Friday, February 18, 2011

The Formation of Complaint

Leaving a congregation is a difficult thing, but it does provide you with time to reflect, and over the last month I've been doing quite a lot of reflecting.  I've wondered if there were things I could have done differently (and yes, there were).  I've thought about all the dynamics and undercurrents in the congregation that became clear during my ministry, but that I didn't see during the interview process.  I've wondered about how to approach beginning my next ministry opportunity differently.  Specifically, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the corrosive nature of complaint.

In Numbers 16, Korah, his family, and a few other followers rebel against Moses and Aaron.  Specifically, they rebel against what they see as an unfair distinction: that only Aaron and his descendants can be priests.  After all, Aaron is a Levite, no different then Korah or his sons.  Who are Aaron and Moses to think they can appoint themselves over Israel?  That question ignores that fact that Aaron and Moses didn't appoint themselves to anything, of course.  They responded to a call.  Accepting a responsibility given to you is very different then usurping authority.  This is not how Korah sees things, however.

The fallout of this rebellion is great.  Korah and basically his entire clan is wiped out.  The unity of the Israelite tribes is broken.  A second rebellion breaks out, followed by a plague.  Aaron's and Moses's lives are at stake, not to mention the safety of their families.  The fabric of infant Israel nearly unravels.  God's work through Israel almost comes to an end before it begins.

What's the root of all this?  Well the Korah Rebellion doesn't happen out of thin air.  There has been a great deal of plot development leading up to this place in the story, and what has been driving that plot?  Complaint.

Nearly from day one, the freed Hebrews who witnessed the power and glory of God have done nothing but complain, complain about food, complain about water, complain about Moses, complain about Aaron, complain about Moses's wife, complain about how scary God is, complain about who God talks to, complain about the fact that even though God brought them to the Promised Land there are people in it....  The list could go on, but you get the point.  Reflecting on the Israelites' experience and my own, some concepts have been reaffirmed in my mind about the formation that takes place in an atmosphere of complaint.

First, complaint alters perception.  I know an individual who is fond of saying, "Perception is reality."  Which sounds insightful...except for the fact that perception is not reality.  Perception can, in fact, be the furthest thing from reality.  Two of Korah's fellow revolutionaries tell Moses, "Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?"  Let's think about that statement for a moment.  That is certainly Dathan and Abiram's perception, molded by years of complaint, but it is nothing like reality.  Egypt was not a land of milk and honey.  It was a land of forced labor, and economic and social oppression.  Egypt was the place where Pharaoh, god of his people, shouted, "Lazy!  Lazy!," not the land where the God of his people said, "Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey...."  And as far as dying in the wilderness goes, that statement is like a broken record stuck in a grove.  Why do Dathan and Abiram use that phrase?  Simple, they've been using it for years.  The reality that God has fed and watered and delivered them over and over and over has nothing to do with it.  Reality doesn't matter, neither does the fact that the generation of Israelites speaking here brought their deaths upon their own heads.  Finally, Moses hasn't lorded his authority over anyone.  He's repeatedly tried to step out of leadership altogether.

So what brought Dathan and Abiram to a place where they could spew this vitriol?  Complaint.  Of course there are other factors, but at the very least, complaint played a significant role.  Complaint is like water dripping on limestone: over time it wears a groove.  With enough time the groove becomes so deep that water doesn't know how else to flow.  Complaint has warped perception to a point where individuals are incapable of seeing things any other way.  Forget the difficult passage about God hardening Pharaoh's heart.  Complaint does that just fine on its own.

A second thing I've noticed about how complaint forms individuals, both in the Exodus experience and in churches, is that complaint absolves people of individual responsibility.  Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, et al., their rebellion wasn't their fault, at least as far as they saw it.  It was Moses's fault, Aaron's fault, the priests' fault, God's fault...but certainly not their fault.  No, the decision to rebel was forced upon them.  What choice did they have?  It was for the good of all Israel that they tried to depose of Moses, Aaron, and their lackeys.

I knew a man just like this.  He thrived off of conflict.  Of course, he never wanted to be aggressive, but what could he do?  He had a responsibility to speak out against the wrong of others...just like Korah.  And just like Korah, it was always someone else's fault when he lost his temper.  Therefore, this individual never seemed to be aware of all the havock and harm we was causing in his wake.  And surprise, surprise, what did you always hear coming out of this man's mouth?  Complaint.  Complaint provides an easy scapegoat, a rationalization for any behavior.  Complaint always makes things about the other.

And finally, complaint always divides.  In Exodus, it not only divided the tribe of Levi.  It divided the Korahites from the Israelites.  It divided the Israelites from Moses and Aaron.  Ultimately it divided Israel from God.  Churches are no different.  Complaint divides leadership from leadership.  Complaint divides leadership from the congregation.  Complaint divides congregations from the ministers, and ultimately, can divide congregations from their God.

Complaint is toxic, acidic, corrosive, and enervating.  Complaint is arsenic for congregations, their leadership, and their ministers, and if it weren't for ministers that reflect the same love Moses had for his people and an exceedingly patient God, I'd hate to think about where many congregations would be.  Well, if Exodus is any indicator, I know where they would be...dead in the wilderness, their only accomplishment being the birth of a new generation who might be able to get out of the complaint groove.

Stopping point: Numbers 17

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