Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do Churches Get in the Way of Worshipping God?

The Old Testament reading for this past Sunday at my church is one of the key passages for understanding the whole Bible.

In 2 Samuel 7, King David decides that it's unfair for him to have a palace to live in when the Ark of the Covenant (which represents the presence of God) is housed in a tent and he sets his mind to build God a temple in which to live. But then God speaks through Nathan the prophet and tells David, "I don't need a house to live in. You won't build me a house, but I will build you a house." (By the way, this lesson is the Semi-continuous OT reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for you liturgy nerds.)

By saying this, God establishes David's line as the royal line for eternity. This helps seal David as one of the great heroes of the Old Testament and help legitimate the ministry of Jesus years later because he comes from "the line of David." It's powerful, awesome, God-is-generous stuff.

But just last week I was made aware that there is something more than God's kindness at work in this passage. One of the commentators in the sermon podcast I listen to mentioned that there is also a 2nd Commandment issue at play here.

For those who don't have the Ten Commandments memorized, the second commandment is "You shall make no idols or graven images." It's purpose is to remind God's people that we only worship God, not anyone or anything else.

So what do idols have to do with building a temple? The suggestion in the commentary was that God's concern was that building a temple would lead people to worship the temple instead of God, or to believe that God lives exclusively in the temple, therefore limiting their understanding of the true God (who is a bit bigger than any one building).

This made me think immediately of modern church buildings. Most congregations in North America own a building in which they worship. And with buildings comes responsibilities and maintenance. Utilities and maintenance are a large part of many church budgets. The Property Committee is often a mandatory (and sometimes powerful) presence in the congregation. Maintaining a building takes a lot of time and energy.

At the same time, many, many congregations in North America are shrinking, making maintaining buildings (especially older ones) harder to do. Many congregations make hard-fought efforts to keep their buildings working. And most of that is admirable, but after thinking about 2 Samuel 7, I also wonder: how much of that effort is for the sake of God and how much is for the sake of the building?

Because I have met people who talk about their love for their church, how long they've been there and say something like, "I can't imagine having to go to another church." As if they would have trouble finding God outside of that building? God didn't live in one building in the time of David and God doesn't do that now. And neither does the Church that bears Christ's name. I remember learning in Sunday school: church isn't a building, it's the people.

Let me be clear that I love church buildings. I don't think churches should abandon buildings. And I love architecture. A well-designed building can help point us to God.

But they cannot be God.

And that's the point and the concern of 2 Samuel 7. There are many wonderful things -- buildings, traditions, rituals -- that serve to point us toward God, but that's not the same thing as being God. If we make those sacred things equal to God, or become convinced they are the only way to know or see God, then we are breaking the second commandment. If my faith is dependent on a building, or a pastor or teacher, or a specific type of music, then what is my faith actually in?

The temple was later built by David's son, Solomon. Years later, it was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt. And it was destroyed. Since 70 CE, there has been no one temple in Jerusalem. But God hasn't disappeared. God was still active during the Exile between the two temples and has been since. We lost a great building of worship -- twice -- but it failed to kill God or the church.

Sometimes it helps me to be reminded that we can lose an awful lot without ever losing God's promises.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“You take away my firm belief and graft my soul upon Your grief.” -Jars of Clay, “O My God”

Friday, July 10, 2015

What Do We Mean by Forgiveness?

In the wake of the killings at Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC, I've had a number of conversations with people who were surprised/moved/confused/encouraged by the family members of the victims who publicly forgave the shooter just days after the tragedy. There has also been a lot of commentary in the media about their statements, with some people applauding the families and others chastising them because they believe such acts of violence or racism itself should never be forgiven. Others have made statements like "it's fine that they forgave him, but I would never forgive someone who did that."

Forgiveness is deeply tied to Christian theology. By my count, Jesus talks about forgiveness about 30 times in the Gospels. He includes forgiveness as a key part of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12), and tells his disciples to forgive others "seventy times seven" times (Matthew 18:22). He famously cries for forgiveness for those crucifying him from the cross (Luke 23:34) and we even say that the very point of Jesus' ministry and death is to forgive us from sin.

At the same time, forgiveness is often misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike and those misunderstandings can stand in the way of the healing and freedom that God means for forgiveness to bring. In light of Charleston, it may be helpful to define what forgiveness is and isn't.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.
We've all heard the phrase "forgive and forget." It's a nice sounding proverb, but it's poor theology. It's next to impossible for us to forget ways we've been hurt and that's usually good, because remembering past pain can help us avoid being hurt in the future. (I don't touch hot stoves because I did that once.) So while God promises to "forget" our sins (what that means exactly could be a whole column or book), that's an unrealistic standard for humans and tying the two together can lead people to think they can't forgive because they still think about the pain sometimes.

Forgiveness is not excusing the sin or crime.
This is a big one and deserves to be repeated: forgiving is not excusing the sin or crime. It's important because many people often equate forgiveness with letting someone off the hook. But no one in the courtroom in Charleston was suggesting that what Mr. Roof did didn't matter or wasn't awful and no one was suggesting he shouldn't face (severe) punishment from the legal system. The victims' families spoke eloquently about the pain and damage that was done to their lives that cannot be undone. I've tried to teach my kids (and myself) not to say "It's okay" when someone apologizes to them and instead say "I forgive you." That's because it's not "okay" to hurt someone. Sin and violence are not okay. They can be forgiven, but they should not be excused.

Forgiveness is not really even about the perpetrator.
People will sometimes say, She doesn't deserve forgiveness. or He didn't ask to be forgiven, so why should I? Often these people think that the only just response is to continue being angry or hating the other person until they've "suffered enough." Whether or not someone wants or deserves forgiveness is beside the point. A wise person once said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison hoping it will hurt someone else. Hate and anger are consuming powers and they can come to define and control us and if they do, we are in some way letting the object of our hate have control over us. This perspective assumes that forgiveness is a gift to be given to the perpetrator, but it's primarily a gift you give to yourself.

This is where we get to what I believe forgiveness actually is. The best definition I've found for forgiveness is making the decision to not let the pain you've experienced control your life anymore. Mr. Roof walked into that church hoping to spread hate and fear and chaos. When those victims' families forgave him, they were saying, You failed. You cannot make us hate. You cannot make me fear. You cannot destroy my life. Forgiveness is sometimes dismissed as a kind of weakness, but those families demonstrated that forgiveness is an act of strength and bravery.

It should also be pointed out, perhaps, that there is one more thing forgiveness is not. It is not easy. Often it takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. So it's important to note that what happened in Charleston was extraordinary and powerful, but it should not be used as the expectation for all situations. To force someone to forgive before they are ready doesn't do any good. It can become a kind of victim blaming and compound the pain and alienation someone may be feeling. Forgiveness should empower a victim and therefore must be his own decision whenever he is ready to make it.

That said, when we do find the time and power to forgive, we release ourselves from a bondage that someone else put upon us. Rather than "giving in," forgiveness is an act of liberation, of new life. One might even say it's a kind of resurrection.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“And the baggage that we all carry around has this way of dragging you down.” -Bill Mallonee, “The Kidz on Drugz (or Life)”