Sign Language

Image neon sign

Broken, but legible
By Laurie Avocado (Going Out of Business)
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Here is text from the Book of Order of the PC(USA); W-7.1001 to be precise:

The church participates in God’s mission in the world through its ministry and worship. Worship presents the reality of the divine rule which God has promised in Jesus Christ as the final renewal of creation. The worshiping community in its integrity before the Word and its unity in prayer and Sacraments is a sign of the presence of the reign of God. The church in its ministry bears witness to God’s reign through the proclamation of the gospel, through works of compassion and reconciliation, and through the stewardship of creation and of life. Signs of God’s reign are also manifest in the world wherever the Holy Spirit leads people to seek justice and to make peace.

Reading the Book of Order can easily give rise to a kind of romanticization of the Church. Its theological language is ideal and abstracted from concrete day-to-day realities; abstracted from the broken parts. The sign of the reign of God that the church is often looks dim, faded, burned out in places, it flickers and sputters and buzzes, or it’s twisted and trampled, or it’s partly effaced … it’s anything but clear, distinct, and unambiguous. And for people who have had truly hellacious experiences with the church, the church may actually be a sign of the reign of something perverse and opposed to God.

So abiding the church really requires a special triple vision, tri-focals if you will: a person has to be able to see the ideal, and at the same time honestly face the broken screwed-up day-to-day reality, and at the same same time be aware of the slow-drip transformation of lives and communities from one imperfect reality to a different and in some ways better imperfect reality.

Keeping all of these in view at once is an art – a life-giving one. If all you can see is the ideal, you’re constantly blind-sided by the messes and the petty tragedies and arguments and people being people. Or worse, you start thinking it’s this congregation, or that corner of the hierarchy, that’s the problem; if you could just find the right congregation or denomination or pastor or whatever you’d get a really good view of the reign of God. But the view is never that good, because every part of the whole church is permeated by dreck. But if all you can see is the day-to-day reality of 25 kinds of crap, at some point you can’t help asking yourself why you bother. But if you can see that, and the gulf between the daily and the ideal, and also see the ordinary goodness that is also present in the daily, and the way individual lives transform over time, and communities transform over time, almost imperceptibly, people growing from “them” to people you are just mainly irritated by over and over to people you occasionally notice have good points to people you really care about deeply … for instance … you will be less tempted to dismiss the current messy reality for a complete disaster, or to idealize it as the real thing. You’ll just see it as the kind of sign of the reign of God that it is. A broken one, barely legible, but insofar as it is legible, a real and hopeful one.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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