The Challenge of Brokenness (c)

Stories which circulate on the internet are dangerous citations.  Attribution is at best sketchy.  Internet tales can take on an exaggerated life of their own.  Any yet, I will venture where angels fear to trod by sharing a story passed on to by Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza (my good friend, esteemed colleague, and Assistant to the Bishop for the Rio Texas Conference).  It is written in the first person but just who that individual is, is not cited. “As a bagpiper, I play many gigs. Recently I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper's cemetery in the Kentucky back country. As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn't stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late. I went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place. I didn't know what else to do, so I started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played like I've never played before for this homeless man. And as I played 'Amazing Grace,' the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together. When I finished I packed up my bagpipes and started for my car. Though my head hung low, my heart was full. As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, ‘I never seen nothin' like that before and I've been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.’” (email story received from Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza;; Thursday, March 31, 2011) There is much to both laugh at and admire in that story.  The heartfelt offering for a homeless man embraces the best of the gospel witness.  The still compassion of those gathered around listening touches the heart.  The commitment to give your best in the playing of the bagpipes regardless of the context reminds us to offer our best no matter what the situation.  The salute to septic tank painfully challenges us to reflect on the degree to which the Christian movement is playing over the compacted refuse of a broken society and a broken church. If, as has been my contention, the heart of our challenge as a church today lies in the combination of an emaciated theology with a stunted understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then, we too have been playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  We have exalted the human potential movement beyond any true merit.  We have limited human responsibility beyond reason.  We have too often advocated a “salvation plus” heresy. By “salvation plus” I mean the notion that salvation comes through Christ plus anything else we might earnestly assert.  For example, often for those on the theological and political right the subtle “salvation plus” comes from an individualistic human freedom (the right to bear arms as an example) plus a dollop of Jesus.  Conversely for many on the religious and political left “salvation plus” comes packaged as exalted faith in government intervention plus a peppering of Jesus ethic with a dash of God. The thoughtful and fair reader will point out that both of the aforementioned positions are caricatures.  Such an assertion is accurate.  Yet caricature and all, a core of truth remains.  We are always tempted by the notion that somehow we can correct what God didn’t quite get right.  Subtly the argument is made that we need to improve God’s working by adding a little bit of our own genius. Yet always the gospel story returns to Christ alone.  Rome will not save us either in the first century or the twenty-first century version.  The heroic human individual is lamentably flawed in both the first century edition and the twenty-first century addition.  There lies deep within us and our larger society and culture a brokenness that challenges our deepest human longing, our highest human aspirations and our noblest efforts at virtuous living. Devoid of a divine dimension, we are playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  The music may be beautiful but in the final analysis we are worshipping the wrong thing. At the heart of the challenge of brokenness lies the recovery of a doctrine of original sin. Stop you reading for a moment and engage in a quick spiritual examination.  When is the last time you heard a sermon on original sin?  When have you last heard a sermon on sin that made you squirm?  How frequent and how real is your own sense of confession?  How often do you consider sin to be something that applies mostly to others (and only in a mild sense touches upon your own person, group, nation, ideology, and culture? As I write this I have been teaching a class comparing John Calvin and John Wesley.  We have spent our time examining their differences (using Don Thorsen’s book Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice).  Yet even as we focus on their differences, we must start with their great agreements.  Facing the brokenness of their time, both started with a deep understanding of human sinfulness (including their own!).  For Calvin, there was abiding sense of total depravity; a sinfulness at our core.  For Wesley, the emphasis was on human sin as a corruption of our creation, a sickness unto death.  I can still hear the great Methodist theologian Albert Cook Outler speaking in class and reaching out through print.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for humanum (what He intended human existence to be)?”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24) Perhaps it is past time that we reclaim the doctrine of original sin both for ourselves and for the church, the tattered bride of Christ, which we love.