Do you get frustrated when things don’t go the way you think they should? Or even more than that, do you feel frustrated when people consistently don’t live up to expectations or react in ways that you feel are hurtful or uncaring or selfish or self-centered? There’s such a balance in giving grace to people and loving them as who they are and holding people accountable and really encouraging growth. Jesus gave us an awesome example with that, but wowzers is it hard to figure out how to live that.
When someone messes up it would be really easy just to ignore it or get over it or forget about what has happened, and of course there are times and places for that, but if we’re talking about Christian community – it is not okay to shut people down, to take things for granted, to not welcome folks, to constantly talk about inside jokes that keep people on the outside, to belittle and criticize in ways that are far from constructive and are much more destructive. Negativity is so contagious. And for some reason instead of the church being in sharp contrast to that, it seems that it’s easier for it to happen here than not.
At our district clergy meeting on Thursday we talked a bit about the challenges and hostile environment that some encounter. In a conversation with a colleague about the church politics of the church kitchen, it amazed me how territorial, rude, and close-minded people can be when they’re the ones on the inside/part of the club and someone else is looking in. And if you think that “we’ve never done it that way before” is a phrase just used in local churches and not campus ministries, I wish you were right – but sadly, it’s not the case. I think back on my dad’s talking about what it takes to get to real community – the chaos and conflict involved – and I get that. But can’t we be different? Or at least can we try to not be as self-centered and hostile as the rest of the world? How can we worship and have solid fellowship with someone on a church retreat or on Sunday mornings and then turn around and not speak to them in the aisle at the grocery store or the local Target? It’s so unbelievingly frustrating.
Not that I’m the “are you being a good enough Christian” police? Not by any means. It actually usually make me wonder if I have been a bad “shepherd.” Do we as pastors really lead by example? And what is that example? Yep I know we are called to offer God’s love to everyone. I get that. But I also don’t remember Jesus talking to the Pharisees in a lot of flowery rainbows and butterflies language. Sometimes it was harsh and hard to hear. He was straight up with them. This thing – this discipleship – is not just about insiders. This is not just a club for you that have figured out how this things work – when to stand for the apostle’s creed or sit for the prayer or whatever. This isn’t about who can complain and criticize and attack people the most because you think you have the inside track or power. This isn’t about who has the most friends or knows the most gossip. This isn’t even about the pastors, the singers, the musicians, the people in charge. This is about something different. Thank goodness!
Our theme verse for Wesley this year comes from 1 John 3:17-18 from The Message, “If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something abot it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.” I really like the text. But it’s really scary to put that on all the Wesley shirts and the posters because if we put that out there and if people walk in and they’re not welcomed and people keep to themselves and are doing their own thing – it’s a bit of a contradiction, right? A sort of significant one.
How do we practice real love? How do we live that out? As pastors or leaders in the church, how do we not take it personally when this is such a challenge in our congregation? Are they “getting” anything that we are saying or are people tuning in and out and just not catching on? Maybe. Or maybe we’re lacking in our preaching and teaching. Could be. Do you at some point say forget numbers, forget statistics, forget all of the nit-picking – we are going to try to live out this love of Christ and the heck with the rest of it?
As you might read between the lines, it’s been a pretty frustrating week. And discernment and reflection in the midst of being tired makes things all the more personal, hurtful, and accentuated. But the scripture this morning from the Upper Room was a good word in terms of where we are,
“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
-Isaiah 55:6-13 (NRSV)
You know what that tells me? That sometimes we just don’t know. It’s not about us or our ways or what we’re doing or not doing. God’s purposes are being carried out. God is sowing seeds all around us. We can prepare the bread, but the yeast is what mysteriously makes it rise. I don’t think that lets people off the hook in terms of how we are to be in the world if we claim to be disciples of Christ – not by any means. But I do think that God says that God is bigger than all of that. God will work, and is working in spite of all of us folks that mess it up. It’s not about us – at least not all about us. That is a relief. Even if we’re expecting a bunch of thorns (and it sure feels like that sometimes in ministry), there will come a cypress. A couple of those would be pretty awesome!
So yes things may be frustrating when they don’t move or grow or change or act according to what we may think is right. True. And I may expect a heck of a lot out of people when I may not have a right to – remember that whole plank in your own eye thing. But before I throw the baby out with the bathwater. Before we sit down and say all is lost – it’s good to know even when I don’t measure up or when I feel like I must be the most gigantic hypocritical mess of them all – God is in the mix – bringing beauty from ashes. May we seek and know God and be challenged to live it out. For real. Not just kidding or just during small group or children’s sermon or Sunday school or Disciple group or on a retreat. We are called to live out this love all the time – a la Wesley’s – “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
When you claim you’re a Christian whether saying it, wearing it, on your car, whatever – you’ve got to back it up. We’re not all going to be “perfect” all the time but that beauty of sanctification is that we don’t have to constantly stay in the low pit of negative, critical, spin cycle of sin. Change can happen. And God still moves. Even in the midst.