Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Love cannot exist without ritual.

Think about the above statement in the context of anyone whom you have loved. Are there not myriad little traditions and rituals that embody and sustain that love? Matthew provides an example with his wife in the book, but it shouldn’t be hard for any of us to think of our own personal illustrations. In fact, to one degree or another ritual behavior permeates all our relationships. Even at the most casual level, we shake right hands, or we bow, or we salute.

Of course, I’ve never had the strange aversion many Protestants have to ritual worship and practices. I’ve explored and practiced an array of religions and all of them provide practices that you follow both individually and corporately. As a result, the title of this chapter immediately caught my eye. It’s not about whether or not you follow certain ritual practices in worship. It’s a given that you will have some form of ritual practice. Rather, the question is whether or not you follow the right rituals.

For here’s the dirty little secret of the anti-ritualistic side of Protestantism. Every single one of them employ rituals in corporate worship and prescribe ritual practices for individual use. It’s simply an unavoidable aspect of being human. Even if you sit together in a bare room waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak, that’s still a corporate ritual practice. A daily “quiet time” is a personal ritual practice.

And that’s natural, especially in those aspects of life that are the most important to us. It’s not something to fight against. Think about your closest relationships of love. As Matthew Gallatin puts it, what makes love real is its “predictability and constancy” not its “spikes and flutters.”

Once you recognize that truth, the real issue becomes one of discerning between the myriad ritual practices that are presented as Christian worship today. And this is where it seems natural and obvious to me to turn to history. Sure, there are things I like and things I may not like as much, but I’ve spent the past decade and a half trying to understand what it means to be Christian. Given my relativistic formation it’s a constant temptation for me to find the things I like and gravitate toward them, but I’ve been down that road. I’m not particularly interested in continuing to pursue it with a Christian veneer.

As Christians, we are not sacramental because that’s the way we like to worship. We’re sacramental because this is the path God has revealed and commanded His Church to follow.

Most of the modern Protestant practices are, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, completely anachronistic. Moreover, they not only didn’t exist in the ancient world, many of them couldn’t have existed. They simply don’t fit. They can also generally be traced to a specific origin in the last few hundred years.

Matthew Gallatin also makes the point that the diversity in ritual practice that fragments Protestantism and keeps Protestants from being truly one with each other also keeps them from attaining true union with God. And that’s an important point. We love God as much as we love the human being that we hate the most. And we can only be one with God to the extent that we are one with each other.

My SBC church has reached the point where its two styles of worship have become a point of divergence. It’s a church whose members cannot worship together. Significant numbers on both sides have made it clear they would leave before yielding even a small degree. In what sense is that Christian? Sure, it’s not hard to accommodate both groups with two different worship services, but it illustrates the lack of oneness.

(For the record, while I do have personal preferences, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. The two services look to me like slightly variant expressions of the same modern form of ritual worship. Neither of them have much thread of connection to any historical pattern of Christian worship. But the fact that many are so deeply entrenched does illustrate how important our rituals are to us.)


The Jesus Creed 5 – A Creed of Sacred Love

Posted: August 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 5 – A Creed of Sacred Love

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10.

Our love for God is sacred.

That’s the central theme of this chapter.  And sacredness flows from the word ‘all’ in the Shema and the first part of the Jesus Creed. It’s an all or nothing thing. A sacred love ‘sticks with what it is stuck with’. Isn’t that pretty much what Yahweh does? He has ‘stuck with’ humanity through the ages, working to heal and rescue us, loving us always.

Hosea is a primary example of this chapter. Hosea illustrated with his life that God was not just the God of Israel, but its Lover as well. McKnight calls this Hosea’s ‘open secret’. God is the Lover of Israel. And that leads him to Jesus’ ‘open secret’. God is an Abba Lover. God loves and is to be loved as a human loves his or her own father (or at least how a father ought to be loved and worthy of love).

McKnight then moves into how such a sacred love transforms our speech, our acts, and our worship. In our speech, we cannot help but speak of God with reserve. We do not wish to carelessly violate that sacred love. Since sinful acts are any that violate our love of God and others, sacred love converts acts of sin to acts of love. (He uses Zacchaeus for the example here.) And finally, it transforms our worship. And here he uses the example of the courtesan who, while Jesus is with a Torah-observant host, enters, falls at Jesus’ feet weeping and pours expensive oil on his feet.

His closing is beautiful.

I can think of no better illustration of what genuine Christian worship is all about: Worship happens when I comprehend (1) who I really am before God — a love-violating sinner, (2) how faithful and gracious God is to his sacred commitment of love for me, and (3) how incredibly good God is to open the floodgates of that love to me.

When I comprehend this, I anoint his feet with oil and wipe dry his feet of grace.

Does that describe the depth and tenor of our worship?


For the Life of the World 36

Posted: February 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 36

This post focuses on sections 7-8 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann begins to draw his essay toward conclusion by noting that we actually desire the divisions of reality that make space for a secular perspective. That’s why they’ve taken root in both East and West.

For it is clear that this deeply “Westernized” theology has had a very serious impact on worship, or rather, on the experience and comprehension of worship, on that which elsewhere I have defined as liturgical piety. And it has had this impact because it satisfied a deep desire of man for a legalistic religion that would fulfill his need for both the “sacred” — a divine sanction and guarantee — and the “profane,” i.e., a natural and secular life protected, as it were, from the constant challenge and absolute demands of God. It was a relapse into that religion which assures, by means of orderly transactions with the “sacred,” security and clean conscience in this life, as well as reasonable rights to the “other world,” a religion which Christ denounced by every word of His teaching, and which ultimately crucified Him. It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the pure and the impure, to understand religion in terms of sacred “taboos,” legal prescriptions and obligation, of ritual rectitude and canonical “validity.” It is much more difficult to realize that such religion not only does not constitute any threat to “secularism,” but on the contrary, is its paradoxical ally.

And it’s the truth. I create such categories and divisions of reality because I do not really want union with God, at least not all the way and certainly not yet. In this regard, I doubt most of us are dramatically different. However much I want to love this (to me) strange God made known in Jesus, there are also plenty of times I feel overwhelmed and want to keep him back at arm’s length. There are many pieces of my life where I want to simply say, “This is mine!” We are all more “secular” than we think.

Fr. Schmemann doesn’t take the time in the essay to fully explore the dichotomies, but here’s one illustration that I think is a good one. It’s an example of a way those false descriptions of reality even invade our Christian worship.

Thus, for example, to bless water, making it “holy water,” may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of “holy water” is precisely that it is no longer “mere” water, and is in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as “holy water.” The sacred posits the profane as precisely profane, i.e., religiously meaningless.

On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world — it may be an epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.

And Fr. Schmemann describes the above as happening, as infiltrating much of Christianity just as he sees the world around him changing.

And this at a time when secularism begins to “crack” from inside! If my reading of the great confusion of our time is correct, this confusion is, first of all a deep crisis of secularism. … More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak.

Actually, the spiritual confusion wasn’t at its peak in 1971. I don’t think it has even yet reached its peak. But Fr. Schmemann describes the forces that shaped by childhood and much of my life.

Fr. Schmemann concludes that we do not need any “new” worship fit for a modern secular age. Rather, we need to rediscover true Christian worship in all its fullness. I would tend to agree, especially the more I learn about Christianity and the more I experience Christ.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

The sixth chapter in Thomas Howard’s book, Ritual and Ceremony: A dead Hand or the Liberty of the Spirit?, opens with the note that when the early Christians met for worship, everyone present was a full participant.

Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity were the four orders in the Church that we glimpse in the New Testament and in the writings of the men taught by the apostles.  … It [worship of the Church] is an act, to which we come as participants, indeed as celebrants, if the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means anything.

I noticed early on that evangelicals called everyone priests, but seemed to have no conception of what it meant to be a priest. In a typical evangelical service, the laos or people, the first order of the royal priesthood of all Christians, effectively have nothing to do but be present, perhaps sing a few songs, and give money. There is no sense in which they are celebrants or even participants.

Howard also notes than until recent times the center of Christian worship was always the Eucharist. In much of evangelicalism, that has changed, so much so that the Eucharist, even in a diminished form, might be celebrated as infrequently as once a year.

It’s a common evangelical objection that ritual is boring and empty. Howard turns to C.S. Lewis to respond to that. After quoting Lewis, Howard comments on what Lewis had written.

Lewis touches here on something profound, which does not always present itself easily to people like us who are keen on expressing themselves and who have been taught that freedom lies in getting rid of structures. It is an idea especially difficult for people whose religion has taught them that structures are deadening. That ritual might actually be a relief, and even a release, is almost incomprehensible to them. That the extempore and impromptu are eventually shallow, enervating, and exhausting seems a contradiction to these people, who so earnestly believe that nothing that does not spring from the authenticity of the moment is actually fruitful.

As Lewis points out in this same context: “The unexpected tires us; it also takes us longer to understand and enjoy than the expected. A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster … because it makes him lose the next line.” Any Christian who has tried to stay abreast of impromptu public prayers will testify to the truth of this observation.

Of course, all of us build and follow a routine in the activities of our life. The routine may vary somewhat over time, or for other reasons, but then every liturgy has some variation within its structure. And the truth is that even the most “unstructured” worship will still operate within some defined framework. Even Quakers sitting in a room waiting for the movement of the Spirit are enacting a ritual, one that they will repeat time and time again.

I’ve never had a problem with ritual or ceremony myself. Again, I was not formed within an evangelical context and I don’t really grasp their aversion to and futile attempt to escape ritual, even after fifteen years as one. So in many ways, this chapter had relatively little to say to me, certainly little that was new. But Howard’s approach was more one of encouraging people to recognize the way ceremonies of all sorts permeate our lives and experience; trying to help them move beyond their cultural gut reaction against formal ceremony in worship. It’s hard for me to judge how effective the chapter was, but it seemed like a good approach to me.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals seem to have an aversion to the sign of the cross that has never made any sense to me. I liked the way Howard described one aspect of it at the end of the chapter.

By making the sign of the cross with our hands we signal to heaven, earth, hell, and to our own innermost beings that we are indeed under this sign — that we are crucified with Christ.


For the Life of the World 34

Posted: February 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 34

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Dn. Michael Hyatt’s podcast series does not continue into the appendices, but I’m going to continue to blog through the two essays in it. I’ve found them as compelling and fascinating as I have the rest of this book.

Fr. Schmemann begins by pointing out his belief that we don’t have a clear understanding in this day and age what either worship or secular age mean, and without addressing that confusion, the subject can’t really be discussed. It seems to me that we are at least as confused today as we were in 1971 when the paper was presented. Most likely, we are more confused now than ever. That’s why I found this paper, even though it is almost forty years old relevant today. Fr. Schmemann begins by considering secularism.

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Secularism is not the same thing as atheism, and it strikes me that a lot of Christians make that mistake today.  Secularism, however, is the negation of the sort of worship we particularly find in Christianity, the offering of creation back to God — a God who is everywhere present and filling all things — in thanksgiving. It’s also intriguing the way he defines secularism as a Christian heresy about man rather God. I had never thought of it that way, but it really does have a lot to do with how mankind fits in the schema of all that is.

To prove that my definition of secularism (“negation of worship”) is correct, I must prove two points. One concerning worship: it must be proven that the very notion of worship implies a certain idea of man’s relationship not only to God, but also to the world. And one concerning secularism: it must be proven that it is precisely this idea of worship that secularism explicitly or implicitly rejects.

When Fr. Schmemann considers the point above about worship, he primarily finds his evidence not from modern theologians, but from the scientific study of the history and phenomenology of religions that theologians have ignored as those theologians have focused on reducing sacraments to intellectual categories.

There can be no doubt however, that if, in the light this by now methodologically mature phenomenology of religion, we consider worship in general and the Christian leitourgia in particular, we are bound to admit that the very principle on which they are built, and which determined and shaped their development, is that of the sacramental character of the world and of man’s place in the world.

Christian worship depends on perceiving and interacting with the world as an “epiphany” of God and thus the world itself is “sacrament.”

And indeed, do I have to remind you of those realities, so humble, so “taken for granted” that they are hardly even mentioned in our highly sophisticated theological epistemologies and totally ignore in discussions about “hermeneutics,” and on which nevertheless simply depends our very existence as Church, as new creation, as people of God and temple of the Holy Spirit? We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him. … There is no worship without the participation of the body, without words and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness — yet it is in and through worship that all these essential expressions of man in his relation to the world are given their ultimate “term” of reference, revealed in their highest and deepest meaning.

We need the matter of creation and we need our bodies to worship. Worship is not an inner matter. Worship is not something sacred and purely spiritual divorced from the secular, profane or ordinary matter of creation.

Being the epiphany of God, worship is thus the epiphany of the world; being communion with God, it is the only true communion with the world; being knowledge of God, it is the ultimate fulfillment of all human knowledge.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 3

Posted: February 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thomas Howard opens the third chapter, Christian Worship: Act or Experience?, with a story of his time living in England and attending an evangelical church that was part of the Church of England. It was familiar to him in its evangelical belief. (For those who don’t know the Anglican communion includes both evangelical and anglo-catholic churches as well as just about everything in between.) But it was named after a saint (St. Andrew); was  eight hundred years old, with a history stretching back before the Protestant Reformation; used set prayers, also kneeling for prayer; and sang the Psalms. It was both familiar and alien to him.

I can’t say that I’ve had any similar sort of childhood or adult revelations. Although my childhood formation was not specifically Christian, it did include a broad exposure to lots of different sorts of Christianity within the context of modern Christian pluralism. Nor did I have any particular bias toward one form of Christianity or another, though as a child I tended to prefer (or at least I better remember) the beauty and symbolism of the liturgical traditions over the more iconoclastic forms of Christian expression. But I adapted easily and readily to all sorts of spirituality — Christian or otherwise. So the aspects of Thomas Howard’s narrative where he is surprised by his encounter with differences is a little hard for me to inhabit. I can understand it intellectually, of course, but I can’t really grasp the impact it had on him.

One of the first things discussed is the fact that this Anglican church knelt for prayer. Howard had always wanted to be in a corporate setting that knelt, but had been constrained within his evangelical context. Nor is it simply a trivial matter of personal preference. What we do with our bodies does not merely express something internal. Rather, the posture and movement of our bodies works the other way around as well. If we are still, that stillness can begin to percolate inwards. I liked the way he uses a hypothetical Tibetan lama to make that point.

The phrase worship experience missed the point. Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act.

The above, of course, ties directly to his title for this chapter. He continues with his encounter of antiphons, responses that his evangelical formation had always denigrated as rote. The vicar says, “The Lord be with you,” and the church responds, “And with thy spirit.” They are not rote at all, of course.

Love greets love. … Hell hates this. It can only hiss, Out of my way, fool. But heaven says, The Lord be with you. This is what was said to us in the Incarnation. This is what the Divine Love always says.

Howard is generous in his analysis of the reasons evangelicals may react against things like antiphonal responses and set prayers and corporate postures in innocence. I’m probably a little less generous, but that’s a failing of my character, I think. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

In the public order we are delivered from the small confines of our own breasts. We do not want intimacy here. The attempt to make public worship personal, intimate, and informal is misbegotten. It confuses the public with the private, and in so doing it betrays both.

The above is an interesting point. I had never really considered it in those terms exactly. But the thought rings true to me.

The worship of the Church is an act — a most ancient and noble mystery — and almost nothing is gained by endlessly updating it, streamlining it, personalizing it, and altering it.

I would go even further. Not only is little gained, but much is lost in the process.

Evangelicalism, stalwart as it is, had in effect left me with nothing but the Bible and the modern world. “Sola Scriptura!” we cried. But it is not sola scriptura. This is to ignore, with almost unpardonable hubris, the Church, full of the Holy Ghost, moving faithfully along through history. It is to pit the Bible against the Church, which is heresy.

And I would add that sola scriptura is a myth and a lie. No text means anything absent interpretation. The only thing accomplished in that claim is to pit your individual, personal interpretation against that of the Church. Though, to be fair, most people who claim to believe in scripture alone are not actually asserting their own personal interpretation of the text. Rather, they accept the interpretation taught to them by someone who, for whatever reason, they trust. The problem arises when a particular interpretation can be traced to a specific individual at a specific point in time (usually in the last five hundred years or so) and that interpretation contradicts the most ancient interpretations of the text and is either a novel interpretation or a new expression of an ancient heresy. Why would a reasonable Christian accept either one as true? Of course, I guess most people never trace the provenance of the interpretations they accept. They just trust those who passed them along to them.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Posted: July 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Today we’ll look at a small excerpt I’ve chosen from Book IV, Chapter XVIII of Against Heresies. If you have not read the full work, some of the things he says may not make much sense. Remember, the primary purpose of this writing was to refute specific heresies and heretical groups — thus the title. As a result, Irenaeus  is often referring to the heretics, their beliefs, and their practices. I’ve chosen for today a few quotes that I think are helpful for our topic in this series.

But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.”

The ones who are not being consistent with themselves here are the heretics. The interesting thing is the assumption that if they attend any Christian worship, they will have to confess that the bread is the body of Jesus and the cup his blood. In other words, Christians and the heretics among them alike know that is precisely the confession made in Christian worship. Irenaeus is using that to accuse the heretics of inconsistency.  Then he expands this theme with the following.

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

Remember, the gnostics thought the flesh (and all things material) was evil and only the spiritual would ultimately persist. Irenaeus refutes that argument by saying that our bodies are nourished by the body and blood of our Lord and thus partake of life. Our bodies, rather than remaining corruptible, receive the hope of resurrection to eternity. Does that sound like the operation of a mere symbol to you? Because it doesn’t to me. Again, though, this is utterly consistent not just with the Holy Scriptures (especially in John 6), but with everything else we have so far examined.

Definitely food for thought.