My wife’s great uncle taught philosophy at Amherst College, where his faculty colleague, Robert Frost, gave him a signed copy of one of Frost’s early books of poems, which has come down to me. It is a family treasure. Robert Frost, Poet Laureate of Vermont, was one of the premier poets of the United States of America, and was honored abundantly. Frost is the only poet to receive four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. He was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal and is fondly remembered for reciting his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Frost died in 1963 and is buried in the graveyard of the Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont, where his tombstone proclaims “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Frost’s tombstone phrase has stuck with me since the day I first stood before it: A lover’s quarrel with the world. As a retired member of the clergy, although still active in the church, I am blessed to enjoy the company of many friends who are also retired. What I am increasingly hearing from them is that they describe their experience as a “lover’s quarrel with the church.” Some are in pain or sadness, as they observe the current trajectory of the institutional church falling into a spiraling abyss of decline, the church which they have loved and to which they have devoted their lives.
When you love someone or an organization like the church, you truly desire their highest and best interests. These friends of mine desire, after a lifetime of service, the highest and best for the institutional church. They have loved and still love the church, warts and all.
But then comes the quarrel. What is the nature of their lover’s quarrel with the church? Perhaps the common thread is captured by a classic Peanuts comic strip, where Lucy and Linus are talking, when Linus blurts out: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” My friends love the church. It’s the people that cause the quarrel.
Consider the pettiness. Here are pastors seeking first to build the kingdom of God, to preach the gospel of Jesus, to educate Christians about the basics of their faith, to encourage God’s global embrace of humankind, to influence values and attitudes towards God-like thoughts and behavior, and to create a worship service which draws participants into a spiritual encounter with the Divine… and what do they find? Arguments about renovations to the church kitchen, long debates about short subjects with the missions committee, internal strife among the Deacons over what to do with the leftover communion elements (not to mention that two Deacons heard that “people” were upset over something in a recent sermon), struggling with the Trustees who want to hoard every cent of the endowment rather than carrying out the wishes of the original donors, huge portions of Christian Education devoted far more to who will bring the brownies than to how to educate our children for a life of faith, complaints ad infinitum about a toilet stall running out of paper, a member upset by the use of inclusive language, the beloved musician feeling unloved and not well paid enough, the charismatic youth director complaining about the pastor’s supervision, two misprints in the worship bulletin, a website which does not compare to Amazon’s, or dead zones in the reach of the PA system. Strategic planning? It is all about facilities and budgets, not about programs or staffing to build the church’s mission and ministry. Then there is the denomination. Many see denominational leadership making giant and bold strides… in reverse… as their leadership is so far out of touch that if they looked back, the leaders would see that the people were not following. Aaugh! Linus might shout. I love the church. It’s the pettiness I can’t stand.
Consider what pastors face these days. The pandemic reduces congregational participation to bare bones. Low clergy pay descends lower, as church budgets sink into the quicksand, and staff compensation sacrifices the price. Future prospects for vocational movement diminish, as church after church shrinks staff salaries from full-time to half-time. Some longtime faithful church members become increasingly “spiritual-but-not-religious,” while the difficult people hang in there and thus increase their impact on the congregation, creating heightened internal conflict and a dimmer future for the church. Perhaps a needy “Beloved Former Pastor” continues to connect with members and even conducts services for them behind the new pastor’s back. Sunday schools are all but out of business, youth groups may meet in a pup tent, and online, pastors preach by technology to a small handful of regulars. For pastors, these times must be challenging at best and depressing for many. So why didn’t you take an MBA instead of an MDiv?
Because you still love the church, even though it may be a lover’s quarrel.
Because the church encourages an encounter with the Divine. The church is a place which makes worship possible, where we are led to the heights of encountering the Divine. Believers gather together in community to seek to be in God’s presence.
The church meets needs. People are not attracted to a needy organization. Rather, people are attracted to an organization that meets needs. Your church meets needs—you hear it often, as people testify about how the church meets their needs.
The church inspires pursuit of the highest goals. Perhaps Paul’s nine fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) encompass the very essence of what a Christian should look like: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…” The church encourages, inspires, teaches, and advocates for people to pursue the highest goals and to invite the spirit of God to dwell within.
The church advocates for a just treatment of all. Motivated by the love and compassion of God, the church confronts injustice and advocates on behalf of people who are oppressed. It encourages members to stand with and speak for those on the margins of society whom others neglect, ignore, dislike, reject, or abandon.
The church keeps us from do-it-yourself religion. People who make up their own religion can get trapped into thinking that whatever they believe is right and true. There is value to ideas which are examined by the experience of other believers, validated by historic creeds, Councils, and statements of faith, and formed by traditions of the organized church.
The church provides for the need to belong. We desire to be a part of something which is bigger than ourselves, something good, and something in which we find a sense of community. The church becomes like another family. Two of the most important words in the Bible are “one another.” You are a part of “one another” when you belong to the church.
The church makes an impact on character. Where does character get influenced? Young people who have been raised in the church are encouraged to be responsible, to help others, to understand better the difference between right and wrong, and to be accepting of others who are different than they are.
Poet Robert Frost was remembered into eternity for having a quarrel with the world, but even more, for loving the world. God grant that we too might be remembered, not so much for the inevitable quarrels, but for our love for the church… for Christ’s church. The apostle Paul wrote “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12 ESV). May that be our ambition. We gain little from critics or devil’s advocates. Let us devote ourselves to building up the church… not because it is ours, but because it is Christ’s.
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.” First published in The Christian Citizen.
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash