Eight of us met this morning in my living room for a Lenten mini-retreat. I led the group, inasmuch as I was the one who got them started, but in the end, I was as much led by them as they were by me. My goal was to get them thinking about how they have grown spiritually through the years so that they might be open to growing some more during the season of Lent. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
To reflect on the past, I asked them to map out their spiritual journeys, noting the highs and the lows, the bumps and the turns along the way. I will admit that I had assumed their journeys would look a lot like my own. That’s what I was expecting. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I heard eight entirely different stories. One had been raised on hell-fire and brimstone. Another had never once doubted the love of God in her whole life. Still another had grown up within a faith community where she felt truly loved only to later experience judgment and rejection when she didn’t meet their expectations as an adult. Most had “wandered off to find where demons dwell” at some point, but in different ways, at different times, and for different reasons. It was amazing to find us all in the same room at the same time sharing our diverse stories. None but God could have pulled that off.Despite the differences in their stories, there was a common thread I heard that blew me away. Without any prompting on my part, they discussed their spirituality in relationship to their connection to church. They felt strongest in their faith when they were most connected to a church, and when they were floundering, church was absent from their lives. So, I wondered, was it that when they felt more connected to God, they also wanted to be a part of a church, or was it when they became involved in a church that they also felt more connected to God? It’s the proverbial chicken and egg question, only the chicken is faith and the egg is church. In this little focus group, I was trying to draw conclusions from what they were telling me about the life of faith. Well, some said that faith came first and church followed, while for others, it was being part of a church that led them to a stronger faith. So, it was puzzling just how it worked for them. But one thing was clear -- their connection to God and their connection to church are intertwined.
I know that as a pastor this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Why? Because my inclination has been to accept church as a necessary evil for people of faith. The spiritual journey is just too hard to go it alone, so we need to be a part of something larger than ourselves. The Church isn’t perfect, and there are lots of things we get wrong, but it’s all we have. So, by default, we have to do church. My attitude has been pretty negative, I admit. Sometimes, as a pastor, I feel like I’m a zookeeper tending to one of the few remaining dinosaurs on earth. In time, church will become extinct along with the ones who pastor them. Lately, I had been thinking that this might not be such a terrible loss.But for these dear saints sitting in my living room, there is a direct correlation between the strength of their faith and their spiritual grounding in a faith community. I’m still trying to consider the significance of this. No, church is not God. No one in my little group would say that. They know the difference. But, maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe church is not God, but church also IS God. After all, the scriptures teach us that we are Christ’s Body in the world and that when we love, we are in God and God is in us. It’s not so easy to separate them and say that this is God and that is the Church and never the two shall meet. Among all the paradoxes that I have grown to accept as a part of what it means to live by faith, that is one that I had never considered before. Church is not God/Church is God. I’m hanging onto that for a while, turning it over in my mind, and waiting to see if it still holds true for me in a month or two. If it does, I’m hoping that I have a clearer understanding of how this matters for me in my life and vocation.
My sense is that this is disruptive enough to my way of perceiving the world that it will result in a shift in my thinking. I don’t know where it is leading, but it definitely changes the way I think about my role as a pastor. For starters, I realize that I haven’t taken it seriously enough. What I do and how I do it matters more than I had ever imagined.I have encouraged the people in my congregation to think outside their comfort zones during Lent this year, to be open to God’s Spirit of transformation calling them to a wider and deeper understanding of their faith. I am teaching an adult class that will challenge many of their long-held views. I gave them a reading list of dangerous books that will mess with their minds. I have pushed them to move forward, to lean into their fears, and venture into unknown territory. I hadn’t really thought too much about how that might be a good Lenten activity for me to engage in, as well. Not until this morning.
If that wasn’t God speaking to me through a community of the faithful meeting in my living room on this first Saturday in Lent, I don’t know what was. God is not church; God is church. Well, yes.