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Sitting in the Dust with the Disgraced American Church

In What's So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the true story of a prostitute who rented out her two-year-old daughter to men in order to fund her drug addiction. When asked why she didn't go to a church for help, she exclaimed: "Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse."  

Dreadfully ironic, isn't it? On one hand, there's the prostitute who is afraid to go to church because of the lack of grace offered her, while on the other hand, the deacon-turned-child-molester is offered a free pass in the name of "grace."

This is a humiliating time to be an American evangelical Christian. The disgraced missions agency. The disgraced mega-church pastor. The disgraced entire denomination. I'm afraid to read the news and see what's next. So much muck, covered up for so many years. 

Every time, my internal response is horrified disgust. How can people like that call themselves Christians? And I want to do everything I can to disassociate myself with that person or that group or that church. I want to shine up my shoes and put on my kind face and show the world that not all Christians are so reprehensible. Most of us are decent, moral, good people, right? So please, won't you like us again?

Then I wonder if that attitude is actually the elemental problem.

All my life I have struggled with the desire to be the good girl, to follow the good Christian rules of praying before meals and sticking a fish on my car and moving to deepest darkest Africa. There was this underlying current to the evangelical culture around me that if we all looked really nice and happy all the time, we would attract people to Jesus. So it makes sense that when we discovered that underneath that veneer was a lot of evil and depravity, we anxiously stuffed it under our perfectly vacuumed carpets. We felt a strong need to protect God's reputation.

It's ironic that God doesn't seem to care about his reputation nearly as much as we do. We paste the smiles on, but he has no problem flinging those carpets aside for the world to see. If we won't deal with our skeletons in the closet, then he'll let a major news outlet do it for us. Considering the danger of hidden sin, perhaps even the media is a form of his grace.

We are so quick to condemn the Prosperity Gospel--the notion that God wants his people to be continuously healthy and increasingly wealthy--but what if there was an even more sinister Prosperity Gospel infiltrating our churches? A Gospel that says that God's people would never abuse children, never be mentally ill, never struggle with gender or sexuality, never be narcissistic? Because we're too good for that. Those kind of problems wouldn't happen here.

So I'm asking myself this question: How do we, as the American Church, really, truly display God's glory and his grace? Because looking nice and shiny and perfect on the outside has obviously not worked. One, because those on the outside see right through to the pride that under-girds that image, and two, because (duh) we actually haven't been as nice and shiny and perfect as we thought we were. 

The dictionary defines "disgraced" as having fallen from favor or a position of power or honor; discredited. But what if being disgraced is actually God's conduit for us to fall into grace?

The answer is right there in front of our faces, and we just keep forgetting it. The gospel acknowledges both the depravity of sin and the riches of mercy. These disgraces in the American church show us how far away we are from understanding real grace. We have no reason to boast and nothing to hide; in the end we are all beggars. Ironically, not unlike the prostitute.

Barbara Duguid writes, “One reason God allows us to fall flat on our face is so we will not be people who stand before Him taking credit for His good work. We get confused about that. If we are strong and victorious in a certain area of our lives, we start writing books about how everybody can be as good as I am on this topic. But if God lets us fall flat on our face and we’re in the dust, we realize, 'That wasn’t me. That was God, and left to myself, I’ll be flat on my face.'”

I am a part of the American Church, so I sit here with her in the dust, my reputation tarnished, my deepest secrets laid bare, my good name dragged through the mud. My choice is simple: Will I be the Pharisee, the one who prides myself on not being anything like those terribly disgusting people, and belligerently disassociate myself from having anything to do with them? Or will I be the tax collector who beats his breast and cries, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?"

Only one went home justified that day. (Luke 18:9-14)

When Jesus faced a condemned prostitute, he got down in the dust with her. Maybe if we recognize that we deserve to be down in the dust too, Jesus will meet us there. And maybe, just maybe, the next time that prostitute needs a place of refuge, she'll come to us. And we can find grace together.

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