Leave the shell and live

March 16th, 2016

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” (John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodist).

I once was asked by a young leader whether I thought that the church was a shell. After thinking for a moment, I answered that the church is more like a hermit crab than a shell.

I explained how I was came upon a struggling little hermit crab on the rocks of Gregory Town on the island of Eleuthera. The poor little guy had crawled into a huge, battered conch shell and was stranded there on the rocks near the water. You couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Kicking his little legs determinedly with all his might, he struggled to move forward; but no matter how long he kept it up, he was not going anywhere. He was simply carrying a shell that did not fit. And it never would.

We tried to "help" the little crustacean by suggestively placing smaller, more suitable shells within his reach, and leaving kitchen scraps nearby. But he was not going to give up his grand shell. He would carry it with him or he would die trying; and he did... die trying, that is.

I don't think we are quite there yet; not quite existing “as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” There are still too many people kicking their legs.

We are not the shell. We are the crab within. We still have a chance.

That was what UMC LEAD meant to me. In a church where there are many people with their tails anchored in the deepest pocket of the shell, what I saw in our circle was a whole bunch of people on the outer rim, still kicking their legs with all their might.

We all have our ideas of what the shell is, and apart from those with the profound integrity to point the finger at themselves instead of others, the shell is usually something other than what we ourselves are. Boards and Agencies. Local Churches. Conservative Bishops. Liberal Bishops. Seminaries. Conferences. IRD. Reconciling. We all have our own pet theory of what the shell is, defined by what we are not, as well as our theories about how to drop it.

The shell, however — whatever it is — is not the problem. The shell did not kill the hermit crab; the thing inside its mind that kept it anchored there killed it. It had options. 

Identifying what the shell is is much less important to me than identifying why the hermit crab stays; identifying the philosophical, emotional, psychological patterns that bind us; the patterns that pervade our church and prevent us from finding new life; the patterns that repeat as generation after generation rises up and calls for change before settling into complacency. Only when we understand our fear, overcome it and learn how to move forward will we leave the shell. Because we have options, too. We can choose to live.

If we do not get our minds and our hearts right, we will continue to duplicate and recreate the shell even as we think we escape it. With the mindset lingering, we will use the blueprints in our heads to rebuild it again.

The shell and what binds us to it is something larger, however, than any concrete person, place or institution. In order to move beyond it, we need to have the courage to name our destructive patterns. We need to change them in our own lives and in our interactions in and around the church.

The bad news is that this is incredibly difficult and it requires an integrity and courage that we do not often come across in ourselves or others.

The good news is that you do not need a General Conference to do it. You can begin immediately attuning your eyes to see the patterns we are repeating and doing something about it. Such patterns and changes include:

Xenophobia — the fear of the other that drives us to remain planted behind shells and "walls", both literal and figurative, in order to feel safe. This fear drives us to avoid change that brings us closer to those who are different from us.

antidote: choose every day to reject prejudice and boldly and vocally act against it.

Nepotism — connected to xenophobia, but with a more personal investment. Belief that we have worked hard for what we have and we want to preserve it and pass it down to our descendants, not the descendants of others. The belief that the church is ours — the benefits, the power, the positions — and we want them for our children and those close to us.

antidote: understand that the church is God's church, that all children are God's children, and that all of them deserve equal opportunities to thrive, grow and lead.

Entrenchment — when we are rooted deep in the shell, we are bothered by the legs trying to kick their way into the sunlight. So we say things like: "It was worse in our day, you have nothing to complain about." We say: "Wait your turn." We say: "Stop being difficult. You will get a reputation." We say: "You still think you can change things."

antidote: ask ourselves and others the right questions. challenge ourselves to imagine life differently. open your heart and mind to those with different ideas and opinions.

Competition — even when the shell is too big for us, we can still start to feel crowded. When we live in a world that makes us desire everything, we lose track of our need to leave something for others. Connectionalism crumbles when we start to put helping ourselves over helping others.

antidote: a commitment to collaboration, a willingness to listen before we speak, a commitment to the beloved community over the promotion of self

Fear — the only way to live is to let go of the shell and inhabit one that fits who we are called to be. Yet, the unknown can be frightening, and life without safety nets does not appeal to us. The burdens that we know may be killing us, but they still feel less scary than the challenges that we do not know.

antidote: courage. You serve a God who said "Take courage; I have overcome the world."

To my innovative friends out there, don’t stop kicking those legs. If you still your motion, there will be no movement. If you silence your voice, there will be no noise. The legs were not meant to leave the body, they were meant to drag it kicking into the light. 

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