There’s an African folktale that I’ve read with both of my sons. In the story, every child born in a village is given a song that tells them who they are, giving them their role to play within the village community. Whenever kids start misbehaving and causing conflict, the other villagers sing their song to them so that they will remember who they really are. This was basically the topic of a podcast sermon from the Meeting House that I listened to on my drive home tonight from North Carolina. I needed to hear this word because I’ve forgotten my song recently, namely that who I really am is an encourager, not a mocker or scornful accuser.
It’s amazing how I do all the things I preach about getting away from. Perhaps that makes sense. I know that self-justification is hell because I engage in it all the time. I feel the need to prove to people that I’m really evangelical by defining myself against all those wishy-washy, barely Christian mainliners and at the same time that I’m an evangelical who’s not like those other evangelicals who are so judgmental and pharisaic. Sometimes this comes out overtly in my writing; other times it’s happening in the subtext. Sometimes I can even visualize myself firing some kind of ideological machine gun at the fundamentalist citadel (“Wow, I’m so good! I tore a big old hole in their castle wall with that word choice!”)
The reason I preach about God’s desire to liberate us from our self-obsessed lives of performance so that we can experience the worship of simply delighting in His delight is because I know how badly He wants to rescue me from the suffocating self-analysis of the house of mirrors that I can’t seem to escape. I want to really worship Him and spend the entirety of my day in His presence.
So why do I open my iPhone wordpress app a dozen times a day to see how many people have visited my blog in the last twenty minutes? Why am I flipping out that the thousand hit days I was having in April have tapered off to five hundred in June? God really convicted me that what I’m doing when I open my wordpress app like that is I’m praying to wordpress instead of Him.
Anyway, I wrote something recently about this new preaching book I’ve been reading, asking the question of whether preaching should convict or uplift. I was in a kind of snotty evangelical place in my head, imagining all the mainliners who play golf or go to the beach on Sundays instead of going to church because their preachers never had any sense of urgency about convicting them over their sins. So I was out to show that I’m a good, barrel-chested evangelical who isn’t afraid to talk about sin.
But God refuted my line of thinking pretty categorically by doing two things to convict me of my own sin that did not involve people speaking harshly about my sin either directly or indirectly. First, he spoke through a person who sent me an email that included these words in response to my piece about preaching:
People in the congregation get plenty of “conviction” from daily life, and every one of them will go through periods of life where they’re giving us much as they’ve got, probably more than is healthy, and when they sink into that pew on Sunday, the last thing those particular people need to hear is one more call to action, one more reason they are not good enough… We just SO want to hear that the way God made us is O.K. We want something to grasp onto to get us through the week. We want to be reminded God hasn’t left us… So if you feel led to do a sermon like that, one that makes people feel good when they leave, that tells them they are okay and God loves them — maybe once in awhile, it really is from the Holy Spirit, and it really is good and worthwhile, and you don’t have to squelch that urge.
Mercy! I don’t know if you can experience what I experience reading these words, but they melt my heart into a sappy puddle and make me want to hug a bunch of people I’ve been grumbling about for being part of this godforsaken Northern Virginia culture where nobody has time for anything and everything is more important than church, etc. They’re tired. They’re beat up. It’s okay for them to feel good after I preach… even about themselves. Somehow when God says you tickle me pink or I’m proud of you instead of smacking us in the head with a two by four, it doesn’t give us big heads and turn us into entitled, presumptuous snotty brats. I honestly think we get that way as a defense mechanism when we don’t really believe that God loves us all that much.
The love itself convicts us insofar as we need to be convicted. And it’s not a sad thing. The love makes us giddy like Zacchaeus and want to toss aside all the stupid, petty crap that we had been doing, saying something like: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). It’s that word of acceptance reminding us about the delightful “child of Abraham” we really are which causes “salvation to come to our house” (v. 9) so that we say, “Wow, I really don’t have to be the jerk I thought I was. Jesus thinks I’m cool and He wants to have lunch with me.”
The second thing that convicted me was hearing this Meeting House podcast sermon from June 9th in which the middle and high school youth pastors Sarah Stanley and Dave Churchill were filling in for Bruxy Cavey. Sarah’s words in particular just wrecked me. You need to hear the audio to get the full effect of the love in her voice.
Our words spoken or unspoken are powerful. We have this incredible opportunity to partner with God in this work of transformation and in helping one another discover our identity in Him, helping one another discover that we are beloved sons and precious daughters of the most high king…
When I was growing up, there were four things that my dad always said to me… You’re beautiful. You are a gift from God. I thank Jesus for you every day. And I will love you forever. And I never got sick of hearing those words and I don’t think that I will ever know the depth of the impact they had on my life and the way that God used them without my even knowing to dislodge the lies and the things I probably didn’t even realize I struggled with.
Sarah went on to talk about a youth pastor she had named Bo (what a stereotypically perfect youth pastor name) who saw her gifts and encouraged her to use them. When she protested that she wasn’t good enough, he said it’s not about you, it’s about Him. Then when Sarah went through a rebellious phase, Bo said to her, “I know who you are; I know who God created you to be; and this is not it.” Words of authority that convicted her by affirming who she really was.
John 1:17 says, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Normally when we think of grace and truth, we think of two things that are held in tension with one another (e.g. God has the grace to love you, even though the truth is you suck). But what the Spirit gave me as I was listening to Sarah preach is that the truth about us is not the ugly mask we’ve been wearing but the core goodness of God’s image in our hearts that we’ve covered up.
Truth in Greek is the word aletheia which is derived from lanthano (to hide or conceal). So it means literally “the un-hiding.” Yes, we need to be truthful in naming the ugliness of sin, but the truth about my sin is that it’s not who I really am. It’s a scary mask that I got tricked into wearing and I somehow don’t trust God enough to take off completely. It’s a song I get stuck in my head that I don’t really like all that much anyway, but the result has been that I forget my own song that God wrote when He created me.
My song has always been that I tell people the truth about their beauty and their gifts. My song is that I’m strangely attracted to people who have been labeled “difficult” by others and God reveals to me why they are essential to His kingdom. My song is that I love kids who are getting into trouble and I’m smitten by the way that they engage in all sorts of kindness and compassion without realizing they’re doing it. My song is that I marvel at my wife’s grace and wisdom and my heart leaps every time I get home and see my boys. If I forget my song again, will you sing it to me so that I’ll remember?