This past Sunday my wife Jane and I visited a new church. Actually, we visited a church that we used to attend that moved to a new location a couple of years ago. It’s complicated. So is our history of church attendance over the last 17 years. A history that I won’t bother to describe in detail. I will say that it has involved a series of sojourns with congregations that have lasted several years and then usually seemed to end badly. Let me put it this way, if my marital life was like my church life…
I think you get the picture.
Neither of us is proud of this. Nor do we entirely understand it. When I left the pastorate for the classroom, I was convinced that my previous vocation had prepared me to be the perfect church member. My experience as a pastor was still fresh and I was re-learning what it was like to be on the other side of the pulpit. I envisioned myself enjoying the best of both worlds over the next few years, exercising an extended ministry to the church at large and being ministered to by a faithful pastor and finding new friends among a supportive congregation.
Instead, Jane and I spent the next several years feeling like strangers. Out of place, I realized that while I was no longer a pastor, I wasn’t a typical church member either. The church’s leaders, for the most part, kept a respectful distance. Perhaps my vocation put them off. Nobody wants a Bible college professor in their Sunday school class. Not even me. Maybe I seemed stand-offish and unfriendly. I do have one of those faces. I think the pastors felt that since I had once been a pastor, I didn’t need a pastor myself (they were wrong). But here I go, telling you more than you really need or want to know.
For years we have largely blamed ourselves for this struggle. We have been convinced that the problem is us. It must be our fault. We have expressed our grief to God, repented weekly and tried to soldier on, doing our best not to “forsake the assembling” of ourselves together. All the while living a kind of gypsy life, moving from congregation to congregation (I warned you that my story was a sordid one).
Which brings me back to last Sunday. As I said, we visited a church that we used to attend. Actually, it was the first church that we attended when we moved to the Chicago area. What impressed us the most was the sea of familiar faces that greeted us after the service. But not the familiar faces we had expected. Those we recognized were not the people we met when we first began attending the church seventeen years ago (they were nowhere to be seen), but people we had met in the host of churches we have attended over the years. This was my tribe–a band of restless wanderers looking for a spiritual home and finding it hard to settle.
I know what I would have said about this back in the days when I was a pastor. I would have preached a sermon about lack of commitment and used the illustration about the pastor’s “silent sermon.” You know the story–the one where the pastor visits an absent church member and sits in silence before the fireplace. He separates a burning ember from the rest and the two watch as it burns low and flickers out.
I have my doubts whether this old story is actually true. But if it is, I think that pastor, though well intentioned, might have done better to say a word or two to his “backsliding” church member. Perhaps ask him what he had seen in his travels the previous week. Sometimes all it takes to make an ember burn brighter is a little breath.