Sunday, September 07, 2008


I am no good at being a Christian.

Yep, you heard me correctly. I stink at this Jesus-following gig.

Only one thing keeps me from throwing my hands in the air and proclaiming, "I can't do this! I give up!"


I know for a fact that there are at least a handful of people (non-Christians) in my life who are aware that I claim to be a Christ-follower and think I give my faith a bad name.

This essay is for them - those people who smell the stink of sin (read: hypocrisy) radiating from this self-proclaimed Jesus Freak.

The fact is that I don't live up to the tenets of my faith. I fail daily at the three greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus instructed.

I'm not so great at loving God. Don't get me wrong - I love God. He is my creator, my friend, my perfect heavenly Father, my anchor in a world that is constantly topsy-turvy. I love Him with a passion and to a depth that can drive me to tears. But the act of loving Him - talking to Him, spending time with Him, praising Him, thanking Him, making Him my first priority - well, I fall down on that job an awful lot.

I'm not so great at loving people, either. The thing is, Jesus wasn't talking about loving the people we naturally love, like our closest friends and the family members we get along with, although of course, we should love them, too. He was talking about everyone. The guy who cut me off on Barrington Road en route to church this morning, for example (Oh, the irony - especially since I called him a fool pretty loudly and then walked into church three minutes later. How benevolent of me, right?). The friend who irritated me without meaning to. My mom, who frequently misunderstands me. I may not always treat people unlovingly, but I am guilty of being unloving in my heart on a daily basis.

The implied third command is that we are to love ourselves. And yes, I fail in this area as well. I look in the mirror and despise my fat spots. I reflect on my weaknesses and feel pathetic. I ponder my singleness and wonder what the heck is wrong with me. I mentally relive my darkest sins and feel completely unworthy of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross...

And yet the cross is the key.

According to the Old Testament laws, I deserve to die because I constantly sin, failing to live up to God's standards. "The wages of sin is death," the Bible proclaims. However, instead of me dying for my sins, Jesus died in my place, nailed to a wooden cross on the hill of Golgotha outside Jerusalem, a little over 2000 years ago. The cross is what makes it possible for me to have confidence that, in spite of my inherent inability to live a holy, blameless life by my own efforts, I will spend eternity with God. 

That, my friends, is grace.

I, the hypocrite, am going to heaven, along with all the other hypocritical Christians. And please note: all Christians are hypocrites. None of us have what it takes to live out God's commands without grace. Thank goodness the Lord sent Jesus to die for us. And thank goodness Jesus didn't say, "Man, these people are so not worth it," and bail. Because He died willingly, I am clean by proxy.

Does this excuse my hypocrisy, my sinfulness? No way. But it does "cover over a multitude of sins." If it didn't, then Jesus died a horrible death for nothing.

And the fact is, he didn't die for nothing. He died for all humanity. This is the cool part: this grace thing I've got going on, well, it's not exclusive. It's available to the whole flipping human race. The earth's entire population. You.

I must warn you, though: grace is life-altering. If you have any heart at all, you'll find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Once you have the guarantee of eternity before you, life here on earth starts looking a little different.

Inevitably, people who discover grace are hit hard by the impact of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and their own unworthiness to receive the benefit of that sacrifice. Ideally, they are filled with love for the Lord in response to His generous gift, and they begin trying daily to live lives that honor what He did. That is the journey of "discipleship," as they say in Christianese, or of learning how to try to follow Jesus and become more like Him. I won't lie - it's not easy.

I try, though, because I truly love my savior. Unfortunately, I let Him down all the time (all Christ-followers do). But I keep on keeping on out of sheer faith and trust, and out of an overpowering desire not to let Him have died in vain. I accept His sacrifice gratefully, because if I don't, I'll have let Him down in a far bigger way.

I am a hypocrite. I am a sinner. I am messed-up. I am unclean in heart and mind.

But I am pursuing Christ in spite of my shortcomings.

And I am saved.

Respecting the Bride

"I'd like to experience your church sometime," a friend said to me the other day.

Experience my church? Hmm.

Based on previous comments, I know what she meant.

What she meant is that she wants to see Bill Hybels teach so she can decide whether or not she thinks his teaching is acceptable to her. She wants to hear the Willow Creek worship band and decide whether or not the style appeals to her. She wants to sit in the biggest auditorium in the United States and decide whether or not she thinks a church should have a facility this large and whether what happens onstage is worthy of such a facility.

She wants to assess my church - my place of worship, my church family, my spiritual home on earth - and see if it meets with her approval. Whether any of it meets with God's approval, is pleasing to Him, serves Him, or honors Him, is apparently obsolete. Excuse the sarcasm, but I take issue with this. After all, she will be assessing a piece of my heart, a piece of me...or rather, something of which I am a piece.

I wonder sometimes how many of the people who enter Willow's doors for the first time are on a similar mission. I also wonder about their motivations. Willow, after all, has taken a lot of hits over the years, and will probably continue to do so. This is fine with me; it means that Willow is a church with the courage to pursue growth, to take risks to that end. And the last place I want to be is a stagnant church. But let's get back to my friend and her desire to "experience" my church.

She's "experienced" a lot of churches.

Please don't mistake me. I'm not waxing holier-than-thou here. I've been guilty of this kind of thing myself. I used to "visit" churches and do this same kind of "assessing" without intending to judge. But I was judging, nevertheless.

Until God showed me how He wants me to view His Church.

Scripture names the Church as the "Bride of Christ," and  if we examine that notion in light of the Biblical model of marriage, then the Church is to be cherished by its people as Jesus cherished it. The Apostle Paul makes no designations in regard to denomination, location, size, influence. The Church is all churches - all denominations, all buildings, all believers in Christ. They are not separate in God's eyes, but part of the same body. 

It is we, not God, who have separated the church, who have fragmented her in accordance with our own human preferences and prejudices, our varying interpretations of Scripture, our own perceived spiritual needs. It is humankind that has added "laws," or "rites" that were not commanded by Jesus in the New Testament, just as the pharisees added many decrees to God's laws to help the Jews live righteously in the Old Testament.

When I first fully realized this, I had a moment of breathlessness. I was grieved by the way we have departed from what Christ modeled for us, taking something so simple and making it so complicated. We took faith and made it back into religion. Centuries ago, the church turned upon itself, and it remains in battle. In the name of God, in the name of righteousness and truth and holiness, but falsely so in many ways.

At the same time, I was convicted by a sense of responsibility to model respect for the Church - all her denominations, all her people - from that day on.

This does not mean that I will not question church practices. This does not mean I will not examine doctrines with a critical eye. There are false teachings and doctrines that do not line up with Jesus' teachings out there. But we are called to fight for righteousness with love. Loving examination of the Church out of a desire to please God and serve Him is necessary. At the same time, the reality is that the Church is made up of people. Flawed, broken people. The Church is therefore imperfect. She will make mistakes. But she is still the Bride of Christ. We are commanded to respect her, to uphold her, to defend her. We are commanded to be part of her: to learn, to grow, to serve.

I was raised Lutheran, but today I consider myself non-denominational. My maternal grandparents were Presbyterian. My paternal grandparents are Methodist. My best friend from high school is Catholic. The differences in our churches do not bother me. We are all believers in Christ.

There are churches that would not agree with me. There is much bitterness and prejudice, much pride and envy. The Church has spent centuries attempting to tear its own limbs from its body. I'm resigned to that. But my heart tells me that God did not pursue the Gentiles so that He could establish a Church where some people were judged more righteous than others.

Now, when I visit a church that is not my own, but which is clearly pursuing the heart of God, I am awed by its very existence. I am thankful that its people have a place to worship our Lord, even thought they may do things a little differently. I consider that church a proof of God's love, of His power and might, and of His work in this world. Someday, the Lord will put everything right, and the Church will be one body again.

My church is not better than any other church. It is just a piece of the body of Christ trying to live out God's commands, imperfectly, it's true, but in the spirit of love and service, and for the glory of God.

Let my friend assess that and find it wanting, if she can.