This week I received a wonderful gift in the form of a positive review of my book God in the Here and Now (available on Amazon), from renown biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann. He wrote of my book:
I have appreciated reading these suggestive sermons. They are fresh and interesting, connected to both scripture and real life in imaginative ways. McLean invites one out of the box, always a good idea with the gospel.
Since Brueggemann has inspired me in my ministry for decades with his wisdom and scholarship, his praise of my work means a lot to me. But beyond flattering me, his words also made me think, as they always do. In this case I started thinking about boxes.
In what box do you put the Gospel? Is it in a box labelled “Sunday only”? Is it in a box labelled “Evangelical”, or “Progressive,” “Salvation” or “Fiction”? I met a very smart, kind atheist the other day who had tucked the Gospel he was taught as a child away in a box called “Childhood Imaginary Friend”, in part because of what he perceived to be a lack of empirical evidence that a good God actually exists. Human beings put the Gospel in boxes of all sizes and shapes, some of their own making and some made by others. But none of these boxes are made by God. God isn’t much of a box-lover. In fact, I suspect that one of the things God delights in most is smashing and tearing apart our boxes, like a child so eager to get at a present that even the finest packaging in the world is no obstacle. God wants what is inside to be set free. It’s good news after all. The good news was never meant to be held down in a box with maddeningly tiny screws which keep the contents safe, but make it impossible to use and enjoy.
Human beings, on the other hand, love boxes. Even the messiest among us like to have our thoughts and beliefs organized in discrete compartments in our minds and hearts. Life is simpler that way. I have known scientists who reject evolution on the grounds of faith. I have known creative authors who are biblical literalists. And we have all seen plenty of examples lately of politicians who profess to be Christian but feel no responsibility for the poor. I can’t figure out how some people maintain such contradictory beliefs in their minds and hearts; but they do. Their boxes do not touch each other or overlap in anyway.
But the world isn’t really made of neatly and discretely organized boxes. It is made of complicated, overlapping, interconnected parts. Our world was created by a God who loves color and mess and making things that don’t fit neatly in any boxes, like Okapis and Duck-billed Platypuses, manly women, effeminate men, and multiracial children who can’t check any of the boxes on census forms with 100% accuracy. Our world was created by a God who came to bring good news to all of us, the kind of news which is so wonderful and unexpected that even a boulder which took multiple people to move could not contain it. The more we take this good news into our hearts, therefore, the more we should want to become box smashers too because we will feel that the Gospel doesn’t belong in any one. God’s love in Christ transcends them all.
Until such time as we are all box smashers, the very least we can do is take out the Gospel we feel we know and drop it into some of the other boxes in our minds and hearts regularly to see what happens. If our understanding of the Gospel cannot survive in our science box, for example, I would argue that it isn’t worth much. Likewise, if our understanding of the Gospel doesn’t change the shape of our politics and economics boxes, then it can’t be the transforming one that Jesus preached and embodied. When was the last time you dropped the Gospel in your “Self” box when you looked in the mirror? When was the last time you let it loose in your “Strangers” box? If the Gospel you drop is the one Jesus preached you should still see God’s love when you look inside either.
I don’t set out to think outside of the box with my sermons. I set out to consider how the Gospel affects every single aspect of life. But that is the beauty of the Gospel. When we strive to dwell in it fully, it reveals the limits of boxes we didn’t even know we had. Then it invites us to step outside of them in order to dwell in a grace that cannot be contained. Thanks be to God!