Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Eighth Letter to the Church: What Are We Missing?

Not everyone likes the rain. Dreary. Wet. Rainy. All words that in our culture are synonymous with sadness and depression. Perhaps it's because we're not an agrarian society. We've lived for so long in cities and towns of steel and concrete that we forget just how important the rain is for living things. For us, it is merely an annoyance, something that makes us wear extra clothing or causes us to be wet and cold. Despite that, even as a kid I liked the rain. I liked watching the water as it drizzled down our driveway and collected into puddles. I liked watching the beads of water coalesce, join together to form a larger bead, straining at the tension until finally breaking into a slow stream. Even watching people hustle from the cars and buildings under raised jackets, splashing in puddles before ducking under an awning somehow made me breathe easier, as if we humans were connected for a time. Whatever else was happening, when it was raining outside, we all shared a point of common commiseration and a nod to something larger than ourselves. I'd hear people talk longingly about places like San Diego, where the weather never changed and the sun was always warm and high. Who'd want that? As much as I liked good weather for playing sports, what would you do without rain outs? Or the joy of playing on a muddied soccer field? Or getting helmet full of mud on the gridiron? Why in the world would anyone want it to be sunny all the time?

This past weekend I attended the Eighth Letter conference here in Toronto. It was a last minute invite from my best friend, and included a number of speakers and well known authours from the Christian world. The theme of the conference was simple: as the book of Revelation contained seven letters to the churches (of its day), it was asked of those invited to write an eighth letter to the church in North America. What would you say to the church today, that large and diverse body claiming the Rabbi Yeshua as its Saviour? For all I appreciated the representative nature of the conference, which ranged from stupidly brilliant to brilliantly stupid, I spent most of the conference partitioned into the half-world, the place a lot of us creatives go when we're trying to see beyond the veils of book sales and polite conversation and pandering missives to the unmarked themes presenting themselves as obliquely as the straining grasses and plants do when the waters come from the heavens. A leaning, if you will, both instinctive and unheralded, by those both attending the conference and those trying to influence them.

Some things bothered me more than others, particularly our continuing determination to represent the Rabbi as a two dimensional God, as One who is simply either for or against things, as if the Creator of the Universe is some ridiculous moron that can only see things in two dimensions, that can only distinguish between the rain or sun, or good or bad.

It rains because it must, but what if the rain speaks more loudly than the sun?


Perhaps it's a human failing that we try to find the ultimate solution to bringing people together, the "one thing" that will unite us despite our pettiness and seeming insatiable need for more personal acclaim and status. Perhaps we Christians aim too high, forever searching for that one doctrine, that one belief or system of beliefs that will engage us all in the same manner and allow us to come together in worship and joy and gladness. It is a noble goal, I think, but one at which we are destined to fail, so long as we continue to think that our lists (of goals, beliefs, doctrines and creeds) are better than the lists of everyone else. Or at least, so long as we think that it is our lists that will unite us.

One of the speakers on Friday night chose Hell as his uniting doctrine, even as he stressed the importance of getting the gospel right. As silly and abhorrent as the idea was, I remember thinking he was probably closer to the truth of what unites people than those who emphasized love and sharing. Fear works better in bringing people under a common cape than the nuanced notion of loving your neighbour. It protects us from having to walk in other people's shoes, keeps us free from questions about what we actually believe, and allows us to condemn both people and ideas without a drop of emotional blood. Fear gives us the freedom to pursue our goals for our sake and the perfect rationalization when we turn our backs on those who need us. It is both powerful and efficient. 

And it's wrong. 

Wrong in its assumptions of humanity and wrong in its attempt to influence our behaviour. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a pearl, but when we attempt to rule through fear, we unwittingly turn the same Kingdom into a maze of violence.

Given the alternatives however, what choice do we have? How can we influence the behaviour of fellow Christians and those who don't share our beliefs to do the right thing without fear? What if we were to remove the doctrine of Hell from our arsenal of evangelical weaponry? 'God loves you, so you should love your neighbour' may sound nice, but doesn't that seem weak in comparison?

And yet, a number of speakers, to their credit, tried to tell us that in their letters. Told us how much better it was to love than not to love, how important it was not to forget the poor or those left behind. For as much as I nodded in agreement and applauded their ideas, a part of me had zoned out. It wasn't that I disagreed with them, just that their letters felt like only a slight improvement on the other letters that told us we were lazy and needed more zeal, or that we needed to remember Jesus, or the one that rolled out like a dissertation on the sinner's prayer and the efficacy of hell. It felt like we were all somehow missing something. Or maybe it was me.

That is, until Janell Anema told us her story. The twenty seven year old waitress had no books in the lobby, no international audience, no CD's or videos on Youtube. At no point did she give her list to the congregation, or insist why her list was better than ours, or why certain beliefs held special status. Instead, she told us the story of a young girl growing up and her experience with God.

Graceful, humourous, and poignant, we listened as the story unfolded into her adolescence and through her twenties. Instead of creeds and doctrines, of thou will's and thou will not's, she gave us other things. She gave us her mistakes, her doubts and fears, drawing us forward by walking us backwards through a story that reminded us of our own troubles, our own mistakes and difficulties. And yet, not once did she point a finger, except to point upwards, and occasionally, to tap her heart. As she told us her story, there was a palpable shift in the audience, an audience that had been listening but doodling in the warmth and convenience of the sun. 

As one, both conservative and liberal, we put our coats over our heads and splashed through the same puddles and ducked under the same doorways, laughing together despite the inconvenience of it all. And when she finished, we rose to our feet, the only time we would do so all weekend, realizing that she'd given us a gift, something that we so often forgot when it came to our faith. It wasn't the warnings or promises of thunderstorms or blue skies that brought us together. It wasn't our persistence or intensity that mattered, or even the strength of our ideas. What mattered was that her journey was my journey, a reminder that we all shared the same story of sadness and love and yes, hope, in our attempt to follow this Saviour. And for a while at least, she did something special inside that massive basilica where we'd chosen to gather. Something different. Something wondrous. She made it rain.