Monday, October 22, 2012

Living within Limits

[From Pastor Ed… 10/21/2012 and 10/28/2012]

I've played guitar since I was 12. Even before then, one of the things I wanted above most was to be a performing musician — in a band at first, then as I got to college I thought perhaps of a solo "folk musician" life. Over time I gathered sound and musical gear to equip me for the time when, one day, I would regularly perform in coffee houses and small music halls. My ambitions were not too high: I recognized that I would probably never play venues larger than a few dozen people, or tour, or get a recording contract. Still, deep down I hoped I would get to play for the crowds, however small.

The trouble is, I'm not an amazing guitarist; I'm not bad, and I'm better than some, but there's nothing special there. My singing voice, likewise, is average. I've only written one song — ever — and it wasn't that good. I can play lots of songs written and recorded by others, but nothing about my renditions offers much that is all that interesting.

I know my limits. I remember the point when I finally calculated them, and saw that this was an ambition that would likely not be achieved. I think I even said to Marcie, "there comes a day in a guy's life when he realizes that he's never going to be a guitar hero. That day is today!" And I sold off the sound equipment that I now knew I wouldn't need, and since then have contented myself to be the musician that I am: I love to play my guitar, I love to sing, and my family enjoys when I do both. I am called and equipped for other things, and it is those things that I should find my identity and my hopes in. That's enough.

Every church has its limits. No matter how large or small, how many staff members or how active the volunteer base, how spiritually-mature and passionate or new to the faith — all congregations have limits to what they can do, who they can be.

Sometimes the limits are tested when a congregation recognizes a need, and wants desperately to meet that need. Yet they find themselves unable to do it, for any of a variety of reasons; perhaps there wasn't enough money to put an adequate program together, or enough volunteers to staff it, or a lack of knowledge of how to actually meet the need, or a shortage of interest or buy-in from those in need! Regardless, in these cases the limits of a church are exposed.

At other times, a church's limits are revealed by comparison to other churches. One member recalls how things were done in the church she grew up in; another looks back to his congregation's "mother church" and remembers the strengths that body had. A leader wants a certain ministry initiative to be the top priority for all of the members. A pastor has wanted to build on a particular idea ever since he left seminary. But the limits of a church don't allow for these to take shape in the way they are envisioned, or at all. They simply can't allow it, by the very nature of being limits.

These limits that a church faces should direct and focus the congregation, but often they lead to disappointment and even disillusionment. They can even threaten a church's stability. Why is this?

It may be because the members of a church have held their ambitions or hopes or expectations too tightly. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described, such things are "wish dreams":
Innumerable times a whole community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

This presents us with a true dilemma: do we love our wish dreams more than we love God's people? Do we aspire to know the genuine fellowship of the Body of Christ, or do we aspire to the fulfillment of our ambitions and expectations? Do we submit ourselves — and even our desires for what "church" is like — to Christ and to those He has appointed over our local church, or do we insist on our wish dreams?

Bonhoeffer continues, challenging us toward the self-denial that Christ calls us to embody in the life of the local church:
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.
(Life Together)

So we must, if we love Christ (or even if we merely want to love Him), give over our ambitions, our expectations, our wish dreams to Him, and allow Him instead to shape us into the church that He has for us to become.

This may mean that our congregation doesn't offer the kind of program or study that some members believe we must have. It might mean that, for some people's tastes, our worship service is too interactive, or not interactive enough; it's too long, or too short; it is too diverse in musical style, or not nearly broad enough in musical choices. It could be that not enough members are involved in certain efforts to suit others. And it will certainly be the case that our congregation isn't doing the same things as So-and-So Church across town or in someone's hometown, or even as many of them.

It DOES mean that we will be freed from the burden of diverse ambitions, and freed TO the life that Christ has for us in Him! We can find our identity in serving Christ according to how He has gifted our body, how He has equipped us for ministering to one another and to our communities, and how He has placed us in a particular context for His purposes there.

And that's enough.

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