Dancing Bears & a Tame God
“Tame” –Adjective (1. changed from the wild or savage state; domesticated; 2.without the savageness, gentle, fearless, or without shyness, as if domesticated; 3. tractable, docile, or submissive; 4.lacking in excitement; dull; insipid; 5.spiritless or pusillanimous; 6.not to be taken very seriously; without real power or importance; harmless; 7.brought into service; rendered useful and manageable; under control;)
Years ago, traveling through Europe, we saw a lot of street entertainment – jugglers, musicians of every flavor, even a few fire-eaters. The saddest “entertainment” was one day in Athens, Greece. Hearing a violin playing and seeing people gathering, we went to find out what was happening. Indeed, a fiddler was playing a tune but for a large brown bear whose paws were chained with a leash held by another man. The bear moved back and forth up on its hind legs in what was supposed to be “dancing.” It turns out this is something of a tradition in some countries like the Balkans and India. Wild bears are captured, tamed and trained through physical abuse (often in chains or with a rope inserted through their nose tissue) to “dance” to the tune and perform circus tricks, and then used to solicit donations for their owners. It was painfully sad to witness. We didn’t stay long to watch.
While most countries have finally banned the cruel practice, I think that a sort of spiritual parallel continues -when pastors, congregations, denominations or movements try to make Jesus, aside from grace, something else or more, be it palatable, relevant, exciting, popular, or marketable, turning God, ministry, church and the good news into something of a tamed, “dancing bear.” As a result people worship a chained, tame God, are offered a domesticated, tame gospel and gather as a harmless, tame church; all expected to dance to whoever calls the tune or throws the most cash in the bucket. What Jesus said of his own time is still true of ours – “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”(Matt. 11:17)
There are repeated moments when I feel that what I am doing is not enough (and that what we are doing collectively as “church” is not enough). I’m not referring to busyness or adrenaline or activity or generating buzz. Rather, despite all the energy and effort expended, it remains too lacking in real power, in genuine love, in radical saving grace, in utter dependence on God, to demonstrate the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness; those truly re-born by the Holy Spirit and freed from the prison of self, sin, culture, evil and death and those still in its grip. It is too nice, too respectable, too yesteryear, too captive, and yes, too tame to penetrate the hardness and blindness of hearts today – not that hearts have really changed over the last couple of millennia but in the post-modern, post-Christendom, Disney / Walmartesque neo-pagan culture of today, the depravity of the human heart is no longer concealed beneath the thin veneer of respectable, generic, civil religion or middle-class churchiantiy (and that’s not something to grieve over I might add!).
What I long for is not another branded, cult of personality, hot idea, or celebrity driven fad for “Church Inc.” but something real and genuine and un-tamed, that opens blind eyes, that heals broken hearts and bodies, that changes nations, terrifies demons and shakes the rafters of Hell. Oh, I’ve seen glimpses here and there and am grateful; others have assured me the eschaton has already pulled into their church parking lot with the latest traveling salvation show – but I remain unconvinced. I have no easy prescriptions, 5 step plans or fix-it formulas – I simply know that what we have now is nowhere near what God intended or what, in hope, he plans to do. I also believe that God, in his God kind of way, has not and will not give up on his people.
A bear is not meant to be captive, domesticated or chained – a bear is naturally fierce, strong and fearsome. The God, Creator, Savior and Deliverer who thundered from Sinai so that people cried in terror (Ex. 20:18), is not tame – his Son who’s holy presence sent Peter to his knees in a fishing boat (Luke 5:8) and left John un-done because of his revelation (Rev. 1:17), the Spirit that shook the house of the gathered church (Acts 2; 4:31), are not tame either. Nor is the good news. Nor was it ever intended for the people that have been called by his name to be either.