Messy Church; Gritty Grace
“This is nothing new or surprising, but in many conversations lately, I have decided that the Church is best when it is a place where grace is both freely given and freely received.”
I have had this quote swirling around in my head for over a week. It was from another pastor friend on Facebook and to be fair I think she is talking about mutuality and no-strings relationship in which the giving and receiving happens equally on both ends and I couldn’t agree more with those aspects. So I’m not really talking, from here on out, about disagreement with that sentiment… but its going to sound a bit like exactly that.
When I read that thought initially it just didn’t quite sit right with me. Not in a that-isn’t-true kind of way… but in a that-is-a-little-too-pretty kind of way. I’m a gritty church guy. I have a theology of ambiguity. I am an admirer of existential angstiness in the likes of Kierkegaard and his modern equivalent in Peter Rollins. I have a quite low Christology, in that I am far more interested in how Jesus teaches us to be human than anything else about him. And I desire to do the dirty work of really investing in this world with little care of what heaven is, if Heaven even is… its really rather irrelevant. Heaven isn’t a game changer. Incarnating divine word/love is.
I tell my community early and often… that church, like family, is messy.
We love pretty scenes of the infant Jesus in a manger with blue-clad (angelic and pristine) Mary kneeling over him… in truth the stable straw (if you have to believe there even was such) is mixed with afterbirth, sweat, and tears… it isn’t easy birthing the promise of new life.
So I thought about it and decided my version might go something like, “I think the Church is at its best when it’s exhausted from trying to be in relationship to each other, widening the limits we place on love.”
The Church isn’t the church when it gets it right. The Church is most the church when it’s trying in spite of how it gets it wrong. Its gritty work, this Church thing. I’ll say it again… that is why I call this space “wrestling with discipleship.” Discipleship follows, and endeavors to be that which it follows, in our case Jesus. But one isn’t a disciple because you ARE Jesus. You are disciple by your commitment to following in pursuit of Jesus’ way. Its like Jacob wrestling with God. We are all wrestling with God – it’s the essential nature of discipleship.
I love the Church and I love churches. Not for their perfection. Haven’t found one of those yet. I love when I see a community truly seeking – body, mind, and spirit – to be Jesus to each other (all the others). And, all good theology aside, that isn’t free. And that isn’t easy. And there is nothing cheap about it. We walk away from it limping.
So while it is a wonderful thing to behold grace mutually and freely given and received. Grace is most itself, the Church is most itself (I think), when it’s given in the face of rejection. That is why I find no more gracious utterance in all the Bible that the words of the prophet Hosea, “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up… My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:7-9)
How easy it would be to reject those who reject you… but the greatest claim of grace is the refusal to respond in kind. Grace is at its best perhaps when its not our first inclination. Like God in Hosea, we have to be reminded by that churning gut of gritty love that we are free to choose another way: God’s way. And return welcome in the face of rejection, love in the face of hatred, mercy in the face of judgment, and embrace in the face of apathy.
I leave you, then, with these final words, oft quoted by me because they give great voice to my ecclesiology:
I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
–Flannery O’Connor, from a letter written in July 1955, published in The Habit of Being, page 90.