Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Understanding Our Community

A few of us have been batting ideas about why it is we are living together (as the Church) in the way we are, what we're looking for, and "how long" we're willing to do it, over on Alan's blog for the last couple of days. If you find that interesting, check out these two posts and their comments.

I'll offer a version of my thoughts.

Why am I doing it this way? Being with the Vine and Branches Community and doing the "house church" thing? Let me tell you first what my rationale is not: transformation is not a sudden event that's going to come to completion before Jesus returns to renew the entire Creation with a fresh act of power and love. There is not a particular benchmark I'm looking for in my life, such that this way of being religious might finally accomplish. I don't really have a picture in my mind of what it'll look like to be "completely transformed" in this stage of my life. I really do trust Jesus (not me!) to finish the job, because he's the one who knows what he's doing. My life with VBCC could never fail to "do it for me" because I'm not after anything like that.

If I were part of our common life because I thought it would "finally work" to accomplish some particular goal of sanctification in my life, I might be asking myself, "how long am I willing do this before I see results, and then try something else?"

We are the Church of Jesus Christ, not a hemorrhoid cream.

What am I after? It sounds a little cliched to say, but transformation is about the journey more than the destination. Transformation is something that Jesus sneaks up on us while we cooperate and choose to be with him and live in the fellowship of his Church. I want to be with some people who love Jesus and are willing to stick around love me. I want them to stick around for awhile so I can learn to love them. Let us learn to love on and be like Jesus by learning and loving one another. Let's be very much a part of the places where we live and seek to transform the lives and situations of the people around us by being agents of God's Reign.

I can't judge whether that's happening "good enough." I can only be part of that, or not.

I often find our context a little challenging because I have committed to this way of being together not because I'm sold on a particular way of "being church" rather than another, but because I live in these relationships.

While I have particular values and criticisms that would keep me from building and budget-oriented fellowships, that's not important. I do what I do and stay with the people I stay with because we are important to one another. If somebody wanders off from our fellowship because "it wasn't working for them," they just never got it. What wasn't working? Human relationships? That's about being a new person, and about it being hard. Not about our corporate personality, or the way we order our common life, necessarily.

Are we close "enough" to one another? I don't know who might have suggested to us that it is possible to put people in a liturgical setting for a few months and at the end see friendships that look years old (or substitute years and decades), but they were wrong. Trust takes time and learning. My closest friends have been my friends for anywhere between three and seven years. I'm still learning what feels like basic lessons in trust with them.

The tree might be a sapling because it takes time to grow, not because it's being tended poorly.

How long are we willing to do it this way? That's the question everybody is going to have to answer on their own. The really difficult thing is not assuming everyone has the ability to understand and answer the question, and not insisting that they do so.

That's my challenge: letting people come into the fellowship even though they want to try the new religious thing that just might work this time. It's the wrong thing to look for, but it's not their fault. I can only hope and pray that Jesus will sneak up on and surprise all of us as we ask him.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

In Defense of Praise Choruses


Theological Sophistication Can Sneak Up on You

I don’t usually weigh in on the “worship wars” that wrack some Christian churches, as such matters stand pretty far outside of my context (that is to say, I don’t care). But I had an epiphany the other day, and I didn’t want to keep that from all of you.

Some Christians like to denigrate the worship of others (an ugly hobby to be sure) whether they understand it or not. You know, sacramentalists are too much of one thing, or don’t understand something else (allegedly), and evangelicals lack (fill in the blank). I don’t do that.

It can be said of some examples of the “contemporary” style that the songs lack “deep” theological substance, or that they are repetitious, or that they are “me” centered. I would argue that none of these criticisms are really so bad.

First, if one insists on “deep” theological substance, one should define just what that means? Perhaps we should stick to hymns that parse ancient Christological formations into their finer points? Set the Chalcedonian Definition to music?

Like that wouldn’t be boring. If I were defining it, my hymnbook would consist mostly of Issac Watts and Charles Wesley, with a few lucky composers thrown in for variety. The 65 or so bits by Fanny Crosby that landed in a lot of modern evangelical church hymnals (especially the Baptists) would have to go. I like Crosby, but she doesn’t fit my definition of deep. She writes about warm, heart-felt religion, too. Just like those praise choruses.

Who would get to decide what are deep topics for hymns and songs? You wouldn’t want me to do it. So why should we let you?

Don’t be tempted to admire the mainliners, either. ECUSA’s 1982 Hymnal seems geared toward real musicians and choirs – I found it impossible to follow. I couldn’t sing that stuff, and in my experience, I’ve never seen a congregation actually sing those bits. I’ve seen some hard working choirs drown out their attempts, though. But if they want that, that’s fine. And just because you sing words that you never use, and can’t figure out what the songs are going on about, doesn’t make them deep.

Second, what’s wrong with a little “me centered” singing? I love Jesus, after all, and he loves me. There’s a place for that in our hymnody, kids. If we really refuse to touch that and spend all of our time trying to sing songs about the transcendent majesty of God that just doesn’t come near to the deepest, darkest places of our hearts, I might recommend actually reading the gospels, and maybe a little bit of therapy. I am not kidding.

Finally, repetition can be good. Repetition quiets the heart. While I would never appreciate singing “I could sing of your love forever” – literally forever, it sometimes seems – spending some time with hands outstretched repeating some simple, true phrase from the Scriptures is a very good thing.

What do you think centering prayer is? It’s being with Jesus and quieting the mind to hear from him by focusing on one true thing that will push out all the noise that’s been crowding it. I sat down to learn that from the Eastern mystics, but realized I’d already been introduced to the idea (how unsuspecting I was) by my favorite evangelical, contemporary worship churches.

I realized this when I was so looking forward to joining my friend for worship with his home Christian Community the other day – it was an opportunity to be assisted in quieting my heart before the Lord, and offering him thanks and praise. That is the point, I would suppose, of any liturgy. So bring on the overhead projectors!

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Codependent a Little Bit?

Two women were in line at my register in the bookstore. Each of them held a copy of Codependent No More for purchase.

All I could think was, "Couldn't you just share a copy?"