Monday, June 20, 2016

Billy Graham and the Alligator (or: Whatever happened to kindness?)

As many of you know, this last week a little boy was stolen from the beaches of Disney World by an alligator right in front of his parents and the story basically broke the internet. Loud, brash, and mean people looking for someone to blame screamed across the worldwide web at Disney, at the alligator, and even at the child's parents! The sick and twisted idea that these parents deserved some greater punishment than watching their child snatched from life right before their eyes, no matter what they did or did not do, has led many to ask, "Whatever happened to kindness?"

They claim, and I am inclined to believe, that this country used to be filled with kind people who understood that parenting is hard, that keeping track of a toddler is virtually impossible, and that child-proofing anything is a myth. That people rejoiced with those who rejoiced and wept with those that wept. "Whatever happened to our country?" they ask.

In my opinion, the answer to that question has it's roots in the 70s. Back in those days, there was a man named Billy Graham who toured the country holding giant revivals in the tradition of his spiritual predecessors: Billy Sunday and Dwight L. Moody. Thousands of people would gather to hear the name of Jesus and answer His call. Then, Graham would pack up his operation and move on to the next town, leaving all of his new converts to fend for themselves. For that is what they were: converts, baby Christians, disciple-wannabes. With no direction as to where to turn, where to go, and who to listen to, they scattered like leaves to the wind, blown about by every wind of anything that sounded spiritual. Some made it to the churches of Christ, soon to be grounded in truth and pure doctrine. But, the majority of them, with their new-found fervor and fire, found the orthodoxy of established religion to be dry and stale, and so they began their own churches of new Christians. However well meaning their communion, the lack of teaching beyond the very basics presented by Graham bred a onslaught of false doctrines, confused beliefs, and half-truths pervading the Church.

Don't get me wrong, I don't blame Billy Graham for this. He was an evangelist. He did his job well and a great many benefited from it. And I don't blame the converts, for what else were they to do? I might blame the churches for failing to follow through with these disciples-to-be, but how could they have been prepared for the stampede of converts following in The Crusade's wake? No, this is not about assigning blame, but discovering the truth so we can learn and grow from it.

So, now we have thousands of converts. Some found their way into established churches who understood Biblical teaching. Some founded their own churches that followed a pseudo-Christianity, fervent in passion but flawed in doctrine. And some fell to the wayside, jaded by the emotional high followed by no lasting truth or help. For now, let's focus on the Revivalists: those who started the revival-based churches.

These converts soon settled down, intermarrying and raising good little revivalist babies. They founded their own seminaries, forged their own ways of thinking, and began a new brand of Christianity that spread in popularity so much as to pervade the previously stoic and stale-seeming orthodox churches. The fervency of passion and desire in their hearts to please God was admirable, their youth covetable, and their doctrinal differences... minor. Or so it seemed.

Slowly, things started going bad. Very bad. The children raised in the passion of revival began leaving the Church in droves. Even some of the original members began to complain of burn-out and fatigue. These members of the Bride of Christ were growing tired in their marriage as the passion died and settled into mundane hum-drum life. They longed for the fervency of their first love, the butterflies in their stomach at the name of Jesus, the passion that invaded their everyday lives and empowered them to do great things. The Church began longing for revival.

To fix this, the Church began to establish ways of repeating the emotional high of revival. Summer camps for the kids, retreats for the adults. These things instilled a new life into the attendants and rejuvenated them for a week, or maybe even a month before they started to fade again. Their entire spiritual life consisting of highs and lows, the Revivalists (using my meaning of the term here) knew not that what they were experiencing was closer to high-addicted druggies they shunned in their youth than a fulfilling Christian life. Their lives became a vicious cycle of highs followed by crashes and self-guilt trips for their lack of passion which drove them to yet another conference, summer camp, or retreat.

So, in the course of a single generation, Christianity came to mean living a life all out on fire for Christ. And in the low times, when passion was gone and life was hard, the Christian had to find something else to hold onto to know he was saved. He needed assurance of salvation. But where was it to be found? No one really knew. They had never needed it before... They scoured the Scriptures for verses that spoke to them and eased their guilt-ridden consciences and formed doctrines off them. Some believed that once you were saved, you could never be unsaved, and therefore continued their lives in debauchery. "I prayed the prayer at Billy Graham's Crusade. I am saved to live my life in Christian freedom. That means I can do basically whatever I want... as long as it isn't too bad." Some believed that you could find assurance in your works. "I am a good person. I follow all of God's rules and make sure my kids do, too. Well... most of the time". Suddenly, people began to doubt their salvation, and they looked inside themselves to find it. But all they found were hearts full of sin and empty of passion for the Lord.

Some therefore decided they weren't saved, and reprayed the prayer. They rededicated their life to God, and received a small dose of emotional satisfaction. Of course, it didn't last for long. The passion would die, so they would rededicate... again.

Some therefore decided they needed to get their lives together so God would once again bless them with the passion they desired. "If I just turn from my wicked ways and pray to God, then He will hear me. Then, He will give me passion and fire. Then, He will heal my broken heart." They fell into the realms of legalism, trying to prove to themselves they were worthy. Of course, they weren't. So, they made themselves feel better by comparing themselves to those they deemed lesser Christians. Christians who weren't on fire like they were. Christians who didn't really really follow the Scriptures like they did. Christians who didn't raise their kids in the fear of the Lord like they did. And every time they compared themselves to others, they fell just a little bit further into their sin. And every time their sin became apparent, they lowered the standard a little bit further. "At least, I'm not like THOSE people." Soon, it became a game in comparison. Christian against Christian, and Christian against the world. Judgement, hatred, and (most especially) pride took over the Church. Why? Because to humbly accept their own sin would be to acknowledge that they were indeed not living their lives for Christ the way they should, and for them... that would be to question their salvation.

When you have a world bent on destroying everything resembling Christ (as Satan, the Prince of this World is), a Church full of judgemental hateful people officially shuts out any hope of society being loving and kind. Pointing fingers, demanding judgement, and comparing become the norm and kindness and empathy become a thing of the past.

So, there you have it folks. That's what happened. But, what do we do now?

What if I told you that you don't find assurance of salvation by looking at yourself. What if I told you that your salvation has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with Christ? Does that scare you? Or does that set you free?

See, we're not saved because of anything we've done... including pray a prayer or make a decision. We're saved solely by the grace and mercy of God. He is the One who paid the penalty for our sin. He is the One who called us. And He is the One who gave us the faith to believe that all this is true.

That's not to say that He doesn't extend faith to the unbelievers. Oh, He most certianly does! Every time the Word is heard, He brings faith (for that is how faith comes, after all). But, some refuse it. They see Him coming and turn and run right to Hell.

That is not to say that if they don't. they chose to stay. No, Scripture says no one chooses good, let alone God. If we are saved, it is because of God. If we are damned, it is because of us. It might seem paradoxical... but so does the Trinity, or the Deity of a the Son of man, or justice and mercy working together... The Bible is full of paradoxes, of which this is chief.

When your passion fades (which it will), when your butterflies settle down (which they will), when you find yourself once again fallen on your face (which you will), turn to the promises of God. He has promised salvation to all who believe. Believe in the Gospel, solely by the grace of God, and you will be saved. Christianity is not about your passion, it is about His. Christianity is about daily living in humble repentance and walking after Christ through His power, not your's. A lot of the time it will be boring, a lot of the time it will be hum-drum, a lot of the time it will feel like you're just going through the motions. Sometimes, it will feel like the last thing on earth you want. But, He didn't compare it to a marriage for nothing. If you really want to understand this part better, read Hosea.

And, as for the finger-pointing...

When we are daily living our lives in humble repentance, we see that our lives are just as broken as anyone else's. It no longer is a game of comparison, but a life of empathy and love. When we see those struggling through life, we can come up next to them and say, "Hey! I've been there. Heck, I am there right now! But I have hope. Can I tell you about it?"

This is love, this is Christ. Not ignoring or overlooking sin and struggle, but walking with them through it and pointing them to Jesus. This is what Billy Graham's converts needed, this is what we need, this is what everyone needs.