(this is a repost of a post I put up today on a blog I keep in order to communicate non-sermonic information and observations to the congregation I am currently serving. It is pretty well unchanged, except I did not feel comfortable specifically identifying the congregation in this version)
“Trauma in the life of those losing what they believe they cannot live without” is my summary of a main thought from a book I was reading last week. Losing things we believe we cannot live without is indeed hard and traumatic. If we don’t have a healthy way of letting go, we are going to have a hard time.
I doubt this will make sense to you directly if you are 20 or younger and reading this, but it may help you understand grandma or grandpa better.
In crass summary form, we can say: Life begins at conception, and physical growth goes forward from that point until the human reaches their peak shape, somewhere between maybe 19 and 29. From that point on a loss of physical ability usually begins to be experienced. And it continues for the rest of life. It is hard to accept.
In my High School days I was an unbeatable sprinter in the 100. I only ever lost once, and that was a heat where I got cocky and complacent. I set records that stood for almost 20 years. On my 40th birthday I wondered if I “still had it” as I found myself on a wide wet beach with a group of my son’s friends. I drew a line in the sand, paced off about 100 meters, and came back and challenged the guys. They of course thought this was going to be easy racing a desk bound pastor, but after the “go!” their attitude changed as they saw me burst away. I could hear the sounds of flippant laughter change to determined breathing and pounding behind me. Near the finish line one guy was breathing down my neck, and I know that in a few more paces he would overtake me, but I crossed the line first. I still had it!
But boy did I suffer for three weeks afterward for believing I could still do that. Of course, I suffered with a big satisfied smile behind the grimaces. And I just knew that it was wise to let go of the idea of being an always-winning sprinter anymore… except to tell the stories of course…
Life has a lot of those kinds of things that over time we need to see that we need to let go of: when to let go of the farm; when to let go of helping out so much in the church; when to let go of making choices for our kids; when to let go of a career hope that is not suiting us; when to admit we are not hearing or seeing as well as we used to… the list is endless, and to make a long one would just be depressing. The fact is, if we do not learn a good and healthy way of letting go of what no longer is fitting, we create problems for ourselves, but more-so we create problems for others.
The same thing happens in religious and spiritual life. A group goes on a retreat, and they have a great experience, and they learn a song that for them expresses that whole experience, and every time they sing that song they try to relive that experience, not acknowledging it has passed, and the song can’t spread the experience to others. In their unwillingness to accept it is past, they stimulate confusion and maybe irritation in others. The same can happen with any song or any religious practice that has had meaning in the past. People can lock into it as if it is the be-all and end-all of being a Christian, and it creates confusion and irritation. If a church does not find a way to deal with that, and keeps caving to the need for comfortableness, it will be held back from being all that it can be in the moment of today.
The book I was reading that got me thinking about all this last week is about the immigrant experience of coming from Europe to Canada. And the part of the book the idea is expressed in, is where the author is talking about the struggle to change from Dutch to English, especially in worship and in the teaching program of the church. There was huge resistance and difficulty. The people resisting thought they could not live without that language. After all, they had learned the things of God in that language, and they probably believed it was the only language spoken in heaven, as all immigrants tend to do. So both the language itself and the teaching of the things about God in that language were hung on to for far longer than they should have been — we see that now. But they didn’t, and it was hard. But seeing their mistake gives us a chance to ask ourselves: “What might we be hanging on to inappropriately today?”
I can say with confidence that this pattern is part of the organizational DNA of our congregation. I have seen significant evidence of it myself already. It shows anytime someone is clinging to things being done “as we’ve always done them” as if we cannot live without them being done that way. And I can see how hard and traumatic it is for people who have not learned some important things about growth and life. You see, if there is growth, that automatically means things will change. (by the way, the reverse is not as true: if there is change therefore there is growth, which is also where a lot of churches make a mistake, making change happen without growth). Think about this: Do you know anything that grows that is not changing in some way? I can’t think of one thing. The same is true of spiritual and religious growth. If there is growth, then understandings are changing, relationship with God is adjusting, deepening, widening and along with that often one’s practices of the faith and even teachings about the faith change because of new and deeper understanding. Yet — like 40 year old former sprinters — we cling to something that is not fitting anymore, to what used to make us great. Can you see the silliness of it?
Another reason I feel confident saying this about our congregation is that the book I am reading that got me writing this is about her history. The summary statement I started with is an abbreviation of a sentence that for some reason gripped my attention when I read it last week in Tymen Hofman’s “The Strength of their Years.” Here’s the full quote in the context of him telling what difficulties came about from some wanting to switch to English:
“To outline the significant dates and decisions which moved a strictly “Dutch” congregation to become a church worshipping “in the language of the land” does not begin to reveal the struggle and the trauma that was involved in the lives of individuals and families, even in situations less dramatic than in the life of the Postman family. The trauma was mainly in the life of those who could see they were losing, slowly but surely, something without which they believed they could not live. They were people who immigrated a bit later in life, who came somewhat later in the life of the settlement and in almost every case, people who made little effort to learn the English language. It was possible for such to live in the settlement without doing so; learning English seemed to them an insurmountable task. They felt terribly threatened by every evidence that the church was changing.” — Pg 67 “The Strength of their Years”
Spiritual and religious growth can feel like an insurmountable task as well. And we by nature prefer to stay comfortable in what we know, thereby resisting growth, because growth has risk and possible pain and loss to it in order to gain it’s benefit. I think Rev Hofman — who knew the local context better than I probably ever will since he grew up here — absolutely nailed one dangerous dynamic that is woven into the way we operate here. Our challenge is to find a spiritually and psychologically healthy way forward in faith.