By Bob Hiller –
If you watch the NBA on TV you will have noticed the awkward coach interviews that take place between quarters. In an effort to give viewers more access to the game, the NBA requires coaches to speak about their game plan to some brave, sideline reporter after either the first or third quarter. Hopefully, said coach’s team is doing something positive, otherwise the reporter will have the unenviable job of asking the coach what needs to change in the next quarter. This is especially entertaining if the coach is my favorite, Gregg Popovich. Dude hates the sideline interview. And, he is not afraid to show it!
Apparently, in a recent loss to the Clippers, poor Lisa Salters asked coach Pop about what the team needed to do to stop opposing point guard, Chris Paul. “Play better defense,” was the curt answer. Salters who is either brave or getting paid well, said, “Can you tell me what that looks like?” To which grouchy Pop shot back with the same platitude, “Play better defense.”
Now, I’ve already expressed my adoration of Popovich’s contempt for the imposition of league requirements. His platitude during the inter-quarter interview only served to display his irritation. His response exposed two things about Popovich: first, he wasn’t actually interested in the conversation (to put it lightly) and second, he wanted to keep Salters and everyone else out. His platitude demonstrated that he didn’t care to talk about what was going wrong. He just wanted to fulfill his duty and move on to something else.
The ironically defensive platitude, “Play better defense” inspired me to think about how often we Christians love to hide behind platitudes, clichés, and catch phrases. This world is completely wrecked because we’ve destroyed it with our sinful hands, and the Law is constantly attacking us with this truth. Guilt reigns in our hearts. People are suffering as the creation agonizes in anticipation of the long, long-awaited resurrection. There are times when it just feels like the devil is mocking us with every threat of Islamic terrorism, the dominating despair of moral relativism, and ear-tickling false teaching. In response, what do we hear from the churches in the face of such frustrations and fears? Play better defense.
We get clichés and platitudes. “Oh, God has a great plan for all of this.” “Oh, don’t you see? God has purpose for your suffering.” “God is sovereign.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” “Just let go and let God.” “God helps those who help themselves.” Geez, we’ll even do it with Bible verses: “We face tough things, but hey, we are more than conquerors!” Ugh. The list goes on. I’m sure you could add more.
But this is too easy to pick on. Of course we see the heartlessness of using catch phrases to stay the hell which surrounds us. Clearly, these are band aids for cancer. And we, good ol’ Lutherans, are all too happy to hop on this, belittle it, and put it in its rightful place. But, we do it too! We’ve somehow come to the conclusion that if we just say the words: “Word and sacrament” then all will be well. Yes, your life is miserable. Yes, Nepal just got decimated by an act of God. Yes, the devil won’t sleep until he destroys you and your family. But, don’t worry: word and sacrament.
In all of this, we are Gregg Popovich barking at Lisa Salters. To deal with the reign of sin, death, and hell in the life of my brothers or sisters by spouting catch phrases at them shows I’m not actually interested in loving them. Rather, I am simply concerned with my orthodoxy and my “duty” as a Christian. Like Pop with Salters, we are keeping God out of the huddle. In other words, simply saying the right things in the right order doesn’t actually give Jesus to people. Jesus calls for a preacher, someone to open their mouth and let Him out. Our clichés keep Him in.
At worst, Christian platitudes become demonic words of condemnation. Telling me that God won’t give me more than I can handle only serves to remind me that it’s my fault I’m not handling it well. The truth, dear brother or sister, is that death, divorce, depression, anger, etc. are too much for you to handle. How can a God who tells me how sinful and weak my nature is expect me to handle those things in my sinful weakness? What’s wrong with me? Or, telling me that I have a purpose when my life feels completely aimless only turns me in on myself (which is a working definition of sin) in an effort to figure out what I am doing wrong. Or worse and perhaps most damning of all, is that this sends me climbing up to heaven into the secret councils of God in an effort to ascertain His hidden will (which is a recipe for despair).
A pastor recently told me about a 90 year old woman he meets with on a regular basis. She had been in American evangelical churches her whole life and had no Biblical understanding of the sacraments. They weren’t even on her radar. She spoke to him about how she was losing sleep for fear she wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Death was knocking. She was fearful that God wouldn’t take her. Even though she knew she had been a good person, something still caused her to fear. The pastor didn’t say something like ‘Don’t worry, grace alone, not works, saves.” Nor did he say, “There is purpose in your fear.” Both may have been true but would have given her nothing to grasp when death’s cold stench breathed down her neck. Instead of giving her a list of theological platitudes, this man gave her Jesus. He said, “Ruth, you are baptized, right? Listen, when God did that to you, He made you a promise. He promised that whether you live or die, you belong to Him. In fact, the whole reason He has me here with you is to declare to you this: your sins are forgiven. Jesus took them from you and put them in the cross. He’s risen and sent me to tell you, you are forgiven. Jesus said so. When you can’t sleep at night, remember the promise he made to you when you were baptized. You belong to Him and death won’t stop that one bit.”
That pastor gave Jesus. He didn’t talk about the textual argument for baptismal regeneration, he simply proclaimed her baptized. He didn’t explain the afterlife. He promised that she was God’s beloved, even in death. He didn’t explain an atonement theory and say, “Word and sacrament.” He took her sins to Jesus who atoned for her. No weak clichés. He let Jesus out of His mouth and put Him in her ears and heart. We need to talk less about God. We need to proclaim Him and set captives free. No more band aids for cancer. No more clichés. Dear Christians, don’t talk about absolution; forgive sinners. Don’t explain the Law; attack with it. Don’t say Word and sacrament in a sermon; give them out! No more clichés! No more platitudes. Give them Jesus!
For what it’s worth, Ruth is sleeping much better these days.