My parents are fix-it phenoms.
My dad has reconstructed an ancient leafblower and several other objects from abject mechanical ruin. He and my uncle work on pipes and leaks and toilets and siding together, taking on projects as required. My mom can diagnose that weird noise in your toilet from two hundred miles away and is also the person I call to ask questions like, “If my dryer randomly shut off in the middle of a cycle for no reason, what do you think’s causing it, and will it burn my house down?”
I have not inherited their prodigious talents in this area. I can fix things after I learn about them, after I’ve read or researched them at length, but I lack the intuition and experience my parents have to get in there and fix something right away. I have a Ph.D., but fixing a leaky pipe is beyond my ken, and chances are I’ll make it worse before I make it better.
So, when something breaks or goes wrong, they’re the first people I call. And recently, when confronted with a plumbing issue, I called my mom. “Hey,” I said, and explained the problem as best I could. “Is this an easy fix?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said offhandedly. “I can tell you what to do.” And she started talking in words that seemed like English but made no sense to me at all. Move this, check this, do this other thing: I literally didn’t understand the terms. I didn’t know what part of the plumbing she was telling me to touch where or what particular thing she wanted me to check. It was all a bewildering mess, and it only sorted itself out when I Googled the meaning of everything she’d instructed me to do and could see it labeled clearly on a diagram. Oh, I thought, enlightened. Now I see what she was talking about.
My husband gets the same look when I ask for the paring knife or the flour sifter; he has no idea what those things are, or what they might begin to look like, and though he can guess he is not entirely sure what they actually do. My students get the same look when I talk about participles or modifiers or narrative tropes: the glaze in their eyes tells me that they are thinking I know she thinks I should know this, and I know I should know this, but there are no landmarks and right now I am lost.
This is, also, what a lot of Christianity looks like to the outside world.
We tell people they want “grace” and “salvation” and “redemption” and that they can come to that through “repentance.” We talk about sin and the curse and the law. We enthusiastically discuss turning the other cheek and Jesus’ love and the cross and the empty grave. And we have this idea – an incorrect idea – that if we only explain it enough, if we go over the steps enough times, if we tell people that you have to do x to get y and experience q, then something will click.
But non-believers sometimes hear those terms the same way I hear my mom talk about plumbing and the way my students hear me talk about adverbs. They might understand them, in a vague sort of way, but they lack the context and the experience and the revelation that informs meaning. Sometimes, all our well-intentioned explaining and sharing sounds like the same gibberish I hear when I wade through a bunch of unfamiliar terms in hopes of fixing my toilet. At certain points, no amount of talking or explaining is going to illuminate what we’re actually trying to share.
And that’s why living the Gospel is so, so important. Why launch into a lengthy exposition about grace when you can live grace to someone? Why wax poetic about how fundamental it is to turn the other cheek when you can show, yourself, what it looks like to do that, and what it means? Why offer up a bunch of good words about sacrifice and love and service that people may or may not entirely understand when you, yourself, can become the object lesson?
We are here to share the Gospel with others. But I think all too often we read “share” as “explain it at others” or “talk it at others” without realizing that, at the bare minimum, we need to accompany that talk with living it to them. With showing and immersing people in the experience of what it is like. With giving people a glimpse of life in the Kingdom.
Recently, a contractor came to do some work on our house. He was looking for the studs in the wall, and I offered to grab the studfinder. He gave me a surprised look. “Don’t need it,” he said. “Here, this is how I find them.” Without saying another word, he measured out sixteen inches from the nearest outlet, thumped on the wall, thumped on the part of the wall next to it, and nodded. He repeated this process until he’d located all the studs, and simply by watching him I figured out how to do it myself. I learned not because he gave me a lecture, but because I witnessed him in action. I watched him work, and watching him work taught me concepts that words might only have hindered.
Telling the Gospel is important. But showing is necessary, too. Without it, to a world of unbelievers who lack the history, context, and experience with the terms and concept that a lot of believers know by heart, what we have to say can come across as unintelligible gibberish.