John McLarty: How the Poor in Spirit Trouble the Church
21 October 2021 |
Read this essay in preparation for this class.
Thirty years ago, in my church in New York city, it was schizophrenic, homeless Alex who troubled our conception of ourselves.
Radical Christians, people who see themselves as the special forces of the kingdom of heaven, gladly opened the door for Alex on a cold morning. But eventually Alex would force us to confront a complicated question: Is Alex part of us? We’re happy to provide shelter for Alex, but is this his home? Does the church belong to Alex? If Alex is acknowledged as a member, as someone with an insider’s claim, as an owner, that necessarily dilutes the radicals’ vision of themselves as the special forces of the kingdom. Now that Alex is part of the family, it’s clear that their church is not just strong, competent, good people ready to give. Their church is also for people needing a warm place to sleep. Their church is no longer theologically pure, it includes someone whose theology is a confusing scramble, a fusion of Adventist orthodoxy and schizophrenic inventions. Alex brings mental illness inside.
When you’re in your twenties and you are bright and strong and beautiful and devoted to Jesus, you naturally want to join the company of bright, strong, beautiful Christians who are going to fix the world. You do not imagine that your children would be anything other than bright, strong, and beautiful. Autism, schizophrenia, and the heart-breaking array of dysfunction possible for the children of good people never enter your mind—except maybe as the targets of your benevolent professionalism.
Alex made himself at home in our church on Sabbath mornings and occasionally during the week. He did not see himself as a stranger begging for charity from some institution called the church. He sought help with the naturalness and unselfconsciousness of a kid coming home and raiding the refrigerator after a day of skiing.
Decades ago, in a young adult church in New York, Alex messed with our image of ourselves. We were a cool church. We certainly wanted to be appropriately kind to people like Alex who struggled with mental illness and some of its concomitants. But when Alex made himself at home among us, it forced us to think again. Now we were cool and educated and generous and we were mentally ill and weird and destitute. We did not just serve the needy. We were the needy.
Jesus captures this perfectly with his words, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Alex was poor in spirit. The kingdom was his.
Dreams of a pure church continue to haunt Christianity. They are a distortion of the vision of Jesus. To the extent that the church is an expression of the ministry of Jesus, the idea of the church as a community comprised of highly functional, devout, sincere, self-disciplined, generous, respectable people is an unfortunate and inaccurate narrowing of vision.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ ambition for his kingdom apparently includes the spiritually bankrupt.
John McLarty is retired from being senior pastor at Green Lake Church in Seattle. He is a host of Talking Rocks Tours. He is author of Damn My Son, available for $1 on the Amazon Kindle.
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We look forward to getting acquainted with you!
- October 23 – John McLarty
- October 30 – Stephen Ferguson on animals in heaven
- November 6: Michael W. Campbell
- November 13 – Laurence Turner
- December: Denis Fortin on Ecumenism
- Stanley Patterson
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