Dear Churches of Christ,
Recently I have marveled at just how much I owe to you, so I have decided to put it down in writing. Much of my gratitude is due to particular churches, to particular people in those churches, but I thought that I would write to you as a communal tradition, precisely because of how much you have meant to me as a tradition spread out over time and place. Not only that, but more often than not, in media or on the ground, in other churches and in your own, you get a bad rap. Whether that has been earned is not my place to say; however, you have been good to me, and I will count the ways.
You are the only church tradition I have ever known. I have been a member of three different churches of Christ, each in the three different cities in which I have lived -- for 18 years (Austin), four years (Abilene), and one year (Atlanta) respectively.
I owe my faith, my worldview, my knowledge, and my salvation to you. Of course, those are claims you might be uncomfortable with, and rightly so, for you would respond that only God gives such things. But I learned from you -- without ever naming it outright -- that God's home, family, and conduit for giving us his gifts is the church. As I found named later in Stanley Hauerwas and others, there is no salvation outside the mediation of the church. So much of what God has given me has been given through you.
I love your love for Scripture. From the day I learned to listen and to read, I was captivated by the strange new world of the Bible. I didn't know that Scripture could ever be considered optional for Christians; but neither did you beat me over the head with it. Rather, you bathed me in the story of God, his creation, and his people, and I have never left the tub. What problems existed were not unquestionable; what essentials were identified you never became dogmatic about; instead, you taught me gratitude and receptivity and reverence toward Scripture. And they have not left.
You taught me to worship. I remember visiting a different denomination with a friend as a teenager, and when we stood to sing, I grabbed a hymnbook; but my friend's father, along with his sons, gave me a strange look, and he took the book out of my hands and put it back in the pew. Then we listened silently, counting down the time until we could leave.
I could never have imagined such a thing in your assemblies. As if it were possible anyway -- you made me sing! No instruments and no choir make it tough to keep quiet and wait for lunch and football. You invited me to the throne of God -- more, you called me as a member of the household of God to praise the God of the universe. And I did, and I do.
You showed me community. "Church" was neither "thing to do" nor "place to go" -- it was a people. "Church" meant "true family," because I knew that "church" named those who would become my parents if my biological parents died. I knew men and women who would die for me, who would answer a call in the middle of the night, whose love for God meant love for God's people first and foremost. Belonging to that people meant that all who made up that people were responsible for one another, in good times and bad. I knew this not because I was told, but because I was loved and provided for.You raised me up in a sacramental life -- even as an anti-sacrament movement! I never knew church could be done without sharing in the Lord's Supper, or without having before entered into that sharing through baptism. Yet neither did you rob life and its everyday events of their divinely-infused capacities for the presence of God, such that "sacraments" -- not that I ever knew the word -- were the "special" things we did where God was "especially" present in a way God otherwise is not. Rather, I knew from our life together that God could and must be found in what seem to be the most ordinary things possible. And yet: what we did together in communion and baptism, among other things, made us who we were as God's people. Praxis is peoplehood. You taught me that.
You trained me to be a leader in the church apart from any institutional body crowning me as such, precisely because the only authority needed to minister in the name of Jesus is that of Jesus himself, who calls and gifts all, regardless of social status or barrier, to lead and minister in his church. And because Jesus is the head of his church, even as a young boy with nothing to say, you invited me to speak to and before God's people; and even as a teenager with nothing to offer, you sent me to other countries to do the same. Not only inviting or sending, you called me to do such things as the rightful expectation of any member of the community. That I am presently earning a degree in ministry changes nothing about my calling or status in the church, because I no more than any other brother or sister am expected to offer my gifts -- and only my gifts, only in humility -- for the building up of the body.
Even in your darker moments you embodied failure and forgiveness. It never occurred to me that to be a Christian meant perfection, or to be the church entailed a lack of mistakes. Sin's final extinguishing awaits in the eschaton; it is not already here in the church. Instead, the church is that place (that people) where sins are forgiven. Thus what to so many others is a faith-shaking, world-moving fall from grace when leaders confess their sins or it is "revealed" they weren't perfect, is no less tragic, but neither is it a deal-breaking surprise. Men and women will and do make mistakes, even terrible ones: but we are called to forgiveness and reconciliation, not judgment or astonishment. Even when you failed to live up to your ideals in this regard, I knew your heart.
Two things you never taught: prosperity, or sovereignty-as-absurdity. I never thought being a Christian would make me rich, nor that every itty-bitty moment of life was preordained from before all time.
Two things you did teach: faithfulness to the gospel, and hospitality. What was important was not human tradition or family or country or whatever functional idolatry might disrupt the Word of God, but faithfulness to the good news of Jesus Christ and allegiance to his Lordship alone. Similarly, because of that leveling truth, nothing could be discounted a priori as the work of God, nor any church its claims to legitimacy. In a sense, then -- and in deep, happy irony! -- you taught me the catholicity of the worldwide body of Christ, cut across every tribe, tongue, nation, color, class, gender, and (even!) denomination. The work of Christ in the church of Christ by the will of Christ was and is bigger than any human claims to the contrary. You taught me that.
For that reason, and for so many others, I am thankful to have been raised in and formed by and to belong to that ecclesial stream called churches of Christ.
In deepest gratitude and love,
[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art and Daniel Erlander.]