Thursday, January 29, 2009

BEN : I remember a phrase. . . .

I remember a phrase that I read in college written by a really smart guy named Lawrence Stookey that captured my imagination: "the intersection of time and eternity." For some, following things like the lectionary or the daily office is rigid and void of "the Spirit." But for me it is a relief. I don't have to rely on my own familiarity with Scripture to see the larger story unfolding. As I follow the lectionary or the daily office, it's as if someone takes my hand and leads me through each moment in time. 
      As a Christian, I believe we balance two worlds: the world that is and the world to come. We live with a knowledge that this world is our present kingdom and the next world is the eternal kingdom. I also am aware that in our doings, both worlds collide at times. And we are left with very little language and practice to assimilate that experience into our paradigm — the lens through which we observe and interpret the world around us.
      The ancient practices of the church provide for us a treasure chest of tools that exist outside of our own feelings, intuitions, assumptions and hunches. They became for me a reliable vehicle to the holy. And I discovered them through my wanderings in the desert — not my home church or the faith tradition I was handed. I found it in my own search for something sustainable.
      I stumbled onto these ancient practices from a few people brave enough to open that world for me and give me permission to play around until things became familiar. I incorporated them into my worship by choosing to attend a small gathering each week of people who knew each other's faces but rarely names. A group that met inside a building that was surely built by holy people because I was overwhelmed with the holy every time I set foot inside this structure.
      And the practice was the same each time. It became a form that I could depend on when nothing in me knew what to do. There was a part of me that's angry that I wasn't told about it earlier. It was as if I was living with it but never knew it existed. But now that I do, I'm not sure what I did without it. And I fear ever losing it.
      The ancient people celebrated the Eucharist because the presence of Jesus — the guy they had traveled with, cried with, celebrated with, listened to and believed in — seemed to be with them again in its practice. I think it was a way for them to deal with their sense of loss and to resurrect the determination needed in their faith practice which they knew — even if they didn't want to admit it — would eventually lead to their death politically, socially, economically, and ultimately physically.
      Why do we think we're any different?
      The history of the church did not begin with Jonathan Edwards or John Wesley. It didn't even begin with St. Paul or the Jesus of history. The history of the church began with "In the beginning was God." The ancient tools held in secret from so many refuse to allow us to forget that the story begins before humanity was ever introduced. This invalidates our often anthropomorphic faith and returns to us the mystery of living at "the intersection of time and eternity."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

ROBERT : This is the history . . .

This is the history of the Church that many of us were taught : Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven. Paul made his mission trips and took the Gospel to the Gentiles and wrote his letters. King James found a copy of the original scriptures that God had graciously  dictated in the English of the King himself and the Pilgrims brought religious freedom to the new promised land called America. There was a Great Awakening in the States in the 1800’s and the ‘true’ Church was born.
      That version of Church history is a little like saying that American history is made up of the story of the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, and the landing at Normandy on D-Day.
      Such a truncated view of the history of the Church that many of us were taught has left us with little knowledge of and a great deal of suspicion about the ancient ways of the Church, the ancient ways that sustained the Church in the first place, the ways that made it possible for there have been any Church for the Pilgrims to bring over or anyone to revive or anywhere for you and I to go to wrestle with the Christian faith at all.

In the post-Reformation world, as the various reform and renewal movements began to spread across Europe and into the New World, there were great changes in the ways of the Church.
      Some of what went into those changes were honest and necessary reactions to the excesses of the Catholic Church at the time. Some of the changes had as much to do with shifts in the culture and society and politics as they had to do with the Church. But either way, as Phyllis Tickle once observed, ‘In some ways we threw out the baby of the ancient along with the bath water of the Roman.’
      We who come from more evangelical traditions very often bring with us an ignorance of and a suspicion of the ancient, a fear of anything that smacks of being too Catholic. We were taught to be afraid that such things will lead us astray somehow.
      Among other things, we were taught that liturgy was dead and lifeless and cold and rote, even though such liturgical practice was at the core of the worship and devotion of the early Church. We were taught that we need not take the Eucharist each week, even though it was the central act of Sabbath worship for the early Church. We were taught that fixed hour prayer was somehow not prayer in the Spirit, even though it was at the very center of daily devotion and practice in the early Church. Such a list can go on.
      These days, more and more of us are afraid that those who taught us to be so afraid of the ancient were not actually right about it at all. I am among them.
      And what I really am afraid of is that the ones who sustained the Church for all those years before the Reformation in Europe and the Awakening in America may have known some things about communion with God that I do not know. They are the ones who sustained the Church from days of Paul to the days of Jonathan Edwards. The crowd that I grew up with did not even exist yet.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

BEN : Fair enough . . . .

Fair enough. My tradition was void of liturgy. At least in the sense that I understand it now.
      Liturgy in its most rudimentary sense means ritual. And trust me, my tradition was full of ritual. Only we never used that word unless referring to the Catholics. And that was never in a good way. In fact, most people in my tradition would not consider Catholics to be Christian. (An interesting thought considering the vast period of time between the formation of the Catholic Church and my tradition.)
      The use of the senses during the worship service in my tradition was reduced to passive listening. The church I grew up in had no concept of "the communion of the saints" and was very suspect of others who believed in worship styles that involved all five senses.
      I was never encouraged to spend time in silence, allowing my sense of self to quiet from the rush of the day. I was, on the other hand, encouraged to find the will of God for my life. I must admit I often found myself discouraged in my attempts to hear God's instruction. Many times I simply filled in the blanks for God since God seemed to be having such a hard time answering me.
      And candles were only a part of my tradition when it came time for the Christmas Eve service. At the conclusion of the service, we would light candles and sing a medley of seasonal music. But to think of candles as representative of that which exists beyond our current dimension and of the God whose name was not spoken by the people God had "chosen" was never encouraged.
      No, my tradition left liturgy at the door. It exchanged thousands of years of history of how we gather together as a corporate body and collectively respond to God's grace for an individual relationship with Jesus. And this "Jesus and Me" mentality exists today. It has eaten away at the concepts of social ministry and responsibility and our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.
      To this day, my tradition extends the goal of the revivalist tradition in America during the 19th century: to save souls. But salvation in the revivalist tradition was closer to an idea of "closing the deal" than to a sense of becoming what God had intended at the beginning of time. As long as people were emotionally moved to walk an aisle, prayer the "sinner's prayer," and confess to the pastor their intentions of making Jesus their personal [sic] Lord and Savior, then the Church had done its job. And that's where it ended.
      So much of my tradition defines success by how many people make a profession of faith. Not to discount the importance of introducing people to the person of Christ, but this strategy has left a deep void in the work of the Church and the life of the believer. The result is that many people who came through the doors of my church and made professions of faith, left unchanged and unsatisfied. Many left feeling as if they have been "oversold" on this Jesus person and his claim to abundant life.
      I wanted something more than my current tradition could offer me, in both vocabulary and practice. But I had no way of vocalizing this quiet desire that seemed to grow within me to learn more, know more, be more, and do more. A desire I tried to ignore but couldn't. I wasn't satisfied with any understanding that reduced salvation to a "one-point-in-time" experience. Salvation had to be more than that. Jesus didn't suffer, die, and raise to life, to "close a deal." That's too trivial indeed. And the net result of my impact for the kingdom of God on earth had to be more than how many people I could get to recite a specific prayer.
      So candles, bells, and silence offered me an invitation to the "more" I was looking for. For me, these became the essential tools I needed as I departed on a journey to face my own sin, and through my sin find my Creator and the person he had created.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

ROBERT : You reminded me . . . .

You reminded me of something the poet Gibran wrote — The real in us is silent; the acquired is talkative.
      And that, in turn, reminded me of hearing Norman Lear, the legendary television producer and director, as he took questions from the audience following a speech he had given at The National Press Club. It was years ago, and I do not now remember what the subject of the speech was, or even what the question was that prompted this one sentence that I remember : ‘There is a difference between religion and religious experience.’
      Perhaps what I am thinking is that religion is the acquired, the external, the dress up part of our life of faith. And the other part of our life of faith is made up of things internal, the silent, the deep parts of our spirits that are the most real.
      Looking at it that way, I think that it may well be possible to lose your religion and yet not lose your faith. And that there may well be times when losing one’s religion is necessary before one can find one’s faith.
      I also think that points to the need for evaluating and measuring the way that you practice your religion : Does your religious practice feed and nurture and point to and enhance and increase and deepen and enrich your religious experience? Or does the external, the dress up part, the acquired tend to obscure and dampen and discourage the experience of faith in you? Does it drown out what is silent and real in you?

Speaking of silent, I have to say that I am ready for some of the ‘that’s another story’ blanks to be filled in. 
      Silence, bells, candles — evidently these things were pretty far from your practice.
      What exactly happened to you?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

BEN : Living outside any faith . . . .

Living outside any faith is an interesting concept. I used to believe you could do that. And not too long ago I tried really hard to achieve independence from my own faith. But I've learned everything in life — all the people we hate and love, all the experiences we welcome and reject, everything — are the substance of the materials used to construct this thing we call faith.
      We can't escape our faith, for every turn of life's labyrinth leads eventually to the path that leads out of the maze of one confusion into a blissful moment of clarity only to find oneself again looking for a way out.
      It's a repetitive process. Much like a sculptor. He chips away at the same piece of stone until the art that already existed inside is exposed for everyone to see. Or a builder who keeps putting wood together with little metal pieces until a frame exists. Or a musician who keeps following the direction dictated by the notes and markings on the page until their part is finished. Only the end is not final as we understand it in our linear, Western worldview. The end marks the beginning — again, and again, and again.
      Our salvation is found in the losing of our religion rather than in its protection. The nagging reality is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot subvert the rules of engagement defined by One beyond our own human measure.
      Unlike your friend, I entered college with the knowledge that I wanted to be a minister. As best as I could understand what that meant at the time. But only four years later, I hated the idea. And I wanted nothing to do with it. So I was finished with the church and its God. Done. I found another job after college. One that didn't involve driving to a church office every day. And I distanced myself from everything I knew to be familiar.
      Inside I felt scared, hurt, and betrayed by something and Someone that I had put such great potential in. Outside I was without emotion: stoic, silent and angry. That is until I heard the church bells ring one day for the first time. But that's another story. And the marking of a new beginning.
      Trying to live outside my faith was futile and impossible. I tried. I failed.