“The Church is one cat in one ditch and one nobody of a son of a bitch trying to pull her out.”
For some reason, I find myself about once a week or so trying to explain why I go to the church I do and what I think the church is supposed to be. I hear sermons that talk about how we in the church are somehow better, are “special,” and it’s easy to come away with the impression that those you find involved in the local expression of the body of Christ have it all together, and that is what sets them apart. I don’t think that is the case at all. One of the books I’m currently reading is Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly which I picked up after reading several quotes from it in David Dark’s The Gospel According to America. Campbell relates a parable told to him by his friend P.D. East, an agnostic newspaper editor.
He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.
“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”
I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”
I said, “Okay.”
“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”
“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”
“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”
“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”
I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”
It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.
No argument from me there. I’ve seen a lot of churches that are “just one more chicken,” where “there ain’t a damn thing different about it.” So what should the church be? Campbell tells a story later on in his book about his friendship with another preacher, Thad Garner. One day, they were headed back from some meeting when Thad “bellowed above the noise of the motor, “Do you know what the Church of Jesus Christ is?” I said I sort of thought that I did. “Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. The Church is one cat in one ditch and one nobody of a son of a bitch trying to pull her out.'”
Sounds like a good working definition to me.