Monday, May 7, 2012

To Be Or Not To Be The Church: A Time To Live And A Time To Die

Last Sunday, in a small desert town in Arizona, I delivered a sermon which I imagine would offend some good people I know. It would offend people of good faith, people I respect. So I feel the need to explain myself. A sermon speaks mostly to the heart and that is only half the story. This essay speaks to the head, to explain what lies behind the feelings I shared and why I believe it was important to share them. This post concludes with the sermon. First, the explanation:

It is fashionable today to espouse contempt for the institutional Church, to work to dismantle it in the expectation that once the Church is gone a more authentic spirituality, uncontaminated by religion, will spring up. I believe this idea of Christianity after religion, a faith without a faith community, is a pipe dream. The stories, traditions, music, rituals, and symbols of a religion provide the language in which religious experience can be expressed from one person to another and thereby shared. But more than that, it takes such a language (comprised of story, ritual, etc.) to make any experience, including religious experience, coherent and comprehensible. Rene Jules Dubos (A God Within) has made that point more persuasively that I could. But here’s an example:

I recently saw an art photograph by Robert Park. It was a picture of a waterfall. Pretty enough, but there was something more to it. Park explained what he saw in the picture. Anyone could see three boulders in the lower right corner, a large one, a slightly smaller one, and a substantially smaller one. In these three rocks Park saw a father and mother holding a child. Anyone could see several boulders in the lower left corner. Park saw in them a group of people coming to visit the newborn child. Anyone paying close attention could see in the rock face above the boulders a pattern of indentation in the rock wall behind the water fall. Park saw in it the form of an angel watching the holy scene below.

I submit that Park could not have seen these images without a heart level familiarity with Luke’s Nativity Story; and that such a familiarity does not come from having read it once, but from some connection – even an estranged connection – to a community of people for whom the ritual retelling of that story is a constitutive, group identity forming ritual.

There are experiences we cannot interpret, process, retain, or even acknowledge without the framework of religious symbols lived out and enacted in community. That is why 19th Century Europeans were apt to have visions of the Blessed Virgin but not dancing Dakinis, while Tibetans of the same era saw Dakinis and not Mary.

The loss of institution eventually entails the loss of ancient story, the loss of symbols that shape us instead of merely expressing an idea we have made up in our rational minds. Deinstitutionalization is part and parcel of the progressive “disenchantment of the world” to quote Bruno Bettelheim. Whether we sell the buildings and declare “the Church on 2nd Avenue dead” matters deeply to the future of the human soul.

So why is the institutional Church suspect? First of all the Church is the safest institution to suspect because it is the most dispensable institution in our utilitarian framework. We hate institutions – somewhat rightly, somewhat wrongly – for reasons I will get to momentarily. But most of them we are stuck with. They serve practical functions. Since the rise of industrial capitalism we have measured value by utility, practical utility. That philosopher Joseph Pieper said utilitarian measure of worth is what led to totalitarianism in the 20th Century. It has devalued art, music, literature, and above all faith. If we still want faith, we may try to do it on our own, but the Church is not necessary to make our computers get on line, to keep the traffic flowing, or send our benefit checks. We hate government, schools, and Wall Street, but we know we cannot do without them from a utilitarian standpoint. So the chief scapegoat for our anti-institutional ire is the dispensable Church.

But what are institutions and why do we despise them? In his magnificent short book, On Thinking Institutionally, Hugh Heclo says (I am paraphrasing simplifying) that institutions are networks of people committed to each other and bound together by  shared commitments to values passed down from the past and entrusted to us to bequeath to the future. They are the context of committed relationality – to be distinguished from capricious relationality as endorsed by Fritz Perls’ immortal aphorism, “I am not on this earth to meet your needs. You are not on this earth to meet my needs. If perhaps we find each other, that’s beautiful;” or Glenn Campbell’s “It’s knowing that my sleeping back is rolled up and stashed behind your couch . . . that keeps you ever gentle on my mind”  --  that is to say relationality that is whimsical, shallow, and usually ephemeral. When we institutionalize our relationships by making commitments rooted in a reverent regard for the past and a hope of the future, then we engage in relationships that are inconvenient precisely because they challenge our egos and change us at the deepest level of our being.

Why then are we anti-institutional? Current literature sounds as if the Millennials invented suspicion of institutions. But Gen-Xers tell me they are anti-institutional. Baby Boomers went to the barricades against the system. Remember Donovan Leach’s sardonic recitation of the forces of oppression “i.e. the church, i.e., the school, i.e. the government.” Before the Boomers,  the Beats and the Bikers rejected institutions. De-institutionalization was a watchword of Vatican II in the 60s, Harvey Cox wanted to junk the institutional Church in 1965 (The Secular City), and Bonhoeffer was dreaming of a “religionless Christianity” in the 40s. This is a lament and protest that has been beating for generations. It deserves attention – deeper, more thoughtful attention than it is getting from many of us, even those who are gleefully setting about to take the Church apart.

There are psychoanalytic explanations for our ambivalence about institutions in general and the Church in particular. But they are reductionist, unpersuasive to those caught in the ambivalence, and to use those explanations would be to act out the very dehumanizing quality of institutions that people rightly resent. Better to start here: Something has gone grievously wrong with our institutions – all of them – “i.e. the church, i.e., the school, i.e. the government” – for generations. Who is to blame? A lot of people, but I intend to pick on Isaac Newton.

Why blame a devout physicist? Because he gave us the mechanistic model of the world. He gave us the culture-shaping paradigm of mechanistic determinism which eventually manifested as behaviorism and then neurological determinism in our understanding of human beings. If we understand each person mechanically, then what are we to think of groups of people? We came to see institutions as power structures, like great industrial machines in which we were cogs. Institutions were themselves dehumanized and became dehumanizing in turn.

Which of us does not have stories of our own humanity being co-opted or dismissed by an institution for its over-riding and generally impersonal agenda? The Church has not been an exception. Every time a priest has snapped at a nervous acolyte for handing him or her the wrong piece of cloth, a precious person has been sacrificed to an impersonal institutional agenda. Every time issues of faith and feeling are resolved by parliamentary procedure with motions, seconds, and votes producing winners and losers, that is another. Every time a church leader looks on a visitor and sees a potential pledge unit, Sunday School teacher, or building and grounds chairperson, that is yet another. Every time a church says “We need some young adults. We need more children. We need. . . . We need . . . . We need . . . .” the Church betrays its servant soul and becomes a devourer of human beings.

Our institutions are still stuck in that archaic mechanical model – archaic since quantum physics discovered that reality, even physical reality, is at its deepest level interpersonal, interconnected – not mechanically, but organically. The universe is not a machine. People are not machines. And human institutions are not machines – though we have molded them to act as if they were.

In their seminal work, Presence: An Exploration Of Profound Change In People, Organizations, And Society, Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers say that there is a fundamental difference in a machine and an organism. In a machine the parts are all different from each other and can be replaced by an identical part that was not previously integrated into the machine. But a human cell is a different thing entirely. Each human cell contains the DNA of the whole person. It is not a cog. It contains the whole within each part – rather like a hologram. But the cells are differentiated in function. There are eye cells, hand cells, foot cells (remember Paul). Only malignant cells fail to differentiate.

The parts of a human body participate in an organic whole while retaining their individual nature and role. There is something distinctly human about it. It is also rather like the Trinity which the Church is intended to represent. Unity and diversity held in a dynamic tension. What are the implications of this organic view of the world, the person, and the human institution? I  don’t know. I honestly would not dream of doing more than suggesting a few tentative possibilities:

What if the Church did not see its survival as its purpose but rather took seriously the mission of spiritual and social transformation – nurturing and catalyzing, without dominance, force, coercion, or manipulation, the process of growth and creativity in individuals, groups, and other institutions?

What if the Church stopped forcing square blocks (people) into the round holes of our institutional needs – we need priest here, a deacon there, a treasurer here, an altar guild worker there. What if instead of manipulating people into the jobs we dreamed up before we met them, we explored the talents and passions of the people and let ourselves be reshaped – organically – to fit them instead of molding them into cogs of the machine?

And what if when we do challenge people to grow, to develop new strengths and passions for service, we did not do so to get them to meet an internal institutional-survival need, but rather to address the human needs of the community outside our walls?

What I am asking broadly is: should we kill the Church or humanize it? Once we understand what institutions are for – when they are true to their reason for being and have not betrayed it by calcifying into static power structures – then it appears that dismantling our institutions is about as life-giving as most divorces. When a marriage is bad enough, one has to leave it. But does one leave a bad marriage or does one leave marriage itself? There is a vast difference. Marriage itself is a context that deepens love, grounds it, roots it, nourishes it over the years. Just so, the Church – when she is true to her calling – does that for the spiritual bonds among people, spiritual bonds which are essential to truly human life. The Church, for all her failings and all her betrayals of her true nature and purpose, has made my life richer and more human. Hence, this sermon:

Today we celebrate a Confirmation.

In an infant Baptism we celebrate God’s unconditional love.

We don’t get to choose whether God loves us.
We don’t get to decide whether God accepts us.

We are the beloved children of God

            -- forgiven, redeemed, treasured and cherished
                        – like or not.

But we do get to decide how to respond to that fact.
Confirmation is how we express that response.

God invites us to respond to divine grace

            by joining together in a bond of love,

            by taking our place in the family,
            by accepting our role as fellow ministers in the mission.

Today it runs against the grain of our culture to join anything.
If a group of people organize themselves for a common mission,

            if they make commitments to each other,

                        we call that an “institution” and we say
                        “Who wants to live in an institution?”

Nowadays, everybody’s “spiritual,” whatever that means.

But nobody is “religious,” because being religious
           means you have to get mixed up with other people,

            and people are hypocrites, judgmental, superstitious, naive.

They are too moralistic or not moral enough.

In other words, they are human.

And truly spiritual people are too – well, too spiritual –

            to dirty their hands with a shared faith

                        or a common mission.

20 years ago when I was a priest in Georgia,
            everyone belonged to a church            

            whether they believed anything or not.

But today in the American Southwest,
            it takes guts to join a church.

In this place, at this time,
            Confirmation means something

                        – something special, something brave.

Today’s lessons are perfect for Confirmation.
In Acts, Philip tells the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus.

And the Eunuch says, “Ok I believe.

            Therefore, it follows as the night the day,

 I want to join the family of believers. Baptize me.”

A thousand years before Philip, the Psalmist wrote today’s Psalm,

            “My praise is of him in the great assembly.
             I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.”

Of course the Psalmist went out into the country and found God in nature.

Of course the Psalmist prayed in solitude and found God there.

But instead of keeping his private spirituality all to himself,

            he joined with the family of faith

            to praise God “in the great assembly.”

Nearly half a Century after Philip, St. John wrote his famous letter
            about what it means to belong to a family of faith.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.
Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God;. . .

Whoever does not love does not know God . . . . .

Anyone who says ‘I love God’

            and hates a brother or sister is a liar.

for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen

            cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

St. John says it clearly and repeatedly,
            Christian faith is not an idea about God we have in our head.

It’s a commitment from the heart to God’s children,

            the human race starting with our family of faith

                       and spreading out to all people.

The love John means is not an emotion, but a commitment

            like a marriage vow.

You will hear those vows today,

            – to continue in the Apostle’s fellowship,
                        the breaking of bread and in the prayers

            – to seek and serve Christ in all persons
                         loving your neighbor as yourself

            – to strive for justice and peace among all people

                        and respect the dignity of every human being.

This Christianity isn’t an opinion in our head.

It isn’t a feeling we have when staring at a candle

            or listening to praise music.

It’s a way of life – a way of life ordered by a commitment

           to other human beings.

Is this family of faith we call the Church perfect?
No. It isn’t perfect. It is human.

The Church is flawed, fallible, people stumbling along as best we can,

            but stumbling along together.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus says,

            “I am the vine and you are the branches.”

When we join the family of faith, we graft our souls

            into the Spirit of Christ. That’s the vine.

We like the vine just fine.

Loving Jesus isn’t hard.

But what about all those other branches?

Those other branches are the problem.

The other branches, our fellow Christians,

            may irritate us, may rub us the wrong way.

Our fellow Christians may do bad things.
They may embarrass us.

But where do we look for Jesus?
In the Bible, yes – but look at those vows again.

Where do we look for Jesus?

We  “seek and serve Christ in all persons . . . .”

We promise to look deep into each other’s hearts,

            to look deeper than each other’s faults and foibles

            to see the Christ light glowing like an ember or a tiny flame.

Anyone who claims to be “spiritual”
           -- anyone who claims to love God and Jesus,

                       but hates his brother or sister

            – anyone who is too good, too smart, and too cool
                        to get mixed up with those Church people hasn’t got it.

St. John says he is a liar.

We seek Christ in the face of our all too human brothers and sisters.

As we consider today what it means to be part of this family,
            I want to share three things from my experience.

When I became a Christian again at age 30,

            I had found Jesus in prayer and sacrament.
I didn’t have much use for the other people in the Church

            but I decided to put up with them

            since they were part of a package deal.

There’s a saying, “The problem with inviting Christ into your life

            is that he brings his friends.”

The second part of my experience is that I have done
            a lot of spiritual practices over the years.

I have done long and arduous meditations.

I have fasted, prayed, and spent weeks on solitude.

But the hardest spiritual practice I have ever done

            is seeking and serving Christ in my fellow human beings.
I did it for the love of Jesus and sometimes it was hard.

But here’s the third thing.
When I sought Christ in those all to human brothers and sisters,           

           that’s where I found him.

Being a part of this all too human institution,

            the Church, the family of God,

            has been the most beautiful, the most meaningful,

                        the most truly life-changing experience I have ever had.

This rickety temple has been my home
            and I love it with all my heart.

So to our newest member, I say welcome.

To those who have been here all along,

            I thank you for being Christ to me.

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