Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Out of the Gutter: But Why the Church Can't Just Go "Down the Middle" Either

This little analogy of a man trying to go bowling without understanding the point of the game is an attempt by me to illustrate the perennial mistake each generation of men and women in the church makes when they forget that God wants us chiefly to love (a la John 17 and St. Augustine). Instead, we split and divide in a default attempt to avoid the idea of uncleanness and impurity. We do this, not in a good way, like amoebas and other single-celled animals, but in a way that diminishes us and our witness each time we do it. We are not left as two complete wholes when we divide; we remain broken halves of a beautiful wholeness that God desires for us. It is what the religious authorities did in the very presence of "Love" Himself. By our avoidance, we avoid the chance to love boldly. 

And mere compromise is not the way to remain one. In this analogy, a ball straight down the middle will not give you a strike. There needs to be a dynamic, energetic "spin" on the ball, and a throw to the right or the left of the lane until the "spin" carries the ball energetically through the middle at the first pin where there is great effect...and almost always a strike. This "spin", I believe, is love. This love enables us to cover more of the "lane", so to speak, which is the whole of our existence, with no one left out.

Please reconsider this slightly revised older post. It is a runup to a restart on this blog after a bit of vacation. And an attempt to address our problem in a positive way. When I saw a picture shared on Facebook by John Zahl, showing Muslims holding hands around a Coptic Church in order to protect Christians from radical violence while they held mass, I couldn't help wondering where that attitude is between us of competing factions in the church. As one commenter posted: "The Kingdom comes. And it seems people are always holding hands when it does." 

He Didn't Know Any Better

Once there was a man who came down from the mountain to the small town below. He wandered into a little  3-lane bowling alley and thought he might try his hand at bowling. "What do I do?" he asked the sleepy attendant. "Take these shoes, here's a pencil and a score sheet. And of course go find a ball you like." The mountain man put on the shoes, found a ball and sat at the bench. He did not know what to do with the ball, so he looked back at  the attendant who lazily motioned toward the lane. The mountain man noticed the grooves on either side, and noticed that they were the perfect size for the diameter of the ball. So he threw the ball right into the gutter. Down went the ball alongside the lane. Then it landed next to the pins at the other end and disappeared. The pin machine automatically lifted the pins and set them down again. He thought to himself he must have done something right, because they lifted up and down and a couple of lights flickered and flashed. He didn't have to wonder very long where his ball went, because, moments later, it appeared in the ball rack, all ready for another throw. "This is pretty easy," he thought to himself. And rolled the ball back down the gutter. He wondered about the point of the game, but it was such a perfect system, he felt pretty confident that he was doing it right. He paid for his game, gave back the shoes and left. The following week, the mountain man wandered down to the bowling alley again, and threw another 10 gutterballs, each time getting the ball back on the conveyor like clockwork for another throw. He got bored after awhile and left. "Sure is nice the way those heavy round balls glide so smooth down those grooves. But there's got to be more to this game." The mountain man never did learn the point of the game, because no one ever showed him what true bowling is.

The Gutterball of Division

There are four, or maybe nineteen jewish sects, depending on how you count it. In Jesus' time, there were different groups within Judaism, but they formed a whole: Pharisees, the rigid lawyers, Sadducees, who were less rigid with the law and more adaptable to the culture, the scribes, who were interpretive  teachers and copyists, the Essenes, who were ascetic and cloistered, the Zealots, who were militant, the priests, who were invloved in the temple and sacrifices, the elders, who were local council and synagogue leaders. The Herodians were loyal to the government of Herod. Other than some of the Zealots and Herodians, all these had different functions, and stressed different viewpoints, within Judaism, but were more or less part of a whole.  And whenever the Jews got off-track in the Bible, God always called them back. The call was rarely to "come apart", except to leave Babylon, or Egypt or some other idol-worshiping culture in which they experienced captivity. The call was never for Israel to split, although geo-politically she did into two kingdoms.

By contrast, there are reportedly roughly 41,000 Christian and non-Trinitarian Christian denominations and sects in the world. It is so finely divided that there are 11 different sects of  "Footwashing Baptists" alone. While many of these denominations do accept one another as members of the Body of Christ, many others don't, and require re-baptism, or some other accession to certain doctrinal points in order to be deemed righteous, and therefore "legitimate".

This, in the face of Jesus' most impassioned prayer to the Father that we be "one", is a sad, sad testament that our default position as Christians seems to be that of splintering, rather than being in union with one another. IT IS AS THOUGH, LIKE THE MOUNTAIN MAN, THROWING A "GUTTERBALL" IS ALL THE CHURCH KNOWS HOW TO DO. It seems at least since Corinth that we have forgotten how to play the game. As with the gutter, which fits the bowling ball so perfectly, it can seem that the most natural thing in the world is to start there with the gutter of schism.

When we in the church tire of one another's doctrinal errors, mistrust one another or experience stretching and growing experiences through some sort of change-agent, separating seems to be what we're best at, rather than reserving judgement, listening, praying together, entrusting ourselves to one another and working it out.  When doctrinal purity is the goal, splitting is inevitable, because everyone's doctrine changes over time. The only way to remain pure is to come apart.

But whenever groups gather around a common purpose (not a doctrine), but a purpose like providing clean water to African villages, or food and shelter for the homeless, or strength for the addicted, people of very different ideology can come together and experience love. This can't last long, though, because before long, we talk of our "beliefs", either political or religious, and we find reason to mistrust. And back we go into the gutter.

The Whole Point of Bowling

The whole point of bowling is to avoid the gutter, knock down the pins with the ball and make strikes. But you can't just go straight down the center and hit the middle pin dead center, either. That way you will plow through the middle bunch of pins and get a dreaded wide-angle split, with the pins at the extreme right and left still standing. The best players know how to use the whole lane. It is fascinating to watch them lay the ball down with a spin near the center of the lane. Then the ball "bends" out to the side near the gutter, only to bend back toward the center with some degree of force, hitting the middle pin in a way that sets it to spinning. It's like an explosion, and every pin is blasted down and away.

The church cannot seek merely to split the middle. Not enough of life is touched. But a dynamic, spinning church, energized by love, with enough flexibility to bend both left and right, covering all of life and not a narrowly-defined segment of it, can fulfill its true purpose, and bring glory to God in the eyes of a watching world.
Avoid the gutter, bend a bit and be energized with Love. That's how you play the game.

Chris Huff +

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