Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Language of Getting Saved

Earnest evangelicals are always fond of announcing to the world the success of their efforts.  An event will be held, and it will proudly be announced afterwards:  "People got saved."

I have always struggled with that language.

That's not because I don't see salvation as the goal.  This world is a broken, shattered mess, as are the lives of those who are caught in it's brokenness.  The path of grace and hope taught by Jesus of Nazareth is the way out of that mess.  Period .  Embracing Him and affirming Him as the One whose nature and Spirit define your existence...that's the whole point of being Christian.  You know, Him being our Lord and Savior and all.  That matters.  It's the living meat and blood and bones of our faith.

But there is in the classical evangelical phrase "getting saved" a presumption of finality that just has always rung hollow.   Pop up at the altar call, all weepy just like yer s'pposed to be, and badda boom, badda bing, it's done.  You've done it!  You're saved! 

Having been around the church for a while, I know this is...well...it's kinda sorta not true.  In fact, it's not true at all. 

I've watched as people have made that commitment, only to turn around and live lives that bear no resemblance whatsoever to their claim that Jesus is their Lord and Savior.   That at one point you felt you were "saved" means jack-diddly-nothing if your life following that moment does not affirm it by radiating the deep selfless grace we know in Jesus.    More painfully, I've watched folks come to the faith, brimming with hope and eagerness, and then watched as the petty bickering and whispering bitterness of human beings in the thing we call church have shattered that hope, and watched them fall away. 

It has also, to be frank, always seemed the teensiest bit presumptuous.  I would not make that statement about myself, because it's not my decision.  The measure of my rightness with God does not lie with me, or with how I feel.  Sure, I live towards the hope of my salvation.  But I know that I have not yet stood before the One who has the right to make that call.  Until I hear that "well done, good and faithful servant," or perhaps, "that'll do, Dave, that'll do," I'm not going to claim the right to make that call.

As I've thought about it, though, it seems that viewing that moment of commitment as "getting saved" is a bit like that moment you "get married."  Meaning, it's a moment that can have tremendous importance if the life that follows it is an affirmation of what was committed to that day.   For a couple looking back across a long life, across struggles and tears and laughter and children and grandchildren, saying, "that was the day we got married" carries a potently rich and joyful meaning.

For John Edwards, or for Britney Spears, the meaning of the phrase, "that was the day we got married" is rather different.  Either deeply painful or meaningless, depending.  Commitments can be made on a whim, or out of momentary passion.  Even commitments that once meant something can fall apart, frayed by neglect and the world's whirling distractions, or broken by betrayal.

Thinking of it this way gives me a bit more insight into why the term "getting saved" bears such freight among evangelicals.  That moment that commitment is affirmed is not the beginning of it, and not the end of it, and theologies that assume that are just plain ol' wrong.

But it is, nonetheless, important.