My friend Dan recently began a topic thread on Beliefnet's Christian-to-Christian Debate forum about "The Dangers of the 'Prosperity Gospel'" . It's turned into quite a long and involved discussion between more mainstream Christians and adherents of what a former pastor of mine called gumball theology, where you insert X amount of faith or good works or devotion into God's cosmic gumball machine and -- ka-ching! -- health, wealth and other worldly goodies come tumbling out.
Having read through and indeed participated some in this debate, the thought crossed my mind that Lutherans and other Christians who reject the theology of glory and the gumball model of God's saving action have their work cut out for them countering this mindset in our narcissistic and entitlement-minded society.
The "kenosis hymn" of the Epistle to the Philippians praises a Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...and became obedient, to the point of death -- even death on a cross." Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Dan Erlander writes, "We live by trust and not by certitude...we live in ambiguity. Life is joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, good and evil, health and sickness. Having no proof that God cares, we take the 'leap of faith.'" Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff, in their book Jesus of Nazareth, note, "Embracing the cross is a Christian gesture which chooses life. It means taking into account the difficulties, the lack of success, the fear of standing alone. This tradition has never promised us a garden of roses."
Compared to the happy talk of TBN preachers who promise their hearers money and stuff and success and miracles and blue skies -- what masochistic idiot would instead embrace the theology of the cross, which guarantees not a free ticket to Fat City, but rather a life that will be, in many ways, much harder than it would ever be otherwise?
But we do. We do. Sometimes we can't always articulate why we've said "yes" to this proposition...sometimes we don't even really know why, other than that we're unable to say "no."
I think the best way any of us who claim the Christ who calls us to take up our crosses and follow him can explain this holy madness of ours is to simply tell our stories as people of faith. Most of us are not going to have tales of miraculous healings or sudden material blessings or a divinely finessed life; maybe quite the opposite. But I think all of us can relate being, as C.S. Lewis put it, surprised by joy -- the joy of relationship and meaning beyond mere existence, even in the midst of sickness or failure or rejection or want.
A friend of mine says, "I don't need a theology for when I'm happy and the world is going my way. I need a theology that's there when I'm face down in a ditch, coughing up mud, unable to get up."
There's a hymn in the Lutheran Book of Worship that puts it this way: "The peace of God, it is no peace/but strife closed in the sod/yet let us pray for but one thing/the marv'lous peace of God." God help me, I think I almost know what this means.
Crucifixion at the Barton Creek Mall by James Janknegt