I loathed him as soon as I saw him. I recognized his demeanor before he even spoke. The whole thing was just like I remembered: hard edged and scornful of the world. I had stumbled into a conservative church like I grew up in, and the minister was pedaling a Christianity that made me want to be a pagan. Jesus, save me from your followers.
The church was full of 20 somethings in jeans and tshirts, swaying and clapping to upbeat music from the band. Then the pastor got up to speak. He wore a suit and tie, had slick, dark hair, and sported trim glasses he constantly adjusted — to underscore his erudition I suppose. He spouted 40 minutes worth of forgettable statements about faith, but people everywhere scribbled down his wisdom on notepads. He had disdain for the culture and little sympathy for weakness. He spoke about the poor with condescension. Above all, his god felt very demanding.
Yet I was fascinated by his showmanship. His voice would soar to make a point, then fall to a soft tremor with pauses after each, word, for, effect. His fists doubled in conviction. He bounced on his toes. His arms stretched to full length as his voice boomed to climax. He grew still and quiet, leaning into the mic for a few soft words aimed at your heart. He was Jimmy Swaggart, minus the charm.
I hated him and everything he stood for. He pushed a triumphalist Christianity that admits no weakness, accepts no uncertainty, allows no mediocrity. Burden piled on burden. Do more. Be more. Work harder. God demands it.
But this is not the God or the faith I know. It is a distortion.
Then all my thoughts turned to confront me. Who are you to suppose that God cannot do some good here? “Who was I?” I wondered, with such hate in me? I was the smug hypocrite from the Bible story, who looked to heaven and thanked God that he was not like the sinner next to him. But it was the sinner, who beat his breast and asked for mercy, that had a true measure of faith.
This world is full of self righteous, arrogant Christian assholes. Yesterday I met one: myself. While I don’t buy the brand of faith I heard yesterday, my own spirituality will be just as distorted, unless I acknowledge and accept my own faults, failures, and deep seated weaknesses. I need mercy. He needs mercy. You need mercy. I think that is what can draw us together if we’re willing.
I want a faith that pulls me closer to others, not pushes us apart. I want a faith that embraces weakness, not makes us afraid of it. I want a faith that anchors you in a vivid sense of love, not a constant nagging to do more. I hope that in some way, the spiritual part of me can free me from the presumption of my ego, enough that I can receive real love and give real love, in a real way.
A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation