"I wanted to give my mother a space to become all the things I think she deserved to be and wanted to be, and all the beautiful things in her that didn't quite shine while she was alive..."I feel like that's what a church should do: They should give you the space to reflect and be the best person you can be." -Ari Picker (of Lost In The Trees)A couple of weeks ago my wife and I accidentally saw Lost In The Trees in concert at UCSD. I say accidentally because we were really there to see Poor Moon who had to cancel because their car broke down on the way to San Diego. I wasn't totally sure what to expect from Lost In The Trees, but by the end of their first song I knew I was going to be listening to much more from them. You should check them out and if you ever have a chance to see them live, I recommend it. They're special.
But what I'm really interested in is what Ari Picker, their front-man (so to speak), had to say about the new album, A Church That Fits Our Needs. As you could guess, I was intrigued by the title but I was more intrigued as I discovered what was behind it. According to their interview with NPR, Ari "began writing the songs for A Church That Fits Our Needs after the death of his mother, Karen Shelton. She was an artist herself, one who struggled with mental illness throughout her life. In 2008, she killed herself."
The album became something of an outlet for Ari, a way for him to grieve and process such a tragic experience. And it's out of this very raw and real experience that Ari offers a word on the church. "I wanted to give my mother a space to become all the things I think she deserved to be...I feel like that's what a church should do: They should give you the space to reflect and be the best person you can be." Now, this in itself, just the starting point, should serve as a lesson for Christian thinkers and ecclesiologists. The Church, after all, is not a program or a place or even an organization. The church is people, people bound by their experience, immersed in their context. It is not a static concept or a nice neat set of ideals fixed in columns. The church exists out of real experiences of joy and tragedy and thus should be imagined and imaged as such. Too often we let our imagination get isolated from our experience and our images of the church become static and dishonest. Not only our theology but also our dreams for the church become superficial. When the church becomes defined by a program, a Sunday morning gathering, or even a set of doctrinal concepts rather than raw human experience, it becomes tragically irrelevant. I'm afraid that this is the folly of too many mega-churches. They've become so attractional that they've lost their sense of humanity.
"...They should give you the space to reflect and be the best person you can be." In the Church, there is some substance to this statement beyond self-help and upward mobility. "The best person you can be" is nothing less than the person you were created to be, the person you were redeemed to be through the work of Christ--still authentically you. The Church is an entity of becoming, a space in which humanity is made to be all that it deserves to be even in the midst of a "reality" that suggests otherwise. Church is the shining of "all the beautiful things" in us that don't quite shine.
We are invited to become all that we were meant to be. The Prophets called out for this sort of renewal. Even in Isaiah it says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard."
When we "do church" from the ground, from our real stories and experiences, even from positions of tragedy and brokenness (the way Ari does it), then we are free to create the sort of space where this sort of authentic personhood--what we deserve to be (even if only in a context that has not yet fully come to bear upon the world)--is made real. But when we don't live from such honest positions, when we engage in the denial of a church that isolates it's imagination from the raw experience of its people, then we're likely to become an altogether different space: a space where, on one side, we never come to terms with our brokenness and, on the other side, we are thrust into guilt. Church can become all but a space where the beautiful things in us shine. It can actually become a place where our beauty is squelched and denied in order to preserve a false sense of control. Perhaps we should begin by losing control. Begin with honesty. From there, discover who we really were created to be... and create the Church.