Reformations and Liturgical “Magic”

There are two things I wanted to share from my devotional reading from this month. Both of them come from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. [If you purchase this from Amazon Smile and set up First Evangelical Lutheran Church as your preferred charity, we will get a small donation from Amazon for every purchase made.]

The first is from the monthly header article entitled “Marks of New Monasticism.” The second comes from the devotional on April 19 and is called “Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic.”

April Marks of New Monasticism: “Submission to Christ’s Body, the Church”

Discontentment is a gift to the church. If you are one of those people who has the ability to see the things that are wrong in the church and in the world, you should thank God for that perception.. Not everyone has the eyes to see, or to notice, or to care. But we must also see that our discontentment is not a reason to disengage from the church but a reason to engage with it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Our invitation is to “be the change” we want to see in the church. There are things worth protesting, but we also have to be people who “pro-testify,” proclaiming the kingdom that we’re for, not just the evils we’re against.

Jesus offered an alternative to Caesar’s empire not by mounting a rebellion but by teaching people that another way is possible. That way is summed up well in Jesus’ triumphal entry, the inaugural parade of a new kind of king for a new kind of kingdom. Church history is filled with holy dissenters, rabble-rousers, and prophets — disturbers of the peace who’ve helped to show us a better way. As some church historians have pointed out, every few hundred years the church gets cluttered by and infected with the materialism and militarism of the world around it. We begin to forget who we are. One bishop said, “And so every five hundred years or so the church needs a rummage sale,” to get rid of the clutter and to remember the true treasures of our faith.

Church history is filled with reformations and renewals. It was in the middle of Italy’s wealth and crusades that St. Francis heard God whisper, “Repair my church which is in ruins,” and he began to repair the ruins. At one point the pope had a vision that the church was beginning to crumble, but the corner was being held up by Francis and the little youth movement in Assisi. The call to repair the church is a call we continue to hear from God, and a movement we are invited to participate in. 

“Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic”

As we pray to and worship the God of the universe, there is something that remains at some level incomprehensible. It gives us a taste of something dazzling and transcendent. Historians say the phrase hocus pocus originated from liturgical worship services, in which the priest held up the bread and proclaimed, Hoc est corpus Christi. There were lots of folks on the fringes of the church who looked through the doors and windows, marveling at the mystery and magic of the moment. Many of them were unfamiliar with liturgy and had little education, so all they picked up was hocus pocus, and it seemed quite magical.

Although the liturgy is not magic or illusion or sorcery, it captures our imagination — this idea that God came to earth and died and now lives in us. It is a mystery. So while there is nothing of a magical formula in the liturgy, there is plenty that points us toward a world beyond this one. Perhaps one of the sure signs that we have worshiped God is that we walk away saying, “I didn’t understand everything that happened there. It must be bigger than my comprehension.” Too much of our worship has boxed God in as if we were going to see a play on Broadway. But in worship we become a part of the play. Though we can’t understand it all, we can come onstage and participate in the divine drama.

Apocalypse and Conversion

Whew! It felt to me like it had been a Really Long Time since my last post here, but WordPress tells me that my last entry was on March 7, just a little over a month ago. That’s nice. Helps me feel a little less like a slacker.

In any case, here’s the latest “poop.” I hope this doesn’t bleed over too much into tomorrow’s sermon, but please accept my apologies if it does.

Recently in our parish we’ve been embroiled in a bit of a “controversy” over whom we may or may not allow to serve Communion elements. I don’t really care to rehash all of that here, but I bring it up just to repeat what I said in the recent Town Hall meeting: This has become a matter of upholding the gospel for me.

What is the gospel? (I’m making a distinction here between the “Capital G” Gospel genre belonging to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the one hand, and the “small g” gospel, meaning the content of the “good news of God in Christ.” Most of you probably are aware of that distinction, but I wanted to make it explicit here.)

Again, what is the gospel? I believe that a lot of people will answer this differently. We had the assignment in seminary to boil it down into kind of an elevator speech, knowing that HOW we as pastors would proclaim the gospel in different contexts would need to look or sound different than in an academic paper at seminary.

For me, the core message of the goespel is the revelation (apocalypsis) through Jesus Christ that “God” is “good,” meaning that “God” is “for us.”

I put “God” in quotes because it’s a bit of a loaded term. Like “gospel,” if you ask 100 people what it means, you’re likely to get (at least) 100 answers. What *I* mean by God is the Abba witnessed to in the Gospels by Jesus.

I also put “good” and “for us” in quotes. Unpacking that a little, I would say that God being good and for us means that God desires that we, as a species, should flourish. I’m not talking about a “prosperity gospel,” but rather about a commitment by God to us the Creation that we should live abundantly, a desire that we belong to the Kingdom, etc.

Abundant life does not mean, of course, that “anything goes.” Instead, we need to look at everything through a gospel lens: Does what we believe — or more importantly, what we do *liberate* people? Does it *promote human flourishing*? Or does it *bind* people, *accuse* people, seek to *control or exclude* people? Does it *inhibit* human flourishing? Everything we do, espacially as a people who draws our identity from Jesus, needs to be scrutinized in light of those gospel questions.

As I’ve been thinking about this in recent weeks, it has occurred to me that, what I seek to do in my ministry in the parish, is to confront people with the goespel — to shine a gospel light on our congregations (and sometimes personal?) practices and ask, “Does the gospel confirm this? Does it call for us to re-evaluate what we’re doing? Does it outright oppose what we’re doing?”

When Michael Hardin came to visit us last September, he put into words something that has been on my heart especially since the last year of seminary, but was a seed planted way, way back in my Catholic school experience. Michael said that he felt part of his call was “to convert Christians to Jesus.” 🙂 When he said that, it really hit me that this has ALWAYS belonged to my call to the church! I just never knew how to articulate it.

Now, there’s a little caveat I need to add, and I know Michael would agree with this: Converting people isn’t my job. It’s not Michael’s job. It’s not any of our job. Conversion belongs to the work of the Holy Spirit. BUT, what all of us are called to do — some perhaps more than others — is to help people listen to the Holy Spirit so that they can get out of her way and allow themselves to be converted. THIS is what I mean by confronting people with the gospel.

Now, a lot of this work is necessarily deconstructive. A good deal of it is saying, “OK, this is what you believe” or “this is what you practice, but WHY?! Where did you get that? Is it because ‘we’ve always done it that way’? Is it because you’re building this on a solid biblical foundation? Or is it simply an unexamined belief or practice? What happens to it when we scrutinize it under a gospel light?”

Some people are going to resent this work. None of us likes to be confronted. Most of us don’t like to undergo that kind of scrutiny, especially when we’re dealing with long-held or dearly-held beliefs or practices or traditions. I remember a LOT of people getting really angry at professors in seminary, who would force us to bear witness to the WHYs of our beliefs. For a lot of folks, it had to do with things they learned in Sunday School that were just wrong. Or they learned it from beloved pastors or elders, but it had no grounding in truth or reality. Sometimes the arguments got pretty ugly. That happens during a deconstructive phase. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad to have it happen. It’s a GOOD thing, when it leads to REconstruction on more solid ground.

But people hated it in seminary, and they hate it in parishes, too.

The other day I had a good conversation with someone about the Communion server incident, and we got to talking about how I have come to realize that my heart lies with people who have been excluded from the Table. This person said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that! So-and-so and I were talking about that, and …” At this point, my conversation partner kind of let slip that the two people who had been talking about my passion for the homeless, the addict, etc. felt that it was in that kind of street ministry where I “belonged.”

I can’t say for certain that there was anything to read beneath the surface of that comment, but as I reflected on it for the next couple of days, the thought occurred to me: “Did they mean that I belonged with the street folks INSTEAD of in the congregation?” If so … and this is a HUGE “if,” the implication is “and then you’d leave us alone and let us be comfortable in our tried and true traditions.”

I’ve heard people say that about other pastors folks don’t like, and about pastors who confront congregations, trying to move them to a different place than where they are. Please hear this: I understand discomfort with change. It’s universal. But so is change. Universal and inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to know that, but it’s also not helpful to think we can wish change away. It’s GOING to happen, one way or another. Adaptation is change. So is death. It’s going to happen. I would prefer that people choose adaptation, even if it’s painful, to death.

Anyway, got off track there. I’ve heard people talk about pastors that way, saying, “Oh, she was hard to deal with. She really belonged in the seminary teaching. That’s where she would have been the happiest.” The unspoken part of that sentence: “And she would have been out of our hair.”

And this leads me to this last bit: We have a vicious circle going on here, at least in our denomination. We have good seminarys, staffed by good faculty teaching good and enthusiastic seminarians, whom we are ordaining and sending them into parishes that are unwilling to receive them, especially when those newly-minted pastors start asking the “Why” questions, the “how does that square with the gospel” questions. And so we end up with unhappy parishioners AND frustrated pastors, some of whom actually do end up “doing their time” in a congregation, high-tailing it back to get their Doctorates, then heading back to seminary to teach and start the whole thing over again.

What the Church needs is people who are willing to stick it out in the parish, even when the seas get rough. We need people who will work as change agents — not for change’s sake, but for the sake of the liberating, inclusive gospel. Parishes need to learn to listen to the movement of the Spirit who, being the Spirit of Jesus, meets them first where they are, but isn’t satisfied to leave well enough alone. Instead, the Spirit of Christ calls us BEYOND ourselves, our inward-focused budgets, our inward-focused missions, our inward-focused, individualistic, pietistic theologies. The Spirit calls us BEYOND religion into REVELATION. We get apocalypsed. This is the beginning of our deconstruction. And then we get converted. Converted from “Christians” to followers of The Way.

If you want to learn more about this, please consult the book of the Acts of the Apostles as well as Paul’s letters. And of course, don’t forget about the Gospels.