Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Going to church without getting angry -- revisited

Just some thoughts for a certain someone who is struggling with anger in relationship to the church. (And, no, C., none of this is about you.)

I think I've actually made some progress in this area over the past year. One thing I pondered was why I go to church in the first place. None of my primary reasons for being part of a church (fellowship, accountability, and ministry) require that everyone (or even anyone) have the precise same beliefs that I have. As long as I'm finding common ground with the official theologians of the denomination, I figure there's room for diversity in the local congregation. I also pondered some specific strategies for going to church without getting angry. But I think the thing that has helped the most is realizing that it really is God's church, not mine. He hasn't commissioned me to fix the church. The leadership of the church isn't looking to me for advice or guidance. I will not be held responsible when the doors close at the church where I'm a member.

There are almost unlimited ministry opportunities in the church. There are hurting people there who are searching for healing. There are discouraged people looking for hope. There are lonely people looking for friendship. There are hungry people looking for spiritual nurture. Every week these people gather in the church. How many go away disappointed by what happens there? Some of them may even go away angry and wonder if they can keep coming week after week for no more than they're getting out of it. They need someone who will listen to them and offer them words of encouragement. In Exodus chapter 4 the Lord asked Moses what he had in his hand. The answer was a staff. Moses did great things with that staff. Even when it seems I have far too little influence, there's always something in my hand that can be used to minister to hurting people.

The church is full of imperfect people with various goals and purposes, noble and not-so-noble. Some of those not-so-noble goals cause pain. Which translates into more ministry opportunities.

The humbling part is that I am one of the imperfect people. My goals and purposes are not always so noble as I wish they were. I cause pain, sometimes without even realizing it, other times knowing it's happening but powerless to stop it. It's in the rough-and-tumble of church life that I can find both good examples to emulate and bad examples that help me know what to seek to eliminate from my own life. At my best, I'm a missionary bringing the culture of the kingdom of God into a place that claims to know it well but barely recognizes the real thing. At my worst, I need to hear the message of grace and forgiveness and an invitation to do better.

The church may not speak that message so clearly as it ought, but there are always at least a few who demonstrate the truth of that message. I'd like to more often be among those few and be yeast permeating the entire batch of dough. What better place to find dough to permeate than the church? The message of grace is as wanted and needed there as anywhere. When I extend grace to the imperfect people running the church in imperfect ways without inviting me to share my wisdom with them and when I focus on the many needs of those around me, I find that I can go to church without getting angry.

Most of the time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On being a layperson

A conjunction of various discussions has given me a new awareness of how theologically freeing it is to be a layperson in the church. That’s assuming that you choose to be part of organized religion. If you do, I recommend lay ministry over vocational ministry.

Some have pointed out to me that those who are called to vocational ministry assume a higher level of responsibility when they accept the ordination of the church. As a member of a denomination which encourages every member to dedicate their entire being to being a disciple of Jesus Christ, this puzzles me. Aren’t we all responsible to devote our whole selves to ministry whether it’s our vocation or not? Am I any less responsible to demonstrate and promote the values of the kingdom of God in a secular job than within the church walls?

As I’ve considered this and observed those in full-time ministry, it has occurred to me that the extra responsibility is not so much to God as it is to the church. The minister is the face of the church. Ordination charges a person to represent the church at all times.

Not only does this sometimes result in significant pressure to meet higher ethical and behavioral standards, it also draws a box around a person’s theology. Here is what the church believes. Thus, this is what you will believe – and teach and preach. To question the beliefs of the church would be to cause schism within the organization.

As a layperson in the church, my level of commitment to doing the will of God 24/7 is no less, but my level of commitment to the church itself is whatever I choose to make it. Anyone who looks to me as a spokesperson for the church is looking in the wrong place. If my pastor’s theology is weird, there’s a problem in my church. If my theology is weird, I’m just a confused layperson with no authority to speak for the church.

I participate in a forum that often has discussions of theological issues. I find it interesting that people often post theological questions and address them to the many pastors who participate on the forum. However, it’s usually laypeople who compose the bulk of the responses. Perhaps that’s because pastors are busy people and don’t have time to discuss silly theological questions being asked on the internet. Or perhaps it’s because the discussion involves accepted beliefs of the denomination and pastors feel obligated to stick to the “company line”. If there’s only one acceptable answer to a question, it doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion. It takes a brave person to think independently while depending for his or her livelihood on an organization that likes to draw boxes around people's thinking.

As a layperson, I can set my faith aside entirely and impact only those who have mistakenly allowed me to represent God and the church to them and whom I tell about my faith crisis. If it is a prolonged crisis, I may need to set aside formal ministry for a while. I may question basic beliefs of the congregation of which I am a part. Doing so will endanger neither my livelihood nor the integrity of the church. If it’s a mild crisis, I can simply keep my mouth shut when discussions in the area of doubt arise.

I don’t have to know the answers. I don’t have to toe the line. I don’t have to be right. I simply need to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength – and my neighbor as myself. And act on that love.

You see? This faith stuff is as simple as 1-2-3 so long as you stay out of vocational ministry.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What I'm reading

I started reading at an early age and jumped quickly into voracious reading. I remember reading all the Oz books in the bookmobile because the editions found there fit into a scarce category of books long enough to last me for a while but with the large print needed for my immature eyes. I couldn't handle the small print that was generally used for books at my reading level.

I don't know when I moved on to small print, but I think it was still in my early years that I discovered the Lone Ranger -- not more than 3rd grade, I imagine. I don't know what it was about the Lone Ranger that attracted me but I devoured that row of books in the bookmobile. They were old even then. Many had little "treasure hunts" scribbled onto their pages, i.e. "go to page 45" and on page 45, "go to page 110" and so on until one would finally arrive at a "you are here" message. There were a smattering of black marks where someone had thoughtfully crossed out bad words to protect innocent young eyes like mine.

As far as I can remember, no one ever told me that the Lone Ranger was a radio character before riding into the series of books about him. I thought the books contained everything there was to know about him and Tonto.

As I matured and became more discerning in my reading, I discovered that one can often tell when a book is based on a television show or movie. The storyline depends more on dialog and action than inner observations and the characters, having lost the body language they could convey on screen without picking up a well-developed thought life, tend to be rather flat.

I've sometimes wondered about the Lone Ranger books. Did they fall into that category? Would I laugh at my childish attraction to them if I went back to them as an adult? But alas, whatever else was true about them, the Lone Ranger books did not survive the test of time to become classics. They faded out of print and off library shelves. I moved away from my beloved bookmobile, which has likewise disappeared off the streets of my hometown, and there were no more Lone Ranger books in my life. Nor large-print Oz books, for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago someone clearing out their personal library in preparation for a move donated several boxes of books to the public library. I glanced through them to see if there was anything that should be added to the library collection rather than being set aside for the next book sale. And there it was -- The Lone Ranger by Fran Striker, copyright 1936.

So that's what I'm reading. It's not bad, although quite musty - definitely not for the asthmatic. There's nothing grand about it, just an old western that is now completely politically incorrect, but at least I haven't noticed that "made for television" feel to it. I'm fairly pleased with the taste of the young reader I used to be. I've been dawdling my way through it, but I may have to push to the end tonight and see if they ever got that east-to-west railroad completed.

Hi-yo, Silver, away!