Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Winners and Losers, Revised

This is a post that I published yesterday, but then reconsidered and took down last night.  I am reworking it today . . . 

As we have been visiting different churches lately the thing that I am struck by is how smooth and, well, perfect, it all appears.  Your first impression is a huge, perfectly smooth parking lot and perfectly landscaped exterior.  You are greeted by happy, perfect looking people who seem to be saying, "we're winners!  you can be a winner too!"  The childrens' ministry is staffed by volunteers who are happy winners and all the other children look like perfectly coordinated baby Gap winners.  If it's a good church you'll find a place to get a good cup of coffee because church should be a lot like Starbucks but better.  Worship is always led by the cool artsy winners, and then the Pastor stands up and he's the big WINNER . . . 

When I discussed this with my husband later he reminded me that the fact that this type of environment is comfortable for most people in this country isn't a bad thing.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a church to look and feel nice.  I, too, look forward to a good cup of coffee and cool worship.  And, I realized that the tone I used here is way more condemning than how I feel . . . there is nothing wrong with being a winner, looking like a winner, or being friendly to visitors.  Nothing.  

And I'm struck by this contrast with what I have learned about ministry, and the people I have known well enough to learn from their depth of spirituality.  Ministry is messy.  Spirituality is messy.  

The part that is repulsive to me about "winner" spirituality is the way we focus all our energy on appearances . . . and this visual message we communicate about our perfection is often the unspoken message of our spirituality . . . in the type of environment where appearing spiritual is equally important or more important than being spiritual, that appearance becomes something we cling to, fight over, pound our chests about . . . like a hole in the parking lot or stain on your shirt, there is not room here for questions, mystery, healthy debate, open communication, honest evaluation, or organic growth.  There are only winners or heretics.

When I think about the ministries that I have known or been a part of, there was nothing smooth, or perfect, or even attractive about the great majority of it.  The people I have known who have given their lives to ministry- true ministry- have long since given up on the idea of it ever being easy, or, dare I say, really successful.  Programs fail.  Budgets shrink.  Donors evaporate.  Volunteers turn on you.  Personalities clash.  Strategies sink.  Unanswered questions abound.  Mission statements written on paper fall forever short of the glory of the story of God written on human hearts.

 We don't want to think that our faith commitment is defined by easy, pretty Christianity.  But as soon as it's not easy or pretty, we wonder where God is.  

Jesus wasn't pretty (Is.53.2), and he wasn't a winner(Is.53.3).  His disciples weren't winners (Acts 4.13).  Jesus' ministry was a huge failure, (John 19.14,15) from the world's perspective.   The mission that we have been called to is humiliation (Acts5.41),  persecution (2Tim3,12), constant failure (Ro7.15-25), and death (Luke9.23).   

I wonder if what we perceive as an absence of God, when life is muddy, complicated, difficult . . .  is actually evidence that He is at work?

I received this forward from a friend who has given her life to the chaos of faith and ministry . . .
Enter the Chaos
Patrice Vecchione

To be alive is not primarily a linear experience. It's a mix of dreaming and running to the store for a quart of milk. Our lives have depth, in part, because we can't make sense of everything. Life doesn't make sense; it's more complicated than our linear way of knowing. Mystery and spirit run through our days like rivers and sustain us. Life is a blend of possibility and impossibility.... From chaos comes clarity. It was there all along. You just couldn't see it. To come to clarity, you have to enter the chaos. Dive in or enter inch by inch. Confusion is not a bad thing.

Source: Writing and the Spiritual Life

"for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me." Is.49.23


charrette said...

I wish I had just the perfect response to this post.

I love your throught process, and I particularly love this line: I wonder if what we perceive as an absence of God, when life is muddy, complicated, difficult . . . is actually evidence that He is at work? And I want to direct you to a post by Melanie J called "I am blessed" that addresses that line very honestly and beautifully as she describes a cycle she perceives in herself...including the hard evidence that He is at work.

I, too, am put off by the parade of perfectness I see at churches far and wide, both of and not of our faith. But our congregation in Pasadena had the most wonderful cross-section of people from every walk of life. We had welfare moms living in government projects worshiping next to multi-millionaires on Midlothian. People from every possible race, color, and background; PhDs and people who never finished high school. And in that disparity the pure gospel seemed to work its magic better than I've ever seen...everyone committed to one another like family, loving, serving each other, Supporting each other's trials. No competition, no fashion shows. Just a group of people whose only common denominator was probably their love for the Lord. And I loved being a part of them.

One thing to keep in mind, from 1 Samuel 16:7 " Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.

Since I am so often biased against the superficiality of beautiful people, I try to look for what God sees in these individuals -- if the appearance is masking a selfish, greedy, judgmental heart, or whether the "winner" in them is merely the fruits of living a good life.

Jessica said...

You are so right Charette. . . I feel like maybe I should re-work this post, as I came across sounding way too judgmental of the "winners." I'm sure that people would perceive me and my family as falling into that category . . . I think the problem that I have is the "winners-only welcome" form of spirituality, and the mentality that only when everything makes sense is God at work . . . but you already got that!

Heather of the EO said...

Oh man. I have these same feelings and completely understand your perspective.

Something came to mind when reading your comment after Charrette's (she's so great). It came from Beth Moore - she talked about how often people who struggle will come to church, find acceptance, but only for a certain amount of time. If their lifestyle or issues don't change quickly, they are basically ignored or even asked to leave a lot of the time.

They are not "winners" in many a Christian's view.

Anyway, the idea that we're all the same got lost somewhere.

There's this ascension mentality. That if you're one of the saved, you're BETTER than everyone else. And if you follow a certain way of appearing, you are even higher on the winner list. And if you accomplish a certain list (bible study, sunday school, etc) you ascend even more. Above others.
This idea (subconscious or not) is something that really bothers me about many churches. It's blatantly obvious in many churches.

I hope I'm not totally off topic here. If so, just ignore me :)

Ruth said...

Is Writing and the Spiritual Life a book? I liked that quote.

Great post, as always.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Jess. I'm glad to hear confusion is not a bad thing.
kevin peterson