We are thinking about bad religion these days. But only for the purpose of seeing the gospel more clearly. As I worked today on how to say that, I felt I could do no better than to repost a piece from a couple of years ago. I hope it helps. One of the most familiar blessings in the Bible is the blessing of Aaron, an instruction for Israel’s priests on what to say to the people of God. As a pastor, I repeat it often. The instruction gives words to be said, but I cannot help notice the prominence of the face as central to the blessing:
The LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites.’ Say to them: The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. [Numbers 6:22-26, NIV]
For me, George Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest (1937), is an exercise in understanding how word and face work together in the ministry of blessing. Bernanos’ now classic work presents a young priest and his relationship with the small French village he is called to serve. The priest is poor, and sick, and finds himself serving a resistant and troubled flock. He is not an obvious success, carrying a persistent sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. But he is faithful to the character of his calling: to bless and not curse.
In the priest’s interactions with the persons of his parish – persons who have a hard time believing, persons who continually fail by wounding and hurting others – he makes a difference. It is a difference born out of his particular view of life, a view which contrasts with some of the religious idealists around him.
One such person is a nun who has recently left the nunnery to take up village life. She decides it is her calling to keep the church spotlessly clean and she goes about her task with a vengeance. She cleans out the cobwebs, removes the grime. The church sparkles, until Sunday that is, and then the masses traipse in the dirt of the world and the place is a mess again. Week after week she goes at until it finally proves too much; the nun literally kills herself attempting to eliminate dirt. And so the priest makes this comment:
The mistake she made wasn’t to fight dirt, sure enough, but to try and do away with it altogether. As if that were possible! A parish is bound to be dirty… Which all goes to prove that the Church needs a sound housewife – sound and sensible. My nun wasn’t a real housewife; a real housewife knows her home isn’t a shrine. Those are just poet’s dreams. (p. 8)
In contrast to the nun’s vision, the priest does not seek spotless perfection, not in his church, nor in his parish. He carries an utterly realistic view of the village in which he lives and serves. It is like every other parish, he thinks, filled with people of unbelief and trouble, a messy place of stark incompleteness and woeful Christian inadequacy. There are very few sterling examples of moral perfection anywhere to be seen. But – and here’s the key – this unnamed priest embodies such a graceful and consistent presence that, despite his own faltering steps and regular moments of self-doubt, he makes a profound difference for people. His understanding of life with God is caught up in the joy of knowing that there is a gracious reality larger than human weakness, more profound than human failure. He says it this way:
Why does our earliest childhood always seem so soft and full of light? A kid’s got plenty of troubles, like everybody else, and he’s really so very helpless, quite unarmed against pain and illness… But that very sense of powerlessness is the mainspring of the child’s joy. He just leaves it all to his mother, you see. Past, present, future – his whole life is caught up in one look, and that look is a smile. (p. 14)
Bernanos’ novel is a beautiful expression of what our gospel holds out to us: the face-shining acceptance of our God. I could put it no better than to say that bad religion wears a heavily-scowled face. Its not happy about the world, nor the general way that people think and live. Bad religion, like the nun in Bernanos’ tale, is focused on the dirt. Good religion, by contrast, is focused on the smile. Its in the smile we see another way to live and be, the profound hope of real change.
As we come to the house of God week by week, as we track in the always-present dirt of our lives, I hope we hear -- and see -- the happy news of the gospel. I hope someone’s smile reminds you of that.
See you this Sunday. Remember the launch of our new 8:30 am celebration.
questions for group discussion:
- we talk a lot about grace at Westside -- what does that mean to you?
- what is it about the word “religion” that you push against? what do you think religion is? what makes for good religion vs bad religion?
- can you name a moment in your life when you were received in grace? how did that feel? how did that change you?
- taking the metaphor of dirt seriously, how should we see our sins? what is it about sin itself that makes us want to change?
I am always happy to hear your feedback: email@example.com