Leaving Salem

I pulled from my mailbox that little envelope that I knew would ultimately arrive: A summons requiring my presence in the halls of justice. Jury duty. So I prepared myself to look as disrespectful as possible; not as a difficult a job as you might imagine. Ratty blue jeans, worn sneakers, an unshaven face and the gaudiest Hawaiian shirt from my closet – this was my effort to appear unmannerly enough to stay out of a week-long trial.

I arrived at the courthouse, got my juror number, took my seat, and watched my peers arrive. I was not the only one less than thrilled about being there. As the seats around me filled, there was more complaining than you would hear on a Better Business Bureau hotline. One lady in particular charged into the courtroom with defiant words to the bailiff. “I don’t want to be here. I’m not happy about this one bit,” she huffed. Firmly, the bailiff showed her to her seat.

As she trudged by and plunked down in her assigned seat I heard her say, “Oh, no! This is just like church.” Sitting there I concluded that jury duty was in fact, a lot like the church experience of some. We were gathered in a small room, compelled against our will, sitting on hard pews when we would rather be doing something else. Further, a man dressed in a dark robe with a big book sat in magisterial supremacy over us all. He dictated our rising and sitting as if we were androids. You had to have his permission to even visit the bathroom. And no one would be excused unless it was under the direst of circumstances. Heck, this was just like church.

Reading Eugene Peterson recently, he reminded me of the story of Procrustes, an ancient Greek innkeeper. His “inn” was more like a present-day bed and breakfast – his personal home where he entertained sojourners on their travels. Most days he was observed sitting outside his immaculately cleaned home, smoking his pipe, and harmlessly smiling behind a gray beard and kind eyes. But old Procrustes had definite ideas about Greek life and beauty. He had a bed in his home that he claimed would miraculously fit the frame of whoever slept in it and transform them into the perfect Greek.

Many a traveler accepted the offer of this unique bed. Procrustes would then sinisterly enter the room after his guest was sound asleep, and complete the fitting. A short person would be stretched on a rack until he filled the bed. A tall person would have whatever portion of his arms and legs that hung over the mattress sawed off. When the visitor left the next morning, if able, either by extension or amputation, he was now the dimensions of a perfect, beautiful Greek. Of course Procrustes was the one who established the definition of perfection.

What the mythical Procrustes accomplished for a few of his unfortunate fellow Greeks, the church often accomplishes for many of its members. Like some kind of spiritualized McDonalds®, many of today’s churches turn out carbon-copied, unconscious, “Christians” like hamburgers and fries rolling off a conveyor belt. All must read the same translation of the Bible. All must share the same interpretation and confession with no room for divergent belief. All must have the same social habits and vote in the same political block.

Gone is any sense of creativity. Gone is the stretching of the mind and emotions that come from heart-felt disagreement. Gone is the richness of diversity. Gone is the beautiful collage that is the people of God. It is replaced by a monolithic, black and white snapshot. Take your number. Sit in your assigned seat. Stand when commanded. Dress like the rest. Stay with the herd. It’s no wonder some people won’t go to church – it’s because they have been.

It may be hard for us Christian-folks to accept, but the institutional church is often the largest single obstacle to others experiencing Christ. What was once viewed as a doorway to the Divine can quickly devolve into a stumbling block. So we must ask ourselves: Will we squeeze those around us into Procrustes’ bed, doing great damage in the process? Or will we give enough room for people to become who God is making them? I hope we’ll choose the latter.

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