One of the things I love about the church is that you never know what kind of impact you’re going to make on the lives of those around you. At a very simple level, the church offers an opportunity to do good and, at the very least, do no harm. In my experience, very few people use the church as an opportunity to make the world a worse place (though, sometimes this is what happens). Those who desire to see the fruit of the Spirit emerge from their hearts, minds and spirits find in the church a wonderful fertile field for doing good and doing well. Who doesn’t wish to bring more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control into their family, community, relationships and world? Yet, sometimes we dishonor the very people who strive so hard to do good and do no harm.
I received this humbling and flattering note from a young person I have the joy of working with:
“I am writing for a simple reason: to thank you. You don’t even know what I am thanking you for, but in the past three meetings we’ve been to, you have treated me with respect and you have gone out of your way to include me and listen to me. Also, you do not make me feel inferior as a laity. All my life people ask me if I have considered becoming a minister. It always makes me feel like what I do isn’t ministry when people ask me that. You see me as a minister, and you don’t look down on me because I am not ordained. It is hard for me. I am a young person, I am of Mexican descent, I am female, and I am laity. I cannot tell you how often I am dismissed for one or all these things. You respect me and you make me proud of who I am. That is why I am writing to thank you.”
I am not meaning this as a “look how cool I am,” but I will admit it pleases me to be recognized as such. On the other hand, what have I done that is so special? All I do is let people be who they are and encourage them to share what they have. Nothing more than a little respect and civility.
I was stunned the other day by a comment made by a pastor who vehemently disagrees with me — on just about everything. He launched an insult at me that I took to be the highest form of complement: “Your problem is that you think you see Christ in everyone. Wake up. There are people without one ounce of Christ in them.” I agree that there are people who do not display much Christ-like behavior — inside as well as outside the church — but I don’t think that means the potential isn’t there. I do look for the Christ in others, and when I don’t see it, I remind myself of all the times others must struggle to see it in me. I believe that every human being on earth is made in the image of God. I believe that all of us are designed as matrices of infinite potential for good, for grace, for hope, and for creativity. Sadly, we rarely live up to this potential, but this in no way means it isn’t there. We certainly waste a lot of time and energy denying the good and holy that God places in us, but that says more about us than God.
The facts that I am “saved” or “born again” have less to do with my worthiness than my willingness. I am not better than anyone else because of my faith; I am merely more fortunate than those who haven’t received it. I have no authority to compare my sanctity with anyone else — that is a clear sign that I am NOT living in the grace of God. Judging others may be fun, but it is anything but faithful. It isn’t my place to evaluate and critique how well others are living their faith. My task is to live my own faith with as much integrity as possible. And to celebrate the Christian faith I experience in others.
The whole clergy/laity division is silly and somewhat destructive. Christ is the head of the body, not the ordained clergy. Ordained leaders are gifted parts of the body of Christ just as every lay person is. The Greek concept of the laos — the WHOLE people of God — makes a lot more sense, and is a much more accurate description of what it means to be “church.” A professionalized elite does little beyond causing problems in the system. Why do we have a sub-class desiring to be the modern-day scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees? Most of the truly transformative ministry I see done day-to-day doesn’t happen in our church buildings, but out in the “real” world.
We may be teaching the wrong things in our Sunday school classes. Instead of topical studies and superficial Bible-babble, perhaps we should offer classes in humility, forgiveness, self-control, mercy, generosity and loving-kindness? Instead of impressing through our scholarship, possibly we could nourish a starving world with the fruit of God’s Spirit. Hey, that might even give us a good reason to stick together and work to create something fine instead of destroy what we’ve been given.