Portland, Ore., has a number of free newspapers, among them the Willamette Week, which advertises itself as “News With an Edge.” Edginess is a recurring theme: A recent issue of The Portland Mercury had Film, Music and Nudity as its three main section headings. A summer special STD edition of the same paper featured “Match Up Our Editors With Their STDs!” In a given week, the rest of its pages are filled with lighthearted-yet-biting anti-conservative cartoons, fake letters from and articles by bigoted white rednecks, random conspiracy theories, serious political articles, quality reviews of often-vulgar art and music shows, Savage Love columns and ads with pictures of women in high heels and leather (but not very much of it), some of them holding whips. Also, jokes at everyone’s expense, from Christians to Muslims to the writers themselves. To round it all off, the whole thing is liberally peppered with obscenity.
What, now, is a responsible Christian to do with all this? One option: Find as many copies every week as possible and burn them to take the filth out of circulation. Or, read these papers religiously, adopt their forms of speech and on all possible occasions make positive references to them. Never argue—if you disagree, they’ll label you a bigot and make you the star of their next satire.
Neither option seems particularly productive. To anyone who does not like the idea of a world overrun with promiscuous sex, prostitution and pornography, much of the material in these magazines is offensive to say the least. But on the other hand, this is what people are writing and reading, some of it really is funny, and almost all of it is in some way creative or clever. Just to say they’re all a bunch of sickos and be done with it seems like a cop-out at best. Particularly if we consider the crowd Jesus hung around with. He flat-out told a Pharisee that He had come to be a doctor to the sick, not the healthy. Who are we to claim He meant a healthier and less flagrant kind of sick than what these papers seem to pride themselves on?
Jesus went to be with those whose lives were ragged and raw, but never once did He soothe them or ingratiate Himself by downplaying evil. After dispelling the crowd that had wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not say, “Phew—got rid of those hypocrites. Run along now, it’s all good.” Instead, His words were, “Go now and sin no more.” Jesus did not mix up right and wrong so people wouldn’t feel bad about themselves.
Neither should we. But at the same time, we must not set ourselves up as the standard of goodness. That’s what made Jesus so angry with the Pharisees; time and time again He railed at them, and usually it was for some way they had set themselves up as absolute authorities on righteousness. We are not perfect. We are not even very close to perfect. And so we’re not the doctors; we are not the ones whose power can transform lives. We do not have the power to heal.
One of the most haunting scenes recorded in the gospels is Jesus’ heartbroken cry, “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often have I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” It is our inability to recognize our own sickness that is so terribly destructive. The cancer spreads in our blood even as we deny our need for a doctor. That’s the flipside of Jesus’ comment to the Pharisee: We are all the sick. We are all those ones He came for, whether we admit it or not.
As Christians, the great miracle we believe in is that when we are touched by the Healer, the life that flows into us is contagious. Our hands become the hands of God, and even as we are healed, that healing flows through us into the lives of others. Our brokenness does not vanish immediately. The remnants of disease may haunt us all our time on earth. And yet this is the wonder we are faced with: As we begin to let ourselves be healed anew each day, we become agents of a life that’s stronger than disease.
What does it mean to be an agent of such life to say, the Portland Mercury crowd? For one thing, it means being for something more than we are against something. We want freedom, we want joy. We want truth and a world that’s safe for children. We want jokes that are worth laughing at. When you are on the side of life, that means you are against death and disease. But you’re against them for a reason other than self-righteousness; you’re against death because it stifles love and freedom. You’re against pornography because it is the sale of a killing lie, a lie that leaves neither the buyers nor the sold unscathed. You aren’t for pornography because you are for something bigger. Being on the side of some things means fighting other things.
But it is not the sellers or the buyers or the sold whom we are fighting—it is the lie. When we fight the lie on a political level, that is not wrong. It is important and good to work for life-affirming laws in our country. However, as Paul argued vehemently, laws do not transform lives (Romans 4-8). Love does. And political campaigns are notoriously bad at communicating real love. You have to go be with people if you want to learn to love them. And there is no formula for being with people. There is no way of guaranteeing success.
There is, however, a way of guaranteeing failure. Staying away from everyone with whom you don’t agree about everything—that’s a guarantee for failure. Total safety, risking no rejection, is a guarantee for failure. Pretending your life is only sunshine and praise songs keeps you from ever truly connecting with anyone, because you are not being real. So don’t be afraid: Be honest about the cracks in your heart, the days when you don’t even remember how to dream about real joy. Living honestly through your doubts will give your faith real roots, especially if you are willing, as Philip Yancey puts it in What’s So Amazing About Grace, to question your doubts as much as you question your faith.
This is true inside the church, and it is no less true outside the church. It does not always seem safe to share your down days with skeptics, particularly vocal ones who write biting anti-Christian parodies. It feels like giving them a stronger argument against belief. But remember, the good news you have to share is not that you are so good at believing. Your good news is about a God who can help us even through our unbelief, if we are willing. Sharing some of the failures along with the victories will end up making your testimony of faith more powerful than you might dare to dream.[Stephanie Gehring is a 22-year-old self-employed portrait artist, high school math tutor and freelance writer. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Germany and lives in Portland, Ore.]
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