There is the world in which the church acts as we all live, and then there’s the world real people live in. They are not the same places.
It took me over a year to deconstruct my own experiences as a pastor to come to this startling realization, which few members of the clergy will admit. And for all of you reading this and thinking that I am telling your story, rest assured that this is pure coincidence; I say our history – our collective history.
While it is noble and even biblical for the church to maintain a standard – of how life should be, how people should behave, how families should behave – it is unrealistic to act like if the sky had already descended and the glory is filled the souls of each one.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a pastor that there are many families and many people are not what they seem. Christians, in particular, are good at putting on a good face despite everything that is really going on at home. Some of these facades fall more easily than others, but I’m here to tell you that no pattern can be found. For every embarrassing fact that comes out, another 10 probably remains hidden.
Every Sunday, people sitting on your benches – whether real or virtual these days – struggle with addictions, depression, suicidal thoughts, financial distress, impossibly broken relationships, questions about sexuality, abuse. , unhappy marriages, problem children, stupid mistakes, obsessions. And the list continues. Some of them act in unhealthy ways that can stay under wraps, while others struggle more openly whether or not someone thinks about asking them how they are doing.
One of the myths that the church perpetuates is that people with problems are “out there” and must be brought into the church for salvation. The reality is that many people inside the church live with as many problems as those who never darken the doors. We fervently hope that those who attend church will find help in solving their problems, and we offer the same hope to those who have not yet joined the fold.
Christian churches tend to preach against “big” sins like drug addiction, sexual infidelity, gambling, pornography and the like, while acting as if a whole range of other behavioral problems don’t exist.
Christian churches tend to preach against “big” sins like drug addiction, sexual infidelity, gambling, pornography and the like, while acting as if a whole range of other behavioral problems don’t exist. The reality is that all of these things exist, and the church is the last place you want to talk about them.
In fact, people often go to great lengths to avoid talking about it. For example, while churches prudently and necessarily conduct criminal background checks on volunteers, shame prevents some church members from volunteering. They don’t want anyone in church to know what’s on their criminal record at some point – maybe a DUI in college, drug trafficking, or financial failure. While these are not generally the behaviors churches try to eliminate among volunteers, some people fear being caught in the net and feeling shame among their peers.
Even though divorce is common today, I know of several former active church members who are so embarrassed by their “failed marriages” – a horrible term, by the way – that they cannot bear to return home. ‘church. Or if they do, they slip in and sit in the last row.
Drug and alcohol additions lots of publicity, but these are not the only – and perhaps not even the most common – addictions. A large number of people inside and outside the church are living with food addictions, sexual addictions, exercise addictions, gambling addictions, internet addictions, gambling addictions, from addictions to shopping and more. These are the behaviors that are less talked about, but just as shameful, common to real life.
Here’s another truth: Those who struggle are often more in touch with reality than church leaders living on cloud nine.
And, by the way, the pandemic has made all addictive behaviors worse just as it has added to financial distress, depression and everything that plagues the human condition. The pandemic has been an accelerator like we have never seen in our lifetime.
Here’s another truth: Those who struggle often are more in touch with reality than church leaders living on cloud nine.
In May 1889, the artist Vincent Van Gogh locked himself in an asylum in France fearing he was headed for another mental breakdown. The asylum was located in the mountains of the Alpilles chain, near the Mediterranean coast. Ironically, it was located in a former monastery.
There, he painted 150 canvases, including a series of wheat fields and olive trees for asylum. In his depression, he painted vibrant colors and abstract swirls. (If you’ve ever seen van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, think of this, but as a landscape.)
Curators of an exhibition currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art explain that in Van Gogh’s art, olive trees symbolize the biblical and spiritual life found in Bible accounts.
A few weeks later, after Van Gogh fell into another round of blackouts, two artist friends – Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin – sent Van Gogh copies of their current works depicting the biblical story of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal. Gauguin, of the arrogant type, placed his own face on the figure of Christ praying in “Christ on the Mount of Olives”. Van Gogh did not approve.
Bernard sent a letter and a photograph of his own new painting of Christ to the Garden of Olives. Van Gogh responded, begging him to do better, calling his young friend’s painting “atrocious”.
Museum curators explain that Van Gogh disliked what his friends painted, believing their interpretations to be too imaginative and not based on in-depth study of real olive trees. Van Gogh’s responses to Bernard and Gauguin indicated that he preferred to paint the real olive trees in front of his window rather than the imaginary garden of the agony of Christ. In Van Gogh’s mind, reality was the source of strength.
Even though Van Gogh had been influenced by the impressionists, he carefully studied the real basis of what he painted. Thus, one commentator described his olive tree painting as “made as gnarly and arthritic as if it were a personification of the natural world.”
Raised in the church and deeply influenced by the faith, Van Gogh firmly grasped the reality of his deteriorating mental state. Therefore, he had no interest in a sanitized or even personalized representation of the biblical account. He needed help right then, as he struggled to stay alive day in and day out.
What is the answer to all of this? I do not know. But I know this is a time when questions can be more important than answers. What do we preach? What do we teach? And how connected does that seem to reality?
What the church somehow needs to do is recognize with instinctive honesty the reality of where we live and how we live.
While some really horrible people exist in this world, many more good people do things they shouldn’t, think things they wish they weren’t doing, and succumb to all the temptations common to mankind. The real world is not made up of “good” people and “bad” people.
I am not suggesting that churches create 15 types of support groups. Most people don’t go to air their dirty laundry at church, no matter how private you promise to be. Nor am I suggesting a 10-week series of sermons on a more godly life. We’ve heard this before, and it hasn’t caught on.
What the church somehow needs to do is recognize with instinctive honesty the reality of where we live and how we live. We must offer tools to talk about this reality within our families, within our networks and among our friends. The church somehow needs to paint more like Van Gogh and less like Gauguin.
Mark Wingfield is Executive Director and Publisher of Baptist News Global.
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