This fall, Brian and I, along with our fellow youth group leaders, took a couple dozen teens into the mountains for a weekend retreat. While we were up there, we led them out into the snow for a hike that ended inside an abandoned train tunnel. The tunnel was…how shall I put this politely? Disgusting.
It was dank. It was damp. It smelled mildly of sewage and mildew and stagnant water. You had to walk on random, dropped pieces of two-by-four and sheet metal to keep your feet from sinking into the slimy pools left by run-offs from the snow. And, once we were inside, the only place to sit was a cold, wet slab of concrete. Well, it was either that or the murky ground. No thank you. And, did I mention that it was freezing?
Not the most comforting place, to say the least. But incredibly intriguing. The history of the tunnel gets you wondering about what went on there before it became derelict. You can’t help but wonder if it’s safe, and you cling to your flashlight buddy so you can see your feet. But, no matter what else you might think about it, you know from the moment you step inside that this is a place where things can happen.
Now, odd as it may sound, I am going to go out on a limb and compare this abandoned Snoqualmie train tunnel to the Church, and more specifically to a church, the one in Wittenberg to which a now-famous monk nailed a piece of paper with 95 grievances.
When the Christian Church first formed, I think it was something like this train tunnel. It was mysterious and somewhat unpleasant and scary as all get-out. Well, then Constantine made Christianity “legit,” as my teens would say, and suddenly things were up and running. In fact, it took over the entire Western world and changed the course of humanity. Like the railroads at the turn of the twentieth century, the Church was in business.
And then, things derailed.
Unless you’re God, power corrupts, and well, the Church ain’t God. But it is His power on earth. When Christ gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom, he established the authority of the apostles, and the Church has been the safeguard of that authority and of the teachings of those apostles ever since. For over two thousand years. It’s a long time not to make a mistake. So, mistakes were made. And Martin Luther, among others, recognized them and did what all men of good conscience should do in such a situation. He pointed them out to the powers that be. He wrote his 95 Theses, and he nailed them to the church doors.
So far, so good. You will never hear this devout Roman Catholic say a negative word against the 95 Theses. What Luther wrote was solid, and it needed to be said. In any case, he wasn’t the only one saying it; his was just the most famous (or infamous) outcry. But, what happened then?
It may have been excommunication from Rome that finally put Brother Martin outside the church, but in his heart and in his words, Luther had already departed. Only decades before a Counter Reformation would sweep in and abolish the very heresies Luther initially spoke out against, he broke from the Church, and he took a large chunk of Christendom in his wake. Since that day, the Church—the Body of Jesus Christ on earth—has been in schism. We have been torn apart at the seams, and we have become a people who abandon. Have we become a legacy of leavers?
What does it take for us to pack our bags and split? A lousy choir, warbling insipid hymns? A pastor who rubs us the wrong way or a priest who is a lousy homilist? Or is it that moment we suddenly realize (or think we do) that we (or John Calvin or John Piper or Rob Bell or Rick Warren) now—two thousand years later—miraculously!—finally understand what the Bible is really saying (which, of course doesn’t fit with what those people we used to fellowship with believe). Do we tell ourselves that it is a matter of conscience when we hit the road for greener pastures? Yet, is it not also a matter of conscience to stay?
What do we leave behind? Brokenness. Division. A crippled Body of Christ.
But let’s turn back the tables of history for just a moment. What would have happened if Luther hadn’t left? What if he’d stayed and fought against the injustices and the blasphemies of the Church and instead of breaking the Body of Christ, stayed and prayed and helped to heal it?
Today, we would be a unified Church giving a unified witness to Christ born and crucified and risen. We would stand shoulder-to-shoulder defending human dignity in a world derailed. We wouldn’t waste time in sin, squabbling over all our petty differences. We wouldn’t need to pack up our bags whenever our local parish doesn’t quite fit our aesthetic or convictional bill. There would be neither Lutheran nor Baptist nor Congregationalist nor Presbyterian nor Mormon… nor Catholic, for at last—again—all would be one in Christ.
Instead of a legacy of leaving, our children would be born into a legacy of prayer, of pray-ers who stay in the dark, in the trenches, in the muck and work until Christ is revealed fully for everyone—until the entire Body is united and whole and healthy again.
But, we can’t turn back history, and sometimes it seems that the state of the Church is as bleak as the state of that abandoned railway tunnel in the mountains. The good news is that the Church is still a place where things can happen. If we believe the Gospel, then we know…
…sometimes, the greatest graces are found in the darkness by those who are willing to stick it out.
A version of this post originally appeared on January 11, 2011. I apologize to all who commented on the original post, as I was unable to transfer comments to the reworked version. Your words are always welcome.