“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” goes the African proverb. I think of it every time I jog past this sign near my house. Because if there were ever a place where many of us have felt like we must “speak softly” and “carry a big stick,” it is in of all places “church.”
Sunday mornings can quickly become our “church zone” days. In the “church zone,” we are careful to self-edit. We put on nice clothes to look good for others even if we don’t feel good inside. We put on pleasant expressions to hide the brokenness underneath. We use “Christian” language even when it sounds awkward or forced. We follow all of the religious cues. We pretend to ourselves and those around us that because we’re in here, “in church,” we are somehow different or better than the world outside our doors.
If truth be told, many of us who have tried to be more transparent in the “church zone” have often been hurt. When we have honestly sought to live into the biblical notion that we, the church, really are “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we have been shafted. When we have been real about our struggles, we have been ganged up on.
Then there are those who, in seeking privacy during their times of deepest affliction, are shocked to read about themselves on the front page of the church newsletter, or become against their will the juicy subject of the next prayer meeting. All in the name of so-called “Christian” love. No wonder that many of us instinctively look for the “big stick,” whatever that may be: we are looking to protect ourselves from further violations.
Sometimes I meet Christians who while fully aware of the church’s brokenness would prefer to treat it as if it were a big, family secret. “We wouldn’t want non-Christians to hear these things” goes this line of reasoning, as if once a Christian, all of the mess of our lives, our sin, our imperfections, and our “issues,” should no longer exist. As if once we step through the doors of a church building or join a Bible study, we are somehow only saints and no longer sinners. Maybe the fear is that if we let the cat out of the bag, our lives won’t adequately witness to the transforming Good News that Jesus loves us and gave Himself for us.
This is a natural fear. We want to believe that our relationship with Christ has really changed us. Has meant something. And we’re afraid to look at all of those places where it has yet to.
And this fear comes from a place of good intentions. Those of us who love Jesus want the world to know how great He is. We want our lives to reflect the difference he makes. We don’t want the world to see how Christians, when we get together, are often just messed-up, broken people with issues. Just another batch of shared humanity. No more. No less.
But the reality is that church is chock-full of sinners. Messed-up people all of us. Sorely in need of God’s grace each of us. And telling ourselves or others otherwise and keeping the cat in the bag as if it were a shameful secret, is not just unhelpful. It is bad theology.
So, while telling the truth about this reality can be hard, I suspect that in the end it is a whole lot more life-saving than the alternative. One theologian who told the truth was the fourth-century theologian, St. Augustine: ”The man who enters [church] is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers. He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theaters on pagan holidays,” Malcolm Muggeridge, in A Third Testament: A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, quotes Augustine as saying. (The one thing lacking about this wonderful book is that it does not include citations, so if any of you can recall which of Augustine’s works this comes from, I’d be appreciative.)
When we tell the truth, we become free- or at least freer. We become free to see ourselves not as Christians but as human beings desperately in need of God’s grace. Grace embodied not just in that one moment when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and thought everything would change, but every day. Every moment. And we free ourselves to share with others the unvarnished gift of the Good News: that Christ loved us while we were yet still sinners. Not after we got our lives in order- because then He would have been waiting around for, literally, forever. But before then. And always. This is Good News. For the very reason that it tears down our “church zones.”
If you’re up for a good laugh and some provocative theology, you can find other strange, funny and intriguing church signs here: www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Church-Signs-Across-America.aspx and http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx.