Sometimes understanding follows obedience.
[ posted at CT 9/26/2012 11:18 ]
A man goes into a deli, orders the matzo ball soup, and motions the waiter back to his table.
“Taste the soup,” says the man.
“Sir, is something wrong?” asks the waiter. “I can get you another bowl right away.”
“Taste the soup,” says the man.
“Sir, is there something you want me to tell the chef?”
“Taste the soup.”
“Fine,” says the waiter, exasperated. “I’ll taste it. Where’s the spoon?”
“Aha!” says the man.
Sometimes you have to do what’s being asked of you before you understand why it’s required. You have to be willing to taste the soup in order to discover the spoon is missing. In religious parlance: “Understanding follows obedience.” It’s an axiom every bit as true as it is vexing. Psalm 111 observes that “all who follow [God’s] precepts have good understanding”—not the other way around.
Lately, for me, the command to “taste the soup” has been about attending church. Trouble is, I just haven’t felt like going.
I’ve been sliding into pews (or modern equivalents) from infancy; my vocation has taken me to hundreds of churches around the world. I’ve met some of my dearest friends and endured some of my darkest betrayals in youth rooms, foyers, and sanctuaries. I’ve cried, sung, prayed, committed, disconnected, recommitted, scribbled sermon notes, doodled, been wounded, been healed, encountered the Mystery, and dozed off—sometimes all in the same service.
There are seasons when Sunday can’t come soon enough. The gifts church has given me are too numerous to list.
But there are also stretches of disillusionment. Times when the songs that once ushered me into a profound awareness of God’s presence seem suddenly schlocky and manipulative. Mornings when I can’t find anyone I know during the “greeting” time, and a previously cozy ritual morphs into a caricature of superficial community. Those are the Sundays I struggle with the sermon and feel my theological earnestness hardening into elitism, discernment distorting into self-righteousness.
Like anyone who has logged serious pew time, I’ve got reasons to be jaded. I’ve seen churches split over trivia while they trivialize glaring immorality amongst their leaders. I’ve encountered gossip posing as prayer, and bullying masquerading as “spiritual guidance.” I’ve watched the realignment and reduction of the gospel into a business plan for membership growth or personal improvement.
Most damaging of all, I’ve looked into my own heart and known that if my pew-mates are anything like me, church is composed of frail humans, each of us an unreliable, potentially dangerous mess of conflicting motives and wavering intentions.
People who complain that church is boring have no idea. Church is scary.
So I sell myself the half-truth that church is something we are rather than something we do. I stay home with my theology textbooks and Bible and enjoy a dissension-free congregation of one. I console myself with an online network of enlightened individuals who share both my convictions and my cynicisms. We satirize the excesses of organized religion, feeling cleverer than we ought about shooting the fish in our own barrels. We create a virtual but significant community. And for a while, it’s enough.
There’s just one problem. Beneath my rhetoric of antilegalism, enlightenment, and self-protection there remains a still, small—but increasingly insistent—voice. And it’s telling me to taste the soup.
The biblical witness indicates that when God gets hold of people, they almost always work out the implications in groups. This has never been an easy process. The Israelites praise, squabble, fail, and repent together in a seemingly endless cycle. The Christians in the apostle Paul’s churches alternately thrill and break their pastor’s heart over and over again. But they keep at it, and with every try Paul grows more passionate about the ragtag crew of notoriously fallible humans who so thoroughly are the church that they can’t help but do church together. Striving to convey the profound connection between Jesus and the people who gather in his name, Paul employs only the most intimate metaphors—we are Christ’s bride, or his very body.
The triune God has always been into community. And community, I am forced to admit, ultimately requires meeting together with flesh and blood folks I cannot “block” or “unfriend” should they become annoying. It means getting close enough to hug and to arm wrestle, to build (and sometimes hold) each other up, even as we risk letting each other down.
It is important to remember that “tasting the soup” is not the same as “drinking the Kool-Aid.” We are not required to unthinkingly remain in toxic or abusive environments, or even to follow a particular structure or meet on a certain day. Obedience in this area is simply intentional proximity with a group of people who love Jesus and each other. It is coming together to his table, if only because that is what he asks us to do. And it is trusting that he’ll show us not only the spoons we’re missing, but also the feast he has in store.