Last week I attended a retreat for Presbyterian clergy in which I was asked to present a little talk on the “nuts and bolts” of how I was able to guide a congregation to integrate more inclusive, contemporary music with a diversity of style. As an assignment prior to the retreat, we were sent a little book by John Kotter of Harvard titled, “Our Iceberg Is Sinking.” It was a cute little story of penguins living on an iceberg on the South Pole in which one penguin discovered the iceberg was sinking. It story was a metaphor of the sinking iceberg of the church, Christianity in general and Presbyterians in particular. I was only there for a morning so I didn’t get in on the prior day’s discussion (I had to prepare for our vacation in Florida leaving early Wednesday!) but I did see various reasons why participants felt the church iceberg was sinking. They were printed and hung there in the room on a newsprint stand. At the top I believe were the words, “Presbyterian Tradition.” A few lines below were the words, “Presbyterian Beliefs.” I couldn’t agree more.
There is a tendency to try revitalizing a congregation’s growth and participation by doing many other things rather than looking at traditions and beliefs. It’s as Jesus is portrayed in the Bible when he tells the synagogue leaders in Matthew 15, “You have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” And then he added, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (KJV) Earlier the same leaders are shown criticizing Jesus because he and his followers were not washing their hands properly prior to eating, “Thus transgressing the tradition of the elders.”
The temptation in taking another look at worn out and meaningless traditions and beliefs is to try dressing them up with more glitz and so-called relevance. Yesterday I visited a local Presbyterian Church here in Florida which had big projection screens in front and back, a nice sized contemporary band with worship leaders all dressed in ordinary clothes. One looked as though he had slept in them the night before. The music was hip and easy to follow with a variety of instruments. I thought of my work for years at Wayside with several of the same kind of performers. But then my wife saw an announcement on the projection screen declaring that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman, taking a direct slap at brothers and sisters with a born different sexual attraction. Then the “message of the hour” included a short “cute” video clip of a popular mega church success leader making fun of people who used language to describe their spiritual experience different from their “specifics.” These specifics include the Bible as the literal Word of God, Jesus as the only Son of God, the Apostles Creed as the specific truth of the Gospel and evangelism as getting people “saved” by having them make a profession of Jesus as their Savior through his blood flowing on the cross to atone an angry, justice-demanding God in heaven. To me it felt like putting frosting on a cake make of mud and then eating decaying debris. I thought of the sign at the retreat, “The iceberg is sinking due to our beliefs.” Yes, yes.
Most of our present Christian beliefs were set in the 4th Century when leaders, aided by the power of the Roman Empire, whose Emperor had just recently converted because a sky cloud portraying a cross had helped him win a battle, wrote down the “fundamentals.” As one wise teacher told me years ago, “Creative thinking was shut down for centuries under threat of expulsion, excommunication, or as fuel to burn wooden stakes.” Until recent times, free questions and thought about the validity of ancient traditions and beliefs were stifled. In 1901, a young, bright theological student, named Albert Schweitzer, wrote a paper and later a book called, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. He was immediately expelled from seminary so he switched to medical school and gave his life to helping Africans discover more modern methods of healing and hygiene.
Wonderfully, in 1985, a group of scholars, supported by the Westar Institute, gathered together to pledge themselves to the pursuit and study of the historical Jesus along with traditional beliefs in what was called “The Jesus Seminar.” Remember how every “holy week” they came out with the prior year’s studies, showing how the events of the week were not to be taken literal but were part of a story to reclaim the fading influence of Jesus in that early century? We traditional teachers would then scramble to keep the flock secure by reiterating the ancient truths, and soon to be livened up somewhat by surrounding them with new “contemporary sounds and electronics.” But the flock began to leave in droves, feeling many of their traditional beliefs, surrounded with fears of an angry, judgmental God, were crumbling and no longer relevant.
My approach in the last years of pastoring a church before retirement was the attempt to become more honest and open in searching for answers that had long been glibly accepted by “expert professors” from earlier seminary teaching. I tried to move beyond what one wise professor once told me was the “theological brainwashing” of the time. Fortunately, I had a congregation of people who would listen and talk to and with me, people and leaders who would study and learn with me. I became less and less concerned with “church growth” than I did with “church honesty.” Music and accoutrements were important, but not the center; honesty was.
I find a great hunger today for an attempt to use honesty and openness in teaching about spiritual matters and ideas. My journey led me to discover anew a God, a Spirit, which wasn’t “out there” in boundaries set long ago by closed, circular teachings, but within our own hearts and memories but for the asking and listening. We hunger for meaning, for a metaphysical honesty that allows the heart and soul to go beyond the seen into the Unseen Spirit world. We want our deepest questions listened to and heard, not chided or disregarded as somehow coming from the “devil.” We want access to leaders and teachers to raise us up, granting forgiveness for our mistakes and illusions of truth, giving us freedom to think and choose again. We want freedom to fly, to dream, to explore in new caves of thought and among trees we have never seen before.
Yes, traditions and beliefs are helpful boundaries and guideposts along the way, but never to be set so hard in concrete thought and fixture that new bars and methods can’t be seen and adapted. People long for this freedom. They are all around us. Through love, trust, and openness, we will find and learn from them as we yet give as we receive. May it be allowed and encouraged, to thrive, expand, and grow today in our midst, aided by many rising, open, and very bright stars.