Seeing Through The Clutter

So, in this no-man’s land between Christmas and our official re-awakening of commerce—about one week after New Year’s—I’ve been swimming through a rich sea of YouTube documentaries. It’s an impossibly large feast; it’s like being being tossed around by a huge school of Atlantic Cod, two minutes with a fork in that fish and ten minutes with another. I go in for cults and ecclesiastical corruption for the most part: the vegan Adventist softly demanding seven virgins in his trailer park compound, tales of 19th century wife swapping, an ambitious radio apologist taking over a ministry by handing the grieving widow of his predecessor an endorsement to read at the man’s funeral. I’m acutely aware of my own sin nature, and even as I ponder “love rejoices not in iniquity,” you can’t help being a touch relieved you’ve been spared some of this holy drama. We can’t be sure how much of it is true, but the smoke seems to be getting thicker, doesn’t it?

I think that’s my point this morning. In the old days, when a con man wrote a book, or even when a snake oil salesman rolled through town, it took a while for someone in the back of the crowd to raise his eyebrows, and even longer—working against the high hopes of the congregation—to say something. These days if someone makes a big splash claiming rose petal water and lemon juice cures crow’s feet, someone will be posting a picture of their rash within hours.

I’ve been lamenting how difficult it is to write satire, because the extremes of the human condition now have an instant voice, and we witness the unbelievable every day, but mythologies and ministries are taking a beating too. Ponder almost any “great man” you’ve followed in the past. Ponder any of your cherished dogmas or denominational lines in the sand. Someone is out there giving it all a sound thrashing, and they aren’t just angry misfits. Much of it is reasoned, troubling counterpoint. Some of them tell tales of pure, bald scandal. The guy who took you on a tour of the Holy Land has three wives in the Philippines. The congressman you helped get into office really was putting a cell phone down his pants. Your favorite television pastor, always pleading the needs of the ministry, was actually pulling down $3 million a year, even as his choir director was homeless.

I’m tempted to think God allowed the internet, so as to give us an early preview of the Great White Throne. Either that, or I’m finally coming to understand that when we’re warned of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” the Master wasn’t asking us to expect cartoon incarnations of the threat, with helpful thought bubbles appearing over their heads. How else would someone fleece the sheep? Wouldn’t the best religious charlatans put on a pretty damn good show? Wouldn’t you weep a little, before reaching for your wallet?  If con men and villains announced themselves, we wouldn’t have to watch out for them.

But it still leaves you, lapsing into second sleep, late at night—head full of shattered mythologies—wondering, “Lord, what can I hold onto?”

“Me,” says the voice from on high.

And there’s comfort in that.  There’s comfort even if you know the voice wasn’t audible. There’s comfort in knowing we’re all thoroughgoing sinners and that God was doing you a favor with the YouTube videos, because you were hitching your wagon to the Pope, or to Joseph Smith, or to Hank Hannegraff, or even to yourself and your own cherished set of assumptions. We can’t see God, but we can see a pretty girl singing a hymn. We can see a dynamic preacher, and we tremble at the power of his message, but then both the girl and the man falter, and we’re left to ponder why that failure leaves us feeling so hollow:  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.”

You might accuse me of making it too simple. Certainly, Jesus cared about His church. He does, but the Church is not a building; it’s not a denomination; it’s not even a tradition.  It certainly isn’t sustained by one rotting human hand passing on the torch to another.

The church is a congregation of souls with one thing in common: they saw through the clutter of fraud and sin, to Him.