Friday, January 25, 2008

Singing with the Midnight Choir

"Nothing ain't worth nothin', but its free" - Kris Kristofferson

In the 1970's, Larry Gatlin wrote a song which many Christian found offensive. (Strange, because Gatlin himself, even then, professed a strong faith in Christ.) When you really read the words to "The Midnight Choir", it is both convicting and troublesome:

The doors to the mission open at seven.
And the soup will be ready about nine.
Right now its six-thirty, they're ragged and dirty,
they're standing, and sitting, and laying in line.

First they'll do a little singing,
then hear a little preaching.
Then get saved for the third time this week.
A bowl of soup later and a pat on the shoulder,
and by midnight they're back on the street.

They walk to the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway,
then take the first alley on the right.
One of them asks a stranger, "How 'bout a hand",
and he gives it one finger at a time.

Then they spot an old buddy with a bottle of heaven,
then pass around what means everything.
One bottle for four, thank God, someone scored!
Now the Midnight Choir starts to sing...

"Will they have Mogen David in heaven?
Dear Lord, we'd all like to know.
Will they have Mogen David in heaven,
Sweet Jesus, if they don't, who the hell wants to go!"

On many levels, this song is convicting. It portrays the world view of the homeless and alcoholic men and how they see what others do to them. Well meaning people open the soup kitchen to feed these men. But that bowl of soup comes with strings attached. They are expected to accept Christ. For the problems of these men have a simplistic solution - what these men need is a good sermon, a good invitation, a bowl of soup and a pat on the shoulder and their world will be changed. You can almost here the Sunday report, "We had fifteen saved this week at the shelter!" as if what happened that week was a powerful show of the Gospel. Then they are sent back into the harsh realities of the world to face the cold nights and the rejection of society.

In reality, or at least in my realty, Christians are often seen as only willing to invest a few hours of time to assuage their own guilt toward those who are beneath them socially, and completely unwilling to invest their lives for these strangers in any meaningful and long lasting way. They have given them nothing of value, but the warmth of a bowl of soup on a single night and pronounced them whole. (You can start feeling guilty now.)

You can also see how these homeless men view salvation, or at least the profession of it, as a ticket to their nightly meal. Sufficient numbers of them must profess Christ each night in order that all may partake in the soup that will be offered at the conclusion. In short, profession of faith is the price of admission to dinner, much like the waiter bringing the check to the table after dinner.

While I realize the song is fictional, it is convicting for me of my attitude toward those in need. I often overlook their immediate needs (dinner, a clean bed, a bath, a friend, etc.,) for what *I* think they really need - which is, obviously, a profession of faith in Christ. At least, I can say, I have done something for their eternal destiny even if I ignore their immediate destiny - a back alley at Fourth and Broadway.

I also realize that I am often the guy, who when asked to give a hand, gives it one finger at a time. I can honestly say I have never flipped off a homeless guy. I also don't tend to judge them. (I am smart enough to realize that they are not stupid enough to be in the position they are in without at least trying something different.) When I see them downtown, I often wonder about their past and what they have experienced that led them to the point in their lives where they accepted the fate to live under the overpass. But I must also confess that I have never helped a homeless guy off the street, nor tried to help them to reach a more stable way of living. Yes, I can be made to feel guilty and convicted for how little I do to ease the problems of those less fortunate than me. But there is no way that I do enough (whatever "enough" is).

But the song is troubling to me for this reason: While these fictional men are concerned about the deep theological question of whether there will be "Mogen David" in heaven (serious theologians know its going to be Dom Perignon with caviar chasers ), I constantly wonder what it is that would keep me from wanting to go to heaven. Is accepting Jesus just really seeking to get my nightly bowl of soup? Is my acceptance of Jesus the means for me to gain heaven, or is Christ the point of heaven?

I confess that in my early Christian life, heaven was the "anti-hell". (You know the sermon as well: "Hell is terrible. It is awful. The fire never quenches. The teeth are always gnawing. Its painful. Its awful. It smells bad. Bad people will be there. You want to avoid hell for sure! If you don't accept Jesus Christ, you will go there."). No one wants to go to hell, so for sure I want to do whatever it takes not to go there. I constantly thought about what I was saved from.

Then came the next phase, what I like to call the "Southern Gospel phase". ("My mansion, just over in glory, in the city built four-square, on streets of gold, with gates of pearl, and jasmine walls, yada yada yada.") How heaven would be like living in Mountain Brook, only, everybody there is rich and has nice things. I, too, can have all those things I have always wanted here but couldn't afford! Makes me feel so much better about my current lack of stuff by knowing in my deepest spiritual sense, "I have laid up my treasures in heaven". God is going to compensate me for not having all those things I covet here on Earth but don't have. Except for the hope of those things nice things, I wouldn't really like heaven (except for the fact it was the "anti-hell", in which case I would be content with just a cabin somewhere up there, but if I work hard enough on Earth and have enough personal righteousness God has to give me a mansion).

But as I have grown more (not that I am by any means mature - just ask my wife), I have realized that heaven is not about avoiding hell, or gaining mansions, or streets of gold. Those are my "Mogen David". Rather heaven is about being with the God of Eternity who gave Himself for me in Christ, that I could be what He created me to be - to enjoy and glorify Him forever.

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;... Phil. 1:20-23.

There are many things I want to be in heaven - I disparately want my family there, my children and wife, my parents, my siblings and their families. My friends, my co-workers, the people who come to me for help (well, most of them anyway). The drunks on the streets. Many of these things are my unspoken "Mogen David" and very dear and important to me. But, while at first blush it is blasphemous, for the Christian, of all the people and things possible to be in heaven, if Christ is not there, who the hell wants to go? We have placed all of our trust in Him and His work. We have committed our life to Him. As Christians, we have earned nothing of ourselves, but we owe it all to Him. And to Him belongs all the glory.

Lord, as hard as it is, please remove my Mogen Davids, and help me to focus on Your love for me, and Your presence in my life for all eternity.

Look for me on Fourth and Broadway - first alley on the right.



Burt said...

in many ways, ministry in the Bible belt feel like we're just passing out sips of Mogen David - not even the "Christians" really want Jesus, rather just an assurance that they'll finally get what they want in heaven; of course it's really cool that Jesus will be there too!

4theluv said...

Some evangelicals do treat Jesus as a sideshow in heaven. Christ is both the means and the end.