The images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.
In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:
When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”
In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.
The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”
This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).
I dreamed that I died last night. I dreamt that I was officiating a wedding and died in mid-sentence. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t wake up during such a dream you really will die. I am skeptical but I didn’t have an opportunity to test the theory. My wife Jane woke me before I felt the full effect.
I also dreamt that my house flooded. I opened the front door to see rivers of water washing down the street. I tried to shut the door against the flood but the water came pouring in and swept me away. No wonder I felt anxious when I finally got out of bed.
But then I always feel anxious on the last day of the semester. I hope that my classes will end on a crescendo. I imagine the students beaming with gratitude as they applaud at the end of my lecture. I envision them being reluctant to leave my presence and finally doing so with tears.
But the reality always falls somewhat short of this fantasy. My final lectures do not build to a crescendo. They stumble to a halt. There are a few handshakes and expressions of gratitude. For the most part, however, my students rush for the door. All that is left are a few straggling papers.
I watch them go and think of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Today a student asked me whether I thought it was necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon. Why would a Bible college student even ask such a question? Actually, there are several good reasons. One has to do with the nature of the Bible itself. Students are rightly taught to respect the human author’s intent in hermeneutics. If Jesus is not explicit in the text, it can be dangerous to read Him into to it. When it comes to some passages, it seems hard to make connections to the gospel without engaging in interpretive gymnastics. What does the Proverbs 31 woman have to do with Jesus anyway?
Yet Jesus makes it clear that He is at the heart of the Bible. According to John 5:39, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me….” Jesus is not the express focus of every text of Scripture. But all Scripture gives evidence to the truth that is ultimately expressed in the person and work of Christ.
Jesus is the end toward which all Scripture truth tends. When it comes to God’s revelation about Himself, Jesus is the “last word” (Heb. 1:2). This means that the conscious intent of the human author is not sufficient for understanding the true intent of the text. This side of the cross, we have an insight that the Bible’s human authors lacked. When we examine Scripture, we do not look to find Christ in the text. We look at the text through the lens of Christ. Is it necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon? Yes. If Jesus doesn’t show up in the sermon, then it isn’t preaching. Not really.
Well, J. C. Penney apologized to me this week. I was not expecting it. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that something had come between us. But there it was, on the television. J. C. Penney admitted that it was wrong.
“It’s no secret,” the television ad said. “Recently J. C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked and some you didn’t, but what matters from mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing, to listen to you. To hear what you need, to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J. C. Penney, we heard you. Now, we’d love to see you.”
I confess that my guard was up, perhaps because I’ve been hurt before. Not everyone who has apologized to me has been sincere. For a moment I wondered if I was being used. Apparently not. They like me. They really like me. They want to listen to me. They want to meet my needs and make my life more beautiful. They want to see me. Whoever “they” are.
This, of course, is the trouble with being in a serious relationship with a corporate entity. I’d like to give J. C. Penney a hug and reassure him/her/it that the apology is accepted. After all, we all make mistakes. Who am I to judge? All is forgiven. We should get together soon. Maybe do lunch. I wonder what kind of food it likes?
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death. I turned twenty the year she passed. I will turn sixty this year and will have lived ten years longer than she did. I often think of the things she has missed in the intervening time. She never met my wife and never saw my children. She never heard any of my sermons, although she once told me she thought I would be a “darling” minister. She never read my books, although she knew I wanted to be a writer. But then, when I was a boy, I also wanted to be a psychiatrist, politician and a stand-up-comedian. In view of this, I suppose it is not all that surprising that I eventually became a pastor.
Every so often my mother visits me in my dreams. When she does, her visage is sad. It is as if she knows she is out of time and place. I am astonished to find her curled in her old chair, alive and smoking a cigarette. Our conversation is awkward. We are like old friends who have been separated too long and no longer have anything in common. We both know that she will soon be gone.
It is dark when I awake and I try to retain the memory. But it disappears like the vapor of breath on a cold morning. I lie in bed until dawn, trying to remember the sound of her voice. It is beyond recall.
During one of my classes today I noticed a student furiously typing away on her smart phone. I do mean furiously. She was silent (except for the tapping of her fingers). At first I wanted to believe that she was taking notes. But I’m not that interesting. I am certainly not interesting enough to inspire furious note taking.
Then I thought that perhaps she disagreed with what I was saying. I wondered if, instead of voicing her objection, she was recording her rebuttal for future reference. But that didn’t seem likely either. She is a good student who is usually engaged. I was pretty sure that she would voice any serious disagreement.
Finally, I decided to say something. This is always a tough call. If the student is doing something they shouldn’t, then they are embarrassed. I don’t really have a problem with that. But if they are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing (like taking notes) then I am embarrassed. I guess I am more comfortable with their embarrassment than I am with my own.
“I have to ask…are you taking notes on that thing?” I asked. She looked abashed. “No…no. I’m sorry. I’ll put it away.” And she did.
I think in my earlier years I would have launched into a lecture about classroom decorum and respect. But I’ve since learned that when students are distracted, there is often a good reason. Pressures outside the class creep across the sacred threshold and their urgent whispers drown out my scintillating lecture. These distractions often come from things like divorce, death or shattered love affairs. As for the handful of instances where the problem really is a lack of decorum and respect, well those students are not intimidated by my scolding anyway.
After class the student came up to me and apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I was in the middle of a long argument with my mother.”
“I know” I answered with a smile. “I could hear you shouting.”
I learned about the 80 second rule this week. Apparently the attention span of those viewing content online is less than a minute and a half. The person who told me this warned, “You only have 80 seconds to get your message across before they click through.”
I suppose I should be encouraged by this. After all, the length of the average commercial is only 30 seconds. I have nearly double that amount of time before you get bored waiting for me to say something meaningful and go looking for the puppy cam on YouTube.
Still, I can’t help thinking about Neil Postman’s warning that technology is not neutral. “Every technology is both a burden and blessing; not either-or but this-and-that” Postman writes in his book Technopoly. Postman observes that the uses a culture makes of technology are determined by the structure of that technology and that any benefit it renders exacts a cost. He warns that in the early stages of adoption by a culture, the unintended consequences of a new technology (both positive and negative) are unclear. “This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even say wildly unpredictable” Postman explains.
The Internet gives us immediate access to the collected thought of greatest minds in human history. We can find their writings in a matter of seconds. Yet as it does so, it seems that the same technology also robs us of the attention span needed to read what we find. Not to worry. A click or two more and we can easily locate a topical index of their most famous quotations. That was all we really wanted anyway.
If we have lost the capacity for focused attention necessary to read works like the Confessions of Saint Augustine, it also seems likely that we are losing the ability to engage in the kind of sustained reflection that would be needed to write anything comparable in the future. But the most terrifying implication–the truly life changing consequence of this is…
Oh, I see that my time is up. You’ve already moved on.
We all love stories where some great person stoops. The Mayor of a great city moves into the housing project for a month. The CEO of a billion dollar company works on the loading dock for a day. The NBA star joins a pick-up game in the neighborhood. The college president helps a freshman unload the car in the first week of school.
We like hearing stories like these. But the truth is, excursions like these have very little to do with real humility. Humility is not a day trip. It is not a place we occasionally visit in moments of extreme devotion. Humility is a realm that Jesus calls us to explore deeply and inhabit permanently.
Despite its importance, the truly humble person is not marked by an extreme interest in humility. What we sometimes mistake for humility in others is often just a carefully disguised form of pride. Such attempts at humility are intended to set us apart from others. These acts of false humility are not merely comparative, they are competitive. It is hard to serve those with whom you are in competition.
Real humility is harder to recognize than we think. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
This is what differentiates true humility from false humility. False humility is conspicuously self-conscious. But the truly humble person, as Lewis observes, is not thinking about himself. This is not because the humble person loathes himself. It is because the servant is genuinely interested in the other.
Love, it turns out, is the real secret to humility. Before Jesus’ great act of humility, the Scripture testifies: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 ESV). The key to humility does not lie in thinking about humility at all. What we call humility is really just another name for love.
In his book on Christian ethics entitled Vision and Virtue, Stanley Hauerwas notes that modern Christians find the everyday morally uninteresting. “The Christian life is a constant struggle to wrestle the truth out of the everyday” Hauerwas writes. “Recent Christian ethics has concentrated its attention on the crisis situation or the ‘big event.’ The Christian life is defined in relation not to the humdrum but to revolution and conflict; the everyday is morally uninteresting.”
I think the same could be said of our notion of what it means to follow Jesus. We are preoccupied with radical Christianity. We are waiting for an opportunity to do something epic–something extreme. The everyday is spiritually uninteresting to us.
In reality, when we follow Jesus, what we do is liable to be so common, so knit together with the fabric of our ordinary lives, that our actions will be virtually invisible. So invisible, in fact, that we often do not recognize it as following Jesus. “Lord,” we will say when the true significance of our actions are finally pointed out to us, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” And Jesus will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Perhaps this is why I do not find talk about “radical” Christianity especially motivating or particularly helpful. I suspect that if we were to really examine the lives of “radical” saints from the past, we would find that the extreme obedience we so admire in them was really an extension of their day-to-day devotion to Christ in the small things of life.