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.

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Today I felt somewhat like Arthur Dent.

You may know that character from Douglas Adams’ zany sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur awakens one morning to find his home is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. When he complains that he didn’t know, the bureaucrat in charge of the wrecking crew responds that the plans have been on display at the planning office for nine months. Of course, “on display” actually means hidden away in a basement. Arthur, apparently, never got the memo.

When it turns out that Arthur’s home in a larger sense—planet Earth—is about to be disintegrated by aliens to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and he again says he didn’t know, the extraterrestrial bureaucrats give a similar answer about plans being on display, but this time in the Alpha Centauri system. As Bones said in one of the old “Star Trek” movies, “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Arthur was expected to know something he couldn’t possibly have known, and that’s why I identified with him this morning as I tried to install a new router and connect, after the installation, to the Internet. The little detail I suppose I was expected to know, and found nowhere in the very sketchy instructions, was that I had to unplug my modem after installation to reset it before I attempted to connect. I had to call my ISP tech support before I was made privy to that little fact.

I’m reminded of the VCR/DVD combo instructions that expected me to intuit the step they left out about programming. But I’m also thinking of the way dysfunctional systems from governments to churches to corporations to families operate. The unreasonable expectation that people should possess knowledge they could not possibly have is the common denominator in them all. There’s always some regulation or a way of behaving or an essential detail of a plan that’s assumed by insiders to be known by all. But of course it’s not, and that’s how dysfunctional systems and people keep their power.

The whole experience with the router has made me all the more determined to communicate clearly, not to assume people know things I might know or have had experiences I have had. I never made a New Year’s resolution, but maybe I just did.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham