Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.

 

…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Amen.

 

Why church

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14 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing on such a poignant topic– you’ve really captured the frustration that, I think, a lot of folks feel. I was reflecting the other day on the slogan “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” and how that seems to represent the ideal– the future, but faces some struggles in the here and now. I can’t wait to check out the book you recommended! I was looking for a good read to replace the one I just finished 🙂 Hope things are… not swampy… in the swamp.

  2. Thanks Esther! I really enjoyed your post. We definitely need more dialogue and for people to listen to others, especially on the controversial topics. I know a lot of people who are “set in their ways” and don’t even consider others’ point of view. Thanks again for sharing! I just might read Dr. Harper’s book this summer!

  3. I especially liked your description of the church as “a motly group of forgiven messes.” We tend to forget that about ourselves. I look forward to reading Steve’s new book. You also might enjoy reading “The Tangible Kingdom” by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. I’ve only just started reading it, but so far, it is interesting.

  4. Thanks for this post Esther. Sometimes I wonder if the pain in the church *is* people loving others as they love themselves (hating others as they hate themselves).

    Nadia Bolz-Weber an ELCA Pastor who favors inclusion of everyone writes, “the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”

    I just got “Finding Our Way” which is authored by 8 UMC bishops, but I haven’t started reading it yet. Have you read it?

  5. Loved your quote by Oscar Romero: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Thought you might be interested in this music video honoring Romero – The singer (Michael Glen Bell) was a UMC Youth Minister for over 25 years.

  6. Rev. Esther, you have written a very passionate and heartfelt post. But I have been troubled by your second paragraph. You refer to certain actions that lack grace. To what actions do you refer? More troubling is that you discern “a lack of love and humility” in the leaders of your seminary. Humility, or its absence, is something one might be able to recognize in another based on word or deed. But to say someone lacks love is to know what’s in that person’s heart. And I find it most troubling that you believe you could know that.

    • Thanks Dixon, I’m referring all around to words and deeds I and/or loved ones have witnessed. Those actions lack love, that’s not to say the individuals who have acted those out have no love at all- but we definitely could all use more of it. I know I am not as loving as I should be. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Does that make sense?

      • Thank you for your response. Let’s say I understand to the limited degree possible without knowing of the individuals and their specific words, deeds and actions. But I also believe that word, deed or action can be done with love in one’s heart yet nonetheless perceived by another as done lacking love.

      • That’s a good point- I appreciate your comment. And yes, it’s hard to explain ambiguously. There’s also been much harm and injustice done throughout history in the name of love.

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