Sunday, June 8, 2008

An upside-down church and the Uzzah Experience

The email high-fives have been making the rounds lately, over the removal of a controversial piece of public art near Coal Harbor in Vancouver. The installation is of a church, literally standing on its head: steeple downwards, the foundation in the air.

It's one of the few pieces of public art (official name is "Device to Root Out Evil", and the scupltor is Dennis Oppenheim of New York) that I've ever really been able to dig, but it offended a number of religious types, and the Vancouver Park Board has taken it out, and it's off to Calgary to be displayed there.

The move by the park board came after these protests, however there are, apparently, a number of other factors. One is that some real estate types have been coveting the property; maybe it made non-Christians uncomfortable -- heck, how can you argue with the title? The Park Board itself insists it "never intended for the display to be permanent", so it was time to take it out.

Yeah - whatever.
This entry is directed at those who opposed it on religious grounds.

Having been raised in a "showbiz" family (you'll find my mother's star on Starwalk on Granville Street), I still believe in artistic freedom, even though -- as you've probably gathered if you've read anything else on this blog -- my Christian faith is as strong and Bible-believing and faith-imbued as they come. I know, therefore, that Jesus is more powerful, more glorious and more victorious than any upside-down church. Christians are not called to take offence, but to promote Jesus to the world. Being seen as a bunch of religious thought police (this may come as a shock to some) does not accomplish that.

We're not alone: the experience of Uzzah happened 4,000 years ago, and it appears that lesson still hasn't sunk in.

First of all, let me explain why I dug that installation. It gets us thinking -- thinking about faith, and about the church itself. Some might construe the title, "Device to Root Out Evil", to be sarcastic. Sarcasm is often in the mind of the listener (or, as Dilbert once said, "I don't have an attitude problem: you have a perception problem).
But supposing we take the title at face value: the intention of the church is to root out evil. And consider the image of the little country church, as opposed to a massive cathedral: the simplicity of the Gospel, the Word of God straight-no-chaser, laying the axe to the root.
Some think that having the steeple pointing downwards represents a church going to hell. Why should that be offensive? Shouldn't that get us thinking about what the Body of Christ is doing and make sure our church is not going to hell? Or maybe it's a sign that our church has become topsy-turvy -- much like the rest of the world -- and we need to do what we can to put it upright? Or maybe the installation is supposed to remind us that every so often, we need to take the institution called the Church and turn it on its ear: shake it up and get it moving again? Many people have called for that over the centuries, be it Martin Luther with his theses, Pierre Berton's The Comfortable Pew or even Jesus Christ Himself.

I suspect any one of those ideas struck a nerve with the religious opponents.

So who is Uzzah, and what is his lesson?

Uzzah is written up for Eternity in 2 Samuel 6 for one tiny little slip-up, which cost him his life. He was walking in proximity to the Ark of the Covenant, which was riding on a cart pulled by oxen. One ox stumbled and the Ark shook. Uzzah leapt to steady the Ark and keep it from falling, and was vaporized on the spot for disobedience.

The disobedience is spelled out in Numbers 4:15 "they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die". The next verses explain how each man involved with the tabernacle is assigned his particular burden, and nothing more -- and especially, they are not to touch the holy things.

Uzzah stepped out of bounds. His action was well-intentioned (is there ever a more damning assessment of someone than to say that "they meant well"?) -- he was afraid something might happen to the Ark if it fell off the cart -- but disobedient, not just because he violated Num. 4:15 (and other such warnings), but because his action was based on fear -- not faith.

See, there's a fear we humans have -- especially when religion enters the picture -- that our beliefs constantly need to be defended. We need to be on guard against anyone who criticizes, denigrates or otherwise comes against what we believe. Criticism creates the speed bump that causes the ox to trip, and we feel we have to leap to make sure the Ark doesn't fall.

What are we afraid of? That the Ark might break? That God is going to get hurt? That the Ark might fall at all? My God does not fall off the cart, no matter how many times the ox trips. My God is the only One Who can keep me from falling: He doesn't need me to prop Him up. He has called me -- as He has called all of us who believe -- to promote Him, preach the Gospel, baptize, heal and lead people to salvation; but He has not called me to defend Him.

There will be no shortage of people who will look past the Park Board's "official" explanation for the removal of the upside-down church, hear and read the congratulatory comments from the religious types who took offence, and come to the reasonable conclusion that the thought police are at it again. So we need to ask ourselves: will this lead one more soul to Christ? Has this advanced the Kingdom one iota? Indeed, it makes the job so much tougher for those trying to reach out to the "unchurched".

Throughout the first five books of the Old Testament, we are reminded constantly of the force of God's glory. Even those closest to Him couldn't look at Him directly. Moses and Elijah had to cover their faces when they came near His presence. In Exodus 19:21, "the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and manyof them perish".

We get a very graphic description of God's glory in Daniel 3, when Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are thrown into the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar had that furnace cranked up to seven times its normal heat, so that when the door was opened and the three shoved inside, the soldiers beside them were incinerated.

Yet S, M & A came out of it unsinged, without even the smell of smoke.

That's the glory of God: more powerful yet than a furnace that can kill someone who just comes close to it.

Wouldn't that be stronger than one artist's view of the church?

Aha! Someone is saying: the opponents of the installation haven't been vaporized -- explain that, wiseguy!

It's the Grace of God, giving people a chance to be more circumspect in the future -- the same Grace He grants me, in case I'm missing the point.

Nevertheless, we are called not to react, but to pray. Reacting -- as Uzzah did -- is a fleshly response, believing one is doing the right thing. Praying seeks the Lord and asks what His will is. As we learned from Peter at the time of the Crucifixion, even the best of intentions can be at cross-purposes to God's will.

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