It is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to hold sweet converse together;
within God’s house we walked in fellowship.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.
The Church will make you crazy. Really. She’ll break your heart. If you care deeply about the the Church–or any particular congregation–there’s a good chance that someday you will pull out your hair and say in astonishment, “I can’t believe this is happening in a church!”
I’m not saying that Christians are naive. We know what people are like and we know what they’re capable of, and out in the world that knowledge is armor from the slings and arrows and plain stupidity and meanness that come our way. But at church… At church, we were hoping for better; hoping to see the good that people are capable of strengthened and motivated by love for God and neighbor; hoping to be part of a community–working out our differences, striving to do God’s will. That’s what we’re hoping…
…and then one day something happens, and it all looks like just another power struggle and a pack of lies.
It’s especially painful and damaging when the people behaving badly are clergy.
“I thought you were going to help me to learn about God, and this is what you show me!? This is what He’s like?!”
It feels like betrayal, like moral injury–which is why it’s so damaging and why the damage is long-lasting. And unfortunately we’re not always clear on who’s betrayed us–the clergy person or God? When that happens, people don’t just switch churches, they leave The Church. They lose their faith, or get disgusted by it and throw it away.
A lot of dear, loving Christians have been deeply hurt by the Church. Truth to tell, a lot of ministers and priests have been deeply hurt too. Not just upset because they didn’t get their way, but wounded and scarred, betrayed and abandoned. It’s not something Christians talk about much. It’s ugly and difficult. And even if it’s not a newsworthy scandal, people within the power structure of the institutional Church will sometimes protect their own or ignore the problem. Do damage control. Circle the wagons. Obfuscate. Think, “If we wait long enough, the problem will go away.” Because, at times, the Church behaves just like the police, the military, government, schools, and business–constructing its defenses so tightly that even the Holy Spirit would have trouble getting in.
And yet, Christ loves the Church. And forgave us. All of us. From the Cross. And somehow, he uses this crazy, flawed, sinful group of people to proclaim his gospel. It’s really quite astonishing. You think he’d find some better tools.
Perhaps we need to talk more about the injuries we suffer, and those we visit upon one another. Perhaps that would bring greater healing and forgiveness, and perhaps some repentance and reform. I don’t know. But I know that Christ suffered betrayal and did not give up on us. Perhaps that’s the place to start.
“The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness, at least not officially. But the Church as an often fallible human organization, needs our forgiveness, while the Church as the living Christ among us continues to offer us forgiveness.”
–Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, October 27.