I sat out on the fire escape with my friend. Fires were rare, but such an escape was needed many times in our cramped Harlem apartment. We sat out above 5th Avenue, and he told me something very personal about his family, and the pain it was causing him. This was going to be deep. What was I to do? There were a number of options that would have been socially acceptable among guys in their early 20’s. I could have: (1) made a joke, and the more inappropriate the better to diffuse tension, (2) said “it’ll be alright,” gave a pat on the back and asked “what else is new?” or (3) gone deep also. I did choose the third option, he was grateful, and the hours we spent on that stoop that night glued us together in treacherous times to come. I did not have answers, just a listening ear. And upon listening to him, he exposed and me exposed, something felt quite right. The noticeable holes in his heart were mine too, and I felt like I could share my own sorrow, and by doing so, fill in these holes with the richest soil in the world, two road workers patching potholes with time and understanding. Real Gospel for Real People; this was not a tag line that I saw anywhere, but when I first encountered the church teaching the Word with depth and lived out the Word in deep relationships, I knew this was a gospel with endless possibilities in a tough world.
This depth thing is not an easy thing to do – and particularly as our culture becomes more and more addicted to entertainment. Neil Postman warned us of this trend decades ago, his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death having been written in 1985. I have written before about my desire to be wired in to my iPod, to play a quick game, to re-check my lethargic email inbox. It is more entertaining that way – to always have something to attend. It is far harder to sit alone or to sit engaged with some other person, be it a child, a spouse, or a friend. There is potential for boredom, awkwardness, for vulnerability, and therefore hurt. But going deep is so much richer, such a full way to live, than when we play only in shallow waters, we really have left something of our humanity behind. As I write this the modern hymn “I Need You, Lord” plays in the background, and I think, do I need him? He’s not all that entertaining. Scripture resounds with his desire to go deeper with me; am I willing to take that longer road to satisfaction? It seems to me that in churches today there is an assumption that going deeper is necessary, so we use buzz words like “discipleship,” but we too often lack the will to actually go deep with people. There are lots of books on this topic, some of which are helpful, and others are not. Sometimes people write books to truly address a need, yet I’m afraid sometimes people write books in order to sell books. There is one book that comes to mind which is immensely helpful in this area, but it is long and works far more effectively if navigated in the context of community and prayer.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day that Zoe built an airplane in our house. She wanted to make something so I gave her a cardboard box and some wrapping paper. She said she wanted to make an airplane, and she became more and more frustrated as the tape wouldn’t stick, and the box in whatever configuration she adopted, just didn’t look like an airplane. But we went deeper with her and let her live in that frustration, asking her to think deeper about what could be an airplane. And after quite a while she took two of the wrapping paper tubes, taped them together and placed then across our long dining room table. She then took each of our dining room chairs and placed them at the end of the table, making a narrowing tale and placed another wrapping paper tube at the end for something like that looked like an exhaust pipe. She now had a large wooden airplane, complete with wings and a tail. Mission accomplished. We could have let her watch a video, and of course, sometimes we do. But going deeper in this case nourished her mind and was ultimately far more satisfying to her soul.
I so often just want to be entertained, to play around the idea of intense study, without committing myself to something deeper, but in the deep is where the waters really are rich. When we approach our own relationship to the church, too often we say, “What do we want here?” And the undercurrent to this question is almost always, “Am I being entertained? Is it too much of a boredom or emotional burden to be here?” The most common response today about someone’s church is whether they like it or not, which is really a barometer of one’s personal comfort in that place, too often predicated upon the level of entertainment or absence of boredom. No matter how much you like your doctor, you don’t make appointments because of it- you go because you need to see the doctor. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt. 9:12
There are many parts of the church that do not fit our entertainment paradigm. Serving the poor, asking hard questions, being vulnerable, and perhaps being wrong are not experiences that are “fun,” but they are healthy. An athlete who sincerely desires to get the best out of himself does not hire the trainer who is “fun” and “easy” but the one who will push in order to make him the best athlete he can be. A new song plays on my radio now, it’s “I Surrender All.” Can we really give of ourselves the right to be entertained? Can we give our own personal comfort to build his kingdom? Some of you may be raising a red flag here, saying, can we not enjoy ourselves in the context of the church? Of course you can, just as in any family there are good times and bad, hardships, and tremendous joys. I refer you to this interview of Mike Wittmer by Trevin Wax, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2015/02/11/why-mike-wittmer-thinks-you-should-be-a-worldly-saint/, where the question is raised, “Does Christianity call you to affirm or deny the world?” His answer is a “yes!” The paradox is always at play, you lose your life to find it, you give of yourself to gain, you reject the world in all its sin, and embrace it in all its beauty.
What we don’t do is just settle for an easy emotional fix and then move to something else that will be entertaining. Commercials can make us cry today while we neglect our neighbor whose family is falling apart. We want not just the sentimental but for real depth in relationships and in our creative expression of gospel truth. There is a good Christian movie (yes, not an oxymoron) called Believe Me that wrestles with modern evangelical trends in sentimentality. The worship leader at a large conference said piously that he was looking at one of his songs, saw the word ‘Jesus’ and thought, what are all these other words doing here? Jesus is the only word that matters, so he cut all the other ones, and on the screen with lyrics we read “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, x16.” Is this a beneficial move by the “artist”? We can go deeper. We can sing to him a new song (Ps. 96:1) and let it be beautiful, creative, and full of all the redeemed brokenness that dwells in us. But we must look to one another and see each other as we truly are, be great listeners, and prepare our shoulders. And when we look up to the cross and see the weight that Jesus took on himself for us, though the present can be hard, there breathes through us that heavenly dust, and we as God’s children fly in formation and sing as only children can. A new song comes on my radio: it’s that great hymn “Rock of Ages,” which sings, “Foul, me to thy fountain fly; wash me, savior, lest I die.”