Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Stay and Pray

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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?

Luther left.

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.


  1. Hi Bethany,

    I have a lot to say about this :) I think this is an interesting perspective and an important question to ponder (the "what if" question), but as a Lutheran, I can't get on board with the ideas that A) A split would not have occurred were it not for ML (I know you don't say that directly) and B)That he was at fault for not being able to heal the church from within.

    That was, truly, his original goal, but after Luther was persecuted severely for the theses (for a significant amount of time), and was excommunicated when he refused to recant some of the most important aspects of them (Justification by faith, the Bible as sole authority, being able to read the Bible in the vernacular, and disagreement with indulgences), what choice was there? He was excommunicated for these concerns, which I see as incredibly important issues, and he was certainly in the minority by speaking out.

    But---in some ways, yes, I agree with you. We would certainly be a stronger community if we had no division. Perhaps our message would be more virulent and powerful in mission. However, sin is real and exists in all facets of human life, and so every church has its dark corners of sinfulness (exclusion, pride, selfishness, legalism). Also, we as human beings are so richly diverse---geographically, politically, socially---differences that go beyond doctrine and church walls, but not beyond faith itself. What about communities that certain denominations have been hesitant to minister to---would they remain that way? What about forms of worship and praise that don't fall into the traditional liturgical tradition? What about the people who would not be accepted because of their differences in certain churches? I think the diversity, in some ways, is positive and helps us, as Christians, reach those who might otherwise feel that there is no place for them in church.

    Also, being married to BG means I've had the opportunity to read so many different theologians who, had there been no division, would not have had a voice to write about scripture, faith, and our relationship with God in the way they had historically. I think that would be a loss.

    This topic is dear to me because my relationship with God truly ignited when I became Lutheran. I could go on for several paragraphs about the hows and whys of that statement, but that's not the point of your post, nor would my statements be true for everyone, of course.

    I guess in summation, yes, I think divisions had to occur. Why? We're sinners. But the Good News? God is bigger. God's love---Salvation---forgiveness---heavenly kingdom---is bigger than that sin. Praise God for that!


  2. I would disagree, as the church was already split long before the Protestant reformation. What about Orthodoxy? The Catholics and Orthodox split occurred in 1054, long before Luther was ever thought of.

  3. C- Thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciate them.

    Val - Well, of course, and there have been heresies since day one, too (Aryans, etc.) I'm honestly not trying to pick on Luther as the first or only person who turned away from the Church. It was more his particular experience of starting out working for reform withIN the Church, and then choosing to leave it rather than see his hoped-for reforms pan out.


  4. It is a difficult question sometimes whether or not to stay in a place or situation that has some serious drawbacks, faults, and flaws. This reminds me of when we have changed parishes over the years. Change is inevitable, growth is advised, but an oppressive or hostile situation is sometimes something the Lord will lead us out of and other times something He'll give us the strength to endure as He transforms hearts and minds from the inside out. If we remain close to Christ, then we'll be led to do what is right when the going gets tough. We'll take the holy road even if it's the one less traveled that means sticking it out rather than moving on to greener pastures undoubtedly filled with other weeds.

  5. I am a devout Catholic, and I would disagree with many of the points of the 95 Theses. I think it's important to note that Luther was excommunicated and his theology was condemned- not as a schismatic, but as a heretic. We're not talking "a pastoral Council" like VII or "new orientations" which do not fall under the Church's infallibility. We're talking about a solemn doctrinal condemnation and a dogmatic Council.

    The man was theologically off...he wasn't just ticked off about abuses (which there were, of course.) He started a Revolution- not a Reformation (which was done by Sts. Ignatius, Teresa, etc. as well as the work of the Council of Trent). There is also massive historical evidence that he was emotionally unstable and certainly that he was suffering from scruples. TAN books has a great book on his life, although it's dense. I had heard much of the above about him, though, long before my conversion to Catholicism.

    I know this isn't "ecumenically correct" to say, and I know since VII many Catholics have embraced many principles of Protestantism. With all due respect, the article accepts every principle of the Protestant revolt theologically, it just says Luther shouldn't have broken from the Church because it's better to be united for the sake of being united (not unity in truth)- and for a Catholic to theologically accept Protestantism is objectively sinful. The Counter-Reformation didn't teach against any "blasphemies or heresies"; it corrected immoral and/or erroneous practices, brought to light ideas that had been buried, clarified teachings. It did not deny the authority of the Church, the Seven Sacraments, the teaching on Mary and the Saints, purgatory, the teaching on justification, the necessity for faith and works (not as earning your salvation, but as a sign your faith isn't dead, like St. James says in his Epistle), the canon of Scripture...I could go on and on.

    Either there is one Church and one Truth, or God left us hanging on a whole ton of stuff. It's a very small step from sola Scriptura and sola fide to moral relativism...and it's not an accident that many of the movements which doubted the inerrancy of Scripture and the truth of Christianity at all are closely historically linked to the Protestant Revolt.

  6. Sara - I agree with you about the points of Luther's excommunication, but if you read the 95 Theses, you would see that they really are about the abuses and misunderstanding of pardons (indulgences). He does not attack the pope's authority nor Mary or the saints in this writing. Those things came later--and yes, at that point, he was in revolt against the Church.

    Also, I think you may have misunderstood my article. I do not agree with Luther theologically. What I do believe in, though, is understanding and having compassion for his side of the story. Division in the Church will never cease and never heal if we constantly point fingers saying, "You're a heretic! You're wrong!" It doesn't work like that. No one will care what you say until they know that you care. I care about the perspective of my Protestant brothers and sisters--yes, they are still our family in Christ--and my faithfulness to the Church does not negate that love and respect that I bear them.

    God bless,


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