In his pictures and video clips, Hugh Halter, the author of Sacrilege looks almost bald. Maybe, like the Velveteen Rabbit, his hair has been loved off. I suspect there’s another reason; maybe he’s yanked it all out. In one clip, Hugh says that at the 20 year mark in pastoral ministry he knew that something was not right. The life on display in both the Christians he pastored and his own ministry style was toast without butter. When searching people look at much of the American church, what they find lies dry on the tongue. Having logged 33 years in full-time ministry, I get it. And some good people a lot younger and fresher than Hugh and I hit this as well and blow up. A friend in a position to know shared that out of every ten people to graduate from a seminary, Christian college or Bible school of some kind this spring, six will permanently exit Christian ministry within six years. Why? The world of real church doesn’t always reflect much of the New Testament Gospel and living there can make you crazy. Church is an acquired taste; loving it as Jesus does requires a conversion by the Holy Spirit.
Dissatisfaction and sometimes brokenness have to grease the pan before God does something in one life that touches many. And that brings us to Sacrilege. Sacrilege smacks of blasphemy, of something profane, even evil that Christian people shouldn’t touch. But is it? Hugh’s premise makes us take a second look suggesting that it can, and in important cases should, mean to tear down a false picture of religion so that real truth from and real relationship with God can flourish and produce the life many Christians know in their gut they want. He makes a telling comment: many Christians think they are losers. Having practiced spiritual proctology (What else is pastoring if not staring at the backside of the Body of Christ?) for a while I think he’s right. A deep inferiority plagues and paralyzes many.
For Hugh, this started with becoming an authentic person. Pastors can be stiff, wooden and weird. Just ask my wife. Many view us, and Christians in general, as being utterly disconnected from a real world. His account of flipping his neighbor “the bird” (I don’t mean tossing a dead parrot over the back fence here. Yes, that “bird”) will get a lot of media play especially since the guy later visited Hugh’s church. Hugh’s thinking just before flipping off his neighbor makes as good a read as the incident itself. When bus ministry went huge, all the churches ran out and bought buses. When one church gave homemade bread to its visitors, lots of churches started baking bread. Hugh Halter is NOT advocating roving “flip off” ministry teams (which might only produce opportunities for jail and hospital ministry). His journey started where it must for all of us.
In Scripture, what does Jesus really say? Really say. Today’s Christians do exactly to Jesus what first century Jews did to God; we try to bend Him into our image through habit, tradition and comfort. Jesus doesn’t bend that way; His words, when flying free, strike us with the subtlety of a sledge hammer going through a plate glass window, like a chain saw through butter. Those red letters in many of our Bibles aren’t words to walk away from (red or not). That’s why I have a tiny bone to pick with Chapter 8 entitled “Sin In the Periphery”. It’s about meeting sinful people on their own turf like Jesus did without being judgmental, expecting them to shuck sinfulness before embracing Jesus. A good chapter with much stuff to think about. It may be semantics but I think “overlook” (on page 150) could be replaced by a better word choice describing how Jesus relates to the sin of people who don’t know Him. As we approach Good Friday, a better way might be that Jesus looked through people’s sin to see the broken image of God worth dying for. Sin rapes and violates both the image of God in us and the holiness at the center of the heart of God; it put Jesus on the cross. “Overlook” and sin don’t really seem to theologically fit in the same sentence.
Jesus did talk to people about sin. Check out John 8:1-11 (cited by Hugh in the chapter) where the woman taken in adultery is indeed not condemned but also told to “sin no more” (v.11). Jesus leaves her to begin the quest of finding somewhere else to sleep that night and keeping it that way until she married. Jesus healed a lame man at poolside and then evaporated into the crowd. At their next meeting, Jesus first words were “Stop sinning.” ( John 5:1-14) Smooth and subtle, Jesus could address people’s sin without using the “s” word (See Matthew 19:16-22, John 4). Jesus could convict people of their sinfulness by His presence alone (See Luke 19:1-9). We live in a culture that not only denies truth (like sin) and absolute values but actively represses them in the rush to complete a designer makeover inside its own navel. Even oncologists have to say “cancer” once in awhile to someone who might not want to hear it. “Overlook” may concede too much spiritual real estate. To loosely paraphrase Rick to Captain Renault at the end of Casablanca, “Hugh, this could be the beginning of a beautiful dialogue.”
I like that Hugh Halter has some miles on him. It’s easy to come along in our twenties and thirties and say, “The Church sucks!” Sometimes we do; it’s a big part of our history. But it’s not all the story. Then we take our prophetic selves off to start something from scratch. Later, the new church prophets will have children and grandchildren who become twenty-somethings, look at “relevant” stuff their elders did and say, “The Church sucks!” Hugh networks with others to inspire, strengthen and deepen Christian leaders (missio.us/) and models this in the grime and glory of a real group of believers (adullamdenver.com) But Sacrilege is not about planting new churches; it’s about being God’s new people. Then let’s see where Jesus takes us. Maybe to a new group where the newborn and church-burned can grow into something new and alluring together. Maybe we stay where we are so that long time friends in our churches can see some new light, breathe some fresh air, birth some new hope that they can stop feeling like losers. Hugh, if we ever meet and you flip me off, I promise not to take it personally. I’ll probably just laugh and ask you what time services are on Sunday.
David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.