One of the opportunities I have in my day job is to do some traveling around the Mid-South. And everyone who is familiar with the area already knows, this is a part of the country where people are not afraid to express their belief in God.
Yet as deeply as I love this place, it's also an inescapable fact that we have become a microcosm, in the public eye, for all that is best and all that is worst in what we have become as Christians. Yes, believers are numerous here, and ardent in their passion for God. I find myself questioning, however, whether we have let our regional demographic power go to our heads--and a bunker mentality concerning the rest of the country--brew into a perfect storm of gracelessness.
In many ways, that was the situation faced by the Pharisees in first-century Israel before the destruction of the Temple. They lived in a precarious position: they enjoyed a majority close to home, and a great deal of local influence--but zoom out one degree and we see the fetters of Roman occupation. Perhaps this was at the root of some of the gracelessness Jesus condemned in the Pharisees: a need to maintain strength and identity in the face of the occupation. As we know, many Pharisees went the route of legalistic striving, and condemnation towards all those who were seen as not living up to the standard.
As I was driving through Arkansas on I-40, I saw a set of billboards that epitomized this very same attitude. Both bore verses of condemnation in stark black and white: "THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY." "IF YOU ARE ASHAMED OF ME AND MY WORDS, THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE ASHAMED OF YOU."
And there was not a word of grace or love or redemption anywhere in there.
Sometimes, yes...we need a kick in the complacency. But how can we expect to elicit any other response but anger unless we can truly see and feel that the message is delivered in love?
As I came back home, I saw another billboard. This one was a real study in simplicity...and I really find myself stopping and thinking every time I see it.
"FOR GOD SO LOVED MEMPHIS..."
That's it. That's all it says.
Think about it. God sent his only begotten Son to save not just the disciples around him, but all nations. Including us, here in Memphis, for yes...we are just as fallen as anyone else.
That is the truth: first we must know we are loved.
Before anyone accuses me of hiding from the harsh truth of our sins...I do not. As God's love and grace fill us, we come to understand the ways in which we need to repent--but this is a deeply personal journey that must be taken above all with God's love. It is one thing, I believe, if we ask someone else to help us be accountable, someone we can trust not to take the knife and twist it. It is another thing...and a cruel one...to simply heap on condemnation and then claim that if people recoil in disgust and crippling shame at this attitude, that this reaction must prove they are incorrigible reprobates and hey, that's the "offense of the Gospel."
No, that's the offense of someone's bad attitude. Let's not get the two confused.
Let me say it again: first we must know we are loved.
Which of those two billboard messages do you think really has the chance of drawing someone in? The one that simply condemns...or the one that reminds us, as the Bluetree song says, that our Lord is the God of this city, and His love extends to us, too?