When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
I Corinthians 13:11–12
Nearly all wisdom we possess…consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves. The knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to see God, but as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion
There is a story of a rural church in late nineteeth-century America. One winter Sunday morning the members arrived to find their church building blackened from an overnight fire, the shell of their sanctuary collapsed on one side. The few remaining pews stood ashen black and smoldering. Ice from the firemen’s work coated the broken communion table. The little congregation huddled together and listened as the village authorities labeled their building “condemned.”
A few days later, church leaders gathered to consider their future. Could they afford to rebuild? One member was a bricklayer. He suggested they erect a new building using clinker bricks. Clinker bricks are those rejected by masons because of some imperfection. In the bricklaying process, they are tossed aside, not to be used. But clinker bricks would be ideal for the members of a burned-out church, who understand both church finances and good theology.
By mid-July the walls rose on a new sanctuary, formed by clinker bricks, representing their members: each one flawed, each one unique. From a bundle of rejected bricks, a beautiful church grew up.
I have the privilege of teaching the history of Christianity to college and seminary students. Together we roam the chronicles of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us in faith and passed on the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The African bishop St. Augustine (354–430) reveled in God’s grace and detailed his extended conversion process without omitting his struggles with ambition and sex. Englishman John Newton (1725–1807) was a Christian and a slave ship captain, before becoming an abolitionist and author of the hymn Amazing Grace. The American Dorothy Day (1897–1980) lived as a dissolute academic and anarchist before founding the Catholic Worker movement and giving herself to the alleviation of poverty in New York City. In the classroom we are walking the cathedrals of clinker bricks.
I grew up in a Christian milieu that did not know what to do with our “clinker-brick-ness.” We understood the law and righteousness, but struggled with grace and forgiveness. My mother winced when the media portrayed Christians in a negative light. Well-intentioned, she taught me to edit, to whitewash the Christian community so that we might be more attractive to the non-Christian world. This posed a problem for me when as a doctoral student in history, I stood before a classroom of undergraduates to discuss Abelard (1079–1142), a brilliant medieval scholar of divinity and seducer of a young woman, William Carey (1761–1834), a pioneering missionary and Bible translator in India who neglected his children, and Harriet Tubman (1820–1913), a courageous former slave and operator of the Underground Railroad who chronically mismanaged her finances. How much of the truth was I supposed to tell? I was well-educated, but, as the Apostle Paul would say, I was thinking like a child.
Though I did not realize it, I was wrestling with a problem deeper than academic integrity — even deeper than my hubris of functioning as God’s self-proclaimed PR agent. Unconsciously, I had learned to polish my own persona, to put a good face on my motivations and actions. I glossed over my faults and spotlighted my goodness. Beneath my resume of accomplishments and my righteous self-image, I nurtured old resentments, closeted irrational fears, hid great insecurity, and had some serious control issues. I even used self-deprecation to look good. The approbation of others was a secondary motivation. My first goal was to polish my self-image. Self-deception is a lot of work, and I was working very hard.
A few years after my terminal degree hung on my study wall, God determined that it was time for me to put away childish things. He did not leave me in my illusions any longer. A friend gave me Charles de Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment:
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.
When I prayed, “Do with me what you will,” God took me seriously. Through struggles professional and personal, God rubbed my face in my sinfulness, and — at the same time — celebrated my giftedness. Through many tears, the scales fell from my eyes. I began to see myself in balance: I am a jumble of weaknesses and strengths, imperfections and talents, sins and blessings. Gradually, I am coming to accept and make peace with my multi-faceted self. No longer do I need to work so hard at my personal PR campaign. Increasingly, I experience myself as God’s beloved child, even with my sins and shortcomings.
Teaching the history of Christianity no longer presents a moral dilemma. Since beginning to accept the truth about myself, I can rejoice — publicly — in the wholeness of Julian of Norwich (1342–1416), the English mystic with a profound understanding of God’s love who locked herself into a tiny room abutting the local church for decades, John Calvin (1509–1564), the stunning articulator of Protestant theology, yet harsh to the point of assenting to the execution of a heretic, and John Wesley (1703–1791), radiant preacher to the marginalized, but a poor husband. Were they not all clinker bricks? Like the Apostle Peter, and Paul, and Mother Teresa, and every other Christian past and present?
Putting aside childish ways, I can begin to tell the truth about myself and the truth about others — those in my church, my classroom, and my home, and the truth about the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before. We are all clinker bricks — all unique, all flawed, all deeply loved by God.