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Should the church be relevant to the world?
We've spilled a lot of ink over that question. We've exchanged many words, both exhortatory and accusatory, trying to resolve it. It vexes us sorely. There are those who decry the church's stodginess, its veneration of old wineskins, its adherence to outmoded cultural forms. They seek a church that nimbly adapts to the world's music and dress and causes. And there are those who lament the church's trendiness, its fetish for new wineskins, its pursuit of faddish cultural novelties. They seek a church gloriously indifferent to the world's latest fashions.
We tote out Jesus' warning to be in the world but not of it, but then have endless and exhausting debates about what constitutes which. We have those who think the kingdom's come because we've preserved ancient songs and starchy vestments and Latin-strewn liturgies, and we have those who think it's come because we smoke Cuban cigars and drink Belgian beer and treat Starbucks as sacred space. If I wear torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt to church, am I of the world or in it? If our church worships to hip-hop music, which preposition are we falling under, in or of? If our liturgy hasn't changed since 1633 or 1952, or 1979, is that because we refuse to be of this world, or because we're failing to be in it?
And now I will resolve the matter for all time.
It doesn't matter. The kingdom is not about any of this. The kingdom of God is not about eating or drinking or music styles or how up-to-date or out-of-date we are.
The kingdom of God is a republic of love. Not the sentimental or sensual thing the world calls love, but the 1 Corinthians 13 kind: fierce, wild, huge, feisty, pure. The unbounded extravagance at the heart of the heart of God. This love is the song God sings over us, and calls us to sing loudly. What makes the church both a mystery and a magnet to the world is when we love in this way, God's way.
This love makes us relevant. Its absence makes us irrelevant, regardless of whatever else we're doing.
Question: is the love in your church such that people in the world and of the world would be willing to forsake all other loves just to know this love? Would they give up their addictions, their diversions, their compromises, their resentments, because the love your church has is better and truer and deeper than anything they've found anywhere else?
If yes, your church is relevant to the world.
If no, it's irrelevant.
It's not that God can't override our poor examples. He does all the time. It's not that God's love can't bleed through our pallor, can't burn through our coldness, can't subvert our wariness, can't multiply the meagerness of what we have. If he couldn't, if he didn't, woe to us, for we sometimes give God little else to work with. It's just that God seeks embodiments of his love. It's what he designed his church, in whole and in part, to be. It's tragic when our churches become, in whole and in part, mostly obstacles to divine love.
* * *
My favorite podcast is Quirks and Quarks, a science program from CBC Radio. In the course of an hour, Bob MacDonald, the show's host, interviews four or five people, usually researchers, on sundry topics related to the broad field of science. I glean all manner of cocktail party information from it: the current state of research in space-based energy supplies, the condition of ice floes in Antarctica, the design of prehistoric fish tails or crocodile teeth, the tales core samples from lake bottoms tell, the molecular structure of toxins in Arctic shrews, the pigmentation shifts of mating frogs in the Amazon, the olfactory powers of leaping spiders in East Africa. Fill me with an hour or two of Bob and his endlessly fascinating parade of field and laboratory experts, and I can sound, for small stretches, like a scientific know-it-all.
On November 21, 2009, Bob interviewed Dr. Kathleen Wermke, Director of the Center for Pre-Speech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Wurzburg in Germany. She was flush with a new discovery. She'd recently published results from a research project comparing the cries of newborns in Germany with those of newborns in France. The research involved extensive and precise recordings in maternity wards of infants, still swaddled, mewling and wailing. Dr. Wermke digitally graphed the pitch and cadence of those cries, and then painstakingly compared, baby for baby, those cries along ethnic lines.
What they discovered stunned them: babies cry with an accent. In France, babies consistently inflect from a low to a high pitch. It's a wah-ayyy! In Germany, it's the opposite, high to low. It's an ayyy! wah. The revolutionary element in this discovery is that the intonation pattern exactly mimics the "melody" of the mother—or, more precisely, the patterns of speech characteristic of the mother's national language. The French language tends to have an intonational rise at the end of a sentence; the German language an intonational fall at the end. The womb-bound baby hears this, and copies it at birth.
A baby eavesdrops on its mother for nine months. It puts its ear to the rail of her bones and listens to the train of her sorrow and gladness coming for miles. The child emerges from its mother's insides with her voice ringing in its ears, her music echoing in its own bones. Like an opera singer's understudy, the child is formed in the presence of a mighty voice. Sprawling naked into daylight, its first instinct is to sing its mother's song.
This got me wondering. If earth is heaven's womb, if time is eternity's belly, what song do we overhear from heaven that we try to sing on earth? We may sing it poorly, squalling and squawking, but we sing it instinctually. It's in our bones. So what's the music of heaven? What's the voice of the Father that every human's heard, at least in muffled form, and every human can copy, at least in mangled form?
Love is the music of heaven. When we love, no matter how awkwardly, we hum an anthem sung perfectly, all day, every day, in heaven. Our humming might be nearly tuneless. It might be fragmentary, staccato, uneven. It might be croaky, jangly, warbly. It may be hard for others to identify the melody. It might be hard on the ears. But there it is, the Father's voice thinly echoed in our own.
* * *
A lot has been handed to me by way of love. Still, I'm slow to learn, slow to sing. At the least, I rarely sing heaven's song with the operatic gusto, the soaring and booming, the passion and pathos that the music calls forth. I grew up in a family with its commonplace share of problems, but I never lacked love. Indeed, I remember from early childhood the distinct feeling of being adored, which may have bred its own nest of problems. But I did not struggle, then or now, with feeling unloved. I learned love's song early, while I was still being formed in my mother's womb, and I've heard good renditions of the song nearly daily since.
I should be a great lover. But somewhere, somehow, the tune glitched in me. There was a copy error. It was like cat claws had been raked across the grooves of my LP, and every time the turntable spun the record, the needle skipped and the song garbled.
Here I am at fifty. I've been loved well all my days, and yet still I love poorly. Oh, don't misunderstand: I express, from the heart, deep affection for my wife, my children, my friends, my church. If you asked any of the above, "Does he love you?" I think, I hope, all or most would say, unhesitatingly, "Oh, yes!"
But the song I sing still seems thin to me—a sweet-enough but untrained voice, unaccompanied for the most part, muttering a simple folk song that charms but fails to inspire.
What's lacking is extravagance. What's missing is a bigness of heart that seeks the other out, even the unlovely, even the unlovable, to lavish love on them. What's missing is a pouring out, an overflowing, a scattering far and wide.
This, after all, is the love the Father has shown me, and you. This is his song.
God began singing that song before the creation of all things. Jesus in his high-priestly prayer says, "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world." Before sea, sky, tree, bird, serpent, there was love: the eternal, infinite, pure love that flowed in and from Father to Son, Son to Spirit, and then back again, round and round, unhindered, unbroken, undiminished, wild and unbridled. The old theologians called this perichoresis, the self-giving dance of the Three-in-One God. God in himself is an entire community of radical love. God in himself is a city on a hill. And the pulse of that city, its lifeblood, is love.
What God does in creation is share the love. God creates, but not out of boredom or loneliness or the need to find his creative edge. God has all God needs in the company of the Godhead. God created because God is extravagant and, above all and in all, desired to share with that which he created the love he has been from all eternity.
But God's creation went awry (in case this is news to you). We wanted power more than love, and so rejected love. That's why within minutes of the fall of humanity, Adam and Eve are in a blistering row of accusation and avoidance, and why in the next generation brother turns on brother. We're in exile from the love we were invited to dwell in.
Jesus came to heal that. The pure, infinite, eternal love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not end with the fall. Our catastrophe in no way impaired or depleted God's love. As then, so now: his love continues unabated. But a way needed to be reopened for us to participate in that love. And a deep ongoing healing needs to happen for any of us to truly dwell in it.
That's what Jesus is up to. Just listen to some of the things he says.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.
May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.
It's no wonder the apostle Paul, who was overtaken by this love when he was still an enemy of God, never recovered from his amazement that this love sought him or his thanksgiving that this love won him. No wonder he prays that God "out of his glorious riches ... may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
If we get this — how deeply, completely, unreservedly we are loved—we get it all: "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God," as Paul puts it. That's a lot of God.
And so no wonder, then, that the apostle Paul writes 1 Corinthians 13, the justly famous Love Chapter. It is read at most weddings, with scarcely a hunch about what it means. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels," it begins, "but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." If I am Seneca or Gabriel, if I am Isaiah or Daniel, if I am John the Baptist, Mother Teresa, Hugh Latimer, Billy Graham, Toby Mac, but something besides love moves me, it doesn't matter. I give nothing. I receive nothing. I am nothing.
This love is no mild, tepid thing. It is no flight of fancy, no frisson of giddiness, no mere ruffle of sensation. This love is neither nice nor prissy nor fragile nor coy. This love is fierce and wild and dangerous and unbreakable. It is sublime and subversive. It is indefatigable and undefeatable. It is nothing less than the love God has for you, to bind you and to loose you, to take you captive and then set you free.
This love is extravagant.
How extravagant? "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" When this love really takes deep and lasting hold, we find we are free to love not just the lovely but the unlovely. We find at work in us a love that compels us to love the most of these (those who are more than we are), the least of these (those who are less than we are), and the worst of these (those who are against who we are).
Love for the most of these, the winners: with this kind of love, Saul could have loved David, and Cain Abel. Love for the least of these, the losers: with this kind of love, wealthy Dives could have loved beggarly Lazarus, and the priest the leper. Love for the worst of these, our enemies: with this kind of love, Paul loved the Philippian jailer, and Stephen his accusers.
This love is the revolution Jesus loosed on the earth. This love is the fire he kindled. This love is the song he came singing. He loved wary, cowardly Nicodemus with such love. He loved fiery, reckless Simon the Zealot with it, and loved runty, conniving Zacchaeus as well. He loved his mother, and Mary Magdalene, and demon-afflicted Legion, and the rich young ruler who spurned his invitation, and Peter who denied his name, and Judas who betrayed him unto death, and the priests who condemned him, and the thieves who mocked him, and the soldiers who nailed him to a tree—he loved all with such love.
Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
The Lord has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
"Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing."
God sings over you with rejoicing, and then calls you to sing aloud with the same joy. "Sing lustily," Wesley sometimes wrote over certain of his hymns when he wanted them sung robustly, nothing held back. That's God's cue. "That song I sing over you," he says. "You know, my love song for you? It's my favorite song. We three Kings, the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, have been belting it out for eons now. Never gets tired. Every refrain better than the one before. That's the song I want you to sing too. And sing it loud, like you mean it."
"That the world may know."
* * *
I already told you that I sing this song poorly, not lustily.
But I'm getting better. I see, almost every day, promising signs that this love, in all its wild extravagance, is taking hold of me more and more and is flowing through me less hindered, less dammed, less diverted, less diluted, flowing through me to the most of these, the least of these, the worst of these. To all of these. Sometimes a hopeful sign that this is so appears one moment and is squelched the next. But the distance between such squelchings is getting longer, and the duration of them shorter, and so I know God is loosing and binding in me what he wants me loosing and binding on earth.
Excerpted from Your Church Is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan Copyright © 2012 by Mark Buchanan . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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