Thankful for this post from Matt Metevelis:

I lead with my head. I am always more comfortable with things when I can analyze and argue about or with them. My wife is very leery of asking me questions that involve more than a simple answer. I’ve been interrupted and asked for the “Reader’s Digest Version” more than once in my life. Despite my size, I’m no kind of athlete, and in high school I always enjoyed debating, speaking, and writing. I haven’t stopped. Sometimes I still take the opposite side of an argument just to see where it goes. I am an unrepentant philosophy major, and my seminary classes on theology still echo loudly in my preaching and conversations.

This leads many of my colleagues to think that when I make stands about things I’m just policing ideas, as if genuflecting to Luther’s tomb were my real goal. But when I pray and dig deep down, there’s something else at work. When I see the church place secondary concerns above preaching the gospel, my heart breaks. Preaching the gospel has come to matter to me less as an idea and more as an urgent need for myself and my neighbors. The fights I pick wear theological masks but are deep pastoral concerns. I might talk theology, but I’m always thinking of people.

The first person I think of will always be my dad. My dad got a cancer diagnosis in his late 40’s. Prime of his life, two kids looking at college, and there he was trying to get the truth about his diagnosis from doctors. It just broke him. He and my mom fought the disease hard. But it still broke him. He cried in front of me on Christmas Eve saying how sad he was about dying — which freaked me out to the point of being emotionally frozen. Alongside my Mom’s devoted care, the only thing that held him up was his faith. We were lucky to have transferred to a congregation that was self-consciously Lutheran (in a good way). The pastors preached the cross. Doubts and fears were lifted up to God rather than blown through with acts of self-will and verbal affirmation. Our pastors helped my dad, who had worked himself to the bone all his life, to place himself in the hands of a savior as he died. The gospel’s deep well of grace led him through to the end. I stepped up to ministry because I too found that well and wanted to share it with others.

The second group of people I think about are the patients I serve as a hospice chaplain. Fun fact about end of life for 21st-century North Americans: They don’t fear death at all, but they are terrified of dying. Most people have some generic idea of the afterlife and a sense that they’ve at least tried to be good enough to get there. But do you know what ledges people scream from? “Why can’t I go get the paper?” “Why can’t I get coffee?” “Why can’t I walk to get the remote?” “Why can’t I remember anything in this episode of The Walking Dead I’ve tried to watch four times?” In our culture you can take someone’s body and they’ll deal. They’ll write books. They’ll run half-marathons on a prosthetic leg. They’ll relish in the wisdom they are allowed to impart to people about trying and grit. But take away their agency, or their minds, or the little things that give them a sense of who they are, and they are utterly lost. So many people call me to their bedsides to ask me when God will finally let them die. Suicide among the terminally ill is real.

I mourn for a church that can’t say anything more about their value than counting up for them the causes they’ve participated in and the photo-ops they’ve smiled for, rake in hand. And trust me, if all we have are some rehearsed words about resurrection and hope, they will not listen. Just ask my extensive resume of chaplaincy failures.

The third group of people are more germane to our congregation. We are blessed to have people with no homes, marginal living situations, criminal records, and mental illnesses all come to worship with us. Urban clergy and congregations can relate. It’s hard, but we try to share as generously as we can with as many as we can. But every time I hear or give a sermon rehashing something from the Atlantic or talking about some problem that is globally severe but not adjacent to their struggles, I grieve for them. If God could give one sentence to them through a sermon that would give them strength and encouragement in their plight, why should I withhold that from them? Why deny them grace and add more stress and law to their plate? Even worse, why would I speak about only them as objects when in the grace of a word and a meal in the worship space all of us are turned into objects?

That little triumph of the kingdom, when divisions slip away and we all become little sheep before the throne opening our craws like beggars for a morsel of bread and a drop of wine, is precious. I’m humbled to see it from the front. Why simply remember the poor when you are lucky enough to enter into that kind of community with them? My four-year-old and I met a congregation member walking into Target. Everyone around us was conspicuously walking away to avoid her. We both walked right up and said hello. She called my son by his name.

I get it. American church life is hard. We constantly have to take what is sacred and offer it up to the altars of the false idols of “relevance” and “success.” I read church history and get jealous of Christians that get to wear the relevance of the cross on their bodies and share the most boring Bible stories in underground worship like a forbidden and enticing treat. I know that local and denominational offices have unique challenges both internally and externally to couch the benefits of church life in ways that encourage a society in a secular spiral to return to it again. This is impossible work on top of the pitfalls of managing religious institutions and anxiety. I too want the church to be noticed. But maybe we’re not supposed to be noticed.

Maybe all we really have is the gospel. The pure Gospel 1.0. The one where the cross is not behind us like a bad party we went to in college or a stinky bus station we’re thankful to have survived. People need a gospel where Christ isn’t another cheerleader, another pundit, another good idea that the stupid people in the world need to get out of the way of. People need a gospel that restores them, not a demand that gives them stuff to do, but more sweetly. Social ministry, political activism, and outreach programs will always have their place. But they are glorious celestial bodies orbiting the star of gospel proclamation.

Now I’m getting all theological and wordy again. Let me bring it back down to earth. The world will click right past a church commercial, but people can’t ignore the One who waits there when they face their pain. The church already has what the world laughs at but desperately needs — forgiveness, belonging, unearned love, and a God who works when other hands have given up.