So, I had this friend who was really struggling in his life and was taking steps towards God, and one late night while he and a friend were praying together in my community’s prayer room, he decided that the most authentic thing he could to get real with God was to strip naked and pray his heart out in his birthday suit. Actually I don’t know exactly what he was doing, because I wasn’t there – but it was at an hour of the night when the likelihood of anyone walking in on this…event?…was extremely low (though admittedly not altogether without risk) and thankfully no one did – but his prayer partner thought it made a good enough story that he told a few folks, who told others, who told others, who told others who….eventually told me.
Except by the time it got back to me, it was from someone who wasn’t part of our community, and, the story had taken on a very twisted and shameful tone to it, and had unfortunately come to be used as an example of all that was wrong in our group. Oy. And now I’ve blogged about it – double oy. Realistically, a community’s shared prayer space probably isn’t the best place to fulfill one’s urges to strip naked before God, unless the shared space is a Jewish Mikvah, in which case it is somehow totally sanctioned and even required – but then again, those spaces are not co-ed.
Anyway, I don’t actually know how it played out intra-communally on our turf, whether or not any leaders actually said anything or cared about the fact that this had happened in our prayer room, but, whether it is to our collective shame or our collective honor, or neither, my guess is that not many people in our group cared terribly much, beyond it being a great story of, “You’ll never guess what so and so did!” The group in that season had a culture of encouraging each other to take risks and make both big achievements and big mistakes, and so my guess is for most it would have been a “no harm, no foul” sort of situation. Maybe. (For all I know, everyone might have been horrified.)
But to those who heard about it outside our group and did not have those sensibilities, this was an indictment of monumental proportions. As our group had other rumored indictments (both true and false), this one just seemed to corroborate with those. But this is the thing – I think the shock and horror factor of this story would still have been there for most people in our neighborhood even if it included the fictitious detail that the door had been locked and no females could ever had accidentally entered, and all windows were covered, and the male prayer partner had waited outside so no accusations of anything could be made.
Even with all those safeguards in place, the idea that someone had prayed naked in our community prayer room would have been just as offensive in any regard; of that I’m pretty sure. And I don’t think the offense was merely about nakedness per se – I don’t think the story would have quite been the same if the story had been that this individual had been walking to the prayer room in the rain and got absolutely drenched, and for some reason couldn’t change in the restroom but asked his prayer partner to wait outside and guard the door while he quickly changed into dry clothes he had in his knapsack and then they went on to spend the rest of the night, fully clothed, praying the way they would be expected to do.
Now, there are all sorts of reasons for this. I’m not going to dissect all of them, nor seek to justify nor condemn what my friend did. But there is one specific aspect of this that I want to talk about, and it has to do with the messy confluence of a “Civilized God” with a “Natural God” construct.
What do I mean by a “Civilized God?” When people form communities, and set apart buildings (such as our prayer room) for the worship of God, and have agreed upon procedures for worshipping that God, they are to some degree or another embracing a Civilized God. That is to say, they believe that God receives and desires to be worshipped in the context of the social phenomenon we call civilization with all that it entails, and that He is happy to be in some way, a participant in the things of civilization. What aspects of our civilized social life we outfit His worship with is debatable – but when we produce worship music with state of the art music studios and electric instruments, we have nodded to a Civilized God. If the music is done with a carefully practiced choir, wearing choir robes, we sing that song to a Civilized God. When we read the book of Revelation and see things like angels that write (invented by civilization) on scrolls (again, civilization) and play harps (civilization yet again) and blow trumpets (yep – civilization), we may be so civilized ourselves that we don’t even notice the interjection of the human inventions of civilization (don’t forget swords, horsemanship, herbal medicine, and thrones) into the allegorical description of the spiritual realm, but again, we’ve embraced a very Civilized Kingdom of God. Revelation in fact culminates with the arrival of an amazing – wait for it – CITY. And nothing says civilization better than C.I.T.Y., even if it is a city of God.
But that’s not the only view that people have of God – there is also the “Natural God” mindset. After all, my friend had some instinct from somewhere, that to really have nothing between him and God, he needed to get all the vestiges of civilization off of his person – which of course, meant his clothing. He’s not alone – many, many people have sought God by heading to the wilderness, or a high mountain somewhere, so it could be just them and God away from any and all signs of humanity and its designs.
Adam and Eve seemed to be this way – the closest they got to being civilized was taming a garden. Moses at some point in his life was one of these folks – He met God on a high mountain and had communion with a very uncivilized, Natural God meeting, in the form of a burning bush. John the Baptist, filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb, also had a thing going with the Wild and Natural understanding of God, wearing camel skins and eating wild stuff and living far away from the temple worship of his father’s house – instead making the great outdoors his temple.
So you see, when my friend got naked in a prayer room, he was putting two things together that normally just don’t really belong together – the raw, natural, “nothing-but-a-man-and-his-God” sort of worship, mixed with the civilized, industrious, “a community of people got together” and pooled their resources to do something which will be a place in a town for townspeople to meet with God together.
And which God is God, really?
The Bible paints a picture of….
– A God who prohibits the use of tools in building him an altar – prefering instead a pile of wild rocks.
– A God who mixed up human languages because the people tried to use their know-how and social organizations to get closer to him
– A God who tells the man who wants to build him a temple, “Heaven is my throne, and Earth is my footstool….where is the house you would build for me?”
– A God who tells a man he is talking to to “take off your shoes….”
– A God who said that people who would consecrate themselves to Him must leave their hair to grow without styling or cutting it, and who may not eat grapes (a heavily cultivated crop.)
– A God who tells a man to lay on his side, outside, for a year, and eat food cooked over animal dung.
– A God who drives people like John the Baptist, Jesus, and Philip out into the wilderness.
– A God who overcomes a king with His Spirit, which leaves him laying naked in a ditch, prophesying.
– A God who is worshiped by a man who takes off everything but an ephod (and no one really knows what an ephod is, so I could imagine it is hardly worth mentioning) and dances wildly before Him.
– A God who does “not accept praise from man.”
– A God who considers a babbling baby’s vocalizations to be “perfect praise.”
– A God whose express image, his very Son, had, “nowhere to lay his head.”
– A God whose Son went to a mountainside regularly to pray.
– A God who desired His Sacrifice to be made “outside the camp.”
– A God who provides for disciples who have been sent out to minister, taking nothing with themselves.
– A God whose Spirit births people of which one cannot pin down their origin or destinations, like the wind
– A God whose Son called his own body, “God’s temple.”
– A God who clothes the lilies of the field with more glory than any king ever had.
– A God of whom it was said, “The Most High does not live in houses made with human hands.”
– A God who met Paul when he conferred with no humans but spent three years in the desert of Arabia.
– A God who thinks has no regard for the fame and honor of this world, but regards as precious what the world rejects.
– A God whose Son Himself was rejected by society.
– A God who is building a “spiritual house” of people.
But, the Bible also talks about a God who is also the one who is…
– A God who gave the Israelites a code of laws to keep.
– A God who set up a priesthood caste with clear ritual requirements of record keeping, administration, times and dates, special foods and rites to be performed.
– A God who gave extremely specific instructions about the cloth and measurements and objects used for his tabernacle.
– A God who authorized fine craftsmanship in the building of ritual objects for his worship.
– A God who punished people like Korah who worshipped him in nonprescribed ways
– A God who spoke to kings and rulers about the events of their kingdoms, and gave them military and strategic advice on the affairs of their domains.
– A God who showed kings dreams about the rise and fall of their civilizations and others, so that the kings established mandatory worship of God in their realms.
– A God who filled an illustrious and expensive temple with His presence in honor of its ritual dedication.
– A God who was worshipped with harps and cymbals by priests working in carefully prescribed shifts.
– A God worshipped by highly structured acrostic poetry.
– A God who has angelic armies that have order and rank.
– A God that speaks metaphorically about piercing his daughters’ ears and adorning them with fine jewelry and rich linens.
– A God whose Son shows a preference at a very young age for hanging out in the temple, even calling it His Father’s house.
– A God whose Son expressed extremely strict ideas about the institution of marriage.
– A God that honors his servants in a far-off country that engage in ritualized prayer three times a day.
– A God whose Son shows some preference for Jewish nationalism, calling a Gentile woman a dog.
– A God whose Son found refuge at His friend Lazarus’s house.
– A God whose Son went to the cultivated garden of Gethsemane to pray.
– A God whose Son teachings his disciples a prescriptive form of prayer, saying, “Our Father…”
– A God whose Son sings a hymn and performs a ritual passover meal, even instituting a new ritual along the way.
– A God whose Son weeps over a city, mourning that the systems and people running that city did not accept His visitation.
– A God whose Son tells his followers to hole themselves up in a room for weeks on end, practicing the discipline of prayer.
– A God whose followers came together regularly on the first day of the week.
– A God whose leaders came up with prescribed guidelines for choosing leaders, and appointed them.
– A God whose leaders issued decrees for ostracizing group members from the tribe who had disagreeable behavior.
– A God whose leaders carefully taught from written scripture truths about Him and His Son, and urged other leaders to “devote themselves to the public reading of scripture” and exhortation and teaching.
Ok. Whew. Where does this leave us?
We have a Natural God with no accouterments – the kind one looks for on a mountain. We have a very Civilized God with a whole structured way of relating to him in society – the kind of God one looks for in a place like Jerusalem – where the Jews had their temple, and where the early church began. (Yeah, I know – these two concepts play together about as well as a naked man trying to pray in a community prayer room.)
So which God will we worship, and how will we worship Him? Will we embrace the Wild God, the unstructured, uncivilized God – or will we embrace the God of human institution, the civilized God of religion? Will we go to the mountaintop to meet with Him or to the place of ritual and artistry and organization and form?
Where’s the living water? What will we use to draw it up out of the well – our “natural God” tools or our “Civilized God” tools? How will we drink?
Jesus weighs in, “Believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24, ESV)
Is that an answer? Not until it becomes real to you and me as we actually find out what it means for us for in our own experience, not as a doctrine or a theory about the “right” way to do things, but in the desperate try-almost-anything hardcore search to find Him and find how to relate to Him – not until it becomes a place you truly have met with and worshiped God. And this is the important one – not until you and I, both alone and corporately, find a way to go back and get with Him over, and over and over again, does it mean much either; because let’s face it, a chance encounter with Him doesn’t mean we’ve learned how to drink that water from the well – it just means we had a happy accident. Although I’d venture that when we start having regular, frequent, happy accidents, we’re heading in a good direction.
But we’re looking for that stability of real communion with Him, and we can, and should…journey to the mountain, journey to the valley, go to the city, and go to the town – worship in silence, and worship with lots of noise – worship with ritual, and worship freestyle – worship with others, and worship alone – sing old songs, sing new songs, pray in tongues and pray in English, draw a picture and dance a dance and reach for Him with our focus and thoughts and hearts – or toss it all out if the only thing that’s giving you or I anything is something not even named here. But that pursuit must be deliberate and ongoing – it must be given time, energy, and push some other things aside. Its not a works thing, but a laying hold of the One who has laid hold of us, thing. And if we don’t seek, we’ll almost never find.
And please, I’ve really had to learn the hard way – it’s really important sometimes to forget anything about the “right” or “wrong” way to do church. “Natural God” complexes and “Civilization God” complexes are alive and well in our pursuit of fellowship, unfortunately – but really the main issue is Jesus. Are you finding Him when you’re with your church? Put your doctrines and church theories aside – your organic church ideas or your tradition ideas or your social issue concerns or Holy Mother church ideas – for Christ’s sake I beg you, put it all aside. That stuff tripped me up for way too many years of my life, and I don’t want it to get you too.
Despite how much that church you’re at is doing everything wrong in your eyes, are you growing in Him there, or do you at least see potential for that? If yes, don’t let anything tear you away from there. But if not, move on – even if the church you’re part of is doing everything “right” and it’s the kind of church you’ve always been looking for or always gone to that has the right teaching and way of doing things – you have no time for that, find Jesus for real or at least find people as intent on real communion with Him as you are, who agree with you on perhaps nothing at all other than they want to know and pursue Him too, whether in the Natural God place or the Civilized God place or neither. The less answers any of us have, the better, really… And find, my friend, in the midst of all that, as all of it fades away, where you’ve seen and tasted and experienced a communion with Christ, no matter whether it looked wild and natural or civilized and structured. Find in it all, despite it all – find the One who has truly made “all things yours.”
(PS – I usually hyperlink everything I say referencing a Bible verse to a Bible verse program online, but no one ever clicks on those links. So, if you want to know where I pulled something from the Bible, drop me a comment and I’ll let you know. Otherwise, on this post, it would just take hours to insert links that no one ever uses.)