Church pt 2

Rich Mullins sang, “My friends ain’t the way I wish they were / They are just the way they are.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church.”

After 40 years of living this life as a follower of Jesus, I’ve come to believe that one of the primary sacramental roles of the Church is to create the sacred space of relationships with people who are not like me.

It is grace that creates space for me to have relationships with people, not because I’ve chosen them because they “fit” me but “…just the way they are.”

The challenging part of this messy grace is that we also share a story that acknowledges that there are ways of thinking and ways of living that destroy each other and ourselves. So if my friends are a certain way, if I’m my “brother’s keeper” I can find myself in a difficult conversation, a challenging moment, that can feel and even look like I’m not accepting the other person “as they are.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the first one, walks the razor’s edge of this dynamic. Paul uses familial language, inclusive language, “us” language with the very people he is also very firmly warning, challenging and verbally spanking for how they have treated him, how they are treating the poor among them, the things they are doing and not doing, and their use and abuse of spiritual gifts (among many other dysfunctions). It wouldn’t be hard to say Paul had a “wish dream” for the Corinthians at the same time it’s evident from the text that he speaks to them as insiders, saints, brothers and sisters in Christ.

My best understanding of the story we find ourselves in, those of us who follow Jesus, is that we are engaged with the Spirit of God in a process of transformation and formation. Mystically, the Spirit transforms us the instant we turn to God and follow Jesus. We are brand new creatures. We are not who we were, we’ve moved from darkness to light and we are no longer orphans but sons and daughters. But then comes this harder, longer and more painful process of formation wherein we are moved from bearing the image of God to becoming the likeness of Christ.

And I believe a great deal of this formation is facilitated by the Spirit of God through the body of Christ. Through the relationships we share with people who don’t look like me, live like me, come from the same places I come from, believe what I already believe, who don’t laugh at what I think is funny, or cry over what makes me sad. My faithful presence in their life adds to their formation and their faithful presence in my life, adds to mine.

One of the daunting challenges for workers who’ve been at the vineyard since dawn, working away for our agreed upon reward, are the people arriving an hour before closing time, smelling like they’ve been “day drinking” and clearly a long way from the seasoned, veteran vinedressers the rest of us are. And scandalously, we’ve heard it’s been agreed they will receive the same reward for their hour’s labor that we will receive for our day’s. We can spend our remaining time criticizing how they are doing what they do or we can come alongside them, accept them into our union and (in whatever time we have left) pass on to them what we know about vineyard work.

There is, of course, a danger in approaching life together in this way. We all know hurtful people who explain themselves with, “…it’s just the way I am!” They might call it “visionary leadership” or “strong leadership” or being a “Type A” leader. Often, because of desired results being reached, numerical or financial goals or both, we actually reward leaders like this, turning a blind-eye to the bodies under the bus, which further empowers them to do more harm. “All that matters is the kingdom is growing…” or “…you can’t argue with church growth…” or “…people are getting saved!”

But again, if the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming, we ignore this evil way of doing things at our own peril. And we run the risk of being the kind of people of whom Jesus said, “…you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” Jesus said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” And the apostle Peter wrote, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.”

How we respond to people in these situations will contribute directly to our journey of formation. In some circles, this means that we submit to our “leaders” and we “trust” our leaders. People in power often see a hierarchical structure in Scripture that oppressed people look to and find liberation from such structures. Paul was adamant, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!”

A primary role of leaders in the Church is to protect the Church from other leaders who would pervert their role to take advantage of people, to boss people, and destroy the beloved community for the sake of their own appetites. Sometimes that means leaders like me need to disqualify themselves from leadership when they realize they (often with the best of intentions) have become lords instead of slaves.

And sometimes it means that we, as the collective flock of God, need to have really hard conversations with our pastors and leaders, because we’re contributing to their formation, just like they are contributing to ours. We need to be able to say out loud (as Tim Mackie from the Bible Project did at the recent National Conference of Vineyard USA), “…if the structure and form, the social form of my community is communicating another story about power and status, you just have to step back and ask…are we ever going to be compelling to anybody, even ourselves that we’re actually a community of this good news?” He said, “…it seems to me we all, individually and in our communities, need, need, desperately need, to find ways to make sure that the medium is as much the message, that the way our lives and communities are actually structured and do the things that they do actually are in sync with the value set of the story of Jesus. When that disconnect grows it just becomes, it becomes very obvious especially to non-religious people, they usually catch on a lot more quickly than people in religious communities that can’t see that disconnect.” 

Our “Authority,” Mackie said, “is integrity. It’s that our lives and communities match this inverted good news: that weak is strong, that poor is rich and that fame is about not being famous…the leaders…doing it best right now are leaders that give away authority and who decentralize themselves…”

Sometimes, being the Church means having hard conversations for the sake of formation, our own and our communities, so we can work through the places in which we’ve set aside the story of Jesus for a story that promises expediency, power and less mess. Being the Church means speaking up, not slipping away, until we finally come to the point that we have no voice left, we are not being heard and meaningful conversation has been cutoff. Sometimes, being my brother and sister’s keeper means choosing to risk the good trouble that comes from telling each other the truth.

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

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