On wobbly wheels, split churches and fear (where do I put my hope?)

My church is going through a difficult time. Changes have been in the air for months and not everyone is happy.

At times, it’s felt like riding a bicycle with a bad wheel. With each revolution forward, the frame wobbles, and another piece falls off, bouncing away. Other pieces stay put, and for that God-given stubborn resolve to hang on, the bike hasn’t collapsed. Each week brings a change: another missing face in the pew, or another announcement of a change intended to help the situation.

Right now, I’m caught between desire to flee and knowing this won’t help. As a pre-teen, I watched from afar as my childhood church split. My faith was shaken to the core. How could these grownups, who claim to know a God of love and peace, treat each other so horribly? I wondered.

As a sophomore at a Christian college, I contemplated rejecting my faith and becoming an atheist. How much of that mental and emotional turmoil was my undiagnosed bipolar issues and how much was a genuine dark night of the soul, I don’t know. But that church split was a factor.

So I know running won’t help anything. Not being at the epicenter of an earthquake doesn’t mean I’m not still impacted by the waves, and I can’t escape the quaking ground under my feet. Each time I hear about another person leaving or hear about an argument, I’m reminded of the two church splits I’ve watched, and I grow increasingly fearful.

I long for the past. I fear the future. This middle part, the here and now, is all about change. It’s a giant question mark. And with each change, I’m tugged between past and future, longing and fear.

Yet the One who defines himself as I Am, present tense, outside this tug of war between past and  future, is the only constant. I should find my hope in him.

I know this intellectually. But in reality, I want my church to be the same place it was when I came there eight years ago. I want to shake the change-makers and the change-haters and tell them that their arguments are making me fearful, unsettled, even though the fear is my issue, not theirs. “Don’t you know what you’re doing to my faith?” I want to say.

And the question stops me. Who is my faith in: the unchanging, perfect God or a church of changing, imperfect people? Where do I place my hope?

I’m reminded of some lines from the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. At the end of his famous Mutabilitie Cantos, where he writes about change and chaos and constancy, he muses about the future time when change will cease:

But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.

Roughly paraphrased: Then all shall rest with the Lord of Hosts . . . God, grant me the sight of that day of eternal rest.

I fell in love with these lines the same semester I contemplated atheism. Somehow, even with their formal syntax and strange spelling, they spoke to me about hope. I won’t say that they saved my faith; I didn’t truly understand Spenser’s intent or his wordplay when he combines sabbath (rest)/sabaoth (hosts) to write “Sabbaoth God.” I doubt my nineteen-year-old self could’ve written a paper on these cantos. But the lines sank deep in my troubled heart.

And I’m reminded of them now, as I watch my fellow churchgoers. At times, we can be a fractious, cranky bunch who quarrel over buildings, music and theology. Yet we’re covered by the same grace. Loved by the same God. Given the same hope of rest, comfort, and peace. Rolling down the narrow road on wheels that wobble and yet never break, for they are sustained by a God who cannot be shaken.

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(This post is part of a synchroblog, hosted by Provoketive magazine. Check out this link for more great writers and their thoughts on hope.)

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15 thoughts on “On wobbly wheels, split churches and fear (where do I put my hope?)

  1. Laura, when you wrote “So I know running won’t help anything” I felt like you were speaking directly to me since this is a lesson I’ve had to learn repeatedly over the years. It’s not that I have a track record of running away, but I do have a record of seeing avoidance as one of my first inclinations. Thank you for opening yourself up and sharing what’s happening in your life.

    Your church is going through a lot right now, it seems, and it is understandably affecting you and probably most others who attend there regularly. I like your closing line and how it reminds us we are all in this together in the family of God, and that we are all sustained by the same Holy Spirit: “Rolling down the narrow road on wheels that wobble and yet never break, for they are sustained by a God who cannot be shaken.” Really well put, Laura, well done.

    Tim

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    1. Tim, thank you for the encouraging words. I was really afraid of writing and posting this piece; I just wanted to avoid the subject. (Obviously, avoidance is one of my first ways of dealing with conflict!) Thanks for reading.

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  2. It may not be wise to physically shake them (!), but maybe there would be merit in telling them “that their arguments are making me fearful, unsettled, even though the fear is my issue, not theirs. ‘Don’t you know what you’re doing to my faith?’” Maybe it would shake them up to realize the conflicts are damaging their church’s Christian calling.

    God’s people are human, and conflicts happen, but when they become divisive, you can be pretty sure Satan’s at work. When people like you are uncomfortable and feeling urged to take sides, the focus is on the feud rather than faith. I hope your congregation is soon able to rally together and find a suitable compromise before Satan wins and the congregation is destroyed.

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    1. Carol,
      I think our church will survive. Our leadership is actively working to deal with the issues, though it may take longer than most of us really want to get them resolved. (I think that’s one reason people are still leaving, unfortunately; people tend to be impatient.) We did have a big meeting where some of the issues were aired, and surprisingly (thankfully!), it never became really ugly.

      I tend to be such a conflict-avoider that I never really considered actually telling certain people how their words/actions have made me feel. I might need to do that. Thanks for the wise thoughts. I appreciate the advice!

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  3. ‘Where do I place my hope?’ All hope in the end must be in God, the one who sees and knows everything. Even the best human beings are imperfect and we all have faults because we can see only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, two at best. We need other people to put that puzzle together, but in the absense of other people, we need God!

    I am in the process of joining a church/fellow group of Christians for the first time in my life after being an on/off Christian for over 30 years, and I am wary when I hear of all the troubles encountered in some church groups. People must remember to be lead by Jesus in these matters, and not their own, usually tetchy and fragile, egos. We must remember that the core of God is love; if we start hating others, for whatever reason, we are most definitely on the wrong track.

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    1. Hey there fellow Tim! The whole idea of belonging to a local church body reminds me of teh old saying “To live above with saints I love, that would be glory; but to live below with saints I know, now that’s a different story!”

      I hope you find great fellowship with those “saints below” you find yourself with, and they with you!

      Tim

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    2. Please don’t let my story deter you from joining a group of Christians! I still love my church, even during this difficult time, and while there are times I want to flee (avoidance being my natural inclination for dealing with conflict), I’m going to stay because I love them and because relationships are a mess worth making. As my husband told me recently, we’ll never have a perfect church this side of heaven, because churches are made up of people and there are no perfect people here on earth. As the other Tim said, I hope you find joy in your new fellowship.

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