Driving out of town on a Thursday, a pastor passed an adult movie store. Toward the edge of its parking lot, a familiar bright green car caught his eye. It belonged to another clergyman in his town, a man with whom he had led Bible studies and had prayer meetings over coffee. Upon seeing the car, the pastor immediately turned the steering wheel and pulled into the lot. Without hesitation, the pastor rushed into the store, his eyes darting after the errant clergy until he spotted the man, with a hat on as a feeble disguise. Our pastor friend slid up beside him as though he happened upon him by mistake. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and quietly said those surprising words, “You and I don’t belong here. Let’s go together, and we’ll repent.” Together they left the store, together they talked and repented, and the forgiven clergyman never knew he was the only reason the pastor had been there in the first place.
I heard that story in a sermon years ago. I love the humility of it, the grace, and – most of all – the creativity.
The humility and the grace are easy to see, but don’t lose track of the creativity in the pastor’s action. It’s the answer to our ever-present question as American Christians: how do we balance mercy with justice? It’s so easy to be paralyzed between twin desires to both act justly and love mercy. So, don’t miss that artistic component, since it answers a question you’ve asked yourself many times: creativity weds mercy with justice in this story, and the muse of this creativity is the Holy Spirit.
I hear the story of the pastor spotting the car in the lot. Until I reach that ending, my uncreative, clouded mind can only offer two options: 1) mercy or 2) justice. Option 1 consists of driving past, ignoring the offense, and sincerely praying for the clergyman. Option 2 means going inside (or possibly waiting until the next time I saw the man) and pleading with him to repent. Mercy or justice. I hate that “or”! The awkward, gut-wrenching prison wall between the two loves of the heart filled with Christ; stupid “or,” keeping mercy and justice in confinement from one another.
Well, so it would be if I were trying to create virtue by myself.
But, Christ chooses neither Option 1 nor Option 2. On that heavenly dance floor where we make all our ethical choices, the pastor had two options in dance partners, Justice or Mercy, and instead of picking one or the other, he said, “You two go dance together; I’ll have my limited understanding sit this one out.” And, then, those two dance together like the old friends they are. I love it, because I would never have thought to handle the situation like this. Here is a miracle. The Third Option, the one this world can’t offer: the fruitful creativity of the cross. I love the Third Option, in which justice and mercy don’t lie at opposite ends of a legalistic spectrum, but naturally merge. I love how creativity mixes mercy and justice, not like two separate strands woven together such that they retain their distinct characteristics, but like water and wine. Once blended, you can’t distinguish the mercy from the justice in the pastor’s action. Extravagant, miraculous creativity!
A sorrowful yearning of so many Christian hearts is the desire to see both mercy and justice in the lives of those around them. Knowing that our friends and family will be happiest if living virtuously, we grieve to see them living unvirtuously, just as we grieve to see ourselves living unvirtuously. But, what can we do that won’t come across as judgmental? The answer is the third option, the forgotten joy of the Christian life: radical creativity!
The lives of saints overflow with creativity. They never say the expected, but the startling, bizarre, outlandish. Being robbed on the road, the saint weeps. His robbers ask why he cries, and he responds, “I’m overwhelmed with sorrow over what you are doing to your own souls by bending them into robbery.” Startled, they repent.
Our cultural myths tend to idolize the creativity of vices and dismiss the creativity of virtue. Our stories, even before we began to root for Milton’s Satan, have long tended to exhibit exciting villains. Isn’t Darth Vader a little more compelling than Luke? And, who isn’t intrigued by the heist stars of “Catch Me if You Can” and “Ocean’s Eleven”? Isn’t “Breaking Bad” thrilling, with its drug dealing hero? Our myths celebrate the creativity of vice, forgetting that this creativity is only an abandonment of the justice and mercy, instead of their wedding. These stories are as compelling as a derailed train, rushing headlong who knows where. The crash-compulsion not to look away keeps us watching. But, this makes for intrigue, never resolution.
I recently examined my whole life and wrote a list of every sinful action or thought I could remember. Since the fact of my sinfulness was old news to me, the most striking thing about that list was how boring and predictable the person was that it described. If the character on that list (me with only sin and no virtue) was the main character in a movie, it would be a drab, insipid, and unsurprising story. When I act apart from Christ, I write a stupid story with my life. Not just because it’s evil (clearly a problem), but also because it simply isn’t very interesting.
I’m not the first to note that our culture’s myth is false, and vice is not creative and exciting but repetitive and bland. Tolkien captures it well: what’s less enticing than a disembodied eyeball floating above a barren, burnt hill? Isn’t a small golden ring kind of pathetic? Vice and sin, in Tolkien’s world, are simply not very creative, intriguing, or beautiful.
The creative God, maker of heaven and of earth and of all things visible and invisible, lives uncontained yet dwelling in the human heart. Inspired by our Divine Muse, the Christian transcends the worldly stories that have been told to death. By grace, the inspired Christian is dependable but not predictable, subversive but not sinful, artistic but not artificial. The Holy Spirit writes the story of Christian creativity, and we delight in watching Him dance mercy and justice through our obedient fingertips and phrases.