I’m convinced that the presence of foolish people is the sign of a healthy church.
This thought certainly isn’t new. In my graduate work, I study women’s writings in the medieval period. Medieval mystical women’s lives were often considered foolish by their contemporaries and by us today. Take, for instance, the life of Margery Kempe, thought to have penned the first autobiography in English. Raised in a middle-class family, Margery followed the conventions of her day, marrying a respectable husband and bearing 14 children.
“God works through the fools. Jesus cavorts with those annoying folk.”
After hearing a melody from heaven one night, she drastically changes her life to follow God’s leading. She convinces her husband to become celibate, travels without her family to the Holy Land, wears itchy clothing (known as a hair shirt) as penance for her sins, and cries constantly whenever she thinks about Christ’s suffering on the cross. While pilgrimages to the Holy Land, hair shirts and empathy for the Passion are not unusual in themselves at that time, for a wife, mother and (failed) small business owner, Margery’s quest for holiness was met with suspicion and exasperation by those around her. Wanting desperately to be a nun, but also feeling bound to familial obligations, she lives the best she can, incurring scorn and ridicule along the way.
In particular, Margery’s constant crying provokes the nerves of those around her. A popular preacher visiting her community bans her from listening to his sermons after her weeping exasperated him. Her fellow pilgrims to the Holy Land tease her for her excessive rituals and attention to holy living. At one point, her antics lead her to be charged with heresy, and she has to talk her way out of it.
I imagine if Margery were alive today, she would be especially hard to love. Margery’s sniffles and tears when she took communion would feel overdone and performative to her fellow parishioners. Her constant confessing of her sins would drain the minister’s time, even as those confessions might provoke laughter or amusement. (I’ll let you google the content of those confessions.) Margery’s call-out of priests whom she believed were not living holy lives would exude arrogance and presumption. Margery’s presence in our church would require extra grace, silent prayers and the biting of our tongues.
But I have realized this is how the Christian narrative, and indeed Jesus himself, works. God works through the fools. Jesus cavorts with those annoying folks. The ones with whom we dare not make eye contact. Zacchaeus, who climbed up on the tree to see Jesus. Peter and Andrew, who gave up the family business to follow some guy from the tiny town of Nazareth. Mary of Bethany, who spent a year’s salary on perfume to wash Jesus’ dirty feet. All foolish. All become disciples, worthy to be remembered in the gospels.
“Blessed is the foolish church, for it reflects the kin-dom of God.”
In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul describing the cross as foolishness and explaining that the foolishness of the world is actually wisdom to God. Paul himself could be considered foolish. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming a Christian. He writes in Galatians that early Christians commented “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy” (1:23). How strange, to embrace and advocate for a faith that he previously attempted to eliminate. How weird, for Paul to now boast in his suffering God, rather than in Paul’s personal accomplishments.
If this is how God chooses to operate, might this also play into how we are the church? God sees and works through the foolish and annoying folks – including us. All of us, if we are honest, have been needy or overbearing at times. Margery, even with all her crying, has something to teach her readers. Her empathy for Christ’s suffering is so acute that when she witnesses people or animals suffer, she sees them as she would see Christ, sympathizing with their plight as well. Her crying over clergy’s sins exposes abuses of power.
In Margery’s foolishness, we learn how to follow God, to distill clearly what God cares about.
So, I’d like to think the presence of a healthy church is not necessarily a polished worship service, a jazzy children’s program or excellent preaching, though those are wonderful signs. The presence of a healthy church is where fools are welcome and celebrated, and where oddities and imperfections are deemed routine. This sort of church seems odd to outsiders, and even other churches. This church is led by the most foolish one of all, the God who voluntarily became human to dwell among other foolish humans, so that they might become God’s children.
Blessed is the foolish church, for it reflects the kin-dom of God.