One of the first illusions to die, in middle age, is the youthful assumption that if you are bright enough, faithful enough, and wise enough - you'll avoid messing up.
We saw the previous generation doing their best, and we could see their blind spots. They made such foolish mistakes! They seemed so blind to injustice! We were going to do better. We would never send young men off to die in a military mistake. We would get this whole issue of racial injustice squared away in short order. Children in America -and the world- would never go to bed hungry at night when we got our chance to lead. The church, when we got the chance to lead, would be more creative...more faithful...and not so captive to traditional, middle class values. We would be more reckless, more radical for Jesus than those polite, white-glove-wearing, ushers decorated in suit-and-tie-and-white-shirt midwestern ushers of the 50's and early 60's.
There has been some progress made, but we still can get things so wrong.
Our church is in the middle of a major attempt to be radical for Jesus, and be more effective by doing fewer things better. People across the country talk about the church becoming "simple." This new emphasis is a good thing, I think. At Trinity we try so many things that sometimes we forget to focus on helping people grow in Christ.
A few months ago our staff talked about the request of an individual who wanted to lead an AA group in our church building. The man has no connection to the church, we didn't want to just provide a room to a disconnected group, and we wanted to do some sort of recovery ministry
- but we wanted to have that group connected to the church. So that people could, as they recovered, have the opportunity to follow Jesus. Not that they would be forced into being a United Methodists, or Christians, but that the group would be linked to the ministries of the larger church.
A friend heard about that decision and she -along with her husband- was furious. Puzzled. Hurt. Because they both have a heart of compassion, and understand that if the church isn't helping the least and the lost then it probably ought to take down the cross about the building.
We finally talked about all of this a week ago. She told me it was good we had waited to talk. "I would have been too angry if we had met earlier," she said, "and you would have been defensive. So this is good...I don't agree with the decision. But I feel heard."
I told her we may well have been wrong. I told her we tried to make the right decision for the right reasons -not to be high-handed or indifferent, but just wanted to make sure recovery ministries were connected to discipleship. We support hunger ministries, we have volunteers tutoring in the schools, we are working with folks out of work -we do a lot of good for God at Trinity but we may have blown this call. Missed this opportunity to do ministry.
We may have been wrong. I hate that. I hate that we make mistakes. As individuals and as a church and as followers of Jesus around the world. (And then, again, maybe it was the right call. If we said "yes" to every opportunity to do something good, in our large church, we would wreck ourselves.)
Wrong turns, missed opportunities, go with the territory, I fear. Make enough decisions, hang around and lead long enough, and you are going to make all kinds of mistakes. And I hate that. I would like to be able to bat 1,000 or hit every foul shot or sink every putt.
"Thanks for hanging with me...with us," I said. "Please keep praying with us...for us. That we'll do the right thing for God."
The whole conversation made me thing about an old Walter Wangerin story. Walter was a young pastor of an inner-city congregation down in Evansville more than 30 years ago. A prostitute was using the church's outside water source, after dark, to fill her own pails. Her water had been turned off so she used the church's water. Walter was outraged by this thievery and so he had the church turned off the outside water. A member of the church caught him. Shook her fingers at her pastor and told him he ought to be ashamed. Said that maybe the most important ministry the church had to that woman was letting her fill her buckets with the water the church had paid for. Jesus would have never turned that woman away, or turned that water off, the woman said.
Sometimes we get it wrong. And I am so thankful for all those lovers of Jesus who keep loving us, praying for us, and not giving up on us...or the church.