An older minister returned to the church he had pastored in his youth. The building had been renovated, a new sanctuary had been built, and the old sanctuary space was now the fellowship hall. Looking around the hall, the old pastor remarked, "I know this was the sanctuary, but now I cannot even tell which end I preached from."
Our human institutions change. What was once special - even sacred - to us can become mundane. It can become unrecognizable. At times, it can lose all appeal, even becoming scandalous. We look at what was once home and find that we cannot even remember where we stood and which direction we faced.
Jesus tells us that the greatest of our institutions will fall so that not even one stone will remain standing on another.
And yet we cling to our institutions ... to our churches, denominations, schools, conventions, alumni associations, clubs, jobs, organizations, teams, rotisserie baseball leagues, and political parties. Whether we are so attached to a memory or a name, or whether we simply do not have the imagination to see what could be for being caught up in what once was, we find ourselves dogpaddling against a current to preserve what we wish still were.
We are proudly pointing out the sanctuary that no longer exists, even when we don't remember which end we preached from.
There are, no doubt, human-created (I am trying, in my newfound gender-sensitivity, not to say "manmade") relationships and institutions worth fighting for. But that does not mean they all are. And just because something is worth fighting for today does not mean it will be worth fighting for tomorrow.
God sometimes takes away our institutions with a violent crash, and great is the fall of them. More often, I think, most of our institutions tend to wither and atrophy as their guardians revel in what used to be, what might have been, and what never was.
The problem is usually not the institutions themselves. The problem is our faith in the institutions. When we begin relying on what a university inherently is instead of working to make it better; when we count on what a denomination can provide instead of using a denomination to serve the Master of that denomination; when an alumni association becomes more important than either the school that granted the degrees or the alumni themselves; when any institution becomes the object of faith and adoration ... then downfall is inevitable.
When spouses pledge allegiance to the marriage instead of each other, trouble is brewing.
A church is not worthy of our worship. A convention made up of churches is not entitled to our fealty.
A teenager may stay in a dating relationship long after there is any real interest in the boyfriend or girlfriend simply out of the comfort of having the relationship. We all know the feeling of "being in love with love." Hopefully, we grow out of that.
But we don't seem to learn that lesson very well. We have a very poor understanding of the shelf life of much of what we have built, hanging on to a name or a tradition or a reputation when its raison d'etre has long past.
I am not suggesting anarchy. Of course we must work to preserve those institutions that are valuable and healthy.
But we must do so with discernment. We must do so with care.
And we absolutely must do so with our eye on the ball. The institution exists for a purpose, and our call is that purpose, not the tool we have crafted.
It is so fortunate that rubble is a raw material for God. When our monuments crumble under their own weight, God takes the broken pieces and fashions something better. The myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes is nothing more than a picture of God's miraculous re-creation that happens when we get out of the way, or when God gets us and our stuff out of the way.
We have to learn to tell the difference between the decaying and the re-created, the work of people and the work of God. Jim Elliot was paraphrasing the words of Paul and the words of Christ when he said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
As a sermon I heard this week reminded me, the destruction of what we would preserve is often a mercy, for as long as we struggle against the grain, we shut out what would be a work of God.
We must stop clinging to what we cannot keep.