One thing that does not happen “at church” is grading.
[This is one of the good things about church.]
Grading happens, in my experience, not at church. Although technically, insofar as “the church is the people,” and people [some of us, anyway] periodically do this thing we call “grading,” then grading also happens “at church.” But that’s a stretch.
Most other things that happen everywhere else also happen at church, however. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” we might say, if we’re old enough.
I don’t say this to disparage church. I don’t say this to cast some kind of cynical shade on church, or to fault church for not rising higher above the human condition. If anything, I say it more as a reminder that the Christian community fits that description of “the world is too much with us, late and soon.”
Grading brought this on, this line of thinking. Grading final papers, each on a religious organization chosen by a student, to serve as a source of examples of all the different “religious phenomena” we’ve been learning about all session in Intro Religion, which is a “theory and method” course for the academic study of religion.
One of the students had chosen a Christian school, and in the write-up – because that student has been ignoring all my instruction about the difference between a religious insider’s perspective and an academic student of religion’s perspective – just repeated the school’s faith claims and said that these children would be raised to have Christian morals and ideals “before they have to encounter the evil in the world.”
So, the part of me that is doing grading thought: please take a more academic perspective.
But the part of me that is a lot older than that student thought: Wow. That’s optimistic, to think that children haven’t already encountered the evil in the world by the time they get to school. Or in school.
Or at church.
Optimistic to think that there is some actual wall between “the church” and “the world,” that keeps all that evil out of “the church,” and just confines it to “the world.” To think that Solzhenitsyn was wrong, and that the line between good and evil DOESN’T run through every human heart.
I don’t say this to shirk responsibility, either, or to try to suggest that when annoying or hurtful or harmful or wicked things happen at church that somehow we should just shrug them off and say “well, what did you expect, hello, PEOPLE, you know how THEY are.” I mean … we do, know how people are, but all the more reason to do our due diligence and put protective systems in place and not leave everything to wishful thinking and our convictions about the holiness of the church and our forgetfulness of the unavoidable sociological dimension of every human organization.
It is more to say, maybe, that while spirituality sounds pretty, real life is what we have to live, even at the church.
Somehow, it seems to me, faith involves knowing that. And that without excusing the bad and ugly stuff, and without ignoring it, and without feeling the need to cover it up rather than shine a light on it and do our part to deal with it and heal it [be the medical assistants, in a way, for the Great Physician], faith recognizes that it is precisely this flawed and fallible human institution that is full of the people God loves, the ones, as Thomas Merton said, for whom Jesus Christ didn’t hesitate to die on the cross – and who needed that, desperately.
Including us. Including me.
The church isn’t a good place to be because it’s so good, or because the people there are so good, or because I am so good. Least of all that. If we think that, we have got it exactly backwards. It’s good because God is there, too. And God IS good.
[It’s easy for me to say “good enough to overcome anything that happens at church.” That probably means I shouldn’t. But I can’t help thinking it, and hoping it, and holding on to it, and praying that even for the people who have a hard time saying it, or who can’t say it at all, it will still prove true, in the end.]