“I’m going to teach you a lesson!”
It’s been a while since I’ve heard those words. Probably since my days of playing on a playground. There aren’t many days when I can say that God/the universe/life has said, “Michael, I’m going to teach you a lesson!” but today was definitely one of them.
And worse, today’s lesson was a lesson in humility.
Life is funny. I spent two hours poring over the chapter on humility in Rule of St Benedict and the Rule of the Master, parsing the Latin and dissecting the theology. But I did not learn the lesson I was supposed to learn. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”
My lesson was a two-step process. Step one was hearing my priest’s homily. The lesson started with a joke. An Episcopalian and a fundamentalist walked into a bar. The fundy sat down at one end of the bar, ordered a coke, and pulled out her Bible to study. The Episcopalian sat down at the opposite end of the bar with his Gin and tonic. The bartender who knew them both, asked the Episcopalian, “Hey, aren’t yall both Christians?” The Episcopalian replied, “Oh but I’m an Episcopalian. Unlike that close-minded, unthinking, bigot, we love everybody.”
Ouch. That hit me in the gut. I am proud of my denominational identification. I’m proud that I’m an “open-minded” liberal. I’m proud of my post-evangelical theology. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, I don’t think.
But there is a problem when I look down on my neighbor, my siblings in Christ, and judge my fellow human beings for being narrow minded.
As my rector said last week in his homily, “We’re all just trying to make it.” We’re all doing our best. And if my best is an interpretation of the world and the Bible in a way that is incongruent with another’s interpretation, that does not make me a better, holier, or more enlightened person.
In Sunday school, I was really excited to share with my middle school students a lesson on Christian symbols and sacred space. And they were, by the grace of God, excited to learn the material I was presenting. We talked about the beauty of church architecture and the treasury of beauty behind the symbols. I get giddy when I talk about the beauty and richness of the church’s symbols.
As we wrapped up the classroom portion of our lesson and got ready to head into our 143 year old sanctuary to identify symbols, a student asked a question I had not prepared in my lesson.
“Michael, I visited one friend’s church and it was just rectangular. It wasn’t shaped like a cross. And it didn’t have that special arch. Why is that?”
Well, I explained, maybe they weren’t aware of the richness of the symbolism in the Christian tradition and they didn’t know…
“But,” my student cut me off, “God told them to make the church like that. Why would God tell them to build a church like that?”
Wow. I was not expecting that.
I don’t know, I responded.
My mind was racing. The symbols decorating our church are more beautiful than bare walls. The trefoils, quatrefoils, and vesica pisces adorning my church were objectively more beautiful than the warehouse looking structures housing meetings of my iconoclastic-prone evangelical brothers and sisters. The Chagall windows in St Stephen’s in Mainz communicate more truth than the undecorated opaque windows in the reformed chapel on campus here. Right? I started to doubt my convictions that my view on beauty was truly objective.
Maybe, I offered as a tentative answer, Maybe God told them to build a building like that because it doesn’t look like a traditional church. Sometimes people have been hurt by the church. Sometimes people associate traditional church with pain. So maybe by looking different from that, then these buildings become more inviting to those people.
“Oh. That makes sense.”
I don’t know if God tells people to build churches in a distinct architectural style. I don’t know if God works like that. But I do know this: my brothers and sisters are doing the best that they can, and God can work through that. And I know that God does work through that.
My church is not better than the EV Free church down the street. The previous Anglican church I attended in Chicago where my rector spoke in tongues was not better than my more formal Episcopalian church here.
In Biblical language, God gives different gifts and does not issue the same call to all.
In other words, diversity is a good thing. And we are all supposed to love another. There is no law against loving one’s neighbor. And there is no excuse not to. Whatever our disagreements on theology, ecclesiology, soteriology, or church architecture, that is no excuse for looking down on a brother or sister in Christ.
My church is not prettier than yours. As my best friend told me today, we proclaim in the creed that we believe in one catholic church. The church is bigger than my building. The church is bigger than my beliefs. We are one. And in our unity, there is beauty. And in our diversity, there is beauty. Like a mosaic, each piece is handcrafted to fit a specific space. And while each piece may look funny when held up in isolation, it is beautiful, for it serves a specific function. And when one steps back and sees the whole, the unity of the entire work is mesmerizing. Thus it is with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I don’t have a lot of faith. But I have faith that the God who created the world is painting a mosaic in history, using each diverse piece to create a masterpiece.
I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of things. But I’m 23 years old. I don’t have anything figured out. And I’m learning to be humble enough to see the Beauty in the opinions that differ from mine. Even if they do look like an old warehouse.