Practice the Incarnation
In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov expresses his simple view of acceptance of God. He says, “And so I accept God and am glad to. And what’s more I accept his wisdom, his purpose which are utterly beyond our kin. I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life. I believe in eternal harmony.” But he continues, “Yet, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s.” His rationale? “I could never understand how one could love one’s neighbors. By my mind one can’t love one’s neighbors, though one might love those at a distance. . . . For anyone to love a man he must be hidden. For as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.” He continues to describe several accounts of the horrible torture that people have inflicted on other people, including a story of soldiers who tossed babies in the air only to catch them on their bayonets while their mothers watched. Consequently he says, “And so I hasten to return my entry ticket.”
I sympathize with Ivan. I disagree, but I sympathize. Ivan understands something of the true nature of the world, something that should not be overlooked, its sheer ugliness. Yet in the end, this debase, corrupt, and godless world-a world where babies can be tossed up to be caught on bayonets or scissors can be inserted into their brains before their birth-this world is the same world for which Jesus Christ became man to redeem. So the question hangs, “If Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, in what ways do we reach our world?” The more important question is not, “Is my church relevant?” but “Am I?”
I often wonder as I sit in the car at a stoplight and look at the driver to my right or left,What keeps this person up at night? I wonder if she’s had suicidal thoughts in the last week? Is he addicted to pornography? Has she been abused? Does he feel like anyone in his life loves him? But how will I ever know the answers to these questions? The light will turn green, my foot will press down on the pedal, and more than likely this person will vanish from my life forever. Our lives nudge up against others numerous times a day, and we could never begin to know them all. But my fear goes further. I fear we cannot relate even to those we see almost every day. How many times have we spoken to the coworkers who we work closest with? Do we know even a shred of information about them? How is his marriage? What does she live for? What are his hopes? Why does she vote the way she does?
Why do we not know these things? Who taught us not to care? I want to suggest that relevance is not about putting up stage lights or having a “rockin’ band.” Relevance is incarnating the gospel to people in a way that seeks first to genuinely understand them and hold forth the light of the gospel to transform them through new birth. Relevance happens when we connect their stories and ours with the Biblical story and when we pour gospel refreshment into their parched, dry lips. May God help us to be relevant in that way.
9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue,trans. David McDuff, (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 309.
From “Relevance and the Incarnation: A Gospel-oriented Approach”–something I wrote some time ago and had forgotten about.