Saturday, May 3, 2008

A hollowed holy church

No I didn’t walk through the pond again this week. Yes I did do my Sunday morning walk like I always do. Out to the top of the ridge where the big old pine and the young maple stand at the intersection of paths. This time instead of doing the loop that would take me back to the edge of the pond I simply took half of the path back and forth where I could skirt the edges of the flooded water.

I don’t like retracing my steps. It’s much more metaphor-like to circle back to the starting point –bringing new insights to the place I left. Going back over the same ground feels more like getting into a rut. But you never know what you might have missed on the journey there that’ll show up on your way back.

I was wrestling with the story of the Apostle Stephen found in the seventh chapter of Acts. Stephen was a gifted speaker and teacher. He had the common touch and he healed many hearts and dis-eases. But there was a dis-ease that he couldn’t cure. There were some who loved their status and power as God’s keepers and became ill with jealousy. The people were attracted to the God that Stephen presented in Jesus. A God who loved to love them. Jesus seemed more attractive than a God who simply loved to be loved – and was never satisfied. Those who were in charge of loving God didn’t like it.

So the Priests hauled Stephen into the temple courts. “He teaches about Jesus who said he’d destroy this temple in three days!” they claimed. Rather than trying to untangle their twisting of words, Stephen goes straight to the heart of it. Starting with Abraham and walking the crowd through the story of the Patriarchs to Moses, he talks about the problem with religion.

At first, the Priests listening to him think he’s one of them. He knows the law, he knows the story, he knows where they’re coming from. But into the story of how God gave the people of Israel a special place and purpose – how he gave them the law and the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon where they now stood – Stephen also weaves into the story the anti-story. He tells of how God warns them at every step of the way about how the purpose of religion will become twisted by the power of religion. God sends prophets to release the wild and untamable power of God’s healing and right-relations among the folks who need it most.

The prophets steal the words and symbols the Priests use to keep the people coming to them - and scatter them like seeds among the people to work freely and powerfully among those enslaved by the judgments of priests. When the people are sure of their unworthiness before God, they become a captive market. Coincidentally their lack of personal worth keeps wages low and personal power in check. Those who benefit most from cheap labour keep the priests in robes and temple repairs. Only the Minister really knows how to pray. Only the organ is sweet to God’s ears. Only the theologically-trained can pull meaning from the scriptures.

Is it any wonder that Minister’s might become convinced that God doesn’t act? That Jesus can’t jump from the grave? That God is really only alive in the community that they are responsible for gathering? It’s been a long time since God’s wind and fire swept through. The keepers of the temple forget why they’re there. Forget they are there to proclaim a powerful, healing, creative, unfettered, un-imaginable God who sends prophets to release the captives of religion and reason and theologians. Powerful intellects who love their own ideas more than the untamable hope of God for an impossible kingdom heralded by impossible acts of restoring body, soul, and right-relations for every sorry soul – every single creature – every hurting part of what God is creating with us. Without us, God waits and hopes and sends prophets and healers and visions of new beginnings.

Stephen holds a mirror up for the Priests to take a look at what they’ve done to Jesus in the same pattern of their forefathers. He knew what he was doing. He knew that the pattern would not be broken. He knew, just as Jesus did, that the love of power is too strong for spoken truths. That the only way to water the seeds of a new kingdom is with the blood of those who love the potential waiting with the poor more than their own place in that kingdom.

On my way down from the ridge, I left the beaten path to skirt the pond’s edge and had just started up the hill back towards the path when ten yards in front of me I noticed it. A old gnarled tree trunk struck out at a 45 degree angle. It was only ten feet from root to top. The rest of the tree was gone. Except that from the end of the stump – held up in the air by the stump - grew two good sized trees straight up. Put your elbow on the table hand palm up. Now lower your hand until it’s only eight inches from the table. Your fingers point to the ceiling. You get the idea right?

I had to get a closer look. I whacked my way through the underbrush until I was close enough to see that this tree trunk – seemingly on it’s way down to the forest floor – too big to wrap my arms around – was also hollow. I slowed right down. It seemed a perfect place for a critter to winter. There were some wood chips in the hollow. Signs of activity and I didn’t like the idea of surprising a porcupine – or anything else that might jump out – causing my heart to jump out of its skin.

So I announced my arrival. Don’t remember what I said – something appropriate to the occasion I suppose - and stepped closer – timid – fearful – afraid of this vision of my church and times.

There are seven healthy new trees coming from the same root system as the old trunk. And there are also the two new trees growing straight up from the end of the hollowed trunk. Lots of food and power beneath the surface here.

It seems a miracle that these two trees – branches really - can be fed from a hollowed out core. Of course the new life comes up through the outer bark edges of the trunk and not up through the core. What does that say about our church? We are so sure that it is the core and tradition of the church that sustains the new growth. Is it really the core theological statements from which our new church grows? Or is it the outward expressions of that faith – the proof of grace received – that makes it grow?

The seven trees grow from the same roots as the old trunk. These are the new expressions of the traditional church. Interesting that there are seven churches in Bobcaygeon.

So, are these new branches suspended by the old trunk something different altogether? What is God trying to show me? Are you still with me reader? It’s getting kind of deep – and I’ve been pondering this one all week. What is at the core of the church that we can do without?

Is this a vision of the kind of church that Gretta Vosper and Progressive Christianity are growing? A church without an exclusive Jesus-centered core? Hollow out a supernatural God and remove the risk of superstition getting confused with inspiration? Maybe this is the kind of vision that Peter got –remember the blanket of forbidden foods - that took him beyond an exclusively Jewish God?

I could ditch a patriarchal Big Daddy in the sky God . I could ditch a punitive God hung up on moral judgments that scare people into heaven and out of the church. I would love to see a church that reflects the diversity of cultures – drawn from different ages, races, and economic classes. A church with a hollow core waiting to be filled with all kinds of ideas and influences would be exciting. A taco waiting to be filled with something different each week.

But the sap that feeds the leaves comes from deep in the earth. It is a spirit that moves through the edges of church structures – in the halls and kitchens and children’s rooms. It’s something that people can take with them wherever they go and find wherever they are.

What is the sap that keeps you growing?
What could you do without at the centre of your church?

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