Sunday, March 13, 2011

Promises

We were given little cards at church today, to fill out with things you are going to do: people you are going to pray for, volunteering you are going to do, folks you are going to invite. Then you bring it up and put it on the altar at the end of the service - there are variations on the theme. Anyone who has been to a denominational church has seen these. Maybe nondenominational too - don't know about that.

I've filled out lots of these over the years. I didn't fill this one out.

As many of you remember, our church of thirteen years lurched and skidded to a close last year, and we are in another congregation. Perfectly nice congregation, in our denomination and where we went before. We went to the "get to know us" classes, and Tracy eventually joined. Rejoined, actually, and the irony is that our son who we brought up in that church is on the board of deacons that decided whether to recommend each candidate for membership. (He recommended his mom, yes. Though we did all have the humorous thought cross our mind...) Other longtime Bible-study friends have been coming as well, and are considering membership.

I did not apply for membership. No definite reason.

Yet another longtime Bible-study friend found the entire discussion of membership appalling: "What, this is like a special club that you get to belong to, and we only let you in if you meet our standards?" The comment was so foreign and baffling to me that I didn't make any answer. I used to see church membership as a privilege, I suppose. With what we have been through, I see it as a burden now. I don't want to make promises I can't keep. Membership may cost you a lot more than you wanted to pay. I hope to get back to the place where I consider it a privilege - and certainly, there was a great deal that other people gave me as well, not the least of which was encouragement.

I thought parenting was a privilege, and I hope to get back to that attitude someday. But you pour in everything that you've got and the dial says "not enough" and you have to go find some more to give somehow. Because you promised. Because you signed on and that's what you do. Even if you aren't that great a parent, or it isn't fair. And when they marry, you never let them see your doubts or let the new one feel unwelcome.

You keep your promises or die - but I haven't. My moral code says "do, or die trying," but there are places where I didn't keep the promises and gave up. Those still haunt me. I don't want to add in any more. So I don't fill out those little forms anymore - they are promises, and I have broken too many.

One might fairly say that the churches don't really expect you are going to make it to 100%, or even that you are going to do well at all - they use this making of commitments as a technique to harden the will and encourage you to do better. And what would happen if we never asked for commitments from anyone?

I have no answer to that. It does make sense. But somehow I don't think that reducing the importance of promises and increasing the sense of having failed by breaking them is the way to go.

9 comments:

jaed said...

This making of commitments strikes me as something one should do if it's helpful, and avoid if it's not. If you know about yourself that it's going to be counterproductive, then you may have the challenge of resisting well-meaning people who want you to do it anyway "for your own good"... and this resisting, ironically, will probably "harden your will and encourage you to do better".

I did see a reference to some interesting psych research the other day that indicated people who made a public commitment - even just telling a friend or business buddy that they were going to do such-and-such by such-and-such a date - were remarkably more likely to actually do it. So there's method there.

But it seems very harmful to me to make, and then hold oneself to, promises that one cannot keep; damaging morally and emotionally. It seems to me you are right to protect yourself from that.

(Church membership also seems weird to me. "You mean you have to apply? And a committee judges whether you can join? Wha...? Do they ever reject anyone? And what happens then? I'm curious about this.)

james said...

I'm following the advice of some commenters on the InternetMonk and reading some of the church fathers over Lent. (www.churchyear.net/lentfathers.html) It's been a little reminder that once upon a time church membership was a much more serious thing. I don't know if that was ideal, but I'm pretty sure the laissez faire "come watch the show and help out if you feel like it" model I've seen is no good. A singer who says "I'm just feeling it today and I'm going home" isn't a shining light for the rest of the team and the church. (Yes, that happened.)

I remember some of those pledge cards. I tend to promise less, or more often nothing at all because I'm not sure I can follow through. Maybe part of it is their impersonal nature: one size fits all. If my routine means I meet the same people every day, is it honest to say I'll invite somebody new to church? I've had too many transmission failures and root canals in the family to be confident that I can find $X next year.

And if the card said "I'll try to do X" it'd be pretty worthless; or if it says "DV." I'm given to understand that Insha'Allah means "If God ever gets around to it, since I won't."

james said...

Ack. That should read "I'm just not feeling it today"
I'm just not previewing it today....

terri said...

Wow.

This is kind of where I am at for different reasons, of course.

The pastor at the lutheran church asked us if our children were going to go to the first communicant class. I told him, "Not right now because our children are not baptized and we know that is a requirement here for communion." We explained that we were not from a lutheran background and were much more used to immersion and believer's baptism.

He offered to talk to us about everything and we said, "That would be great."

On the way home, when discussing this with our children, ages 9 and almost 11, we had a very enlightening conversation.

They think they want to be baptized, but they aren't sure if now is the time. They also voiced some strong opinions about how it seemed wrong to them that parents would force their children to be baptized as babies.

I wondered at this reaction because we have never spoken against infant baptism and have been in churches that practice it for several years now. They must pick up that baptist/non-denominational vibe from us somehow, though I don't know how.

I'm the last one to imply that "children should be allowed to decide" what they believe and are exposed to. We've always been proactive abut teaching them our values.

That conversation recast things for me. Though I have been realizing for some time that I might not be able to commit to membership for my own reasons, I never thought that my children might have an opinion that would warrant me not becoming a member.

I completely resonate with what you wrote and I feel the same way.

I only make promises that I know I can keep. And....if I make a promise...I move heaven and earth to keep it.

Failing to keep my word is devastating to me when it happens because I place a very high value on integrity and follow-through.

I get it.

Texan99 said...

It's hard. Jesus never turned away anyone who walked up to Him or asked them to be pre-qualified by some kind of official membership. On the other hand, He had that distressing habit of telling them to drop everything and follow Him. He definitely wasn't encouraging anyone to come check Him out casually and then wander off.

But I'm allergic to those pledge cards, too.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jaed - churches treat the matter differently. Some encourage all attendees to join, others do not stress membership, and others come close to discouraging folks from joining if they aren't dead serious. There may be some matters of habit and style, but I think a group's approach to membership tells one a lot about its theology. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox membership is predicated on permanent conversion, rather than "worshiping with us for a time." Many Protestant churches come close to that, which seems odd in an American society that stresses mobility and flexibility.

Terri, we brought the first two sons up in infant baptising traditions, and we strongly affirmed that throughout their childhood (both were brought to the altar of a Swedish Lutheran church that their great-great-grandparents had attended). But Jonathan and Heidi hold to believer's baptism and had Emily dedicated. I don't know where Ben comes down on this.

It all comes of sending them to those Baptist and Wesleyan Holiness schools.

james said...

I have made commitments, but they're generally more organic than the pledge card types. I promise that I'll do some extra task at work, because it fits in with what I can do and what we need. Maybe I'll fail--sometimes there are problems within problems and deadlines prove a joke; but I do my best. Luckily we don't have goals like "increase sales by 40%."

I made generic and open-ended promises when I married. (If I'd known beforehand that we'd have 3 Aspies among the kids I'd have fled the church screaming, but in semi-retrospect its been good.) I didn't know what those promises would turn into, but guessed that the challenges and demands would arise naturally. Pre nup promises like "take trip to Europe for 25'th anniversary," although they'd certainly fix the mind, wouldn't be natural. Sort of like pledge cards.

And because I promised to follow Jesus I have to be part of and serve His church. I've been rethinking ecclesiology after the disintegration of the last church, but some things stay the same: I have to be there and look for ways to serve and put aside the distractions (&$%#! drums in the band) to worship together. There are things that aren't quite right, and I've been trying to ease things in better directions but there's no point in trying to find a perfect church (it'd fall short the moment I joined anyway). My commitment isn't as open-ended as the one to my wife: it changes if we move or if the elders start getting heretical. But in joining a church I've chosen to join a family, and you never know where that will lead.

Hannah said...

Nomination for best comment goes to....James, for:

"I didn't know what those promises would turn into..."

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

I share much of AVI's reluctance regarding church membership, especially at this particular stage in my faith life. But I don't recoil from the basic concept of church membership as some friends do. I think of it as analogous to a family. One of my daughters can have a close boyfriend and we'd include him in a lot of our family activities of course. But a member of the family? First he needs to commit to be married to my daughter. Then he's entered into "membership" with us.