Sunday, August 02, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong, Part 16

Recognizing the Problem

Always in a Hurry, Until . . .

Over eight years ago, I turned thirty years old. Turning thirty years old kind of freaked me out. I guess I still thought of myself as just barely being twenty. Then I was thirty. A few seconds after turning thirty, I was closer to being forty than being twenty. I am sure those who are much older than me are disgusted by me thinking this way about being thirty. But for me, this was the first time in my life that I found myself not being in a hurry to get to the next stage. When I was a kid in elementary school, I wanted to be older. I couldn’t wait to get to middle school. Then I couldn’t to get to high school. Then I couldn’t wait to drive a car. Then, once I could drive, I couln’t wait to go off to college and enjoy freedom. Then I got to college and thought how great it would be to have my own place and my own income. I couldn’t wait to get out. Then I couldn’t wait to get married. I was ready for that next stage. I couldn’t wait to move up to higher responsibility once I started working. I was always just dying to get to the next phase, from the time I was a little kid to the time I was, suddenly, turning thirty.

Now I wasn’t in a hurry any more. I wasn’t looking forward to being forty or fifty or sixty or seventy. And for some reason, once I didn’t care to get on to what was next, time finally started flying. How ironic.

Reflecting on My Need to Change

But I also had other anxieties attached to my thirtieth birthday. My life was in a place where I needed to change some things. Even though I had worked as a pastor and done many outward “good deeds” throughout my life, I was beginning to realize just how selfish I really was. My marriage could have been better if I wasn't so focused on receiving instead of giving. My friendships were good, but could have been much deeper if I were focused on giving instead of getting. Parenting made me aware of how little energy and attention I really could give away to someone else before I needed my own space and time to recharge. It was really a bit startling. Of course, ministry, was another such thing. To really succeed at it, I needed to be able to give lots and live quite selflessly. And I really believed that this was the Christ-like way to live: giving to my wife, my kids, my friends, my church. Giving my time, my energy, my attention, generously and without expecting to always get something back in return. I realized the selfish intentions behind even my “good acts” for the first thirty years of my life, and I decided with noblest intentions that the next thirty plus years of my life needed to be focused more on giving than taking. I was ready to embrace being an adult and start focusing every minute of every day on giving instead of taking.

But it didn’t work. Every year or so I would revisit those thoughts (usually right around my birthday) and re-commit to the same thing. As I write this, I’m thrity-eight. Although I am a more giving person than I was at age thrity, I am nowhere close to what I set out to do. I’m still selfish and can only give a very small percentage of my time, attention, and energy to those around me before I feel the need to do something to re-charge myself --- to get something!

The experiences I have just described are what led me to realize that the real problem with the church is me. Or, should I say, the problem with the church is us. I am not healthy. We are not healthy. I really cannot give myself away to others, at least not for long. I can preach and teach about taking up my cross, about laying down my life, about loving others at all costs. But in the end, its more rhetoric than it is reality.

Words of Wisdom

I shared this frustration of mine with a trusted mentor at one point in my early thirties. His answer surprised me. He already knew my dilemma. He told me that there is no way I can do it. I can’t give myself away like I wanted to with my second set of thirty years. He told me to focus on getting instead! But to focus on receiving from God, not from any other source. And that only then would I have the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to ever become a more giving person. He shared with me in depth about this. It helped me relax and receive. Over time, relaxing and receiving made me a little more generous and giving. That was an interesting lesson to learn.

But I’m still humbled that I must admit that the road of my journey to find out what is wrong with the church has led to a mirror. I am what is wrong with the church. Sure, the church has generational problems. Sure it has cultural issues to sift through. Sure it has a huge theological problem in that it doesn’t even know who it is. But more central to its troubles is my own brokenness. And yours. And all of theirs. The problem with the church is me.

I have shared those thoughts on occasion when teaching or preaching. I always follow up my confession by inviting the audience to share in my blame. I tell them that if they are considering taking me out behind the building, hiring a hit man, and doing away with me in order to rid the earth of the church’s problems once and for all, that they should realize that I’m speaking on behalf of us all. I’m being a little bit falsely humble when I say the problem with the church is me. The problem is really us. My brokenness corrupts her. And yours. And all of ours, through space and time. We aren’t giving enough. We don’t give away our energy, our attention, our ability, our money, our love. And we can’t do it. We just are not that healthy.

As my trusted mentor instructed me, the same goes for us. We cannot do it. We cannot just force ourselves to be more giving, more generous, more loving. We have to focus on receiving, but on receiving from one source, the love of God. Only then will we relax and be healthy enough to gradually become more loving, more giving, more generous. Then maybe it won’t be quite so dramatically obvious that something is wrong with the church. Then maybe the world will notice more that something is right with the church. Maybe something -- something beyond my ability to conjure up -- will shine through and those who are really watching will notice.

Maybe then you and I -- and all the others who are the church, and then even some who are not just yet -- maybe then we will all find our way home.


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