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….

 

The Way We Treat Jesus

So when those friends of Jesus who had actually lived as friends of Jesus stood before God, they were welcomed into the Kingdom with raucous greeting. They were even taken aback a little by all the exuberance when Jesus threw his arms wide and beamed like he’d just seen his favorite uncle. “Thank you, dear friends, for feeding me and clothing me and welcoming me.”
 
Those friends, though glad to hear such effusive praise, were more than a little perplexed. “Uhh…thank you, Jesus. We always hoped we were living faithful to your Way, but..ummm…remind us again when exactly we fed you and clothed you and welcomed you?”
 
“Oh, yes,” Jesus answered, “it’s easy to not know you’re dealing with me in the world, isn’t it…since I’m always there, always present, always showing up in the middle of the life you’re already living and in the people you see every day.”
 
The friends glanced at one another, hoping someone knew what the heaven Jesus was talking about.
 
Mercifully, Jesus continued. “Well, when I was your hungry neighbor, you filled my belly. When I was shivering without a coat, you handed me a winter parka. And when I stood, trembling and lonely as an immigrant in your country, you greeted me like a friend.” {a retelling of Matthew 25}
 
____
 
Immigration is a complicated issue. However, not as complicated as we’re making it. I can not imagine any scenario where this story goes in such a way that our country’s current practice of separating immigrant and refugee children from their mothers and fathers finds Jesus saying to us: “Thank you, friends, for how you treated me.”
 
Politicos may approach these questions with sterile calculus, but as followers of Jesus, we think and act in an entirely different way. We care for and befriend those at the margins, we come alongside the most vulnerable (children) because Jesus says in so doing, we are caring for and befriending him.

Unbidden Kindness

Joseph Barrientos

Do you, like me, have those moments that give you a soul-deep sigh, that lighten your heart, that keep you willing to bet your last dollar that the whole thing is for real and God is actually with us? These wisps of wonder aren’t nearly as often as I’d like, but often enough to return me to the center, to notice the light cracking through, to keep watching for the magic.

These flashes are rarely earth-bending, but ordinary graces. It’s spending most of the day reading letters and journals from a dear old soul who, in ordinary language and plain cadence, makes me know I’m not entirely insane, that mercy is abundant and most of the BS we know is BS actually is BS. It’s feeling that jolt of joy when our youngest walks through the door, me breaking out in applause, because he’s kicked middle school to the curb and I’m so proud of who he is. It’s hearing our oldest in his room, even in the late, late hours, belting out his tunes as he vigorously hits the licks on his guitar–realizing this is my favorite music and it won’t last forever. It’s watching Miska from the window as she tends to her garden, stunned yet again by the beauty, elegance and mystery of this woman who owns my heart. It’s a goofy gif text from a friend, or a note that says “wish you were here so we could throw steaks on the grill.” It’s a subtle pleasure, remembering every hour or so that tonight the family’s heading to Plaza Azteca to celebrate the end of the school year with tableside guac, fajitas and tacos. And laughter.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of sorrow, fear, trouble. But these graces, these plain, scattered mercies, are enough of a good word to lift the heavy heart and coax me on.

It’s something like Walker Percy’s lines: “It’s a question of being so pitiful that God takes pity on us, looks down and says, ‘He’s done for. Let’s give him a few good words.’”

These few good words prove enough to buoy us, to rouse us to our life. Though they are unexpected and unbidden — always out of our control — we live by these ordinary moments of divine kindness.

The Potency of Gratitude

Johnson Wang

Gratitude is a potent, generative dynamism. It breaks through granite hearts, melts brittle souls. It undoes grievances that have ravaged and consumed us, like kudzu devouring a forest. Gratitude gives us new eyes and opens up previously unimagined possibilities. Gratitude wonderfully complicates the tired, old stories that, though connected to a certain truth, have taken over, grabbing us by the collar and chaining us to cynicism or despair or rage. I’m not selling snake oil here. I know gratitude doesn’t cure everything wrong in the world, but I’m convinced it is absolutely part of what we must return to if we ever want to regain our humanity.

I’ve thought about why gratitude doesn’t come natural for me. There’s the normal culprits: I’m not slow enough in my soul to really see people or I’m selfish and self-absorbed. A less obvious reason, however, is how expressions of gratitude make me feel vulnerable. I don’t want to come across as a sap or I don’t want to make someone else uncomfortable or maybe I’m afraid that something that feels so tender to me won’t be understood or received as such. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t exactly live in a gentle world. But I want to be a man with the strength and courage to live with gratitude.

So yes, we need to learn to say thank you. A gentle word of gratitude to the server refilling our coffee, to the person who holds the door open at the grocery store, to the postwoman as she pulls past our mailbox. A genuine thanks to the mother who birthed us and the dad who worked a double shift to get us through college and the friend who’s stayed close all these years. Thank you to the person we like and maybe especially to the person we don’t like much at all.

And then, after we’ve begun to flex our gratitude muscles, we go deeper. Look a person in the eye, really look, and say thank you to them for something specific. Don’t look away; hold their gaze (this one’s important). “I’ve seen how you’ve stuck with this soul-killing job to put food on the table, and I want you to know how grateful I am for your tenacity” or “I saw you pull out the trash for Ms. Jenkins last week, and I’m grateful for how you love our neighbors” or “I know that you were disappointed in how that conversation turned out, thank you for just showing up and that you keep showing up” or “I saw the way you held your tongue when that knucklehead started blathering like a know-it-all; thank you for being gentle when you could have cut him at the knees.”

Gratitude is a gift we give into the world, and in time (and often, at first, in subtle ways) it changes things. Even more – and I’ve seen this in myself – gratitude, over time, changes us.

Stubborn Joy

Nathan Dumlao
Recently, we celebrated my dad’s birthday-eve which is a grand occasion not only because today my dad arrives at 75, a biggie, but also because it’s been two decades since I’ve been able to sing him happy birthday in person or watch him puff out candles stuck in a big tub of banana pudding loaded with nilla wafers.
 
So what are you going to do on a Spring evening when your dad’s in your house and celebrating 3/4 of a century of good life? You’re going to ask him what he wants for dinner, of course. And what’s he going to say? Steaks, of course.
 
So I fired up the charcoal and asked Alexa to fire up The Platters. I like these soulful artists very much, but even more, they’re tunes from dad’s high school days in Garland, Texas. And on your birthday, you get the steaks you like and the banana pudding you like and the music you like. So the steaks sizzled to the serenade of “The Great Pretender” and “Enchanted” and “You’ve Got the Magic Touch.”
 
Toward the end of our evening, the playlist shuffled to The Platters’ rendition of “Joy to the World.” I started to tell Alexa to switch the song, so out of place to hear Christmas music in April when the grill’s blazing. But they kept singing to me, repeating that sounding joy, repeating that sounding joy. And I wanted to hear more. I wanted The Platters to belt out this joy for the whole neighborhood. They say joy is subversive. I know this to be true. We must, as the poet Jack Gilbert reminded us, “have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
 
We can live without a lot of things in this world, but I’m not sure we can live, or live in any way that’s actually living, without joy. So be bold and stubborn today: accept your gladness, your joy. And if you can’t find any, watch for it, be open to it. I believe joy will find you.

Sundays

image by Jørgen Håland

Sundays are for worship and napping. And taking a little tour of our herb garden where Miska guides me (again, because I always forget the particulars) through the holy basil, the mullein, the daffodils, the lavender, the oregano. She shakes the poppy plants, and we grin at the sound of rattling seeds, nature’s maracas. She coaxes me to touch the velvety carpet of the roman camomile, a bed fit for a queen.

Juno, our black mouser, flops over at Miska’s feet, insisting Miska scratch him while he purrs, swatting at Miska if she stops before Juno deems appropriate. Miska does as Juno demands; then she reaches her fingers into the rich soil, a gesture of wonder and delight and prayer.

Watching her, I envision the Great Creator, at the beginning of human time – and still now – reaching hands down into the soil of this world and taking great, great joy in all the beauty. Our worship with the gathered community, with the liturgy and the Scriptures and the Eucharist, centers us, and having done its work, it sends us, dispersed into our scattered, holy places. And in a hundred ordinary corners, the worship and the liturgy continues. For us, it carries us into gardens and naps and later into an evening with friends. We must worship, and we must indulge in God’s good earth, and we must rest. This is a feast. These are our liturgies. It is all of a whole: one life, one God, one grand and beautiful day.

Seeing Francis

I was sitting in the Philly airport eating my Smash Burger breakfast sandwich (I know, right?), trying to regroup from a before-the-crack-of-dawn flight. And who walks right up to the Smash Burger line? None other than Francis Collins, director of the National Institute for Health, a renown academic and scientist and Christian and thinker who’s done a heck of a lot to help a number of us recapture a sense of gratitude and hope as we ponder the many splendid wonders of science and remember how, as people of faith, we marvel and are not afraid.
 
I’ve never met Francis, but I’ve seen his photos numerous times and watched a great SMU commencement speech on YouTube (where he to conclude he pulled out his guitar and sang the graduates a folk song; he’s grand). So there he was, by himself, dragging his clicketty-clacketty carry-on around the food court, hunting down breakfast. I thought for only a moment, but I had an hour and he didn’t look like he was in a hurry. “Why not?” I thought, “Why not breakfast with Francis? It could happen.”
 
So of course I walked up to him, and how else do you start this introduction? “Are you Francis Collins?” I asked, and I may have been a tad exuberant.
 
He looked at me blankly. “What?” I went at it again. He wrinkled his brow and stepped back, as if I’d just asked, “Do you know I’m about to blow fire out my nose?”
 
“No, no,” he shook his head, bewildered. “Not me,” he said, waving his hand as if to ward off my tsunami of disappointment.
 
I returned to my table, deflated. He rolled his bag away, to find his bagel, sit down in peace and google: “Francis Collins.”
postscript: Mr. Collins, should you ever happen upon this, I would still dearly love to meet you. Smash Burger’s on me.

This God and No Other

Josh Applegate

If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.

If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.

And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.

However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.

God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.

This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.

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?

Preposterous Blessings

During Lent, our church has been slowly pondering and praying through Jesus’ strange blessings, these outrageous words Jesus offers as his first salvo in that preeminent Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you who have bone-dry bank accounts. Blessed are you who are heavy with tears. Blessed are you who have no cards left to play. Blessed are you who ache for goodness and justice in a world torn asunder. And the insanity goes on and on.

The life Jesus announces really does turn everything topsy-turvy. Jesus passes blessings (well-being) on exactly the opposite of those we consider blessed. The Beatitudes pronounce the shocking reality that the precise people we assume at the bottom of the pile are actually at the center of God’s abundance. These blessings are what God does, what Jesus makes possible in ways that were impossible before.

And while these blessings do not unravel a litmus test for “what it takes to get God’s blessing” (for example, no one’s suggesting we should go out looking for persecution), it’s subversively true that we need not fear these places of deprivation or vulnerability because when we’re most at risk, we have confidence that God is with us in that risky place. So when calamity visits us (persecution) or when we courageously obey Jesus (by being merciful, for instance, to those who we think deserve no mercy at all), we don’t need to fear.

Can you imagine what our world would be like if we didn’t fear losing our money or speaking out against wrong or extending mercy to those we assume should be cast aside? What if we didn’t have to be tough and were free to be gentle and straightforward and yes, pure in heart. Isn’t it strange that to many of us pure in heart is a description we’d use only for the naive or soft or hopefully out of touch, never for people we truly admire, the people who actually know how to get stuff done in the world. It’s a quaint idea but dangerous to think and live this way, we say. Maybe being pure in heart is dangerous, but it’s also blessed.

With God, we can let the danger come. We are free. We are blessed.