An Open Letter to My Heroes

I’ll admit this right up front. Today I’m doubting. Today I’m struggling to hold onto hope. Today it’s hard to believe that there’s a real connection between the theoretical verticality of the gospel relationship and a practical tangibility lived out between real people in real time. Today I’m tempted to think it’s all been a lie. That happens from time to time. Today I decided to write about it.

I’m calling you out today, Scott Sauls. You too, Tim Keller and Scotty Smith. Tullian Tchividjian, I’m looking at you. I’ll not limit it to the living. Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Rich Mullins, you’re on the list as well. I really only have one question for the lot of you: “Did you sell me snake oil?”

Scott, sitting under your teaching changed my life … literally. You really only ever had one sermon. It was always “How would a better understanding of the gospel change the way I ______________?” I learned that wrestling with that question must define Christian living. It’s because of you that I am coming to believe that God is truly not mad at me. You taught me that really living out the gospel incarnationally will ALWAYS be messy. The extent to which I’m okay with that I owe to your faithfulness with the Word.

Tim, you taught me that the difference between religion and the gospel hinges on how willing I am to surrender control. You taught me that the first necessary step toward truly trusting Christ is choosing to distrust myself. You have provided for me a humbling example of how to vigorously and intellectually contend for the gospel while treating your audience/opponent with a grace that makes them hope that you’re right.

Scotty, … wow … I’m not sure where to start. From you I’ve learned that the gospel = Jesus = the Kingdom. I’ve learned that brokenness and weakness, because of Jesus, will never be the same as dysfunction and shame. You’ve taught me that if I let Him, Christ will meet me in the middle of my struggle, that He is present and working in my hurt.

Tullian, of all the people on my list (with the possible exception of Manning) you would be the one with whom I’d most want to sit down for coffee. You articulate grace in a way that speaks life to really bad sinners like me, that makes me hope. You’ve taught me that considering faith a journey from weakness to strength is counter-intuitive to the upside-down nature of the Kingdom. You’ve gentled my restless and belligerent spirit with the exhilarating/terrifying news that God’s love for me requires nothing whatsoever from me but my desperate need.

Henri, you taught me so much about the inside-out/upside-down nature of the Kingdom. You taught me that servanthood must be the hallmark of the true believer, and that true freedom will always draw people.

Brennan, I don’t think any other author has made me cry more. Your firmly (and frequently) stated belief that Jesus’s heart is rabidly and relentlessly toward the worst of us is slowly eroding my need to pretend that I don’t belong in that category. I believe (more and more every day) that my identity as God’s beloved far eclipses any other flag I would fly.

Rich, above and beyond your status as the biggest fly in my “Christian music sucks” ointment, you taught me wonder. I learned that the fury in a pheasant’s wing can and should tell me that the Lord is in His temple. I’m beginning to be okay with knowing that we are not as strong as we think we are.

You are all very different. One thing, though, that each of you believed and passed on to me was this: that the vertical realities of the gospel must transform the horizontal practicalities of our everyday lives. At least that’s how I’ve distilled your teaching. Maybe I misunderstood, but what I thought I heard each one of you say, at least implicitly, is that the Cross changes everything about how we live on the horizontal, especially how we live with regard to each other. I’ve devoted my life (poorly) to the exploration of what this could look like. But today I’m afraid I have to admit that I’m wondering if I’ve been wasting my time.

I don’t think anyone’s doing this. Yeah, I get that the gospel means that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for our inability. And I certainly acknowledge that what we’re called to is difficult. Being merciful as our Father in heaven has been merciful with us? Forgiving as we’ve been forgiven? Loving like Jesus loved us? Hard? More like impossible! It’s not in us. But there it is, nonetheless. By this will all men know that you are My disciples, Jesus said. Love like I’ve loved you. Give yourself. Don’t hold back. Be spent for the sake of the gospel in others. Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s doing this.

I think we’ve all agreed to relegate these ideas to the back burner and deal with them when we’ve figured out the weightier matters of the law like defeating gay marriage, securing the border, eradicating the death penalty, or making sure everyone has access to affordable healthcare. I think what we’ve done is we’ve looked at the clear teaching of scripture, recognized that giving ourselves to the pursuit of such would be extremely inconvenient and detrimental to a lifestyle that focuses on “me and mine/us and ours first,” and decided to classify the mercy-love-forgiveness verses as unrealistic. We have grown far too comfortable living in the gap between our perceived inability and God’s clear call on our lives.

This is not something we can accomplish as a checklist. It’s impossible to muster the gumption to love well under our own power. But part of what the gospel offers us is a confidence and self-disregard rooted deeply in understanding of God’s everlasting love for us. That confidence will short-circuit our insecurities and fears and drive us into others-focused service and love. It will be come a lifestyle, not a checklist

At least that’s how I think things are supposed to work. And they don’t. I don’t work that way. There are no less than three of my friends who are struggling with substance abuse issues. They have each let me in, showed me their brokenness, and asked for help in their own way. Most often, I sit paralyzed, overcome by my self-doubt. I don’t ask the hard questions. If I do, I do so from a comfortable distance. Certainly don’t want to get any of someone else’s mess on me. And if I stepped too deeply into theirs, well, then there’d be the expectation that I would really let them into mine, right? Let’s not get hasty. Let’s be realistic about this.

Last week, I celebrated my first Christmas as a divorced man. My ex-wife celebrated with her parents in Florida. I spent time with my family in Missouri. I wanted nothing more than to be with her. Instead, I began to settle into the role of the divorced guy. The one who fits into travel plans wherever there’s an extra seat, who gets to sleep in the spare bedroom until the married couple shows up to take it over, the one you’re never quite sure how to introduce to people because he’s not part of a unit anymore. It hurt like hell. Exactly two of my friends said anything about it, both via text message. I appreciated the thought, and I’m sure there were people praying for me and loving me from afar who didn’t contact me. But I was still very, very alone, even though I was surrounded by family. I was cut off from my soul mate, from my best friend. And my community, the only substitute I have, was all far away, connected to their own soul mates, best friends, and families. It’s selfish, I readily admit, but it should probably have played out differently. Living horizontally in the light of the vertical should probably make us think about others before we think about ourselves.

But it doesn’t. It’s just not how we live.

So is it snake oil, Scott? Is this really possible? Tullian, does one way love really mean that we can live outward-focused lives? Does the gospel really free me to be that focused on the needs of others, Dr. Keller? How about it Scotty? Does this rhetoric translate into reality in your life better than it does in mine? If so, can I come see it work? I need to see it work. I need to believe it’s real.

Right now I really need to know that somebody somewhere is living this.

Because I’m not.

2 comments

  1. Well, I can only address part of this post, Rick. I was one of the people who was praying for you, but didn’t say anything at all this Christmas. Please accept my apology. My heart hurts for you because I’m in a similar position of fitting in wherever there is room for a single person, yet not really ever feeling like I fit in because I no longer have a partner. If I had said something, I would have cried which would likely have made us both uncomfortable—not to mention the rest of the family.
    Can you just trust me that it gets a little easier with time? It’s always hard. It always hurts. No restaurant has a table set for five, the maitre d’ will always ask if someone will be joining you when you go out alone. But you will learn to deal with it a little better as it repeats over and over and over and over. I’m pretty sure you’re feeling that same thing tonight. It’s NYE and there is no one to kiss at midnight. It hurts like nothing else.
    Regarding the snake oil business, I think you know in your heart of hearts that it’s not snake oil. It does seem that way sometimes because, no matter how much we grow, how vulnerable we are willing to become, we never complete the journey towards Christlikeness.
    Thanks for the reminders today, and for always challenging my thinking. I’m so glad our paths have crossed and that we’ve become family.

    Marcy

    1. I would’ve cried as well, and it wouldn’t have made me uncomfortable in the slightest. Perhaps others might have been uncomfortable, but perhaps it would have been a teachable moment!

      Love you, Marcy. Thankful that we’re friends as well as family!

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