Good Lord, deliver me from unrelentingly cheerful worship; for Christ's sake. Amen.
That's a prayer I've thought on Sunday mornings. Yeah, I know, I'm a curmudgeon in the pew. Some think, I suppose, even Jesus couldn't please me. What I don't get is the reflexive assumption that, after all is said and done, the church is in the entertainment business. That we should do whatever it takes to fill the pews, pandering included. Pastors who would never accede to their children's wishes for a steady diet of French fries and hamburgers nonetheless set the hymnbook aside in favor of praise songs... because, you know, learning to sing "For All the Saints" isn't easy, especially that first note. The pulpit readily swaps Bible paraphrase versions for the reading in the NRSV in the bench rack, because no one cares that a translation is authorized or not, and, besides, the paraphrase with its legions of cliches matches ordinary speech. But, above all else, in worship, dear pastor, smile, be happy. It worked for Robert Shuller. It works for Joel Osteen. It can work for you too. Like the tiny book of aphorisms I grew up with reminds every turned-around collar, "Smile and the world smiles with you; cry and you cry alone."
Right, picture me in the pew with my doleful look while those around me are swinging and swaying to a contemporary beat.
In a small book every Protestant minister has read (or should have), and many a Roman Catholic priest, The Cost of Discipleship, the author, my beloved Bonhoeffer, tries to set straight his fellow Lutherans (and anyone else prone to a misunderstanding of faith as mere, even if heartfelt, belief). He coins there a phrase which I predict will be serviceable from now to eternity: "cheap grace." Loving and serving Jesus ain't easy; it's expensive, costing a disciple everything he has, heart, mind, and strength.
What I am caviling about in this essay, however, isn't cheap grace but cheap hope. Turn on your TV to those stations where "Christians" rule the air waves, and you can listen to the pulpiteer trumpet the transformational power of faith in which Jesus is pictured (in this curmudgeonly mind of mine) as a latter day John D. Rockefeller, the dime dispenser, only the favor the Galilean dispenses is the healing of your wound, your promotion at work, reconciliation with your spouse, and dollars in your bank account. Just get right with God, bless his holy name, confess him as your Lord and Savior, and all these benefits will be yours. That's beautiful, right? Only life doesn't work that way. Something is missing. The cross. Not Jesus'. Yours.
This version of Jesus as power-broker for you ignores the claim by him, repeated in each of the first three books of the New Testament, that to follow him means taking up our own cross. Nothing there about personal benefits to discipleship. Nothing there about putting your hand in the hand of God's Son and everything will come up roses. Only the summons to a larger life than you ever imagined, one in which the cross is shouldered, the strong serve the weak, little children (the most vulnerable of the vulnerable) are loved and protected, making peace tops the international agenda, and doing all sorts of self-giving deeds intentionally that give Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche apoplexy.
What cheap hope for Christ's blessings ignores is the cross of self-denial. Not my words, Jesus'.
Some people get it, Jesus' idea of costly hope clearly in the shadow of the cross. Like the medical professionals from this country who brave the threat of ebola as they respond to the need in West Africa. Like the late mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, never hankering for higher office, a public servant who continued his compassionate and persistent governing style despite the ravages of cancer. Like my buddy Austin who in the throes of his last illness refused to capitulate to self-pity, continuing to consider himself (in the words of someone else he surely admired) "the luckiest guy in the world." They are people who understand the old Sunday School phrase, "No cross, no crown." Like Nelson Mandela, whose achievement in South Africa - the reconciliation of forces dedicated to destroying each other, peace accomplished by making forgiveness a national policy - shines brighter and brighter in a world where tribal hatreds remain the rule; and Mandela did it with most of his lifetime in jail. Like my own mother, a parentless immigrant to these shores at nine years of age and never went to school thereafter, who dreamed that a child of hers would go to college; and she housed and fed roomers during the Depression to make it so: her stigmata were knuckles rubbed raw from washing my socks.
I would encourage Joel and Creflo and John (Hagee), and anyone else occupying the podium in a grand auditoria to acquaint themselves with my pantheon of heroes for whom hope in the saving power of Jesus Christ was confirmed by shouldering, not avoiding, the cross.
So... my dear, dear liturgist, before you invite me to pray with you, please lay aside the promises of cheap hope; keep your eyes on the cross; and hold in your heart a far larger vision of life and faith than "what's in it for me."