That same week I was sandwiched between two delightful people thirty thousand feet up in a 747. Nancy, on my right, an eighty-five year old who practiced tai chi and who gushed about getting to see Jesus’s real cross when she was over in Jerusalem. On my left was Ron, a middle aged man whose career I can’t remember but who had great thoughts about the American prison system. When they discovered I was a pastor they each shared their background in Christian faith.
“I’m a presbyterian,” Nancy beamed. She told me how she used to be some other flavor, but marrying her husband had created cause for a denominational negotiation. Presbyterian was where they’d shaken hands back in 50’s.
Ron listened in, nodding respectfully. “Yeah, we’re Methodist.” He didn’t have too much to say, but seemed to take some pride in having a tribe. They asked me about my background and my answer made them agree I’m a mutt. They assured me that that shouldn't cost me anything. There we were, several thousand feet closer to God than the rest of humanity, eager to tell each other of our unique differences in a common family.
Several years after a resurrected Jesus was reported to have floated up into that same sky, a young and ignorant church was trying to figure out what and who to prioritize. Despite such deeply rooted tradition and even hostility about anything at odds with what had been handed down, there was some real magic in the air about this new thing they were calling church. What they were inspired to do and say about all these recently-grafted branches on the family tree was pretty amazing.
Non-Jews—the gentiles—had been let in through a side door it seemed. This irked some purists, who tried to tell these gentiles that they were welcome to become part of the church so long as they got a circumcision, followed the holiness, dietary and purity laws that no one else had ever managed to follow well, and give effort to convert others to the same. A letter once went out to such gentiles from early church leaders apologizing for unapproved harassment like this. “Ignore those dummies," it read. "As leaders, we figure that the only thing we can ask of you is not to eat meat left over from pagan abuses and stop sleeping around like pagan animals.”
The apostle Paul, a formerly rigid separatist who admitted what a pious jerk he could be, would write that within the Christ tradition, labels like jew and gentile, male and female, slave and free, vanish. Race, gender and economic status—those ground level, uninspired superficial forms we try and rank everything by—are metrics no longer. All are equal, no inferiors or superiors.
Had anything like this ever been written down before?
Jesus went around having conversations with people at every level of society. He engaged with other ethnicities, making even the loathsome Samaritans of all people the heroes of some of his stories. The longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the gospels was with a Samaritan, a Samaritan woman at that. Imagine.
Children were said to have the keys to the kingdom, despite being skill-less drains.
Young men and women were told their age didn’t matter to what was happening in God's new world.
Care for widows and orphans—those most vulnerable in society—became a litmus test for genuine religion where cloistered, heady academia was preferred.
Backstories of every description were all braided together now into one common story. A hilariously diverse rabble sat at the same table, eating the same bread, drinking the same wine, and waking up to the one same reality that human separateness is a mirage in failing minds. No matter who you were, or were not, Christ makes you in.
It often went wrong in those churches. Terribly wrong. We only know a fraction of what went wrong back then, as the New Testament is a select collection of corrections as it is praise for what was going right.
And it still goes wrong today. Good God does it still go wrong.
But what goes wrong in church is what goes wrong in all human endeavors. Whatever people involve themselves in and multiply ends up magnifying both our best and our worst. Write Rumi's poetry and xenophobic hate speech on the same deflated balloon, and then inflate it. The expanding magnifies it all. And how much additional stuff can go wrong in an experiment where every tribe, language and nation is invited into the fold without condition? Human beings have never scaled up very well, no matter the reason for them accumulating in number. History is the sad account of disparate groups growing and fighting and trying to hold together, often becoming an unmitigated nightmare after just a few generations. Now add the fact that those common enemies who give a tribe at least some of its peaceful shape by giving "us" a "them" to be united against, are included too. Lord have mercy. The church has tried to do more than exist as a gathering of flawed humans but to even do what human instinct opposes: include those others, those scapegoats and dirtbags and arrogant, wrongheaded annoyances and even those enemies from "out there" into the one family Christ insists we all are. It's been inspired to do something new. We do well to remember Jesus wasn't killed because the News was Good, but because it was New. The church has been trying to participate in some of what got its perfect Founder murdered! Maybe there's some slack to be cut here.
Years ago I did a Bing search on the suggestion of a friend. He told me to search for “Why are Christians so...” without finishing the sentence, so that I could see the most popular searches automatically populate the rest of my question in the search bar. It was funny until it wasn’t.
And so on. The search bar, finishing sentences about Jesus people like I had done for the lady who leaned in. "Awful?" "Awful."
But then I did the same search for doctors and teachers and some others.
“Why are doctors so…” Same overwhelmingly negative results. There were awful people to be found everywhere I chose to look for them it seemed. Awful leaders and awful followers, as recognizable in Rorschach's ink stain as a butterfly or the Virgin Mary, depending on how I decided to squint at it. It's almost as if churches are comprised of actual people, which has never meant one thing, good or bad.
Yes, maybe the difference is that churches purport themselves to be better. Holy even, a term that's only a degree away from meaning comparative superiority. I’ll agree that this is a likely reason why a church’s sourness registers worse than others’. The proud have further to fall, and we'll even cheer that fall on depending on how high the proud have propped themselves. But the need for humility here cuts both ways; maybe addressing crummy church people with humility/humanity is precisely the contagion a body of believers needs to return to something more in keeping with salt and light. That's not to say it's the job of those who aren't the church to improve the church. I think I'm just convinced that churches should get the same treatment as doctors and teachers; some of them need to go, but let's not throw out medicine and education with the bathwater. I should say that if a church has been hurtful, toxic, don’t bother with them. I’d never tell someone whose been hurt by a church to go try and save it by being a model member. If you want to forgive a church for making your life miserable, that’s your business, and I affirm whatever you come up with. I simply offer that people can suck anywhere they gather—suck in the same exact ways—but the church, from its inception, has had a really special role in the world for folks whether they suck or not. What makes an organization suck is the magnification of flaw, but if we'll dare look at the other side of the balloon we might see beauty stretched just as wide. Maybe wider. The church—which can't be isolated to any one address anymore than sunlight can be—has a really special calling that has been variously remembered, variously taken to heart, defying what our species normally does with our suckiness; It absorbs and includes it and Loves it anyway. This sacred community has been endowed not so much with an exemption from what goes wrong with human beings, but with a Spirit that knows what Love in the midst of such folks can do for them and the world around them. That's the vision— different people with different ideas and different blood, who may or may not agree— united by the grace and goodness of Christ. Inclusion despite conclusions. A people still waking up to the Love of God canceling our labels, connecting our tribes and drawing us toward a time where no matter where we sit on a plane, we're sitting with family. And if you hear a voice in your mind saying as you read, "Yeah right, that's not how churches are," I nod humbly at your experience while also suggesting its possible you've sworn off food because your last several meals have been rotten. I hope you can find a good meal again soon.
A friend of mine hasn’t been to church in several years. He used to work at one. He's hunted for a new one a few times in recent years, to no avail. He has friends. He has a job and a sense of meaning in his life. He has love, and is a real stand up guy.
“I’d really like to be part of a church again,” he said to me.
“Yeah. I miss it,” he said. “Just being connected to people like that. Thinking about what’s important together. Deepening myself, with others. I miss it.”
When he’s ready, there are plenty of seats available. Some of those seats are open next to some real idiots. But I think most of them are sandwiched between some folks who Christ has taught some truly wonderful things.