Wednesday, September 5, 2007

tear down the idols - if you've got the balls

At the Methodist church where I began my ministry as a pastor, there’s a heated discussion going on about not having the American flag in the sanctuary. I'm sending this pastor a lot of love and prayer. Not support necessarily, but prayer. He needs it. He wrote a 2-page article in the church newsletter explaining to these nice whitebread suburban conservative East Texas Methodists why it’s the right thing to do. Here’s the weird part: he’s right. Theologically, the idea of having no idols or graven images is clear. Huge, actually – the idea of God’s people never bowing to any earthly nation – scripture seems pretty clear about not having any other allegiances than to God. The prophets struggle with the people of Israel to get them to quit worshiping Baal and Astarte; the early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” as a direct refutation of the Roman greeting “Caesar is Lord.” So, yeah, theologically, the American flag doesn’t belong in the sanctuary of God.

And here’s why I don’t think he went nearly far enough. If you're going to make huge shifts like that based on a theological principle, then don’t pick and choose. Go all the way. Commit. (This is me calling the last bet put on the table. I’m figuring that last bet is a bluff, or at least ill-advised. So, I’ll call.)

If you're going to take all the idols out of the sanctuary of the church, then get with it. In fact, purge the church itself. Not the campus, but the whole thing. Step up, balls out. Get rid of:

  • American success-obsession. Praise the kind of people Jesus hung out with: scum who know they love God. Desperate people. Hungry people. Train wrecks. Put them in positions of leadership. Get rid of the bankers and lawyers and businessmen who run the committees. They're part of American groupthink. That’s its own false idol.
  • Fancy buildings that cost millions of dollars. Let anybody use the campus for free.
  • Sacred cows. The church parlor, the carpet, the pews, the Advent and Lent and Easter banners. The Christmas pageant. The pastor having the largest office and the ultimate say. Rearrange which Sunday School class has what room – just for fun, to take away anyone’s attachment to anything that feels like it’s mine.
  • The staff. Just get together and hang out and follow Jesus together. If someone wants to work for the church, that’s fine and helpful. But it’s not a requirement that a group of people following Jesus have a staff, or pastor, or organist.
  • Reverence for the denomination. UMC pastors aren’t members of the congregation; they're members of the Annual Conference, appointed by the Bishop. The ultimate rule is the UMC Book of Discipline. Fuck that. Jesus didn't invent that; people did. It’s not God.
  • Worship of heroes of the faith. John Wesley was just another dude. So was Luther, so’re all the Popes, so was Mother Teresa. Just a person. No big.
  • Reverence for worship forms. Let anybody take communion. Let anybody lead communion. Don’t get caught up in liturgy. It’s just words. Change worship up all over the place. It’s just a way to connect to God. Pastors: take off the robes. Church folks: take off your ties. God isn’t impressed.

There are these kinds of idols in every denomination and church system. Bible churches – what’s the idol? The Bible. Baptist churches – what’s the idol? Baptism and salvation. Catholic churches – what’s the idol? Eucharist. Episcopal churches - what's the idol? Liturgy. What’s an idol and what’s not? Anything I think is as important as God is an idol. “As important as God” means, This is the right way to experience God and really no other understanding but ours is the right one. I can hear Jesus now: "Didn't I say to get rid of all that shit?"

Oh, and, here’s why this is a bad idea on a completely practical level. Don’t take the American flag away from East Texans. That’s like pissing on their mother’s grave. They also don’t like questioning America or President Bush. There’s no “Keep East Texas Weird” bumper stickers.

So, I don’t know how that pastor will live through this one. It may be the hill he has chosen to die on. One seminary professor told us, “You’ll have only so many opportunities to be crucified in ministry, so choose them wisely.” The pastor's two-page letter may work in convincing his parishioners that it’s the right thing to do, or it may not. If this were important to him and he wanted to be involved in meaningful community, he might’ve done better just to sit around and talk to people and listen to people and pray with anybody who wanted to be part of a discernment process. There's no hurry. Sometimes it takes a long time for us to get our own shit out of the way. There's nothing that has to be decided in a hurry - unless someone's starving, or naked, or sick, or in prison. But then, if the hundreds of millions of Christians really were about only following Jesus, then those problems wouldn't exist.


CoachPeacock said...

This one is a tough one to comment on. Its hard to think about removing the flag from the church without your brain going into 'political' mode. Part of me wants to shout out.. YEAH.. if they want to take the church (in the best meaning of the word... meaning taking FAITH out.. not religion..) out of gov't, then we should take the gov't out of the church. Part of me also wants to say 'well if they are just wanting to have the flag there to remember that our country is a free country and the flag represents the unity of its people who fought for the God given right to worship as we see fit, then its just showing appreciation', then thats ok to. But when people get more upset and outspoken about removing the flag than they would about pastor telling them they are they are all not worthy of Christ then there is something wrong. I can honestly see a congregation really soaking in the words of a pastor telling them they are not worthy, and instead of protesting that, they all would just leave with their heads hanging low. But God forbid someone suggest moving the flag. Someone would yell out loud 'BURN THE HERETIC!!!' Why would people be so willing to defend their nations flag but fail to defend their own salvation someone in a costume?

In regards to your comment 'if the hundreds of millions of Christians really were about only following Jesus, then those problems wouldn't exist.', here are the words to a song that brings that up. Pay particular attention to the chorus:

It's crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces
The girls teasing laughter is
carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road


Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ


Jesus is the way

KJ said...

woa, dude. Several years ago, I thought you went waaaaay out on a limb during Bible waved the Bible around like a rag doll and said (many times),"THIS is not what we are to worship." Silently, I cheered and at the same time thought, "Oh, sh***t. Oh no you didn't say that outloud."

Your boldness has been stepping up a notch or 2....hmmm. Warrior King works well for you.

You're my hero.

Rick Diamond said...

awwww kj - what can i say. i'm just too damn old and mean to try to keep from being crucified anymore.
okay, that's not totally true. i am surrounded by a beautiful group of lovely people who accept that they're all golden and also all full of their own junk. that's a big part of how i can have the courage to say what i've got to say. and part of it is because i've done a lot of work on looking at my OWN junk, and i'm still learning, still learning, still learning ...........
and i think that there's something really important going on in a discussion like the one i refer to in this entry. i am ALL FOR honoring this country where we can worship freely. this beautiful country full of goodness and good dreams and hope. this country where millions of people do their very best to just be the best person they can be every day. i'm all for honoring that. i do honor it. my grandfather was killed in world war II so i'm in. my point is not whether to have the flag in the sanctuary; my point is, don't pick and choose. want to tear down the idols? tear em all down. the flag isn't the point.
or, if our hearts are really in the right place, and our heads aren't too full of our own shit, and we can get past our egos, then something amazing can happen: we realize that all things are gifts, and put them in their proper perspective, together, in community. painful, chaotic, crazy, goofy, beautiful community. this pastor chose not to do that. hey, no community is perfect. we know that. but i think about how the buttons this man has pushed are going to take everyone INTO their own shit, not help them out of it, and it's all over something that isn't the point anyway.
what is the point? love.

Rick Diamond said...

you're dead right. the church in general pushes what it thinks is best, and people swallow it, and a lot of it is just toxic human invention stuff, and nobody calls em on it. but people get all up in it about moving the flag from inside the worship space to the lobby? (which is what happened there.) come on! get it straight.
love the song lyrics. right on!

nonprofitprophet said...

You know from an early age I've always had this image (it came to me in high school while visiting a friends church. Okay, it was a hot girl i was trying to date, but whatever) of a pastor behind a pulpit facing a congregation. But the pastor was a Goat in a Suit and the congregation were all a bunch of sheep dressed up...and they were doing whatever the Goat said. "Repeat This Creed" and they did. "Sing this Song" and they did. "Follow this Doctrine" and they did. If I could paint - I would paint this image in my head on a canvas and put it on the wall. I think people do swallow to much of what a preacher puts out behind the bully pulpit. I dont want a preacher - I need a pastor.

Anonymous said...

On behalf of lawyer/American groupthinkers everywhere, all I can say is:
Bite me.

P.S. - You're not wrong. But bite me anyway.

Rick Diamond said...

a hot girl a young man is trying to date is a great way for the Spirit to catch his attention ...
i think you've put the image out just fine. powerful.
hey, if we act like sheep, we get what sheep get - fed nice green grass, put in a pen, sheared, slaughtered, eaten - as soon as we've bred more baby sheep for the farmer to do the same thing to.

"pastor" comes from the same word as "pasture," related to "shepherd" - what you want is not a preacher, a farmer who brings in the flock to flock em over, but a true shepherd who's there to love the people.

me too.

Rick Diamond said...

you couldn't be lawyer american groupthink if you tried. not anymore anyway. neither can i, anymore.
how liberating it is to have one's life go wild on ya. i mean, it sucks. but at least we're free.

if you bare it, i'll bite it ...