They could have come up with something completely different.
They had the power to shape things in a radically different way.
They could have built a system that guaranteed that their own personal views would be given special status.
Instead, they crafted the first sixteen words of the first amendment to the United States Constitution, words that would forever define the place of religion in this great American experiment.
Only sixteen words, but words both powerful and wise.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
It's part of what Americans call the Bill of Rights. This first part of the first amendment is comprised of two different sections.
The first part, sometimes called the establishment clause, prevents the government from setting up an official American religion. It also prevents the government from favoring any particular faith group over any other faith group - or over people who have no faith at all. This provision in the first amendment keeps government from supporting or propping up a particular religion or religion in general.
The second part of the amendment is sometimes called the free exercise clause. It prohibits the government from limiting the free expression of faith. This part of the founding documents allows Americans to worship as they choose - or not to worship at all. This clause of the first amendment legally and officially guarantees the open sharing of faith. Government is never to prohibit that free expression.
Sixteen simple words.
Do you ever wonder why the government won't declare that your particular faith is the "right" one? Do you ever wonder why the government won't proclaim that your religion is the official religion of our nation? Do you ever wonder why the government won't give your church money to do its work? Do you ever wonder why religious groups other than yours (especially groups that you don't care for) aren't limited in what they can do? Do you ever wonder why the government doesn't provide people with specific prayers to pray?
Well, the answer to all of those questions is . . . the founders. They could have done something completely different, but this is the way they wanted it to be. According to the first amendment, the government simply cannot favor one religion over another, or favor religion over no religion.
If that bothers you, blame the founders.
And do you ever wonder why you are absolutely free to gather with your friends for worship? Do you wonder why you can have Bible studies in your home? Do you wonder why you can talk about your faith out loud and in public? Do you wonder why you can share your faith freely and openly? Do you ever wonder why you are free to try to convince other people to embrace your religious views?
Well, the answer to all of those questions is . . . the founders. They could have done something completely different, but this is the way that wanted it to be. According to the first amendment, the government simply cannot prohibit the free expression of religion - your religion or the religion of someone else.
If that pleases you, thank the founders.
The founders, of course, knew that there were other options. In fact, they had already experienced some of those other options. From their past experience, they knew exactly what would happen if government got entangled with religion - either to help it along or to keep it under control.
Knowing what they knew, and having experienced what they had experienced, the founders chose a different path.
And the path they chose is a wonderful and distinctive part of the American story. It might, in fact, be the very best part of the American story.
The founders knew that the best thing for faith was for the government to leave it alone. The founders knew that people of faith could share their beliefs most powerfully and effectively without the help of the government. The founders also knew that it would be wrong for the government to inhibit the sharing of faith.
The founders knew that it was best to build a wall between church and state.
The founders were wise.
As a result of their wisdom, even today Americans live under the liberating power of these simple sixteen words.
Sometimes we tend to complain about the way things are. Sometimes we are inclined to be upset that we don't receive official help to spread our faith. Sometimes we can't understand why other groups seem to have the same rights and opportunities that we have.
Instead of complaining and being upset, we should praise God for the visionary wisdom of those who built the house that we live in.
The founders got it right.
The best that government can do for religion is simply to make sure that there is a level playing field, and then leave it alone.
When that happens, the truth will rise to the top.
It seems to be the theme of the week for me. Just about every conversation over the past few days has eventually gotten around to the topic of the miserable condition of the world. It's almost as if everybody is reciting the same script. "These sure are dark days," they sadly say.
I've heard the line repeatedly this week.
Often, it then goes even further than that. "These are dark days" quickly morphs into "This is the darkest it has ever been; I don't think things have ever been this bad before."
While I have some suspicions about the cause of the concern, I am not precisely sure what's behind the apocalyptic tone.
My first reaction to those grim pronouncements is to think of other times in history that have been pretty bad. I'm not sure, for example, that I would trade places with followers of Jesus who were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. I'm not sure that things were all that good in certain seasons of the Middle Ages. Even more, I suspect that lots of people alive right now are in far worse situations than the people I've been talking with lately.
I enjoyed reading an article this week written by Bill Wilson, a church consultant. He referred to a therapist friend of his who says that most of us have a habit of "awfulizing" everything. What a great word! Something hard that we encounter, we tend to believe, is surely the worst thing that has ever happened. It's just awful!
So these are the worst political candidates ever. That was the worst sermon. This is the worst weather. That was the worst experience of my life. Things have never been this bad. Everything is just . . . awful.
I think the therapist is right. We do tend to awfulize things. And that's not a small matter; there is something very unattractive - and even dangerous - about this nasty habit of awfulization.
Concluding that everything is awful prevents us from seeing the wonder of possibility and potential. As followers of Jesus, this is a great time to be alive! Just like Esther in the Old Testament, God has called us for such a time as this.
Dark days? I think not. The worst days? Hardly. Hopeless? Not on your life!
In fact, God is doing amazing things in our time. During these interesting days, we are the people who get to tell the story and cling to faith and maintain our hope. We are the people who get to extend grace and offer life and embrace the future. We are the people who have the opportunity to point people to Jesus.
Of course, we don't need to pretend that everything is perfect. In fact, things aren't perfect.
But things are not nearly as awful as some people say.
Despite all appearances, these days belong to God.
I have always been told that it's good to look at things from another person's perspective. I have often been encouraged to consider other points of view. And I think that's really good counsel. I'm sure that it is wise to live that way.
Lately, though, I've come to the conclusion that it's really hard to do that. In fact, I'm wondering right now if it's possible at all.
Maybe it's just part of the human condition, but most of the time we are utterly captive to our own perception.
I know what I am feeling. I know what I am seeing. I know what I am experiencing. But I don't have foggiest idea what all of that looks like to you. And even if I do my best to shift the focus, I'm not sure that I can really do that. It sounds good to sympathetically say, "I know what you're feeling," or "I know exactly what that's like." But those words can't possibly be true.
In fact, we DON'T know how it feels and we DON'T know what it's like.
I don't think the answer to our dilemma is to stop trying. Instead, I think the answer is to start talking. More to the point, to start listening. To be less worried about defending our view of things and more eager to learn. Maybe even to be willing to lay down some of our certainties, or at least to hold them more gently.
Obviously, we presume that everything we believe is certain and sure. After all, that's why we believe what we believe. But if we're willing to enter into community, willing to walk in friendship, willing to open some doors, we will make possible some softening, some smoothing of rough edges, some change of heart. And even if we then insist on saying, "Yeah, I was right all along," perhaps we'll say it a little less dogmatically.
It's just the way we live: whatever I know is true, whatever I do is right, whatever I feel is justified, however I act or however I react is okay. And there is no possibility that I could be wrong.
Hopefully we ARE right about a few things.
For my part, though, I'm really interested in what you think and what you feel and what you do. I am absolutely fascinated by your experience, by the way things look to you, by the forces that have shaped your life, by your particular point of view.
I want to hear your story. I need to hear your story.
Having heard your story, I might not change my views, but I will certainly be changed. Even more, it is actually possible that I might acknowledge that there is another point of view.
And I think that would be a really good thing.
I remember discovering Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship when I was in college. I was part of a small group that decided to work through the book section by section. Being self-absorbed college students, I'm sure that we thought we were the first people to stumble on the book. Each week, we gathered to share our insights and reflections and reactions. The book seized us with its clarity and power. Years later, I realize that the book also changed us, though I'm not sure we knew that at the time.
I still recall the line on page 99. It's underlined in my well-read copy. I still take the book off the shelf and flip to that page from time to time.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
It's not the kind of sentence I encounter in most of the newer books I read these days, but that hard truth grows directly out of Jesus' own invitation. Follow me. Count the cost. Take up your cross. Lose your life. Deny yourself. Bonhoeffer was simply repeating what Jesus had already said.
For the past five months in our new church, we've been working through the story of Jesus, talking about what it means to follow him. As simple as that sounds, I am being deeply challenged. I'm sensing that following Jesus will mean that I won't be able to follow any other thing. I'm realizing that what I'd really like is to keep my life exactly the way it is and still follow Jesus. Maybe you'd like the same thing. Wouldn't that be great? To have everything we already have and to have Jesus too!
But Bonhoeffer - and Jesus - insist on telling us the truth. Following Jesus demands that we let everything else go. We don't take up our cross and carry on as usual. We don't deny ourselves and pretend that it's business as usual. And we certainly don't hear an invitation to come and die and then proceed to with the way we're already going.
I fear that many of us haven't really understood or embraced what it means to follow Jesus.
I've been carrying Bonhoeffer's words around for over forty years now.
I'm not sure that I've ever embraced them fully.
But I can't seem to let them go.