Yesterday I wrote about our pending clergy gathering for renewal of vows. I was struck by several things at the renewal and what followed. I had written yesterday about the cross, our bishop preached on the cross in his sermon. He made a clear connection between ordained ministry and the cross. (And I made a clear connection between my written words and his spoken words.) A smaller thing, yet big in its own way, was a simple act of kindness. I came in three minutes late and came to my seat (we gathered in the cathedral choir). The priest sitting behind me went and got a copy of the service for me so that I would know the readings and music. It felt like that cup of water Jesus mentioned in the Gospel. Lastly, I went to say hello to a priest whom I have known for many years. During our conversation she shared things I had told her years ago when I was the associate at her parish (long before she went to seminary). I was amazed when she told me that I had had a big impact on her.
So what does this have to do with atheists and agnostics? How is this a church guide? I have been involved actively in a church for almost my entire life. It has sometimes been an uneasy association. My biggest conflict with the church mirrors my greatest struggles with myself: I have a hard time accepting imperfection. I have a long list of moments that I thought would/should be the turning point. Being confirmed, going on Cursillo and coming to a deeper faith, going to seminary, going on retreats, leading retreats, getting ordained, becoming a pastor, etc. Each time I thought, now I will finally be holy, each time I have failed. The church is full of people just like me, people who end up saying and doing things that they should not say and do. This tendency, for sinful and broken people to populate churches, causes endless problems in local (and national) churches. It is a leading cause of "unbelief." So many people have been hurt, so many people are angry, so many people have quit believing because people like me are acting like me in the church.
I am a traditional believer in a very untraditional church. For years I have been sad because of this. It is a gnawing pain of disillusionment and confusion. Yet as different as I am, I still can experience genuine moments of connection with others. I can hear genuine declarations of faith in and love of Jesus. In fellowship with 'the other', I encounter the challenge of living in community and loving the other. One of the great temptations is to avoid it all. It is appealing to collapse into myself and do my thing. There is a push and a pull to disengage. I feel it deep within. There is also a strong impulse to justify myself in doing it. To say to myself, that I am better because I am not involved in the hypocricy and endless wrangling of the church. There is a real temptation to just walk away and consider myself superior in my self-contained world. Or to quit battling and give up on God and church.
Yesterday was a reminder that God is bigger than me and my ideas. God is communitarian. The idea of Trinity says that the foundation and source of creation is Love. Love and trust, the relationship of a Father and a Son, the mystery of God's own Spirit. I think unbelievers need to confront their own brokenness. I think unbelievers need to stop disengaging from real life. We are all messed up and the church is messed up. The Good News is God not only knows we are messed up, but He has promised to save us from that. He is doing something about it right now. The church is a big part of that "something" God is doing. Jesus created the church for a reason!
Communities of imperfect people trying to worship and serve the Lord exist. The people are flawed, they can do hurtful things, but there is also a possibility for so much good. There is a chance to experience kindnesses and support, a place to grow in knowledge and understanding. There are people to share the journey with, people who can ask questions and share answers. There are many churches like that. Jesus is at work in all of them. People who are not sure about God are welcome, too. Truth be told, most people in the church are not sure about many things. That is why faith is so important. We trust God, even as we struggle together, in the journey to the final answers!