Any good story has a setting, be it in a home, a nation, a battlefield, a street or the great outdoors. My story happens inside the church. Whenever anyone comes to visit me in Atlanta, my hometown, I love to take them on a tour from an insider’s perspective.
I do not just take them to The Varsity, largest drive-in restaurant in the world, but I tell them the story of Flossie and Erby. I do not just show them the buildings but I take them underground on the world’s longest escalator. I do not just tell them about grits, red-eye gravy and country ham, I take them to experience it. We see Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthplace and his resting place a block away. I show them the house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind, the location of the world premier in 1939, the place she lived when she met an untimely accidental death. I show them where CNN was born and the Marriott Marquis, now occupying the address where St Joseph’s Hospital stood and where I began my life on a stormy Friday night in the late 1950s.
And, I take them to a street that does not exist anymore. Washington Street. Where this small street use to offer passage there is now a parking lot. But, before the parking lot there was a stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, built in 1963-1965 to be the new home of the Atlanta Braves, purloined from the city of Milwaukee, to be the iconic move of the city of Atlanta from small town to major player. Here, in this parking lot, the former layout of the baseball diamond is laid out in brown brick to distinguish it from the black asphalt enveloping the remainder of the property. The spot where Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun sailed across a fence on April 8, 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s seemingly insurmountable record, is memorialized.
And then I tell my visitor, “Right here, on the edge of what formerly was a thoroughfare stood the Washington Street Assembly of God. This is the spot, right here where first base is outlined on the ground, where the altar and pulpit were located. On an autumn Sunday morning in 1959 two young, first-time parents brought a young son and dedicated him to God’s life for him. Born in a Catholic hospital to two Pentecostal parents from Washington Street Assembly of God was my beginning and I have never left the church.”
That gives me almost six decades of experience in this dysfunctional community organization. I have loved her, hated her, commended her and slandered her. I have taken from her and given to her. I have led her and been led by her. I have controlled her and been controlled by her. In my hindsight, I could not have lived without this beautiful bride to be and I wish I had never known this bridezilla.
The church, sometimes with good intention and sometimes with selfish, has developed what it calls Christians – a collection of humans ascribed to the notion that Jesus is the incarnate son of God and the Savior of the world. But, by it’s own Scripture that is not the definition of a Christian. We have allowed this family with natural DNA embedded in it to be malformed by a code of ethics and conformity the very leader of the pack never mentioned as necessary or forthcoming. We have created a form for godliness and left the heart of relationship as an addendum instead of the center point of meaning.
As Leonard Sweet mused recently, “Why can’t we get this one thing: In the biblical drama, Absolute Truth is not abstract but personal, not expressed in abstract statements and principles but embodied in a person who empowers us not to impersonate him, but to personate him and thus personate truth.”
“Why?” he asks. I can tell you why. It is the one thing that separates the church we experience from the church of prophetic and historic promise. We are taught that the statements and principles are what we are after, about and are absolute. When what is not central is made central you have a problem. We seem to have no clue of process, growth and spiritual nature – supernature – supernatural living lived into by seeing the pathway of righteousness.
I am committing the next six decades of my life to turning this around in my life and the life of those who will simply listen and consider. I will write, teach, mentor and live to personate…not to get myself right, in conformity or accepted. I realize I cannot get myself right so He gave me righteousness. I cannot conform myself to His image but I can allow myself to be transformed into that image. I cannot try to be accepted when I already am.
That is not clear in the church, or in my experience of church – both as a minister of and a ministered to person. When institution and membership replaced communitas and commission the waters were muddied and became murky and people started living from fear instead of faith, looking to do no wrong rather than learning to live in their ascribed righteousness. I am out to unlive that into clarity, purpose and as Len shares, ‘personating’ Jesus.
I like something else he shares, and I want to be counted in the latter group… “The church was built on mavericks, marginals and martyrs, not bricks and mortar and mammon.”