Sometimes it is really strange to be the Pastor of an actual church in 2021.
Our entire country (and world) is under onslaught from a global pandemic, and even as vaccinations and falling case numbers provide a brief glimmer of hope, there's this underlying cynicism and negativity surrounding American Christianity, all of it earned.
In the past few weeks, sharing headline space with COVID-19, presidential Cabinet nominations, and Tiger Woods' car crash, the Christian world has been rocked with yet another example of sexual abuse and coverup from a prominent Christian leader. I read the headlines about the abuse and coverup of abuse within Ravi Zacharias Ministries, but I'll admit I didn't read most of the articles. Maybe it felt too dispiriting: another famous, bestselling, widely esteemed Pastor -- revealed to be a hypocrite of the worst sort, surrounded by an entire apparatus of Christian leadership in America who would rather defend his behavior than risk losing some of their own money and power.
I've also been re-reading Kristin Kobes DuMez' expansive tour de force of American Christian sin, hypocrisy, and myopic masculinity, Jesus and John Wayne. I'm reading it this time via Kindle, which means when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, I lull myself back into peaceful slumber with nightmarish tales about Mark Driscoll, Wild at Heart, and the underbelly of the Promise Keepers ... leading all of us together to the nightmare of QAnon and Jan. 6 and the clergy abuse crisis that American Christians for too long pretended only existed in the Roman Catholic Church.
Today I remember that my own congregation, the one that grew to be one of my hometown's largest and most financially successful Lutheran congregations, and forever shaped my own faith and belief, began its history with its own scandal and coverup, the founding pastor ushered out the door with a party when I was just a baby. He'd go on to serve other large suburban churches to much acclaim before dying by suicide a few years ago.
That's the thing about sin, especially the sin of hypocrisy among American Christians. Whenever you think it exists only "out there," you find it in your story. You find it in yourself.
Ugh. Does this make you want to take some sort of cleansing shower? To, as the Baptists do, be fully immersed and cleansed of your sin by a full immersion baptism? During book research I visited Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Southern California. I think they were celebrating something like 50,000 baptisms. People were standing in line in pools all over the manicured Orange County campus. It felt so good to think that our collective sin could so easily be washed away, even if many of the folks being dunked and wearing t-shirts had already been baptized as infants in Catholic or mainline congregations.
I wish it would be that simple for American Christianity to shake all of this off our backs. Because as I claim Jesus, I stand in these shadows, too. The sin, as the Apostle Paul wrote, clings so tightly.
Maybe, as opposed to a cleansing dunk in the Saddleback baptismal tank, hearing all this news of Christian bad behavior and sin just makes you want to leave all of it behind. Run away as far as you can. Spend Sunday mornings at brunch (er, ordering take-out), going to the gym (er, exercising via video), or at your kids' sporting events (er, watching them tear apart your couch cushions and wrestle each other in your kitchen). Because I mean who needs all that stuff? You read Jesus and John Wayne and see just how deep the muck goes down. We can't even smell ourselves anymore because we're surrounded by it. It just seems normal: the hypocrisy and sin and hatred of others; the refusal to remove this gigantic log while prattling on and on about our neighbor's speck; the pointing to all the other people and groups who are supposedly so terrible, so antithetical to the Gospel, while meanwhile Christians ourselves distort and tear the Gospel to shreds, leaving nothing behind but ourselves and our shameful need to climb the Tower of Babel and eat the poisoned fruit and become gods ourselves, boasting like Dave Ramsey in his $16 million mansion, all of which he says God gave him to manage. These men have become our heroes.
Jesus, his life, his death, his ministry, his sermons, even his resurrection: he's just so absent from so much of what passes for Christianity in America today. I had the great blessing to visit Israel while I was in seminary in 2010. I'm still paying off the trip in the form of student loans, but that's another story.
Anyway, what I remember from the trip partially is being so floored, so moved, that Jesus actually walked here. He lived here. He died here. He rose again here.
And I realized that so much of what I'd been taught about Jesus: his Americanization, his white skin and flowing blonde locks, made him anything other than truly human, which is what teaches us who God really is. And when you miss Jesus' humanity, you miss the love and grace and forgiveness of God. You're left with an otherworldly Christ, stripped of his reality and existent only in an academic theological dialogue, or you're left with John Wayne Jesus, blonde and strapping and carrying a gun (Read the "Holy Balls" chapter of Jesus and John Wayne for more on this).
It shouldn't have taken going to Israel for me to realize how much of the boat I'd missed, despite going to church and being confirmed and going to church camp and attending a purity retreat and Campus Crusades for Christ and FCA and youth group and all the trappings of Christian Culture and DC Talk and Hillsong and David Crowder Band. My faith was like water running through my hands, held up by culture and history and whiteness and power.
So I get it if maybe all these news stories about the underbelly of American Christianity make you cynical or frustrated, because I'm there, too. And that's why it's weird and also wonderful to be the Pastor of an actual church right now 2021.
While people debate on Twitter about if Christians are "too woke," and who's just jealous of Ravi Zacharias and what did Jesus and the Apostle Paul really say about gender roles anyway, I am rooted in an actual place with an actual community and even an actual church building. People have lived and died in this year of COVID-19 and American upheaval, and each week we've had to figure out what we're going to preach or read from the Bible or (just recently) sing, behind our masks. We've had to come up with new bulletins and an annual budget and the thing is, every single week has a Sunday. And now too a Wednesday. And we're moving on with Lent. We put ashy crosses on our foreheads last week on a frigid February day. Last Sunday, as more and more of our vulnerable folks are receiving vaccines and COVID numbers are moving toward very low rates in our county, I got to do a children's sermon with actual kids sitting in front of the sanctuary with me.
Then we found out that -- I'm going to do my best to explain this -- our water pipes underground froze during a stretch of bitter cold earlier in the month. We use well water and we didn't realize this happened until Sunday morning when someone flushed the toilet and the water started coming ... up ...
So I told everyone the property committee was working on it (God love a church full of folks who know exactly what to do in this type of situation) but that no one could use the bathroom that morning. And we all survived and I dashed out quick to someone's house in town to use the restroom right after service, and we all kind of made do. And one of our Council leaders called the chief of police who knew a guy, and he came out Tuesday during Bible Study and about 90 minutes later, our bathrooms were fixed, and he couldn't have been nicer about it.
The other thing you should know about the actual church where I serve is that we don't have any paid cleaning staff or service. Families from the church volunteer throughout the year as "ushers," which means much more than simply handing out bulletins on Sunday mornings. They also clean the church and, in non-pandemic times, provide post-worship refreshments.
I couldn't imagine how this would work when I first came, because in all my previous churches the cleaning of the church had either been a big headache or a big expense. But people here take pride in it. And even after months of pandemic uncertainty and online only or outdoor-only worship services, when it came time to return to in-person worship with restrictions, the ushers started again. I noticed today when I came in that not only did the bathrooms work again, they were also sparkling clean.
So when you or I get discouraged with the church or with Christians or with all the terrible things that people have done in America in the name of Jesus, I want to remind us of Grace, which happens to be the name of the actual church where I sit right now, where we somehow carry on in this year of ups and downs. And when I wonder how Jesus might find a way to redeem us and save us anyway, with all our sin and brokenness and coverups and misconducts as American Christians, I think Jesus will help us find our redemption not in sweeping statements or news stories or celebrity Christians.
I think Jesus works more like a plumber. In Jesus God enters into the stinking muck of our lives, of our mess, of our sin with us. Sometimes that means we have to really smell the muck - admit it - and live in the shadow of that Cross, as Kobes duMez urges us to do in her book, and then while we're really in it, in that place, as Tom of Metro Home and Drain in rural Silver Lake, Minn., did for us at church this week; Jesus blasts the hot steam of forgiveness into our frozen, cold, angry hearts and lives, and invites us again to follow him.
That's it. Follow him. Forgive people. Love people. Work for justice. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Pray. Visit people in prison. Let the oppressed go free. Tell the truth. Love God. Love yourself.
I guess it's possible to find this Grace without actually having a church like Grace in your life. You can be a rogue, individual Jesus-follower. But even Jesus needed a group, a team, a community. In the simplest way, that's what the church in America has been, is, and always will be. Stripped of its money, its power, its publishing deals, its TV slots, its lobbyists ... at its simplest the church is often at its best.
That doesn't mean it can't do big political work, like abolition of slavery or human rights. The church can do all that, following the leadership of the Holy Spirit. But first it has to look in the mirror. Check out where the plumbing has gone awry, and truth has gotten clogged. Repent and be honest and tear down whatever idols need to be torn down. Then kneel at the foot of the Cross, as we're trying to do in little churches across this country in the midst of chaos, as the season of Lent goes on.