Sabbatical Thoughts

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Right now, I’m on sabbatical… which means I get to pop in and out of whatever church I want whenever I want.  It’s a weird feeling; being a “religion consumer.”

As a pastor, people “looking for a church” sometimes share with me their process.  Often, each church gets one shot.  (Church leaders, if you have one shot, let’s hope you can bring you’re “A Game” that morning and that nothing “human” happened.  You know, like you had insomnia the night before or one of your kids was sick and kept you up all night or your organist called one hour before worship to tell you she was in the ER with her sick kid… cause then you may be assessed as low-energy or unfocused and crossed off the list.)

Many times people are looking for a church made up of one specific demographic (read here for example: “I want a large group of middle-schoolers because my kid is in middle-school).  I get it.  Life is a lot easier when the people around us look like us, think like us, act like us, value what we value.  It definitely makes parenting easier.  It makes life easier.  No worries about contradiction and complexity.

But here’s the thing:  Jesus didn’t hang out with people just like him.  Jesus, holy as he was, hung out with people who were judged and rejected by the religious establishment.

One of the things I’m discovering during my sabbatical is this: that I miss the church I pastor even though it’s anything but simple.  It’s full of complexity with people whose lives are filled with challenges.

So here’s some interesting data (since I’m a “data geek”):  Statistically, young people are far more likely to stick with church through their adult years if their adolescent church experience is the opposite of what most families look for, i.e. a church with tons of other kids that provides all of the whistles and bells that put the spotlight on their interests.  Now, I’m not suggesting we make the gospel (or church) boring for anyone of any age.  Jesus kept things lively for sure.  But when young people grow up in a church where they are mostly segregated, i.e. most of their interactions are with other youth or with adults whose passion is to serve them (and not to mention people who are “like them” economically, socially, racially/ethnically, even theologically), they reach their adult years expecting that is how Church “works.”  Then, they join a church committee or leadership team as an adult and experience someone disagreeing with them and not supporting their idea and they’re out, they’re done.  Note: I also recognize that, sometimes, these are just adults being contrary and fearful and resisting change.  But sometimes the mere differing of opinions – a very normal human thing – becomes more than they can bear and “they’re out.”

But, going back to my prior paragraph and putting it in simple terms, I’d like to suggest that Church, discipleship and compassion aren’t really things you learn about; stuff you’re taught.  Rather, Church, discipleship and compassion are something you “live/mature into,” something you come to comprehend because you are experiencing it.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a church that provides you with a great softball team, coffee shop, bookstore, etc.  But the bigger, more important question is this:  does your church provide you with a chance to learn how to see the presence of Jesus in people that are not “like you”; people who may even annoy you, offend you, or make you feel uncomfortable; people whose political or theological views may be very different from your own.  It’s such an easier and personally gratifying thing to go serve a meal at a soup kitchen in a nearby city or build a handicap ramp for someone in rural Appalachia or go on a mission to a poor African or Central American country.  And then you get to return home, put your feet up, relax, feel that you’ve “accomplished something” (one might even say fixed something), and get on with your life.

But if your church is comprised of people in addiction recovery, people struggling with mental health disorders (and struggling to navigate the healthcare gauntlet), those living in poverty, or struggling to discern their gender identity in a culture that prizes conformity over honest discernment, you’re never “done.”  People are people, not projects, and there’s no simple fix for the challenges that any of us face.  (Note that “any of us” is in italics because being in a church where people acknowledge their own struggles makes it harder to hide your own and pretend they don’t exist.)  Church is about relationships; not easy, simple, superficial relationships but real relationships that demand something of us and challenge our stereotypes and assumptions.  The ministry of Jesus was all about relationships.  Jesus engaged with people in open, honest and authentic ways.  He wasn’t afraid to talk about anything.

One of the most interesting features of our gospels – especially the gospel of Mark – is that Jesus spent more time “fixing” the mindsets of the disciples than he did “correcting” the sins and shortcomings of the people in the crowds that followed him.  (Not to mention how frustrated Jesus was with the “religious establishment”… which, I might note, is now US!)

(I know this blog is getting long so thanks for hanging in there with me!)

But here’s what I notice about many churches and Christians today:  for as much as we talk about valuing diversity and issues of justice, many of us would prefer that kind of church to be a romantic notion/fantasy and not the reality we live in because a truly diverse church is messy and challenging.

And yet, if we can find the courage to step into that messiness, we – incredibly – discover what Christianity is really all about: faith or trust.  Because trust in Jesus isn’t about believing in Jesus’ existence or adhering to orthodox precepts.  Trust in Jesus is about recognizing and accepting and even finding ease with the reality that there is quite a lot about the lives of others and our own lives that we can’t ultimately control or fix; but that’s okay because the love and grace of Jesus abides within us and among us and God’s abiding presence is really all we need.

Where Church is revealed as authentic Christ-centered community (as it is at my church), it is because we have learned to live from a place of trust in God’s grace and to honor the presence of the risen Christ in one another.

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