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The face of this age

Unsplash/Andre Hunter
Unsplash/Andre Hunter

“Getting in someone’s face” is an idiom that has become an icon in our age of socio-cultural warfare.

Imagine a picture of two angry people in profile yelling at one another, and you have an iconic expression of our present moment.

From grinding talk shows to caustic email exchanges, to online jabber, to bitter courtroom exchanges, to the heated debates in political arenas and congressional “hearings,” to harshly divided families, we are constantly in one another’s face.

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The effort to “get in someone’s face” is terribly presumptuous, like spanking a stranger’s child. Where do we get the right to blitz another person’s countenance?

Yet, this is a passionate age when we do need to speak out. We would be irresponsible if we did not warn about the sins of the day that might lead others to suffering and judgment.

The problem comes when we focus on ideology, ignore personhood, and forget that the motive and goal should be love, not verbal incineration.

The face of the age needs not to be the snarling one, but the compassionate countenance of Jesus of Nazareth.

But what about the cleansing of the Temple? Didn’t Jesus get into the face of the charlatans who were turning the sacred place into a den of thieves? The broken heart hurts because the defilers are bringing judgment upon themselves and dragging others with them.

Jesus looked at the evil with fury, not the human beings who themselves were prisoners of that evil.

It was true also at Calvary when Jesus looked down at those who had nailed Him to the cross and forgave them.

Even though Jesus Christ in all those moments was the Lord of lords and King of kings, He did not presume the right to get into the faces of others.

The exception seems to have been the leaders of the religious establishment, the Scribes, and Pharisees who were stoking the get-in-the-face frenzy with their own angry verbal assaults. The spiritual leaders fired off words like ripping projectiles rather than speaking the truth in love.

Those who saidtheywere speaking truth into the public debate were giving little thought to the character of their style and the example they should have been setting.

It was inevitable that they would eventually turn on one another.

I know what the Scribes and Pharisees might have thought. When I was ordained as a pastor as a (too) young man, I felt authorized — even duty-bound — to get into the faces of others with the fieriest of condemnation.

Then, in 1988, I learned one of the greatest lessons for life and ministry I would ever learn when a man named Alex showed up at my church office door.

Alex was a wiry person, weighing perhaps 120 pounds. He wore dainty shoes and talked in a high voice.

As he spoke, I was conjuring all kinds of judgmental thoughts about Alex and sharpening my tongue for a good lashing of this individual.

Alex told me that he had left a lifestyle that had set him up for AIDS, but now he had given his life to Christ. However, he had not come out of the lifestyle soon enough and was infected with AIDS.

In three years, I would conduct his funeral... but not before wonderful things happened because of that afternoon meeting in my office.

Alex felt the Lord calling him to establish a ministry for people suffering from AIDS, and he wanted to base the ministry at our church.  The ministry would be called, “Positive Christians,” and would mobilize church members to take care of individuals testing positive for the disease.

Soon we found ourselves ministering to people whom we might have seared with blistering words. But we learned to speak a different language, one received with joy — the Gospel of Christ, and hope for both the living and the dying. I and others of our pastors had the joy of baptizing people whom society was labeling as untouchables.

Through it all, I learned one of the most important truths of my life: To win the right to get into someone’s face you must first wash their feet.

Of all people, the late Charles Colson demonstrated this beautifully. I worked with Colson in the Nixon White House and knew his reputation as a powerful opponent in Washington’s partisan battles.

Chuck, who had become a serious Christian, was sent to prison for Watergate-related charges. The prison was a three-hour drive from my house. I visited Chuck several times, and, without knowing it, I was witnessing the formation of the vision that would become Prison Fellowship.

In the ensuing years, both in prison and after his release, many of us watched Chuck minister to people who had been the most intense of foes. Prison Fellowship became a “foot washer” not only for inmates but also for their needy spouses and children.

And Prison Fellowship ministers were able to speak into the destructive lifestyles of many inmates because Colson and his colleagues (many, like Chuck, former prisoners) had learned to wash their feet — and that of their families.

Franklin Graham and his Samaritan’s Purse ministry is also an example. Graham is sometimes boycotted because he speaks prophetically into the culture. Yet if anyone has earned the right to do so it is Graham, whose organization has “washed the feet” of tens of thousands across the world, if not millions.

There are indeed times for rigorous debate, and biblical Christians should not pull back. However, the church must not become just one more blazing partisan mouthpiece, but a blessed force that injects the heart and the mind of Christ into the melee. Such a style could become truly iconic in an age of snarling voices screaming in one another’s faces.

Wallace Henley is a former White House and Congressional aide. He is now a teaching pastor at Grace Church, The Woodlands, Texas. Wallace is author of more than 20 books, including God and Churchill, and his newest, Who Will Rule the Coming 'gods: The Looming Spiritual Crisis of Artificial Intelligence

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