by Anna Ilona Mussmann
Sometimes (during my crankier moments) it seems to me as if some people cling to minor principles with the death-grip of a toddler who is determined not to give up some newly discovered, non-parentally approved household object. You, too, have probably met someone who can’t keep his mouth shut if he hears the least whiff of what he considers to be error. He’s the kind of guy who might conceivably stand up in the middle of a funeral to correct the speaker’s theology.
These people are difficult. Awkward. I’m been guilty of being feeling embarrassed by such folks, or even of wanting to disassociate myself with their blundering way of expressing truth. It can seem as though they lack compassion and cannot put themselves in others’ shoes. It can seem as though they are making life more painful than it needs to be, both for themselves and others, because they lack flexibility. They make it easy for the world to paint them as fools or fanatics.
Contemporary culture is not very friendly towards difficult, awkward, socially maladroit people even when they do subscribe to mainstream beliefs. We want students who sit still in their seats and stick to the teacher's train of thought. We want adults who follow the norms of social interactions--who smile, make small talk, soften criticism with praise, mind their own business, etc. Even in the church, we like congregants who serve peaceably on committees, woo visitors with warm attentions, attend services, read theology books from CPH, and refrain from kicking up fusses over adiaphora.
We tend to look at the trappings of awkwardness as something that should be fixed. We’d like to give that guy a dose of Ritalin (or maybe chamomile tea), and get that lady onto the T.V. show “What Not to Wear” so that she could work out her issues with clothing-therapy. Yet if our desire to “improve” these people comes from a sense of smug superiority, we aren’t any better than they are, are we? We might, in fact, be a good deal like the brother with the plank in his eye.
The thing as, as difficult as it can be to deal with these terribly sincere, serious-minded, principle-following zealots, they are essential. We need them. The Church needs them. Sometimes, their cries of “wolf” are the only thing that forces us to continue checking the fences around the sheep-pen (and this is a good thing, because the wolf is real). Sometimes, they are the painful prick of conscience to a group that has become complacent. Sometimes, they are the voice that dares to speak when church leaders preach heresy (or government employs tyranny). They are the kind of people who speak the truth even when sensible folks are keeping their heads down. The way that they think and live is actually as much of a special gift as is a talent for music or an ability to inspire others with enthusiasm. These people's outlook gives them a unique way to serve others.
The awkward people of the world tend to rise to greatness in times of abnormality. Winston Churchill was unable to maintain a consistently successful political career either before or after World War II. He was loud and difficult, and some of his opinions sound shockingly wrong today. Yet he was also the man whose courageous speeches helped unify and enhearten Britain during the Blitz, and who kept his country in the fight for victory even when defeat seemed probable. A sensible, balanced, quiet, reliable man could not have filled the same role.
Even Martin Luther would have frustrated many of us if he attended our church. In his youth, he was one of those people so terribly afflicted with conscience that he threw his entire career aside (after all his parents’ sacrifices) in hopes of appeasing God. That kind of person is really awkward to be around. In adulthood, he said and wrote all kinds of things. Many were wise and astute, but others were the uncensored, non-politically-correct, loud-mouthed, off-the-cuff thoughts of a man who got worked-up and spoke his mind. One can imagine the headlines that the media would spin if he were a notable figure living today--“Martin Luther bashes Pope, calls him an ass,” for instance. A balanced, people-oriented, safety-conscious man would never have done what Luther did. Yet Martin Luther was the man through whom God worked at a difficult time.
Of course, zealots (even zealots like the blessed doctor Luther) are sinners, too. Some of them truly do need to learn to listen to other people’s concerns, or perhaps to let little things go for the sake of love. Sometimes we really can help them by asking, “What do you hope to accomplish by telling Fred Jones that he’s wrong about W?” However, the Church is made up of all believers. That means all of us. Socially-savvy, pleasant preachers need the awkward questioner to keep them on track. Firebrands who start movements need systematicians and quiet toilers to follow in their wake, organizing, sustaining, and teaching. It is not always easy to remember this. Because the Church is made up of sinners, congregational life can be painful and even ugly at times, and sometimes we may even be guilty of wishing that certain members of our church would fade away and disappear. Yet our wishes and our weaknesses do not stop God. He continues to use His people to accomplish His will, and He continues to love both the socially adept and the awkward among us. We won’t always enjoy the people whom we deem over-zealous and awkward. Yet let us thank God that they, too, are in the Church, for they are a blessing to all of us.
Anna writes as often as she can. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.
Title Image: Detail from "Luther at the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner, 1877