A Mess of a Church

Adam Morse

When I heard how a big shot Christian had bilked mission money in Venezuela to line his own pockets, I didn’t so much as blink. Years earlier during college, a summer mission landed me with him for a week. I’d only been in his room at the Hyatt a few minutes before I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. He enjoyed expensive food and wore gold rings the size of silver dollars like small pets on his meaty fingers. He liked to treat himself to $10 manicures at his favorite Caracas nail parlor. I remember one afternoon him insisting we had to go see “a guy.” We walked into a jewelry shop, where he and the owner leaned on opposite sides of a glass case and whispered and argued and leaned in closer as they haggled over something that I think had to do with precious metals up in the mountains. It was all hush-hush. I had no idea what was going on, but it was shady x 100.

I’m not the smartest fellow, but I was pretty certain this wasn’t God’s work. Unfortunately I’ve seen shady over and again since then, and yes, often by the very people who quote their Scripture and say their prayers. You don’t have to be around long to find out that lots of Christians act like devils. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a Christian. Worse, being a Christian will inevitably leave you scarred. Joining this community of salvation means being thrown in the lot with the very hellions, like us, who actually need redemption.

Since I’m breathing and have two ears, I know the Church has created a wake of wounded people. I have wounds of my own. We only need to read the Bible a few pages to realize our Book doesn’t give us a sugar-coated story of people who, once deciding to follow the Holy, embark on a constant arc of righteousness. Our faithful kin murder and swindle and ravage. And we continue the story.  We can be the meanest, the greediest, the most obnoxious. I know more than a few Christians who are generous and selfless and love with abandon, but we all know there’s a malignant side to our story too.

I offer no excuse for this vileness, only sorrow. Abusers must be named and wrongs brought to light and oppressive or destructive ideas dismantled. My knees knock when I hear Peter’s words that judgment must begin with the family of God. I believe evil done in God’s name is the worst form of wickedness.

And yet, despite all our hypocrisy and lunacy, I believe in the Church more than I ever have. The Church is not a place where good people get better but a place where awful people see the truth and find hope, if we’ll have it, to be new. The Church is a visible community offering tangible grace in the world not because the people who inhabit her are so winsome or moral but rather because God, in Jesus, takes ugly things and makes them beautiful. The story of Jesus is, if nothing else, the story of mercy to the very ones who least deserve it. So of course, the mercy starts with us. God knows we need it.

The Church is necessary, a scarred beauty, because Jesus inhabits this mess of a people. Jesus does not stay aloof from the ruin, but puts both feet smack in the mucky center. Jesus harrows even hell. And then God uses the smoldering, scattered pieces – think of it – as the fragments for restoration. Jesus makes a bunch of people I’d typically avoid to be his presence in the world. If you wanted grace to be the theme of your story, how else would you do it?

And so we do not navigate around the mess or try to remove ourselves from the trouble, the ambiguity. We don’t spin our mental wheels pining after some idyllic pure church. We suffer with it. Like Jesus.

Flannery O’Connor says it well:

I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make a terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the church as for it….

 

O’Connor: Walking Backwards in Holy Week

illustration by Greg Ruth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.

We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way,  to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?