For many of us, Who We Are describes an elect people, possessed of the only sure solution to the challenges facing our community, who have handcuffed themselves to the twin altars of ritual and tradition. An impotent, defeated society-in-a-bottle, our chests swelled with the conceit of an elevated class while paradoxically indulging in grim hypocrisy. Are we the church Christ died to create?
Your average six year-old has no idea
how to negotiate a 30-year variable-rate mortgage. Nor should
she. She's six. Her biggest challenge should be matching socks.
The scope of our adult's vision is far wider than your average
six year-old's. That's why we adults are charged with seeing to
the welfare of the children. By the time we're 30 we've carved
out a functional diagram of Who We Are, and we've settled into
it. Challenges to Who We Are are to be resisted at all cost. Of
course, the scope of God's vision is far wider than your average
30 year-old's. There are things He wants to show us. Things He
wants us to know. But, we're not six. We're thirty, and nobody's
going to grab us by the collar and drag us into doing what we
don't want to do. Who We Are is safe. It's safe because we
created it. We decided Who We Are, so there's no mystery or risk
involved. For many of us, Who We Are describes an elect people,
possessed of the only sure solution to the challenges facing our
community, who have handcuffed themselves to the twin altars of
ritual and tradition. An impotent, defeated society-in-a-bottle,
our chests swelled with the conceit of an elevated class while
paradoxically indulging in grim hypocrisy. Our conversations
fueled by gossip and personal attacks. Coolly snubbing gospel
R&B group Mary Mary's street-level urban sound as “worldly”
while planted in front of the Trinitron watching Dennis Rodman
We've so obscured the line between tradition and scripture that we can no longer find it. The church has always been twenty years behind the times. It is now The Acceptable Standard Of Things. Of Hairstyles. Of Clothing. Of Music. Of Modal Worship. Of Liturgy. It is anachronism as liturgical bellwether, where the goodness or, dare we say, holiness of most any noun or adverb is judged by the cobwebs stringing from it. Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal— go nuts, you'll find the pious factor of most any denomination is predicated upon just how Ancient of Days these holy men can sound; by how cryptic and ultimately encrypted the Word going forth from the pulpit can be.
And it's just ridiculous. It is a capitulation to The Great Lie that God is some abstract thing up there, somewhere: someone unknowable and unreachable and far too busy to concern himself with our needs, thoughts, hopes or fears.
The de-clawing of the black church is a systematic and time-tested recreation, and we're far too afraid to move beyond Who We Are in order to even see the cruel gridlock of do-nothingness we've settled into, or the hypocrisy attached to our defense of the Status Nothing and continued refusal to keep pace with the society we're supposed to be ministering to. Taking a cold, honest look at Who We Are and trying to honestly find where all the lines go is a difficult process. It requires us to risk everything. Everything we believe in and know to be true has to be laid on the line as we examine ourselves and open ourselves up to examination.
We need to approach God and ministry as blank slates, as a people with only one question on our minds: How Can We Please God? And listen— really listen— to the answer that comes back. In practice, however, the game is more like, we decide Who We Are and, armed with that information, comb through the scriptures over and over until we find something somewhere that justifies, supports or validates whatever we think is right.
The worst thing a detective can have is an opinion. A detective needs to approach his case work with no particular investment in the case's outcome. For, if he already has a thought about Whodunit, he'll tend to only look for that glove behind OJ's house and not even consider other clues and other avenues of thought. If you open the bible with your opinions already cemented into place, you are, pretty much, wasting your time. The Word will not speak to you if you are not listening.
Just because you don't like rap does not make rap an invalid art form for worship music. Look through the scriptures all you want, you won't find a single admonition against hip-hop. There needs to be a certain elasticity of common purpose among believers: patience with each other, especially with the young. Respect for cultural and generational differences, but room enough within your body of believers and, frankly, within your heart, for everyone to feel welcome and at home.
The chief reason we have churches on every corner (or, so it seems) has nothing whatsoever to do with God. It's about us. About Who We Are, and about our terrible affliction: the fear of the unknown we cultivate as we age that typically manifests itself in inflexibility and hostility, especially towards the youth.
Every day, many of us take some wording (particularly archaic King James wording) out of context and warp it to suit whatever part of Who We Are that we are desperately clinging to. This is a perversion of God's Word and serious bad news. To be so unbending, so unwilling to daily examine Who We Are that you'd twist God's words to suit your own agenda is borderline fascism. It's cult-like. It's Jim Jones.
It's fear. A crippling fear that drives men to kill, both physically and spiritually. Women, most particularly, are prone to this kind of insecurity, which often sends them scurrying to the telephones, destroying lives literally overnight in a wildfire Ebola gossip outbreak. Most gossip is fueled by fear. Mocking someone requires energy that could be used for much more constructive purposes. The only reason someone would waste their time talking about someone else, let alone paying to talk about someone else via telephone, is that the gossiper is getting something out of it. Getting a little buzz, a little endorphin rush. Like the sharp bitter tingle you get at the first bite of a chocolate bar. And many people, women most particularly, become addicted to that rush. To the momentary flush of elevated self-esteem. To the primitive comfort we take in knowing we're better than someone else.
Gossip is anti-moral, anti-scripture, and, ultimately, anti-Christ. Gossip is fueled by fear. A Christian has absolutely no business being afraid of anything or anyone. A Christian with crippling low self-esteem is, to my thinking, not a Christian at all and maybe needs to check out Buddhism or TM or something. It means this gig ain't working for you, likely because Christianity, regardless of how you prefer to practice it, universally requires us to step outside the comfort zone of Who We Are. This exercise is called faith, and, sadly, too many of us have too little of it.
Jesus was crucified for challenging Who We Are. For the equivalent of playing hip-hop music. He was sold down the river for the biblical equivalent of a fistful of lottery tickets and a ham sandwich. For daring to break the rules. The religious people of His day, so unwilling to move beyond Who We Are, plotted his death rather than to take his words to heart.
Challenging Who We Are is painful and risky. Who We Could Be involves faith, hope, and trust; all abstract concepts and all more than a little scary.
But We Could Be patient. We Could Be flexible. We Could Be inclusive. We Could Be less afraid. And, as a result, We Could Be more loving. We Could Be more giving. And We Could Be much happier people and more productive in our faith.
But first we have to let go of Who We Are.
Christopher J. Priest
14 August 1997
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