Oh, Hell.

In the early days of my walk with Jesus, I did not believe in Hell. Or at least, I did not want to acknowledge the reality of Hell. I had heard about Hell and even prayed a prayer to Jesus to be saved from Hell as a child. But by the time I began to live seriously for Christ in my early 20’s, I had pushed that aspect of the gospel to the margins of my thinking. I was more interested in knowing whether God existed. I was attracted to Jesus because of the message of God’s love. I came to Him for the relationship.

I knew about the cross, of course. I understood that it as the preeminent proof of Christ’s love. I knew that it was the remedy for my sin and I did believe in sin. How could I not? The evidence was right in front of me. Indeed, it was in me. Like the apostle Paul, I was unable to do the good that I wanted to do (Romans 7:19-21).  I suppose the experience of my own sinfulness combined with the stark reality of Christ’s death should have made ask whether the cross even made sense if the threat of Hell did not exist. But somehow, I was able to ignore the question.

Except, I kept coming across Hell in the Bible. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Jesus spoke about Hell in the Scriptures in a way that suggested that it was more than a metaphor. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” Jesus says in Luke 12:4-5, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Jesus, it turned out, had more to say about Hell than anyone else.

If I was serious about following Jesus, I couldn’t affirm those aspects of His teaching that I liked and ignore those that made me uncomfortable. I realized that the same was true of the rest of the Bible. If I was going to accept it as God’s truth, I had to accept it all. There was no room to cherry-pick, holding on to the truths I liked and setting aside those I didn’t.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis suggested that those who find themselves in Hell choose to be there. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” One of the most insidious effects of sin is that it compels us to flee from the lover of our souls. Without the grace of God bestowed upon us in Christ, we would do so forever.

The cross is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. I was right to see it as evidence of God’s love. But it is also a blunt reminder of the penalty that sin requires. The cross is proof of our need to take sin more seriously than we do. Only a grave condition could warrant such an extreme remedy. The cross is a warning. Jesus’ cry from the cross foreshadows the agony of all who will experience separation from God for eternity because of their sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

It is almost impossible to speak about the reality of Hell without seeming glib. I think this reflects a kind of denial. If it is hard for us to fathom heavenly things, it is even more difficult for us to grasp the danger of Hell. For one thing, we do not want to think about it. It is all too easy to put any thought of it out of our mind. We do not really believe that we deserve it. Most of us harbor a secret hope that in the end, God will change the standard, the way our teachers sometimes did when everyone flunked the exam in school.

The reason so many of us do not believe in hell is that we do not believe in righteousness. Despite all our contemporary talk about “justice,” we have no real conception of justice, at least where God is concerned. We still believe in evil. But only as a hyperbole. Evil is an unrealistic extreme that we see in a handful of others. We do not think of evil in reference to ourselves. Ironically, was true for me, we are happy to claim the cross for our own benefit. But deep inside we can’t help wondering if all the blood and brutality of the thing was really necessary. We chalk it up to the meanness of human beings. Such thinking sentimentalizes the cross, reducing it to a mere symbol. The cross has become a meme for us. We certainly do not see what it has to do with Hell. Or with justice, for that matter.

In the end, the cross and Hell are inevitably related to one another. Hell is the ultimate exercise of divine judgment. Hell is proof that our sin ultimately has reference to God. It is to Him that we must answer. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” David declared after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalm 51:4). Sin is more than selfish petulance. It is more than a moral offense against our neighbor. Whether we are willing to recognize it or not, sin is an offense against God, and He will call everyone to account.

This may be the most disturbing aspect of the cross for those who reject its message. It is a picture of what is owed. The cross is an emblem of God’s love. But it is also the ultimate reminder to any who refuse to accept Christ’s payment, that their debt will one day be called in.

The Personality of Jesus

A former student of mine once complained about what he called “the language of unsustainable intimacy” that the church often uses when it speaks of our relationship with Christ. “I hear it most often from youth group leaders who tell students to ‘date’ Jesus for a year,” he said. At the time I had been reading through the gospels and had marveled over how little they seem to reveal about Jesus’ personality. They do not deny that Jesus had a personality. In fact, their emphasis on the reality of his humanity implies the opposite. Yet they tell us virtually nothing about the things we normally talk about when we describe what someone is like. We know nothing about the Savior’s physical appearance, and next to nothing about the sound of his voice. We know that he was a carpenter but what did he like to do in his spare time? How did he act when he was among friends?

We know that Jesus cried but do not know what made him laugh. We cannot see the gleam in his eye or the way his forehead might have wrinkled when he thought deeply about something. Indeed, I feel as though I have a much clearer notion of Simon Peter’s personality than I do of Christ’s. This does not mean that the Bible portrays a Christ who is devoid of personality. But it does, quite frankly, make it difficult for me to relate to him. At least, it makes it difficult for me to relate to him in the same way that so much of our worship music seems to suggest that I should. The overheated imagery of these songs often sounds like it was lifted from a romance novel.

In his essay on the emotional life of Christ, theologian B. B. Warfield describes the two dangerous tendencies that the church has exhibited in its attempt to understand the humanity of Christ. One is to lean so far into his divinity that the human is undermined. The other is to err in the opposite direction and so rob him of his divinity. “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in thought” Warfield warns. We must do justice to both dimensions of Christ’s nature without somehow allowing each to cancel out the other or ending up with a hybrid being who is neither truly God nor truly man.

I think we are on similar ground when it comes to Jesus’ personality. Some propose that Jesus had a perfectly balanced personality. They suggest that if Jesus had taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, he would have scored equally in every area. It seems to me that this is just a way of saying that Jesus had no personality at all. What is more, if Jesus was truly God in the flesh as the Bible declares, such a possibility seems extremely unlikely. If personality is the result of a combination of factors that includes both genetic makeup and experience, then Jesus must have had his own distinctive personality. Otherwise, he would not be human. To say that Jesus’ personality was perfect does not mean that it was indistinct.

Yet there are moments in the Gospels when the clouds of silence part and the rays of his personality peek through. When the religious leaders set a watch on him to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus gazes at them in anger “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5). When a young man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus looks at him with love (Mark 10:21). He speaks tenderly to a shy woman (Luke 8:48). These accounts open a window on what Warfield calls “the profound internal movement of his emotional nature.” The divine being revealed to us through the humanity of Christ is not only a God who thunders but a God of tears and sighs.

According to Warfield, these are the clues that fill in the gaps for us. In particular, they show that the personality of Jesus is marked by both compassion and justice. Jesus felt love and expressed anger. His love was directed toward those who suffered. His anger was aimed at religious hypocrisy and hardness of heart. Warfield notes that in the Gospel accounts Jesus comforts, rebukes, and threatens. Although the New Testament does not describe Jesus’ smile, Luke 10:21 says that he was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” when the disciples told him of their victory of the demons.

However, in the conclusion to his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton observes that there is a missing note in the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus’ personality. There is joy, grief, and even anger. “He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell” Chesterton writes. “Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.” But shyness about what? According to Chesterton, the one thing that was too great for God to display while he walked upon the earth was his mirth. Zen Buddhism has its laughing Buddha but the Gospels do not portray a laughing Christ.

Does this mean that Christ was joyful but humorless? This cannot be true. Although the Bible does not say that Jesus laughed, there is an underlying wit reflected in his teaching. Many of his analogies use the ridiculous to make their point. Camels go through the eye of the needle. The religious leaders strain the gnat and swallow the camel. The most unlikely people find forgiveness and the least qualified are appointed to lead.

Divine mirth as Chesterton describes it seems to have more in common with glory than it does with what we usually think of as humor. It is hidden from us not because it does not exist but because we do not yet have the strength to behold it. Yet it should not surprise us if creation itself bears witness to the fact that God has the capacity to laugh. “Anybody who has ever wondered whether God has a sense of humor only needs to look at the platypus for an answer” someone has said. Or you might just look at what he has done with your own life.

 

Easter and My Fear of Death

 

thedeadchrist2I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.

Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.

Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.

But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.

It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.

But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.

And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.

Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.

What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

The Announcement to the Shepherds

shepherds

We were taken

by surprise

when the light broke.

Blinded and afraid

we cowered

and the poor

sheep fled

into the hollow.

“Do not be afraid”

the angel said.

But we could

not help it

and we could not

follow the flock

that had forsaken us.

So we just stood by

in white light

and trembled hearing

the angel trumpet

his good tidings.

And then we too

like scattering sheep

fled among the hills

of Bethlehem.

Until we came to

the place where

the Child lay.

Grace & Personality

Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.

Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.

This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.

The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).

What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.

My latest book Folly, Grace & Power is now available from Zondervan. You can order a copy at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or Christianbook.com. Click here to learn more about it.

What I Learned from Dave and Paul

For some time now I have been puzzling over God’s tendency to expect more of me than I expect of myself. Every time I read the Scriptures I get the sense that my standard of expectation and his are not the same. He tells me to love God with all my heart, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. He tells me to be patient and show mercy. I like the “me” I find in these commands. The person reflected in these divine expectations is compelling. It is the kind of person I would like to know–the sort of person I would want as my friend. But it is not me. Not as far as I can tell.

 If I were speaking of anyone other than God, I would be tempted to say that such expectations are marked by a certain naïveté. You know what I mean. This is the kind of insipid good nature found in the person who mixes unfounded optimism and denial in equal measure. It is the sort of person who “expects the worst” but “hopes for the best” in others. They are not truly optimistic. They are either blind or foolish. This cannot be the case where God is concerned. The Bible which calls me to such a high standard is also marked by a stark realism. God knows my frame. He knows that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom. 7:18). He knows that I have repeatedly disappointed him on every count.

 This morning it dawned on me that this same mixture of honest assessment and gracious expectation is reflected in two of my good friends and colleagues. Dave DeWit and Paul Santhouse both work in the publishing division of the organization where I teach. Their personalities are very different but they both have the same capacity to look “through” my shortcomings and see me in a different light. They are patient and gracious in their friendship but they are also truthful. Although they know what I am really like, they have high expectations of me. Higher expectations than I have of myself. When I see myself through their eyes, I do not see the person that I think am but the kind of person I want to be. They make me want to be a Christian like them.

 This is the kind of remarkable vision that God’s word provides. It is one which compels me to “see through” myself. With its “unrealistic” call to obedience, God’s word offers me a vision of the person I was meant to be. With its unflinching truth, God’s word shows me what I am now. This is the love of Christ which “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:6-7). But it is a love which does more than show me the gap between what God expects and how far I have fallen short. It is a love which has closed the gap with the bridge of the cross. It is a love that empowers me by grace and promises to carry me across. This is not the kind of love that makes me want to be a Christian. It is the love that has made me one.

Like Most of the Pastors I Know

I spent this past weekend in Montana with a bunch of pastors. I only got to see the mountains from a distance (except for the one we were on) but I saw the pastors close-up. I found them to be like most of the pastors I know. They are true shepherds with a deep affection for their flock. They are skilled in what they do but do not consider themselves to be remarkable. They are humble. They do not boast about their accomplishments. They are often a little disappointed with themselves–convinced that they could be doing better. They come hoping that I will be able to provide some insight that will help them to be more effective (which is why I am certain they must leave disappointed). They are perennial students of their craft.

 I am sure that there are bad pastors. Every so often I hear a horror story about one from some alienated church member. But none of the pastors I know falls into that category. Not the ones that I know personally. All the pastors I know are like these men: regular, reliable and yes–sometimes unremarkable (at least as far as their gifts are concerned). Faithful is the best word I can think of to describe them. Unfortunately, it is not a word that most pastors would be excited to hear used of them. Not in our day.

 God places great stock in faithfulness. We do not. We would prefer that pastors be described by other words. Dynamic. Transformational. Missional. Especially if the pastor being described is us. To the modern ear “faithful” sounds just a little too dull. It is like being labeled Most Congenial in your senior year when you would rather be crowned Homecoming King. It is like learning that you have been described to your blind date as someone who has “a nice personality.” Faithful is code for boring.

 Unless, of course, Jesus is the one who is doing the describing. Place the same word on the lips of Christ and there is no higher compliment. According to Jesus, “faithful” is exactly the right the word to characterize what the master wants from his servants (Matt. 25:23). It is the word that Scripture uses to describe Jesus’ own priestly ministry (Heb. 2:17; 3:6). Faithful is a word that contains the promise of great reward and is itself the reward.

 I can’t think of a better word to use to describe the pastors I spent time with this past weekend. I am deeply grateful that I know so many to whom the word applies.

 One of the questions I asked the pastors during my visit was this: “What kind of books would be of most help to you in your ministry?” If you are a pastor, I would like to know how you would answer this question. If you know a pastor, why not ask him for me and let me know what he says?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

The Myth that Became Reality

As a child, my favorite book was a collection of Greek myths. I checked it out of the library again and again and read it from cover to cover. To this day, when I stumble across a copy of it in the bookstore, I can’t help thumbing through it. I was captivated by the colorful pictures but even more by its stories of gods who acted like men. They loved and fought, were jealous and plotted against one another. The humanness of these ancient gods appealed to me, perhaps because I recognized myself in them.

Years later, when I began to study the Scriptures, I read of a God who was very different from these ancient deities. “God is not a man, that he should lie,” the Scriptures said. The Christian God–the God of the Bible–is also the God whose son’s birth was the death knell for the gods of the ancient world. Scholars have long recognized that the growth of Christianity made the all too human antics of the ancient gods such an embarrassment, worship of them eventually became untenable.

Perhaps that’s why I find the Christmas story so surprising. Because in the Bible’s account of Christ’s nativity it almost seems as if one of the ancient myths has come to life. The theme of the God who takes human form and comes to earth is a common one in these ancient stories. The unrecognized visitation of the gods is one of the most familiar story lines in Greek and Roman mythology.

But those visitations differ significantly from the biblical account of Christ’s birth. In those ancient tales the human form of the gods is really just a mask. Like a celebrity who wishes to remain incognito, they disguise themselves in order to pursue their own, usually selfish, ends. They disguise themselves to seduce a human lover or get their petty revenge on someone.

When Christ comes, however, he does not merely use human form to disguise himself, he becomes a man. The incarnation of Christ is no mask, it is essential to his being. What is more, Jesus does not take a human form and then discard it at the resurrection. He retains his human nature. This is one of the proofs Christ uses to show his followers that he has truly risen from the dead. Luke 24:39 the risen Christ urges his disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Moreover, when Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t come to pursue his own ends. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” he declares to his disciples in John 4:34. And that work, it turns out, is to offer his body as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, that is why the nativity story is so central to the Christian faith and is why it was inevitable that Christ’s infant cry in the manger in Bethlehem would be the death knell of the ancient gods. Because their worship was dependent upon the paltry things that men and women can offer: a bull, a goat, a cup of wine. Things that might satisfy God if he had human appetites.

The appearance of the babe in Bethlehem showed that true worship is dependent something else. It rests upon Christ’s offering of himself. That’s why the author of the book Hebrews ultimately attributes the words of the Psalmist to Christ when he says, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

 That is also why we ultimately show our misunderstanding when we romanticize the gritty details of the nativity. Our image of the night of Christ’s birth is one that is largely sanitized. In our romanticized image of Christ’s birth there is no sobbing pain from a pregnant girl who isn’t even out of her teens yet. No infant cry and flail of limbs as the umbilical cord is cut. No sudden chill as the rush of blood and placenta are poured out on straw at the moment of birth. Our image of the event is neat and tidy. Theatrically lit and comfortably warm, like the nativity plays we will watch tonight. But that is our myth. Not the reality that Christ experienced.

Thanks be to God.

Worship’s Dull Surprise

In a new book about creating sermons based on hymns, music and poetry, Thomas Troeger observes that today’s church suffers from an imagination deficit. Troeger notes that “the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith.” He cites Fred Craddock’s observation that many parishioners “are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in which to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ.”

Troeger’s assessment agrees with my experience. In my thirty-seven years of serious attendance at worship, I have come to the sad conclusion that church is the location least suited to the contemplation of the heavenly places. The predominant temper of my experience in church has been one of boredom. Worship is for the most part dull. There have been exceptions, of course, rare moments when some hymn or song transports me into the heavenly realms. Or when the word of God causes the scales to fall from my eyes and I see God’s truth or myself in a way I have never seen before. But those moments seem  few and far between.

It does not help that all the church has to offer worshipers these days is a boilerplate experience. Overly familiar songs and chatty sermons are served up with the monotonous homogeny of a fast-food franchise. The music of worship is Christian “top-forty.” The observations from scripture are trite and garnished with cute stories from the margins of Reader’s Digest. It is a corporate experience that at best promises to be mildly interesting but it hardly ever offers a taste of the transcendent.

Looking back on my experience, I suppose this boredom was one of the primary factors that propelled me into ministry. I am rarely bored when I am the one doing the preaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be so said of my listeners. Time and again as I have been held fast by the grip of my own words, I have looked out over the congregation with an unsettling awareness that I do not have their undivided attention. They look bored. As bored as I must look when I am seated among them.

As long I am the one doing the preaching, I am tempted to blame the congregation for their boredom and for good reason. Listening, like reading, requires focused attention, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But on those Sundays when I return to the other side of the pulpit as a listener and participant, the old ennui comves over me and I do not know who to blame. Indeed, blame is the farthest thing from my mind. On those Sundays when I am not the one doing the preaching, I take my place in the pew beside my fellow worshippers. I turn my gaze toward the front and wait. I am waiting for the music of worship to give me a glimpse of the heavenly realms. I am waiting for the word of God to arouse me from my slumber like a lover’s kiss. I am waiting for God to show up.

Thomas Troeger’s book is entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music and Poetry (Oxford). http://books.google.com/books?id=ZXHp2AL_qIAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=wonder+reborn+troeger&source=bl&ots=qCAa2TIL8C&sig=QKUfKEYo-D7xvm86J4yrYRlQdPM&hl=en&ei=5HXyTNHyAYKhnAf5kJijCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false