Today I continue my ongoing Wednesdays@Whenever about Whatever series on what I’m calling “cutting edge” Christianity. Again, think of a pair of scissors. Scissors serve the purpose of cutting things off, but for a good reason, not just to destroy things. Although I have to confess that one of the worst things I did as a young child is use a pair of scissors to cut up some of my grandmother’s doilies in her living room while all the grownups were playing dominoes in the kitchen. I think I was bored. Let’s just say that she “tanned my hide” pretty good after that.
Perhaps only a pair of scissors is not the best visual aid for my series on cutting edge Christianity. Perhaps I should call it “cut and paste” Christianity, because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 35 years or so.
My Christian journey feels like a never-ending arts and crafts project. We have a room on the first floor of our education building around the corner from my office that is a collection of just about anything that doesn’t go anywhere else in any of our facilities. We have Cub Scout stuff, medical stuff, decoration stuff, Vacation Bible School stuff, and especially arts and crafts stuff.
I’m not arts and crafty myself, but if I were, I could spend hours in that room, finding material, and remaking it into all sorts of things.
That’s what my spiritual and educational journey feels like to me: Like I have spent the last 35 years in a room with all kinds of books and bibles and writers and theological systems and commentaries and devotionals and even non-Christian writers, always trying to make it work for me. Sometimes I need to cut and sometimes I need to paste. My advice to you: Be a cut and paste person
Today I want to introduce a writer that I have pasted into my Christian journey on more than one occasion: Philip Gulley.
Gulley is a Quaker pastor, writer, and speaker from Danville, Indiana, which is near Indianapolis. My wife, Annie, had the pleasure of meeting him at a book signing event in the Greenwood, Illinois library several years ago when we were serving St. John’s UCC in Cumberland, Indiana.
Gulley has written 22 books, including the fictional Harmony series recounting life in the eccentric Quaker community of Harmony, Indiana and the best-selling Porch Talk essay series. His memoir, I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood, was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
What I am most interested in, however, is Gulley’s non-fiction work, sometimes with co-author James Mulholland. In these books he boldly shares his progressive, cutting-edge spirituality. I have four of these books. Please note the provocative titles:
If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (2003)
If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World (2004)
If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus (2010)
The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity (2011)
Unlearning God: How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe (2018)
What I want to do today is begin talking about the ten points he makes in his book, If the Church Were Christian. To me, this is his most provocative book because I have always felt that, for the most part, sadly, the church is not Christian, if by “Christian” we mean a community that closely aligns itself with and follows the teachings of Jesus.
I know that might sound a little judgmental, but after 35 years of cutting and pasting, I feel like I have a decent grasp on what the church, especially the church in America, is doing or not doing. Gulley has been doing this about as long as I have, and I’m fairly sure we are in almost 100% agreement.
So, let’s talk about his first point (with my commentary, of course). If the Church Were Christian . . .
- Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship
I like that Gulley begins with this point because it is a big one. I have noticed for a long time that the Church (capital C) has a very difficult time getting this right. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Jesus would eschew or reject being an object of worship.
He would cringe at many of our hymns, for example. Even our creeds and statements of faith that put Jesus on a pedestal higher than the water tower in my hometown, would make Jesus laugh uncomfortably (at best) or knock over some more tables (at worst).
I forget who said this first, but the truth of this statement should be repeated more often than our hair is washed and rinsed: We should be worshiping where the finger is pointing rather than the finger itself. Jesus is the finger itself. He is not the proper object of our worship; instead, he points us in the direction of our worship, which is God, the Creator.
Now, to be honest, the whole concept of worship is problematic for some, including me, although I have learned to accept it. The reason I say it is problematic is that some folks wonder why a divine being would need to be worshipped at all. Doesn’t that sound narcissistic on God’s part?
The truth of the matter is—at least I think it is: God doesn’t need for us to worship God, but people need to worship something. Worship is an outlet for us. It is a way to redirect our energy away from us to something greater than us. It is a way to focus on what is truly important in a transcendent way.
I may not be articulating this in the best way possible, but I think you get my point. Worship, like prayer, is for us more than it is for the Creator of the Universe. Jesus would probably cringe at seeing heads bowed, hands raised, or praises sung toward him rather than toward God, and yet he would also understand that maybe this is just something we need to do for us.
Nevertheless, rather than worshiping Jesus, the Church should be more focused on following Jesus as “a model for living.” When we don’t follow Jesus’ ethical and moral philosophy, then worship of him (or even God) becomes a distraction.
Isn’t this what people do? If we can’t (or won’t) do what we are supposed to be doing, then we will distract ourselves and others by doing something else. In this case, we substitute worship for living. Worship is easier than living. Worship is one hour per week, while living is 24/7. So, can worship be a distraction?
Because of this, I think if Jesus were here, he would be pointing a finger in the direction of God or the Kingdom of God, to show us what is really important, while wagging a finger at you and me.