Friday, January 23, 2015

Evangelicals missing the boat, pt.2: Forgotten past

     In many ways, evangelical Christians are all about the here and now. (this Sunday and the next series, but rarely, last year or, our former pastor said) We are always looking ahead to the next great thing that we wish to accomplish for God, forgetting or belittling our prior endeavors or accomplishments. As the wise Yoda said to Luke, "All his life has he looked the future...Never his mind on where he was...Hmm? On what he was doing." So we, too, are paralyzed by our present and enraptured with our plans.
     And when we're not eagerly looking ahead, we're wistfully looking back, way back, to the early church of the N.T., and wondering how we can be just like them -- when that will never happen. We live in an entirely different world, where we should be applying the timeless truths of Scripture to our day and age and not applying the dichotomy of a former age to our own. This is not to say that the N.T. churches no longer have anything to teach us; their stories were recorded so that we may learn many things from them, but we cannot mimic everything they did. Our story is not theirs.
     But story is very important here. Throughout Scripture, God's people are instructed to remember God's work in the past, the people who have participated in that work, and to see ourselves as co-participants in that work. In Deut. 7:18,19, Moses both reminds the Israelites of God's great act to deliver them from Egypt and informs them that this same great power will be given to them to defeat their enemies in the days to come. The members of the honor roll of faith listed in Heb. 11 (Noah, Abraham, Sarah, etc.) form the great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our own pursuit of God's will in his kingdom. (Heb.12:1)  Remembering the past ties our stories together with theirs. As our stories intertwine, the great story rewrites itself; in fact, it always will, because the kingdom story is all about the interactions formed by the communion of the saints, both now and in the world to come.
     The biblical word "saints" means holy, or sacred ones. The ancient Hebrews were set apart or sanctified as God's people or nation. The New Testament gives the same designation to those who have come to know Christ and have been baptized into his body, the Church. The Apostle Paul readily points this out in the salutations to most of his letters -- "called to be saints," "sanctified in Christ Jesus," and "to the saints...the faithful in Christ Jesus," he writes. So, all Christians are, or have been, saints.
      Indeed, some have been given a special designation of "Saint" by the Catholic or Orthodox Church; not necessarily a wrong thing, but more, I think, of a human thing. They have been singled out for a certain kind of honorable designation. These people are certainly worthy of great honor and respect. We, as evangelicals, should learn and, in turn, tell their stories, for their lives of faith have, whether we realize it or not, impacted us all. We should also learn from the lives of the great Protestant reformers who labored to bring the gospel back to the forefront of the church's mission. In more recent times, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical church leaders, writers and missionaries have lived exemplary lives deserving of our contemplation. Even our ordinary, everyday fellow believers, those we sit next to and passively greet on a Sunday morning, have stories that, if they were told, would amaze and edify us profoundly.
     Writing in the book I mentioned in my last post, Stanley Hauerwas says that "sainthood is power." He reminds us that we are engaged in a cosmic war between good and evil, and as the saints of God we, along with the angels, are continually fighting this war. We cannot think that being a saint is merely about being a nice, good or "saintly" person, when it is really about being a warrior who, through the power of our Lord, destroys evil forces and conquers ground for God's kingdom.
     It is odd to think that we can fight in these battles using the power of memory. Hauerwas writes, "God gives the Church the power through our remembering of the saints to wrench their lives from the tyranny of the oppressor's history so they triumph over the forces of death. In God's memory the saints triumph." (p. 103)
     We desperately need to establish forums for telling the stories of the saints, so that we may remember their courageous role in the great cosmic battle. By remembering them, their lives take on renewed power to help us fight beside them for all that is right and holy. Instead of hurrying on to the next best thing, or thinking we can ignore church history, we would do well to stop and remember the saints of old and now, and in remembering, join our resolve with theirs to pray, "thy kingdom come."

Hauerwas, Stanley. Unleashing the Scripture. Abington, 1993. Print.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Evangelicals missing the boat, pt. 1: Incomplete worship

     I guess several years of attending a "megachurch" has made me a bit cynical about many of the strange goings on that abound in evangelical churches today. I'm going to try to discuss some of these issues in this and forthcoming blog posts, if for no other reason that to get some things off my chest. I shall begin with "worship."
     Its not that evangelicals don't care about worship; they care about it incessantly. Thousands of websites, blogs, sermons and twitter feeds are passionately devoted to addressing the subject. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody has a solution. Everybody is uncomfortable in some way or another. Everybody cares.
      I've recently been reading a book by the gifted, astute and quintessentially confusing theologian Stanley Hauerwas. (I think he comes across as confusing because his amazing mind gets ahead of himself and he thinks we know what he's thinking when what he says has left us quite befuddled! As the friend who loaned me the book often wrote in the margins -- "What does he mean by this?!") But Hauerwas has also long been both a friend and a critic of evangelicalism, therefore, he has a great deal of wisdom to offer us, and we would do well to heed it.
     Let me just start this discussion of worship with a couple of intriguing quotes from Hauerwas. 1.) He begins his 1993 book Unleashing Scripture with: "No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America." 2.) And from a 2010 interview with Christianity Today: "I sometimes worry that evangelicals have a kind of privacy about how they understand their relationship with God that is destructive to the church." These two statements seem to strike at the very heart of what evangelicalism stands for; that the Bible is a book to be known and read by each individual Christian, and that personal piety is essential for Christian life and growth. Once again, what does he mean?
     I think that Hauerwas is criticizing the particularly North American tendency to privatize Christianity; that is, to ascribe to a faith that is very personal and less corporate. Evangelicals tend to favor a "just Jesus and me" mentality. We are taught to read our Bibles and pray -- on our own. Discipleship training is a series of lessons on what an individual should do to become a better Christian. This is engrained in us from our Sunday school days onward. Hauerwas is reacting to this in that he believes that the Church is fundamentally the body of believers who constitute the Bride of Christ. What we do as Christians should be done together in the context of a unifying pretext, the meeting-points of the Church where and when the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are received. We must sing, pray and declare the Word together as the Church, which is one in our Savior. And certainly this is a view of worship that is lost on many evangelicals, because we are so busy trying to be good, yea, even pious Christians on our own.
      In an interview with Al Mohler, Stanley Hauerwas further addresses this issue: "Evangelicalism doesn't have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new."His choice of the word "repetition" is certainly quite interesting, especially since evangelicalism has focused so strongly on trying to get rid of repetition rather than on keeping it. In liturgical Christian traditions, (S.H. is now Episcopalian), repetition is, if not everything, essential. In fact, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was designed by Thomas Cranmer to take the Church body through a yearly repetition of truth through repeated prayers (collects), Scripture readings that cover the entire Bible, and reflections centered around annual Christian holidays and seasons. Although he compiled it hundreds of years ago, it is still a fact of life that what is repeated and familiar is remembered and practiced.
     So, in light of this, when we look at evangelical worship today, we must ask questions about what we are doing and if we are faithfully doing all that needs to be done. I believe that robust Christian worship should contain five elements -- singing, prayer, scripture reading, sermon and sacrament. (If you want all 'S's," you could say "supplication!") But in many evangelical church services, only two of these are consistently practiced -- the singing and the sermon, and even then not everyone sings and the sermon may be little more than pop psychology. This makes for incomplete worship.
     We desperately need to reacquaint the body of believers with prayers for the body; prayer that addresses the true needs of the congregation and not brief breathless appeals for Jesus to come and be with us. After all, he is with us and we need to speak to him as if we believe this.
     We need to read Scripture as if it is central and not incidental to the faith we are proclaiming. We need to show respect for the Word by standing when it is read. We need to read substantial portions of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments. Why? Because, going back to what Hauerwas said, Scripture must empower the Church as a whole, and we together must proclaim, affirm and practice it.
     In spite of the fact that various evangelical groups look at sacrament or communion in different ways, we should never think that it is insignificant. It is, instead, essential to the life of the body. Even symbolically interpreted, taking food in implies receiving life-giving nourishment. When taken literally, it is the life of Christ received into our souls. Nothing can sustain the Christian like receiving the bread and wine. Jesus said, "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink...the one who feeds on me will live because of me." (John 6:55,57) And we eat this together only as we meet together.
     In light of all this, the message of Christ to the church at Sardis (Rev. 3) takes on a reaffirmation of meaning: "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God." Neglecting important things in any arena of life leads to degeneration and death. Deficiencies lead to indifference. As evangelicals we need to reclaim the importance of what we do in worship and do it. What is old must be made new again. Yet, worship is not old or new; it is eternal, and as such, when truly practiced, it becomes, through the power of the Holy Spirit, whole and living and everything about which we should truly care.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Unleashing the Scripture. Abington, 1993. Print.