Grace Overcoming History

lilyamonthethorns

The author wanders into That Reformed Blog, blowing away the dust and cobwebs, wondering where the spiders who wove the webs might be. Clearly, the place has been unoccupied for a bit. He reflects on conversations with colleagues about the extreme busy-ness that has seemingly infected the entire Church in recent weeks. But that is the topic for another blog post, perhaps, and the best way to get the blog going is to get going. So . . .

The congregation I serve is celebrating its bicentennial this month The preparations have reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks, and this has been part of the reason for my own absence here. In preparing, I have been reviewing the congregation’s history, including the bits which can only be found by wading into the Consistory’s minutes, for the public history, the history told in nice little anniversary pamphlets every quarter-century or so, was nicely sanitized of any hints of human conflict.

But that is not the congregation I serve. The congregation I serve, the people among whom I pastor, are people who were born in conflict; their first congregational act was to complain to their classis about the actions of one of their parent consistories—this congregation was formed when two yoked congregation split up—in trying to get its own pastor. Specifically, this group of people who were to become a new church complained about being asked to give more so that their former parish could grow. Once on their own, they continued to have arguments—they earned mention in Corwin’s Manual of the Reformed Church in America for the “unfortunate schism” precipitated by complaints about the pastor’s clothesline. Reading between the consistory minutes and Corwin, there is every suggestion that they had a role in one pastor’s early demise due to a “pulmonary condition.” And these were not aberrant instances from early days of struggle which resolved themselves as the church settled and grew. Up into the twenty-first century, the fights flare up every so many years, which is consistent with the patterns of congregational life described by Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation almost thirty years ago.

Part of the difference in the historical pamphlet for this anniversary is that, while it doesn’t present every lurid detail, it is much more honest than its predecessors about the repeated attraction to conflict and argument. This isn’t done to beat the congregation into penitence on its birthday, but because it actually makes the story better. For this is not just a difficult, argumentative parish; it is also a group of people who have done good ministry, again and again.

This sort of behavior, alas, is not unique among Reformed churches. One of the other things I have been doing the last few weeks is working with a congregation going through difficult financial times. As they seek to balance their budget, their pastor took on a new part-time job, and used it to ask his own church to cut his time in a token way (by about 10 hours a week, which the pastor and the consistory have agreed to call 80% time, even though the new time commitment is equal to what the classis salary guide calls full time). Now, a few months into that agreement, there has been a bit of a rub, as members of the congregation have asked why they are still paying full-time benefits for a pastor who has agreed to become part-time in order to save them money. Again, to be fair, it should be noted that this congregation, aside from this behavior, does good works and can be very full of the spirit of God.

As I have wrestled with these realities in my head, I was struck by a theologically profound statement in last Saturday’s episode of “Doctor Who”—yes, something could be said about the work ethic of somebody who doesn’t keep up with his blog posting but does keep up with sci-fi watching but, again, that is another post; we need to focus. The writers put these words into the mouth of the Doctor: “Did you think I loved you so little that I would stop loving you just because you completely betrayed me?” For a Calvinist, that might be the essence of God’s answer to the question, “Why did you go through with the Passion?” Anybody—certainly any omnipotent super-being—can love people who are themselves loving and loyal and doing their best to obey. The proof of God’s amazing love, to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Romans, is that God loves the people who have, do, and will always completely betray God . . . and then keeps loving us more.

Which brings me to answer my other conundrum: how can God do good work in and through the argumentative people in one congregation, and the cheap and ungrateful people in another? How can God continue to be faithful to people who continue to choose their own fears—which, I would argue, are the source of these dysfunctions—over the repeated and abundant proof of God’s love and providence in their lives? The answer is that this is what God always has done, and who God always has been.

And, in the end, I think this is how I can continue to come back to the church, which repeatedly shows so much of its humanity and so little of its divinity over so many generations. It is because this is not truly a story about who and what the church is—which is a sorry, stupid, and painfully sad waste of time and energy and resources—but a story about who God is and what God’s grace can do, how God’s Holy Spirit lifts up even this willfully obtuse disaster of an organization and makes it an instrument of life and hope and resurrection.

Which leaves us with just one question: Can you imagine what the fully human, fully divine body of Christ—the Church—could do if we would just let go of this ridiculous baggage that gives us nothing but pain and embrace the breathtaking love God continually insists on offering us?

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