Friday, August 29, 2014

Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: Worship

     …a time is coming and has now come  when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit  and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 
-John 4:23 (NIV)

In last week’s post, I suggested that the fellowship of churches known today as Churches of Christ have historically not left much room in our theology and practice for the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen him as a retired author, finished inspiring Scripture and no longer involved with us. While we wouldn’t always say it this way, our practice has betrayed our belief that once we had the Bible, we no longer needed the Spirit. Our rationalist perspective has taught us that all we need to do is read, study, and interpret the Scriptures rightly. I suggested that this impoverished understanding of the Spirit has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity. Last week I talked about how our understanding of unity has been characterized by an underemphasis on the Spirit’s work of creating unity, and our responsibility to maintain it, and an overemphasis on unity created by a uniform interpretation of Scripture on a bewildering array of issues. 
     This week, I want to make the case that the rationalist perspective which has characterized Churches of Christ has also affected the ways in which we worship and serve together. It has done so in several ways. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, it has created in us the idea that worship is more an act of the will than an expression of gratitude and adoration. Secondly, it is has placed the focus in worship squarely upon what we do, as opposed to what God does. Finally, it has exalted preaching as the central event of worship, while minimizing the importance of other acts, including communion.
     In Churches of Christ, worship has historically been more about performing the proper acts in the proper ways. It has almost seemed that the entire point of worship has been to demonstrate to God that we know the “right” things to do and the “right” methodology for doing them. We have almost completely thought of worship as a pattern to be followed — or, at least, that’s what we’ve said about it.  The pattern of worship that is pleasing to God has been revealed through Scripture, and we show our faithfulness by correctly interpreting the pattern and reproducing it: vocal music only, communion every Sunday, avoidance of the use of creeds and confessions, and so on. Above all, it is to be reserved and dignified, without overt displays of emotion.
     It is not difficult to see how these emphases have arisen from the dominant rationalist stream in Churches of Christ. Neither is it difficult to see how the focus upon worship as an act of obedience to a pattern has left us with little expectation of any encounter with God in our worship. The focus is squarely upon what the worshiper does. God’s activity in worship is implicitly marginalized or explicitly denied. We don’t expect to be confronted with God’s holiness, or our own sinfulness — except maybe in the sermon. 
     Preaching has become the “big event” of worship, because, in our understanding, it is in preaching that we encounter God’s chosen vehicle for transformation – the words of Scripture. The text is explained, biblical information is imposed upon passive, waiting minds, and we go away to try to be what we’ve been told we are to be. We’re not the first to place this kind of emphasis on preaching, of course. But our emphasis on the rational, and de-emphasis of the work of God through the Holy Spirit, has made it a natural fit for us.
     I have no desire to marginalize preaching, and am convinced that the Spirit often operates through preaching. I certainly have no desire to deny that the Holy Spirit works through and with the Scripture that he inspired. However, an approach to preaching and Scripture that emphasizes human understanding to the loss of the Spirit’s work is detrimental to spiritual formation. Once again, it has placed the emphasis upon what we do. The preacher prepares and delivers a sermon. The congregation listens, evaluates by comparing it to the Bible, and then goes home to live it out. 
     These emphases have failed to take seriously the biblical notion that when the church is assembled, “the power of our Lord Jesus is present.” (1 Corinthians 5:4) The Lord is present through the Holy Spirit, and not only as an observer. Jesus observed that true worship was not about the “right” place – and certainly not the “right” methods. True worshipers, he insists, “worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24) They recognize the spiritual nature of God, and they recognize that worship is spiritual and genuine communion with him. 

     A more biblical understanding would recognize the place of the Holy Spirit in the assembled church. It would be seen in worship leaders emphasizing the real presence of God, and worship as an expression of gratitude and praise to him. It would be reflected in a liturgy that reflects the presence and power of the Spirit by leaving space in which worshipers can encounter God and feel his call upon their lives. It would give opportunity for believers to share with the church God’s work in their own lives. It would expect that every believer would use his or her spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church, taking seriously the biblical expectation that in the Messianic age “our sons and daughters prophesy, our young men see visions and our old men dream dreams,” as the Lord has poured out his Spirit on his servants, both men and women. (Acts 2:17-18) It would emphasize not only the acts of the worshiper in baptism, Communion, and worship, but also the activity of God in them in imparting grace to the worshiper. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me,” Jesus promised, “and I in them.” (John 6:56) It would express that in worship we act out the truth and implications of our being in Jesus, and his being in us, and that the presence of the Holy Spirit makes real the things we act out.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: Unity

     I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  
-Ephesians 4:1-3 (NIV)

     About 25 years ago now, I guess, I had a conversation with my grandmother about heaven. I was in college, studying for the ministry. I suppose she wanted some reassurance. Whatever the reason, she told me that she was not at all sure she would go to heaven when she died.
     I wasn’t sure what to say. My grandmother was one of the saintliest and most faithful people I have known in my life. She loved God, and loved her neighbor, and both of those loves directed her life. So I was astonished that she would say such a thing.
     My grandmother grew up and came to faith in the same religious movement that has nurtured me, the Churches of Christ. And she is not the first person I have spoken to with this same anxiety.
     The heritage of Churches of Christ is a philosophy known as Rationalism. All that means is that most of our forebears were taught to believe that human beings know what we know through reason; that is, we can only know about the world around us through sensing, thinking, and understanding. 
     Churches of Christ drank heavily of Rationalism. In some ways that’s served us well.  But it’s tended to make our theology self-reliant. We’ve acted sometimes as though we can observe and think and know our way to God. This is nowhere more true than in our understanding of the Holy Spirit and his work.
     In short, we haven’t left much room for the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen him as a retired author, finished inspiring Scripture and no longer involved with us. Once we have the Bible, we’ve seemed to believe, we no longer need the Spirit. All we need to do is read, study, and interpret the Scriptures rightly. 
     I would suggest, though, that this impoverished understanding of the Spirit has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity. 
    Churches of Christ originated as a unity movement where people could be “Christians only,” loyal simply to Christ and without owing obedience to denominational creeds. Our rationalist assumptions, however, made unity dependent upon “reasonable” people interpreting the Bible alike. The church was united when it believed, practiced, and taught the same things in all matters of faith, organization, and worship. Unity was about getting the facts straight, and those facts became as much a part of the “gospel” as the resurrection of Christ. 
     This rationalist reading of the text became the driving force of the Churches of Christ, and we became known for our radically sectarian views toward believers in other denominations. Ironically, we also became known for our “in-house” divisiveness as preachers and editors waged all-out war in print and formal debate against anything labeled “error”: anything that did not fit within the formalized system of “reasonable” interpretation. These “errors” included such trivial (to us) issues as kitchens in church buildings, premillennialism, or whether the Bible allows the establishment of Sunday schools. It was understandable, given our understanding. If the Holy Spirit works only through the written word, then the only basis for unity is our reading and interpreting it alike. 
     If we haven’t gotten along it's because we haven’t taken seriously that the Spirit creates unity in the church (Ephesians 4:3), and not the church itself. The common Spirit we share, poured out by our common Lord and Savior, draws us together and keeps us together, and it is our calling not to create unity through uniformity of doctrine and practice, but to maintain the unity that is already present. 
     Paul reminded the church at Ephesus that they were “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22) God builds his own dwelling place in the church. Those who would destroy that temple by whatever means – including elevating doctrinal uniformity to the level of gospel -- do so at their peril (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
     If unity is created by uniformity of doctrine, then the church should expend whatever energy is required to safeguard and maintain correct doctrine on every conceivable issue. But if unity is created by the presence of the Holy Spirit, then the church should instead go to great lengths to value and preserve that unity. We are called to live out the reality that the Spirit creates, rather than creating our own. We have to “live by the Spirit” and “keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25) 
     Paul encouraged the church in Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3, emphasis mine)  When believers disagree, our first movement must be toward one another rather than away, honoring and affirming that the Spiritual unity that binds believers in Jesus Christ together keeps us together when reason or logic or doctrinal position or personal preference might push us apart. Just as importantly, it denies the human impulses to exclude and judge.

     Positively, it means that we will work to create peace. We will follow the Spirit’s lead in pushing past the barriers that human beings erect against one another, whether racial, ethnic, economic, ideological, denominational, doctrinal, or whatever. We will recognize that it is never the will of God for believers to be divided, and we will do what we must to preserve the unity he creates by placing his Spirit among us. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Suffering for the Gospel

     For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid,  but gives us power,  love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed  of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.  Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel,  by the power of God. 
-2 Timothy 1:7-8 (NIV)

Without a doubt, one of the great humanitarian crises of our time is well underway. And you’ll hear very little about it in the American media, and what you hear will be heavily politicized.
     I’m not saying it should displace coverage of the ebola epidemic in western Africa, or that it’s more important than the fighting in the Ukraine, or unrest in Syria, or clashes between police and civilians in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. What I am saying is that a crisis of these proportions should be getting more coverage than it’s getting. It’s a story that large numbers of Democrats and Republicans have a stake in, and those who do would largely be on the same side. And yet you won’t hear much about this crisis from your usual news sources.
     Listen to the numbers. Over the past decade, this crisis has cost the lives of 100,000 people per year. It’s happening in well over 100 nations on the earth. Every hour, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, 11 people die in this crisis. And yet there’s a good chance you haven’t read or heard a news story about it all week. All month.  
     The crisis I’m talking about is the persecution of Christians.
     According to the International Society for Human Rights, a non-religious organization based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. In other words, Christians are by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet. And I don’t mean what passes for persecution in countries like America, where Christians have held a large majority for years, and live in freedom to practice their faith.
     I mean persecution in places like Iran, where Christians in areas controlled by ISIS are forced to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face the death penalty. Or like Nigeria, where Boko Haram has killed thousands in their efforts to clear all non-Muslims out of the north, and where a group of over 200 Christian schoolgirls were recently kidnapped. Or like India, where militant Hindu groups like the RSS, non-conversion laws, and a government that looks the other way when Christians are threatened means that Christian shop owners can’t keep business, and that Christians in many areas face daily danger of arrest, assault, rape, and murder. I mean persecution from family like Christians face in many nations: being disowned, forced to leave their homes, even murdered in “honor killings.”
     There are all kinds of reasons why you don’t hear about these things. Maybe the largest is that news agencies give us the news we want to hear about, and Americans are notorious for not caring much about what happens outside our borders. If news outlets knew we’d watch, listen, and click, they’d give us Christian persecution 24 hours a day. But they know there’s no audience for that kind of news — even among American believers. (Who feel persecuted when their town disallows a nativity scene in the square.)
     Beyond that, there are partisan political reasons for the silence of the media on this too deep to get into here. Those who want us to hear more about it usually have reasons relating to closed borders and distrust of foreign nations, especially Muslim ones. Those who don’t want us to hear have their own agenda too: protecting allies and propping up their own foreign policy among them.
     Without resorting to fear-mongering, let me just warn you of two missteps:
  1. Don’t make the largely American mistake of thinking that “happening on the other side of the world” and “not happening” are the same thing.
  2. Dont’ think for a moment that it can’t be happening because CNN isn’t reporting it.

     OK, I guess I’d add a third important thing, too: it’s our brothers and sisters, our family in Christ, who are dying. Not strangers, not foreign nationals: family. That’s what Jesus does, see — he brings together those who believe in him and follow him as Lord into family. In him, there is no longer Jew or Gentile — nor is there Palestinian or Korean, Iraqi or Pakistani, American or Egyptian.
     Hebrews reminds us put ourselves in the shoes of brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and imprisoned. We’re to take their suffering as our own, share in it as much as we can. Paul says much the same, reminding us that the Holy Spirit who lives in us gives us power, love and self-discipline. We’re not given such a Spirit in order to be quiet about suffering sisters and brothers, he says. So we shouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel, and especially not of those who are prisoners for its sake. 
     I think that might be a lot of the reason for the silence about persecution — shame. We live in a culture that preaches a surface form of tolerance, and the American church sometimes drinks as deeply as any of this spirit. We’re so practiced in getting along in a largely secular culture without bringing up our faith too much that we have a hard time imagining anyone not getting along.
     In the name of these sisters and brothers of ours, suffering for their faith around the world, Paul calls those of us warm and safe in the American church to suffer along with them. That’s how those who would follow Jesus tackle evil, you see. We suffer. When we see injustice, we don't stand outside and point fingers, and we certainly don’t turn away blindly. We do what Jesus did — we take that sin upon ourselves. We stand with those who are suffering, and we bear their pain as we are able. Maybe only emotionally, as we invest ourselves in prayer and weeping for persecuted believers. Maybe economically, by depriving ourselves of something to give to the work of organizations who are ministering to the persecuted and working to stop the persecution. Maybe we write letters to imprisoned Christians, reminding them of our hope.
     Maybe we contact representatives and encourage them to make basic human rights for all people — including Christians — a foundational block for any foreign policy. Maybe we raise awareness about persecuted Christians at our own churches, in our own prayer groups, in our own families. Maybe we simply go to our knees on behalf of these suffering believers in Jesus. We ask God to free them from prison, to guard their lives, and most importantly to use their witness to proclaim his kingdom, and the hope and life that are in Jesus. 
      Our brothers and sisters need — and in Christ deserve — that we share in their suffering. So let us, with grace, joy, and hope, share in their sufferings as gladly and as joyfully as we share in their hope. 

Check out Voice of the Martyrs for ongoing information about brothers and sisters in Christ living with persecution.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A New Order

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
-Isaiah 29:13, via Jesus in Matthew 15:8-9 (NIV)

I still remember the Sunday night worship service when I was a teenager in which the preacher talked about sexual immorality. But I don’t remember it for the reasons I should. I remember it because of the invitation song that night, where people were invited to respond to the lesson.
     It was “Why Not Tonight?” No kidding. Someone should have given that more thought, if the pew of guffawing teenagers I was sitting with were any indication.
     At my church, we’ve recently changed up the order of worship. 
     The changes we’ve made haven’t been all that earth-shaking, honestly. The main thing we’ve done is to change up the order of the sermon and Communion. The old sequence is Communion, then sermon. The new sequence is sermon, then Communion. We shifted a prayer around in there too, but that’s the main difference between the “old” order of worship (which is about twenty years old) and the “new” order of worship (which is now the way it was before we changed it twenty years ago).
     If you’re not a regular church attender, then you probably have two questions. One is What’s the order of worship? Good question, and the answer is that it’s the order in which we do things in our worship services. In our church, as in most, it’s written out in advance in the church newsletter that’s available when folks arrive on Sunday mornings.
     Your second question, if you’re not a regular church attender and hear that we’ve changed up the order of worship at our church, might very well be So what? 
     So what? Well, for starters, people get very comfortable with the order of worship on a Sunday morning. They get very accustomed to things happening at about the same time, in about the same order. There’s a reassurance in familiarity, a sense that all’s well with the world, that things are as they should be. In case you haven’t noticed, churches thrive on tradition — even if it’s not all that old.  So one So what? is that people are pretty comfortable with the old order. As someone said (jokingly, I think) on the Sunday when we made the change, “Now I don’t know when to go to sleep!”
     Really, though, our church has handled the change very well. We’ve gone back to the “old” order a time or two since we made the change, and at least some of us seem to like the “new” order better, for various reasons. 
     It’s those various reasons that frame my second answer to the So what? question. The what — the reason that the change is significant — is that it has people thinking and talking about the way we do things, and the reasons we do them in the way we do. And, when it comes to the community of faith gathered for worship, talking and thinking about what we do and why we do it is inherently very important.
     One of our worship leaders likes the “new” order, he says, because it keeps us from having to change our focus to Communion, then back. On the other hand, another doesn't care for the “new” order because he’s accustomed to having the time around Communion to get himself ready to hear the sermon. Two differing opinions, both well-thought-out and well-expressed. Neither opinion is right or wrong. Both express some assumptions, some values, and some priorities. And, hopefully, the change is sparking others to think through what they expect to happen on Sunday, and why, creating other conversations that bristle with theology and ecclesiology. 
     It’s always a good thing when the church thinks and talks about what goes on in worship, and why it goes on.
     I say this because I grew up hearing that we did what we did in worship because the Bible says so. That is, we sang, we prayed, we gave, we shared Communion, and we listened to a sermon because the Bible has examples of those five acts of worship. We don’t see incense or candles in the New Testament church at worship, so we didn’t have incense or candles. There was no band when the New Testament church got together for worship, so we didn’t have a band. We do what we do, the teaching ran, because the Bible says we should do those things.
     “The Bible says so” is, at first glance, a pretty good reason to do something. But it’s felt to me since that “the Bible says so” was sometimes used an excuse for giving little thought to what we do when we get together for worship, and why we do it. It made us comfortable with the illusion that we didn’t need to give our orders of worship much consideration at all beyond getting those five acts in each week. 
     Jesus, like the prophets before him, warned of “vain” or “purposeless” worship made up of merely human rules. It angered him to see traditions that carried the stink of death wrapped up in religious garb and trotted out as worship. One order of worship or the other probably won’t prevent that, but what does it suggest if there’s only one order that is acceptable for your church? Churches like mine, that don’t have a liturgy handed down to them from on high, are by nature open to the possibility of change and variation. But we aren’t immune to the petrifying nature of empty, thoughtless tradition — however “biblical” that tradition may seem.
     Change things up, and people start to think. They think about what, and why. And thinking about worship is good, usually. It opens hearts and minds, it drags assumptions and prejudices out into the light, and it wakes us up from sleepwalking through songs, prayers, preaching, and table. It allows us to hear the Word anew and attend to the movements of the Holy Spirit.
     Give some thought to what your church does, and why. Choose songs carefully, with an eye to theme and movement. Make sure public prayers have real content, and ask yourself what you expect worshippers to do. Think through the way Communion is done: What does it say, for example, if the church literally gathers around tables, versus having the symbols brought to them? How do your worship times engage children, or the physically or mentally challenged? How does your building’s architecture affect worship, and what can you do about it?   
      We may not be used to thinking about worship in these ways. But we can all individually think about why we do what we do. And those who lead churches can and should consider how to help worshippers do so “in Spirit and in truth.”

     Maybe it will even help keep laughing adolescents quiet.