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On Razors and Reasons for Being

I’m bald. Have been for roughly two decades. Perversely, I spent the previous two or three years before losing my hair shaving my head and bleaching the stubble that remained platinum blonde. I’m not at all filled with self-loathing for my poor choices on this score or bitter about going bald early or filled with jealousy for men my age who have full heads of hair. The fact that I pleaded with my son for most of his teenage years to grow his hair long so I could live vicariously through him has nothing to do with unresolved early-onset balding trauma. My proclivity to wear a hat anytime I’m not sleeping or preaching has nothing to do with vain contempt for my bald head. I like being bald and am fully at peace with it. Really.

Not convinced? Yeah, well, me neither. On the positive side, I have become well-practised at shaving my head. Three times a week, I lather up the skull and go to work with a blade. This means that I go through a fair number of razor blades. What I’ve saved in shampoo over the years I’ve surely spent on shaving cream and blades.

A few years ago, I discovered an online shaving club that delivers blades to my mailbox for only few dollars per month. It was a glorious discovery. For the first few years, I simply received a plain cardboard box with nothing but the blades inside. Then, maybe a year ago or so, they started sending a little mini magazine along with the blades. It would contain crossword puzzles, some humour, maybe some shaving tips or fashion advice. Lately, though, these little magazines have begun to over-reach a bit. I’ve noticed a bit more moralizing, a bit more self-help, a bit more psychologizing and pretension. It’s weird. And weirdly irritating.

The most recent issue, for example, was called “The Change Issue.” There was a guide to dealing with transitions, a piece about having a “COVID-safe Halloween” (and here I was hoping that one of the very few benefits of a pandemic might mean that we could avoid Halloween altogether this year), and then, to top it all off, an article called “An Expert’s Guide to Being Grateful in 2020.” I have no problem with gratitude, naturally, but why, in the name of all that is holy, would I be inclined to take the advice of a dispenser of shaving products on the matter? I don’t expect my mechanic to instruct me on yoga techniques. I don’t ask my librarian for advice on plumbing issues. Just keep making blades that don’t peel my scalp like a potato, thanks very much. If I want advice on gratitude, I’ll look elsewhere.

But where, exactly? We’re not exactly staying in our lanes these days. Millionaire athletes are wagging moralizing fingers, scolding me about politics, and imploring me to vote. Advertisers across the board are scrambling to attach themselves to whatever the cause du jour might be. The podcasts I listen to are punctuated throughout with offers of online mental health supports. Everyone wants to help me do better. I can’t even open a package of razor blades without finding earnest advice to “Surrender to just being in moment,” “Be grateful for what I have,” and “Pay attention to what really matters in life.” Every moment is a gift, after all. The people who hawk shaving products told me so.

This past Saturday, I spent the day in a Zoom conference entitled “Why Church?” It’s good to ask the question every now and then, presumably. What are we for? Why do we exist? What is the church’s raison d’être and are we living up to (and into) it? In the past, people might have looked to the church for answers to questions about meaning and gratitude and politics and mental health and much more besides. It was assumed that the church had at least some insight into these matters of fairly deep importance. More than millionaire athletes and manufacturers of shaving products, presumably.

But of course, we in the West live in times that are well and truly post-Christian. And the moral void that has been created by the stampede out of church has been eagerly filled by consumer capitalism and all its deliverances. It’s highly profitable to be concerned about human wellness and social issues these days, and there are no shortage of companies and celebrities and brands lining up to sell us a kind of self-congratulatory moralism. We may not be inclined to listen to the Apostle Paul tell us about the importance of gratitude, but the purveyors of men’s hygiene products? Sure, why not? They’re good at making sharp objects, after all. Why wouldn’t they have some insight into thanksgiving?

In these strange times, my sense is that the church is often tempted to desperately try to claw back market share. If mental health is the lingua franca of our day, well then that’s how we’ll frame the gospel. If politics and/or explosive social issues are what’s stoking the flames of the Internet, then we’ll prove that we have something to contribute. If people seem stressed out and overwrought then we’ll talk about the importance of gratitude and self-care. Why church? Well, you tell us what you want or need or think we should do, and we’ll tell you how the church can help or get busy trying.

I wonder, though, if the question, “Why church?” may be an exercise in missing the point if only because it runs the risk of framing the existence of the church as primarily the answer to questions that we ask. We set the agenda and the church sees what it can do. It rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. On one level, this may be impossible to avoid entirely. The “why?” question points to the simple fact that the church does, in fact, have a point. Whether we think it’s primarily about social action here and now or laying out the blueprint for souls to be evacuated into heaven, both are answers to the question, “Why church?”

But in the end, I think that there is something about the church that precedes all of our angst-ridden interrogations and rationalizations, that supersedes all of our agendas and anxieties. On some level the answer to the question, “Why church?” can only be, “Because, God.” Because God did strange and wonderful things through the person of Jesus Christ. Because a divine surprise launched a healed and forgiven community into existence to bear witness to love’s cost and promise. Because our failures and stupidities and death-dealing ways are ultimately no match for the Lord of life.

I often include a portion in my sermons where I will say that this or that bible story or passage or teaching tells the truth in three important directions:

  1. The truth about who God is
  2. The truth about we are
  3. The truth about what we’re supposed to do

There is a fourth important direction in which truth travels. It is implicit in the other three but it’s worth stating explicitly: The truth about what God has done for us. Before it is anything else, the church is about proclaiming this deepest of all truths. Our doing proceeds fully and finally out of what has already been done. Our “why’s?” proceed always and only from an eternal “Who?”

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