“I BELIEVE in…The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins…” -Apostles’ Creed
For about two years I served bi-vocationally as an Educational Pastor in an Episcopal parish in one of the most liberal diocese in the United States. On their coffee mugs, which I cherish and continue to use, were emblazoned these words “A Safe Place for those Seeking God.” I always felt very uneasy with this statement. Although I know they were simply trying to make people to feel at ease, as many PC folk are wont to do, I entirely resisted the implications of this assertion.
I continue to resist it for at least two reasons, one of which I will capitalize upon in this meditation. First, quite honestly, when was “seeking God” ever a safe prospect? Have you EVER read the Bible? Have you ever sought to walk with God? G-d is singularly UNSAFE. There are a number of reasons for this; chief among them is that G-d always leaves something out of the relational equation. There is always the big “O” of awe and transcendence that cannot be bridged. There is always the big “O” of our personal epiphanies that must be safely navigated. And, of course, there are always the relational hurdles that must be addressed. NO: God is NOT safe. With only very slight “tongue-in-cheek” I have often said “I trust God and my wife — and sometimes not G-d.” I stand by this.
But there is another reason, certainly embedded in my last quotation, why I do not think seeking God in the “place” called the church is a safe bet. It is not safe because, duh, it is THE CHURCH. This of course means that THE CHURCH consists of people like me and you — but mostly like you. That is, in spite of our wanting to live “in love and charity with [our] neighbors,” we all-too-often fall institutionally and relationally short of our calling. In short, I have found that most church folk are not nice folk. Or, more bluntly, they ARE “nice” folk, too nice, saccharine, superficial, and studiously soul-stupid.
This often places me at odds with many of my best friends, most of whom are nice Christian folk. My orientation, as well, puts me at odds with my assertion that I BELIEVE in a holy Church that is a true and vital communion. I militantly insist on the essential of sainthood, I do honestly believe that this is our calling and our challenge, and yet I am painfully aware of our stark failures — but mostly of your failures.
When I left the Episcopal posting, noted above, I asked the Rector for an evaluation of my years of ministry with his community. He was quite generous, but he was also brutally honest. He told me that he did not think I was suited to be a Lead Pastor. This surprised me because I had enjoyed over a decade of successful service before taking on the position of Educational Pastor at his parish. When I asked him why he thought this, he said the following: “Don, you do not take fools lightly and, unfortunately, the Church is made up of fools.” He was right.
This is the heart of the problem. It is the heart of my problem, your problem, our problem, G-d’s problem. The Creed presents a Scripture-affirming doctrine that is very hard to appreciate, and even harder to apply. It is sort of like that episode from “Friends” when Rachel makes a delicious dessert which, along with the standard custard and cake, also includes peas and potatoes. If you are truly her friend you will need to eat this unfortunate mess and swallow it! To BELIEVE in a HOLY Church that is a truly CATHOLIC Church which embraces a full and robust COMMUNION I must commit myself to both the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit (This text does, after all, fall under the rubrics of the Holy Spirit) and to the FORGIVENESS OF SINS. I must, so to speak, eat the “cake” of communion and the “peas” of forgiveness. They are one-and-the-same.
And here, precisely, is the proverbial “rub.” I do not like peas…I do not trust you…I do not trust God. Be honest: Do you REALLY trust me? Do you REALLY trust others? Do you REALLY trust God? Do you REALLY trust yourself? Should you? Should we?
Unless the Church was God’s idea I would entirely avoid it. But it is not because I think it is unnecessary. In fact, within certain strict guidelines, I actually believe that there is no salvation outside of the Church. Quite simply, if I am entirely honest, I would avoid the Church because its expectations are far too high. Church, Christ in his Body by the Holy Spirit, expects far too much of me. The high price of Church is radical forgiveness. The high price of Church is me hanging upon the “tree” of your inane ideas, your unreasonable expectations, your culturally imposed misinterpretations of text and context, your self-sanctified shibboleths of right Rite and right Religion, your exasperating impositions and my excruciating self-sacrifice.
Forgiveness, however, is Spirit-graced and social glue. Without the Holy Spirit we could not forgive. Without the Holy Spirit we could not be holy. Without the Holy Spirit there would not be any holy, catholic communion. Belief is impossible without the Spirit of forgiveness. In this life, like it or not (which I do not), dealing with wounds is the price of unity. Forgiveness is central to confession (Credo) and community.
Is the Church “A Safe Place for Those Seeking God”? I do not think it is. And the PRIMARY reason is because I am in it. I am a part of it. I am, in my small way, Church. Let me, then, offer a word from Thomas ‘a Kempis to each of us: “Turn thine eyes unto thyself, and beware thou judge not the deeds of other [persons]” (Imitation of Christ, Book I,14:1, Moody Press 1980).