you can’t forgive a system

I had a post typed up reflecting on the fact that I’m officially ten years out of high school, but it was a bit lame so I scrapped it. However, while walking home from Transformers 2 [check my twitter feed for my official two cents], along the beach and through the dense Aberdeen fog, I listened to the latest Rob Bell sermon that kind of tied in with my thoughts on how things were for me a decade ago and where I have been since.

He is currently doing a series on forgiveness, and reiterated this important point that he had made last week: you can’t be mad at and forgive systems or faceless institutions, only individuals – forgiveness is always personal.

You hear so often that people are mad at ‘the church’, that they have been wronged by the church. I myself have expressed that many times, having grown up in a church setting that was heavy on rules and regulations and light on grace. I had a phase as a teenager where I made some poor choices, and struggled for a long time with the guilt and shame that come from breaking rules that seemed to be established to keep in in good standing not only with the church, but with God. For a while, I was right pissed with my church, and I have spent a good part of my 20s trying to reframe my relationship with God and break free from those harmful ways of thinking. I wrestled with the decision to leave that denomination, and with the nature of my faith in general.

I see now, though, that it’s misguided to think of it in terms of wrestling with a system, for what is the church apart from a collection of people? You could say that the system is set so that individuals will trend towards acting and responding in certain ways, and that is partly true. But, in the end, the onus is always on individual to act in loving ways. As I commented on a recent post on another blog, when we talk about people being angry at or leaving the church because of feeling wronged by her and not having room to doubt and question, it’s more a reflection on the specific community of individuals around them than the ‘system’ as a whole. The church is meant to be made up of individuals who can show love to others no matter where they are in their journey. To put that burden on an abstract system takes away from the call to love people and build communities that help sustain faith through meaningful practices such as friendship and hospitality. It also alleviates the pressure to confront and speak to people at an intimate level. It is much easier to be mad at the church as a whole than to have to address the direct issue with specific individuals.

The reality is that the ideals that we hold up for the church or the things that we see lacking that make us frustrated, well … they are probably lacking at times in ourselves as well. The church is indeed made up of imperfect people, and is only meaningful at a personal and communal level. Problems that we see within her can easily begin to be resolved if we ourselves stop passing the buck onto the failures of the church system and begin to be the embodiment of the love of Christ around us and among us.

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  1. awesome thinking here, and something i’m wrestling with quite a bit. Part of my calling I feel is to work within some parts of this system and change it though…i wonder how that fits

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