Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is Church for?

I'm reading Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth right now and it's stirring up all kinds of things within my head. It's a novel about the building of a cathedral, among other events, in 12th century England (1100s). The discussion around the monks, priors and religious life both frustrates me and makes me realize that not as much has changed in the church as one would think. I'll write a different post about my reaction to peasants/lay people helping to build the cathedral in exchange for forgiveness of sins, something else is moving me right now.

I read this part earlier this morning:
Sermons were becoming more common in churches. They had been rare when Philip was a boy. Abbot Peter had been against them, saying they tempted the priest to indulge himself. The old-fashioned view was that the congregation should be mere spectators, silently witnessing the mysterious holy rites, hearing the Latin words without understanding them, blindly trusting in the efficacy of the priest's intercession. But ideas had changed. Progressive thinkers nowadays no longer saw the congregation as mute observers of a mystical ceremony. The Church was supposed to be an integral part of their everyday existence. It marked the milestones in their lives, from christening, through marriage and the birth of children, to extreme unction and burial in consecrated ground. It might be their landlord, judge, employer or customer. Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just on Sundays. They needed more than just rituals, according to the modern view: they wanted explanations, rulings, encouragement, exhortation. (Follett, Ken. Pillars of the Earth. Penguin Group, USA. November 2007. p. 533) 
Wow. That's what I feel like I'm working with now- 1800 years later. Except I don't know that I ever had an idea that the Church was landlord, judge, etc. (though sometimes a church is). Even in this hardscrabble English village, people know there is something more they can get from their ecclesial experience.

Somehow, though, we're still in this framework. The Church provides certain services, particularly to its members, and eyes the rest of the world (and life) with suspicion or from a distance. Even now, when churches are struggling, the greatest concern is turning inward and being sure we continue to care for those who are already inside. Yet, that's hardly what Jesus did, encouraged or commanded. The Bible consoles, but it also charges, convicts and creates.

I think we are, again or still, in a time and place where people don't want empty ritual. They want meaning, understanding and purpose. But those things come with a price. They mean examining God's desire for the world and trying to align ourselves with that desire (as opposed to aligning God with ourselves). "Explanation, rulings, encouragement [and] exhortation" all come with great pressure to the preacher and to the congregation.

The leader must seek God's vision and be brave in proclaiming it. The congregation must realize that what they are hearing is meant to stir up, not smooth down, move forward, not put down, and open conversation, not shut it down.

I don't preach to indulge myself, but because the Word doesn't sit silently within me. It agitates me until it comes out- in one way or another. (If you've ever talked to me, you understand how that happens eventually.) However, I can indulge myself in preaching- I could fall more easily to consolation than challenge and, thus, neglect the exhortation- that part that's supposed to get people (you) moving.

"Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just Sunday." I know that. I think congregations know that. Am I equipping people to live that way? Are we encouraging one another to live that way?

Indeed the church has lasted beyond the 12th century because of the people who carried the Word out and forward. There are always mysteries about faith, but we don't have to be mysterious about faith. The more open, the more focused, the more determined we are to carry the gospel into the far corners of the earth, the more we realize that the Spirit has gone ahead of us and goes with us yet.

We have to move beyond the rituals. We're still working on that.

2 comments:

Ole_Grizz said...

Hi Pastor Julia, our friend Paki sent me a
copy of a couple of your blog posts and they made me think and since you invited comments,and I have no one to share my thoughts with, I am going to write them down here.

I just finished reading "Pillars of the
Earth" and started "World Without End" last night.

When I read "What is Church For" the
following things came to mind.

I am struggling to clarify my doctrinal
beliefs and in the process am needing to "pin down" what the words I use mean. I love the way C. S. Lewis expands on the meaning of words instead of just "using them" in a sentence.

Anyway..here at the things that came out of my confused soul as I read...

You said: "Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just Sunday." I know that. I think congregations know that. Am I equipping people to live that way? Are we encouraging one another to live that way?

My heart said: Live what way? What does it mean "to be Christians" every day. I suspect every person who reads that has his own idea about what it means. But what is the core or the heart of that idea anyway? Do we really know? If so, how can we articulate the core idea in a way that is clearer than the soiled and sullied and often misunderstood word
"Christians?"

You said: "The more open, the more focused, the more determined we are to carry the gospel into the far corners of the earth, the more we realize that the Spirit has gone ahead of us and goes with us yet."

My heart said: "Thank God! But the word
"gospel" is about as useless as the word
"Christians" -- Many of us assume we know what it means, until someone tries to define or contain the idea. What are these "Christians" supposed to communicate to the world when they share the concept of "the gospel?" In the clearest sense--what is this good news?

You said: "We have to move beyond the
rituals. We're still working on that."

I thought: Yes we do, the Roman Catholics have their rituals (lighting candles or saying Hail Marys?) and we Protestants have ours (attending Wednesday night prayer
meeting or being sure to read our Bible every day? ) How do we identify our particulr rituals and move beyond these lesser things to whatever the "heart" of Christianity and the centrality of the Gospel is?

These thoughts are NOT in any way meant as criticism of what you wrote! They are simply an expression of the confusion and frustration of my soul as I try to understand what this business of Christianity is really all about. I suspect much that we call Christianity is not Christian at all. It is just churchianty or something or other. The message we try to communicate often confuses the world more than it enlightens it.

Thanks for writing what you did. Thanks for giving me a place to share the confusion of my mind about these things. I was a pastor for over 35 years and I must say I think I understand less about Christianity now than I thought I did the day I started to preach. Hmmm, upon reflection maybe I understand more now---but I just don't know how to communicate it. All I know for sure is that it is not what I thought it was when I started my journey.

Pastor Julia said...

You've written your own dissertation here, Grizz, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me. Indeed, "gospel" and "Christian" become and/or are used as code words either as a gloss or to establish inside/outside. I fight against that, but I can't do it in every post. On the other hand, I certainly can't do it enough.

I think everyone, myself included, struggles in faith. The real pitfall for me is thinking that I will ever be totally certain. I hold out good hope for you as you continue in your own journey and I'd be glad to hear from you again.