Flawed, fragile and fallible - the church is all of those things. It is also a place to discover the grace and glory of God, Sayles observes. (Image courtesy of luigi diamanti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
We've all heard or used the expression, "My heart isn't in it anymore."
When we feel that way, we're in good company. Twice in 2 Corinthians 4, early and late in his reflections on the relationship of our humanity and the good news of Jesus, Paul claimed, "We do not lose heart" (2 Corinthians 4:1,16).
It's as if he were trying to convince himself while reassuring his friends. He must have been tempted to lose heart, or it wouldn't have been so much on his mind.
In the valley of discouragement and close to the edge of despair, what kept Paul from completely losing heart?
He had learned that God responds to our brokenness and pain with mercy, to our failures and guilt with grace, and to our loneliness and longing with love.
After years of falling down and getting up again - after seeing the best and the worst in himself and other followers of Jesus - Paul had become a faithful realist about both the power of God and the weakness of God's people.
Such realism, which isn't the same thing as cynicism, helped him to hold onto his heart.
I heard about a group of fourth- and fifth-graders who were asked to attend morning worship and write the pastor a letter about the experience.
Margaret, a 10-year-old, sent this brief note. "Dear Reverend, I like to go to church on Sunday because I don't have any choice."
Late in his ministry, Baptist pastor Carlyle Marney, said, "The church is like Noah's ark: the stench inside is almost unbearable. But the alternative is unthinkable."
Devotion to the church often keeps company with doubts about the church.
Young Margaret and old Marney, like Paul, were on to something important: Often, we like church because we have no other choice.
Paul thought of himself and his sisters and brothers in Christ as earthen vessels. "We have this treasure in clay jars" (2 Corinthians 4:7). Paul thought of Christian life and ministry in paradoxical terms.
On the one hand, there was the treasure of the gospel, what he called "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).
On the other hand, there was this community of clay, men and women like Paul who were wonderfully but woefully human.
The good news of God's love is inestimably valuable, but the community through which the gospel finds us is inescapably human.
The image of an earthen vessel, or clay jar, picks up on the biblical witness that God fashioned us from the dust of the ground.
We are, according to Genesis 2:7, in-spirited clay, heaven-shaped earth and divinely animated dirt.
Anything made of clay is, at its essence, fragile, susceptible to damage and prone to brokenness.
The presence of treasure in a clay jar doesn't make the clay jar any less a clay jar.
If we identify the gospel too closely with the vessel, we can begin to expect the vessel to be the gospel.
We come to believe that the community of clay will never disappoint or hurt us because we think of the community as God-like rather than as merely God's instrument.
We need to remember that the community of clay remains fallen and fragile. Still, the community of clay is of great importance because it's a vessel of the treasure.
Paul strained his vocabulary to find words sufficient to describe the treasure.
He piled superlative on superlative: "the gospel of the glory of Christ, the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4), "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Jesus is the treasure because he is "the human face of God" (to borrow a phrase from John A.T. Robinson).
On the face of Jesus, we discover that God is for us, not against us. We see that God is powerful love, not disinterested power, and catch sight of God's mercy, both tender and strong, mighty and gentle.
Since the community of clay is a vessel through which this treasure comes to us, our calling is to find signs of the gospel in the messy and marvelous, running and stumbling, life of that community.
Paul's paradoxical realism about the gospel and the church kept him from losing heart. It can keep us from discouragement as well.
John Claypool once observed that "dis-illusionment" was a stripping away of illusions; and, therefore, ultimately healthy and life giving.
Much disillusionment about church derives from experiences in which our illusions of human perfection and perfectibility are stripped away. To expect perfection is to live with an illusion that sets us up for discouragement.
A young idealist once asked Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, how she could tolerate hypocrisy among her co-workers in ministry.
She replied, "If we were going to forbid hypocrites to work here with us, there'd be no one to do the work and no one to do the forbidding! Each day we try to do the best we can - for all our faults and imperfections."
Flawed, fragile and fallible - the church is all of those things. It is also a place to discover the grace and glory of God.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches and an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. He will join the religion faculty at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall. He served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, for more than 13 years previously. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.