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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thoughts on Worship

The year I began my Doctor of Ministry studies in Preaching, I took time to visit three sister Mennonite churches in hopes of hearing some preaching.  Instead of preaching, I got in on service project reporting Sunday, where all three churches were reporting on service trips done by youth and others.  I was devastated.  If an exit interviewer had asked me, "What is the gospel proclaimed by this church, what is the good news?" I think I would have said, the gospel is that Mennonites are nice people, in each case.  Little in these services was said about God, to God, from God.  But there was plenty of self congratulatory drivel.

Had I been looking for a church (or looking for God, or a word from or about God), I would not have been back, and likely would not have given another Mennonite church a try.  My response to these services was not smugness, but confession.  Any of these three churches could have been my church, planning such a service with my full approval.

But something happened in one of these services that changed me, and became the impetus for my D.Min. thesis.  During an open sharing time, a man rose to speak apologetically, because, he said, many people pray and do not experience healing.  He had been going blind, had surgery would some risk, and regained his sight.  Choking back tears he testified that God had given him his sight back, "I don't understand it, but I know that I was blind and now I can see."  I get choked up as I reflect on that moment.  And it changed my understanding of worship forever.

Worship is about God.  It is telling of God's might acts (Deuteronomy 6 and 1 Peter 2); it is bringing the concerns of our hearts to God as a community; and it is listening to God's voice.

The Worship Commission at College Mennonite did some serious work thinking about the purpose of worship before I moved to Goshen, and came to similar conclusions.  Sermons are not about the Bible, they are about God.  We preach from the Bible because we believe the Bible points to God.  Sermons are not a "how to" lecture to help us be better Christians, but an occasion for us to meet God, to know God better, and to proclaim who God is and what God is (God gives recovery of sight to the blind, for example).  We do not have a bulletin anymore, we have a worship folder.  Worship is not for sharing or receiving information, we have other places in the life of our congregation for that.  We do not share announcements.  In other words, we do our best not to talk to ourselves about each other, but to testify to each other about God, to bring our concerns to God, and listen for God's voice in our lives.

The greatest commandment is to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind.  Worship is where this love is expressed fully, together with other believers in a community of faith.

Everence Statement on Birth Control

The Everence statement on birth control that says “Mennonites and related Anabaptists have not held values that prohibited them from using contraceptives," is technically accurate, but not fully honest.  Readers of this blog will know that Mennonites and related Anabaptists have held values that prohibited them from using contraceptives.  But they don't anymore.  In our conversations regarding sexual ethics, we are wise to recognize how dramatically thought and practice around this issue has changed over the last century.

The Bible as Authority

I have found myself in several conversations lately about the authority of scripture.  Usually these discussions involve bemoaning or celebrating the decline in authority ascribed to the Bible within the church.  The bemoaners are saddened to see the loss of an important touchstone in the life of faith, the celebrators are happy to see that people are no longer relying on such superstitious and unscientific collection of writing.  Not surprisingly, I am among the bemoaners, and for several reasons, one of which I share here.

The odd thing about many people who explicitly reject the authority of scripture, is that they implicitly embrace it.  They embrace uniquely biblical values such as love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised.  These values are central to the biblical story and its witness, they also mark an astonishing departure from the imperial values dominant in the world in which the Bible emerged.  If these values entered our lives from sources other than the Bible and those giving testimony to its moral worldview, what was that source?  Ancient imperial powers?  Rome?  Greece? Pre-Christian European paganism?  Western philosophy?  This is not to say the Bible is the only source for such values in the world, but for us as Christians it certainly is the primary one.

In the individualism of the age, we are reluctant to acknowledge our indebtedness to traditions for shaping who we are and how we think.  We somehow believe that we can create our own tradition of moral thought and practice ex nihilo (out of nothing).  To be authentic, we must reject external authority and forge our own way.  Yet the notion that we can forge our own way is an illusion.  Most of us are indebted to the Bible and those who witness to its world view for the values we hold dear.

Norman K. Gottwald, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, takes a historical critical approach to the emergence of Israel among the city states of Canaan, and identifies a revolutionary movement valuing justice for the poor, forgiveness of debts, and a radical new way of thinking of the divine.  The values of this movement, Gottwald argues, come from the circumstances of their emergence, as they defy the oppression of Caananite urban dominance of the surrounding countryside.  The remarkable and new values of this movement survive because of a vital religious practice, the unique prophetic vocation, and unique circumstances of regional politics and geography.  One could be an atheist and embrace Gottwald's analysis of the biblical values which have shaped us.  In other words, an honest atheist could have some respect for biblical authority.

In the church, we do not take such a secular approach to the Bible, but see the movement of God in the emergence of these values in Israel, and later as they are embodied in Jesus and the church.  Walter Wink sees God at work in the reversal of the "domination system" as the biblical community emerges in the ancient near east.  Daniel Erlanger has written a playful comic book called Manna and Mercy, which develops the same theme.  This is just a tiny taste of those who have considered the emergence of the biblical values of love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised, in a context where they were foreign.

The failure of biblical communities to fully live out these values is lamentable.  It is also not surprising.  The values of the "domination system" are compelling and powerful.  Counter revolutionary forces are always at work in human cultures.  For me this is what is at stake in conversations regarding biblical authority.  The biblical values I named above have always been threatened.  Unless we recognize God's role in giving them to us, I am concerned they will become an endangered species.
Thursday, March 8, 2012

A critique of heroism

My boys constantly remind me of the power of heroes to capture young imaginations, and to inspire heroic fantasies in their young minds.  One of my childhood fantasies was standing calmly at the free throw line in a championship game, no seconds on the clock, with my team down by one.  I hit two free throws, we win.  And of course we always do so to great applause and accolades.  From Gilgamesh to Harry Potter, literature ancient and modern is filled with heroes, people who overcome, conquer, achieve, build, and avenge, by their own strength and intelligence, and always against great odds.  And we humans are always looking for heroes who emulate greatness, give us something to which we can aspire, and save us from the various kinds of monsters we fear.

Christian thought in general, and the Bible in particular, take a contrary view, countering the tendency of human cultures to venerate heroes with exhortations like Paul's "power is made perfect in weakness."  In the world of heroes and hero worshipers, which is to say the world in which we all live, this is utter nonsense.  In this world, power and strength are made perfect in power and strength (cf. Nietzsche).

The Bible's only real candidate for hero in this classical sense is David.  Yet upon closer look, David's claim to fame, according to the Bible, is that he is a man after God's own heart.  Time and time again, the figures that stand out in scripture do so because of faith that allows God to be at work in them.  Those who try to be the hero end up falling flat on their faces.  Moses is not permitted to enter the promised land because he was trying to play the hero.  The Bible can never let the story be about Moses, but God.  Naaman grouses about submersing himself in the Jordan seven times, rather than being asked to perform some heroic deed.  Even Jesus proves to be unheroic, only faithful.  Faithfulness is all that is asked of us.  Saints and martyrs are remembered for faithfulness, not heroism.  It is also worth noting that some of the Bible's prominent figures are  not only weak, but scoundrels, such as Jacob, yet God is at work in them.

Tripp York has written a haunting little book called The Purple Crown:  The Politics of Martyrdom.  York describes the Christian culture of martyrdom in the early church.  Christians saw martyrdom as a privilege, and gloried in it, almost morbidly so.  Yet even as Christians desired martyrdom, seeking martyrdom was prohibited, as was behaving in a deliberately careless way so as to ensure torture and death at the hands of Roman justice.  No heroes welcome!

In a hero worshiping world, how do we create an environment where faithfulness is celebrated rather than heroism?  Any ideas?  I offer this for our Lenten reflection.