This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The Church does not teach that any of us will ever be perfect people.
I hear it all the time. Someone starts talking about religion, or someone starts talking about church, and almost inevitably, someone in the conversation will admit that they used to go, but stopped. And I’ll ask them, “why did you stop?” and they’ll tell me: “I got tired of the hypocrisy. People there talked a good line, but they didn’t live what they believed.”
It’s even true. We come to church and hear about Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, and then we walk out the door and ignore the person who is begging for bread. Or we gather in the social hall and are warm and friendly, and then we go into the parking lot and practically kill one another trying to get out. (My last two churches haven’t had parking lots, which helped a lot with this one.) And let’s not even think about the times we are not able to forgive, or when we are tired and cranky and we lash out at those we most love, or are simply too busy to respond to their deep human needs.
None of us lives what we profess in our faith, not all the time. But that’s not hypocrisy; it’s what it looks like to grow. Spiritual growth is messy, because in order to more like Christ, we need to learn how to love better: how to love more people, more deeply, more consistently, thinking as much of their needs as of our own. And love is hard. We can’t get there all at once. And so we try on the practices of love and begin to do the work of love even before we feel that love in our heart, hoping that if we keep acting like the person we want to become, it will stop being an act. We open our lives to God’s redeeming grace, hoping that the goodness we pretend will become real.
Often, we fail, and when we don’t, that can be scary, too. I was raised in another faith and chose to be baptized when I was twenty-seven years old. When I was just beginning to go to church, I was driving down a crowded Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, which is to say that I was in a massive amount of traffic. And as I was driving along at about twenty miles an hour, I was cut off and passed by a man going fast in an SUV; he was weaving among the other cars in a reckless way, endangering himself and everyone around him. Without thinking, I prayed for him and for everyone he passed, that he and they would be safe. And then I realized what I’d done, and thought, “Oh, no! I’m becoming one of those crazy Christians!” I had to pull over onto the shoulder and stop, because I was so alarmed that I had responded to the situation with a love rather than with rage. What was happening to me?
There’s an ancient story about a person who lived near a monastery. One day, she met a monk outside and asked, “What do you do in there all day?” And he said, “Oh, we fall and we rise. And then we fall and we rise.”
We are not perfect people. Only Jesus was, and as long as we are alive, we are just trying to love one another as he loves us. We do what we can (except when we don’t), and then that teaches us to do a bit more. It’s like an athlete, running one mile, then two, until she grows strong enough to do five or six or ten. We offer what we have to bless one another, and we hope that, by God’s good gift, it will be enough for now.
I want to end with the words of Leonard Cohen:
The Cohen words hang above my desk. Sometimes I can even celebrate the cracks.