Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cultural Revolution

We frequently speak of Christianity as a countercultural religion, but in a recent conversation with a friend, I was corrected on my terminology. The position I hold is not that Christianity is countercultural, but that it transcends culture. Islam, Hinduism, and other religions create cultures. If you follow the rules and dictates of these religions, you have developed another culture and you live in that. Christianity does not create a culture, which is why it is revolutionary wherever it is preached.

There is no creating a "Christian culture" because as soon as you think you've got it, you realize that more is asked! We can never get comfortable and say this is what Christianity looks like in practice. Let's look at the practice of giving. We can start with our comfortable 10% tithe inspired by Old Testament commandments. But then, we look at the New Testament and see that the widow gave ALL she had. So, we decide to give everything. But when we look at Jesus' teachings, we read about the parable of the talents and realize that the responsibility of the servants was to use what was given to them and increase it for the master. And then, to complicate matters further, we see that giving isn't just monetary. We see examples of women giving up their children (Hannah with Samuel). And we read that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it. The world and all who live in it, so we wonder what giving really means when it's already His. So, you see that there's no clear cut: "this is how you should give," apart from cheerfully and not ostentatiously. The only thing you can say is "give."
As a result, you will have some people giving 10%. Some 60%. Some taking vows of poverty. Some creating foundations to support causes. Some only accepting money given to them in their service for God. What's the true Christian response? Yes.

Domenico Fetti. "Peter's Vision."
I think Shane Claiborne's radical way of living is a good response to what we read in the Bible. But I
also think that this is not the only way to live the teachings we find. Can you create a culture when there are so many options that are right? We often think there are many ways to go wrong and only one right path. That's true. But the right path looks different for different people. God has called us to different paths. God is calling all of us to give. Should I be buying cans of food for a soup kitchen instead of supporting my Compassion child? I don't think so. Should Jane Smith be buying cans of food instead of supporting a child through Compassion? Quite possibly. A friend asked me recently how much we should give. I told him that it's between you and God and my rule of thumb is "give until it hurts." Then, when you grow comfortable with giving that much, give a little bit more. We live by faith after all. And on this topic, giving is giving of our whole selves. Not just money. Our time, our connections, our enthusiasm, our homes, our cars, our expertise, our energy. All of these can be given or used in service to give. So, even if you give up all material possessions, you haven't given it all yet: you still have yourself! Keep giving!

So, you can see that there are no "rules" we can write down to truly live the Christian life, but cultures are defined by rules. What is appropriate. What is taboo. What is expected. These rules are turned on their heads because God calls us to more. You have heard it said do not murder, I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister is subject to judgment. This is a rule turned on its head. When each rule is actually a principle, it's no longer black and white. It no longer has the capability of clearly defining. Perhaps it is okay to fight in this war because God commands it, but not this other war. Or perhaps he can fight in this war, but I can't. Perhaps it is both pacifism and aggressive justice? Where is the sense in this? This is not cultural. Cultures cannot exist in this tension.

But where does this revolution start? It starts with the heart. There is no magical Jabez-type prayer that will rocket your life into perfection. There is only a slow, slogging painful journey. But take heart because we're all in this together! This revolution won't be flashy. It's not sexy and it won't make you lose that extra weight you're carrying. It starts with the heart.

When I think about the cultural and religious revolutions of the 17th century, I think they came about because those Anabaptists (and others) were looking for change when they approached the Scriptures. They came to radical conclusions because they were dissatisfied with the status quo. They weren't happy with what the church looked like. Sound familiar? That's how revolutions are started. So, you want a thought revolution? Well, it begins with the attitude of you, dear reader. Unless you are looking for change, I cannot convince you that you need to change. Unless you are truly unhappy with what you are getting from the church, you will not have the motivation to change the church. Unless you desire to live a new life, reading the Bible will not change you. Did I just say that? I did. Unless your heart is right with God, you will not read the Bible clearly. You will justify what you read. You will read the words and not the spirit. Change starts with the heart.

Caravaggio. "The Conversion on the Way to Damascus"
Provided the heart is in the right place, I think we just start reading the Bible! There is so much in this great book of ours! The whole thing is jam-packed with revolutionary thoughts! Read a gospel. Read about the early church. Read the epistles and the instructions on how to live. It's earth-shattering stuff! When you read looking to change, you will find there's a lot there. It's scary stuff! The call to action is hard to miss unless you've decided you're living a comfortable life and would like God to approve how you live.

We don't need the 10 steps to living a radical life. We don't need a code of conduct for the church. We don't even need blog posts of this nature! What we need is a desire to change accompanied by an honest reading of the Bible, constantly going back to the source and rediscovering how we ought to live. I suppose that means you should leave your computer and go pick up the Bible that's looking a little dusty there. But if you need a bit more motivation, I will likely be posting again on just a few ways I think we need to re-envision our lives and churches.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Church Has Different Faces (Part II)

Where the Episcopal Church had all the grace and stateliness of the old world, Zion had the light of new life. Built on a hill, Zion is appropriately named and I was struck by the brightness of this church. A city on a hill cannot be hidden, indeed! Where St. Luke was red, Zion was white. This church did not have the mystique of St. Luke's, but it was alive! People were bustling around, greeting one another, smiling and talking. Children were waving their palm leaves. It was a chaotic friendliness.

Zion Lutheran Church in Kalamazoo, MI
As the service began, the chaos subsided into a comfortable rhythm. An organ prelude. A gospel
reading. A hymn. A congregational response. Another New Testament reading. Offertory. Then, it was the time for what we were all looking forward to: the Cantata! The choir and orchestra were superb.

One song in particular grabbed me and forced me to consider what it was we were celebrating. Called “One Day,” this song began with the women singing in subdued voices about the sin that “was as black as could be.” Then the men joined in with a drum pounding the unrelenting story of the man who was born of a virgin, but was rejected and nailed to a tree. The chimes brought in the next part of the story: the grave could not hold Him! As the piece crescendoed, it told the story of triumph. O glorious day! This musical presentation of the gospel was so beautiful, I wanted to cry and laugh all at the same time.

Of course, I am also biased in favour of Zion because they sang one of my favourite hymns: “What Wondrous Love is This.” I will forgive the choir for stealing my favourite verse, but only because they did such a good job of it!

There were other things along the way that made this time so meaningful. Because the words were printed in the bulletin, I was able to reflect on them and think about our description of heaven as home, the idea that Christ's life and death are both expressions of His love, the centurion's realization of Christ's divinity before His resurrection, and the appearance of sight—excuse the pun—in our Scriptures and songs (i.e. we speak of receiving sight at the cross, Paul was blinded at the same time he first recognized Christ as Lord, God's gift to Simeon was being able to see the promised Christ before his death, etc.). It was a good service and the crowning touch was receiving palm leaves of my own as we left the sanctuary! This is the face of Christ's bride.

The Church Has Different Faces (Part I)

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, MI
As we pulled up to the Episcopal church, I was struck by the European architecture and longed to have a few minutes to explore the building's various nooks and crannies. The doors and hallways led off rooms as if put there as an afterthought. As we walked through the arches from one hallway to another, we passed various pieces of art—postmodern, traditional, and everything in between. This eclectic collection of pieces only served to give the place an aged charm. And as far as American buildings go, it was pretty old—176 years old, to be exact.

It was the main sanctuary that took my breath away though. I love the colour red. It's majestic, bold, and in the right shade, it demands reverence. The sanctuary had been dipped in the colour of blood. And soaring over the padded pews, beautiful stained glass windows let in the sun's light. Everywhere I turned, there were palm branches, the green leaves proclaiming life and a reminder that this faith of ours is not a remnant of the past. These symbols of faith surrounding me were not merely vestiges of a dead religion. Our God lives! But I was struck by the emptiness. There were no people to affirm this truth.

Forgive me as I get carried away in describing the physical church. You see, we arrived at 8 am and the Palm Sunday service had been moved to 9 am, so I had ample opportunity to gaze on the beauty surrounding me. But we also met the church embodied in the person of Charlie Large. Charlie met us coming up to the church doors and graciously allowed us into the locked building. He tottered his way through the halls, maintaining a steady narration on the building's various rooms—the Chapel, the crematorium*, the side room that was going to get a stained glass window soon... I got the impression that we were his special guests and he was delighted to give us a grand tour of his home. You see, 79 of his 89 years had been spent in this church. He had seen priests and bishops come and go (and had opinions on each of them!). He had seen this church dwindle from its hey day of over a thousand in the pews to a mere 300 or so.

In talking further with him, I realized that we were conversing with a research scientist, who had been a force to be reckoned with in his day (although I also gathered that the current bishop still thought he was a force to be reckoned with!). He told us about how research had been conducted back in his day. We heard about his friend's dogs and his late wife's inability to stand winters (I could empathize!). We learned about the current priest's compassion for children and the special service they conducted for them on Saturday nights. When we took our leave of Charlie (to find the service in the park he mentioned), I could not help thinking about this spry, opinionated old man wandering through the building and welcoming a couple lost individuals into his church and hoping I might see him again before he departs to cross the river!

*This is the term Charlie used. It was a room where the ashes of the deceased were kept.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

That Dang Mammon (Part 1)

[The second author speaks! What follows is a letter from Chuck to his church.]

So, the grim, incessant economic forecasts grind on: the “financial cliff”, sequestration, lagging economy, sagging job market, rising prices—and the utter inability of politicians to agree on an economic policy that is truly good for the country. (Will Rogers used to say that we’d be better off if we bundled up all the politicians and sent them to Washington where they couldn’t do any harm. Wonder what he’d say about their seeming inability to do anything once they get there—but I am off point.)

Everybody is talking about money and what to do with it. The foreboding financial horizon is enough to convince us that money really is the root of all evil. (I know that’s not what the text says, but it works here. Truer words ne’er spoken: “Among the things that money can’t buy is what it used to.”)

At the beginning of this year, we suggested that one of our goals in the coming months should be to develop good stewardship practices. Someone asked me if that meant there would be more sermons on giving money. My response: “No more than usual.” Honestly, as you know, I don’t do too many sermons on money. I figure that if faithful Christians don’t know by now that we ought to give regularly, freely, and generously from a heart of gratitude, then another sermonic harangue will not likely make much difference.

But one question, one with a sharper edge, has surfaced several times in recent conversations: “Why should I give to the church at all?” Now that is a legitimate query that deserves a sincere response (if for no other reason than, according to Barna and Gallup, giving to churches is at an all-time low across the nation).

The way I see it, there may be numerous reasons for the question at hand: (1) “The economy” (that’s all you have to say); (2) The bunker mentality engendered by “the economy”; i.e., hunker down, conserve, spend only what is essential—and church is a non-essential. (You heard about the husband who said to his wife as they planned their budget: “Let’s start with the basic necessities—food, clothing, and shelter. We have a choice of any two.); (3) The dramatic rise in appeals for contributions from many other good causes (I get at least two letters every day soliciting donations and three or four calls a day from fundraising organizations; some Christian organizations are working to convince me that “the church” is passé and that they are the new, cool cause to support); and (4) “giving to the church” just doesn’t have the cachet it once possessed; the idea seems so old-fashioned in these modern times in which there are many other tantalizing places to spend our cash.

I suspect there may be other, more basic reasons; e.g., if the church is incidental in a person’s life, then giving to it will be low priority as well. And possibly there is a paucity of clarity on what we find in the Bible about giving.

So, can we talk?  The topic of giving is touchy for some: we don’t want to be made to feel guilty and we don’t want to be told what to do! I get that. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the fact that the business of giving is a substantive issue in Scripture: giving of one’s personal resources is an ancient practice of God’s people found in the Law, in the Temple and sacrificial system, and in the early church. Jesus spoke more about money (and what it says about one’s spiritual state) than almost any other topic. Paul seemed to be convinced that generous giving is an action that reveals the heart of authentic, Christian faith.

To simplify the matter just a bit, let’s start with one very familiar passage: I Corinthians 15:1-16:1. This text contains a most fascinating juxtaposition of two concepts: a soaring treatment of the resurrection and a pragmatic instruction regarding taking an offering. Imagine that.

God raised Jesus from the dead!
Paul does not spare words to declare the impact of this single event. It changed history. It changes you and me, forever. It shapes how we live, the way we see each other, and what we think is most important. It is our hope, our rescue from the final enemy . . . and God did it because He loves us.

Now, concerning the collection . . . .
In his next (written) breath, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that they need to be giving regularly and generously, setting aside (their gifts) “on the first day of the week”.

A remarkable connection between theology and practice! How did he bridge these disparate topics so easily? Giving, it appears, is a natural response to God’s free gift of grace. The degree to which one easily turns loose of one’s highly valued yet so very temporal stuff is a measure of the degree to which one has grasped the implications of eternal life.

So, the issue is one of allegiance, devotion, and gratitude—not “owing God” or “grudging obligation” or “giving so that you get something.” Giving is not a quid pro quo arrangement. God does not bribe you with a promise of a return on your investment nor does He does He threaten you with holy extortion (i.e., “If you don’t give, He will take it from you.” Ever heard that preached?)

Rather, you give freely because you have received freely. You give gladly because in so doing you show that your highest allegiance is to Him, to things above, and not to “mammon” and things below. You give to His Church because in so doing you give Her life, you broaden Her reach, you participate directly in the work of infinite God in finite world.

God forbid that our church should ever become so “money oriented” that the topic consumes our conversation. God equally forbid that we neglect to proclaim that our giving is a genuine act of worship, a holy sacrifice, a divine liturgy, a profound, public means of proclaiming the goodness of God, and an affirmation that there is a direct connection between how we live our future hope and what we do with our present stuff.

I picked up the following from some ancient source . . .

Do you faithe this life from death?
May your heart then take and seal it . . .
Do you take this Christ as Lord?
May your life henceforth reveal it . . .
Do you see this Church—His Bride?
May your hands be op’n to heal it.

There is much more that should be said on this subject. We will pick up next time with an overview of what the Bible says about giving.

In the meantime, on this lovely, almost-but-not-quite spring day, I am overwhelmingly delighted to be on the great adventure with you. Eager to give freely in accord with what I have freely received, I am, as always,


Old man to beautiful, young trophy wife: “Would you still love me if my money was all gone?”
Beautiful, young wife: “Of course, I would still love you. Don’t be silly. And I would miss you, too.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Mennonite Girl Goes Dancing

Contra-dancing at Oshtemo Grange

I went dancing.

I realize this makes me a “bad Mennonite,” but I happen to think it was a good decision.

Allow me to transport you there for a moment. The live band is playing a foot-tappin’ beat, the caller is giving the next move in a sing-song voice, couples are whirling around to the music, and others are lined along the walls, wiping their foreheads from the previous vigourous romp, drinking water, and letting their feet, joints, or aching limbs rest a bit before jumping into the next one. The mood is festive. We’re all here to have a good time. No one is watching to make sure you land right on the beat. No one cares whether you’re wearing a skirt or trousers or shorts. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves and make sure you’re also having fun. And fun is definitely being had. The only way I can describe one of the moves is as a close approximation to flying. As you hold your partner and spin, gaining enough speed, your toes barely touch the ground and then… all at once, you’re airborne! As you come back down for the landing, your partner hands you off to your corner and you follow them into the next few steps, as you reorient yourself to being back on terra firma.

Dancing is thrilling! It’s the adrenaline rush of not being able to predict everything that might go wrong (or right!), but then improvising as need be. It’s the inside communication with your partner (often nonverbal) that can’t be seen from outside, but is the life of the dance. It’s the creative spontaneity of inserting something unexpected that gives it that extra zazz, which is only possible after the basics have been practiced over and over. It’s a lot like life. Contra-dancing is a safe place to learn to follow or lead. It’s a place where you can practice surrendering your will to someone else. It’s a place where you practice the social niceties of thanking your partner for an enjoyable dance, of gracefully declining a dance when you need to rest, of conversing with strangers and making small talk.

At contra-dancing I found a community of people with whom I would not ordinarily hang out. As an evangelical Christian, my circle of influence can get very small. It’s easy to pour all my time and energy into people who are similar to me—people at school or church, but there’s no denying the fact that many of the people I met at contra were at fundamentally different stages of life than I. Most of the gentlemen with whom I had the privilege of dancing were at least 50 years old. Some were from different parts of the U.S. Some were Christians. Some were not. Some were very conservative, others were very liberal. But this common thread of dance wove us together and allowed those differences to melt away. And as the barriers lowered, stories were shared and we were able to begin conversing about things which do matter. For that reason (and because I love flying!), I am so excited to return this next Saturday for more contra-dancing!

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Love of Liturgy

Advent Candles.
The appeal of the tradition and reverence of the “high church” is one I understand. It’s why I’ve visited and appreciated Russian Orthodox services and Catholic masses, why I did not feel out of place in a Wesleyan church for four years, and why I am in the process of reclaiming my Anabaptist heritage. It is in humility that I acknowledge we have been pursuing God for a long time and perhaps my youthful ideas of what is best for the church are wrong.

Allow me to explain the value I see in liturgical churches.

I love the liturgy, its cadences, the congregational unity it creates, its majesty, and the theological depths contained in the words. I love how liturgy combines reason and faith and beauty. And the hymns... I want to tell Chris Tomlin to stop “modernizing” these classics. Let them be. Let us relax into the long held notes, let the sopranos soar into beautiful descants, let’s revive multi-part harmonies, and please, oh please can we occasionally end in the hushed reverence of an a cappella “Amen”?

Liturgical worship acknowledges our bodies. Somehow, in the evangelical Protestant world we have lost the ability to worship God with our senses. Where are the flickering candles that remind us of life’s fragility, the warmth of God’s presence, and the light we must be to the world? Where is the incense that reminds us that our prayers are a fragrant offering to God? Where is the profusion of colour that reminds us of the Creator God’s infinite variety and childlike delight in creating something as frivolous as colour? Where are the textures of solid wood and heavy materials that recall the firm foundation on which we stand and the majesty of a King?

I love the Church calendar. I love her rhythms. I love her rises and falls. I love the anticipation and expectation of Advent. I love the innocence and wonder of Christmas. I love the solemnity of Ash Wednesday. I love the perseverance and strength of character developed during Lent. I love the joy and hope of Palm Sunday. I love that Maundy Thursday reminds me to participate in footwashing and service and rending my heart before God. I love the grief and darkness and acceptance of the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday. I love the cleansing healing of Easter Sunday. I love the all-reaching love of God that won’t be stopped by languages seen during Pentecost. The church calendar echoes the patterns of my own life. It reminds me that there are seasons of hope, seasons of discipline, seasons of grace, and seasons of joy. My journey on this narrow path is not linear, but sinusoidal and that is just part of a growing, living faith.

In short, there is so much that contributes to my liturgical leanings, but I must be fair. I must give the other side as well and explain why I am not a member of a high church.

I worship a God who will take me as I am, broken and bleeding. He does not stand on ceremony when I cry out to Him in pain and beg Him to cleanse me of my filth. This rawness is also part of my faith. I must be able to fall to my knees in His presence or prostrate myself on the floor or stand with my head thrown back. What arrogance that I will sit complacently in my pew while confessing my blackest thoughts!

Shadowlands. Photo Credit: Minesh Bacrania
I want to bring whatever I can to the altar. I want to bring Him my love for theatre. Would a “traditional” church allow me to perform dramatic readings for the glory of God or worship Him through narrative and poetry? Would I be free to explore different expressions of my adoration for God? I want to be free to participate in the traditions in new, but still meaningful ways. Must the form always be preserved, or can the form be more flexible, while the spirit remains? Can we make Communion become a Love Feast once again? Can we move the ashed cross from our foreheads to our hands, where it is a more effective reminder to ourselves, rather than merely a public statement? Can our Tenebrae Service incorporate the Stations of the Cross and an African American poem? Will I forget the freedom of expression if I am bound within a certain form?

For these reasons (among others), I still call myself an Anabaptist. I submit that we are able to worship God in many forms and only those which are useful for bringing us before the throne ought to be retained. And these forms ought to be re-evaluated at regular intervals. What is effective for bringing someone to the throne of God may not work for another. Also, what works at one time, does not work at another. There is a time and season for every activity under heaven. And so I do not bid everyone to appreciate the liturgy as I do, but I ask that those who do not participate acknowledge its importance for others and understand the failings of their own particular forms of worship (for we all have tendencies and/or practices, which are not completely healthy). And so, let us look at our own traditions and judge what is good and what is lacking.