Churches Suck. Not All Christians Do.
Be ye warned: the following essay says nice things about Christians.
In the six months I've been writing this blog, I've had some harsh things to say about the church. The church that formed me, United Methodism, is, in my informed opinion, a spiritually and ethically bankrupt institution, incapable of acting courageously, its leadership hopelessly hobbled by the desire to preserve what power they have and to hang onto jobs that are rapidly becoming obsolete. Whatever convictions they have with respect to providing basic civil rights to sexual minorities take a back seat to covering their asses in the event of an assault from the right.
Continuing in the disclaimer mode, I will also state that Christians in general are fond of imagery that just gives me the douche chills. I made the mistake of Googling "Christians" in a quest for an image to attach to this blog, and what I came up with was simply revolting: schmaltz, schlock, saccharine sentimentality with a frisson of sadomasochism. I've never cared for the sort of Christian "art" that is readily available in Christian book stores, and is often prominently displayed in churches that really should know better.
And finally, I readily acknowledge that there are Christians on the wrong side of many current controversies. As comedian/commentator/atheist Bill Maher frequently observes, it's as if they haven't read their own book. Jesus would be appalled at the positions taken by the most prominent Christians in the United States.
And that's all I will say about them today. Because today I wish to write about Christians I know who walk the talk, who act sincerely on deeply held beliefs that, to me, are fully consonant with the Gospel as I understand it. I will be naming names here, so if you're a really good Christian who knows me and reads this blog, prepare to blush.
I'll start with family. One of the sincerest Christians I know is my nephew Gabriel. Gabe's faith informs his compassion and dedication to serving those around him who most need it. For over a year, he became my parents' live-in caregiver because they--more particularly, my father--needed someone to take on this responsibility, to ease them into their new identity as shut-ins. Gabe's presence in their home enabled them to finally give up driving, and it set a standard for future care decisions. He did this with almost no compensation--a bed and meals--and, during the year of his service, focused on defining what shape his life would take once he left. He chose the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago because, as the year with my parents demonstrated for him, his heart lies in mission. He feels called to travel to the Third World and care for the needy. And who's doing the calling? Jesus, of course.
I must note that Gabe is as conservative a young adult as I personally know. He holds many beliefs that I do not share, worships in churches I will not enter, and may be deeply concerned about the state of my soul. If he is, he keeps it utterly to himself. He may just know better than to try to evangelize me, but I think it's deeper than that: I think he believes the best evangelism is the kind that never ever asks about one's relationship with God, but instead proclaims the good news by example. Gabe's life is the best kind of sermon, and to it I say "Amen."
I turn now to friends. My last posted essay, on the cowardly approach of United Methodism to same-gender marriage, got props from my friend and former colleague (and, for a time, my pastor) Gerry Hill. Gerry took early retirement last year to join his wife, Robyn Morrison, who is engaged in a sort of alternative ministry in Helena, Montana. From the first time I met him, Gerry impressed me as a Christian without guile. I've never known him to engage in the ridiculous political games so many pastors play. I have known him to be brutally honest about his own gifts--and failings. Gerry stayed in ministry, despite his misgivings, because he genuinely believed in serving God by serving others. He helped me through some of the hardest times in my life, and while we have not seen much of each other over the years--and sometimes there are many years between our meetings--I always leave our encounters feeling blessed, knowing I have been in the presence of a true man of God.
Another such man is Tony Peterson. Tony was the first floor RA in Lausanne Hall my freshman year. I lived on a different floor, but the community I became part of--I called it "The Group," while some of the others in it called it "The Element Gang" for reasons I've completely forgotten--adopted Tony as our RA, regardless of what floor, or even what dorm, we lived in. Tony was a rare bird, a black man who attended Punahou School in Honolulu (and yes, he knew Barack Obama while he was there) and was now finishing his studies at Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, with a mostly white student body. We never thought of Tony as black; he was just Tony, a gentle, caring, delightful person with a huge Afro. After graduation, Tony pursued a career in the Methodist church as a religious educator, youth worker, and, eventually, an employee of the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville. He married a single mother and, through her children, eventually became a grandfather (he prefers "Pee Paw" or "T-Dad"). He writes a blog that addresses theological and racial issues. As much as he has wrestled with United Methodism--he was laid off several years ago in a cost-cutting maneuver--his faith has never, as far as I know, wavered, and he continues to live generously out of that faith.
My final example, or rather, examples, are two of the people in the picture at the top of this page. In all honesty, everyone in that picture fits the theme of this blog to at least some extent. It's a photograph of the Metanoia Peace Community, a year or two before it finally disbanded following the retirement of John Schwiebert who, with his wife Pat, founded the community in the mid-1980s. John and Pat have lived, since their marriage in the 1970s, as radically faithful Christians. Believing profoundly in intentional community, they have never had a house of their own, but have always shared their home with other adults, living covenantally with them. Pat, a registered nurse and midwife, specialized early on in perinatal loss, a passion that expanded to cover all forms of grief, and led to her being a nationally-known advocate for bereavement work. Pat also has a heart for the homeless, and has, through meals she organizes at the Sunnyside United Methodist Church, fed tens of thousands of homeless and otherwise destitute people. John has been a community organizer since before he even knew Pat. He has served traditional parishes, but most of his career was spent bringing people together around issues of justice and peace. The community they founded together, and of which I was a member from 2000 until last year, when it disbanded, was a gathering of activists and misfits who rarely agreed on anything. They came to be inspired, and left in a huff over some action that was taken, or disappointed over one that was not. Metanoia was never an easy church to lead--in fact, it was often a hard one just to belong to--but John was ever faithful. However many times it said "No" to him as he presented a program emphasis he felt was important, John held on, carrying on the work well into his 70s. Without him, and without Pat, there could be no Metanoia; after a year of looking for a place, and trying to arrive at a Schwiebert-free identity, the community folded. John and Pat continue with their passions, still living in the Peace House, caring for ailing housemates, organizing, protesting, feeding, loving, and all of it in the name of Jesus.
Looking at this short list of Christians, I'm impressed with what a low profile they have overall. Yes, the Schwieberts in particular have made headlines, have even made use of the media to advance their causes, but they have never sought out publicity for its own sake, and I doubt that Gabe, Gerry, or Tony has ever chased the spotlight. They live faithful Christians lives because that is who they are.
Meanwhile, my own faith has not held. Shattered by disappointment in the institutional church that birthed it, challenged by the intellectual pursuits that took me to seminary, dwarfed by the far greater fulfillment I find in enjoying the outdoors and teaching music to children, I have found myself again and again setting aside the tattered remnants of a faith that was never all that strong to begin with. I covet the faith of these exemplars, and yet I know it is not for me. At best, I can only hope to be an agnostic when it comes to believe in God. Unlike most of the Christians Bill Maher complains about, I have read the Bible. All of it. And I have many a bone to pick with the God described in both testaments of this book. The writers projected so much of themselves on God that it's impossible to know if they ever believed the Creator to be anything but a capricious old man.
Capricious or not, all-powerful or all-loving, the God these Christians worship, the Jesus the follow, calls them to love and serve their neighbors. However they may feel about intelligent design, abortion, militarism, same-gender marriage, ordination of sexual minorities, or any of the other countless controversies that have led Christians to divide their communities, they themselves are not quitters. They have all sought out faith communities in which they can be nurtured; and when none appears, they have seen no problem in starting their own. Faith, they all understand, needs to be nurtured in the presence of others who share at least some of its component parts.
I must add in closing that these remarkable individuals are far from alone in being sincere Christians. I've known many, far more than I can count. Yes, I've known many a hypocrite, as well, and even some true Christian monsters. By and large, though, I've found that those who practice Christianity sincerely, who work intentionally to follow its precepts, are some of the best people this world has ever produced. I know this is true, too, of faithful Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists; really, of anyone who takes seriously the parts of a holy book which talk about serving one's faith by serving other human beings. I know, too, that all these religions have their share of idolaters, people who turn their faith into a weapon to be used on others.
But that's not who I sought to write about today. There will be plenty of other times for me to excoriate the selfish, violent practitioners of religion. Today I wanted simply to laud those who practice what they preach. Just doing so has made me feel blessed to have had these people in my life, and hopeful that I may spend more time in their company in the future. It won't change my own mind about the relevance of their beliefs to my own life, but it does make me want to thank the God whom they believe called them and guided them on their paths.
Not bad, God. Not bad at all.