10/31/2010

Stringfellow on "Imposters of God" and life as I know it.

William Stringfellow stands as one of the most powerful theological voices in America in the twentieth century.  Stringfellow's work has mostly been republished by Wipf and Stock, Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. IMPOSTERS OF GOD: Inquiries into Favorite Idols is part of what is called the Foundations Quartet, along with A PRIVATE AND PUBLIC FAITH, COUNT IT ALL JOY,  and FREE IN OBEDIENCE.

On the plane coming back from the west coast I had a chance to re-read IMPOSTERS OF GOD. All I can say is it is a stunning condemnation of American self-righteousness and grandeur, including the idolizing of the Church as religious underpinning for the divisions contemplated and designed for use in American pollitical and social life.  

He says of idolatry and indulgences, 

"The inherited churchly institutions in the United States are typically engaged in inducing people to join, support and attend church ... in order to worship the church, not to glorify and enjoy God, and in order to enhance some churchly cult, not to esteem and enact the Gospel.  The sanction for this appeal is a venerable one - the sale of indulgences.  (People) are persuaded that by serving the church, by spending time and money and talent on the church, they can accomplish and exchange for merit and gain a justified status with God.  Yet secreted in the idolatry of church is the same futile worship of the power of death inherent in any idolatrous relationship. And from that, even when it is shrouded in the trappings of church, has Christ set (us) free." (p59)

I have been reflecting on the variety of religious experiences I have had over the past week. Apparently I have a rich, if some what chaotic spiritual life, for everywhere I turn I am confronted with both my idolatries and the freedom in Christ that is there by my side, waiting for my awakening from the delusions that the idols encourage. 

Executive Council provides no easy escape from idolatry: there is no end of temptations to believe that what we are doing is important because we are important people. There is ample opportunity to make of every social nuance a political statement, and of ever political statement a power grab of some sort. As with all the workings of ecclesiastical governance, Executive Council can appear to be a den of vipers in action. But, in the freedom of Christ, and when there is an awakening from the delusion of believing that all this involves acquisition of merit and justified status with God, it is possible also to see Executive Council as what it is - local church.  

As the readers of Preludium must know, all church, all real church, is finally local. That is, all gatherings of Christians for prayer, the enjoyment of God, or even regulatory management, are both ecclesia and koinonia - gathering and community.  In all essentials a meeting of Executive Council is the same as a meeting of the vicars committee in the smallest mission church. It is a place where believers meet to make prayer, make decisions, make community and witness as they can to the presence of Christ in our midst.  We of course are filled with the same temptation to idolatry as any group of people. So it is no wonder that the press, and even we on Council, are titillated by the idolatrous possibilities of this or that discussion or confrontation being "really important."  We are no more prepared to let our yes be yes and our no, no, than any other follower of Christ. We are no more prepared to live by God's grace and not our own worth than worthies in every congregation in the land, in ours or any other church.

This is why it is important to report out to others in the Church that when Executive Council meets it does indeed gather to hear the Word proclaimed and preached, that the preaching touches us in one way or another, and that we in turn take to heart the desire to be both responsible governors and agents in the ecclesia and responsive members of the koinonia. It is important that we have disagreements and work through them, that we confront the authorities we also respect, that we mourn and dance and sing with those who also mourn or dance or sing. 

I left Executive Council to join my daughter Ema, artist and teacher, in San Jose. I spent several hours in her studio working beside her - she on a large painting, me doing small cutouts.  We were a community of two and we were a gathering of two..working together, being together. We muttered as we worked, as things fell into place or not. We laughed and listened to music. We listened to the wind, watched the sun move across the table where we worked. We smoked and had a beer. We made art.  The merit level in making art is pretty low. One does what one can and leaves the rest to grace. Ema is a much better artist than I, but then in a brief moment I too could participate in that grace. We were singing the songs of the Lord of song and it was enough.

And I wondered, why could Church not be like the studio where we were creating? Where we could be together in parallel play - where she draws well, I can only just make a a line come out well - but not in competition but in common offering of what we are and have and hope to be.

Art often seems to be about idols, about making various artifacts that seem to give merit to the maker. But my sense is that in making art that is not the goal. The goal is to witness to matters often inexplicable because unnamed, un-manageable, or encountered in the surprise of joy or sorrow. In making art we are entering the gathering and the community with what we have known and witnessed to in creative action. 

IMPOSTERS OF GOD spurred me on to think about Executive Council and why it is important to do what seems so unimportant - to share joys and sorrows, to take small daring steps to be true to one another and to ourselves, to listen to the words of others and to hear if we can the Word of God in the midst of it all. And, most importantly, not to believe that we gain merit from sitting in meetings where programs and money and titles and honors and what all are bandied about with abandon. When we meet we are church, just as we are on Sunday morning or vestry night or pancake supper night. The players are different, but the script is the same.

Or at least that is how is seems to someone who also has learned to hang about with others who enjoy God and are glad to be in the presence of the source of creative energy and judgment and release.


3 comments:

  1. The Episcopal Church for me has always been primarily the congregation where ever I happen to live at the time. That started out in Kansas City, then to Pontiac, Michigan, then to Saint Louis, then to Richmond, Kentucky, then back to Saint Louis, and now New York.

    Art is about incarnating ideas.

    The Almighty Dollar is the Baal we all really worship and believe in, despite what we say we believe in. It's cash that works the miracles and demands the sacrifices; a jealous god indeed.

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  2. Mark, this is very powerful, especially the Stringfellow quote and your commentary on it. Thank you for it. I should like to use it with my vestry for our reflection time if you don't mind.

    Regarding art, you have articulated what I have tried so hard to articulate about my own artist self. One friend put it this way: You do a piece of art and then you throw it over your shoulder and go on to the next one. (detachment) For me, I realize I have taken countless photos. I thought I was collecting things with my camera, idols. But then I realized I was obeying an instinct to be part of art that I then left behind to go on to the next one. I have no apparent need to make these works known. It's all about clicking the shutter, giving homage to what I have seen and apprehended beyond what is before me.

    Regarding Counterlight's Almighty Dollar as our Baal, a priest friend once noted that at one time we could tell churches were holy places because of the quiet, the hush, before worship. Then he noticed that the hush had gone. It is all chatter before the service. The only place he now finds that hush is when he enters a bank. The banks have become our temples, so he believes.

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  3. I have been thinking exactly along these lines as I was surprisingly (to me )asked to join the vestry this past Sunday. At first my head swelled with a certain pride that I had arrived at an important status in the church to be asked which was followed instantaneously with foreboding. I really don't know which feeling I should be more ashamed of. As today's gospel tax collector up a tree, I am comfortable in more of an observer perch. Unlike Counterlight my previous focus has always been of a more global perspective of the church and its mission usually found and emphasized in the cathedrals I had previously attended. To to do the work of meetings upon meetings overseeing the finances, the food pantry, the Sunday school, the 4th sacrament of the coffe hour in this small parish gives me s certain dread rather than pride.
    Whatever idolatry Stringfellow could imagine in the church is corrected(in my case instantaneously) by the sheer drudgery of the commitment and its incumbent tasks. Without any false humility my prayer truly is "Father take away this cup".
    James

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