I was pretty sure my bad breath and high acidic saliva mouth could not be good for her delicate baby skin, but I couldn't bring myself to retrieve her fingers. Then I felt slightly creepy. Who gets this much pleasure out of having their babies fingers and hand awkwardly shoved into their mouth? Still, if she had not declared a retreat, I would have stayed that way all night and woken up this morning with her whole hand in my my mouth and been very happy about it. (And this reminds me of when I was newly married. I tried very hard to fall asleep holding Ryan's pinky and to wake up in the same position the next morning... holding pinkies. This of course did not work, but in my young-in-love-mind, this was a dream worth chasing. Oh the days when marriage was that simple...)
She devoured four ounces of milk and when she was done, she burrowed down into my chest and smiled and purred her way back to sleep. I rocked her for thirty more minutes just so I could be with her, could feel her, could hold her close to me.
This was one of the best moments of my life. Simple. Pure. Beautiful. Divine.
I think we have taken what was supposed to be rather simple, pure, beautiful, and divine and we have complicated, darkened, tarnished, and broken it: God, that is. More specifically, God's church.
The song, What Do I Know of Holy, does not just resonate with you Rebecca, or with you Renee, or with the few others who have posted comments about the song on this forum... but rather it has resonated with so many, many people in so many parts of the world. I believe this song works because people long to know and love God in a deeper way than our churches and religious traditions are giving them an opportunity to do so through. People are tired of religion.
This song says, don't give me God in a box; give me the Holy of Holies, the Creator, the unknowable, unfathomable Savior whom angels worship and rocks cry out to, who made the ocean and knows how many grains of sand are on its beaches, who made possible a way for all things to be redeemed and made new, who loves infinitely. I want that.
The shortfalls of religion and the church have been written on and discussed ad nauseum. Books abound on why people love God but hate the church; why the church is ineffective, intolerant, inefficient, and incongruent with the life of Jesus.
So you think things would be changing. And yet, I find that many of the churches we visit (over 100 different churches a year) are still spitting out the same washed up, empty, judgemental, boxey, passionless messages and programs. Aaagghhh. The word "program" in connection with church makes me want to pull my hair out. (Cause programs for "church members" was exactly what Jesus was all about, huh?)
Some examples? For the first time ever I actually heard a sermon recently that digressed into telling the mainly 7th-9th grade audience that our country was a short step away from socialism. Which he then compared to communism. This was preceded by telling the students how many of their friends and future husbands and wives had been murdered by abortion during the years they were born. This political tirade given by a college president to a group of vulnerable students was a tragic use of power in the pulpit. Instead of teaching scripture, encouraging students to draw near to God, to learn from the life and words of Jesus, or helping them practically understand how any of those things can look in their everyday lives... he used God's house to push his political agenda.
Follow me from that night in an Independent Baptist church in Texas to a recent night in Iowa when I had dinner with three girls who were all members of Christian Reformed, Lutheran, and Episcopalian denominations. After talking for a while about girl things, I asked them to tell me about their churches. What are they like? How do they shape your lives? What do the worship and sermons mean to you each week?
They looked at me like I was asking them to find the square root of 2,345,768 (And by the way, I have no idea if there is a square root for that. I have no idea how to find square roots. I have no idea what a square root is.).
So I asked them a more simple question, "Well then, why do you go to church?"
Their answer? Because we always have. I finally got them to acknowledge that the best part of church for them was the community, the people who had been a part of their lives since the nursery. And while I was happy they had found love and joy in the community there, I was heartbroken that for them, church was a community center; not a place where they fell more in love with Jesus, were drawn closer to God, or developed in any way spiritually. No wonder their faces were blank during worship and they barely moved their mouths to sing.
Those are two extreme examples.
The more common examples? We led worship at a more traditional church recently and eight people got up and left. Too loud? I'm a female worship leader? They weren't interested in that style of music? I'm not sure. But this was not what they wanted... so they left. At least they were honest. The other several hundred people who were there just stared at us, never worshipping themselves, but apparently just taking in a nice show.
And we run into this all the time. The church should break into Hollywood... I've never seen so many good actors in my life. So many people faking it. Going through the motions. Dead in the pews. And worse, tepidly mildewed and green around the edges of their souls. Not quite rotten, not nearly alive, just a murky, still water infested with mosquitoes. Yikes. Why go to church people??? Stay at home. Sleep in. Go for a nice run in the park and end up at a cool coffee shop and read the Sunday morning newspaper. Sometimes I think the best thing for a lot of churches would be a freak tornado that comes down only to take the walls of the building away... because then what? Would anyone choose to rebuild?
Church is supposed to be about God. And community. But mostly a group of people in love with Christ first, passionately chasing after a new way of living, finding a new way to be human, and then stumbling into a beautiful community of other people who are following the same way.
What we all to often have are social and political clubs, that at best, function like fun-loving senior centers and inclusive PTA's and fraternities who sometimes have members who sometimes have moments in God's presence while sometimes attending their events.
Ok, ok. I'll let up before some of you go getting too pessimistic and tell your pastor that the Christian singer told you to quit church. There are three positives that readily come to mind when I think of the condition of the church.
One. This is nothing new. "Church" "religion" and groups of Christ followers have been screwing up for years. The Israelites. The Catholic crusades. The Christians who stood by and participated in the Holocaust. The TV evangelists. The materialistically, exclusive churches in the rich suburbs. And the bigoted, hateful churches of the south. And the thousands of churches and denominations (in all corners of the world) living between the extremes who blithely exist simply because... you know, that's what they've always done. Everyone is Greek Orthodox. Everyone is Catholic. Everyone goes to community group. Everyone sits through communion. Everyone goes to church camp at least once.
Whether it is the church functioning as the murderers or as the funeral home, I take hope in the fact that we are not the first generation to reduce God's community of followers to such low lows. History repeats itself.
Second positive I see? History does not have to repeat itself.
Third positive I see? Beyond the churches that are doing harm or doing nothing; there is another kind of church. I have seen it. With my own eyes. I have seen it in California. I saw it in the Netherlands. I have seen it in Chicago. I saw it once in an amazing worship service in Slovakia. My friends have seen it in Congo. And it is happening in small churches and communities across the country. I see it brewing in my own church. There is a movement of people, faith communities, cities, even some nations who are passionately rejecting religion for the sake of religion and desperately seeking God's face.
There are bands like the Parachute Band from New Zealand who are not interested in being on the radio (even though they are incredibly talented, marketable, guys who could make a lot of money off of it) but instead are genuinely seeking to introduce God and worship to as many people as possible.
LifeTeen through the Catholic church who are, in so many inventive ways, leading students into developing their own meaningful relationships with Christ.
The Emergent Village, The Simple Way, Rob Bell, Beth Moore, Rick Warren... the list goes on and on. The church universal has glimmers of authentic Christ-centered passion, beauty, and hope. Perhaps more than the church has ever had.
Rick Warren says this about the church on his website:
There are villages that have little else,
but they do have a church."
And he continues, "The Church is the most magnificent concept ever created. It has survived persistent abuse, horrifying persecution, and widespread neglect. Yet despite its faults (due to our sinfulness), it is still God’s chosen instrument of blessing and has been for 2,000 years.
The Church will last for eternity, and because it is God’s instrument for ministry here on Earth, it is truly the greatest force on the face of the Earth. That’s why I believe tackling the world’s biggest problems – the giants of spiritual lostness, egocentric leadership, poverty, disease, and ignorance – can only be done through the Church."
Simple. Pure. Beautiful. Divine.
Whether your church has ten people or ten thousand... it is God's instrument. To go in and out of a "church building" each week without experiencing God (sometimes without even trying to or even caring whether we do), without engaging with the Holy of Holies, without connecting and journeying with others on a personal, meaningful, spiritual level (not just: how was your week, what do you think about the Cowboys? pray for my dog), and without passionately aspiring to God beyond the walls, color, creed, and safety of our own churches to be an agent of change in the world is a tragic misuse of God's house. Tragic.
And I see it all too often.
So my question today on Tough Topic Tuesday is to... Honestly evaluate your chosen place of worship. Your church.
Shane Claiborne says in his book The Irresistible Revolution that too many people complain about the church yet do nothing to fix it. So he endeavored to stop complaining and start acting. That left him homeless, on the streets, living with tons of other people, sharing his food, his car, his bed, his health insurance, and now he has written a book about it all and continues to be a part of the change that I believe God so desperately wants to see: Christians who actually have passion for Him.
So the real question I pose for myself and for you today is this... what are we doing to fix it? Not the staff, not the politics, not the carpet, the worship style, or the gossiping divas that the church would be so much better without.
What are we doing to be a part of, to encourage, to initiate, to demand, to usher in the spiritual hunger and thirst for Christ himself in our churches?
And if we are doing nothing to this end, if you are doing nothing to this end... then why go?