Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why the Church Sometimes Breaks Your Heart

If you love someone, sooner or later that person will break your heart.

This doesn’t happen with someone you don’t already love. Such a one can hurt or disappoint you—but he or she cannot break your heart. Because you never gave this person your heart in the first place.

The two seem to go together: loving someone and having your heart broken. One of the things we risk when we love, when we give our hearts away, is that our hearts may be broken. (All of this works the other way around, as well. We occasionally break the hearts of those we love!)

Because the church is not simply an organization or an institution—because the church is a “body,” in some sense a “person,”—and because we love the church, the church will sometimes break our hearts. Something will happen, some course of action will be pursued, and we will wonder: “How could this one that I love do this to me?”

I have lived in the church for 55 years, and I love the church deeply. It has been in the context of the church and its life that my life has found meaning, purpose and deep hope in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. But the church has broken my heart—more than once—and I suspect that the church isn’t done breaking my heart.

When I was a young man, the church broke my heart so badly that I actually left one branch of it for another. I departed from the church body that had raised me up—and affiliated with another part of the church. It was a gut-wrenching decision to make, a decision about which I have told myself: “Once in a lifetime is all I can handle!”

But even after I made my move, from one part of the church family to another part, the church continued to break my heart. That is why, the older I get, the more I long for the church envisioned in the final stanza of Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee!
Changed from glory, into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise![1]

For as long as we live on earth, for as long as we love a church comprised entirely of sinner-saints, the church will from time to time break our hearts. Only when we arrive together at God’s New Day will all of that change. As long as you draw breath, as long as you love the church militant, expect to have your heart broken.

But also—because this is part of the deal, too—expect this church filled with sinners to love you, to bear you up when you cannot walk, to support you all the live long day, and to carry you through this life. Expect the flawed church (the only kind of church we know in this world) to be the hands and feet of your Savior—deeply scarred, yes, but saving and sending you into God’s mission for as long as you live.

To speak of loving the church and having the church break your heart— is to speak of the deeply relational nature of the church. The church is a relationship, one of the deepest relationships we know. And on this side of the grave, all relationships—though life-giving, to be sure—are also deeply flawed. We give our hearts away to someone, and our hearts get broken some times.

Today, in the branch of the church called the ELCA, hearts are breaking. That is an indication that we love one another in this church, for only lovers know what a broken heart is all about.

Folks who struggle with the sexuality decisions at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly feel as though the church has broken their hearts. And this is very real. They need to remember that others in the ELCA rejoice today. Others—gay and lesbian persons and those who love them—have felt the church breaking their hearts for years, shunning them, shutting them out—this church that they have loved.

It’s a crazy business, loving and being in relationship. The twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But is there any relationship you have, especially a close and loving one, that isn’t marked by such complexity?

If we love the church, we will sometimes become so heart-broken with the church that we want to walk away (as I did in my youth). That happens in the context of loving relationships all the time. But we need to be clear on what we’re walking away from: we’re walking away from a friend whom we have loved. And dear friends never take that sort of action lightly.

In these days of discernment, we will talk about theology and confessional commitment and “taking a stand.” But let us never forget that we are also talking about a primary love relationship. And if that is the case, let us ponder deeply what it means to walk away from someone we have loved.

I believe that, in pondering the possibility of disaffiliation with the church we’ve been part of, we need to think in terms of ending a relationship with a dear friend. That will mean that we will attend intensely to the relational nature of being part of the church, the Body of Christ. If the church has broken our heart so achingly that we think we may need to leave the church, let us ponder that awful possibility with all the care and deep attention we would give to the prospect of walking away from our best friend.

To be sure, friendships—even “best friend” relationships—sometimes become so flawed that they hurt the parties in the relationship. We may need to end such a friendship—but only as the “lesser of two evils” or a “last resort.” If we are considering departure from the ELCA, I hope that we will speak in the same terms.

And I also hope that we will not forget that wherever else we turn—to whatever other branch of the Christian family that may look better to us right now—our hearts will be broken by the church again, at some point in the future. There is no flaw-less church on earth.[2] (If you find one, please let me know, because I’ve been searching for one for years!) When we give our hearts away, there is only one thing we can count on: some time, down the line, our hearts will be broken again. And we will hunger, we will pine for God’s New Day when the only Heart-Mender restores us and all things and finishes his New Creation. Only then will the heart-breaking finally stop, only in Jesus Christ.

[1] Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” #631 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

[2] Some friends who read an earlier draft of this reflection reminded me that a church body like the ELCA isn’t the same as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” that we confess in the Nicene Creed. True enough! But I would add that in this life the only real, physical access we have to the “one true church of Jesus Christ” is via the “doors” of the various denominational churches. In other words, you can look in the Yellow Pages all day long, but you will not find a street address for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The only street addresses you’ll find are for the Baptist, Assembly of God, Roman Catholic, Lutheran (all stripes of Lutherans!), Presbyterian, you-name-it churches through which we gain access to Christ’s one true church.


  1. Thank you so very much for your wise and loving words. Reading them was a blessing for me this day as I pray for people I came to love while I was on internship in Oslo.
    Martha Levine,
    Awaiting call

  2. Thank you, Bishop Larry, for this post. It has helped me more than I can say.

  3. I csme across these wonderful words while feeling that my church - while not Lutheran but Methodist, has broken my heart. I can't tell you how much these wise comments gave me new perspective and I will ponder more lovingly leaving the church where I have worshiped for over 20 years. God bless Bishop Larry for sharing your pain and easing mine.