I was troubled during the sermon at church yesterday. It wasn't the sermon itself, exactly. The sermon was very nice, part of a little series of sermons talking about how G-D is personal, how he cares personally about us. The whole service was very nice, very pleasant, with worship music and communion and prayer. I guess maybe that was the problem.
You see, I knew that one of the people leading the service was doing something hurtful to others. Nothing illegal, and nothing I can be specific about because the situation was shared with me in confidence. But clearly hurtful and clearly outside the boundary of behavior that would generally be considered acceptable. I would go so far as to label the behavior sinful, which is not a word I use casually or lightly. And I am not certain, but I suspect that at least some church leaders know about the entire situation. It really bothers me.
One of the things I think we have lost in the church is a shared sense of accountability. We no longer hold each other to any standard, although many of us are plenty quick to attack those outside the church. However, we seem curiously blind to the sin within our own communities. But I don't really know what could or should change in how we address this. I don't like that this person is leading services but if we say only people whose behavior is completely right can lead then we won't have anyone to lead services at all.
Coming home from church I was imagining a sermon series on sin, which is not something you would typically hear in any of the churches I have attended. I can understand why. Sin is a tricky problem within the church; no one wants to blame or hurt others (well, at least not in any congregation I'm willing to be a part of) and everyone's list of sin is probably different. For example, I would list murder, slander, gossip, adultery, gluttony, greed, environmental destruction, exploitation of the poor, bigotry and prejudice, rape, abuse and violence as sins. Some of those things would get broad agreement but plenty of others would not. My exclusions (homosexuality, believing in evolution, abortion - to name a few) would also upset a lot of people. So, preaching a sermon on sin would be hard for a pastor. The most likely outcome would be that you would just upset everyone and no one would listen. It would be a waste of time because everyone would be too defensive and angry to hear anything useful.
But I think we need to do something, to have some way to talk to each other about wrong actions. Sin is a problem, not just for other people but for the individual. I think G-D's rules are like an owner's manual and user's guide; instructions for operating the vehicle of a human life in a safe and effective way. I'm pretty sure the individual whose actions are bothering me is also in pain, also struggling and hurting and needing some help. As I said, I suspect some of our church leaders are familiar with what is happening in this person's life. I would like to think they are trying to help this person and the other people involved. In general, I would like there to be a way for those of us in a church community to talk to each other and address this kind of wound.
Catholic churches have confession, but that doesn't seem like a good solution. Recently I've been talking to some women who were raised Catholic, and they have told stories about going to confession which sound awful. The story that upset me the most was that one of the women as a young girl couldn't think of anything to confess, but she had to confess something otherwise she would be in trouble. So she made something up, something she thought wouldn't be a big deal, and then received a pretty extensive series of prayers she had to say. For an act she hadn't even committed. The utter wrongness of forcing a little girl to lie and be punished for something she never did because of the rigidity of the rules about confession and communion just shocks me. It seems antithetical to healthy spirituality and growth. I don't think a forced, structured confession with prayers as punishment makes much sense. I don't think prayer should be a punishment. I don't think it does any good to force people to confess even if they did actually do something wrong. I read an essay recently that talked about repentance as turning back towards G-D, towards light and love and relationship with G-D. I don't think that's a move that can be dictated by anyone else.
At the same time, other people can help. I don't like to be reminded about what's right and wrong and I'm not usually gracious about it when I'm wrong. However I have been reminded at times, usually by my husband who has incredible integrity and thoughtfulness, and I've been better for it. I think the key factor there is that his reminder comes in the context of a relationship. He knows me, he loves me, and so when he speaks to me, even something I don't want to hear, I listen to him. There are a few other people in my life who can pull me up short when I need it, and all of them are people I trust. No one ever wants to hear a correction, to hear that they are wrong. Our egos immediately leap into action, bringing up barriers of excuses and rationalizations and going on the attack with counter accusations. It takes an enormous amount of trust, comfort and acceptance within a relationship to get around those obstacles. It takes long term, invested, committed relationships. In a word, it takes love.
Perhaps that is what is needed within the church. We need relationships where people feel loved enough to not be defensive when someone challenges their behavior. We need to be close enough that we can see when someone else is hurting and when they are hurting themselves and others. We need to trust each other enough to be vulnerable, to be honest, to offer and accept correction when it is needed. We need to love and love and love, and to show that love over and over again. Then maybe we can start to deal with sin.
Admittedly, this isn't very specific or prescriptive. I suppose that love isn't. There isn't a formula or a plan for loving relationships. There's just time and showing up and staying committed and working through hurt and being present and bringing food and helping out. There can't be an agenda with love. To be real, to actually be love, it can't be about getting close so you can point out sin. It just has to be about getting close, about being with someone else because you care about them, because you love them.
For some other reflections about the need for love within the community of Christians click here.