A Bad Funeral
It’s been several years ago now that I had the grave misfortune of attending a funeral none of us ever want to attend. It was the service of a once precious little girl that grew up way too fast in a mad, mad world, assimilating all too naturally from her life’s’ pedigree into the all too predictable “fast lane”. A lane we’re told is sure to make anyone lose both their mind and life—and yet the latter was to come to her first.
I had a brief smidgeon of time to be involved in her life before the end of her innocence, and my wife and I bumped into her again as a girl all grown up with babies of her own; extremely lost, but continuing the fight that was hers since the day she first put her foot on the ground.
As we plopped into our seats that somber early afternoon, one could not help but notice the clientele by the litany of escalades in the parking lot–and by the clear demarcation of illegal apothecary types dispersed among the audience. It was a population riddled with those who were living on life’s jagged edge, and yet ripe for hearing a message in this captivating hour that pointed to some north star of truth and hope for those with ears to hear. Or shall we say, it was an audience prepared for a preacher of good news. Yet as the minister began his message, after a few quite interesting eulogies and the like, the hopefulness I had for help to be forthcoming for this audience that were lost in a masquerade of their own making, was quickly drowned out by words of a man holding the wrong script.
Who Stole the Pastor’s Lines?
It seems that the pastor, though not really having a precedent from the lips of Jesus nor his apostles, felt that the majority of his homily should be focused on the fact that they were all…well, sinners. I guess he figured that somehow they were unaware of this fact. And though I believe there is a time and a place in a message for this reality to come to bear on an audience, due to the travesty of this particular moment in time, the need of the hour seemed to be in pointing them to an absolute in a way that they could both understand and receive. A truthfulness that would lead them to begin asking the deeper questions and wrestling with their life as a “to go bag”, rather than “preacheresque” dreams of an altar call of nothing more than jailhouse religion at a bloody funeral for goodness sakes! But my analysis of the necessity at hand would not have its day, the true gospel was not preached, and I’m quite sure most business was carried on as usual as everyone exited the missed opportunity.
This led me to ponder the fact that this is all too characteristic in Christendom even today, where we speak in “Christianese” rather than in the language of the kinds of people we are engaging. And the reason is, because we are merely reading from a script we have well-rehearsed after eons of bad Sunday School, a faulty hermeneutic, and best-selling books by those who assure us that the gospel absolutely has to beat the Hell out of you before you can even begin to have hope for that uncloudy day. And there is indeed a grain of truth in every lie, so let me briefly explain.
Read the Book Man!
Jesus himself gave us some examples of knowing your audience. For instance, when talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who was also a curious seeker of the truth, he chided him a bit, but was gentle in getting him to understand why there was a need to be born “again”. Yet with the merely religious and patronizing scribes and pharisees, his patience wore thin; as he riddled them with questions they could not answer, and diatribes of which they would not soon recover from. Yet all the while, it was the sinners who in fact “knew” they were that he gave the greatest freedom and latitude. It was an open invitation to walk with him for a little while and take a little look see, and perceive if perhaps there was a way, a truth and indeed a life they should follow other than the false gods of their own making. He brought the best wine to their parties, healed their lame and dying, and once they took it upon themselves to actually decide to follow the man from Galilee, he implored them to “go and sin no more”. In short, Jesus patiently loved people into the kingdom starting with where they were at. He was not in a hurry to count the “decisions for Christ”, because he wanted to make sure that people were “all in” for the long haul, or not at all. In that sense, everything was black and white for Jesus.
We then have some examples from others, although the greatest soul winner of the last two millennia, the apostle Paul, gave us the insightful lessons in “non”-scriptedness. It was instead a speech rooted in none other than the law of Christ, that reminded us in I Corinthians chapter 9 that he became “all” things to “all” people in order to win some. To the Jew, he became like a Jew, to those without the law he became as one without it, and to those who were weak, he became as weak. This should cause those of us who call ourselves heralders of the gospel message to retune the antennas of both our ears and our speech.
Again, Paul reminds us in Colossians 4:3-6, as he asks for their prayers for himself as a communicator of the gospel where he writes:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a doorfor the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (ESV)
I’m going to go on a limb here and resign to the fact that some things are as plain as the nose on our faces, and thus need no further explanation. But I do think Paul even gives us an actual example many times of what this might actually look like. His most famous one of all however would have to be his sermon on Mars Hill where he engages every Tom, Dick and Harry wannabee philosopher in Athens who constantly gathered to hear the next “new thing”. He does so by at first quoting from their own poets whom they respect, gives a passing credence to their own belief system, and then used a tangible bridge builder by talking about an “unknown” god they perhaps seek but know nothing as of yet about, in order to begin an exercise in winsome conversation. He reminds them that it is indeed man’s quest to both seek and even find God, and then assures them that even in their sinfulness, God is so very near to them, and indeed can and will be found if they so desire. And in fact, it is not until he has done a lot of fancy footwork in laying out the gospel, that he politely reminds them that God is most emphatically calling them to repent.
The God of the Living?
I am reminded of these clear signs from both the Master and His most successful missionary, and yet one wonders if any of us have been listening at all. And as a result, I secretly weep for those who continue to have to listen to a script nobody is even remotely paying attention to anymore. It thus becomes evident to me, that the ones doing the preaching no longer read the headlines, and that to most truly lost people, God is still dead indeed. And it’s not the overabundance of Nietzsche’s disciples who are still killing Him I’m afraid, but rather the evangelists who have clearly disregarded how to actually raise him from the dead!