Thursday, April 1, 2010
The Preacher’s Corner
Too often, we hold on to our prejudices
In the official terminology of my denomination, a local congregation is known as a “particular church.” This is to distinguish a local church from the worldwide body of Christ across the ages. Our denominational constitution says that “The Church universal consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children, who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. . .” The rulebook goes on to say that “Since this whole company cannot meet together in one place to worship and to serve, it is reasonable that it should be divided into particular congregations.”
But according to the dictionary, the word “particular” can have more than one meaning. It can mean “unique; specific to a thing or category, individual.” It can also mean “special or most important;” as in, “Her particular interest is music.” Then, too, it can mean, “exacting especially about details;” “a finicky eater;” “fussy about clothes;” “very particular about how his food is prepared.”
It is this latter meaning that I think defines many churches. They are particular about this, that, or the other, or as my grandmother would have put it: “They are par-tic-a-lar.” Sometimes they are doggone particalar!
Often what churches are particular about is very different from what their clergy or denomination are particular about. Some of these things include: What color the church is to be painted. That the sermon be short. That the temperature be 75 degrees. That certain changes be made, or that certain changes not be made. That no one else should sit in my pew. That we sing only hymns I know and like.
I recently read an article written by James A. Baker, the first President Bush’s Secretary of State, appealing for peace among the churches. He presented the idea that each congregation would take a vote on things and the majority would rule, and the denominational authorities would respect the wishes of the local congregation, as expressed in these votes. Votes would be held again every few years to allow for any changes in opinion.
Veteran that he is of ongoing negotiations between belligerent nations, Mr. Baker should know that what ought to be common sense, and a Christian spirit of good will, often gets lost in the shuffle. Majority rule is often not respected. Religions are not always democratic, and as we all know, “top dogs” are not inclined to yield their position. Jesus, of course, had much to say about all of these things. Would that more people who claim to be Christian would study the teachings of Jesus!
Churches and nations have been known to die for their “particularities.” The University of Mississippi has recently established a department of religious studies. It was not founded to promote one particular religion but understanding among them all. This is much needed, for as things stand just now, religion could either be a force to redeem the world, or a force to blow it up.
That is the way it is with almost anything precious and powerful. There is a fine line between its benefit and its destructive capabilities. Look at the romance of Romeo and Juliet, or the power to save or inflict suffering that surgery calls forth. Just one slip of the scalpel makes the difference between healing, or a lifetime of crippling pain. Electricity can light up your house, or execute a criminal. It is just the amount and application of the current. The same is true of faith.
Most people know very little about other religions or denominational traditions, perhaps even about their own. I often think of the old preacher who was advising a group of young students for the ministry. His advice was: “When in doubt, shout!”
When I was in college, a woman audited a course I took in Presbyterian theology. When it was over I heard her thank our professor. She said, “I have been teaching a class on the different denominations for years, and I am finally glad to know what you Presbyterians believe.”
Too often, I think, we like to hold on to our prejudices. In a world where people use religion as an excuse to blow one another up (witness the arrest this week of the “Christian” group in Michigan that wanted to kill police and government officials), we’d better try to understand each other and perhaps be a little less particular than we are.
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