As my first heady year as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City was drawing to conclusion, I made a trip upstate to a small town on the west slope of the Catskills. Some clergy and churches in that area had created an innovative field-based studies program in partnership with Union. I was considering spending the next year there in that program.
On that trip, I visited a small church, where I would serve as a student-pastor in the coming year if I entered that program. During my first year of seminary, I had worked at a wonderful, racially diverse congregation on Manhattan's west side. It featured lively, contemporary worship and cutting-edge justice ministries. I loved the joyful exuberance of worship at that church.
The upstate rural church was different. It was quite small. The people were mostly farmers, with a truck driver or teacher thrown in. Others worked in small restaurants, beauty salons and Mom and Pop grocery stores. There was not a thing that was "cutting-edge" about it.
What I remember finding particularly different, and uncomfortable, were the hymns. Back in the city, we were singing the then-popular songs of Avery and Marsh, like "We're Here to Be Happy," and protest songs like, "One Tin Soldier."
The hymns of the little rural congregation were different. We sang "Rock of Ages."
"Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee!
Let the water and the blood, from your wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power."
We wrapped up with "Abide with Me."
"Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The shadows deepen, Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me."
After that visit, I returned to the city and the seminary unsure if this was for me. I met with my advisor who suggested I might, if I went, think of myself as a "visiting anthropologist." As it happened, I did spend my next year at that small church in the Catskills. It was a rewarding year full of strange and wondrous experiences.
Over the years, I've continued to ponder my initial reaction to that church and particularly to the hymns. What was it that I found difficult, even embarrassing?
The hymns suggested I needed help. Even more than that, they suggested I needed a Savior. I wasn't so sure. The idea that I was here to help others was fine. I was comfortable with that. In fact, almost everything in my background -- family, scouts, church and college -- had prepared me for the idea that I could and should help others. But the notion that I needed help, that I needed forgiveness or cleansing, that I needed a Savior ("Help of the helpless, O abide with me") was, well, somehow both uncomfortable and embarrassing.
It was also true.
As life went on and my understanding of both Christian faith and life deepened, I realized that the Christian story was, in many ways, at odds with the modern story. I had been socialized into that story as I grew up in 20th-century America. The modern story had taught me that human beings were basically good people who needed education. We only needed to discover the truth and goodness within each of us and live accordingly.
The Christian faith, as I was coming to understand it, said something both different and harder. We aren't simply good people in need of education. We are sinners in need of redemption. We need a Savior.
This was not a particularly comfortable idea or conviction to hold but it did seem to be truer to our situation. It helped to explain a lot that an "I'm OK, you're OK" view of the world didn't. It explained the self-destructive paths people, including me, sometimes followed. It explained how racism and misogyny could be accepted as normal. It explained how a nation could sanction its own violence and aggression while condemning the same in others. It explained how "good people" could be vicious and deceitful.
Still, most people I encountered seemed more at ease with the idea of dividing the world into the enlightened and unenlightened (and, of course, always placing themselves in the former camp). For those who held this view, Jesus was an exemplary human being, a model for us.
I was coming to see Jesus differently, not simply as a model to be imitated and a moral exemplar, but as the Christ, the Messiah of God, in whose ministry, death and resurrection God has invaded a world caught -- snared really -- by the twin ruling powers of Sin and Death. I came to see Jesus' ministry not so much as modeling loving behavior, but rather as a direct assault on the powers that disfigure and distort life. In him, in his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, God has intervened to forgive and free us and to set loose a new creation.
When I understood Jesus as mainly a model and moral exemplar, my life and actions often seemed to be my effort to justify myself, to get on God's good side or to demonstrate to others that I was on God's side. The trouble with that was no matter how much I did, it was never enough. I was crippled by a sense that I had to do and achieve more and more to win God's love and approval.
I see my efforts and contributions differently now. They are not an effort to win God's love or grace. They are a response to a costly grace given freely in Jesus Christ that I could never, on my own, deserve. My efforts to serve and contribute are my grateful response to God's grace and God's love for me. These are offered in response to the one who has broken the dominion of Sin and Death and set me free.
Sometimes still, the old voices of fear and embarrassment linger. They whisper and taunt, "You don't really believe that old story do you?"
I do. With Paul I say, "I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith..." (Romans 1:16). And I join in the old, slightly embarrassing song, "Help of the helpless, O abide with me."
Excerpted from 'The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus is to Me.'