Why Some Of Us Find Community Almost Everywhere but Church

A Caveat

 

I know at the outset, the words in the title above before good and noble churchmen and practitioners teeter-totter on the precipice of sacrilege. In fact, if you have spent more than a day exposed to your version of Christendom, a sort of immediate gag reflex kicks in based either on what we’ve heard in those circles; what we’ve been taught; or even more subtly, what we have come to fervently believe and teach ourselves. But what of experience of the “some of us” in my title we might ask? What of the pew jumpers, church hoppers and those who choose to do some form of church almost anywhere but the building on main or church street in your given town or city square? Does that count for something to get at a broader picture of the truth? Or, is their experience totally suspect here, and more akin to some sort of blasphemy worthy of contemptible discounting, or perhaps just shy of inquisition-like reactions?

 

Now before I attempt to explain briefly what I mean by my subject this morning, let me also blurt out an agreed upon qualification to those well-meaning keepers of the magisterium who stoically and eternally disagree, or who would claim to have the opposite experience, and of course a church or two to in their experience toolbox to prove it. And to that I would say, “I understand”. I also appreciate the disclaimer and the modicum of truth that it has to add to this discussion. There is no argument here, except to say that perhaps our disagreement, belief, or experience is well known only to us: the faithful; the paid players; or those who tend to have learned to sort of…fall in line with it. However, equally plausibly perchance to everyone else outside the fold, is that it is not that cut and dry, and also to an increasing amount of church ragamuffins like me who would wish they were found holding different cards.

 

In fact, there has not a day gone by in the last 20 years of my life that I have not wished to become permanently apart of a communal sheep fold that I could bring my Socratic inquiries and still graze in, only to have been increasingly set out like a goat on my own often lonely path–just left of the right side of the Lord to many I’m sure. And though I’ve longed to bring my honest questions and concerns to the Eucharistic table, and to the potluck or small group meeting, I’ve mostly been met with those who would simply wish that I would finally get the memo, kiss the ring, and drop my 10% premium in the offering plate and shuffle along. Well perhaps more later. For now, let me share just a couple of reasons why goats like me with sheep-like dreams never find that sheep-connection that they long for, but who are still very much trying.

 

Some Reasons Why

 

            The Church with a Big C Instead of a Little c

The first reason that I have observed, is not only why I and countless others find it hard to uncover real community in the church, but also relates to why it is no surprise that I also hold to a much looser view as to the scope of the church’s authority in my life–which has to do with the church’s continual bargaining to the broader culture for it’s importance as a Big C instead of a little one. Again, I can feel the knee-jerk reaction to that statement; and to many, they would surmise it is due to my left over 60’s rebellion, or the spirit of the narcissistic cultural age of which we are all immersed in. But please hear me out, and for a moment, I’ll let someone like Paul F.M. Zahl with church “street creds” add to my introductory commentary, and to what many other beleaguered Christian nomads along the church path have felt for sometime now where he writes:

 

 

“Ecclesiology (the study of the church) is an actual ill! By definition it places the church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The facts of history run counter to ecclesiology. They reveal a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived. The gospel of grace, based on relational love that is entirely one-way, is at odds with ecclesiology…Because we believe in the depth of sin and in the impossibility until death, of any “original sin-free zone” in the world, we are skeptical of any church idea that ascribes to church a distinctive authority that it must be obeyed. A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to the church, irreducibly Protestant. The Protestantism of grace’s church idea, which is church by negation and church from suspicion, is important for all Christians to come up against, because it delivers them from the skepticism and finally the voluntary abandonment to which all church fealty finally leads when the lights go on…I can write this in my own blood. Disenchantment with my own branch of the institution has not affected my conviction that Christ is the light of the world and that God’s grace is the way of human freedom. Had the ecclesiology of grace been higher than the anthropology of original sin and totally depravity permitted it to be, the result of the loss would have been a loss of a hope in God. The negation of Ecclesiology from grace permits the survival of faith in Christ as the Wound of the World to heal the wounds of the world”[1].

 

In essence, Zahl reminds us that to not have an ecclesiology is actually to have one, but it’s not what we expect, or perhaps want to hear. Yet our new ecclesiology puts first things first.  In other words,

 

“It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church”[2].

 

These are words of fresh air for both weary church neophytes and aficionados alike who are constantly on probation in their mind, and perhaps in the minds of other good church goers pertaining to the fact that the church struggle is real–particularly evidenced by a theologian and churchmen of high rank who has also experienced the struggle acutely on the inside. It is at least one of the reasons, that though we know we are to be with the people of God regularly somewhere, we hold up a Great Wall to block us from conceding to a popular view of church (Protestant or Catholic) that shuns or disregards our voice and questions as valid to the church conversation and participation, without it being a mere apostate affront to the institution itself.

 

            A Lack of Grace That is Palpable, Yet Also Underground

 

The second reason most find community almost everywhere but church is because grace, the thought that changed the world (Bono), is oftentimes the missing ingredient in a church service setting, the potluck or the small group—and it doesn’t really matter which. For instance, as soon as a question is asked; a taboo broken; a snotty nose kid goes unattended; or a pregnant teen emerges, all bets are off! We drop what we were doing to answer; to repair; to wipe; and instead are more prone to pass judgment before offering graceful love. I can’t explain it in others and much less myself, but it is further proof that though the church is comprised of good that we all need to be apart of, it also; when it begins to see itself beyond the humble and broken stewards and faithful sowers of it’s gospel truth, to instead titles of spiritual fathers who know best–it oftentimes throws the possibility of real community amongst the broken and spiritual misfits out the door. This is especially so for those who not only do not know what a good Father is, or a family; but who come from a lineage and a past or present for whom life may have dealt very different cards—or for whom there are no simplistic answers for the realties that are their constant companion. The church often cannot make room for unsuccessful Christians for whom the victorious Christian life constantly escapes them, even though they follow silently, yet unwaveringly—and often even more so than the ones with standing white-picket fences.

 

I can remember years ago the theme song from the hit TV show Cheers, whose line added, “everyone wants to go where everyone knows your name”. I thought it ironic then that the bar behaved much like a family–a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. Fast-forward many years later, I too more often found solace in a bottle or possibly a friend (Indigo Girls) at the local saloon than anywhere else. The truth is, community is difficult in an age when individualism runs amuck, and “me, my and I” have taken precedence over the others found in community, and to be sure I can be part of the problem. But it should also then be no surprise that we reproduce that spirit in the church when it engulfs the broader culture of which we are also many times brazenly apart of as well. For just as the church affects culture, it is also affected by it; much as we would like to think we are exempt from the disease our culture oozes in flickering pixels across our screens of various shapes and sizes.

 

The truth is that we cannot have real community until grace takes precedence over spiritual, political or social correctness that seems to be endemic among us all. For unless we are led by a starkly different kingdom value-set, we are prone to wander, and the non-going church culture feels it! In fact, we can tell a lot about who we have true community with by who we can’t wait to hang around with on the weekend, rather than who we sit behind every brisk Sunday morning. The bottom line is: We love being around people who love us back, just the way we are (Billy Joel).  And to those who expect or exact nothing from us other than our company, our being, and our mutual offertory cleansing of shared successes and failures walking along the narrow path–albeit with a distinct and communal limp. This kind of community is perhaps better shared with the real life of bread and wine, or beer and hamburgers on the grill, rather than the manufactured world of quick Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts, with three worship songs, an offering plate and an altar call–with an ensemble conclusion of “yall come back real soon ya hear”. And though I am not necessarily advocating we replace the coffee pots with cabernet or Stella on Sunday morning, what I am advocating is the necessity for church to go beyond the common call for meeting in small groups, to a more human call to living real life together in and out of the context of Bible study and prayer, yet also not to their exclusion. This will take risqué thinking that will no doubt be met by good churchmen, yet who may also look at us with frog-eyes and begin looking for new lily pads down the road. Nonetheless, it is a journey worth taking; especially as the “rise of the nones[3]” are increasingly comprised of the “Christian dones[4]”.  They are those who would rather stay at home alone rather than subject themselves to the same graceless, monotonous, and artificial activity; and yet that still expects different results from parishioners who have long shown signs of Rigor Mortis.

 

At least some of this decay in our parishioners is due to being constantly oppressed by the preaching of a law or spiritual prescriptions no one can ever keep or fill, but who get it handed to them sanctimoniously on any given Sunday. Dr. Zahl again adds keen insight here where he writes,

 

“Preachers require a history of grace in relation to their own personal sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have individual knowledge of their own form of original sin and total depravity, they have nothing to offer to which anyone else can relate. Grace has to be the core of a preacher’s own story in order for their sermons to carry any impact. If this is not so, they will preach the law and exhort. Then they will become angry at their dispirited and paralyzed listeners. Ministers who start to despise their own congregations—and many do—do so because ‘their’ people are not doing what the minister is telling them to do. The minister assumes they have ‘free will’ because he thinks he does. Therefore, when they exercise their ‘freedom’ in not doing what he preaches he starts to dislike them”[5].

 

I learned this the hard way from my own experience as a former preacher who held the law up every Sunday, although I would have prided myself as a graceful person in most other aspects of my life. I never understood why, that though people liked my sermons because of their bible saturation, three logical points and eloquent delivery; yet they also seemed to be shaking my hand every Sunday, ever so quietly whispering in my ear “Great sermon Mark, but I’m going back to sin now”. And they were, and so was I. Not always consciously, yet sometimes very much so–simply because we really can’t help ourselves without daily divine intervention.

 

I finally realized grace was the answer to all of life’s problems years ago when by happenstance I picked up the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and then overdosed on a follow up called The Ragamuffin Gospel, by the late Brennan Manning. Through those pages, I finally realized most find community everywhere but church and determined to change my tune and course. At that time, I never realized the cost of Zahl’s advice for a spiritual misfit like me: that of being transparent and preaching grace to religious people. Jesus results should have been a case in point! What I found out the hard way was that the Bible belt likes pastors as church mascots more than someone with a holy calling, yet who also sits on the sidelines with the rest of the sinners and shuns sitting in the “Holy man” chairs. Good churchmen also prefer being told what to do sometimes even more than being freely given the scandalous license that grace appears to provide: for others to simply be who they are–sinners, saved by the matchless grace of Jesus, and those who rest and walk in that awareness each and every day. No instead, I found that we like our preachers on pedestals rather than like the most prolific writer of the New Testament; the Apostle Paul, who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.  For me, this proved to be rather risky behavior for the frozen chosen, but I discovered that the broken and bruised couldn’t get enough.

 

A Humble but Familiar Reminder

 

I realize that my brief musings have opened up some “cans of worms” and left some questions unanswered. And to that I would say, “This is a blog, and I don’t want to keep you too long, and I’ll be back”. And perhaps I would also say, “it’s also a lot like life, and also unavoidable in meditations about the deity”. Nonetheless, I believe these two things I have outlined this morning should be a clarion call to church leaders and good churchmen alike to take a look around and pause for reflection and introspection. It’s not because I have said it to be sure, and it’s certainly not because they are new admonitions. But rather its because it’s actually being said and has been said all around them, much like leftover landmines from a previous war that they seem to strategically still avoid. Landmines that have now erupted, resulting in an exodus from church–whose results are still mostly brushed off as a cultural problem (the world), rather than an actual subcultural one (the church). All the while, the flames and broken bodies are all around with their own fate still off in the smoky distance.

 

And yet meanwhile…the broken and spiritual misfits are still dying to get in.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[2] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] White, J. E. (2014). The rise of the Nones: Understanding and reaching the religiously unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

 

[4] Packard, J., & Hope, A. (2015). Church refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are done with the church but not their faith. Loveland, CO: Group.

 

[5] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

Defenders of the Truth or Blocking People From the Truth?: A Kind Rebuttal to the Self-Proclaimed Judges of Robin Williams Suicide

In recent days I’ve had the misfortune of reading various posts from well-meaning evangelicals asserting their theological stance on the “right or wrongness” of the beloved Robin Williams suicide and his resultant place in eternity.  It seems that in a world where everyone has a voice regardless of their credentials–as fate would have it, the well-intentioned and self-proclaimed theologians and evangelists feel it is their duty as defenders of the truth to let the world know the obvious and not so obvious.  

 The obvious to the Christian inside of the cocoon of Christianity is that, as we must believe, those without Christ–according to Christ himself and the whole of Christian scripture, do not give reassurance as to our eternal destination.  That I’m afraid we have to believe, albeit humbly (Christians take note), if we are to be true to the very “few” essentials we must believe in order to be in line with Historic Orthodox Christianity.  That mind you is only obvious to those of us within the circle of Christianity, which is a point not to be taken too lightly.  In other words, it is “not” a point that the world outside of Christian circles is supposed to understand, nor will they ever until the veil of darkness has been lifted from their eyes (2 Cor. 4:4).  This of course is not in our wheelhouse of magic tricks to pull off with sleight of word-smithing hand.  Though Christian preaching (the right kind) can be of some help in lifting the veil, the scripture is very clear throughout that it is God himself who does the veil lifting (John 6:44).  And though we would possibly be prone to think as mere byproducts of the dogmatism we hear expounded from many pulpits week to week that our stance with the world and the spiritually weak inside the walls of buildings we call the church should be to uphold the truth at all costs, I fear we are missing the point of truth’s place and intention in the entirety of the New Testament canon. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

But now let’s briefly talk about the “not so obvious”. The not so obvious part of the message of those well-intentioned defenders of the truth dragons is that mental-illness, unless it has happened to you or has gripped your family in all too familiar and haunting ways, is a reality of which lies in the mysterious realm. Brilliant spiritual masters of the Christian faith have long known and rested in this mysteriousness of not knowing all there is to know about God (Deut. 29:29;Isa. 55:9). However, the unfortunate part is that most inside of one particular branch of historic orthodox Christianity (evangelicals) seem to never be content with this one aspect called mystery that is equally an attribute of the God that we love and worship. As a result of holding this mystery in tension with other truths, the scriptures that they think are a manual of word for word instruction on every aspect of their lives and those they would “keep in line” rather than a guiding light for understanding the ways, movements and rhythms of the Spirit of God rightly applied to their own individual lives indeed miss the forest for the trees.

The second thing to note is that no one really knows where Robin Williams stance was on faith issues or whether he was a believer or not. No one for instance truly knows if he was a man of faith simply because of what he did or did not say in the public eye. Though we are to be “fruit-inspectors” that does not mean we blabber about with all we have inspected about someone we don’t even know or those we do know for that matter. In fact, it stands to reason that we will be very busy just inspecting the “lack” of fruit in our own spiritual mirror thus not giving us near enough time to inspect others!  Furthermore, this man who once compared Catholicism to Episcopalianism as Christianity with “half the guilt” (very funny quite frankly) perhaps had something to say to us in that statement we continually miss.

First of all, that statement says to me that he knew something of what he was speaking of experientially and thus negatively perhaps. As a result, secondly and more importantly, the fact that the good news of Jesus Christ, the thought (grace) that changed the world (Bono), would be increasingly known by all inquiring minds who might want to know outside of the cocoon of Christianity as news of “guilt” (law) and judgment rather than a place of love, inclusion and grace is the point that I want to focus on. The further point is to define briefly what it means to be a real “defender of the Christian truth” as opposed to one’s who increasingly repel people from the truth of the gospel that really is and always should be amazingly “good news”!  However, before I do so, I want to say that what makes these “defenders” of the truth rightfully so nervous when guys like me say these sorts of things is that somehow when we do that we are on a slippery slope to compromise and antinomianism. Antinomianism being a fancy theological word coming out of the earliest times of Christianity and today which is a belief which leads people to take the good, graceful news of Jesus as their own but reject any kind of demands on how they live their lives in the culture, in their families and in the body of Christ of which they are apart. They are those on every corner today who believe Jesus is your “homeboy”, your friend, or your magic genie who would never have anything to say about your lifestyle choices but just simply wants us to all get along, have a group hug and all make it to heaven safely and secure. So let me dispel that fear first and foremost and unequivocally say that is not at all what I am saying. So now on to our final task at hand—what does it truly mean to be a defender of the truth rather than those who increasingly repel people from the truth?

Let me say at the outset that the answer to this question is what we increasingly miss and for the life of me I can’t understand how we do. For instance, to be sure we are to “defend the truth” in the sense that “inside” the body of Christ we are to not let error (the distortion of the few essentials of the historic orthodox Christian faith) slide in and distort the truth and deceive the flock. We are given this injunction throughout the New Testament. It also goes without saying that we are to be defenders in that sense–albeit humbly, though firmly and lovingly; with a view to steering those who err back to the truth of the gospel. This begs the question, “What then “is” the truth of the gospel”? Well quite frankly, to put it very simply for our time here today, the gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, died and rose again for the purpose of redeeming mankind from the slavery of sin and from being help captive for so long by Satan (which is also the majority of the world’s way of thinking) to do his will, and for the purpose of reordering creation to be recreated in the image of Christ—God’s intention all along. Having said that, I believe that in order for one to be a Christian he or she must believe those things I’ve just mentioned yet summed up rather perfectly in the Apostle’s Creed long ago which says:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; 
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, 
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. 
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; 
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
 I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. 
Amen.

 

Now to be sure the word of God tells us a lot more to chew on, live by, meditate upon and strive towards. However, it is these “essentials” summed up in the Apostles Creed that should unite and not divide the body of Christ—a point that has been explained repeatedly and nauseously long before my reintroduction here. It is also these things that we should “defend” within the body of Christ but “not” outside of the spiritual or physical doors of the organism or organization that is the church. Please hear me out as being the synthesis and main point of what I want to leave you with today. Let me now announce it from the rooftops: It is “not” the duty of Christians to announce, preach, blast, defend, judge or correct people outside of the Christian faith of our “truth” claims in what we rightly believe. Why is that we are always learning and never able to arrive at knowledge of the real crux of Christian truth (II Tim. 3:7)?

The truth is, if one merely reads with a discerning eye the body of the gospels, the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, one increasingly becomes aware that there is really only one thing that should judge people outside of Christianity as to the truth of Christianity, and that is “how” we live our lives! In fact the word of God tells us (II Cor. 2:14-17) that our lives are a living apologetic that are either a fragrance that leads people to the life in Christ or a judgment that leads them to death away from Christ. Notice however it is our lives that judge them when they see how we live compared to how they live, but not our words that judge them. In fact the apostle Paul wrote clearly in I Cor. 5:9-13 that is not our job to judge people outside of the body of Christ but to clean up our own bloody mess, and in fact it is God alone that judges outsiders!  Rather he says, our job is actually to hang around with every sort of “Tom, Dick, Harry and Mary” that lives contrarily to our gospel.  We purposefully do this in order that perhaps they can see something of our lives and graceful words, thoughts, actions and reasoned discourse that tells them there is something about us that accentuates the fact to them that they are indeed missing something of profound meaning and purpose in their own lives. The New Testament is crystal clear that it is our lack of holiness, our lack of authenticity and faithfulness and proper engagement with the culture that is what a unbelieving world finds increasingly unbelievable (Brennan Manning)! Also in almost every instance, outside of the core orthodox essentials of what it means to be a believer in terms of right belief, almost every other mention of the “truth” is related to how we live period! Now we all know that you might say.  So then, why in the world Mark do you think you are now the enlightened one to lead us into this? Well the truth is, what I wonder almost all of the time is why is it that if we know this, we get it undeniably and disastrously wrong again and again?

In summary today and to conclude my brief thoughts here, I want to say that judgment starts and ends with the house of God and not for those outside it’s doors! People outside of Christ are supposed to act as if they are outside of Christ. Though many of them (perhaps Robin Williams and others) exemplify more Christian virtues in their charitable giving, humility and selflessness even while struggling through tremendous pain and suffering than most Christians I know do, the fact that also many of them do not should be a no-brainer and of course no surprise to us. The truth is however that after 2000 years of Christianity, to have not learned from it’s both good and evil history is to be destined to continually repeat it—and that we have, and that we are at the stroke of my keypad! The blood and souls of many far too numerous to count outside of Christ is on our hands!  Sadly however, rather than admit this and seek to live the truth for all to see, we constantly want to protect it, and to be quite blunt, no one but a very slim few in the world and even amongst our miserable selves is listening anymore contrary to what we might think!  It is time for the people of God quite frankly to “be” the church rather than merely “go” to it. This is long overdue and nothing but this will cause an unbelieving world that no longer believes in anything to believe in what we have to say again, just as the early Church realized in the roman world 2000 years ago. The truth is we don’t need too many defenders of the truth anymore because we have that in truckloads! None of them will be out of a job soon I assure you. What we need however in this urgent hour is exemplifiers of that truth in shoe leather, and in time it will be that and only that which will compel people to either to be judged by our lives and thus reject the truth of Christianity, or to run with open arms to the grace, mercy and love they see displayed in us and by us. Until then we are a sounding gong and a noisy symbol (I Cor. 13), or a drip of water that everyone can hear but can’t seem to turn off. As one who at least desires to exemplify the truth of Christianity however feebly, I want to say thank you Robin Williams for making me laugh at times when I wanted to mostly cry, and my prayer is that you found Christ and are resting in His arms with no more tears, sorrow or pain. May you rest in Peace!

Selah