When I did my journal last year, Dr. Schmidt gave us some specific questions to answer that required some serious introspection. So far this year I don’t feel like I’ve challenged myself to think that hard about my own role in community. I’ve talked a lot about structures and ideas, but not about my own role and experience. That’s probably fear talking (or not talking as the case may be). So today I’m going to do an inventory of my strengths and weaknesses in the areas of commitment, accountability, and authority. I guess without spelling out the reasons why, I’ve decided that those are all vital elements of community and church.
I think that there is a difference in being involved in church life and being involved in the life of the church. The first implies involvement in a set of activities that are more temporal in nature without any transcendent purpose, while the latter indicates a commitment to the ongoing growth and propagation of the church, even after we are long gone – it is something that is bigger than any of us. I think my story may reflect a shift from one idea to the other.
As I mentioned yesterday, I was involved in church life from the very beginning, getting my first Bible within two weeks of being born. The story in my family is that when we moved to Florida when I was in third grade, we started looking for a church to join and planned on going to several churches, but I like Seminole First Baptist Church so much that we never went anywhere else. By the age of fourteen I was reading the Bible through every year and had my first set of commentaries by the time I was about 17. I was very involved in my youth group and at the age of sixteen I experienced a call to the ministry.
Some serious family problems, long hidden, came to light while I was a freshman in college, putting me into a long spiritual tailspin. I was like the Israelites, wandering the desert of Sinai, without a spiritual home. I still managed to read the Bible through every year, but it was as dry as the desert, and I was unconnected to any church, community, or myself. I look back and, while I do not think God willed that I would experience that sense of disconnectedness, I think that God has been able to use that experience to make me more aware of what others are going through. There are some who are blessed with a life free of desert experiences, but I think most of us have to go through the desert to get to our Promised Lands.
I did visit a church in Gainesville for about six months, but never really felt a part of it, though I do not think that was the fault of the church, but rather my own deep troubles. But I remember vividly when things started to stir in me again. I had been coaching a girls soccer team for two years, and one of the team captains, Erin, was being confirmed at her church. Erin’s family invited me to join them and so I drove down to Ocala for the service. I remember that for some reason the hymns touched me deeply; I think that perhaps the physicality of singing gave my soul a chance to express itself. In looking back, I wonder if part of the impact was the result of being there not by myself, but with people I was connected to. Perhaps it is difficult to worship God by oneself, after all, even God is in community with Himself through the Trinity. Regardless, it was there that my longing for God truly began to express itself.
Within just a few months, I was in Texas, which was also the result of God moving in my life and in the lives of others. He has slowly been delivering me back to community with Him and with others. It was in Galveston that I decided to go back to church – I realized that after all of those years that the church had meant a lot to me and I needed to be a part of it.
There are lots of levels of commitment, the first and most basic one being attendance. Half of life is just about showing up. I started by coming to the worship services – sitting in the back, of course. I then started coming to Sunday school classes fairly regularly as well. At this point I was slowly reintegrating my way back into church life, refamiliarizing myself with the rhythms of worship, prayer, and the people. There was a very nice old woman who sat a couple of rows behind me, Rachel Lu Syler. She had been at the church most of her life and had never been married. She was fairly frail, so I would often offer my arm to her to help her walk out after the service. She passed away a few years ago.
Sometimes I think we only discover the depth of our commitments in times of crisis and perhaps the resignation of our pastor was a blessing to me. At that point I realized how much the church had come to mean to me and I was determined to do my part to help it survive through the tough times to come. I think that it is at this point that I became interested in the life of the church. The ensuing several years have tested my commitment to the life of my church to the core. There have been several times when I’ve been tempted to leave because things were so miserable, but I’m glad I’ve stayed. As I’ve learned from my grandmother, the bad times pass, as do the good times. And we often learn more from the tough times than we do from the easy ones. I’ve been fortunate that I take my commitments very seriously, maybe more than I should sometimes.
My willingness to make myself accountable is not quite the same. For many years one of the excuses I used for avoiding church was that I didn’t want people telling me what I can do or can’t do. This was demonstrated by sitting toward the back when I first came back to the church, I was symbolically keeping the church at a distance. I could come and participate in the worship, but if they did not know me, they could not interfere in my life. But, of course, one cannot be a part of a community by keeping it at a distance.
The irony is that the more I took the risk of letting people in – and the potential judgments that went with it – the better my experience was. By letting people get to know me, they were able to help me out when I needed it. By getting to know them better, I was able to help them when they needed help. There is something nice about someone saying that they haven’t seen you in church for a while and they’ve missed you. It is easy to hear that as a judgment, but often it is someone telling you that the church is a better place when you are there.
Like most people, I have the most difficult time with accountability in the area of confession. The Baptist tradition does not teach anything about public confession to a church authority figure. The idea is that when we sin, we sin against God and it is God who forgives our sin when we confess to God and repent, so we pray for forgiveness to God, who forgives us. Theologically, this makes a lot of sense to me; psychologically I’m not so sure it makes any sense. While it may be only God who can forgive our sins, I get the sense that psychologically it may be more beneficial to confess to another human being. It is humbling enough to confess to God, but God is perfect and so there is a sense in which we can excuse ourselves for being less than perfect. How much more humbling and challenging is it to confess to another fragile human being and ask that person to share God’s gracious forgiveness with us?
Last night one of my Catholic classmates arranged to have confession with one of the monks. He said that he felt like a load had been lifted off of his shoulders after it was done, that he had the best walk back to the dorms of the week. I don’t know what happened or how it went or what he confessed, but I was frankly envious of his visible relief. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had the same sense of relief from any of the confessions that were just between me and God. Maybe that says something about me and my relationship to God. But, if you are like me and prone to sins of pride and arrogance, perhaps the humility of confessing to another human being is the best form of accountability available.
Finally, there is the issue of me and authority. I’m perfectly fine with authority as long as I’m in charge. Otherwise, there might be a problem! I have a natural built in resistance to authority. Actually, the more nuanced way of putting it is that I am willing to subject myself to authority when I think that the person is using power appropriately. I will always resist power used wrongly. Of course, the problem with all people in authority is that they are human and even the best leaders are going to misuse their authority now and then. But the reality is that no human community can survive without working out how power is distributed. Recently there seems to be a plague of people who somehow think organizations can function without authority structures, but that is so beyond possibility as to be foolish in the extreme. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does power. It is better to deal with the reality of the fact that power must be used in order to keep a community functioning.
I have to constantly be careful in my relations to authority figures in the church. Because of my proclivity to reflexively resist authority figures I may be missing out on working with people who can challenge me and push me to grow. I still have a lot to learn and only by making myself available to authority figures that can help me in that learning which will allow me to be able to become the person God made me to be.
In my final journal entry I will write about what I’ve learned about these three things from the monks here. Peace be with you.