I’ve been teaching a Sunday School class at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church here in Waco, America. This coming Sunday is the last installment of “Monday through Saturday Spirituality.” I’ve been using the concepts of Authentic Self and small self to discuss how we bring our spiritual lives to the practical tasks and issues we face every day. This Sunday we’re going look at Authentic Self and small self from the standpoint of church.
My general point will be that small self asks, “What is my church doing for me?” Authentic Self asks, “How can I help my church transform our community?” A sub-point will be, “Easier said than done.”
When I was first thinking about this lesson, my intention was to direct people to Mature Religion, Functional Religion, and Superstitious Religion, and I’d still like for the participants in the class to look at the chart. I see mature religion column as a reflection of Authentic Self, functional religion as small self, and superstitious religion as toxic self.
However, just yesterday I got the latest copy of Christian Ethics Today, and it had the article below, which brings a very personal perspective to what it means to be an Authentic Self at church. (This morning I called the Trulls and asked permission to post the entire article in this blog. They graciously granted my request.)
Now, to be clear, St. Alban’s is by no means a dying church. This neat congregation is reaching out in all sorts of creative ways. However, Mr. Hogg’s reflections on life in his community offer one picture of how one person is struggling to move beyond a small “what’s in it for me” approach to church to an Authentic expression of what it means to be family.
So, to those of you in the class, I’m looking forward to the conversation with you this Sunday. To the rest of you out there, I’ll be interested in any comments you have to offer.
P.S. By the way… I’m being honored this Sunday with the invitation to preach at St Albans. What do you suppose them Anglicans are thinking… inviting a Baptist into such a sacred place!
Note: Any reprints of the following article should indicate it was first published in Christian Ethics Today (www.ChristianEthicsToday.com).
Living Apart Together: Why I Am Trying To Stay
By Jon Mark Hogg, Attorney, San Angelo, TX
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I am part of a congregation that is dying. Yet, it does not know it. It believes it is living and vibrant because it has members, a budget, and buildings. It is a downtown, urban church that remembers when it was the biggest, baddest kid in town. Now it is not, but refuses to admit it. For a few brief years we had leadership that envisioned a transformed future for this congregation reaching the downtown community. Most of the church played along for awhile. Then they began to realize that there was no greatness in that direction. The people downtown were the wrong color, or had too many problems, or didn’t have enough money, or weren’t the “right kind of people.” Ultimately, the church did not embrace this vision, so that pastor left. His staff started trickling away. Some of the laity, including myself, tried to hold back the tide of traditionalism that began moving in. It was to no avail. The waters slowly crept in amid cries of “hiring that last pastor was a mistake”. . . “we need to grow the church”. . . “we need more evangelism”. . . and “we need more missions” (meaning missions in other places and with other people, not those right outside our door).
The tide drowned many of our hopes and dreams for the future by returning to the old ways of doing things. Numbers and money were all that really mattered. I felt like an exile in the church where my wife grew up, where I was married and where my children were baptized. So, I prepared to leave.
Across town, was a congregation that seemed to have values and views on ministry, discipleship, and theology similar to mine. I attended a service there during Holy Week. It was meaningful and thoughtful. This church probably isn’t perfect either. But, at least if I attended there I would not be ticked off after listening to the sermon every Sunday. I am ready to go. So, why don’t I? I am still not sure.
I have always been intrigued by our culture of church-hopping. What makes someone decide to leave one congregation for another? We join a church and become close to the people in that place. We engage in worship together, raise our children together, and suffer together. But, for some strange reason those connections are no longer good enough. We reject the people we loved in favor of another congregation of people we hardly know at all. We do so because our old worship no longer “feeds” us, because somebody did something that hurts us or made us angry, or because the church goes in a direction we do not agree with. That is where I was, where I am. So, why don’t I go? Do I belong here? Is there some place else I am supposed to be? What do I feel the Holy Spirit leading me to do and why? If only I could understand. Something far beyond myself holds me here.
Right now when I think of my church my thoughts are consumed with sadness, disappointment and disillusionment. I had an ideal of what a community of faith should be—how we should treat each other and minister to the world. When I compare that to what we are, how we do treat each other and fail to minister, I only compound my misery. Church life is all disappointment and disillusionment. Is that what it is supposed to be?
Simon Tugwell writes that Christianity has to be disappointing precisely because its purpose is not to accomplish our human ambitions but to subject everything to the will of God, not our will. Tugwell claims that while Christianity directs us towards the fulfillment of all our desires and hopes, it also reveals that a great many of those hopes and desires will eventually be shown to be foolish and misconceived, like the disciples disillusionment with Jesus and his disregard for their own hopes and dreams. Even after his resurrection they were still waiting for Jesus to initiate his Kingdom and restore Israel to greatness. It was as if they were saying, “Okay Jesus, that whole resurrection thing was great. But, you are going to make Israel a superpower again now aren’t you?” Maybe, like the apostles, we just don’t get it. If the church is inevitably disappointing to our ideal of what it should be, perhaps it is because we have not understood what community is in the first place.
A few years ago I was struck by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. After reading Tugwell’s comments, searching for comfort I turned again to Life Together. In that small book, Bonhoeffer describes the contrast between our ideal and the divine reality of Christian community. He writes that when we come together we each bring our own ideas of what a Christian community is. But God must shatter that dream in order for us to be able to live in true community, not in the community of our illusion. If that does not happen, if we resist God to hold on to our illusion, eventually we lose Christian community altogether.
When I first read these passages I thought of my church and everybody in it and how they all need to lose their illusions and dreams of glory and greatness, their dream of what they want that church to be. If they would just do that, everything would be fine. They have not, but that really is not the point. When I recently re-read these passages in light of my own struggles, I realized that Bonhoeffer is not referring to someone else’s illusions, as false as those may be, he is referring to mine.
I am to enter into community not as a leader or visionary, demanding that things be a certain way. I am to enter as a servant, a sinner saved by grace the recipient of unfathomable forgiveness. In true community we are called to be “thankful recipients” says Bonhoeffer,-thankful recipients of God’s grace. We are not to complain about what God has not given us, but to be thankful for and live in the blessings of the community God has given us. The sin and failings of my brothers and sisters, of each of us, are to constantly remind us to give thanks that we are all saved by the merciful blood of Christ. But, to participate in this kind of community, we must first get rid of our dreams and plans.
Whenever we feel like we are an exile, like we are not fulfilled in a given place of worship, like we are not welcome and do not fit, our reaction is pretty standard. We use “churchspeak” and claim that God is “calling” us to go to a new place. But, often that is simply our own ego and arrogance using disappointment as an excuse to drive us to achieve our own selfish hopes and desires through our own effort. In other words it is as if the disciples when told to go back and wait for the Holy Spirit had told Jesus “no thanks” and had picked up their swords. It is very tempting to short circuit Jesus’ way by taking up arms and marching on Jerusalem. How much like the apostles I am. The devil does not need to do anything to destroy Christian community. We are very effective at doing that all by ourselves.
I wonder whether the primary purpose of a congregation is not to comfort us, not to be a place of peace, agreement, and consensus—not even to be a place where we minister together. Perhaps its most important purpose is to be so exasperating that it strips away every illusion, dream, and plan for community that we bring to it. Only then can we surrender to God’s will.
In this sense God’s will is that we have the true Spirit of grace and forgiveness toward each other. Only then can we really partake in community. Going to another place does not change us, does not change God, and does not change what the Spirit seeks to do with us, for us, or through us. It merely helps us avoid and ignore that disillusionment that God uses to show us that the fault for our failure as a community lies not in a pastor, staff, or our competing visions for the future.
The fault lies in us! Perhaps the church does God’s work best when providing us a place to show how sinful and arrogant we all really are. By so doing it exposes our own foolishness, leaving us naked and in divine misery. This misery is a gift of the Spirit. I need to let the discomfort do its work. That is why I am trying to stay.