The other day, one of my pastoral students came to me after class. “A few of us have been talking, and we have a question for you. Are you trying to discourage us?” It is not the first time I’ve heard this question. Discouragement is not my intention. I am aiming for disillusionment. I want to shatter my students’ romanticized notion of church life and replace it with one that is more realistic.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of the damage caused by unrealistic expectations of life in the church. “Certainly, serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it,” Bonhoeffer explains. “But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves is bound to overwhelm us, as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of Christian community.”
This gift of disillusionment is not an easy one to accept. We tend to be idealists when it comes to the church. We would rather hold on to our dreams. But instead of an ideal community, what we get is the church as it really is. Not our delicate airbrushed fantasy of those who always act in love and speak kindly to one another, but a loutish, clumsy-tongued, rabble with dirty feet. God allows this, not to make us cynical, but for our own good. Disillusionment with the church and even with ourselves is a gift. Bonhoeffer cautions, “Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
The Art of Missing the Point
We are not the first to have trouble accepting this gift. According to John 13:12, at the Last Supper after Jesus had finished washing the disciples’ feet and put on his clothes, he returned to his place and asked, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” There is really only one honest answer to this question: We don’t. Not really. Oh, we get the point generally. How could we not, when Jesus answers his own question? The lesson is that Jesus sets the example. He washed the disciples’ feet, so we should wash one another’s feet. The servant is no greater than the master. It’s obvious when put that way, and it’s hard not to feel a little impatient with Peter. How could he be so dull? Who doesn’t get the point?
Yet every time I read the Gospel account of this event, I can’t help feeling like a dull student who watches as the teacher solves a complex math problem on the board, blinking in confusion but trying to look aware. It’s so obvious when the teacher does it. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful even. When the teacher is done, I say to myself: “That was so obvious!” Even I could have done that. I should have done that. But somehow, when I when I try to follow the steps by myself, something seems to break down.
What seemed so obvious in the awkward silence of the Upper Room is no longer so clear to me in the noisy tumult of regular life. It completely slips my mind as I stand on the train platform, ready to elbow the woman standing next to me so that I will win the commuters’ lottery and be the one who is standing directly in front of the train car door when it slides open.