This week I ate a meal with two dear colleagues in church leadership, during which we ended up telling a trove of stories. The stories came alive as entities unto themselves - weaving back and forth across the tabletop between us. Commonalities formed the warp and distinctive stories were the weft of a vulnerable tapestry. One commonality that rose up caused me great sadness. Each of us knew individuals who had offered up their ministry in the church, and been rejected.
As I remember these hard stories of my own dear friends and family I recognize "myself" in them, but in a way that is more deeply saddening. Because rejection of the ministry of lay folks usually includes or is entirely driven by the deafness, blindness or self-centeredness of clergy.
I remember profoundly a conversation years ago with a trusted mentor across another table, in a Subway restaurant. Tears rose to my eyes as I said to her, "I think I really hurt someone. I think I messed up as a leader." She had the wisdom to say to me, more or less, "Why are you surprised?" and "Now you get to say sorry."
She was expressing two of the profound gifts of the Christian life. First, we recognize that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23...why are you surprised you messed up!), and second, "Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19-20...now you get to say sorry!).
The voice of Empire, which has been a teacher to us all, says that the best response to failure is shouting and denial. Empire says that brokenness is weakness and worthlessness. And Empire put Jesus to death on a cross, because Empire truly believed that this would lead to its victory over Jesus.
But Jesus says "Blessed are the meek." And "Blessed are the poor." And blessed are you when you say, "Yes. There is my sin. And I am sorry. And I turn again now to the way of Jesus." And Jesus broke bread and shared time continually with those who were broken, lifting up their perfect value. Jesus went willingly up onto the cross of Empire, and then broke forever its power to shame and dehumanize and belittle.
The Church is a group of "Christ"ians, and as Christ-ians we ascribe (even while living in the midst of Empire and its teachings) to Jesus' Way. A Way that relentlessly finds in every individual, and somehow especially in the brokenness of individuals, the perfect holiness of God. The Church also messes up in trying to actually do this. I have messed up in trying to actually do this. We have messed up in trying to actually do this. ...And we can say sorry and be refreshed.
In the stories I shared with my colleagues, there was not just rejection, but times of new life. Often the new life had to do with reconciliation with church or church leaders, or with moving on beyond a hurtful leader's circle of influence. And so I could not feel at peace without writing these words to you. Friends, I can't say I have fun discovering that I've messed up, but if I have a second to breathe with it, I'm not surprised. I hope that when (not if) I do mess up, we can talk about it, so that I can try my best to say sorry. I've already appreciated some of these conversations at St. Andrew's.
And also, if you don't want to talk with me, know that there are others that you can talk with. Our Vestry and Wardens are closest to hand and very appropriate to speak with. Also, Bishop Rob is my bishop, not my buddy. The diocese is ready to support parishioners and clergy alike with the harder kind of conversations when they arise. At our best, the Church has mediated some of the great reconciliations of all time. South Africa, Northern Ireland, and US Civil Rights come to mind, but plenty more of these "great reconciliations" happened at little churches like ours and are only known to two or three or four people, who were made new. Thanks be to God.
A closing note: The Vestry of a church I know posted the "10 rules for respect" in their congregation. The Bishop visited and commented, "It seems like these are all about conflict. Isn't that a bit negative?" I recognize that my reflection this week could come off similarly. But the response of the rector at that church was that, "Conflict is normal. We're naming it and giving ourselves a way to respond." If you have never been rejected at church, hallelujah! And if you have, I hope this helps in naming our brokenness and finding ways to respond.
In Christ, Who Truly Values Each of Us (even with his own life!),