So, I am coming up to the end of my paternity leave. I have been spending a lot of time caring for an infant, two older children, and their mother over the past two months. There has been time for bonding, time for cooking, time for laughing, time for crying, and a lot of time for reflection while changing diapers.
In the midst of this time of leave, I have been reading a number of books. One of those books is Simon Tugwell’s “Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality.” Tugwell’s book begins rather strongly with some strong words of admonition. Tugwell speaks of the many moods that the church has held over the span of her life. In my own words, it seems that Tugwell believes that the church has been timid, self-assured, arrogant, humble, bold, and headstrong at different points in her life.
With all of these moods in her past, in times of crisis there are often a myriad of directions in which she can wander. I do not find this particularly shocking as I too have a myriad of directions that I can travel to when under stress. Sometimes I snap at the stressor, occasionally I shrink back, sometimes I have patience, and sometimes I will do something completely different. Tugwell, on the very first page of his work, makes the admonition that in “a time of confusion like our own, when people become disillusioned with the church and with christianity, should be a salutary, educative time, when we face the facts.”
Tugwell proceeds to point out that the church must struggle through questions and seasons of disappointment. I believe there are two reasons why Tugwell is correct in inviting us to confront our disappointment..
First, as Tugwell himself argues, the church is not about fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and ambitions. As a minister, at moments I daydream of coming into a packed church which is filled with parishioners on a Sunday morning. I know lay leaders who have dreamed of people begging to bake for coffee hour or for acolytes who will always light the candles perfectly without any need of guidance. Many people have hopes, dreams, and ambitions about life in the church, but Tugwell is correct. The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to fulfill our own will, but “is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.”
What does that mean? I do not believe that means forcing our views on others, but it may mean realizing the things we desire and the things that God desires are often very different. I might want to have a perfect acolyting moment every Sunday, but that child who cannot walk without assistance may be called by God to have a role in lighting the candles. Involving her might mean doing something different, like setting up a temporary ramp or assisting her up the stairs. Allowing her that role in the life of the church may cause us to end church five minutes late. Are those five minutes my time or God’s time? My view of what should be may have to go unfulfilled and that can be disappointing. My view of what should be might have to be discarded entirely, but the church of Jesus Christ does not exist to do my will but God’s will.
Second, hinted at by Tugwell, but not entirely fleshed out, is another reason why a church following Jesus might be frustrating and frustrated. Tugwell, while referring to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writes on the third page of “Ways of Imperfection:”
“[Jesus] is our true life, and apart from him we are only ghosts, masquerading as human beings but lacking substance. Faith is the beginning of life, but this has to be fulfilled in charity, and this is a practical matter, involving generosity to others, patient endurance of insults, gentleness, and above all else, belonging to the church, in communion with the bishop and his clergy.”
If Jesus is our true life then we are called into newness. I had professor in undergrad named Dr. Casey Davis who always spoke about the “already and not yet.” Christ is our true life and in Christ we have circumcised hearts! We are already living into that new life but to be entirely transformed has yet to take place. We will live into the fruits of the Spirit fully and completely. We have already begun but the complete fruition of that task has yet to be accomplished. We are already becoming more like Christ but that transformation is a process that can take a lifetime and usually longer.
Disappointment is necessary because we are living in an imperfect world as imperfect people. We should face that disappointment and imperfection with open eyes and courageous hearts. Despite our best efforts, we are but ghosts. Our righteousness is like a rag compared to that of Christ. The church is disappointing at times because it is full of people on their way towards Jesus. When the church is purified and enters into glory, she may lose everything about her that disappoints, but we are still on the journey. Tugwell is right to invite us to be aware of our situation.
So, what if we look at disappointment with the church as an opportunity? What if we find places in the midst of our disappointment to find the will of God? Where are we being led? What opportunities and adventures lie in our future when things are not perfect? Where is the voice of God leading us? What can these up and down moments on the journey teach us about the will of God and where we should be led?
One last quote from Tugwell this morning. On the seventh page, Tugwell quotes the writer of the didache as saying: “If you can carry the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. If you cannot, do what you can.” What if instead of focusing on our challenges, we do what we can?