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Worshipping in the Paradox
Church history in real time
In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:
We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.
He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.”
It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.
Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.
As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:
“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”
In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God's name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.
Multiple things can be true at once.
The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God's sake.
The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus' name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine.
A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.
We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.
And so we cry out at every gathering:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:
Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," and so we pray:
Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23).
And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.
In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:
To gather us in (v. 24)
To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29).
To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32)
To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).
Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.
At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.
Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:
Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.
As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.
George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
“Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.
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