Church people and everyone else aren’t as different as you might think. Both groups tend toward black and white thinking — that things are all good or all bad. In truth, everything is touched both with sacredness and profanity. We are shocked and mystified when we see profane acts and words proceeding from supposedly sacred people and institutions, and we are skeptical when we see sacred things coming from a person or institution we had written off as completely profane.
The church — this institution that is supposedly the living body of Christ on earth — is no different. One needn’t study much history, or even look very far today, to see plenty of examples of profanity issuing forth from the church and those who claim to belong to it. It must have been this reality St. Augustine was thinking about when he famously said, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” That whore is my mother too. She is, despite her shortcomings, one who raised and nurtured me and taught me right from wrong. I owe a huge debt to her. To this day it seems most of my life is either lived in service to her or in reaction against her. We can never fully escape the influence of our parents. Today I wish to pay tribute to this whore who, for better of for worse, I love so deeply. Here are the things I like most about the church.
1. Though the church inevitably fails and/or falls short every time it tries to give specific shape to God (through creeds, liturgy, etc.), it keeps trying.
Don’t underestimate that. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990, I immediately set about calling my close friends and letting them know. After all, I didn’t know how long it would be before my disabilities became self-evident, and I at least wanted my inner circle to know what could be coming. I got my oldest and dearest friend on the phone and, in about twenty seconds, broke the news to her. For about twenty minutes after that, I listened. She went on and on and on, asking questions, making suggestions, telling stories, admonishing me with scripture — I don’t even remember now. I just remember how she ended her soliloquy. She said, “I’m sorry. I know there’s nothing I can do to fix this. I know I can’t take the disease away, or ease your fears. But please forgive me because, despite my inability to help you, I just can’t resist the urge to try.”
This is what love does. Love tries, even when it knows it’s going to fall short. It reaches out, even when it knows it can’t reach far enough. It puts words to things even when words are insufficient. In the days after my talk with Cindy I spoke with a lot of other people and many of them expressed that they loved me. But Cindy’s vulnerability and her need to do what she knew could not be done impacted me deeply. Of course the church has made mistakes trying to articulate who God might be. Of course many of those attempts have been used as bludgeons to wound and kill others. But I know that what motivated Cindy that day was love, and I know that what motivated many (not all) of our early church fathers and mothers was love, as they reached out to express what cannot be expressed.
2. The church, at its most basic level, expresses what I want my life to express — that there is something out there, that that something is good, and that that something loves me and everyone else.
It also gears us toward learning to live in ways that acknowledge and incorporate our dependence on this Being. Thus the seed is planted for living in humility. Of course since everything is fallen, this sacred thing often descends into the profanity of “Everyone who doesn’t believe in the god we believe in is cursed”, etc. It almost goes without saying that whenever religion does this, it becomes exactly what is wrong with religion, and begins to produce the opposite kind of people religion is intended to produce.
3. The church gave, and gives, me a place to belong, to lead, to fail, to experience community, and even to learn how to do church better.
I know not everyone has the experience I have had, but my leaders know I’m a status quo questioner and they encourage me not in spite of it but largely because of it. They see something real in my life and they stand by what they see. They allow me to grind up most of the sacred cows and do things in a different way.
4. The church taught me about being loved.
My nuclear family growing up was extremely small, just my parents and brother and me. No cousins or grandparents around or anything. When I went to church there were people there — kids and adults — who loved me. I found my peer group there. I met Cindy (from above) there, one of my closest friends still. When the girl who became my wife started going there, her life took off in a new direction and was never the same, and largely because of the church our paths came together. Naturally this sometimes gets perverted into a rigid and closed, “We ONLY take care of our own” mindset, but I know I learned about love there.
5. The church showed me what spiritual hunger is and taught me a language for talking about it.
One of the first things that must happen when a person is learning a new career or about a new field of knowledge, is he/she must learn the lingo. The lingo in every field is a set of words and phrases with meanings appropriate to that field. Once a person knows the lingo (and only at that point) they can communicate effectively. Both their hearing and speaking processes are sped up substantially because lingo allows for shortcuts, grouping huge concepts into one short word or phrase. In psychology, we speak of REBT and the ABC sequence. This stands for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and the Antecedent, Belief, Consequence sequence. Each of these takes a college course to really understand, but once one understands it, one can communicate richly with others in the field.
I know if I hadn’t grown up in the church I would still have been a spiritually hungry person but it might have taken a long time for me to identify that hunger as hunger for God, for truth, for pure love, for transcendence, for peace. The church gave me a language to identify my hunger so in my mind I could understand what it was, and a vocabulary for discussing that hunger with others so that I could, initially, ask the right questions and — nowadays — know how to explain it to others (while still asking questions, of course).
Conclusion: The whore is my mother. I love my mother, and she has always loved me. Not perfectly. Not in ways I’ve always appreciated, or even always in ways I might have needed in specific moments. But, made up of fallen people as she is — each who is struggling in their own way — the church provided a relatively firm foundation for me.
Next post — The Five Things I Like Least About Church