As we head into another transition in our church I am wondering about what it means to be a church family.
I know from my own, limited experience of family that when we gather we wear our interests, capacities, talents, and resume like wearing clothes – look, he is a salesman… look, she is a cook…look he is a lawyer…look, she is an environmentalist…look he is a nare-do-well … look, she is, well, bat-sh*@t crazy, look, he is a manipulator…look she is an artist…and very,very kind. And so on.
We bring these gifts, talents, weaknesses, agendas to church the way we bring them to the kitchen before a family Thanksgiving Dinner or the way we bring them to a new job. “Hi, this is who I want you to see.” we say wordlessly. And then people watch us and listen to us and they begin to see who we are beyond our sales-pitch – who we really are. They see who we say we are, then who we really are – seeing things we know about ourselves and keep hidden (usually rather unsuccessfully) and they see things we do not even know about ourselves (which can be un-nerving.)
What I keep telling people, and me, in church and elsewhere is that the best indicator of what someone will do, is what they always have done. It’s that simple. Sometimes people change. I get that. But not often and not fast. The kind ones keep being kind. The bullies keep bullying. The generous ones keep giving. The sneaky ones keep being sneaky. And the odd thing is that they all think nobody sees them. The generous ones think that their generosity is a secret. The gentle ones think nobody see their kindnesses. The bullies think they are being tough or big or strong or “a leader” when everyone else sees how, really, there is a frightened little boy in there somewhere, never fully emerged from adolescence, and yet with a body twenty, seventy, fifty years old.
At the end of the day, I think a church can be a place in which we live like rocks in a rock-tumbler – being tossed around inside as it turns, spraying water and knocking jagged edges until we are smooth and kind to the touch, like God. Too many churches are not like that at all.
Continuing the metaphor, many churches are display cases for rocks and not a rock-tumbler, or a river-bed, full as they are with baptismal waters. Many churches just line up the rocks in pews. They process a bit like models on a runway and then depart for brunch. Those are not Christians, they are Christianish. Which is different.
But churches in which people come together in real vulnerability, willing to be seen in all their beauty and all their warts – willing to be slowly transformed – not by commandments – but by gentle conversation – well, THAT is a church.
When I travel to speak in other churches, I ask people “What is it like to be a part of your church?” When they say it is “comforting” or “beautiful” or “majestic” or “reassuring” I feel like Jesus is smirking and that if I turn around and look at His Face we both will burst into the kind of laughter which bends us double an restricts breathing an allows a little pee to wet our zippers. And of course that would be mean, unkind, so I don’t turn around. Plus Jesus is usually invisible, or if seeable, is inside real people.
But sometimes when I ask “What is it like to be part of your church?” I am told that it is a “laboratory for transformation” or “damned hard work, but I am becoming Jesus’ hope for me” or “they don’t let me get away with my acting-out, so I like who I am becoming” or “I am learning hard and wonderful things about myself as I do the Christ-like work” well, then I know something other than worship – something wonderful is happening there – it’s not just a club of polite people posturing – its a real community, a real family, trying to become Christ-like and not just Christian or, worse-still, Christianish. The people who managed the Spanish Inquisition were Christianish. The churches in Berlin who heralded Hitler were Christian. But to be a Christ-like church, well, that is hard work. Hard won. And is less like a cocktail party and more like a gymnasium.