Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Positive Thinking Gets Stranded at the Drive In

This last month marked the final gasp of one of the larger and most shiny shiny congregations of the 20th century.   The legendary Crystal Cathedral, home of the ministries of Robert Schuller and the Hour of Power, has been sold off to the Catholic Church.  

The collapse of that congregation was, perhaps, inevitable.  The church soared to amazing heights back in the boom days of California, as Schuller's message of prosperity and positivity resonated with the community.   First he established a drive-in church....yes, a drive-in, just like that theatre in Grease, only with Jesus instead of schlocky horror flicks, bobbysocks, and popcorn.

This was the early 1960s California, before the car had become America's curse and burden, and so folks flocked to that ministry.  From that success, Schuller built the facility that would define his ministry.  The church soared in size, growing to around 10,000 members, with a significantly greater reach through the media.  

That sanctuary...well...what to say about that sanctuary?   Honestly, though it is impossibly over-huge, I find it...well...aesthetically pleasing.  I'll admit it.   I really like the Crystal Cathedral.  It's kind of awesome, sleek and vast and graceful, in a light filled futuristic way.  It'd be at home on Coruscant.  Utterly impractical, and impossibly over-pricey to cool and heat, but but then again, I'm thinking as an Easterner.  This is SoCal, where the weather is utterly fine, all the time.  It's a lovely building, and I can see why the diocese was so eager to snag it.

Then, of course, came the problem of succession.  When a ministry is built on a single personality, and that personality ain't Jesus, it's in real trouble.  Schuller knew this, of course, but succession in the Big Parking Lot Churches is a tricky thing.  The temptation is to keep the name, to cling to the brand, and that temptation was not overcome.  The church was passed first to his son, and then...when his son proved too much of a fundamentalist and started driving away the masses by seeming, well, mean...on to his daughter.

Even with several thousand members, even with a vast congregation by any standard, it had become too facility and staff-heavy.  By the time the ministry filed for bankruptcy last year, they were fifty million dollars in debt.  And so a multi-thousand member church, a church that musters exponentially more resources than my own sweet little ministry, fails.

They'd overreached, assumed things were going to be the same forever, and were so caught up in their own belief that God will provide and that everything will work out for the best that...well...they just kept on trucking down that path to collapse.   Heck, they're still banking on a miracle, even past the twelfth hour.

That, well, that pretty much never works out.  Ever.

And saying so does not reflect a lack of trust in God, or a lack of faith.  Maintaining a positive attitude is absolutely essential in life.  I say this as a compulsive worrier and a pessimist, traits the Spirit works on.  We do best when we are hopeful and bright with joy.

But there are significant and real boundaries to how that works.  If our hope wanders too far from the best probable grace, then we're not hoping and trusting in our Creator.  We are, instead, making demands of God.  

We are saying, Lord, we know we've continually made decisions that fly in the face of how your creation works.  We've been profligate and unwise and lost in our own dreams.   We've listened to that nice man who said the angels would protect us, and stepped right off the edge of that tower in Jerusalem.  Now we're plummeting down, and as the ground rises scary fast to meet us, could You...just for us, because we're so awesome and You love us nearly as much as we love ourselves...tweak gravity a teensy bit for a moment?

That's not faith.  That's not positive thinking.  That's magical thinking.  That gets you branded a fool, right before things get wet and messy.

Positive thinking is different.  It embraces reality, and allows reality to be suffused with grace, no matter what that reality might be.   Positive thinking finds abundance in less, finds places for joy in struggle, and finds ways to speak grace into sorrow.