Church is other people, a worshiping community. The worship, or praise of God, does not take place only when people gather on Sunday morning, but when they gather to paint the house of an elderly shut-in, when they visit someone in the hospital or console the bereaved, when the Sunday-school kids sing Christmas carols at the nursing home. If a church has life, its "programs" are not just activity, but worship. And this is helpful, because if the Sunday-morning service falls flat, it is the other forms of worship that sustain this life. When formal worship seems less than worshipful—and it often does—if I am bored by the sheer weight of verbiage in Presbyterian worship—and I often am—I have only to look around at the other people in the pews to remind myself that we are engaged in something important, something that transcends our feeble attempts at worship, let alone my crankiness.
Like so many clergy in the western Plains during the mid-1980s, they had been blindsided by the onset of an extreme economic downturn. Small-town people don't like to face trouble head-on; we tend to shove unpleasantness under the rug. While this seems to make it easier for us to get along, it does not work well as a form of conflict management, particularly in hard times.
During the "farm crisis" of the 1980s, the church included in its membership both a bank president and a farmer who was being prosecuted by that bank (and eventually sent to jail) over a bankruptcy proceeding. It is enormously difficult for a small-town church to contain such serious disputes among its members; what often happens is that the pastors, as the hired help, are scapegoated, and forced out. This is a scenario that was played out in many small towns of the western Plains during the 1980s.
When the population of our county dropped 20 percent between 1980 and 1990 (other nearby counties lost a full third of their population), it was easier to focus blame on "outsider" professionals than to accept the reality of change. Institutions such as schools and churches became particularly vulnerable to turnover. In my town, one school superintendent lasted less than a year, others just a year or two.
By the early 1990s, the Lutheran church in western North Dakota had nearly 40 vacant parishes. One Lutheran pastor I know was sent to a church that had kicked out its two previous pastors, one after eleven months, the other after just nine months. On her first Sunday, she announced to the congregation, "I won't let you do that to me." She saw her ministry as helping the congregants to contend with the conflicts that had existed within their church for years and that would be likely to remain long after she had gone. She stayed for eight years.
My situation was an odd one. On the one hand, the crisis in my local congregation gave me a good excuse to put off facing my personal religious doubts. I could join the church, pretending that I was doing it mostly to support my friends, the pastors. Flannery O'Connor once said that "most people come to the church by a means that the church does not allow," and I could only agree.
I also knew that my gesture would have some symbolic weight in the congregation. Even the donating of my grandmother's piano for use in the sanctuary had seemed like good news to people at a time when most of the news, both inside and outside our congregation, was unremittingly bad.
While I knew that friendship and family ties were not enough, they gave me enough to act on. But it was not easy. I found a church congregation in utter turmoil, with its members behaving as badly as it is possible for grownups to behave. Secret meetings, anonymous hate mail, you name it. Lifelong friends suffering rifts so deep that they stopped speaking to one another.
Church congregations are complex organisms, and sometimes they fall into an evil pattern: people know how to scapegoat and rid themselves of a pastor (mostly by making so much noise and trouble that the situation becomes unbearable to everyone concerned). And because they know how to do this, it becomes what they do. Again and again.
Over the years, if a church is not healthy, this pattern of behavior takes a toll. If the pastors and laity who normally exercise proper authority have failed to do so, creating a power vacuum, chaos ensues. And it is not fun. It was not fun.
Not long after I had become a member, two perfectly sane women said to me that they had begun to wonder if the church had become possessed by the devil. It makes as much sense as anything, I told them. And then I had to laugh, and at myself. It was perfectly humbling, and a perfect evocation of what Paul, writing to the troubled church at Corinth, called "God [choosing] what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor. 1:27). No one in our congregation could boast of strength, health, or wisdom enough to get us out of the mess we had made. All we could do was pray.
In retrospect, I can say that I joined the church out of basic need; I was becoming a Christian, and as the religion can't be practiced alone, I needed to try to align myself with a community of faith. And it proved to be the best possible time for me to do this, because I had to do it without illusions. My clergy friends, as experienced pastors, knew even before most people in the congregation that they would have to leave. Someone who saw me not long after they had told me this took one look at me and asked, "Did someone die?" It felt like a death, a death in the family. These people had been my main spiritual support as I struggled through the early stages of a religious conversion. The idea of working through the rest of it without them put me into a panic, and I was tempted to see some church members as not only their enemies but as my own. But I soon realized that I had to let my friends go, and with a grateful heart, because it was so obviously the best thing for them. I had no idea how I would get by, but I had begun to pray, and that gave me the faith that things would work out, somehow.
That "somehow" turned out rather well. One of the last things that I had done with this couple was to make a visit to a nearby Benedictine monastery. I had seen a brochure on their kitchen table on one of the many occasions when I'd gone to commiserate with them over their struggles at church. It advertised a program at an abbey in the region, two days of readings and lectures by Carol Bly. "She'll be worth hearing," I said. We all needed a break. And I had been handed something I didn't even know I needed—a wise and ancient spiritual powerhouse known as the Benedictines. Now they are like family to me, a family that I can never lose. And my finding and getting to know them was my first adult experience of answered prayer.
From the outside, church congregations can look like remarkably contentious places, full of hypocrites who talk about love while fighting each other tooth and nail. This is the reason many people give for avoiding them. On the inside, however, it is a different matter, a matter of struggling to maintain unity as "the body of Christ" given the fact that we have precious little uniformity. I have only to look at the congregation I know best, the one I belong to. We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded. That is not a church, but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God, each other, and the world; but God help us if we have to agree about things. I could test our "uniformity" by suggesting a major remodeling of the sanctuary, or worse, that Holy of Holies—the church kitchen. But I value my life too much.
I would not find much uniformity, either, if I were to press for agreement on more substantial issues, things that the Christian church has, at times, taught as the truth: Are suicides going to hell? Does divorce diminish a person's ability to be a good Christian? Is the institution of slavery divinely ordained? Now the denomination faces another schism over the issue of whether Presbyterian congregations can call as elders (and preachers) people who are homosexual or who are living in any relationship other than that of a monogamous marriage.
At the risk of exposing myself as a terminal optimist, I'd say that things are as they should be. As contentious as we seem to be as a church, we are no less so than the fractious congregations of Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians addressed by St. Paul. Can I consider it a good sign—a sign of life—that Christians have continued to fuss and fume and struggle, right down to the present day? It may look awful from the outside, and can feel awful on the inside, but it is simply the cost of Christian discipleship.
"The church is still a sinful institution," a Benedictine monk wrote to me when I was struggling over whether or not to join a church. "How could it be otherwise?" he asked, and I was startled into a recognition of simple truth. The church is like the Incarnation itself, a shaky proposition. It is a human institution, full of ordinary people, sinners like me, who say and do cruel, stupid things. But it is also a divinely inspired institution, full of good purpose, which partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts. That is why it is called the body of Christ. And that is why, when the battles rage, people hold on. They find a sufficient unity, and a rubbed raw but sufficient love, and even the presence of God.
In my own church, I had joined during a crisis, but after battle lines had been drawn. People knew that the pastors were friends of mine and did not try to force me into taking sides. And I decided, uncharacteristically, to wait things out. I did not speak against the people who had treated the pastors badly. I said very little, in fact, about what had been going on, which was also unusual for me. I simply bided my time and gave myself considerable room in which to think things through.
It took seven years, but I finally did get to speak up. And I was able to put those hard times into perspective for myself, and for the congregation. My opportunity came in the form of a sermon that I preached just after returning from conducting an annual summer writing workshop for pastors. A theme had developed over the week, which I came to call writing from the center. When we write from the center, I told my students (and later the congregation), when we write about what matters to us most, words will take us places we don't want to go. You begin to see that you will have to say things you don't want to say, that may even be dangerous to say, but are absolutely necessary.
A congregation can usually tell when a pastor is preaching from the center, or just sliding by with something easy. A good pastor will employ both methods; and preachers often find that with the sermons they feel bad about, as if they've failed, parishioners will come up after church to marvel over how much personal meaning that sermon had for them. Such moments remind a preacher of how little control any of us had over our own words, let alone the Word of God.
I told the congregation that in preparing my sermon once the writing workshop ended, I found that I had to practice what I had been teaching. I could have chosen many things to say about our gospel text for the morning, which was Mark 4:35-41. The story is one of danger, of a fishing boat tossed about on the Sea of Galilee. There is much turbulence, described as a hurricane of wind, and the disciples of Jesus grow afraid. And they are upset to find Jesus sleeping through the storm. So they wake him, saying "Master, carest thou not that we perish?" I love the King James rendition of what happens next: "And he rose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? Why is it that ye have no faith?"
"Why are ye so fearful?" Merely asking myself the question, and considering the circumstances under which Jesus asked it of the disciples, and asks it of me in the present, puts a powerful brake on my willingness to get busy in the middle of a storm. Doing, rather than waiting. Talking out every nook and cranny of some dispute, rather than allowing silence to do its work of healing. I spoke in my sermon about the storms of doubt that I had gone through when I joined the church, and how grateful I was that the congregation was there, worshiping every Sunday, welcoming me when I showed up but not pursuing me if I dropped out for a while.
Even my bad times had worked out to the good, I told them. The simple fact that they had asked me to preach to them, and I had found to my surprise that I was able to, reminded me that the redemption spoken of in the Bible still has the power to work wonders in our lives. And then I reminded them that our church had gone through a dreadful storm a few years back. (I could see a few people stiffen, not wanting to be reminded of that painful time.) "Some of you couldn't stand those pastors," I said, "maybe some of you were indifferent, and never did understand what all the fuss was about. But as for myself, I know that I wouldn't be here today if it were not for them."
I said: "What were we so afraid of back then? Was all the pain we went through worth something? We're not perfect, and we will have our disagreements, but we have this church." (One of the reasons I had decided to air our musty old baggage in my sermon was because we had recently called a new minister, and I was hoping that he would get off to a better start if we could let the old stuff go.) "We still have this church," I repeated, "and maybe Jesus has been our pastor, all along. Maybe he's the one who calmed the storm." And then I sat down, exhausted.
Afterward, not much was said. A few people told me it was good to be reminded of how far we had come since that crisis. It made them more thankful for the relative peace and unity that the church now had. And I was overwhelmed by gratitude when I realized how far I had come, in this sermon, how much had come together for me in the writing of it.
It was the Benedictines who had taught me a bit of patience, the discipline of waiting, and to not always rush to speak out, assuming that my perspective on a situation was the whole picture, let alone the "right" one. That is a path that too easily allows us to condemn other people. I had defended my friends, the clergy couple, in very basic ways within the congregation, and had supported them absolutely as a personal friend. But I had avoided the danger that Benedict warns of, when one monk presumes to defend another and loses himself to anger.
Those had been dangerous times, with angry words in the air, and anger is an emotion that can spin us on a dime. A story from the monastic desert says it well:
"Abbot Macarius said: 'If, wishing to correct another, you are moved to anger, you gratify your own passions. Do not lose yourself in order to save another.'"
Because I had waited, and prayed, I had been able to find healing words for my Christian family instead of the hurtful ones I might have said seven years before. And the words I had not said in all that time—angry, vengeful words that had cut me like a sword when they first came to mind, after seeing what my friends were suffering? They were finally gone, blown away on the great hurricane of wind.
My grandmother Totten's peaceful and resolutely sensible spirit was there instead, reminding me that this was a church she had loved. And there were thoughts of the many mentors within the congregation who had helped me to join it, and to remain. Some of them were, to my great surprise, the very people who had helped to drive my friends away just a few years before. And of course, there was the writing. It was my apprenticeship as a writer over the many years when I wouldn't go near a church that had made the sermon possible in the first place.
This is the sort of experience, of conversion experience, that makes the Bible come alive for Christians. Now, whenever I hear the great prayer that Paul once sent to the church at Ephesus, I can nod and say, Yes. It happens. I have seen it, yet not fully; my faith tells me there is still more to come.
"Now to him who by the power at work within us," Paul wrote, "is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Ephesians 3:20).
Kathleen Norris of Lemmon, South Dakota, is the author of Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace, both published by Riverhead Books. "Church," from Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris, ©1998 by Kathleen Norris. Used by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Amazing Grace, the book from which this article is adapted, is available from Worthybooks and other book retailers.
Penguin's site has an area for the book and for Norris.
The New York Times Book Review says Amazing Grace's "strength lies in its depiction of a fallible woman engaged in spiritual inquiry. The reviewer of Norris's book in Sojourners, meanwhile, wrote, "My questions aren't always the same as Norris'; the words that trigger my fear or passion often differ. But in the end, Amazing Grace expanded my definitions and pushed me to have the courage and curiosity to wrestle with my own "scary" words; to bring words and the Word and worship and the world into true communion, come what may."
Another selection from the book, on apocalypticism, was published in the December 15, 1997, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
Leadership, a Christianity Today sister publication for church leaders, interviewed Norris for its Winter 1999 issue.
Read our related editorial, "Don't Give Up on the Church | Though often embattled and dysfunctional, the church is still where God chooses to meet us." It appeared in the October 6, 1997 issue of the magazine."
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