I am often frustrated with the church. I find myself drifting away for periods of time and then wandering back. I am too unorthodox in my theology to be in the mainstream of Christianity, so I linger at the margins. I am often uncomfortable with the theology of the ancient creeds and so I remain silent when they are recited and I am equally uncomfortable with the theology of 21st century happy-clappy praise songs, so I do not join in. For me, the experience of worship should be challenging, not entertaining. It should help us grapple with poverty and injustice, war and oppression.
Through the past half-century, I have experienced the church in many settings—as part of a struggling inner city parish, a growing suburban congregation, and a tiny small-town church. I have been a part of churches with many ethnic roots: German, Slovak, Norwegian, and African-American. Over the years, I have been a part of the church’s engagement with social, political, and economic issues. As I came of age, I witnessed the church struggle with integration and civil rights, and then watched it segregate itself every Sunday morning for worship. I have seen it wrestle with the evils of war, and watched it feebly respond to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I have seen the church grapple with women’s social, political, and reproductive rights and their equal right to ordination—which far too many churches still deny. And most recently, I have watched the never-ending debate over the role of gay and lesbian people in the church and their frequent exclusion from equality in the body of Christ and its leadership.
On nearly every one of these issues, the larger church has found itself on the tail end of the struggle for peace and justice. It has rarely been a leader in these movements and all too often has been a distant follower. I have watched churches test the wind on nearly every social issue and adopt positions that will offend the fewest number of its members—often in the name of ‘unity.’ I have observed that many churches rise to speak boldly and prophetically only after the matter has been resolved by society at large and the issue has been settled everywhere but in the church.
Increasingly it seems that the church has become an irrelevant force in the world. Too many churches seem focused entirely on personal salvation rather than addressing the everyday evils of violence, power, and systemic injustice. Too many congregations focus solely on themselves instead of the suffering and needs of their neighbors. Too many pastors find it difficult to speak the truth, challenge the faithful, and rock the boat. In nearly every country the church too often serves as a chaplain to the policies of the state rather than a prophetic voice calling for peace and justice.
I wish the church was different. I wish it was more faithful in its calling. Yet I take heart that there are faithful people and communities who, though small, are engaged in the work of God on earth. Jesus often used images of a tiny minority who could accomplish great things—a bit of yeast in a large loaf of bread, a pinch of salt in a great kettle of soup, a tiny mustard seed scattered in a well-tended garden, a feeble lamp in a vast darkened house.
So I often feel alone, on the margins of the church. I find it increasingly hard to be true to Jesus in an institutional church that by its silence validates war and economic disparity around the world. And so I wonder why I stay.
Back in 1973, I attended a retreat led by Pastor John Schramm, co-author of a book entitled Things That Make for Peace. After some discussion in which participants talked about their frustrations with the institutional church, John shared a story by Will Campbell, a Southern Baptist preacher and writer.
Campbell described a time when he went to a performance of a small traveling circus that had a high wire act. He was fascinated by the aerial acrobatics of the trapeze artists. He was so interested that, after the show, he went into the locker room to interview one of the performers.
Campbell asked the primary person in the acrobatic team, “Why do you go up there every night?” The answer came, “Because when you are flying through the air, knowing that you will feel the slap of another hand on your wrist, and those two arms will grip yours and send you on to the next person, it’s the thrill of that experience that gets you up there. And it’s the bright eyes of children watching, the music, the clickity-clack of the train wheels that take you to the next town. It’s in my blood. And the pay is good.”
Campbell accepted that. And then the acrobat said, “Do you want to know why I really stay up there?” “Sure!” said Campbell. The man replied, “My kid sister is up there with me. She always was a little wild. If I wasn’t up there to give her that look right before the act, she’d try something we hadn’t practiced. I know it! My wife’s up there with me too and she’s the most forgetful person I’ve ever met. I need to remind her of the sequence right before we begin. And my father’s up there with me, and he’s getting older and moves more slowly. I stay to give him a little extra help. If I wasn’t up there, some night one of them would fall.”
Campbell thought about those answers for a minute and then asked the performer, “With all those risks and problems, why do they stay up there?” The acrobat looked like he wasn’t going to answer. He turned and began to walk away. Then he paused, looked back, and said as he headed out the door, “They stay up there because I drink too much.”
When he finished the story, Pastor Schramm said, “I think that’s why I stay in the church. Because some of you are too wild, and if somebody didn’t give you a look once in a while, you’d try something that was out of the books. Some of you are forgetful. My Dad is old and shaky. And because I drink too much. There may be more presumptuous answers about God calling us to great ministries and all kinds of things, but I stay there because I need you. And I think maybe that’s enough.”
Years later, I was reminded of these remarks when I read Susan Ager’s column in the Detroit Free Press on January 31, 1995. She described an experience in which sixty people gathered at a seminary north of Chicago to honor the life and work of Jim Ashbrook, who taught pastoral counseling there. Jim was dying of cancer. His friends and former students had gathered to give him a kind of pre-death memorial and to say good-bye.
After a number of the participants had shared the importance of Jim Ashbrook’s life for their own life journeys, the dying man told a parable.
At dusk, a man walks alone toward home. Up ahead he sees four shadowy figures approaching. He begins to shake from fear, and as the men hurry faster toward him, the terrified man leaps over a wall and into a cemetery, where he flings himself into an open grave to hide. Meanwhile, the hearts of the four men pound as they watch that poor fellow on the road, trembling as if in a seizure. They run to help him, leaping the wall, too, and rushing to the grave. ‘Sir!’ they shout. ‘What’s going on? Tell us!’ A calm settles over the man, as the situation becomes clear and he says, ‘I am here because of you. And you are here because of me.’
In the end, that is why we are here—because of each other. That is why many of us remain—to take care of one another.
Some years ago at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, I was asked why I stay in the church. This is the answer I gave.
I stay in the church, despite my frustrations, because it is the only place where I can engage others in dialog about things of ultimate importance. When we go deeper than superficial matters and pious platitudes, we can begin to share our inner thoughts about the heart of the matter: the meaning of life and human suffering and grace. When we set aside the constant cultural demand of affluence and materialism, we can take the time to challenge and support each other in daily acts of courage, peace, and compassion in a violent and desperate world.
I must admit that I cannot find this level of honest dialog in every congregation. Nor is it safe in some churches to venture beyond simple clichés and orthodox beliefs. At times this kind of deep dialog can happen not at the center of the church, but only on the fringes where people feel safe to express doubts and concerns. But without the church, without a community that gathers around the Word, without a community that seeks to follow Jesus, where would I go?
A friend once wrote, “I stay in the church because it’s an inclusive place, filled with all sorts of people who walk in forgiveness and grace, who include me rather than exclude me.” I suppose that rings true for me too. I stay in the church because an amazing thing sometimes happens to me there. Miraculously, some of my more conservative brothers and sisters embrace me even as I spout what must seem like radical and heretical ideas to them. And I embrace them even as I can’t understand why they cling to ancient dogmatic positions. It is in this spirit of mutual acceptance that transforming dialog can take place. Ruell Howe calls it “the miracle of dialog” and it is a truly remarkable and holy experience. It doesn’t happen enough, but it happens. And I suppose that is the gift I find in this community of faith.
The gospels explain it simply. Love one another. Accept one another. Have compassion on one another. Pray for one another—the wild, the forgetful, the old and shaky, and those who drink too much.