Pastoral Series

Church Matters: Other Unpleasant Facts

  As I’m preparing for Greg Jarrell’s visit this evening (A Riff of Love!), I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s words (which move me so often). I regularly return to what he articulated about the church and why it matters. “Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft. She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.”

That’s a pretty fair assessment of the kind of Church the Bible had in mind, the sort of community Jesus dreams for all of us. It’s life, but also it’s death. It’s about remembering – who we are, whose we are, how we came to be, where we’re headed. It’s about tenderness and toughness, which we get backwards so often. The Church diagnoses evil and sin, not to gripe or blame, but so we might repent and be holier, so we might be on our guard and trust in the good. We trade, constantly, in “unpleasant facts.”

You may have heard me share that the single biggest sea change in church culture during my 38 years in ministry is this: when I began, the highest possible compliment someone could pay me regarding my sermon was “Pastor, you stepped on my toes today!” Nowadays, nobody ever thanks me for stepping on toes. Instead, the highest praise many feel they might offer me is to say “Pastor, I agree with you.” Do you see the shift? For most of Christian history, people came to church to get fixed, to be corrected, to straighten out what’s gone awry in the soul. Now we blithely think we have it all figured out, and we want a preacher who echoes back to us our pet thoughts.

In such a thin culture, the church still dares to share its unpleasant facts. You are a lovely, noble person, but you hurt somebody, you neglected somebody, you thought you were good when you were foolish or sanctimonious. What you thought you’d understood so clearly was shockingly mistaken in the light of the Gospel. You’re mortal, you’re dependent, your life hangs by a thread, you are not your own.

Feels unpleasant – but it’s the way to a rich life and abiding joy. Jesus called “disciples” – and the word means students, learners. We have classes, not because we already know it all, but because we know-it-alls don’t know what we need to know about God and the demands and delights of following Jesus in the real world.

Greg, who will share and play saxophone with us tonight, has taught me a great deal just this year about the kind of church Jesus had in mind. I’m only a little embarrassed. I’m overwhelmingly grateful. The wisest, the holiest, the most faithful among us know above all else what they don’t know, and are in a default mode of humility, eager to learn, willing to shed bogus spirituality, prepared to do any and everything for God.

Church matters, for we’re the only ones with the truth of the unpleasant facts.

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