Most Sundays you can find me in the pulpit of an imposing brick church on the western edge of downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One-way streets join in odd angles and strange numbers before its disused front doors; Cabbage Hill at once rises and descends behind it into a labyrinth of narrow alleys, overhead power lines, and crumbling Edwardian row houses. Not a hundred feet out of sight is our parking lot, one of very few in that corner of the city, but woe to the one who seeks it without aid of GPS. I have on occasion suggested a sign for the front of the building: “Parking: You can’t get there from here.” This part of the city is not orderly or beautiful. Its pieces do not fit.

Now, a warning: if you want to hear something intelligent or, say, actually correct about architecture, I am not your man. Ask Duo Dickinson for that, because I don’t know a gambrel from a squinch. But just as a fine art critic is wasted on the early scribbling of a child, talent and expertise won’t help us here. When looking at a jumble, a naive and disordered mind is just fine. If I can enjoy the Seussian nightmare of a first birthday cake decorated for my son last summer, iridescent frosting and sprinkles of more kinds than advisable mounded into an obscene, lopsided, shiny (we’re talking Jermaine Clement-level Shiny) catastrophe, perhaps I’m a reliable enough guide.

Often enough, aesthetic discord is the child of over-ambition. Like a toddler dressing herself in mommy’s finery, or like Homer Simpson’s famed entry into automotive design (here I date myself), a person enamored of everything fails to make meaningful choices; the whole bulges and teeters awkwardly, finally slumping over into chaos. This kind of mess is characteristic of the upwardly mobile, confident in their power to unite their ideals into a single expression, but lacking judgment — they try to build palaces in the suburbs, rather than mere houses.

The residents of Cabbage Hill are spared that malady. Their neighborhood was a humble place in the decades after the Civil War, and is still humble today. Whatever minimum of aesthetic principle once guided the neighborhood’s development, it long ago gave way to financial expedience, then sheer neglect. Formstone, stucco, and yesteryear’s vinyl and aluminum siding all mix freely with the dominant brick, both painted (but not recently) and bare, sometimes on the same house. Ramshackle modifications (one wonders whether the city ever cared enough about this section to consider permits) are in occasional evidence. Portions of Lancaster show real beauty amid the arrested decay of nearly three centuries, but rarely these streets.

Here, the chaos stems not from inflated vanity, but from no vision at all. Our little church was lovely once, but did not stay that way — decades ago, a decision was made to entomb two large stained glass windows behind the altar with concrete and wire mesh. Another window, this one in a stairwell, was bricked over. Sconces were sawed off the walls, stenciling whitewashed away, and embellishments of all sorts gradually erased. The last three years have seen considerable restoration, but all the research has yielded no answer to the obvious question — why? The nearest anyone has come to an answer on the windows is the vague suggestion that someone, long ago, did not like the afternoon glare.

We may be a little more elegant than the surrounding houses, but we are still Cabbage Hill to our bones. The ancient renovation that produced a tiny sacristy bathroom with its own stained glass window isn’t going to be undone any time soon. The quirks, the seams, the discontinuities in our building are its soul. I may long for a church whose lines cohere in greater unity, but I do not have one. Instead, I am (for the moment) still called to serve in Cabbage Hill, where nothing matches.

Discontinuity and disorder have always been an embarrassment to the church, not only in her buildings, but even more in her scriptures. Neatly bound under a single cover, the books jostle and press, but they do not play gently — what, exactly, do they have in common? Rather than a smooth whole, we receive something Frankensteinian, shambling, its stitches and seams all on the surface. Here, four (different!) accounts of the life and death of Jesus; here, an erotic poem about a king and his lover; here, instructions for which birds not to eat mixed in with bits of a desert migration.

The history of the interpretation of these strange pages is the history of our discomfort. One trick after another attempts to yield a sleek and seamless figure. Perhaps these crude tales are only shadows of a higher, more luminous reality — they can’t actually mean all this rot about fat and blood and smoke. Maybe the value of the letters is not in themselves, but in their morals, in the imitation of this fine, upstanding Jesus fellow. What if the books are in want of a proper plastic surgeon, one willing to cut away the miracles, or the inconsistencies, or the whole Old Testament? If nothing else, give me a lectionary such that I do not have to ever read or speak about the time that God elected Moses and without explanation turned and tried to kill him, only to be appeased by a bloody bit of foreskin.

Every attempt to peel away the irregularity of scripture is confounded by still deeper irregularity. The seams go all the way down. At some point we must abandon the notion of revelation entirely, or confess that in the jumbled leaves of the Bible we have met the untidiness of God himself. Reason abhors and denies this, but it is revealed, or better, preached, directly from the page — Christ is crucified outside the city, in a year of no great import, well off center stage. God’s stories are strangely ragged, and the Holy Spirit has made no effort at all to pretty them up for us. Instead, we are bombarded with contradiction. The Almighty Lord joined to humble weakness, righteousness to wickedness, holiness to defilement, God to sinners, and so to sins.

All reason, and most theology, has attempted to keep God well away from this taint. The sterile majesty of the great systematic theologies proceeds from the thesis: there is no contradiction in God. Unity and simplicity. So we suppose that there must be some angle from which his words of Law and Gospel, which spell death and life, are really the same. Even more, that the clash of God against God at Golgotha, what Luther (echoing a famed medieval hymn) termed the marvellous duel,  is only apparent, and not real. If this is so, then Christ’s own words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cannot be taken at face value. We exalt the purity of our imaginations over the impurity of God’s own words, and so deny him in the same breath that we would praise him.

The fissures that have opened, then, are not only within churches, or within scripture, or within God — they are within me. I am not a coherent whole, but an assemblage of parts. This was recently illustrated for me as I attempted to submit my transcripts in an application to graduate school, and discovered that there was no real way to resolve a neat GPA, good or bad. The grading system and courses I took in seminary were too hybridized, too impure, for that to be possible. My academic record, the career nerd’s version of an autobiography, turned out to mean one thing or another depending on which eye the reader squinted out of.

This messiness bothers a lot of people. It bothers me. We are children of Pythagoras, and of Plato, and so we long for the true, the beautiful, and the good, all three in heavenly and eternal alignment, held together in the unity of our minds. We long for this harmony, but we do not receive it — we don’t receive it because the unity of our minds is a lie we tell ourselves. I don’t have the power to hold these things together when I am myself a broken vessel. No matter how much I would like to auto-tune away the irregularities of human life, and of God, I can’t.

This is, I suppose, just a long way of saying that I am a sinner. Not a sinner because I like to do naughty things, but because I am so deeply offended by a God who does naughty things, and doesn’t care at all for my kind of harmony. His harmony, his unity, is altogether different. It belongs to broken neighborhoods and cracked churches, to dusty old verses pulsing with new life. It is the unity that holds me together, not complete in myself, but only ever with him. The true, the beautiful, and the good have long since left Cabbage Hill and its people behind, but a God like this is happy to make the place his own.