Archive for the ‘Church of the Brethren’ Category

maundy-thursday-backgrounds-3This morning I began to intentionally set my mind on the special service my congregation will have this evening. Every Thursday before Easter Sunday we celebrate what we call Lovefeast & Communion. Essentially this is a time to gather for self-examination (confession & assurance of forgiveness), feetwashing, a simple meal around the table together, and finally the Eucharist. This sacred event serves as one of those liturgical practices in the church that reorders our life together in relationship to God through Jesus.

The examination is nothing more than our realization and admittance of our inability to see, hear and live in the way that Jesus taught. It is both a confession of our failures as well as a profession of our faith in Jesus. What this time does is to tenderize our hearts (our desires) in preparation for re-formation. In terms of worship, we are posturing ourselves in submission to God in preparation to give and receive the love and care that exalts Jesus.

Having surrendered ourselves to the reality of our finite and flawed existence in the presence of infinite perfection we take up the towel and basin. There are two points in this part of the ceremony that require more reflection. John 13 begins with Jesus preparing to demonstrate the full extent of his love to his disciples. Now this is meant to be interpreted two ways. One that in the event around the table this will be expressed. And secondly the ultimate expression of this love occurs in his glorification on the cross. Now I’m convinced that we cannot understand the latter interpretation unless we get the former. Often times, chapter 13 is simply interpreted as Jesus providing an example of humble service. I have even heard it used as a means of describing servant leadership. While there may be some aspect of these expressed within this passage, more significantly it represents a living parable of life together as disciples. Jesus is pouring out his love through an act that symbolically washes away sin. There is a definite connection between this cleansing and the cleansing of baptism. However, while baptism primarily attends to the vertical relationship between the Creator and the creation, feetwashing provides the symbol of cleansing of communal brokenness. It is necessary to sit vulnerably open to being washed (confession) by sisters and brothers as well as washing (forgiving) the feet of sisters and brothers. In the church this act is sealed with an embrace (a holy kiss in some congregations) expressing the unity that reconciliation brings.

Once the feet have been washed then the brothers and sisters are prepared to sit at theshutterstock_44110603 table and share a simple meal at which they break bread together. This meal not only looks back reflecting upon the last supper, but more significantly looks ahead to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In contrast this is a simple meal (not a literal feast) that is shared remembering that we are living in a world where not everyone has food to eat. It sorrowfully acknowledges those currently suffering, but doing so with full gratitude for the table set before them to share the necessities of life.

Finally, while seated around the table, the brothers and sisters take the bread in their hands, break it together and confess in unison that the bread they break is the body of Christ broken for them. In much the same way, following a blessing they take a cup and with a similar confession drink from the cup. This is followed by a song and a benediction after which some leave to their homes and some remain to clean up.

What I find so significant about this sacred time is that in the mimetic exercise of this drama my “heart” is in some way re-formed. It is not merely an intellectual change of mind. I can experience that by reading a well formed argument. It is far more in that it to some degree transforms my life, my posture, my desire, my attitude. In ways that escape words, I sense that my life becomes a little bit more like that of Jesus. In his little book, Shaped by the Word, Richard Mulholland describes how religious icons are created in a way that moves the mind from the intellect to the affective part of the brain. In this way it changes the perception of the individual in such way as to move beyond trying to control the text to being shaped by it. In much the same way this symbol is iconographic in that it requires us to transition out of the left side of our brain that examines and analyzes to the affective side that becomes open to the formative experience of participation. While my Anabaptist sensibilities resist this terminology, I am convinced that in this way this symbol is sacramental disseminating the loving grace of our Lord Jesus upon the community transforming the current context into the eschatological hoped for community—even if only for a moment.

jobfair-660x330About five months ago when I returned to full-time ministry in a local congregation I wrote a post discussing the lessons I learned while working in the corporate world. In my previous post I addressed (for the most part) the ways in which the church has brought the market into the church treating pastors as employees. Moreover, the church (institution) has even begun treating membership numbers (as well as giving amounts) as the bottom line by which to evaluate the success of ministry. This is not to say that numbers are not important, but that they should not be treated (and interpreted) in the same way as the market uses them. Essentially I focused upon the church as institution and the congregation’s contribution to this ecclesiological move. In this post I will be looking at some of the lessons I learned from the other side.

The contrasts between corporate America and the church are undeniable in so many ways that I am often astounded by efforts made by pastors and clergy to compare them in a way that unwittingly expresses a desire to be treated as such. In conversations with pastors I have heard comparisons of the position of pastor in the congregation to be like a CEO. I was once told point blank that I needed to “dress for success” in church ministry. What is especially alarming in all this is the extent to which this syncretism is taking place and that church leaders are instigating it.

As I worked my job for two years as an operations manager with some account manager responsibilities, I learned what it really means when the business motto is that the client is always right (regardless of how wrong they might be). The numerical bottom line is paramount and the company pulls out all stops to protect the revenue stream that begins with the customer. I shouldn’t even need to begin making the argument of how wrong it is to bring this approach into the church. But what I learned most was that even in my prior ministry context, in spite of protesting such syncretism, I indeed became enamored by the bottom line mentality. With this form of reasoning pastors often measure the success of their “career” as pastors by the numerical bottom line.

When this model is adopted, it is a slippery slope to where the pastor begins seeing herself as a successful business person who is deserving of a “salary” comparative to the (numerical) success of the church. Moreover it doesn’t take long for attitudes to begin shifting away from ministry focus to employment focus in which there is expectation for comparative compensation for hours worked. As if it were a company workplace it becomes easy for the pastor to then begin counting hours worked doing “church business.” This is one consequential implication I was trying to warn about when I stated, “What I have ironically experienced in the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition is the full attempt to articulate the relationship between congregation and the pastor using the business language of employer/employee.” Indeed this is an unfortunate irony that leads to behavior and attitudes that are quite unlike what would be considered a biblical and spiritual calling (pastoral and congregational attitudes of entitlement, tendencies toward monetary legalism, etc.).

2016-05-19-1463647608-1254725-businessMy simple argument is that for the benefit of the church and the role pastors serve in the church, the pastoral calling should never be considered a career or employment. There are three (perhaps more) reasons that I think this. First, the standard of qualification for a career or some form of employment is based upon previous personal accomplishments and accolades. The implications of this is that if a person can write up a good enough resume (or profile) that includes particular accomplishments with a noted numerical bottom line result, then that person would be more attractive and more likely to be “hired.” The tendency here is to minimize a spiritual discernment process to being essentially a time to scour through numerous resumes and profiles to pick the most attractive one. The qualifications are understood to be education and accomplishment centered. The underlying result of this is to begin believing that anyone can be trained to be a pastor.

Secondly, this will inevitably result with the pastor claiming responsibility for congregational performance either positively or negatively. The consequence here is double edged. I have seen pastors who have taken responsibility for the great successes of their congregations providing fodder to build a false sense of self. I have also seen pastors leave the ministry because they have taken on the responsibility for failures of the church. At this point I need to qualify this also. In as much as there are occasions where responsibility predominately lies with the pastor. It is never that simple. Pastors are part of the church. Therefore the congregation necessarily always shares in that responsibility, whether negatively or positively.

Finally, and most significantly it changes the fundamental understanding of the role and call of ministry for the church. Rather than the emphasis being upon the role of the Spirit gifting the individual in the context of a congregation and that congregation discerning those gifts and calling them out, the emphasis is changed to human accomplishment. Once again the consequential belief is “if we can send them to seminary, then we can train them and in teach them the necessary skills to be a career pastor.” The theological and spiritual implications are devastating to the church and to the pastors alike.

Perhaps, instead of bringing the market into the church, the church should begin looking at pastoral ministry more like missionary service in which the church commits financial support so that the ministry to which the believer is called can perform that ministry on behalf of and for the church. Instead of approaching pastoral ministry as hiring an employee from “outside of us,” maybe we should begin with a spiritual and relational model derived from scripture. I don’t know for sure, but something inside of me thinks that might be a more suitable approach (note sarcasm).

Another lesson I learned over those two years is that if the church becomes the market place it will cease being the “the presence of Jesus.” I am more convinced than ever that this world doesn’t need another business (whether entertainment or marketplace). It desperately needs the church to be the church, shining with the love of God for the world.

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?