Last week at the grocery store, Mary Kay checked me out. I recognized her immediately. Mary Kay was one of the para professionals at my elementary school. It’s funny because I have seen her at the store many times over the years but we’ve never spoken. I didn’t think she’d know me from Adam. Should your para recognize you from the hundreds of children she has to discipline?
But on this day, as I unloaded chocolate chips and yogurt onto the belt, she addressed me: “So, are you still in school?”
“You remember me?” I asked, a little incredulous.
“I never forget a face,” she said as she slipped my items across the scanner. Beep. Beep.
“I graduated from college. I’m getting married in a few weeks,” I offered.
“Congratulations,” she said, “where at?”
I pulled out my credit card and swiped it. “The University at Northwestern. It has a beautiful chapel. My family’s church is dark and not real fancy, so I didn’t want to have my ceremony there.”
Mary Kay looked at me and she nodded. “The church is messed up right now. Would you like a copy of your receipt?”
I took the receipt. I didn’t know what to say, so I started to bag my groceries.
“I’m still a para at school,” she called down the belt as she rang up the next person. “Going on 24 years.”
I had to admit that was impressive. A few minutes later, bags full, I wished her a good day and left.
The church is messed up right now.
Her comment, so straightforward, surprised me. She offered it without explanation or fanfare, in honesty you don't expect at the grocery store. I mulled it over for days, so interested in our exchange and what it meant. What did she mean? She may have been referencing a specific issue – priests abusing children, evangelicals casting hateful judgment calls on society, or maybe certain churches that are on the news for radical things. I don't know. There's a lot, I realized, that the church has done wrong.
And she was right. The church is messed up. It always has been. The church is full of broken, sinful people – and we don’t always let God enter into that brokenness and create the love and unity He wants to. We’re messed up. We bicker, fight, sin, and fail to love each other and our neighbors as God calls us to. I fail, every day – hey, I’m as messed up as anybody.
But what about God?
However squirrelly and “messed up” we are, the Bible says that God remains forgiving. Should our observance of the church’s failings detract from our view of God? For many people, the church’s hypocritical corners and dirty parts turn them away from God altogether. It’s understandable. The church is supposed to reflect Jesus to the world, so if it isn’t, why should people see it as a credible
So many people see the unruly church and are turned away from God because of it.
The thing is, Jesus remains the Savior of the world. His word remains true, despite how we act… because it’s not about us. It’s not about how good we are – it’s about how good God is.
I wonder if our own perception of justice sometimes skews our image of God. In elementary school, your behavior awards you privilege or punishment. There’s some grace, but mostly firm administration, warnings, and detentions. Day in, day out, adults corral children from the lunchroom to the playground, zip coats, blow whistles, and break up fights.
In most settings, our behavior is rewarded justly. We get what we deserve. Karma. If you don’t want a timeout, don’t misbehave!
There’s a love that goes beyond our behavior, that doesn’t give us what we deserve. That’s the kind of love God has for each of us – including the church. Gracious love. Despite our failings, forgiveness is given, fresh starts are bestowed, freedom from guilt flows.
I wonder if Mary Kay knows that. Maybe next time I’m buying groceries, I’ll get a chance to ask her.