Note: I’ve been wrestling with my book. There is an old publishing adage that says “the manuscript is never done.” I get that. But I felt that something was missing. Then I was inspired. This post, in an expanded (and edited) form will be the final addition to the manuscript. However, it was too timely to hang on to until the book came out. I hope you find value in this preview.
A few days ago John Pavlovitz wrote a blog post painting a great word picture of the task of reconstruction. (These moments are part of why he’s becoming one of my favorite stops in the blogosphere.) There was of course, a great deal of discussion in the comments following the post. The whole conversation prompted some thoughts about my own efforts toward tearing down the old and building up the new.
Call it reformation, reconciliation, reconstruction, deconstruction or just simple deflation – there is a whole lot of it that needs to happen. I am thrilled to see how many of us who have been deeply vested in the church are stepping into the fray, but there are still several lifetimes of work to be done. And that’s where my thoughts took me. So I invite you to grab some coffee or a glass of wine and spend a moment walking through my thoughts with me.
History, like life, is cyclical. We don’t need to get much beyond a second grade science class to see the cycles in nature: the water cycle, the life cycle, etc. We each personally have rhythms and cycles that our bodies and minds work though on regular basis. It’s simply part of the human experience. Religion – where humanity intersects with the divine – is no exception. In the Judaeo Christian narrative, we see cycles of our interaction with God all the way back to the early God followers, through the period of the Judges and the rule of kings in Israel and Judea. (I don’t want to get sidetracked with the history here, but if it interests you I would encourage you to read Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.)
There are a few key components that seem to appear in every cycle. First, people turn away from what God intended for them in the way they worship and relate to God. In the book of Judges this is sometimes noted with the phrase, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (i.e. Judges 17:6) After a season of living this way, there is usually a crying out to God in some fashion, either by an individual or a larger group of people. In response, God would bring a leader to power that has a heart to find and follow God. On many occasions, one of the first things that leader sets out to do is tear down the idols that have replaced proper worship of God. Once this is accomplished, the people once again pursue God – for a season.
The cycles continued into the early church, though they are a little more obscured in historical accounts. The most notable, of course, is the reformation led by Martin Luther. He challenged the idolatry in the practices in the Roman church during his day and offered what he saw was an opportunity to worship God as he believed God intended.
That phrase, “Everyone did what what was right in their own eyes,” became the bedrock in my mind for the notion that I had no freedom to challenge the theology and doctrine I was being taught.
It took decades for me to find the resolve (more like the desperation) to question everything, including what was “right” my eyes or God’s eyes. As soon as I did, I began to re-cycle.
Tear down the mess…
Since Christ established the church and left the Holy Spirit, we have had no need to raise an earthly leader to gather God’s people. We really need to learn to follow the leader we have already been given. So if the next step in the new cycle is tearing down the idols, I’ve had to figure out for my own life and spiritual health, what those idols might me. This is still a process I am working through and realistically will be the rest of my earthly life, but I have some ideas. They are a bit radical, but don’t panic – it’s not as drastic as it seems. Or maybe it is and that’s just what it needs to be.
Potential idols in my religious ideology:
My ________ translation of the Bible. Fill in the blank with what ever your favorite may be. There are plenty from which to choose. I neither speak or read ancient Greek or Hebrew, though I do know my way around Strong’s concordance when need to try and understand a passage. I have known relatively few people with enough knowledge to translate in either language, let alone both. Having access to the scriptures in our native language is necessary. The problem is not in the translation, but the fact that we elevate it to the same place and reverence as the original text. We fail to recognize that as soon as a human took on the task of translating the work, as devout and cautious as they may have been, their cultural and academic biases influenced their decisions on the text. We have room for error. Time has proved nearly every translation to have its pitfalls.
In addition to the question of translation and errancy, translation of the language is only one part of the interpretation process. In depending on the translation of language alone we fail to take into account cultural differences and perspectives. We read the words through our scientific, data oriented culture of personal freedom where the original recipients would have looked through a lens of spiritual mysticism and oppression. Just consider the concepts that were not understood in the first century – facts and “truths” we take for granted: a round earth, a solar-centric universe, gravity, democracy (it was around but not popular by any means), algebra (I’d still be ok with that one.) Basically the knowledge base on which we build our understanding of things was totally different! In order to effectively translate the scripture we have to consider the difference between our experience and theirs.
God hasn’t changed. God’s message hasn’t changed. We as a human race have changed and we have to read the Bible accordingly, otherwise it becomes a false idol to which we cling.
My _______ religious tradition. Worshiping on Sunday? Holidays we celebrate? Dancing? Smoking? Drinking? Dare I say it – marriage, gender and sexuality? All of these concepts as we know and practice them today didn’t exist when the last human writer of the Bible set down their pen. Some form of them may have been present and understood, but not as we understand them in the here and now. The laws and regulations we set up to manage our behavior become idols when we elevate them above the worship of God in Spirit and truth.
Churches. I don’t mean the body of Christ, I mean the building that we recognize as a place of worship and erroneously call God’s house. When it becomes the number one item on a budget list, when it becomes more telling of our identity than the love we show our communities, we our goal becomes to build a place “they” will want to come instead of building hearts that will want to go, then the brick and mortar becomes an idol.
Preachers. I don’t even think I need to elaborate. I’m not talking about the pastor struggling to make ends meet, possibly working two jobs just to keep food on the table for their kids. I’m talking about the preacher turned celebrity turned internet guru and cash cow.
America. When we rely solely on the freedom afforded us by our government to exercise our faith, our government has become bigger than our god.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of our Bibles, tear down our churches, fire our pastors (OK – maybe some of them) or overthrow our government. I am suggesting that we adjust our ideas so that they reflect the inherent reality of God instead of allowing our ideas, traditions and comfort levels to define God.
Embracing God’s vast reality will mean we don’t always have answers, that we must embrace mysteries and learn to live at peace with our small place in a great universe.
…and let God do the rest.
Once we get rid of the idols, once we have cleansed our field of worship and reset our minds and hearts on God as we understand God – the process that is commonly referred to as “deconstruction” – we then face the task of rebuilding. The temptation is to replace old idols with new idols. Get rid of these traditions and make new ones. Stop practicing those rituals and start practicing these rituals. Fire those preachers and hire these new preachers that tickle our ears. The problem comes when we recognize that this is not our church to build. I don’t aspire to be part of the body of progressive Christian Americans. I aspire to be part of the Body of Christ.
It is Christ’s church to build, not ours.
It’s our job to patiently listen. So instead of spending my time and energy learning a new religion, I’m spending it learning to mediate – to purposefully quiet my mind so that I’m open to a relationship with God on a truly spiritual level. I’m spending it re-learning to study the scripture with new filters. There will always be filters, but they have been adjusted to a new understanding of how time and culture impact what I read and how I learn from it.
And I spend my time seeking to love people more deeply and genuinely than ever before; making sure those once considered to be “in the margins” or even “outside” the fold of Christ, now have a place at God’s table. That’s not something doctrine of a church can accomplish – it has already drastically failed. It’s not something theology toward God can accomplish – it will always leave us lacking. It’s something that only the love of God experienced from God and through us will bring to fruition.
I don’t know what church needs to or will look like five years, ten years, or ten decades from now. The difference between my grasp of faith today and a few years ago is that I no longer need to know what it’s going to look like. I need to know what it is for me today. What does it mean for me right now, as a child of God, to be part of the Body through which love and grace are to flow. As I embrace that notion everyday, I find more and more hearts to touch, more minds to invest in and from which to learn, and needs to be met in the most simple and practical ways.
My hope and prayer is that the people of God are reconciled with the truth that it is the Love of God that defines us, not the rules we live by or the buildings in which we meet.
Church isn’t something that needs to be rebuilt, it’s something that needs to be redone. Everyday. Every moment. In every heart that has been touched by the great love, grace and mercy of God.