Yard sales 500 years in the making

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My wife and I are thinking about having a yard sale. (Unlike the mop, which was never used by me, the sale will probably come off at some point.) It would be nice to let loose of some of the items we've been toting from place to place. Yard sales can be considerable work. Still, every now and again, you just have an overwhelming impulse to clean out the attic.

Christianity does this as well. According to a fascinating new book by religion writer Phyllis Tickle, "The Great Emergence," the Christian faith has a spiritual yard sale every 500 years or so. And right this minute, Tickle says, we are in the process of putting red ("priced to move") tags on some of our faith items. If you look at Tickle's analysis of church history, her 500-year rule seems to hold -- give or take a few decades.

500 years ago: The Great Reformation, which birthed the Protestant movement, with its emphasis on universal literacy, the priesthood of all believers and individualistic notions of salvation. Roman Catholicism emerged from this theological crisis with many beneficial changes, including the establishment of the Jesuits and the opening of seminaries.

1,000 years ago: The Great Schism, in which Constantinople (Eastern Orthodoxy) and Rome (Roman Catholicism) excommunicated each other. Driven by the rapidly diverging cultures of East and West, theological issues gave a final shove in pushing the two apart. After a time, each would flourish by no longer having to sacrifice doctrinal purity in the name of unity.

1,500 years ago: The Great Chaos. The Roman Empire was finally, officially dead, launching the Dark Ages. Lawlessness was rampant. A form of corrupted Christianity leached into the churches. In this volatile period, western Christianity would be held in trust by convents and monasteries in Europe, where stability and order were prized.

2,000 years ago: The Great Transformation. This period saw the destruction of the second and last Temple in Jerusalem and the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the birth of the Christian faith.

We can go back even further. Two thousand, five hundred years ago was the Great Captivity -- which led to the scattering by Babylonia of Jews from their Palestinian roots -- also known as the Diaspora.

All of these 500-year historical "hinges" were frightening in their time, but the people would emerge on the other side of these crises with either a more vital expression of faith or one that is reconstituted and purer. The attic was emptied of the junk.

Tickle believes we are living through another historical hinge right now. Radical change is afoot in the church, which has entered a post-denominational, postmodern phase where the old order no longer seems to apply. Change is usually unwelcome and always unsettling. Tickle's message seems to be -- "It's going to be all right, church! We've seen this before historically. It's natural and inevitable, so go with it." Space does not permit more specifics here.

A new 500-year spiritual yard sale is on. The tricky thing is knowing what to get rid of and what to keep. I'm thinking about it. May the Holy Spirit continue to give guidance as we walk through the red tags.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: