Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] When I hate the church: my UCW senior testimony

[Prelude: This Sunday, I gave my senior testimony at the United Church of Westville, my home church at Yale.
Senior testimonies are a tradition at UCW; an opportunity for outgoing seniors to think over our time here, reflect on the changes that God's brought about in our lives, and pass along whatever small encouragement or exhortations for living life - at Yale, as well as throughout the rest of our activities and communities - with which we've been entrusted, for those we love. This is the text of my testimony; I departed from it in actual reading, but the intent, thoughts, and spirit is here.]

As an introduction, I have to say this: I love this church. I love most of you here very deeply, and those whom I don’t, I’m sorry. I wish that I did; I know that Jesus, whom I love deeply, loves you deeply, enough to die for you (if he did do what I think he did). My not loving you is not because I think you’re a bad person; If I’ve failed to love you, I’m at fault. I’m a sinner.

Nothing that I say is directed at any individual: I hope nobody feels like I’m trying to single you out or correct your behavior. That’s not my place, and that’s not my hope. This is, to quote Jay-Z on The Blueprint, “just my thoughts; only my thoughts”. When I think back on my time at UCW (and look forward to the future), this is what lies on my heart.

I love this church, the people that you see around you; people who I have loved and who have since graduated; people who aren’t here today, but whose hearts and lives are being and have been changed by the love that is evidenced everyday in this community. That’s why I’m so glad to see people here who are my dear friends, who don’t often – if ever – come to this place: I think it’s a good place. I think it is a place where Jesus is.

I love what I’ve seen in this church and what it can and could be, which is why I also hate being here sometimes.

I’m tired of accepting, of settling, of making excuses for our corporate and individual sins. I’m tired of the hypocrisy, in myself and others, that I’ve seen exposed, in seemingly-never-ending layers. I’m sick of having to see those of us who’ve been privileged enough to experience the greatest love of all be inactive in our community, complacent in our faith, and weak in our spirits. I hate seeing what the church really is: tired, sick, sinful people with selfish, foolish, draining demands. I’ve seen people that I respect give until they’re drained dry; give until they can’t bear to give any more, and still that wasn’t enough to turn the tide. The church is broken; the church is human; But how can it possibly be that we who claim to be presenting the words and life and ministry of Jesus Christ to a needy world so often turn our backs on one another; so often simply disregard the wants and even the needs of others, in favor of platitudes and empty boasts of salvation through our faith? Faith without works is dead; love without obedience and care is merely self-gratification.

Last Easter Sunday, a man came to our service. I don’t know if he was homeless; I do know that he needed money enough to come disrupt our service with his requests for aid. We gave him what we could; some food and, I think, money. It wasn’t enough for him, so he hung around through lunch, asking us to do chores for money, to give him some cash, whatever. He was pretty insistent, a real distraction; an annoyance. But what someone told him was what will stick with me forever: Fed up with the man’s requests for money, one member of the congregation spit out at him: “Why should we help you?”

I hate situations like that, and I think I know why. There are two reasons: First, I hate seeing who people really are, because it reminds me of who I really am. This is who I really am: I wake up in the morning and put on my headphones, then walk down Elm Street to class, thinking at every person that I see: you in my way, and I don’t like you. This is the sinner that I am, that I see reflected in every sin that I see around me, and it saddens me. This is the poorly-hidden skeleton in my closet: I am a jerk, and I don’t like people.

And sometimes this unworthiness... it makes me wish that Jesus hadn't died for me. For us. For any of us.

Because He doesn't deserve this.

He doesn't deserve what we put Him through. I think of me turning my hat down and walking a little faster around the corner with the burrito cart on it so that I don’t have to talk to Annette, the woman many of us call the “flower lady”. I think of lying to Joe, a homeless guy I know, when I have five dollars in my pocket, but I want that money for myself, so even though he hasn’t eaten in two days, and I know he hasn’t, because that dude is skinnier than anyone I know, I lie to him and I tell him that I don’t have any money, because he knows that I normally don’t have money and, besides, he’s so used to asking people for money and getting turned down, plus I know the fact that I looked him in the eye when I lied to him, like he’s a person and not an obstacle on the sidewalk, was enough to assuage my conscience that I did right by him.

How could this be what Jesus meant when he told us: “If you love me, feed my sheep”? How could this possibly be what Jesus died for? How could this spirit that we see among us be what Jesus meant when he said, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”? We’re great at taking freshmen out for meals; for late-night snacks; for trips off-campus. But when it comes to serving someone less interesting, or less fun, or less convenient, or more familiar? Silence.

And I say that I will give my life to serve this church, to build into it, to develop it? Am I stupid? Or just lazy, and I’m trying to soothe my conscience, and, though I don’t like to work for money, I figure I don’t mind working for my salvation; or at least to deceive myself into thinking that I’ve become a new man, a saved man.

Romans 2:15 says “they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” I wish my thoughts defended me; I wish “the requirements of the law” were in my heart, but all I hear is the never-ending roar of accusations against me.

I hate this. I hate every time that I see the resignation that I sometimes feel reflected on another’s face. We got accustomed to starting service 5 minutes late, then 10, then 15. I got used to showing up for the early van to church 5 minutes late, then 10, then, hey, I can always catch the second ride. I’ve become resigned to seeing fewer and fewer people turn out for church activities as the semester wears on, because, oh, it’s to be expected; people at Yale are busy, after all. We’re just grateful that people stop by church when they have the time, when there’s not an interview, or a meeting, or a tryout, or too much studying to do, or sleep to catch up on.

And when I sleep through a Bible study or a meeting, hey, it’s okay, we all do it. I’ll do better next time. It seems sometimes that we prioritize everything in our lives over Christ, who fades into some kind of default, wallpapering our schedule: if there’s not an engaging distraction or important meeting, then pursue God; but if there is something actually important, Christ can always wait. After all, there will always be another Bible study; another church service; another service trip; another quiet time; another passage of Scripture. How can this be the Christian life?

Okay. By now, you all get the point that this church, this religion, my sinfulness, they’ve all worn me out. Multiple times. But still, I’m not only committing to spending two more years here, but then three in seminary; then a lifetime in church ministry. This is foolishness; you think it, I admit it. I say it to myself, reproachfully, like I imagine some of you are thinking to yourselves: If the church discourages him so much, he should just shut up, stop whining, and get out of here. Care a little bit less – maybe put a little bit more distance between myself and this community. Why does it matter? After all, we evangelicals are so fond of saying that it’s our “personal relationship with Christ” that matters, and not anything else; why should I let someone else, or even a community of others, stand between me and Christ?

It matters, because I’ve seen what this church can be. What it has been for me; what it could be for others.

At the Thanksgiving service last semester, right before leaving for break, Pastor Kang asked the college students present to introduce ourselves and why we like UCW. That day, I didn’t say that I like UCW; I said that I love UCW, because I have seen God’s love here.

I love UCW; often, I like it. Often, I dislike it. But I love it, because it’s loved me; even more importantly, I’ve seen it love others.

That’s it, really. That’s the only answer that I have. I could retell stories – of walking to the pond at midnight during retreat; walking to East Rock on the coldest morning I’ve ever felt, just to see the Easter sunrise; late nights with Victor, and Ray, and Lee-shing, and many others, talking about whatever; the time I saw Carol during winter break, and it felt so good to see a familiar UCW face; dating Janice, then, even better, no longer dating Janice, but continuing to pray and read the Bible with her and grow in friendship – the list would go on and on, but none of the stories are particularly good, and none of them would be told as well as Dan could tell them.

I’ve been rather discouraged, recently. I’ve been wrestling with the notions of church and Gospel. But that’s not important now, we can discuss that some other time; what’s important is that I’ve been feeling, as I said earlier, that this church that you see before you – these human imperfections – could not possibly be what Jesus wanted His body to be. What He died to establish.

Some of the worst was Saturday afternoon. I was in a Bible study – with Ray, Josh Au, and Eric Klein – and I couldn’t concentrate. The modern church, not to mention UCW in particular, far from the strong reminder of the might of God’s love, seemed like every wrong caricature of Christianity to me. I left early, ran a few errands, then had to head over and lead Alpha Bible Study. I got there and turned on my computer, starting to write this exact testimony. Ten minutes after we were supposed to start, no one was there; I figured this was just another UCW no-show event. No surprise. But then two of the freshmen guys showed up, and we started talking about Christ and Christianity.

Telling them the story of the Church through the ages; of Paul, of Peter, of the law; of Jesus and His parables and healings, made me remember why I love Christ. That they were late didn’t matter; what mattered was, they were here, now, and we were speaking about things that do matter. Then one of the freshmen girls showed up, and we continued to talk; she asked, why Christianity? Why choose this, out of all religions, when there are miracles and goodness and ethics in each? My answer to her was really an answer to myself: it’s not about them being wrong and us being right. It’s about Christ having loved us; so, regardless of what anything else says, I love him back, wherever I find Him.

I love this church, because Christ is love. This community is often loving; but then, often it is not. That doesn’t matter: the same is true of me. What is important is that I have seen the loving spirit of Jesus Christ at work in this community. I see it when I hear Josh Williams tell me about how excited he is about the living faith of Barack Obama; I see it when I see the quiet dedication of Lee-shing and Victor to fulfilling their commitments; I see it when I see Emily taking freshmen out to eat, or Joe Oh basically giving his life up for the Red Cross and Relay and whatever else, despite grumbling about it the whole time.

This church does, and will continue to, disappoint me, sadden me, and shake my faith. A lot. But Christ never does anything but draw me to Him; and He has chosen to make His home in this place. I don’t know why, but I’m thankful that He has. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” I’m a sinner; We’re all thorough sinners here, in need of full pardons. And this is why I love this church and remain here: not because we’re sinless, but because Christ is, and because He is here. Wherever He is, that’s the only place that I need to find.

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