“What are you not telling me? You must have done something!”
The words hurt, but it was the force behind them that turned my stomach. It was the urgency in her voice. Dripping with pain. Running in confusion. Grasping for something, anything, to make sense of what she heard.
Little else has elicited such emotion from me. Earnestness. Sadness. Uncertainty.
Don’t forget scared. Because everything was changing and I seemed so very unable to stop, slow, or control the changes. They were being forced upon me like having to face tomorrow. Tomorrow would force itself upon me, ready or not. That’s what scared me most about her words. Would facing tomorrow be something I had to do alone?
It is amazing how intimately connected fear and anger are. I had given myself to the church for more than four years. I trusted them. Served them. Sacrificed for them. Only to be stabbed in the back and thrown out. And with such manipulation!
And now my wife was questioning my truthfulness to her.
So yeah, I was angry.
I’ve seen the dark, dragonness underbelly of the church. I’ve seen it, been crushed by it, and I still love the church. I care deeply for her and am giving my life to the church. But nothing has caused me to question my call to ministry like being fired from a church.
My firing is one of those, “I can’t believe a church did that” type of stories. I did not commit a moral failure. My performance reviews were glowing. Ministry was going well. On paper there was no good reason for being fired. That isn’t to say I was without fault. I was an arrogant 26 year old who bucked authority because of personality conflicts. There is a component to my firing that I need to own, and I have worked to own it.
But I don’t need to own the fact that, after I informed the leadership that at the end of the school year I would step down, I was told I would be kept on until then. Only to be called into a meeting a week later where I was being relieved of my responsibilities, effective immediately.
I don’t need to own not being given a reason for being let go. Even after repeated asking.
I don’t need to own that elder trying to manipulate me into signing a document requiring silence in order to receive a month severance package (including career counseling!) by saying the month’s severance was a month’s mortgage payment.
I don’t need to own having to beg the committee for the opportunity to call my wife and discuss taking the severance package or not – and then being given 10 minutes to decide.
Yeah, I’ve seen the dark underbelly. It exists and it is ugly.
A lot of people leave church because they have been hurt by the church. Believe me, I get it. I thought about leaving after being fired. I fantasized about it. I thought about going back to school for nursing. Originally, I had gone to college with aspirations of being a doctor. That didn’t seem possible anymore, so nursing struck me as a good alternative. But for all my fantasy about leaving the church, I couldn’t leave.
Explaining why I didn’t leave has been hard. There wasn’t some grand revelation. No driving certainty of call that kept me focused on serving the church. I don’t think I’m a glutton for punishment. None of that was present for me, and yet, two years after being fired I graduated from seminary and accepted a call to serve my current church.
So why didn’t I leave?
Staying engaged with a local church can be one of the hardest things a person can do. It is very easy to leave a local church and yet claim to be connected to the church. I think the recent emphasis on the universal church is wonderful. At the same time, I think it is disingenuous to say you love the church but aren’t engaged locally. When the New Testament describes the church it uses phrases like “with one another” and “bear with one another” and “submit to one another” and “greet each other with a kiss.” It is pretty evident this isn’t meant to be some metaphysical connection existing only the spiritual. I’m not sure how you could greet each other with a kiss and not be physically present with each other.
It’s probably like a butterfly kiss and those suck.
It is difficult to reconcile the two realities of church. On the one hand,you have the universal church. The beautiful bride of Christ who is the manifold wisdom of God being displayed to the universe. It is a grand idea full of hope and beauty and redemption. Church universal has a beautiful, rich history full of foibles and redemption. It is so very easy to love this church.
On the other hand you have the local church. It’s filled with people. Actual people who say dumbass things. Who manipulate out of their aspirations and desires. Who all to often hurt others and fail to embody love. It’s much more difficult to love this church.
But you can’t love the universal church and not love a local church. Loving church means loving people, not an idea. And loving people means loving them when it hurts you to do so. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings is a brutal reality when you work to love actual human beings.
I stay with the local church because “iron sharpens iron.” Sometimes it is a violent process. But the end result is something that is so beautiful. It is something new. It is something I can’t quite see yet, but something I am so hopeful for.
So for all the reasons I have to not be engaged, I have not left the church. And I won’t. I believe the church is to be a light in the darkness. That starts with me. Not with my church leadership, with me. Not with those at the end of the aisle, with me. If the church is to prophetically show the world an alternative reality, then I have to love people even when they hurt me. The world knows how to run, leave, criticize, bad-mouth, and dismiss. Loving, engaging, working with, and reconciling are very, very different. It is the churches responsibility to show the world a different way. A way that loves our enemies.
If we want to teach the world to love our enemies, maybe it has to start with those we call brother and sister.