I've recently stepped away from a church that was my home for the last two and half years. This being a public blog, and the reasons for my departure having interpersonal dynamics, I don't feel like it's appropriate to go into details here, or now.
It goes against everything in me not to explain myself. I hate being misunderstood, and I have felt that sting too many times. It is one of the worst feelings, to think you are being judged, not for things you have done (that's no fun, either), but for misperceptions. I want to justify my leaving. I want to be validated.
Jesus' death on the cross challenges me not to do so.
This, actually, would have been the central thrust of the Good Friday service I had been planning, before my departure: if we follow in the footsteps of Christ, if we take his salvation, then we are justified solely by his death. There is no room for self-justification if we accept his--this is what taking up our cross means: putting to death the self we tried to defend against all attacks, and standing only on Grace for our worth.
That gathering never took final form, but I thought I would share the reflections that were to have shaped it:
"The Woman gave it to me, and I ate"
"The serpent decieved me"
"When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. 'It is your responsibility!'
The desire to defend and justify ourselves is as old as time. Adam and Eve, the archtypes of our fallen nature, do this immediately upon being confronted with their guilt: Don't blame me! It's someone else's fault! Pilate (in vain, of course) seeks to absolve himself, to find some measure of personal peace in telling himself that executing a man he believes to be innocent is the responsibility of the Jews.
The more I am aware of this bent of human nature, the more I realize how destructive it is. At every turn, we are confronted with attacks to our dignity, challenges to our worth. "This is your chance to show how committed you are to the success of this company." "It was your job to take the garbage out." "For what you spend on lattes, you could feed starving children in Honduras." In all areas of life, we could be doing more: we could improve ourselves or our situation or our world; to deny this would be the height of hubris.
I know I myself am constantly trying to outrun the doubts about my adequacy. The whole world is trying to prove itself, all of us trying to build a legacy, have something to show for ourselves and our efforts. We are trying to justify ourselves.
At the cross, however, we are justified by God, through Jesus' death. The price of our inadequacy is no longer ours to bear, but God's to bear and to banish. What does it mean to be justified in Christ? Certainly it means we don’t have to carry the weight of our sin any more--the perfect One has forgiven our imperfection. But it is more than that: it means we are no longer trying to show the world that we are a good person, worthy of love. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.
So we no longer have to carry the weight of righteousness either. Our worth is not determined by an adding up of the good and subtracting the bad, for as Jesus death shows us, God does not value us that way. We are beloved, worthy of the costliest of rescues, the death of the only Son, not because of our righteousness, but in the middle of our inadquacy.
If we crucify ourselves with Christ, we no longer have an independent self to defend. We no longer have to prove ourselves. Being a Christian is not trying to be a good person--the death of Jesus proves that being good enough is impossible for us--he died for all of us. We put to death the whole mess of trying to be good and failing. We put to death the losing game of failing to love others as much as we ought, as much as we want.
My temptation is always to self-justify, always to defend my honor. The world, the accuser, is always on the attack, always saying, “it depends on you, and you will fail.” If you do not love your kids, they will grow up to be miscreants. If you make a mistake at your job, you will be fired, passed over for a promotion, be stuck in a dead-end. You must measure up.
The cross says this: the measure was impossible for you, but it has already been met. If you accept the grace of the cross, there is no more measure to measure up to. God has covered it all. So do not only put to death your sins, put to death also your righteousness. If you accept the validity and worth God gives you, your righteousness is an outflow from him, a sign of his grace in you, not an insufficient effort on your part.
Here are my rights
Here are my deeds
I'm only made righteous
By the wounds where he bleeds,
The wounds of my God, who is gracious, so gracious to me.
So my prayer for myself, this Good Friday, is that God would take this, my desire to be understood and affirmed. Take this, the ache of separation and broken trust. Take this, the need to have been right in every decision I have made. These are my own attempts at righteousness. I lay them down, and again declare that I live under Grace. Amen.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Every so often, I try to listen to the local K-Love affiliate. If you don't know, their slogan is "Positive and Encouraging." As in, the rest of life/radio/music is negative and discouraging, but K-Love is the opposite. It's not actually a bad slogan for them--the words of the songs they play generally talk about how great God is and how following him is wonderful. I can't stand about more than 10 minutes of it.
Now, I do think Christians should be encouraging people, and I do think following Jesus is a path to joy and peace, and I do think God is great. But my life is not always positive. Singing songs that say it is does not encourage me. And there are times when following Jesus is a long, hard, lonely path that does not yield much in the way of immediate happiness or satisfying answers.
I recently had a conversation with someone who thought it was a good idea to use many of the same songs from K-Love's playlist in worship (and many of those songs, at first blush, seem to fit that purpose) because new Christians could listen to the songs on the radio all week, allowing them not only to learn them but also to start practicing worship as a lifestyle, rather than an event just on Sunday morning. In theory, this seems like a good idea.
The problem is that the path of following Jesus is not positive and encouraging, not most of the time. The people Jesus calls "blessed" do not have much to be positive or encouraged about. They are poor, hungry, empty of power, persecuted, to name a few. Even the pure in heart have to live among the rest of us, whose hearts are full of ugliness and pain and selfishness. Jesus is friend of sinners, but also speaks "Woe!" seven times in Matthew chapter 23. And of course, he suffered humiliation, betrayal, and death--John reminds us at the outset that "his own did not receive him."
I've read many places that at least one third of the Psalms are laments. The book of worship from the pinnacle of the ancient Israel's worship is filled with songs of desperation, sadness, anger, and questioning.
Worship does not pretend. God, who sees all, does not need us to put on our happy face. He does not want us to, because that is lying to him, hiding from him. It is the first consequence of sin, that we run away from God and try to hide our nakedness. The reason Christians are free to worship honestly is because God's approval of us is not dependent on us. We cannot become presentable to God. We do not have to be.
These are not new ideas. From the beginning, the mark of Christians has been sharing everything with one another, confessing and praying with one another, and recognizing, through wine and bread, that our righteousness before God is not of our own making.
There is nothing that can separate us from God's love. Not negativity or discouragement or anger, or any of the other things that are inevitable in a world that fall short of the glory of heaven--and we shouldn't hide these things from God, either. That is the kind of worship I hunger for.