Somewhere, on a Sunday morning, people are filing out of a chapel after the service and the pastor spots a teenage boy, waiting by himself for his parents to finish socializing. There’s an exchange that goes something like this:
Pastor: “How are you, Jeff?”
The young man fidgets, looks off in the distance…
Pastor: “Wonderful. That’s good to hear.”
Jeff: “Yup. Pretty good.”
Jeff just wants the conversation to be over with, because he may not have even really put any words, mentally, to how he feels, and he’s uncomfortable with the shepherd’s attention. The pastor, on his part, senses something is wrong, but he doesn’t have the skills to do a drive-by healing for someone who won’t talk, so he lets it go. Everyone goes home.
A more honest version might be something like this:
Pastor: “How are you, Jeff?”
Jeff: “Not good.”
Pastor: “Really? What’s up?”
Jeff: “I’m just generally horny, to tell the truth. Judy Calvert? When she wears those tops?”
Pastor: “Gotcha. Understood.”
Jeff: “..and I have a trig midterm tomorrow. It’s like a black tornado on my spiritual horizon. I know I’m going to fail.”
Jeff: “On top of it all? My sister?”
Jeff: “She’s a bitch. A total soul-sucking bitch. She actually makes me feel like curling up in a ball and sticking my arm down my throat until I die.”
Pastor: “Oh, that’s bad. That’s awful, Jeff. Well, if it’s any comfort, believe it or not: I’ve been there.”
Granted, the truth about how we’re feeling, and the objective truth may be two different things, but we are trained to tell each other comfortable lies, so as to make sure we give off the appearance of spiritual calm. We may never really get to know what Jeff does about the Miss Calvert question, or the ominous midterm or the crushing spirit his sister represents — because we’re all just supposed to be delivered from all these troubles by the magic altar call we brag about on December 3, 1997.
All of our lust and anger and greed were just zapped to smoke on that day.
You mean you still have those troubles? You still battle sin, the way Paul did in Romans 7?
Talk them out. Submit them to scripture. Own those problems. Name them. Make sure your children and your parents and your neighbors hear you doing that, or — guess what? — they are likely to conclude it’s all a big con. There’s nothing worse than pretending to be happy, and delivered–and then doing that collectively, when beneath the surface a sea of trouble is brewing. Church fellowships, unfortunately, can breed the stench of dishonesty even more profoundly than the work place, or the AA meeting, or the doctor’s office because we’re pressured, during praise assemblies, to celebrate victories.
But it is possible to both praise God and give voice to our struggles. If not, was your call to Christ a call to be a pretender? Were you called to declare victories you haven’t achieved and celebrate a peace you don’t feel? The longer you put up with collective hypocrisy, the easier it will be to pretend, and the more your teenagers will conclude it’s all a sham, because they don’t have as much experience locking the hard truths up in a pressure cooker. God put that in them — a hatred for pretend virtue.
And this is not an invitation to “sin, that grace may abound.” I’ve never liked that celebration of defeat: “..the church is not a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.” Yes, we are sick, and we do need a Physician, but we are called to “finish the race,” to “do even greater things.”
So… if it’s a race — does a good coach pretend you have skills you don’t have? Do you brag about how fast you’ve been running, or do you actually run? Do you put the clock to it all — and talk abut the results, good, bad, great or ugly?
Our fellowships should be at least as honest as our track meets. The horny teenager who gives voice to his struggle may be closer to God than anybody else in the building.