We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. – Romans 8:22-27
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That’s why we have to talk about the meaning behind what we do in corporate worship. That’s why we must ditch the false egalitarian notion that how we worship isn’t important. We can respect differences in belief, but we can’t deny that’s what’s at stake here aren’t just issues of taste or preference, but issues of meaning.
However we worship, whatever we call ourselves – traditional, contemporary, or anything else – we’re not just saying what kind of Jesusy entertainment we prefer.
No, we’re giving away much more about ourselves.
We’re giving away what we believe about something very important.
How we worship has meaning.
How we worship has consequences.
Maybe it’s time we were honest about it. Quickly. Before the meaning is lost. – Jonathan Aigner, “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference,” United Methodist Insight, January 21, 2015
I remember so well the words of one of my favorite Seminary professors, Dr. Larry Stookey. He taught Corporate Worship, the very first class I attended at Wesley Theological Seminary. After going through a section on designing and setting up an order of worship, he said, “Once that Prelude begins, toss all the planning out the window. Anything can happen, and so go with it. Don’t let mistakes, things forgotten, distractions, bother you. It’s all part of the worship service.” I remember that so well after nearly a quarter century because it summarizes so much of what I’m not hearing or reading. Regardless of which “side” one takes – High Church versus Low Church; “traditional” versus “contemporary” worship – there is no room left to speak about the place God’s grace has in our corporate worship.
St. Paul, however, understood that we didn’t even know how to pray. No matter how “Christian” we think we are, no matter how in tune with our congregations, with our traditions, with the latest fad, with how we raise our hands or don’t, whether we take the eucharist by intinction or some other method – we are getting it wrong, because we are creatures who, qua Christians, who have no idea, not really, what we’re supposed to do, or how we’re supposed to do it. Our greatest corporate liturgy, our most soaring choral and instrumental hymns are little more than grunts and groans, in need of the Spirit to make them meaningful for and to God. To argue that some things are better suited to corporate worship than others is correct to an extent; those distinctions, however, should always be approached with humility, the faithful understanding that it will never be good enough. That is why the grace present in our corporate body in the Person of the Spirit takes our best and our worst, our unspoken thoughts and confessions, our loudly proclaimed words of praise and our whispered “Hallelujah”‘s and makes them meaningful – not for us, but for God, who already knows our needs, if not necessarily our desires that sometimes overwhelm our prayer life, individually and collectively.
When I wrote, back on January 22, that preference is an expression of meaning, it was directed at only part of Aigner’s post. Here, I would like to go beneath the text to the subtext – the very idea that our worship has to be “a certain way” in order to be true worship. In the first place, I would repeat – preference is an expression of meaning, which undermines much of Aigner’s larger point. That it is built upon a straw argument certainly doesn’t help. All the same, our discussions about worship – traditional versus contemporary; what music suits our corporate worship “best” – if it does not include any words about the Spirit, about our own inability to bring to God our deepest desires and needs, our ignorance in the face of the call to prayer, and the grace that is the Living Spirit blowing across the face of the waters of chaos that are our gathered corporate bodies, then, I would suggest a need to return to Scripture first, to consider the possibility that our corporate worship is as steeped in both sin and grace as the rest of our lives.
Which, obviously, does not mean anything goes. What it does mean is that we can expand our sense of what is proper, liturgically and musically, without necessarily causing offense to God. The goal of all corporate worship – of the entire Christian life – is the glory of God. When offered with both faith and hope, in the understanding that the Spirit will take our meaningless Babel and make of it a glorious new song to God, I believe we can move beyond the sterility of so much of our current “debates” and have actual constructive conversations on what is possible. Currently, we are trapped in a cycle of denouncing what is not proper, or acceptable, or even possible, because we have neglected the presence of the Holy Spirit in our corporate worship life. It would be far better, far more profitable for all if we began our discussions with what is possible, given two thousand years of corporate worship, and the sheer variety of worship styles, from the Orthodox, High Church Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran through the meetings of the Societies of Friends to our current, trendy “non-liturgical liturgy” we call “contemporary worship”, with its music using contemporary instrumentation, songs written by professional song writers that sometimes offer profound insights while sometimes offer facile, individualistic nonsense. That much of our historic hymnody is no less compromised seems not to occur to so many in these discussions; that the organ, no less than the electric guitar, is still a controversial instrument (the Church of Christ, for example, has no instruments save the human voice), should humble at least a few voices who insist it is the only “fit” instrument for worship, when that whole question might well need to be considered again as to whether it is even the right question.
I included the song “Parabola” from Tool above on purpose. While there is a lot of Gnosticism in Tool’s lyrics, and the musical style, known as post-rock, can be off-putting to many, the song itself is one of my favorites from the band because of its equivocal nature. When I first heard it, I thought it was a beautiful song about sexual love. Then I read it was actually about suicide. I went back and listened again, and realized the song itself could be about both things, or neither. In either case, it expresses one thing that we in our churches do not express well, if at all: the holiness of being with another person, whether in love or comforting us in our extremity of pain. Surely this gives glory to God. While the Gnosticism of “this body holding me; this pain is an illusion” is troubling, it is no less so than the Gnosticism of our older hymnody. It also has the virtue of expressing something – a thankfulness for those others, with whom we share moments too intimate for words – with which we in our churches are uncomfortable, yet needs to be said. And it does so in a contemporary idiom that can resonate with people who will recognize the song, yet also be surprised at the possibility that even Tool can offer a Word from God, on the graceful nature of life, of life with another, and the contingent nature of the pain with which we live. To sing, “Choosing to be here, right now, hold on, stay inside this holy life, this holy experience” – this is praise to God for the holiness that is life, love, sexuality, and the sharing of life with another.
Perhaps it isn’t for everyone, or every congregation. And that’s OK. That’s part of the point. Far too much of our discussion over liturgy and music insists upon a “one size fits all” theological and practical approach that ignores the diversity of worship styles, of congregations, of the needs of the people, and the ways we can and do express the glory of God, always with St. Paul’s words ringing in our ears, that it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, taking our unintelligible groaning and lifting them to God. Without this, so much of our discussion of worship is Shakespeare’s description of life – a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to decline inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its own manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever…. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to the faith and smother it. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
Putting a bunch of things together in my head, trying to figure out if they connect at all, is an interesting thing. One thought leads to another, then something I read in one place connects to something I read in another place, which reminds me of something I read or saw a long time ago, and pretty soon I’m off and running, or in this case typing.
Yesterday, I was asked what is my favorite passage of Scripture. The answer to that question is simple: Romans 8:31-39
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The reason this is my favorite passage is simple enough: Paul is reminding the Church in Rome, and us today, that ours is not a faith rooted in death or fear, but life and hope. Where there is hope, no matter the cost of living in hope (“for your sake we are being killed all day long”), there is no fear. We do not fear because in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have Divine Testimony to Eternal Love and Care for us. God is willing to do, as the saying goes, in to the far country for this lost and broken creation. We should not fear because there is no reason to fear because even in the depths of the terrors imposed upon us, God is there with us.
Of all the things we western Christians have forgotten as we move through an age in which we are neither the default faith nor the default vocabulary of social and cultural intercourse is that these are not things to fear. They are, in fact, reasons for rejoicing. We have an opportunity now to present the Gospel of Divine Grace, that God is even now bringing about the Heavenly Kingdom and we get to be a part of that work. The long age of assumed Christianity, however, has left a strain of fear and confusion in its wake, particularly among the powerful for whom these assumptions helped form their worldview. Incapable of understanding the changes around us, they react instead of act, with the results usually horrifying for everybody.
The little cartoon above is from an article in Raw Story which got me laughing. Not because I think Satanism is a good thing (of course I don’t think it’s a bad thing, either; as a matter of fact, I tend not to think of it much at all except when I’m writing blog posts), but because what Moltmann calls pusillanimous faith has created a situation that while certainly predicted is the exact opposite of those who originally advocated it. In a secular nation, freedom of religion most certainly includes freedom for Satanists to proselytize. If that makes some folks unhappy, they should perhaps think before demanding public schools include religious instruction; you either let ’em all in or you don’t let any in.
This is an example of pusillanimous faith, too. When we begin to look for people to blame; when we demand doctrinal rigidity without even understanding what it is we’re talking about; when we use words and phrases without thinking, without understanding, and refuse to learn – we are showing just how fearful we are. We fear the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day (Psalm 91:5). We seek to exclude instead of invite. We demand action to expel those who do not live and believe as we insist they should. This is a cowardly, fearful thing that is not the faith that knows nothing in all creation can separate us from the love we have from God in Jesus Christ.
I’m old enough to remember the hysteria over Satanism in the late 1980’s. It culminated in the video, embedded above, of a special Geraldo Rivera program on “America’s Satanic Underground”, as empty as Al Capone’s vault. The fear itself was groundless, rooted in changing patterns of adolescent behavior, changing tastes in youth musical styles, and a few well-publicized cases of violence committed by self-proclaimed Satanists. The period was analyzed in a marvelous book, Satanic Panic, a must-read for anyone interested in the phenomena not only of mass panic events but the promulgation of fear-based lies and urban legends that deepen fear.
Recent events in the Middle East, particularly the rise of The Islamic State Of Iraq And The Levant (ISIL) and their proclamation of war against the United States, along with publicized beheadings of several foreign journalists now has Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) insisting ISIL forces are preparing to mass along the Mexican border. This, in turn, has prompted a sheriff from Texas to go on national television and insist we arm our southern borders to protect ourselves from imminent invasion (the video is above). This combination of fears – of terrorism and immigrants entering the country illegally along our southern border – has created among some near-panic at the thought of what might be happening. That this fear, while certainly technically not irrational (as a scientist once said, everything is possible, even Santa Claus; the trick is figuring out if there’s evidence to support it), is as ridiculous as the rumor-panics surrounding Satanic mass killings. It takes so much time and effort to make clear how ridiculous it all is, however, and the lies and fear is spread so rapidly, playing on already-existing fears, it becomes nearly impossible to rid ourselves of them.
How does it become possible to proclaim the Gospel of freedom, including freedom from fear, precisely because the revelation of Divine Love and Grace in and through Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s eternal presence, when so many voices around us insist we must always and only fear? All we can do, I believe, is continue to bring the Good News that God is with us because God has always been with us; that fear is part of the brokenness Christ redeemed when he rose from the grave; that all that is meant to terrorize us, or is offered as something to terrorize us, cannot stand when the Person of Jesus Christ , for the sake of the Father, in the Power of the Holy Spirit, is invoked. Not only should we live without fear; we can and even must live without fear. It is one of the gifts offered us through faith. Live free and know that no matter what horrors you encounter, God is there.
N.B.: I really want to finish this, and do a (probably too long) wrap-up post, but life keeps interfering! When life interferes with blogging, you know you’ve got your priorities wrong.
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism give the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.
OK, so . . .
Where does one begin to unpack this somewhat loaded thesis? Let us set to one side the question whether Benjamin was deliberate in his use of sexual analogies and metaphors at the end. This thesis presents far more than a rather striking sexual/gender-based idea of the distinction between historicists and historical materialists. In each case, i.e. the historicist and historical materialist, Benjamin insists on setting to one side any idea of quantitative time, of history as an unpacking of the past. Precisely because of the juxtaposition being made, Benjamin is presenting a definition of “history” here that understands the matter in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense. Key here is the dialectical use of “eternal”. Clearly, the understanding of “eternal” of the historicist is erroneous in comparison to the historical materialist’s present, in which time stand’s still. The eternity of the historicist is an eternity without the reality of the class struggle, the humanity of history laid bare. The timeless now of the historical materialist is the full-to-bursting eternity in which all time exists in its fullness, is present as possibility.
It is, then, much akin to Romans 8:18-23, in which St. Paul writes of all creation groaning as a woman in labor pains for the coming of the Kingdom of God. St. Paul adds that it isn’t just Creation, but we ourselves who groan as well, groan for the completion, precisely because we have been granted the Spirit of adoption, not fear. This is the present in which all time converges to a point, ready to burst forth with the possibility that only comes from understanding that we ourselves are part of this present. This is, as I stated before, a common theme among mystics (and not just Christian mystics); eternity is presence, a quality rather than any quantity. It is this “now” in which we come to understand our lives and the world around us, ready to explode with the hope we carry in our lives.
For Benjamin, it is the historical materialist who understands this. The historicist is like someone in a brothel, “drained by the whore”, while the historical materialist is a man’s man, in control, having a proper relationship with the past and therefore ready to “blast open the continuum of history”. This final picture is certainly interesting. On the one hand there is the effete historicist, whose preference is dissipation. On the other hand there is the historical materialist, “man enough” and “in control”. Sexuality, power, gender – all are wrapped up here in a bit of a tangled knot of a shot directly at the historicist. It isn’t only the correct understanding of the present, of history, of eternity that is the center of this thesis. It is also who is and is not “man enough” to do history correctly. This is a direct attack upon the strength and power of the historicist. Armed with the eternal present, the historical materialist is not just “more correct”; the historical materialist is stronger precisely because the historical materialist knows that the present is full, ready to burst forth and, as Benjamin writes as the end, “blast open the continuum of history”. This is an exemplar of Marx in the eleventh of his “Theses on Feuerbach”, in which he stated that up to now, the role of philosophy was to understand the world. Now, writes Marx, the point is to change it.
And that change only comes about when the historical materialist realizes his full manhood and control, knowing when and how to blast open history. Unlike St. Paul, mentioned above, for Benjamin it is humanity that is the agent of this change, armed not only with control, but the proper understanding of the present Benjamin describes. Unlike St. Paul, then, in which creation and humanity are feminine, “waiting like a woman in childbirth”, humanity is masculine, in control, even knowing not to waste one’s strength in houses of ill repute. It is a humanity that is not hoping for a future. It is a humanity that is the agent of the future, a future known and present to the historical materialist.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.* For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:6-11
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
The discussions among we United Methodists are becoming more interesting, if less enlightening at times. For example, as much as I appreciate Drew McIntyre’s “Questions for Schismatics“, I also think that they are rather beside the point. I must confess I, too, have fallen in to the trap – yesterday was a good example; this posted at United Methodist Insight is another – where I drew the lines far too clearly, and came across, I think far too simplistic in my approach. The latter link, in particular, was rooted in anger decades old, the sameness and ridiculousness of so much of the back and forth and pretense that we are engaged in some kind of “debate” rather than a struggle over identity – who we United Methodists are to be.
While I’m part of a group called “Progressive Methodists” on Facebook, I’m always wary of associating with any group. I appreciate they are a small group working to get the word out that there is work to be done to get things moving if we are to change the language in the Discipline. I also appreciate this effort to come up with some kind of “Via Media”. I also know it will fail precisely because it accepts that sexual minorities will be welcomed fully in the life of the church, and that, for some, is unacceptable. That it also differs little from something I wrote a few weeks back makes little difference. My statement was just my own, not intended to represent the views of anyone else.
In the midst of all this back-and-forth, part of the confusion is the insistence by some – including some self-styled progressives – that those supporting full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church are forsaking doctrine. I have dealt with this, for example here, as has Joel Watts at United Methodist Insight. There is nothing “unorthodox” or anti-doctrinal about the insistence that all persons, beloved of God and worthy of full acceptance by God through the grace available in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, are welcome in the Body of Christ, full to participate in all its ministries as well as have their marriages blessed by God through an ordained representative of the Church.
Whether using the words “doctrine” or “theology”, what gets lost in far too many of these discussions is the necessity to keep the Gospel message – the love of God for all Creation, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth crucified and risen, faith in whom comes through the blessings and anointing of the Holy Spirit – central. That’s what we’re about. That is who we are – we are people of the Good News. Doctrine is nothing more or less than the detailed explication of how, through the centuries, we Christians have come to understand who this God is who acted this way. Yet, this same understanding, in less detailed language, is available in Scripture, for example the two passages from St. Paul’s epistles that form the epigraphs to this post. The painting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well makes the same doctrinal point, using the story to illustrate what this Divine Love looks like in action.
We profess doctrine as the teaching of the Church about who God is, and how we as Christians are to live our lives together in light of what God has done for us. It is not what we “believe”. What we believe is what we confess – that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to the world to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That is Gospel. That is Good News.
Theology is how each generation in the church explains to itself what those doctrinal statements mean for us, in our ever-changing circumstances. There is nothing confessional about theology; it is, rather, a practice or habitus we in the church use to clarify all those doctrinal statements in light of the Internet and the nation-state and space flight and genocide and racism and democracy and all the things that weren’t even a dream in the minds of the authors of Scripture or the original doctrinal statements. Even less than doctrine, theology is just the church talking among ourselves about what the “Good News” means in a world where we lose several species a day, our industrial civilization is causing dramatic shifts in global climate and local and regional weather, and we have yet to lose the desire to kill one another in large numbers for whatever reasons we continue to concoct.
Yet, the Good News is our mandate. Spreading the word of God’s love for this broken, sinful creation; spreading the even better news that we can become a part of restoring this broken, sinful creation to its right relation to God – one of continual praise, a renewal that will spread not just among people and nations, but across our solar system and galaxy. After all, this is Good News for all creation – even black holes and neutron stars and planets in galaxies millions of light-years away are beloved by God, in need of the healing available in Christ through the Spirit.
While outside this morning, I saw this beetle lumbering through our newly mowed grass. About an inch long, this photo doesn’t really capture just how beautiful it is. Its carapace is an iridescent green. There is a reddish-orange rim around its head. It had largish mandibles, so I assume it’s either predatory or a scavenger of some kind. Not frightened of it, I marveled at the beauty of something so small, going about its beetle-business, not even noticing the rather large creature hovering over it. This beetle, the grass through which it was trundling – it was rather clumsy – the ground from which the grass grows – all of it is part of God’s Creation, beloved, for which God the Father sent the Son. These, too, will be redeemed, living in a world transformed by the Spirit for praise for God. This beetle is as much a part of God’s plan as our arguments over sexual minorities; more so, really, because this creature is one of those over whom we human beings have dominion-in-care. It is to be loved and preserved not for its own sake, but for God’s.
That is Good News. That is the Gospel. That is what we are about. Everything else, to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, is straw.
UPDATE: It took me very little time to discover that our green friend above is known as . . . a ground beetle, from the family Carabidae. How boring. It is beautiful, though.