My first day of seminary, the professor launched into a survey of church history and some of the patterns evident throughout the centuries. He spoke of the way an alive-church-body-space becomes “institutional church” within about a generation or so; and then about how within it are those who long for more, who see the holes in the now-sturdy-structure - more a shell than an incarnation. These souls sense what is “missing”, and – in my professor’s view – the Spirit moves them to create something new. To begin something life-giving and true in a way the contemporary structures won’t allow.
He described, then, all that can follow on the heels of such a movement of the Spirit: the institutional church feeling suspicious of and criticized implicitly by the distinctions made in this new movement; vibrance in the the new church or organization or movement; and then that it is possible to have either an entire break, or - alternatively - a conversation between the new and the old that allows for adjustment both ways. If ways are parted, they both lose something: institutional churches begin to hold to those precious structures as “the only way”; meanwhile, the vibrant new movement can tend to focus on one area, at the exclusion of a lot of what the church as a whole encompasses. So then even that new space eventually begins to feel one-sided, or even like they are missing something... until a group rises up from within to begin something new, once again.
There have been many cycles of this that have repeated throughout the last two millennia, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers withdrawing into the wilderness in their search for God; followed by many other monastic communities throughout the years; and then the protestant reformation. Since then, there have been multiple movements within Christianity – even within the last hundred years (the fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic, and social justice movements, among others).
As I sat and listened, I could not help hearing the connections between this pattern of church history, and my own life. Two years ago, I found myself in a space that felt like lifeless structure to me. I sensed an invitation outward and inward. I left a local church that I had been with for fourteen years to look for God in the wilderness.
I can see ALL of the pieces of that pattern reflected in my own story: the sensing of something missing, and attempting to create dialogue around it. The suspicion and even, to a degree, silencing that happened to my soul as a result; to the point that I felt I could no longer live the freedom-oriented life I’d been invited to, in such suffocating-feeling space. So I tried to explain some of this, was misunderstood deeply, and ended up leaving.
I don’t pretend that I did this all well. There are still relationships that need to be reconciled, hurts addressed, forgiveness offered and received. But I see those overarching themes of suspicion and critique, both spoken and implied, and going both ways. I see both parties beginning to attach themselves more to certain parts of the faith that are most precious to them, at the exclusion of other also-important pieces.
Hearing the description of this so-common pattern both affirmed me, and made me ache.
I felt a little bit reassured that it was, quite possibly, the Spirit moving me these directions, as I had – in my best moments - believed was the case (but that had been called deeply into question by people who cared about me, and I have lived with the burden of feeling like the black sheep for many months now). But also, I ached over the split, as I never have before.
And in my first prayer project (apparently all our assignments in this program consist of either reading or praying - or both), I found myself chest-deep in Spirit-breathed compassion for both that church, and my own soul (and my new church, but that is another story for another day). I felt deeply the love God has for us. For “them”, as it has been all this time; for me. I came away with a hope and a longing.
My word for this year is “Restore”, and I have long feared that it would mean I would need to move toward restoration in my relationship with that church, those friends I let go. Now I’m almost eager for that movement toward restoration, as painful as it will surely be.
This program is going to wreck me in all the best ways, isn't it?
They assure me it is so. I am a little bit terrified. But knowing Love makes all the difference.