Accepting Our Church For What It Is
by Chris TerryNelson
As the pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (EPC), I sometimes write posts that are intended to be heard directly by my parishioners. Yet, my sense is that there are others who need to “overhear” this. With this post, I hope to provide an account of the work the session of elders did at NaCoMe retreat center on the weekend of January 25-27, 2013. Some of our elders were not able to attend (David and Cooper), and some had to skip sessions to head home early(Ginia and Terry A.), and so it is important for them to get a grasp on what happened as well. I hope this will give you a picture of how God moved and worked in our midst, and why I think EPC has been given a simple gift that it must receive and cultivate: a singular passion for relationships marked by growing intimacy, transparency, and belonging.
We were privileged to have Jane Herring, a current VA Hospital Chaplain and Vanderbilt MDiv graduate, lead us in the contemplative work of “The Cycle of Grace.” This cycle has four distinct movements: Inputs: (1) acceptance & (2) sustenance; and Outputs: (3) significance & (4) fruitfulness.
With each movement, we started with the personal, asking questions of acceptance like “How have you experienced acceptance from others? And how have you experienced rejection from others? How have you experienced acceptance from God, and how have you experienced the absence or even rejection of God”? We moved from sharing from our own lives to asking these questions about EPC. So how is EPC accepting? One person shared that the act of corporate confession and the declaration of forgiveness constitute a mode of acceptance. We take the risk of bearing our sin before God, and we are accepted as sinners. Our masks are taken off, even if for a moment.
And it is this moment that, strangely, is a source of sustenance for us. We cannot necessarily articulate why this is, but Sunday morning worship has a mysterious quality to it. Jane, as a relative newcomer, shared with us that this has been her experience at EPC. This was a gift to the session, for the experience of sustained weekly acceptance has become so familiar that it can be overlooked – “Well, ALL churches offer that! All churches say they are welcoming!” And yes, we do refer to ourselves as welcoming, as a home. But very few churches have a welcome that goes deep – that accepts the person behind the mask. While it is dangerous to generalize regarding everyone’s experience (I’m certain some people have felt rejection by both people and God at our church – we are sinners after all), the session began to recount the times where we had each experienced a moment of acceptance in our church life. The more we talked about it, the more began to model it, bringing down our own masks. I, as the pastor, was allowed to participate fully, and didn’t feel that I had to use a filter. The filters were taken down to the point where an elder told me: “Chris, it’s been painful to share my life with you and feel that you were not present to me.” Ouch. But I did not die, or lose my job, or any of the worst case scenarios that played out in my head. No, I accepted this word. It was a gift. I had known all along that I wasn’t “all there,” at the least the way I had hoped I would be.
I began to face up to the fact that, against the best advice and wishes of my colleagues, my identity had become entangled with that of the church. Neither of us know who we are. We haven’t “found” ourselves. And so we began looking to each other. One person asked me when I first began 2.5 years ago: “So, what’s your vision for this church?” If I couldn’t answer that question and execute accordingly, my life had no meaning. And sure enough, after trying on multiple identities and visions (the language of “being missional” and “discipleship” played prominently in this endless exercise), executing with only momentary gain followed by momentary loss, I began to give up. The church had exhausted me. And so I began to look elsewhere. I began to think that my salvation lay in going half-time, and using the other half of my life for my true passion. Ah, but lo and behold, I did not know what I was passionate about. I did not know myself, so attempting to separate even half of myself from the church would only yield the same results. There is no greater pressure in our time than to find one’s self. The future always holds a promise to us: move here, do this, give up that, and you will be happy and content. But it is an empty promise. It is what fuels the rat race, the one we judge in others, and the one that makes us judge ourselves. We are never good enough, it seems.
Jane asked a very simple question to our session at this retreat. If all we do is gather for worship once a week, and provide a space of acceptance for people, hoping and praying that they experience a mysterious transcendent presence, is that enough? “Is that enough?” That is the question we must ask of our current circumstances. I recognize how much baggage we bring to the church as leaders. We are always susceptible to projecting our own “stuff” onto the church. Yet, this is what I have done. I have not been able to accept the church as it is, and thus have not been able to accept myself, as I am. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know, and that’s okay.
Knowledge and reason have been my primary weapons in the fight against feelings I don’t enjoy feeling – like anxiety. So when I don’t know something, I get anxious, and I have no protection left. The search for knowledge is fueled by a fear of unknowing. But what if I were to accept my place as an unknower, an unsagelike, unwise person? What if all we have in front of us is all that there is to know? What if EPC’s one true gift is its simple worship, its gathering weekly for 1 hour? Is that enough? Am I enough?
We are distinct, and yet we are on this journey together. There is so much we do not know of ourselves, and we do not know our future. But we do know what is right here, right now. EPC, you are enough, as you are. And I am enough, as I am.
To begin here is to begin with the Gospel, as it turns out. This is not just a motivational exercise. It is the truth we confess in Jesus Christ. To begin here, with the simple acceptance, begs the question: what can we do to sustain this acceptance with one another? What particular sign or gift has God given us as a means to bring this acceptance to the world? And what fruit do we hope or expect to grow from such acceptance?
Needless to say, I have been putting the cart before the horse. I have tried hard to figure out what I must do in order to make the church and myself worthwhile, meaningful. It has not just been enough to bracket out what the community thinks of us. What do I think of myself? What do I think of Emmanuel?
Two things happened at this retreat that I think coincide quite nicely:
1. It was the first time where I saw myself in the third-person. It was an out-of-body experience. I was viewing myself as if I was being filmed. I was smiling. I actually liked what I saw. This was further helped along by the fact that each session member went around and told me something about myself (not just my “professional self”) that they liked about me.
2. I, along with all session members, experienced ourselves as “cups running over.” It was now effortless to give praise to Emmanuel, to the concrete detailed ways in which our little church exhibits so much love and joy. In previous times, this has felt coerced, as if I’m praising the church for some political gain, or because I know they “need” to hear it.
I am writing this account to you church, so that there can be some account-ability. While many of you were not at NaCoMe, I refuse to believe that this was just a one-time experience. It has changed everything for me, even as it appears that nothing has changed. It must bear worth repeating in its own way, its own time. It is not something that only I must say, but we must all say with our own voice. But allow me to confess my sin to you as your pastor: forgive me for not loving you as you are. I didn’t know what I was doing. You are enough for me as you are. And you are enough for God too. May we cultivate space together for one another so that we may dwell in love together for many years to come.