Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A day of reflection ...

It's funny ... and it is also sad at the same time ... in the last few days having time to rest, read and reflect along with hanging with some of my extended family have revealed a few things to me ...

First off, I miss my Mom, my brother, and the members of my family who have passed on in recent years. I find it hard to believe it has been SO long since Uncle Drake and my cousin Duane died. (they were the start of the losses) Along the way with the passage of time I've said good bye to my Grandma, my mom, my brother, Mr Baumbach and my friend Indigo (among others) who were meaningful and important to my journey. That sadness ebbs and flows throughout my days, and touches every aspect of my life ...

Last night watching an episode of one of the many 'hoarder' shows on tv, I realized that I could easily spiral into a similar place by holding too tightly to the 'stuff' that carries memories of these folks and others who have graced my journey along the way. While I'm striving to balance the fine line between preserving my memories with a selection of mementos, and not being overwhelmed by the urge to save everything, I find that it would be easy to stumble off into a deep dark place ...

However, I don't fear tripping into the darkness ... I've been there enough to know the warning signs, and I am very fortunate to have a strong circle of family and friends who help keep me level ... for THAT I am thankful.

But what I realized in the last couple of days is how little the Church has really done to help me along the way. In recent months I've been overwhelmed by the care and support of the folks here in the Flesherton Pastoral Charge who have helped get me through the tough spots, and who continue to uphold me through their respective ministries. I've come to realize that they (whether they consciously realize it or not) embody the very virtues and principles of faith and the Christian Calling.

Over and over as I've resumed my reading of church and theological works, I find myself saying "Flesherton and Eugenia do that ..." when I find a passage about faith in action.

I will not say they're perfect - no church is - but the Congregations of St John's and Eugenia don't try to hide their flaws and foibles. They don't slap on a happy face and pretend 'all is well', but rather with a smile and a loving heart they try to wrestle with the issue before them, and they try to offer the best solution they can ... laughter and joy mark the ups and downs.

What I've drawn from this is a realization that this ethos is what I've expected in the life and ministry of a Congregation claiming to follow Jesus. I found this ethos in Portage with the Presbyterian Church I was blessed to serve for a year and a half and I can identify this ethos within individuals in EVERY congregation I've served in my ministry, but I haven't found it as the community ethos in the Congregations I've been called to since the late 90's ...

While I have colleagues and associates who have openly rejected my use of Friedman's book "Generation to Generation" in explaining and understanding the happenings in Langley and Minnedosa, I now stand in a place where I can see how invasive and debilitating the toxicity Friedman identifies has been in EVERY LEVEL of the Church in those areas. Lacking a cohesive and healthy ethos means there is nothing to unify and strengthen the faith community ... dysfunction deepens and strengthens!

This is not to preclude the presence of good and faithful people - I can list by name the people who are not part of the proverbial problem ... the issue is the extent to which the problem is systemic and hidden from view.

Reading Diana Butler-Bass' most recent book "A people's history of Christianity", and the book "There Serenity Prayer" by Elizabeth Sifton helped me see how voices that speak outside of the comfort zone of the status quo will NEVER been given support nor encouragement, but will ALWAYS be rejected and sent packing. In moments of great societal stress, when the Church is called most strongly to speak up and speak out, the lack of a faithful ethos means silence and simply 'going with the flow' becomes the dominant trait of the Church. Those who reject silence and see the need to faithful staunch the flow, are pushed aside and pushed out.

When the voice is shrill, and is coupled with other factors, the situation demands that the easiest solution be sought ... in my case instead of helping me wrestle with my baggage and my stuff, it was easier to send me packing and to (erroneously) announce that everything was all better. For those who remain, and who were in favour of the simple solution things are better, but failing to address the hurts and the unresolved (and in some cases generational) issues that linger, things are NOT all better. They are anything but.

Over and over in the history of the Church we see the triumph of the so-called majority, who want to define the Church on their terms and their conditions, and who will stop at nothing to attain that end. When it comes to small towns and church communities, the majority is usually silent and acquiesce to what the outspoken power brokers want. It is simpler to go along with the squeaky wheels, then stand in their way. And when the squeaky wheels are well heeled, well connected and politically positioned for power and influence, the truth becomes irrelevant, and the ONLY outcome is what they want whether it is right, healthy, appropriate or even moral.

Over and over might trumps right !! History bears this out ...

So, as one who has endured, and in some ways survived the slings and arrows lobbed by the "good church people" over the last fifteen years who have been threatened, offended or otherwise made uncomfortable by my ministry and the challenges (both positive and negative) contained therein, I can look back with bewilderment that the United Church, the denomination that has historically prided itself on being open, inclusive and welcoming, has proven to be anything but when it comes to voices from within that are shrill, sharp, pointed and most of all hurting ...

I will openly admit that I have spent much of my ministry in a place of hurt and loneliness.

I moved far from my family to serve the Church, and was unable to get back when I needed or wanted to ... visits were few and far between ... important people died, and I had to mourn their passing alone and far from the circle I needed to be enveloped within to help my healing and wholeness ...

My calls for help and support were heard and heeded by individuals within the various Congregations I served, but the leadership failed miserably to live the simple principles of love and care and compassion that are central to our faith.

One night many years ago I was called to the bed side of a Church member who was dying ... throughout the night I sat with the family as a life slipped away ... in the pre-dawn hours, we prayed as the final breath was drawn. I went home exhausted and sad at the death and the depth of emotion that had filled the room ... my head had barely hit the pillow when the phone rang and the Board Chair asked why I wasn't in the office.

My explanation of having been up all night with a family was met with "We have office hours for a reason, and as our minister we EXPECT you to honour them ..."

I was, and I remain dumbfounded ...

Looking back, I see the immense abyss that lies between my expectations of ministry and the ethos of the Church, and their operating expectations and ethos ... I draw mine from my readings of theology and Scriptures ... theirs sounds like it came from an MBA text somewhere ...

The Church is NOT a business.
The Church is NOT a business.
The Church is NOT a business.

Can we say it enough??
Can we comprehend what this means?
Can we return to the values, principles and ethos that are found in the teachings of the one who looked up into a tree where a reviled tax collector sat and said "Come down, we need to talk?"

Jesus was not about keeping office hours, or maintaining the status quo. Jesus was about proclaiming, highlighting and embodying the Kingdom of God in our world.

The Kingdom of God welcomes people as they are and helps them strive to be better.

The Kingdom of God welcomes in the sinners and the broken and offers wholeness.

The Kingdom of God welcomes in the dirty and wounded and offers limitless LOVE.

The Kingdom of God is about moving past comfort and safety and embracing our calling.

Sadly, the Kingdom of God is absent in many corners of our world where it is desperately needed, and where it is openly called for ...

We will never find the Kingdom of God amongst the scribes and lawyers and their rules and regulations ... the Kingdom of God is found out where the wounded and the hurting find help and care.

Looking back, I can see that one of my biggest problems is that I, like my brother, operate with an expectation of TRUST and Good Faith. If you say "x" I foolishly expect you to do "x", and get hurt and angry when you DON'T.

Unfortunately, like any good bureaucratic institution, The Church is about saying "X" and doing anything but.

I also foolishly believe that within the Church people will be judged by their ability and their character not by their political or familial connection, and definitely NOT by their economic clout, and not because they have screamed the loudest.

Today, I can see that I carry a fair bit of anger about the path I've been on since my ordination in 1993. The funny thing for me today is the realization that I am most angry at myself for being such a damned fool for believing that the Church would be different from a legalistic bureaucracy that is more interested in preserving and defending itself, then in actually caring for people.

The bureaucracy of the Church saddens me.

In the last 15 years I've struggled emotionally, spiritually, economically, and in a myriad of ways, and my cries for help have been not only ignored, they have been met with actions on the part of the Church that deepened and worsened that spiral ... I will never say I've been blameless, nor will I ever suggest that I wasn't offered care ... however, in the moment when I most needed help, the response from the various Courts of the Church was to shun and ignore me, rather than listen to what was really happening ...

Along the way my hurt and anger deepened, and my loneliness caused me to lash out ... Rather than trying to address the hurts and tend the wounds, the easier path was to push me out the door figuratively AND literally. My hurt offended people and exacerbated PRE-EXISTING problems in no less than TWO congregations and managed to lay bare the dysfunction that was accepted as normal, and that masked the toxins - and rather than trying to solve the crisis in a faithful and just way, the easy route was taken (straight out of Friedman): reject the Clergy and continue with a 'business as usual' attitude.

Again: The Church is NOT a business.

Things were NOT business as usual ... the voices that speak of their hurts, their isolation, their anger and their feelings of rejection show us (if we dare to see) that all is not well in the life and ministry of the faith communities that fail to face the truth. If we are to be an open, welcome, inclusive and faithful community we MUST hear the voices of those who stand on the margins and weep at the actions of the "faithful few".

As we heed and hear and respond to those voices on the margins, we will have to wrestle with the simple realization that we CAN and we MUST do better in the future. Just because the dozen or so people left are happy, doesn't mean the right path was chosen. We MUST hear the stories of the other three dozen people who no longer feel welcome or accepted by the few who remain.

The Spirit calls us to welcome ALL, not just a select few.

My anger and my deepest hurt is the realization that in many cases, the Institution that is the modern Church simply doesn't care about people like me ... my hurts and my wounds and my burdens are mine alone to carry ... If I came from the "right" family, or had the "right" friends and connections, and if I wasn't so prickly, my path in the Church might be easier and less fraught with trauma and rejection, but that realization alone lays bare the most glaring weakness of the Modern Church.

The treatment of people in the Church, both lay and clergy, should NEVER vary, and it should never be influenced by who you know, or who you are related to. The Church is a place for ALL people without condition.

I will never understand why it is so hard to live that principle.

Looking back, I can see now where my choices and my actions lead to negative consequences and very negative outcomes. But I still marvel at the propensity of the Institution to scape goat the minister rather than working at addressing the REAL issue. (This is STRAIGHT out of Friedman)

Over the last fifteen years, I've went through a bewildering spiral of happenings and events that affected and effected my life ... and through it all, the one partner in my ministry that utterly failed in its Covenant, has been the greater Church ... Call me a fool for taking those words of Covenant that mark our Pastoral Relationships seriously, but I will, until my dying day, believe that when you give your word you live by it.

I will not claim to be perfect, but I have tried to live by the promises made in June of 1993 when I was ordained, and that were re-iterated several times since. A Covenant is not 'just words' - it is a binding promise, and because of that, I carry a great deal of sadness about the failure of the other partners to live by THEIR words.

Today, after realizing that my brother struggled with the same issue in his life, I've come to realize how strong my expectation is in regards to living up to one's words. We were raised with the simple ethos of: "If you say it, you do it." There were no exceptions to this rule - it was a sacrosanct thing. And when it came to faith and Church and living out what we believed, it was stronger still.

My brother saw the hypocrisy in the Church long ago ... I've ran hard and fast against it repeatedly ... fortunately, those moments when I have been battered and bloodied by the Institution of the Church, I have been tended to by faithful "Good Samaritans" who like their Scriptural role model rise above the nonsense and address the needs of others in faith, and care no a whit about 'keeping up appearances' or maintaining the status quo.

I hold no illusions that the Institution will ever change. But I thank God that over and over in the last 20 years of my journey I've met people who take their faith seriously, and who in response to the hypocrisy of the Institutional Church, actively chose to live their faith counter to the prevailing ethos of their Church ... and today, for the first time, I can honestly look around and see that I am within a Faith Community that within its diversity has found a commonality in living out their faith TOGETHER in a myriad of caring ways.

I'm still hurt and a bit angry about how the Church has treated me ... but as I finally have the time, the space, the care and the support to tend my wounds and lay aside my burdens, I know that I am a stronger person for the failure of the Church to live its faith thus far ... as they say: what doesn't kill ya, makes ya stronger!!

I'm strong today because the Church consistently failed me, and those who in faith called for change ... the status quo may be comfortable for a select few, but it is far from faithful, and as many wise and prophetic voices have counselled over the centuries: those things that are not faithful, nor inspired by God or the Spirit are doomed to fail!!

Change is inevitable ... and change begins by tending the wounds of our neighbours. It's a simple lesson really, but in its simplicity it has been overlooked ... fortunately though The Kingdom of God will prevail whether we want it or not!!

1 comment:

Tim said...

Rev. Shawn, I agree with the essence of your post, but would like to clarify the semantics. Church is like a business in that there are limited resources (be it people, time, or money) and multiple objectives, vying for those resources. Through cost-benefit analysis, decisions must be made to determine the best bang for the buck. In that way, I think its safe (and not heretical) to admit that church is a business. How it is not (and should not be) is profiting to the expense of people. With the example you cited of the church asking you to satisfy the obligation of office hours in spite of an all-night session of caring, the church made its priorities clear.
Rather than pontificating that "the church is not a business", perhaps a clearer rebuke would be "the church should have people before procedure" (yes, I know, less zing to it).
I don't know how large your church is, but I'd expect that my revised mantra would be easier to follow for a small church than for a large.