Monday, February 20, 2006

Truth in Advertising

Over at The High Calling is a brief essay about the self-promoting slogans churches and Christians often use to promote ourselves as spiritually mature, holy people.

Aside from the merely clever schlock like "CH--CH / What's missing? / U-R," there is some stuff that's either arrogant and presumptuous, or at least condescending. Like "Christians aren't perfect ... just forgiven." That particular nugget suggests that we believe most non-Christians have been trying to figure out what it is that's different about us, scratching their heads and thinking, "Well, gee, they sure seem perfect, but that can't be right. What is it?"

Can anyone think of other slogans seen on church signs, bumper stickers or T-shirts that just give the entirely wrong message? Send them to davidlearn-atsymbol-gmail-dot-com, and once I have enough, either from my own recollection or from submissions, I'll post something here.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Make Love, not Culture Wars

It's been a longstanding complaint of mine that many evangelicals in America often express little respect or tolerance for homosexuals in society at large.

I'm thinking specifically here of a friend who casually uses the word "abomination" when he's discussing homosexuality, without regard for the people he's talking about. I'm thinking specifically of the parents of another friend who nearly disowned her after they learned she was a lesbian. Her mother actually tried -- she was going to repossess my friend's car, cancel her credit cards, and cut off her financial support at the dawn of her third year in college, all in the name of "tough love." I'm thinking of others who, through no choice of their own, have been driven from their churches, their families and their communities, all because they're gay.

Lost somewhere amid the rhetoric of "hating the sin but loving the sinner" is the character of Christ, who extends friendship not only to gays and lesbians, but to abortionists, prostitutes, and even sinners like me. Too often the message the church sends to gays and lesbians is "Stop being gay, then we'll love you."

No one is going to hell because they're gay. People go to hell because of sin. If you think someone is going to hell because of something you consider a sin, you don't change their course by yelling at them, passing laws and getting judicial rulings that you intend to stop behavior you consider sinful. You do it by introducing people to Christ, and letting him change their hearts -- which he can do, even if the behavior is as odious as demonizing an entire group of people over their sexual orientation.

I see from an article in Christianity Today that this view is beginning to catch on. Thank God. I've had enough of culture wars and seeing innocent people get gunned down in the crossfire.

I've had the good fortune to worship alongside believers who are gay. My prayer is that I be made worthy to come to the Communion table with them, and that I not shame them with my company.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Then Came the Tears

The tears came yesterday.

Yesterday was his birthday, you see. Her brother's. The one she hasn't seen in close to three years, except for the pictures that hang on our walls and the memories she keeps in her heart. It was his birthday, and when she realized it, the grief that she has carried for three years rose to the surface, and the tears came.

I held her in my arms as the tears fell and she talked about how much she misses him. This little girl, who has filled me with endless joy and wonder, cried and said that she wishes she had his phone number or that he had hers so they could at least talk to one another. This little girl, whose smiles have brightened the worst days of my life, cried and said that she wants her brother to come home.

What can be said in the face of such grief when it comes from the heart of a child?

Should I tell her what she already knows, that her brother came to live with us only for a while, and then the state returned him to his birth parents, because that was always the goal? No, she already knows this, and mere recitation of facts does nothing to heal the wounded heart.

Should I tell her that God has a plan, and that the lonely ache she feels is for a high and holy purpose, if only she will have faith? No. She has had enough of despair, and it is too cruel to deny her the right to express her grief.

Should I tell her that I know how she feels, and say that I've ached for three years to hold her brother in my arms again and hear him call me daddy? No. As for the first, it is a lie -- what man can ever claim to know the razor's edge of his child's pain? -- and as to the second, it would force her to bear my grief when she has enough of her own.

Should I regale her with theology, assuring her that the Savior she believes in and loves with the fervor only a child can muster, has borne the greater portion of her pain, and that he saves every tear that she sheds? Do I tell her that in her broken heart, in her unselfish devotion to her brother, in the love she lavished upon him and still gives him, that she understands the heart of God more than I ever could?

There is nothing I can say. There is nothing that can make sense of the pain that one little girl feels on a night like this, when the cold and indifferent world has locked her outside, smeared her face with all the filth that it gives to anyone who dares to love another, and left her there to cry out to dear Jesus for relief.

There is nothing to do, except to hold her tightly, and let her feel the bond of love that joins us to one another. The brother she misses never knew love until he came into our home and she poured all that she had into him. A piece of him is buried deep inside her, and there can be no doubt that the reverse is also true.

The silver cord, once forged in the fires of love, can never be broken. In time, what has been stretched across the miles and the years will pull back until its two ends meet again.

And when they do, the tears will come again, but this time they will bring relief.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Victorious Faith

I heard the strangest thing Saturday afternoon. An acquaintance from my homeschooling days urged me to overcome my thyroid cancer in the power of Jesus Christ. I must have looked like I didn't hear her, because she repeated it.

"It's funny," I said, "but I was just thinking of all the Christians who have died from cancer, despite their belief in Christ's power."

"Overcome cancer in the power of Christ." Two days later, I still can't get it out of my mind. I turn it over and over, trying to grasp her meaning, looking for some way to make sense of it. Does she really believe that faith is some sort of magic talisman, and if I wave it fervently in front of a disease that it will turn tail and run like a dog afraid of its master's whip?

With one word of faith, does she expect that I can bring turncoat cells back in line, stymie their malignancy, and keep them from spreading further? Does she believe that raw faith can be distilled into so potent a concentration that it will eliminate the need for surgery, make iodine-based chemotherapy and radiation treatments unnecessary, and let me avoid a four-day isolation from my children?

Is faith a relationship with an unseen God, or is it an invisible fetish we use to keep illness from our homes? Does it teach dependence on Christ, or does it ward off misfortune, corporate downsizing, food poisoning and baldness instead?

What an amazing thing faith must be to this woman. With faith like hers, I'm sure I could get myself a mansion, a private jet, or even a set of fancy cars. And to think I never knew I had this power. All I have to do is believe, and God comes running.

What an appallingly seductive theology. I feel dirty just trying to understand it. It's horrible to see how easy it is to start thinking of God as your personal servant, who will omnipotently do your bidding as long as you cut him a big enough check from the faith account.

When the filth has filled my spirit and I can no longer stand the grime, I take a bath. I lower myself into the Scripture and start scrubbing. After a while I start to relax and feel the clean coming on.

Faith? I've got that. There are times I feel I should wear a T-shirt that says "World's Biggest Idiot" for believing in God at all, but my faith is real, and it's not going anywhere.

Faith gave me clarity when I discovered the impotence of my prepackaged evangelicalism in the face of real human need on the missions field. It gave me peace of mind when I became an unemployed father with a mortgage to pay. And when I lost my son, and it seemed as if all light and all hope were gone from the world, I didn't lose my faith. I clung to it, like a drowning man clutches a rope thrown from his ship. My faith is imperfect, but it's real. Getting cancer hasn't shaken it at all.

Forget the stories of people who have claimed victory over cancer, obesity, heart attacks and even baldness. Real faith isn't found in believing something in the face of common sense and all the evidence. Faith is found in people who wanted to do right by God, even if it got themselves killed. Men like Abel, who offered God a pure sacrifice and were beaten to death because of it; or men like Moses, who by faith gave up the wealth and comfort of Pharaoh's court and spent years in the desert.

Sometimes, like Daniel, the faithful are spared unhappy endings, but those are the exception and not the rule. The only promise Jesus makes for this life is that of a cross. "Follow me and die," he says. "There is no other way."

Here, then is how the faithful have triumphed by the power of Christ "They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them."(Hebrews 11:37-38).

Faith doesn't promise eternal health or endless happiness, but it does promise the uncounted reward of knowing Christ in all his suffering. When we find ourselves lost in the Long Dark Night of the Soul, we endure because it is Christ himself who makes us complete, Christ who bears our sorrow, and Christ who makes us beautiful at our ugliest.

I'll take that kind of faith any day.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.