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Always Room in the Manger

Always Room at the Manger

    The Christian church throughout the ages has been torn between standing up for principle and forgiving everything.

    Peter Marshall, the D. C. preacher made famous by his wife's biography, "A Man Called Peter," is reputed to have prayed over an opening of the U. S. Senate that, God, help us "to stand up for something lest we fall for anything."  That phrase fairly poses the millennial-long split in Christianity, surfacing again with emphasis in this land in the present moment. 

    During my years in Brooklyn the church contracted with a local painter to refinish the pulpit.  Churchill (no relation) was his name.  He was a lay preacher in a local, extremely conservative Baptist Church.  One afternoon in the middle of his labors he said to me for no apparent reason, "You Methodists are only playing at being Christians."  I didn't react. There was little use in engaging him in a dialogue since he clearly preferred monologues, his own.  He was, to my way of thinking, what the Roman Catholic Church thought of me prior to Vatican II, "invincibly ignorant."  He surely thought the same of me. He amply illustrates the strong impulse in the Christian tradition to shut doors, draw lines, and make judgments on others.

    And I'm not entirely knocking it, that impulse.  Consider, for example, the name of this website.  I have long advocated a critical evaluation of theology in the pulpit.  I have also gone on record (see the introduction to Reviews) upholding certain high standards for worship.  And once, long ago, for reasons that shall not be offered, I effectively excommunicated a molester from congregational life.  That is to say, I do understand that a community which advocates the open door must sometimes shut it firmly.

    Knowing when and why is the issue... as it usually is.  Let Kenny Rogers sing about knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

    But under the influence of the Savior I have no hesitation whatsoever on insisting that his bias is always for opening doors, widening the circle, and showing mercy.  Maybe it's because when he came to us we shut the door to him and his family. There in Bethlehem, about which incident the Gospel of John could be commenting: "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." (John 1:11 NRSV).  No room in the inn. 

    Jesus spent the rest of his short  life finding room for everyone else, including those shut out by the "good people" of his time and place, those bent on upholding moral values.  So Jesus embraced the rich extortionist Zacchaeus.  The sinner woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  The Samaritan woman at the well. The little children the disciples would have sent away.  And on and on, one soul after another against whom the upright would shut the door but who were welcomed into Jesus' circle. 

    "Right," retort painter Churchill and his tribe, "but they were all repentant."  To which I would respond, "Was that before or after the mercy shown them?"  Righteousness has never been the ticket of admission to the kingdom; humility and love and faith, yes; virtue, no.

    Somewhere years and years ago I heard and was charmed by a description of the church as a barnyard, a messy place, but full of life, where all the animals are welcome; and it doesn't matter whether you low or whinny or haven't had a bath since Tuesday.  It's the cacophony of life that pleases God, just as much as a grand, harmonious Bach Chorale. Maybe that's why it was a good thing there was no room in the inn for the savior of the world: so that he could find better, or at least more appropriate, accommodation in a barn.

    Sure, let the church struggle with the maintenance of discipline.  But it's the love and mercy at the heart of the Gospel that is its allure to most of us who, for one reason or another, think of ourselves as those on the outside looking in. There's always room for us, and everyone else, at the manger.

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