A person I love recently texted that they are “in the process of deconstructing [their] relationship with the church and finding the parts that work for [them].” I’m glad to see that this person is doing so. There is a kind of self-empowering that takes place when we take responsibility for our relationship with God and intentionally decide how we will relate to the Divine. In the church we seem to accept an equivalent relationship between the institution and God, an equivalence that I think can be fairly problematic.
Once a father and son sat beside a lake at night. The boy, looking at the moon’s reflection in the lake, said, “Look how pretty the moon is.” The father, looking up, agreed. The boy, still looking at the reflection, saw how the wavelets danced with the light and wanted to hold it so he jumped into the water. Not knowing how to swim, he nearly drowned. The father rescued him and reminded him that to really appreciate the moon’s beauty, we need to look at the moon itself. (1)
For all we may appreciate and like about the church, we need to remember that it is not, itself, God. It is a reflection. Unfortunately, it seems that the institution itself and many members don’t understand this and insist on an equivalency. What’s wrong with that? This can create a kind of devotion that can cause blindness(es) that bring harm others. We can get so attached to patterns that have been given to us that anything else seems blasphemous even while those patterns are themselves problematic. Let me give a couple of examples.
First, while I was at BYU, a coworker of mine, a fellow Southern California native, told me about a horrendous experience a friend of his had in the dorms. Rich’s friend was a convert. She had joined the church a year and a half or so before entering BYU. She was the only member of her family to join and that had caused a lot of strife in her home when she was baptised. “I swear, she’s got so much faith to go through what she did,” Rich said. After the first Sunday at BYU, though, this young woman went back to her dorm room and changed into more comfortable clothes and all proverbial hell broke loose on the floor. The other young women, many of whom had grown up in Utah, tore into her, condemning her for not staying in her “church clothes” and berating her for not “keeping the Sabbath Day holy.” Rich said she broke into tears, ran out of the building, found him, and told him she might have made a mistake choosing BYU. This young woman, whose joining the church had required more “costly grace” (to use Bonhoeffer’s term) than the other young women who had been raised in the church and had become accustomed to “cheap grace,” had been punished for not being devoted to a proverbial reflection of the moon when she had chosen to embrace the moon itself.
On a deeper, more serious level, there are some in the American church who cling to the racism that was codified in the church’s policy of banning people of African descent from the priesthood. I participate in a Facebook group whose common point of interest is racial justice in the church. As a white person, I must confess that this has been a productively discomforting experience because it has allowed me the opportunity to see just how frequently members of color must deal with various levels of racism, from overtly racist comments and questions to social isolation to microaggressions. It is uncomfortable because I feel anguish for the targets of these actions and because it reminds me of the implicit bias I have been socialized to have towards people of color and how I need to constantly be “on myself” to combat it.
In a related vein, there is a distinct anti-Arab vein at least in the American church. Growing up, I do not remember hearing a single positive comment or story told about Arabs. I was imbued with the ambient Islamophobia of 1970s and 80s America. I was told, for example, stories that illustrated an Arab will to violence, stories that were told in such a way that they reflected on Arabs as a class of people, rather than on individuals. I was taught (effectually) that Arabs were “lesser” children of Abraham, unless, of course, they embraced the church. I was not taught to understand and appreciate the diversity of the Muslim world. It was not until later in life that I learned how richly the entire world has been blessed by the Arabic and Muslim worlds, how science, mathematics, art, architecture, and music have been influenced by these traditions. I think this distinct anti-Arab bias has played into many American church members’ uncritical support of the modern state of Israel in the Palestinian question, giving uncritical and unwavering support for gross treaty and human rights violations. The kind of treatment of the Other that prophets railed against ancient Israel for in the Old Testament. I believe that racism and discrimination have no place in the Gospel of Christ; yet, there are too many in the church who hold these kinds of attitudes because they believe it to be consonant with church doctrine and policy.
Some time after Rabbi Shalom had died, two of his disciples came to Lublin to study with Rabbi Jacob Yitzhak, called “the Seer.” They found him out in the open, saying the blessing of the New Moon. Now, because he did this a little differently in some details from what their teacher had accustomed them to, they did not promise themselves much from Lublin and decided to leave the town the very next day. When they entered the rabbi’s house, shortly after, he spoke words of greeting to them and immediately added: “A God whom one could serve only in one set way—what kind of God would that be!” (2)
These examples show how we can be encouraged to dive into the water after a reflection of the moon rather than gaze on the moon itself. I think that those who are choosing what to embrace in the church are taking a responsible approach to their relationship with God, deciding how they will relate with God rather than have that dictated to them. I think the Lord would rather have someone intentionally engaged with him than someone going through prescribed motions of engagement on autopilot. So, to this person, whom I love, I say go with strength and courage. Find that path with God that suits you.
(1) This is a folk tale I have heard in several different forms.
(2) from Kurtz, E & Ketcham, K. (2002). The spirituality of imperfection: Storytelling and the search for meaning. New York: Bantam. p. 201.