One of the dangers that comes with writing about pastoral ministry and the church is that some people automatically conclude that I’m venting. That rather than reflective writing, I’m being passive aggressive and sharing my complaints about ministry and the local church of which I’m a part. From more than 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have experienced passive aggressive communication and no doubt, over my lifetime, I’ve done my share of it. But when I write about pastoral ministry and the Church, it’s not a thinly disguised approach for yelling at the local church where I’m a pastor.
The way I’m wired, I only feel comfortable enough to share the things I do because I’m in a safe place with safe people. And at my age and stage, I don’t have the time or temperament to be passive aggressive. If I have something I need to say, I say it as directly as possible. As directly as warranted.
I’ve learned from years of this pastor’s story that we, as humans, often have another struggle – the belief that saying something critical, or difficult, or hard – means you don’t see anything good or positive or meaningful. To speak up about someone’s bad behavior (or an institution’s) is a rejection of the whole person (or institution). In providing pastoral counsel to people this comes up when they can’t allow themselves to say something critical about their parents or their spouse or their child or the Church. To steal a line from Asaph, the vibe is, “If I had said, “I will speak this way,” Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.”
And it’s children who tend to see life in strict categories of black and white, yes or no, true or false, logical or magical, friend or foe.
We tend to slip into black and white thinking because it’s easy. People are all good or people are all bad. But people go beyond those simple categories. Not just grey either, reality tends to be more colorful than this. And until I can accept and acknowledge the complexities that exist inside of me, in the spectrum of color that runs through my own life, and the range of shades and hues that exist inside of others, I will stay stuck in my feelings and my responses, my thoughts and my beliefs.
Brennan Manning, a man of many colors, wrote, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” I can be a jerk and a saint and sometimes I come across as one when I’m really trying hard to be the other. Whenever I am offended at someone’s else taking offense with something I say or do, I have to step back and examine what part, if any, of what they said to me or about me, is true.
Once, just after we had started a new church, I was approached by an older church member after a service. I knew they had something to say and I imagined it would be something like, “worship was amazing this morning! Thank you for leading us into such an inspired time of singing and encounter with God.” What they ended up saying, with a very irritated tone, was, “Can you tell me if we’re ever going to sing a song in this church that wasn’t just written last week?” Something rose up within me that wanted to yell, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed!!!” Or at least cast out some Jezebel spirit or point out the man must be jealous of my mad worship leading skills or accuse my questioner of being cynical.
Thankfully, before responding in any of those ways, I turned to hear God with my internal listener and said, “God, what’s up with this?” Meaning: do I call down fire, cast something out or confront this rebellion? And I felt like the Spirit said, “Listen. That’s me.”
It was a moment when I realized that my freedom to not sing older songs had left a vast number of deep, rich and meaningful songs, out of my list of possible choices. Worship song choice had become all about my likes and not about what the Church needed.
Whenever I’m in a conversation with someone who is telling about their relationship with another person and it’s all good, the other person is perfect, their relationship is perfect, all they do is perfect, I know that the other person doesn’t trust me enough yet to tell me the truth or they are stuck and can’t allow themselves to be honest about the contradictions that exist inside the person or perhaps themselves. While Paul might tell the church in Rome that there’s this challenging aspect of human nature that we tend to do what we don’t mean to do and we don’t do what we mean to do, we often feel the need to pretend that reality does not extend to the people close to us. Or at the very least we must never talk about those things, even though they are as much a part of the person with whom we are in relationship with as the easy things are.
The opposite of this scenario is also true. When someone is describing another person with whom they are in a relationship, and all they can say is bad and ugly and negative, something is holding them back from seeing the person as the complex human they are.
This could be that the person has done something monstrous. Something abusive. Something so damaging and evil that the darkness eclipses whatever bit of light there might be.
Those situations do exist.
But that’s not most of the time or a lot of the time. Often it just comes back to the way we like to categorize people and institutions for ourselves. Good. Bad. Black. White. And these simple categories keeps life simple and helps us avoid the uncomfortable conversations, the hard conversations – those really difficult “let’s get to the bottom of this” conversations. It also helps us maintain any illusions we have about our own status as a “good person.”
The temptation is for us to personalize everything. To assume that if a person says a thing about another person or an institution it means they are all in, for or against, us versus them, with or opposed. But it doesn’t have to be like that at all. A doctor can diagnose your illness without meaning you’re a terrible person. A police officer can point out that you’ve violated the law without making a value judgment about the kind of person you generally are. And we know Jesus could have really hard conversations with people and powers without personalizing what he said to conclude someone was “good” or “bad.”
Sometimes, my great and beautiful memories of time spent with another person can make me deny my legitimate feelings that that same person has hurt me, deceived me or just deeply disappointed me. We struggle with accepting that both things can be true of the same person and that can keep us stuck in wildly abusive relationships and institutions.
We can be grateful for the good without ignoring the bad.
The other day I was quoting Jesus’ words to Peter in the gospel of Matthew when Peter, bless his heart, rejects Jesus’ story about what happens next. The exchange goes like this:
“Heaven forbid, Lord,” (Peter) said. “This will never happen to you!”
Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
That’s real talk. That’s a hard conversation.
If I was Peter, I would have missed the next meeting.
If I was Peter, I would have been on the phone to my therapist.
If I was Peter, I would have ran to my mom.
But what we must not miss is that Jesus had created a beautiful community for them to belong to that could sustain, bear the weight of, this kind of hard conversation. Jesus could call Peter, “Satan” and then they could all go for a walk and end up having dinner together without this blowing up into something it did not need to be. You know how guys are, how did all the other disciples not start answering, “Yes, Satan” every time that Peter asked them to do something after that? More than that, a relationship existed where Peter still felt accepted and that he had a place, that he belonged. And later, it still wouldn’t keep him from confronting Jesus yet again by refusing Jesus’ plans (John 13:3-8).
At a week of camp, many years ago, we finished the night with a group circle time where we had each person of the group sit in the middle for a round of the rest of the group offering one thing we really liked about the person in the middle. After the “warm fuzzy” experience, and just before we went to bed for the night, one of my youth leaders innocently asked, “How about tomorrow night we do the same thing but we each say one thing that really irritates us about the person?” I shut that down quickly and didn’t come back to it later. But in my heart of hearts I knew that this is where real relationship begins, authentic relationship, deep friendship – where we can say to one another, “I really love this about you…and it really irritates me that you do this.”
Usually a statement like that, “what really irritates me about you…” tells us all more about the irritated person than the one who does the irritating but often it does reveal something that’s worth acknowledging and owning and making amends or doing something about. And in the swirl of color that is authentic relationship, is truly knowing someone and being known, in naming our light and our darkness, owning that we are complex as human beings, we discover what authentic love really looks like.