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Where “Wish Dreams” Come to Die

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“What does she need to be forgiven for?” One of the more articulate, respected men in our community launched that question at me across the table quite incredulously. The temperature in the room immediately plummeted, and I felt a heavy weight drop deep in my stomach.

Seconds earlier, with as much pastoral sincerity as I could muster, I announced to a woman in our house group that we heard her confession, and in Christ she was forgiven and loved. She didn’t know she was giving confession, but my goal as facilitator was to recalibrate for the group both the seriousness of what she was sharing and the seriousness of God’s forgiveness and grace.

The initial warmth emitted from raw, vulnerable sharing quickly iced over in tension. I balked – frozen in surprise. Another voice blurted out, “Yeah – why does she need forgiveness?” All heads around the table snapped in my direction.

The carefully crafted image as a brilliant architect of community and discipleship was crumbling in my hands. Recalibrating turned into backpedaling.

“Well…” I struggled to remain composed. “You see … we are learning to think differently about the nature of confession.” When I’m threatened, I retreat into abstract theological prose – defending myself obliquely by subtly changing the level of discourse.

A few more awkward (but intelligent sounding) phrases tumbled out as I slumped lower into my chair. I apologized to the woman and to the group for causing confusion. I tried desperately to recover control.

But we had already crossed a line and entered a new space from which we could not return. My lack of experience and competency was exposed, and the sparkly image of good community was shattered as we all sat uncomfortably in the thick of disillusionment.

Conventional pastoral wisdom – especially the kind that animates most evangelicalism of the past few decades – would suggest, I think, that disillusionment makes for bad community. Seminaries teach how to avoid this kind of stuff, right?

We have learned to evaluate the health of our life together (as well as our pastoral skills) on the basis of how well things are going. As a result, we have no idea how to deal with failure and disappointment other than to fix it or bail out.

Our ecclesiological tendency, moreover, is to program-out the possibility for messiness that comes in the midst of disillusionment. Like an overprotective parent who bubble-wraps his child, many of the structures we cultivate for community avoid or guard against the frightening space where everyone is exposed to the sting of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

But tension and disillusionment is Gospel ground – the arena in which God’s transformative grace breaks forth in our midst.

If Christ is the very reality that makes possible, sustains, and orients our gathering together, and not simply the content of our discussion, then disillusionment might be the best thing for our community. When we learn to embrace the unveiling of our illusion of successful ministry as grace, we can finally stop fretting over how things haven’t turned out like we thought. On the other side of constant anxiety and frantic reorganization is Christ himself – inviting us into a wild pneumatic reality that takes us places we could not have gone otherwise.

In Life Together, Bonheoffer calls community that is hermetically sealed from real-life tension a “wish dream.” The sooner the wish dream is exposed, the better. Ideal community must die in order to make Christian community possible. Bonheoffer writes,

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. (Life Together, 27)

What strikes me most forcefully about Bonheoffer’s words is that the disintegration of my ideal community is actually grace. I can easily categorize that disintegration as useful, perhaps, in some secondary sense – a lesson I needed because I slipped-up and failed to strategize appropriately.

But if Bonheoffer is right, then it is fundamentally grace because it is what we needed all along: the raw material into which the Spirit infuses and makes real to us God’s reconciliation in Christ. Before the crisis, we had no idea how to participate in the reality God makes possible in Christ because all we had were words and concepts – wish dreams.

Was it not, after all, disillusionment that first created space for the reception of Paul words, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”? Paul was not simply giving theological advice to sinful Corinthians; he was announcing and naming the grace now possible in the fallout from bitterness and conflict.

The crumbling of (what seemed to me to be) success that night actually created space in my heart to access what I truly wanted. By exposing my idolatrous fantasy and lust for pastoral gratification, disillusionment created space for me and everyone else to learn exactly how and where we needed Christ. It seems so benign, but a successful meeting – where I feel good about what happened and so does everyone else – might have actually perpetuated the illusion that we were participating in the grace-saturated reality God makes possible only in Christ while short-circuiting our ability to actually enter it.

But we cannot even begin to understand or experience that grace-saturated reality in community outside of the frightening reality of disillusionment. We cannot presume to know how or where the Spirit is leading us until we’ve let it all hit the fan. And we can embrace this process as God’s grace because it unveils our fantasies and reveals what is possible only in Christ. 

What would it look like to cultivate structures and nurture the intuition in our community for pressing into disillusionment?

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