I started writing this post this morning on my phone sitting in the library at church waiting on our worship service to start. This is a greatly expanded and edited version if you caught the original.
There's a lot conversation taking place about the true nature of the church. Part of the discussion is about the human dimension in conflict with the institutional. From my vantage point, I think this is the wrong conflict to address. These words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship help me to see more clearly that the issue is really how we know Christ. Is he real or a program? Is he a theological construct or a living presence discovered in the daily-ness of life?
Reflect on these words of Bonhoeffer's.
"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like the cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings form generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian "conception" of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part of that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. "All for sin could not atone." The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners "even in the best life" as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind. ...
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without person confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grass without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
I find this an accurate description of the church as we know it today. Our debates about ecclesiastical forms misses the point. Here's a diagram that I use with churches. Regardless of the church or the person, I find that the principal emphasis is on the line between ideas and organizational structure.
What is missing is the relational dimension. By relational, I'm not talking about community. Community can be just as much an abstract concept as church, grace or Jesus Christ. The discussion of community is often about the structure of community. I'm not even talking about the concept of human relationships. We relate to the idea of each, rather than to their reality. What is the reality of grace, or Jesus or our relationships with people?
I'm not talking about the concept of reality that is open to debate. Rather, I'm talking about what people experience. What is the experience of the church, community, Christ or relationships?
This reality that all humans experience is the co-mixture of sin and goodness. It is the awkward, frustrating combination of loving kindness with violent self-centeredness. It is the reality we received with Bonhoeffer's costly grace. Here's what he says.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son ...
As Christianity spread, and the Church became more secularized,this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded. The world was christianized, and grace became its common property. It was to be had at low cost.
What precisely does this mean? What does it mean in terms that the average person can understand? What does it mean in relationship to what the church is to be?
What I am about to say will sound odd, but I find the greatest evidence of God's grace in those places of greatest need. Those places of the greatest rawness of life. Here's an example of what I mean.
My son introduced me to a southern rock band named Drive-By-Truckers. One of their early songs - Living Bubba - is a homage to Gregory Dean Smalley, an Atlanta guitarist who died of AIDS. During his last year of life as he was being eaten away by the ravages of his illness, he played over a hundred concerts. Living Bubba is a tribute to this man. Here are some of the lyrics.
To hear DBT play this is hear the intersection of all the desires of human life mixed with all the pain and disaster that can come with it. It is the intersection of the sacred and the profane. (Here's a recent DBT concert play of the song. Listen to both links. The intro to Living Bubba is at the end of the first song. Intro, Song. You find more of DBT at www.archive.org. Also, these guys are crude and profane, but also wise and understanding about the hardships of life.) The stories they tell in their songs point me to people who need to know God's love in some real, tangible way. Abstract theology is no use to them. They need to know love with some reality. Oddly, the grace of Christ seems more real in the face of songs of drunks, whores, drug addicts, pimps, pushers and people whose self-destructiveness knows no boundaries. Oh, but for the grace of God go I. You can read Patterson Hood's telling of Gregory Dean Smalley's story here.
I wake up tired and I wake up pi..ed
wonder how I ended up like this
I wonder why things happen like they do
but I don't wonder long cuz I got a show to do
I'm sick at my stomach from the A.Z.T.
Broke at my bank cuz that s..t ain't free
but I'm here to stay (at least another week or two)
I can't die now cuz I got another show to do
Don't give me no pity don't give me no grief
Wait till I die for sympathy
Just help me with this amp and a guitar or two
I can't die now cuz I got another show to do
Don't give me no preachin' no self servin'
I ain't no angel but nobody's deserving
I can dance on my own grave, Thank You!
but I can't die now cuz I got another show...
Some people keep saying I can't last long
but I got my bands I got my songs,
liquor, beer, and nicotine to help me along
and I'm drunk and stubborn as they come
chain smoking, guitar picking, til I'm gone
I ain't got no political agenda
Ain't got no message for the youth of America
and come see me next Friday cuz I got another show...
Some people stop living long before they die
Work a dead end job just to scrape on by
but I keep living just to bend that note in two
and I can't die now cuz I got another show...
lyrics by Patterson Hood
music by Drive-by Truckers (Cooley, Hood, Howell, Lane, Neff)
The other day in a comment at Bill Kinnon's blog, I offered three analogies of the church in our time. Here's what I wrote.
Bringing this full circle back to what is the church to be in our time. As Christian believers, we find ourselves debating church structure, community and theological purity. What this suggests to me is that we have lost our connection to the depth of need that people have for knowing the grace and love of God. We are lost in the church thinking that we already have it together, and therefore we must defend the church against those who would change it.
I'm constantly amazed at how different my world is from this world you shine a light on. So, I've decided that there are three paradigms operating. Two are dysfunctional and the other is not yet emerging, but is creeping into view.
The first is the mainstream world I inhabit where the governing paradigm is the church as MUSEUM. Pastors are curators, and members docents.
The second paradigm is the church growth world where the governing paradigm is church as ENTREPRENEURIAL ENTERPRISE. Pastors are entrepreneurial marketers and members are customers.
The third paradigm claims to be community, but I'm not sure community is actually possible in our culture at this point in time. So, the governing paradigm may be more, church as COFFEE SHOP. Pastors are baristas and members are visitors connected wirelessly to a wider world than the shop and receiving some modicum of nourishment through their coffee and pastries.
As I have been driving the past two days, I'm wondering if the real problem is that we have traded life for religion. I like this quote from Bonhoeffer.
"During the last year or so, I have come to appreciate the "worldliness" of Christianity as never before. The Christian is not a homo religiosus but a man, pure and simple, just as Jesus became man... It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman, a righteous man, or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one... This is what I mean by worldliness -- taking life in one's stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness... How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray, when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?"
In this sense, our quest to be religious becomes a block to community and to our commitment to follow Christ wherever he leads.
The Coffee Shop motif may be more apt that I originally suspected. For there, everyone comes, everyone is different, and our needs are simple and commonly shared. There is no great investment in the advocacy of one type of drink from another. We gather, sip coffee and share stories. We find support, maybe friendship, and we go on with life.
The reality is that church structure is both essential and irrelevant. We each can exist without the church. Yet, at the same time, we need it because of what we commonly share, our need for love and grace.
Let me end with a simple prayer: Help us to love so that we might understand just how great and costly is your grace for us. Bless us so that we may be a blessing to others. Lead us to be the church wherever we are. Amen.