When I was in my twenties, I swore I would never drive a van. Vans were spectacularly uncool, boring, gasoline-sucking behemoths that middle-aged people who had given up on life and ideals drove. Vans were for tourists. Or people who went to Disneyland with whiny kids who were never satisfied. Never! Not for me. I would drive a trendy Euro-wagon or something. I would get a roof rack for extra storage. I would drive just about anything but a van!
I am now in my thirties. I drive a van.
Yesterday, I drove my van to the shop because a little orange light in the shape of a wrench on my dash began to flash menacingly at me. I have, over time, learned that the appearance of this little orange wrench invariably signals the disappearance of large number of dollars from my wallet. I drove my van to the shop and was greeted by a well-groomed, earnest young man behind the counter. This young man began to speak to me in riddles and code, describing the many procedures and process and parts involved in all of the things that they were going to be doing for me and for my van. Our van was also due for new brake rotors. The longer this young man spoke to me about myriad parts and procedures (I don’t remember the names of these things… they all go into the “stuff that makes cars go” category of my brain), the more it became apparent that many, many dollars would be evacuating my pocket later that day. “Fine,” I meekly agreed. “Do what you need to do.” “Whatever the little orange light says.” “Perfect!” he cheerfully pronounced, as he busied himself with preparing the work order. Yes, perfect. Right.
A few hours later I picked up my van and unburdened myself of $550. I was given a four-page printout of the many exciting things that had been accomplished deep in the inner recesses of my van that morning. I went out and looked at my van. It looked exactly the same. A bit dusty, cracked windshield, a few rock chips. There were still socks on the floor in front of one of the kids’ seats, still miscellaneous beverage containers and wrappers here and there. The brakes felt tighter once I got on the highway, but overall there wasn’t much that seemed any shinier or newer or better in any way. Certainly not $550 worth. Couldn’t they have at least given it a quick pressure wash to give me the illusion that my van had been renewed, purified, reborn? Apparently not.
As I was grousing and grumbling to myself on the way home, it occurred to me that for many people, faith is like a trip to the mechanic for a service appointment. We go to the church/shop where some official looking person tells us a bunch of stuff about how things work and what needs to be done to get the desired result. We don’t understand much of what is said, but we’re reasonably sure that it’s necessary. It must be necessary. The official looking person sure seems to know what they talking about, after all. And surely all those big impressive-sounding words must mean something. Right?
We drive away from the church/shop and not much really seems to have changed. The performance hasn’t improved appreciably. A lot of the same old imperfections that we have grown used to living with remain. Things are still a bit ugly and dusty, and for the most part, the machine could use a bit of tidying up. But we’re reasonably certain that whatever we just did was necessary. At least we hope so. We (mostly) trust that the people who know about “these things” are telling us the truth about how things work, about what is required of us, and about how much it all costs.
But people aren’t vans. And church is not (supposed to be) a service appointment.
My ignorance when it comes to mechanics is regrettable, perhaps even a little pathetic. I could make an effort to understand more about the inner workings of my van, but I don’t. I am happy to outsource this part of my life (and even happier to whine about it, when I get to pay for it). But this option isn’t (or ought not to be) available when it comes to our relationship with God. We cannot outsource this part of our lives to the priest or the pastor, no matter how many churches proceed according to precisely this logic. It’s the kind of endeavor that, if successful, represents an utter failure—for us, for the church, and for the world.
Mainly, of course, because God doesn’t want part of us at all. God isn’t particularly interested in us keeping our spiritual levels topped up with the appropriate rituals and observances and a bit of money for the experts if you don’t mind, too before we head back out into the real world with things “under the hood” taken care of. In fact, God says that you can take all of your rituals and displays of piety and church services and, ahem, shove them, if they are not accompanied by lives of righteousness, justice, and mercy (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:11-17). Loosely paraphrased.
God wants us, in other words. God want lives freely offered and wholly surrendered to his purposes in and for the world. And lives are not the sort of things that can be outsourced, much as we might prefer, and hard as we might try.
The WordPress robots tell me that this is the 700th post in the six-and-a-half year history of this blog. This is either an epochal moment worthy of outlandish celebration or a remarkable testimony to just how stubborn I can be. As always, thanks for reading.