Late one morning in May of 1996, I stuck my head out of the window of James and Stephanie’s Manhattan apartment to get some not-so-fresh air while I drank my morning coffee. We were just getting up before noon after a long night of talking God and politics at an Irish pub called Peter McManus’ located somewhere around 20th Street. I looked down at the droves of people flooding the streets for the noon lunch break wondering whether it was possible for God to have a plan for each one of their lives as well as a concern for each one’s well-being.
Those questions may seem odd for one to ponder over morning coffee but they aren’t so strange for one who just weeks before had broken the chains of atheism that had bound him for so long. Just because I renounced atheism one day on the way out of a damp prison in Quito, Ecuador, did not mean I instantly became a Christian. That would not happen until years later when I recognized that a personal relationship with God was not only a possibility but an indispensable aspect of Christianity.
Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to share my faith with a lot of people. In fact, many people who read this column tell me to stop doing it. My awareness that it gets under their skin is the principal reason I continue. Christianity is not always comforting and those most annoyed with it are often the closest to conversion.
It should go without saying that I’m always pleased to hear when a reader turns to Christ. There’s no greater joy than hearing the good news that someone has accepted the Good News. By the same token, there is nothing more devastating than hearing of a reader turning away from Christianity. That happened to me recently when a fellow I once witnessed to said, “I still believe in God but I feel like he only intervenes in my life when he wants to (expletive) with me.”
The fellow who told me that also said he was not a “conservative Christian” like me but instead a “more liberal Christian.” He may or may not know that he’s on the verge of no longer being a Christian at all.
Perhaps the most accurate thing my reader has recently said about Christianity is that I am a conservative Christian. That conservatism is reflected in two things I believe to be absolutely certain about the life of a Christian:
1) I believe that - because we live in a world broken by sin and occupied by fundamentally flawed individuals - storms are inevitable. If all hell has not yet broken loose in your life it soon will. Chaos would not be so pervasive if people were as fundamentally good as the so-called liberal Christian deems them to be.
2) When all hell breaks loose in life, each individual is faced with the choice of moving toward the Cross or away from the Cross. Every person in every tumultuous situation chooses one or the other of these two options. A man has no one but himself to blame for the consequences of making the wrong decision – though the so-called liberal Christian probably dislikes my emphasis on free will.
When one responds to tragedy by moving towards the Cross it is impossible to believe that God only intervenes in men’s lives when he wants to (expletive) with them. The closer one moves to the Cross, the more one understands that God really is willing to intervene in the lives of men. One also understands that God does it because he loves all of his children and wants to have a real and permanent relationship with them.
That is why I am so irritated with self-proclaimed liberal Christians like John Shelby Spong. Those like Spong who either deny the importance of the resurrection or deny its occurrence altogether share a transparent political motivation. If you get too close to the Cross, you get too close to the reality of sin and its consequences. And then you alienate valuable political allies.
Some may believe that the liberal Christian’s willingness to cut out portions of the New Testament prohibiting sexual sin makes it easier for him to cut out portions dealing with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Maybe it is more accurate to say that the removal of the crucifixion and resurrection story makes it necessary to delete all of the commandments that make the liberal Christian feel uncomfortable.
Seldom has the so-called liberal Christian’s discomfort with the Cross been as evident as in the aftermath of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Reviews in magazines like The Nation showed unbelievable hysteria from the so-called Christian Left ending with a chorus of accusations of anti-Semitism directed towards Gibson and his movie.
But the so-called liberal Christian sees it differently. He is reminded of his sin when he sees the bloody torture of Jesus of Nazareth. So he asks why we don’t just focus on all of Jesus’ acts of kindness towards the poor.
And that is where my reader finds himself today. When he is not proclaiming that God only intervenes in his life occasionally to (expletive) with him he is out building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Jesus did posit as his Second Great Commandment that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. But, before we reach out to do good for our neighbors, the First Great Commandment says we must love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul. We can’t do that without moving towards the Cross of Christ when things are stormy in our lives.
It is only when we focus on the horror of Jesus’ death that we realize how much he loves us. And it is only when we believe the resurrection that we know Jesus stands outside of time and hears our cries above the thunder.