What is the purpose of the church at its most basic, grass-roots level? Regardless of how the local congregation is organized and functioning, what is its reason-for-being? Several answers might quickly follow. Is its purpose evangelistic, reaching out to others and bringing them into the fold (a particular kind of fold, no doubt)? Does it exist for the purpose of worship; gathering to sing, pray, hear the scripture and sermon, participate in communion? Is it to be a voice in the world, prophetically speaking truth to power? Is its purpose the nurturing “care of souls” of its members?
All of the above answers could reasonably be accepted as valid. I have probably lived close to them all at one time or another. Individuals probably have their own favorite idea and hold onto it tightly. I am no different.
For me, the purpose of the church is to be a repository of grace which is released in all kinds of ways into the world.
I will define grace in its usual way: unmerited favor or application of unconditional love. Paul Tillich’s statement works for me: “Accept that you are accepted.” No strings, no obstacles, NOTHING. Just accepted. Totally.
I’m not sure the church has a sterling record of proclaiming and living such acceptance. We speak of grace, but we live (or at least expect others to) as though we are totally under law. One must do something: behave, keep the rules, obey commandments, be orthodox in thinking and belief, keep oneself clean and unstained from the world (and if you can’t do that, at least don’t get caught). We do not have a history replete with the truly developed purpose of preaching grace. Much of what we state is really bad news. Get right with God (which is always meant to coincide with the belief system of the one making the statement)…..or else. There is almost a sense of unmasked glee as we announce that some will be “left behind” or left out. In lieu of good news, we moralize. The church has a long history of thinking it is at its best when it tells folk to shape up…..or else.
The end result is a whole load of guilt………..more than most of us are able to bear.
I frequently call to mind the words of the sage, Garrison Keillor: “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” And indeed it does. We want to be as white as driven snow, we can’t stand being guilty, yet we are all but crushed under its weight.
Or perhaps instead of always being truly guilty, we just wear what others have put on us and it becomes instead guilt “feelings.” We feel guilty. About everything. And if we try to ignore, there are still daily reminders, behind someone’s wagging finger, stating that we are not doing right. Images come to mind of nuns slapping the hands of students with rules, trying to instill truth and beauty in them, all the while exposing their badness...or a Pope, who presides over a Church that refuses to examine itself, scolds our President (and others) because of a particular stance on abortion, all the while covering up its massive sense of pedophilia and sexual abuse. Or the TV soul molester who, with red face, warns about the temperature of hell if one does not repent (read that as believe his way. And yes, it is almost always HIS way), spends unfathomable time talking about the after-life, fulfilled prophecy, and ignoring daily life experiences, here and now. Or the person, be they in pulpit or pew, who deep down is so unhappy with self, that the only way to handle it is to blame or put down someone else. Rigid, unbending, unloving, defensive, and frightened. This is often the legacy of the church as she tries to flesh out her purpose. But even as this happens…..grace still awaits, with open arms.
Though we may all carry unnecessary guilt feelings, we are all guilty of something, at different points in time. Grace is for us.
Maybe I’m wrong. Some might cry “cheap grace.” But how much does grace cost? How much is an ounce of grace worth? If you can put a price on it, then it’s not grace and maybe we ought to go back to selling it. Or have we?
Yes, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these ideas that I lash out against are true. But if they are, we are going to have to find another word for our predicament. If this kind of love is not acceptance of all of us…..all of the time…regardless, then it may be something. But it’s not grace.