Clergy and laity both have bemoaned the fact that the Enemy, through a question as old as time, "Did God really say...?" seems to be winning. For a great many of us, particularly those in "American mainline Protestantism", things are a mess. Worship is no longer ordered with regard to Scriptural norms or ancient Church tradition, but rather "what people like." The Kingdom of the Left is grossly confused with the Kingdom of the Right. We dare not preach Law, or say no, to anyone or anything that isn't patently illegal, lest we be viewed as "unwelcoming." Too often, the 3rd use of the law is conflated with the Gospel. Church has become either a social club or a PAC with a thin veneer of Jesus painted over it.
And frequently, unfairly, it seems that the laity who are concerned about these trends are stuck with pastors who buy into them, and vice versa. It's an isolating thing, a situation that can cause anyone with the consciousness to notice and be concerned to feel as though they are trapped inside their own head - that no one understands, that everyone else thinks they are crazy, that maybe they really are crazy. It can lead to a hunker-down mentality - a desire to close ranks within oneself, or to just...tolerate it, and not make waves. Surely my pastor will retire soon. Maybe I should look for a new call. I'll probably die in the next 10 years, I can hang on until then. If I just adopt a monastic approach to my ministry...
But as often happens, as depression and despair creeps in, late-night Googling takes hold over one's life. And sooner or later you start to notice that there are other churches, other pastors, other pastures where the grass seems greener. You start eavesdropping in coffee shops, or the employee lounge. You start talking with clergy friends of other denominations, other Christian traditions. You secretly read books and blogs and download sermons from other pastors, other priests. They don't seem to have the same problems. They love their jobs. The laity love their pastors. And so you, a lonely sheep, or despairing shepherd, start to stick one hoof, one shoelace under the fence. You look longingly at the green, green grass. On days when the wind is blowing the right direction, you can even smell it. It smells like fresh air, like health and nutrition, like God Himself. Sure, your pasture is safe, and familiar, and comfortable, but what a thrill it would be to taste that green, green grass. To be in a flock who knows what good food really is, to have fellow shepherds who nurture their sheep the way you can only dream about. And you, who loves the Good Shepherd so deeply, begin to wonder if it really is him who is inviting you to this green, green pasture.
If this is you, looking at one of the 30,000 (yes, really) Protestant denominations, to say nothing of the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox of varying nationalities (and thus, personalities), and handful of Uniate and non-Chalcedonians, I want to offer a few words of advice: proceed with caution. Not "don't proceed," but proceed with caution. "The grass is always greener" is a cliche for a reason. No pasture is perfect. Every pasture has cranky sheep who'd rather eat dirt, and shepherds who don't pay attention and lead the flock to a mud puddle instead of crystal clear still waters. Every field has rocks to trip over and holes to sprain your ankle. You cannot recover the "pure Church" - it simply doesn't exist, and it never did. Peter Leithart says it well:
"Eden is not the golden time to which we return; it is the infancy from which we begin and grow up. The golden age is ahead, in the Edenic Jerusalem... And the church’s history is patterned in the same way too. It’s disorienting to think that we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia, disorienting because we can’t know or predict the future. But it’s the only assumption Trinitarians can consistently make: The ecclesial peace we seek is not behind us, but in front. We get there by following the pillar of fire that leads us to a land we do not know."But there are days when it is more difficult, days when you honestly want to bang your head against the wall, when you find yourself, like Elijah, believing that you are the only faithful one left. On those days, remember this:
- God has already won the victory - this much we know. But it is unlikely, ever, to look as though we are winning, on any of the fronts on which we fight. With the possible exception of the United Kingdom under David, this has always been true of God's people. Don't expect that to change until the parousia.
- To steal Morton Blackwell's axiom, do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. There are allies, or partial allies, clergy and laity, if we know where to look. This is the beauty and genius of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It is very easy for those of us on the front lines to refuse the help of allies because they don't fly the exact same flag. I have heard well-meaning, orthodox pastors and laity claim certain other pastors or congregations are second rate or "not real church" because...they don't chant the Eucharistic Prayer and/or the entire Gospel reading...or have an organist...or have small groups or enough youth programming (or because they do do those things!). But we do ourselves far more harm than good when we start playing those sorts of games. Pastors, remember that God has given you a serious job, and lay people, hold your pastors and fellow parishioners accountable to that task. But also remember that none of us is Jesus. We need only do the best we can, with the gifts and resources we've been given, in the beanplots we've been assigned, and support one another in that task as much as possible. Surely that is enough for each of us to manage on any given day.
- Don't ever expect to overhaul the whole system. Again, you have a beanplot. And given Lutheran polity/ecclesiology, faithful reform and renewal, orthodox preaching and teaching, (re)introducing and sustaining traditional worship norms will take time, and it necessarily has to be done on a congregational basis. Presiding Bishop Eaton may have great respect for the liturgical traditions of the Church (and she did a great job with the Eucharistic liturgy at her installation, even though she seemed a bit nervous - but then, who wouldn't be?), but she has zero authority to make Pastor Olsen out in Podunk, Montana stop killing the Great Thanksgiving because his sermon ran too long. Each of us, in our own beanplots, needs to teach our plants the best that we are able, and pray for opportunities to share gardening tips with the stewards of the beanplots next door. Yet, at the end of the day, we are responsible for preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments (or holding those called accountable to their vows). We are not responsible for what others choose to do or not do with the Word so preached and the Sacraments so administered. It is God who gives the growth.
- Discernment over congregational calls or membership, denominational alignment (ELCA vs. NALC vs. LCMS), or wholesale tradition change (L vs. TEC vs. RC) is important, and should be undertaken as the Spirit moves us to do so. As I said earlier, however, no congregation, denomination, or tradition is without flaws, failings, or faithless clergy and laity. And further, what we earnestly believe, in our well-placed desire for purity, to be "discernment" may in reality be "distraction with shiny things" by the Enemy. It's easy to waste a lot of time fretting about CAPITAL LETTERS when we could be visiting shut-ins or writing sermons.
- If the day comes when you must leave your pasture or your flock - when you are compelled by conscience or comfort or the Holy Spirit or just the sheer inability to hold on for one second longer, then go. Do not look back, lest you turn into a pillar of salt. Do not lean over the fence, squinty-eyed, looking to see if the green grass has started to grow in your former pasture, and expressing schadenfreude when it hasn't. Do not gossip about the sheep or shepherds you have left behind, or seek to destroy them - the Eighth Commandment still applies. If you must go, go with your heart in the right place. Go in peace + and serve the Lord.
Finally, above all, and regardless of anything else, we simply must trust that the Holy Spirit will still continue to enlighten and sanctify the Whole Christian Church. So long as we have Christ - and we do - there is hope for all of us yet. Despair is not a good look for Christians, and we have no cause for it anyway. The gates of hell will not prevail. I love this Sunday's reading from II Timothy: "when we are faithless, He is faithful". I am faithless on a far-too-frequent basis, and I need to hear, over, and over, and over again that not only does God forgive me, but that His purposes cannot be thwarted by my failures and faithlessness. When we cannot stand one second longer in the presence of "those people", whoever they may be, we are nevertheless compelled to believe that the same God is just as loving and gracious and faithful towards them, as he is to us.
Faithful service to God and His people, holding fast to the hope we profess is not easy. But it never has been. And so, dear faithful, faithless, sinner, saintly ones: as you sift through the 30,000 shades of green, find your allies, and tend your beanplot, remember this: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age."