I will always remember the reaction of a high school friend of mine when I told him that I was seriously considering answering God’s call to become a minister. He stared at me for a long moment, not at all sure of what he should say; but when he finally he did reply, he took a deep breath and asked, “This doesn’t mean you’re going to get all good on us, does it?”
No, I do not think he was commenting on my complete and utter lack of goodness! Rather, I believe his reaction to my future plans was a reflection of how he viewed the church; both in our little town and as a whole. For him, you see, the church was always that place filled with “Capital-G Good” people. You know the kind: the solid, serious, religious-type people; the variety of folks who put on their good suits and nice dresses as they came to worship each and every Sunday morning and were always calm, composed and assured of themselves as they sat there in the pews. These were the people who both inside and outside of the sanctuary at least appeared to have a handle on most everything in life; and who always at least seemed to be, well, a little bit better off than everyone else!
Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure if my friend didn’t really see me as fitting that kind of a mold, or if the fact that I did was somehow threatening to him. Either way, even back then I understood where he was coming from; because truthfully, I held much the same point of view! For me, the church was that special place; and I deeply wanted to be a part of that
And you know what? After over 30 years serving as a church pastor of congregations of varied shapes and sizes, I can readily affirm that yes, the church of Jesus Christ is filled to overflowing with good people; but I can also tell you that the church includes as unlikely a cast of characters as you’ll ever meet!
What I didn’t know back then but have discovered again and again over the years is that whereas there are a great many joyful folk who populate the pews, there are also a goodly number who are angry; and who have come to worship harboring a great deal of resentment over what life has brought them. Calm and composed in every situation? Yes, I’ve known a great many parishioners who are just like that; then again, in each and every congregation I’ve had the privilege of serving there are also those who are depressed, despairing and occasionally delusional. In every set of church pews, there’s to be found the sick, the lame, the grieving and the broken, and plenty of people with problems: some with problems that have absolutely nothing to do with them and others whose problems are of their own sad, misguided creation.
And yes… hard as it is for me to admit, those who constantly make the complaint that church-goers are nothing but hypocrites do end up having a point; for I’ve seen some blatant hypocrisy on sad display at occasional church gatherings. Moreover, there are people in the church who do think they’re smarter or stronger or better or more spiritual than everybody else; but there are just as many who labor under the false and needless burden that they are of lesser value than anybody else in the world. There are a lot of people who take the command to “love one another” very seriously, and make that real at church and out in the world; but in all honesty there are also those who, both knowingly and unknowingly, actually kind of hate other people, and who hate themselves even more.
I’ve seen more than a few who worry far too much about too many things, but there are also those who clearly don’t worry nearly enough about anything. And I’ve known Christian men and women who excel in methods of putting down others; and who, for a wide array of reasons both spoken and unspoken, can’t and don’t stand up for anyone, most especially themselves. The ungrateful, the impatient, the greedy, the gossipy, the gloating, the scowling and the self-pitying – they’re all a part of this community of faith we call the church.
And, in case I’ve left anyone off this list… so are you, and so am I.
That’s right; it’s not always pretty, but we are the church, and amazingly, each one of us belongs! Not to further shatter any illusions (!), but ultimately what we’ve got here is this rag-tag and rather motley assortment of ordinary people who fall just a little bit short of “good,” people whose love of the Lord is all too often as it’s described by the prophet Hosea: “like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” (6:4) not exactly fitting that “Capital-G Good” church people mold!
And yet, here we are – as we are – nonetheless welcomed into the company of the faithful: named and claimed as children of the God who has gracefully and relentlessly pursued each of us us as his own; people who have been called and gathered by Jesus himself (!) to be his disciples of love in the world. Indeed, we are a family of faith in the church, and no less than “the communion of saints” for this time and place; a people who, while we’ll often struggle and stumble along in seeking to live up to that identity will nonetheless continue to amaze and surprise as to the depth of our faith and of our love for one another.
As such, I guess that this, despite our random and particular peculiarities as church folk, makes us what Garrison Keillor might refer to as pretty good people; men, women and children who are everything they are by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, and who seek to live that way.
And speaking as one of those supposed “good church people,” that’s more than enough for me!
c, 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry