for the very first time in my life (at least that i can remember), i walked out of my own church.
but let me back up 30 minutes.
my church is in the midst of a series on the art of god — good stuff. i’ve missed the last two or three weeks, but was stoked about going to church this morning. i got there just as the singing started, so didn’t notice what was on stage until i’d found a seat in the middle of a row, near the front. then i noticed the large cylindar of clay on a wheel. i remembered that we were having a potter for one of the services in this series, and instantly felt dread. they’ve been at our church (it’s a husband/wife team; he throws pots and talks, she sings) more than once in the past, but i’ve always missed it. i’d heard that people love seeing this scriptural metaphor played out, and that there are lots of great things about their presentation. but i’d also heard it has a bit of schlok-factor, and i was bracing myself for that.
but a funny thing happened. when the couple first came out, and she instantly started singing, and he instantly started shaping the clay, i suddenly got all emotional. i choked up and couldn’t sing along; tears formed in my eyes. i was reminded of god’s clear word to me this past may that he was in the process of shaping my heart. and the whole molding, shaping, leaning, pressing, and forming process was so resonant for me — such intimacy between the potter and the clay, such force. nothing delicate about this process. with this, i settled in to look past the schlok and listen to what god wanted to say to me.
but this didn’t last long.
i wish i’d had my noise-cancelling earphones, so i could have watched while listening to gavin bryars’ “jesus’ blood never failed me” or johnny cash’s “god” cd.
but halfway through the wife’s second song, i could tell the whole thing was a schtick for them. he had worked the clay up into a tall cone. and as she wound down her second song, he shaped it right back to it’s starting point. this wasn’t throwing a pot: this was acting. the potter stopped potting, and started preaching. it’s hard to remember a time i’ve heard so many christian cliches strung together. his wife laughed and looked startled on cue (but in a way that looked like someone off stage was cueing her). oh, and brian ferry was calling from the 80s and asking for his hair to be returned.
i know this sounds terribly shallow. and maybe i should have been able to look past all of this and listened to god. if only the guy had kept his hands on the clay. but what he was saying was so opposite of what i’ve come to love about my church. i love that my church does not encourage people to retreat from culture, but to embrace the world and be a transformative presence. i love that my church doesn’t spend much time drawing lines between “us” and “them”, but, instead, focuses on god’s grace for all of us, wherever we are in our journey (which happens to be the name of my church). this message was the opposite. he camped for a while on how the wrong company will corrupt us (not a wholy untrue statement if ‘can’ is subsituted for ‘will’), and went so far as to re-iterate: “if you spend time with people who do bad things, you WILL end up doing the same things — there is no way around this.” many of the people (most) in my church are fairly new believers, and they swalled this hook, line, and sinker. i was as frustrated with the speaker as i was with my fellow church-goers for their audible agreement.
the potter started telling their “testimonies”, filled with every cliche in the book (well, not in “the book”). in the process, he started poking fun at those who don’t believe, using humor as a way to sew a badge of ignorance onto those not in the way of jesus.
i was still thinking i could make it through — if he would just get back to the clay. he almost did: he walked around the wheel and picked up a smaller lump of clay, asking the congregation, “what do you see here?” he must not be used to audiences that speak (like ours does), because he looked startled when half the room said “clay”. he said, “ha — usually people don’t answer.” then he continued with the script: “just a few weeks ago, i asked that question, and the whole congregation looked at me silently, wondering what trick question i was asking. but a little boy in the front row said ‘clay’. folks, it’s the faith of a child that can speak the truth.”
“when you look at this, you see clay,” he continued. his wife nodded, thoughtfully. “but when i look at this, i see…” (at this point, he reached — without looking! — under the black draping surrounding the wheel, and pulled out a beautiful water jar, brightly colored and glazed, just as he dropped the punch line: “i see THIS!” the congregation actually gasped, as did his wife. “and the reason i see THIS, when you only see clay, is that I AM A PROFESSIONAL POTTER.” ok. i can see where he was going with this. and it’s not contrary to the biblical metaphor. but he was working awfully hard to put himself into the god-role. i should tell him that a magician’s cape might add a nice touch of flourish to that moment.
then he got to the part of their story where his wife ‘backslid’ for seven years. he said, “i’ll tell you how far she’d backslidden — when we first got married, she was into eastern religion!” she chuckled. the congregation gasped. i held my breath. he continued — with timing that only comes from 1000 deliveries: “i’d walk into the room, and she was all dingy, dingy, dingy, dingy” (at this, he assumed a meditation pose and swiveled his head around while making the dingy-dingy sound). huge laughter from the audience. the wife threw her head back and laughed hard. the husband smiled victoriously. and i began to shake. literally. i couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. and i noticed i was clenching my teeth so hard my jaw hurt.
this wonderful church is passionate about helping people experience the love of god. but this jerk was mocking people for their pursuit of god (even if that pursuit of god will leave them short of the fullness of life god wants for us), turning them into a comedy routine. my church loves to laugh (which is another thing i love about my church); but laughing at those we are trying to reach with the love of god? i couldn’t take it. this is a holiday weekend, and i’m sure our church was full of friends and family members nervous about being in church (our church is full of people like that most weekends!). i almost invited my spiritually-seeking (somewhat new-agey) cousin to join me this morning — grace of god that i forgot. any spiritual, but not christian, person in the audience — i have to believe — would never want to set foot in our church again.
i quietly got up, excused myself past the people in my row, and walked out. i’ve walked out of christian gatherings before — general sessions at conventions, seminars. but i’ve never walked out of church — especially my own church. i stood, shaking in the lobby, writing an email to my friend the teaching pastor, who was out of town this weekend. i couldn’t believe we would have these people back, knowing this is what they teach (he emailed me later today, telling me when he has seen them in the past, they’ve not done this).
i walked across the campus to the middle school room. my people. the middle school pastor had just begun talking about how god is more interested in our motives than our actions (taking the time to expertly unpack what a ‘motive’ is). ok, i could stay put.
bad speaking, i can live through. boring, i can deal with. passionate-but-simplistic, i can have patience. but rehearsed lines of theological damage — that i can’t tollerate.
wish i coulda seen the potter continue shaping that clay, like god continues to shape my heart.