This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I saw the image of Donald Trump staring up at me from the little shag carpet we have in the bathroom. There he was with his goofy hair, squinting eyes and that talented, floppy mouth that always manages to be smirking and saying something at the same time. His visage was as clear as a photograph to my mind, albeit in threads of carpet and shades of blue.
It’s odd isn’t it, how a preoccupied mind can create something out of nothing? American politics fascinates me and, if you haven’t noticed, Mr. Trump is a significant feature of political reporting at the moment. For weeks I’ve seen his image, multiple times in a day, beaming out at me from my computer screen; now I’m seeing him in the bathroom carpet.
When it comes to spirituality and religion, the thing I spend most of my time looking at are the Gospels. As part of the duties of my employment I am required to compose a short speech – a sermon, a homily, a reflection, what have you – and present it to a small audience on a weekly basis. The foundation of this speech is always a collection of three or four excerpts from ancient Jewish texts, the centrepiece being a reading from one of the Christian Gospels.
Members of my audience don’t believe me (I know, because some have told me) when I say that this apparently simple task of speechwriting can take hours and hours of my time in the week before delivery. Most of that time is involved in pre-writing: reading all the texts multiple times, mulling them over, finding what others have said about them, looking into the meaning of words in ancient languages, trying to make connections with a life of faith in our own age. To do a good job I have to purpose to preoccupy my mind with the prescribed readings, with a special focus on the Gospels, the texts that speak of the life and teaching of Jesus.
This intense focus and preoccupation plays tricks with my mind. I start to see images of what it might be like to have Jesus as my spiritual director, of what it might be like to be part of a community that lives their life together, committed to his path.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
These sayings of Jesus, and many others like it, are to my mind the individual brushstrokes of a masterpiece, an image created of a new society, a community marked by sacrificial care for each other, extravagant sharing of resources, confident risk-taking, humble and transparent leadership, truth-telling and a distinct lack of favouritism.
Then I look at the Church. And again I want to quit.
I know, I know, it’s the weary gripe: the Church is full of hypocrites. (How ironic that the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Gospels may be the oldest known source for the use of that word outside its original thespian meaning of one who wears a mask to play a part. The word Jesus uniquely re-tooled to apply to the religious leaders of his day is now frequently used to describe his own followers.)
Let’s be honest: our experience as members of the community that bears the name of Christ is very often marked, if not at times wholly characterized, by values opposite to those Jesus espoused. One doesn’t have to look far in the Church to find favouritism, self-absorbed leadership, an enchantment with money and power, risk-aversion, and a cozy disregard for the needy.
Well, there’s nothing new under the sun, is there. Most of the latter half of the New Testament owes its existence to the efforts of Saints Paul, Peter, James and others to address similar concerns among their fledgling congregations. Read between the lines, or even the lines themselves, and you realize Corinth, for example, was not the place to be looking for a new church home with a decent Sunday School. It seems Jesus had hardly finished his Exit: Stage Ceiling before the plot threatened to be lost entirely.
I’m serious here. I often feel like leaving. I feel like it today, as I write.
Wouldn’t I be better off taking the Gospels, my understanding of the sayings of Jesus, and striking off on my own, unencumbered with the baggage of the Church? “A community can only go as fast as the slowest member…”; well, there’s a heck of a lot of slow members in the Church. Wouldn’t I do better following the example of the millions who have gone before me, those who have given up on organized religion entirely, exchanging it for the freedom of private spirituality? Wouldn’t it be more authentic, more “me”?
But then there’s this: the example of Jesus himself. I don’t even have to guess that he was at times exasperated and exhausted with his own faith community; he says so himself. “Have I been with you all this time, and still you don’t understand?” “How long must I put up with you!” “And taking them aside, he explained the meaning of what he had said.” Time and time again we see his frustration, his incredulity that his followers just didn’t get it.
And yet, he stayed. He stayed, I think, for the reasons I haven’t been able to leave. He stayed because he believed not only in the power of God but also in the value and potential of each individual. That in spite of our individual and collective failings, in spite of the fact that we so often fall short of our stated intentions, the greatest hope we have is the hope we share together.
Our times together as a community are always better when you – and you – and you – and I….are there too.