My father, a man who spent much of his life in Connecticut, asked me a question. It was the same question that thousands, if not millions have asked in the last few days. As his voiced trembled and halted, I knew the question before it rang in my ears.
“Where was God?”
In time of tragedy there is not a single question that can be asked that has such a simple answer, yet is so difficult to accept. Many throughout history have asked this question during their own versions of Newtown, Connecticut. Even the heroes of the Bible were forced to ask the same question. Moses, during a period of slavery and murder, when countless children were murdered simply because a society was threatened by their race, asked God that very question. For the first time in recorded history God gave the answer.
Where God are you?
God was not absent during Israel’s troubles, nor was he absent in Connecticut last week. God was not pushed out of the building, helpless to intervene while one of his creations stalked the halls and mercilessly gunned-downed. God was not stopped because a tremendous evil had appeared from nowhere, an evil never before seen. God was not barred from the building because of legal decisions of the nation. God did not restrain himself from stopping the tragedy because he was mad at us as a town, nation, or planet. God wasn’t absent anymore than the sun or moon were. God was then as God is now and as he shall forever be. God is.
God was there when each child and adult breathed their last breath. God saw the glimmer of life leave their eyes. God saw the anger and pain in the shooter’s eyes each time he pulled the trigger. God saw it all, God felt it all. God experienced the tragedy deeper than myself or my father, more than the survivors and the victims. He stood next to the parents as they mourned their offspring, just as he has done billions of times before. God remembers crafting each of the children in his own hands, giving them the gifts and potential for greatness, knowing full well when their moment of passing would be. God felt the pain that set his child on a course for murder. God listened to the metallic click of each brass cartridge being loaded into the magazines that would soon be emptied in a torrent of fury.
God was there then as he is still now. Mourning with those who mourn, bringing peace to those who are ready, and wiping the tears from the faces of his children come home.
Neither this tragedy, nor any of the countless that came before, have ever driven God away. When his first children chose a course that would one day lead to dozens of kids being murdered in their New England classroom, he let them go. He knew they could do better, but he knew they would not. He chose to let them go anyway. He loved them, he loved them enough to let them live their lives.
For generations his children chose when their lives would end, as if they never even considered that what they had was a gift in the first place. Yet he let them live. Only once did God ever turn his face, only once did choose not to be there. Up on the cross when his own child, his own blood, was dying. Then and only then did he leave, knowing that to do so was the only way to let every child to come experience life everlasting.
God wasn’t gone from Connecticut. God is in Connecticut. God Is.
When I was in my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, I was heavily involved with the dominant campus ministry, our chapter of Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship. I went on the annual urban ministry trip over spring break, that year it was in some of the worst parts of San Francisco. While I was there I saw my share of criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people. The one person that stands out in my mind the most though, was the woman in the yellow dress.
We spent the week sleeping on the floor of a Mission District church, and in the middle of the week we were afforded the luxury of a shower. As the church itself had no facilities we sojourned down the street to the local YMCA. The building was on one of the most statistically crime-ridden blocks of the city and to be honest, was a bit scary itself. As we entered the building and our group leader paid our admission to use their shower, I kept wondering if this was the YMCA that inspired the song. Being shy, I kept my query to myself.
The males and females of the group were separated and led to different floors, each with its respective gender’s shower room. The men followed the signs that eventually led us to a large locker room area. In the back of the room we could hear the distinct echo of a shower. To my chagrin, the shower area was not what I hoped, a row or two of individual showers with privacy doors, like I had used when on a mission trip to Mexico some years prior. The shower area was one large tiled in room with shower heads protruding from the walls at standard intervals. It was like what you might see in a prison movie, or in a school much older than any of those I attended. I had never been naked with other men before, and my anxiety began to rise.
I disrobed with the half dozen other men in group; I say men in a legal sense, the eldest was 22 and the rest of us were 18. We placed our clothes in lockers near the shower and coyly entered the room. Already there were about a dozen other men, all totally nude and several eagerly looking us over. One such man stood in the corner and stared at me the entire time, He was tall with neat brown hair and a handlebar mustache. He kind of looked like the biker from the Village People, so I therefore assume this was the YMCA they sang about. I cleaned myself as quickly as I could and nearly ran back to my waiting towel. As I dried myself off, I felt scared and vulnerable. I tried my hardest to expedite the process as much as possible.
While still in a state of total undress my worst fear was realized, another fully nude man walked directly up to me and reached out toward me. I was startled and paralyzed with fear but before I could react his extended arm moved past me to the locker directly next to the one I had chosen minutes earlier. The man, a slighter framed middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a tamed mustache that reminded me of the one my dad sported, stuck out his free hand and offered it to me.
“Hi, neighbor,” he said as if we had run into each other in a shared front lawn as we both returned from work.
“Hi,” I timidly responded.
He was very chatty and friendly, and he made small talk as we both toweled ourselves off. He asked me why I was in San Fransisco, and upon learning my purpose began to ask me all kinds of questions about the ministry I was there with. Again, perfectly normal conversation between two naked strangers.
Being in such proximity, I will admit that caught a glimpse of his “private area.” The first passing glance alerted me to something out of the ordinary and I tried as nonchalantly as possible to look a second time for further investigation. My first glimpse was not mistaken, there was a clear oddity about this man. He did have a penis. What he had was a gaping hole where it should have been, directly above very normal testicles. My mind began trying to figure out what I had just seen while I did my best to simultaneously keep up with the small talk. I naively came to the conclusion that he was just born with one so small, that in the cool air it had receded inside of him. Granted, this wasn’t a great theory, but it was the best I could formulate on such short notice.
Trying not to think about, I focused on drying and clothing myself as quickly as possible while entertaining his conversation. He matched my pace and as began to put on my underwear, so did he. But wait, that’s not underwear he had pulled from his locker. It looks like, yep, it is pantyhose. He gently pulled them up his legs and continued dressing. Next, he pulled a yellow sun dress from the locker and slipped it over himself like he had done it his whole life.
“Well, now I’m just damn confused”, I thought silently to myself. Just I was finishing pulling down my t shirt until it met the top of my jeans, he pulled out a blond wig. It was short, with pronounced bangs like the ones people would wear when dressing up as Hillary Clinton (when she was First Lady) for Halloween. He turned to the mirror and carefully straitened it, as if to make sure he was a presentable lady, albeit one with a bushy brown mustache. I stood there waiting for my friends to finish dressing so we could leave when he told me that he was a woman, and he had been all his life. He said that he had lived as man since his birth and even got married and raised a son, but he knew in his innermost core that he was a woman. Abandoned by his wife, he found solace in his local church just outside of this then home of San Jose. One night, after a night of heavy drinking, he told me, he summoned up the drunken courage to grab a pair of bolt cutters and cut off his penis.
I’m going to let that set in for a moment.
He told me that he then drove himself to the hospital so that doctors could stop the bleeding, but not before discarding of his penis (he did not say how) so that there was no chance of reattachment. After he recovered he went shopping and bought a new wardrobe fit for a queen. When he returned to his church a few weeks later, he told me that people starred at disbelief over his new appearance, which I assumed bared a resemblance to the person who stood before me. He said that he had prepared himself for the looks, and assured himself that they were still his friends, but they would need time to adjust to his big change. Unfortunately, his optimism was never realized, as a few days later he was visited in his home by the pastor and a few people he had called friends. Without seeking explanation, they informed him that he was an abomination and was no longer welcome at the church. After they left, he convinced himself that they couldn’t possibly speak for the whole church, and he would return the next Sunday. When he arrived the next during the next service, every head turned toward him, most of the people with scowls, some seething with visible anger. The pastor shouted at him from the stage his earlier declaration and several other voices rose up from the congregation telling him to leave.
He told me that his only response to the crowd was that he was a sinner before and a sinner now, and after all, weren’t we all? A voice rang out from the crowd, “You’re a pervert, get out!” He left and never went back.
The man in the yellow dress told me that he wished more than anything that he could go back to his church. But he knew that it would never be.
Not knowing what to say, I simply told him I was sorry for his pain. He looked down and I looked to see that my friends were preparing to leave, a walked away and never saw him again.
I thought about that encounter for the rest of my trip. While it’s doubtless that other people from my group saw the exchange, none ever asked me about and I did not volunteer a word but it was etched into my mind nonetheless. I don’t know what was going through his mind when he cut off an appendage. I don’t know what his thoughts were growing up and raising a family in the “normal” fashion. I did know that he was sincere in his self-understanding. In his mind he was a woman and always had been, he was just born with a penis for some unknown reason.
If I woke up tomorrow and to my surprise found a vagina where my penis had once been, I would still be a man. No matter what you tell me, you would not dissuade me from that fact. I was born a man and will always be one. I will always be attracted solely to women, as I have been my whole life. My self-identity doesn’t come from any physical attributes, but rather an indefinable knowledge that resides in the very depths of my soul. I would hope that my friends and family would understand.
I never saw her again, but she occasionally occupies my mind. I know that she knows she is a woman, and you could not convince her otherwise. Her physical being relented to her inner being one drunken night, and her life has been filled by pain ever since. No sane person would ever put themselves through so much pain unless they knew the stakes were that high. I am sad that a church of sinners could not accept a sinner in her greatest time of need. I am sad that they did not seek to understand but only judged. Her answer to the greatest question, “Who am I?” was not what they wanted, so she was cast away. In their minds, her humanity was apparently tied to her gender, and the abandoning of one meant the forfeiture of the other. I am not as wise as them. I cannot believe that I could know someone as much as I know myself, and even that is a knowledge I have yet to master. I am strong enough however to say, I don’t understand, but that’s okay.
This then is my prayer: that I meet her again one day, and that she is happy and joyful and loved by people as much as she is loved by God.
One day while I was in seminary, a sat on a bench and had lunch with a young Christian leader who had entered during the same semester as me. He ran a rather large parachurch ministry at a public university in our city and often spoke at various churches. I had been to his house and he to mine and we both knew each others wife. We were both sharing ministry stories when the subject of the homeless ministry I ran for several years came up. After recalling several anecdotes from my time there, my friend spoke something I was not expecting.
“I don’t give money to the homeless,” he said in a very assertive voice. “If they don’t earn it, they shouldn’t have it.”
“Well,” I responded, “I did it because God freely gave me a great gift when I did not deserve it and in return I just freely give to others what little I have. It’s just my way of modeling the gospel.”
“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You did something for your salvation, so did I. I don’t know what we did, but we did earn it a little.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I had never heard a Christian leader say out-rightly that we “earn” our salvation. The lunch hour was coming to a close and our conversation was finished. I don’t know if it stuck with him, but it stuck with me.
The greatest threat to Western Christianity is not encroaching secularism, not radical Islam, nor the “homosexual agenda.” The greatest threat to every Christian and Christian church in the world we live in is the neglect of grace. Since mankind first left the Garden of Eden, way back in Genesis 3, we have resolved to reject the grace of God in favor of what we believe could be accomplished through our own works.
When God created humans it was an act of grace. Our very existence cannot be credited to ourselves, any more than I should take credit over my mother for my physical birth. Yet for aeons we have deluded ourselves into thinking we can thrive autonomously. It should not be surprising that humans think this way, but what should be utterly shocking is that the Church grows ever more seduced by the idea that there is no need for God’s grace. Jesus spent his ministry fighting against the notion that the people of God were born naturally (see John 3, 7,9 etc.) and that by their works could they save themselves.
Jesus told the story about the labors in the field who verbally attacked the owner for paying the same generous wage to those who did little work as those who did much more. Jesus’ message was simply stated in the owner’s response to their criticism. “Is it not my money that I am free to with as I want? Why do you begrudge me for being generous to them even when you have received your reward?” Our human nature is so wrapped in our own merit that we cannot accept the fact that God gives his grace freely.
While most churchgoers in America will readily answer that grace is the reason they are saved when asked directly, probing deeper often unearths an underlying belief that they somehow earned God’s favor wither by their actions or their ingrained nature. Put another way, many seem to think, “I earned or it or my people did.”
We often speak of Christianity as not about what we have to do, but what Jesus did. Yet we hold to countless formulas for what one must do to be saved. Did you say the “sinner’s prayer?” Did you walk down the aisle? Do you go to church?Did you repent from swearing and drinking? Have you done enough to be saved? Many Christians I know will tell you the date they were “saved.” It was September 8th, 199… when I trusted, when I accepted, when I was baptized, when I made a decision, when I, I, I. Why is the nexus of our salvation based on a moment when we did something, instead of the moment that Jesus did something? When people ask me when I was saved, I tell them, “about 33AD.”
I don’t mean to be flippant about this, but this is a serious error in theology that has last repercussions on how we live our lives. It was this “Theology of Glory” as a former professor of mine so often labeled it, that led the Catholic Church in decline during the Medieval Ages and sparked the Reformation. Reformer Martin Luther began his separation from the Catholic Church because of the very notion that God alone is our salvation; we did nothing to earn it. Yet over the years, Christians, seeking to control others and to define the parameters of unique individuals’ walks with God have reverted little by little back to the same theology of works they supposedly grew out of.
Today this deep-rooted mindset affects all Christians who live by this myth of self-salvation. A person of this error sees non-Christians as bad, the poor as lazy, the different as wrong. They clothe themselves in their own self-righteousness, at the same time piously claiming that all glory belongs to God alone. In their hearts they believe that because of their actions, or because of where they came from, they are something special. Everyone else in the world who is not part of this select group is dammed because they failed to do something about it. This type of self glory does not leave room for the humility that comes only from knowing that you were saved by God because of God. Only when the self is removed from one’s understanding of salvation (and I mean salvation in the holistic sense) is there room to love others. Only when one knows that God is the source of salvation can one truly understand that they are connected to all those around them. There is not an “us” and “them.” There is only “we.” And we are saved by God alone. My prayer is not that you do anything today, but that God fills you with the presence of his grace.
Why would a Christian ever preach a sermon on this? Listen for the answer…
I was recently asked to provide a preaching sample to a church. I found this old sermon among my files. It was prepared for my professor Dr. Kent Hughes, a preaching legend and someone I believe to be one of the best expositors of God’s word alive today. The class was a short Jan term course of the exposition of the book of Philippians. I caught strep throat and highly medicated during the entire class (which was only a week long), but still managed to produce a sermon for him. I got an amazingly kind letter from him a few weeks later complimenting the work, which to this day gives me goosebumps. I am my toughest critic, but I do think I did a good job explaining a relatively tough text, a task which I believe I have been called to. It’s fairly short, there are no jokes, and I am indeed reading my manuscript, but I wish more preachers would just explain God’s Word and leave it at that. Comments welcome, but be kind or be better!
I just read an interesting article at The Wall Street Journal entitled, God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones. Based on several interviews, the author makes the observation that many music artists believe (at lest in part) their success is the result of divine intervention. Lady Gaga tells the reporter that she believes a “higher power” is watching out for her. Snoop Dogg also attributes his comeback as part of God’s plan.
We have all seen professional athletes point to the sky or kiss a golden cross hanging from their net. While these may not be my favorite displays of devotion, it does beg the question, did God really do that?
Well, yes. An aspect of God’s nature that we should remember and celebrate is what we call Common Grace. Common Grace is the idea that God blesses everyone in some way. Jesus told his followers, while encouraging them to love their enemies, that God sends rain on the just and the unjust. Rain was the most obvious sign of blessing from the heavens to agrarian people, and Jesus uses the powerful image of life-giving water as an image of grace.
Wikipedia’s article on Common Grace does a pretty good job summarizing the doctrine and contrasting it with Special Grace, or the grace of salvation. Here’s a good description of Common Grace as theologian Louis Berkhoff describes it.
“[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men,”
So does God have a favorite Gaga song? Maybe, maybe not. But if you do, you should not forget to thank God for it.