Messy Marvins

Having ushered, for many years, in my Catholic parish and now at my Lutheran church, I have an observation educated by experience. Catholics are way messier than Lutherans. To put it in kindergarten-simple terms, Lutherans seem to be better than Catholics at picking up after themselves.

I’m not just talking about a slight difference here. On the average Sunday when I usher at Faith Lutheran, I may find one bulletin in a pew on the left side, and one contribution envelope on the floor on the right. After any given mass at Most Holy Trinity parish, nearly every pew would be littered not only with several bulletins and envelopes, many of them festooned with crayon child-scribble, but also with cast-off disposable baby bottles, crumbly sugar cookies and wads of boogery Kleenex, along with various other items so scary I dared not try to identify them.

It says something deeper about people when they don’t respect the space around them. Though at least some Catholics might piously spin this by saying they tend to have more kids than do Lutherans, that hardly suffices as an excuse. There are quite a few children every week at my church, too. The difference is that their parents make them clean up after themselves. Again, they understand where they are.

Catholics seem to think that, on the whole, it’s somebody else’s job to pick up after them. Just as it’s somebody else’s job to think for them, to fight their battles for them and to sing their cheesy hymns. If the Pope and the Cardinals don’t take care of it, the bishop or the parish priests will. Or the groundskeepers, or the choir, or the ushers who pick up their boogery Kleenex. They are, for the most part, so passive, they seem to have sunk into a state of sticky lethargy that rivals that of the cocoon people in Space Hunters in the Forbidden Zone.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on Catholics. I merely use them as the example, given my own, personal experience, that is closest at hand. Given the way so many of them vote and the general causes they tend to espouse, I can see that this passivity is a hallmark of those in authoritarian churches in general. The more hierarchical and authoritarian a church or denomination is, the worse the problem seems to be.

Southern Baptists aren’t any great shakes, either. Which may not be too difficult to understand, given the way their very denomination came about. They didn’t like being made uncomfortable by those pesky, abolitionist crusaders before the Civil War, so they threw out everybody with a conscience and seceded from the main body of the Baptist Church. Look it up. If more Southern Baptists bothered to, there might be fewer Southern Baptists.

The problem doesn’t seem to be related to whether one remains in the old church or splits to become part of the new. Nor does it appear to be something we can blame on “disunity in the Body of Christ” itself. The problem is the nasty, allergic reaction so many Christians have to the truth.

If you are not willing to pursue truth, then you all too obviously aren’t interested in obtaining it. Even the always-easy fallback position — that the Holy Spirit somehow “infallibly” guides them, either in helping them individually interpret the Scriptures, Pastor Billy-Bob of the Jesus Channel interpret them or the Pope himself — crumbles into utter absurdity when examined more closely. If we are to believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church today, we must also believe “He” has been doing so for the past two thousand years. Which means that if anybody wishes to credibly claim that the Holy Spirit is doing or saying anything in particular today, the test we must apply to their claim is to compare their example with how the Spirit has consistently operated in the past.

I know I’ve made this assertion before. But so many of us get so intimidated by the seeming certitude of our antagonists that I think it bears repeating. Their supposed certitude is mindless — no less an unconscious tic than any hiccup. I’m not afraid enough of the conservative Catholics or Evangelicals to run from them because in order for them to condemn me, they must break their own rules. Were they to interpret the moral teachings of the Bible with any consistency, they would not be able to judge us any more harshly than they do themselves.

Indeed, the Holy Spirit has left “His” footprints across history. We have no reason to believe that God — Who has always been perfect, right from the beginning — will suddenly decide to change the way “He” does business. Therefore, for example, the Protestant Reformation cannot have been the anti-Christly tragedy hard-line Catholics want to think it was, because if it had been, God would never have allowed it to happen. The very argument so many Catholics use to support their notion that their Church is the one true one is blown out of the water by the very continued existence of Protestantism itself. You can’t claim that having been around for two thousand years means anything special if having survived for at least five hundred doesn’t.

Had the Roman magisterium truly been infallible, there would never have been a need for the Reformation. Had there been no need for the Reformation, it would never have taken place. The Catholic Church is not infallible, nor is any particular interpretation of the Bible (when some Protestants claim the Bible is infallible, what they really mean is that their own interpretation of it is infallible — which is nothing more than a rather wily and disingenuous way of saying that they are). Only God is infallible. Once you bring human beings into it, even the brightest, most blessed and best-intentioned of us can really manage to screw up the works.

What Jesus promised, in essence, when He promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with us ’til the End of Time, and when He declared that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, was something that gives glory not to us, but to God. In our egotism, we want to make it all about us. To think that in some sense, Jesus was promising we’d be perfect. No, what He was telling us was that because God is perfect, God will not allow our screw-ups to ruin “His” Church.

The very first Pope bungled so badly, on a matter involving the very sort of faith- and-morals judgment in which Catholics insist he cannot err, that the very New Testament itself records it for us. Don’t just take my word for it; see Galatians 2:11- 21. The apologists tell us that because he changed his mind about the acceptability of eating with the Gentiles, that means that his infallibility won out (sorta the way Superman’s native strength can overcome his having been exposed to Kryptonite). What that shows us is that the Holy Spirit did not allow Peter to remain in error. It certainly didn’t mean that he could not err in the first place.

I don’t believe that, a thousand years from now, the Pope will still be repeating ignorant lies about homosexuals. I have faith that, if we’re still awaiting Jesus’ return then, the Holy Spirit will have since turned the Papacy around. But “infallible” implies that no growth is necessary, because perfection has already been attained. That very theory is so obviously ungodly that it may be known by its fruits. Far from having made those in the Roman hierarchy better people, it has brought them to the brink of moral ruin.

We could sit and debate all day as to whether the hierarchy has led the flock to ruin or whether the flock has corrupted its shepherds. It’s an argument not too different from that of “the chicken or the egg.”

I point out to you, on the Protestant side, the mess in which Dr. James Dobson recently found himself. All the good doctor said was that some sort of legal provision ought to be made for couples not married in the legal sense. He didn’t come out, flaming all over the place, and proclaim that there’d be homos in Heaven. He didn’t really change his stand on anything; he merely showed some glimmer of basic fairness and common sense. To punish him for this, legions of fundamentalists promptly threw a tantrum, and some even called for his head.

And we wonder why more conservative Evangelical leaders don’t offer us any support. I have long suspected that at least a few of them — I have no way of knowing whether Dobson himself is among them — at the very least would like to cut us a little more slack. Of course, to dare to do so would be, for Dobson or any of the others in the pantheon of celebrity Christians, to commit career suicide. They didn’t get where they are to blow the wad on us — and their minions aren’t about to let them.

Why did these people get so hornets-in-the-pants angry because one of their leaders said something even so tepidly challenging? Exactly what sort of passive, lazy-thinking nincompoops are passing for Christians these days, anyway? Not only do they recoil from the prospect of thinking for themselves as if it would cause them actual physical pain, but they can’t even stand it when one of those to whom they look for guidance comes up with an original thought. If they examined why they were angry, they’d have to recognize that they had no reason at all. Except that they were — triple-gasp and God forbid! — being made to feel uncomfortable.

These days, in the eyes of all too many Christians, no worse sin can be committed than that of making them uncomfortable. They now seem to count their comfort among the Cardinal Virtues. And along right behind that, trailing a close second, comes their convenience. The only thing that makes them as mad as being asked to think for themselves is being expected to pick up after themselves. Thus do their sanctuaries, following worship, resemble the house of Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who — according to Shel Silverstein’s poem — “would not take the garbage out.”

God’s house? Why, it’s their house! Don’t you remember? It’s all about them! Is there even room anymore, in their houses of worship, for God? Or has their garbage, like that of Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, been piled up so high it’s reached the ceiling?

Let me put this bluntly. Christianity is not for cowards. Even an infallible Bible will do lazy, childish “believers” no good. The Holy Spirit cannot lead to the truth those who won’t get up off of their sad-sack duffs and follow “Him” because they’re afraid to go where “He” might take them.

When will issues like inclusiveness and compassion be honestly discussed in the Church? Not ’til we’ve roused the cocoon people from their stupor and made the messy Marvins pick up after themselves. That won’t happen because we hector their leaders. It all starts when we remind those in the pews that they are, indeed, sitting in God’s house.