What's right with the church?
It seems of late that a range of people getting media airtime have been having a go at the whole notion of God and faith, while attempting to dismiss as irrelevant the church, and especially Christians.
A few things seemed to have pushed their buttons ranging from sexual abuse charges against clergy and the church's history of not handling the allegations very well; religious extremists making narrow or greatly exaggerated claims and being challenged by anti-religious extremists making narrow or greatly exaggerated claims; the odd religious leaders with very fat bank balances; the resurfacing of old debates over the tension between Creation and evolution (as if the ideas have to be mutually exclusive); and a fair bit of division within the church itself about what is to be believed and what is not to be believed.
All of this might make interesting reading, sell a few books, and grab a few headlines, but I suspect that mostly it undermines the very good things the church offers the community. The quiet, but very active majority of Christians find themselves lumped in with those who attract the headlines - it is as if those in the wider community say that if one or two Christians are like this, or think that, then all Christians must be paedophile loop-fruits, with wacky ideas who don't live on planet reality like the rest of us!
Now I understand why people would want to maintain some distance from the church if the headlines spoke truthfully of most church people - but the reality is that when you prod and poke most Christian people they are kind of normal - even average. They are your grandmothers, workmates, sports players, and classmates. They walk dogs, read books, mow lawns, fly kites, skate on boards, and sail boats. They are tall, short, thin and curvy. They are old, young, rich and poor, healthy and ill. They try to be good and do good - but are usually pretty average at doing that when it comes down to it.
That's one of their problems - there is often a massive valley between their beliefs and their actions - they suffer what most of us suffer, they say one thing and do another. Fortunately God seems to be able to work with flawed humanity.
Despite the flaws, the church is still among us. Sometimes strong and often weak, the church is still here. Indeed, the story of most of our communities is also a story of the contribution the church has made to the social cohesiveness of our neighbourhoods: child and youth activities supporting young people as they find their way in life; quiet but generous acts of kindness towards those struggling with life; the provision of a framework for understanding who we are and what it means to be a good neighbour; a means of marking the special transition times in life - birth, marriage, and death; a place for the very real spiritual impulses within us to find form and meaning; and sometimes a prophetic word to jolt us out of our comfort zones.
I'm part of a proud church tradition that fosters things like good education, caring for people who struggle, and helping elderly people negotiate their last years with dignity. Armed with a lively thinking faith, I have constantly been encouraged to do something with all that I have been given - a call to heed the two-sided teachings of Jesus and the great Jewish tradition - to love God and to lovingly serve my neighbours.
Amid the noise and clatter that criticises and dismisses, I want to express a few words of gratitude to the people of our churches. Good on you! Keep at it! Don't lose heart!
The ancient Letter to Diognetus said this of Christians: "They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life."
Don't get too worried about the words of the naysayer. Carry on doing good anyway! The fabric of what is good in our city and province is interlaced with the fruit of your generous acts of service.
Rev Martin Stewart is the minister at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Bryndwr and moderator of the Presbytery of Christchurch.
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