God can be embarrassing. His methods are … how shall I say this? – unorthodox, to put it kindly. If there is a God, atheists growl, why doesn’t He operate at least as responsibly and efficiently as the most responsible and efficient of His creation?? What exactly is up with this celestial Father Who supposedly loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son, yet can’t get little children out of the path of rampaging gunmen or stop a tornado from ripping into an elementary school?? How can a supposedly intelligent human being claim that there is a God Who loves us but won’t lift a finger while someone dies in the street, waiting instead until some human (who apparently possesses more compassion than He does) goes out and tends to that person’s needs?? Kind of hard to believe all the great press He gets, when the reality looks sooo very different here on the ground! Seriously, don’t you think God, if there were such a Person, would have a better game plan?
As an Evangelical, I had answers to these questions about our apparently “messy” God, and they were good answers. I would have responded that God is Love, that He is Light and in Him there is no darkness. While no one in this world can ever fully explain the reasons why an all-powerful God allows evil (and thus, suffering) to continue to exist, Evangelical theology addresses the fact that sin is man’s choice, not God’s will, and sin is the mother of suffering. Fallen man has chosen to pursue his own path, a path which excludes God, and God honors man’s free will. That God expects His creation to accomplish His ends is made evident in something as basic as the process of sexual reproduction. God directly created the first man and woman. After that, He turned the process over to us. He expects humankind’s cooperation to populate the planet – be fruitful and multiply! Don’t try to blame the impending demographic winter on the Almighty! Unless men and women engage in reproductive activity, God (except in one very memorable incident) does not bring any new people into the world (and even in that one memorable incident, He asked the woman’s permission, making her a co-worker in the process.) And so it goes in so many aspects of our daily lives. God very often will not act until believers do their part, which may consist of praying, or intervening directly, or both. Mankind’s rejection of God goes a long way in explaining suffering. The failure of Christians to act goes an even longer way; if we Christians were what we should be, the world would be a very different place. My Protestant theology could account, at least to a certain extent, for the existence of what the world sees as an apparently “messy” God, because on this subject Evangelicals “get it.”
And yet… I realize now that as an Evangelical I recoiled in a very atheistic fashion from the existence of a messy Church. A Church led by the Vicar of Christ?? By a man?? A hierarchy?? You’re talking about the Keystone Cops, right?! Smug bishops astraddle exploding barrels of scandals, Judas priests giving Judas a bad name, and the head honcho in Rome always just one step away from a diplomatic contretemps or a public relations misstep – that’s messy! That’s like disciples who try to call down fire from Heaven, or a Chief Apostle who buckles under pressure and refuses to eat with Gentiles! God, in His tidiness, I believed, abjures an earthly hierarchy, preferring to rule through a Book, because God knows the Book will never embarrass Him!
A Church which makes real, binding decisions on matters of faith and morals?? Are you kidding me??? You’d be sticking your neck out like a Thanksgiving turkey on the chopping block! What if you affirmed the age-old Christian teaching that contraception is immoral, and no one listened? You’d be left to stew in your own irrelevance! That’s like the Council of Nicaea declaring Arianism a heresy – only to watch the world fill with Arians! Obviously, the way to go is to allow everyone to decide for himself what the Book teaches. No messy dustups over doctrine! Agree to disagree – just keep telling yourselves that you agree on “the Essentials” (be careful, though, never to define what those “Essentials” are….) God, neatnik that He is, I believed, would never involve Himself in the disorder inherent in an authoritative Church!
A Church which harbors sinners?? May it never be! While acknowledging up front that I was merely a sinner saved by grace, I witnessed wounded Christians left by the side of the road when they didn’t live up to the standards of the churches I attended. A Church which casts out sinners only as a last resort (rather than a first), a Church which clasps sinners to her bosom while continuing to exhort them to convert lest they die in their sins – that’s messy! That’s like a Samaritan who stops what he’s doing to bind the wounds of a dying man, or a nurse who doesn’t evacuate when plague breaks out, but stays and picks maggots out of festering sores. Do that, and the Church will stink like the hospital for sinners that she claims to be! God, in His obsessive-compulsive commitment to cleanliness, I believed, recoils from stink.
A Church which insists on getting even dead people into the act, placing innumerable stumbling blocks between the petitioner and the One Mediator, Jesus Christ?? I ask you, what could be more ludicrous?? Asking Mary, and Joseph, and John the Baptist, and Thomas Aquinas to pray for us to the Lord our God would be as messy and inefficient as asking Aunt Mary, Uncle Joe, cousin Johnny and Brother Tom the televangelist to pray for us! Why in the world would you do that, when you can go straight to the top?? God, in His vision of streamlined management, I believed, sees no place in His organization for unseen prayer warrior saints.
Hey, God, what could be tidier than an invisible church? What could be neater than functionally disconnected assemblies with no oversight? What could work better than letting each individual decide for himself what Your word means? What could flow more smoothly than excluding heavenly intercessors from the prayer process?? What could smell better than a well-Lysol’d hospital-turned-library??
Don’t worry, God! We have got Your back! Our new-and-improved versions of the Church You founded will do You proud!
Yes, God can be embarrassing. Fortunately He had me, and folks like me, to help make His Church less of a cross to bear! It’s a mess, but it’s nothing that handlers, press secretaries and spin doctors can’t whip into shape given time and a free hand. So don’t lose hope, world – coming soon to a sanctuary near you:
The First Ethereal Church of Jesus and Me!
On the memorial of St. Romuald
Deo omnis gloria!