to write about the church

As I come here to write about work and the church, I find myself seized by another question entirely: what gives me the right, the need, or the gift – the calling, if you will – to write about the church at all? What tone could such an essay possibly take, coming from me?

My supporters might say that, though I am young, I have plenty to offer: growing-up experiences and involvement with a wide range of churches and a few nonprofits, a year’s service in a church and an “intentional community”, thousands of blog posts’ worth of reading, and of course, six years’ theological education.

Two years of said education have been at no less than the School of the Prophets, a name meant to inspire its students to live up to our heritage, the legacies of early-twentieth-century women’s rights activists and of sixties civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Their footsteps echoing in our halls offer an inspiration but also a stern injunction to find the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice and to use everything in our power to help it along.

Grateful as I am for all I have learned about justice at this institution, I have never quite come to understand what “School of the Prophets” is supposed to mean. Call me dense, but I often wonder: is the school supposed to attract prophets or to create prophets? I’m not sure it is the former. Anyone wearing a hair shirt, sleeping on the ground outside the city, or speaking a little too cryptically would be kindly referred to the counseling center. Our protests and denunciations tend to come in carefully-chosen actions and words designed to legitimize our message in the eyes of others.

Likewise, I wonder how the school might expect to create prophets, as the prophets did not, in fact, go to prophet school. They went to regular school, and then used what they learned to criticize their own teachers. And there are many other schools where I could be trained in the methods and ideas I have been so blessed to learn at BU.

Mostly, I have heard the school’s moniker used to bestow the “prophet” label on most anyone within earshot, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. Prophet is a powerful title, an ideological tool if we are not careful. Everyone who believes in justice is not a prophet. Everyone who is angry is not a prophet. Everyone who stands up to power is not a prophet. Everyone who is unwelcome in their hometown is not a prophet. A prophet is one who hears the voice of God. And though I have been invited to find God’s voice in many people and places, I have not always been given the tools of prayer and discernment to know God’s voice amidst the internal and external hubbub.

—–

I believe the voice of God is the voice of love, and the church is meant to be a place, in Dorothy Day’s words, “where it is easier for people to love”. Not, of course, because the people are more lovable, but because they are trying together to become people who love. We young pastors and writers are always trying to get people to do various things, but how often do we remember to care for the being of the people we serve?

We are likely to get into trouble about this once we start to argue over what “love” means. We decide we would like to equate love with justice or holiness or our own definition of “freedom”, and we stop fighting for love to begin fighting for our side of the argument. In our fervor we abandon humility and become swept up in the volleys of self-righteous arguments, passive-aggressive “pleas” and “explanations”, ruthless sarcasm, and condescending dismissiveness that characterize so many disagreements within and between churches. We assume we know others’ motives; we are quick to speak and slow to listen.

If I am to write about the church, I really must cease telling other people what to do out of pride. If I am to hear the voice of God, I must be quiet myself, and hear God’s peace and power behind God’s “ideas”. Even when God thunders, God does not condemn. Even when God speaks from God’s own pain, God does not lash out in tinny revenge. Even when God is demanding, God is kind, patient, and giving. Do I have the courage – do I have the love – to be any such thing?

I saw a prophet here once. He was a somewhat bedraggled man walking along a very crowded sidewalk. He spoke a few sentences about pain, and then he cried, “MY SPIRIT HURTS!”

The vulnerability took my breath away. Though I don’t want to romanticize mental illness or whatever else the man was dealing with, I think at that moment he was exposing something pathological about human society, not himself. We are so slow to admit when our spirits hurt; so quick to cover pain and fear with blame, rage, frantic action, or self-contempt. We are so afraid to admit these “weaknesses”, we hide behind blanket forts of outrage that match exactly those of the people who have hurt, offended, or frightened us.

—–

If I am to write about the church and work, it will not be because I believe I know so much better than anyone else. It will be because my spirit hurts for my friends in seminary, my family in churches, my neighbors in catering, and for myself – people whose work has become only oppressive, confusing, or wearying, and rarely the purpose-full activity it is meant to be. And my spirit leaps to think we could, together, recognize the evil in allowing toil to rule without rest, and recapture the grace-filled threads through the ordinary workaday. I will write a prayer, then: may the church be a place where work is restored to fruitful labor by people in love.

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