There was this radio program I was listening to recently. They were interviewing some guy who was the executive director of a Christian relief organization who had spent decades in war zones and around poverty and famine and diseases. Some guy who had traveled around the world doing good in the name of God.
Over the last few weeks, I have been mulling over an interesting passage from Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila. The Reverend John Ames, an elderly Midwestern Methodist preacher is in conversation with his much-younger new wife, Lila, who has come to find rest, shelter, and love after a brutally hard life full of abuse and neglect. The conversation is about hell and the final judgment. Lila knows little of theology and metaphysics, but she has questions. Hard questions. How, she wonders, could the many people she has known who struggled and suffered so terribly on earth be made to suffer further in eternity because they didn’t become Christians? Who could believe this?
We often like to speak, in Christian circles, about the God who descends, who comes down, who is somehow nearest to those on the bottom, those who find themselves on the wrong side of the score. The words roll off our churchy tongues almost too easily. Friend of sinners . . . Blessed are the poor, those who mourn . .
I was part of a conference call recently with a number of young-ish pastors in our denomination where we were talking about Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that the his followers would be “one.” Anyone with even the most cursory understanding of church history will know that, well, we haven’t exactly done so well with this little ideal.
Indeed, we might be forgiven for laughing out loud at the idea that there could be such a thing as a unified church.