Asking the Hard Question

I’ve done some dumb things, but this took the cake.

Last night, I rubbed toothpaste over my feet and hands. And not a little either.

I’m in a Louisvlle, Kentucky, hotel. The annual meeting of our denomination takes place at the Expo Convention Center this week, and I’ll be turning out a set of cartoons for the Baptist Press and sketching as many ministers and their families as possible at the BP booth. It’s what I do.

Well, okay, it’s one of the things I do.

Last night, before turning in, I took a tube of what I thought was skin cream from the bathroom counter and sat on the edge of the bed. My feet suffer from dryness these days, and from time to time–when I think of it; I’m not a good steward of this body, I’m afraid–I rub them down with a cream or lotion.

“Hmmm. Sure is thick,” I thought. But I kept squeezing, and massaging the cream onto my poor feet. With the leftover paste, I rubbed the backs of my hands.

A few minutes later, I grew tired of the stickiness on the bedsheets and got up. “This is not right,” I thought. (My wife will read this and get hysterical with laughter, I guarantee.)

But, instead of going back to check labels, I walked into the bathroom, picked up that tube and tossed it in the trash. “This must be old,” I thought.

And then, turning around, I saw it: the tube of skin cream still on the counter.

I dug out the tube I had tossed. Sure enough, the label read “Oxyfresh Toothpaste.” It’s the expensive stuff my orthodontist has me using in my post-cancer existence to reinforce the decay-fighting action of my teeth. (The radiation took out a lot of my saliva glands. Saliva, I found out, protects one’s teeth from decay. In the absence of saliva, one takes other protective steps.)

Realizing what I had done now, I replaced the toothpaste on the counter and washed my feet and hands, and broke into laughter.

Feel foolish? Oh yeah. Big time.

The wonder is why I did not ask the hard questions when the cream came out so thick. “Is this what it’s supposed to be? What does the label say?”

Yesterday morning–Sunday, as I write–I had given myself permission to sleep in since I’d driven a long way the previous day to get here, and had arrived late at night. My going to the church down the street was almost an accident. That is, unless the Lord actually planned it. I don’t always know.

The hotel was out of newspapers–it was 10 a.m.–and I walked outside looking for a vending machine. A few blocks later, I noticed the spire of this grand edifice and walked over. The historical marker said this church was built in 1866. That would be one year after the end of the Civil War, an interesting time to build a great church structure in the South. The Gothic architecture was impressive. They sure knew how to build them back then.

Church was about to start, so–wearing my blue jeans and shirt hanging out and hoping I’d see no one I knew–I stepped inside.

Did I say this church was a member of another denomination? That is, not affiliated with my Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, it proudly announced that it is a liberal church and “non-discriminating on the basis of” several things, notably sexual-orientation.

But I was not joining the church or buying anything. I am a Christian, it was Sunday morning, and here is a church. I sometimes pride myself (just a tad) on being able to worship anywhere and find something good in every sermon.

Now, I don’t get into this type of church much anymore. Most of the congregations I worship with are conservative Southern Baptists which means we make a lot over Jesus, take our sermons directly from the Word, and try to make sure people learn how to be saved. We sing hymns and choruses and pray spontaneous prayers and are informal.

I did not go there to criticize and I will not get into that here, at least, not in specifics. They actually sang a couple of hymns I knew (“A Mighty Fortress” and “It Is Well With My Soul”) and they recited the Apostles Creed, which I subscribe to (so long as everyone understands the word “catholic” means “universal”). The people were friendly and the soprano in the choir loft was phenomenal. Her “Pie’ Jesu” was something to behold.

Listening to the prayers and sermon and reading their printed materials, however, one could not help but come away with the impression that their theology could be reduced to two statements: “God is nice and we are okay.”

Later, reflecting back on the hour spent with 50 other adults in that impressive sanctuary which would have comfortably seated ten times that number, I wondered if the people in that congregation ever ask the hard questions.

Do they ever think about their faith and how it is practiced in their congregation and ask, “Is this the faith of Jesus Christ? Is this the Truth of God? Is this how God intends me to believe and live and worship?”

It would be a profitable exercise for anyone in any church in the land to ask of their worship: “Is this God’s way? Or am I superimposing my will upon the revelation of the Almighty?”

Psalm 50 keeps coming to mind.

In the middle of that incredible psalm, the Lord points out a modern foible the Israelites had fallen prey to: they sinned, they worshiped wrong, they cheated their neighbors, and thought they were doing so with impunity, with God’s blessings even. The clincher came with this line:

“These things thou hast done and I kept silent, and you thought I was just like you.”

Easy to do. I see it happen all the time. In fact, I see traces of that glaring fallacy in myself more often than I’d like to admit.

We would do well to call ourselves up short and ask, “Hey, wait a minute. Is this what God teaches in the Word? Is this the way of Jesus Christ? Does this please the Lord?”

It is true that “God is nice,” but He is so much more. Ask Israel. The God of the Universe is multi-dimensional and capable of ruling in ways that do not pass my “niceness” test. Ask God’s people who lived in Samaria in 722 B.C. or in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Ask any longtime believer who believes the Scripture and tries to live by its teaching.

As Mark Buchanan said in his book of the same title, God is “Not a Safe God.”

And so, if I may be allowed to say this heretical statement: God is not always nice, and I am most definitely not always okay.

There has to be so much more to the Christian faith than “God wants you to know He loves you just the way you are.”

It’s true He does. But He loves me enough not to leave me there.

And that’s where the hard questions kick in. Questions like, “So, how does God want me to live? If I’m okay, why do I feel so lousy?” And, “If everyone in the world is okay, why is the world in such terrible shape?”

That stuff we are rubbing on our souls may not be the God-given remedy for earth’s failures we want it to be.

Read the labels. Is this the truth?

7 thoughts on “Asking the Hard Question

  1. Your late friend, Earl, would have laughed at you, also. Isn’t it wonderful that we have Jesus to guide us to the truth?


  2. It’s not tolerance but mercy that stays the Lord’s hand of judgement.

    Your story about the Toothpaste ties so well to the story about the church.

    The real true God of the Bible is so much more worth of our worship and infinately more awesome than the illusion Satan is pushing.

    Once you know what the real thing is, nothing else will do.

  3. I keep going back to William Sloane Coffin’s refrain that “It is GOD who tells us who we are.” There are so many voices in this world trying to tell us who we are. God’s voice is the most important one.

    Madison Avenue is all about telling me that I am not okay. Happy and contented people do not buy stuff. Or at least not enough stuff to keep Madison Avenue going.

    Now I am quite confident, in those moments when I manage to let God tell me who I am, that two things are going on.

    1. There are many parts of me that the world says are Really Not Okay that God thinks are just fine indeed and the way he made me.

    2. There are also many parts of me that the world says are just fine indeed and God thinks are Really Not Okay.

    The hard part, of course, is sorting out the two.

  4. When I called Margaret to tell her what I did, she started laughing before I got halfway through. I said, “Okay, you’re ahead of me, so what did I do?” She said, “You rubbed Preparation H on your feet?” I said, “No, even worse. I rubbed toothpaste on them!” She said, “Oh no–that stuff is so expensive.” (No mercy for me!)

  5. LOL! I know exactly why she said that — because when we were together in Gettysburg last week I needed to borrow some toothpaste and reached into your shaving kit and grabbed the tube beside your toothbrush. Man, that was a CLOSE CALL!

  6. Isn’t it wonderful how God can transform us.

    I find myself doing things like this, or spilling something and creating a mess and instead of cursing or getting aggravated like before I was saved, laugh about it and say “Thank you Lord. I guess You needed a good laugh too!”

  7. You took a lot of paragraphs to finally ask the question. But I do like your comments. Met you in EBC.

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