Yesterday, my big day-off task was making my backyard leaf-free (after two-and-a-half hours of mulched leaf dust blowing on me, I was looking much like the Ghost of Autumn Past). At one point while I was dealing with these wilting, unwanted cast-offs, Lou Reed’s voice began crooning into my ear buds. The song he sang is from the Duets album by The Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s a simple, beautiful, melancholy song. Not too many words - just a heart-felt plea repeated three times over in Reed’s gruff, cigarette-laced baritone:
Jesus, help me find my proper place.
Jesus, help me find my proper place.
Help me in my weakness, ‘cause I’ve fallen out of grace.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
As I strained to listen through the whining motor and the barking mini-Schnauzer (who was apparently taking the whining motor as a personal affront), a couple things came into my mind, particularly in view of Reed’s death last week. First, people can be so close, yet so far. That song was such a humble, heartfelt cry. And the way he sang it - so simply, so sincerely, so honestly. Yet, even though it sounded simple, sincere, and honest, there is no evidence that either of the last two were really true. They were just beautiful words emotionally sung - nothing more (which is a great description of the worship you find in much of today’s church - but that’s another blog).
To think that if that plea had been truly from the heart and not just from the lyric sheet, Reed would be experiencing something very different than he is right now. That is heart breaking - truly heart-breaking. Speaking words of truth is not enough. Believing words of truth is not enough. Committing to truth is what is required to make Jesus both our Lord and Savior.
The second thing that came to me is what a song like that says about the Church. Now, before I get too far into this, let me say that yes, it is just a short song, and yes, I am reading into it, and yes, I am making up my own back story. That being said…
Here’s a guy who is calling out to Jesus to find his proper place with God. He’s a man who is broken and desperate. He wants to get right with Christ, but he doesn’t know how or to whom he should turn. My question is where is the Church? The answer is that for too many searchers, the Church is just not a viable option.
While this song may be hypothetical, I believe it is not atypical. Too often, people in need of spiritual answers have no place to go, because the Church has surrounded itself with a barbed-wire fence of lifestyle requirements. If you don’t look like us or talk like us or act like us or abstain like us or marry like us, then what in the name of Holy St. Petersburg are you doing in our house?
The line that gets me most is when Reed heart-wrenchingly confesses, “…’cause I’ve fallen out of grace.” While it may feel like it’s God’s grace that he’s fallen out of, it’s not. God’s grace is too strong and extends too wide. If we want His grace, it’s right there for the taking.
Instead, the grace he’s fallen out of is that of the Church. Where could a counter-cultural, bisexual, alcoholic, former heroin addict like Reed go to find his “proper place”? What church is swinging its doors wide open begging him to come inside? Now, before you go Googling “counter-cultural churches” or “gay friendly churches”, let me save you some time. The answer should be “Mine”.
Before I get labeled as some liberal theologian or permissive pastor, let me clarify. Everything that I have thus far said refers to those who don’t know the Lord and are seeking Him. In John 8, Jesus tells us that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. So, when non-Christians sin, they are just doing what they are compelled to do. It’s like a junkie destroying his life bad decision by bad decision in order to get his next fix. Why does he do it? He can’t help himself. He’s addicted.
For us to require people to clean up their acts before they can come into our churches is like telling the tweaker, “I want you to quit meth before you can come into our rehab facility.” Jesus said, “I came for the sick, not the healthy.” As the Church - God’s representatives here on earth - we need to open our/His arms of love and mercy and grace to those who feel like they’ve “fallen out of grace.” We show them the love of Christ, then we let God take it from there. It’s our job to love them; it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to change them.
One final clarification - I said that all this refers to those who don’t know the Lord. The standards are very different for those of us who do. When we commit ourselves to following Christ, we are committing ourselves to a holy lifestyle - “holy” meaning “sanctified, set apart”; in other words, “different from the world.” This is where I depart from most of the liberal churches and denominations.
Too many in the Church have become comfortable with their lives; with the level of their sacrifice, with the depth of their commitment, with those sinlets that they tend to sweep under the rug as no big deal (“With all the murdering and thieving and fornicating going on, God won’t take mind of this little thing” [said, for some bizarre reason, in a Southern belle’s voice]). They treat church as a big comfy couch. They go there to feel good and cozy - they talk with their friends, they sing some fun songs, they get entertained by a sermon designed to make them feel happy. By the time they’re ready to go back home, they’re feeling great, because nobody judged them, nobody told them they were doing anything wrong, nobody challenged them to serve or to sacrifice or to get uncomfortable/messy/sweaty for Christ. Instead, they heard just the opposite. God is a giant fluffy teddy bear and all He wants is for you to snuggle around in Him a while. It’s a win/win for God and us - He gets His desperately needed love fix and we get to feel good while we throw Him that bone.
When we become Christians, we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). This means a total change in who we are - putting off the old, putting on the new. So, what does that “new” look like? Well, it’s not legalism - it’s not a bunch of rules and regulations. I don’t care if you smoke, tattoo, or chew, or go with girls who do. I don’t care if you drink in moderation or forget to recycle or vote Democrat.
However, that doesn’t mean that Christianity is an anything goes frat party. Nor is it a Joel Osteen mushy God-is-just-plum-happy-with-you-no-matter-what-you-do smile-fest. The New Testament lays down some very clear rules about sexuality (both when and with whom), how we should treat each other (you-first, me-second), and what things in this world we should avoid (witchcraft, idolatry, etc.). We’re also promised that if we stray from those standards, God loves us enough to discipline us back into compliance in oft-times quite uncomfortable ways (spoken as one who has felt the Lord's belt across my tush a time or two).
Does God understand that we’re going to sin? 1 John 1:8-9 makes it clear that He knows we will and provides forgiveness when we do. What He’s looking for from us is a commitment to following Him - a desire to serve Him and make Him what our life is about. That’s what that whole “Lord” part of “Lord and Savior” is about. And, as Christians, we’re also called to encourage each other, challenge each other, and hold each other accountable to striving for that same standard.
Summing up this ridiculously long blog, we are called to a high life standard - a standard of holiness. However, just because we must live up to this standard doesn’t mean we should expect non-Christians to live the same way. They can’t do it; we can. They’re on their own; we have the Holy Spirit to help us. And before we go condemning and rejecting and walking away feeling smug, we need to remember that the only reason we’ve been spared the same sin-addicted life is because of the sacrificial, undeserved grace of Jesus Christ. If someone in the Church had shown Lou Reed that same kind of grace, maybe he would have finally discovered his “proper place”.