Arguing With Church Signs

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

On May 1st I (Ben) began a three month sabbatical from my job as the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University. I spent my first day of intentional rest taking a long ride on my bicycle. Some may not find riding for miles and miles to be very restful, but I find the pedal rotations, rolling hills, and winding journey, to be an incredibly soothing experience for my soul.

Only a few miles into my ride I passed a church with a large roadside sign. You know the type – a bright white background with movable type so that the message can be changed depending on the season (or the local minister’s sense of church humor), illuminated day or night so that everyone takes notice as they pass by. This one said in all caps, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.”

The pace of my bicycle gave me plenty of time to read it and have it sink in. I’m embarrassed to admit that my first reaction was an impulsive anger directed at that congregation. My work at Penn State revolves around faith-based peace and social justice, and the primary group of students I interact with are those who have been hurt by the legalism of religious spaces. Statements like the one on that church sign reminded me of how damaging it can be when legalism becomes the center of our faith, and why a more nuanced interpretation of scripture is crucial if churches have any hope of remaining relevant for young adults. I thought about the students I know who have felt rejection from the church for the way they understand scripture, God, or themselves, and I wondered how many of them had experienced the Ten Commandments being used as a litmus test for whether they belong or not. I wondered if this congregation had any sense that their church sign may be objectionable – even to their fellow Christians. I considered the hypocrisy of well-intended church signs which rarely reflect the actual practice of the congregations they represent.

I also began to have an imaginary argument in my head with the pastor of that congregation. I wondered how that person would react if I challenged whether they were actually able to literally live up to the high standard set by those commands. I wondered if they would admit that even the most arduous rules and regulations may need to be broken if it means more fully and authentically living out our call to love God and love our neighbor. I wanted to ask them how someone who had been abused by their parents should show them “honor” (Commandment 4), how their enlisted congregants were dealing with killing on the battlefield (Commandment 5), or whether it was ever justified for someone to take back what had been taken from them (Commandment 7). I reasoned that while it is important to consider the history and tradition tied to this part of the Hebrew Bible, even my Jewish colleagues would argue that people of faith must wrestle with the text and with what it means to follow God. After all, wasn’t even Jesus guilty of breaking the Sabbath?

It took me several miles to realize how much of a hold that church sign had on my mental energy. I realized that five years of intense work trying to stand up for those who have been marginalized, rejected, or underappreciated, has made me into a cynical and critical person who is unable to take a church sign lightly. The fire that burns inside of me to create a better world also makes me unable to roll by a church sign without getting into a meaningless argument with no one in particular. While it is true that my commitment to faith-based peace and justice is an important part of who I am and those I serve, perhaps it is also something that is so tightly wound around who I am that I have become crippled by its hold on how I move about the world.

My hope is that these three months of sabbatical time can be used to rest and reflect, and just a few days in I am wondering what parts of my vocational identity and calling may also need time to rest and disengage.

By the end of my bike ride I had started to make peace with the sign. I reminded myself that if I really cared about the statement the sign was making, a best practice would be to arrange for a meeting with the leaders of that congregation. I chuckled to myself about how unlikely that was during these three months of rest, and realized in that moment that I had found a sense of peace in that moment. For now, I am letting go of my own attachment and connection to that sign, and whatever theological rationale that may be tied to it. During my time of rest, I am more acutely aware of my own need to let go of things, and for the moment at least, pass them by.

My bike route passed by that same church on the way home, but by that time, just a few hours later, the church sign had already been changed to reflect some upcoming special services. Something that was of the utmost importance of my mental energy earlier in the day had been quietly replaced. Even though it has been removed from the visible landscape, the memory will live on through my sabbatical as a reminder for me to slow down and hold things a little lighter.

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