J. Randall Stewart
50 - Messy Church
"Life is pain, your highness. Anyone that says differently is selling you something." - Dread Pirate Roberts, A.K.A. Sweet Wesly, from "The Princess Bride"
I wouldn't say "life is pain," but I would say, life is messy, and sometimes that mess is painful. We like things to stay put. We like things to be neat. We like it when things are stable. Sometimes, we need to grow, to become more, to get better, and that requires change. Change is messy. Change is hard. Sometimes, change is painful, but it's a good kind of pain. Growing pains are necessary, and good in the long run, even when they don't feel good in the moment.
You need to grow. Sometimes, we resist the growth and new things God has for us, because we don't want to give up the comfort of the place we are, even when it starts to not fit us anymore.
Over the last seven years, God's done the hardest, most painful work in me that He's ever done. It hasn't been pleasant. It hasn't been easy. But, it's been good. These last seven years have been the culmination of a forty-year journey I've been on as a Christian, and in Church. Looking back, here are some things I've learned about Church, these last forty years.
Not every church is for everyone.
It's okay if you find a church that doesn't fit you. When I find myself in a church that no longer fits me (even if it once did), there's always a wrestle in me as to whether I should leave, and when. I never want to give up on things easily, or too quickly. I'm a fighter, especially when I see things that are wrong, and need fixing. That's why I'm a Construction Monk. Sometimes, we give up to easily on something broken, without first seeing if we're able to help fix it. Sometimes, we might wander from church to church, never feeling like any of them fit us, when the real issue is in us, not those churches. Sometimes, learning to stay in a hard circumstance teaches us good lessons, about ourselves and others. But, sometimes, it's time to move on.
One key I've found, in knowing when to move on, is having a peace about leaving, and leaving in peace. Leaving frustrated often sets us up for more frustration in the next church, because we haven't dealt with our part on the frustration of our current church. Even if we never change those around us, staying can help change us in healthy ways. Whether you stay or go, always seek God in every action. God leads through peace and love, not through anger, frustration, dissatisfaction, or hate. What God want's most for each of us is to transform us to be more like Him. Transformation is hard work. Giving up on hard circumstances too early often truncates the transformation process.
It's okay to not like a church. It's okay to not like a lot of churches. It's okay to not like any church. It's not okay to be angry and vehement towards Church, or churches. That doesn't serve you well, or others. We are called to build up in love, not tear down in anger. It's God's role to judge and correct, us and the Church. Sometimes God leads through dissatisfaction. I call this Holy Discontent. When God is getting ready to do something new, He often precedes it with a growing dislike for what currently is. If you feel like there's not a church out there for you, hold on, God is getting ready to do something new. Maybe He wants you to be a part of that.
2. Pastors say things they mean, but don't always know how to do
I love Pastors!!! My dad was a pastor. My dad was a messy and messed up guy, but boy, could he preach a good sermon. He was wise in many ways. He had a great understanding of scripture. He had a voracious love of truth and knowledge. I think I get that from my dad. One thing my dad taught me, was that God uses messed up people. God uses really messed up people. That's good, because we're all really messed up people.
Sometimes a Pastor can be a bit of a politician, feeling strongly compelled to keep everyone in the church happy with them. It's a precarious position to be in a church with a lot of people, that have a lot of expectations, that a pastor may or may not be able to meet. It's good to have grace towards your pastor. They're human. They want to keep their church happy. They want everyone to get along. They won't always live up to the image they project, or the messages they preach. They're reaching for God, even as they encourage you to reach for God. Give 'em a break. Give them a lot of grace. Don't hold them to every work, idea, or truth they express from the pulpit. We all say things we don't mean. We're all reaching for things we've yet to grasp. It's hard being a pastor. Nuff said!
5. A church is never greater than all its parts, and you're a part
It's easy to be critical. We all can be armchair captains at times. A critical spirit is infectious. It can make a whole-body sick. Be balanced in your approach, even in seeing and trying to bring much needed change to light. One thing I was taught at a young age was the sandwich method. Always sandwich a critique between two positives. I don't always do that, but I try to speak out the good, in the midst of also voicing the bad.
If all we ever do is point to the bad, it can start to bring us down, and everyone around us. It's good to see what needs to change. It's good to be the change you want to see. Just be careful how you approach and address those things. People will sometimes misunderstand your heart in trying to point to needed change. Don't worry about that. Do the best you can to point it out. Don't be upset or daunted if others don't care about the issue you do, or the change you think is needed. Sometimes, we need to be refined in our desire to bring change. Sometimes, we want other to do for us what we need to do ourselves.
God is much bigger than any problem we face. God is always refining His Church. He does that most by refining individuals. Let God refine you, before you seek to help Him refine the Church, and you'll find you're better fitted for both. After all, you are the Church.
The Church is not a building. The Church is not your pastor, or a group of leaders. The Church is a people belonging to God. Be the Church everywhere. No one can stop you from being your part. If you feel squelched in your part, in a particular place and time, be patient. We often do much harm through our immature zeal. Let God refine you, and your desires. I've had a passion to see the Church change for a long time. I've waited for a long time. I've been frustrated for a long time. I've pleaded, and begged, and sought God to set me loose on a mission to set the Church right. I've learned that God had to take a long time setting me right first. How I would have approached my calling at a younger age would have done more harm than good.
In all things, love.
Sometimes our zeal is simply a mask for pride and woundedness. Before we can help heal something, we need to do a lot of healing in ourselves. God knows when we're ready, and for what. Be patient. Don't give up. God has given you those desires for a reason. He has no desire to squelch you in your gifts and calling. But those often take a lot longer to cultivate into useful things than we realize. God is never holding you back inopportunely. God's timing is perfect! If we're patient, and persistent, we'll see the good things He has for us eventually.
We need to spend a lot of time on our part, before being released by God to help other parts be more healthy. That's just the way it is. Trust God. Let Him do His work, in His way, in His time. We are His work, created for good works in Christ Jesus. Amen!!
6. You shouldn't make lists about Church
We think we could do it better. You never know until you try.
My wife is the project manager of our construction company, and I'm the one who does a lot of the work. Sometimes, her expectations about how fast a project will move are unrealistic. That's understandable, because she's never done it before. How should she know. Let the experts give their expertise. Learn what your meant to be an expert of and develop your expertise.
I once sent one of my books to Richard Rohr, thinking he might love it, and help me get it published. This was a foolish idea. After I sent that book, I waited, and dreamed. I thought he would love the book so much; he'd also invite me to speak and teach in conjunction with his Center for Action and Contemplation. This was also a foolish idea. After a few weeks, I got a kind email from Richard, saying he got the book, but had no ability to help me. He told me that he gets about six thousand books a year from people who had the same desire as me. He also told me I needed to "cook" a bit longer before I was ready to launch into the world with my message. He was right.
At the time I sent that book, I wasn't that practiced in public speaking. I hadn't even started my podcast yet. Even after starting my podcast, I wasn't that good at it for a long time. Now, I'm much better. I've been cooking for a while now. I've also written five more books since that book. With each book, I've gotten better. Looking back at the first book I wrote, and sent to Rohr, I'm glad he didn't read it. It wasn't that great. If that book had gotten out into the world, the world would have thought I was a terrible author. Now, I'm much better. Maybe now, I'm in a better place to launch out into the world with my message.
Either way, sometimes we need to set out and try things before we think we're ready to give our opinions about them. In all things, love and grace. Find your thing. Do your thing. But don't think your thing is standing off at a distance telling everyone how their wrong. Find something constructive to do. The world has enough people scream at everyone for getting everything wrong. The world needs more people doing something about what's wrong, in a positive and active way.
Don't just make endless lists in your head about what's wrong with your world. Take the time to pick something and try to do something about it. In the doing and the going, we learn a lot, and sometimes, we can make a big difference too. Amen!
8. I don't know how to Count
In all things, humor. I know I've said "in all things" way too many times. But, hey, here we are. You gotta laugh. laugher is good medicine. Sometimes, you can laugh off hard things and make your heart lighter in the process. We're all in this mess together. We're all doing our best, even when our best isn't that great. We could all do with a lot more grace for ourselves and others. We all get it wrong more than we get it right. Don't be judgmental. Don't be self-righteous. Be the first to admit when you're wrong. Be the first to forgive. Don't have a double standard. Be easy on yourself and others. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to try, and fail, and try again. You have to do something poorly before you learn to do it well.