Most of us wear several hats in our daily activities. We may be children and parents and spouses simultaneously. We’re coworkers, neighbors, friends, and citizens, exercising these diverse roles all in a single day. We’re believers with convictions but also can entertain openness to other points of view. Few of us are not just one thing at any time. We play more than one role that is important to us. We don’t drop out of this collection of identities when we actively engage in any one of the others.
Among the roles I play are counselor, administrator, writer, public speaker, worship leader, and teacher of the church. I do not cease to be any of these while performing as another. In fact, it is fundamentally as a pastor that I write and speak. Family and close friends roll their eyes should you ask if I ever stop being a pastor for five minutes. Long before I completed seminary and was ordained, I was in pursuit of any moment that I could express my deepest convictions about faith. It was almost inevitable that conversations would end up on some topic concerning the church. It’s a wonder, really, that I managed to have real friends growing up!
After a lifetime of fascination with mystical realities and attempts to express them, I find myself asking another question that has often eluded me: What is the church really for? Surely this inquiry should have more deeply engaged me earlier. I must admit that not asking this question sooner in life has had unavoidable consequences. Not only did I subject my unwitting companions to lessons and rituals they may not have wanted, but also, in religious settings where I was fulfilling a duty to present the faith, I doubtlessly taught what I myself had absorbed: that life in the church is like spinach—necessary, nourishing, and not to be scraped off the plate just because you may not care for it.
Church can be presented in many ways, not all constructive or useful. Its teachings and rituals can be a bludgeon to get those who misbehave in line. It can be wielded as a form of control, inciting fear, guilt, or dread. Think of the “Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz,” when a voice that deep, threatening, and mysterious bellows from behind the curtain, spouting smoke and fire. It can be hard to do anything but kowtow. Many sit in pews or in classrooms hearing church leaders proclaim what’s what in just such a voice. Some of us buckle and obey. Others run for the exits.
Some time ago, I realized that carrots work better than sticks. I tried to entertain softer and more appealing methods of instruction. Wise mentors convinced me that humor is acceptable, and storytelling is a must. A teaching or admonition might better be offered as an invitation, not a dictate. A pastor might better shine a helpful lantern on the road ahead rather than march the community forward at the point of a gun. As odd as it may sound, faithful teaching might better be viewed as kindly guidance on the journey, not a litany of rules laid down to stumble and ensnare.
I hope you’ve had pastors who used teaching in this gentler way. I hope preachers you have heard have beckoned more than barked. I hope your relationship to God and church has been shaped and sweetened by wisdom, discernment, and invitation. I really do hope your life in the church hasn’t been a long, abusive slog through commandments and pronouncements that seemed to gag you and take away your freedom. If you’ve suffered at the hands of your pastors or teachers and have not been aided in your quest for God and guidance, please let me apologize on behalf of the church.
Some of us may find this kind of open-endedness uncomfortable. Dominating religious space with the dictates of doctrine and “eternal truth” is much easier! But this way of leading and learning is a way to make our relationships and roles as parents or pastoral people and more real and honest. Choosing persuasion over dominance does not diminish the truth. In fact, it makes it more plain and fuller of possibility than either party might have suspected at the start.
Because, after all, what is the church for? Not to preserve some holy deposit of faith in a sacred vault, untarnished by the ages. Teaching the faith is meant to lead us into the persuasive and compellingly attractive presence of a God who is the fullness of love and compassion. Dominating spaces doesn’t make the case for such a God. Inviting people to walk with us, however, just might.
I invite you to take up the task of continuing your Christian formation. Get inquisitive about your faith and your relationship to God. Try our online bible study. Look over the reading list of suggested titles on our website. Join a reading group. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Listen to recordings of the homilies preached in our church or others on line. You just might hear a word that brings you closer to The Word – Jesus. Christian formation is a life-long endeavor, and we are here to help you find The Way.
Source: Rector’s Blog