You Know When It’s Real

That’s what Wendy’s wants you to believe about their burgers. I guess they want you to think their fast food isn’t junk food. As opposed to other vendors of artificial fare (McD’s, Jack, BK, Bell Taco and the Colonel), Wendy’s serves real food.

I have to confess: I’ve eaten at all these unreal places … and liked it. Some of my favorites are enchiritos with extra beef and cheese and the McD’s Big-n-Tasty. I’m a donut fan, too. I have a hankering for unhealthy food that is, however, becoming a thing of the past, because most of my life is past, and I have a climbing cholesterol count.

Sometimes you just don’t know what’s real, and you eat it anyway.

Maybe Wendy’s ad campaign is an attempt to sell their fast food to the younger generation that’s especially sensitive to what’s not real.

Sadly, for a good many of them, the church is a leader in not-being-real.

I just finished reading Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust by Julien Smith. It’s about how “the Internet has changed the way we do business–especially when it comes to marketing. Consumer environments are short on trust and populated by consumers who are cynical, savvy, and informed.”

Smith writes:

One thing that distinguishes certain people as trust agents is the simple defining question of whether a specific community sees them as “one of us.” In his early career at Microsoft, Robert Scobel blogged about the good–but more important, the bad–Microsoft products at the time. When he shared his take on why Internet Explorer wasn’t as good as Firefox, we (his audience of readers) felt that Scoble represented One of Us. We could believe what he said, because he was a member of our community, talked like us, spent time where we spent time, and seemed to be genuine and honest with us (italics mine). This characteristic extends to every trust agent we identify throughout the book…. Trust agents are at the center of wide, powerful networks. They make building relationships a priority because it’s a human thing to do–long before any actual business requires transacting.

I read Trust Agents because I need to understand better how to use the web and social networks. You see, I don’t have a “real” church anymore, only a virtual one, and a primary challenge in our increasingly unreal digital world (some might call it the matrix) is how to be real, how to be human, how to be real human.

People in my church used to tell me that: “Gary, you are so human.”

I’d reply, “I don’t know what else to be. Why would you say that? Are other pastors you know not human?”

Yeah, that’s the implication. The church, it seems, given its structure and common practices, creates an artificial and superficial community and culture. Although in recent years local churches have pushed for more small group experiences for people in the pews, the pews remain everyone’s primary church experience. In other words, a public speaker teaches and motivates neat rows of decently dressed, passive people. Nobody’s totally real.

In some places, people want truth. Concepts. Bible teaching. Not a lot of stories, little or no emotional stuff, and certainly a pastor who doesn’t talk too much about his personal life.

In contrast, read the Bible. More than anything else, it’s narrative. Yes, there are great didactic sections in scripture, like Romans or portions of the Pentateuch, but most of it is about God’s people living out their faith in the milieu of human life.

Into that human caldron, God sent his Son, fully human. He is a high priest, we are told, who feels everything we feel: happiness, joy, family and friendship, betrayal, temptation, sorrow and pain.

Read, too, about the apostle Paul. He was one honest, self-effacing, authentic dude. In the context of his face-saving culture, Paul’s self-disclosures– about his angst, his anger, his depression and doubts –is nothing short of remarkable. When I read Paul, I think he was the pioneer of recovery ministry!

What about Jesus? In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ first conversation with potential disciples, the first question they ask him is: Where do you live? Without hesitation, Jesus replied, “Come and see.”

No, Jesus wasn’t a phantom: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Jesus was so “down-to-earth,” so human, the religious community couldn’t believe he was the Son of God. So they crucified him for blasphemy.

I like to tease people with this question: Is God human?

Um … well … no. “God is not a man …” (Numbers 23:19). He is spirit, and we must worship him in spirit and in truth.

But … well … yes. God is not a man, but he sent his son in the form of human flesh, and when Jesus rose from the dead, witnesses saw his real human body. That same body ascended into heaven, and there is no indication in the Bible that Jesus, at some point, shed his humanity. In sending his Son, God became flesh, and when Jesus went to the Father, he brought his humanity into the Godhead.

Jesus was Immanuel, God with us. To use the words of Trust Agents, “one of us.”

A few years ago I had absolutely the worst falling out with my little brother. Ever. I can’t remember when I’ve been so angry. On a Saturday. I had to preach that night. My message: managing your anger.

That night I stood there in front our congregation feeling like a fool. How could I talk about anger management when I was living one of the angriest days of my life?

It crossed my mind: I know. I’ll just change the subject. Preach on something else. Tell them God changed my message at the last minute, and I’m just being obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit. That works well in a charismatic church, you know.

But I decided I’d stick to the theme. First, though, I had to tell the church about my day. About how I was out of control. About how I have no business teaching about anger management because of my unholy heart.

I couldn’t have designed a better introduction. You could hear a pin drop, and as I preached what the Bible says about anger, I could feel everyone’s intense attention.

At the end of the service, we celebrated the Lord’s Table. It was in the plan. To come to Jesus with our sin. Our anger. Our pain. To let his broken body heal our broken hearts. I wept when we did that. Three times. In each of our three weekend service. My heart was healed and changed, and my relationship with my brother was restored. It was one of our most powerful weekends ever.

You know when it’s real.

No, you can’t bring every sin into the pulpit. A Christian leader can’t be totally honest about everything with everyone, but you better be totally honest with a few people you can trust, and you can be totally honest about being totally honest with someone.

It’s how we are transformed: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Not too long ago somebody wrote me on FaceBook, “You and Word of Grace, were a huge part of the beginning of our marriage. You have touched my life in a unique way. You are a gifted speaker, of course. However, the open, honest nature in which you discuss your own flaws is what really impacted me. You lead by example, and you’re real. That’s why I hope you continue to spread “Jesus + Nothing” around the world, especially in places where younger generations can hear you. Younger generations want genuine leaders. Everyone in the room knows that the pastor has problems too, but very few pastors can be real enough from the pulpit to show those weaknesses and flaws.”

People know when you are real.

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