Sunday, August 21, 2011

Life is messy...

Life is messy.  That is, I think for a vast number of people, life is messy.  Churches, especially in my experience of churches, try to create a tidy space where there isn't any mess.  They aim the church to be a place where couples don't get divorced and young people don't have sex without being married, let alone have children when they're not married.  They try to make a space where people don't turn out to be gay.

The problem is that these things happen, even in the church. And the church often doesn't know what to do with them.  Churches are good at saying these things shouldn't happen, which is not the same as being effective at preventing them.  Most churches seem to think that if you stand in the pulpit or Sunday School and say, "Don't do this," maybe say it very loudly, that pretty well takes care of that.

Meanwhile, there are a host of people who have grown up in the church, maybe who would love to stay in the church, but when their lives get messy, the church shuns them.  Maybe it's not even entirely intentional.  Maybe it's just uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable for the person with the "messy" life, uncomfortable for the church with its assumed cleanness.  And so those whose lives are on the margins just disappear, maybe even get angry.  They didn't go looking for a divorce.  They didn't ask to be gay.

In recent times, the church at large has tried to normalize the mess.  "I'm not perfect just forgiven."  Here we get to the opposite set of proverbs.  God does expect us to try.  The person who runs off and has an affair has created his own mess.  He's ruined the life of his wife and children.  The church should be a place where he can be restored--if he truly wants to turn his life around--but it should not be a place that is ok with adultery.

One problem is that the church has had a tendency to major on the minor.  For example, in the case of adultery it is not the sex act that is the major.  The major also is not the breaking of some abstract rule that you shouldn't have sex outside of marriage.  Rule oriented morality is a lower level understanding of morality, not to mention the fact that that this particular rule isn't even stated in the Bible.  It's a synthesis of several different biblical commands rather than a principle the Bible actually states explicitly.

What is major about adultery is the lives it destroys in a selfish act.  It is thus doubly wrongful, deeply hurting both spouse and children and doing so merely in the pursuit of selfish pleasure.  Premarital sex doesn't do this kind of damage.  Homosexual sex doesn't do this kind of damage.  Yet somehow the church has become comfortable with divorce, with the massive damage it does, while the teenage parent who truly loves her child and the guy who did nothing to become attracted to the same sex have committed unpardonable sins.

What is the church to do with those who don't follow the script?  The church is supposed to proclaim the ideal, after all.  Would that it grew up a little in its sense of moral evaluation, however.  Intention in context is the key to evaluating morality.  What was the intention of a person?  What were the circumstances?  Could the person have done anything differently?  All sin is not the same. This is not only an unbiblical notion.  It is way unbiblical.  We should more measure things by the harm they do to others and the intent of the individual in doing the harm.  The level of selfishness is also an indicator of moral vice.

But once a person's life is a mess, it is not the job of the church to mete out the consequences.  Yes, there is a place for church discipline, another proverb.  There is a time for a pastor to be removed or for an individual to be taken off the church board. I'm speaking of the person whose mess is its own punishment and who truly would like to continue in community.  Here all the other proverbs kick in about the church being more a hospital than a haven.

Life is messy.  We celebrate those whose lives are squeaky clean.  But a loving and welcoming hug for those whose lives have turned out to be messy.  We're people of the heart, not the external appearance.

16 comments:

Robert said...

Surely the ideal is about accepting people - no matter who or what they are - and building a community with them anyway, not passing judgement on them.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Let's agree that life is messy, but disagree about "how to clean it up"....as that is where most would differ in our society.

the questions as I understand them would be;

1.) what do we agree about that is "dirty"? some think that nothing is "unclean in and of itself"....

2.) what do we agree about that is inappropriate? our civil society teaches this in our social mores....

3.) what do we agree about that should never happen? These are where our laws lie, and our laws uphold the right of individuals before it. Therefore, we should not murder, cheat or steal.

In our society, where we are free to believe as we choose such subjects as; God, faith, human nature, society's basis, our social values, our national policy issues, and even morality itself will be argued from different perspectives with differing reasons. Therefore, to remain free, we must also remain open or tolerant to argument, and not opinionated about and upon a text that is considered "sacred".

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, it seems to me that you continue to conflate civil society and life with life in church. They are two different things.

Being a church member, after all, is voluntary. Therefore, I may need to agree to abide by certain things as a condition of remaining an active priest or even, a lay member in good standing of my church community. Such requirements are well within the bounds of what it means to exist as a voluntary organization within a democratic, civil society when it would be inappropriate for a government to impose such requirements on the country as a whole.

No, regarding "squeaky cleanness". There is no such thing, and anyone who want to come across that way is a Pharisee. The most truly and completely holy people are acutely and deeply aware of their own sinfulness and are also the most merciful when it comes to the sins of others (not that they are not willing to call a spade if necessary and when they are required to do so by their position in the church).

Ken Schenck said...

Good comment Angie! Robert, I think of these sorts of things as proverbs that always have exceptions.

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, I took Angie's comment more in relation to society as a whole rather than in relation to the church.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You are right, Ken!
ALL Americans should be interested in their society, and government, as that is where we live and move and have our being.

We watched a movie last night, "Traffic". It was about drug trafficking and drug use! So sobering and disturbing! This is, in my mind, what makes Obama's illegal immigration policy so dangerous! (besides undermining the "people's choice" in the next election cycle ;-) )...So, in this sense, both soceity and government is involved in the problem and should also be seeking a "solution". All social problems and societal needs and questons involve these "dilemmas"...marriage/divorce; educaton; parenting; birth control; healthcare; etc.

Now, does the church have all the answers to society's ills? That is also going to be answered differently amongst the denominations, with their different emphasis!

John Mark said...

I have been both ends of the spectrum, 30 years ago I resigned a ministry position because my life had become 'messy,' now I am in the position of having to administer church discipline--a task I am temperamentally unsuited for, to put it mildly.
It is very hard to ask someone to step down from some sort of 'ministry' position and still keep a loving relationship alive. Frankly, I wish I could do better at it. At times I have wished the church were run like an AA program, where we could come in and unload, or be transparent with our struggles, but I have found, sadly, that some people aren't willing to say, "I'm Bob and I'm an alcoholic." I probably come off as a pharisee, I just don't know how to reconcile the need for integrity and the need for love in my own attitude and thinking; I certainly agree we need both.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

JohnM,
Your life is still messy, but just intellectually. And that makes for the confusion and guilt in your feelings. What are you primary values and why? Those should be the basis of your "commitment".

One must know that humans are human, period, unless you are in a denomination that believes that humans are perfectable (and what those standards are based upon)...

Church discipline seems to me a tactic to keep the impure "out" and the "pure" in (challenge the definitions of pure and impure). The Phairsees were keepers of the "law". Your denominaton's law is where you draw the lines, if you can't and still maintain integrity, maybe it's time to "get out". Your resigning from the denomination might do more for furthering your values than staying in and trying to convince the "assured" and "sanctified"! In fact, it might do more to influence those you couldn't influence otherwise! They might be open to listen where they weren't before....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

or it could just further confirm in their minds, their 'assurance" of being "one of the elect". But, surely your leadership has been and is respected at this time and that should mean that resigning might make some type of statement that would bring questions your way.... One won't know their response until one tries.

Maybe you should start to seek out ways to incorporate your value of AA meetings and their emphasis...

FrGregACCA said...

I understand, John. I do not perceive you as being a Pharisee at all. Part of the problem, of course, is that AA, by definition, is made up of all "born agains" in the sense in which William James uses that term and Christian congregations, no matter how strongly they emphasize conversion, are always a mixture of once-borns and twice-borns.

Further, of course, AA has no class of permanent leaders/"clergy". All leadership is done by "trusted servants" elected to their positions for set terms and then rotated out, and there is little or no connection between these "trusted servants" and those who actually chair meetings ("preside").

I have no answers for you (and I too have been in both positions), but perhaps I would suggest that administering such discipline always must be a collegial effort and also, probably also must involve some kind of oversight which is outside and above the congregation,whether in the form of a specific office ("episcopal") or by way of some type of multi-congregational board ("presbyterial").

Also, obviously this situation does put the relationship in question at risk, but remember, the ultimate purpose of discipline is both to maintain the health and integrity of the congregation AND to bring the one under discipline to repentance. I will pray for you, John.

Scott F said...

In thinking about the church I attend, I wanted to say that there is not much rejection of "sinners" there. Upon further reflection, I must say that at the individual level people are taken as they are. One member of our Sunday School described the class as the "oddballs" or something. So perhaps my closest circle are all damaged goods and less judgmental. One thing we do struggle with is exactly how to reach out to each other in our messiness. What is appropriate when someone loses their job? It can't be all about sending a casserole!

All that said our church has been described as cliquish as many "country club" churches are, I suppose. But I don't consider that necessarily as a cleanliness issue.

At the institutional level may be where Cleanliness is a substitute for Godliness. While the members fumble about trying to deal with each other, the church institution itself (or those with hands on the levers) functions as if all that messiness doesn't exist or is something you can handle with a community food pantry. No outreach to single parents. No divorce care. A youth program that only wants to talk about abstinence, never the results of stumbling in the face of surging hormones. This is where I think your post hits home the most.

A related note? I still hold the shadow of a theory that average Christians condemn loudest those sins that they are least likely to commit (or be caught committing?) Hence homosexuality is at the top of the hit parade because essentially no one wakes up in the morning and decides to be gay. Likewise pre-marital sex is not much of a threat to the married crowd. But as divorce has becomes more common - i.e. more likely to happen to them or their loved ones - the vitriol has reduced and it has become "normalized."

[I was going to include abortion in my list of "sins that other people commit" but thought I might catch it... oops!!! )

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Why can't church people admit they are just another group, that behaves like any other group? That is what disturbs me. They think the church is something special. They aren't! They have their lines drawn by their laws (or opinions), therefore, they ostercize those that don't hold their values. All humans do this. And those that like AA meetings, or food pantries are acting as any "social/community group" might This is what we've found works for our society.

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, if a "church" as an institution isn't "special" then it's status as "Church" must be called into serious question.

I don't know if you consider yourself a Christian or not, but from a Christian POV, just look at what the New Testament has to say about the "Church". These references are not to some invisible fellowship of true believers; no, they concern a very tangible, historical, visible organization and institution!

That doesn't mean that those of us in the Church are anything but sinners seeking redemption, or sick people seeking healing. Far from it. However, in the NT, the Church, as such, is not just another body of people! It is "the fullness of [Christ] who fills all in all". It is "the body of Christ" and "the pillar and ground of the truth".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

We are different in our commitments as to value of this institution, I believe.

Yes, it is an institution that grants a means of social interaction. And as an institution, it functions similarly as any other institution or organizaton. That is all I meant about it not being "special".

As to "truth", well, that is a totally different question. And the question is answered depending on one's understanding of "truth".

Representation has been one way, but multiculturalism is another way. So, which view is true, and how do we know? "one view" or "form" (realist) or is it multidimensional/cultural (contextual) or is truth (personal as to memory and language and all that that entails)? Or are such opinons about "what is truth" to be personally chosen, because of our differences as to personality, interests and values?

Church is defined by some understanding of a particular religious tradition, and even then, it is understood within a particular "tradition" within the wider church at large. This is the "spiritual" aspect of church and is for those that choose to believe (for whatever reason).

As to your quote, you must believe several things to accept the statement that the church is the fullness of christ...1.) that there is a God. 2.) that Jesus/church is the means of connecting man to God 3.) that there is a spiritual realm that transcends the "real world". (That I think is the dangerous part!)

The reason I believe that a transcendental realm is dangerous is because such thinking sets up an authority or life commitments that are based on something other than the "real world"...is science a means of true knowledge, well, that also is debated...

I am stll learning...questioning, and that isn't a value for the religious!

FrGregACCA said...

So what are your commitments, Angie? Where are you coming from?

It still seems to me that you think that the ways in which American society as a whole works, under the Constitution, should also apply within churches, or any other voluntary organization for that matter, and this is simply not the case.

My attitude is as follows: if someone is interested in finding God, is experiencing a desire to connect with God, I can help with that. However, if someone does not have that desire at this time, there is little I can for them as a Christian priest. We may connect on some other basis, perhaps a shared commitment to a given socioeconomic and political vision, or something less profound, but not by way of religious faith.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The first primary need, according to Maslow is for physical survival. So, all human fight/compete to survive physically. This is the value of economic liberty, producing and making a living, saving and being able to retire, if that is one's choice. Economic liberty is based on personal responsibility and individual choice as to one's vocation.

Some people have to fight to survive psychologically, as without that kind of survival, then what is life? Such 'hope' is not about a transcendental realm, but politcal liberty, as a value in and of itself. This is the value of our Constitutonal government that protects the indivdual from abuses of power.

Others fight to recieve love, thier hope is in finding a "place". Unfortunately, love is never a promise or a right in this world. Love is a gift that graces life. But, one can never expect to receive love. They can only demand respect, by respecting themselves enough to value themselves just as much as the other person.

I have come to understand that religious people all have their opinions that they hold dear. These opinions/beliefs are based on some understanding of their "faith". These opinons or beliefs help to make these believers feel like they belong. They are not alone in the world. So, they feel threatened when others might not agree to their opinions or beliefs. And they react, because they are really defending themselves against what they perceive as an intrusion into their security and their percevied hope.

These opinions/beliefs become their security blankets, as to how life is and works and what it means. This is their interpretive frame, or "glasses", if you will. And they will interpret everything that happens within that paradigm.

Liberty allows for diversity of opinion, views and commitments of life. This is why I value liberty as a primary value. The "rule of law", means that anyone has just as much right of being represented before the law, as any other citizen.

Academic liberty means that I can learn something that might be considered "out of bounds" or "off limits" to a religious person.

And personal liberty means that I choose who I want to associate with and what I want to do with my life!

I am married, have children, grandchildren, and my grandfather, who raised me, as well, as my mother are still living. These are my personal commitments.

My husband's health is of concern, and my grandfather and mother are getting older. There may be future need there.

As it stands now, I am organizing my life in my thinking, home, and prioritizing my grandchildren in my schedule, as my daughter works.

I love to blog, and I love connection on FB. Both are avenues to read and educate myself on pertinant news, the value of liberty, the early Founding, and spending time sharing that information in those avenues are what I am committed to now.

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