Sunday, November 13, 2011

Grace's Place

I've heard a lot of sermons in my life. Quite frankly, few of them have really stuck in my memory. When I was in high school one of our pastors gave a message that has remained in my mind throughout the years. Well, to be more accurate, I should say that the main point of his message has stuck with me, although I cannot remember all of his subpoints. This message had to do with the nature of the church, something that has been on my mind lately.

The pastor introduced his topic in a rather unusual way (at least for the time.) He played us the themesong from a popular television show called “Cheers.” This song repeats the refrain:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
People are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

The pastor pointed out that the reason the bar featured in the show was so popular, and a large part of why the show itself was so popular, is that it presented a place that filled the longing expressed in the title song. Cheers was a place where people knew your name and were glad you came. That, he stated, is exactly what the church should be. The church should be a community where a person feels welcomed as he or she is; where people are glad to see you and miss you when you are absent. It should be a place where you are known and where you know others. This, said our pastor was the nature of grace, which is the core message of the church. In fact, he suggested we should rename our church to something more fitting, such as “Grace's Place.” I've always liked that idea and should I ever have the opportunity to pastor a church, I may very well borrow his idea.

Unfortunately this doesn't describe the reality of much of the church. Church often becomes a place for putting on masks, pretending that we are spiritual and sometimes—too often—trying to outdo one another with our pious displays of spirituality. Can people really be themselves in your church? Can we accept one another in our broken humanness? Or does that make us uncomfortable? If someone stands up front to tell a story about what God is doing, are we able to hear stories of unhealed brokenness, or are we only comfortable hearing stories of victory? It's a messy world and believers are not exempt from this messiness. Too often we try to pretend we are and we project the sense, intentionally or unintentionally, that we must leave our messiness at the church door if we want to participate in the community. But that's not what the church is about. The church should be a place where we demonstrate practically the grace of God towards one another, accepting one another in all our fragile brokenness and allow God's healing to flow through to to each other. In my experience such communities of faith are rare, but when you find one it's like an oasis in a desert, or perhaps like a neighborhood bar name Grace's Place.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Name of Freedom

While browsing Netflix tonight I noticed a movie that I have not seen in nearly 20 years. The movie, entitled In the Name of the Father, tells a powerful story of a young man from Northern Ireland. During the IRA bombing campaign of the seventies this man along with three friends is arrested and charged with setting off a bomb in a London pub, killing five people. In addition, the man's father, aunt and several relatives, including young teenagers, are arrested and charged as accomplices. However, none of them has anything to do with the bombing and none of them are even remotely affiliated with the IRA. Nonetheless, all of them are put on trial using flimsy evidence and a guilty verdict is handed down by an emotionally charged court. The defendants are sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths, with the main character sentenced to life in prison.

The movie stirs my outrage and anger at injustice, particularly injustice perpetrated in the name of justice. It outraged me when I first watched it and it did so again this evening. I cannot understand how "good" men could knowingly convict and condemn innocent people. As the movie makes clear, this was not a case of mistaken justice. The government tortured the defendants and deliberately withheld evidence that would have exonerated them, simply because those in authority believed it was more important to get a conviction in the case and show the public that the government was acting to defend the nation. The fact that the defendants were all Irish also helped, given the inherent bias against Irish people in England at the time.

Watching the movie at this point in history I am concerned with the parallels I see with what has happened in my own country over the last ten years. In our emotional response to the events of 9/11, to what extent have we run roughshod over justice because we wanted to feel secure and wanted to feel like we were demonstrating our strength in response to those tragic events? I am saddened that so many Americans who speak out in defense of individual rights and against government intrusion often have remained silent, or even worse have condoned the excesses of our government in its "war" on terrorism. They argue strongly of the need to defend our country's basic values, but then suspend them for anyone that becomes suspect of supporting terrorism.

Above all I am saddened that many believers have adopted this mentality. Placing love of country before love of God, they see the enemies and supposed enemies of their country as unworthy of humane treatment and basic human rights. In their defense of justice they condone injustice. I don't imagine that this pleases God. I am not arguing that evil should go unpunished. I am arguing that those accused of perpetrating evil should not be presumed guilty and we should not condemn them unjustly in our zeal to defend ourselves. To do otherwise is to deny the love of the God we profess. Growing up I was taught that two wrongs don't make a right. That applies just as well when it comes to defending our freedom and values.