Ferguson, Staten Island, and Jesus Christ

Our church has at least two sets of pastoral needs. About half of those in worship on a given Sunday are African, and about half are American (mainly white), but right now, none are “African-American” – American-born black. I’m writing this note mainly to my church. I want to give you things to remember when you see ugly things happen as they have in Missouri (and, since I started writing this post, in New York City) over the last few weeks. Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island are all over the news, and if you use Facebook or Twitter, all over them, too. Recent events – the refusal of two grand juries to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men – bring to our attention some of America’s most shameful problems and ugliest history.

First, there is systemic racism in the United States. We all know about the horrible crime and sin of black slavery, which ended in the United states about 150 years ago. And we all know about the exclusion of blacks from the political process, mainly (but not only) in the South, which lasted until the 1960s Civil Rights movement. We know about the lynchings, the beatings, the firehoses turned on peaceful protesters, the police dogs, the firebombed churches. We rejoice in the advances of that decade: the end of segregation, the protection of voting rights; and in the powerful voices  and sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and many others.

But not all of us realize that there is still significant racial discrimination built into the law and order of the USA. Racism is not just something that occasionally comes out of an uneducated or drunken white person’s mouth. Enforcement of drug laws is extremely uneven, with arrests and imprisonment for drug charges disproportionately affecting black communities. For instance, federal penalties for crack cocaine possession and selling have been far harsher than comparable powder cocaine charges – a disparity that may have been intended to help alleviate the 1980s “crack epidemic” but actually served to put a disproportionate number of black men behind bars for long sentences. Although twice as many whites as blacks report that they have tried cocaine, and whites use some other categories of drug more than blacks as well, and although blacks make up only about 12% of the US population, 45% of Americans incarcerated for drug charges are black, and only 30% are white.

The high rate of imprisonment feeds into the massive issue of fatherlessness in black communities. In turn, blacks often do not trust the police and therefore do not cooperate with their investigations. Why would they? Laws have multiplied and people are often not tried by “juries of their peers,” leading to very high conviction rates (compared with crime a century ago). The research of the late law professor William Stuntz (an evangelical Christian) tracks this change. Successive waves of immigrants to the United States were able to successfully integrate into American cities, Stuntz says, but blacks have not: they have been effectively excluded from the judicial process. The less inner city blacks serve on juries, hold public office, etc., the more likely they are to be on the receiving end of mass arrest and imprisonment. The more they are arrested and imprisoned, the less likely they are to serve on juries, hold public office, etc. – and the more likely they are to seek criminal employment.

High crime and dysfunctional city schools mean that it is especially difficult for black men to find legitimate work. Middle class movement to the suburbs has meant that poor people (of whatever race) often have no nearby examples of functioning, hardworking families, and little reason to leave the welfare system. All of these problems feed into each other. We live in a society and legal system that profoundly disadvantages blacks. Refusing to recognize these interlocking issues, refusing to address them, shrugging and saying “Not my problem” – this is itself racism. Many conservatives (including many evangelical Christians) take a blame-the-victim approach, dismissing dead men such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner as troublemakers, drug users, fatherless, or shiftless.

I’m a white guy who grew up in a county where you could probably count non-whites on the fingers of one hand. But from 2002-2007 I taught at a school in Boston that was (and is) arguably the most racially diverse Christian high school in the United States. And when I taught high school I heard stuff from my students. A couple had witnessed murders in their own neighborhood (one kid’s family was moved around by the state to protect them from reprisals). One boy reached into his jacket – his school uniform jacket, mind you – and a white woman across the subway aisle screamed. Another, as a young adult, has suffered an ordeal of brutality at the hands of the Pittsburgh PD that almost killed him. None of them (I stopped teaching in 2007) thought there would ever be a black president of the United States. All of them knew the drill when it came to talking to police: cooperate, yes sir, no sir, or risk a beating – or worse. A 2011 video depicted refugees from Sudan – boys in their teens and early twenties – being warned against going to a convenience store in groups, since they were making the owner nervous, simply by being a group of young black men. These are not unusual stories. They are things that happen all the time all over the country. What kind of expectations for life do you have, growing up like this? What view of the police do you have? Do you think your society and legal system are on your side?

White Americans, this is what you don’t have to deal with every day. New folks from Africa, these are things which your black American neighbors are dealing with every day. And I’m very sorry to say that you and your children are likely to face them too. Everyone, this is not okay, this must not continue. If we have power to change things, we should. Whether or not we have such power, we need to pray. I would like to offer a program for healing what sick and fixing what is broken. I actually do have some thoughts on this. I would like to offer a program – but I won’t, because we are Christians, and our “solutions” must take a back seat to God’s true answer to human injustice and suffering. So here are a few aspects of that Answer, to think about in times like these.

Jesus Christ suffers with authorities who are falsely accused of wrongdoing. I won’t pretend to know “who’s right” (if anyone is) in the specific case of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson, nor Eric Garner’s death in police custody in Staten Island. Police are under massive scrutiny for racial discrimination, and have been since at least the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. This may be right (see above!) but it has got to make being a policeman difficult. Further, police are viewed with suspicion by many, many people in the black community (and some outside it). How would it feel to give your life to making your city a safe place, only to have most of the people you interact with scowl at you most days, and threaten to riot when they don’t get the court results they want? And how would it feel to hear self-righteous protesters and internet pundits accuse you of racism? How about the media industry, always hungry for an exciting story, regardless of the effects of their reporting?

I completely understand why people are angry that police get such a hard time while doing their jobs. These same folks don’t understand how anyone could justify rioting, looting, or violence – such as happened in Ferguson last Monday night after the grand jury’s decision was announced. Christ suffers with authorities who are doing their best, knowing that their job is crucial but (on some level) impossible. The Scriptures cannot often be made to justify revolt, lawlessness, insurrection, or revolution: they just can’t. The Scriptures teach us that government has a limited but genuine, and very difficult, role to play in the world. It is God’s minister to carry out justice, legitimately wields the sword, and must be respected as a servant of God (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Being in authority is hard. It is tricky, it is stressful, and it can end disastrously.

And in case you’re wondering this applies even to terrible governments! Paul and Peter were writing about the Romans: the authorities who crucified the Lord himself. It’s very easy to be critical of those “in power;” very easy to forget that those in authority over us (whether parents, presidents, or pastors) answer to God first and to us only later; very comfortable to think of ourselves as righteous victims. But we must realize that our criticism of authority is almost always mixed with a rebellious spirit; that we are called to obey without grumbling; and that God hates rebellion (1 Samuel 15:23; Psalm 68:6). Away with empty talk of “speaking truth to power” and “standing in solidarity,” if what we really mean is loud complaining and a refusal to listen to explanations. Our approach to those in authority must be dignified and respectful, truthful without being hateful, as the Lord’s was and as Paul’s was.

Right now, Jesus is patient with rebellious and ungrateful people – you and me. He cares for us, he loves us, he provides for us even as we turn our backs on him.

Jesus Christ suffers with the victims of racism and racist violence and oppression.  Black people in America (and many non-blacks) are right now experiencing again that old, helpless anger. Anger that the familiar script has been followed, another young black man dead, another white cop acquitted. There are millions of people in the US who, correctly, don’t believe that the democratic process or the justice system treat them, their neighbors, or their sons fairly. Moms who warn their sons never to visit a convenience store with more than one friend, and give them a script for when they are stopped, questioned, or searched by the police. Dads who see their sons caught between the rock of the streets and the hard place of police mistreatment and suspicion. Jesus is in authority, and held authority among his disciples. But he was also under authority – both his heavenly Father’s terrifying but ultimately benevolent authority, and the proximate, corrupt, self-serving and viciously violent authority of the Roman state. Pontius Pilate was recalled from his post as governor of Judea n0t long after Jesus’ crucifixion, because he was brutal even for a Roman.

What all first-century Jews talked about, every day, was how to deal with the occupying Romans. Many, many wanted to revolt – and some had tried (and would try later). Some believed that targeted assassinations were the way to go. Some were collaborators, happy to make nice with the Romans if they could turn a profit from doing so. Jesus had both ends of the spectrum among his twelve closest disciples. All were looking for a Messiah, a king who would lead the people in armed revolution against the Romans.

But Jesus didn’t come and do that. Instead, faced with unjust authority, vicious and oppressive, he voluntarily died at their hands. He suffered for the oppressed, but he also suffered with the oppressed – identified with them, voted for them, threw in his lot with them. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth … By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth,” (Isaiah 53:7-9). When faced with the Beast, Jesus did not simply slay the Beast: he was eaten by the Beast, and slew it from within. His triumph comes on the third day, by the sovereign action of God. This is how, in the end, justice comes for the oppressed. 

Jesus Christ will certainly bring just judgment. The Gospel – the announcement of Jesus Christ’s coming, death, resurrection, and ascension – is very bad news for those who are doing well in this world. The kingdom he announces is an upside-down kingdom, where the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst become the “blessed” or “happy.” Jesus is the Risen Victim, the Just Judge, the One with a sword coming out of his mouth. He does not rise, then go on vacation. He rises to rule. From his place of rule he welcomed Stephen, he rescued Peter from prison, he healed and commissioned Paul, he struck the proud Herod to the ground, dead. The creed tells us that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, and “thence he shall come, to judge the living and the dead.” Justice is coming for Americans and Africans, blacks and whites. Justice is coming to those who cry out, “Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud,” (Psalm 123:4).

This is the good news. This is why, as Cornel West has said, there is no black Al Qaeda. Christians trust Jesus to make things right. Black Christians live out the hope of the gospel in a more tangible and powerful way than anyone else in precisely this way: by their near-total refusal to take up arms against their oppressors, they have demonstrated not weakness but faith in the God who judges justly. I want to be clear: this trust in God’s just judgment does not replace righteous action, the quest for justice in this world. Rather, it is the only proper foundation for justice-seeking: it shows us what justice looks like, whether we are in charge, or under authority, or both.

So what we should do, if we believe these things? Well, that’s a bigger conversation, and maybe another pastoral letter. In the meantime, let me suggest some more reading. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Reformed pastor and respected author, has been writing a lot at the Gospel Coalition website. Start here, then here, here, here in response to Voddie Baucham, here, here, here, here, and here. Rapper and outspoken Christian Lecrae spoke here to white silence on the subject of police oppression of blacks. (His music, by the way, is outstanding.) Finally, a Facebook post by New Orleans Saints football player Benjamin Watson.

God bless you. Peace be upon the people of God.

“I’m so humbled”?

Just a quick thought today. Often when I see someone receive an award or an honor of some kind (Oscars, Nobel Prize, whatever) the say something like, “I’m so humbled!” In smaller ways, people often receive praise in the same way. “Pastor, that sermon was amazing.” “I’m so humbled to hear that.”

I … don’t think so.

On one level, I get it. The moment feels awesome (in the old, “awe-inspiring” sense). Something great is happening, and you’re somehow right in the middle of it.

But success does not tend to actually humble us. Success tends to inflate us. And maybe that’s legitimate. It is not wrong to desire glory. In fact, we ought to desire glory: the glory that comes from God, not from man. But what actually humbles us? Usually, failure, which is definitely not my favorite kind of humbling. But let me point out a lovelier kind of humbling.

I have had a few humbling moments – in this good way – in the context of our adult Sunday School class. This has been the most straightforward, simple, and, for my money, valuable class that we have had as a church to date. All we’re doing is telling and discussing the stories of the Bible, beginning in Genesis 1. Not every last story, but most of them. And in the last two months we took a crucial turn: I stopped teaching most of the classes. Instead, laymen and other officers from our church took over, and I sat in the audience.

That’s when the good stuff started to take place. We got to the story of Joseph, and it began opening people’s hearts wide. Knowing some of the stories of hurt (unspeakable stuff), I was (you got it) humbled as I heard people speak of a new clarity that God works through terrible events for the good of his people, and that they knew that like Joseph they must forgive those who had hurt them, whether they heard repentance from the offenders or not. My wife, walking to and fro holding our baby, was one of those most moved by the kindness of God.

How did this happen? Through (1) the stories of the Bible – especially Joseph in Genesis 37ff., (2) simply told and expounded. It happened without a seminary degree or my astonishing oratorical skills. It happened around me while I sat and listened. And that is genuinely humbling.

What the Reformation meant for education (at least in Scotland)

Very interesting; not surprising:

The Kirk had a central role in the supervision of such schools and in the appointment of the schoolmaster or dominie. From these early developments there grew a respect in Scotland for education and learning. From the 18th century onwards parish and burgh schools provided many Scots with a good standard of education leading to Scotland at this time having the highest standard of literacy of any European nation.

http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/education/about-us/maps-estates-history/history/part-one

“Healthy Churches in Hard Places” data dump

(The following is the text of an e-mail I sent to my church today, with few modifications.)

Hey everyone,

Hope you’re staying warm and not getting stuck in any snow drifts. I thought I’d pass on to you some items of interest from the conference I invited you to, which took place this past weekend at Grace Harbor Church in Providence. 

The main speaker and big draw for the conference was Mez McConnell, pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, and cofounder of the 20Schemes organization (more on that later). Mez talked about his life on Friday night, and it was pretty intense. Basically grew up in a really abusive, nomadic situation, in and out of children’s homes in Ireland and England, and then the old story of crime and drugs. Some Christians who came to his housing project to play soccer and witness to people told him about Jesus, but it wasn’t till later, when they visited him in prison (and didn’t preach to him), then gave him a place to crash when he got out.

The next day a representative of 9Marks (an organization that promotes church health) and the other cofounder of 20Schemes spoke, and Mez spoke again. 20Schemes is an organization that has a simple goal: to plant or revitalize churches in 20 of the poorest housing projects (“schemes”) in Scotland. 40% of the population of Scotland lives in projects (which tells you a lot about the nation). About one half of one percent of the people in the projects are Christians. That’s where Mez is from (though in England, not Scotland) and that’s where 20Schemes is working. There was also a Q&A panel discussion with the speakers. I think everyone there wishes McConnell had had more time to talk and elaborate on some big points he made, but that’s not how it played out. I’d like to summarize those points below.

Mez McConnell on training gospel workers …

When Mez was growing up, church was for “posh” people and for dead people (funerals). 20 years on the evangelical church in the UK is even more middle class and isolated.

50 years back the main way that the poor were reached in Scotland was through “mission halls”, including “city missions”. While they did a lot of good they were “para-church” organizations, not churches, and so did not retain a permanent presence in the poor neighborhoods. Today evangelical churches are aged and dying; they have the gospel but no one to preach it to (little contact with non-Christians). Liberal churches don’t care about evangelism because they don’t really believe in sin or its eternal consequences. So they content themselves with “social justice” initiatives and projects.

Today most evangelism is still done by para-church organizations. Most development (actual community-building change) is done by government agencies. Mez believes that local churches should be doing both, and can do both better than the para-churches or the government. A local church gives a base of operations, a place of spiritual accountability for gospel workers (who are usually headed toward burnout). Just as important, it gives a place where believers and unbelievers grow together in active discipleship.

We need a movement that will incorporate local training of workers, and not require them to leave their own people and culture and become something they are not. How are we going to get there? By being honest about how desperate the situation is. The current method of training personnel (leaving “ministry” to the professionals, and requiring them to get seminary education) is not working.

50-75 years ago at the bottom of the class system was what was called the “working class”. Today they have been replaced with the “underclass”, who are characterized by 3-5 generations of welfare dependency, totally broken family structures, and loads of addiction. The schemes in Scotland were originally built (most of them) to house miners and mill workers, but now house people who have often never done any legitimate work.

Mez is, by his own account, an exception: he is an “insider” who came to Christ, got trained, got ministry experience (he worked with street children in Brazil for several years), and came back to the culture he came from: that of the British/Scottish underclass. Today, church planting and revitalization in places like the schemes depends on cultural outsiders: middle class folks who are willing to be downwardly mobile for the gospel.

The goal of cultural outsiders must be to look for and train cultural insiders to carry on the work of the gospel. Reaching the poor for Christ cannot be done with a top-down, outside-in strategy. Ultimately it must be handled by the cultural indigenous: people who became Christians from within that specific community or scheme. This is a very long-term project. At Niddrie, the team Mez works with have made 20-year commitments to the work there. They live in the community, serve there, and over time, they are accepted and can effectively share the gospel there.

Principles …

  • We need to start throwing lots of money and our very best people at ministry to the poorest. Christians need to aspire to move down the social ladder for the sake of the gospel, not up it.
  • “Iatrogenesis”: a word coined by Ivan Ilych to describe the process where leaders make everyone else think that they, and only they, can serve as leaders. This is very natural and very harmful. All Christians should be trained to serve/lead, and should seek to serve/lead. That’s how the gospel grows.
  • Thanks to a combination of factors, mercy ministry is very much in vogue today. But much of it is “malevolent generosity” and “crippling paternalism”. There is a soup kitchen mentality, where we continually give handouts to people who continually take advantage and pretend to be grateful. There is nothing sadder than a regular at a soup kitchen. The goal must be to help people out of their current situation, to where they can work and serve others. We should stop measuring success by mouths fed or tracts distributed.
  • Most churches that engage in mercy ministry have absolutely no plan for when someone comes to Christ from a hard background. They must be prepared for works of service! Help -> Conversion -> Discipleship -> Maturity -> Leadership. They must be challenged to help themselves and help others: to bear good fruit! Therefore, have a plan before you open your doors!

Suggestions …

  • In leader training, make a conscious effort to overcome cultural barriers. All material is currently written by “cultural outsiders” for other cultural outsiders. It must be rewritten for cultural insiders.
  • Lead from beside and behind, not just from in front. Unleash new converts early. Example: Tasha, running a Bible study within 2 months of her conversion (with a mature Christian woman in the room to help her). Think of leading as shadowing.
  • Think of leadership development as shadowing rather than as reading. Don’t confuse education with intelligence. When developing leaders from this kind of background, the “cream” doesn’t always rise to the top: no culture of achievement/competition in place. Instead, think of it as diamond mining: you have to dig and dig to get to the gems.
  • We must celebrate and build a culture of failure in our ministries. Why is everyone so afraid of failure? God’s in charge: get a grip! If you’re failing, it means you’re trying – and that’s what you need to do!
  • We must repent for our lack of faith. The fields really are white with harvest. The Lord will give a harvest. 
  • We must be sure we understand people’s language; their ways of communicating. In Acts 2 Pentecost reverses Babylon, and makes it possible for people to understand each other – even from different countries and social backgrounds.
  • Cross-cultural exposure is absolutely essential for leadership development. Going to Brazil was the best thing that could have happened to Mez. He likes to send his own trainees (people from the schemes) to visit middle class churches – and forbids them from criticizing!
  • You must be able to come and love the community as it is, rather than seeing it as something to “fix”. 
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of the culture you’re trying to reach – and the strengths and weaknesses of your own culture. 
  • Observe, don’t assume. Don’t bring “Christian” cultural values with you. 
  • We must work hard at delivering systematic theology in ways that are relevant to each cultural context. 

Phew. Obviously, there’s lots to talk about in here. All of this could have been greatly expanded – I would have appreciated it.

I’m not going to give a big “here’s how we do this in Providence” analysis, but I will say a few things. First, there’s lots of transfer between the situation in the UK and the situation in New England. The numbers on Christians in the two places are similar, and in each place there’s lots of hand-wringing and despair over “reaching people”. Second, people from the beaten-up bottom of society are far more ready to talk about God and hear the gospel than well fed middle class folks. Third, most mercy ministry is a farce. We have been extraordinarily blessed in our church in that respect. Fourth and by far the most important point, something that I didn’t mention above: the most important thing we can do, ever, is pray. Pray for the people in our lives, but also “pray to the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers for the harvest”. Mez said his church has had a prayer meeting every morning from 6-8am for years. There are no gimmicks or tricks. Either the Lord saves and changes people, or he doesn’t. If you want him to do so, and want him to include you in his work, pray for those things.

What “Progress”?

In the Reformed theological tradition we believe that God not only justifies us (declares us guiltless and righteous); he also sanctifies us (literally “makes us holy” – makes us actually better people than we have been – transforms us).

There is a little bit of debate on whether sanctification is “definitive” or “progressive”. The term “definitive sanctification” was coined, I think, by John Murray of Westminster Seminary in the mid-20th century, so it is pretty recent. But by this term Murray focuses on the way Scripture often uses the terminology of holiness: “but you were sanctified“, etc. Holiness is not something we only gradually attain; it is something God has given us once and for all, through Christ. And Murray is right.

On the other hand, Reformed students of Scripture have long talked about sanctification as a process – “progressive sanctification”, by which God changes us gradually, so that we die to our fleshly desires and sins, and are made alive to the presence of Christ’s Spirit in us. This is the clear teaching of the Westminster Confession, the most important Reformed confession of faith in English:

I. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

II. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

III. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

I love the way the Confession talks about Sanctification. But I don’t love the phrase, “Progressive Sanctification.” I do believe that we can gain true victory over specific sin patterns. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes after a long, hard slog.

But perhaps the most flashy sins – the ones others see and shudder at – are not always the deepest and deadliest sins. A man may lay aside sexual sin or drugs but become deeply embroiled in pride. Has he progressed?

A second issue is that of “backsliding” or “regress”. I feel myself to be in a period of spiritual neglect or decline, and repent and take stock: perhaps I have been giving my anger its head, or feeling sorry for myself, or lying to others, or spending my money stupidly. These were a problem two years ago; I made some “progress” but have now “backslidden”. Am I truly “back where I was” two years ago? Am I better off? Worse? Can anyone but the Omniscient answer these questions? I can’t, and I’m damn sure you can’t.

The concept of “progress” in sanctification is helpful in the sense that it gives hope for the defeat of sin, but it is not necessarily very biblical and it has enough of a modern scent that we should be cautious if not downright suspicious.

While the Bible certainly talks about journeys and pilgrimages, it spends more time talking about dwelling, feasting, and looking. Moses enters the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Yahweh: he emerges with his face shining. The sparrows that nest in the eves of the Temple are luckier than us pilgrims. Travelers can make “the valley of tears” into a spring precisely because they are heading to “the shouts, the songs, the crowds, the feast!” Settle in the land, dwell in it continually. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter.

Perhaps it would be better to think about sanctification as a series of pilgrimages, a perennial taking stock and realizing that we’re still in Ur and not in Canaan. I need, need to sit again at the feet of the Master. Better, I need to see again his cross and his empty tomb.

There is a little bit of a broader principle at work in this talk of “progress” as well. Progress suggests a long but basically straightforward path: to triumph, to knowledge, to power, to salvation. This is patently false and naive. In response, we could listen to postmodernity’s counsel of despair, and believe that knowledge and action are alike circular: I am doomed to know and do what I have always known and done. Or we can exercise patience. As there is a “hermeneutical spiral”, by which we slowly, by encountering and re-encountering the object of our study, come to set aside our biases and come to know it, so there is a “sanctificational spiral”, by which we encounter again and again the beautiful Cross, and each time, we come away changed. The change will be deeper, probably, than conscious thought or habit, but it will be irreversible.

I think T. S. Eliot got this. From “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Or, from “The Journey of the Magi”, after the Magi have found the place beneath the star:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

My sanctification is not a matter of journeying ever onward, stumbling back along the track, forward again, and so on. It is a matter of having seen the place, perhaps from afar, and returning again and again. My gracious Lord does not leave me in the desert always. He gives me living Water and Bread to drink, Light to see by, and Rest.

All Saints Worship: the Prayers

This little essay starts with an uneasy feeling. I have always been uncomfortable, when running a worship service, asking for the offering (“our tithes, offerings, and alms”) – though not for the same reasons some people are. From time to time I hear critiques of tithing during worship on the grounds of the regulative principle of worship (the idea that whatever is not explicitly commanded to be done in worship by the New Testament must be forbidden). There is no obvious instruction to tithe during worship, so it should be left out. If tithing is to happen, it should happen in some other way, perhaps with a “tithe box” set near the entrance of the worship room (don’t call it a sanctuary!).

I think there are problems with that critique, notably Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth to set aside their offering for Jerusalem when they gathered on the first day of the week (what do you think they were doing together on the first day of the week?!), but in any case, the regulative principle is not the reason I felt uncomfortable calling for the offering. Nor was the question of whether a tithe per se (a tenth of all income) is explicitly commanded in the New Testament (interestingly most people who would like to go to a tithe box don’t seem to have a problem with the concept of “tithing” carrying over from the Old Testament). No: my problem was that it felt like exacting a fee for my services. In my small church the bulk of the budget goes to paying the pastor (me) and it just feels awkward to ask for an offering that will mostly go to, er, me.

I am starting to think that this discomfort of mine betrays a wrong way of thinking about worship altogether. I still have questions (legitimate ones, I think) about how best to compensate pastors, but they are not the issue here. The issue is: who is performing the liturgy? Put another way: is worship a one-man (or two- or three-man) show? If I am the one doing the work, and everyone else is the “audience,” then the offering is payment for services rendered.

Some recent reading has helped me get a better answer to this question. A friend loaned me The Shape of the Liturgy, by Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk. Published in the 1940s, Dix does the remarkable service of tracing the history of Christian liturgy from its earliest discernible days, through the Reformation and beyond. Dix claims that very, very early, two basic types of closely related worship services (liturgies) can be found: the Synaxis (“meeting”) and the Eucharist (“thanksgiving”). The Synaxis was close to our concept of a worship service: psalms, prayers, and a sermon by the pastor. The Eucharist was, of course, the celebration of Communion, and was normally preceded by all the elements of the Synaxis. What struck me is what Dix says about the Synaxis:

The original unchanging outline of the christian synaxis everywhere was as follows:

1. Opening greeting by the officiant and reply of the church.

2. Lesson.

3. Psalmody

4. Lesson (or Lessons, separated by Psalmody).

5. Sermon.

6. Dismissal of those who did not belong to the church.

7. Prayers.

8. Dismissal of the church.

(9. On occasions a collection for the poor, the expenses of the church, etc., was made. But this was rather a separate duty of church life, which might for convenience be performed at the ‘meeting’, than a part of the synaxis itself.) (Dix, 38)

Notice that there is no prayer until non-members have been dismissed. Further, the doors would be barred! Why is that? The church took it as deadly serious that only baptized Christians have the right to come before the Father in prayer. Further, Dix’s description of what the “prayers” were like seems closer to the intimacy of a prayer meeting than like the formal “pastoral prayer” I and other pastors offer up on Sunday mornings. While there was variation, a common pattern was for a deacon to “call” the prayers. “Pray for the peace of this city, our province, and the empire,” he might command. Then the congregation would spend some time in silent or whispered prayer. Finally the bishop would close that portion of the prayers by praying for the same things. The deacon would announce another area of need: the harvest, the sick, the church in other places, etc., and the pattern would repeat. African Christians seem to practice a louder version of the same: simultaneous prayer by the congregation, concluded by the solo voice of an elder.

To summarize: only baptized Christians may pray, corporate worship is the preeminent place for prayer, and in corporate worship all baptized Christians are to pray! Dix believes that losing this has led to the bifurcation of private and public devotion (with a bigger emphasis, today, on the potency of private devotion, at least for the laity):

If the truth be told, many of the more devout of our laity have come to suppose that intercession is a function of prayer better discharged in private than by liturgical prayer of any kind, so unsatisfying is the share which our practice allows them. The notion of the priestly prayer of the whole church, as the prayer of Christ the world’s Mediator through His Body, being ‘that which makes the world to stand’, in the phrase of an early christian writer, has been banished form the understanding of our laity. Their stifled instinct that they, too, have a a more effective part to play in intercession than listening to someone else praying, drives them to substitute private and solitary intercession fro the prayer of the church as the really effective way of prayer, instead of regarding their private prayer as deriving its effectiveness form their membership of the church … Our own [method of prayer] is the product of that excessive clericalism of the later middle ages … Then and now its result upon the devout laity is to provoke an excessively individualistic conception of personal prayer. (45-46)

Wow. It makes sense. This feels like painting a historic house what you assume to be its original color, then realizing that you have to scrape off all the wallpaper and paint (including yours) in order to find out what it was really like. If Dix is right and this is the general pattern of worship of the early church then some things fall into place for me. Growing up in an excellent Reformed church, under the leadership of an excellent pastor, I appreciated morning worship (the best sermon), but loved evening worship, which was smaller and more “informal” and allowed the congregation to participate in prayer and request psalms. When studying for the ministry I discovered that evening worship is the red-headed stepchild of the conservative Reformed churches. It feels informal (disorderly!) and often allows women to pray during the service (which drives the regulative principle guys nuts), but congregations hate to give it up: it clearly scratches an important itch. Lo and behold, the churches and denominations that disparage congregational participation the most also tend to have the loftiest view of clerical status.

“Informal” evening worship as it is often practiced and the historic Synaxis elevate the office of the laity, both by calling for active participation and by excluding non-Christians (formally in the Synaxis, informally in evening worship – far fewer visitors seem to attend evening worship than morning worship). The answer to my earlier questions is that the whole church is at work – actively – in worship. Only Christians can (properly speaking) pray, and all Christians must pray.

And we haven’t even gotten to the offering yet – or the role of women in worship! Stay tuned.

What we should have remembered all along

In the West, but especially in the United States, a cultural revolution took place in the late 20th century. Their foundations long eaten away, older ways of living have largely collapsed. We see this most obviously in the arena of the family. Abortion, unwed mothering, irresponsible fathering, normalization of cohabitation and fornication, divorce, and now same-sex marriage.

Christians have reacted in multiple ways. The organization by Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority marked the rise of the Christian Right. I’m not sure anyone thinks the Christian Right is very strong anymore. A recent article by Wesley Hill describes a remarkable shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among evangelical Christians. A few years ago only 11% approved, now 24% do.

The Protestant establishment has petered out. Nothing recognizably Christian is left in its place. Although the institutions it created (universities, federal and state governments) remain.

One valuable gift of the late-20th century revolution to Christendom is that believing Christians no longer think that their interests are coterminous with the interests of the dominant culture. A clear indicator of that is the rise of Christian education. When public education was created in the 1850s and strengthened in the 1920s, it was Protestant public education. Catholic schools were started in order to offer a safe haven to people who felt uncomfortable in the public schools. Until pretty recently, public schools felt like safe and more or less competent caregivers for the children of Christian families. No more. The explosion of Christian schools, starting in the 1970s, and the even more significant explosion of homeschooling since the 1980s, demonstrates this.

The challenge now will be for Christians to learn how to live with tension between “us” and “them”. The Christian Right (and for the most part, the Christian school and homeschooling movements) reacted by withdrawing and fighting. The Christian Left – which is ascendant, especially among Millennials – reacts by throwing down the vestiges of difference, and posturing as a kinder, gentler, Jesus-tinted version of the culture it is living within.

Both of these have points to make, but neither is an acceptable way of living in the world in the long run. We must live with difference, with being a counterculture. Yet our counterculture must be a loving and self-sacrificial one. We live, as Jonathan Haidt might have it, as people with a moral matrix centered on divinity, in the context of a culture whose moral matrix is centered on avoidance of harm. Yet our Divinity is one that entered into human life and gave up His life for his enemies.
We have to live the life we should have lived all along. A life in the midst of enemies, who may like us or may turn on us. A life in which we build but don’t cry too hard when our buildings are knocked down. A life in which we plant and don’t stop when our tomatoes are stolen. A life in which we pray for the Shalom of those around us. Not so that they’ll like us and accept us, but because we are patiently awaiting the action of our Sovereign on our behalf.

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