On The Church Idol and Substitutionary Lower-Case Gods

Last week I spoke with a good, hard-thinking friend. She is the sort that's devoid of lethargy and has been blessed with an extra-dosing of the capacity for critical thinking. She's equal parts deconstructionist and reconstructionist, and is what Southerners might call "good people," the kind with whom one is proud to be acquainted (whether well or barely). She was, she said, working through a patch of cynicism lately, and to her credit, she was by-God and legitimately working through it. There are parts of my story I guard, things I don't blare from the loudspeakers, but I offered to share some of those secrets with her. Since I shared them, I've been turning those secrets over-and-again in my head, and I've decided that some of the more rotten parts of my cynicism, bitterness, and anger have composted into something worthwhile, something that might provide a bit of fertile ground for someone else's starting.

So, here we are.

I cannot remember being outside the church. I was as fixed to it as the wooden pulpit, the one with the old rugged cross on the front and the microphone that had been jury-rigged well after the pulpit's construction. I was a felt-board kid, sword-drill champion, and a founding member of the secret society of T.U.L.I.P. I was a teenager whose thoughts turned only-ever to a career in ministry. In my mind, the church-house was the green pasture, the safe harbor, the exclusive place of knowing and being made fully known.

There is, however, no felt-board story for church disillusionment, and the purveyors of good and right theologies forgot to tell me that without the love that undergirds said theologies, everything gets all out of sorts. So there I found myself, having constructed an idol of ideologies, of church history, of the church in general, and most of it without love.

As a foundational matter, let's get some things straight. There is nothing wrong with gold. There is nothing wrong with calves. But when you plate the later with the former, when you bow to it and call it god, things get dicey.

Dicey, indeed.

In my first church exit interview, a pastor, one of those with a bouffant hair do and a perma-smile, walked me through a difficult decision that he had recently made. At the request of a particularly well-heeled layman, he had laid off a permanent member of the mega-church staff and had capitulated to the layman's request to be enshrined into the "Church Staff" section of the church directory. It was, the pastor admitted, a financial decision because there was an obvious fear that rejection of the wealthy layman's request might lead to the walking away of all that money. And this threat loomed in the midst of a church-building campaign, no less. He looked me in the eye, laughed, and said, "there are just some things you have to do to secure the future of the church."

In that moment, when I watched my well-constructed idol-god swing from a hangman's knot, I decided that money had tainted my visions of church beyond recognition. So I did what any well-respecting gen-xer does. I ran.

I'd eventually come back to the church, and that's a longer story than I care to tell today. But here's what I can tell you--the bitterness that was born in me in the moment of pastoral honesty was more than I could bare up under. And over the years, that bitterness, the cynicism that grew from having my idols reduced to rubbish, threatened to choke me. It stole my faith once or twice. It's creeped black over my shoulder at two in the morning. And it took me over ten years to understand the truth--idols only feign take the place of a loving, merciful, peaceful Christ. And for as long as I can remember, I had made a lower-case god from the lower-case church. I'd created a substitutionary idol.

I'm done with that kind of idol crafting. (Not that I won't engage in other forms. I am human, after all.)

So if you don't see me engaging in the latest church debate, if you see me asking what's beautiful about self-inflicted martyrdom, if you see me wondering whether the current controversy is distracting, or small, if you see me asking whether beautiful unity is anywhere to be found, asking whether we can find common ground for a day, or whether someone has a half-empty wine glass that needs filling before we continue our discussion of church polity, or theology, or ideology, now you know why.