The church today, at least in the West, it is not a very happy place. Gone are the wonder and the joy of being young, the innocent laughter that so characterizes us when we’re still pre-neurotic. There’s a middle- aged heaviness to the church today, a certain sadness. We’re grieving a lot of things:
What are we grieving?
In essence, four things: i) a lost innocence, ii) a lost unity, iii) a lost child, and iv) a lost wholeness among the people.
At a more obvious level, we are grieving a certain lost innocence. We feel this as we experience the recent scandals within the church, sexual misconduct by some clergy, financial impropriety and abuse of power by some church leaders, and other things that have helped shatter the image of the church as the unsullied bride of Christ that can do no wrong and has done no wrong. Recent studies in church history have also helped highlight this by showing that the church’s long history of grace is colored too by a long history of sin.
But, painful as this is, this is not what’s most dampening the soul of the church. Less visible, less expressed, but more wounding, is the sense of having lost a certain security, namely, the security of knowing that we were the moral high ground, that we were the cognitive and moral majority, that our virtues were real, and that our ethical beliefs and cherished ways of doing things really did separate right from wrong. Until recently we didn’t have to ask ourselves if we were racist, imperialist, sexist, narrow, bigoted. Today we’re a lot less sure of those things. Maybe it isn’t a bad thing to lose all of that certainty, but it’s hardly a joyful thing. We’ve lost our innocence, our moral virginity. That doesn’t come without sadness.
Beyond this, we are grieving a painful division within the church and society. I doubt there has ever been a time since the reformation that the Church has been so painfully polarized and emotionally divided. In many places, in fact, we have two emotional communities, so divided are we by ecclesiology, theology, ideology, and spirituality. We live in an emotional apartheid, separated by ideology and ecclesiology just as surely and rigidly as if this was mandated by law. Such is the church today and such too is society today. We are a deeply divided community.
Division of course is not new. Christ said that he would bring fire to the earth and that this would divide people from each other. His promise has held true, except that today that the division is not between the sincere and the insincere, the good and the bad, the committed and the non-committed. Today, too often, the sincere are divided from the sincere, the good from the good, the committed from the committed. When good people can no longer be in community with each other and can no longer even speak respectfully with each other, the result is always sadness and anger (and anger is just another form of sadness). Small wonder that our churches and communities are not always happy places.
Beyond our internal divisions, we are too grieving a lost child, our child, secularity. Perhaps this can best be explained in an image: Western culture is to us, the church, much like an adolescent child is to its parents. We gave it birth, helped raise it, and now, with a fierceness and anger that do not seem justifiable, it is asserting its independence from us, accusing us of being bad parents, and claiming it can find life only by moving away from us (all without acknowledging its debt to us). Like parents too we fear for its safety even as we envy its youth, confidence, power, and daring and resent its independence. Like parents too, we feel a certain sadness. The child has left home, rejecting many of our cherished values in that leave-taking. It is slipping away from us, daily becoming more post-ecclesial. To not feel a sadness about this is to lack in sensitivity and love.
Finally, we are grieving as well the grief of our people, our world. Western society is, in large measure, despondent and suffering from every kind of brokenness. Wholeness, it seems, is no longer the rule. More and more it’s the exception for someone to not come from a broken home, a broken marriage, a series of broken relationships, and an abusive background of some sort. We’re a society of the wounded, we bring this to our churches, and this colours church life. The tensions and sadness inside the church reflect the tensions and sadness inside society as a whole.
And so we are a grieving church, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. Tears can save us from bitterness and hardness of heart. So perhaps one of the important forms of sanctuary that the church can offer the world today is that of being a safe place where you can come and be sad.