Is This All There Is?

February 11, 2014

I sat at the round table having massive flashbacks to so many other meetings held around round tables, week after week after week, the same papers in front of me, the same running of a meeting, the same sorts of conversations. They weren’t unpleasant flashbacks; they were just… flashbacks. When pastoring, meetings are part of the game. It’s just how it is. We pastors shrug and accept it- some of us may even love it- and we sit around tables, looking at agendas, participating in the back and forth of what has been referred to as “the business of the church.”

Except that we are wrong on that label.

Because while those conversations may matter, they are not the “business” of the church. They sometimes support the real “business” of the church, and sometimes they impede the real “business” of the church. And the good-hearted people only learned that those meetings were the “business” of the church because that’s what was handed down to them when they bravely (and sometimes reluctantly) raised their hands to serve in their various roles in church leadership. And when that’s what has been handed down to you, it’s hard to imagine it could be any different than it is. We are such creatures of habit. Creatures of familiar. Creatures of the path of least resistance, or at least the path of less resistance.

And for some of those good-hearted people sitting around the table with other good-hearted people, they find a low level of frustration that bubbles and rumbles and then they drive home and forget about it until the next week or month or whenever. They love the Church, but they wonder, “Is this really all there is?”

It’s an important question.

Sitting across from a young friend over waffles and eggs one cold morning, I noticed a wistfulness in her voice as she spoke about matters of faith and worship and community. A wistfulness that perhaps hinted at feelings of isolation and alienation from the Church in which she had grown as a young person. She loves Jesus and she loves his people, but she’s not quite sure she can continue to commit to them in the traditional way of a local faith community. Too out of touch with her reality. Too small a view. And she wonders, “Is this really all there is?”

It’s an important question.

On the long distance phone call, his voice quivers a bit as he confesses that he struggles. He had wanted to live the dream, to share his gifts of preaching and teaching on his very favorite subject named Jesus, but his days are spent instead doing tasks that were never taught at seminary, putting out fires between people who should know better, dodging political questions, and wondering why pastoring is so much more difficult than he ever thought. More difficult than he was told it would be- or maybe he was told and he just couldn’t hear it at the time. And he wonders, “Is this really all there is?”

It’s an important question.

We appear to be living in a very interesting time as followers of Jesus. The view of Church has changed, the job of pastor is different, a leader is facing things that are unprecedented (and keep in mind church leaders are rarely ever fully equipped to lead; they are volunteers often simply doing the best they know how). The role of religion has changed in our culture. And for Christians there has been a leveling of the playing field in the USA. Some of us welcome that; others of us weep over that. Some of us do both.

And yet there is still an openness, a craving, for spiritual things. Some of us scoff at that language; others of us welcome it and see the opportunity in it. Regardless of anyone’s reaction, it still remains true. People continue to look, continue to crave, continue to struggle, continue to ask, “Is this really all there is?”

It’s an important question. For those who are spiritual but not religious. For those who are searching for truth but not sure where it is. For those who are openly (and often understandably) aggressive to people of faith. For those who have tried to wait out a church stuck in archaic practices and become jaded and frustrated. For those who sit at meetings or in worship and feel like it doesn’t connect and doesn’t matter. For those who stand behind pulpits and podiums wondering why they got up that morning and whether their words change anything. For those who talk over agendas and ideas all the while feeling the burn of there has to be something more than is. Because there is something more than this. And that’s why the question is important.

If we dare to ask that question and actually stick around to reflect on it, it could change the way we do Church… the way we are Church.

For many of us- pastors, leaders, congregation members, those who have walked away- we have a love/hate relationship with the Church. We struggle with her. We struggle with the constant red tape, the silly conversations that make no difference, the inward selfishness that seems to happen to all us organisms. We struggle with knowing what to do and how to do it just to find out that we can’t do it anyway because there’s not money or no interest or no time. We struggle with the Church… if we are honest. But we love her too. We love all that she could be. We love the moments when no one else was there except for the arms of a community who held us in our worst hours. We love the hope of the gospel that somehow springs up despite her. We have this love/hate relationship.

Author Don Miller caused a bit of a stir recently with a blog post that spoke about why he doesn’t “go to church” very much. I am always fascinated by what we Christians put our energy into, though I didn’t quite get why this was such an issue for so many, some of which were in my own faith tradition. I like Don Miller. I think we would get along and that someday we should meet. I wish I had more time to read him. And I get what he was saying in this blog. I think in some ways, he is getting at what I’m getting at: that we may have settled in our American/westernized faith for something that is a pale version of what Jesus wanted for us. And so it doesn’t connect. It causes young people to speak wistfully over breakfast. It causes pastors voices to tremble in moments when they feel safe enough to be true to their innermost fears. It causes leaders to feel such angst without quite putting a finger on why.

Inevitably in any conversation on the shortcomings of the Church, someone throws out the quote by St. Augustine, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” (I have yet to ever hear someone use that in a sermon… I would so love it if someone did.) It’s a great quote. But too often, it shuts down conversation instead of inviting it. I’m not sure if that’s what Augustine intended- perhaps he did- but no one ever thinks about the implications of that quote. I have no personal experience, but I would guess that while a child of a woman who prostitutes herself may indeed love his or her mother, the child would not necessarily want to be around her much. And most of us wouldn’t blame that kid. Could it be that we are doing the same in our churches? Making it less and less a place people want to be around? Sure, they may love us- even more, hopefully, they love Jesus- but…

These tensions matter. And the conversations about these tensions matter. Because until we can acknowledge these tensions and the potential outcomes of them, we will never stop being more than business meetings filled with low level tension, wistful young adults pining for a home that now feels foreign to them, pastors who are anxious because they aren’t sure they are made to do what has become the job demanded of them, and so on.

And the thing that gets me so often is that we avoid these conversations so much; we dismiss them so quickly. That’s a mistake, because while some particular churches may not create safe places for the discussion, it is actually much safer for us to have these conversations now than maybe ever before. People are open to them- most are at least. They just don’t know how to have them. People are wanting them- they may not be ready for the changes they require, but the conversation comes first. And most Jesus-lovers also love the Church. Despite the frustrations. Despite the alienation. Despite the disappointment. Despite asking, “Is this really all there is?”  We don’t need to be afraid of the questions or the answers. What we need is the courage to ask and the patience to discuss…

And the dream that, yes… there could be more than this.

“How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!                                                      How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!                                                      I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.                                             You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.    I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.                          How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.                                                                                    No, I cannot free myself from you,                                                                                       because I am you, though not completely.                                                                                 And besides, where would I go?                                                                                                    ~ Carlo Carretto~

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