I had an acquaintance once. It would be a stretch to call him a friend. As my father used to say “Whoever it is you’re thinking of, it’s someone else.” Suffice it to say, this happened years ago.
At any rate, this guy taught me something about honesty, but probably not in the way that he would have hoped. He showed up at the metaphorical front door of my life speaking a language I’d spent most of my life waiting to hear. He spoke of authenticity and vulnerability, of living life naked in the face of a world that demands that we cover our brokenness and difficulty. He was bold and brash and full of ideas that he wanted to talk about loudly.
I was all in. Not only had he shown up at a time that I really needed realness, he was able to articulate and describe the culture’s resistance to authentic living in ways that inspired me and made me want more. I latched onto him and said “Yeah! Let’s DO this!”
He didn’t respond well.
In retrospect, part of his reaction was probably due to the zeal with which I pursued living the kind of life with him that he talked about. I can be pretty zealous. I reached out, he pushed back. I revealed, he shut down. I was ultimately left empty-handed as he bolted. I’ll readily admit that my response to his reaction was less than Christ-like. I’ve since repented and asked his forgiveness.
After a while, when the initial hurt had faded, I began to understand something about the guy. I understood that he was young. I understood that he was full of ideas that hadn’t been tested yet. I realized that he was probably one day going to be much, much better at this than he’d been when we met. I started to cut him some slack. At the same time, I started to take up some of the slack I’d given myself. Ultimately, I learned something about the way I do transparency in a dishonest manner.
I painted a word picture of it in my head. I called it “a prepared vulnerability.” The picture consists of me as the owner of a house. It’s an old house with a nice, big front yard, a wide front porch, and a deeply dark basement. The basement is a loss. It’s awash with mess, refuse, and horrifying embarrassments I’ve been throwing down the stairs for decades. The only thing that has kept the city from condemning the place is the whitewash and air freshener I employ liberally. At all costs, I have to keep things looking plastic, shiny, and unsuspicious.
But I need to be “real.” Authenticity has become a buzzword, and there are so many books that all my cool friends are reading that mention it. In order to fit in, I really need to make an effort to display some honesty.
So, I square my shoulders, take a few deep breaths, timidly open the door to the basement and venture a few steps down the stairs. I squeeze my eyes tight shut in a grimace of disgust and plunge one hand beneath the surface of the fetid pool of filth, grasp desperately, and quickly run back up the stairs. I slam the door shut, lean against it breathing heavily and look at the results of my efforts. This is good. A little cleaning up and these will work.
I wash them off in the kitchen sink, removing most of the stink. Real, authentic sins. There, some pride. Here some struggles with lust. Maybe that’s some doubt. Admittedly a little nondescript and vague, but real examples of missing the mark nonetheless. I scrub and scrub to make sure no hint of the real nature of where they came from remains. Then I take them out into the front yard. I erect small pedestals and artfully arrange my sins beneath glass cases. I put little brass plaques beneath them very clearly describing each one.
Now I’m set. When people from church or work or other arenas of life stop by, I’m prepared. When they come to the front gate, I can call them in. I can be real. I can say “Hey, welcome! This is me. This is where I live. This is the genuine article!” I’ll point to the multiple cases on their scattered stands and say “See? Bonafide sins! Real, actual instances of wrongdoing, transgression, and offense. See how disgusting they are! I’m the real deal!”
But I don’t walk with them through the display. I have to call out to them and guide them through from a distance. That’s because I’m doing something very important. I’m sitting in a chair placed squarely and deliberately in front of the triple-locked front door to my house, and I have a shotgun across my lap.
The reality is that you can walk through the display in my front yard as long as you want. Heck, you can live here. I’d love nothing more than to really “do life” with you and “walk with you” as long as this is all it costs me. You there amid the material that I’ve carefully prepared to represent me as the kind of noble sinner I want to be seen as, and me here making damn sure you don’t get anywhere near the basement door.
That’s not vulnerability. It’s not authenticity. But it’s what passes for such in plastic circles. It’s sadly what passes for such in much of the church.
I don’t want to be that guy.
I want to be the guy who meets you at the front door holding a couple of shovels, not even proud enough to apologize for the smell coming through the open basement stairwell. I want to be the guy who hands you a shovel and says “Come on down, if you’re willing. I should warn you that I have no idea what’s even down here, but I need some help.”