|St. Francis, Rosebud Reservation|
News from this week's Christian Century:
Iglesia Ni Christo, a fast-growing church based in the Philippines, has agreed to buy an abandoned village in rural Connecticut that has been vacant for months, even though the town has problems with its septic system and deteriorating buildings. It is also rumored to have been haunted. The town Johnsonville, was home to twine mills in the 19th century. Iglesia Ni Cristo, founded in 1914, is a Roman Catholic-inspired sect that rejects the ritualism of Catholicism. It has millions of members in the Philippines and over 7000 congregations worldwide, including three in Connecticut.
Adherents of the Shinchonji Church in South Korea view themselves as the one true church. Other Christians label it a cult. It is accused of breaking up families and being secretive and manipulative. Founded in 1984, Shinchonji has 200,000 members in South Korea and thousands of followers in over 20 other countries. Lee Man-hee its founder and leader, considers himself the "promised pastor" (advocate) from the New Testament and a peacemaker who has a plan for ending global warfare. The church's name is based on the Korean translation of "new heaven and earth" in he book of Revelation.I don't remember which old Dutch cathedral we might have been in when I thought of it. We've visited several, loved them all. It might well have been Westerkerk, whose bells Anne Frank could hear from "the annex" where her family hid during the war. Or maybe it was Pieterskerk, Leiden, where Rev. John Robinson is buried, a man so loved by the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame even though he never made it to Plymouth.
What I remember was being struck for the first time with the mindset of my own Calvinist past, those old roundheads, hundreds of years ago, who angrily rejected so much of what I thought, standing there at that moment, was perfectly gorgeous, the spectacular accouterments of those ancient cathedrals, elaborately dressed up, floor to ceiling, amid flying buttresses and ornate towers, the sheer spectacle of those spaces and places. I loved 'em. Would visit today if I were anywhere close.
But I also understood that one person's grand visions can be another's monster. For just a moment, I remember understanding the Calvinists' deep desire to "purify" the spectacle before me, to get back to something personal and vital, something not so overwrought, something real. Long before, I'd come to understand the saints, the St. Christophers of the dashboard. Long ago, I told myself that Catholics were right--nobody prayed to the marble statues, but only through them to God.
No matter. I was in one of those immense European cathedrals when I felt a brace of real sympathy for all those ardent souls with round heads who scraped artistry from cathedral walls and beheaded statues with the soul purpose of purifying the church. I understood.
Just last week on the Rosebud Reservation, in the little purple church at the St. Francis Mission, I couldn't help but feel a shot of the same impulse. I loved the church, had been there before, often, in fact. The gorgeous Native colors of its Lakota designs create a beauty in the sanctuary that's unique and wonderful, as close to divine as humanly possible. I could bring all the world to that old church. It's stunning, and it leaves foreigners (white folks especially) speechless.
Of course, I'm not so stout a Calvinist to want to change the place, to whitewash those walls or paint over what must have taken a decade to finish. But that I love St. Francis church doesn't mean that a portion of my heart and soul doesn't remain thoroughly and convincingly Calvinist. To wit, it doesn't mean that I don't prefer my worship simple.
Most of the world knows that, come October, millions will remember the Reformation, 500 years old, thought to have been born the day Martin Luther, a brilliant and stubborn young priest, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg, Germany. Some will celebrate; and others will mourn because the Reformation changed everything, really. What it didn't leave in the dust, it left altered like nothing that came before.
Lots of scholars suppose that what Islam never had and should have is its own Reformation. Times change, after all. My great-grandfather, the eminent theology professor, saw a different world in 1885 than I do, or my daughter does, or her sons will; and it's just as likely they saw a different God, too, a God who may not be any different, but who generations of believers view differently, minds and hearts and eyes modified by time and place and circumstance.
In a very vivid way, the Protestant Reformation cleaned us up but good. It grew from an impulse that insisted no other person or institution, nothing material at least, stood between the believer and God. Too violently perhaps, the Reformation determined neither the church nor its saints were intercessors, that people didn't have to stand in awe before what was, no matter how gorgeous and inspiring, just another human institution.
But the Reformation also fractured us, created a thousand sects when just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry determined his or her revelation closer to eternal truth than yours and mine and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry. It created endless squabbles, and more visions and versions of spiritual truth than you could fit on a flash drive. Worldwide, it created--and still creates--what's way up there at the top of the page.
Let's be perfectly clear: the Protestant Reformation, 500 years old, is an event worth celebrating. But it wouldn't hurt to keep your voice down, to hold back the enthusiasm, to be somewhat hushed. Nobody's still got it all right.
The Lord still is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.