Problems of the Past

"I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life."
-Louise Penny

Several years ago I worked with the vestry and pastor of a church that had gone through a time of upheaval but seemed to be finding their way forward. I led the leadership through an exercise that explores our commitments, some of which are counter-productive.

For example, how many of us make resolutions to exercise more at the beginning of a new year? That's a commitment. How many of us, at the end of a long day, find ourselves skipping the gym or our walk around the block because we're tired? That's also a commitment. And these commitments work against each other.

Through a series of questions and reflections, the church leadership explored what they were committed to as a faith community, the changes they wanted to make, and what they may be committed to that would hinder these changes. Most of the leadership seemed energetic to engage.

One person was upset. He repeated over and over again his fear the community would forget the past, that they weren't ready to move forward. After some conversation, another leader observed, "We aren't going to forget the past, but we aren't going to let it be the only story we tell."

In almost two decades work with churches, I've discovered a truth - we love our problems. We love to share how our problems are to blame for where we are in life, the mistakes we've made, and why we can't move forward. We love to not only not forget the past, but enshrine it as the idol that stands in our way. Problems become, as Louise Penny so correctly says, the excuse for not maturing and getting on with life.

Churches as communities of humans have problems. We make poor choices that have long-term negative impacts. Things happen to us we had no active part in, but the waves of the harmful choices can continue to overwhelm us. 

That's not to say difficult, tragic, and unplanned events don't change the narrative of our lives. Problems mix well into the foundation of who we are. They become, if we invite God into them, a source of wisdom, insight, and compassion.

But that invitation takes courage and hard work. We must first acknowledge our problems, the deep wounds in our souls that have changed us. Then we must be willing to undergo the process of healing. Anyone who has had a significant wound or injury can remember the healing process - the removal of dead tissue, the physical therapy, the care and rest - are painful processes.

No surprise, then, how much easier and effortless the self-medication of stasis of our soul wounds and problems becomes. We anchor ourselves not in God, but in the past and all that went wrong. We use this as the reason we can't grow, change, or move, whether in our communities or our personal lives. We blame others for not fixing the problems we created.

How much easier is saying our church can't grow because 40 years ago, the assistant had an inappropriate relationship with the church secretary than admitting the neighborhood around the church has changed and the people who might want to be part of this community of faith are no longer upper middle class and when we talk about church growth, we are limiting our invitation to a particular demographic?

How much easier is it to blame a pattern of problematic relationships on other people than taking a long, vulnerable look at our own unhealthy patterns?

When Paul writes in First Corinthians, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways," he's saying something about maturing, about seeing the problems and challenges we encounter as ways to learn more about our own selves and souls, about the way we interact with others, and about the expectations both reasonable and unreasonable we have in our relationships.

Putting an end to childish ways invites us to set aside our desire only to blame others and instead to stay and engage the process of growing when we encounter uncomfortable and challenging situations.

We cannot change our past, the successes or the deep failures. We can choose to let the past inform our present and future in helpful ways.

We can choose to grow and get on with life.


Cindy Fleming said…
Thank you. This seems especially appropriate to my home parish right now.
Grant said…
Finally retired from parish ministry. You demonstrate an ability to work with parishioners/leaders here that I aimed for, but I couldn't lead beyond all the push back, etc. I think you're also onto one of the pieces we need to reshape the church for a challenging time of shrinking membership. But I came to your blog to thank you for the House of Deputies Ash Wed Litany you and another wrote. I had inherited a really healthy parish except for a couple of things, on being 'Ralph,' who did things like kneel behind women in the pews and pop bra straps, or run his hand up and down women's backs to see if they had a bra. Very early, my first Christmas, he was usher and boomed out as a couple entered who were his 'friends' to the husband, "Can I have sex with your wife." I was standing in the narthex in my vestments and just blurted, "No, we don't say those kinds of things." His beloved (and enabler wife) in the choir; they gave a lot of money. People started coming to say 'have you noticed Ralph isn't coming to church any more and his wife is so upset, and they may start looking for another church after 40 yrs.' I invited him to my office for a conversation; while there he threatened to invite me outside for a fight if I ever did something so public as that again. All this is really just chapter 1 of at least 10. Sleepless nights. Women parishioners telling me, 'Oh, that's just Ralph.' I told him he was welcome at church as long as he didn't use inappropriate/off color humor--I wouldn't follow him around, but I wouldn't not say anything. 10 yrs later, he had finally started coming regularly, but also observing appropriate boundaries. Exhausting. Stressful. I'd do it again. And I'm glad I'm retired.... I'm grateful I had the bishop's support after I wrote basically an incident report.

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