Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I Go to Church, Part 1

I've been thinking lately, about some things that I've read, or heard said, about how the church "does charity". Now this is a pretty broad subject, since there are all sorts of churches and parachurch organizations that administer charity. When I say charity, the verses in Matthew 25 come to my mind.

"For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me."

I hear a lot of people complaining about how the church deals with the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Sometimes the complaints are directed at the institution of the church, and sometimes at the individual members. And heaven help us, many of the complaints are completely valid.

There's an old Keith Green album from the seventies that rolls two songs, one into the next. The first is a dramatic retelling of the above passage of scripture, concluding with the thought that the only difference between the sheep and the goats (righteous and unrighteous) is what they "did and didn't do". It rolls directly into the song "Asleep in the Light", which describes a church paralyzed by its own prosperity.

"Oh bless me Lord, bless me Lord!"
You know it's all I ever hear.
No one aches, no one hurts,
No one even sheds one tear,

But He cries, He weeps, He bleeds,
And He cares for your needs,
And you just lay back
And keep soaking it in.
Oh, can't you see it's such a sin?

'Cause He brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
"God bless you, be at peace"
And all heaven just weeps
'Cause Jesus came to your door.
You've left him out on the streets.

Heaven help us if this is how we do charity. I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say "God bless you, be at peace, and here's the numbers of some government agencies that might be able to help you". I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say, "God bless you, be at peace, come back at Christmas and we'll have a toy for your baby and a holiday food box." I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say "God will bless you and give you peace, but only after you clean up the mess that is your life."

The church, as an institution could do better, but we need to cut the church some slack. It is an awkward thing, trying to administer charity to strangers through the church as an institution. The government does it, and maybe does it better. The government has programs that we are compelled to fund through our tax dollars. The government expects to be defrauded. They set up all sorts of protocols for a needy person, to prove that they are indeed needy. The American tax payer does not expect the government to be frivolously handing out cash and goods to anyone who has their hand out. They expect the government to screen people, and determine if their need is real. And so needy people are served, and still the government is defrauded as well.

The church sits in the shadow of the government. No one is compelled to fund the church. People always talk about how all the church ever does is scrounge for money. I have been in the church for my entire life, and I have never experienced this. If anything, I have often heard the church apologetically asking for money to fund worthy endeavors. People give, and proportionally, the people with the least give the most. The church as an institution holds that gift carefully, and labors over where it will be best used...where it will best serve to feed, clothe, heal, and comfort. In fear of being defrauded, perhaps we guard the gift too closely. Do we become the man who buries his talents in the ground, for fear of being robbed? In fear of enabling the very behaviors that cast people into poverty of body and spirit, we are afraid to give liberally. In fear of being impoverished ourselves, we hang onto the lion's share to feed our own.

This is the struggle of the church as an institution. We have this idea that if we find ourselves cast upon hard times, we can find a church door, and knock there. Maybe we can find help. The reality is, you will probably find the door locked. If you are lucky, you will find a friendly pastor or priest, and they may be able to offer some suggestions and assistance. They will invite you to come back and worship together with their congregation. They will express an interest in getting to know you. This will feel weird and invasive, like there is a price to be paid for help, or a screening process to determine whether you are deserving. If the pastor shares your situation with the congregation, it will be awkward. People will treat you like you are special, but it will feel forced and strange. If the pastor does not share your situation, it will be awkward as well. People will treat you like nobody special, and you will feel hurt because they didn't see your need and minister to it.

I think it's kind of like being hungry, and going to the bathroom looking for food. Over and over, you feel the hunger pains, and you get up and trot to the bathroom for a snack. But there's no food to be found. There's water and a cup. That helps. There's vitamins in the cabinet. That helps too. There are magazines on the back of the toilet. Some of them even have pictures of food in them, and recipes for how to prepare it. But no matter how often you head to the bathroom, you still end up hungry.

I think that going to a church building when you are in need, is like going to the bathroom when you are hungry. It's not really what it's there for. The church building has her own purposes, and I'll return to that another day. I don't want anyone to think I'm saying that the church building is useless, or cold, or empty. I just want to spend this post sending hungry people to the kitchen.

The kitchen is people. The kitchen is community. The kitchen is relationship. The kitchen is also the church, but it can exist with or without a building, a pastor, or even a Bible. Not that it throws these things away. They are good and necessary things that help the church grow...but if it has to, it can live and even grow without them. But without people, the church is dead. The church can have a beautiful building, a well trained staff, and shelves full of Bibles and hymnals...but without living breathing people in relationship with one another, it's dying.

Oh, but the kitchen is a sloppy place. It gets uncomfortably hot at times, especially when something is cooking. The sink is full of dirty dishes, and the counters are covered with crumbs. The cooks bustle and squabble, sometimes self important in their aprons. Sometimes they yell at you to get out of the way if you're not doing anything useful. The kitchen can be a scary place, with knives and hot pans. The kitchen can be a wonderful place, full of delicious smells, and happy chatter. The kitchen is people, and it feeds you.

I think that when people come to a church building, genuinely searching for help, they are often let down. Because when people come searching for food and drink, clothing and warmth, healing and human companionship...they are searching for relationship. And when we tell people that God loves them, that He will meet all their needs, that He is the solution to all their problems...we're speaking the truth. But if we don't speak it from the context of a genuine relationship, it sounds like "God bless you, be at peace" as we turn them away from the church door, still cold and hungry.

I don't pretend to know the answers. The physical church building is often the most visible representation of the church body in the community. It is natural that people in need would want to see that steeple as a beacon. In the old stories, people left babies in baskets on church doorsteps. Is this because somehow, magically, the church building itself would save the child? No. The hope was that the presence of the church building indicated the presence of a community of people that were knit together in love. Such a community of people might take in a stranger's baby, and bring them up in that environment of love.

I think babies on church doorsteps are mostly confined to feel-good fiction. The reality was the same then as it is now. The church doors were locked for the night, and everyone was gone home to their own families and firesides. Baby would freeze on the doorstep of the church. If you didn't know of a warm, welcoming kitchen somewhere, you were out in the cold for the night. In other words, if you didn't have genuine relationships, and you found yourself in need, you had few options. I guess what I'm getting at, is that some of us need to stop checking the church doorstep for baskets, and start checking our own back porch. And some of us lingering on the church doorstep, need to find the kitchen and ask to come in. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you know a bit about cooking. Maybe you can help with the dishes. On a cold night, we might all be surprised to see who gathers around the table.

Continued here in Part 2.

1 comment:

BrasilgirlEJ4 said...

this is so true and well written... than you for reminding me of so good truths. Praying for you and the fam!