Working my way through Paul the Apostle’s letter to the church at Rome.
No doubt about it, the first three chapter are a smackdown. Paul labors so hard to convince people that they are under the wrath of God. People don’t believe it. They simply don’t. They do their best to interpret tsunamis, car accidents, diseases, psychological disorders, recessions, wars, divorces, early deaths, subprime mortgage scams, and terrorism in a way that keeps us untouched by our own sin. It’s the way of the world, we say to ourselves. We must work harder, we preach to one another. We must have more money for research. Our armies must be larger and better armed. We need more police on the streets and good teachers in the classroom.
Anything but the one thing that is most evident. We are under judgement. It is all around us. But we will not see it. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.
And until we are convinced that disaster is at our door because we are sinners, we will not be saved. How can we get an understanding of the Gospel until people lift their eyes up, look around and Isaiah-like cry out “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips”?
I am beginning to think that Romans chapter 5 has to be one of the most significant contributions to understanding the human condition in history. We are “in” Adam and therefore without hope. Not our personal sin but the sin which has swept us all into a corruption that we cannot outrun. It is a whirlpool and all are in its grip.
Do you feel it? I so fear that this hard work of persuasion is so distasteful to the church that we can no longer hold onto the Gospel itself. We shout a message of rescue with no one lost. I am not even sure most people in the church have felt lost. In fact, I am sure that many have not. There is no compelling vision of the depth of our need. Just isn’t there. We are all basically okay.
If I look at the cross as medicine, then I must work my way backwards from there and ask what disease such a terrible medicine could cure. Is the cross an overkill (pardon the expression)? Did God go too radical to solve something not very much wrong with us? If I can judge the disease by the offered cure, then something is so wrong that we should run through the theater and shout “fire”.
Maybe the fundamentalist church on the corner with a few older people and straight-laced missionary types is closer to what is going on than our mild-mannered evangelical churches that are too busy counting noses and nickels rather than “Seal-team-like” taking seriously the mission. This really is no joke. Things aren’t going to go on forever as they now are. You can hear, all can hear, the thunder roll. And the thunder is Romans 1-3.
I am not only supposed to know things, spiritually speaking that is – I am also supposed to care about them. Really care, like with all my heart, soul, strength and mind.
And that’s the rub. Sometimes my “care a whole lot” button is broken.
I don’t know how that happens. Yep, it has something to do with sin, I am sure. Knowing me, I am more than sure. But I also know that temperaments affect how much people care, maybe even about how much they can care. Or it seems to. Some people flatline a lot more easily than others. And then there are those who feel everything, even more than one is supposed to feel.
Keeping up the ability to feel is something the Bible seems to recognize as an issue. Here are some verses that deal with how awake I am on the inside:
Eph 6:18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance…
Heb 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
Rev 16:15 (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!)
1Th 5:16 Rejoice always
1Pe 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
2Co 5:11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.
Rom 12:11 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master…
You get the idea. Verses like these go on and on. However, I often feel like this:
Mat 26:41 Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.” (Message translation)
The Bible assumes that everyone can feel deeply about what ultimately matters. Everyone even has the responsibility to feel passionately alert. This can’t be a personality thing, a temperament thing.
After all, we have all seen someone “come alive” when we thought no one was at home. We just happened to bring up the right topic or we saw them somewhere they really wanted to be (or not to be). Then that rather bland, careless, diminished exterior gave way to earthquake and lava.
As a Pastor I am constantly engaged with how much I expect from people when it comes to spiritual things. Some seem so disengaged, so “whatever”. I cut them slack as much as I reasonably can. I want to be sure I am not reading my Vesuvian personality into what others should be.
But maybe I cut too much slack. Maybe I don’t go for the jugular enough. Maybe I don’t shovel coal into the furnace as I should.
One way or another, I know one thing. On the Judgement Day, everyone is going to feel a whole lot. No one is going to be bland about what is happening next. Part of my job is to bring that feeling then into how people feel now. And yes, I mean feelings. Did I say feelings? Yes, I mean FEELINGS.
My first job is to feel these things myself. And when I can’t feel anymore the things that are eternally true, some serious work has to get done on my insides.
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother–and I found all three”
As you view this short history, don’t you like the way the KJV is read at the beginning. It once again reminds me that the sheer and mere reading of God’s Word in worship services is a huge ministry that many churches overlook. It is not our comment upon the Word but the Word itself that saves.
Donald Miller refers to a moment in the poet Coleridge’s life. Coleridge described how his own child, then three years old, awoke during the night and called out to his mother. “Touch me, only touch me with your finger,” the young boy pleaded. The child’s mother was astonished. “Why?” she asked. “I’m not here,” the boy cried. “Touch me, Mother, so I may be here.”
When another person sees us, acknowledges us, takes our hand, acts as if we are really there, we become more real. This is how God made us, in relationship. Singularity exists inside plurality. God as Trinity is the model. Not a single bare existence, alone, nothing to do, no one to talk to, never to be loved, never to love. God is overflowing abundance, coming from, moving toward, supported and yet lifting up.
The time another person takes for me says I belong. My existence matters, made more real, given glory (literally, given weight). The time I take for another can turn a person who was afraid of fading away into mass, substantiality, a cause and not merely an effect, a something and not a nothing.
At the root of this dynamic is the God who sees me. Time alone with God stirs the conviction that the whole world must make way for God and me, for I am the apple of His eye, the place where His love falls, the thing He chooses to work around and support, the thing that is unexpendable.
Devotional times with God are not just Hallmark moments when I think pretty thoughts. They are times when I am made more real, like CS Lewis’ imaginations describe it in The Great Divorce. This world, as world, easily convinces me I am a no thing. One of many things, a smaller thing, an inconsequential thing, almost not a thing. It is as if I do not matter. And what does not matter is as if it does not exist.
But in Him I live and move and “have my being.” If God pays attention to me, speaks to me, hears and responds to prayer, I am not a “wasn’t”, to use a word from Dr. Suess. I am an “am”, not he “I am that I am”, but none the less an “is”.
And death, the ultimate “isn’t”, in Christ has become a “more” – more life, more glory, more weight. As CS Lewis wrote, you and I have never met a mere mortal.