We have washed our hands as the war on drugs has overwhelmingly targeted black men. We have washed our hands as our justice system has given longer sentences to people of color. And then, when an innocent man dies, we keep scrubbing our fingers some more, as we blame the victim.
After years of wrestling, I settled in a predominately white church. My logic was this: if every white person concerned about racial justice leaves white churches, then there will be few women or men there to help. This Sunday, I worried that Ferguson or other police shootings of African Americans would once again go unmentioned in the sermon or a prayer.
My mind ventured off to the Contemporary Christian Music concerts I attended with my youth group. CCM was taking off, and evangelical teens had a mass of buying power. In my home, my mom would pay for any CCM that I wanted.So I listened to the music and even attended Disney’s Night of Joy. It was a magical evening in the kingdom. As Michael W. Smith sang in front of the Cinderella’s Castle, girls in the audience would raise their hands and scream, “WE LOVE YOU, MICHAEL!”
I often hear the term “cafeteria Christian.” It is a description of our current religious milieu. People pick and choose what’s important to them in their faith. It’s usually said with disdain—and a bit of eye-rolling.
Theologians, who construct systems of belief, want to think about theology as a whole. They are afraid that a generation is going to come along and jettison a couple thousand years of careful thought in lieu of what feels good to them.
In The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton entwines rich characters into the stunning landscape of historic New Zealand. Catton constructed a fascinating view of vocations, economy, and culture, while employing a unique structure that waxes and wanes with the moon.
Many times we are working with church structures of a different time. I have seen churches with 50 people attending on Sunday morning, and they maintain 12 committees. There may have been a lot of retirees in the church, so we have committees who meet in the day. Or there might have been a lot of people without children, so everyone meets at night—on a different night, to ensure that the pastor is at every meeting.
I had been a pastor long enough to know that outside work was done with stealth. I could serve at the soup kitchen, teach art at the women’s shelter, protest against violence, or hone my writing craft, but I when I did it, I acted like a lover with a jealous husband. I snuck around at odd hours and guiltily confessed to members when they asked me where I had been.
I stood in my bedroom, pacing. I was on the phone with my mom, scribbling notes on a sticky pad. I had tried to weave together the story of my life and found so many gaping holes that only she could fill.
The last time my family visited New York City, we stopped by a board game coffeehouse. We played Pandemic, which allowed the three of us to work together to stop widespread disease from taking over the planet. It took a bit of skill and a bit of luck, but we did it.
When I served a church with a columbarium, I imagined where I wanted my ashes. It’s morbid, I know. But it’s a professional hazard. It’s the sort of thought that we have when we bury people so often. I want to be spread in nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I want to become a part of the life and soil of the pulsing ground.
If you’ve been fired or forced out, it doesn’t always mean you need to fold up the cloth all together. It’s incredibly painful. We might feel a spiritual rejection that we’ve never experienced. We may have a loss of identity. Betrayal might become wounds that are so deep that we don’t feel like we’ll be able to love a congregation again. We may feel abandoned by God. But sometimes we just need to need to endure the ache, walk through the rejection, and find a place where our gifts can flourish.
It is a subtle shift that we make in our liturgy and preaching. But it’s an important one. We do terrible things and we must confess our action. But we are good. We are made in the image of God. And in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven people.
The point is, I wonder if this might be a time to remember that God was present in the temple and the tabernacle. I love architecture. I love soaring structures and hope we can find uses for them. But I also realize that they have become a tremendous burden for many congregations to do the sort of love-your-neighbor work that they long to do. Are we moving into a moment when we need those tent pegs in order to be led where God wants us?
There’s something very refreshing about being able to laugh. It disarms the situation and takes away the power from the critic. It reminds me not to take myself so seriously. It gives me perspective on the situation. It helps me not to hate myself, because otherwise I’d be crying or drinking. Or, I’d be stuffing it down into my gut, until the toxicity becomes ulcer-sized.