Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Myth of the Perfect Church

The hunt for the perfect church is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or trying to find the Fountain of Youth. It is trying to get your three wishes just right from a disinterested genie in the bottle. It is the search to get something for yourself that is magically delicious. It is a fabled and mythical journey for something that is supposed to answer some deep and aching questions about what it means to be human and spiritual and who God is.

Questions of Humanness: We have a lot of questions as humans. We want to know what it means to be human. We want to understand the meaning of life, our place in this life, and how we make a difference. We want to know what to do with our bodies, our minds, and our passions. We want to know what it means when our bodies, minds, and passions don’t agree with each other or go in directions that make no sense or are embarrassingly selfish.

Questions of God: Who is God? What is God doing? How does God relate to us? To me? How does God communicate? How can I understand this communication? Is God completely good? Completely powerful? Completely willing to act? Does God even know what is happening? If God is good, powerful, and willing, then why ___________? We have lots and lots of questions about God.

Questions is Spirituality: We have questions about what it means to be spiritual. How does this life in flesh connect to the divine? What happens when we die? Is there really an afterlife? Are the spiritual life and life in flesh one in the same? Different? A mystery to remain unresolved?

There are places we search for answers to these questions. One of these places is church.

Let me be clear: The search for the perfect church is a process that hinders these questions from being answered. It is impossible to answers these questions in a socio-spiritual context when the requirement for a church is perfection. The bar is just a little too high.

The search for the perfect church may be more a demonstration of theological and social procrastination than it is a legitimate pursing of the real and weighty questions of life. I avoid these weighty questions by pretending to find a place to ask them.

In the search for the perfect church, what will be found is far from perfection. Instead of perfection, you will find the following three things:

Messy people. People carry with them their moral blemishes, relational aches, and broken assumptions. We all do. We all come from families of origin that have their stories of pride and stories of shame. We carry within us secrets that we hope no one ever finds out and accomplishments we hope everyone finds out. We have beautiful moments of sacrificial kindness and ugly moments of blinding narcissism. We carry in us an inconsistent bundle of mixed motives at varying levels of self and other awareness into everything we do and avoid doing. People in churches are a mess.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Are the people here perfect? If perfect people are a requirement for church, then no one is qualified. The search will never end.

Instead, we come to learn more of what it means to be human by being with a lot of humans who are acting human, living human, and performing humanity as it is – imperfect. How could anyone answer the big questions of humanity by hanging out with a bunch of perfect people – humans acting inhuman? The perfect place to seek the understanding of humanity is with imperfect people.

It is in relationship with imperfect people that we can seek answers to questions of humanity.

Messy theology. It took me 20 years to accept that the theology into which I was born was flawed. It took me another ten years to accept that all theologies are flawed. I was on the hunt for the right theology, the right way to understand God. I failed to find it. I have so many critiques of the beliefs of the fellowship to which I belong. There are contradictions, blind spots, omissions, and systematic problems that are impossible to individually or collectively resolve – at least not quickly. And yet with a theology, there is something in place with which to wrestle. We have a framework of understanding God which can be shaped and molded – which shapes and molds. We come to increasingly better understandings of God in wrestling with a theology.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Is the collective belief system perfect? If a perfect belief system is a requirement for church, then there is no church qualified. The search will never end.

Instead, we find that learning about the nature of God does not come so cheap as a systematic theology. God is not so small or simple that understanding could result from a set of propositions. What we find is that we come to understand God in seeking to understand God together. When scripture, experience, each other’s stories, and inspiration collide, new understandings of God emerge.

It is in imperfect theology that we can pursue questions about God.

Messy practice. How a church implements its beliefs is sometimes even messier than its beliefs. There is a theology of equality, but some blatant violations of that theology. There is a theology of simplicity and the practice of too much consumerism. There are mission efforts implemented with good heartedness that sometimes resemble colonialism. We want to be pure in doing good, but we are not pure. Sometimes the  implementation simply falls apart. And yet, in the practice of moving beliefs into action, we find the link between humanity and the divine.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Is the ministry this church does perfect? If perfect practice is a requirement for church, then there is no church qualified. The search will never end.

Instead of perfect practice, we are perfecting our practice. If the move of God in this world is a process of redemptive motion over time, then the idea of perfect practice is at best premature. What does it mean to be spiritual? It means improving our practice, it means participating in the redemptive motion of God to better the world in which we live.  We find spirituality might be defined as performed goodness in the world. We might find that spirituality is that divine nature we all have that puts into redemptive motion the animal nature that we all have.

It is in imperfect practice that we can pursue questions of spirituality.

Finding a church home is certainly an important task as you are in a sense, casting your lot with these people. And there are certainly churches to avoid as they are fronts for absolute corruption (Westboro Baptist Church). However, if the search for finding a religious body to belong to turns into the hunt for the perfect church, then there will be disappointment that may fester into cynicism and even a crisis of faith. The big questions of life will go unanswered or at least not answered as well as could be.

The hunt for the perfect church will prevent the discovery of the good enough church. It will prevent being situated in a socio-spiritual context meant to pursue answers to the big questions of life.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I Would Be Happier if I…

Pursued wisdom more,

Confronted myself before others had to,

Confronted myself before I hurt others,

Constructed redemptive meaning in all things,

Forgave more, 

Gave people less cause to have to forgive me,

Invested more effort into the changeable,

Released worries about the unchangeable,

Had more confidence,

Had less arrogance,

Spent more time unplugged and in nature,

Spent more time with people I love,

Created more,

Gave more to those who have less,

Soothed my own aches rather than assign them to anyone,

Felt it an honor to receive critique,

Withheld unproductive comment, initiative, and efforts,

Made meaning from pain,

Became good at holding together paradox, ambiguity, and uncertainty,

Held my life in tune with my faith,

Quit deflecting and rejecting compliments.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Harding University - A New Era

Harding University played an important role in my life. I enrolled as a Freshman after my junior year of high school. It was Fall 1987, the same year Dr. David Burks took the lead role as president of Harding. I was immature, eager to escape from something to something else, and severely undercooked. I needed a place to belong and Harding provided exactly what I needed. It was an exciting time and President Burks made a significant impression on me - a good one.

At age 17, I entered Harding with an eager faith, but a fragile faith. I needed so much help, and there it was awaiting me at Harding. I loved my Bible classes with Jimmy Allen, Neal Pryor, Jim Woodruff, and James Walters. I loved chapel. I loved peak of the week with Mike Cope and really appreciated Harding for letting Mike do his class in the Administration Auditorium and then in the Benson. I loved my social club, the English Department, the kindness and patience of Larry Long and Dennis Organ. I loved being the RA on 3rd floor of Keller dorm. I loved doing skits with Conquerors and going on spring break campaigns. I loved that I had friends when my heart broke. I loved that learned how laugh hard, play hard, ask hard questions of myself, God, and the church. I learned that God would be there for me no matter what. I learned that grace was more powerful than what I could muster up in my efforts to be right about everything. I look at my years at Harding as the single greatest span of positive spiritual development and spiritual formation in my life.

I count Harding among one of my successes - quite possibly one of the best choices of my life. I believe that I was guided there by God, that my experiences were Spirit led, and that I graduated from Harding not having lost faith, but rather deeply nurtured it. God is doing so much more at Harding than some of its theological statements let on.

I love Harding and have tremendous respect for how God used it in my life. The leaders there are sincere in their devotion and prayer.

I wish the best for Dr.  McClarty, for Harding, and for all the students who are there and will attend in the McClarty years.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

David & David: A Theology of Infidelity and Redemption

I’ve already heard the comparisons on NPR radio between two great military leaders: General David Petraeus and King David. A reference is made to II Samuel when King David was supposed to be off to war, but outsourced the work to General Joab. Maybe David was bored, maybe he was contemplating life, or perhaps he regretted not being out fighting and leading as he had always done so well. Whatever the case, he noticed Bathsheba.

After much hailed success in strategizing the wars in the Middle East, David Petraeus has been head of the CIA for a while and not so connected to military operations. It was during his time as CIA chief that the affair occurred. Seems like a similar story of Davids up to this point. However, the similarities end here. The Petraeus affair and the King David affair are very different in quality – King David’s being much worse. Neither of them is in any way acceptable, but each is redeemable.

In her book, “A Woman Called,” Sara Barton offers a shocking interpretation of King David’s affair with Bathsheba. There are various interpretations of the story, but a common one is that Bathsheba strategically situated herself to be seen by the king and essentially seduced him (she’s bad) and the king in his weakness gave in to her seduction (he’s bad). Seems fair – two people behaving badly. She’s just as a bad as he is.

Barton offers up an interpretation that grinds the traditional interpretation top a nub. It wasn’t an affair, it was rape. Rape. The word itself is hard to stomach. It is worse connected to revered and honored King David. It is hard enough to endure his affair. We find ways to bypass murder. But this is rape. When you thought it couldn’t get any worse – it’s rape. We can contort it all we want – it wasn’t violent rape - it wasn’t forcible rape (or was it?) - it wasn’t fill in the blank with mildly soothing modifier rape. It was rape rape. It was sexual relations with another person against the will of the other person.

We can’t hide behind “well, things were different back then.” Was God different back then? God is now, was then, and forever will be 100% and completely against rape. Rape is the most egregious violation of the gift of sex.

Is there redemption for the rapist? My kneejerk reaction is, “No way in Hell!” Scripture may show a pathway, but it isn’t easy.

In Psalm 51 we find King David as broken as a person can get. He’s begging for mercy. He knows his sin as it is so clearly laid out before him. He is humiliated, contrite, and broken. He is a suffering man. He is man who will suffer the rest of his life because the consequences are lived out in other people’s lives, in other people’s deaths, and in the undeniable and unfixable soul knowledge he has. His only redemption is sustained surrender, humility, and vulnerability and firm commitment to accept whatever consequence come his way. He did not opt out of consequence because he was king.

The affair of David Petraeus has significant consequences as well, but perhaps not as longstanding as David (The Petraeus affair will not be record in scripture for all eternity). His affair has ruptured his marriage, betrayed the trust of millions who saw him as a paragon of virtue, and perhaps set a nation’s security at higher risk. The consequences live large and are never going away. My hope for this David is that he can learn something from the other David about a pathway to redemption.