Reflections from the Subway
My wife and I see a lot of movies. But our favorite movie of the last year or so is—without question—The Darkest Hour, featuring the Academy Award-winning performance of Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill. There are so many things about this film that my wife and I love, but there is one scene in particular that I have been thinking about non-stop since we walked out of the movie theater a few months ago.
Churchill had been getting a lot of political pressure from members of his war cabinet to enter into peace negotiations with Hitler. Churchill’s gut was telling him that because Hitler was a murderous tyrant, he could not be trusted and therefore could not be negotiated with. But the pressure was mounting. The harder Churchill would resist the notion of negotiating with Hitler, the heavier the political pressure would get. At one point it got so heavy that Churchill began to question his position, wondering if maybe he was wrong and those applying the pressure were right. Churchill found himself torn between standing up to Hitler in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and sitting down at the negotiating table with the enemy before England faced either Nazi occupation or total ruin.
His internal wrestling match culminated on a ride in the subway.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety Magazine paints the scene well:
Churchill, stymied by a Parliament that has balked at his refusal to sign a deal with Hitler, decides to pay a visit to the people who matter—that is, the working people of England. But where will he find them? He’s a man who lunches with the king (and treats him like an underling) and is driven to work in a Rolls Royce. He has never, in his entire life, taken a London Underground train. So where will he go?
He goes into the Underground, getting directions from a girl standing by the train map, and winds up in a subway car being gawked at by everyone there. He decides to talk to them—all of them. But, for once, Churchill hasn’t shown up to make a speech; he’s there to listen.
After cracking a few jokes to loosen up the shocked passengers, Churchill goes to each one and asks his/her name, writing the names down in a notebook so that he wouldn’t forget. Then he opens up about his dilemma. He tells the passengers (men, women, boys, girls, white, black) about the pressure he’s getting to negotiate with the Nazis. He transparently shares that while his convictions NOT to negotiate have been resolute, the pressure is so intense that he is now beginning to question himself. So he asks the passengers what they think. He wants to know what they have to say.
One by one each passenger passionately states in their own way and in their own words, “never surrender,” “stand firm,” “fight to the death.”
Of course, Churchill emerges from his time with “the people” more resolute than ever. He heads to Parliament and rallies the troops to resist and to fight at all costs.
The rest, as they say, is history.
When my wife and I left the theater, I said to her, “My life over the last three years has been the equivalent of riding that subway train.” She looked at me not knowing exactly what I meant, so I explained:
“For most of my adult life, I have spent my time with church leaders and church people trying to decide what is best for the world (read ‘war cabinet’). I have lived most of my adult life inside an echo chamber of professional Christians and have spent very little time interacting with or listening to anybody outside that chamber. We have our meetings, we plan our conferences, we write our books, we prepare our sermons, and we lead our institutions. But we don’t really listen to the people that we say we are doing it all for.”
My sin took me out of church leadership three years ago and pushed me into contact with people that I previously didn’t have a lot of time to interact with. I’m no longer in the meetings, planning the conferences, writing the books, preparing the sermons, and leading the institutions. I don’t live my life in an echo chamber of professional Christians anymore. And as much as I miss many elements of the life I used to have and the roles I used to play, I can now say that I am grateful I don’t “live” where I used to live. It has been an uncomfortable mid-life transition from the “war room” to the “subway”—from being an insider to an outsider—but it has been an eye-opening gift from God.
Just as Churchill’s conversation with the working class Londoners on the tube revealed the disconnect between the “politicians” and the “people", so my time outside of professional Christian circles has revealed a sad disconnect between the church and where the average person lives their life—a disconnect that you simply cannot see from the inside.
In my experience, people on the “outside” are much more willing to talk about and wrestle with the ugly sides of being human and the messiness of life than do people on the inside. I can tell you from personal experience that every time I tell my own story of adultery and divorce I’m less nervous telling an “outsider” than I am an “insider”—they tend to be less shocked by sin and more surprised by grace. They are less inclined to pretend that they are better than they actually are. Their talk is more raw and honest and real and down-to-earth than the talk I experienced on the inside. They share more candidly about their fears and frustrations and failing marriages; they are more open about their struggles with depression and hopelessness and anger and addictions and doubt and suicidal thoughts; they are more unedited and transparent about their insecurities and anxieties and resentments and unfulfilled longings and lusts. There is a humaneness about their willingness to plainly disclose their own deep, dark struggles that I did not encounter very much as an insider from other insiders.
This is perhaps the reason why each time I would ask someone over the last three years, “Is church the first place or the last place you’d run to if your darkest secrets were exposed?” Every single one of them immediately said, “The last!”
Sadly and ironically, the one place where sin is still talked about and people are still called sinners is the very place where individuals feel least comfortable confessing sins. The church is supposed to be a hospital for the spiritually sick, but it has the reputation as a gym for the morally healthy—a place where the “good” people gather, rather than the bad people.
I don’t know how to bridge the gap. I only know that there is one—one I would’ve never seen from the inside. And to be honest, I don’t know, given the current structure of the church, if that gap can be bridged.
But I do know this: recovery institutions (AA, NA, etc.) have figured out that the best people to reach those who have bottomed out are those who have bottomed out themselves. Who, for instance, is able to reach an alcoholic? A fellow alcoholic.
So, as long as the church remains the only “recovery institution” in all of society that does not want former “junkies” leading the way, the disconnect will remain—church will continue to be seen by outsiders as a place where good people go to hear another good person tell them how to be better people rather than a “league of the guilty” (Francis Spufford).
If God has taught me anything over the last three years, it’s this: he wants me in the subway. He wants me where the people are--living with them, hearing from them, and talking to them. He wants this broken sinner to move amongst other broken sinners, sharing my story with them, hearing their stories, and together rejoicing in our Savior who is the Friend of Sinners, the Healer of the Broken, the Lover of the Shamed.
And I challenge the church to do the same: to do the hard work of transforming itself from a castle of purity where only the morally fit feel comfortable to a basement of grace where broken sinners are embraced and forgiven. But this won’t happen until the church fills its pulpits with “derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it” (Robert Capon). Then, and only then, in transparency, in honesty, in acknowledged desperation and need--in the subway of mercy--will we see Jesus meet us to do what he does best: heal, restore, and love.