The guys I play basketball with found out that I’m a pastor today. I wasn’t keen on broadcasting the fact, though I’ve been playing downtown for over a year. The reactions were predictable.
“Oh man, now I gotta stop cussing around you.”
“Damn, man, I haven’t been to church in years. I mean, darn… sorry.”
I spent the next few minutes acting particularly chill, pulling on the tongues of my shoes, tightening the laces, attempting to reverse decades of assumptions about Christianity and men of the cloth. Perhaps one day, being labelled a Christian pastor will signal to people that they are in the company of someone who abides by the command of Christ, “judge not, lest ye be judged.” But alas, despite a year’s worth of basketball rapport, being a pastor immediately meant that I was out to judge my friends for the words they used whenever they missed a shot.
The truth is, I don’t recall ever chastising someone for cussing, or handing down any sort of discipline, or telling anyone to watch their p’s and q’s for fear of the Lord.
The gene of judgment, a tenet of our human identity, didn’t skip me. But as a young pastor, rather than requiring forgiveness or confession from others, the majority of my pastoral conversations end with me apologizing on behalf of an errant church or a misrepresented God.
I have spent hour after hour listening to people share how the church has hurt them. Like the youth pastor who told an earnest teenager not to bring his tattooed friend to youth group anymore. Or the elder who told the young woman leading worship that she would be better off serving in the nursery. Or the pastor’s weekly sermons which made everyone cringe and wince and put more money in the offering plate.
Subtle comments made in ignorance or arrogance as well as overt abuses of authority and power have left millions upon millions of people jaded, indifferent, or terrified of the church and the God it represents.
That any of those abused by the church are willing to have conversations with a pastor shows tremendous courage.
The #metoo movement gave women a platform to courageously share their stories of abuse with the world. It inspired the hashtag, #churchtoo, which created a digital space for women (and men) to share stories of abuse they had experienced in the context of church. The scope of the abuse is jarring. Often, these stories include cover-ups by church leadership and justifications for abuse of power by those who hold power.
A recent piece in iAT, “Seeing Clearly” by Chuck DeGroat, suggested that taking the log out of one’s own eye requires practices of self-examination. He quoted Augustine—“let me know myself.” This maxim is true in the plural as well: let us know ourselves. The #churchtoo movement is a prophetic call to self-examination. Always aware of the failures of those outside of our walls, we have ignored the many impediments hindering our own vision.
In Isaiah 58, the prophet writes, “Shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
It is easy to apply this text to others: to a morally bankrupt nation, to those on the other side of the political aisle, to the churches and communities where stories of abuse have become public spectacles. But the instruction is for the prophet to announce to the people of God that they, a chosen people, have been living in rebellion. The call is not for the people of God to announce the rebellion of the world. The #churchtoo movement places the lens on our churches. Like Isaiah, this simple hashtag is a prophetic word to the people of God. We need to do the collective work of self-examination by listening to the #churchtoo stories, believing them, and looking at our own congregations to see how we might ask for the forgiveness of those we have neglected and hurt.
In his book Being Disciples, author Rowan Williams writes, “A willingness to forgive is clearly the mark of a humanity touched by God… but it may be that a willingness to be forgiven is no less the mark of a humanity touched by God.”
More than ever, the church must be a community willing to ask for forgiveness. What this requires, Williams writes, is the acknowledgement “that I cannot grow or flourish without restored relationship, even when this means admitting the ways I have tried to avoid it, admitting sin.” The church cannot flourish without the restored relationship of those that it has hurt. We cannot flourish as Christians, and we cannot flourish as a church, without the recognition that our flourishing is knit together with the flourishing of the other.
The church has required confession from people. It has withheld forgiveness until its conditions were met. When my friends stumbled onto the fact that I was a pastor, they began the typical litany of apologies and confessions. If I have the opportunity to listen to any of their stories, I’m guessing I will have the chance to return the favor.