Philip Yancey's Blog
April 30, 2015
I visited a local megachurch recently. My friend described it as, “You know, one of those big-box churches with one-word names, super-loud music, huge video screens, and long sermons.” Currently, 1300 U.S. congregations qualify as megachurches, averaging more than 2000 in weekly attendance. The one I visited has more parking-lot volunteers than my church has members.
I’ll say one thing for megachurches: they can afford quality. The sermon was both entertaining and insightful, the super-loud music flawless (I declined the earplugs that were considerately offered at the welcome booth), and those parking volunteers got us in and out in record time.
Yet the majority of Americans, like me, still attend churches with less than 200 members. We show up on Sundays to hear less entertaining sermons and less professional music—though we have no trouble finding a parking place. Why? Smaller towns don’t have the option of megachurches, of course, and big crowds make some people nervous. I found one more reason when I came across this paradoxical observation in G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.
Precisely! Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on EPA gas mileage ratings. Yet after a while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups (and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else.
Henri Nouwen defines “community” as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, which forms a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.
The Christian church was the first institution in history to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. The Apostle Paul waxed eloquent on this “mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God.” By forming a community out of diverse members, Paul said, we have the opportunity to capture the attention of the world and even the supernatural world beyond. (Ephesians 3:9-10)
In some ways the church has sadly failed in this assignment. (Yes, Billy Graham, 11 o’clock Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.) But even monochrome churches show diversity in age, education, and economic class. Church is the one place I visit that brings together generations: infants still held at their mothers’ breasts, children who squirm and giggle at all the wrong times, responsible adults who know how to act appropriately at all times, and senior citizens who may drift asleep if the preacher drones on too long.
I know one megachurch that tries to seat people based on their commonality: senior citizens down front where they can hear better, single adults over there where they can meet each other, families with young children in the back where they can exit quickly if the kids make noise. That strikes me as all wrong. I deliberately seek a congregation comprising people not like me, and I find such people less avoidable in smaller churches.
hesterton’s insight about small communities appears in a chapter on “The Institution of the Family,” which gives a whole new slant on family values. “The common defence of the family,” he writes, “is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.”
The smallest units in society, families offer an ideal laboratory in which to test out Chesterton’s principle that “the smaller the community, the larger the world.” Reflecting on my own family’s reunions, I must agree that the institution of the family forces me into close contact with characters I would otherwise avoid. I have no choice about such encounters; we share a gene pool.
Several of my family members have served stints in prison. Some carry on feuds that go back generations. A few spin elaborate tales to cover up unwed pregnancies. Geographically, my family extends from Philadelphia to San Jose to Australia. It includes a drug addict and a professional football player with an estranged gay son, a Ph.D. in Philosophy as well as several who never graduated from high school. Methodists, Church of Christ, Unitarian/Universalists, Independent Baptists, atheists─they all come together at our reunions.
I have learned more about grace, forgiveness, diversity─and, yes, social deviance─from my family than from all the theology books I have read. Chesterton’s point, exactly. Troublesome issues like divorce and homosexuality take on a different cast when you confront them not in a state legislature but at a family reunion.
Those Christians who trumpet “family values” need to make clear that we are not proposing a lobotomized society of Stepford wives and their offspring. We recognize that families consist of imperfect human beings. We simply contend that the family, the smallest social unit, represents a good place to confront those imperfections.
Some commentators have attacked the entire institution, blaming society’s problems on the dysfunctions of the family. Such jeremiads miss the point: family is not a perfect institution by any means but simply a place that accepts its members on a single criterion, shared DNA. From such a tiny group we can learn the principles of true community needed in larger groups.
We have many examples of what happens when enlightened people get together and devise large institutions to improve on the family. These social engineers want everyone to be alike, sharing common values and beliefs. Consider extreme versions of the “politically correct” movement on university campuses. Consider the thought police in Communist North Korea. Making people more like they “ought to be” is the great experiment of modern times.
Any parent could tell you that making just one child more like he or she “ought to be” is a dicey proposition at best. If the smallest unit in society has trouble reforming individuals, should we trust the largest institution, the government? Better to work things out in small communities, where we may have less choice about our companions─but so does everyone else.
March 17, 2015
In Vanishing Grace I describe people I call grace-dispensers. You don’t have to be a professional, or educated, or especially skilled, to be a good grace-dispenser. A new book by John Ortberg, the pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, tells of an ordinary woman in San Francisco who makes an extraordinary dispenser of grace. I’ll let John tell this story as a guest columnist:
… There was a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a metro-transit operator named Linda Wilson-Allen. She loves the people who ride her bus. She knows the regulars. She learns their names. She will wait for them if they’re late and then make up the time later on her route.
A woman in her eighties named Ivy had some heavy grocery bags and was struggling with them. So Linda got out of her bus driver’s seat to carry Ivy’s grocery bags onto the bus. Now Ivy lets other buses pass her stop so she can ride on Linda’s bus.
Linda saw a woman named Tanya in a bus shelter. She could tell Tanya was new to the area. She could tell she was lost. It was almost Thanksgiving, so Linda said to Tanya, “You’re out here all by yourself. You don’t know anybody. Come on over for Thanksgiving and kick it with me and the kids.” Now they’re friends.
The reporter who wrote the article rides Linda’s bus every day. He said Linda has built such a little community of blessing on that bus that passengers offer Linda the use of their vacation homes. They bring her potted plants and floral bouquets. When people found out she likes to wear scarves to accessorize her uniforms, they started giving them as presents to Linda. …
Think about what a thankless task driving a bus can look like in our world: cranky passengers, engine breakdowns, traffic jams, gum on the seats. You ask yourself, How does she have this attitude? “Her mood is set at 2:30 a.m. when she gets down on her knees to pray for 30 minutes,” the Chronicle states. “‘There is a lot to talk about with the Lord,’ says Wilson-Allen, a member of Glad Tidings Church in Hayward.”
When she gets to the end of her line, she always says, “That’s all. I love you. Take care.” Have you ever had a bus driver tell you, “I love you”? People wonder, Where can I find the Kingdom of God? I will tell you where. You can find it on the #45 bus riding through San Francisco. People wonder, Where can I find the church? I will tell you. Behind the wheel of a metro transit vehicle.
We invited Linda to speak at our church. People with all kinds of Silicon Valley dreams were inspired to standing ovations by a woman who drives a bus. They stood in line by the dozens afterward to talk with her. For the door on the #45 bus opens into the Kingdom of God.
John Ortberg, All the Places to Go (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015), pp. 70-72.
February 19, 2015
My latest book, Vanishing Grace, explores how Christians relate to the broader culture, which got me thinking about how words flow back and forth in a linguistic exchange between the sacred and the profane. (I am using profane in its original meaning of nonreligious—the word comes from Latin, “outside the temple”—not in its modern sense of vulgar or irreverent.)
Although the English language took shape in a religious era, over time the culture has grown more secular. As a result, some words in common use today have only faint echoes of their origin in the sacred.
Carnival, from the Latin carne, means literally “to remove meat,” and marked the season just before Lent. Now it applies to country fairs in small towns and a big bash in Brazil.
Gospel. A word that means “good news,” and traditionally a shorthand for the Christian message, now underscores any authority or truth: “In our house, whatever my father said was gospel.”
Bible. Much like gospel, this word has expanded to anything authoritative, such as “the bible of French cooking” or “the bible of dog training.”
Clerk. Bank tellers and legal assistants may not know they inherited their job title from the Middle Ages, when few but monks could write (see also clergy and clerical).
Evangelist. Silicon Valley has co-opted this religious term in favor of anyone who spreads “good news” about the latest software or high-tech gadget.
Redeem. Once associated with such heavy topics as the doctrine of the Atonement and the emancipation of slaves, now the word describes mundane acts like recycling bottles and cashing in coupons.
Maudlin. Short for Mary Magdalene, the woman with a troubled history who wept at Christ’s tomb, this word now connotes excessive sentimentality. Locals refer to Magdalen College of Oxford University, where C. S. Lewis taught for thirty years, as “Maudlin” College.
Assassin. This one stems from Islamic, not Christian history. In the 11th century, a violent Shi’ite sect specialized in killing leaders in broad daylight in order to spread terror. (The more things change…) Many scholars believe the word descends from “hassasin” because sect members took hashish to steel themselves for the suicide attacks.
I could go on. Governments name their departments ministries; the military speaks of mission creep and corporations compose mission statements. The Apostle Paul would be shocked to learn that many modern Greeks use the once-lofty word agape for the act of making love. The borrowing goes both ways between sacred and secular: rosary comes from rose garden, a metaphor for a garden of prayers.
In times of strong faith, even people’s names offer a chance for evangelism. The Puritans gave their children names like Reformation, Tribulation, Eschew Evil (imagine!), Purity, and Chastity. On my travels I find a similar pattern at work today; I’ve met Africans named Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Precious, Witness, Blessed, and Heaven. They stand in good biblical tradition. As Frederick Buechner notes, Hosea named his children “queer names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would be scoring a prophetic bullseye in absentia.”
Christians find ways to soften words that are used irreverently or may cause offense: Gee for “Jesus”; Heck for “Hell”; Gosh for “God”; dang or darn for “damn.” Conscious of Arab sensitivities, the organization Campus Crusade changed its name to Cru, and Wheaton College replaced its long-standing “Crusaders” mascot with Wheaton Thunder.
My favorite story on the fluidity of language harks back to 1711, the year Christopher Wren finished work on the majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral, rebuilt after the great London fire. Versions of the story differ, but in one account Wren gave a personal tour to the King Charles II, who observed the building in silence, causing Wren no little anxiety.
At the conclusion the monarch pronounced the new St. Paul’s “awful, amusing, and artificial.” Instead of blushing in shame, Wren knelt before him with relief and gratitude, for in those days awful meant “fills me with awe,” amusing meant amazing, and artificial meant artistic. (I like to recite this story to those who insist on using the King James Version of the Bible, which relies on language from 1611, a century earlier.)
Words change, language evolves. In my lifetime the word gay has shifted from meaning merry to an almost exclusive association with homosexuality. I have heard estimates that 80 percent of the time words pejorate (think pejorative) or mean something worse, whereas only 20 percent of the time words improve or elevate to a higher meaning (ameliorate is the technical term). For example, most of the slang terms for sex acts or private parts were once perfectly respectable words that have since pejorated. Modern youth culture complicates the pattern by using negative words—sick, insane, wicked, nasty, killer, gnarly, stupid—to mean positive things.
Language’s tendency to pejorate certainly applies to words rooted in religious faith or used in earlier versions of the Bible. Consider:
Paternoster. Worshipers would say the Lord’s Prayer, or “Our Father,” in Latin so quickly and mechanically that it came to mean meaningless chatter, thus birthing the word patter.
Silly. The original Anglo-Saxon word meant one who was happy and blessed. But a true “innocent” may also be naive, or lacking in discernment, and over time the word soured.
Idiot began as a derivative of a Greek word describing a person peculiar in an admirable way, someone private and non-conformist. Eventually the word became so peculiar that no one wanted to be an idiot.
Pity has the same root as “piety,” and once described the quality of someone who, like God, showed compassion on the less fortunate. Over time, however, the emphasis shifted from the pietistic giver to the object of pity, who was seen as weak or inferior. A similar degeneration occurred with charity, which King James translators had chosen to convey the highest form of agape love. Alas, both words have badly slipped, so that now we hear the protests, “Don’t pity me!” and “I don’t want your charity!”
“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Jesus said, as the King James Version has it, and elsewhere in Mark he “would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.” A word that once meant “permit” or “allow” now applies to one who undergoes pain or puts up with something unpleasant.
Patronize. I have a special fondness for this word, for artists, musicians, and, yes, writers were once relieved of everyday anxieties about earning a living thanks to the generosity of patrons. Nowadays, however, there are few patrons, and fewer still who would want to be called patronizing. The modern Random House Dictionary defines patronize as “To behave in an offensively condescending manner.”
A few sacred words have kept their shine, and may survive a few more decades. I keep writing about grace, a beautiful theological word borrowed by all segments of society. Many people still “say grace” before meals, acknowledging our daily bread as a gift from God. We are grateful for someone’s kindness, gratified by good news, congratulated when successful, gracious when hosting friends. A composer adds grace notes to the score, which good pianists learn to play gracefully.
The secular publishing industry comes close to preserving the original meaning of the word in their policy of gracing issues. If you subscribe for twelve issues of a magazine, you may continue to receive a few extra copies even after your subscription has run out. These are grace issues, free of charge, undeserved, sent to tempt you to re-subscribe. They’re gratis—there it is again.
A use of the root word grace occurs in government: a nation that wants to ban a person from entering may officially declare him or her persona non grata—literally, a person without grace. (The arrogance of such a phrase!)
In contrast, I think of a passage from 1 Peter in which the apostle is reaching for words to impress his readers with the splendor of their calling. “You are a chosen people,” he says, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God….” And then, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:9-10). From persona non grata to God’s favorites, objects of God’s undeserved grace. If such rich concepts still endure, there may be hope for the English language yet.
Once I showed up at a rental car booth in a bad mood because I had missed the deadline for returning my car by almost an hour. “Your bill is all paid,” said the agent after entering my number in her computer.
“But…don’t I owe a late fee?”
“No, you see we have a one-hour grace period,” she replied.
“That word you just used, grace—what does it mean?”
She looked puzzled for a moment, no doubt searching her memory bank for whether that question had been covered in a training session. Finally she said, “Well, I’m not sure, but I think it means that even though you do owe something, you don’t have to pay.”
That doesn’t cover the entire concept of grace, but it’s an excellent place to start.
January 5, 2015
In November I traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to film a portion of a video curriculum on Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It’s the first such curriculum authorized by the Lewis estate, and is hosted by Eric Metaxas. I felt honored to be asked to contribute to the project.
I bought my paperback copy of Mere Christianity in 1968, almost fifty years ago. (Brand new it cost me $1.25!) It’s a measure of C. S. Lewis’s greatness that he could tackle some of the thorniest issues we’ll ever encounter, and carve a path through them in a way that still guides us decades later.
The story of C. S. Lewis has been told many times. A convinced atheist who found his lack of faith challenged by friends like J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. A scholarly specialist in medieval literature who became best known as a writer of the Narnia books for children. A confirmed bachelor who married a Jewish divorcée from Brooklyn at the age of 58, mainly to allow her to stay in England, only to fall in love and have four sweet years together before she died of cancer.
Mere Christianity came about when the BBC hired Lewis to explain the basics of Christianity to a nation reeling from nightly assaults by German bombers. Much of civilization seemed in peril, with Europe controlled by Stalin in the east and Hitler in the west. Could God truly be in control of human history? Could the forces of good possibly hold out against the forces of evil? Was there any hope?
Here we are in 2015, some seven decades later. Nazism fell and Communism collapsed in much of the world—though not in China, the most populous country. We face different threats today. Disillusioned, most of Europe has abandoned its historic faith. The church wavers in the United States, with one-third of the millennial generation claiming no religious affiliation and the broader culture moving away from its Christian roots. Radical Islam is resurgent, as violent groups like ISIS vow to capture not just the Middle East but all of Europe as well. Most Christian growth occurs in places like Africa and, against all odds, Communist China.
Other defenders of the faith—apologists they’re called—have arisen since C. S. Lewis, but none has the continuing impact of the eccentric don who rarely traveled, never learned to drive, and yet somehow expressed his beliefs so clearly and winsomely that millions still turn to him for guidance. Some fifty of his books remain in print, with total sales exceeding a hundred million. “Name another author whose books are being sold more now than they were when they were alive,” says HarperOne’s Mickey Maudlin. “His vision for the Christian life is seemingly simple while being very complex.”
In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death—which, incidentally, occurred the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated—Lewis joined some of Britain’s greatest writers to be recognized at Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey.
As I recall, I read Lewis’s space trilogy first. Though perhaps not his best work, it had an undermining effect on me. He made the supernatural so believable that I could not help wondering, What if it’s really true? What if there is a God and an afterlife and what if supernatural forces really are operating behind the scenes on this planet and in my life? The tremors strengthened into an earthquake as I went on to read Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, which dismantled my defenses and convicted me of the sin of pride.
A statue in Northern Ireland honoring Lewis and the magic wardrobe of the Narnia books.
I was attending college in the late 1960s, just a few years after Lewis’s death in 1963. I ordered more of his books from second-hand bookshops in England because many had not yet made it across the Atlantic. I wrestled with them as with a debate opponent and reluctantly felt myself drawn, as Lewis himself had, kicking and screaming all the way into the kingdom of God. Since then he has been a constant companion, a kind of shadow mentor who sits beside me urging me to improve my writing style, my thinking, my vision. Before writing any book, first I laboriously go through all of Lewis’s to see what he said about the topic.
“If a man will begin with certainties, he will end in doubts; but if he is content to begin with doubts, he will end in certainties,” wrote Francis Bacon, a principle that does not always apply. In Lewis’s case it did: his background of atheism and doubt gave him a lifelong understanding of and compassion for skeptical readers. He had engaged in a gallant tug of war with God, only to find that the God on the other end of the rope was entirely different from what he had imagined. Likewise, I had to overcome an image of God badly marred by an angry and legalistic church. I fought hard against a cosmic bully only to discover a God of grace and mercy.
Lewis affirmed my calling as a writer. We live lonely lives, those of us who make a living by playing with words. I find it hard to write if someone shares the same room with me. More, any impact I have on others will be vicarious. When I write, I am not actively caring for the poor, ministering to AIDS victims, feeding the hungry, or even conversing about spiritual matters.
“We read to know that we are not alone,” said one of the students portrayed in Shadowlands, a movie based on C. S. Lewis. Yes, and we write in desperate hope that we are not alone. Lewis proved to me that this most lonely act can make a difference. As one who was changed—literally, dramatically, permanently—by an Oxford don who felt more at home with books than people, I have learned to trust that God can use my own feeble efforts to connect with readers out there somewhere, most of whom I will never meet.
I doubt C. S. Lewis ever anticipated that half a century after his death several million people each year would buy one of his books, and that Hollywood would release movies based on Narnia with spin-off products available in every shopping mall. If informed of that fact during his life, he would likely have shrunk back in alarm.
We humans are not Nouns, he used to say. We are “mere adjectives,” pointing to the great Noun of truth. Lewis did that, faithfully and masterfully, and because he did so many thousands have come to know and love that Noun. Including me.
( Lewis fans may enjoy this clip about his BBC Broacasts: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/C.S.-Lewis-BBC-Broadcasts-During-WWII)
December 17, 2014
Some thirty years ago, when I lived in downtown Chicago, I wrote this reflection on my aquarium. It became a kind of parable with special significance in the Christmas season. A shorter version made its way into one of my books; here is the original.
When I look out my downtown window I see a twelve-story apartment building, all concrete and glass, its balconies speckled by a random assortment of bicycles, Weber grills and lawn chairs. Closer, I see twisted metal antennae growing like bare branches from a video store, the pebbly gray roof of a Donut shop, the aluminum exhaust vent from an Italian restaurant, and a web of black wires to bring electricity to all these monuments of civilization. (We didn’t choose this place for the view.)
But if I turn my head to the right, as I often do, I can watch a thriving tropical paradise. A piece of the Caribbean has snuck into my study. A glass rectangle contains five seashells coated with velvety algae, stalks of coral planted like shrubbery in the gravel bottom, and seven creatures as exotic as any that exist on God’s earth. Saltwater fish have colors so pure and lustrous that it seems the fish themselves are actively creating the hues, rather than merely reflecting light waves to produce them.
The most brightly colored fish in my aquarium is split in half, with a glowing yellow tail and a shocking magenta head, as if he had stuck his head in a paint bucket.
My tastes tend toward the bizarre, and in addition to beautiful fish I have two that are startling but hardly beautiful. A long-horned cowfish, so named because of the horns extending from his head and tail, propels his boxy body around with impossibly small side fins. If a bumblebee defies aerodynamics, the cowfish defies aquatics.
Another, a lion fish, is all fins and spikes and menacing protuberances like one of those gaudy paper creatures that dance across the stage in Chinese opera.
I keep the aquarium as a reminder. When writer’s loneliness sets in, or suffering hits too close, or the gray of Chicago’s sky and buildings invades to color my mind and moods, I turn and gaze. There are no mountains out my window, and the nearest blue whale is half a world away, but I do have this small rectangle to remind me of the larger world outside. Half a million species of beetles, ten thousand wild butterfly designs, a billion fish just like mine poking around in coral reef—a lot of beauty is going on out there, often unobserved by human eyes. My aquarium reminds me.
Yet even here, amid the beauty of my artificial universe, suffering thrives as well. Nature, said G. K. Chesterton, is our sister, not our mother; she too has fallen. The spikes and fins on my lion fish are appropriately menacing; they can contain enough toxin to kill a person. And when any one fish shows a sign of weakness, the others will turn on it, tormenting without mercy. Just last week the other six fish were brutally attacking the infected eye of the cowfish. In aquariums, pacifists die young.
I spend much time and effort fighting off the parasites and bacteria that invade the tank. I run a portable chemical laboratory to test the specific gravity, nitrate and nitrite levels, and ammonia content. I pump in vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs, and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filter the water through glass fibers and charcoal and expose it to an ultraviolet light. Even so, the fish don t last long. Fish make dubious pets, I tell my friends; their only “tricks” are eating, getting sick, and dying.
You would think, in view of all this energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow appears above the tank, they dive for cover into the nearest shell. Three times a day I open the lid and drop in food, yet they respond to each opening as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. Fish are surely not affirming pets.
The arduous demands of aquarium management have taught me to appreciate what is involved in running a universe based on dependable physical laws. To my fish I am deity, and one who does not hesitate to intervene. I balance the salts and trace elements in their water. No food enters their tank unless I retrieve it from my freezer and drop it in. They would not live a day without the electrical gadget that brings oxygen to the water.
Whenever I must treat an infection, I face an agonizing choice. Ideally, I should move the infected fish to a quarantine tank in order to keep the others from pestering it and to protect them from contagion. But such violent intervention in the tank, the mere act of chasing the sick fish with the net, could do more damage than the infection. Stress resulting from the treatment itself may actually cause death.
I bought my aquarium to brighten a dull room, but ended up learning a few lessons about running a universe. Maintaining one requires constant effort and a precarious balancing of physical laws. Often the most gracious acts go unnoticed or even cause resentment. As for direct intervention, that is never simple, in universes large or small.
I often long for a way to communicate with those small-brained water-dwellers. Out of ignorance, they perceive me as a constant threat. I cannot convince them of my true concern. I am too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they see as cruelty; my attempts at healing they view as destruction. To change their perceptions would require a form of incarnation. I would need to become a fish.
December 3, 2014
I have fond memories of a church in Chicago that taught me grace. LaSalle Street Church sat halfway between the city’s richest neighborhood, the Gold Coast fronting Lake Michigan, and its poorest, a massive high-rise housing project notorious for drugs, gangs, and murder. Hoping to stabilize the community, LaSalle joined with other churches in the 1970s to develop affordable housing in between those two neighborhoods.
Lo and behold, some four decades later that investment has paid off in a big way. With the Cabrini-Green high-rises now demolished, and replacement housing in demand, the church has realized a $1.6 million windfall in a real estate transaction.
My wife worked in church offices smack in the middle of this changing neighborhood, and she has stories to tell of break-ins, vandalized cars, gunfights, and scary encounters with street people. Urban ministry is not for the faint at heart. Yet throughout the turmoil LaSalle stuck it out; “We’re a gutsy little church,” says the current pastor, Laura Truax. Indeed, a book published in the 1970s highlighted LaSalle as The Church That Takes On Trouble.
LaSalle has always sought the role of a bridge church between the two neighborhoods. The church spun off one ministry after another: a free legal-aid clinic, school tutoring, a counseling center, meals for the homeless, as well as individualized programs for senior citizens, single mothers, and Young Life kids. Before church on Sunday mornings yuppie volunteers cooked breakfast for a diverse group of senior citizens, half of whom were African-American and half of whom were white. The smell of biscuits and ham does a lot for a sanctuary, I learned. On cold mornings homeless street people would wander in, drawn by the aroma, and sometimes these visitors would stretch out on the pews and sleep noisily through the morning service.
Worship services were rarely boring. Pierre liked to throw things, and one memorable morning the pastor counterintuitively opened his eyes during prayer before communion to see a football heading for him in a perfect spiral pass. With NFL-like reflexes he deftly moved aside the trays of 300 communion glasses he was holding. Another Sunday, an angry young man named Adolphus prayed aloud for the white honky pastor’s house to burn down that week. Characteristically, the church responded not by kicking him out but by assigning a doctor to monitor his medication.
The congregation also included graduate students enrolled in Ph.D. programs at prestigious schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago, as well as doctors, lawyers, and other well-educated professionals. Even now more than 60 percent of members have advanced degrees, and yet a third of those who attend live paycheck-to-paycheck. I taught a class at LaSalle for eight years, and this mixture forced me to keep things at a common level. Did my words hold meaning for a bag lady as well as for a theological student?
Churches give lip service to diversity, but few practice it seriously. LaSalle was an exception. As Chicago’s urban core gentrified, other churches moved in to appeal to a younger crowd, with flashier, high-tech buildings and louder worship bands. The little church in a 125-year-old stone building kept plugging along, defying proven methods of church growth by trying to bring dissimilar people together. Diversity complicates decision-making, worship styles, and virtually every priority of the church (a pattern that dates back to the earliest congregations, in places like Corinth). Yet I’ve learned that grace is put to the test when we join together with people decidedly unlike us, and LaSalle certainly provided that challenge.
So what does a struggling church committed to social justice do with a $1.6 million windfall? After deliberating, the board decided to support the pastor’s bold idea, a kind of reverse tithe in which they would distribute 10 percent of the money, $160,000, to LaSalle’s 320 members and regular attenders.
On a Sunday morning this fall Pastor Truax announced that each of them would receive a $500 check, no strings attached, and encouraged them to pay it forward by doing something good with the money.
Media outlets like AP and Huffington Post soon picked up the story, and during Thanksgiving week National Public Radio devoted an 11-minute segment to the results. (Click here to listen to the radio interview.)
One young man who spent his youth in Jordan donated part of his check to World Vision but most toward building a skateboard park in Amman. A couple combined their bonuses to support a pet rescue shelter in Florida. A single mom and her nine-year-old put together an ice cream sundae night for a hundred of Chicago’s homeless. One member supported a college scholarship program for immigrant children; another donated to Ebola clinics. A school in the Himalayas will benefit, as will an irrigation project in Tanzania.
The poorer members of the congregation, less oriented toward formal programs, tended to give toward individuals with needs. One woman gave half to a friend who was trying to pay for her grandmother’s funeral and half to a friend who had lost his marketing job. She reports, “It was powerful just to be able to be the gift-giver, be part of that moment and see that the impacts of seemingly small gestures were huge.”
In describing her plan, Pastor Truax refers back to Jesus, “a risky guy” who in the parable of the talents warned against burying treasure in the ground. Jesus demonstrated in person how a few loaves and fishes could be multiplied: the disciples had sufficient food for the inner circle, but Jesus raised their sights.
As Pastor Truax says about her flock, “I hoped that they would see their connection between their little piece and the bigger thing the church was called to do, that they would feel like they actually had some skin in the game, some prayers in the game. And that has largely happened.”
A few months ago I heard from a longtime LaSalle friend who wondered why suburban churches with cappuccino bars and gymnasiums seem to prosper while a church that strives to be faithful to the New Testament’s emphasis on diversity and justice struggles so. When I heard about the windfall, I couldn’t help thinking that God smiled that day. And it didn’t surprise me at all to turn on NPR and hear that the first thing the struggling urban church did was to ignore its own budget shortfall and find an innovative way to give. Now they’re praying about creative ways to use the $1.44 million left over.
November 3, 2014
I am writing in the middle of a book tour that takes me to seven cities in the U.S. The tour actually started the day after we returned from a similar tour in South Korea and Taiwan.
I must say, there’s a major difference in the attention span of audiences in Asia and America. In Asia, listeners sit for 90 minutes straight (I talk for 45 minutes and the interpretation takes equal time) without crossing and uncrossing their legs or moving their hands or shifting posture. In the U.S. you better be quick, and spice up the talk with humor and PowerPoint images; video is even better. The media has spoiled us.
Along the way I have had to learn the style differences between speaking and writing. The speaker has many more tools at his or her disposal. I can raise or lower my voice, wave my arms, pace the stage. If all else fails I can show a clip from a movie. In contrast, the writer can only manipulate black marks on a page, with no color, no sound, and only the subtlest variation in appearance. The reader remains firmly in control at all times. Sheer politeness keeps people from stomping out of a talk, whereas a bored reader thinks nothing of slamming shut a book or turning off a Kindle.
“Most writers don’t make good speakers,” I often hear, and I am grateful for those lowered expectations when I stand before an audience. Although I find writing a much harder task, speaking does present unique challenges. If I hit writer’s block, I open the door and go for a run or a bike ride to clear my head. Onstage I have to keep talking and sweating through to the end, no matter how miserable I feel at the time.
Public speaking also involves the unpredictable. Several times in India the electricity shut off in the middle of a meeting, leaving me standing on a platform in the dark with no microphone. In the Philippines cell phones chirped and rang every few minutes. One man said loudly, “Hello, Ma? I’m in a meeting. Just a minute and we can talk,” as he walked out the aisle. At a charity golf tournament in France, a drunken woman stood up and shouted, “That’s me! He’s talking about me!” as I mentioned the scene in John 8 of Jesus confronting an adulterous woman.
I have spoken through an old fashioned bullhorn on a beach in Myanmar, nearly fainting from the heat and an attack of diarrhea. In Australia I spoke to a group that included aborigines, who had the disconcerting habit of giggling throughout my talk and heading out on walkabouts whenever they felt like it.
It constantly amazes me that my books can connect with someone in another culture since I write so specifically about the legalism, fundamentalism, and racism of the American South. I have learned, though, that churches overseas may magnify the flaws and quirks of the U.S. church. Missionaries, God bless them, may import a legalism that makes Southern Baptists look like liberals and church divisions that make U.S. denominations seem harmonious. Sermons tend to fall into two types, either stiff and formulaic or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel message. Few are addressing questions like Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God in such places.
Often after speaking I invite questions. Inevitably someone asks about U.S. policies and our recent wars. The issue of homosexuality usually comes up. I also hear touching stories from people struggling with faith in the midst of pain and poverty. On a tour of the Middle East, I fielded these two questions back to back: 1) How can a loving God allow so much suffering in the world? and 2) What kind of shampoo do you use?
“We have an unequal relationship, you and I,” I used to joke before a book-signing. “You know everything about me because anything I think or do or say ultimately ends up in a book. But I know nothing about you. So in the brief time we have together, tell me one of the deepest secrets of your life, something you’ve never told anyone.” I stopped making that invitation because some people took me seriously and told me secrets I had no right to know. In the process, I learned that a writer can develop a “virtual” intimacy with readers he or she has never met.
The highlight of all such trips takes place when I meet these readers of my books. This book tour, introducing Vanishing Grace, gives me yet another opportunity to hear some of their personal stories. Let me give you a few examples, some of the most moving moments of my life:
A young woman named Sarah told me she had spent two months working in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. Each day she read to dying patients portions from my book What’s So Amazing About Grace. She told me they were thrilled to hear that God already loved them and they didn’t have to earn God’s favor, as they had been taught in Hinduism.
I hear many stories of tragedy. In California, I met a man, age 45, whose older brother had just shown symptoms of Huntington’s Chorea, a devastating genetic disorder that leads to paralysis and death. As his brother, he now stands a 50 percent chance of facing the same plight—as will his teenage kids. In addition, he has two “healthy” siblings with mental disabilities who live in state-run homes. “I keep re-reading the Book of Job,” he said.
At a book signing in Michigan I met a delightful young woman with Down syndrome, who introduced me to her gap-toothed, sunburned father, a farmer. “He needs your books!” the young woman said with the simplicity of a child. “He gets angry, and he gets depressed. My mom died four months ago. I like God. I go to church every Sunday. I like your books too. But he really needs them!”
After I spoke in a neighboring state, a teenage girl said that now she has to pray for her sister. “Why?” I asked. “Because you said we must pray for our enemies!”
At an outdoor conference in Sweden, I met a beautiful-but-hardened young woman who came riding up on a Harley, decked out in leather. I had just spoken on Grace. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m the woman at the well.”
Once a muscular young man told me that he had got locked in a bathroom with a defective latch, its only window covered by burglar bars. One of my books was in there, and he read the whole thing in six hours until help arrived.
Writers live lonely lives, and contacts with readers remind us that what we do in isolation may indeed touch people at a deep level. In my travels I learn that I am not alone in struggling with the issues I write about. One reader said to me, “You keep insisting you’re not a pastor, but I think you’re pastoral, a pastor for those who don’t fit.” I can almost accept that title.
After each of these tours I return to my basement office humbled and also uplifted by my encounters with readers. Just last week I met a man who runs a ministry for pedophiles. “They receive less grace than any group in our country,” he said. “Imagine having to register publicly as a criminal, with a poster announcing that on your lawn, unable to live within a thousand feet of schools, playgrounds, and other facilities. Yes, they did something terrible. But are they beyond God’s grace and forgiveness?”
Close behind him, a woman told me of losing her 17-year-old daughter to a brain hemorrhage.
Yes, book tours are exhausting, logistically frustrating, and challenging for an introvert. But when I return to my basement office in Colorado, I have renewed hope that what I will write tomorrow will somehow connect with another reader—someone I may one day meet on another such tour.
October 16, 2014
In a few days my new book will be published: Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? I wrote it after reading surveys that document a dramatic shift in our culture, what I call the “grace gap.” Ordinary Americans, especially those who have no religious commitment, view Christians much less favorably now than they did even twenty years ago. Outsiders to the faith see Christians as judgmental, self-righteous, right-wing, and anti — anti-gay, anti-science, anti-sex — the usual stereotypes.
I’ll leave such analysis to the pollsters and sociologists. I’m more interested in how we in the church might be contributing to a crisis of grace. To me, much of the problem stems from the uncomfortable reality that American culture has moved away from having a solid Christian consensus at its core. A strong majority still believe in God, and a strong minority attend church on a semi-regular basis, but the culture has grown increasingly secular compared to the recent past.
How do we respond? Recently I heard the writer Amy Sherman describe three possible approaches: fortification, accommodation, and domination.
Fortification: some Christians hunker down in a defensive posture, insulating themselves against the broader culture and creating a bubble around the subculture.
Accommodation: some follow the script of the world, watering down the message so that it no longer offends.
Domination: some fight to “get our country back!” by electing Christian politicians and working to pass laws that reflect the moral values they cherish.
Each of these approaches involves pitfalls, as Amy Sherman pointed out. Fortification? Jesus sent out his followers as “sheep among wolves,” not as sheep locked safely in the barn. Accommodation? Jesus never watered down the gospel message and its implications for how we should live. Domination? One of the main reasons for a decline of faith in Europe traces back to the days when church and state worked together to dominate culture; though a coercive approach may work for a while, inevitably it produces a backlash.
As our culture grows more polarized, I look for models of how to bring grace back to a society in dire need of it. American Christians have been “spoiled,” in a way, with our religious heritage. Historically, we’re the outlier. More often the church around the world confronts a state of affairs closer to what the early Christians faced in Rome—or what Christians in China and the Middle East face today. With our strong infrastructure of missions, education, and service organizations, I hope we in the U.S. church can demonstrate to the rest of the world a new model, of pioneer settlements showing the world a different way to live, a bright contrast to the violent, competitive, self-indulgent culture around us.
For a model I look back to the early Christians, who were seeking to live out their faith in a culture far more hostile and arguably more immoral than our own. We think NFL football is violent; Romans watched gladiatorial murder for sport. Abortion is bad enough; in the cruelest form of birth control, the Romans abandoned their full-term infants to wild animals. Sexual immorality? Roman brothels were legal and common, and sophisticated Romans often practiced pederasty with young slaves.
So how did the early Christians respond? As a tiny minority, they showed a watching world a different way to be human. When Romans abandoned their unwanted babies, Christians organized platoons of wet nurses to keep them alive for adoption by church families. Risking their own lives, they stayed behind to nurse plague victims whose families had fled. (Medical missionaries are doing the same thing today, in African countries affected by the Ebola virus.) They lived out a new standard of sexual purity. After a while, Romans were impressed by the differences: the Christians’ beliefs and practices truly seemed like Good News.
I’m writing this from South Korea, a country with a strong minority (30 percent) of Christians who have shown me creative examples of how to dispense grace in a secular culture. Just yesterday I toured a beautiful new school built by a church to educate refugee children from North Korea. And today I met a remarkable pastor named Lee Jong-rak.
Pastor Lee cares for a son born with crippling cerebral palsy, and it disturbed him greatly to learn that hundreds of babies born with disabilities—deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome—are abandoned on the streets of Seoul every year. Unmarried women who get pregnant face a strong stigma in a shame-based culture, and many of them abandon their perfectly healthy babies as well.
In response to this social problem, Pastor Lee constructed an ingenious “baby box” in the wall of his home. From the outside it resembles an after-hours bank deposit box, though decorated with children’s artwork. A parent who wishes to remain anonymous can open the baby box and deposit the unwanted infant in a warm, blanketed compartment fitted with a motion sensor and an alarm. Thus alerted, Pastor Lee or a volunteer comes to collect the baby and bring it into their bustling orphanage.
In the last five years Pastor Lee has saved 561 babies who otherwise would have died. More than a hundred of the newborns still had umbilical cords attached. Along the way, Pastor Lee and his wife adopted 19 of the babies, including several with profound disabilities.
Pastor Lee’s approach of creative grace mirrors what happened in the first century, when early believers in the Roman Empire took Jesus’ agenda to heart. The Christians organized relief projects for the poor and ransomed their friends from barbarian captors. Some voluntarily freed their own slaves. As I mentioned, they adopted unwanted babies and nursed the sick, including their unbelieving neighbors.
“Amazing Grace” moved from the U.S. to help care for rescued babies,
including this blind girl abandoned by her mother.
In the waning days of the empire, the watching world sat up and paid attention. People flocked to the churches, which stood out as caring communities. A fourth-century Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate complained bitterly about Christians of his time: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity.” His campaign against the Christians failed, and the gospel continued to spread while Roman power ebbed.
Some Christians view with alarm a modern culture that is growing increasingly secular, and perhaps even hostile. Actually, we’re simply returning to the kind of situation that confronted the early disciples of Jesus. Like them, we’ll need to find ever more creative, and effective, ways of dispensing God’s grace.
October 5, 2014
Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can all come together. One morning I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank on one side, while on the other side a breastfeeding baby grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the service. Where else can we go to find that mixture? When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other, and resemble me, the more uncomfortable I feel.
Diversity, however, only succeeds in a group of people who share a common vision. In his prayer in John 17, Jesus stressed one request above all others: “that they may be one.” Paul’s letters repeatedly call for unity and an end to divisions. The existence of so many denominations worldwide shows how poorly Christians have fulfilled that goal. Major church splits have occurred over such issues as what kind of bread to use in Eucharist and whether to make the sign of the cross with two or three fingers. We have not, in fact, been faithful stewards of God’s grace.
Ideally, the church should be a place that reminds us of lasting truths: that God intends the best for us, that sin and failure are inevitable but forgiveness is guaranteed, that a supportive community bears burdens and comforts the needy.
A pastor friend of mine, Wayne Hoag, did a series of sermons on the phrase “one another.” He found twenty-nine uses of that word in the New Testament which, taken together, show what a true community would look like. They include the following:
Love one another
Forgive one another
Pray for one another
Bear one another’s burdens
Be devoted to one another
Regard one another as more important than yourself
Do not speak against another
Do not judge one another
Show tolerance for one another
Be kind to one another
Speak truth to one another
Build up one another
Comfort one another
Care for one another
Stimulate one another to love and good deeds.
I wonder how different the church would look to a watching world, not to mention how different history would look, if Christians everywhere followed that model.
(Excerpt from Vanishing Grace, to be released October 21)
September 4, 2014
I have seen scores of creative ministries around the world that express God’s grace through service. One that will always stand out in memory is a restaurant in Lima, Peru, that I came across serendipitously. Just off a main street known for peddlers and pickpockets, I entered a beautiful colonial courtyard, vintage 1820, in a high-ceilinged room trimmed with mahogany.
The manager rustled across the room in a batik sarong to greet me and my companions, her Spanish tinged with a melodious French accent. The food was gourmet style, among the best meals I’ve ever eaten, yet at a very modest price. Waitresses glided in and out of the room, each in native costume from their African and Asian homelands. The manager explained they are Christians—not nuns, exactly, but an order of committed lay workers.
Only a few clues betray the restaurant’s spiritual roots. The inside cover of the menu proclaims “Jesus lives! For this we are happy.” And at a certain time each evening the waitresses appear together to sing a vespers hymn for their patrons. Besides these clues, said the manager, the work itself should stand as a witness. “Don’t ask us how our prayer life is going; look at our food. Is your plate clean and artfully arranged? Does your server treat you with kindness and love? Do you experience serenity here? If so, then we are serving God.”
The restaurant keeps its prices low because the women, who have taken a vow of poverty, do all the work. They cook, wait on tables, scrub floors, worship, all to the glory of God. During the day, mothers from the slums of Lima fill the same elegant room. The Missionary Workers lead training classes on basic hygiene, child-raising, and physical and spiritual health. Once off duty, the restaurant staff devote themselves to the poor, carrying out services funded by all the profits from the restaurant.
Some of Agua Viva’s wealthy patrons know of the outreach programs, and some do not. The Missionary Workers rarely talk about their work unless asked. But these sample comments in a guest book show that their unique two-edged mission is having an impact:
“I thank the Missionary Workers for being a living reminder of simplicity and joy in the heart of Christianity. Thank you for having helped me cross to the side of Salvation.”
“Continue to make us thirst for this Living Water whose transparent brilliance shines out through your faces.”
“You are a most eloquent living evidence for non-believers. You are a gift of God; the Holy Spirit breathes here. Through good cooking, God is transmitted too. Thank you for your ray of sunshine in a cloudy sky.”
L’Eau Vive Restaurant in Rome
The same order operates restaurants in places such as Belgium, Italy, France, Czech Republic, Burkina Faso, New Caledonia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Argentina. All have the same name: L’Eau Vive in French, Agua Viva in Spanish. The English translation: Living Water.
N. T. Wright says, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s Kingdom.” They are also, I would add, central to our mission of showing the world grace.
(Adapted from Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? due out in October)