There's this moment in The Lion King when the mysterious Rafiki interrupts the comfortable, care-free life of the grown-up Simba to remind Simba who he is - you're Mufasa's boy, Rafiki says, the child of the true King. Simba had forgotten his identity; he'd fallen for a lie, abandoned his family in his guilt, and run away, and now the world suffered because of it. For everyone's sake, he needed to remember.
Forgetting who we are has consequences. For us. For others.
"The good news: We Christians are actually pretty dang good at loving our neighbors as ourselves! It’s true! The bad news: We hate ourselves! We’ve bought the enemy’s lie that we cannot be trusted. That we have a wretched heart. Therefore we love our neighbor about as much as we can muster the strength to love our sorry selves." [The New Bart]
I just read this a couple days ago, and it makes me wonder if our culture's narcissism is a mask that we pull over our faces to hide the self-loathing and the anger and bitterness we sometimes hold towards ourselves, towards life, the universe, and everything. It's as if we still think we are still sinners in the hands of an angry God who takes out his wrath upon us with justified intensity. No, I don't think we like ourselves at all - we know we can be hypercritical and hypocritical, and we don't really believe God when he says that he's forgiven us.
There's a debate we have on a regular basis in the ECC worship forum: what to do with the song "In Christ Alone." It's a hugely popular song, with a catchy melody and great lyrics ... with one problem: "Till on that Cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied"
Everything before and after those words ring true, but they sit there in the middle, a theological boulder in an otherwise smooth highway. The Evangelical Covenant Church was born following a debate over God's wrath; a theologian named P.P. Waldenström (hereafter referred to as "PDubs") compared one of the current theories of the atonement called "Penal Substitution" (PSA) to divine child abuse; even if Jesus volunteered for this, according to the theory, the Father still poured out His wrath on His Son. So PDubs asked, "where is that written?" and said that didn't describe the God he followed, a God who came not to assuage his anger, but came in love to reconcile with us, to redeem and restore us to the dignity with which He created us.
PSA basically works itself out like this: God had a good plan for you, but you, you horrible sinner, you screwed up. You did lots of bad things, and God would smite you, heathen, because the rules he put in place demand that anyone who screws up pays the price. Except that his son volunteered to take your punishment. So it was YOU who put Jesus on the cross and made God kill his only son. And, now that Jesus died in your place, God's wrath is burned out. Except that you're still just a sinner and every time you sin, you're proving again the necessity of God torturing and murdering His Son in a cosmic vendetta. But good thing Jesus pulled off that resurrection, or else ...
GUILT. GUILT. GUILT.
I hyperbolize (or maybe it's not so exaggerated) because this little narrative has wormed its way into the backs of our collective western mind and plays itself out over and over and over again. Despite the gospel of forgiveness and grace and mercy and freedom we preach, we are still insecure, still bound, still gagged, still unconvinced of our own message. Yes, it is true, humanity has sinned and fallen short of God's intentions for us. Yes, we chose that path. Yes, the consequence of sin is death. And yes, we need to be reconciled with God. ... But no, God did not take it out on Jesus as payment; that payment didn't go to the Father, it went to sin itself, a ransom, in the same way a gambler's debt could be paid by someone else. And no, no, a thousand times no, that is not the end of the story; the Cross gave way to Resurrection. To pay death with the life of Innocence is to destroy death entirely, what C.S. Lewis called "the Deep Magic" - death could not contain the Author of Life. When Jesus said it was finished, he meant it; our poor choice could no longer hold us back from the reconciliation we so badly need.
And yet, we often place ourselves back in the chains of the slave, even though we've been freed, by relabeling ourselves with a word we should have left behind:
And so we abuse each other.
In her book Undaunted, Christine Caine writes,
"You can allow the names you call yourself to define you. You can let the labels that others give you define you. ... and those labels can stick, can hurt, can damage you because you start to believe them. ... Even when those names reveal something true about you, they are at best a partial truth - as well as a misleading one. If you allow those labels to loom larger in your heart and mind than the promises of God, they can fool you into missing God's truth about who you are ..."
Words have so much power. The words we say, the words we hold inside, and the words we sing all hold enormous sway over our lives and, as we live by those labels, the lives of others. The words you choose can do one of two things: they can maim, or they can breathe life into those you shepherd. If your songs say that God calls you a sinner, that he's still nailed to a cross and you put him there, you'll behave like a sinner. But if your songs say that the cross is empty, that God is alive and working, that He calls you family, you'll start to behave like family.
If you remember who you are, it will change everything.
You are a child of the King.
You are loved.
You are family.
So when you preach, don't make it up as you go, be intentional; speak like it. When you plan a worship set, don't just string a few songs together, write sets that say something true; sing like it. When you prepare liturgy, don't wing it, make every word count; respond like it. Treat words with respect, and use fewer of them so they hold more weight because words are too important to waste; write like it. And in those words, remember the sacrifice, but even more, remember that God thinks you are worth that sacrifice; remember the victory!