Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What is the good news, anyway?

Let me tell you something, tomato lady. Whatever you want the most, it's going to be the worst thing for you.
Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Well, that was apropos of nothing, but after writing a few hundred words here pretty much daily for a year, it feels strange not to write anything for a while.

I especially feel the urge to communicate when the lovely Carol is gone. (You couldn't tell I was an introvert, could you? - except that extroverts tend to talk rather than write.) Last night Sheri handed me The Bean Trees and urged me to read it, "Okay, Daddy?" I told her I would. Here's another bit from the book.
“Stop it, would you? Quit making everybody out to be better than you are. I'm just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps telling me is dumb as a box of rocks. I've got nothing on you, girl. I mean it.”
This is just when Taylor (originally, umm, Missy?) is just meeting Lou Ann. Here I've really got to suspend my disbelief, because that prose is so beautiful -- I mean, how could that come out of somebody's mouth unpremeditated?

Well, maybe it's not so ridiculous. There is kindness and compassion as well as some reproof in those four sentences; I guess that's what makes it so beautiful to me and impresses me so much.

What I really wanted to write about this morning was: the good news. Two rows in front of me on this train is a fellow who tries to engage people in conversation on meaningless topics -- like how one train usually waits for the other to arrive but today it isn't, or how doughnuts aren't as healthy as applesauce (he just told two people that same thing maybe a minute apart). Once in a while someone will talk with him but most people give him the minimal response that's not outright rude.

What is the good news? What would be good news if it were true? What would be good news to him? What would be good news to Taylor/Missy, to Lou Ann? Or to you and me?

When I was younger, I thought the good news was something like this:
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • You're off the track but you can get back on -- not by cleaning up your act, but by confessing your sins.
  • The result is that you can be sure of eternity with God in heaven.
Now I don't disbelieve that today, but I wouldn't summarize it like that. Jesus didn't either. Here's what he said at the beginning:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent (change your mind) and believe the good news!
Mark 1
The good news has something to do with the "kingdom of God," a concept mostly missing from my version.

When I think of what the Apostle Paul offers as elements of the good news, what comes to mind is some stuff from Acts 17 about how God signaled his renewed engagement with the human race through the resurrection of Jesus (a theme echoed in 1 Corinthians 15), and the stuff in Romans 3 about a new righteousness from God.

As McLaren said in Adventures in Missing the Point, the good news as taught by Jesus was much more about the here and now than about heaven. It really was not all about "pie in the sky bye and bye."

Here, I can prove it: Look at that verse from Mark 1 (Mark 1:15 if memory serves) -- The time is fulfilled -- when is that? It's now! Then: ...the kingdom of God is at hand. Some versions say the kingdom of God is near. That means it's here and soon, not up in the sky! Here and now.

So if that's where and when the Kingdom of God is, the next natural thing to ask is: what is it? And why is it good news?

Here's what I think. There are two kingdoms -- actually there are more, but anyway there are at least two. A kingdom is where people serve and respect the king. The people who heard Jesus knew those words -- they were familiar with kings. Herod was a king. Caesar was a king. Their history was full of kings, good and bad.

Today, particularly in the United States, literal human kings are barely on anybody's radar. What we have instead are taskmasters of one kind or another, goals that we chose some time in the past but have since mastered us.

In my case, the master I chose was the concept of being "correct." Perhaps you've heard the title, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior? The trouble with being "correct" -- with following a bunch of rules that a few people (or a lot of people) believe in -- is that we start thinking that being "correct" makes us good people. Or if not "good people" then I at least felt good about myself when I fancied myself "correcter than thou".

Being correct, in other words, became a substitute for being good (loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, compassionate, just, strong, loyal, understanding, clear-eyed, warm, etc.). This is Bad because if I feel good about myself by being "correct," then like the Pharisees and Saducees in Jesus's day, I ignore the other more important things.

The other problem with being "correct" is that nobody can do it. Some can do it better than others, sure, but nobody can actually execute it. Donald Miller mentions in Blue Like Jazz that he tried not to think ill of anyone for a week. Ha! I can tell you right now that it can't be done unless you're in a coma. Here's an even easier one that nobody can do: Refrain for 24 hours from complaining.

If I were in a coma for 23 hours then I might be able to do it, but I wouldn't count on that, either.

So "correctness" is a poor taskmaster.

A variant of correctness is... what would we call it -- reputation?

How many girls from "good Christian families" are bulldozed into getting an abortion because their parents could not stand the embarrassment, the shame, of an illegitimate grandchild? It's not just a few every year, and probably not just a few thousand every year.

What is the Good News to these girls, their parents, legalistic perfectionists (like the one I'm trying not to be), the guy on the train off the end of the "social awkwardness" scale, Lou Ann, Taylor/Missy,...?

I once heard an analogy that I have to explain before I give you my answer. Imagine that in the middle of the night, someone went to a K-Mart and a Neiman-Marcus and switched all the price tags, so that the absurdly priced luxury goods at Neiman-Marcus were priced to move! and the K-Mart goods were priced in hundreds and thousands of dollars.

That is what has happened in our world. The things that we esteem so highly, the ones that have high social or emotional price tags, are actually K-Mart items, and the things we think of as goofy are actually what's really important and valuable.

So having an "important" job -- whether important financially or in "impact" (saving lives or saving souls) or in fame and celebrity -- is actually not worth much, ultimately. What is worth a lot are things that cannot be bought or finagled -- for example being good (loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, compassionate, just, strong, loyal, understanding, clear-eyed, warm, etc.)

And being who you are, rather than someone you're not -- that's important.

All that is part of the good news, I think.

A friend of mine talked about being very interested in science, but his church sent him the message that to really Be Somebody, to faithfully serve the Lord, he should be a "full time Christian" or something like this. Be a pastor, a counselor, a missionary. That's what you had to do if you wanted to really serve and glorify God.

One key aspect of the good news for him was: You don't have to do that! The psalmist wrote that "The heavens declare the glory of God." How do they do that? By being what they are, rather than what they're not. The heavens don't have to go to seminary or learn Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean and all that; they glorify God just as they are. You and I can do that too!

Lou Ann doesn't have to ingratiate herself with everyone in order to be who she is. The awkward guy on the train doesn't have to feel inferior because he's always awkward. And if I forget stuff on the train or under a chair at my daughter's graduation, or say the wrong thing, or forget to lock the door -- none of those things will ruin me, make my life worthless, or send me to hell.

That's the good news -- or a big part of it, anyway. That human-made rules and ratings, the bogus price tags that somehow got stuck on everything -- those are not the final arbiters of value. But instead, the right price-tags, the glory of the Lord, His just reign on the earth -- all that stuff is near. The time is fulfilled.

Let us repent then, and believe the good news.

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