Yesterday’s exchange with a stranger on Facebook who saw Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning picture and my accompanying prayer and proceeded to explain why my prayer, with its inappropriate, “Mother-Spirit” language, would not be heard and why I, an “unsaved sinner” would not be answered, sparked some thinking and praying yesterday. By “thinking” I mean that I spent much of my morning absent-mindedly going through the motions of grocery shopping and children chauffeuring with this stranger’s commentary as a kind of recurring subtext in my mind, like subtitles in a movie flick. There I was unloading groceries on the table and it was “This is why that prayer did not reach God’s ear,” or I was changing Sam’s diapers to the tune of “God is not a spirit-mother.” By “praying” I mean that I spent the first half of the day complaining to God about self-righteous, “religious” people who take it upon themselves to pronounce me doomed because of my doubts.
So there I was obsessing, complaining and patting myself on the back for my bravado in being honest about questions of suffering and so on, when it hit me: that there is something deeply wrong and even diabolical at play under the surface of these kinds of petty spats between us “religious types” over how we pray and worship. Mark Labberton, in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, touches on it when he describes how contemporary worship wars obscure the necessary connection between worship and God’s justice. The tragedy? That so often we Christians find it easier to attack one another rather than the deep injustices in the world that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.
Kevin Carter’s picture stirred in me at once both a great sense of despair and a desperate need to pray for God’s goodness to shine in these dark places and to use me in the smallest of ways to channel that goodness and in turn be transformed. Whether or not I used the right words to pray is of secondary importance, ultimately. Whether or not I was “sinful” or “saved” was, too, actually. That the child in that picture and the plight of the many like her today was relegated to the background because of a religious dispute is the ultimate tragedy- insofar as this kind of thing has been happening for years and over and over again in various pockets of religion. As friend and missional church thinker and practitioner Lance Ford puts it, in quoting a preacher he once heard, “a religious spirit cannot bear a compassionate heart.” How can we expect to bear even a piece of God’s heart in the smallest of ways when we wrangle over the pettiest of issues?
This, I suspect, is the biggest issue facing today’s church: more and more people are recognizing that God is choosing to carry out God’s mission without the help of the local church. Which should not be that surprising, maybe, because we have seen this once before, after all. The Bible I read tells a story about how God chooses a people for God’s Self and calls them to a mission of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and freeing the captives, all as a way of pointing to the dawning of God’s kingdom, which we Christians pray for every Sunday when we say, “Thy kingdom come…one earth as it is in heaven;” but then God’s people fail; in fact, they fail over and over again, becoming insulated in their wrangling over all sorts of religious issues- so much so that God chooses to act without their help. Enter Jesus. He comes to fulfill God’s mission because God’s people could not do it themselves, and when He does, He does so apart from the help of the temple, without the prescribed methods of the religious types of His time.
Yes, God may still use the church for God’s mission. Just maybe. And at times God does. But when God chooses to use those outside the church to fulfill God’s mission, I am not in the least bit surprised.