One of the best ways for me to understand my own story, is to look at it through the lens of other stories. One of those stories is about a man named, Nicodemus. He was a friend of Jesus of Nazareth and was also part of the religious/political institution of his day. While the institution ultimately rejected Jesus, Nicodemus must have been intrigued because at night he snuck out to look for him.
I’ve often wondered why? Why Jesus? Why at night? Was it because he didn’t have time during the day to do it? Was it because he was embarrassed to be seen with Jesus, or worse, it was dangerous to be seen with Jesus? Was it because he wanted to get the goods on Jesus and report back to his colleagues? Or, was it because he was looking for something the institution was no longer capable of providing?
In the last several years, I have met Nicodemus after Nicodemus. They are friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even complete strangers who spend their days in a religious institution, faithfully serving, giving, and striving to be a part of a mission for good in the world. However, as the world grows more complex, more and more are having to go outside the institution to find something that can handle their questions, frustrations, and ultimately, can handle them.
The institutional environment has become rigid and closed off. Often the ones who expose the sharp edges and closed doors are labeled rebellious and arrogant. These outsiders are left to sneak out and search in secret, letting few others into their process, especially the institutional authorities. A culture of conflict avoidance and legalistic rules about division keep the disenfranchised quiet. Meanwhile, the system moves on, crushing people in its wake and leaving people to feel rejected, alone, and heretical.
Several years ago, I heard Jean Vanier say we are building institutions that look like fortresses instead of fountains. The lines are clear. The walls are high. You can get in if you fit through the doorway and get past the guards. What many people fail to recognize is that the back exit is wide open and good people are leaving to find a fountain.
I don’t think Nicodemus was crazy and neither are the many others who are discontent with the institution. Their questions are legit. Their stories deserve to be heard. We all are looking for a fountain to drink from. A fountain that is available to anyone coming from anywhere. People are longing to hear the words, “come and drink.”
The soup kitchen in my neighborhood has a sign out front that reads:
Women's Bible Study - 4pm Men's Bible Study - 5pm Worship Service - 7pm Free Meal - 7:30pm Door Lock at 7pm
Every time I read it I think about my dog, Max. When he was a puppy we decided it would be beneficial to go to some obedience classes. Knowing that he would one day weigh over 130 lbs., we felt it was important to establish who the masters of the home were while he was still a manageable size. After all, no one wants a disobedient dog running the household.
While all the classes were helpful, we learned the most important principle on the first night: Never feed the dog before class. A hungry dog and a pocket full of treats are all you need to get the dog to do anything you want. Obedience training is a breeze as long as the dog is hungry.
I hate that freakin’ sign.