It was Emily Dickinson who wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” which I tend to think was Jesus’ general approach, what with the parables and such.

And normally I agree with Emily and Jesus, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if the moments in which we’re living are calling for a more direct approach to truth telling.

My doubts arose recently at my new apartment building, where I have lived for approximately five months. I hate moving (doesn’t everyone?), and this torture was not aided by the less than helpful support of building management.

Trial and error, little by little, I’ve learned how to buzz people in, open the garage gate, and never, ever, ever lock myself out.

I learned this week that I seem to have failed, however, at the ongoing process of disposing of garbage/recycling. See, there is, on my floor, a trash room, which has a trash chute, in which to dispose of trash bags.

But what about recycling? The signs were confusing, but according to my careful study of said signage, I understood that while trash was not to be left in the trash room, recycling was.

(I stand by this interpretation, by the way, and in my defense, the photo above is of the sign posted in the trash room.)

So, since I’ve moved in, every time I took out my garbage, I would dutifully throw the trash down the trash shoot and leave a paper bag with cardboard, glass, etc. on the floor of the trash room.

A paper sign about where to put trash in a building.

(Photo: Amy Butler)

A few weeks after I began this practice, I happened to be walking out of the apartment and noticed a sign in the elevator, on the back door and near the mailboxes. “Please do not leave bags of trash in the trash rooms, etc.”

Fair, I thought in passing. Leaving trash in the trash rooms would make the whole hall smell bad – who would be rude enough to do that?

But I also laughed and shook my head thinking about the often-ignored church bulletin announcements about silencing cell phones during worship. And as it turns out, even I still find myself often missing important signs.

I realized this when a down-the-hall neighbor knocked on my door the other evening. I’d never met him before, but he kindly introduced himself and conspiratorially explained that it was our floor that had the pressing trash problem management was trying to address with the signs down by the mailbox.

Someone – and they didn’t know who because they’d so far been unable to catch the person in the act – was leaving paper bags of recycling in the garbage closet on our floor.

This rude behavior was really upsetting to the other tenants on the floor, and he wondered if I would just keep an eye out to see who it was so we could stop this outrage once and for all.

I nodded mutely, then carefully closed the apartment door. Then, I frantically scrolled through options of next steps in my head – dark glasses and a hat? And then I finally admitted to myself: I’d seen the signs, but I missed their message.

Naturally, this brought the church to mind. I thought again about how blind we church folk often are to what is happening right now in our institutions – even though the signs are all around us.

Because we’re feeling discomfort, fear and even pain as the institution we know declines, some of us are missing the signs increasingly posted everywhere. We’re just going on with life as it is, never stopping to think that larger societal trends and even indisputable scientific evidence has any relationship whatsoever to our particular situations.

We nod with vague interest when we read articles about scientific polls and surveys describing what we are sure will never happen to us. We murmur with sympathy when we hear about smaller churches closing, even as we pour ourselves into keeping things going just as they always have been.

We keep our blinders firmly in place and pin our hopes on the pastor search committee, tasked under no uncertain terms with finding a new pastor who can attract young families – who is also an excellent administrator, life-changing preacher, makes no one mad and works a minimum 90 hours per week.

And when we behave like that, a lot of us are missing the signs. Or, like me and the whole trash/recycling situation, we’re noticing them but never think they apply to us.

So, somebody’s got to start telling the truth – and no offense to Emily or Jesus, I’m not so sure it can be told slant anymore.

The urgency of this moment won’t allow vague references and generic posters; we’re going to have to speak more boldly and push harder for action. We can’t miss the signs!

There are people in our churches who are aware that our institutions are undergoing significant shifts requiring courageous response, and they have already taken action to move in that direction (as, apparently, most of the people in my apartment building somehow know to carry the recycling downstairs). I want to be like these people.

And I want to be that kind of church person – someone who can tell the truth; admit that we must take steps to begin thinking differently about being the church in the world; and then act with courage to make it happen.

I also want to be that kind of neighbor, which I am determined to be – as soon as I find another place to live.

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