Thursday, October 25, 2018

Vintage CC: St. Francis and Doctor Who

This post comes from February 2015. With the premiere of the newest season (and the newest lead) of Doctor Who earlier this month, it seemed like a good time to revisit these thoughts on the TARDIS and the church.

"Wherever we are, wherever we go, we bring our cell with us. Our brother body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in the cell. If our soul does not live in peace and solitude within this cell, of what avail is it to live in a man-made cell?" - Francis of Assisi

I've been thinking about this quote from Francis quite a bit lately. Part of the reason he's remembered so much for his connection to nature is that he was always out in it, out wanting to commune with the world rather than spend all his time in a monastery room. We don't need a cell in a special building, he said. Our own bodies are our cells. They go places, as they're meant to do. They interact and connect and bump into others. We ourselves are a sacred room in God's great big monastery. And we should seek comfort within ourselves in order to rest peaceably there.

We carry our cells with us. They're always present, not to retreat into but to live within comfortably.

So naturally, that got me thinking about Doctor Who.

The Doctor has a special ship called the TARDIS, an amazing piece of Time Lord technology that looks like an old-time British police box on the outside, but is much, much bigger on the inside. Not only can it travel through space, but it can travel through time as well. "Anywhere you want," the Doctor is fond of telling his companions. It can go there with a few buttons pushed and switches flipped. Any planet or country, past or future, the TARDIS can take you there.

But as incredible as it is, the TARDIS is not to be sat in idly. It contains a vast expanse of rooms and capabilities, but its true purpose is to get you someplace where you then leave it behind for a while in order to explore where it's taken you. Don't worry, it'll be locked. It's safe. People rarely tend to take advantage while you're away.

Now, here's another trick that this ship has up its sleeve. Even when you wander away from it, you're still connected to it. Some of its powers go with you as you poke around the brave new world in which you've landed. It translates alien languages in your head. It sometimes gives its travelers the ability to heal or to stave off threats. Even though you've left it physically, it goes with you.

The Doctor and his companions carry the TARDIS with them.

So of course, this brings me to the church.

Those of us who serve established churches usually find ourselves working with a faith community with a set of assumptions about what the church is. Even the word "church" usually connotes something specific, that being Sunday worship. When you say you're "going to church," you usually mean you're going to worship. That phrase is for that particular event, not the Tuesday committee meeting or the Wednesday Bible study or the Saturday service project. When you say you're going to church, you mean the Sunday morning moment where you sing and listen to a sermon and pray and give money.

The word "church" also usually means a place with stained glass, classrooms, a fellowship hall, offices, and a steeple. Most in established faith communities speak of church as a physical place to which you go to do a specific set of activities. And this physical place needs attention and time and a great big set of budget line items to maintain it.

Now here's where we remind each other that the church is more than that building. There's even a Sunday School song about it: "the church is the people" and all that. But aside from singing that every once in a while, how good are churches at living it?

We are in a time where life in the church isn't what it used to be. Budgets and membership are shrinking, people are finding other things to do with their Sunday mornings besides "going to church." The whole practice of going to a place for even a few hours a week seems like a big daunting production for some families.

So how might we think about "church" in a new way? How might we think about ourselves as individual cells in God's great big monastery, in which we pray and are at peace with God and ourselves? How might we think of the church as more like the TARDIS, a community outpost that is always with us and empowering us even when we are apart from it? How can the church be a place that takes us to amazing new spiritual places when we are together, but is still with us the rest of the week when we're apart?

There's no easy answer. But if we start imagining, God might help us come up with some great possibilities.