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Credo XIII

“(I believe in)…the holy catholic church,”

On my first mission trip, I traveled to the Philippines with an evangelism team carrying my first aid kit outfitted for international travel. I expected to provide support to the team and to participate only marginally because I was way out of my comfort zone. We travelled for over twenty-four hours and crossed a dozen time zones and the international dateline. When we arrived, I not only didn’t know what time it was, I didn’t know what day it was. We slept for a few hours, awoke groggy, brushed our teeth and put on our best clothes because it was Sunday morning there, even though it would be a dozen hours before Sunday morning arrived back home. We were going to church with our host.

Cement floor, cinder block walls ten feet high under a tin roof twenty feet above, humid air circulating through steel rafters, barely moved by distant fans–this was church in Calinan, outside of Davao City, Mindanao, the Philippines. Six hundred men and women crowded together, singing and dancing to amplified gospel music sung in Cebuano, Tagalog, and English. I felt disoriented and alienated, and then, surprisingly, like I was at home. Though on the opposite side of the globe, I worshiped the same God, the same Christ, with the somehow connected body of believers, the catholic church, the church universal. Magic.

After returning home I shared my experience with the OR team while we waited for the patient to arrive. The circulating nurse, Donna, asked me a tough question. I had known her for several years, first as an ICU nurse and then as an OR nurse. From previous conversations I knew she was raised Catholic but no longer attended church.

“Dr. Lohse,” she said, “why is the church filled with hypocrites?”

Of course I wanted to argue that this wasn’t so. But I couldn’t really. I didn’t know her experience; no doubt she had a very clear example in mind. And I could not disagree; I could think of a few examples myself. Jesus seemed to have the same outrage at the religious teachers in His time. The scrub nurse, the OR tech, the anesthetist all waited for my answer. I’d already confessed that I believed in the universal (catholic) church. Did I believe in the holy church?

Jesus, on the night before His trial and execution, had the famous Last Supper with his disciples. The last thing He did before they left the room was share a cup of wine with them, and the last thing He said was, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many…Truly I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

I am told that this phrase, so familiar to us in our communion service, is a paraphrase of the vow given at the Jewish ketubah, the finalization of betrothal before a wedding. The bride price and dowry are agreed between the families and the groom drinks a cup of wine and swears to abstain until he is ready to take his bride. Jesus is preparing His followers, His church, to become His bride.

You would think that Jesus, being God and all, could have found a better bride.

We have scandals. Congregations fire good pastors who preach a gospel that offends the status quo. Good pastors quit in frustration or depression to find work somewhere, anywhere, else. Boring preachers preach congregations into somnambulance and extinction. Congregants have affairs with pastors. Priests prey upon children. Evangelists skim extraordinary profits from fervent converts. Healing ministries offer the incurable unrealistic hopes. Spiritual gatherings deteriorate into cults that separate people from their families and exploit them for the slavish adulation of an all-too-earthly authority. Yes, there are the hypocrites.

And yet.

We are the holy catholic church.

We are the bride of Christ.

We are the hope of the world.

I grew up in a church, even got married in that same church and had my first son baptized there as an infant. I even feel some institutional allegiance to the place, kind of like claiming alumni status from my high school and college. But it wasn’t family, it wasn’t community, it was an institution. Even after I believed in the ultimate reality of God and the the resurrection of Jesus, I believed church membership to be a quaint tradition, like joining a Christian club, a totally optional activity.

Therefore, my church attendance was sporadic, done only at my convenience with minimal contribution to congregation resources, and I established only the briefest of relationships with other believers. Outside the church, I worked hard to gain worldly success while I drifted into spiritual darkness. Still, I didn’t associate my spiritual state with my church involvement. Eventually, by the grace of God and the love of a good wife, we made it through the darkest of times and ended up in a new city with new opportunities. Mary and I felt a profound sense of gratitude and committed to join a church.

Then I sat through many a church service with the well-scrubbed and well-dressed and well-respected. I harbored a secret cynicism that this was a group of good people gathered to look good, and perhaps looking good was more important than being good. Then I hung around for a while longer and I saw kind people and quiet heroes.

And I found out I was a baby Christian. I had read only two books of the Bible completely, had no prayer life, and, other than my wife, had no Christian friends. Through this church I slowly learned a basic truth about Christian life: If you are going to be more Christ-like, you have to hang around with other people who are trying to become more Christ-like. Otherwise, you drift. You might, like me, drift into thinking that the traditional rules are out-dated, that Jesus may have only “spiritually,” and physically, risen from the grave, that miracles don’t occur anymore, that prayers are futile, and finally that I personally get to decide what is best for myself without ancient Biblical guidelines. And the drift takes me right back to the Garden of Eden, eating apples with snakes.

Peace, joy, and purpose come not from a solitary journey but from a community of love, and the church at its core is a community of love: God’s love for his people, his people’s love for each other. If I had one bit of advice to give to everybody, it would be to spend an hour in church each week even if you don’t believe. If you spend time with people seeking the joy of the transcendent universe and learning how to become better and more loving people, you can’t go wrong. If your goal is inner peace and joy and finding purpose, I’m pretty sure it’s at least as good as your yoga class, your meditation lesson, or your self-help podcasts.

Of course, being a human institution, every church also drifts. In the early days, the church drifted from the gospel of grace toward the rules of religion. In medieval times the church drifted from the majesty of God and the power of the Holy Spirit toward the majesty of Rome and the power of wealth and weapons. In the modern times…I don’t really know. We drift all sorts of ways. All I know is I want to weep on Sunday mornings when I hear the name of the church more often than I hear the name of Jesus. Do we exist as a church to maintain a building and membership roles? Or do we exist to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the sick, and to set the prisoners of alcohol and drug addiction free? I cringe when I hear those who are hellbent on saving the unborn and totally indifferent to the plight of the pregnant, or for that matter, those who stridently claim “reproductive rights” at the cost of infant deaths. We thump our Bibles for law and order, and we thump them again for social injustice. We thump them better than we read them. We are incredibly imperfect. And we are filled with hypocrites.

For a long time I sat in churches with what I perceived to be nice, well-dressed people. Then I sat in churches with what I perceived to be kind, sometimes heroic people, some well-dressed, some not-so-much. Then one day I sat in church and looked around. I’d been in this congregation long enough that I knew many of the testimonies of the people in the pews. And, yes, they were for the most part kind, well-intentioned, sometimes wise, sometimes heroic. But what they had in common was not their goodness but their redemption. I saw alcoholics and ex-cons and serial arsonists. I saw the divorced and the adulterous and the pornography addicts. I saw the greedy and the vain and the selfish. And they were all there raising their arms and singing praise, thanking God for forgiveness and grace, and praying for the strength to be better people, to be more like Jesus. This is the bride of Christ. This is the hope of the world.

I know if anybody who saw me in my worst moments and also saw me in that congregation of sinners would think, Yes, there he is, the hypocrite, with all his fellow hypocrites. What’s he trying to prove?

Yes, Donna, the church is filled with hypocrites. Like me. An imperfect man saved by the grace of God. We are seeking peace, experiencing joy and learning to love. Maybe we aren’t there yet. But we are trying to become better, we are trying to become more like Jesus. He keeps embracing us, loving us, putting us back on course. The bride of Christ isn’t perfect, but the groom of the Church is. He will make us holy.

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2 thoughts on “Credo XIII”

  1. wow, such powerful stuff, Dean.I had no idea what I was getting int yesterday when I ended up spilling so many of my beans. LOL
    Yes, indeed, we are all hypocrites and that’s just the way it is, meant to be. It’s okay, in my book.Once we recognize and admit essential truths, the path towards the light gets clearer.
    “my” yesterday, 4/6/24 was no accident or coincidence. A new door , a new opportunity to learn was opened for me. All I need to do is make sure to keep the door open and be prepared to walk a new walk. Thanks for your sharing with me. The spiritual life is not a theory, we must live it. 🙂

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