Many of us who call ourselves Christians are currently navigating Lent, a 40-day season of penitence, repentance, forgiveness, reframing. I wouldn’t generally characterize Lent a wildly popular season, mostly because it is an invitation that calls us away from the patterns of life that keep us from living fully into who God created us to be, away from all those convenient things that keep us too busy to pay attention right … this … very … minute.
All those things, I mean, that keep us from confronting the hard work of change.
There are, after all, so many other things I know I’d prefer to do than to engage in the work of change.
Clean the bathroom, anyone?
Temptation knows this about us. So, instead of presenting us with the hard work of change, temptation lures us toward a more comfortable elixir of apathy and familiarity that makes us blind to the new possibilities God perpetually and even insistently offers us. Here’s what’s on offer today: The temptation of a single story.
In some Christian traditions, our assigned Gospel passage yesterday came from the Gospel of John chapter 12. If you’re familiar, you’ll recall the slightly risqué story of Mary breaking a jar of expensive perfume and pouring it on Jesus’ feet, then washing his feet with her hair. The myriad ways this story has been told through centuries cannot possibly be quantified. Traditionally, though, we’ve seemed to have generally settled on a version of the story tinged with a tantalizing hint of scandal: a woman of questionable reputation wasting a valuable asset to lavishly, lovingly, (maybe even provocatively?) wash Jesus’ feet.
And that may be exactly what happened. But the story we like to tell about Jesus and Mary and an essential oil foot massage probably wasn’t the real story — or at least it wasn’t the only story. Why?
Because there is never, ever only one story. There is never one story. There are always other ways of looking at the world, at our lives, and even — even, and maybe most especially — at our faith practice.
During Lent as we’re struggling with the many temptations that plague us, one of those temptations is always, always the temptation of the single story. We decide how things have happened, or will happen, and come hell or high water, our minds cannot or will not deviate from that fixed narrative.
“With increasing desperation we are telling a single story about the institutions that have guided and housed our faith practice for so long.”
So with all the love, respect and experiential understanding I can muster, I want to say to all of us people who deeply love our faith institutions just as they always have been, forever and ever amen: With increasing desperation we are telling a single story about the institutions that have guided and housed our faith practice for so long.
In short, that story is that our institutions are dying and the work of people of faith in this moment is to put every resource available to us to save them. To return them to their former glory! To resume life as we knew it before secular culture began infiltrating the minds of our young people and making it increasingly difficult to patch the leaking church fellowship hall roof!
This is a story we tell ourselves. But don’t forget that this is not the only story. It’s not the only story and, if I may be so bold, it is not even the most faithful story.
Telling ourselves a story like this is, in actual fact, sin.
And, most of all, giving in to the temptation of a single story is sin.
The Divine, who created this beautiful, diverse and multi-faceted world, would certainly, certainly take offense at our perpetual default to a single, limiting story. Even the writer of the Psalms knew that was a mistake: “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creation. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small. All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand they are satisfied with good things.”
What would happen if we understood the work of God in the world, in our lives, in our faith communities even, as vast and teeming, filled with opportunities without number? If we could manage to do that, we certainly could resist any temptation to embrace a single story and instead — instead — opening our arms to the possibilities sung with such beauty by the Psalmist: “The earth is full of thy creations … all of them — all of them! — are satisfied with good things!”
Amy Butler currently leads National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., as intentional interim senior minister. She also leads a nonprofit grant-making organization called Invested Faith. Previously, she served five years as senior minister and the first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York; and as senior minister at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where she also was the first woman to lead that historic congregation. She holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary, and Wesley Theological Seminary.
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