2009-11-30

A Camaro with the License Plate "Allah"

[not an actual picture of car, but one just like it]

So, I'm coming out of the coffee shop, and I see behind us: A Candy apple red 1992 camaro with personalized license plate "ALLAH". No kidding. Apparently God rolls In a muscle car…

So, my buddy Bret says "Perhaps Western Capitalism is wearing down even Muslim extremists? After all, it is a very enticing idol."

That got me thinking…

This raises a great irony for me. On one hand, societies that are [nominally] "Christian" have been the ones who are the largest exporters of colonialism and consumerism. Both of which are explicitly condemned by Christ, who, by the way, is the God who "emptied himself", became a slave, and was crucified [cf. Phil 2.]. In short, Christ, even though perfectly obedient, was spectacularly "unsuccessful" in consumer terms. So, the basis of our "Christian worldview"- Christ Himself- is in fact antithetical to the social system it is used to uphold.

However, on the other hand, in Islam, God remains ever-transcendent, never enters into human affairs directly, and explicitly promises material prosperity in return for obedience to Quran. Furthermore, the life of Muhammed (PBUH) and his early followers shows that Islam can be rightly spread "at sword point" to unwilling peoples. So, Islam would seem to be the perfect divine under-writing for both colonialism and consumerism. And yet, extreme Muslims, whatever else their faults may be, at least are able to identify and decry the sickness in postmodern Western consumer society.

Now this is what I call a paradox.

But, as Bret noted, perhaps this paradox is shrinking away under the commodifying leer of the consumer monster.

2009-11-07

FOR ALL THE SAINTS


A Sermon For All Saints, Year ABC
Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian

I bring good news from the fabled land beyond Perkins, beyond midterms, beyond papers, beyond Credos, beyond internship, and even beyond graduation: There is light at the end of the tunnel my brothers and sisters!

If I made it through, you can too! Really… Ask my professors. And I made it through with my sanity intact. Sort of. Well, I did made it through.

Anyway…

Today we come together to celebrate that rare and elusive creature in Christian culture: The Saint. Or, to be more exact, all Saints. Every single one of them.

In fact, you could say that today we come together to celebrate those who stand at a far bigger podium and say to us:

"We bring good news from the fabled land beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond trials, and even beyond tribulations: There is Light at the end of the tunnel brothers and sisters!

And if we made it through, you can too!"

In fact, in the readings for our Feast Day in the Revised Common Lectionary, I think we find this theme woven throughout the texts: The idea that there IS hope, there IS something beyond the struggles we face now... There IS a final "graduation", so to speak.

Whatever else may be said about our reading from Revelation- and there is A LOT that could be said- it is clear that the author wants to assure us that those who live AND die in Christ will have a place with God and all the saints.

A place where God, in all of God's fullness, will finally be at home among humanity, dwelling with the saints forever, as God "wipes every tear from their eyes" so that "death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

And whatever else may be said about the Gospel reading from John- and there is A LOT that could be said there too- it is clear that John wants to show us that Jesus has the power to assure us of this hope.

Jesus is revealed as the embodiment of the Love that is stronger than death, a Love that can literally summon the dead back to life. Jesus is the one who makes concrete, tangible, and accessible this hope for something beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond "normal" life.

And while this hope for our final "graduation" is all good, and true, and beautiful, I think it misses something important to our celebration of All Saints. Because Saints are not just a kind of "down payment" for an eventual life with Christ BEYOND this life.

Even more importantly, Saints are an invitation to Christ-likeness in THIS life.

Saints are notorious examples of conspicuous sanctity. Saints show us glimpses of what can happen when Jesus really takes hold in a person, and the Christ-life begins to take over.

Above all, Saints are lovers. Passionate lovers. Head over heels lovers. People crazy in love with God, and crazy to share God's Love with everyone they can.

Can you imagine what would really happen if the all-consuming Love of God were to burn within your heart?

Can you imagine what it might be like if the Life that brought Lazarus back from the dead began to resurrect the dead parts of your life?

Can you imagine what might happen if Jesus were to look straight into YOUR face and speak the words "Unbind her, and let her go!"

Well, if you can imagine such a thing, I confess your imagination is a bit bigger than mine. Because I can't imagine it. Not on my own.

But saints help with that. What I cannot imagine, God can. And what God imagines, God does. And I see THAT in the lives of the great Saints- those women and men who have burned with the passion of Christ's undying Love.

Most of us here know that, in one sense, we are all saints. Saints with a small "s". Scripture and Christian tradition says that all of God's people are "set apart", "consecrated", "sanctified", and "made holy". And that is what saint means: A set apart, sanctified, consecrated, holy one of God.

But, unless we are blind, it is clear to see that some of us are better at living into this than others. All God's children are saints with a small "s", but we recognize those who are exceptionally Christlike with a capital "S".

It is these men and women- these Saints with a capital "S"- who claim our imagination, as we try to envision what the Christ-life looks like lived out.

In fact, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Saint is actually CS Lewis' definition of what a Christian is. For Lewis, a Christian is a Christ-ian, a little christ, a little embodiment of the Divine Life that lives in Jesus. A Saint is a little christ.

A Saint is not primarily someone who does miracles and healings, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint is not primarily a theologian who plumbs the depths of scholarly knowledge, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint is not even primarily a mystic who climbs the heights of visionary ecstasy, although many saints have, while many more have not.

A Saint IS primarily a living embodiment of Love, a little christ who re-presents the Christ-life to the world.

Have you ever seen someone whose eyes radiate God's Light with every glance? Who exuded Love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and kindness and faith and humility and wisdom with every deed? That was a Saint.

Have you ever been around someone whose very presence assured you that God does indeed Love you and can use you, no matter how many flaws and foibles you have? That was a Saint.

Have you ever read a writer who did all of these things? A writer whose words leapt off of the page, causing you to imagine new possibilities of how this Christ-life can infect our lives, our churches, our communities, and our world? That was a Saint.

We tend to think of Saints as lofty and unapproachable and incredibly impractical. But I believe that the actual purpose of Saints in God's plan is humble and approachable and completely practical.

In fact, I believe Saints are a remedy for some of our most besetting sins in the Church, and in the Seminary.

And here is why: We like ideas and plans and programs and property and power. No, let me be honest. I like ideas and plans and programs and property and power.

And when I hear of "sanctity" and "holiness" and becoming a "little christ", the first thing I want to do is turn it into a study committee. Let's get together and come up with the ten main ideas about what it means to be holy.

That's step one. Step two is that we create a plan. How do we accomplish these ten concepts? What are our objectives? What are our benchmarks?

Step three: Let's create a program to accomplish it, complete with steps that rhyme, and some acronyms to boot.

Step four: Let's brand it and market it.

Step five: Let's get property and infrastructure to support the business model.

Step six: Let's clarify a contract to define who is "in" and who is "out" of our program, and make sure the power structure is clear.

Step seven: Let's fight each other over the concept, the brand, the program, the power, and above all the property.

Step eight: Let's sue each other. In Christ's Name, of course.

Sound familiar?

I know that was horribly reductionistic and completely unfair. But something LIKE this often happens, on the Right, on the Left, in the High Church, in the Low Church.

It has happened, and is happening, and will happen, anytime we reduce holiness to checklists and ideologies and loose sight of authentic holiness embodied in Christ and his Saints.

This is because it is easy to make holiness into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical. And, as any Biblical scholar can tell you, it is also easy to make Christ into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical.

I personally love the abstract and theoretical. I love ideas and systems. But Saints stand before us as actual, definite, practical witnesses of what holiness looks and feels like.

What we need, is to see Jesus with skin on. We need to feel Love embodied. That's where Saints come in.

So Saints are embarrassingly concrete embodiments of what it means to be holy, of what it means to live God's Love.

Saints are the ones who can speak Truth to power, and minister Healing to pain. Saints remind us that our life in God cannot be formulated into a simplistic plan, nor turned into some perfect program.

Saints show us that life in Christ is messy yet magnificent, and there is no shortcut, no express elevator, no inside route to holiness. The only Way to Holiness is the Way of Christ, the Way of becoming a little christ.

In fact, I wonder what would happen if we applied this definition of sainthood to everything we do in the Name of Christ.

What if we judged everything we do as Christians by whether or not it produces saints, whether or not it creates little christs?

Do our methods of reading and explaining the Bible produce saints?

Do our doctrines and doctrinal systems create little christs?

Does our teaching and preaching and catechizing draw us into Christ or make us less Christlike?

Do our liturgies and spiritual practices encourage us to live out God's Love?

Do our efforts at outreach and programs for Social Justice create Christlike communities?

Do our leadership structures facilitate or hinder saint production?

Do our controversies and squabbles and infighting produce holiness?

What if passionate, Christlike holiness was the key criteria for how we did everything as Christians. What might change?

[Pause]

At this point I want to quote at length the best sermon I have ever read about saints by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. Although I disagree with him on many things, about the Saints we are in complete agreement:

"The deepest reason why the Church is weak, and the world is dying, is that there are not enough saints... No, that's not quite honest. The reason is that WE are not saints.

Can you imagine what ten more Mother Teresas would do for this world? Or ten more John Wesleys? No, you can't imagine it, any more than you could imagine how twelve nice Jewish boys could conquer the Roman Empire.

You can't imagine it. But you CAN do it. You CAN become a saint. Absolutely no one and nothing can stop you. It's your totally free choice…

If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one, and only one reason why you are not, even now, as saintly as the primitive Christians: You do not wholly WANT to be.


That insight is terrible because it is an indictment, but at the same time it is wonderful and hopeful because it is also an offer, an open door. Each of us can become a saint. We really CAN. We REALLY can.

I say it three times because I think we do not really believe it. For if we did, how could we endure being anything less?

...The human soul is a tube, like a tunnel connecting two places, heaven and earth. If the tube is open and empty and hungry on the heavenly end, to suck grace in, then and only then will the tube be full like a cornucopia on the earthly end to pour grace out.

[An] American Catholic bishop [once] commissioned one of the priests of his diocese to write up recommendations for ways to increase the number of [people] seeking to fulfill a clerical vocation.

The priest was young, but wise and holy. He concluded his report this way: "The best way to attract [people] in this diocese to the priesthood, Your Excellency, would be your canonization."

When we see a saint, we know the purpose of our own lives. Saints reproduce themselves simply by being what they are.

So why can't you be canonized- become a saint?

...It's embarrassingly simple. We have been promised, by God incarnate, that all who seek, find. In other words, "just say yes," "just DO it".

It's infinitely simple, and that's why it's hard. The hard part in the formula "just say yes" is the first word: "just". We are comfortable with Christ AND ourselves, or Christ AND our theology, or Christ AND our psychology, or Christ AND our country, or Christ AND our politics, or Christ AND culture, or [even] Christ AND counterculture;

But just plain Christ, Christ drunk straight and not mixed, is far too dangerous for us." [Peter Kreeft, How To Win The Culture War, pages 102-106]

So says Peter Kreeft. But is he right? IS just plain Christ too dangerous for us? Are we ready for Christ, the whole Christ, to infect us with His Divine Life and turn us into little christs?

We are about to approach His table once again, to partake in an ancient ritual, where we encounter this Christ in the breaking of the bread, and the drinking of the cup.

We are literally invited to the banquet table with Jesus, to drink him straight and un-mixed. With our bodies, with our mouths and our lips, with our hearts and our minds, we get to literally invite Christ once again to fill us with God's life.

Christ's invitation is here for you. He invites you to become a saint, a Christ-ian, a little christ. His invitation always stands, and never changes.

What about you? As you come forward to partake in this Holy Communion, and share in Christ's life, what is YOUR invitation to him? Amen+

[Silence]

AFFIRMATION: And now, with saints who have gone before, saints who stand with us now, and saints yet to come, let us affirm together the faith of the Church by using the words of the Nicene Creed…

What does it mean to be human?


A Sermon For Year B, Proper 22
Copyright © 2008 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-9


What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman or a man who is made in the image of God?

When biology explains the origin and function of our physical bodies; When psychology describes the workings of our minds; When consumerism is used to manipulate our behavior and buying patterns: What is left of being human?

Is there anything special to our existence? Anything that separates us from beasts or birds or rocks or molecules or corporations?

You see, we live in a world that is often reductionistic. It is our habit, for some centuries now, to reduce human life to "nothing but".

We've all heard it before. We are nothing but the products of our environment. Or nothing but our genetics. Or nothing but how we are raised. Or nothing but electro-chemical reactions in our brains. Or nothing but a reflection of cultural expectations.

Often the people who tell us this are well meaning. They are people who have studied human life long and hard. And they finally think they have THE KEY to understanding who we are, and what it means to be human.

So they share THE KEY with us, in hopes that it will make life understandable, manageable, and predictable. And, let's be honest: Who among us would not like life better, if we could understand what is going on just a little bit more?

But, we are now several centuries into the quest of science to exhaustively explain what it means to be human. Thousands of theories of "nothing but" have come and past. And we are still as confused as ever.


We can never say exactly why one child turns into an Adolf Hitler, and another child turns into a Mother Teresa. We stand perplexed by people who have everything and fail, while others have nothing, and succeed.

And we just can't seem to scientifically create the perfect society full of virtuous people, free of tragedy and oppression. If anything, after a century of two world wars, dozens of genocides, and countless disasters, we seem more confused than ever.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think science is a great thing. I like modern medical care, and refrigeration, and flush toilets, and cell phones. Science has told us a great deal about how we work, and how to fix us.

But science just doesn't have the tools to tell us WHY we are here. Reductionism, nothing-but-ism, cannot seem to reduce the complexity of WHO we are.

Science may be able to tell us a great deal about HOW we got here. It can tell us of big bangs, and origins of species, and mechanisms for biological change over time.

But knowing our origins does not tell us our destiny. Knowing how does not mean knowing why. Knowing what does not mean knowing who. And all of the science in the world is not able to answer the question "Why is there something instead of nothing"?

Of course, poets and prophets have been prattling on about this for millennia. They have been telling us that humans can observe and explain everything, except ourselves. They have been preaching that there is more to life than meets the eye.

But poets and prophets are a strange lot, so we tend to ignore them if possible. As a result we often get into cultural wars of "either-or". Either science or spirituality. Either reason or faith. Either we are explained away as "nothing but" or we are not explained at all.

But it isn't just the occasional oddball who says that there is more to human nature than meets the reductionistic eye. Not a few scientists have said the same thing.

It was no one less than Physicist Albert Einstein who said "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind". And it was Blaise Pascal, the inventor of calculus- thanks Blaise!- who said "The heart has reasons that reason cannot know".

And they are just two of a steadily growing voice across history that has said that human life is NOT reductionistic. It is not "either-or". Rather, it is "both-and". We know what it means to be human by BOTH science AND spirituality, BOTH reason AND faith.

They complete one another. They are two sides of the same coin. Two dimensions of the same reality.

And it is this "both-and" understanding that allows us to listen to Scriptures like our readings today, to find out about what it means to be human. Because we believe that in them, God breaks through into our world to tell us things about ourselves, that we cannot learn by our own observation, no matter how scientific.

In the Creation poem that is written one chapter before our Genesis reading today, we hear the divinely inspired poet tell us that God said:

“Let us make humanity in our image… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

This God is spoken of in paradoxical and poetic ways as a Divine Person who speaks a Word of Creation, and then forms chaos into order through the work of God's Breath, the Divine Spirit.

So this God is One Reality who exists in some sort of Community as Creator, and Word, and Breath of God. This God speaks as a Community and says "Let US create humanity in OUR image". And then when humanity is created, we are created as community: As male and female together, sharing in the image of God.

This paradox of the One God in Community is made clearer through the experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the early Church. This eventually came to be known as the Trinity: The One God who exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing in each other's Love for all eternity.

So when God breaks into history to tell us about what it means to be human, it turns out that our human nature is actually a picture of God's nature. And God is Love, shared between the Creator, the creative Word, and the Breath of God.

And that's where we are at when we get to the second Creation story of Genesis, which we read today. It is this story that tells us about woman as a "helper" to man, and about how they become one flesh.

And immediately following this, we hear the passage from Mark, in which Jesus gives commentary on the same text, using it as the basis for his teaching on the tragedy of divorce.

Now, I speak to you today as someone who has gone through divorce, both as a child of divorced parents and grandparents, and as someone who has been married twice myself. I know from experience how difficult these texts can be on this issue. And I know that when these texts are read, the first thing I expect is a sermon on marriage, gender, and divorce.

But instead of this, I want to listen to what these texts have to say first and foremost about what it means to be human. Because I think it is only by understanding what it means to be human that we can begin to understand why our human relationships- whether they are marriage or friendship or any relationship that shares God's Love- why they are important.

So, the first thing we hear in our Genesis reading is that it is not good for the human to be alone. And this is weird, because after every day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God said: It is good… It is good… It is good.

Now, suddenly, something is not good. Something is not complete. Something is missing. The question is: Why? Why is it not good?

It is not good because humans were made for community. They were made to be images of the God who IS Love and shares Love in community forever.

Our world often stresses that we are individuals first. We are individual consumers, with individual tastes and needs, and individual skills that we must use in the marketplace to maximize our value. We must individually find ourselves, and individually makes ourselves into who we want to be.

But Scripture begins with a fundamentally different starting point. It does not deny that we are individuals. In Genesis God calls individuals like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Hagar, and Rebekah.

But, God's revelation does not start with humans first as individuals, but with humans as community. And not just a community of people who are the same as each other. But as man and woman, a community of people fundamentally different from each other.

I know we are all used to it by now, but sit back and think about what a monumental difference that is. What bigger natural difference could there be than the average woman and the average man. We are shaped different. We think different. We communicate different. We operate on different biological clocks. We use the bathroom different.

And sometimes some of us forget to put the lid down when we're done.

Just think about it: Not only did God create us in God's image as a Community, but God created us as different kinds of persons bound inextricably in relationship with one another.

Our natural inclination is to think of our individual self first, and then only relate to people who are like us. But who we are is quite the opposite. We become who we are only in community, only by loving people who are different than we are.

And this fundamental difference between man and woman in the Genesis text is a metaphor for ALL the different ways there are to be human: Not only different genders, but different sizes, different ethnicities, different cultures, different skills, different ways of seeing and being in the world.

In fact, it turns out that communities of radically different persons joined together in Love reflects God's fullest intention for what it means to be human. By the time of the early Christian movement, we find Saint Paul writing things like this to the Church in Galatia:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

I often think of being in community with radically different people as a sort of "add on" to who I really am. Something I do to enrich and expand myself, like an extra-curricular activity.

Yet, when I reflect on the God who is Creator, and Word, and Spirit- the God who is a community of radically different persons joined in Love- I find that it is only in this kind of community that I find what it really means to be me.

When we enter into community with people who are different from us, we find that we become helpers to each other, just as the woman was a helper to the man in Genesis. Where one is weak, another is strong. Where one lacks, another has plenty.

Often when we hear that God will make a "helper as his partner" or "helper suitable to him", it is easy to think that the woman is being painted as somehow inferior to, and derivative to, the man.

But when you dive into the Hebrew vocabulary and ask "What does it really mean for the woman to be a helper?", you get a surprising answer. Because the word "helper" used here also refers to one other significant person in the Hebrew Bible.

That person is God.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible God is seen as the Helper who supports, fulfills, and completes human beings. Just as the Psalmist prays: "God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life."

When the poet calls woman a "helper" to man, it is actually a profound theological statement: She is one who completes God's image in humanity, as a supporter and full partner with man.

And again, looking at this through the eyes of the early Church, this role of helper becomes more than just a male-female thing. It becomes the role for all the radically different people who are joined in Love within the Church. In our differences, strengths, and weaknesses, we become helpers to each other. We fulfill the image of God in each other.

Again, Saint Paul- who never seems to be able to keep his mouth shut about this issue- devotes a whole chapter in his letter to the Corinthians explaining what it means to live as different members in the Body of Christ.


He talks about how we are all radically different, but one organism bound together by Christ's Spirit. He says things like: "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable", and "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

Different, yet one. Individuals, but only through community. Helpers, who support and complete and fulfill God's image in each other.

THIS is what it means to be human. THIS is what it means to bear God's image. THIS is why Jesus said things like "the two shall become one flesh", and Paul said things like "you are all members of one Body".

May we all become people who reflect the image of God by seeing God's image in one another. May we all help each other live into all the fullness of God's Life. And may we all remember that human destiny is joined forever with the God who is a community of Love. Amen+

JESUS AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE


Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon For Year B, Proper 12 BCP
Based on 2 Kings 2:1-15, Mark 6:45-52

So, were you REALLY listening to the Gospel Story that just got read today? Were you thinking about what was going on? Did you perhaps imagine what it was like to actually BE in that boat with the disciples, as Jesus came waltzing across the water?

I mean, do you even believe that Jesus could do such a thing? Walk on top of stormy seas without falling in?

I've known many folks who rationally dismiss the whole thing as pietistic propaganda. They say everyone knows that people simply do not walk across water. We don't have the buoyancy. We are a bit top heavy. We tend to sink.

And they lump this story in with just about every other miracle story as propaganda carefully crafted by the early Christians to get people to join the Church.

They believe that miracle stories, especially outrageous miracles like walking on water, are custom tailored to say "Look! My God is bigger than your God! NaNaNaNaNa!"

But I still believe in miracles. I have seen things that defy any attempt at purely rational explanation. I have seen lives healed, people delivered from bondage, and incredible interlocking events that cannot be accurately described by the word "coincidence".

I bet you have experienced events like that too. Miracles.

And, I even believe this miracle happened. I believe it because it doesn't read like propaganda. Propaganda is smooth, rational, carefully argued.

This story is not smooth, or rational, or carefully argued. This story is messy. In the verses before this story, Jesus just fed thousands of people with a handful of food. But, instead of resting- instead of basking in the glow of miraculous success- Jesus orders the disciples to hop in the boat and row to the other side of the lake.

And Jesus goes up to a mountain to pray.

Instead of staying for fame, publicity, and adoring crowds- which is what you would expect from propaganda- Jesus and his disciples leave.

That doesn't make sense. Not if you are interested in propaganda.

Then, with no one around except a boatful of scared, poor, ignorant fishermen- not the kind of people you want as star witnesses if you are testifying before the powers of the world- with no one around but them, Jesus does perhaps his most spectacular miracle.

He literally wills control over the laws of nature, and walks on water like a model walks on a fashion runway. If I was going to craft propaganda, I would do a much better job. I would write about Jesus doing miracles that astonished the powerful, the prosperous, and the important. But this Gospel does just the opposite.

I mean the disciples don't even GET what happens here. They think he is a ghost, a phantasm, an apparition. They are scared stiff. And when he does get in the boat and the storm ceases, they don't get that either. Their hearts are hard, impenetrable, and ignorant.

And it's not like Jesus is hiding anything here. Its all out on the table. When he says "Take heart! It is I!", what he literally says is "Be courageous! I AM!" I AM is the personal name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

That's an incredibly un-subtle way of saying Who he really is. He is I AM. He is God embodied. God undercover. God with us.

But nobody gets it. And that means, if it is propaganda, its really badly written propaganda. Because if there is one thing that propaganda is, it is clear. Propaganda tells you clearly what is good, what is bad, who is in, who is out, which is dark, and which is light.

But there are very few things in this Gospel that are that clear. It is as if someone has all these messy stories of what Jesus did and taught, and they throw them out there, and say: "Here's what I experienced. You decide what to do with it."

In fact, when I read the Gospel of Mark, more than any other Gospel, I get the feel of sitting at the breakfast table talking to my Grandmother, my Mamaw.

Mamaw had all these great stories. And she was old enough not to care what other folks thought of her stories, or of who she was. She just told it like she remembered it. Stream of consciousness. Interjecting whatever came to mind in the middle.

She would tell of what it was like to live in the Great Depression. She would talk of her daddy, the sheriff who rode on horseback in southern Arkansas.

She would talk of being married to a bootlegger during prohibition. She could talk of making ammunition in World War II, of going through desegregation in the 1960's, and of the time she was convinced that the Russians were attacking Little Rock.

And by telling those stories, Mamaw made sense of her life. She shared what she learned, and who she was.

Were all of her stories completely accurate and delivered with scientific precision? Heck no. But were they still true? Did they still happen? Did they still shape the identity of this incredibly interesting person, and her often quirky family? Yes and Yes.

When I read Mark I get this same sense. Its almost as if someone pulled up a chair to the breakfast table with an elderly Peter, or one of the early disciples, and said: "Tell me about how it all started. What was Jesus like?"

And these experiences and stories just pour out…

"Well, there was this time we didn't have no food, and Jesus, he wanted to feed the whole crowd! And we didn't know what to do, till Jesus blessed some bread and fish, and fed the whole bunch of 'em.

"To my dying day, I will never figure out how he did that. Then I tell you what. That man told us to leave right then, and meet him on the other side of the lake. And Jesus did that thing he always did, where he went up on a hilltop and prayed.

"And like it always did, that ol' wind kicked up somethin' fierce. And that's when we saw him. Just strollin' across that ol' lake.

"Only we didn't know it was him at first. I thought it was a ghost. Andrew thought it was an angel. Then we heard that voice say 'Be Courageous! I AM!' Now what kinda person says 'I AM'. Hmmm.

"Then he got up in that boat and everything calmed down. Jesus had a way a' doin' that, y'know. Then we went right on to the other side, where, wouldn't you know it, there were a bunch a sick folks and crazy folks and…"

Have you ever read the Gospels like that? Like you are sitting at the breakfast table with an old friend who is telling stories? Have you ever imagined yourself in the stories, as a participant?

I have this bad habit when I read the Bible, and you may have it too. So, I will share it with you. You see, I often read the Bible to try and prove something. Prove I'm right. Prove someone else is wrong. So, I dissect it and rip it apart until I find just the right piece of evidence to support my case.

Then there are other folks who do the same thing to prove they are right too. And then there's a whole different group of folks who read the Bible in the same way- picking it apart- to try and prove the Bible itself is wrong.

So the Bible gets used like propaganda, to be proven or disproven as it is collected and categorized and analyzed and dissected. No wonder there are so many folks out there who are scared of the Bible and want nothing to do with it. Folks like me have a tendency to use the Bible in a scary way.

But what if that's not the point of the Bible? What if the point is to invite us into IMAGINE ourselves in a story: The Story of a God who enters into History and calls us to Love him and Love each other? What if the key to understanding the Bible is first and foremost our imagination, long before we do any rationalization?

Or, let's look at the same issue from a completely different perspective:

What kind of stories do YOU like telling over the breakfast table? What kind of stories bring a sparkle to your eye and life to your soul? What kind of stories do you get so wrapped up in that you loose time?

Here's the beginning of some stories that no one enjoys telling or hearing:

"When I met this person, and I could tell from the way they looked exactly what kind of person they were. And you know what, I was right!" Or...

"Well, let me tell you about the time I accomplished my five year plan with pinpoint accuracy!" Or...

"Here is how I make sure nothing unexpected ever happens in my life…"

Think about it: What is the most unsatisfying kind of movie to watch? What is the most boring book to read?

The kind where you know exactly what is going to happen from the very beginning. We are shaped by God to dislike stories that are predictable, punctual, planned, formulaic, and prosaic.

We crave drama, difference, distinctiveness. This is because we are created in the image of a God who does amazing, unpredictable things, like entering into His own creation and walking on water.

So why do we treat the Bible, and religion, and spirituality in a way that is predictable, punctual, planned, formulaic, and prosaic. Why do we insist on God fitting nicely into our pre-made boxes?

Now, do not get me wrong. I also believe that God made us as planners and thinkers and rational beings too. God created the world with order and structure and purpose.

Its just that in our culture, it is easy to loose the amazing, creative, unpredictable side of our life in Christ to the rote, routine, and reasonable side of life.

For example. Here is my cell phone. On this phone, I have my plans and appointments for the next two years. I also have all of my family's plans, all of our play dates, all of our sports games. I have contact information, phone numbers, and emails for all of the people in my professional and personal life.

I have five email addresses I can check. I have facebook. I have twitter. I have text messages. I have voice notes. I have a camera. I have the Bible in 30 translations. I have the Book of Common Prayer. I have internet, newspapers, files, documents, and much more.

This does not count all of the planning and preparation and paperwork on my computer, at my jobs, at home, in the mailbox, and scattered in my car. Multiply that for my wife and life gets very complex, very quickly.

And I say all of that because I know most of us in this place face similar levels of pre-planned complexity in our own lives. In fact, I know of people from Junior High age, up to well past retirement, who I would consider much busier than me.

And I think it can all take a toll on our life with God. We can have so many good things in our life- legitimately good gifts given to us by God- that we allow them to squeeze out what is best. We allow what is good to squeeze out what is God.

And not only that, but we allow it to squeeze out our sense of awe, mystery, and meaning in life. We allow it to squeeze out relationships. I know the times are few and far between, that I am able to just sit and BE with someone, and enter into their stories.

I know that if Jesus walked across the water right now, I would probably miss it because I would be too busy checking my email. I know that if God were to send flaming chariots from heaven right now, I would probably miss it because I was worried about getting to my next appointment on time.

Are you in the same place?

How long has it been since you took time to sit with God and enter into God's Story? How long has it been since you made space in your life for God to do something miraculous and awe inspiring?

How long has it been since you have watched for Jesus to walk into your life, across the troubled waves of anxiety and scheduling and responsibilities and requirements and paying the bills?

We all have to plan. We all have to structure our lives so they work. We are all busy. And much of that cannot be changed.

But we can carve out a space to sit with God at the breakfast table and listen to God's Story. We can come to Scripture without an agenda to make it say what we want, and instead imagine ourselves WITHIN the Story it tells.

We can make time to just BE with God for a while: To be a human BEING rather than just a human DOING.

And that is my prayer for us all. I pray we would make space in our lives for God to do something amazing and miraculous. I pray that in the midst of all our DOING we would remember we are human BEINGS made in God's image to live life with God. I pray that we would find Jesus telling stories at our breakfast table. Amen+

Trust Jesus to Touch You


A Sermon for Year B, Proper 9. Based on Mark 6:1-13
By Nathan L. Bostian

Now, I do not know about you, but if I walked into a hospital chapel, and heard that reading from Mark, I would be wondering something. I would be asking questions. I might even be scratching my head.

Because a hospital is a house of healing. It is supposed to be an environment where our diseases can be diagnosed, and treated, and hopefully cured.

But then I walk into this chapel- a place where we are pray for the healing of the patients, and wisdom for medical caregivers- I walk in and hear this text read:

"And Jesus could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief."

What am I supposed to do with that text?

If I am patient, what am I supposed to do with the fact that there were some who Jesus couldn't heal?

If I am the loved one of a patient, what am I supposed to do with the fact that it seems like Jesus couldn't heal people because of their "unbelief"?

And if I am in the medical profession, skilled in the healing arts, what am I supposed to do with the fact that the Greatest Healer of all time couldn't heal certain people?

This is a tough text. This is a text to wrestle with. This is a text that makes us turn to Jesus and ask him "God, what is UP with that?"

It would be easier to deal with another passage where Jesus heals the multitudes, no questions asked. It would be easier to talk about the 8th chapter of Romans, where Paul says that NOTHING in all creation, neither trials nor tribulations nor life nor death, is able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus.

It would be easier. But I don't think it would be the text God wants us to wrestle with today.

And in Church- especially in a Church where you read through all of the Bible, even the hard parts- sometimes we have to deal with readings that challenge us in the depths of our need.

Sometimes we have to deal with texts that make us wrestle, strain, struggle, sweat, and maybe even shed a tear or two.

But the promise of Jesus is that He is right there beside us, wrestling, straining, struggling, sweating, and even shedding tears.

So, let's be honest. Not everyone gets healed the way we want them to get healed. It doesn't matter if it is Jesus, or the latest multi-million dollar medical technology.

Not everyone gets healed.

And some of us may be struggling with that today. We might have a loved one who is not doing very well. We may be someone who has been looking to be healed for a long time, but it just doesn't seem to be coming. We may be someone who helps others heal, but no matter what treatments you try, there are still some patients you can't help.

And I don't know about you. But I know how I might feel. I might be hurting, physically and emotionally. I might feel scared. Or afraid. Or frustrated. I might even feel a little angry.

Maybe even more than a little bit.

And I might have questions that God does not seem to be answering.

And the reality is that in Jesus Christ, God is right there with you going through it all with you.

God did not stay up in heaven, unconcerned and untouched by all we go through. God did not stay on his Throne, afraid to get dirty with his children.

No, God did the unthinkable: In Jesus, God became one of us. God put skin on. God got his feet dirty.

In Jesus, God faced real human pain, real human frustration, real human fears, and real human death. Saint Paul's letter to the Philippians puts it this way:

"Jesus, who was in Reality God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name."

Jesus knew what it was like to not be healed, because he faced suffering and death with us. And Jesus knew what it was like to not be able to heal others, because some would not trust him.

But Jesus also knows that this is not the end. Sickness and pain and death do not have the last word. Lack of healing does not have the last Word. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we KNOW what the last Word is.

The Last Word is Life. The Last Word is Love. The Last Word is Hope.

And so, when we read passages like ours today, we ALWAYS have to keep the Last Word in mind. That's what Jesus did. And that's what kept Jesus going.

When confronted with the struggles of real people, it was Jesus' Word of Love that kept Him going. When confronted people's lack of faith, and rejection, and suspicion, it was Jesus' Word of Hope that kept Him going. When confronted with His own mortality, it was Jesus' Word of Life that kept Him going.

So, with that Last Word in mind, what do we learn about healing and hope in our Bible reading today?

The first thing we learn is that personal trust is what allows the healing work of Jesus into our lives. Our passage today says that when many were not healed, it was somehow connected with their "unbelief".

In fact this "unbelief" amazed Jesus. It flabbergasted him. Here he was, offering to heal and make whole, and all folks could do was make fun of him, for his background and upbringing.

It would be like if I stood here offering to give you a million dollars, and instead of taking it you just stood there and made fun of how bald I was, and how funny the collar of my shirt was.

Why would they react like that to Jesus?

There was probably a lot of reasons they were skeptical and offended by Jesus, but they all boil down to what the Bible calls "unbelief".

Now, when the Bible uses words like "unbelief" or "belief" or "faith", we often think of that as something you think about. We think about belief as something that means having right ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and so on.

And so we falsely think, if we don't have the right ideas, then God rejects us. We mistakenly think if we have the wrong beliefs, then Jesus won't heal us.

And if we can just memorize and know the right facts about Jesus, then we can get healed. We can get God to do what we want, when we want.

But that is NOT how it works. That is not what the Bible means by "belief" or "unbelief".

When the Bible talks about belief or faith, it is talking about trust. It is not talking about having right ideas. It is talking about if you desire, depend on, hope in, confide in Someone else. It is talking about if you cling to Jesus, and won't let go.

Let me put it this way: I have a 10 month old baby boy at home. When he sees mommy or me, he crawls over to us, and wants us to pick him up. He clings to us.

When he cries, and knows we will answer him. When he hurts or is hungry, he trusts us to care for him.

Does he have a lot of right ideas about us? No.

Other than knowing I am the large, smiling guy with the beard and the shiny head, he knows no facts about me. He doesn't even know my name.

But he believes in me. He trusts me. He has faith.

That was what was missing from the folks in Jesus' home town. It wasn't that they didn't have right ideas about him. They had all the facts: They knew who he was, who his family was, and probably the whole story of his childhood.

But they didn't trust him. They didn't have faith in him. They didn't run up to him, and embrace him, and cling to him. They would not let him touch them, and it is the touch of Jesus that heals.

Think about it: In almost all the stories where people are healed by Jesus, what do they do? They touch Jesus. They embrace Jesus. They cling to Jesus.

They didn't memorize all the right facts about Jesus, and pass his pop quiz before he would heal them. They touched him, and trusted him with their needs.

That is how trust is really shown: When we allow someone to touch us, and share in our pain. When we allow Jesus to touch us, and share in our pain.

And that brings us to the second thing about Jesus' healing that is hard for us to understand: When we DO come to him, and let him touch us, then why doesn't God heal us the way we expect?

Why doesn't God make healing planned and predictable and punctual? Why do we have to wait? Why do we have to worry?

The truth is, life is messy. And when Jesus is at work in our lives, he works within our messiness, in messy ways that we cannot predict.

Or to put it another way: God heals us in many ways. When we let Jesus touch us, he is ALWAYS at work healing us, but often not in the way we expect.

For example: At the very end of our reading today, Jesus sends his disciples on a mission. And that mission was to continue Jesus' mission, and do the exact same things that he did.

What were those things?

It says that the disciples proclaimed repentance, cast out evil powers, and healed the sick. This is exactly what Jesus did.

These may seem like three separate things, but they are all part of healing the entire person. They are three parts of the same healing activity that God does in our lives.

First of all, you have "repentance". To repent is to change one's heart, to get rid of harmful ways of living, and to embrace healthy ways of thinking.

When the disciples proclaim repentance, they are healing people's hearts and minds. That is emotional healing.

Second of all, there is casting out demons. This means to get rid of evil powers that have rooted themselves in someone's spirit. It means to free them from bondage to wickedness and sin. That is spiritual healing.

And third, there is healing the sick. That's physical healing.

Emotional healing. Spiritual healing. Physical healing. All are part of the same healing touch, when we embrace Jesus in faith.

We may want physical healing, and that does not happen. But Jesus is still at work in that experience, bringing us emotional healing or spiritual healing, if we will open ourselves to it.

If we will trust him to touch us at the core of our soul.

I know that is difficult. I know it is hard to want one thing, and have God give us another. And Jesus knows it too.

And that is why he walks with us through the hardest of times, and gives us the Hope of His Resurrection.

And not only that, but we also know that if we let Jesus touch us, He will be at work healing us. It might BE a spectacular physical healing.

But often, it will be in ways that are invisible to the outside world. Even in ways we are not aware of. But Jesus will be there. Healing us with the Hope of His resurrection.

So, I encourage you today: Let the Last Word of Jesus be the Word that gives you Hope. Remember that sickness and pain and death do not have the Last Word. Resurrection does. Hope does. Jesus does.

And I invite you to trust Jesus to touch you with his healing touch. Let him touch you with the touch that can cure disease, drive out evil, comfort the heart, and even raise the dead.

Embrace Jesus. Cling to Him. Trust in Him. Amen.

2009-11-06

Contemporary Worship, Pop Culture, and Traditional Critique


Over the years I have found that I stand in a somewhat odd mediatorial role between those who love Contemporary worship styles, and those who love Traditional worship styles. This is because I actually love both styles, and I do not know of many people who can honestly say that. As a result, I have friends, parishoners and colleagues on both sides of the Contemporary/Traditional divide.

Often I hear rhetoric from both sides about how the other is dying. Advocates of Contemporary worship point to blossoming megachurches, huge concert and album sales by Contemporary artists, and the immense Christian youth culture that buys it all, as signs that traditional worship is all but dead. Advocates of Traditional worship often point backward to the fact that their style of worship has nourished millions over centuries of change, and will continue to do so through the changes in the future (they often miss the fact that at some point their style- even if it is monastic chant- was once the "new" way to worship!). They also point out the growing group of young adults who see the shallowness of much contemporary worship, and desire something deeper, more connected with the Great Tradition.

And, in all honesty, both are right on the money. And I want to explain why.

This essay was originally written to a friend of mine who is a young traditionalist, so that is why I tend to deal more with the "Contemporary" side of this debate than the "Traditional". At some point, perhaps I will be able to write an essay to someone arguing the other side of this coin. But for now, let us begin:

First of all, I know you don’t particularly like contemporary worship. And second of all, I know that you live in a cultural milieu that does not particularly like it. Thus, you think it is normative that most folks your age do not like it.

However, as a corrective I would offer this: Contemporary worship makes a ton of money, and it is marketed all over the place to every age group, in every form of media. Marketers wouldn’t do this if it was not a growing market (which it is, at every age level). If traditional worship was gathering the kind of market share you are envisioning, the marketers would not miss out on making money off of it. But, the fact of the matter is, the marketing segment devoted to traditional worship is much smaller than contemporary worship, which means that people simply aren’t buying as much. Furthermore, the younger the age group, the more of the contemporary product is bought.

This experience is echoed in my own experience as a campus pastor at a major university. Out of the 25 or so Christian ministries on campus, only about 4 of us would be considered "traditional", including Canterbury House Episcopal. Even the Catholics use mostly contemporary songs in worship. So, out of the 500-700 young adults who may be involved in Christian worship on campus in a given week, perhaps 40-60 are in solidly "traditional" worship in Episcopal, Lutheran, and Orthodox ministries; Another 40-60 meet at the Reformed University Fellowship and do hybrid worship using traditional hymns updated to modern instruments and rhythms; And another 200-250 worship at the Catholic student mass, which uses a traditional liturgy, but contemporary songs.

I have always found it fascinating that I have students come to me and ask for contemporary music "because everybody wants it that way", and also an equal number who come to me and ask to keep it all traditional "because everybody wants it that way". Apparently their circles of "everybody" do not talk to each other, because they do not seem to acknowledge each other's existence. But they sure do talk to me.

However, I think you are right that the number of 20-somethings who desire traditional worship forms is growing, and is more now than 20-somethings in 1990, or 1970 for that matter. But a similar trend can be seen in the desire of 20-somethings for ethnic food versus fast food. More 20-somethings today desire ethnic foods like Indian food or Sushi than 20-somethings in 1990 or 1970. But that does not mean that an overwhelming number do not eat at Taco Bell and McDonalds. I bet you and all of your friends prefer ethnic foods to fast food, but then again you all don’t hang out with many 20-somethings from Denton, or Mesquite, or East Texas. In many ways, I think contemporary worship is the equivalent of fast food, and traditional worship is the equivalent of ethnic food, and appeals to similar populations for similar reasons.

Or, to put it more sociologically: Contemporary versus Traditional worship covers just about the same social space as the divide between "pop" culture and "refined" culture. Those who like "pop" music tend to like contemporary worship. In fact, I would argue that a better term for contemporary worship IS "pop worship". Those who do not like "pop" music also tend to enjoy traditional worship. Likewise, those who enjoy art museums, and who listen to NPR and classical music for fun, tend to enjoy Traditional versus Pop forms of worship. The divide between the two says a great deal more about culture of origin than it does about the actual theological or liturgical differences between the two worship forms.

So, what shall I say?

On one hand, I agree with you. I obviously have serious critiques of contemporary worship, especially the evangelical variety, or else I would not have left it to come to the Episcopal Church.

I think there are at least three valid reasons to critique contemporary worship.

First, it is valid to critique it from a theological perspective. Much of the theological content is shallow, simplistic, reductionistic, and even heretical. Perhaps 70% of the songs I hear from the contemporary tradition have this problem. They are fast food.

Second, it often appeals to a hyper-individualistic, consumeristic sense of what makes ME feel good. Much of it is all about ME and MY feelings. This introduces an unhealthy narcissism into what should be a Christ-centered event. It also implicitly rules out community as it focuses on meeting MY needs.

Third, it simply is not for everyone aesthetically. Humans simply don’t like the same sounds, instruments, rhythms, and styles. And it is OK if contemporary music doesn’t do it for you aesthetically. But it is also fine if it does. And we should be honest about that.

Now, on the other hand, I think there are three invalid- even spiritually corrosive- reasons to reject contemporary worship.

First, I believe that there is not-too-subtle classism that is at the root of many people’s rejection of contemporary worship, especially in privileged areas. Traditional forms of worship- whether Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or whatever- are often associated with "high" culture. In fact, the difficulty of understanding and performing certain rituals, the difficulty of singing certain songs, and the difficulty of leafing through complex liturgical books, are all badges of accomplishment for those who want to identify themselves as “high culture”. These “religious difficulties” are often appropriated by those of a higher culture, to show that they are more able, more patient, and more refined than those of lower culture. They are used as implicit barriers to "keep out the riff raff", so we can have a "nice" Church service with "folks like us". As a result, there is an often “allergic” reaction of high culture people to popular forms of religion, which guises itself in the garb of theological or aesthetic critique, when in actuality these are just rationalizations for a desire to be "better" than those people “down there”. This kind of classism- which is also frequently racism as well- has no part in a religion which claims that all persons, of all genders, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all educational levels, are beloved of God.

Second, most forms of popular religion are highly emotional and enthusiastic. They are overtly expressive in ways which indicate a passion and intimacy with God. The legitimate concern this can raise is emotional manipulation and an overly individualistic orientation to religion. However, many people are just plain uncomfortable with strong emotion, and may feel threatened that another person has an intimacy with God that they may not [seem to] have. And rather than deal with their own emotional baggage and relationship with God, they simply reject emotional forms of religious experience altogether. Such a rejection says more about that person’s emotional and spiritual problems than any problem with contemporary worship.

Third, I find that many people reject contemporary worship- and any other form of worship other than what "their priest" did at their "home parish" when they were growing up- because they simply fear change. They don’t like new things. They have huge control needs. And rather than admitting this, they create large facade arguments about theology or aesthetics to cover the fact that they simply want things to be the way they want them to be. Forever.

Now, I also want to note that a reverse corollary of people who reject traditional worship in favor of contemporary worship is true too. First, such a rejection may be a function of classism (I don’t want to be like those rich people!) or ageism (I don’t want to be like those old people!) or racism (I don’t want to be like those white people!). Second, it might be because they simply do not want to use their minds in worship, and instead prefer to always be swept away by their “emotions”. Third, it might be that they think worship always has to be different, new, and novel, and they have an inbred dislike for routine, tradition and discipline.

I also want to note that these are ploys of a consumer culture to get more people to purchase more product. First, socialize people to have a dislike of the "Other" (in classism, racism, ageism, etc.), and get them to want to purchase product based on "not being like them". Second, get them to stop thinking and rely only on emotions. This creates impulse buyers. Third, create in them the idea that things always have to be new and different, that novelty is good and tradition is bad. Then they will purchase things just for the sake of their newness, and to not be "old fashioned" or "out of date". So, I think that much of what drives pop culture- including pop worship- is a demonic consumerism that is sustained by the profit motive rather than the prophet motive. But that is another sermon.

I think that most people who reject forms of worship- whether traditional or contemporary- are actually doing so because of implicit classism, fear of emotion (or of reason), or fear of change (or of routine). These socio-emotional motives for rejection are then clothed with theological and aesthetic rationale to be given respectability, so that even those who complain and reject do not realize the REAL reasons why they are doing it.

So, with that said, I would like to offer three brief reasons why the Church needs traditional worship AND three brief reasons why the Church needs contemporary (or “pop”) worship.

First, the Church needs traditional worship for continuity. It is axiomatic that traditional worship preserves tradition. Tradition is the living memory of the organism of Christ’s Body. Without it, we perform a lobotomy on Christ’s memory and are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over. Thus, tradition is a constant reminder of our identity and our story as Christ’s Body. And traditional worship rehearses this identity and story with maximal continuity.

Second, the Church needs traditional worship to feed the mind. Let’s face it: Traditional hymnody and liturgy is just deeper on a cognitive level. The great hymns and liturgies are repositories of spiritual knowledge, and often whole sermons- and systematic theologies- are played out as we rehearse traditional liturgical forms.

Third, the Church needs traditional worship for the fullness of the sacraments. Because traditional worship is an implicit recognition that the Holy Spirit functions through certain regular, repeated, routine actions of the Church, it is also an implicit recognition of sacraments. Much more than “new” forms, traditional forms of liturgy convey the idea that God is at work in and through human action, created matter, and repeated ritual.

And now for contemporary, or “pop” worship:

First, the Church needs contemporary worship to make use of all the tools God has given the Church. We take it for granted that God has given the Church the “technologies” of wine fermentation, bread baking, flame, and the printing press to worship God. However, we somehow doubt (or at least demean) that God has also given us other technologies, like drum sets, computers, projection systems, and sound systems for worship as well. As good and faithful stewards, we are called to at least explore the use of the technologies God gives us as means of worship. The early Anglo-catholic ritualist movement recognized this, and they moved the Church from a very “logocentric” spirituality, to a spirituality that made use of sight, sound, touch, and smell. They began in low class neighborhoods in England’s growing cities, and were roundly criticized by “proper” English culture in many of the same terms that "high culture" condemns popular worship today. But they were right in advocating “multi-media” worship, and I believe that we must make use of “multi-media” as much as we can today. But these new technologies, including projection and modern instrumentation, can also be used with traditional forms of hymnody and liturgy. It is often said that this is “not the Episcopal way”, but that is the same thing they said of the Anglo-catholics in the 1860s. Furthermore, as I have noted above, “not the Episcopal way” is frequently a catch-phrase for “i reject it because it does not fit the social class I want to be a part of”.

Second, the Church needs contemporary worship to meet the developmental levels of God’s people. Contemporary music is almost always less complex musically and theologically than traditional hymnody, while also being more complex than children’s songs. The reason is that, developmentally, it fits between the two. We sing children’s songs and preach children’s sermons to children because developmentally they cannot make sense of adult concepts and syntax. In addition, all the great studies of cognitive development show that a great many people reach a certain developmental level and stay there, with only minor changes over their lifetime. In the same way that not everyone can read a book on systematic theology and make sense of it, so also not everyone can “get” traditional worship. I would argue that it’s complexity both in style and cognitive substance make it harder to follow. Thus for completely developmental reasons there are many people- perhaps even the majority- will be touched by “pop” worship because it speaks to their developmental level. They should still be challenged and pushed to greater spiritual depths, but their normal “mode” of worship and religious experience rests soundly in the "popular" realm, and always will.

Third, the Church needs to be open to experimental worship to honor the creativity of God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit is radically free, and radically creative, and inspires creativity in all of God’s children, whether they are Pentecostal or Anglican, refined or pop, highly educated or average. And when the Spirit inspires someone, that inspiration will be reflected in their abilities and on their developmental level. So, when we reject popular or contemporary worship simply because it is new or different, we are not just rejecting the artist, pastor, or musician, we are rejecting the Spirit that inspired them.

So, in conclusion, I advocate a healthy critique of contemporary worship, especially when it is theologically or morally dubious, simplistic, or in error. I encourage everyone to worship in a way that best fits their aesthetic and developmental levels, and to be honest when a worship form simply does not “fit” with who they are.

But I also encourage brutal honesty with ourselves about WHY we critique certain worship forms, with special emphasis on whether we are doing so because of classism, racism, agism, or because we are afraid of emotion, or rationality, or change, or routine.

In the end, I have one definition of "good worship": And that is worship which "draws" people into Christ. I mean draw in at least two senses: First, I mean draw in the sense of being brought closer, into deeper levels of union with the Triune God revealed in Christ, through greater emotional intimacy and cognitive knowledge of God. Second, I mean draw in the sense of an artist drawing someone or something. We are drawn into Christ as we become more Christ-like, more full of agape Love, more merciful, more just, more compassionate, more like Jesus. Good worship draws people into Christ in both senses, both as individuals and as a community, so that good worship creates individuals, families, parishes, and communities that embody the Risen Christ to the world.

This means that there are objective criteria for good worship. There are theological, moral, and social errors that can be objectively pointed out and named as corrosive to people being "drawn into Christ". But, good worship is also irreducibly subjective as well. Some folks are moved by a hip hop beat, while others like a waltz, while others like Anglican chant. Some are touched by a guitar, some by a harp, and some by an organ. Some feel distracted from worshipping God by big theological words and complex syntax in prayer, and some feel positively drawn closer to God by those same things. Even in the Bible, some Psalms are simple and repetitive, while others are complex poetic treatises. Even the two Pauline Christ-hymns in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 are very stylistically different ways of speaking of the same Event of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

All of this is to say that our opinions on worship forms need to be held with a large dose of humility. We need to realize that our opinions on both style and substance are often held primarily because of cultural, aesthetic, and developmental reasons, rather than because of solid moral or theological criteria. Furthermore, when we feel like seriously critiquing another's worship on theological or moral grounds, we need to first do a "gut check" and honestly assess whether or not our critique really arises from a base motive, only to clothe itself in theological respectability. There ARE valid critiques of worship to be made, but they can only be made with a pure motive: And that motive is the legitimate concern to see people drawn into Christ.

I will end with a paraphrase of St. Paul's letter to the Romans [14.1-12]. In the original he is speaking of those who eat meat and those who don't. I will take some liberties and replace these words with forms of worship:

"As for the one who is one-sided in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he must worship with contemporary music, while the other person worships only in traditional ways. Let not the one who uses contemporary worship despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who uses contemporary worship, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one style of music as better than another, while another esteems all music alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who uses only one type of music, does it in honor of the Lord. The one who uses other forms of music, sings in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brothers and sisters? Or you, why do you despise your them? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God."
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.