S*** Town Theology

60539034-5A2A-4637-B76C-E4D5511CF722Spiritual take-aways from the latest podcast by the ‘Serial’ team

(July 2017) One weekend this past spring, my wife and I traveled to Charlotte and back to visit our son at school. This is a 16-hour roundtrip that cries out for some serious diversion, such as a book on CD or a podcast. We ended up going with a recently released podcast by the same team that produced the last two Serial broadcasts.

The program left a profound impression upon me that speaks directly to my own church’s discussions about how to be a relevant presence in our community. It also provided for me a compelling theological argument for why Christians need to go above and beyond political correctedness in seeking and embracing diversity, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout our week.

That’s some pretty good theological take-away from six hours or so of listening to a story so profane and bereft of any goodness or hope, that my initial response wasnt spiritual but instead it sent me into 36 hours or so of feeling somewhat depressed. 

The podcast is the true story of the goings-on in Woodstock, a small town in rural Alabama that offers up a fairly unflattering slice of humanity (the podcast is aptly entitled “Shit Town”). The protagonist, John B. McLemore, is this brilliant restorer of antique clocks, whose expertise is renowned far beyond the confines of his hometown to throughout the United States and even Europe. He is also this profane, bitter, emotional train wreck of a human being who provides much of the story’s narrative by spewing rants at the town he calls home and the larger world around him. It is revealed later in the story that he was gay; a revelation that only added to his sense of isolation and alienation in the rural South.

John never refers to Woodstock by its official name but only as ‘Shit Town.’ He tosses the name out so frequently, so matter-of-factly, that after a while, it became for me the town’s actual name. 

The town folks, or at least those depicted in the story, are racists; have multiple children with multiple partners and spend their free time high or drunk or both; getting into fights, and trying to stay out of jail. I would imagine there is kindness and redemptive acts in this town, but that would have thrown off the producer’s narrative.  

John saves his harshest commentary, however, for the church. He remarks at one point there aren’t enough schools to accomodate the town’s meager populace, but they had 95 churches. Why, oh why would you have 95 churches in a town no bigger than a postage stamp?! It’s never explained, but it’s reasonable to assume that over the years there were petty arguments, discord, and the inevitable falling outs. And so people would go off to start their own church. And of course, there would have to be churches for white people and churches for black people because, God forbid, we would actually worship together.

No wonder the protagonist railed against the church; who could blame him? There was zero evidence any of these churches were making a whisper of a difference in this town. When John dies, there’s a powerful scene where we listen to a recording of the actual funeral service where we hear the pastor speak scripture and words of comfort over a man who was an atheist. The emptiness and bitter irony of a Christian burial for a man who disavowed any possibility there was a God, in front of a sparse audience of friends and family who were there, for the most part, to best position themselves to get their hands on the deceased’s alleged fortune, was played to with great effect.

After some time to reflect, the resulting sadness I felt after listening to the podcast is tied, at some level, to the irrelevance (or animosity) I know many feel toward the Christian church. 

We are decades removed from a culture where church attendance was assumed. In a way, that’s not such a bad thing. One of the things that most struck me when I gave my life to Christ 38 years ago is there exists a sharp distinction between “Churchianity” and a relationship with Jesus Christ. I got the very real sense that many church goers attend out of some sense of duty or obligation and that churches and pulpits are filled with people who think they are in good stead with God when the reality is they are no closer to God than the guy who sleeps in on Sundays and plays golf. 

That means the lines between “in Christ” and the world should be more distinct and God willing, fewer will be deluded into thinking they are right with God simply because they attend church and they are a “good person.” 

So we are smack dab in a “post-Christian society” (whatever that means). But rather than despair of that reality and rant and rail at the immorality that permiates our culture, I think it presents an opportunity for the church to present to the world an authentic representation of Christ. 

But before that can happen, we first have to stop. 

WE HAVE TO STOP.

We have to stop giving the devil so much ammo with which to discredit the Gospel.

We have to stop presenting this false caricature of Christ to the world where Christanity is identifed more with political parties and accumulating power than it is with loving our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

We have to stop loving riches and fame.

We have to stop being afraid of embracing those whose stories, cultures and skin color differ from our own.

We have to stop engaging in vain and empty arguments.

We have to stop demonizing those whose views differ from our own.

We have to stop living secret, unaccountable lives.

We have to stop driving/walking by and ignoring those in need.

We have to stop letting the world and culture shape us.

We have to stop judging others for the very things for which we ourselves are guilty.

We have to stop treating the resources God has given us as our own.

We have to stop gossiping and tearing others down.

We have to stop thinking that we have earned or can earn God’s approval.

We have to stop comparing ourselves to others.

We have to stop being afraid of mere man and his opinions.

We have to stop our coarse joking.

We have to stop flirting with and indulging in sexual immorality.

We have to stop taking in entertainment that poisons our mind and dulls our conscience.

We have to stop. NOW.

We have to stop acting like our time on this planet is not fleeting and we have endless days before us. That’s not only delussional but it’s just plain dumb.

We have to stop thinking we can live by the Spirit without having our minds, our hearts renewed every day by the Word of God.

We have to stop living as though we are our own and denying the reality we have bought and paid for with a great price. 

And as we stop, we also have to START.

We have to start seeking the Lord with all of our strength, all of our heart, all of our mind; all that we got.

We have to start humbling ourselves before God.

We have to start asking God to give us a heart for the things for which His heart is inclined.

We have to start loving our neighbors as well as we love ourselves.

We have to start being thankful and generous with all God has given us: our time, our resources, and our very lives.

We have to start walking by faith and not by sight.

We have to start welcoming the stranger living among us.

Start seeking justice and loving mercy.

Start building bridges.

Start being peace makers.

Start to stand in the gap and intercede for the broken, the lost, the lonely, the imprisoned, the widow, the orphan, the sick, and the poor.

We have to start being salt and light in a world that is lost and wanders around in darkness, bumping its collective heads on vain and empty philosophies.

And together, as we collectively fall on our knees before God, repent and seek Him with everything we got, and as we start stopping and start starting, we will see revival. We will see, as Tim Keller says, sleepy Christians wake up, nominal ‘Christians’ get converted, and large numbers of people, once hostile or indifferent to the Gospel, come to Christ. 

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