Last Wednesday was a test day in the family literacy class I co-teach to refugees and other immigrants, so I had the better part of two hours to sit and ruminate on some things that have been on my mind for quite a while now. I began scratching some ideas out on a sheet of notebook paper, and soon the ideas just began to flow.
This, unedited, is what I wrote:
polished wood and the lingering smoke of extinguished candles
the fragmented, multicolored glory of daylight spilling through stained glass
echoes that chase themselves through the ceiling’s lofty vault above
the richly ornate altar, resplendent in its finely embroidered paraments
I love the feel and the scent and the sight of it all
steeped as it is in centuries of ancient tradition
and still, I remember that it’s all window-dressing
for what has always been a simple mystery
the true temple is the one built of living stones
the temple not built by human hands
and soon, the day may come, the lean days, the pilgrim days
when it will all stand empty, dusty, unused
when the trappings of tradition will fall by the wayside
all this and more has already begun
but on that day, we will remember who we are
we ARE a pilgrim people, and always have been
we were never meant for the gilt and the linen and the polished wood
we were never meant to grow comfortable and complacent
we were never taught to expect that the world would come to us
we must GO out to the world. we must GO!
we are heirs to a boundless, limitless, reckless love
a love that even death could not restrain
our inheritance is not this dust-dry, hidebound morality
the world ascribes to us, cloistered and close-minded
it isn’t the windows or the walls or the well-loved spaces
we are a living, breathing, loving body
the words on our lips and in our hearts are God’s words
lush and life-giving as an April rain
no earthly building can contain them
forget the mortar and the bricks, the paraments, the candlesticks
the glass and the altar and the finely polished wood
forget the echoes and the arches and the aging roof tiles
GO out to the world.
go outside and let it rain.
This is the poem that sparked the idea of doing a blog. It pretty well sums up my thoughts on where the church is headed and where it needs to go. I joked that such sentiments would make me very unpopular with the property committee at my church, but to characterize this as a dour reflection on the church’s future could not be further from the truth.
There are those who might not believe me when I say this, but I love traditions. I love that feeling of continuation, of connectedness to the past — in fact, one of my most precious possessions is a ring that belonged to my great-great-grandmother and which has been passed from mother to daughter in my family for five generations, and which I now wear every day. Tradition is such a huge part of the way the church operates, the way things get done — not just the worship aspect of church, but even the way we think about what church is, who goes to church and why, where church happens, how we as a church welcome others (or don’t), etc. It’s a system of doing things a certain way that has been handed down from generation to generation for so long that some things have begun to lose their meaning.
An amusing example that jumps to my mind has to do with the little old church ladies at my church. Now, if you’ve ever spent much time in a church — any church — you know that you do not mess with little old church ladies, because they pretty much run the show and have a very set way of doing things. At our church, this includes the tablecloths — anytime there is a meal, there is a very strict protocol of how you put out and then subsequently wipe off, fold up, and put away the church’s vinyl tablecloths. I witnessed another member of the congregation being chastised for the apparently unpardonable sin of starting to fold up the tablecloths too soon after they’d been wiped down. There was much eye-rolling at this seemingly unnecessary step, but as it turns out, the little old church ladies had a legitimate concern about mold growing on the damp tablecloths tucked away in a closet.
My point in relating this story is that tradition becomes meaningless when the reason for doing it in the first place is not handed down with it. And the things we do should have meaning. Otherwise, what point is there to holding onto them? And how can we begin to explain to someone else why they matter?
To give another example of what I’m getting at, my family is gradually growing away from the rich traditions I grew up with, and I have mixed feelings about that. I come from a large family in a small, rural town, and growing up, I spent a lot of time together with my extended family for various celebrations and holidays — not to mention church; but now, as I get into my late twenties, all of my cousins are grown up and having families of their own and things are breaking apart a little. Trying to hold to the traditions is beginning to produce noticeable strain and, for some, has become more of an obligation than a joy. This has forced us to break out of the routine and to occasionally venture into doing things in a way we’re not comfortable with — and yet I find that these are some of my favorite moments with my family because they are the most real. Rather than going through the motions of family rituals and traditions that are supposed to be shorthand for expressing our love and family togetherness, we’re just skipping over that and getting right to the love and family togetherness. No one is doing or saying things just because it’s dictated by tradition or because they feel like they have to. We’re actually in the moment with each other.
This is what I dream for the church. To be real. I am not by any means proposing we simply ditch our traditions and all that goes with them, or implying that these things are not real — truly, we have much to offer the world in terms of the richness of our liturgical worship and the useful, beautiful spaces of our buildings, among other things. However, I am saying that I think we get bound up in the overhead that comes along with all this, conflating all the details and logistics and physical structures of the church with the church itself. And it has made us afraid. We fear to take risks, to take a stand on things that matter, to take the leaps of faith that God calls us to take — the heart-pounding, hair-raising things that make us a better church. We try not to rock the boat for fear of losing “members” to help keep our beautiful, spacious buildings with their rapidly emptying pews afloat. It’s to the point that, in many places, there’s a serious risk of neglecting the spiritual church in favor of the physical one. And there’s no denying how gut-wrenchingly awful it is to think of losing the tangible resources that generations of faithful churchgoers have worked so hard to build.
Yet, we are the temple built of living stones, the temple not made by human hands. We must remember that we are not defined by our physical church building, by the number of our members, or by “the way we’ve always done it.” We are defined by our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us; and should the painful day come when we must decide whether to be true to that relationship or to follow tradition, the relationship must always triumph, or we will cease to be God’s church. What good is our beautiful building or our well-orchestrated, elaborate worship services if to maintain them we have to sacrifice the things that really matter? Christ sent us into the world to spread his love to others, especially to the “least of these,” and that mission must always be our first consideration, overriding all else. I think we will be called on to make some sacrifices in the coming years, but we need to make sure we make the right sacrifices for the right reasons. It’s a long, rough road ahead, but we must trust that God will get us through it. Because God will. I have no doubt.
I have so much more to say about all of this, but I will leave you with one last thought for now. I grew up in Nebraska — a prairie state — and one thing I remember learning as a child was how important wildfires are to the health of prairie grassland. Over the years, so much biomass (dead plant matter) builds up that it actually chokes the life out of new growth. Fire hits the reset button on the prairie. It burns up all that is dry and dead above the ground, but leaves the roots untouched and ready to begin life again. It’s a devastating thing to see the earth so scorched and bared by fire, but it is a necessary part of growth and renewal, and without it, the prairie could not continue, could not sustain life. (read more about this here; it really is fascinating)
These are simply the wildfire days of the church, a necessary part of our growth and renewal as the body of Christ in the world.
“Here, we do not have a lasting city; we seek a home that is yet to come.” Hebrews 13:14