How the Poor in Spirit Trouble the Church
by John McLarty | 21 October 2021 |
Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.—Matthew 5:3
In the 1980s I pastored a church on New York’s upper east side, now called Church of the Advent Hope. It was a cool church. We were young and quick, smart and devout. But we weren’t snooty. We welcomed all kinds of people—people like Alex. He could be a bit intimidating. Six foot four. And not quite right. You could see it in his face. He came to worship services off and on. Sometimes he came to prayer meeting on Wednesday evenings. I heard his story in bits and pieces. He grew up in an Adventist home in the Bronx. He knew about prophecies and the end of the world and the Mark of the Beast. His mother and grandmother raised him. They had kicked him out of the house a few years before I met him.
These women used to let him come home sometimes, he said, but lately they wouldn’t open the door. According to Alex, they said he was unmanageable. He didn’t understand why they would say that. He tried to be good.
He was supposed to be on medication for schizophrenia, but he didn’t like the medicine. Social services had given him a place in an apartment with several other guys. It didn’t work out.
So he was back on the street. Sometimes, old friends would let him sleep at their apartments for a night or two. On really cold nights he rode the subways until the transit cops kicked him off.
Alex learned I usually stayed overnight at the church several days a week, including Wednesdays. So sporadically he came to prayer meeting then asked to stay the night. The church had padded pews. I had an extra blanket. So I would settle him on a pew, then go downstairs to my hide-a-bed in the basement, and we would sleep peacefully through the night.
Occasionally, I would be curled up in my sleeping bag at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and I would hear the doorbell ring. I would drag myself out of bed, crawl upstairs and look out the window to see who on earth would be ringing the bell at such an unearthly hour.
It was Alex. He was cold. He had been riding the subway all night. Could he come in and sleep? I would fetch my extra blanket, settle him on a pew, then go back to bed.
I told Alex that when I stayed at the church it was because it was too late to drive home. So, I explained, “Alex, if you want to sleep here at the church, come in the evening. Even quite late in the evening is okay. But don’t ring the bell in the morning. I need my sleep.”
Alex would promise. Then days or weeks later the doorbell would ring at 4 or 5 a.m.
I explained again and again. “Come at night if you want a place to stay.” Alex always promised. And sometimes he did come to prayer meeting and stayed for the night. But usually Alex rang the bell at 5 in the morning, and I would drag myself out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to climb the stairs to the freezing cold lobby and let him in.
Finally, I resolved I was going to show Alex tough love. The next time he rang the bell at 5 a.m. I would just ignore him. A few days later the bell rang. I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag. He rang again. I pulled the pillow over my head. He rang again and again. I was resolute. Alex was going to have to learn to be responsible and come in the evening.
Then I remembered the doorbell also rang in the caretakers’ apartment. My “tough love” was resulting in torment for Anibal and Cybele. I slithered out of my sleeping bag and dragged myself up the stairs to the freezing lobby. I opened the door and began hollering at Alex. “Alex, why do you do this to me? I’m happy to give you a place to sleep. I’m trying to be nice to you. But why don’t you come in the evening like I’ve asked? How come you show up here at five in the morning, waking me up?
Alex looked at me with his great big eyes. He blinked a couple of times. Then he explained. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
I groaned and beckoned him in, fetched my extra blanket and settled him on a pew.
Is Alex one of us?
Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Alex came to church because when you have nowhere else to go, you go home.
Jesus said, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
One of the recurring visions among young Christian radicals and—and occasionally among older people who have lived as rapscallions and come late and dramatically to Jesus (think Tolstoy) is an ambition to create a pure church, a holy community. An entire society comprised of devout, zealous, faithful people. No riffraff. No half-hearted, lackadaisical, cultural Christians. A church different from the church of their parents. These young firebrands imagine they’ll create an entire community of people who believe the right way, act the right way. A community of strong, good people committed to God and one another.
It’s a compelling vision. It fired the Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands in the 1300s. It was the essential vision of the Anabaptists in the 1500s and the Quakers in the 1600s. This vision of a radically pure church was formative in the birth of the Mennonites and the Amish, Adventists and Nazarenes, and certain Pentecostal denominations. The so-called “Holiness Churches.” It informs many young zealots of all sorts of denominations.
These radical visionaries dream of forming the kind of church that would care for Alex on a cold, rainy February morning. They would take deep satisfaction in the fact that Alex would look to their church for help. After all, wasn’t Jesus about helping people?
Radical Christians, people who see themselves as the special forces of the kingdom of heaven, would gladly open the door for Alex on a cold morning.
But eventually Alex would force them 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 enters 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 includes the spiritually bankrupt.
Jeremy and Sean
Thirty years ago it was Alex who played with our conception of ourselves.
More recently, for me it was Jeremy and Sean.
Jeremy grew up Catholic. During a very dark time when he was a teenager he attended my church for several years. We got acquainted. He went to a Catholic University and became a zealous, evangelistic Catholic. He regularly sent long quotations from Catholic apologists and theological heroes. He was in love with God and with God’s church.
Jeremy took his vibrant faith when he headed off to an Ivy League grad school, and he finished his master’s with his faith intact. He poured himself into a profession that touches kids in a community that is somewhat short on functional male role models. He’s good. We stayed in touch.
Sean grew up on the remote outer edges of Adventism. Then as a teenager he attended my church along with Jeremy. He went to an Adventist high school and became a devout, evangelistic Adventist. He graduated from Walla Walla University and went straight into the IT workforce earning more than I did. Sean and Jeremy were in town for an event, and as was their custom when they were in town, they invited me for lunch.
Over noodles they updated me on their lives and Jeremy let slip some snide remark about the failure of God. Whoa, what was that? I asked. I knew that Sean had become an atheist, but the last time I checked Facebook Jeremy was still a devout and even somewhat combative Christian.
Sean laughed. “You’re behind times. Jeremy here has taken quite a slide.”
“Okay Jeremy, what’s happening?” I asked.
Jeremy poured out a classic tale of heartbreak. He had been in love, had bought a ring. God had been blessing in the relationship. She wasn’t Catholic, but he thought they could work that out. Then this good Christian girl, with utmost courtesy, blasted his heart and left him devastated. And God let it happen. Then after it happened God did nothing to help.
Bottom line according to Jeremy: We better take care of ourselves, because for sure God isn’t going to.
Sean laughed. “He really fell for her. I never saw him so over the moon.”
Jeremy just shook his head.
We spent the next three hours talking. A little about women. A little about work. Mostly about God. And church. And community.
Jeremy was no atheist. He still bristled at Sean’s casual statements that we know how the universe works and we don’t need God as part of the picture. But both young men had consciously left the convictions they had held so warmly just a few years earlier.
And both talked about how helpful the church community had been for them. Sean, the atheist, talked about trying to find an atheist substitute for the community he had found so beneficial in church. Both talked about the spiritual and social refuge they experienced in a particular Adventist congregation in their teen years. They talked about how valuable it was to have a pastor even though they were obviously no longer model believers.
The longer they talked, the more I thought I heard an echo of Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Sean and Jeremy were certainly poor in spirit. Jeremy’s heart was raw with heartbreak, with disappointment with God and women. It’s hard for a man to be more spiritually destitute than that!
Sean’s spiritual emptiness was not painful. He is intensely cerebral in his engagement with life. He had heard faith articulated by the brightest, most sophisticated theological minds in the church. He understood their words and he found their arguments unpersuasive. He was not “anti-god.” He simply found materialism adequate as an explanation for everything.
From the point of view of classic evangelistic Christianity, Sean is genuinely bankrupt spiritually. He is cheerfully and contentedly non-spiritual.
From the point of view of anthropology, Sean is impoverished. For a hundred thousand years, according to archaeologists, homo sapiens have been religious. The most ancient human sites known to anthropologists include hard evidence of ritual. Having no spiritual sensibility is like being tone-deaf or color blind. It is a human deficit which commonly occurs in people with hyper-development of other parts of their brain.
Is the church the kingdom of heaven?
The common Christian response to people like Sean is condemnation. We regard people whose brains make complete sense of the universe without any reference to God or spirituality as evil, people to be scorned. But what did Jesus say about people like Sean: Blessed are poor in spirit. They, too, own citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. God’s plan for the world includes them.
Like Alex, when Jeremy and Sean come to church, they are coming home.
The Puritans of a distant era and Christian zealots of our own day intend to honor Jesus by purifying the church. But in their work of purification, they inescapably run into people like Alex and Jeremy and Sean: people who do not fit any model of ideal Christianity spirituality, people who are spiritually poor. To reject people like these young men would be to cut off from the church people that Jesus explicitly included in his kingdom.
This saying of Jesus issues a couple of different challenges. First, if you have a sweet, confident, pure faith, you are summoned to join with Jesus in offering the welcome of heaven to the poor in spirit. The more convinced you are of a person’s spiritual poverty, the more emphatically you are charged to extend welcome on Jesus’ behalf.
This saying offers a second, perhaps even richer challenge: If you are one of the poor in spirit, Jesus challenges you to participate in the mission of the kingdom. Your lack of faith or spiritual vitality is no excuse. Whether you are a believer or not, you are called to participate in the mission of the kingdom which is above all serving the world. Jesus asks you to join in the grand mission of easing pain, limiting pollution, expanding joy, furthering the potential of children. Just because you don’t have the warm, confident faith of someone else is no excuse to allow yourself to sink into narcissism. Jesus was not picky two thousand years ago when calling people to participate in goodness. He is no more picky now. Whatever your situation, a person living with schizophrenia or the blessing of hyper-intelligence, beauty or physical disfigurement, social competence or lack thereof, no matter where you’re presently located in the range of human function and capability, Jesus calls you to participate in the mission of the kingdom of heaven.
The mission of the kingdom of heaven here on earth is so expansive, it calls for the engagement of us all.
And if the mission is that broad and inclusive here and now, how could we possibly imagine that the future kingdom of heaven will be a narrow, restrictive place where only a special few are included?