I work part-time in a local coffee shop. There are two things that I really like about my job: I get to drink lots of great coffee and I get to meet lots of interesting people. The cafe that I work at is a unique social hub too, a place that is visited by a wonderful mix of people who live and work in the downtown community.
The other day I was working one of my usual closing shifts. It was an especially slow evening; I was all alone in the cafe, keeping myself occupied with routine closing duties. As I was wiping down some counters, a regular customer showed up to get a decaf coffee. Needless to say I was incredibly pleased to have some company. He settled in at the bar and we began to chat while I prepared his cup of coffee. We hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with each other much before this, so we started having a typical get-to-know-you conversation.
As we were chatting, I mentioned that I’m close to completing a degree in religious studies. I immediately noticed that this perked his interest. He promptly mentioned that he thinks religion is fascinating even though he’s not particularly religious. So I asked him what his experiences have been with religion. He told me that he was raised in a Catholic family and that his experiences of being involved in the church are ‘mixed’—some are good, but most are bad. As we continued to talk about various things to do with the Catholic church, the Christian movement, and the history of religion, he shared some of his personal concerns with refreshing candour. And given our mutual-fanscination with religion, we were both enjoying our discussion.
It didn’t take us long to move into some pretty heavy stuff. He brought up many disturbing examples of violence, corruption, and abuse caused by religious individuals in what amounted to an impressive historical survey of the dark side of religion. I mostly listened and nodded my head in agreement; like him, I found many of the examples he raised to be truly unsettling. Then, in the midst of all the issues he had brought up, he said that there’s one thing that he finds particularly perplexing. Once he indicated this, I listened with special curiosity to find out what was on his mind. He proceeded to tell me that he does not understand how a group of people who claim to follow a man who taught love and peace have committed so much violence throughout history. I immediately thought, ‘Me too!’ And I told him that I’m also shocked at how many Christians have failed to seriously follow Jesus’ teachings and example. What’s more, that I’m especially appalled at the number of instances where Christians have acted in ways that are totally antithetical to Jesus’ ways.
Somewhat ironically, we actually had a great deal to agree about even though our faith commitments are quite different. We both agreed that Jesus was a remarkable person who said and did some remarkable things. We both agreed that there are far too many examples which highlight the many ways his followers have failed to live out his teachings. And we both agreed that the startling gap between Jesus, the Christ, and so many of us Christians presents a very confusing conundrum.
Yet I still have faith despite the failures of the church, which are many. Not only that, I still have faith despite my own personal failures, which are many. I think this is really the clincher for me: facing my personal flaws and the flaws of the church doesn’t compel me to think that trusting and following Jesus is a misguided decision. Just the opposite! Facing my flaws compels me to confess that I truly need him. It compels me to confess that I have much more to learn from him. It compels me to confess that I desperately require his guidance and grace. It compels me to confess that I am part of the problem, as uncomfortable as that is.
This is actually one of the essential claims of the Christian faith: that we are all part of the problem. Sure, it’s possible to willfully ignore this uncomfortable claim—but the truth has a way of catching up with us. Speaking to sobering trends in history, Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.’ We should remember that he was not merely commenting on problems of the distant past. No, he spoke these words as one who lived through a most gruesome and violent century.
I agree that love is the key. And this is why I continue to rely on Jesus for strength and for guidance, especially as I face the waves of hate that move within and around me. Because I have not discovered an ethic of love that is more radical than the agape-ethics in his teachings. I have not encountered a more moving example of love-in-action than what is displayed in his extraordinary life story. Nor have I experienced a love that is more powerful than when the deep peace of his presence has overwhelmed my heart.
If love is the key, then Jesus is an ideal person to follow. And I suppose that’s what this comes down to: being a Christian involves trusting Jesus and following his example—albeit imperfectly, but nonetheless persistently. Because the Christian life is a life of stumbling forward.