6a00d83498861169e201b8d0cbe5e9970cI’m sitting here once again considering what it would take to experience the changes I so desperately desire. In the past I would often look to the outside world as a cause for how I felt and thought. To some degree this is the case in that my gaze was fully focused on particular parts of this world that shaped my affections. Yet this is not entirely so either. I’m slowly discovering realizing the meaning that it is not merely the things that I see or even think about that shape my affections. There is definitively that aspect of the human person that transcends a rational consciousness that forms the essence of what I love and care about.

For too long I have intentionally focused my “efforts” on spiritual disciplines with the presupposition that I am primarily and essentially a rational creature. I suppose in this sense I am a creature of my environment (culture). I have lived in a world that has ignored and even mocked the affectual nature that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. In his book, Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes the persuasive argument that desire is the key element to human formation and that human desire is formed by liturgies (particular affectual practices). Essentially he is arguing for a paradigmatic shift in training students from one that assumes students are empty receptacles into which the instructor pours information to an approach that seeks to form the student in a holistic way even shaping the emotions and desires. His argument focuses primarily upon worship (liturgy) as the essential means of this process.

So far I am fully with Smith both in his rejection of the enlightenment approach and assumptions and that liturgies are essential practices by which persons are formed. Smith also rightly states that human beings participate in liturgies regardless of religious background. If a person professes no religious affiliation or more extremely rejects such affiliation, that same person at the very least participates in secular liturgies (which is inevitably formational).

Where I veer away from Smith is not in any principle disagreement of his theoretical argument. However, in the application of it I would argue that Christian liturgy transcend the practices of the cathedrals and the modern understandings of worship services. My Anabaptist sensibilities demand more than an hour singing and saying worshipful things to the transcendent (and imminent) God. Having recently read Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment, I was reminded of the practices of the early followers of Jesus. In the first two centuries of the church it was essential for the prospective Christian to begin the faith journey in service to the poor. I can’t help but read Matt. 6:22-23 (“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness?) as a context for Jesus’ parable about the “least of these” in Matt. 25.

Jesus’ metaphor of the eye essentially concerns hermeneutics in that it addresses the focus of one’s attention. However, itstock-photo-blured-text-with-focus-on-focus-157720016 is more than just that. I am convinced that Jesus is addressing the very things that shape the affections of human beings. If a person continues in the status quo practices that focuses upon the security and survival of the self in exclusion of the other then the affections of the self will be shaped thusly. In the case of the “Sermon on the Mount,” if the follower of Jesus practices the liturgies Jesus instructs on that hill, then the focus and attention of the disciple will requisitely change too. But Jesus doesn’t end his teaching there. The climactic teaching of the sermon addresses the symbols which are representative of survival for a people living at subsistence levels.

For a Christian who was born and raised in the northwestern hemisphere and who is part of the dominant culture (including all that this category means racially and in terms of origin) this teaching is easily misunderstood to simply address greed and wealth. Most significantly it is addressing allegiances, bonds, commitments, and identity. To whom or what have we made allegiances? Where are the sum our commitments focused? To what group, culture or sub-culture are we bonded? How do we fundamentally identify ourselves? As is conspicuous in the articulation of these questions the matter of Jesus’ teachings goes beyond the simple surface interpretation of this passage. In fact the following verses do not address worry in the sense that it has been preached for decades. To a people living at the subsistence level, to actually practice the teachings Jesus presented would consequently lead the disciple to social (and ultimately financial) bankruptcy in the contextual vertical structure of society.

Essentially what I am arguing is that if we practice the liturgies taught in the sermon, especially in light of chapter 25, the proverbial eye will essentially focus upon (and pragmatically serve) that population living on the margins of society (the least of these). The posture emphasized is one that serves in a way that expresses the jubilee claim Jesus takes as his own as recorded by Luke (chapter 4). What has repeatedly occurred through the centuries is the continued attempt to assimilate the kin(g)dom focus of the church into the dominant culture of society. The consequences have grievously been devastating both to the witness (and life) of the church and the population who the gospel intentionally identifies with and for.

Essentially Pentecostal scholars such as Kenneth J. Archer are correct in identifying the orthopraxis of the church. What this means is that practices are absolutely essential in forming the life of believers. I am convinced that before we can become effective disciples of Jesus, our affections (desires) must be reformed (perhaps more accurately transformed) so that even as the disciple loves God with all of her/his life, it is primarily expressed by loving the other. This intentional and directional service is in and of itself an essential liturgy to any rule of life. There is no horizontal worship of God the Creator unless it is first formed through the service to and life with the least of these.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been considering this “rule of lifDSCN2853.JPGe” for Brethren discipleship that is being developed even now. The very premise that o
ne needs a “rule of life” presupposes that living according to particular habits is efficacious toward desirable faith. What is most interesting to me (right now) about this is the underlying prem
ises—what the trajectory (or desired results) of this form of living is and how it will take shape.

One of the central teachings of Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount” is the necessity of one’s radical re-orientation toward God’s projected (and incarnated) imaginary (God’s kin(g)dom) and away from the empire’s projected imaginary as well as the misshaped protested responses to its imaginary. Take notice that this is not about merely two competing narratives but more accurately multiple narratives. In Matt. 6 what is often considered a teaching on giving or stewardship, Jesus emphasizes a posture that is distinctive from the other competing narratives. It is one that requires practicing personal piety in secret and not ways that make it obvious to the world. Most significantly it is requisite of breaking socio-cultural bonds and practices that define one’s place in society, i.e., not announcing one’s charitable giving and systemically changing how one perceives wealth.

Moreover, this section of his sermon intentionally addresses how practices (orientation) affect the allegiances of one’s heart. Thus, Jesus tells stories that require rich young rulers to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. In this particular context, however, Jesus is addressing people who were more probably living at the subsistence level (barely getting by). So when Jesus follows up his teachings about nonresistance and how to give benevolently with instructions on prayer and fasting, he reaches the climax of his sermon with words regarding orientation and allegiances. In this it is assumed that human beings possess a natural capacity to create bonds and emotional ties to inanimate objects. And that such bonds project these allegiances. It is a natural human response to a teaching concerning the expectation of benevolence and nonresistance that the p
erson would begin wondering the future cost of such behavioral practices. “How can I afford to give someone my outer garment when they have already taken my inner?” “How can I afford to lend to anyone who asks without expectation of being repaid let alone not charging interest?”

soci_benevolence_imgThese questions are especially justified when our bonds and ties to the inanimate objects are based upon ownership and possession. In the twenty-first century northwestern world, with its obsession over wealth and ownership, it becomes a radically more difficult teaching. And yet it speaks specifically to the reality of one’s allegiances (or bonds of the heart). I believe Jesus understood well the complexities of these relationships, especially the effects of liturgies surrounding and leading to them upon the people of the first century. Within the Roman culture society was structured vertically. It mattered explicitly where one was located on the societal ladder as it was determinative as to the rights and privileges one was afforded. Unfortunately, this vertical structuring was not limited to the Roman culture. Jewish culture was similarly structured regardless of where one found itself in the community. Admittedly, Pharisaical Judaism was an attempt to reform these structural impositions to a more horizontal nature. Yet even so it was the means by which it too imposed such reforms that inevitably resulted in a similar structure.

One of the underlying assumptions of the “Sermon on the mount” is the power of practice to definitively shape allegiances and identity. I suppose another way of posing part of these recent thoughts would be to consider the necessity of being oriented to the kin(g)dom of God. According to the “Sermon on the Mount” living according to the habits listed is requisite for such an orientation. When we posture ourselves in such a way that our attention is benevolently directed toward the margins of society and the people who are excluded, our bodily attitude (with all its values and judgments) is reformed and kin(g)dom shaped. It is no coincidence that in chapter twenty-five Jesus sets up the standard of judgment according to how one treats and relates to this marginalized population. He essentially tells them (those hearing the parable) that whatever they do (or not) to or (not) for them, they do (or not) to or (or not) for him. This intimate association Jesus makes with this population is determinative of the trajectory and consequential effects of the practices by which he is instructing his followers to live.

Essentially the development and implementation of these habits in one’s life ultimately expresses a rejection of the societal structures of the earthly powers. Through behavioral assimilation into such a rule, one’s life becomes a protest of the current social systems and the injustice and oppression they incur. Moreover it becomes a rejection of the Empire’s social reality and all the violent responses to it. Thus living according to this rule reshapes the desires and imagination of the disciple. In terms of spiritual formation, such discipline postures the disciple in such a way as to submit to the formative power of God’s Spirit. This is to say that what may begin as a discipline soon becomes a way of life that is effortless due to the transformation of one’s whole person (not merely heart) in the process.

My friend over at collationes.wordpress.com (be sure to read his full entry and challenge) Lovefeastinitiated a conversation that I believe is vital to the life of the church, particularly Brethren. For some time now there has been increased conversation about the differences that exist within the denomination of the Church of the Brethren. It was as apparent at this year’s annual conference as it has ever been. I do not have time nor desire for a conversation around what these differences are and what has caused them. Let’s just say doctrine and interpretation are key aspects. Nevertheless, I believe Brockway’s intuition is correct in that shared practice leads to commonalities in community. It’s no coincidence that the early Christians required that catechists submit themselves to a particular way of life as they went about learning the Jesus way before ever being considered for baptism into the community.

For the earliest believers the unity and ethical practice of the community (pardon my redundancy) was essential for the life of believers. With this in mind I’ll engage a few points of Brockway’s proposition.

1) Grounded in Scripture– those who submit to this Rule covenant to engage in a daily and weekly rhythm of studying and praying the scriptures. While many do this as part of their devotional practice, followers of the Rule would commit to study the texts outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary. What is more, they commit to praying the scriptures outlined in the Book of Common Prayer for Daily prayer.

This first point is essential, I believe, to any rule of faith. And I especially appreciate that it comes first. I can also appreciate the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. However, I would suggest that portions of the sermon on the mount be part of the daily reading. In as much as I hold scripture as central, I also am admittedly (Post-Liberal) Anabaptist. The teachings of Jesus are essential to my formation and periodic readings of the sermon on the mount (especially!) is not nearly enough. These teachings are such that I believe we must wade in them throughout the days and weeks and months of our lives. They are the bread that I eat and the water that I drink. I acknowledge the necessity of the rest of scripture but these are central to Christian identity and formation. Additionally I wonder if some behavioral guidelines would be in order for how believers treat others as practical responses of the readings.

2) Rooted in Worship- Followers of the Rule commit to regular participation in worship with a congregation. Two parts of this are key. First, it is to be a practice of corporate worship, and not something one does individually. Second, while the practices of worship may vary, the common thread between all these communities will be the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here, the wider church will be reading the same scriptures regardless of where the congregations are rooted. What is more, followers of the Rule will have been reading these same texts throughout the week, and will find a common, public proclamation of scriptures they have been reading privately during the week.

On Brockway’s second point I agree wholeheartedly. He rightly notes the importance of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here the members in their various contexts share the common practice of worship, reflection and prayer over the same texts. At these points they will be familiar having read them throughout the week.

3) Reaching the surrounding community- Followers
of the Rule will find or make regular opportunities to minister in their local community. Such practices of service are easy to find through other community organizations, but the key is to participate monthly, if not weekly. I would want to see this involve others, even if they are not practitioners of the Rule. For compassion and service are things not done well in isolation.

It is essential for the believing community to have its identity formed on the margins of society. Acts of mutual aid, whether local or outside one’s immediate cPhoto by Andrew Hamiltonontext are essential to faith formation. Even as Jesus instructed his disciples to direct their energy to these concerns. One of his most compelling parables is found in Matthew 25:31 ff. It is in humble service to those in need that believers are formed. I would also include the practice of anointing with oil as a means of service. While some may question placing it here, this is one ordinance that was not limited to the believing community. Early Christians would offer it to anyone seeking prayer for healing. It was a means of witness and service to the wider community, especially for those who were in desperate need.

4) Shared meals- Followers of the Rule will have monthly common meals with others. These are not just social gatherings, but an intentional practice of sharing– sharing food, sharing prayers, and accountability. Key questions should emerge in the practice of sharing a meal in this manner, questions Brethren long ago asked one another before the Lord’s Supper or Love Feast. “How are you with God? How are you in love and community with your sisters and brothers?” We should include also a question about how or if people are keeping with the Rule.

Shared meals are essential for the formation of community. Brockway clearly states the reasons. Much like the gathering around the table for communion, the believers proclaim their equality and dependence upon God for the sharing of the necessities of life. As in communion there is a mimetic sense in the recollection of others gathering in the past; a contemporary acknowledgement of others gathering together breaking bread simultaneously; and there is the proleptic sense of participating in the anticipated great feast. The practice of common meals forms a sense of community around the table that transcends the past and present projecting into the future. It imagines a corporate hoped for future where needs are met and sustenance is plentiful and shared.

While his rule ends with number four, I would suggest one to follow these:

5. The final one I would argue is the Lord’s Supper. While admittedly this are not practiced among the Brethren with quite as much frequency. I would point out that it is easily the most significant practice of this rule with profound efficacy. The Lord’s Supper is one of the distinctive practices of Brethren that I believe contributes to the formation of this peculiar people. It is in the acts of examination (confession & forgiveness), feetwashing (cleansing), love feast (simple common meal), and Eucharist (bread & cup) that the believers participate in Christ at a different level. Brethren practice this ordinance only twice a year and many congregations are sharing that attendance at these services is diminishing. I am convinced that this is a core practice that must be included even if it only occurs twice per year.

As I sit here looking over this rule, I wonder how many will take Joshua up on his challenge. I know I will. Any others? 

 

 

How Can We Worship?

Posted: July 15, 2016 in Theology, Things of Faith

handsOver the past two months I have been spending considerable time
catching up on my readings and devotional practices. Over the brief two years I spent working outside of church ministry as an operations manager I was re-introduced to the struggle for faithful living in the church while balancing family and career. It’s not an easy life and I humbly confess that I was not good at it. In my experience I found that my devotional life was the first part of my life to suffer. And so as I have re-entered full-time ministry I have enjoyed the extreme privilege of having a vocation that not only encourages devotional living but requires it.

This is all to say that in the process of being immersed in this life of devotion, I have experienced the Spirit working in unexpected ways in my life.  So I suppose this blog entry will be essentially confessional.

Today I am writing with a heavy heart. I wanted to write last week but I couldn’t. I felt led to silent reflection as I sought the inner peace only Christ can provide. Unfortunately this did not come. With the recent events (the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile as well as the fatal shooting of 5 police officers) coupled with my devotional readings, the Spirit of God has pricked my heart. Being one who avidly writes blog posts I wanted to respond with outrage but the Spirit silenced me. I wasn’t silent out of fear or avoidance. I was silent out of holy patience. The Spirit of Jesus was speaking to my heart with painful words of conviction.

All the words I could possibly write would have been not only useless in this social environment but most significantly hypocritical. They would have feigned the political responses we have become accustomed to hearing. What has been revealed to me through much painful reflection is that I am a culpable participant in a social structure (institution) that systematically oppresses and persecutes people because of the color of their skin. As I have been preparing to preach a sermon this Sunday on a passage of scripture that says that if you come to the alter with your offering and realize that a brother or sister has something against you, that you are to leave the offering and go and make things right before returning to worship. Moreover I had incidentally just finished reading a book that describes how this passage was a core text for the early Christians and formed a basis for their living in peace.[1]

What has come to my mind most starkly is the fact that worship-waysthe white church (of which I am a part) has not only suppressed the reality of this evil system but has in many ways perpetuated it. How can we worship when brothers and sisters have something against us? This is a big question that requires humble confession. I think that our primary mistake (as well as ongoing sin) is buying into the lie that the sin of racism is located somewhere other than in us. I have to confess that it is within me.

The dilemma that is breaking my heart is that I feel compelled to go and make things right by confessing my complicity (both in general participation as well as my specific behaviors) but because this is such a large and systemic sin and so many have been hurt by it that I’m not sure where to go and to whom I should confess to make right or even whether I am able to make things right. This doesn’t even take into consideration that I’m not sure how “the making right” will take place. I understand the corporate aspects of this, but what about the personal and individual dynamics. This is a very personal issue that requires the reformation and transformation of the core being. It does not feel like it is enough to simply acknowledge and confess such complicity. Real change is required. Not the promise of change or the commitment to a process of change, but essential ontological change in the person and corporate body. Such participation in a system cannot be allowed to continue in the church of Jesus our Lord!

I humbly admit that I don’t have concrete answers and actually feel quite helpless. But I do have some inclinations as to what the answers might look like. So I continue to hear the questions in my mind shouting, “How can we worship when we actively participate in this system?” “How can we worship when we know that there are sisters and brothers who have something against us?” “Where do we go and what can we do to make things right?”

[1] Books that have contributed to my thoughts here, see Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal; Drew G. I. Hart, Troubles I’ve Seen; Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment; Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide.