It was just a wide spot in the stream where the mountain valley flattened out to pool and drink the icy water. Tall, snow-covered peaks reflected in its placid surface. Narrow shadows hung suspended in its middle: brook trout facing upstream and feeding on anything drifting through their territory. I had to crawl through the grass as I approached the pool so as not to send the trout flying for cover in the undercut banks. Even then, the shadow of my fly rod arching across the water panicked them. Skittish trout, they’re called. So attuned to hawks and fishermen and other predators are they, that any movement from above is perceived as a threat. And rightly so.
I have a friend who calls herself a skittish trout. She grew up in a guilt-based, authoritarian religion and church. Any question, doubt, comment, or difficulty she had with her childhood faith and church was met with anger and derision. Intellectual abuse, she called it. Not that she didn’t have faith, she just wondered. As soon as she was old enough, she fled organized religion. And today anytime even a shadow of that old-time religion falls across her life she flies for the safety of the cutbank, peering out, yet still wondering.
In the process of starting a church, I’ve discovered large pools of skittish trout. Unfortunately, stories similar to my friend’s abound. Church splits, pastoral infidelity and dishonesty, harsh judgementalism, cold cliquishness, unbending dogma, rampant self-righteousness, cookie cutter lifestyles and answers, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, powerless people, and ample—but common—human failings in what is supposed a divine institution are just a few of the shadows that the church and her people cast across the pool of modern life.
Almost all of us have, or have heard, a similar story. The scars and their impact vary. I started following Christ at age fifteen and began looking for a church to attend. Even I knew that was the way of things, but I was naive about the dress code. My hair flowed below my shoulders and my jeans were ratty. It was the 1970s. At the end of the sermon, I tramped forward in response to the “altar call.” I knelt to pray and a pastor (At least I think he was a pastor. To me he looked, acted, and smelled like one) approached and asked me if I wanted to become a Christian.
I proudly told him how just days earlier I had become a Christian at a church camp. He frowned at me and shook his head.
“You need to get your hair cut before you can become a Christian, son,” he said as if this truth saddened him deeply.
I was young and stupid and argued with him. “Jesus had long hair. Haven’t you seen those pictures of him?”
Not impressed with my theological acumen he simply offered, “I have a pair of scissors in the back. I can get them, cut your hair, and then you can pray and become a Christian.”
I decided to look for another church.
Since then I have been in three churches where the pastors have had affairs, and within most of the churches I have been a part, have seen and heard things that come straight from the gates of hell not the streets of heaven, and have made my own sad mistakes as a person and a pastor (proving the adage that if I find the perfect church I had better not join it because I’ll ruin it).
One, apparently not being a skittish trout but maybe a stupid one, I have yet to fly for the cutbank and hide. Sometimes I feel like a singed moth circling the flame. I’m not sure why I don’t fly. Probably because God keeps blocking the escape route. Probably also because with each scar the church and I have left on one another, there are equal—and more—marks of grace and life this crazy body called the church has bestowed on me. That she has allowed me to seek my calling and share my thoughts, ideas, and life through her may be the least of them. And when I parade before my eyes the faces of friends I have made, and how they have enriched my life, in this human/divine community, I am humbled and grateful.
Two, dealing with people’s souls is dangerous and delicate. So too, I’ve discovered, is this starting and being a church, and mysterious. We’re not selling widgets or snake oil. We’re attempting to touch God and, through rugged and calloused human hands, places in ourselves God hid in our deepest reaches, places we’ve hidden even from ourselves. Hanging out a sign reading, “Got God?” does not do anyone, especially the Creator of our souls, justice. This, sharing our souls, spiritual journeys, and lives, is not marketing. It cannot be shrink wrapped into some tidy package. It’s messy, alive, sensitive, unpredictable, sometimes ugly, often beautiful. Tread softly.
I wish finding God and ourselves and living in a Christ community with truth and grace could be written up in a book or produced in a program or bulleted in a three point outline, or contained in a church building (and sometimes God even works through these things). But alas we and God and life are deeper and messier than that.
And none of this is new. Even the first two humans hid from God after they discovered their bare, naked distance from and need for Him. We have been flying from God ever since. Skittish trout indeed. Fear not, however, God is no predator, but is a patient, persistent angler.