One of the clearest signs of maturity is the ability to take responsibility for one’s own thoughts, words, and actions. In our current cultural climate, it has become painfully obvious that maturity is NOT one of our defining qualities and taking responsibility is not one of our guiding values. And my epiphany this year is that the Christian church across the board has no room to stand on this issue. In almost every form, our Christ-based institutions and organizations seem congenitally unable to own the damage it has done, and continues to do. No, I am not saying that the church has not done great good, and that it is an incredible force for good (at its best), but I am saying that it fails to live up to its potential on a frighteningly regular basis.
I have been studying the history of Christmas from year one CE to the present, and you cannot navigate the journey without delving deeply into church history. It is so easy to forget that our faith emerged from a deeply superstitious and primitive reasoning capacity. We are a magic/mythic faith; not untrue, but also not complete in our comprehension. For every “empirical fact” there is a leap of faith. For every historic verification there was a mound of speculation. For every brick of revelation, a pound of the mortar of deduction filled in the gaps. Good minds have done great work constructing an ever-evolving and emerging theology. Best intentions, desire for faithfulness, and honest ignorance have perpetually poisoned our well, however, and our faith has been used as often as a weapon of mass destruction as a basis for heaven on earth.
We, meaning those of us calling ourselves “Christian,” have a credibility problem, and rightly so. The reason we have Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s (among others) is that we make it SO easy to criticize, question, and condemn. We have killed millions in the name of love, peace, justice, and mercy. Just reflect on that one statement for a moment. This doesn’t even touch what we have done to one another justifying our hate, bigotry, oppression, violence, condescension, corruption, greed, and selfishness as “the children of God.” Christmas begs the question a bit on what we should really be like, but it is all we can do to maintain a spirit of hope, joy, love, and peace for a few short weeks. We have not been able to build a society and world on these things in two millennia.
And we have no excuse. God gave us the take home quiz and allows us to take it open book. We have all the answers. We know that love trumps hate. We know not to judge. We know not to gossip and insult and assault and attack. We know to give, to share, to care, and to be kind. We know that God intends us to be one in Christ, and to extend that unity, welcome, and connection to everyone we meet. We know the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment (with secondary corollary) from Jesus. We know that we will need to work hard to make peace, to live justly, to be truly merciful, and that righteousness isn’t about being better than others, but about being better than we have ever been before.
Millions of people are lamenting the current state of the church. We are not attracting new “members.” We are not filling our pews, and as much as we would like to use the pandemic as an excuse, this is just making more people realize that the institution of the church is failing to be relevant and fulfilling. People are hungering for community and connection; they are desperate for meaning and purpose. People are starving for justice and equity, and there is yearning for transformation and improvement. The church should have an advantage drawing people into meaningful, transformative, and impactful community, but it is “missing the mark (the traditional definition of “sin”) and needs to repent. As our world is threatened by a million and one forces beyond our control, the church stands impotent, torn by internal strife and division (thanks UMC) and a survival mentality.
If the nativity story reminds us of anything, it should probably be that our current church institutions stand as post-modern Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and complacent and corrupt priests making sure that there is “no room at the inn” for God to arrive and stay. We should start looking to the fringes, to those we love to both judge and give charity to, to those beneath us/outside us/invisible to us if we want to find a Messiah again. It breaks my heart. I love the potential of the Christian faith. I want nothing more than for our local congregations to become millions of points of light in a dark, cold, and dysfunctional world. This is my prayer.
Repentance begins with admission and confession. It is time for us to grow up and take responsibility. There is still time. Why don’t we give it to one another for Christmas and get a fresh start moving into the new year?
COVID is not an excuse for empty churches. However, it did give me the opportunity to step back for a more objective perspective. I am retired clergy and served as conference staff for a time. I know “the company line” as well as anyone and spoke it more times than I care to remember. I also challenged it enough to have been pulled aside and warned of the dangers inherent in doing so.
Recently I have discovered that I am using words in reference to the institution that raised me, trained me and mostly loved me, that are the same words used by abused partners and children after having escaped from abusive relationships.
Fortunately my faith in God has not wavered. My trust in the church is no longer built on rock solid foundations. I have discovered that I not only need to step back, but also to step away—at least for now.
Methodviations has helped me to hang on to a thread of hope that the Church will again recognize its own true calling. Until then, I will continue to practice my faith among the secular community in which I live and who better understand what Christianity means than does the institutional form of what passes for it.