Leaving Salem

Allow me to introduce you to my friend Susie. She is a nurse, and a very good one. Professional, skilled, and tough. If it can take place within the constricted space of a hospital room, she’s probably seen it. Not much rattles her. Like many in the medical profession, she has acquired the emotional defense mechanisms necessary to continue the care of the sick.

But Susie isn’t as hard as flint. Beneath all of her medicinal bravado there’s a soft side. She is deeply moved by the sufferings of the ill. She has wept tears with the families of the dying. She’s held the hand of more than one confused, anxious patient.

When her work overwhelms her she does what is natural. She turns to faith, spirituality, a search for deeper meaning in all the misery surrounding her. Involving yourself in the sufferings of others is stifling to your emotions. You have to escape at times just to breathe.

Susie was on an escape some time ago, sitting in a worship service. Actually, she was doing more than sitting. She was participating. Singing the songs of praise, devoting herself to prayer, giving herself completely to those precious moments. She found herself overwhelmed.

She then did what many of us have done. She went down the isle of the church to pray at the altar. This has been a common practice in some Christian traditions since the great American revivals and John Wesley’s frontier meetings. It was the right thing to do.

Susie was met with great empathy and compassion as she knelt and wept, filled to capacity by the Spirit of those moments. But then, things changed. She was removed from the sanctuary and shuffled to a back room for additional counsel.

A woman sat down in front of her, knees close enough to touch Susie’s, and with a clipboard began to work through an exhaustive checklist. The list included everything that would now be required of Susie based on the “decision” she was making. Weekly attendance requirements, financial expectations, church allegiance.

Upon hearing all this, God’s presence seemed to drip out the end of Susie’s toes. She regained her emotional toughness and promptly told the woman sitting across from her that she was uninterested in going any farther (She was actually a bit more forceful). Susie left the church immediately and has never returned. I can’t blame her.

What Susie needed in those moments was companionship, understanding, and gentleness. She needed others to pray with her, love her, and to stay out of the way of what God was doing. She didn’t need a visit from a used car salesman explaining the fine print of a proposed contract.

Even the church can become dangerously Machiavellian. People are dehumanized, the means rather than the end. The creations of God are reduced to dollars in the offering plate, cogs in the wheel, numbers on the roll, butts in the pew.

Sometimes we in church leadership don’t even notice we are doing this. We spend the lion’s share of our time keeping the masses content, the machinery running, drawing a crowd, and keeping our market share up. Meanwhile, the one, with his or her very real personal needs, is sucked into the faceless mob. We violate the individual in an attempt to better the world.

What a far cry this is from the picture Jesus paints of his own compassion for the individual. He once told a parable of a shepherd who had ninety-nine sheep safely in his fold. One, only one, had wandered helplessly into the wilderness. The shepherd left the crowd, the safe and warm masses, and pursued the one until it was found.

What shepherd would leave his entire livelihood behind in pursuit of a single, blundering sheep? This was impulsive at best, reckless at worst. But apparently this shepherd, this Christ, is not driven by efficiency, large numbers, and closing the deal. Rather, this Carer of souls is moved with compassion for those who find themselves alone, even those outside the herd.

When the shepherd finally found his lost sheep, he carried it home on his shoulder as a prized possession. Vast amounts of energy and time had been expended in search of this little one, and in great rejoicing he considered the investment worthwhile.  Susie deserved the same.

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