As I was driving home from work the other evening, my attention was drawn to a familiar sign bright against the darkening sky.
B-E-E-R-! It proclaimed its message by lighting up one letter at a time and then flashing the message in its entirety several times. I imagine each letter was at least as tall as I am.
While I have seen this sign innumerable times before, on this night it struck me: I don’t belong here. I don’t fit in this world, this culture that wants me to be so excited about not just beer, but drinking, partying and seeking perpetual entertainment.
Similar feelings are often triggered in me by such ordinary aspects of life as the jabbering sounds and flashing images of television or movies. Or even the many secular decorations and advertisements for “Christmas” that have nothing to do with the birth of the Lord.
I live in this world – but I do not belong to it.
Please understand that I am not criticizing anyone who enjoys the occasional beer, or who watches TV or movies or likes to decorate for Christmas.
I imagine that most serious Christians experience some reminders that we are not members of this world but rather are a people in exile from our true homeland. What reminds one person of this reality may be quite different that what reminds another.
What may feel even more troubling, however, is when we Christians run up against the experience of feeling that we do not “fit” in our own church. We may experience this for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes we experience personal injury by individuals in the church, lay or clergy. People we think of as “church” may hurt us with words or actions so inconsistent with the Gospel that we wonder how we could call this church our home.
Other times, we may experience deep disillusionment with the organization we know as “church” because of the stances it takes, actual or implied, regarding scandal within its own ranks or political matters of the world.
Sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, we begin to feel like strangers in our own “home”.
“Where do I belong?” becomes the cry we hear from within our hearts, as depression, anger or anxiety sweeps over us. “Am I living my faith in the wrong church? Can I remain a Christian if this is what Christians do?”
It occurs to me that, in order to address this dilemma, we need to consider two basic questions: (1) who or what is a Christian? (2) what is the Church?
While contemplating the first of these questions, I was delightfully reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Grateful to have a copy on my bookshelf, I pulled it out and searched for the appropriate passage where Lewis addresses the question of why, if Christianity is true, Christians aren’t all obviously nicer than non-Christians.
Permit me to quote a particularly relevant passage:
“The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergyman. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”
He continues on to say that it is easier to compare dogs and cats because at least we know definitely which is which. Dogs don’t suddenly (or gradually) turn into cats or vice versa. Lewis makes many other fine points about the dilemma he is addressing but I will resist the temptation to deviate from our own question.
Bearing this in mind, we recognize that while we can know what a Christian is, we can never know the who, i.e. we can never know with any certainty if any given individual is a Christian. Simply because one is a bishop or a priest, for example, does not guarantee me that they are Christians. And the reverse is true as well: when someone appears to be on the outside, I have no way of knowing whether they actually belong to Christ.
In his extended explanation, Lewis makes another point well worth noting: that we cannot judge by any individual’s negative actions or temperament whether or not they are a Christian. Someone may have their life under the proper “management”, having given over their wills to Christ, but still be engaged in the struggle to repent and overcome their negative beliefs and behaviors.
This makes it apparent that we cannot judge who is a Christian and who is not. And we know, from our Gospel, that it is not our business to judge others anyway but to work on ourselves.
This becomes relevant to our discussion because, whenever we are hurt or disillusioned by individuals (or even subgroups) within the Church, we may be suffering at the hands of people who are either not really Christians (and thus not representing the faith) or individuals who, like us, are still sick and struggling to accept the cure.
Thus, I would suggest that finding such people and behaviors within the Church is no reason to reject either the Church or Christianity. It is simply a reality that accompanies the gift of our free will. God offers His grace to draw all people to Himself – but He does not force it.
To not feel “at home” with other sinners is a case of our pride allowing us to forget that we are as lost as all the rest. If we have been given the grace to see things more clearly than another, we must both give thanks for this unmerited gift and pray that others find their way into such grace as well.
Now, to our second question: what is the Church?
As I have written elsewhere (see “About blog” tab), when I am referring to the Church, I am talking about the Body of Christ here on earth, the community of the faithful. These faithful may be Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Pentecostal or Anglican, or quite possibly, not participating in any organized religion at all.
There is only one Church and it is not about “religion”. Rather it is about the New Life given us by Christ our Savior when He died and rose from the dead. This “Church” that He gave us was never intended to become just another religion (splintered into other “religions” because of human disagreement). In giving us this Church, He has given us the Kingdom of God.
The objections or confusion I often receive at this point typically go something like this, “Well, that’s all fine and good in the abstract. But…” After the “but” may be a listing of all that is different between one human ecclesiastical institution (“church”) and another, with arguments about how certain beliefs or practices of one are more true than the others. We cannot be one Church.
Or, just as well, the “but” may be followed by a listing of the most particularly egregious behaviors of individuals who lead our human institutions – of particular priests, pastors or bishops – or even patriarchs and popes. What they have said and done cannot constitute “the Kingdom of God”.
And there is some truth here. Our sins most certainly do not constitute the Kingdom of God – and our membership and leaders are still quite capable of sin, even delusion.
But none of that undoes what Christ did and what He gave us. And all have been made part of the Body of Christ on earth – unless we choose to leave It. He did not die and rise for just some of us, but for all of us.
Christ can only have one Body. And He brings into it all who accept His invitation – every one a sinner who seeks the Cure.
This may seem odd to us. How can Christ have such an imperfect Body – one made up solely of sinners, most of whom are still sinning?
This can be only because, in His love, He brings in all of the imperfect so that can we be made perfect in Him. And so He draws us in, if we allow it, and He bears the wounds of our sinfulness until the final Resurrection.
If ever we should think, “Perhaps I should leave the Church. I cannot bear that this person or this group in the Church has done this”, shivers should run up and down our spines. Shivers of fear and dread that we would ever think of cutting ourselves off in such a way from our only hope of Life.
Let us return briefly to hear what C. S. Lewis wrote about this, when discussing our concerns for those outside of the Body:
“Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.”
So not only for ourselves must we never leave but for those on the “outside”. And, given the discussion above, we need also remember that some who appear to be on the inside may actually have gone outside.
To see ourselves as a Body is also essential to Christian identity. Belonging to the Church is not at all like being in a social club or a political movement, where I may well choose to leave if I find myself in disagreement.
Lewis’ use of the word “organism” lead us to a deeper contemplation of this reality. My foot does not leave my body because it doesn’t like what my hands are doing. We are all part of each other in the Body. Our collective sinfulness would, of course, be terrifying were Christ not head of the Body. His Headship assures us that we will, in the end, be safe.
Still further concern may be raised. “I wasn’t thinking of leaving the Body. I just want to change to another church, one where…” (After the word “where” hopes are voiced for a better priest, a better ecclesiastical public profile and so on.)
There are indeed times when, with careful prayer and discernment, one needs to make such a move. This is particularly the case when one finds oneself in a denomination that promotes heretical beliefs or leaves one starving for the Sacraments.
However, I suspect that such moves are not needed nearly as often as we may think. If in the Body I am currently in the foot, I may imagine that things will be much better should I move to the hand. But, until the time of fulfillment, the reality is that I will find sinners there as well.
In every part of the Body we find sinners struggling – or not struggling and becoming less and less Christian whether they know it or not. However, in every part of the Body we also find saints who inspire and nurture us in the faith.
We are not made perfect by a change of scenery, even if the current scenery is very much undesirable. Our Cure lies in being in the Body of Christ and learning to see Him and know Him in every “self” we encounter.
The Lord Jesus was not speaking in metaphor when He commanded us to love our enemies. Hence, whenever we encounter someone in the Body – or even an entire organ of the Body – that appears diseased, it is our duty to pray for their healing.
Indeed, we are to make ourselves available should Christ desire to make us the vehicle for their cure. Would we not want the same for ourselves, if knowingly or unknowingly we came to be at odds with the Gospel?
To love our neighbor as ourselves, as Lewis points out, is to want for every other self what I want for my self.
If I may, I will wrap up the article with a bit of my own story. As many of you know, I first stumbled upon Christian Orthodoxy via a Google search that landed me at Fr. Stephen’s blog (glory2Godforallthings).
After about two years of very active reading and commenting on this blog, as well as reading other helpful texts, I felt so close to the Orthodox and their spirituality that I began to wonder if I was meant to become Orthodox.
What happened next was very strange. I cannot adequately describe it but will assure you that I did not see visions or anything of that sort.
First, I went through an experience that I have likened to St. Paul being knocked off his horse (though I realize that he probably wasn’t actually on his horse when confronted by Christ). I felt a sense of confusion and unreality. Suddenly I knew, as though I had been divinely ordered, that I was to fast from Fr. Stephen’s blog.
There was no suggestion that there was anything at all wrong with his blog. It was more about what was happening within me.
At first, I thought perhaps I was just being silenced from commenting, as I had been commenting a great deal. But no, if I even tried to go there just to read, I felt the message within, “you are not to be here”. And so I obeyed.
Although I no longer remember the sequence of events exactly, during this same time period I recalled some of the newly converted Orthodox who commented on the blog indicating that they had finally found their home. Some of them felt it the moment they walked into an Orthodox church.
It was then that another message came to me, “You already have a home”. Again, no visions or voices, just an inner message that I discovered within me. Further, it was given to me to realize that I had been sent to study with the Orthodox but not so that I could stay there.
Eventually, I was “allowed” to return to Fr. Stephen’s – which I do now fairly frequently – but with a different mindset. I recognize there members of the Body. I know that we are one Church and that Christ can make use of any of us to help each other along the way.
And so He has, time and time again. I am so grateful.
My home is with Him, in His Body – and He is teaching me the love that makes us all One.
To Him be glory forever. Amen.
(All references in this article to the ideas of C.S. Lewis were derived from his book, Mere Christianity.)