Longer ago than I care to admit, during the pre-children, early years of our marriage, Lori and I would go to Myrtle Beach during the winter months. Her parents would rent a condo for January, February, and part of March to escape central Pennsylvania winters, and we would visit as often as we could. Many times, when we were there, we would take ambitiously long walks on the beach. These days, just walking to the beach seems like an accomplishment, but back then we would walk miles. Sometimes we would pick out some distant highrise along the beach, and resolve to walk to that point, then turn around. There's a funny thing about assessing distance on the beach. The tall building we would choose as a goal was always, in reality, much farther away- a much longer walk-than it appeared to be. We would walk and walk and walk, and the building would seem to get no closer. There was little sign of forward progress. When we turned around to look where we had come from, though, we clearly had walked a long way. Our starting point had receded, and looked small and distant, but forward the building seemed as far off as when we started walking. There were usually numerous beach walkers strolling the Grand Strand. The weather in January, while comfortable, was typically not warm enough for laying in the sun, or diving into the waves, so most folks walked the beach, each at their own pace. There were some athletic types who ran, and they would pass us by in seconds. Others would pass us by in that Olympic style speed walk, that looked more like a waddle. Some ambled slowly, holding hands, looking at shells, in no hurry at all, and we would catch them, and pass them by. Often, we would see people ahead of us turn to leave the beach, and it was tempting to think we were more dedicated walkers than those folks. Actually, though, we didn't know at all where they began. People entered the beach at a wide variety of places. We sometimes walked beside the beach itself, on the boardwalk near the center of town, then moved onto the sand when we ran out of boardwalk. We would join others that had entered the beach farther north, and more people began their beach stroll from the streets we would pass by, or from the many hotel decks that lined the beach. But unless we walked side by side from start to finish, we had no way of judging the distance others had traveled.
Last evening, the circle of friends with whom I have met most recent Mondays had a discussion about our individual reactions to the word ''Church''. All of us have been seeking, growing, and refining our understanding of Christ and His Church over the last ten weeks, or so. Our reactions to the word ''Church'' today are probably all different, or more complex, than before this recent exploration began, but it was stunning how nearly universally the word ''hypocrisy'' is among the primary descriptors. We all nodded knowingly as examples of blatant hypocrisy among self proclaimed Christians were shared. I, too, find myself trying to discern authenticity in those who call themselves believers. But as we chatted, I felt a new perspective emerging on this problem of pervasive hypocrisy. It is too easy to assume that certain people we encounter, who behave in a particular way, are, despite their own claim, not authentic Christians. The reality that crept into my mind was that most of us, if others were to see some isolated fragment of our lives, could be judged as hypocrites. The reality of the Church is that its authentic participants are all walking along the same beach, aiming toward the highrise of Christlikeness. The reality is, we've all entered the beach at different distances from that goal. Some folks arrive on the beach with little darkness around them. They have led clean, honest, relatively pure lives, and the end goal is only a brief stroll. Others, probably most of us, begin their walk at places of brokenness, real darkness, and ugliness and gradually, incrementally, surrender fractions of our nature as we are made aware of those areas we still cling to. Still others come from starting points so dark, twisted, painful, and evil that even after long, earnest forward progress, surrender, and reconstruction there is much yet to travel. And, at times along the way, many of us walk the wrong direction, and slip back towards where we came from. Even Paul, who most of us would agree was an authentic believer, said in Romans ''I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.''We can, perhaps, infer that if we happened upon Paul, at just the right moment, a moment in which he was doing what he hates, we might conclude ''Aha. Another one of those hypocrite Christians.''
The very nature of Christianity, the reality that Christ takes us as we are, then begins a work of transformation of varying magnitude makes it also a reality that the outside observer will see us incomplete projects as hypocrites. We should be very cautious, as part of the Body, in applying that label, unless we have walked side by side along the beach with the accused.