I don’t really remember growing up with many books in the house. Mom and dad were hard workers, who found little time for serious reading. TV and games took up much of the down time. Besides, it was San Diego, where you were always outside. But by the time I finished doctoral work, I was trained to read, and after 30+ years of writing sermons, I can hardly do anything without a book in hand. I can relate to Anne LaMott, who speaks about devouring books like a person taking vitamins, afraid that otherwise you might become a “gelatinous narcissist” with no possibility of ever becoming thoughtful. I am not exactly sure what she means, but I have similar fears.
I also find it interesting to discover what other people read. Late yesterday, sitting on an Alaska flight to Spokane, a rather plump woman sat down next to me. It’s not the first time I have been squeezed in, and it is not as if my head was smashed against the window. The flight was short, and I had a good book. You can endure almost anything with a good book. Still, I was distracted. I could not help noticing the book she was reading–The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I knew in this moment we would have a lot in common—sort of like “airmates.”
I couldn’t help but ask her about the book. I have my own addictions, starting with Bark Thins. (The important thing to note is that they are made with dark chocolate). It opened a conversation about her journey with cigarettes, but more, it opened an opportunity to hear about the context of her smoking; her divorce after twelve years of marriage, her failing business, and her present work with software.
Once people know they are sitting next to a pastor, the conversation often includes one’s spiritual journey. She began to share hers, and it is one I have heard repeatedly.
In her youth, Mary (I’ll use this name) came to know God. She even did a short-term mission project for her church, Calvary Chapel, in Eastern Europe. She was serious about her faith, and she was becoming intentional to follow God. But then something happened. She did not go into details, and I did not pry, but coming home, she found herself in a place where God was not there to protect her. Successive letdowns have led to a life where God has become largely irrelevant. Still, as she puts it, “I miss the peace I once had.” She wants to find it again, but after other religious experiences, including a season in a church with its legalisms, she is kind of done. And yet, she isn’t.
This brings me to why I am writing this blog. Setting off for the cabin last night, I started connecting dots. Earlier in the day, I was in church. I love the church. I love the church I am presently serving as an interim teaching pastor. The people could not be more warm and generous. But now I am going to say something rather painful. I am not sure this woman, were she to visit this church, or most churches, would come back. It’s not that the people are uncaring. Most people in churches do care. It’s that many congregations have become so insular with their care. Too many Mary’s get overlooked. They walk in and walk out without people noticing. And frankly, most people might not know what to do with people searching for nicotine relief if they encountered them.
Over time, congregations, if they are not careful, can become full of themselves and lose sight of their mission. They forget that we do not exist for ourselves, but for others. But the “others” are seldom invited. If they do find their way on their own, they may feel like they have stepped in to a family reunion, complete with code words. They may not hear what they need to hear in services—people getting up and sharing stories of how God showed up in their lives and did something miraculous. Stories of profound grace. Stories of how people discovered that God’s ways are not our ways—and thank God for this! Stories that confirm that God never lets us down. As I told Mary, I live on three truths—God is good in everything He does; is none other than wise in everything He plans; and is able to do whatever He wills.
Too often, people like Mary hear music that lives in the past, and missionary reports that say little about the present. Too many reports today are domesticated and trivial. It’s rare to hear someone share how God is working through them on some global front, advancing the kingdom of God in striking ways to take on spiritual enemies.
And yes, we pastors often contribute to the problem. We have become too domesticated. Our preaching is often neutered of great spiritual power. As this woman shared with me, she got tired of going to church and hearing superficial messages, cute stories, and everything is good. Her sense of the church is that everyone is living in a protective bubble, and not challenged to think too hard. God gave me some openings to hopefully correct her image of God–telling her that for all of our letting go–God never lets go of us.
Looking back, I did not get very far in my book on this flight. God had a divine encounter. Such encounters are always far better than the best read, even if it is Anne Lamott’s.