Friday, July 1, 2011

Chaos into order…

My most recent reading companion is the book Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early (American) Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood (trivia question: In what 1990’s Oscar-winning film does a character cite that author?). I know, I’m out of school, I should develop more useful hobbies. But for this week leading up to July Fourth, the book contains some relevant info. Truly!

For instance, you maybe realized that the title’s date range corresponds to the formation period of our denomination. Not that our earliest leaders and members would’ve described it that way! When those faithful souls embarked on a new adventure in faith, the goal was abolishing denominations. “Unity is our Polar Star.”

I studied our church history in seminary, but what this book emphasizes that I’d never appreciated was the general chaos of those decades. We hear a lot in school (and political campaigns!) about the revolutionary generation- our founding mothers and fathers- their battles, their tea parties, their ax-wielding and truth-telling. But once they kicked the Red Coats back to Buckingham, the story often ends. Or skips ahead to the Wild West and Civil War. Reminds me of learning about Israel’s Exodus, singing songs of Moses and the Red Sea, reading about the wilderness sojourn and arrival in the Promised Land. But what happens next- i.e. the tough, turbulent work of creating a new nation in a new home- that was glossed over so we could play David and Goliath.

So it was in my American History classes. Turns out, though, the couple decades post-Revolutionary War were capitol C Crazy, or if you prefer, dynamic! For starters, no one had ever attempted democracy over such vast territory. Then, what little functioning government they had was being made up on the fly (independent judiciary, postal system, taxing authorities). Plus, people were pushing to expand political participation, to restrict it, to free slaves, to enslave more, to quickly settle Native American land, to slowly arrive at a just agreement (no one said, “Just leave them alone”), and everything in between. And this near-anarchy crossed into churches as well. Newer, frequently subversive, forms of worship and preaching appeared, pushing older, established (read- European) churches to adapt. Culture became more entrepreneurial and wild. Churches adapted further. It was chaos; so much so, new ways of doing church were inevitable. Enter…Disciples of Christ.

So it’s no coincidence that a (if not the) fundamental value for us is “Freedom,” right?! Not after emerging in the decades following the Revolution, and their subsequent upending of many hierarchies and traditions. Nowadays, we’re usually considered ‘Old School,’ with our hymnals, organ, lack of video screens and predictable worship patterns. We’re usually better at nurturing freethinking, diverse believing and relevant engagement with the world than most contemporary style churches. It’s not a little ironic, then, to remember the days when Disciples worship got wild and crazy.

In Genesis 1, aka The Beginning, the author paints a kind of ‘before the big bang’ picture. It’s non-scientific, obviously, but sublime and truthful nevertheless. The idea is that Earth then was a shapeless, watery void. In a word, all was chaos. But over this chaos the Spirit moved to form order, then life. Creation, therefore, requires both bedlam and guidance.

What was in the beginning, is now, as they say. Some churches prioritize chaos over order, and vice versa (we lean to the “order” side, yes?). But both are useful. Indeed, are necessary for creating new things. Over our national and denominational history, we’ve seen periods of disruption and periods of formation, times of strife and disunion and times of reconciliation and progress. So next week, as we ponder and celebrate that national history, take a moment to ask- What’s next (for our nation, our church, your life)? Shall I/We risk a little chaos? Is it time, instead, to pick up pieces and build anew? What went on before that needs conserving? What gets in the way of Me/Us following God’s call? If you dare, feel free to share your answers with me! And thanks to all who’ve gone before, and continue still, to establish our freedom- religious or otherwise.

Grace and Peace,

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