The idea that God loves broken people (addicts, adulterers, thieves) was not part of my religious heritage. Instead, there was a focus on God’s scorn and punishment for those who fail. We gave lip service to God’s unconditional love, but being consigned to an eternity in a painful hell eventually began to sound to me like a path paved with conditions.
At different points in my life I’ve heard that church should be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. I’ve been blessed by many congregations that understand their role as an infirmary for those who have been injured and wounded by life. But, I’ve also seen too much of the polar-opposite, where people are taught that God prefers the righteous, the pure, and the holy.
Recently, I read the book, This I Believe, based on famed journalist Edward R. Murrow’s enormously popular 1950’s radio program of the same name. The book collected brief essays by famous, and not at all famous, people who offered accounts of what was centrally important in their lives. It’s not a Christian volume in any way. What they had to say fascinated me—they wrote about everything from music to hard work to freedom to baseball. Lou Crandall’s essay, however, made me laugh, even though it was not intended to be humorous. An engineering, architecture, and construction genius, Crandall wrote he liked the characters in the Bible for being “the closest examples of human perfection.” He added, “They were unselfish, steadfast in their faith, and unstinting in their help to others.”
I don’t know which Bible he was reading, but little of that is in the Bible I use. The complicated, often selfish, seldom steadfast, always surprising, human personalities in the Old and New Testaments include trickster Jacob, Rahab the harlot, impatient Moses, adulterer and murderer David, frightened Jonah, and impulsive Peter—and these were the good guys.
Years ago, I picked up a biography of a renowned Baptist leader, George W. Truett, a pastor during the first half of the twentieth century. As I read the first few pages, I realized the author had engaged in hagiography. Truett, in the writer’s eyes, was one of the greatest men who’d ever lived, beyond comparison or criticism. I put the book down and never read another page. Any story of a man flying that high above the rest of us could teach me little. When I read the stories of George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Anne Lamott, their humanity and their flaws are magnificently obvious.
Personal growth, I notice, happens most often where life is challenging and raw, when something is broken and needs to be repaired. I never fully trust men or women who seem to have gone from victory to victory. I’ve heard advice that comes from some superhero pastors, tycoons, and authors, and it’s clear some of them know nothing about the world in which I live. They are Gold Medal Champions in life, whereas most of us are just happy to finish the race without embarrassing ourselves.
Once, when I was a young seminarian and the pastor of a small congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, my wife and I had a terrible argument while driving to church. Our words to one another were hurtful. When we arrived, we got out of the car, steam practically pouring out of our ears. We went our separate ways, she to a Sunday school class, and I to the pastor’s study.
“What a hypocrite I am!” I thought as I tried to prepare myself to lead worship and preach. “What do you have to say to these people? You’re as bad as anybody else. You’re a fraud. Who do you think you are to stand behind a pulpit and preach God’s word?”
For good or ill, I preached. I couldn’t look at my wife. It was a short sermon, and the congregation was probably glad.
As time passed, I re-evaluated that Sunday, especially since there were others like it. Eventually, I decided an argument with my wife didn’t disqualify me from preaching. Being human qualified me! Being wounded, scared, and scarred—those are the credentials needed to be a good pastor.