"At the foundation of Jesus Christ's kingdom is the genuine loveliness of those who are commonplace. I am truly blessed in my poverty. If I have no strength of will or a nature without worth or excellence, then Jesus says to me, 'Blessed are you, because it is through your poverty that you can enter My kingdom.' I cannot enter His kingdom by virtue of my goodness --- I can only enter it as an absolute pauper." (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)
In a recent newspaper article, Los Angeles Times writer William Lodbell chronicles the loss of his faith in God ("Faith Found, and Lost, News and Observer, Aug. 17, 2007). Finding himself in a troubled marriage, Lodbell writes of how a friend took him to one of the many independent evangelical mega-churches in Southern California where he heard the Bible preached and taught in a relevant way for the first time. Attending a retreat where for 36 hours he was treated to singing, prayer, heart-felt sharing, and Bible teaching, he had an experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. He believed. Returning to LA, he convinced his editors to allow him to cover religion, because he wanted to show people of faith in a positive light. By all accounts, he did well at it.
Later, Lodbell converted to Catholicism because he said its low-key evangelism, history, and ritual appealed to him. On the news front, he was assigned two difficult stories --- the Catholic sex scandals and then, on his own initiative, he began looking into the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the lavish lifestyle led by Benny Hinn and others. He said that he "understood that he was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious institutions, if they were God-inspired, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?" He stopped attending church, ultimately concluding that he did not believe. "I saw that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence."
Reading this sad story, there was so much I found to agree with. So often churches and parachurch organizations fail us, pastors and youth leaders sin, badly, and people let us down. Lodbell was right to be grieved by this. And his question is one that I suspect we've all had: If this life in Christ is real, shouldn't there be more evidence of it in our churches, in our lives? Reading his story I felt the heavy tug of the reporter's pessimism, the downward spiral of doubt and unbelief. I don't like what I feel, but I don't think it's good to deny what I feel or the doubt this produces. The question is where does doubt take you?
That doubt takes me back to my poverty, back to the point where I can say that I really don't have anything in me that truly measures up, where I can't say I am getting better all the time. And if I can say that about myself, I can understand that this same poverty is the state of other believers. The experience of sanctification is, for me, more a growing awareness of my poverty, of how sin corrupts every apparently decent thing I've done, of how far short I am of any Godly benchmark, and yet it's also an increasing awareness of the greater richness of God's grace toward me and His Creation. When I begin to realize what a pauper I am, and what a ragged lot we all are, then I begin to see and more fully appreciate the evidence of God's grace among us, around me, and in me.
Lodbell saw the sin in the church and could no longer believe. Interestingly, he never turns the focus to himself, to how he failed to measure up. Looking for God to produce results, he saw only failure, only hypocrisy. Had he revisited his own poverty, the poverty that presumably brought him to church in the first place, he may have seen life with new eyes, have seen the grace of God at work all around him. If he'd done so, he may have lost his religion. . . but retained his faith.
But then I really have to turn the attention back to me. Am I asking God to measure up? Am I holding him responsible for "shepherds" that bilk their flocks, for pastors that abuse their wives, for all that passes for religion? Am I asking Him to perform for me that my faith might be legitimized? Then I have to remember that He already gave everything for me, even life itself. He died. That should be enough.