Falling short of the glory of God
In the last half of the 20th century the evangelical church was on the rise globally. Reacting to the idea that Bible-believing Christians were “fundamentalists”, which had become a bad name, this group of people advocated a conservative approach to hermeneutics (the interpretation of the Bible) and theology. They affirmed traditional theological positions and creeds hammered out in church history, and they began to address how the church should relate to those who did not profess any particular faith in God, let alone in Jesus Christ.
Various named personages began to stand out as spokespersons for the evangelical church, and two of the foremost were Edith and Francis Schaeffer. They came from Presbyterian and missionary backgrounds. They met in college and were appointed to go to Switzerland as missionaries to Europe, but what they ended up founding transcended the vision of their original appointment. They created a community called L'Abri. Wikipedia describes L'Abri as follows: “L'Abri (French for “the Shelter”) is an evangelical Christian organisation founded by Francis Schaeffer and his wife Edith in Huémoz-sur-Ollon, Switzerland on June 5, 1955. They opened their alpine home as a ministry to curious travellers and as a forum to discuss philosophical and religious beliefs.” Indeed, it was that last sentence that caught my attention and propelled me to read the book they wrote describing the way L'Abri came into being and the wonderful things that took place there when everyone gathered to listen to Francis Schaeffer teach and to participate in thrashing out discussions of the relevance of faith in God. Those people related Biblical faith to continental philosophy, science, and art. The thought of it when I first read about it in the 1980s made me want to drop everything and go there. Had I not been married, with three young children and a ministry already occupying much of my time, I would have paddled the Atlantic if I had had to in order to put myself into the mix as I perceived it at L'Abri.
I did not know how things really were. I had an idealistic and romanticised understanding of what took place there and of the people who were running it. Frank Schaeffer, the youngest child and only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, wrote a book, 'Crazy for God', in which he told many of the family secrets pertaining to the Schaeffers. Their marriage was not all that rosy, they were spiritually proud, and they were each controlling and selfish in ways that would be understood today as abusive. That, in itself, does not destroy the fact that God used them to achieve important things in other people's lives; so, I have several thoughts coming out of that realisation. First, it illustrates why it is so important for Christians to ditch the hyper-spiritualising of the ways in which we live and to be real (with ourselves and with one another). The great leader's statue may be made of gleaming bronze, but its feet are made of clay. If we are real with one another, it protects against what one famous preacher referred to as “the glorification of the worm”. No-one is beyond a fall. Everyone is already fallen. John wrote to a church and said, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Everyone falls short of the glory of God, and no-one has the total edge on others. Whenever you encounter a religious organisation that claims to have exclusive and exhaustive knowledge of the truth, so that everyone else who does not agree with them is in error (at best) or possessed of the devil (at worst), then you have come into contact with a cult. Run from it as fast as you can!
Second, God uses people in whom the image of God has become tarnished. God uses imperfect people so that the result might be seen to be from God and not by virtue of the wonderfulness of the people themselves. This is the design. The design is not to create perfect Christians who have no flaws and provide spotless examples of living by God's precepts. That is the fallacy in much of the evangelical approach: If I just study the Bible and learn its precepts and then apply them, I will live an overcoming life and God will bless me with abundance so that people will see my “overflowing” life, want what I have, and be converted to faith in God themselves. It doesn't work that way. That way is the way of the magician in the New Testament who saw the miracles being performed by the apostles and wanted to get the same power, wanted the Holy Spirit for himself so that he too could perform miracles and be somebody in the eyes of those around him. He wanted godliness in order to make a profit. It doesn't work that way. How does it work? People are attracted to truth, things as they actually are, and so they are attracted to broken people who in their humility call out to God to forgive them, to heal their brokenness, and to redeem them in spite of their sin. That is the way it works. Christian freedom is provided in grace, which can be conceived of as an escape through undeserved favour from the legalism of performance-based systems. Being real, that is living on the outside for all to see what you know of yourself on the inside, where it seems only you and God can see, is being free.
There is nothing as attractive as an authentic person set free. Likewise, there is nothing quite as disturbing as such a person, because they usually seem … well, FREE. They don't have to measure up to anyone's expectations. There is no concern for who is elite and who is mediocre. They know they are already accepted, as they are, by God, and if God be for them, then it doesn't matter who might be against them. I could not go to L'Abri when I wanted to several decades ago. I always regretted that, but now I don't anymore. The Schaeffers were not so special, and there was nothing at L'Abri that I could not have right here and right now. What is crucial is to be available to God, transformed by His grace, and authentic, truthful to myself and others.
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