This weekend I had a couple of experiences that put me back in the church world for the first time in awhile. On Saturday, I spent time with some folks who are doing new church development (church planting) through the Presbyterian Church (USA). I lead a devotion for them and then helped them to organize their small group time. The next morning I played my bass in worship for the first time in nine years and then assisted in a dialogue sermon about sabbath. Next week, I will be at my alma mater, helping to run the UnConference of which I have been a part for the last five years, helping church leaders to think through new and innovative ways of doing their work. Being back in these spaces, spaces that are still some what unauthorized for me to inhabit, has caused a cascade of thoughts and emotions both about church and about God, often with the two being conflated. I’m struggling to describe where I find myself situated right now, so maybe the best way is to put this into a narrative.
Imagine, if you will, a young boy. He’s six years old. For this boy, church has always been home. He knows God as the Perfect Father, not the absentee father he never knew nor the angry stepfather he had at home. The first thing he ever wants to be, before a marine biologist, fireman, or adventurer is to be a pastor. This is celebrated and nurtured, especially by his grandmother who unashamedly sees the boy as special and does everything in her power to nurture this dream. She buys him videos and cassettes delving into the biblical stories and of course gives him several Bibles, but not children’s Bibles because she believes him smart enough to handle the real thing. By ten, the boy has a pretty good handle on the biblical stories, has dozens of verses committed to memory, and most importantly, has found places in church where he can be involved in leadership. Church for him is where he doesn’t have to be invisible, unlike home where he plays the middle child role to perfection and school where he only stands out for being the only black kid, a way in which he’d rather not stand out. People continuously take this young man under their wing; first a couple who does inner city ministry, then his suburban youth pastor and pastor. Church is his place where he can be seen.
The being seen for him is not simply about being feeding an adolescent need for approval. It comes in no small measure from his burgeoning understanding of what it means to be a disciple. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he’s taught at home, and he has gifts and a mind that God can use. With great power, come great responsibility, and all that. Heavy stuff to lay on a kid, but he’s a pretty serious kid, and this gives him focus. Throughout junior and senior high he continues to find places to serve, even while he’s trying to be a normal kid and do normal kid things. At some point, toward the end of high school, he gets to a place where he is questioning too much and the burden feels too heavy. He walks away from it all… for about a year.
He finishes his second year of college and goes to work in a place that redefines faith for him as service to others, a theme that had always resonated in the back of his mind, but was now drawn to the fore. Here he prays to God for direction and loses himself in service to this ministry. He moves into the city, fails a couple of college courses, and is once again taken under the wings of people in ministry. This time, the people who see the “special” in him are church planters; young, innovative, entrepreneurial types who think outside of the box and acknowledge his creativity and evangelistic enthusiasm. The boy is drawn into a new world: “go to seminary, get ordained. This is the next part of your quest”.
Seminary and ordination bring him into conflict with the institutional nature of church. It is spirit crushing in some ways, but he sees that there are people who are able to thrive within the system and still manage to serve with energy and creativity. So he learns the institution’s rules and plays the institution’s game. This, he believes, will allow him to live out his ultimate mission of being of service to the world. Despite being groomed in community ministry and church start ups, he finds himself in a dying traditional church. The people don’t look or think like him. There is no innovation here. There is no passion here. There is no fire here…
… and he loves it! He works harder than he ever has at anything in his life believing that he is actually called by God to this place to be a catalyst for change, a change that the majority of the people do not want to happen. He’s not perfect, but he works hard. He prays, he studies, he consults, he collaborates, he preaches, he leads, he spends himself fully for a people who totally don’t give a shit. He pushes to a point where he realizes that martyrdom is the only option left with this community and instead of being the martyr, he walks away. And as he walks away, he does so with quiet message in the back of his head, a message which over time gets louder and louder….
“I failed God…”
“I FAILD God!”
“I FAILED GOD!!!”
His whole life, he imagined, had been leading up to that one point where he would lead a community of people into fuller love of God and neighbor and he blew it. It is one thing to fail a stranger. Most of us can shake that off. It’s another thing to fail a loved one. It hurts, but reconciliation is almost always possible. It’s a different thing to fail oneself. You can end up stuck with your mind running in circles, questioning and perplexed. It is a completely different thing to imagine that you have failed God. It is simply more than a boy whose whole aim from the time he had any conception of God was to please God can handle.
The resulting state of mind for the boy was one of nihilistic resignation. The part of his mind and heart that was able to receive positive messages from others was totally corroded. Yes, people still told him that he was special. People would say things like “that was the best sermon I’ve ever heard”, but he couldn’t receive it. He lost his ability to feel anything good about himself or the world. His was a mind that could not imagine a future. It was a mind that didn’t care about the damage done to self or others (see previous post) because in this space where such a great failure could occur, the boy could be of no use to anyone. Perceived failure turned into real, moral failure.
I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of years working with this boy. He’s sad, he’s broken. He’s scared that he cannot be redeemed. And yet, he still believes. Not as he once did. He’s had a couple of years of life beating the idea that he’s special out of him. But he still believes that he has use. He still loves God, still loves the church (most of the time), but he’s watched his theology become evermore expansive and inclusive. He wonders if there is still a place for him.
“Failing God” can be read two ways. One is that a person fails God, the other is a God who fails. Taken on it’s surface, Jesus’ ministry was a failure. A pastor once said to me that ministry in the way of Jesus is when you get down to twelve people and one of them wants to kill you. He died a criminal, betrayed and abandoned, his only lasting impact being that which he had on those he loved and who loved him in return. I suppose that’s a place to start. Part of the work I have been doing with this boy is to help him to let go of all semblance of success. All the parts of him that feed ego and pride. It’s hard work, but at some point, he needs to become friendly with failure.
I work with this boy often. I tell him that he’s loved, that he’s lovable, and that he’s capable of love. and that all of that is despite whatever successes and failures he may have, real or imagined. Somedays he hears me. He has a long way to go. But, for now at least, he’s not giving up. That feels like a success.
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