Things We Cannot Say

There are things we cannot say. This is a fundamental truth about life. It is […]

Connor Gwin / 3.20.19

There are things we cannot say. This is a fundamental truth about life. It is not a lesson we learn explicitly, but early in our childhoods we learn that some things are not to be spoken. Social pressure or the desire for social status cause us to keep our mouths shut. We learn that we don’t talk about what happened to that one uncle. We insinuate that we are not supposed to ask Karen about that haircut. We figure out that it is best not to ask who’s idea this was.

I have learned in my short time as a priest in the Episcopal Church that there are things we cannot say in the church. For many reasons, some implicit and some explicit, we generally agree that there are things we do not talk about and claims we do not make.

First, many churches have nothing to say to hurting people.

It is almost trite to say that people are hurting. We all know it intellectually. The truth is much more startling. A majority of people are in an incredible amount of pain (emotional, spiritual, physical). No one has it all together. In fact, most people are on the verge of falling apart. People are always in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or heading into a crisis. This is one of the only things in life that we can guarantee to be true.

Jesus met people at the point of their hurt. In the Gospels, Jesus often named their pain or asked them to name it in the process of healing (“What do you want me to do for you?”). Jesus reached out and touched people at their most fragile point and proclaimed God’s presence with them there.

When people come to church they are looking for something or Someone to help them with their pain. They are looking for Good News and relief. Often, however, they hear a message of works righteousness. “Do more for Jesus.” “Try harder and reap the rewards.” “Care more about [x] issue.”

A growing number of people in our churches are “dones”: those who were committed to the church but have been burned out by the nonstop demands. Jesus did not offer a new system to achieve anything, especially burn-out. Jesus came and offered rest. A choking person does not need a lesson in the Heimlich maneuver, they need help. A hurting person does not need another treatise on self-improvement, they need the news that the work has already been done.

Why aren’t people coming to our churches? Perhaps they are not hearing anything that sounds like Good News. If the only thing I get from church is more stuff to do, I might as well go to the gym on Sunday morning. If the only thing I get from church is the assurance that I have been forgiven, sign me up!

The shrinking mainline denominations often hold our noses up at megachurches that are growing. We chalk it up to smoke machines and production value. What doesn’t get talked about enough is the fact that most preachers at booming megachurches are talking about real life and real pain. People may disagree with their theology, but they are clearly saying things that people want and need to hear.

Unfortunately, even these massively popular preachers that speak to the real pain of real people often stop just short of saying the full truth of the Gospel: Grace is real, unlimited, and completely unconditional.

This is thing that will get glares at most Christian gatherings as people shift in their seats. Everyone says that they believe in grace. You would have to be a monster to reject the idea, at least in theory. The problems arise when life gets messy; when the rubber hits the road. When people do what people do (sin and hurt people and make terrible decisions) many Christians join in the crowd shouting judgment and condemnation. Oftentimes Christians are the first to call for a blood sacrifice when a wrong has been done. Those who preach beautifully about God’s grace are often quick to draw the line between in and out, loved and rejected, absolved and punished.

If we believe in grace, we have to believe it all the way down.

There is no boundary on God’s love. There is no length to which God’s grace will not go. God’s grace will meet us in the deepest depths of the hells that we create for ourselves. There is no one outside of the lines of God’s grace. No one is exempt and nothing is off limits.

This is hard to accept for ourselves and especially for those we dislike. We cannot say this in our modern call-out culture. When forces seek to destroy people over missteps and misdeeds from their history, it is revolutionary to say that God’s love extends right past the worst thing a person has ever done. Should we name bad deeds and wrongs? Sure! Should we then use those slights and sins to banish people to the outer darkness? Probably not. We are flawed and sinful human beings. Ours is not the condemnation (or salvation) business. That work belongs to God and through Christ that work is finished.

The Good News is not that God so loved the righteous or the good or the ones who stayed within the lines. The Good News is that God so loved the world that all who believe in him would have everlasting life. We so want God to be like us, but the Gospel is that God is not like us at all.

There is freedom in this message, but freedom can be scary to those who have only known the chains of sin. We know our own inner darkness and we are afraid of it in our own lives and those of others. We cannot say that grace is unconditional and unlimited because we are afraid that people will do whatever they want. The truth is that people do whatever they want anyway and God’s grace meets them there too.

This is where Christianity takes a sharp right turn from other religions. The Gospel of God’s grace is radical in the truest sense of the word. It overturns the whole apple cart of religion that we know and love. It shakes the foundations of the earth. It rips the veil in two. It sets mother against child and brother against sister. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. It is foolishness. It is freedom.

We cannot say it because we are afraid that it is too good to be true. Those of us who are called to preach this message come, like Paul, “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3)  to say the thing that we cannot say, the revolutionary words that are the only source of true comfort and Good News:

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28)

God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)

If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)