Monday night I listened to Gretta Vosper talk about the perils of pathfinding. In a sense, it was a story about ministry.
She had a big problem. She loved her congregation. She loved her calling. She loved sharing her education and her thoughts on religious ideas. But she didn’t have the same God as her church.
She put a lot of passion and work into her sermons in order to explain the history, the context, the subtleties of the old and important writings. She tried to explain out the differences in time, and how important it was to live in today’s world, with today’s understandings of things.
She would finish her services, and the congregation would smile, and she would realize their understandings of God had not been changed or challenged in any real way at all. And when she looked a little deeper, she noticed everything within the old and comfortable rituals of the church reconfirmed what could only be an elementary understanding of God.
So she broke down, and finally told them she didn’t believe in the same interceding God they did. She didn’t believe in the God of agency they did. She didn’t see God as Love, at least in the way they said they did. She certainly didn’t believe the Bible was the authoritative word of God for all time. And she didn’t know what to do.
Some people in the church were ready and willing to take up the new path with her. Others were not. It became a time of losing allies, dissolving relationships, and things falling apart. But it was also a time of examining values, embracing new friends, and hope taking shape. In her mind, it had to happen because, well… how else would something as old as a church change?
There is a story about Jesus who was approached by a rich man wanting to know how to receive eternal life. In short, Jesus told him to sell everything he had and turn his life towards helping others. The rich man was unimpressed with the cost, and walked away. When Jesus was pressed to explain what he had said to the rich man, he came up with a really creative image:
A little while ago a friend online posted a collection of interpretations for this passage. There are lots, each one with a history and a use all its own. But the most intriguing one for me was this:
It can be a simple process, but not an easy one. The camel must first be completely destroyed. Once that is done, it can pass through the needle’s eye. [if you know where this came from, please tell me so I can link it or give credit]
That’s a tall order. Churches don’t like being destroyed. Even if it is the only way forward.
I have to give my respect to the United Church of Canada. They have not excommunicated her or fired her. They have not swept her under any rug. They haven’t even simply walked away, like that rich man unimpressed with the cost. But they are watching and they are waiting.
Gretta talked a little bit about burn-out. As minister, she is the spiritual leader but not necessarily the executive leader, and she did express some hesitation about where this was all going. It sounds like her progressive church is starting to move on it’s own momentum now. Many of the new members of her church have little history with things like Sunday School curriculum, or group assemblies or religious studies. At this point, they cannot return to the old rituals and easy resources. They are making it all fresh and all new. As a result, they work with the passion of zealots and new converts. A moment of care and consideration can be important, especially in unexplored territory. If you are willing to set yourself on fire, some people will be more than willing to help you find the matches.
In breaking new ground, I fear Gretta and her congregation may be digging holes for themselves and losing sight of the many paths already cut through the trees, so to speak. Many people have walked these paths already. (I wanted to ask her, “Why not ask the Unitarians for help?” but the question period ended before I plucked up my nerve.)
When it all gets done, I’m not sure if anything will be left to pass through that narrow eye of the needle. But, they are facing the daunting task of change, and they are doing it head-on. I’m just not sure whether to lend a hand, or be ready with a bucket of water.
What do you think?