Why church?

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A woman stood up at the microphone in her local church.  She said, “When this church began, we prayed to the Lord and asked God’s direction. And in my opinion, anyway, the Lord has never answered. In the meantime we have continued to gather together. We’ve worshipped together. Cared for one another. Helped one another through the ups and downs. Loved each other, ate together, prayed together, studied the Bible together and did life together.”

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Luke, in Acts, describes the early church:  “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe[e] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  – Acts 2:42 – 47

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I was there when that woman stood up at the microphone, declared God’s silence and then described God’s presence through communal practices. I was struck by the beauty of her description of their life together as a church.  I was saddened by the disconnect between the answer she expected from God (and never received – whatever that was) and the clear answer I witnessed in the form of a community of believers. So I wondered about the disconnect. She gave a description which sounded a lot like the way Luke described the first gathering of followers of the Way so many years ago.  Yet, she didn’t understand it as God’s plan and purpose for the church – or as an answer to her prayer at all.

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I can only guess that it has something to do with a lack of numerical growth in the community. They were the same size today as they were when they started almost a decade ago. The only way I could come up with any sense that God’s was absent was by looking through the lens of modern, American, church growth models.  You know, the kind that define success by bigger budgets, more people, new buildings. On my most generous day, I look at seeker-sensitive methods of church growth as contextually appropriate moves to draw baby-boomers back to church. On my most analytical day, I see them as methods that are deeply freighted with assumptions about what success is and how to get there that have paralyzed more churches than they have empowered.

Beliefs, convictions and motivations

Actions are never neutral. They’re freighted with unexamined assumptions about how to get things done. This means actions tell more about our beliefs, convictions and motivations than written confessions and stated beliefs. We will misidentify the appropriate pathway to the extent that we can’t tell these truths about what we have done and why we’ve done it.”  –  John Ralston Saul, The Comeback via Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World. 13.

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Earlier today, I was accused by a friend of valuing the input of men over that of women on Facebook. It was simple thing, really.  I posted something. A female friend posted an insight. I brushed it off and explained myself further. Then a male friend posted an insight. I thanked him for his insight.  From her perspective, she said – basically – the same thing he did. How can you explain the difference in my response to her vs. him?  Her suggestion was that I valued the insights of men over that of women.

My initial impulse was to defend myself. That’s ridiculous ! My response had nothing to do with gender! He made a completely different point!  And so on and so on. Yet, I couldn’t shake the question  – Did I respond to her comment differently because of gender? I had to admit that it was at least possible. That she was seeing something that I couldn’t see. That upon seeing it, I wanted to argue it out of sight.

I apologized, thanked her for the challenge (lofted in love) and committed to further introspection.  I certainly don’t want to be the kind of man that values the insights of men over women simply because of gender.  I don’t want to be the kind of man that is blind to my own sexism (and any other isms I may engage in) and the ways it shows itself in everyday life. I want to examine the unexamined assumptions out of which I act.

If John Ralston Saul is right the only way to find a pathway forward is to try to tell the truth about what I had done and why I did it.  The degree to which I can’t be honest is the degree to which any pathway forward will be inappropriate – his language – or, perhaps, unhelpful – my language.

In the end my friend was provoking me – not to make me angry (that’s what trolls do) – but to help me ask and answer important questions truthfully. She was provoking me to love others better.  I’m grateful.  I’ll let you know how it turns out…

…prepared for subversion and danger.

And it had clearly escaped everyone’s notice that I had already been bull-whipped through the Psalms of David and The Book of Job, to say nothing of the arrogant and loving Isaiah, the doomed Ezekiel, and the helplessly paranoiac Saint Paul: such a forced march, designed to prepare my mind for conciliation and safety, can also prepare it for subversion and danger. For, I was on Job’s side, for example, though He slay me, yet I will trust Him, and I will maintain my own ways before Him – You will not talk to me from the safety of your whirlwind, never – and, yet, something in me, out of the unbelievable pride and sorrow and beauty of my father’s face, cause me to understand – I did not understand, perhaps I still do not understand, and never will – caused me to begin  to accept the fatality and the inexorability of that voice out of the whirlwind, for if one is not able to live with so crushing and continuing a mystery, one is not able to live.  – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 10.