She writes here that her church may be dying, and about a pastor's idea (not her pastor) to give out purple bracelets that say SPIRIT on them to his own congregants, as a visual cue to quit griping.
I've been thinking about happy churches a lot lately, as the past month has tossed one irritating stress or breakage after another my way: hot water heater, boiler, computer, health, burgeoning romance gone kaput, kitty crisis. None of them, thank God, were monumental losses (I thought the computer would be, but it wasn't. I thought the cat would die, but she hasn't), but even while they were happening I did not tailspin as badly as I would have in the past. Not even close.
Maybe I'm just getting older and more experienced. Eh, you can't take a hot shower for a few days, big deal. Eh, the house is very cold tonight and it feels unfriendly and scary as a result. Get over it. It will be fixed soon enough. Eh. you lost your electronic documents. It's not Hurricane Katrina. Eh, you're too overwhelming on every level for yet another man. What else is new? Eh, you caught two colds in a row, so did everyone else in town. Eh, your heart broke when you found your cat gasping like a grounded catfish, you do your best for her and face the day.
I used my laundry list of recent woes as the set-up for a big laugh line at the begining of my sermon on the Third and Fourth Commandments this morning, and someone said to me at the end of the service, "Geez, you've been through a lot this month but we would never have known it. You sure get a lot of bounce for the ounce!" (See, this is why I love New England. Only an elder Yankee gentleman could use an expression like "bounce for the ounce.")
I said, "Well, when I'm at church I'm always happy!"
And it's true. But for how many parish ministers is it true, and for such long periods of time? Precious few, I would guess. Precious few.
I struggle with the idea of being a happy church. We're sinners, we're in need of moral improvement, spiritual growth, ethical commitment, challenges to our comfortable assumptions. That's all true. And yet... is it so wrong that we should have fun together, laugh together, celebrate that it feels good to be a church together? When does celebration cross the line to self-satisfaction? I think it's important to guard against that. There is no virtue in being a community that is egotistically in love with itself. And yet... there is much goodness in being a community that embraces joy, that knows how to have a raucous laugh together, that smiles and hugs and believes that there's nothing to be gained by griping. Good, constructive criticism and honest discernment, yes. Petty bickering and picking, no.
I am happy when I'm with my church. I am happy when I'm in the building. As the pastor, I am uniquely acquainted with the suffering, the dark side, the failings and the sins of myself and my people. And yet. While I came into the ministry believing that I would always need to be set apart from my community, vigilant and challenging at every turn, I have learned that I cannot do that. I cannot hold myself apart from the delightful spirit of this people -- who bring out the delightful spirit in me -- and keep before me only a list of our shortcomings and unmet goals.
I'm beginning to realize that not only is that not fun, it's not faithful.
Five years into it, there is this truth: Because of my spiritual practices and my involvement with this particular church, I am less prone to heartsickness and despair. If I experience this, perhaps others do, too. And that has to be a good thing. We cannot do the work to which we are called from a place of relentless misery and conflict.