Keeping The Faith

Gary Hamel tells about a science experiment involving four monkeys in a room. In the center of the room, researchers had placed a tall pole with a bunch of bananas suspended at the top. One particularly hungry monkey eagerly scampered up the pole intent on retrieving a banana.

Just as he reached out to take hold of the treat, he was hit in the face with a gush of cold water from an overhead shower. Squealing and crying, the monkey ran down the pole. Each monkey, in turn, attempted to get a banana.

Each received a cold shower, and each scampered down without a meal. After repeated treatment like this, the monkeys finally gave up on the bananas all together. With the monkeys thus conditioned, one of the original four was removed from the experiment and a new monkey was added.

The first thing the new monkey did was start up the pole to get a banana. The other three monkeys in the room quickly reached up and yanked their new comrade back down the pole. After a few of these aborted attempts, the new monkey got the message loud and clear: Don’t climb the pole.

One by one each of the original monkeys was replaced. Each new monkey learned the same lesson. Don’t climb the pole. None of the new monkeys ever made it to the top of the pole. None even got so far as a cold shower.

Not one understood precisely why pole climbing was discouraged, but they all respected the well-established precedent. Even after the shower was removed, no monkeys ever ventured up the pole again.

Many people, too many people, have given up on church, even God. They won’t even attempt to “climb the pole” because they have been pulled down for so long by the others in the room, there’s not even a reason to try.

And some of us in the room have been hardwired by our Puritanism, our fundamentalism, our Catholicism or a hundred other “isms” you can come up with, to think that certain people are welcome by God, and others are not. Some people God can use, but there are others who are simply disqualified.

Because of their gender, their race, their nationality, their religion, their socio-economic status, their denominational alliance, their place in society, their past failures; well, some of us in the room feel compelled to police the pole and keep these people away. They just are not welcome.  They don’t belong. God’s family isn’t big enough for some people.

Somehow we feel that we have been granted the right to speak for God’s family. We police the adoption records of God’s family, ignoring the grace that says to all who believe, God has given them the power to be called the children of God. No one is unacceptable or too much of an outsider for our Father’s love.

I cannot imagine Jesus preparing to preach to a group of people, to those the Bible always describes as being in the crowd – the losers, nobodies, oddballs, and outcasts – and him turning to his disciples with instructions to purge the crowd.

It’s impossible to hear Jesus saying, “Look around boys. There’s a few folks here I just can’t afford to be seen with; those who have made some choices that I just can’t approve of; it’s bad for business and so I need you to discreetly get them out of here.”

No, we can’t imagine hearing such words. And we can’t persist in practicing such behavior, subtly or overtly in our Christian congregations. Those we have kept at a distance, locked out and unwelcome, we must now find a way to welcome them, as Jesus did.

Jesus was proudly a friend to sinners, to all who genuinely sought God, though the religious establishment of his day did not approve. They looked over at Jesus with a sneer on their face and a bad taste in their mouth over his attitude and actions. He wore their disapproval like a badge of honor. We should do the same.

Do you know the three most frightening words in the English language? “Some assembly required.” You order something online; a toy or a bicycle for your children. Or you go to a big box store to get a grill or piece of patio furniture.

When UPS brings it to your door or you find the item you’re looking for in the store, it’s not ready to go like you saw in the online catalog or the advertisement in Sunday’s paper. “Some assembly required,” the tag on the box says.

So, you lug this box the size of a queen-sized mattress out to the garage and open it. There are buckets of screws, connectors, rods and unidentifiable small pieces of plastic that you will never use no matter what the directions say. And for the next six weeks you attempt to put this thing together.

The worst case for me was construction of the dreaded children’s play set. When I was growing up our swing sets were just tubes of lightweight aluminum. If you were swinging too high the front side of the entire swing set would rise off the ground a solid foot. Now, we have these play sets made of concrete-anchored-treated-timbers, and screws the length of baseball bats. Assembly requires a civil engineer and a degree from MIT.

When I bought one of these behemoths for my children I was in the back yard with a slide rule and a skill saw for the entire summer. And I lost all credibility with my neighbors. There was no way they were going to that pastor’s church, not with the raging four-letter obscenities flying out of my mouth. When we moved, to my children’s chagrin, I left the play set there; not so much as a gift to the family that bought our house. No way was I going to disassemble it and attempt to put it back together. Once was more than enough.

Some assembly required: This is true of the products you buy, your relationships, the children you are raising, and the person you are becoming. We are all works in progress, even as this relates to our faith. The Apostle Paul said: “Continue to work out your salvation.” We have been given this wonderful gift of grace, salvation and grace. We have come to understand God’s love and have answered a call to a life of faith. This gift is like getting a bicycle in a box or a swing set bound by straps and smothered in Styrofoam peanuts. It’s like possessing a new piece of patio furniture but it’s in a dozen pieces, the materials scattered across the yard.

You’ve got to work it out. You’ve got to put it all together. You can’t ride the bike if it stays in the box. You can’t play on the swing set if it remains disassembled. You can’t enjoy your furniture if you don’t connect the pieces. And faith will not be what it is intended to be – what God wants it to be in your life – if you don’t work it out, if you don’t open the box and put it together. Maybe faith has become such a burden for some of us because we’re lugging around on our backs the box full of assorted spiritual materials rather than putting it all together.

So much informs and shapes our spirituality: The reading of Scripture, prayer and fasting, meditation and retreat, good works done in the name of Christ, service of the poor, worship, periods of contemplation and reflection, times of doubt and frustration. These all come together to make us who we are. Somehow these things become transformational in our lives. Somehow these pieces fit together to form something useful, something valuable, something that looks a lot like faith.

So pop the bands off the box that’s waiting for you in the garage. Put on your work gloves and break out the tool chest. Call your neighbor to lend a hand. Before you know it, all the pieces might just fall into place.

Leo Tolstoy once compared religious rules to the light given off by a lamp post. It is a bright light. It dispels the darkness. As long as man or woman stood in that light, he or she could see. But the lamp post had limitations, Tolstoy said.

To remain in the light meant going no where. One had to stay put to remain in the light. But following Jesus, Tolstoy said, was like a light or lantern fixed to a pole. A person could carry that pole out in front of him and travel anywhere he liked.

Tolstoy never held a flashlight, I am sure, but we have and can understand the analogy that way: To remain a rule-keeper, is to remain under a street light. To follow Christ, is to take a flashlight in hand, and go somewhere – to explore, to pierce the dark, to have a faith that is dynamic, not static.

Much of the church is locked into keeping the rules. Therefore, they stand in their little circle of light, unmovable and fixed like a stone, barking at the street traffic as it moves along and cursing the darkness. They have light, but the light does not serve them well. They might as soon be chained to a post; they are imprisoned, not growing or going anywhere.

Religious rules, or to use biblical language, “The Law,” has been eclipsed by Jesus. Written words have been improved upon. Yes, the rules were all we had, once upon a time, but now we have something better – we have Jesus himself – showing us the way.

Up to the coming of Jesus, the faithful followed religious codes to please or pursue God; that was their understanding of faith. But religious rules could not give life or spiritual freedom. While the law was instructive and useful, ultimately, it could only constrict and confine. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “The letter (the rules) kills;” it can’t give life.

Now, I know to think of spirituality without rules is a radical departure for many of us who have based our entire connection to God on rule keeping, “being good,” measuring up, and following the jot and tittle of every bit of religious instruction. Of course, when we failed to live up to these demands, and failure was inevitable, we were swamped with guilt, fear, and shame.

Enough of that, for that is not the way of Jesus. Christianity is not a heavy obligation to stagnant, inanimate rules, handed down from the mountain and engraved in stone. Rather, Christianity is the free enjoyment of a relationship with a living person. This is Good News: God, who is now present in Christ, calls people of faith to follow Jesus, not to follow the rules. This is the liberation so many of us have been longing for.

While traveling once, I had two different sets of directions on how to get to where I was going. On the dashboard was a crumpled set of written directions. They were coffee stained, had notes scribbled on them, and unknown to me, did not match recent road construction.

The other set of directions were being called out to me from a GPS system. As I neared my destination there was a terrible conflict. My written directions began to fail me. Following them to the letter, I reached a point that they no longer worked. The streets the written direction told me to take just weren’t there – either that or their names had been changed.

Meanwhile the voice of the GPS was saying things like: “Prepare to make a right turn…When possible, make a legal U-turn.” But I kept driving according to my written directions even though it was obvious they no longer worked. Finally, I had to make a leap of faith.

I accepted the fact that my written directions had taken me as far as they could, and now, to get to where I needed to be, I had to listen to the personal voice, now calling me. And that Voice was right all along.