Is it a Characteristic of the Christian life that we are, in every circumstance, to be nice? No, says Ken Edgecombe. Sometimes we have to put 'being nice' aside for the greater good.
eter and Barbara had been members at St Joseph's for five or six years, since they moved down from Wellington. They weren't at the centre of church life, by any means, but they made their contribution in various ways. Both had taught Sunday School classes at different times, and Peter sometimes played his clarinet in the music team. He always enjoyed it, and would have been glad to do it more often, but there was a variety of styles to be accommodated, and he understood that he did not fit all of them. They enjoyed the sermons of the minister, Donald Roberts, and there was a little group of people there they felt comfortable among. By and large they were happy enough.
That is, they were until the new Vision Committee was formed. They couldn't help noticing that all the members of the committee belonged to the 25-35 age group, and the culture of the church began to change. In fact, it was being deliberately adjusted. There was a series of announcements made about the need for the church to relate to the times, and some special services were organised to cater for the tastes of people who were not used to a church environment.
Peter and Barbara didn't mind that -- in fact they welcomed it. They could see as well as anyone else how important it was to give the ordinary Kiwi as much chance as possible to accept church culture. There was, they agreed, enough offence already implicit in the gospel, without creating more by quaint ways of presenting it.
And yet, they couldn't escape the growing feeling that they, and others like them, were being in some way marginalised. Their home group was disbanded, as part of a drive to restructure along seeker-friendly lines. A whole year went by in which Peter was not asked to play his clarinet. They noticed that no one seemed to contribute to the public life of the church unless they were young-looking or trendy -- 'the beautiful people', as Barbara came to think of them, with a blend of resentment and guilt. She and Peter felt disloyal to be thinking in this way, but they didn't seem to be able to help it.
t didn't even help, really, that the new image seemed to be having the desired effect. There were new people coming, many of them from the younger set, St Joseph's was beginning to be talked about as the place to see things happen. Peter and Barbara tried to stop themselves from becoming disloyal. But they still felt left out.
Barbara found herself talking about it one day to one of the other women. She hadn't intended to, but Margaret had said something about the music, and Barbara had responded with a heartfelt "Spare us all!" before she'd had time to think. Once the words were out it was too late, and Margaret eyed her shrewdly.
"So you're not entirely sold out on the new deal then?" she asked.
Barbara sighed. "I don't want to complain", she said. "But no, I'm not easy about all of it. I mean, Donald's a great preacher, and I know you have to move forward and not everyone likes everything, and all those things. But it really seems to me that there's almost no room for you any more if you don't fit the image -- you know what I mean?"
"I think so," Margaret responded. "You mean, you have to be a jet setter or you're out of it?"
"Well, yes, I suppose that's what I do mean. I guess it started to come into focus for me a little while ago, when they made that announcement about knowing that not everyone was happy with all the changes, but they believed they were doing the right things and if we didn't like it we could go elsewhere. It wasn't put quite that baldly, of course, but that's what it boiled down to, and I thought, 'That's not right.' It may be right that we ought to want to adjust for other people, but some of us can't, or we don't know how to, or all sorts of things. And we're the ones in the church already, you know what I mean?
"I know it's not our church, it's God's church, and we need to make sacrifices, and all that. But -- don't we have a place in it somewhere, even if we are over forty? Because it really seems like there isn't room for you if you've got a middle age spread or you're bald or your clothes don't match or whatever. Where do we cross the line to showing favouritism to people we like? It's bothering me a bit."
"Who have you talked to about it?" asked Margaret.
"No one, until now. I don't want to be a gossip or make trouble. I wouldn't have told you if I hadn't fallen into it. I don't think people ought to go round moaning."
"I'm not talking about going round moaning. I'm talking about taking a problem to the people who can do something about it. Haven't you been to see Donald?"
"No, I haven't. I don't want to make waves. I think Donald's a great guy, and he's doing really good things. I don't want to upset him, or spoil the fellowship. I guess I should just shut up. I'm sorry I spoke."
arbara never did go to see Donald, or anyone else in the church structure. Neither did Peter. But before the end of the year, they were no longer attending St Joseph's. They missed a couple of Sundays at first for quite ordinary circumstances, then they visited another church one day when their friends there were celebrating something special, and they came to realise that they really didn't miss St Joseph's all that much. It became easy not to make the effort to go, and, well -- they never actually left, but after a while they weren't there.
The people at St Joseph's were a bit mystified about it, and a little bit hurt too, but no one quite knew what to say to them, and they were busy with all the other people who were new there, and they gradually realised they'd lost them. There was only Margaret, really, who had any idea of the feelings involved, and she didn't feel free to say anything to anyone in breach of Barbara's confidence. So they went, and nobody quite wanted them to or knew why they had done it, and they didn't even really mean to do it themselves.
hat would you have done here? People like Peter and Barbara are all over this land, and it seems a fair suggestion that they could be found throughout plenty of other lands as well. I don't mean people who are middle aged or who don't like the music or more general change. I don't even mean people who change their church.
I mean people who are not happy with something they are being made a part of, but who choose not to say anything about it for fear of upsetting someone. In order to maintain an even keel, they choose to be nice to everyone around them, and probably end up causing more pain than if they had fronted up to the minister before lunchtime on the first day, grabbed him by the lapels and said, "Bloody hell!".
Peter and Barbara are the fine Christian folk brought up on humility and self-effacement and trying to get through life without upsetting anyone or causing any trouble. They are, in fact, thoroughly nice people.
But they're dangerous people. They might be pleasant, but they're not honest. How can Donald and his advisers know what their congregation are thinking if no one tells them? How can their friends listen to their heart cry if it's inaudible? How can anyone build a church into a fighting force against the powers of hell if the members of the force are half-hearted or, worse, disenchanted, and won't tell anyone they are, much less why?
ome years ago one of my family was having a hard time at the hands of one of his school teachers, who he declared was picking on him. I was a teacher myself at the time, and I took it all with a grain of salt. Kids are always being 'picked on' by teachers who quite simply have neither the time nor the inclination to accord them that honour, and I was not disposed to give this latest case more than passing interest. But it went on, and one day something seemed to me to be not right. I picked up the phone, rang the principal, and summarised the situation.
"Thank you," he said. "Would you mind writing to me about it? I've been concerned about that teacher for quite a while, but I haven't been able to get anything to act on."
I didn't know that. No other parent would have either. Generations of kids could have been suffering unfair treatment until someone complained, and then they could all benefit at once. And no, I did not feel responsible for whatever later passed between the principal and his staff member, and I still don't. That was their responsibility. My son's situation was mine.
e don't have to be aggressive about everything we have a concern over. But we ought not to become ciphers either. Jesus did not die so that we could become a collection of wimps.
He was not beyond making a point or two of his own when the situation demanded it, sometimes forcefully. The celebrated scene of the money changers has been used to justify far more than it ever ought to have, but we can't escape the fact that those people would not have left the temple saying to each other, "What a nice man!"
James and John got a blunt answer when they started competing for positions of greatness in the kingdom, Simon was publicly put in his place when the sinful woman chose his living room to anoint Jesus' feet after Simon had neglected to wash them, and many other instances could be found where Jesus sacrificed pleasantries for a greater good.
And in case we should begin to think that Jesus was a special case, and therefore not the most applicable yardstick for our behaviour, Paul was probably worse. The whole book of 2nd Corinthians is an assault on those who had undermined his reputation, and he wasn't about to let them get away with it.
More briefly, he also immortalised for us such cracks as: "I plead with Euodia and Syntyche to agree", "Tell Archippus to get on with the job", "Demas loved this world and has deserted me", "Alexander did me a great deal of harm" and, more sweepingly, "If anyone does not love the Lord -- a curse be on him". These are not all diplomatic words. It is true that Paul was likely a more acerbic figure than many of us would find it comfortable to work with, but he is regarded as some kind of a mentor, nonetheless.
am not advocating here a wholesale campaign of petulant self-seeking or destructive confrontation. I am not promoting the cause of competitive conflict. The spirit of Peter and Barbara was a world away from that, and we are called to humility and kindness, self-control and gentleness, after all. Also to love.
But we are expected to be honest, and to question things which, if they are bothering us, are almost certainly bothering other people as well, and maybe some of those people could benefit from a spokesperson. If we never disagree with anyone, we are probably so bland as to have lost the savour that salt is useless unless it has.
A man I worked with closely once said to me, "If you and I agree all the time, one of us is redundant." It is true, of course, that if we could not agree any of the time we were both redundant, but that does not negate the truth of his comment. You cannot sharpen a spade without rubbing it against a file. When Peter and Barbara failed to challenge their church leaders, they effectively became redundant. No wonder they left.
one of this deprives us of the challenge to look for the good in every situation. Nor does it mean we should ever try to be anything but positive and constructive. But this is the whole point. There are times when to fail to confront is to be negative, even destructive.
It will obviously call for tact and kindliness, but that is to do with style of operating, not the fact of the operation. We may have to look for the good, but we must never be too surprised when what we actually see is the bad. Somehow, this is all tied up with being, not only as innocent as a dove, but also as smart as a snake.
The Christian life does not require us to avoid actions that may be seen as 'not being nice'. It may be that 'nice' is a four letter word. It can certainly be a crippling agent.
Peter and Barbara might have avoided the need to move with a short if awkward interview on any given day with their minister or other chosen church leader. Even if they had still gone, they might have left greater understanding behind them. They would have put their case.
They might even have forged stronger bonds with the people they were part of. The strongest links, after all, are not those of the lowest common denominator. They are those, as in families, where the members have the understanding of each other that only comes from exposure to the ins and outs of regular living.
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