By T. R. Robertson
I’ve decided to stop being the church curmudgeon.
In my teens and 20s I was an idealist through and through. Older people told me this would wear off eventually. It didn’t.
Instead it was gradually transformed into cynicism as my hopes dimmed of seeing my ideals become reality. Time after time I saw the church settling for less than the ideal set forth in the Scriptures.
As idealism settled into cynicism, so cynicism planted the seeds for becoming a curmudgeon—a griper, a complainer, a pot-stirrer.
Letting loose the inner curmudgeon is neither productive nor holy. In fact, it’s sin.
You won’t find the word curmudgeon in the Bible. You will find words like backbiter, grumbler, trouble-maker. It warns against people who sow discord (Proverbs 6:12) or stir up division (Titus 3:10). Paul warns about those who quarrel about words (2 Timothy 2:14) or grumble against one another (James 5:9).
I’ll always be an idealist. And I suspect I’ll always be somewhat of a cynic. It took me a long time, though, to realize that being a cynic doesn’t have to equal being a curmudgeon.
It’s About People
As I look around me on a typical Sunday morning, the curmudgeon in me sees people who are misguided, preoccupied with trivial matters, self-serving, and generally flawed.
There’s the guy in the third row who thinks Ezekiel predicted the Democratic party’s seizure of our assault weapons. The college student walking toward me is going to ask my advice about a problem she’s having at work, and I know I’m just one in a revolving group of about seven people she will ask for advice, looking for the one person who will tell her what she wants to hear. And don’t forget the fellow who thinks we should only be singing hymns because they didn’t have “all these rock and roll choruses” back in the early church days.
It’s quite a motley bunch of misfits.
Being involved in a prison ministry has changed the way I see people, though.
Like most first-time visitors to a prison chapel, I was struck by how this group of women could be members of just about any local church, except that they’re all dressed in identical, unflattering outfits. There’s the grandmother offering advice (both welcome and not) to younger women who aren’t her own daughters. There are young women acting like teens, sitting in the back row, chatting during the song service. And there’s a quiet woman, ignored by the others, soaking up every word the speaker says.
They’re just regular folk.
They’ve forced me to realize that the sins that nag at me aren’t any better in the eyes of God than the transgressions that landed them in prison.
I’ve come to love these women in gray and have learned to be patient and nurturing with them. A prison congregation can ask the wildest, most unexpected questions, but I take each one patiently and turn it around to find an answer that will teach them what they really need to know, even if it’s not exactly what they asked.
Then one day, back at my Sunday morning church home, I found myself looking around the crowd and picturing them all in matching gray prison clothes. They could be sitting in a cinder-block chapel in a prison, except that they have a choice of what to wear, they’re worshipping with their families, and their personal sins have not (yet) dragged them to the wrong side of the line that draws the attention of the legal authorities.
Like my captive audience in prison, these are just regular folks, struggling with their doubts, unchallenged in their monotonous routines, and spiritually wounded.
In short, they’re just like me.
So why can’t I learn to be patient and nurturing with the people in my congregation? Why can’t I focus on them and on their needs rather than on the ways they annoy me?
Paul implies in 2 Corinthians 12 that our weaknesses, our very personal and painful thorns in the flesh, are gifts God has given to us. Perhaps God has also given a similar gift to the church: saints with weaknesses that need balancing by the strengths of others, a thorn in the church body requiring a continual reliance upon grace.
Why can’t I remember that it’s about God and his grace working in our weaknesses?
Turns out I can.
It’s About Walking
My close friends have all heard me say I go to the church that I find least annoying. While I consider this to be high praise for the congregation that has won this honor, most folks wouldn’t see it that way.
The apostle Paul could easily have become a cynic about the church, and some parts of his letters to the churches are very nearly curmudgeonly, especially 2 Corinthians.
Paul suffered troubles, hardships, distress, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights and more (2 Corinthians 6:4, 5) to plant churches and nurture their growth. In return, they dabbled in legalism and license, impurity and idolatry, and dirty church politics of every sort.
In that same epistle, though, Paul said to live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Perhaps this is how he kept himself from descending into curmudgeonly bitterness.
When we live by sight, we’re allowing ourselves to become preoccupied with the things of earth, the imperfections and annoyances of the real world we see in front of us. That includes dysfunctional church board meetings, tepid sermons, and programs aimed at a culture that no longer exists.
Instead, Paul says we should be living according to godly ideals, not judging what’s less than ideal. Living by faith is about refusing to let the pride of being smugly right get in the way of living righteously.
As a curmudgeon, I’m focused on myself, on my own disappointment with the way things are. I’ve reverted to childhood, throwing a tantrum because things aren’t going my way, rather than acting like a loving parent.
As a recovering curmudgeon, it’s imperative that I keep my focus on how I can be a part of God’s grace at work among imperfect people, not on political maneuvering and getting my way.
I’m self-aware enough to confess that I’m not capable of maintaining a positive perspective if I get very involved with the mechanics of the church. Having reached the age of 57, I find it unlikely I will change any time soon. So until I do, I’ve stepped back from any sort of official leadership position. Our elders and deacons may not be perfect, and they may make some decisions that make me scratch my head and mumble to myself. But if there’s one thing they don’t need, it’s me in the middle of them, giving Satan continual opportunities to make me the gadfly of the group.
Instead, I try to follow the advice of a former mentor, which boils down to: “Just do the work God has given you to do.”
God has made me a teacher and a writer, a task which forces me to hone my idealism into productive and practical paragraphs. He has planted the plight of prisoners so deeply into my heart that I can’t help but give them my grace-soaked attention. He has continually put spiritual sons and daughters in my life who require leadership and wisdom and who definitely do not need to be infected by my inner curmudgeon.
Whenever I’m talking to someone in the church who is threatening to wake up the curmudgeon behind the cellar door, I now picture that person in prison grays and respond to them with all the grace God can provide.
Whenever I find myself struggling mightily to keep my inner cynic from transmogrifying into full curmudgeon mode about some church program, I will press the pause button. I’ll try to think of some action requiring effort on my part to get constructively involved in the very thing about which I’m inwardly grumbling.
Which is why I find myself sitting in the church building at 2:15 a.m. working on this article. I spontaneously volunteered to be the all-night security guy who is letting people into the building every hour for the congregation’s 24 hours of continual prayer on the National Day of Prayer.
This is my penance. And this is my progress.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
My Name is_______, and I’m a Curmudgeon
Most of us find ourselves being a bit curmudgeonly at some time or another. If you’re feeling grumbly, judgmental, or crabby about church, here are some ways to break yourself out of it:
1. Repent to God and confess to a trusted friend.
2. Listen to what others are saying, and try to hear what God hears from their hearts.
3. Break out of your routine and volunteer in a ministry you’ve not been part of before.
4. Visit a hospital, nursing home, prison, or other facility where people can’t get out to go to church—or much of anywhere.
5. Spend time with someone outside your natural circle—perhaps someone older or younger than you.