Pastor’s Friday Comments (01.18.19)

Over a century ago an Episcopal clergyman and author named Phillips Brooks delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale. They were one of the most formative influences on my own preaching. (No, I didn’t hear them in person. They were collected into a book.) His pithy but profound definition of preaching was “truth through personality.”

That is more than a good definition of preaching. It is also an apt description of the way every Christian communicates his or her faith. We carry within us the truth of the Gospel, the story of God’s reaching out to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But we communicate that truth through our own personalities. We are not simply recounting facts. We are living them out through the way we come across to the world.

And if that is a given, then we who are Christians raised in an American (United States) culture have our work cut out for us.

In a recent report of their work in The Washington Post, two professors of psychology make the case that the personalities of children are shaped by the cultures in which they are raised. They write, “Working with colleagues from 14 countries, we looked at the way broad societal values influenced how parents raise their children. We then studied how these different parenting styles shaped the behavior and personality of our kids.”

It would be interesting to see how culture affects the personalities in various countries, but my concern today is how the predominant traits of our culture in the United States affect our ability to communicate our faith. These scientists’ summary paragraph won’t come as a surprise, but, if we are serious about sharing our faith with our world, it is something that we must address:

In the United States “people are largely driven by pursuits that benefit themselves. They’re expected to seek personal recognition and boost their own social or financial status.”

I’m not taking issue with that assessment of our collective personality. I’m not saying I haven’t, either consciously or unconsciously, sought to inculcate some of those traits into my own children. After all, we want our children to grow up being able to take care of themselves, to attain levels of achievement.

But we must grapple with how we reconcile those tendencies toward personal benefit, recognition and status with the teachings of Jesus.

How do you justify seeking personal fulfillment and benefit with the great summary statement of Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone would come after me, they must first deny themselves and take up their crosses, and then come and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

How can we engage in the thoroughly American activity of self-promotion and say we are following Jesus’ admonition, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35)?

When our lives are all about getting and storing and having and keeping, how do we live with Jesus’ truth, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will gain it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Matthew 16:25-26)?

Now if you want to live the American life you can certainly do it. You will likely be praised for it, and there is certainly earthly pleasure and satisfaction to be found in it. But you can’t honestly call yourself a Christian. No amount of spiritual gymnastics will allow you to justify the self-centered acquisitive lifestyle that our culture values and, at the same time, claim that you are a faithful follower of Jesus.

Admittedly, the greatest of saints fall into the trap of self-centeredness, but its pursuit, making it a life-goal, is simply unacceptable for Christians. In every country, Christians are to be counter-cultural. We were never intended to blend in. But this would seem to be a particular challenge for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the United States.

The task is so daunting that we will never succeed — unless Jesus Christ truly is at the center of our lives, precisely where he is supposed to be.