I recently posted a quote on Facebook from a favorite book of mine. It read: What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the modest ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all the touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. - Barbara Brown Taylor
The quote resonates with me at the moment because I’ve never, in my lifetime, seen people more angry at one another in spite of a shared belief in Jesus. We’re mad because there are people who claim to love Jesus “on the other side” of the impeachment question, or the same sex marriage question, or the immigrant question, and we simply can’t fathom how anyone could be so blind or hard-hearted as to believe the way “those people” believe. Our anger though, is often conceptual. We’re angry about immigration without knowing immigrants, about policies related to homelessness without sharing a meal with a person experiencing homelessness. We’re usually angry, not over the particular immigrant, but over the policy, not about the particular suicidal gay teenager in our church, but over doctrines about same sex issues. We’ve disembodied our doctrines and are arguing about them as if they exist in a sanitized spiritual bubble. They don’t.
Churches are paying the price in three ways. First of all, there are inevitable divisions that come about because whenever a community lands their plane on divisive ethical issues, churches divide, withdrawing into echo chambers of spiritually homogenized faith communities where we feel good because we’re with people who reinforce our existing beliefs, rather than challenge them. As a result, we’re more comfortable and more divided, less mature and less discerning.
The second way we’re losing is that some of us who are pastors have ended up censoring ourselves. Not content to add fuel to the fires of division destroying both our culture and civility, some of us have tried to hold our congregations together, saying that “shared life in Christ” is the basis of fellowship, not shared life in Christ plus an agreement on the impeachment outcome, or immigration policy, or environmental policy. We’ve temporarily self censored because we know that to speak is to divide, knowing that sound bytes are never adequate for declaring ethics, and we believe that dividing is the greater sin because of what Jesus said about unity. But silence isn’t healthy either, and we know that. Be patient with us; we’re working on it.
Our third loss has to do with the exodus of people under 25 from faith communities. They see the infighting and, rightfully, want nothing to do with it, viewing the divisions as diversions from what ought to be the church’s true mission. And what should be the church’s true mission at this moment in history when countless declarations of truths are called lies, and lies are called truth?
The short answer is this: Embody Jesus, which is a way of saying that our calling is to put skin on Jesus here in 2020 so that we can declare, not by our words so much (though, yes, I’m writing words now, and yes, teaching matters) but by our lives. Our mission must align with Jesus’ mission, which he declared in Luke 4 when he publicly said:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
These words are our mission too because in the same way that Jesus embodied the life of God, we are explicitly called to embody the life of Jesus; So what he did, we’re called to do. We care for the poor, including people drowning in an ocean of relational poverty because of the idols of individualism, and others suffering from addiction and abuse. We give a voice to people who don’t have one, which is a long list of people including the unborn, the unjustly accused and imprisoned, people working two jobs and lacking health care, immigrants faced with either being here illegally or deported back to almost certain death, people without access to clean water, and many more.
Seeing ourselves as taking up the mantel of Jesus’ embodied mission seems to matter a lot right now, because few people believe words anymore (Unless, of course, it comes from your news source - the “true“ one). Bodies, though, are harder to deconstruct. I can argue doctrine. Doubt it, debate it, deconstruct it. Politics too. There‘s likely a place for healthy debates, though I’m not ready to go there until we become more civil as a culture.
But few argue with Mother Teresa caring for the poorest of the poor, or the army of people who give up their nights at the church I lead to feed the hungry and give shelter to women, or the Rwandan woman victimized by the genocide who runs a kids club in her house every Monday. People understand that these, and any one of the million other acts, are preaching: JESUS IS ALIVE and well, and loves EVERYONE IN THE WORLD.
So let me be clear. If my faith is just a doctrinal statement with political overtones, but I’m never, myself, in the arena of compassion, or generosity, or hospitality, or crossing social divides, or service, then I have a disembodied faith, and I need this reminder: Jesus didn’t say “if you hear these words, you’re blessed if you believe them”. He said, “if you hear these words, you’re blessed if you do them”. Doing is embodying. Let’s stop arguing and start embodying.