As a church consultant, one of the most frequent suggestions I made to church leadership boards and councils was to declare a moratorium on negativity. Some thought this was cute, many more found it funny, but all sobered up when they realized I was serious. Our Christian witness is being corrupted by a cultural influence to focus on the negative, on the problems, on our deficiencies. It is breathtaking how quickly a gathering of church members can become a gripe-session fueled by irritation, blame, resentment, anxiety, judgment, and criticism.
Why? Why do we do this? Why do we allow the flow of energy to spiral in a negative direction when the Holy Spirit of God spirals the opposite way? Are we defined by our problems? Are we limited by what we lack? Is our witness one of division and disagreement? Are the few things that we disagree about more important than the hundreds of things we value in common? Negativity repels and exhausts – no one wants to be part of a community bogged down in the mire of mediocrity and melodrama, lamenting all they have lost, don’t have, can’t do, and don’t like. We need to stop it!
Does this mean we don’t acknowledge problems and face hard realities? Of course not, but we focus on solutions rather than problems, possibilities and potential rather than limitations and deficiencies. How we frame things is critical. One glaring example is the way we emerge from the current global pandemic. We can reenter our congregations focusing on all we lost, all we sacrificed, how difficult life has been, and how life will never be the same or we can emerge celebrating the faithfulness and endurance, the strength and savvy, the character and generosity that pulled us through. Instead of focusing on the church we are not, we have a blessed opportunity to create the church we want – the church that God wants us to have.
I attended a workshop this week where the presenter compared ministry to slowing being swallowed by an anaconda, with the solution being, once half-consumed, pulling a knife and cutting off the snake’s head; kill or be killed. Really? That is a metaphor for pastoral ministry? How depressing and defeating! It is certainly sad that there are people for whom this is an appropriate metaphor, but it is not the way most clergy and laity servants of Christ view their lives and service. If this metaphor were dominant, who would ever answer the call?
Framing is vitally important. I have long said that I know two basic kinds of Christians; those who say, “oh no, I guess I need to pray,” and those who rejoice, “hot-diggity, I GET to pray.” I know many Christians for whom faith is as much burden as blessing and it breaks my heart. Luckily, I know many, many more for whom the Christian faith is nothing but strength, comfort, direction, promise, hope, and grace. When energy is focused on what people don’t like, gossip about others, concerns over short-term needs, and getting one’s own way, there is very little left over for constructive use. When the focus is on what we do possess, what we can achieve, what we believe God wants from us, and an abiding assurance that we can work things out together, it is amazing how transformational positive energy can be.
Galatians 5:22 and 23 in the NRSV identifies the fruit of the Holy Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It is disingenuous to believe that simply because we are the church that we are creating a positive environment. Never assume you are producing the fruit simply because you own the seed catalog. God works the miracle of fruit-production in and through us through careful cultivation, nurture, intentionality, and commitment. To produce the good, it is imperative first to prepare the soil. Negativity is nothing more than the rocks and roots that can break the plow, the rodents, birds, and insects that can spoil the crops, and the weeds and pollutants that can end the life. It shouldn’t be too far a stretch for people whom God calls to “produce the fruit that will last,” (John 15:16) to eradicate and eliminate all the negatives that threaten God’s will and purpose.
For far too many of us, we cannot conceive of a church free from negativity. If we can’t argue, if we can’t judge, if we can’t condemn, then what’s the point? The point is this: our world is really screwed up, and there is more than enough to feel negative about. Darkness abounds, sickness ravages, violence destroys, greed consumes, and all seems dirty and broken. Except. Except, this isn’t the reality or the realm of God’s people. We live in hope; we share love, we reflect the glorious light of Christ, we stretch out our hands to heal and comfort, we redeem and build up. The world needs a church and a faith of positivity. Enough with the criticism, the condemnation, the division. Let’s declare a moratorium on negativity and make space to see what God can do.
Catholics get assigned to pray as penance, something that confuses me a bit.