Longing and Hope

July 28th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder, Editors Blog

Since we posted the first issue of Work and Hope last week, we’ve received a steady trickle of positive feedback about our efforts. It’s encouraging to know that there’s an audience for something like this – blogging is a bit like transmitting radio waves into deep space – we don’t know if there is anybody on the other end interested in receiving them until we hear back. Please keep sending us feedback and constructive criticism; we really appreciate hearing from you.

A response I received from one of my seminary friends prompted this post, who wrote that our editorial expressed her longings for the church. Longing. As I read her comment, I realized that as Laura and I had dreamed up this blog, we had never used the word longing to describe what we felt about the church and our visions for change. We talked a lot about hope and I continue to believe that hope is the right framework for this blog. Hope has positive connotations — the faith and expectation that things will ultimately turn out well.  As Jim Wallis puts it, hope means “believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting for the evidence to change.”  Both Laura and I continue to hope for the church and see this blog as an expression of that hope.

Yet I also believe, that beneath all this hope is a longing for the church to be different.  My Webster’s Dictionary defines longing as a “strong, persistent desire or craving, especially for something unattainable or distant.” As I reflect on my own longing, I realize that I have felt my deepest sense of longing about church when I was the most alienated from it. In other words, the less connected I felt to the faith community, the more I wanted it to change.

I don’t believe that Christianity should bend to my desires; but I do think that whether the church meets our deepest and often unacknowledged longings influences our behavior and attitudes towards it.  Most of us carry around an internal mental image of the ‘perfect church’ that not only accepts us, but also affirms our fundamental beliefs and understanding of the world.  In other words, the ‘perfect church’ is where we come home.  While there is nothing wrong with longing for an ideal, this ‘perfect church’ often contributes to the dynamics of church conflict.  Our desire for completeness and connection is a powerful emotion that can fuel conflict when we have theological disagreements, especially when we believe that the other side threatens our ideal.

I am struck by the amount of longing I see in all corners of the church. When I was in seminary, I sometimes heard students long for a unified body of Christ, and they despaired at the fractured nature of Christian denominationalism.  I often see longing from the liberal edges of MCUSA, who yearn for an ‘inclusive’ church that includes those kept out by traditional boundaries.  I also see longing from conservatives, who desire the church to return to some kind of ‘traditional’ morality and identity. Perhaps one of the most pervasive forms of longing in American Christianity, is the belief that this country was once a ‘Christian nation’ that abandoned its roots sometime after 1950, and must now be dragged back by the church to the commitments of its mythic past.

I believe that the longing and desire for institutions and groups to affirm and accept our basic values is a fundamental and powerful emotion. We desire communion with God and face conflict when we cannot agree to what that means.  Regardless of whether we seek to conform ourselves to a faith community or attempt to conform that community to us, these types of emotions are always at play. The high-profile flashpoint controversies that threaten to split congregations and denominations are just as much about our internal constructs of the ‘perfect church’ as they are about theology. I hope that as we deal with conflict, we can to begin to recognize the role that these fundamental, basic longings play in our disagreements.

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2 Responses to “Longing and Hope”

  1. Tim Baer Says:

    You say the “Perfect Church” ….”not only accepts us, but also affirms our fundamental beliefs and understanding of the world. In other words, the ‘perfect church’ is where we come home.” I think you were on to something here. Our “Perfect Church” is the place that affirms who we are or, more importantly, I am. It is the place that does not challenge us, does not confront our sin, yet denounes our perceived enemies (Whoever they are). It is the place that pats us on the back, congratulates us no matter what, smiles incessently at us, and laughs at all our jokes. The perfect church is the place where I clone myself, worship with myself, and worship myself.

    Perhaps in our quest to find the “perfect church” we have eliminated the possibility of finding any church. We have eliminated discipleship, church authority, and the ability to value others despite their differences. The center of the perfect church is probably Me, and frankly, you aren’t welcome.

    Is this what Jesus established? Does God call forth only people comfortable with what He tells them to do? Or does He call people outside their comfort zones, outside their belief systems, to work with people we are uncomfortable with? Gideon, Naaman, and David didn’t obey God by reaffirming their own worldviews. 2,000 years later and we still struggle with this.

  2. Nicole Says:

    Tim – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was stuck by your response, as that was not how I read Jeremy’s post. When I think about “longing” for the “perfect church”, I think about discipleship, accountability, and growing closer to God in a close community. But I also think about the things that Jeremy described; a place that fits me and where I feel comfortable enough to experience and give those things.

    Comfortable may be the wrong word choice. I suppose what I really mean is free, or able, or encouraged. As a twenty something who has grown up in the church, I often sense that discipleship and accountability are talked about, but I don’t have a sense of good models of these great attributes of the church. I long for a place that welcomes me into these gifts that the church has to offer and teaches me how to particpate, rather than making me feel like I should have these figured out by now.

    At least, this is how I responded to Jeremy’s post. I resonate with the longing, and am challenged to hope. Thank you (both) for your thoughts, challenges, and encouragement.