Sunday, April 13, 2014

Frustrating Things (About Church)

There is minutiae. The stuff that, if we didn't know better could derail a person, a ministry, a team, an entire church.  The minutiae in a growing church in a too-small building can look like things gone missing for weeks or months. Like my class supply box frequently disappearing. Like snacks for Sunday morning disappearing. Like holes in communication: the wrong person getting the right information and vice versa. Like our functioning women's toilets in the building have decreased to 50% for a short time and are now back up to 75% of prior capacity. Like we have no personal offices and no great meeting spaces on Sunday mornings, and I'm about to commandeer the out-of-service women's bathroom for strategy sessions. Like my "stuff" is divided between four different closets and rooms in the building. Whatev. Like I said, these little things are easily overcome with a dose patience and sense of humor. 

Others things are harder. Like learning to be comfortable and respectful with disagreement and different temperaments. Like gender and racial stereotypes that linger, spoken or silently present. Like how church systems and governments don't always seem to adequately reflect or express the Kingdom-come. (Oh, we're trying to get there, we are). Harder still: People scare easy and run away--right about the time I want to coax them to “come toward, come toward.” There are misunderstandings that could get resolved speedily through brave communication, but brave communication sometimes takes a while to work up to. Weeks, months. Years. I have been guilty of this. Also, feelings get hurt. Things are said that shouldn't be said, and there are consequences.

Most profoundly difficult: With church (and the Gospel), there aren’t provable answers for everything. We have to live in this liminal space of not-proving and not-being-scientifically-sure of certain things in an age when so many want to form beliefs upon the foundation of empirical truths. But the Bible is not an almanac, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a science book, a rulebook, a treatise, a constitution, a manual. It’s more like a traveler’s map. With hundreds of important landmarks—places where important things happened to people and people groups and where God happened to people and their groups. And somehow these landmarks are all connected. There was a journey from one place to another, from Adam to Christ and from Genesis to Revelation, and the journey was messy and complicated and filled with confusion and people running here, there and everywhere and worshiping the wrong gods and killing and oppressing other people groups and making rules that ultimately didn’t do any earthly or heavenly good. And one has to look at all that and work at deciphering truth out of the relationships between historical events, between narratives, between the story God wanted to write and the story of human action and history and the way in which God entered history, anyway, and did something good. And, oh boy, relationships are complicated (just ask anyone who's ever been in love); they are subject to interpretation; they are sentences eluding grammar, impossible to diagram.

Sure, some things are fairly self-evident when we look at the Bible's big picture, and we preach those things, we teach those things, we celebrate those things. We teach Jesus as God. As light in the darkness. As hope for the hopeless. And a bunch of other foundational assertions about this thing Jesus called the Kingdom of God. These assertions are like little pins on the map. Places of [unprovable, faith-filled] certainty. On one hand, this faith-infused surety about the pins on the map is oddly satisfying: I've lived with faith long enough to see it as the substance that keeps me connected to God, that keeps my eyes open for the ways in which prayer is answered, in which provision is offered, in which hope shouts louder than the sick child, the broken marriage, the mother's tragic death.

But, all of those things (the child, the marriage, the death) speak of mystery. Frustrating mystery. Disappointment. Oh, elusive answers! Oh, suffering in the midst of eternal hope. And we can only walk alongside and ask the questions together, digging for answers we may never unearth. 

All of this--the map, the pins on the map, the questions, the interpretations--is what we have to give away, to hand to believers and seekers. There is no manual when we want one. There is no cosmic Google search or when it comes to the ways of the Kingdom. No mechanism for generating tidy answers and step-by-step instructions. Ultimately, what is frustrating about Church is also what is so beautiful: We have only this invitation from living words and a living God and a living Church. Listen. Pay attention. Come close. 

**If you missed it last week, catch up on the first post in this (About Church) series

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