Churches die, but God does not die

The gospel story can be read as the story of a man to whom, in his fragility, almost every bad thing happens that can happen, a man not unlike the tragic-comic figure of the little tramp in the old Chaplin comedies. Jesus is born not in the shelter of home with a whole family to welcome him but in the stable of an inn that has no room for him and among the beasts who couldn’t care less whether he is born or not. As an infant he barely escapes death at the hands of a paranoid tyrant. He spends his life on the road, proclaiming a truth that the ones he is closest to, including his own mother, dismiss as aberrational. He tells marvelous stories and performs marvelous deeds that seem to have left most of the people who witnessed them, cold as far as any lasting effect that they may have had on them. He was written off by the Jews as a blasphemer, and, as a threat to the peace, he was condemned by the Romans to a death so hideous that, when he saw it coming, he begged the God he called father not to let it happen. Yet, he received not as much as a whisper in reply so that he “sweated blood,” as the Gospels put it, and, not long afterward, died in agony crying out that even God had abandoned him. 

Crosses that, unlike the one I put back on when I returned home on my crutches, still bear the body of the crucified on them testify to the truth that Jesus is eternally vulnerable to the mockery, brutality, and indifference of humankind. Part of the world’s fragility is that the God we are called to walk with is no less fragile than the world is, than we are, perhaps because God no more chooses to be invulnerable to suffering than Jesus chose to call down legions of angels to save him from the suffering of the cross. Perhaps the God who is revealed in Jesus chooses fragility instead because to be free to suffer when the beloved suffers is at the very heart of what loving is. Perhaps the veiling of the cross on Good Friday is a way of signifying that, like us, God covers God’s face with God’s hands when the pain is too much even for God to bear any other way. 

Nothing could be cloudier or more futile than such speculations as these, but one thing that seems beyond all doubt is that, if not God, then the whole business of believing in God in our time is as fragile as glass. Those who commend it most loudly and famously are apt to be for the most part charlatans, simpletons, and right-wing polemicists, whereas many of the others seem to be little more than professional believers who pronounce banalities, pieties, and truisms with the relentless energy of insurance salesmen. The Catholic Church is in a turmoil over the sexual felonies of its priesthood together with the attempts to cover them up by its bishops and cardinals and even, it would appear, with the knowledge if not the connivance of the pope. Tapes have been released of Billy Graham swapping anti-Semitisms with Richard Nixon. And far less sensationally, but in the long run even more devastatingly, what goes on in far too many churches all over the land is often so shallow, so passionless, so theologically doctrinaire, unimaginative, and unconvincing that it is not hard to imagine the day when, as has already happened all over England, church buildings will have been converted to gift shops and restaurants for the tourist trade or left for their roofs to fall in and their stained glass to shatter and turn to dust.

Maybe that is the best thing that can happen. Churches die, but God does not die. God will never be without witnesses. And if the church as we know it goes under at last as it may well deserve to do, there will still be left both our fragile God and each other in all our fragility. And that is where it all started in the first place. That is at the heart of what the true and invisible church is all about, and of what walking with God is all about, and not even all of the forces of international terrorism will be able to prevail against the fragile loveliness of that September morning with hardly a cloud in the sky. 

From “Walking in the World with a Fragile God” by Frederick Buechner