I just finished participating in one of the “Together, As One” webinars intended to help people understand the proposal to create a brand new conference encompassing the current Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut conferences and their churches.
I have to say, I’m a little proud of myself for tuning in because I usually find these administrative-type discussions frustrating, if not dull. First, they quickly grow tedious as we lose our way in the weedy details. Second, there’s often a presumption that many of our problems will evaporate if only we were better organized.
This webinar, however, wasn’t focused on structure. Granted, the topic of structure garnered a lot of airtime, but responses to such questions were mostly, “We don’t know yet.” There were also honest acknowledgments of the various declining numbers. Those kinds of shifts, however, are being taken as perhaps a divine summons to perceive new movements of the Holy Spirit. The language was that of ministry and mission, not money or membership. And nobody, at least as far as I heard, used the word “messy.”
The word “messy” has been a popular part of ministry’s vernacular at least since I was in divinity school, starting in 2000. I’m sure I’ve used it myself. It’s an evocative way to describe how un-tidy church life can be, or how unclear the life of faith can appear: loose ends, less-than-best efforts, disputes, hurt feelings, long-winded meetings, vacant committee seats, worst-laid plans, best-laid plans gone awry, and so forth. But, somehow, God always comes through, or is even discovered within the messiness itself, and we are able to sing our way onward to the next adventure.
So, yes, the Christian life is, indeed, messy.
But lately that word has gotten under my skin. I’ve come to think that the Christian life isn’t messy as much as it’s just plain hard.
I wouldn’t even say the Christian life is “difficult.” “Difficult” implies that something simply takes a little more effort than usual, in the way of a difficult recipe or a particularly difficult toddler. There’s no doubt that with a little extra sweat, ingenuity, and determination, the goal can be reached. That’s “difficult.”
“Hard” is, well, harder. “Hard” means you are going to have to put forth everything you have, and you still might not get the job done. “Hard” includes no psychological pillow that, whatever “it” is, it can be done in the end. The Christian life is hard, and if there’s any cushioning, it’s in our raw trust in God. Thomas Merton articulates it well in his humble prayer that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going,” and goes on to say, “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.”
While I believe the Christian life is inherently hard, I don’t believe it is inherently messy.
It’s true that when we try to do things that are hard, we can make a mess, sometimes a big one. But the word “messy” is itself messy. It may well invite the impression that because things so easily get messy, we, then, have license to be sloppy: sloppy theologically, sloppy procedurally, sloppy pastorally, and sloppy organizationally.
Moreover, just because things look out of order, misplaced, and disjointed doesn’t mean they are. God doesn’t necessarily order things, events, or people in the way corporations, schools, or governments order them. What appears in our close-up view to be chaotic, in God’s view is likely to have a beautiful cohesion.
The way of Jesus isn’t sloppy, and it’s not chaotic. It’s simply hard.
So, I was glad that the word “messy” did not find its way into today’s webinar, because this proposal to create a new conference out of the three existing is anything but sloppy or random. As described by the four panelists, the motivation is unity, just as Jesus described (and Paul, and the prophets, and the biblical wisdom writers). The mission is, well, mission! The conviction is that we are intrinsically bound to one another by virtue of being church. A core commitment is that ministry is personal and happens in and through the local church. The lived experience is that God appears to be trying to do something new with and within the Body of Christ.
Sounding off Merton’s beautifully humble prayer, we really don’t know what that “something new” is, or where our pursuit of it might lead, but we sincerely desire to follow the spirit, and indeed, come to flow with the Spirit as best we can.
That questions about structure and other administrative matters will be answered as we go may feel messy, even chaotic, to some of us.
Our faith, however, calls us to trust that God has a coherent vision, even if we are unable to discern the details of that cohesion from our current vantage point.
Whether or not God’s coherent Kingdom vision includes the creation of a new UCC conference is something each delegate to the annual meeting must prayerfully decide.
But, our personal feelings of messiness or chaos – or whether implementing this plan would be just too hard -- would a poor measure of this proposal, which locates itself in a movement of Spirit of our God, who binds us together, and bids us to live that unity.
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