Who is his mother and who are his brothers, this one with whom the whole world claims kinship? They are the ones who do the will of the Father. But say a wise scribe comes and speaks with him, and, while giving no signs of great obedience, shows by earnest speech that at any rate he understands what was asked of him, that he has heard and can repeat the command that has gone out, that one should love the one Lord with every muscle and nerve, and give oneself to the neighbor. Even he, who for all we are told does not love and does not give himself in this way, even he is told: not far from the kingdom of God.
Who then is far from the kingdom of God? The one who thinks a burnt offering suffices, or a tithe of one’s mint, dill, and cumin; membership in a relatively compassionate political party; the staunch repetition of uninhabited beliefs. There is no more extreme distance from the kingdom than to be an alien to it and think you are a native: to smile while tending pigs in the far country, and bless God for the happy lot of living in the Father’s house.
But how many artifacts of piety are invented to assure me that I am safe at home in grace, that the call of the cross not only does not dismay me but actually draws my lips into a benign smile—it must be so, since after all I am a Christian. And I know that I am a Christian because from earliest childhood my religious education has consisted of exercises in declaring this to be the case: At about the same time that the existence of God was proposed to my toddling intellect, I was also taught that I was a true believer in it. Possibly I never knew the spelling of the word “Christian” until I memorized the song that told me I was a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N. I learned about joy, faith, love, and the peace that passes understanding by avowing, in conjunction with hand motions, that I had all these things down in the depths of my heart, and consequently was so happy. In a sense, all these concepts were defined for me by reference to my own form of life; and inasmuch as this is how it happened, the suggestion that I do not in fact possess such virtues, that Jesus might ask more from me than I now have, must be as absurd as the theorem that triangles have four angles.
I believe an analysis of children’s worship music will conclude that it is designed to produce not Christians so much as people who believe that they are Christians. And this is understandable since the latter, besides forming a more reliable voting bloc, is also much easier. To teach Christianity would mean teaching longing, repentance, confession, dissatisfaction, sacrifice—a whole bestiary of religious acts and speech-acts; but a self-identified political allegiance needs only a banner with a name on it or a distinguishable trumpet cadence for coordinating troop movements. Therefore what might be a word of discipline, calling, and so freedom is frequently heard instead as the Spirit’s cooing over our religious identity, as an invitation to tribe, friend groups, a rich cultural inheritance, architectural styles and Christmas pageants. Ah, but all these things are good and beautiful—yes: if they are directed to their ends. Childhood is beautiful, very beautiful, just until the child demands to remain in it forever. Christian children’s songs and coloring books are charming, unless we mistake them for Christianity. Many will say to him on that day: “Lord, Lord: didn’t we love sacred choral music, also stained glass? Didn’t we both attend youth group and, when the day finally came, dutifully escort our children to youth group? In your name we brought egg dishes to a hundred potlucks and calmly yet firmly objected to the spinelessness of ‘Happy Holidays’ greetings?” But he is not so cruel as to guard our indifference by illusions of alliance. Depart.
On the other hand, how many say “Oh, I’ll be no dupe of tired old institutional religion, that crude sociological phenomenon,” and thereby escape sustained self-examination, since no other authority is requiring it of them? About the same number, perhaps, as those for whom the institution itself numbs the conscience. So if you say that your religion is love and all humanity are your brothers and sisters, I ask, and really do want to know (or, weak as I am, at least wish to want to know) how it is you remain vigilant in practicing the faith. Only, make sure that after all the talk of love, which is a most pleasurable and lyrical aspect of it, you are in fact remembering to love in some half-costly way. (“Well, I ceased to associate myself with the family members and acquaintances who were most irritating to me and who expressed themselves in a way insensitive to my ideals. Isn’t that something?” It is some evidence, at least, that love to you was a bold word for your own army’s banners. It is some evidence that it meant you and the ones who liked you were good and others were bad.)
If I ever wake up in the night in possession of a brilliant thought for a screenplay, I will know that the only way to secure that idea is to lock it in a notebook until daylight: if we are earnest in wanting to do something, we will usually write it down, or we will set up recurring reminders on our calendars—that is, we will externalize it. A written word, a cattle prod, and institutional religion are all externalities and bear no meaning in themselves; but when they make contact with the eye, the flesh, and the heart they are meaningful enough. Because of this I hope I will go on holding down my sanctuary pew with neighbors’ help, and when the time comes I will take up the gray hymnal, at least until I pray by heart the prayers within. I will again trek up the aisle toward the broken loaf. At some moment in all of this I may think to remember more than verbally: I am a sinner awaiting mercy.
“Ugh, why return again to such a surly theme? Isn’t there supposed to be some glimmer of good news in all of this?” But would it be good news to hear instead that in this life of cooled love and weak effort I had in fact hit the nail on the head, reproduced the Trinitarian pattern? Is it encouragement, when a five-year-old exhibits her crayon drawing, to tell her, “That’s very good, my dear; indeed, you are already at the height of the discipline”? Compared with the soporifics of self-assured hymnody, even Satan’s accusation carries true comfort. Better, though, to hear from the Lord’s mouth: How slow of heart you are—“Ah, then you mean there is a faster way!” Lukewarm—“thank God there might be greater heat.” Poor, blind. “Well then, what magnificent visions of wealth could open to me yet, what beauty and life in them!”
Lord, still you have not given virtue: blessed are you, and your judgements just. But hear the prayer of your servant, and do not deal with me so severely as to let me believe that I have it, or that I am anything but the lost son.