We come now to the end of another year.
I’ll leave 2015 with a meditation from Frederick Buechner, one of the better writers on matters of religion.
I sometimes use his book Listening to Your Life in my devotions.
Back in October, I read an entry there called “Extraordinary Things” that I dog-eared and have returned to several times.
In it, Buechner sums up, better than I could, my own reasons for continuing to attempt, however imperfectly, to follow the Christian faith after these many years of stumbling and bumbling in the muddy trenches.
The Christian gospel — at least in the manner I and apparently Buechner interpret it — appears to be part tragedy, part comedy and part fairy tale. It’s pessimistic about human nature and optimistic about God’s nature. It’s a perfect, profound paradox.
“The gospel is bad news before it is good news,” Buechner explains. “It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy.”
And he’s right. As I’ve said often, here and from the pulpit, I’ve never been one of those “I’m OK-you’re OK” brand of Christians. If life has convinced me of anything, it’s that I’m a train wreck, and you’re likely worse. Neither of us is OK. We’ve got issues. Lots of issues.
But there’s hope for us despite all that.
For the Christian message is also that we’re “loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for,” Buechner continues. “That is the comedy.”
The gospel is a story without an end. Ever.
Even so, many of us reject God’s love and forgiveness and continue to act like idiots. Or maybe we don’t reject his love and forgiveness outright; maybe we simply don’t care at all about that; maybe we find those gifts meaningless.
Yet the gospel doesn’t end even with our rejection or our apathy, Buechner says. The Lord intervenes despite us.
“The news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to (us) just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. Henry Ward Beecher cheats on his wife, his God, himself, but manages to keep on bringing the Gospel to life for people anyway, maybe even for himself. …
Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint.”
By the way, I’m talking about the Christian message because it’s the message I know best. I’ve visited with Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, and respect them, and intend no slight toward their beliefs. But I’m not qualified, really, to tell you how their faiths view such matters. You and they would be better served if you asked them.
Buechner, I can say with confidence, is right about the Christian view, though.
I’ve got a friend who’s in the penitentiary. We used to worship in the same church. There’s no question he believes in God, and no question he’s got a tender heart.
He’s also battled addiction since he was a teenager. That problem led to other problems, and now he’s in prison, even though he’s a Christian.
It’s a tragedy. But it’s not the end of the story. The gospel is a story without an end. Ever.
My friend and I correspond. He’s remorseful about his crimes, and lonely behind bars. He’s lost nearly everything. It’s all very sad.
Yet somehow he’s animated with hope, even in that hopeless place.
He’s attending church services in jail. He’s writing new songs about lessons the Spirit is teaching him. He once again feels the Lord’s hand on his head and the Lord’s words on his tongue.
To me, that’s the Good News in all its complex beauty.
Here’s a guy who battled drug and alcohol problems for a long time, who one day had an intersection with God and for awhile found deliverance and peace.
Then the old demons returned, and he fell back through a familiar black hole. Fell so far down he woke up in a penitentiary.
Only to find the Lord lived there, too. Only to discover that — as I once heard a preacher say — Jesus had volunteered to come into his cell and serve every day of his sentence with him.
Eventually my friend will come out of there a better man, a chastened man, a more mature man.
Maybe then he’ll backslide again, I don’t know. Or maybe he won’t, I pray.
Either way, the Lord will be right there with him all the while, prodding and hugging and forgiving and grinning proudly, until one day, finally, in this world or the next, the train wrecks will cease for good, and there will be nothing left of my buddy but sheer glory and a new forever future.
That’s all of our stories, yours and mine.
Yep, the gospel is a tragedy, and it’s a comedy, and it’s a child’s fairy tale, all at the same time.
Keep this news close to your heart in the year to come.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.