Last night I went to see an old friend. She's a songwriter, and she'd asked me if I could stop by and help iron out some issues with the music to some lyrics she was writing. Afterward, she invited me to sit and visit for a bit. What I anticipated to be a short spell of catching up (I don't see this friend very often these days) turned into an engaging 3 hour discussion on life and faith. When someone asks me "What have you been up to these days, Lew?", well, it's just a great big can of worms. She's been through some rough stuff herself, and she was intrigued by much of the ground I've been working over in my own journey.
She and I share the same church background, having been members of the same little country Baptist church for significant segments of our lives. In her case, her family's involvement in this particular church goes back a long, long way, across several generations. In my case, I'm not necessarily Baptist...it's just what's out here in the boonies, and while I disagree with them on a lot of stuff doctrinally, they're good people who have a genuine love for God. In the last couple of years, particularly since I've started writing, I've distanced myself from them - for their sake as much as my own - to avoid that dreaded question, "What have you been up to these days, Lew?" They simply wouldn't understand.
I began to ask her a lot of the same questions that I ask here on this blog. Questions of the "Why do you believe this?" and "Why do you believe that?" variety. Her answer was often, "You know, I've never really thought about that. It's just what I've always been taught." She agreed that asking some of these questions might get me carried out on a rail at the little church we've both been a part of. It's a church that's often hung up on sentiment and tradition. Simple, country people. I've long contended that if you were to sing two or three songs in a row about "Mama" there (such as "Mama Needs No Marker, Jesus Knows Right Where She Lays"), you could follow it up with "Rocky Top" and they'd still be three-deep in the altar and shouting. It's always fascinated me.
Some things about the way we do "church" need to be examined. We need to know WHY we do them. Things like...
Where, in any book of the bible, are we instructed to make the pastor's "message" the centerpiece of a Sunday service? While I think teaching is an important part of any pastor's role in the church body, it seems to me that other areas of supportive ministry are equally as or more important. I think making the pastor's sermon the centerpiece is what leads to branding and the rock star mentality of many...and it's a man-made tradition.
"Let us all stand in honor of the reading of the Word of God" - Anyone ever heard a pastor say this before he reads the text on which his sermon is based? Every time I hear it, I have this overwhelming compulsion to stand up and say, "Whoa, whoa, people...Does ANYONE here stand up at home when they read this? Then why are you making a big fuss out of it now? Do you think it impresses God or does it actually make you a hypocrite? If you're gonna worship the bible, be consistent with it. If you're gonna make a fuss about standing here, do it at home when no one sees you, too."...It's a man-made tradition.
Why do churches put the pastor's name, often/usually prominently, on all of the marquees, signs, and advertising? If he's a solid pastor, and if he's performing as a minister should, wouldn't/shouldn't he be just about the LAST person you'd notice? Why don't these signs include the name of the least obscure member of the congregation? You know, the person no one would notice being absent if they stopped coming for a month? Why not THAT guy? Or, why not Sister Ethel who makes that god-awful meatloaf and brings it to the dinner on the ground (or, for those of you not in the south, the "potluck")? Or why not that poor family in ragged clothes who can't afford the amenities the rest of us have, and sometimes they smell a bit strange? Why not them?...Traditions of men.
How about the old hymns that have no real meaning of substance? Being from the bible-belt, I've been in about a bazillion churches where they still use the "old red-backed hymnal". Yes, there are some good old songs in there, and I don't begrudge anyone singing them. The problem is, there are some monumentally stupid songs in there, too. "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" anyone? I've heard people shouting during that song. Yes, shouting. If I'm ever in that position again, trouble-maker that I am, it'll take every bit of self-control within me to keep from saying, "Whoa, whoa, stop for a second, folks...Can someone tell me what "that old-time religion" is? No? Then why are you singing this nonsense? And you, over there next to the window...Why in the world are you "shouting"? You don't even know what any of this means, dude. Geez."...Traditions of men.
So many pastors, from those in little country churches to popular types like John Hagee, refer to the church building as the "House of God". That's bullcrap (pardon the blunt language), and in many ways creates an idol, or at the very least creates fertile soil for idolatry. It needs to stop. WE ARE THE HOUSE OF GOD. The veil was torn when Christ died on the cross specifically so that we could intimately commune with our God, and so that His Spirit could take up residence IN US. Every time a speaker calls a building of bricks, mortar, paneling, and carpet the "House of God", he or she sews a stitch back into the veil...It's a tradition of men.
On Facebook the other day, a friend asked a question on her status whether people would be supportive of Donald Trump running for President on the Republican ticket. Most of the responses were predictable, along the lines of "No! We need godly leadership!" Uggh. They don't even know what that means. Do they mean a Christian who relies on the values of his or her faith?...because the Religious Right and dominionist camps won't be satisfied with that. While I'd prefer a President who has a personal relationship with Christ, I'm gonna vote for the most qualified candidate, regardless of whether or not they wear their faith on their sleeve to please and appease any segment of the base. Frankly, given the current group of goofballs we'd have to choose from, Trump might just get my vote if he runs. Too many people rely on empty concepts of "godly leadership" that they've heard over and over.
When we're ritually exposed to this kind of thinking and behavior, it easily becomes commonplace in our own thinking and behavior, and it shouldn't be there at all. It's what causes so many to become indignant and seemingly deeply offended when a Rob Bell comes along and asks the
Tradition breeds insecurity because it's shifting sand. Shifting sand proves to have no integrity as a foundation once the wind begins to blow against the structure.
Why would any of us want to build on it?