CHURCH, pt. 1
This is a story that’s not finished yet, so I can’t tell you how it ends. If I can’t tell you how it ends, then I can’t quite tell you what it means yet. But I’ll tell you what I see is the shape of things right now, and a little bit about how we got here.
I was invited to help start a “church plant,” and everything made sense about the invitation. If that term is new to you, it means a church that’s beginning “from scratch”—a start-up church. I wanted to be a part of it, like a spiritual entrepreneur (but not the creepy kind). I wanted to help create a community, a spiritual hospital, in the middle of L.A.
Kids tend to like me. I didn’t ask for that gift, and I had no real interest in teaching Sunday school, but as it turned out, I was pretty good at it. So it’s hard not to start enjoying a situation like that.
The church planter, my pastor, is a kind man, with the spread of talents and qualities that you would want from your pastor. His managerial and administrative side was balanced by his empathetic and gently instructive side. He was an excellent speaker, and very consistent about checking in on anyone and everyone who came across his path.
Not too long ago, he sat us down, and told us his life was a mess, the kind of mess that would require him to take an extended break from the work of the church. This would mean certain death for the church.
The next Sunday he made the announcement in service. Some of us already knew, some didn’t. The room was hot. I don’t remember very much. I remember his face, red and sobbing, apologizing for not being a better man. I remember many times he could not stand upright, and he grabbed his knees until he could get the next word out. I remember his wife, sitting in the third row, looking like one of those Virgin Mary statues, inanimate but still crying tears of blood.
Then I remember a stranger—a pastor from another town—standing, doing his best, and saying things that didn’t make sense. Then we sang a song I think.
The next thing I remember is seeing a small group of church-dads approaching the stranger, and hearing them ask him how we could still exist as a church.
Still exist? After this f***ing disaster? What are they talking about?
I didn’t move into the conversation. I just started looking for things to do. Tasks to make myself useful.
It’s months later now… our pastor is indeed gone, yet we are still a little church. Things are changing—we are stronger now, and we love each other more.
Walter Brueggemann in his little book on the Psalms proposes understanding them in terms of orientation/disorientation/reorientation. For example, sometimes the Psalmist is thanking God for the status quo, for God has created and maintained order, and things are A-OK (orientation). But in psalms of disorientation everything is upside-down. The very ways you have understood how the world works, betray you. The things you thought were a given, are swept out from under you.
If you can’t relate to disorientation, I’m sorry, but it’s probably waiting for you at some future point in your life.
When you’re in a state of disorientation, you can still orient your heart towards God, which is the legacy of the psalmists. Even if you believe God has harmed you, forsaken you... God is far away, on the other end of a tin-can walkie-talkie, it is still better to scream profanities into that tin-can. Fill it with your tears and snot. Just whatever you do, stay on the line. Don’t hang up.
If you already hung up, that’s okay.
You can never go back to orientation from disorientation… you have to go right through the pain of disorientation, into a promised land of something totally new. A reorientation.
I believe the Spirit has taught me a better way of being a/the church lately—but I’ll save that for another post.