Thursday, August 20, 2009

John 6:56-69

"This teaching is difficult," they said. "It's too hard. Who can accept it?"

Probably the first time I said "it's too hard" was in algebra class. And despite my parents' urging to try, try again, I gave up quickly and skated by on poor grades. Then there was the zipper I couldn't seem to get into a suede cloth jumper. After the third try, I said, "this is impossible. It can't be done." My mother, with her teeth gritted, said, "oh yes it can!" and went to the sewing machine and did it in no time at all.

One of the things I believe my generation (boomers) has to answer for the most is the way we deal with "this is difficult/too hard." Even those of us who never bought into "free love" liked the idea of "if it feels good, do it." Difficult things don't feel good, at least not right away. So we walked away from the hard things, especially in our faith as we asked, "how can God allow this to happen?"

Eventually we came back for the most part. Our parents might say that we finally grew up. We started doing the difficult things - working real jobs, raising families, learning to budget our money - because we didn't really have a choice. There was no one else to do it for us. But we didn't teach our children to tackle the difficult things, did we? We particularly didn't manage to teach them the importance of belonging to a faith community.

I remember the next time I said "this is too hard." It was when my dad had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, late stage. I was talking to my mother-in-law. I told her that losing a parent was too hard and that I didn't want to do it this time, let alone three more times. She merely said, "you don't have a choice."

It is true there are difficult things that we can't walk away from. But difficult teachings is another matter. I have friends who have left their faith behind because someone died, because someone didn't die soon enough, because they didn't like the priest, because the new hymns replaced old familiar ones, because the size/shape/ethnicity/sexuality of the congregation changed and they couldn't deal with it. Too many of them, confusing faith in the Christ with membership in a worshiping community, walked out.

Peter has the right of it in his answer to Jesus. Jesus asks, "do you also wish to go away?" and Peter answers, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

When people tell me they are leaving The Episcopal Church, the first question I ask is whether they have found another church. We humans need a church to help nurture and support our faith when it wobbles. If those who want to leave TEC haven't got somewhere else to go, I urge them not to leave. If they have found another community that is more nurturing and supportive, then I urge them to become a part of it with my blessing.

But the difficult teachings don't go away just because we change congregations or denominations. They are always there, poking and prodding us.

The teaching of Jesus is difficult, sometimes too difficult. That is when we turn to our brothers and sisters in faith. Sometimes all we need is their presence with us. Sometimes we need them to listen to our doubts and questions and help us come to understand better. After all, we are supposed to grow in faith, not rise from baptism fully formed. You don't teach a child to count from one to ten and then put them in an advanced calculus class.

But once we have come to believe, there really is nowhere else to go. Leaving doesn't help solve the difficult things. Staying might not, either, but choosing to stay means we have chosen to continue working on the hard teachings. And just because Jesus no longer walks among us teaching in parables doesn't mean the difficult teaching isn't still going on.

Difficult teaching makes us uncomfortable. It's supposed to. If we have made ourselves a cozy nest of our faith, a hammock that rocks us gently in the shade of the trees, then we are not working hard enough on being faithful. Reread the gospels. Go back and hear what Paul wrote while he sat in prison. Nowhere will you find Easy Street. Almost everywhere you will find challenges, obstacles, tests, hard teachings. Paul speaks of being a prisoner in the Lord. This is not an image of comfort yet it is a state of being that Paul relished.

So when the teaching is too hard, when there are obstacles in the road, turn to your church family. Ask the hard questions there. You will likely find that others are struggling with the same question.