“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV)
The Christian church, in the U.S. at least, presents itself in a wide array of styles and attitudes. They range from a handful of tatted-up and pierced-up strays and misfits (I claim these terms for myself) meeting in a New York City bar to hear the Gospel from the son of a former televangelist to the churches in “everytown, USA” full of grey-haired people in suits and dresses with a roaring pipe organ that can be heard down the street.
I wasn’t raised in a religious home, so I’ve never understood the stuffy formality and conformity thing. It mirrors the establishment, which is the opposite of Jesus. For me, my relationship with God was fresh and exciting. I was a radical and a non-conformist who didn’t trust the system. Yet, I grew up. I really, really did not want to, but we all want to find some measure of success and stability in this world and that means getting along. You end up conforming, even as you lose your hair or your butt gets bigger and your boobs sag and you grieve not having that tight body you had when you were 18, but God doesn’t give a shit about that. That’s good news.
I conformed. Well, somewhat. And the more I have suffered for being me in a world that wants to make me a cookie-cutter, the more tempting it has been to conform even more. We humans – we Christians – have a long history of doing that. The church got into bed with Rome. Then, after the Reformation, it got into bed with Western European wealth and aristocracy. Today, we know these churches as “mainline Protestant” denominations. Some of these churches have loosened up, but most of them haven’t.
I have been in these churches before; I went to one recently and good night! there were a lot of grey heads and suits! I’ve never understood this tradition of “giving God your best” by wearing what cultural norms and mores label as our “best” clothes, as though God gives a shit about that. What kind of God do we think God is? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging people or their motivations – I’m judging the religious practice itself. It seems quite divorced from reality and if that’s the case, we need a fresh outpouring. We need it often.
One day, we’re going to stand before God and the only thing we can clothe ourselves in – then and now – is humility. In other words, nakedness. Radical vulnerability. In terms of the false self/ego/sinful nature, we are blind and helpless to perfect ourselves. We are totally deprived of any ability to kill our ego. No matter what we do, even our utter best is flawed. There is no perfection in us, so we can’t stand before God and make claim to our own righteousness – we have none. We can’t refer to our resumes of religious credentials and remind God of the Godly things we think we did. In all our ways, we are held captive by our false self – our ego and its pride.
The only thing we can do is be honest with ourselves about ourselves before God and embrace a humility based on and couched in the truth about our True Self. When we know there is a part of us beyond our ego; a divine fingerprint that is not separated from God as is our ego – then, and only then, can we be honest about our ego/fallen nature without despair and grief. Only then can we freely embrace the fact that we are blind and helpless, yielding to God our tendency to want to dress ourselves up in our own pretension.
For those of us who are religious (God, help us), we not only have to beware of the spirit of the world creeping into ourselves and our churches, but we also have to beware of the spirit of religion. It creeps up on us like the heat does on a frog in a frying pan. Religion can be its own ugly beast to which we conform to make ourselves presentable to God and each other. The whole time, it’s a ruse. Take it to the wall and some of us go so far as to “sanctify” our pride like the Pharisee who said “God, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there – that sinner!”
Some say we need “continuing reformation.” Maybe we do – not so much in terms of doctrines and politics, but one where we rest in God’s love for us all without a felt-need to pretend or prove ourselves. This takes grace, but it isn’t cheap. The price to our ego is high, because this grace requires our naked trust in God. There is no other clothing we can wear.