Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What am I clinging to?

So I'm thinking about John 15, Christ the vine & us the branches.
Here's the thing about the branches attached to vines. We need support. We cling to the closest surface:  brick, wood, we'll even wrap ourselves around metal when the opportunity presents itself.
When a vine starts to reach in a new direction, though, the branches either have to go along, often stretching toward a new support system, or find themselves stressing out, breaking off from their source of nourishment on the traveling vine.

Could there be a better metaphor for churches? We get lovingly attached to the places where we've encountered Christ, places whose very walls are saturated with years of spoken word and silent prayer, hymns sung well, and, if we're honest, not so well.  We love the places where we've been challenged and comforted by the Holy Spirit. That attachment can make it hard to see when the Spirit is moving in a new place, much less a new direction in the world.
And our loving attachments  can separate us from those Christ's own heart longs to reach. Remember what the Israelites went through in the desert?  Here's a humorous walk down that memory lane with 1970s Christian pop-rocker Keith Green:

Its amazing how tenaciously we can hang on, even when life starts moving out into the desert, especially when manna is all that's on offer.  Do you remember why they wanted to leave Eygpt in the first place? Now that consumerism defines us, we should at least have a choice, shouldn't we?  Word is that an awful lot of people were finding their church experiences to be more like salvery in Eygpt than freedom on the road. Its the funniest thing, how God seems to beckon from the strangest places just when we're getting comfortable. Have you ever heard of the frog whose pot of water started to get hot?
In the early 1630s, Japanese Catholics were executed, renounced their faith, or were forced into secrecy by the Shabara Rebellion.  When the Mejii Restoration began a couple hundered years later, strange practices began to come to light:  statues of Mary and her child that looked like bodhisattvas, prayers that sounded like Buddhist chant with remnants of latin, Portuguese and Spanish.  When anthropologist Christal Whelan discovered two surviving priests they weren't seaking to each other for some reason.

A new generation found a new way, in the light of freedom to practice their religion. The old ways of the Kakure Kirishitan  (hidden Christians) died off.  They weren't bad ways.  They weren't where the vine was going.  That's an extreme example.

Phyllis Tickle, former religious book editor for Publisher's Weekly, says that about every 500 years Western Christianity has a "yard sale." We pull our traditions out of the attic, dust off some that we've forgotten, set aside some that don't seem to inspire us anymore.  Would it surprise you to learn that we're well into the "uptick" for this 500 year cycle?

What we know and love about our worship isn't the same image held by many who've lef tthe church, or only seen it in movies.  I once had a student who was quite certain that none of his musical interests could possible have any connection to the bible.  He was astounded to learn that one of his favorites, "Let us Pray," by Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana, was based on Psalm 23.  And it was a stretching experience for me to learn that those same words, "Yea though I walk through the Shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me....." were tatooed in their entirely on his chest.  ( I assured him that I trusted his word and didn't need to see for myself).  The music carrying the lyrics moves from the chaos of sin through the wrestling of repentance, and into the peace that abides in assurance of God's love.

Could hip hop songs and tatoos really show us places where Christ the vine is leaning?  Can spoken word express a fresh experience of the gospel.  (find out by seeking out Fred Lynch's beautiful rendition of John 15 in "A Hip Hop Devotional through the Book of John." (I'm happy to loan it out locally.)  Or check out the Christian punk band, The Devil Wears Prada, whose heavy metal, Hey John, what’s your name again video is one of the best theological interpretations of John's soteriology, means of grace by which we are saved, that I've ever encountered.  These are a new support system for a new generation, pointing to why our churches have alot of dwindling congregations meeting in chilly church basements. 
Perhaps this Lent could be a season of stretching toward the Easter light we long for, even if it draw us to explore strange places.  It may be the difference between life and a breaking point for some congregations. 

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