Thursday, February 18, 2016

Atonement, Patti Smith & Kendrick Lamar

In this day and age, the word "atonement" is not a very popular one - even in many churches. Too many view this word as a huge negative, like penance (it's definition's a real hootenanny: voluntary self-punishment as an outward expression of repentance. This has all sorts of images of hair shirts, self-flagellation, deprivation all in an attempt to be closer to the suffering of Christ). It tends to be avoided in most dialogues, coffee shop conversations, or church pulpits.

Just Google most popular preachers and Christian teachers and writers to see how few of them deal with this subject matter. Let's face it, this is not a topic that is going to sell books or gain viewers in this modern age of feel-good theology. Atonement does not allow for consumerism and self-indulgence. Unlike new car ads, we don't like the "getting what we deserve" message atonement offers because it brings us to the foot of the cross to decide the question that Christ asked over and over again of people during his ministry on earth, "Who do you say I am?"  The cross and atonement means we are forced to look not within ourselves but at a bloodied, battered Jesus hanging there: forgiving us and loving us even as he hangs there.

We don't like atonement because it is radical. It's subversive. It's extravagant. It goes against the grain of our culture. It is the realization of a brutally raw love God has for us.

And because atonement means we are separated from God.  We prefer a go-with-the-flow, pluralistic God of acceptance who asks nothing from us, expects nothing from us, and has our live-and-let-live attitude. There is no all roads in this but a choice. This is a faith of costs.  One of my favorite writers, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross." It's not about comfort, it's about the cross. For many, this is where they turn away. This is not the Messiah they wanted. Like children, we want the sanitized and sentimentalized bible stories of Jesus. Cleaned up and safe. Jesus was never safe. That's part of why he ended up on that cross.

Atonement means "at one with." Or, as Madeleine L'Engle calls it "At-one-ment." It means to reconcile and was coined by sixteenth-century English theologian William Tyndale.  Most would question why they need reconciliation since they aren't so bad and are pretty good people. We don't like the idea that we have to seek forgiveness. Atonement and the cross are offensive to us. It definitely goes against the American idealism of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps or that we can work our way to heaven. Human depths can never reach heavenly heights. Not on our own. Since we cannot ascend, He must descend. God bends down to reach us.

I remember going to a Lenten service with an unbelieving friend, who asked me to go with him. He was okay with everything until they began to sing:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

When we came out of the church and got into his car, he slammed the door with, "I can't stand all that blood stuff. Why can't it just be about love?"  He missed that it was. The very point of Lent is the leading up to the cross, the death, and the Easter resurrection. By his own admission, he told of what kept him from acceptance. He could not face that he was bad enough to need the blood of Christ to atone for him. Many are of the same mind. They like Jesus as the teacher or the prophet. They like him as a "good" man. Like Thomas Jefferson, they prefer his moral teachings but not anything that reveals him as the Son of God (especially miracles and resurrection).

We are unwilling to accept a Jesus that doesn't match our expectations. Certainly this was true of Judas. When he discovered that this "Messiah" was not the militant leader who would overthrow Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel, but was a servant savior, his love turned to hatred. Jesus does that to all of us. He reminds us of who he is and, as Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, "He reminds you of the difference between the two of you and you start hating him for that - for the difference - enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt him back."

On her 1975 album Horses, Patti Smith opened her recording of "Gloria" with the declaration, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine!" It was a defiant statement that struck a chord with many who were filled with doubt, disbelief, and disillusionment. Later she sings, "My sins my own, they belong to me." Looking back on this recording, Smith, who grew up Jehovah's Witness, would say, "I'm not against Jesus, but I was 20 and wanted to make my own mistakes. I didn't want him taking credit for what I do." How many others are like her? They cannot accept Jesus. That opening was a shaking of the fist to challenge the idea that Jesus had to die for her sins.

We mistakenly believe we are not guilty of anything. We might think ourselves wronged, misunderstood, and imperfect but certainly not guilty and definitely not sinful. Many trivialize what they do as being merely bad habits and not sin.

There are also too many in the church who have this attitude. They view themselves through a secular perspective. They are unsettled by atonement and it makes them uncomfortable, so they avoid the topic all together. Easter is only a time to dress up in their newest, finest. The cross is indecent. It is shameful. It is for common criminals and doesn't belong among decent, hard-working men and women who hope for a heaven.

Fleming Rutledge wrote, "If we cannot look at the cross, then we cannot look at ourselves." Why? Because Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves so deeply that we want to crucify him for it. Jesus is the Truth. Often we cannot face that. Truth requires us to face that there is untruth within ourselves, duplicity, and lies that we tell about ourselves. There are no masks or disguises that can hide us from him. The cross is our unmasking. It lays bare all our self-deception and excuses. Yet the weight of the cross was nothing compared to the weight of our rejection of him.

Many cannot accept this truth. They cannot believe it. The French poet Paul Verlaine wrote:
I know I ought to love you, but how could
a poor thing like myself, God be your lover . . . ?

The cross shows us our unworthiness but Verlaine fails to see that in accepting this, by laying it at the foot of the cross, we are made worthy. It is more than a mere prayer, but in a true laying down of self and acceptance of his love, his grace and his mercy.

Like children who believe a simple "sorry" is all it takes, the church is also filled with those who believe a simple sinner's prayer is all that's needed and they are good and covered. This is not true repentance. We must seek honest forgiveness. If we don't truly seek forgiveness (as more than mere apology), the Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides wrote in Hilchot Teshuvah: One who confesses in words and has not in his heart resolved to forsake sin is like one who immerses in a mikveh (ritual bath) and keeps holding a poisonous snake. Unless you cast it away, the immersion is useless.

John the Baptist called out upon seeing Jesus' approaching, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

I've heard it said that sin is that which keeps us from being what God created us to be. It separates us from Him and from ourselves, as we become focused solely on self and attempting to fill the emptiness with the escapisms to avoid introspection and the realization that what we are really seeking cannot be found by escaping but in surrendering.

Flannery O'Connor wrote that the central Christian mystery is that the world has, " . . . for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." She understood that the very act of atonement through the cross was ultimately an act of love by God for us. 

There have been many myths about gods coming to earth in the form of man, but only Jesus came not for power but to love. He came to love us: the miserable, the afflicted, the outcast, the lonely, the heartbroken, the oppressed, the desperate, and the unloved. He came to call us his "beloved" and to make us his bride and call us his own.

In stark contrast to Patti Smith's opening to "Gloria," 28-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar's intro to Good Kid was:
Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins.
I believe that Jesus is Lord.
I believe that you raised Him from the dead.
I will ask Jesus to come into my life and be my  Lord and Savior.
I received Jesus to take control of my life that I may live for Him
from this day forth.
Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me, with your precious blood.
In Jesus' name.

Lamar has spoken of how he was led to Christ by a friend's grandmother in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less. He was baptised in 2013. Having grown up in the streets and not the church, his songs are modern parables where one finds Jesus amidst the profanity. He admits that he may be the only "preacher" many young in the gang culture will hear and he has said, "I got a greater purpose. God put something in my heart to get across and that's what I'm going to focus on, using my voice as an instrument and doing what needs to be done." In another interview, Lamar said, "My word will never be as strong as God's word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work." He does not chase celebrity, drink, do drugs, but writes with great honesty about his struggles and his searching, and about the redeeming love of Christ. 

He often gets asked why he puts Christianity in his music and he replies, "Because that's a part of who I am. A lot of people in the industry are scared of that, but I couldn't stray away from that, that's how I think on a daily basis and my music reflects my actual life so I'll always continue to put that type of message in my music." The Truth got a hold of him and now he won't deny it 

Philip Yancey wrote, "Whatever else we may say about it, the atonement fulfills the Jewish principle that only one who has been hurt can forgive. At Calvary, God chose to be hurt." This is not some impersonal, existential God who is distant and removed from us. This is a very personal God.

Atonement on the cross was a history-pivotal moment in the ultimate act of self-giving love on behalf of a holy God who longed for us to be in fellowship with Him. Atonement is an intimate act. It is act that offers us unconditional love and freedom. Theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker wrote that, "The atonement created a deeper love for God than would have been possible without it . . . creating the prospect that human hearts could be transformed from fear to love."

The message of the cross is that God loves us. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever believes on Him should have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

As Sara Groves sang in "You Did That For Me":

Man of sorrows
Well acquainted with grief
Drug down to the city dump
Spread eagle on a cross beam
Propped up like a scarecrow
Nailed like a thief
There for all the world to see

You wore the chains so I could be free . .  .  

We can debate it. We can deny it. Or we can accept it. 

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