There are many Christians who believe you have to attend a local, organized congregation to be part of Jesus’ church in the world. There are others whose hunger for “something more” has led them outside those congregations when they felt their passion was being stifled by the conformity-based dynamics any institution needs to survive. The tension between these two groups has always been pronounced. Often the first group condemns the second for bitterness and abandoning the “church”, and the second group accuses the first of being legalistic or trapped in a destructive system.
What’s often at stake, however, are just people hurting from the loss of friendship and proximity. When we lose our need for everyone else to do it the way we do, we can find our way back into the tenderness and love that marks Christ’s church in all it expressions. I love this email I got the other day from Jenny (not her real name) and I loved how fear and threat so easily turned to honesty and affection when a bit of compassion was mixed in:
I didn’t realize how the life I live is centered on self reliance. I am beginning to identify more clearly how destructive this behavior has been. It has limited me in experiencing God’s love for me.
I received an email from a woman that I had participated with in ministry. I wrote her back. She called a couple of weeks later. We had an enjoyable conversation. She invited me to lunch and I joyfully accepted. There was nothing in the dialog over the phone that would have prepared me for what I encountered that afternoon over lunch. About 30 seconds into our conversation the condemnation began. Initially, I wanted to bite and momentarily imagined one sarcastic verbal blow that would render her speechless! That is until I noticed someone very familiar in the woman I was listening to sitting across the table from me. I heard myself.
What astonished me was my response. It was as if I had imaginary tape over my mouth. I was silent when the accusations didn’t fit. I nodded and quietly said, “I know” when she seemed right on target. Within a few minutes of listening to her I recognized I not only had the capacity to confront someone in that manner, but had done so more times than I would like to admit. I could dress it up to appear honorable, smile and sound caring, but it was disapproval nonetheless with the intent to control another human being. Unexpectedly the climate seemed to change, she admitted that she missed me. When the tape came off, the me I least expected responded. I told her I was sad that my not being in the congregation was hurting her. She expressed fear that I would get lost on my journey. I reassured her if I’m lost HE will find me. She said she didn’t want me to leave the church. I assured her that I remained part of the church. I shared with her how grateful I am for all I have learned while serving within the congregation including our friendship. I told her I loved her and felt it deeply.
I have experienced sorrow since then. The kind of sorrow that comes with repentance. I trust that God is changing me and it will take time. I have spent most of my life working toward making positive changes. Self reliance and introspection can be grueling work. My need to control actually escalated in that process, but I didn’t see it. I simply masked my controlling behavior more creatively. I had become self-centered under the guise of sacrificial love. It has helped relaxing in his love. My anxiety is decreasing. I feared I would become irresponsible if I relaxed, but actually the opposite appears to be happening. I am more observant to what God has right in front of me. I am beginning to experience adventure with the heart of a child in the process. I like that.
Don’t you love the self-discovery that rose out of a situation where loving each other was more important than getting the other person to see their point of view. What could have ended in more pain and anger actually found its way into a generous conversation and a reconnection of friends. When we give up our imagined right to control another human being, we can find our way back to friendship and connection.
We need more of that across these issues that divide us. That’s especially true of how we view church and how we engage it, whether it is inside institutional forms or outside of them in more relational connections. That’s why Jesus told us if we could just love others in the same way we are loved by him the whole world will know that wee belong to him. Without that kind of love the church has no presence in the world.