Yesterday, someone opened up an old wound. So now I share in the spirit of a quote attributed to Hemingway and Red Smith, “if you want to write, sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” Read at your own risk.
I was the solo pastor of a young but modestly sized church. Lynn was on family leave, as we had two very young children at home – a toddler and an infant. During our time, several new families with similar young children began attending the church. Lynn became friends with a younger woman and her son, close in age to ours. For a few years, this little boy and Will were friends; perhaps the stablest friend he had. They would have play dates, and Will actually asked for and prayed about this other little boy.
Then in a rough season, both in the church and in my family, the woman became angry at me and withdrew from the church. I would not say I was without blame, but her response was exaggerated. The attempts I made to rectify and rebuild the relationship were rebuffed and rejected. The mother stopped connecting with Lynn, and the little boy suddenly disappeared from Will’s life. What hurt me most was that my son was robbed of a friendship because another person though so little of the relationships to begin with.
Over the years, I’ve seen many – too many – people leave church communities, sharing a wide berth of “reasons” why they came to such a “difficult decision.” Some times they seek to assure that it isn’t personal; but, in the end, it always is – because, whatever reason they might give, they are casting off relationship with you, and/or with others with whom you are invested. Beyond people leaving my life, my children have experienced Sunday School teachers and volunteers suddenly disappearing; relationships that were helping them grow suddenly cut asunder. The other night, in a book study, I asked, without answer myself, “have we so commoditized relationships that they are easily tossed aside?”
And so it was yesterday the old wound was opened up again when yet another person stabbed at it with their decision to leave the congregation because they were upset with denominational conflict, in this case movement regarding potential changes in how the church responds to homosexual persons. The same conflict has been going on throughout my ministry, and I’ve had people express their disgust and leave because the church was becoming to libertine or accommodating to culture, and others because the church was not loving or open enough. Recently Lynn and I articulated, as clearly as we could, that we have known people of deep faith with very different positions on issues of sexuality, and as pastors our commitment was to sustaining a community culture where people with diverse opinions could join together pursuing growth in love for God and neighbor. Sadly, this means we are not “committed enough” for those who want change to occur, nor for those opposed to such change.
One of my dilemmas is that I can see the faith, the heart, and the good in people with very different perspectives. Perhaps it is because my life has been blessed with mentors of liberal and conservative leanings – people very radically different in perspective but who still demonstrated love and respect for one another – that I can live with such tension and not insist on certainty from others aligned with my own perspective. I know people coming to radically different conclusions but who start from the same place I do, a deep desire to love God and others. I’m not always at ease with ambiguity, for perhaps none of us ever are. But I can live with the tension of different perspectives, because I know they arise from people with strong relationships with God and others. But others can’t, or won’t, and sever their connections with others who don’t think as they do.
So I went to a dark place internally as I spent yesterday on the road, coming to question if this was the kind of church I wanted my children to be a part of. You see, one of the commitments and teachings I cling to is that the church is not an organization or institution, but an organic community of people; more like a “body” – the metaphor most often used in Scripture – or a “family” – the metaphor most prominent in modernity. Like the bonds of family, we are all individually fallible and incomplete, but we don’t render the bonds because of disagreement. The body is supposed to have a deep unity – again, “unity” being regularly exhorted in Scripture while “uniformity” is not – founded not in agreement with one another, but in love for one another.
But my growing perception is that for too many, religion/spirituality has become so individualized that we commoditize the church: instead of a community we commit to, it’s a CostCo where we purchase the things we want, and when we don’t like something, we bail for a different big box location. We tender our resignations, leaving for better pastures where the pastors are “real Christians”… at least until we find something in them we don’t like. (I had a tenure long enough at one congregation to see a family leave, bound through two other churches, and end up back where they had begun!)
And here’s the thing: while I maintain faith in God, I worry I’m losing faith in people. (The tenor of our recent election didn’t help this perception any, either!) If I can’t trust you to maintain love and seek unity even when there might be disagreements along the way; if the threat is always there that you’re going to bail because you’re upset about something; if you’re likely to reopen old wounds; then why should I bother with you?
Why would I stay? If my faith, hope, and commitment are to an idealized community that isn’t realistically going to happen, why invest and sacrifice so much to help lead and form the community? If my own children are not going to know continuity with others who love and care for them as part of God’s extended family, why make them experience the sacrifice of me being gone so much? Why stay somewhere you are being hurt?
And so driving through snow, rain, and sand all in the same day, wind buffeting me with different trials along the way, I once again contemplated quitting the local church. I want to quit, because other people let me down. I want to quit, because I don’t feel strong enough to persevere investing to build community others cast aside so readily. I want to quit, because the reality they’ve seen is not the church as I want my children to know it. I want to quit, because I have skills and passions I could put to good use in other arenas…
When I woke this morning, the sense of personal hurt had ebbed and was replaced by the larger grief I’ve known of late, that I’m losing faith in people. I shared that grief in prayer and moved on. I read through the Gospel of Mark (which was simply the next scheduled morning reading I had, and not some inspired “Oh, I should do this…”), seeing Jesus develop community where it was least expected, and the outcomes of that community: healing and wholeness for people who had been sick, lame, or lost. I saw again his affirmation of the scribe who knew what was the greatest of God’s commandments, and his grief at the Pharisees who were so assured of their own righteousness because they followed God’s Law. I was reminded of Who it is I follow, but saw even he struggled with how people responded…
Then there was another book I turned to finish, having just the last two chapters of The Road to Character by David Brooks left to read after starting it months ago. In the last chapter*, as Brooks shared a radical cultural shift that began in 1945, from moral realism to moral romanticism, something happened. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was just my bruised ego healing, or perhaps it was just inspiration shared from one to another. You can ascribe the source as you wish.** But as Brooks shared his “Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live” – a simplified list of propositions that should resonate deeply with any person of faith – I was reminded why I may, at times, want to quit, but why I won’t quit.
Brooks shares his view that we “don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness… The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.” He writes that people “with character are capable of long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” He reminded me that we can not arrive at self-mastery and good character on our own, “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and examples…” He points out our need for community, perhaps all the more for the deep statistics the chapter shares about the impact of our increasingly individualistic society. And, in the midst of this, he shares that wise leaders always struggle, knowing that lows are lower than the highs are high, but seeking to leave things a little better, making progress toward the ideals after which we strive.
Like others before me, I may want to quit, but I won’t. I won’t because, for whatever reason, I and various communities of faith I have been a part of have discerned God’s calling in my life to be a leader. A leader who strives after ideals – ideals of what it means to know and love God, to follow Christ, to live in Christian community – even if we fall short of those ideals. And, as both David Brooks and Simon Sinek*** allude to, perhaps now more than ever we need true community; and to achieve it, we need people who work to help us develop and experience it.
I know these old wounds will continue to be re-opened. I know I will continue to be let down by others. I know that, at times, I will bear witness to the price others pay for a person’s “difficult personal decision.” Like others before me (Jeremiah and Elijah spring to mind, but I know there are countless others), there will be times I want to quit. But I will persevere, sticking to my core principles – the centrality of love (especially of God and neighbor), and the importance of community to our spiritual health even amid a culture of individualism being central to much of who I am and what I do.
For selfish reasons, I may want to quit;
but because of (what I hope are) selfless ones, I won’t.
*The book is long and wordy, but the last chapter is incredibly profound. I recommend it!
**This is an aside, but in a few recent democratic processes I’ve observed that some Christians only ascribe movement or inspiration to the Holy Spirit if it aligns with their perspectives. Otherwise, they see that God isn’t really present in the activity…
***I also listened to the bulk of Leaders Eat Last, by Sinek, while driving yesterday.