Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Strange and new

I've been reading many conversations lately among church leaders (clergy and lay) and scholars centered around the questions, "Why does church matter?" and "How does church matter?" In a world that constantly harps on "change" (with very little seeming to actually do so), how can a two-thousand year old institution still offer something that people need?

To answer this question for myself, I have been looking for something to read to stir my imagination. Granted, God's word does this for me all the time. But part of encountering the Living Word, for me, involves going into the Bible with a guide (the Holy Spirit) and a partner (some other theologian- living or dead, clergy or lay).

My newest hunting partner is G.K. Chesterton. While I would not say that G.K. and I will become best buddies- he's a good hunting partner with sharp spiritual eyes, stirring me to looking for new signs and shapes of God's work in the world. So I have begun reading his book The Everlasting Man.

I'm not terribly far into it, but I'm already thinking of so many new things. He particularly stresses in his introduction the need for the Church of Christ (and its people) to look at the Church from a different, even foreign, perspective so that the significance of the Church can be grasped. While Chesterton eventually became a Catholic, here he is emphasizing the nature of the whole Church as the body of Christ- less the institution, than the embodiment of the Real Presence.

He says this: [The] Church, being a highly practical thing for working and for fighting, is necessarily a thing for [adults] and not merely a thing for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may be the saner condition. But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt. (Ignatius Press, 2008, 14)

In the season of Christmas, we are full of things we "always" do because of their tradition and symbolism. Yet is the symbolism what has become meaningful to us... the symbolism more than what is actually celebrated?

We are entering the season of the church year when we see many people in the pews who have been missing in the intervening months since Easter (or maybe since last Christmas). Why is that? Because they're busy? Perhaps. Or maybe it is because we (pastors, regular churchgoers, bishops, etc) have failed to make the majesty, the grace, the awe of God known throughout the year. Church is more than tradition: Sundays, Wednesday, Christmas, Easter.

It is a strange and alien institution, formed by an alien righteousness. (Romans 3- all of it) The righteousness of Christ covers all our sins, so that we might be made right with God. The familiar shapes and sounds of Christmas- Mary, shepherds, fumbled microphones in Christmas pageants, Silent Night, green and red- consume the shocking event that we are celebrating... GOD AMONG US!!!!!! LIKE US!!!! BUT GOD!!!!

Consider this verse from Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth

That's no regular baby (no regular birth story either). Familiarity hasn't necessarily, yet, bred contempt, but is it still breeding affection, in the words of Chesterton? In this season of overworked metaphors, let yourself be stunned by the miracle of Christmas- a pregnant virgin, angels everywhere, an accepting fiance, God present on earth in human form (yet retaining full divinity).

May God water the seeds of your contemplation, so that they may bloom forth in good works toward your neighbor and your family.

Church still matters. It is in the Body of Christ, God's church, that we experience together the provoking wonder of the greatest story ever told.

2 comments:

Martin Eldred said...

Thank you, Julia. It is always amazing to me how theologians and writers of generations past can be so "spot on" about our situation today (which is whole other layer of the new/change and the old/familiar. The tension shows how both must be there in conversation)

Christmas is THE time that we pastors seem to struggle to infuse new life in older forms. Sometimes, in spite of my herculean efforts, God breathes new life into the people from the new, the familiar and the mundane. I love God for that.

walla2 said...

Someone once wrote: There is nothing new under the Sun. When the Preacher wrote that, was it new? Really? Was he talking about last year's sermon that was written centuries ago? Was he making fun of tomorrow's dawn in Barrow?

In a so-called modern world that seems to dote on fads and bizarre new thoughts and ideas; how is it possible? How is it possible to create anew? If the Church could create anew then surely the world would come racing to our doors.

Maybe. When Christ delivered the radical Gospel teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, how many clung to the words? And when Jesus told Peter he would have to die horribly, Peter said: NO WAY!

Must we always go around with blinders on to the greatest and most amazing miracles? Particularly when they are happening in our own church?

Where is the Hope? When we consider that God has created a world where there are new opportunities each and every day and that God broadcasts his seeds of Love continously AND that he has created us to be so desperately needy of His Gifts of Faith and Grace and Hope.....then in that maybe there is an answer.

Maybe in our weakness and God's Power and Love we can see with fresh amazement the birth of the baby Jesus. And if we can not, maybe we should ask ourselves why we want to camp in the muck when God is raising us to be children of God, through the absurd wonder of God made flesh. In a manger.

All things are possible with God. God is creating afresh everyday, even in Barrow. If there is something for the Church to do it is simply to participate with what God is already doing.

If we feel like we are in turmoil as a Church, if we feel stuck in the muck, maybe we should stop stomping around in despair and look up to God's Grace and Hope. With God All Things are Possible. If we look to God, His Faith that He gives to each of us will show us miracles each and every day.

Is there a difference between Hope and being positive? :-) The Power of Positive Thinking was not added to the Holy Scriptures for a good reason, I think. But,I would hope the writer of Ecclesiastes could see what God was creating anew in a Manger in Bethlehem. In that stillness, in a twinkling light of a miraculous star, there is a time for wonder, a time for new things, a time even in this Christmas Season to break out afresh with Song. We have been given a great gift. Hark the Heralds!

As with all truly great and eternal gifts the only way we can accept it, is to share God's Gift with the all who will receive Him! Thanks be to God.

As God did not want us to possess the Gospel to hold it unto the grave, so also Christ did not want the Church to mess around with the Gospel in despair in the muck.

Christ is born today! Not just on December 25!

He has risen today! Not just on Easter morn!

With God all things are possible. Even for me to shut up. :-)