January 15, 2021

Negotiating the Mess


This is a report from the front lines. The battle. The church. The mess.

On the one hand, I have had a wonderful summer filling in during my pastor’s sabbatical. Sundays, in particular, have been refreshing, as I have led worship, preached, distributed the Sacrament, and shared small talk with the saints around coffee and donuts on bright Lord’s Day mornings..

But as I reflect on that, Sundays have always been wonderful for me. Sundays have been regular moments of peace in the midst of the war. Hearing the Scriptures, singing the hymns and praise songs, joining together in prayer, and coming to the Lord’s Table has always proved to be a “thin place” for me. Not that God always “shows up” in some dramatic way like Jesus did on the Mount of Transfiguration. As I have said here before, Sunday worship with the church has been like “Sunday dinner” to me over the years. That one meal when you could count on most of the clan being there with no agenda other than being together, away from the week’s demands, to enjoy the week’s best meal, to share the week’s happenings within the context of family and friends.

Then comes Monday.

Eugene Peterson is one of the wise people who has clarified for me what pastoral ministry is about “between Sundays” —

But after the sun goes down on Sunday, the clarity diffuses. From Monday through Saturday, an unaccountably unruly people track mud through the holy places, leaving a mess. The order of worship gives way to the disorder of argument and doubt, bodies in pain and emotions in confusion, misbehaving children and misdirected parents. I don’t know what am doing half the time. I am put in situations for which I am not adequate. I find myself attempting tasks for which I have neither aptitude nor inclination. The vision of myself as pastor, so clear in Lord’s Day worship, is now blurred and distorted as it is reflected back from the eyes of people who view me as pawn to their egos. The affirmations I experience in Sunday greetings are now precarious in the slippery mud of put-down and fault-finding.

The Contemplative Pastor

So I find myself slogging through the mud again — the wet and messy wilderness of daily faith among the people of God and their neighbors. And, right on cue, I discover that the most pressing danger out there does not come from enemy attacks, well-hidden snipers, or artillery barrages. No, the enemy’s onslaughts don’t do half the damage that we do to ourselves through our failures, big and small, to love one another.

The fact that we can “do church” on Sundays is no indication that we have a clue about what it means to “be church” in daily life and relationships.

This is not a blame game. I am as clueless as anyone else.

pdale_mudJust as in most of life, we do fine and things go smoothly until there is a crisis, a disagreement, a conflict.

Then we don’t know what to do with our anger, our hurt, our disappointment.

If we somehow work up enough self-control to guard our tongues, we burn with resentment and frustration.

When we can’t contain our words, we speak unwisely and uncharitably, little realizing the damage we are doing.

We don’t listen well.

We lick our wounds and snarl when someone tries to approach us to tend them.

When it might be good to speak, we find ourselves intimidated into silence.

We lose trust and gain suspicion.

We cannot begin to put a good spin on the words and actions of others, and if someone does speak up in their defense, we scoff and refuse to give them any benefit of the doubt.

[This, by the way, is why I need a Sunday worship service that is more than about “getting high” on Jesus or being challenged to be “radical” for him. I need a service each week that has confession and absolution, in which we sing “Kyrie Eleison”, that reenacts and proclaims the Gospel of forgiveness and new creation, in which someone hands me bread and wine and says, “Christ, given for you”.]

I’m sure someone will read my description of the “mess” that church is and say, “That’s not my church, thank God!” I won’t argue with you, but will simply say, “Give thanks for this season of respite and peace.” Enjoy it. Savor it. Don’t waste it.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking you can lay down enough pavement to keep the rain from turning your path into a muddy mess at least once in awhile. At some point, it’s bound to get ugly.

Then what will you do?


  1. My pastor says now and then, “The church is God’s idea of a good time…not necessarily ours.”

  2. “Then what will you do”
    I was drafted in the late 60’s and off to war as a young man(as a helicopter ambulance pilot).. It was more than muddy. It sticks with you, even though you don’t have words to describe. One of the strangest and not comforting parts is that I was good at it. When all hell broke loose, I could remain calm, and directed others, which was part of a life saving process. Not that Peterson’s words aren’t true, that I was not adequate, but just aware of that and others in the worst situations. I carried what I learned into latter days.
    Now today, I don’t take the relative calm of these days I live as indicative of life and that more abundantly. I know that I am on my knees way more than those younger days. My prayer life revolves around asking for the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is more intricate than it first appears, involving praise, discipleship, and intercession. It is a process of trying to make everyday a Sunday, even though most people one communes with are even remotely aware of that( it’s funny how we compartmentalize church, pastors, especially the Lord). But I can live this way because I get paid not to go off to do something that nobody else will do. One of my grandchildren was recently life-flighted by helicopter to a children’s hospital. She would have died in an earlier era.
    We were called dustoff back in the war I was in. It was given that name because the fighting often stopped when our helicopter landed)not always). .It is an analogy of Sunday. The war seems to always resume. I know that the dustoff role that I’ve carried all these years is just one small part of what we humans call redeem.

  3. Scooter's Mom says

    I helps me so much to know that a Pastor can struggle just like me. You described my week perfectly, Chaplain Mike. Especially the sentence about controlling our tongue only to burn with resentment. Right on. I don’t know if I will ever get to the point where I can love freely down here on earth. Sometimes it looks hopeless. Thanks to my God who keeps sustaining me.

  4. Well spoken! It gave me pause to think about my attitude during the week.

  5. Our church is starting a long term training program to identify, train and call Elders into lay pastoral ministry. I am forwarding this to the pastors in charge of this effort with a suggestion that it become part of the reading and conversation for that group.

  6. Darrell Young says

    You just described our church and my experience to a T.

  7. I keep meditating on The Message’s paraphrasing of Matthew 11:28-30, in particular the line, “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” It’s not the “forced” rhythms of grace we need, but the unforced. That’s the kind of grace that is genuine. When I mentioned that verse to a friend recently, he sent me a picture of a person floating on their back down a serene river in the sun. It seems to me the unforced rhythms of grace can take us (and those around us) through the mess and wash the mud from our bodies, if we would just let it.

  8. “I discover that the most pressing danger out there does not come from enemy attacks, well-hidden snipers, or artillery barrages. No, the enemy’s onslaughts don’t do half the damage that we do to ourselves through our failures, big and small, to love one another.”

    Not sure I agree with this. I think it is the Enemy that kicks me and then blames it on the person next to me which gets the whole fight started.

    “Then we don’t know what to do with our anger, our hurt, our disappointment.”

    This is the truth. We usually look around for someone to blame and then end up picking the easiest target. If only we could keep straight who is the Enemy and who are the ones we are supposed to be fighting to save. Unfortunately the Enemy is usually hiding and the ones we are supposed to be fighting to save are the ones who catch our eye when we’re angry.

  9. A Lurker here, but one of Chaplain’s comment in this post compelled me to come out to the open a bit…

    Chaplain, do you mind expanding some on your comment: “I need a service each week that has confession and absolution”?

    How does the Lutheran tradition supply the “absolution” part? Is there a formal process? Do you confess and simply walk away happier (joyful? relieved?) that Jesus has forgiven your sins? Is it like the Catholic tradition where you confess to a Priest/Pastor?

    Is the “Gospel of forgiveness and new creation” proclaimed every week?

    Does anyone else get this in their church? Or is the “getting high” the more common experience?

    That whole sidebar really spoke to me (ain’t that the way sometimes?) and I’m interested in learning more about what you experience in this regard. I’m actually a bit surprised at my own reaction…but it’s almost like a light went on…this would seem to be a very important part of worship and yet I don’t believe I’m very familiar with it on the “Sunday worship” level.

    • Confession and the words of absolution are a regular part of the liturgy in our services. Some Lutherans and others are beginning to revive practices of private confession, as well, but I am speaking here of what happens when the congregation gathers on Sunday. Here is the way it has been done this summer:

      Leader: Blessed be the Holy Trinity, + one God, abounding in steadfast love toward us, healing the sick and raising the dead, showering us with every good gift.
      People: Amen.
      Leader: Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another. Just and gracious God:
      People: We come to you for healing and life. Our sins hurt others and diminish us; we confess them to you. Our lives bear the scars of sin; we bring these also to you. Show us your mercy, O God. Bind up our wounds, forgive us our sins, and free us to love, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
      Leader: The apostle Paul assures us: “When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ, nailing the record of our sins to the cross.” Jesus says to you, + “Your sins are forgiven.” Be at peace, and tell everyone how much God has done for you.
      People: Amen.

  10. I wept through this entire piece.

    The transition from Sunday’s “thin place” to Monday’s betrayal, was just too painful.

    I’m not sure a round of communion and a donut and coffee are enough to cover over the painful reminder that those who gather around the family table are not all agenda-free. Some are. Some aren’t. Church people don’t always remember that their pastors are actually human, with feelings and ears. We hear what you say, to our faces and behind our backs. We are trying our best to lead you into that “thin place” where you can find joy and peace. Our goal is not to make you miserable, but to introduce you to the One who can make you free.

    My path is more than a muddy mess. It is a quagmire. With mines. And probably alligators. And, most certainly, snakes.

    And I don’t know what to do.

    But thanks for letting me know I’m not alone.

  11. CM,
    I’m afraid I don’t share your positive experience of Sundays. I’m acutely aware of the conflicts and tensions that exist among the congregation, that we only pretend to put aside as we worship; I’m aware of the suppressed power struggles and the painful animosity that go on good behavior for an hour, but only an hour, and then re-assert themselves with renewed vigor when the time-out is over.

    But then, my experience growing up in my family was not as sunny as you describe yours to have been. You have good reason to be grateful that you are able to take such delight and refreshment in both worship and family; it’s by no means a universal experience. Some of us experience the battle every day of the week, in every location, worship included.

    • I hear you Robert. One of the sad aspects of Sundays is knowing how many there are, myself often included, who are wearing masks as we sing together in worship. Nevertheless, is this not why we gather — to bring all this brokenness to a place where we may reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ robe?

      • I can’t speak for all the others, but it is why I, and my wife, keep showing up every Sunday morning (that and the fact that she’s the organist!).

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