Family of Christ PC(USA)
Thursday morning I went to my yoga class and the teacher started out by talking a little bit about stories, their nature and the nature of truth in them. And then she moved into the regular practice and invited us to let go of outside thoughts and just focus on our breathing.
I'm particularly fascinated by the way some stories are seen as true and others as not true. And I wonder if there aren't different kinds of truth, different ways for stories to be true, to be real.
The author John Green has said that we don't remember what happened, what we remember becomes what happened.
Personally, I often relate the story of Paris and the Starship Enterprise. Now, I've never actually seen either of them. All I know about them is what other people have told me, what I've read in books, and what I've seen on TV. One of them I have spent my whole life studying in minute, ridiculous detail until I know basically everything there is to know about it. The other one is a city in France.
So, which one is more true to me, more real? Now, before you call the nice men in the white coats to take me away, yes, I do know that the Enterprise is a fictional creation while I have every reason to believe that Paris is a real city several thousand miles east-ish of here.
But in terms of direct, concrete impact on my life, the Enterprise is much more real.
The Pentecost story in Acts is interesting to me in part because of that ambiguity.
We celebrate this day as the birthday of the church, the place where it all started.The spirit comes down upon the gathered and rests on them and gives them the power to testify in many languages. And there just happens to be a remarkable crowd outside, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia. Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. A Bible professor once told us that the odds of all those different people from all those different places all being conveniently outside the window are so small that Luke throwing in some Klingons and Romulans really wouldn't change them that much.
But really, does that make the story untrue? Or is it about the larger, more important truth, that the testimony being given is open to all people, everywhere and in every time?
It's that truth that is most important to me as we celebrate the birthday of the church.
In this part of Acts, we get to see the birth of the church, a church that was united as one, where all the members lived in harmony, sharing all their possessions, they proclaimed the gospel and they did great works of healing. That sounds awesome, and it lasts from here, Acts chapter 2 all the way to chapter 5 where it starts to fall apart and it never manages to pull itself together again.
The church went from birth to teenage rebellion in the span of three chapters.
In the Apostle's Creed, Christians affirm that they believe in the one holy (small c) catholic church, even though none of us have ever seen it, other than in these three chapters, and we are all unlikely to ever see it in our lifetimes.
Is this part of Acts just a nice fairy tale of the way things were once, but can never be again? Is it something that we trot out every year like the story of the first Thanksgiving and then put back away and ignore until it comes around again?
I hope not.
I have often been referred to as a Presby-nerd, and despite the fact that I am currently living in exile in the land of the Lutherans, I continue to be one. When the General Assembly in St. Louis rolls around in June, I will stream large portions of it, especially the plenaries, because I loves me some polity and some parliamentary procedure.
I had such proud moment while I was watching GA back in 2016 and someone came to the microphone to offer an amendment to the motion that was currently on the floor. The proposed amendment would have effectively negated the original motion. And I yelled at the TV, That's not an amendment, that's a substitute motion!!
A minute or two later Gradye Parsons, the longtime Stated Clerk, informed the commissioners that what had been proposed could not be an amendment to the original motion but would have to be treated as a substitute motion.
I still get a warm glow thinking about it. As I said, I'm a Presby-nerd.
Aside from polity and Roberts Rules of Order, I'm particularly nerdy about a section of the Book of Order called The Great Ends of the Church. So nerdy, in fact, that my fellow Presbyterian seminarians thought I was maybe a little too into them.
I first learned about the Great Ends years ago when mother made a set of Great Ends of the Church banners for FOC. I later made a set of those banners for my church in Alabama, and when I went to seminary, hanging there in the refectory we the original set from the General Assembly where the banners were introduced.
The six Great Ends of the Church are, The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind. The maintenance of divine worship. The preservation of the truth. The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. The promotion of social righteousness. And The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
In those three chapters of Acts following Pentecost, we see the nascent church living up to those great ends, they proclaimed the Gospel, they worshiped in the face of strong opposition from the powers-that-were, they maintained the truth of what they new in the face of that opposition, they sheltered and nourished one another, sharing all that they had, through acts of healing they addressed the needs of the poorest and least well off in their society and through doing all this they show us that maybe those things can be happen, that the church could, possibly, achieve its Great Ends.
In the early 1960s, Gene Roddenberry, The Great Bird of the Galaxy and the creator of Star Trek managed to slide a fast one past the powers that be in the Hollywood studios of the day.
Star Trek, he told them, would be nothing more than a space western, a "Wagon Train to the stars." And such was Gene's persuasiveness, he was able to get them to make it.
But for Gene, that was never what Star Trek was about. For him, the very core of Star Trek was that human beings just like us could be better. Humans didn't have to be driven by greed, by fear, racism, sexism, but rather could work together, man and woman, white, black, Asian, and alien, not for money or for conquest, but for the greater good of mankind and all we encountered.
There's a classic method in the arts, promoted in the theater by Bertold Brecht, of commenting on the present times more or less safely by placing the work in the past but dealing with current day issues, known as historification.
Roddenberry used that in reverse. He went to the future and looked back at those issues, racism, never-ending war, disease, etc and said, what if we approached these in a different way?
And he did it with ordinary people, Kirk, McCoy, Sulu were not superhumans, they were people, people who chose to be better.
In the original series episode, "A Taste of Armageddon" two warring civilizations have found a way to make war civilized. Computers simulate attacks, and the people in the affected areas dutifully report to designated disintegration chambers to be killed. But no buildings are destroyed, no infrastructure is damaged, for the rest of the people life goes on as if there were no war at all.
Kirk stops a character from committing this ritualized suicide, and she tries to explain why she has to report in to be killed:
Mea 3: If I refuse to report, and other refuse, then Vendikar would have no choice but to launch real weapons. We would have to do the same to defend ourselves. More than people would die then. A whole civilization would be destroyed. Surely, you can see that ours is the better way.
Captain James T. Kirk: No. I don't see that at all.
To the horror of Anan 7, the head of the government, Kirk then proceeds to destroy the computers that have been running the war for hundreds of years.
ANAN: There can be no peace. Don't you see? We've admitted it to
ourselves! We're a killer species, it's instinctive. It's the same with
you! Your General Order 24.
KIRK: Alright. It's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're
human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we're not going to kill - today!
We can do better, we can make the world, the galaxy a better place.
Much later, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Thine Own Self". The android, Data, finds himself stranded on a planet with a civilization just on the cusp of the beginning of the Renaissance without most of his memory.
He is taken in by a small family, a father, Garvin and his young daughter, Gina. In one of my favorite moments in all of Star Trek, the family has just had dinner and Data lingers in the dining room, looking out the window at the stars and moon as Gina clears the dishes.
Data asks, "Where is your mother?"
Gina replies, "She died about a year ago. Father said she went to a beautiful place, where everything is peaceful and everyone loves each other and no one ever gets sick. Do you think there's really a place like that?"
And Data, still staring out at the moon and stars says, "Yes. I do."
Later, after Gene's death, that vision of a better humanity begins to fade from the writing and storytelling in Star Trek, it's still there, it's just not as pure or as clean
In the later chapters of Acts and the following books, we see glimpses of the church doing better, but never attaining that ideal laid out in these chapters.
Both Star Trek and these three chapters of Acts try to show us that we can do better, that many of society's ills, could just maybe be resolved if we could just do better.
Does the objective truth of either of those stories really matter?
In the final Great End, The Exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world, the church is called to add its story to these stories and show the world that maybe we, just regular people, can be better than we have been.
People in recovery often use the phrase, Fake it until you make it. Meaning to act as if you have already achieved the goal you are striving for until such a time as you actually achieve it. Recovery also stresses the principle of one day at a time.
On this day that we celebrate the church's birthday, I want to invite all of us to fake it until we make it and one day at a time show the world that we can be better. Wouldn't that be the best birthday present of them all?