Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Church is For the Empty

This was published in the Syracuse Post-Standard in February 2009.  It was the first piece I ever had published.  I still consider it one of the best things I've ever written.  I thought I'd share it with all of you.  

I used to work with a woman whom, whenever the subject of church came up, said something to the effect that if she were to walk into a church, the walls would fall in on her. 

In her mind, her lifestyle was too wild for the fragile purity of the church. It was said as a lighthearted joke, but even so, the impression she had is disappointing to me.  Sadly, many Christians have communicated that the church is no place for those with sordid lives.

If that were true, the church would be no place for me.  I am a sinner, and not merely in a theoretical, abstract sense.  The catalog of my sins goes far beyond mild infractions or momentary slip ups. I have an established pattern  of deception that has compromised my reputation, strained my marriage, and damaged numerous relationships…My sinful choices have wreaked havoc in my life.

And this is why I need the church so desperately.  When criticized for spending time with those whom had a reputation as sinners, Jesus defended himself saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12,13). 

The church is a clinic for wounded sinners; a place of healing for those who have burned bridges and broken trust, for those who have binged on pleasure and purged on guilt; for those who feel hopeless, weary, empty, and beat down.  For those like me. 

The hymn "Rock of Ages" speaks of God's double cure - salvation from sin's guilt and power.  Through Christ I am delivered from sin's guilt in a moment when he freely grants  forgiveness to my troubled soul in response to my faith.  But I am delivered from sin's power over a lifetime.  I have destructive patterns that have been tread often enough they have become ruts.  Without continual focus, I settle into them quickly. 

The church helps tug me from those patterns through worship, meditation, prayer, teaching, fellowship, and service - all part of a spiritual therapy to aid in my healing.  I have good days and bad days; days of progress and days of setback, but all under the care of the Great Physician.

But while the church is intended to be a clinic, I've often treated it like a health club.  I've traded in my hospital gown for Under Armor.  Instead of addressing my ailment, I'm preoccupied with proving my strength and stamina. 

I want to be seen as a model of robust spiritual health, not a case study of spiritual frailty. Multiply that deception throughout a congregation and it's easy to understand why observers could see the church as unaccepting of those with lives in disarray.  My pride causes me to minimize and excuse my weaknesses.  But beneath the image I project is a more honest self, sweeping up the shards of my life and struggling to make sense of them. 

I believe that if the church is to live up to it's calling, then it will be through people like me being vulnerable enough to admit their need for help.  When I speak of my own failures, those around me feel safer to share their own. 

And as we bring these things into the light, they are that much easier to treat.  Ironically, in admitting weakness, I find strength.  As I tell my story I find support, encouragement, accountability, and, in turn, healing.

In the past I would have labeled my failures as a case of the sniffles - bothersome, but manageable with a box of tissues on hand.  More recently I've come to see my failures as a cancer of the soul demanding aggressive treatment.  

Martin Luther said “Be a sinner and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”  I believe the church is for people like that - those with a severe case of sin and strong confidence in God's ability to heal.   The church can not only withstand their presence, it was designed for them.

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1 comment:

  1. Beautiful reflections of self and Christ. I appreciate your humility. If we are not sinners than we wouldn't need a Savior. That would have been a cruel death if we didn't need Him! A great read on this is Messy Spirituality. I know you'll love it! Thank Phil for this beautiful sharing. You are a very gifted writer with a Pastor's shepherding heart.