Why I dropped church and joined The Church

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A German Mass during WWII

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*A repost from 2013 as I think about contemporary liturgical worship this week.

I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered The Church, as in, the Church historic. In historic Christianity; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures, and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come. I first came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, though, in The Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In The Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described The Church of The Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were the missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of The Church. In The Church, the old theological battles are not forgotten, so they do not need to be refought.

I realized that I could never truly connect with the relevant church simply because it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was all so “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In The Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In The Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church. I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite leaves them hungry, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in his Apology in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship, a mystery in which the words and movements all tell a story. And, ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of The Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the service offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

Smudgy Foreheads

 

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service…

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. This Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Smudgy foreheads

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service.

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. I encourage you this Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Prayer Book Revision: Dancing on the third rail

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Guest Blogger: Chicken Little, Doomsday Forecaster

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On the way into our 78th General Convention my word to my nervous brethren was, “Worry not. Outside of choosing new leaders, national meetings are irrelevant to the day to day operations of our hen houses.” General Convention is now behind us and I want to cluck a little…

First, I think we did very well in our choice of a new presiding bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry of North Carolina. He is a Jesus guy, will represent the Episcopal Church positively in public, and is an inspirational preacher. Unfortunately, my conjecture of Bp. Curry’s election was probably the only thing I was right about. In retrospect, this convention has the potential to leave no Episcopal church unscathed. Before General Convention (was that really only two weeks ago), I described a pothole (marriage canons) and a third rail (prayerbook revision). My belief was that we would dodge the pothole and, as long as we avoided touching that rail, all would be fine. Unfortunately, our bishops and deputies did not just run us through the pothole and touch that third rail, they danced on it…and, perhaps, set a timer ticking on a hastened demise for the Episcopal Church.

What is this hyperbolic high voltage rail and ticking time bomb to which I refer? Its official name is Plan for Revising the Book of Common Prayer. “Rest easy,” you will be told. “Prayerbook revision is a long, slow process.” In fact, it will take so long that its’ rhythmic background patter may lull you to sleep. But don’t think that tick-tock is harmless. Legislative item A 169, “Establish a Process for the Revision of the Book of common Prayer 1979,” sounds innocuous, but you should know that, “Preparing a plan for comprehensive revision” is code for “we will have a new prayer book in nine years unless we can figure out a way to do it sooner.

The insider speak promoting the revision is in code as well. Let me translate:

Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who is on the committee responsible for the revision, told the House of Bishops, “the resolution commits us to a theological, liturgical and ecclesiological conversation. I hope we can move forward with boldness to say we are ready.” Translation: We are going to talk about a lot of stuff not heretofore considered “Christian.”

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the committee, told the House of Deputies, “It’s become increasingly apparent that the 1979 prayer book is a product of its time…it’s time for us to take stock of our church and context in this century.”

Translation: “We want a prayerbook with marriage liturgies that work with same-sex couples, a new pledge in Baptism that Christians care for creation, a wholesale change in wording to reflect the growing universalist bent in our church, and the stripping of gendered language from our liturgies.

For the uninitiated, the idea of “non-gendered language” is to purge our liturgies of “problematic” words like, “Lord,” and “Kingdom.” Also on the cutting room floor are “patriarchal” words for God, like “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In their place we shall have “non-discriminatory” ones like, “God, Child, and Spirit.” Wrap your mind around the implications of that for a moment – a non-gendered God…except that the Holy Spirit is nearly always referred to as “she” by this group. Apparently the alternative to the biblical mode of speaking of God will be to jettison male deity references and substitute a female one. Are we about to become goddess worshippers?

I would like to say that I trust the motives and gracious impulse of those driving this. I believe they have a genuine desire to welcome and serve other more marginalized poultry-the ones not in the hen house. I have serious theological concerns about the way they want to accomplish these goals though. It is above our pay grade to change those words in the prayerbook that are the scriptures reorganized for public worship – when it is quoting the revealed words of scripture and the doctrines of the Christian tradition we cross a line. We are not our LDS convention hosts, no matter how welcoming they were in Salt Lake City. We do not receive, as our bishops said repeatedly, “new revelation from God.” And to think that new revelation comes by means of popularity contest in the form of “yeah” or “nay” vote is the epitome of progressive-modernist arrogance. We have an impeccable understanding of parliamentary procedure but need a refresher in systematic theology.

The convention seems to have gotten caught up in a collective euphoria over the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision – the convention broke out in dancing at the announcement, and they danced their way to prayerbook revision. I was assuming our flocks would be protected from this ecstasy by our ordinarily circumspect house of bishops. Sadly, I was wrong.

Each of these changes appears to represent a break with scripture and the tradition. What is certain is that we have, as a denomination, moved from “providing generous pastoral response”  and “accommodation” for same-sex couples, to the endorsement of same-sex marriage – a change from the stated end-game of the last two general conventions. “There is no slippery slope here, but let me distract you from looking too closely while I pull a revisionist rabbit out of my hat.” And while grousing over sexuality is the sour grapes of the group that just got played, sex is about to become the least of our worries. Our church has set the groundwork to move far past sexuality – Univeralism and the gender reassignment of God. We are now talking about wholesale theological alterations that affect the creedal foundations of our faith.

Which can only mean one thing-the sky is falling!

For non-Anglican readers, prayerbooks are important to Anglicans because our prayers express our theology. Prayerbook revision has long been Anglicanism’s third rail. It takes us off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. In the end, prayerbook revisions always leave a disgruntled group. That is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections.

But if we think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes like will happen IF a version of the prayerbook this group is telegraphing that they want to give us is mandated for usage. We have a decade for them to warm us up to the idea, though. The timer has begun. The clock is ticking…

When our decade runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a “Times Square” moment – a giant ball dropping on a heady new era?

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Or will it be the detonation of the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade?
UnknownWe shall see. But if we continue to grab this track, the smell of electrocuted flesh in our nostrils will be our own. If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage.

Chicken Little really hopes he is wrong.

And Chicken Little implores orthodox Episcopalians to scratch and cluck a bit before it is too late, especially orthodox Lesbian and Gay Episcopalians. Don’t sell your soul for a bowl of same-sex marriage rite inclusion pottage in the prayerbook. Are universalism and a new deity really what you signed up for? Many of you have told me that you joined this church because it was an orthodox expression of the Great Tradition. Will that still be true when the clock strikes?

Tenebrae Reimagined

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Click on pic to go to dropbox for files

This is a powerful, millennial friendly, holy week liturgy to put in your file for next Spring. If Tenebrae is new to you, you might think of it as a camp “cross-video”…only one that happens in your mind and with much more emotional impact.

It is an adaptation of the 8th century monastic service found in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services. We kept what works best (candles, the growing darkness of the room, the chant and participation through responsive prayer.) However, we adapted it to utilize the benefits of technology and help it to fit our contemporary context (i.e. one evening rather than three mornings before sunup).

1. Because it uses projected Keynote slides for the readings, you can have the room actually and powerfully dark.

2. Rather than being lost in puzzling Lamentations readings, it tells the story of Jesus’ Passion completely through Old Testament messianic prophecy.

3. It has the opportunity to integrate modern sound (a terrific “earthquake” rumbles the room at the resurrection), and the best of contemporary hymnody (How Deep the Father’s Love) with the symbolism, participation, and chant. It is also quite flexible: You can use the included charts for your own cantor or play the included chant recordings. You can have your own soloist and use a backing track, or play the vocal version of the hymn within the slideshow. (You will still need candles, a table, snuffer, and a black hooded alb. You will also need a Mac with Keynote, screen, sound system, and a good rehearsal.)

4. It is clear enough and brief enough for children to remain engaged. We knew we had a winner the first time we used this. At the point of Christ’s death you could hear people quietly sobbing all over the nave. People stayed in the darkened church long after the service was over. We had to finally ask the last few to leave an hour later to lock up. As far as I can tell some 5-6k folk have attended this service.

If you use it, please shoot me an email with feedback and a photo or two if you can get one in the dark.

Blessings,

Matt+

Pre-service explanation to 800 young adults at PhoenixOne.

To Donald Miller and anyone else considering dumping church: The church works best when you like it least

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I do not know Donald Miller. He writes great books though…books I read, recommend, and give away. Miller made a big splash in the blogosphere this week when he posted, “I don’t worship by singing.” In it he confesses that singing is “not his worship language” (I’m with him, it isn’t mine either).  He goes on to admit, “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest.” His reasons boil down to: 1) It is not how he learns. 2) It is not how he finds “intimacy with God.”

A Christian thought leader saying that he has “dropped church,” naturally creates a stir. Those ripples became waves yesterday with the followup he posted to clear things up. In that one he goes on to tell everyone why he was right. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, “The church is a mess,” “your reasons for wanting me to attend are rooted in fear,” “there are other ways to connect with God,” and, my personal favorite, “I’m just not feelin’ it.” As someone who disliked church intensely for my first twenty-five years in Christ, I am willing to stipulate that Miller is correct on all of his critiques. I am just not willing to embrace his conclusion.

The interesting part is that, even though Don calls himself a “post-evangelical,” he still thinks of church through the individualistic lens of the modern American turnstile church (not that other views of the church don’t have flaws, they do, just different ones). Basically Miller defines down the purpose of the public gathering for worship as “how I feel” and “what I get out of this?” Every Christian has had those two thoughts, whether spoken aloud or not.

If you have not articulated those thoughts it was because your next thought was, “Gee, that sounds a bit narcissistic.” Creeping narcissism is pretty difficult to avoid in the big-box church. It is, after all, the fruit of the preference based, target audience specific, focus group tested, “Just you and Jesus” message that modern mega-evangelicalism produces (See “What’s so uncool about cool churches“). If church is about “feelings of intimacy” and “getting something out of it,” then Christians would have given up on church 2000 years ago.

I understand the frustration: Constantly reinventing “relevance” leaves us captive to our own experience. It  becomes like a dog chasing its tail. The reason the church has been clung to for 2000 years is that, unlike the much imitated “seeker model” of the last thirty years, Word and Sacrament are not about “getting” or “feeling” but about being conformed to a Jesus-centered pattern set long ago. As Episcopal priest and former baseball coach, Gil Stafford, once said to me, “The liturgy is like a rock falling into a stream. It rubs the rough edges off of us week after week, year after year. It is an infinitely slow and quiet transformation that is about being with other rocks in the stream as the Spirit works through the years, the prayers, the Sacraments and the community of faith.” It is a long obedience in the same direction. It is about consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. And, I am convinced, the church works specifically best when we do not like it! When we choose to engage and to cooperate with the prayers, and surrender to the Lord of the prayers, and come, kneel, reach out our hands and receive, and “taste and see that the Lord is good,” then we truly worship.

Don Miller is a fantastic writer. He has and will continue to produce works that are well worth the investment of our time and money. And everyone with a keyboard writes things we later regret. The most regrettable line in his post was this one, “I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company.” Which was literally when I decided to comment. Of course, all men feel a sense of purpose when they are engaged in meaningful labor. It is an inherent part of maleness given in creation (Genesis 2). That an author with as much wisdom as Don Miller has shown in his books doesn’t see the idolatrous leanings in that statement, is a big yellow warning sign that he has been out of church just a little too long.

Our relationship with the Church should not be about feelings (even if we are feeling creatures), or learning (although learning is nice), or other people, or avoiding spiritual shipwreck. It should be because the Redeeming Lord of all Creation has used the pattern of Word and Sacrament to call out and shape a remnant into his image to participate with him in the redemption of the world.

It is an odd thing we Christians of the Great Tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, many Lutherans) do on Sundays. Oddly dressed people stand before us in garments that seem to say, “I have so lashed my life to the mast of word and sacrament that I am willing to dress like an idiot and drape myself with even more foolishness.” One of these awkwardly attired souls stands up and joyfully announces a message out of place and thoroughly irrelevant to a culture obsessed with its own relevance: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This opening acclamation declares that we have entered another realm, one in which our culture and our preferences are not the measure of our meaning. The congregation responds hopefully, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and for ever.” It is a bit of wisdom that we might never come to on our own…that we get through the collective wisdom of the Church, the body of Christ, across space and back through time.

Like Don Miller, I too would like the church to be something I might find meaningful.  The liturgy, developed over two thousand years, and assembled by worshippers who did not fit within their own cultures, makes no such attempt. It is simply about God. And not about the God-who-fulfills-all-my-desires, but about the one who is God-as-he-is-not-as-I-would-like-him-to-be. Every word of the liturgy is about God’s blessedness, not ours. In the words of Mark Galli, “The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not as relevant as we imagine. There is something infinitely more worthy of our attention-something, someone who lies outside the self.”

The ancient prayers go deep into our pre-rational selves, into our subconscious and mythic selves and transforms our all. As we learn to cooperate with God, the prayers honor and respect and take us. They lift us beyond ourselves to, as friend and priest Jim Clark says, “The Ultimate Mystery who is more than my experience, but who is also in my experience.” As we cooperate, God lifts and transforms our beings, imparting the Gracegiver until every aspect of our being is transformed. In the end, church isn’t about feeling differently or learning stuff. It is about being changed through Sacramental rhythm. And that only happens through time and repetition. Which is why you can’t get it at your company, while hiking, or in Starbucks.

All of which is to say, “Donald, Please come back.”

Eucharist for Newbies

Photo credit: Lifeteen

Photo credit: Lifeteen

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A light look at 10 things you should know before Sunday.

When American evangelicals think of worship what generally comes to mind is song and sermon. But for most of the Christian era and for most in the Christian era, “worship” has meant Scripture and Sacrament…in other words, Communion…the Eucharist.

1. “Eucharista” is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” You can thank Paul for that: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”  (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

2. Interestingly, there is only one instance when Jesus used the phrase “New Testament” or “New Covenant” (diatheke). He used it, not to describe a book, but the Eucharist. This comes from the earliest historical record of the last Supper, written within perhaps twenty years of the event: “In the same way [Jesus] also [took] the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:25; emphasis added). So, according to the New Testament, the Eucharist is the New Testament. Long before anyone assembled a book called the New Testament, Jesus had given the chalice as the New Testament in his blood (see Lk 22:20).  (Scott Hahn, The Eucharist in the New Testament)

3. The Eucharist, though, is not just in Paul, there are explicit references to the Eucharist in all four Gospels, Acts, Jude, and Revelation. Over the last fifty years Protestant scholars (John Koenig, Geoffrey Wainwright, Arthur Just, John DelHoussaye) have described a “Eucharistic Provenance of the New Testament.”  These are Protestant scholars recognizing that the New Testament was written to be read aloud in the context of the assembly (Rev 1:3) – and Christians assembled for the meal we call the Eucharist.

4. There are five views of the Eucharist: At the top is the Roman View – The elements incur a essential change, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, becoming a “Magic Cracker” that appears to be bread, but is, in fact the body of Christ. On the bottom is the memorialist view, in which nothing happens, it is just a “Happy Meal.”* In between, from bottom to top are the views of Calvin (Nothing happens to the elements, but Jesus is present as we lift our hearts in faith), the Lutheran view (the elements become both/and: Jesus and bread/wine), and the Orthodox view (the elements become Jesus, but how and what exactly happens to the elements is a mystery humans cannot define).

5. In Anglicanism there is room for all five views, although very few are memorialists. At the beginning of her reign, Queen Elizabeth was called on to decide whether or not England would remain Catholic, as it had been under “Bloody Mary,” or continue along toward Reformation Protestantism, as was occurring on the continent. As most religious disputes of the day were fought over communion, the clergy reportedly asked, “Which is it, (literally) the ‘body of Christ‘ or (a memorial) ‘The bread of heaven‘?” As the story goes, Elizabeth said something to the effect, “I will not be in the business of peering into men’s souls. When you deliver communion you will say, ‘The body of Christ comma the bread of heaven.'” Basically she was saying, “Communion will be what the person receiving believes it to be.” It is the origin of Anglicanism’s “majoring on the majors”…or “Anglican fudge,” depending on your perspective.

6. The early church repeatedly describes the elements as becoming and being the “body of Christ.” They said, in effect, “Jesus is really here.” But they refused to over-define what that meant. “Transubstantiation,” the word Roman Catholics use to  indicate that the elements truly become the body and blood of Christ, is a word that doesn’t appear until the 11th century. Seminary students are aware that over-definition can be a particular charism of scholasticism. Because both scripture and the unbroken testimony of the early church insist on it, I personally believe in “real presence.” Memorialism ignores far too much scripture and the consistent testimony of the early church (1 Cor 11:29-30) …Why were people getting ill and dying if it is just a reminder? Although the argument could be made that the McDonald’s “Happy Meal” will probably kill you also. Transubstantiation is more specific than can be proved from scripture and causes some significant real world problems – If a frat boy snags a wafer in a prank and runs, do we really have the God of the universe in a prankster’s pocket?

7. The Eucharist is a Sacrament (Yes, Protestants too have Sacraments). Sacrament is Latin for oath…or promise. Simply put: we are promised that we experience Jesus when we obey Jesus…especially when we obey Jesus in the ways Jesus commanded…which is why Protestants traditionally recognize two Sacraments: Baptism & Eucharist, and refer to the rest as “sacramental rites” – permitted and edifying, but not mandated. Btw, for Protestants bugged that Catholics invented the “T word” in the 1100s, Baptists came up the word “ordinance” in their Confession of 1689 to avoid the word “sacrament.”

8. This is not a new sacrifice: Scripture is clear: “Christ…suffered once for sins.” (1 Pet 3:18) The re-presentation of Christ is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” (BCP, 363)

9. Eucharist is the original Christian altar call: We come forward, we kneel in humility, we hold outstretched hands as the needy ones we are, and we receive, not grab, the Lord. We receive his grace in humility. We come to receive afresh the grace of God given at the Father’s initiation and at Christ’s expense. All baptized Christians are welcome at the family meal of the Body of Christ. As Cyril described in 400, we make a throne with our hands to receive the body of Christ.

10. At St. Jude’s we use a Eucharistic prayer adapted from the Prayer of Hippolytus written in 315CE. We are following a pattern that was explained as standard Christian worship by Justin Martyr in 150CE. Think about that: What Christians do in the Eucharist is so old that it was already described as the standard and assumed worship pattern of Christians as close to the closing of the NT canon as the writing of the New Testament was to the Lord walking on earth.

Do you want to worship like the early Christians? Try worshipping Eucharisticly. It will bless you.

As Augustine said, “Be what you see; receive what you are.” (Augustine, Sermon 272) -The body of Christ.

So, if you have not before, this Sunday join a celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

The Lord be with you!

*The terms “Magic Cracker” and “Happy Meal” were used in a friendly debate over beer. My Roman Catholic friend insisted, “It is indeed ‘magic cracker.'” My memorialist friend replied, “No. It is only a ‘Happy Meal.’ Fun, but no nutritional value is present.”

Spiritual Baseball: the unlikely path to intimacy with Jesus

Babe-Ruth-at-bat

Snark MeterrealMID.003Every once in a while you meet someone and immediately sense they are wise and grounded. One of those for me was a Roman Catholic youth pastor. We met some fifteen years ago at an outdoor cafe. While the coffee cooled he made small talk by mentioning the Protestant activities his children were involved in: Awana, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, and attending a Christian high school. I laughed and probed just a bit: Was he a wanna be Protestant? He laughed back and said, “Absolutely not. It’s just that it is pretty hard to come to faith in my Church.” His answer baffled me. Why, I asked, would he choose to be involved in a church in which it was hard for his children to come to faith? How, I wondered, did he not see himself as making my point for me? The jovial youth minister grinned again, handed me a pen, pushed a napkin toward me and said, with the hint of a smirk, “Make a list of your ten favorite authors.”

I scratched names on the napkin until he reached over and grabbed the pen, and said, “Ok, I’m stopping you at fifteen. I notice that of your fifteen favorite authors, thirteen of them are liturgical Christians.” I had never heard the word ‘liturgical’ and didn’t want to admit it, so I glossed over that detail and asked him what his point was.

He asked, “Why do you like those authors: Nouwen, Lewis, Temple, Wesley, Chesterton, Wright, Manning, Stott?”

“I guess because they write as if they have intimacy with Jesus,” I said.

He answered without hesitating, “Exactly,” he said, “I’m in my Church because it is how you become intimate with Jesus.”

“O, come on!” I objected.

He pointed at the napkin and reminded me it was my list. He then said something that took me a decade to understand, “If you want true intimacy with Jesus, it will probably happen in a liturgical church: Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, old-school Lutheran.”

We sat there another half hour and I decided that what he was saying is that if the spiritual life were a game of baseball, then first base is a relationship with Jesus. If one does not get on base, nothing else matters. That was why his kids were in evangelical activities. Second base might be knowing the Bible. Third, giving your life away in service for God and the Kingdom. But a “home run,” in the Christian life, is intimacy with Christ…what the Orthodox masters call “theosis” – a fulfillment of the image of God. I left that meeting wanting to “make it home,” but without the least awareness that, for millions over the last 2,000 years, the “home run” I longed to experience has been a common one in liturgical traditions.

And yes, I do realize that statement sounds arrogant and just plain incorrect to evangelical ears. After all, every evangelical church in America has a healthy collection of members who left the liturgical world precisely because they hadn’t gotten “on base” in a liturgical church.

What you may not realize is how non-normative the American 4 song/sermon worship format is in the scope of things. For 3/4 of Christian history, the liturgy was the only form of Christian worship. Even today, nearly 3/4 of the Christians on the planet worship God in the ancient pattern of Word and Sacrament. That doesn’t make the liturgy better, worse or more or less biblical, it does say that what most Christians know as “worship” is a bit of an outlier.

I am not saying that liturgical churches are perfect or have more holy people or that there are not dead liturgical churches…I’m fairly sure that dead liturgy might be the worst sort of dead. Just that for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

…for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

I didn’t understand what my Catholic friend was talking about precisely because I had been to a liturgical church a few times and found it repetitive and, frankly, numbing. What I discovered was that the power is precisely in the repetition…that, as a rough rock in a stream becomes a smooth stone from years of water flowing over it, the Christian is formed into the image of God when we surrender ourselves to the three-fold pattern of daily immersion in the Scriptures, weekly feeding in the Eucharist, and the annual cycle of the Christian year, combined with contemplative practices like those of the desert fathers. I have found that these are re-orienting my perception of reality, the way I view time, life, and the world around me, in ways that words on a page cannot fully capture. It is freeing me to love those who oppose me and work for the good of those who seek my harm.

You may not be interested in walking the path to the ancient Church, known in Anglicanism as “the Canterbury trail.” I was not either. Ironically it is a journey that has given a depth to my walk with Christ that I never imagined. Like someone who has never tasted ice-cream, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What about you? If you have walked with Jesus for several decades, is intimacy/spiritual union something the church you worship in is nurturing in you? In what ways, corporately and individually are you finding intimacy with Jesus? Or have you, like many, given up on intimacy with God as having a corporate expression? If so, I invite you to the sandlot to play ball.

Batter up.