[If you read through] Church history, warts and all, [you] might realize that her present state is miraculous — not the work of men, but of God, who writes straight with crooked lines. You can read it all here. . . (emphasis mine)
I have mentioned before that I keep a "thought" book to write down some of my thoughts, what I call on this blog "meanderings". One of the things I wrote down was one of the final lines from a review of a church history book. The link is above. Just one line but what a line. God writes straight with crooked lines. . . Boy, do I wish I had written that line. It just gets it right in so many ways.
The history of Christianity is replete with detours and dead ends that make the forty year wandering in the wilderness a holiday in comparison. We would like to believe that church history is a straight line from beginning to end -- and it is from the perspective of God -- but all we ever get to see are crooked lines, detours, and dead ends. It seems always to us that the Church is not doing what she should be doing, saying what she should be saying, and where she should be at any given moment. From within and those outside come no shortage of criticisms and complaints about the Church -- perhaps ultimately about the God who established her!
We Lutherans love to say that the Church is semper reformanda but that does not mean to imply that the Church is without confidence in the faith and the Scriptures that bequeath that faith to us nor is she without the means of grace that deliver to us the grace and gifts of Christ. Yet even in the great reformations and the small corrections, God is neither confounded by our sin and error nor is His purpose stifled. The history of God's deliverance is a straight line from Genesis to Christ and from Christ to Revelation -- that we say by faith. What we say by sight is that the hand of God seems to write in crooked lines.
This is one aspect of what we mean when we acknowledge that the Church is invisible as well as visible. We see the marks of the Church (the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments, for example) and we see where people are gathered -- two or three or thousands -- around the Word and Table of the Lord. But we do not see all. Part of what we see is a mystery that confounds us and is discernible only to God Himself. And we are not meant to see. The ways of God are higher and nobler than our hearts and minds can behold. We trust -- especially when what we see with our eyes conflicts with what we hear from His Word. The Church and her members must always live by faith.
I certainly complain a lot (any regular reader of this blog knows that about me) but my complaint is not that God is not at work or even that His work is often hidden to us. My complaint is that we are so dull, so dimwitted, and so thick. We turn even His plainest Word into doubt and question and we build a house of cards on what our reason presumes. We have a history of noble and pious leaders and among them scoundrels, apostates,, and heretics. We have great advances for the cause of Christ and great setbacks that would seem to challenge the notion the Church will endure at all. But hidden in all of this is hope -- hope that sees by faith the straight places, the filling in of the valleys and the carving down of the peaks, that God has written from time's beginning until His appointed end of time, albeit in the appearance of crooked lines.
The great temptation here is not to live by faith but to live by sight, to let reason dominate instead of trust, and to explain away what we neither like nor find acceptable to our so-called enlightened self. But the truth that we are forced to live with is that God writes straight with crooked lines.