Monday, September 5, 2011

San Diego road trip

This won't be my typical Sunday church review/recap. This weekend I found myself down in San Diego, attending a memorial service at the same church that essentially disowned me (see the inaugural installment of this blog for the basic details). The notion of returning to that place filled me with dread, apprehension, anger, and fear -- so I knew I had to do it. The person being remembered was the husband of a coworker who had been very supportive of me, and returning to the scene of the proverbial crime, I was deluged with others who had supported me as well. Ironically enough, I felt pretty amazing as I left the memorial.

What I keep forgetting -- and this weekend served as a terrific reminder -- is my removal was asymptomatic of the larger problem the church was facing and continues to face. By all indications, their numbers are not good, and not all of it can be blamed on the economy. And if you'll permit me. I'd like to take some time to address the larger issues facing churches today.

The way they stand, the majority of churches are simply not relevant. Society has changed, beliefs have changed, the entire planet has changed -- but religion is either stuck at the dawn of the written word or has ignored the past in a desperate attempt to feebly grasp at the present.

The first issue, that of being stuck in the past, probably smacks in the face of all of my previous ranting and raving about how much I enjoy the traditional aspects of worship services. What I admire in traditions are their connections to history, but a connection to history does not mean we overlook everything else.

If I have my history correct (and I probably don't), the Council of Nicaea met somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century, and it was this council that laid the groundwork for how Christians would worship for the next 1800 years. Even the Reformation caused by Martin Luther didn't impact churches as greatly as the Nicene. That tells us aside from some cosmetic changes in language, a few dropped books of the Bible, and an extra line in the Lord's Prayer, Christianity hasn't been united enough to keep up with the world.

Imagine if a modern council met featuring religious scholars and leaders from every faith to review, discuss, and debate how things have changed. As one small example, most western nations have a distinct separation of church and state, but Christian doctrine has never evolved from the time when religion was the law of the given land. Also, 1800 years ago, it might have taken someone weeks, months, or years to journey to a region with different beliefs, but now people of different faiths live next door, and we can access anyone in the world via technology. Why aren't there large-scale adjustments being made to Christendom, to account for new ways of living and communicating?

The folks who are stuck in the past will quickly contend there are choice passages in the Bible that cover every scenario that might come up; if they are correct, they have failed to convince me of this. They have also failed to convince me that the New Testament is the last set of Divinely inspired words. More than a millennium has passed since we accepted something as having been penned by God -- did he run out of ink? I have read some prophetic words by everyone from Shakespeare to Joe Campbell, but we can't entertain the notion of potential Divinity, because all that matters is what came long ago? This leads us to the rut many churches are now in, specifically that anyone who embraces something new must therefore be rejecting something old.

The flip side of the coin are those churches who seem to want to remove history from the equation -- those who believe tradition is for squares. After all, they contend, Jesus was a rebel. In their eyes, if Jesus was alive today, He'd be sporting tattoos and a pierced nose. So these churches reject all connection to what came before, embracing only the new. They are casual to the point where the word "organization" doesn't really apply. "Come as you are, nothing special about us or what we're doing, just be the best you that you can be" seem to be familiar mantras in these settings. Herein lies the rub: Because the Bible -- because history -- doesn't address all our modern issues, these ultra-modern churches believe it is better to set it aside as something that is quaint but out-of-date. In the two months I've been visiting churches in Hollywood, I've already encountered a few that didn't feature Bible readings in the worship service. I've encountered churches with no religious iconography -- no visible indication that Jesus even exists in their lives.

Both types of churches are juvenile. That is not hyperbole; they are acting like spoiled children, and they are doing so at the expense of the souls they claim to be trying to save. One child is closing its eyes to the present, and the other is closing its ears to the past. Both need a spanking.

As a school teacher, when I ask a question, one of the most refreshing answers I can receive is "I don't know." It implies a level of trust and honesty that few students are willing to offer up. Frankly, I don't think the church leaders of today trust us very much. The truth is, they don't know what God really looks like. The truth is, they don't know how He'd respond to the plurality of beliefs found within the borders of the United States. The truth is, they don't know -- when inconsistencies or omissions exist in the Bible -- what the truth is. But they are not honest enough to admit that. And they lack the courage of their conviction required to form a council and work through the last 1800 years of evolving civilizations.

I love my iPhone and my iPad. I love the ease of communication, but mostly I love the freedom of media. I can play any song at any time, in my car, through headphones, or connected to some kick-ass speakers. It is a very modern miracle that so many songs can be stored on a device so small, and as technology continues to develop, the devices will get smaller and the miracles will continue. However, I love my record player. I love the tactile experience of pressing the needle gently onto the spinning vinyl. I love the occasional pop as the needle encounters debris in the grooves. I love the connection I feel as the record plays -- a connection to those who played it before me, as well as a connection to the artists themselves who had to decide what order of songs told the best story. The record had its limitations, but it also seemed more personal and more purposeful. There is room in my heart for the old and the new.

The truth as I see it is the church that rejected me is stuck in the past -- though they have made changes, they are largely cosmetic and smart people tend to see through that. But God was there, in that church; of this I am positive, if for no other reason than God would seem to be everywhere. But a select handful of people are refusing to open their eyes; until they do, the church's days are numbered.

Having said that, I went back to San Diego. I walked back into a church that rejected me, and I felt loved. More importantly, I felt God. Driving back to Los Angeles, I was treated to an amazing light show as lightning crashed all around me, filling the night sky -- not exactly a burning bush, but I couldn't help but believe He was trying to send a message to somebody, as long as they had eyes to see it.


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