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.

Anytime I think about living the Christian faith in the context of the world my mind immediately travels to relationships. Perhaps its a generation thing for me, but I can’t help but think that somewhere along the line we got things confused and backwards. I grew up in a faith tradition that placed a high emphasis upon doctrinal belief. For all the talk of theology and doctrine they suffered from the same issues as most of the other faith communities I had encountered. In my twenties and thirties I found my faith being drawn strongly toward the Anabaptist community and by 2001 I was a pastor in the Church of the Brethren. It was in this context I found myself formed through friendships and those dear brothers and sisters who took me under their wings as I entered this peculiar community. This faith community is different from the one I grew up in, rather than emphasizing doctrinal belief, service is at the center of our faith. Yet still in this faith community we struggle with the same issues as the other communities.

I think one of the things that we get wrong in our culture (and our church in particular) is that we frame everything in an either/or frame of reference. What makes us think that it has to be one or the other. This isn’t “Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story.” It’s not first or last, win or lose. There are countless other options in between. Liberal culture tends to frame its contexts in either/or terms. We love to look at existence as a spectrum. Why as spectrum? Why not a circle, square, or even a narrative? As much as I am convinced that the tradition I grew up in gets it wrong in their emphasis, I think that doctrine does matter and that the church should be involved in the work of doctrine. And on the other hand I believe service should be at the center of who we are as a community, but at the same time engaging in the theological conversation. I have become convinced that the best doctrinal conversations emerge out of service and ministry.

From a hermeneutical perspective I’m convinced that followers of Jesus  practice a particular way of living so as to change the way they look at the world (re-imagine) and even how they interpret the scriptures. Unfortunately we have become so integrated into western culture that we miss the point of this. We are so caught up in narcissistic individualism in a capitalistic democracy that we misconstrue rights, freedom and desire for discipleship. In his new book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the interesting observation that the primary virtue of the early Christians was patience. The fact that this virtue serves as the foundation of the primary markers (service of poor, no oaths, nonviolence, modesty, etc.) of the Christian faith is significant. In the book he notes the strong emphasis in forming the habitual living of initiates before baptism and argues that these practices being habituated precedes (and coincides) readings of scripture (habits form interpretive lenses). Service to the poor and acts of loving kindness were so embedded in the DNA of the community that by the time baptism took place the initiates way of living was already engraved with the virtue of patience. Admittedly this is a general statement but the gist of the idea is that the practices of the Christian community were of supreme import not because they wanted to be social advocates but because it was born out of a deep gratitude for the gift of grace given through Jesus to continue the work Jesus started.

When I look at how we address conflict today in the church I notice a significant absence of patience. Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating procrastination or avoidance (especially not an extension of injustice), but a patience that seeks to love the other (even one we see as enemy), to serve the other. It is a patience that desires reconciliation. Whole relationship is required for communion. I wonder what the church would look like if we practiced virtuous living and held our tongues until this way of living was a habit? Perhaps if we found ways to serve those we consider enemies our approach to the conflict would change. Unfortunately, we seemingly haven’t the will to embrace the other. Maybe the church needs the Spirit to pierce its heart with the loving grace of Christ to reform the will as Augustine argues.

What has become evident is that our Christian living has not become so habituated in us that our first response is one of patience. In a desire to keep control of what is familiar and known we lose sight of the mystery of God and the other. We attempt to simplify debates into yes or no decisions without considering the larger perspective of relationship. What I’m not saying is that we give up on moral and ethical living, but to reconsider what that actually is. In my reading of scripture  it appears to be that grace, redemption and salvation all focus upon the reconciliation of God to humans and humans to each other. The implications to this is that it is all about the relationship. It is about a new standing and grafting into a new family where God is father and we are his children. The parables of the lost underscore the essential nature of this new standing and the cost that was given to create it. So I guess I’m wondering when we the church will grasp this and begin again serving the other (least and enemy) out of love before we ever say a word. Then maybe we will begin to catch a glimpse of the kingdom we desire.

I’ll begin by confessing to sneaking to watch “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” while myand-now-for-something-completely-different-monty-python parents were either at work or away when I was a child. I suppose the effects of that show have contributed to my sometimes irreverent humor. Anyway, there was a certain bit within the show introduced by the words “and now for something completely different” that broke the train of comic thought and usually led to the utter ridiculous. What makes this so funny is that it is often representative of the life we experience. The irony is dense particularly when we look at the vast contrasts of life on this planet.

At one moment one could be sitting beside a peaceful stream admiring the flying and singing creatures all around while simultaneously in another part of the world people are being killed because of who they are. Such contrasts between beauty and suffering, life and death, joy and deep sorrow are abundant. I once read in a little book written by Gwendolen Greene concerning her uncle, that “Love and joy are the way; for joy without love could have no being: love and joy together, springing up united from suffering here below, rise in adoration to find God.”[1] Von Hügel’s striking statements about suffering and life left me confused and disturbed equally. I resisted his dialectic of suffering and joy. I couldn’t get my mind around statements like, “no joy without suffering.”[2]

In a world where terrorism is an everyday word and where immigrants and refugees are at best feared and at worst detested, how could anyone accept suffering as a way to joy? Ridiculous is not even an appropriate word. It is utterly scandalous to consider such concepts when the depths of suffering are unspeakable. And yet somewhere in my mind his words ring true. What I have come to learn is that while suffering is an effect of the present evil in this fractured world in which we live, von Hügel’s statement can only be acceptably considered from a particular perspective. As he directed his niece even to the last days of his life, he consistently emphasized prayer, suffering, caring, love and joy. Prayer was the practice. Suffering was to be endured as both a result of caring and loving deeply, and as a formative process of the soul being postured in adoration of God through Christ resulting in joy. It was in this sense that he saw love and joy “united from suffering here below.”

What he was instructing was for his niece to love as Christ loved, to care deeply enough to create the vulnerability to suffer—even for others. What is difficult is that in a world where people can go for an evening out only to end up murdered any thought of suffering brings the unbearable pain of loss—loss  of life, loss of joy, loss of love. . . In such a context it is tempting to close ourselves off from others. It is tempting to allow the hatred and violence of this world to infect us with this mortal disease. In the face of such experiences human beings tend to end such times of suffering by further expressions of hatred. We will go as far as necessary to end the suffering even to the point of acts of violence. Such suffering easily gives birth to the faith killing disease of fear. As it is, contemporary society suffers from a terrible case of fear. John in his letter to the church said that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:16ff).

As difficult as it may seem sometimes, this is precisely why what von Hügel taught his niece is exactly what the church must live out now. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of reacting to such events from a place of fear, followers of Jesus have no choice but to pick up the cross and follow in the way of love that endures suffering. It is certainly not the way of the world which exacerbates these events with bombastic finger pointing avoiding the effects of caring and loving deeply. While these words are essentially easy, what is of most importance is the way that we live in response to these events. Does the Christian life present the world with a different way or is it just another loud voice offering the same message with different words as everyone else? I pretty sure it’s time for something entirely different.

[1] Gwendolen Greene, Letters from Baron Friedrich von Hügel to a Niece (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, LTD, 1928), xlv.

[2] Greene, xliii.