The Question We Don't Say Out Loud

By Bill Mefford

There is a question that is too honest and too disquieting that I hardly can say it loud to myself. But it is the honesty of it that I feel I cannot escape and a question I feel has to be spoken, even to be written out. I cannot help but wonder, since this question has secretly been swirling in my mind throughout my adult life, and even before, that perhaps others wonder this too. The question is simple, but yet, pierces me even as I write it: does anything I do really matter or make a difference? God, it hurts to write that, to wonder it and give it words. But it is there and I can’t escape it.

I remember years ago, when I held a high profile position in the United Methodist Church, being at a large gathering of United Methodists and I had just finished a session with the goal of mobilizing United Methodists to organize themselves to push for immigration reform in their local churches, communities, conferences, and states. The session, which lasted most of the day, ended with exuberance and a lot of energy and I had to go up to my room briefly before we moved onto the next part of the agenda. When I got to my hotel room I sat on the bed, took in the excitement and energy, took a couple of deep breaths and said in a whisper, “does any of this really matter? What is this going to really change?” It was sobering to say the least.

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I bent over, with my hands on my face and I sat on the edge of the bed, teetering forward, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of wondering if what I was doing was making any difference at all. Just admitting to myself in a whisper was physically overpowering. But I did what we are taught in the church to do. I shoved down my doubts and fears and I put on a happy face and went downstairs.

It’s the question that shakes me to my core and literally haunts me. It’s the question that is not resolved by important statuses or public roles. It’s the question that I fear more than any other because if any part of the response falls to the affirmative then I fear I am lost.

One reason why the questions dogs me is that the way I experience the presence of God is through activity; through action. Some people experience God through silence or contemplation, or through sacred and elaborate liturgies. I respect those means by which others experience God Emmanuel, but I don’t. I experience God through history - seeing God move powerfully to bring about justice for those oppressed and inclusion of those forced to the margins. I experience God as I participate in God’s continuing work to manifest justice on earth.

And I am happy to play a small part - I am happy to play any part in God’s movement to bring about justice in this world. In spite of the question that haunts me I actually am never happier than I am when building movements and working shoulder to shoulder alongside those directly impacted by injustice and those incarnated among those directly impacted. That gives me the greatest joy outside my boys and my wife. But I am constantly haunted by the fear that what I am doing is not adding to God’s Spirit moving across the earth, protecting the vulnerable, convicting the powerful and affluent, and raising up fighters for justice.

Too often I find myself doing organizational stuff that are supposed to be aligned towards that end, but all too often the real ends are maintaining the institution where the justice work is housed. And I struggle with the battle over my time, my passion, and even my soul that is between the real work for justice and the institutional agendas of self-preservation. This struggle is why I do not presently work for the institutional church any longer, though, even now, I miss working in local churches. I really do. But I just want what I do to matter. It haunts me when I am afraid it doesn’t.

So, I finish this piece not with any statement of faith that makes myself or the readers feel better; that puts a bow on the big old opened wound of hurt and confusion I just laid out in the open. That would be too cheesy and not honest. I do not have any real answers and I hate that I will continue to be dogged by this secret question. Saying it out loud isn’t necessarily the “cure.” It doesn’t actually provide the “answer” I hope for either. I wrote this post several weeks ago and as I reread it I am still haunted and the wound is still raw.

I just want what I do to matter.

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