Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.
He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:
Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.
And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)
I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.
I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.
Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.
William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:
Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)
Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.
In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life crisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.
But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.
I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.
The Bible too.
I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.
I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.
I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.
Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.