Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Letter to a Discouraged Christian

This letter was the cover article in yesterday's parish newsletter, The View. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.

Dear Friend:

You and I have not spoken much lately, and I am sorry about that. I have noticed that you come to church less and less often. Many of us slip out of the habit of going to church for no one specific reason at all, but I sense that your absence has less to do with the distractions and demands of life and more to do with a disaffection for the church and for religion altogether. That is not uncommon or alarming. In fact, it is a perspective that I encounter frequently. I hear a lot of people—whether in personal conversations or through social media—talk about their dissatisfaction with the church. I do not know whether a letter from a representative of organized religion is the most effective way to get through to someone who seems to have had enough of Christianity, but I want to share some of my own thoughts with you about the state of the church in an increasingly secular world and, thus, my perspective on the future of our religion.

For starters, Christianity has been a movement for people dissatisfied with organized religion since Jesus first confronted the authorities of his day with proclamations like “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces” (Matt. 23:13). Jesus held in contempt those who used the power of their religion to oppress the underclasses and elevate themselves. He famously and controversially cleansed the temple by turning over all of the tables and chasing out the money changers, declaring that their holy place should be “a house of prayer for all the nations” instead of the “den of robbers” that it had become (Mark 11:17). Unfortunately, that human drive for self-seeking still exists in the church, and I believe that, if Jesus were here today, he would focus most of his ire at those who use his name for selfish gain.

Hypocrisy, however, is not merely a characteristic of today’s religious authorities. Over and over, Christians of all sorts hold other people in contempt for doing or saying things that they find objectionable. Too rarely do those people of faith remember that Jesus’ words—“first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your sister or brother’s eye”—were meant for them as well (Luke 6:42). For me, one of the most frustrating things about human nature (including my own) is an instinctive desire to justify oneself at the expense of others. Whether political, economic, or religious, disputes and conflicts of all sizes often boil down to human beings wanting to prove themselves as better than others. That remains true in the church, but it is also true in every other institution in all of human history.

There is no charity, club, school, church, business, municipality, or any other organization that can escape the brokenness of human nature. Sometimes that brokenness shows up in terrible ways—through dishonesty, theft, or even physical harm—but more often it comes in the form of hypocrisy. Hypocrites are all around us. I am one, and you are one, too. No one is proud of his or her innate proclivity to distort the truth in his or her own favor, but it is a struggle that we all must deal with. And the only organization I know of that is willing to tackle that hypocrisy head on is the Christian faith.

Jesus spent most of his time with outcast sinners—those on whom polite society had given up. He showed the world that God never gives up on any of us—especially the hypocrite that lives inside us all. At its best, this is the mission of the Christian faith: to acknowledge the brokenness that we carry and to offer the transformation that comes only through universal love and acceptance. The church I know is full of hypocrites, and most of us by coming to church have admitted our struggle with hypocrisy. Are we perfect? No, of course not. Could we do better? Yes, a thousand times yes! Does God love each and every one of us regardless of the selfish lives we too often lead? Absolutely and without hesitation. Any church or preacher or Christian who says otherwise does not know the same Jesus I know and love, and I know of no other institution that will make that claim.

I hear many people talk about the need to be “authentic”—a buzzword that captures society’s dissatisfaction with archaic institutions and manufactured rituals. Organized religion is often the target of that dissatisfaction, which is frequently justified. But authenticity can only happen when individuals and institutions are honest about their shortcomings and take them seriously. Although it is plagued by the brokenness it seeks to remedy, the church is willing to acknowledge that brokenness in a way that enables real, personal and corporate change. That change was the life and witness of Jesus two-thousand years ago, and it gives me hope for the twenty-first century.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I want you to know that it is alright for you to stay away from church for a while. God loves you just the same whether you come to church or not. Someday, I hope that you will discover a way to know that love and the power that it has to make you the person whom you were made to be. I believe that that love is what the church represents, and maybe you, too, will find it here in the future. If I am wrong about that, please help me see it because I do not want to spend another day working in an institution that is built upon anything less than the saving love God has for the whole world. I wish you every peace and joy, and I invite you to call me anytime to talk about it.

Yours faithfully,

Evan D. Garner

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