"A Mountain Cave"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
As an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, I have been watching with some interest as thousands of church leaders from across America have been gathering these past days for a rather elaborate national church convention - stories and pictures of the events of this meeting have been broadcast across the news and in the social media.
Yesterday as I watched some of the “convention coverage,” I was struck with the realization: Perhaps so many people nowadays (especially younger people) have been turning away from “church” because organized religion is essentially no different from the other burdensome bureaucracies in today’s culture that so many people look at with disdain.
Yesterday I watched pictures of elaborately dressed bishops, all regaled in their purple and red robes as they marched into a church service and were seated in places of honor as the thousands of others in the congregation looked on in awe relegated to the “cheap seats” dressed in their shorts and t-shirts. I watched some footage of the endless hours of tedious day-long meetings as these same bishops, clergy and other elected leaders debated for hours on end about how to best gain new members, raise more money, and how to allocate millions of dollars in the budget - sometimes to advance the mission of the church, perhaps more often than not, how to prolong the life of the institution.
It all felt so laden-down, so burdensome.
As I watched the proceedings of the convention yesterday I asked myself, “ How is the church “really” any different from the top-heavy educational system in this country whose bureaucratic shenanigans keep the institution afloat often at the expense of the students who are supposed to be served by it? How was what I saw yesterday all that different from the bloated and overburdened medical industry in this country – a system dominated by a privileged hierarchy and pecking order, blinded by budgets, while access to the best care is given to those who have the most resources? How was that institutional church bureaucracy I was witnessing yesterday “really” all that different from the kind of political dead-ending we witness every day in the halls of government where a congress meets in endless debate that often amounts to nothing?
Back in the earliest days of Christianity, the emerging church was a real “alternative” to the popular culture of the day, standing in bold relief to the “status quo” of the empire. Guided by the simple teachings of Jesus, those first century Christian communities had few rules, no orthodox doctrine that members were required to follow and little structure. Unlike the dominant culture of the day those first Christians were simply guided by the goal of advancing human dignity- no one outside the circle of belonging, no one relegated to the “cheap seats” in life.
The newly emerging Christian community was so refreshingly different from the oppressive status quo that it attracted hundreds, eventually thousands of people who joined the ranks of the fledgling church.
But as the church grew, so did the bureaucracy, the hierarchical structure with its accompanying power struggles, the demand for an orthodox theology, so that eventually the church looked pretty much like the culture- it had ceased to be a refreshing alternative.
As I see it, not a real lot has changed to this very day
As I sit I my garden this morning I can look out and see a little mountain cave in the horizon. Every time I see this little cave I am reminded of my spiritual ancestors- those early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers who, in the 4th century got so fed up with how bureaucratic and bloated the official church had become that they packed up and moved away from it all. They moved out into the surrounding deserts where they lived in simple caves and had few possessions. Most of them were not ordained (none were bishops), they had no church buildings, there were few rules except to follow the rule of Jesus: to love one another, to care for the poor and needy, to extend hospitality to anyone who ever came into their circle of belonging, and to be ever available to the abiding presence of a mysterious and uncontrollable God.
I sit out here in the desert, far away from that big church convention going on with all its trappings and all it represents, and I wonder if it may not be time for the “church” to move out to the desert.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that, for institutional religion to survive everybody has to pack up and move out into little desert caves; but I do think that if there is to be any future for organized religion it must once again become an “alternative” to the culture of power and privilege and not just a mirror of it.
Maybe it’s time to take Jesus’ advice, to sell all we have and give it the poor, to live together in simplicity, caring for each other’s needs, to extend hospitality to all who come our way, and with uncluttered minds and open heartto make ourselves available to the abiding mystery of an uncontrollable God?
The ancient Taoist philosopher offered some potent wisdom to his followers – not bad advice for the followers of Jesus:
Have few desires.