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The Three Hardest Words to Get Right

Every commercial carries two messages. The first is the obvious one of the experience the company is selling. The other is delivered over and over again, in various guises and disguises: “The gospel is wrong. The gospel is wrong.” I’m not teaching my kids to stop looking at commercials or to start watching the Super Bowl and turn off the commercials (rather than vice versa). But I am teaching them to deconstruct commercials, and to understand the power of these “sound bites” to bite us where it hurts spiritually and theologically.

Seldom do the two messages come together as blatantly as the 2006 Earthlink ad: “We revolve around you.” But in one form or another, every commercial tells us that, “We are gods, treats us as gods,” and touts the greatest value in the world as “me.” Or, “the gospel is wrong.”

No wonder all generations are now truly “the ME generation.”

No wonder “What about me?” is implied in everything we say and do.

No wonder for the first time in human history we have the power and freedom of action analogous to the gods of the ancient myths.

No wonder the usage of the word “I” comes before “you” (the most used word in the English language is “the” – see David Crystal, Words, Words, Words [Oxford University Press, 2006]).

No wonder the renaissance of self-portraiture among contemporary artists. (Interesting to note that many Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo avoided self-portraiture. Michelangelo famously said that, “Every painter paints himself,” but without the notation that he was referring to bad painters, not good ones.)

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) took the view that “Hell is other people”: “L’Enfer, c’est les autres”. Gerard W. Hughes suggests that the biblical view is better stated “L’Enfer, c’est moi,” or “Hell is me.” Egoism is the ultimate prison, the ultimate hell. (Gerard W. Hughes, God In All Things [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003], 152.) We are enslaved to self-love (proprium), which makes the gospel “bad news” before it is “good news.” The truth of our enslavement to self is not “good news.” But the gospel brings good news, and that is victory over the love of self.

It was this backdrop that led me to write the book The Three Hardest Words to Get Right. It may have been similar concerns that led Pope Benedict XVI to surprise everyone with his first encyclical. Based on the interests of Cardinal Ratzinger, it seemed logical that an attack on “relativism,” or a cracking down on “heretics,” would be the most likely candidates. The surprise was almost audible when the first encyclical of the new papacy turned out to be Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), a 16,000 word exploration of the relationship between human love and divine love released on December 25, 2005 in seven languages. “I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others,” the 78-year-old Pope writes.

The Three Hardest Words in the World to Get Right are “I love you.”

The word “I” is the only word we seem to be able to say. The word “love” has become for us a noun and not a verb (we have fallen in love with LOVE). And the word “you” is a word that we seem unable to speak. The relationship between those two words “I” and “you,” our apart-ness and our part-ness, our separateness and our connection, is arguably the central question of human life. Each human being is a separate planet but in the same universe. Each human being is an original, one-of-a kind wave but in the same ocean. The way that word “love” connects the “I” and the “you,” the personal and the communal, is perhaps the central question of Christianity.

The key to a spider’s life is “connectedness.”

There is an old story about a clever spider who managed to construct a magnificent, beautifully patterned web, an elegant work of art. The web was so marvelously constructed that spiders from all over the area came to gaze at it. The web was so symmetrical that if one could have folded it over at the middle, the two sides would fit exactly over each other. The match was perfect.

The spider, of course, was very pleased with its creation. One morning it made its usual inspection of the web, tightening up a knot here and loosing another thread there. All seemed to be in order until the spider saw a thread it didn’t recognize. What could it be? Where did it come from? It was very long, and it didn’t seem to fit. It broke the symmetry. “Who needs it?” the spider thought. And so, the creature bit it off, whereupon the entire web collapsed and the spider had a big fall.

The one essential thread that held the beautifully patterned web together, the thread on which the spider’s whole world depended, had been broken: disconnected.

The Apostle Paul said that “there are three things” on which our whole world depends: faith hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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Author of more than two hundred articles, 1000 published sermons and almost forty books, Leonard’s most current publications are the best-seller Jesus Manifesto (with Frank Viola) and the just released Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who Is Already There. In 2011 three publications will be released: a textbook on preaching entitled Giving Blood; Len’s first novel The Seraph Seal (with Lori Wagner), and a commentary and commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, Googlier Than Thou. Len often appears on the “50 Most Influential Christians in America” list, and his popular weekly podcast called “Napkin Scribbles” is widely used and quoted. Len’s microblogs on twitter and facebook are ranked as some of the most influential social media sites in the world. Currently occupying the E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism, Len served from 1995 to 2001 as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Theological School at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. He is also a Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon, and President Emeritus of United Theological Seminary. He is a weekly contributor to the online preaching resource, sermons.com.