by Lloyd Martin
We live in an age of rapidly expanding technology. As technology advances we gather more and more data. We are able to discover more solutions and draw many more conclusions about the world we live in. We are now much more aware of our world and how things work than ever before. We have rapidly grown in confidence about the knowledge we have acquired and how we can use it to our best advantage. We are ever more confident to do things our own way, the way we believe it works, the way we have proven it to work. We can now confidently build patterns for our lives that are successful.
We apply the same fruits of technology to our understanding of the things of God. This is mostly good and it is true that technology has indeed aided the church in many ways. However, if we take a short break from our busy schedules to step back and reflect a little we might discover that this was a very similar situation the Scribes and the other law experts in the days of Jesus were enjoying. These great minds had “perfected” the law of God and were dissecting it into minute detail. They regarded themselves as experts in the law, and indeed they were. Jesus came and disturbed their detail-based systems by challenging, not the law they loved and studied so passionately, but the way they applied it, indeed, the way they had manipulated it to suit their own needs. I once heard someone describe truth as being similar to juggling seven balls – the minute you grab hold of one ball, you drop the other six. The secret is to keep on juggling and to let a little of the truth rub off from each ball each time it fleetingly caresses your hand. The problem is that when we grab hold of one ball, no matter how painful or glorious, a sacred cow is born.
Having been born and raised in the city I have to confess to never having killed a full grown cow or even being around when this has been done. I can, however, imagine it to be a very messy activity that, if not done properly, could lead to all types of problems including virtual unredeemable chaos and the possible destruction of the surrounding area, not to mention the lives of the people involved. I have heard it said that a cow can sense its impending death and just before the slaughter it can start performing in desperate, frantic and dangerous ways, filling the surrounding environment with much fear and confusion. This I’m sure could even distract the most committed executioner. I would imagine this all to not be for the fainthearted. Truly a job for skilled professionals!
Trying to kill sacred cows is as dangerous as killing real cows. They usually respond to their pending execution in much the same way that natural cows do. In the church we have full-grown ‘cows’ in virtually every area of corporate and individual activity. These cows trample on every flowerbed and mess (I would like to use the word ‘defecate’, but for the sake of our sensitive readers let us stay with ‘mess’) on virtually everything that is pure and true amongst us. They invariably block the way and prevent easy access to important and beautiful things. Their insensitive hooves and horns endanger our little ones and it has even become unsafe to continue to bring our ‘young’ into the church. These cows bellow at sensitive moments and at meal times they noisily masticate regurgitated food they have brought up from their inner stomachs - food which should have been digested, distributed and dealt with ages ago. Sometimes in our congregations the cows sadly far outnumber even the members in the community.
Jesus Himself had many more problems with the sacred cows of His day than with the sheep when He came to bring the real demonstration of the truth. I believe that we have come full circle and that the ‘cows’ we even preach against from biblical examples have done a remarkable recovery, a turn-around jump-shot, a veritable ‘slam-dunk,’ and are alive and well and living amongst us. Jesus killed many sacred cows during His life on earth. He threatened the established religious and social paradigms, actively and effectively undermining their political power by living and demonstrating the truth before their eyes. At the same time He injected into the lost sheep a seed of power, presence and persistence, which if it fell on good soil and was properly nurtured, would effectively overcome the brute dominance of the ‘cow kingdom.’ His life was revolutionary, characterised more by a demonstration of the Spirit and of power than by eloquent and persuasive words of human wisdom. The very first verse of the book of Acts tells us of the way that Jesus went about the business of cow displacement. Luke tells us that Jesus first demonstrated and then He explained what He did after He had done it.1 The same passage inserts the word ‘began.’ This tells me that what Jesus began to do and teach is not yet over. We must continue with His example. We (His disciples) must ‘do’ and then teach about what we do to other faithful disciples who will also be able to follow our example and teach others in turn.2 Teaching alone in the hope of bringing about change is, according to Jesus’ example, ineffective. Both demonstration and proclamation must be done, but in God’s way and in God’s time. Teaching alone usually leads to more sacred cows, only of a slightly varied mutation, being born. First doing and then explaining is far more hazardous3 but the way of truth and life. The truth of the matter is that in the end it was the sacred cows that conspired and caused Jesus to be executed.
There are ‘legions’ of sacred cows blocking the future of the church. (It is important to understand that the sacred cows amongst us are not people but the set beliefs entrenched in the hearts and minds of people. Jesus loves people – it’s what they do and why they do it that He rejects.) To enumerate each and every one would not only prove an endless and somewhat futile exercise, but would also distract us from the real task at hand – exploring and enjoying the freedom that Christ has set us free to.
The problem with sacred cows is that they are mostly entrenched in the upper echelons of church life and can tend to bring a (false) sense of comfort and ease to us. We can even begin to enjoy their presence. They seem to bring a sense of rational stability and predictability to what we do. Sacred cows can be birthed in the successes of past ventures and cause us to weld our rudders to a set course. In this way sacred cows tend to bless the faint of heart. You can say what you like about them, but sacred cows can be trusted to repeat and even entrench whatever makes us comfortable.
There are those whom God has anointed with special grace to deal with these Leviathans on a large scale and they must walk with skill and great courage – a calling not to be impudently grasped but received with all humility. But the truth is that we all have the responsibility to deal with the sacred cows in our own lives and environments. Unfortunately, most true prophetic acts end up being “stoned outside the city walls”. Most who attempt to tackle these beasts either get pierced through, beaten and broken or effectively marginalized by the political power of the system. What can be done then? How are we to effectively deal with this huge problem? It is unrealistic to think that we can remove all the sacred cows at one time. To begin with I believe that what we can effectively do is to starve the existing sacred cows by not fuelling their monstrous appetites. It is not as hazardous as attacking them head-on but in the long term equally as effective. Full-grown cows are very difficult to kill and remarkably stubborn to the point of immovability, but we can also prevent more sacred calves from growing up or even being born. What I am suggesting is a method we can actively pursue as we move towards reformation amongst the young and passionate at heart in our midst.4 Perhaps we could call the strategy, “How to prevent sacred calves from being born.” It may be very difficult to kill the full-grown cows around us but if we can identify the sacred calves being born in our church communities and if we detect them early on we can prevent them from reaching an intimidating size. In this way we also do the essential, we build towards future generations.
Two Sacred Calves
I would like to draw our attention to the birth of two sacred calves that are mentioned in scripture. One was a calf that was created because things weren’t going too well and the other was a camp that was almost created because things were going great.
In the first account the Israelites were out in the wilderness and Moses their leader had been up the mountain, away from the community, getting revelation and teaching from God concerning the way ahead.5 He had been gone 40 days and the Israelites began to get worried because Moses was nowhere to be seen. As a result of this their personal sense of security began to erode. They called on Aaron (Moses’ 2nd in command) to make them an image of a golden calf. The Israelites had seen the power of God working in the signs and wonders that were performed against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They knew who God was. They were not asking for a god to be made for them from nothing, an imaginary deity, but rather a representation, an image of the God who had miraculously brought them out of Egypt. They said to Aaron, “Make us gods,” (‘gods’ in the plural). This understanding of collective ‘gods’ was what they had probably picked up from their life in Egypt where that nation served many gods. What we can learn from this is that when things aren’t going as we expect we start moving towards creating images of God to alleviate our disturbed comfort zones. Usually the icons we create are dredged up from the past – images that we feel we can understand a bit better and which gave (and which stand to give us) a sense of comfort and continuity. Images that are not reflective of God’s present truth but emotive feelings - memories of past experiences. When things are not going too well we tend to grasp at what we thought was good in the past. We fashion it into an image of what we think things once were and we give it god-like worth. Unto us a sacred calf is born.
The second account is found in the gospels where Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain and was transfigured before their very eyes.6 There they saw Jesus glorified as never before. His face shone like the sun and His clothes were as radiant as white light. They saw Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah and the glory of this experience was so much for the disciples that Peter suggested that they build camp at that very spot. The suggestion was ignored by Jesus and the next thing they knew was that God was overshadowing them in a bright cloud and a voice from heaven ordered them rather to hear (understand, obey) Jesus. At that point everything else vanished and they were left alone with Jesus. The next thing Jesus did was to command them not to speak of what they had seen and heard until He was risen from the dead. What we can learn from this is that when things go wonderfully and the presence of God is tangible we also tend to want to ‘camp’ in that experience. The minute we do so a sacred cow is born and we hear the other six balls thumping to the ground. This is how church ‘movements’ are often started. Something wonderful and glorious happens and we start defining ourselves by the event instead of by the God who caused the event. A certain song was sung, a certain procedure was followed, a certain person spoke, and the presence of God came down – so we repeat the sequence in the hope of conjuring up the same manifestation of God’s presence. The tricky aspect to this is that the reason we follow these patterns is usually because we want to bless people and experience God individually and corporately. This calls for great wisdom. Jericho fell to the nation of Israel in a most wonderful, unexpected and awesome manner. A most glorious and successful siege of a city. Yet the pattern was never repeated. If Israel had gone on to the next city and silently marched around it for seven days they would have been soundly thrashed. Jesus Himself never repeated the method of healing people. It was different every time. It is never the set pattern, but flexible obedience to the voice of God that promises repeated glory and success. A path not for the fainthearted.
The scriptures tell us that God’s grace and mercies are new every morning and I’m sure that most of us believe this, so why is it that we do the same thing every Sunday? Even the way we meet, where we meet, when we meet, how we meet, is infested with sacred cows. As a pastor I have had people leave the church in frustration and even anger because things were not going the way they have always gone. You can almost hear the bellowing of the sacred cows as they mourn what they see as the ‘chaos’ of church. They cry for ‘order’ to ease their personal discomfort, but it is mostly an order of their own devising rather than God’s order that they are after. I say it again, the killing of sacred cows is an activity not for the fainthearted. But if we are serious about the Kingdom of God we cannot allow these intruders to continue to block the future of the church.
Sacred cows are deceptive intruders. We all have them living in us. We unwittingly feed them and nourish them. They are so deceptive that their presence is hardly ever detected. Even those of us who seem to be able to see the sacred cows in others are mostly unaware of the sacred cows that obscure our own vision. This calls for great humility and a contrite heart. I have always been amazed at how little structural information Jesus gave to His disciples as to how the future church was to run. His life was the defining and pivotal point of history and yet all His disciples were clueless as to what was happening until it actually happened and even then they were confused. Jesus was content to leave things as they were and to send the Holy Spirit to guide His disciples into the truth.7 Perhaps there is a profound lesson in this. Perhaps the God-intended ‘structure’ of church life is organic rather than organised. Perhaps it might be true that the children of God are to be led by the prompting of the Spirit rather than by the legislated statutes of tradition.8 Perhaps in our desire to bring ‘order’ we have inadvertently introduced a seemingly benevolent legalism of the most insidious kind. It calls for great courage and fortitude to tackle the sacred cows that are blocking the future of the church but it has to start somewhere and it has to start with someone. I believe we are still hearing the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” My prayer is that the response of Isaiah will be heard in our day, “Here I am! Send me.”9
Lloyd was a member of Friends First, a South African Christian band, and is currently pastor at Duduza, a multi-racial church in Johannesburg. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 see Acts 1:1
2 see 2 Timothy 2:23
3 see Matthew 10:16-39
4 see Matthew 18:3
5 see Exodus 32
6 see Matthew 17; Mark 9
7 see John 14:25-26, 16:12-15
8 see Romans 8:14
9 see Isaiah 6
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