Yesterday a friend sent me a video of a fellow in an Asian country cleaning out the cobra pit at a zoo or snake sanctuary or somesuch. There were several dozen cobras in the pit and he was cleaning out the shallow trench, which ran around the perimeter of the pit, with a broom and dustpan. As he went around the trench he was randomly grabbing each cobra from the piles of writhing reptilian bodies and flinging it away from where he wanted to clean. The snakes were hissing and rising up, flaring their hoods and grimacing menacingly. It was terrifying to watch him as he performed his duties. Obviously he has done this work for some time as he was talking some of the time to the camera man and often not even looking where he was reaching into the heaps of snakes. To me the man was fearless.
As I watched the man putting his life in possible danger every time he tossed these snakes so casually about the pit I was reminded of many church pastors I have met in my life.
Many pastors have the gift to reach into the pit of his hissing and unruly, dissatisfied and whining, even sometimes slandering and nasty congregation members and manage to get ahold of them, to pull them from the miry clay of disaster they have created for themselves, in order to help them get back on the pathway to Christ's love and forgiveness in their treatment of each other.
In any group of people who meet regularly there are personality conflicts, loss of sight of the purpose of the group, a handful of mean spirited souls who like to stir up trouble and don't realize the depth of the disaster they are contributing to or don't care, those with an "us" and "them" attitude based on their own definition of proper living, naive folk who make unrealistic assumptions about the rest of the group and then are felled emotionally by their own naivety.........yes of course it also happens in the church. We are forgiven sinners who should not be experiencing these problems together to the same degree as other groups who are not based on creating a forgiving community, but although we are forgiven much, transformation is a life long process with many a bump along the path. Sometimes we trip and fall. Sometimes we forget that being forgiven ourselves means extending the same kind of forgiveness to others. Sometimes we lose sight of Christ on the cross and what his resurrected life is to bring to our church communities: a life of serving each other. Some pastors find themselves having to reach into a pit of people snakes and haul each one out in whatever way they can get hold as they attempt to toss them to safer, higher spiritual ground during a time of congregational spiritual cleaning. Along the way sometimes the pastors get "bitten" for their efforts.
Unfortunately pastors are also only human, forgiven sinners like the rest of us and some are not as naturally gifted in conflict resolution as others. Sometimes they inadvertently add to the upsets and confusion that can take place amongst their congregants. That is the kind of pastor I would be, I think. As I watched the man in the video cleaning that pit and so casually and comfortably picking up those dangerous snakes, cleaning the pit so effectively in the process, I was reminded of what a terrible pastor I would be myself. I can hardly stand conflict and want to run away from conflicted groups of people as quickly as possible. I am not gifted to sort out other peoples' problems with each other. Being attacked myself by other Christians (even when it is warranted...and sometimes it certainly is....) always shocks me into immobility. I would be a terrible pastor. I feel so badly for people who are obviously called to the pastorate by God and yet struggle so in the arena of conflict resolution as they stand beside people like me at the edge of the pit looking on in horror as the snakes get meaner and meaner when the attempts to cleanse become uncomfortable for them.
That little video got me thinking about how grateful I am for the congregants we have here in both our churches. They are well aware of their past problems and are working hard not to repeat them, are experiencing healing and a restoration of joy after some terrific bumps along the road. My husband hasn't had to do much "snake tossing" around here. There has been a certain amount of restoration of hope with our people of late and the pit is being cleansed mostly by those who were themselves trapped in conflicts of the past. We have been in a few congregations where that has not been the case. Some of the pastors who were bitten were mortally wounded and left their congregations to the care of others more able to deal with conflicts or just left them to fend for themselves.
As Christians we are not immune to all the conflicts and snake pit dung that can happen even in loving communities with the best of intentions, but we have amazing resources in Christ and in the church to heal and be cleansed and be restored as loving communities. We have the resources to recover from attacks and woundings. When we utilize them it is wonderful to see and to experience that kind of restoration of community. Christ is more than capable of cleaning the dung out of our snake pits when we allow him to by recognizing the depth of the forgiveness we have received ourselves and passing that forgiveness on to others around us, starting with our own spiritual brothers and sisters.
Like the snakes in the video who are obviously used to this daily cleansing disruption and the man who delivers it, we sometimes hiss and rear up in anger at what our church leaders are trying to do to help us, lashing out at each other as well in our frustration, but if we can be like these particular snakes and remember not to bite the very people God has sent us to help lead us in the right direction, we will be able to accept what we need to hear and to do to continue to live lives of forgiveness and acceptance in our church communities.
That is a most exciting thought. I have seen congregations turn around and restore themselves as they return to a focus on Christ after times of bitterness and grief. It is truly beautiful when God is so lifted up and glorified the way he should be. Jesus said that the world would recognize him by the way his people love each other.....how quickly we his people forget that, but there is hope for us if we just remember our first love, Jesus Christ and what he did to forgive us so that we can pass that forgiveness on to others.