Friday, August 01, 2008

God's Two Hands

There are days when I want to quit the church. Not just stop being a pastor, but walk away from the whole ecclesiastical enterprise. Maybe even walk away from God.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God. I don’t know if I could ever NOT believe in God. I happen to have the gene – or gift – of belief.

The days I feel like leaving the church are when I see non-believers doing good things for the world while we church people get mired in silly little fights about sex.

When there’s great creativity in the secular world while churches reward mediocrity.

When people takes a back seat to doctrine, status quo thinking passes as “tradition,” and anger at sin is valued more than the joy of forgiveness.

In other words, I feel like leaving when I know that I’ve left my best game in the locker room and I don’t know what to do about it.

When I experience more passion and joy from outside the church than from within it. And I don’t know why that is.

That doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough to stop me in my shoes.

A common conservative Christian polemic is that there can be no ethics without God. Such an idea is almost an article of faith in some evangelical communities. As if people need the threat of eternal punishment to keep from killing one another. As if religious people are free from murderous impulses. That without God, moral relativism (whatever that is) would create chaos in the streets. Ethics as carrot and stick. Actually, just a stick.

But what I think they’re saying is that, if people could be ethical without God then there’d be no need for God’s messengers – church people. Pastors. Ethical threats as job protection.

Also, they need an enemy. And a world that won’t bow at their feet will do just fine. Having an enemy gives purpose, identity.

But maybe their fear isn’t unfounded. After all, some of the most life-giving, ethical, (dare I say ‘faithful’) people I’ve met have been non-believers.

People who wouldn’t be caught one city block from a church, but have a better sense of God’s kingdom of life and grace than some of those who fill our Sunday morning pews.

People who seem to be better instruments of God’s love and mercy than those who wear fancy robes, dog collars, and profess to be God’s mouthpiece.

Some preachers, even preachers I deeply admire claim that the church is God’s Plan A for the world’s salvation. And God has no Plan B. We’re it. We’re God’s hands and voice in the world. God has no other implement in the world other than that which is called The Church.

I used to believe that. I don’t anymore.

I don’t believe that because I take the scriptures too seriously to think that God can only use the covenant people to do God’s heavy lifting.

The Magi (three wise men) sought after the Christ Child, recognized him as the Messiah, but Matthew gave no evidence of them becoming Christian, or even Jewish. There’s no evidence that they gave up their pagan religion. But they’re a part of God’s salvation story nonetheless.

Jesus was amazed at Roman Centurion’s faith, but there’s no evidence that he abandoned his Roman Caesar cult, got baptized, deserted the Roman army to follow the poor Messiah from Nazareth.

Also, Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter because of her faith. She was definitely outside of the covenant. That’s why he was able to insult her sick daughter (some suggest that Jesus even made a racial slur) and no one batted an eye. But God was able to use her as a witness to God’s kingdom of healing.

And people - non-believers - are all over the world living out Matthew 25, while some Christians are more concerned with tax cuts for the rich.

I think God is more interested in feeding hungry children, visiting sick people, and teaching prisoners how to read, then whether capital gains should be cut by 5 per cent.

Martin Luther talked about the church being God’s right hand and the world being God’s left hand. So, I’m in good company in thinking that God doesn’t heal the world with one hand tied behind the back. God is renewing the world with AND without the church.

So where does that leave us as church people?

I think that leaves us with a challenge to be the church the best way we know how. I think it means that God wants us to learn from the good, life-giving, things that non-believers do. This means that, even though we’ve been named and claimed as God’s people through our baptism, the world can still bear witness to God’s activity in this big, beautiful planet.

Maybe it means that church folks don’t have a corner on love and faithfulness. And that’s okay. We don’t go to church, pray, worship, study, and work hard for Christ’s church because we’re better than anyone else. We’re church people because that’s who God wants us to be. God put us here to remind the world who God is. And that prayer and work, love and action are two sides of the same penny.

I think it means that God needs two hands to remold the world into what God wants it to be. I’m part of God’s right hand (the thumb?) doing my small part for the kingdom.

That’s why I’m still a pastor. That’s why I haven’t walked away.

NB: Updated for typos and clarity.

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