On Sunday the 22nd, Nancy and I attended worship services at a small community church, King’s Family Church, in Kansas City’s River Market.
I’ve had a myriad of worship experiences in my lifetime. I grew up in the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts. There are times even now I feel a longing for the “high church” experience, with its vestments, liturgy, and sense of mystery. I abandoned those roots when I began to feel increasingly alienated from the God who seemed distant and impersonal. I even spoke to the rector of the church and got little satisfaction. I went away from the conversation sensing that God was very busy and didn’t have enough time for my concerns. For years, until I went to Vietnam in 1965, I professed atheism. If God didn’t have time for me, I reasoned, I didn’t have time for him. Then, a series of remarkable events led me to a military leadership school in Ohio. That was when I became a Christian.
My early Christian experience after conversion was in Panama, where I was fortunate to hook up with an Australian missionary named Bruce Haste. Bruce had a mission to an indigenous tribe called the Guaymi. I have fond memories of Bruce and me taking a couple of trail ponies on a trek from his home base in the foothills to the tribal village in the mountains. I can still feel shivers up and down my spine when I think about the free form services the native Christians conducted. I didn’t understand the language at all, but I felt an intense connection with God and the small band of pilgrims gathered in that thatched hut. It was the first time in my Christian experience that I fully grasped the words of Jesus – “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
I’ve been privileged to walk in great cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London, or St. Peter’s in Rome. They are all magnificent, but none of them can ever surpass the experiences I had in the mountains with Bruce and his small “congregation.” The smallness….the intimacy….the power….It was all very life-changing.
Since those early days in Panama, I’ve attended Southern Baptist churches, American Baptist churches, Vineyard churches, and independent Charismatic churches. I currently attend a vibrant Foursquare fellowship. While I’ve learned, grown, and contributed in those settings, there’s always been a part of me that’s longed for what I experienced in that small thatched hut in Panama.
I’ve read John Wesley’s account of that fateful meeting in Aldersgate where he felt his “heart strangely warmed.” As I sat there in that small River Market church on the 22nd, I could feel that same sense of intimacy and power I’d felt so long ago in Panama. I felt a sense of stirring and shaking. Something within me was being rearranged and “strangely warmed.”
In the week since I’ve been giving thought to what it means to be a Christian in a culture like America, where we all too often operate under the notion that we are free to express our faith. But, are we? Or are we bound by an invisible ball and chain of civil religion, which in turn keeps us complying with “societal norms?”
What should our role in society be? Should we just accept the economic and cultural benefits of what Father John Neuhaus once described as “American Babylon” and ignore the headlong rush America is making into the darkness? When the culture tells us to just get along are they really telling us to surrender our core convictions? Are they telling us to “shut up and keep drinking the Annie Green Springs like everyone else?”
When the powerful among us fire a shot across our bow and insist that our “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed,” do we, like many in the institutional church, just give in to get along? Or, do we push back and risk alienation, loss of privilege, and worldly wealth?
How do we respond?
One of the most rewarding relationships in my adult life was with a man named Woodson Moore. He was, in the truest sense of the word, a mentor. He was a member of the same church Nancy and I attended. He was part of a leadership team that had a firmer grasp on what eventually turned out to be destructive events and decisions that were being made in the name of God. As it was unfolding, I could sense that Woodson was struggling with the things going on and his role as a leader. I asked him about it and he said very little, other than to gesture with his hands holding them far apart and then moving them closer and closer together. He did it several times and then asked, “Do you get it, Phil?” I told him I didn’t. He kept gesturing and said with each movement, “It’s the broad and the narrow, Phil…It’s the broad and the narrow.”(see Matthew 7)
Over time, we grappled with what was going on, particularly how to respond to a church that refused to take the narrow way to life and had instead decided to take the broad path to destruction. It was during those times that he reminded me of the role the prophets played in the Old Testament. He asked more than once, “What was their role in Israel’s religious and social fabric?” I offered my usual sophomoric answers and he told me emphatically that he’d studied it over and over and concluded that their task was to disrupt and disturb. They issued warning after warning and the people refused to listen. They reminded them that God had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and had given them the law. When they continued to turn a deaf ear to the prophets’ words, they issued dire warnings. “Your enemies will overtake you and you will live in bondage once more.” They were mocked, but in the end they were proven right.
But, what does this have to do with 21st century Christianity in America?
When I was in grad school back in the seventies I came across one of Peter Marshall’s sermons from the 1940’s. While most people today have no idea who he was, in the seventies Marshall’s work was still quite well known, especially his work as the Chaplain of the Senate from 1947 till he died suddenly two years after he’d started.
The sermon I listened to was his exposition from Exodus chapters 8 through 10. My synopsis of that sermon follows.
The Exodus account of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage is as powerful as it is instructive, even for nation states and communities of faith in the 21st century.
As Marshall recounted it, the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years and the time of deliverance was at hand. It was all part of a Master plan to shape a nation of former slaves into nation that would become what the prophet Isaiah would hundreds of years later describe as “a light to the nations.”
God had sent Moses to the court of Pharaoh to deliver God’s message to Egypt. “Let my people go so they may worship me.” Pharaoh, being a powerful man, wasn’t going to give in easily to the demands of a people who were slaves. It took a series of ten plagues – blood, frogs, gnats, flies, the death of Egyptian livestock, boils, hail, locusts, total darkness, and finally, the death of Egypt’s firstborn children.
The plagues were so terrible that Pharaoh would intermittently give in and offer to let the people go. The first offer, made to stave off the plague of frogs, was to let the people go “tomorrow.” God seemed to relent and agree. The plague was abated and Pharaoh apparently read it as a sign of weakness, much like tyrants like Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin read the intentions of the civilized world today. He refused to let the people go. A plague of gnats followed, then a plague of flies, which seemed to do the trick, at least temporarily. “Make your sacrifices here. I’ll let you do that.” Moses refused. Pharaoh sweetened the deal. “You can go to make your sacrifices, but don’t go too far.” What an amazingly 21st century approach. How often have we Christians been told, “Don’t get too carried away with this religion business. Don’t go too far. Cozy up to us, give your religion lip service and everything will be okay.”
By now, you know the drill. The plague of flies was lifted and Pharaoh dug his heels in. Next came the plague on Egypt’s livestock, then boils, then hail. With the threat of locusts looming, Pharaoh offered another compromise. The men could go, but the women, children, and the livestock had to stay. Again, Pharaoh’s approach is being mirrored in 21st century societies, some of which claim to be free and democratic. How often do we men surrender give our families, particularly our children, to the elements of our society, our entertainment media, our schools, and, in some cases, our churches that entice, then eventually snare and capture them.
When the plagues of locusts and darkness descended, Pharaoh offered a final compromise. “You, along with your women and children can go, but your livestock must stay.” The offer was rejected.
It all ended tragically for the people of Egypt. Their firstborn died and it seemed that Pharaoh had seen the light. But, evil can be stubborn. Egypt’s chariots and its military might were sent to pursue the fleeing Israelites. You know how that ended. Even today, archaeologists are finding chariot wheels embedded in the mud of the Red Sea.
God’s intent for Israel was clear. It was to be all or nothing. If the people of Israel truly wanted to shake off the shackles of bondage, they would have to become totally dependent on God for their welfare.
God was true to his promise, but the people weren’t and they paid a heavy price for abandoning the covenant that had been sealed at the Red Sea, the wilderness, and Mount Sinai.
That begs the questions for us today. How willing are we to live our faith out in the face of the forces buffeting us and enticing us? How willing are we to disrupt the status quo, the stale religion, the corrupt politics, and the cult of money, power and celebrity that seems to rule our affections nowadays? And, how willing are we to live as exiles in a society that would have us surrender much that we hold sacred?
There is, as there always has been, a broad way and a narrow way. With these two paths before us, we must choose. Let us hope we choose wisely.