place. There is Paul’s confession in Romans 7; his reminder to the Ephesian elders that he “lived among” them (Acts 20); his reminder to the Thessalonians of “you know what kind of men we proved to be among you” (1 Thessalonians 1:5), and the admission to the Corinthians of the despair he felt in Asia (2 Corinthians 1:8).
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was “spitting angry” and said that those who were troubling the Galatians should be cursed, even going so far as to suggest that it would be a good thing if they emasculated themselves (Galatians 5:12). (That doesn’t sound very Christian.) And Paul is so “human” in 2 Corinthians 11-12. The false apostles are driving him nuts and he goes on a “self-promotion” rant, displaying an astounding degree of pride. He knows and says it twice that he is speaking as a “fool,” but Paul then goes on with his boasting anyway.
One of the most dangerous things we do is to try to sanitize the people in the Bible. When we do so, we’re making a huge mistake that reflects our spurious understanding of what being “godly” means. God refuses to do that. Throughout the Bible, God lets us see the very human reality of his leaders and his people.
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, writes that God’s people are associated with “scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child molesters, murderers, adulterers, and hypocrites of every description” and at the same time with “the saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender.” In other words, those who are God’s people are like those who aren’t God’s people except in one particular. God’s people know they are forgiven, valued and loved. And that’s the essence of the Christian faith.
Probably the last response Christians get from people who are not Christians is, “You too?” That’s because we’re always trying to make an impact for Christ, dust off our Christian MO, and do our best to be at our best. And when we don’t do that, we’re “in their face” about how wrong, sinful, mixed up and in need of redemption they are. They rarely say “You too?” because there is no place for identification. They can’t identify with something that isn’t a part of their lives and they don’t know that it isn’t a part of our lives either. We’re in danger of being actors in a play that we think God wrote. He didn’t write the play and we weren’t hired to be the actors.
So I have an idea. Let’s give up trying to be “a good witness for Christ,” to make “an impact for Christ” or to “change the world.” Let’s just show up where normal people are. If you’re a believer, you already “smell like Jesus” and can’t help it. That “smell” has very little to do with you and a whole lot to do with Jesus. When Paul said that he was crucified with Christ, he wasn’t giving us one more thing to do, he was telling us who we are. If we cussed and spit more (it’s a metaphor, okay…sort of), were our normal selves, and let the world see us in all of the messy reality of our lives—the good and bad we do, the struggles and victories we have, the light and dark—I think we would often hear in response, “You too?” And when they found out we belonged to Christ, they wouldn’t walk away.
I just went to a memorial service at our church for one of the most godly men I’ve ever known. Bruce was, among other things, a mathematical genius with a PhD. He tutored kids in our church in math and, in a great variety of other ways, made a difference for Christ in a lot of lives. He was a profound contemplative who loved Christ with all his heart. I took Bruce to lunch once and it felt like I had taken St. Francis to lunch. In the last days of his life I visited Bruce in the rehab center and asked him what the doctors had said. “Oh, Steve,” Bruce said quietly, “I’m dying…and I have never been so much at peace or felt such joy.” I loved Bruce. Frankly, though, I couldn’t identify with him so we never became close friends.
I learned some things today at Bruce’s memorial service that I didn’t know. A number of friends and family members went to the front of the church to tell their stories about Bruce. He, for instance, was once arrested for smoking pot, he talked too much, and he sometimes struggled with anger. Until he got sick, Bruce was a smoker. The more his friends and family talked about Bruce the more the people in the congregation laughed and cried…and I think I heard the angels singing. But I also found myself saying under my breath, “No, not Bruce…Bruce too?” I wish I had known that side of Bruce. We would have been better friends and I could have learned a lot about Jesus from him. But I missed it because I thought I could never say to him, “You too?”
I got an email this morning from a friend struggling with his own imperfections and that of others. He told me, “Seems like most of life is learning to enjoy the imperfect and saying Thank You for the ‘good enough.’” He’s right. In a fallen world, it’s all we’ve got until “the fat lady sings.” We aren’t Home yet. We should deal with it and live it out.
When I was a young pastor on Cape Cod, one of the most significant people in my life was Dr. John Stanton, a retired pastor who became my teacher and mentor. I will be eternally grateful to him. But Dr. Stanton wasn’t perfect. He once said to me, “Steve, don’t tell people that you’re a pastor; but if they find out, don’t let them be surprised.” He meant that I should be so good, Christian and obedient that people would say, “But of course,” when they found out what I did for a living.
I understand his point, but he was wrong. In fact, just the opposite is what ought to happen. Don’t go around telling people you’re a Christian (and a pastor, if you are one) but when they find out, they should be absolutely blown away. You see, if those people are like most folks who aren’t Christians, they expect Christians to be very religious, very good and very nice. A proper response should be, “But you’re like me? You can’t be a Christian!”
You’ll be surprised by how often people will say or think, “You too?” And then they will start asking questions. Peter said that we should “be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Make sure you have some answers.
He asked me to remind you.