As it slowly dies, the Presbyterian Church (USA), like other oldline denominations, endlessly tinkers with the adminstrative apparatus of religion, rather like a terminally ill patient wanting to rearrange the furniture in the room. Pointless and useless to stave off the inevitable. We Presbyterians seem to have an astounding capacity for inflicting upon ourselves bureaucratic nonsense, then congratulating ourselves on how well we did with the process. We tinker with language, spend precious time and energy on making sure the details are right, and bog down in a mire of procedures, even when we have a supposedly more flexible and mission-focused Form of Government in our Book of Order. Some of our “teaching elders” (ministers) are not satisfied unless and until they hear exact textbook theological language from new folk coming into the district, who must be examined for admission. I often come away from meetings of the area council (presbytery) distraught and despondent because of what we have become.

But then God gives me a gift to remind me that all that stuff is not the Church, but rather the sometimes idolatrous trappings of human-devised religion. His largess came to me Wednesday night as a one year-old girl, Lillie, took her first steps at a church dinner, right after we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Imagine my joy and that of everyone! This is what it’s all about, I said to myself: a child toddling about in the midst of a community of folk who love her, her brothers, her parents, and her grandparents. The Church is not procedures and rules, but relationships. It’s the sheer delight of witnessing God’s wonders, like a little girl who one moment was not walking, then the next was taking steps on her own. It’s supporting each other as Lillie did herself when she grabbed a kiddie chair and used it as a walker to get from one place to another. It’s welcome and encouragement and celebration like numerous church members gave to Lillie when she tried to walk, then sat down on her bottom, but then took a few more steps, to be congratulated and welcomed literally with open arms. It’s remembering Jesus’ words: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

The first step is the hardest.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.