Churches, Cage Matches and the Schlep

May 19, 2014


From the “pay packet” cartoons of Ab Solomons

Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood meant that even among the goyim common language was brindled with Yiddish words. He’s a putz. Spare me the spiel. The movie was schlock. Stop kvetching. And Oy Vey, you can’t be serious.

Then there was schlep. The semantic range included designating a person to be generally useless. More commonly schlep meant a slow, arduous and sometimes tedious journey. The verb (no prizes) is schlepping.

My first year in theological study was spent at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. I took a class in Medieval Church History with Dr. Claire Davis. One day while lecturing on Gregory the Great’s treatise On Pastoral Care, Professor Davis suddenly stopped, put down his chalk, looked over the class for a few moments and said, “You do realize most of you will labor in small churches and at the end of your ministry you may be hard pressed to think of more than a dozen people you have directly influenced.” He then picked up the chalk and returned to the lecture. Like the rest of the class I was nonplussed. Looking back now I see what was going on.

Get ready for the schlep.

I’m uncertain there was a time in Christendom when anyone went into the ministry expecting it to be a schlep. Jesus talked about the schlep and there is clear apostolic precedent for it. Any American pastor with experience in ministry and a shred of self-awareness knows the schlep, but has a troubled relationship with it. I pastored for several years in Australia and just about every pastor I knew schlepped and served a schlepping church and was completely OK with that. At first, the Yank in me thought that was weird. Then I started schlepping and it wasn’t so weird. American pastors don’t schlep any less, we just pretend we don’t. Or we don’t pretend, but just keep it a secret. Or we talk about it and feel like losers.

The schlepping church is fodder for young megachurch pastors with artfully disheveled hair and obsequious followers to hang “Ichabod” over, well, most of professing Christianity. The schlepping church is frequently dull, often goofy and almost always a step (or a lot more) behind cultural trends. But to paraphrase George Bailey the schlepping church has done most of the working and paying and living and dying in Christ’s Kingdom. Always has.

Jesus spoke to a group of schlepping churches in the last book of the Bible. Some of them were weary of the schlep, some were in the process of packing it in because of it. And a few were trying to ease the schlep through compromise or dead orthodoxy (flip sides of the same coin). The message of that book? Hang on, it’s worth it. Most of the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament are addressed to churches struggling with the schlep. So you’d think it wouldn’t be seen as that unusual. You’d be wrong.

In our effort to dull or deny the schlep we’ve taken to a practice well-honed in the current cultural climate of let’s-show-how-we-make-a-difference. We just announce that we make a difference and act as if that’s all that matters. In the ecclesial purlieu I inhabit this is commonly taking to what a writer in Time magazine calls the “newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging”. Of course the most conspicuous practitioners never see it this way. We have pastors taking to Twitter to scold us on what it really, really means to take God’s grace seriously. Then in 140 character bursts we get a never-ending spray of bromides on what that means, which involves hitting only one note on the Law-Gospel continuum. The other notes hit by the Scriptures and 2000 years of church history? Dude. Don’t be a Pharisee.

Concurrent to that is a similar form of head-shaking that amounts to telling us what it really, really means to be one of Christ’s really, really committed disciples. You know, not just a fan or one who just hangs on to the love of God and unearned grace while dealing with sin. But a really, really sold-out and obedient Christian. So out come the social media Stasi to wring hands, sell books and speak at conferences on getting us back to what the gospel really is. Which, apparently, above all means being on eternal vigilance against thinking too much of the unmerited favor of God. And all that talk of God’s unconditional love in the Bible? Yeah, we know it’s in there, but…

I don’t lay this out as a setup punch for my own opinion on this divide. Trust me. I have an opinion. I’ll get to it some other time. I am good friends with people firmly camped on different sides of these battling legions. And you know what? They’re schlepping. I mean really, really schlepping. Just like most pastors and people in their spiritual care. And I could be wrong, but I think the sound and fury of all this is just one attempt to convince themselves and others that they are not schlepping pastors serving schlepping churches.

We make a difference, dangit, because look at me. Look at me! We are saving the church from certain disaster. Listen to me, “Like” me, repeat the same shibboleths and we can avoid the approaching doom!

So I say, don’t grumble we’re always schlepping. Keep Calm and Keep Schlepping. It’s in the schlep that we are free to break free from the need to “make a difference”. Of course the gospel makes a difference. All the difference. And God can do, and certainly has done, extraordinary and world-changing things through our schlep. But always through humble spirits and contrite hearts. Yet when I view the current cage match between the dueling forces of we’re-saving-the-church, that’s not something that leaps off the page.

God bless and keep schlepping.

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