Oct 25 2013

Its All About Attitude

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By Robert Raker

There is a common misconception about simplicity and its relationship to Christ and Christianity.  In fact, this

misconception has caused many within the church to abandon this centuries old Brethren practice completely.  But why?

The problem is that, as with mo

st Biblical issues, we have gotten away from what the Bible really teaches.  When asked what simplicity in the Bible means, most would probably answer something like giving up worldly things, or living without nice things, or living on the bare essentials.

But this is not what the Bible teaches about simple living.  Indeed, simple living is not about the absence of things, but about the absence of the need for things.  Here I want to consider two scriptures and hopefully clarify the idea.  The first text we’ll examine is Matthew 6:25-34.

This passage should be familiar to those even loosely acquainted with the Bible.  Anytime someone faces worry or doubt this passage is used to bring comfort or lend support.  It is a part of  “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, .

While the entire passage could be

read in regards to simple living I want us to focus in on three main points.  First, in verse 32  Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things.” The key word here is “run”.  It is my belief that what the Bible teaches regarding simplicity is more about attitude toward our possessions than the actual possessions.  And here Jesus plainly states that those who run after, or pursue, these things are the pagans, not merely those who own them.

This idea is supported in the next verse when Jesus says we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,”  Again, we see the idea that to have these things is not necessarily. Rather, to pursue them before God’s kingd

om and righteousness is bad.  Jesus is reminding us what should come first in our lives.  In other words, its all about the attitude. This idea is completed in the second half of verse 33.  “All these things will be given to you as well.”  God wants us to have things, that is the things we need and desire, but He will only give them to us when we pursue Him first.

Our second passage comes from I Timothy 6:3-10.  In verse 6 Paul tells Timothy that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”  This is another way of saying, “Seek first His kingdom.”

Simple living is about being happy with what we’ve been given rather pursuing more and more and more.  But again, we must be reminded that the possessions themselves are not harmful, but rather our attitude toward them.   This is an idea Paul expounds on in verse 10,  another well know passage.  Who among us hasn’t heard this at some point, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  However, if we scan this verse quickly, without stopping to examine it, we can lose the true meaning.

I have heard people say that this verse teaches that money and the things it purchases are evil and should

therefore be avoided at all cost.  This is not what Paul is saying.  Paul says that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Its our attitude toward it that matters not the money itself.

Try this experiment.  Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and place it on the kitchen table, or desk in front of you.  Now watch closely.  Has it moved?  Has it done anything other than possibly been moved by a fan or breeze?  Of course it hasn’t!  It’s only money. The point is this: money, or possessions have no power in and of themselves.  They cannot think, read, talk, or walk.  The only power they have is the power we give them.  That’s why Paul says the love of money is the root all evil and not money itself.  Its all about the attitude.

Still later in this verse Paul takes it one step farther when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

These are just two of the many scriptures which demonstrate that possessions are not evil, but our attitude toward them.  Is it wrong to have nice th

ings?  If they cause us to pursue more nice things then the answer is yes.  But if we are satisfied, or content, with the things which God has blessed us with, and continue to place His kingdom and righteousness above our things then the answer is no.  When it comes to simple living, its really all about attitude.

Rob picRobert Raker is an ordained minister in the Southern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren.  He is currently between assignments as an interim pastor.  He enjoys spending time with his wife and children, writing, and teaching a weekly home based Bible study

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Sep 5 2013

On Desire Lines: Sarah Coakley, Vulnerability, and What Turns Us On

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DesireThis post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission. 

The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.

Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.

If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.

I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)

Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)

Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?

To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)

A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):

What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.[1]

Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.[2]

But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”[3]To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).

Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.”[4] Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)

I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.

At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)

Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)

So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.

Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?

This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.

As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.

For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.

I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).

I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.

Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.

[2] To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.

[3] Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”

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Aug 8 2013

A New Order for Clergy?

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David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.

So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.

For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation.  Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.

This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years.  But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary.  The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.

I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context.  He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.

Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:

  • They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
  • They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate.  They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
  • They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.

For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates  dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning.  But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.

What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time.  There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.

Fitch01

David Fitch is the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and part of the pastoral leadership of Life on the Vine, a congregation in suburban Chicago. He has published several books, including End of Evangelicalism (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Prodigal Christianity with GeoffHolsclaw (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

 

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Apr 3 2013

Small Groups in Congregational Life

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Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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Jul 1 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read the second installment of this series…

Gordon Lathrop asserts that the role of the presider in the assembly’s worship is to “make the center strong.”1 Throughout my work in pastoral ministry, either in proclamation, leadership, or the arts, my formation as a presider for worship has been a pattern of challenge, epiphany, and growth. My understanding of the role of presider when I first entered pastoral ministry as a worship minister nearly a decade ago was shaped by a paradigm of authority. The presider receives authority from God to act toward the assembly. In the past several years, this thinking has shifted. Recent research in liturgical architecture, Table imagery, and an experience and understanding of God’s presence began the work of synthesizing our tradition’s emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ with the work of presider. Though the presider’s calling and work is an act of divine importance, the authority of the presider rises from the assembly itself which God has empowered.

The Triune God of our faith meets us in this place that has been created for us. Our response is a rhythmic gathering toward and sending from that presence to expand the renewing power of the divine initiative. It is in this rhythmic gathering and sending, when the assembly is engaged in the rituals of story and meal, that the presider finds authority and empowerment. It is dynamic divine-human interplay: God and the assembly engaged in a sacred dance of illumination and response.

What follows in this brief report is my work with an urban Church of the Brethren parish, re-imagining and rehearsing these essential ecclesiological principles in the form of architecture and ritual. My goal as presider, and as advocate for faithful worship, was to “make the center strong” in response to the full revelation of God’s presence.

Grounding Worship in the Love Feast

In the Church of the Brethren, the practice of quarterly or monthly observance of “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” is held in tension with our two annual gatherings for the Love Feast. We have valued the Love Feast as an expression of the community’s unity and obedience to Jesus: services of feet-washing, a simple fellowship meal, and the sharing of bread and cup. The principal ethos of Love Feast is often confined to the celebration of the event itself. In the past decade, many leaders across the denomination have worked to encourage congregations to learn to speak with a distinctly Brethren voice. The Church’s broadening development of the peace tradition has produced polity statements calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, and a purposeful conviction that Jesus intends to renew the entirety of creation. These missional perspectives should be shared in our liturgical expression. The self-giving renewal of God’s shalom begins in the illumination of God’s presence and the assembly’s ritual response to God’s revelation. The Love Feast in the Church of the Brethren is the community’s engagement in story and meal around the Table. As the primary holy day in the life of the communion, should not its spirit impact the weekly worship of its people?

The ecumenical spirit that has permeated the Church of the Brethren has been reflected in our parish since its consecration in 1953. Inhabiting a former high-liturgical Baptist facility, our liturgy embraced the typical Presbyterian style that characterized mid-20th century Protestant worship: a choir in robes and stoles, elevated chancel and pulpit, a robed minister, and the two-folds of extended gathering and the service of the word. It was a worship built upon the experience of the intellect engaged with educated clergy. Throughout the following years, changes in the worship order and content progressed organically with the changing styles of the presiding ministers. Because our congregational practice gives ministers broad influence over the shape of worship, the liturgical environment shifted from formal Presbyterian in the 1950s to informal Baptist by the late 1990s. There was little that was distinctly Brethren in either form or content.The liturgical place itself betrayed the historic Brethren emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ An elevated chancel and pulpit from which the minister presided looked down upon an auditorium-style pew arrangement. A large stained-glass window displaying a crown hung recessed in the chancel. These elements, though aesthetically beautiful, highlighted the feeling of God’s distance from the midst of the assembly, holding implicit yet strong formative influence over the community that gathered for worship.

Understanding the history of the parish in changing worship, the broad vision of the denomination to reclaim a distinctly Brethren voice in worship and witness, and the theological implications of ecclesial expression, our congregation engaged in a process of liturgical exploration and renewal to discern our awareness of God’s presence through architecture and ritual.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 Read on for part 2

  1. Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 94 []
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Apr 18 2012

An Inside Out Faith

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By Randall Westfall

If I were to ask you to make a list of things that you loved to do as a child, what would be on your list? For me that list includes (but is not limited to): running barefoot, building forts, catching things, building campfires, climbing, getting dirty, telling stories, imitating animals, hiding, exploring, and a ton of other pastimes that would take up more time than I have been allotted here.

If you were to ask a child today what their favorite activities are, you’d likely get a different list of activities. Though overlap may occur, I suspect that most would involve a screen or an outlet as many have replaced formative experiences outdoors with informative experiences indoors. It’s even changing our vernacular as dictionaries are doing away with words like heron, dandelion, and blackberry in favor of iPod, broadband, and ironically Blackberry.1

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature-deficit disorder (NDD) to illustrate the significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs that alienation from nature has on children today.2 NDD isn’t an actual clinical disorder as much as it gives voice to what many of us were already thinking by addressing our intuitive understanding that nature is not only good for our children but essential to their healthy development.

Children today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors and less than 25 minutes a week outdoors.3 A trend that is leading to epidemics in childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, Asperger’s and more.4 Why is this happening? Studies are showing that there are: a) more demands on children’s time, b) parental fears of “stranger danger,” c) more sedentary lifestyles, d) urbanization of America and e) an increased use in electronic media (up to 44 hours a week).5 These “digital natives” are experiencing the world in a radically different way than their ancestors did and it has consequences on their spiritual development.

Throughout history, our ancestors encountered God primarily through two means: nature and storytelling. Nature was experienced through the senses (body) and the heart, and stories informed the intellect (mind) and the heart. Over time, our stories evolved from oral narratives, to being captured in written form. In the past 25 years, as technology has expanded its reach and outdoor experience has degenerated, we find ourselves processing our experiences more through our mind and less through our body. In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of what some scientists are calling a “transhuman” era6 where we are no longer multi-sensory beings; rather we become one-dimensional as our experiences are increasingly filtered through some type of technological medium.

This is all a part of NDD, and it is affecting our spiritual landscape. In ages past, a child’s spiritual life was assumed, largely in part because of the way they interacted with the natural world around them. As we become less engaged with the outdoors, we can no longer make assumptions regarding spiritual development. Children are trading in outdoor experiences for a virtual house arrest in which they live through external, digital devices. Being outdoors has shaped who we are for centuries, yet in the span of a generation; children who are “nature-smart” are becoming an endangered species.

Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good living in a “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, as our efforts to protect and preserve nature are also creating barriers to interacting with it. When it comes to nature, we have adopted a “museum” approach whereby children are taught to look but don’t touch. Other adages like stay on the trail, don’t wander, may be inadvertently projecting our fears that when interacting with nature someone will get hurt, be it either human or the landscape. If you can’t interact with something, it isn’t long before you lose interest. And if enough time passes, we dishonor God by basically declaring that “what you have made no longer interests me.” We’re encouraging children to “play it safe” in controlled environments, hyper-stimulated by electronic media. If they aren’t hyper-stimulated, they either become anxious or disengage. NDD keeps our appreciation for nature so long as we don’t interact with it. Imagine the same being said for our faith? I appreciate God, but I don’t interact with God. What do spiritual disciplines look like to that person?

The paradox of faith is that the God who dwells on the inside often must be encountered outside. When we lose the appeal to explore outer landscapes, then what metaphors will navigate the journey for our inner landscape? Faith has become inside out and it isn’t until we realize our connection with nature; then the Mystery at work in the depths of our souls and the Mystery in the natural world are parts of the same reality.7  Author John Lionberger believes that “Being outdoors has the power to join two extreme states of awareness, consciousness and acuity, which lead to peak experiences the recipient finds deeply spiritual.8 In my time in outdoor ministry, I’ve observed that children who have a connection with nature are more aware of their relationship with God than those who spend little or no time outdoors.

This is not about doing away with our iStuff, rather we must learn to find a balance between the digital and the natural. What if for every text or email sent, we spent those moments sitting and listening for what the robins and towhees were saying to us? Or instead of recognizing the thousands of corporate logos we see on commercials, we take the time and familiarize ourselves with the wood sorrel, plantain, and nettle in our own backyard? Or every video game spent trying to get to the next level; we spent an equal amount of time following a set of raccoon tracks to discover hidden levels of its life?

How will we prevent NDD from being passed on to future generations? It’s time for us to start embodying those childhood passions we listed above, as spiritual disciplines to feed the fire of faith just as we do with devotions, bible study, prayer and worship. Only then can we become fully awakened, fully alive, and experience the abundant life that Jesus wants us to step into. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, bodies, hearts, and even brains were created in such a way that it is vital for us to engage creation, in doing so we always encounter the Creator.

Randall Westfall is the director at Camp Brethren Heights and founder of Ancient Paths Outdoor School in west-central Michigan.He is a graduate of Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle, with certifications in Naturalist Studies, Wildlife Tracking, Edible/Medicinal Plant Studies, Bird Language, Art of Mentoring and Wilderness Survival. He spent just as much time immersed in nature as he did sitting at his computer writing this article.

 

  1. Morris, Charles. National Catholic Reporter. 18 November 2011.  []
  2. Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005. []
  3. Play Again. Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. 2010. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Richard Louv. The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011. []
  7. Robert M. Hamma. Earth’s Echo. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2002. []
  8. John Lionberger. Renewal in the Wilderness. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2007. []
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Mar 6 2012

Ascetic Christianity: Brethren Dress and Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

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[Part 1 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.]

by Joshua Brockway

James K. A. Smith has written an accessible and insightful discussion of practices and the Christian faith. Smith turns to consider practices and liturgies as foundational for the ways we act in the world as Christians thus challenging worldview understandings of Christian education and formation,. Rather than discuss these practices in ideological terms Smith defines these liturgical practices as “a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God.”2 Yet, Smith is clear that liturgies are not just proprietary to the Church. All cultures have within them liturgical practices which aim a person’s desires towards some other ultimate end end.

Brethren, however, have not been warm to the language of liturgy. Following many other Radical Reformation traditions, we have come to define our worship as “Free Church” and our theology as asacramental. These moves are rightly understood as reactions to the clericalism of 16th and 17th century Europe. Yet, the effect has been that we are not attentive to the ways rituals and liturgies shape our actions. Smith’s work, on the other hand, makes very clear that the question is better framed not by a rejection of liturgy, but by asking which liturgy defines us.

Continue reading

  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 33 []
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