There are few events in life where we have the ability to remember with absolute clarity where we were, what we were doing, and what we were thinking.
The common ones that most people experience would be things like: graduating from high school, getting married, or the birth of children and grandchildren. Likewise every generation has one or two definitive events that everyone can remember precisely. The Greatest Generation had the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Baby Boomers could tell you exactly where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated, Gen Xer’s have the fall of the Berlin wall or where they watched the last episode of M.A.S.H.
And of course, we Millennial’s have the defining moment of the past twenty years, 9/11.
In addition to the shared experiences, everyone has a handful of other events in their life that fit into this category of life-long clear memories. Today, I want to share two of those clear memories that I have, and how they both effected my views on the church.
The first of these memories happened in college, while I was studying abroad in London. During my time in London I had the great opportunity to travel, and I was fortunate enough to spend time in Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Paris, and Rome. It was in Rome where I remember having my first life-long clear memory, and it was the first time I’ve had a crisis of faith in the church.
I have a distinct memory of sitting on a hill overlooking the Roman coliseum, after a day of exploring St. Peter’s Basilica, taking pictures of elaborate mosaics, statues, and other great works of art. I remember having this moment, this realization that so much of what I had been seeing and exploring was the result of colonialism and how the church for centuries had been one of the major forces of evil in the world. The crusades, Spanish inquisition, colonialism, slavery, and more were not just condoned, but often initialized by the Roman Catholic Church, and often in the name of evangelism and spreading the gospel. I remember being literally sick to my stomach as I thought about all of the suffering and injustice that had been caused by the church while I watched a beautiful Italian sunset on that November evening in 2006.
Unfortunately, in life, and especially in your mid 20’s, it’s pretty easy to be cynical about stuff, especially the church. I grew up in the church, and I really did love it as a kid, it was where I went to see my friends and play on play ground. In my teens it was a place where I could hang out with my friends and have an open and honest discussion about God. But as I grew older, I began to see some of the faults of the church as well. Things like the way the church often acts as a “social club” that benefits the “insider” at the cost of the “outsider”. The hypocritical nature of those that call themselves Jesus followers. (As a side note, everyone is a hypocrite, but for some reason it’s a lot more pronounced when you hold up Jesus as the standard). Or the misguided belief that getting someone to pray and arbitrary prayer of confession and “salvation” is just another notch on the belt, or a trophy to be displayed, as opposed to engaging in a life-time relationship of growth and discipleship.
The truth is, it’s easy to see the faults within the church. That’s because the church is made up of people, broken people, people that need Jesus and are in the process of drawing closer to Him. As a Millennial, I can tear things down with the best of them, it’s an innate skill developed by our generation.
But, luckily I’m no longer 23 years-old.
Which brings me to my second clear memory.
I remember it like yesterday, in fact I probably remember it better than I remember my own High School graduation or my wedding day for that matter.
I was on a missions trip to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the summer between my sophomore and junior year in college. Our group had flown into Rwanda, spent a couple of weeks there, and had then gone to the DRC for about a week. At this point it was our last day in the DRC and our group had been at a school that day hanging around with Congolese kids and losing at soccer. Then the time came where we had to get into our “bus” (More like jam packed mini-van) and hurry up and get to the Rwandan border so that we could make our way back to Kigali (the capital) to catch our flight home.
Now, for those that haven’t had the pleasure of riding in vehicle in Africa, it’s one of those life experiences that can’t be explained, but can only be experienced. Kind of like bungie jumping, riding a roller coaster, or eating pizza. It truly is a life-changing experience, weaving in and out of traffic, signs are less demanding and more like “suggestions”, and avoiding pot holes is the primary concern for any driver. Especially a driver that is trying to get a van full of American college students to meet a deadline.
It was in this moment of “real-life frogger”, as I sat in the middle seat directly over the engine of the van, that I did something that I had never done before, that I never thought was even possible.
I accepted death.
Somehow, I knew that this was going to be how I would die, in a van racing to get to the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and…I was ok with that. I had a good run, I was right with God (I was on a missions trip for crying out loud!), and I knew that my family loved me.
It was in this moment that I was able to reflect on my time in Africa, and realize how beautiful the church is. Like I said earlier, it’s easy to be negative, and the church isn’t always perfect, but there’s nothing like being around fellow believers in a different country, especially a country that doesn’t take things like “good roads” or “adequate sewage” for granted. I’ve now been to Africa three different times and I come back every time with the same feeling of unity, pride, and love for the church.
In those minutes on that fateful van trip, I remembered how we had visited churches throughout the countryside made out of mud and rocks, churches literally built with sticks and bailing wire, or churches in the middle of slums where we had to step over rivers of sewage to walk in between the houses, so on and so forth. But every time we ended up in THE church, we were surrounded by fellow believers. Fellow believers that celebrated and worshipped the same God I did in my climate controlled sanctuary in America. We broke bread and participated in communion together, uniting us with Jesus Himself at the last supper, and every Christian that has come before, and uniting us with every Christian that will come after we are gone.
In every nation and every tongue, the name of Jesus is being proclaimed through the life of His church, and that is a beautiful thing!
Obviously I survived that car ride and am alive to tell about it today.
Now I’m an associate pastor at a church in Arizona, where the church is still made up of broken people in the need of a savior. Sometimes, it’s very difficult being a pastor, because sometimes people are difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to love the church, because the church is made up of hard to love people. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t try, and that doesn’t mean that the mission is impossible. I feel called to serve the church because even with all of its faults, the church is where I feel at home, the church is still serving the poor, the church is, as “Dear Abby” once famously said, “a hospital for sinners!”
And that’s a memory of the church that I pray everyone can have.