Time Warps

Last night, I went to see a Halloween showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

(If you are not familiar with this… phenemona, you are missing out on one of the world’s strangest things.)

This morning, I will be headed off to church.

(Also, by the way, one of the world’s strangest things.)

There is all kinds of ways that these two things are a disconnect, or at least a stark contrast.  But I was thinking about these two acts are actually flip sides of the same coin.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are built with these needs for experiences of God.  Over the last two thousand years, the church has figured out a way to meet these.  Running on a presumably paralell track, Rocky Horror fans have figured out the same things.

the_rocky_horror_picture_show_poster

Consider:

  • They begin with a story of a “man” traveling from very far away.  This man possesses an understanding that will liberate us from traditional understandings.  He traffics with the people polite society tells us to avoid.  He encourages us to engage in a strange kind of cannibalism.   He is betrayed, and he dies.
  • All these independent communities pop up around propegating the story.  Thousands of people put countless hours into making this story relevant.  They attend regular (often weekly) gatherings.
  • With a mixture of speech and song, the story and the leadership lead a sort-of liturgy.  Those in the audiences are called toward participation in all manner of ways, including prescribed call-and-response and regular ritual and routine; the breaking of the bread/the throwing of the toast; the splashing of holy water/ the spraying of the squirt guns.

Of course, much of the message is so very different.  But I think the people who claim that Jesus’ was less mind-blowing than the message of Rocky Horrror, they have missed Jesus’ point.  Jesus was as much a threat to the status quo, was as unutterably offensive as the movie.

One of the things that struck, me last night, was the ways that the audience’s responses have changed over time.  There was a case in the song “Sweet Tranvestite” where the audience’s “lines” were a pair of words, both starting with the letter f.  The last time I saw the show, we would sing those lines with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks.  I suspect those words are less acceptable, now, than they were then.  (This topic deserves a whole blog post unto itself: on the surface, it seems like the whole thing is immoral, or a-moral.  In fact, though, there is a deep and subversive ethic code running through the whole thing.)   Further, there were a few lines that just could not have been around at the time of the filming; South Park and Justin Bieber references.

Perhaps these aren’t “official” audience responses.  But that doesn’t matter.  In fact, it suggests that there is a process of interacting with that basic story and re-defining it for the new generation.  If we had done this as a church, been willing to re-examine our story in a modern context, I wonder how many people would be showing up on Sundays.

Starting with the Lunch

UK - Somerset - Bath: Roman Baths Museum - The...
UK – Somerset – Bath: Roman Baths Museum – The Altar (Photo credit: wallyg)

I understood something today.  I understood it suddenly and in a new way.

It was around how the Ancient Isrealites were expected to do these sacrifices.  Thier were pretty strict expectations about what animals would be sacrificed when.  And even more strict expectations about the conditions of these animals.  They were supposed to sacrifice the best.

We are freed of this expectation. 

But today, in church, I got it.

Church was awesome.  I don’t mean awesome in the 80’s surfer-sense of the word.  It wasn’t entirely pleasant.  It was, at times, so hard that I had to leave the sanctuary.   When I say that church was awesome, I mean that it quite literally inspired a sense of awe.  I suppose that this is one of the things church was supposed to do.

The gifted folks involved with the service are partly responsible for this experience.   They did a great– even exceptional– job.   But there have been other days when they were all doing an equally excellent job.  And yet, many of those times, it did not effect me.

There is some truth in talking about how the spirit moves where it wills.  Sometimes God makes himself known.

Yet…

This is also a cop-out and a ducking of responsibility.  They say that  we don’t have any control over where and when God shows up.   The problem is that this implies that God isn’t omnipresent.  It implies that there are some places where God is not.

What I am trying to say is that God is fully present in every service.  The thing that comes and goes is our own perception of him. 

Today, what I realized, is that one of the sacrifices’ values is that they smashed home, they made concrete a reality that it’s easy to lose track of.

That reality is that whatever we bring to a worship service is what we are going to get out of it.

Today I brought… a lot to the service.  It wouldn’t be wrong to call it baggage.  It wasn’t all kinds of warm fluffiness.  It was a whole dizzying array of conflicting emotions.  Pain, and anger, and hurt… Not just at life in general, but pain and anger and hurt directed right at God.  Those were all there.

God was happy to take it. 

It wasn’t a sacrifice worthy of him.  Even though there are all these descriptions about the sacrifice-victim be perfect and unblemished, I realized today, that being worthy was never the point at all.

The point is that whatever we bring to God is the material that God will work with.  He does his divine alchemy on what we bring.  He turns it into something else, something better.  Maybe he even enhances it, like Jesus beginning with the boy’s lunch and feeding thousands.  Despite the enhancements, there, though, the thing is that Jesus, did after all begin with boy’s lunch.

I could have shown up with nothing today.  God quite literally knows I have before.  Today I didn’t show up at the service empty handed.  And so… I didn’t leave empty handed, either.

A rose, by any other name…

English: This is an image of the sign in front...
Image via Wikipedia

I’d like to begin with a couple of principles:

1.  We can tell what is in our hearts based on what comes out of our mouths. 

2.   We can tell what we believe in based on how we save and spend our resources.

  Personally, I find both of these ideas to be fairly profound.  Somebody else might not agree with whether or not they are true.  And that is fine.  One of the awesome things about the world is that we don’t all have to agree.

An issue I would say that has less room for argument is the question of whether Jesus believed these things.   It seems quite clear to me that Jesus did.  I hardly paraphrased at all.  These ideas are pretty much straight out of his mouth.

There is a third principle I’d like to mention.   This idea is the idea that names have power.

Jesus did not explicitly ever say this.  But he implies it in many of his interactions, particularly when casting demons out.  The demon that identifies itself as “Legion”, for example, at first seems to think that Jesus will have no power of it, because it does not give Jesus an actual name.  Conversely, numerous demons seem to think that they will have power over Jesus, simply because they know his name.

Jesus himself renames “Saul” as “Paul” as a way to draw a distinction between his pre-Jesus and post-Jesus life.  God renamed the person who would come to be known as “Isreal.”   Adam’s first task is to give names to the animals.  Clearly, names are important things.  This does not imply some sort-of magical belief.  One could say that the power in names is rooted in the fact that we believe names have power.  We could suggest that it’s something of a self-fufilling prophecy.

This is why groups from street gangs to summer camps give members special names.  This is why some people get so persnickety about whether they expect to be called the short version of their name (e.g. “Rich”) or the long version of their name (e.g. Richard.)  This is why many tribal societies have given members multiple names, often a public one and a second, more secret one.

I believe the evidence a couple paragraphs makes a pretty strong case for the idea that Jesus recognizes the strength of names and titles.  But I realize it’s a little more open to interpretation than the first couple principles mentioned.

This absurdly egg-headed introduction gets me to the point I was considerng today:

 Taken together, I’m submit that those 3 principles mean that titles and names are powerful things, and they, much like the words that come out of our mouths, provide a picture of what is going on in hearts.

This has been a long-winded and egg-headed introduction.  The real point I want to make is that the way we name our churches in America says something about us.  And what it says isn’t very nice.

Consider a church with a name like “1st Lutheran Chuch  of Doofustown.”

A claim to the primacy and age of the church is the very first part of this title.  Jesus tells us that the 1st shall be last.  It would be a pretty cool act of guerilla art (or maybe vandalism; you say tomato, I say tomatoh) to run around to all the church signs that start with “1st” and write “Last.”  This of course is a biblical statement.  If the first shall be last, then all these churches bragging about their first status are indeed last.

That biblical idea aside, it is still telling that some church names start with that sort of claim.  The fact that we put it first suggest that the fact that we are first is more important than anything else. 

After we thump our chests, gorilla like, by asserting that we are first, we move on to a denominational title.  Placing this second suggests that it is the second-most important thing.  Placing it before the word church suggests that the things that divide us are more important than the things that unite us.  It suggests that whether one is a Lutheran or a Baptist (or whatever) is a more important question than whether or not one follows Christ.

And finally, that little word: church.  Much has recently been made about the fact that church is not a building.  While I agree with this, as long as we continue to write it on the side of the buildings, there will be a disconnect.

As long as we wax eloquently about the “big c church” or the “global church” but continue to call the individual buildings by this name, we will lose some credibility, and deservedly so.

There are other ways to title a church.  Some great names are simply not lived up to.  A friend told me about a local Baptish congegation.  They rent space from another Baptist congregation.  This second congregation owns the land and buildings and what not.

The punchline here is that the renting congregation calls itself “The United Baptist Church of …”   While it’s good that they are not bragging about being first or whatever, this leads to the question: what precisely are they united with, if they can’t join with their landlord and worship together?  (The picture above is not from this church; it’s a snap shot I found in the public domain.)

I know that there are traditions and rules around these things.  I know that probably lots of people haven’t given a whole lot of thought.  Jesus calls us out, though, to buck tradition when it doesn’t work, we’re told to ponder and meditate and think over things, so that we can most efficiently do his work.

Christ is the Church

If the church is the bride of Christ, and if the bride is one flesh with her husband, then it only stands to reason: The church is one flesh with Christ.

This is a good thing.  Because Christ’s flesh is no longer here, on Earth.  If it were not for this fact, then Christ would have no physical impact at all, anymore.

To think about a widow, or a widower brings us part way to contemplating this mystery.  My grandfather died this year.  He was an amazing man.  Ninety-two years old.  Still worked.  Full of energy, enthusiasm, excitement.

There are many ways that he is not gone.  But the most important, perhaps, is in the person of my grandmother.  We went to this Chinese Buffet with her the other day.  It was a place we’d often gone with them both.  He was there with us, he was so very present at the table.

I guess this is why the church is so crucial.  As has been often noted, there is no back up plan.  We are it.  And if we were truly one flesh, how could we resist?  How could we refuse?

To say that the church is the body of Christ is to emphasize the fact that we are here while Jesus is not.  But it is also often said that the Church is the bride of Christ.

After giving it a little thought, I realized that these two sentences really come down to the same thing.  They cast different lights on different aspects of it.  But if a bride is one flesh with her husband, then she is his body, in the same way that the husband is the bride’s body.

Up? Or In?

Yesterday, I read another mind-expanding passage in “Surprised by Hope.”

Sometimes, we miss what becomes of Jesus at the end of the Gospels.

He tells the disciples he’s going to be with The Father.  He promises them that the Holy Spirit will be among them.  He floats up and away from them.  Later, the church is compared to both Jesus’ bride and his body.   We are promised that Jesus will return in the future.  And if that’s going to happen in the future, the clear implication is that it hasn’t happened yet.

Sometimes, we act as though Jesus slowly grew translucent and faded away.  We act as though the disciples suddenly felt all of Jesus presence inside of them.  We act as though Jesus’ entire presence was poured out into the church.

If this had happened the church would be perfect.  All the time.

A spouse can betray you.  And so can a body.  (Consider Paul talking about how the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak; or remember a time that you desperately wanted to be able to reach some goal such as running at a certain speed and you were not able to do it.)

If this happened it would be cause for sadness and repentance.  But it can happen.  And so it is with the church.  Like a spouse, or own body, it will sometimes (o.k. often) fail to live up to Jesus.

This becomes cause for a crisis of faith if we don’t take the ascension seriously.  If we fail to remember that Jesus is not yet fully in the church, we have trouble explaining (to ourselves and to others) why the church is not perfect.

Sometimes, I make an idol of the church.  Sometimes I tell myself that Jesus is already full present in His community.  One of the problems I create for myself, when I do this, is that when the church messes things up I feel let down and betrayed by Jesus.

When I wrap my brain around the fullness of this reality I recognize that Jesus shares my sense of betrayal when the church does not do what it is supposed to do, when the church lets me down… and perhaps more importantly, when others need me, as a member of the body of Christ, I realize I can not simply check out and let Jesus within do it for me.

Jesus is in some sense within us.  But he’s not fully among us yet.

Worship, style, and relevance

A recent response to a post around the topic of relevance in the church setting has combined with some more specific thoughts I’ve had about church music.  I recently read a blog by a well-known church leader who suggested new churches simply hire a band.  At my own church home, we were treated last week to an amazing worship experience by Jake Holman last week.  Today, a group of musicians who are new to us backed up Al, our worship leader. 

I’m not involved in music (we should all thank God for that) and I’m not writing here specifically about Fellowship Church.  It’s more that these events have got me kicking around in my head some thoughts about worship music, cultural relevance, and the church.

The issues that seem to come up in these discussions include the following:

#1) To what extent should music in a worship service sound like it’s secular counterpart?

#2) To what extent should the people who play worship music be considered leaders?  Is there an implied agreement to words that a singer sings?  Is there an implied agreement to the lyrics if you are simply playing an instrument?  Beyond the issue of agreement with doctrine, is the issue of character.  Is the fact that playing in the worship band is such a visible positon to the congregation an important fact?  Should issues of character be more important in the case of a guitar player than it would be for somebody in a less visible role (say the person mixing the sound of folding the bulletins.)

#3) Of course the Bible ought to be the authority in our answers to these questions.  But is there any way that cultural realities at that time ought to make us careful about the ways we apply the precedents set in the Bible?

Of course these questions won’t be settled here.  But I’d like to make a few observations.  Most of them are rooted in The Psalms.

Did you ever notice how many of The Psalms say “sung to the tune of such-and-such”?  I’ve never heard anybody say much about this.  Presumably they were songs most people would have known.  They aren’t songs that are in the bible themselves.  I’m curious if the songs referenced in the psalms have much to do with God.  Of course the Psalms do.  But do the songs that the pslamist referenced at the beginning of many of the Psalms have much to do with God?

At any rate there is something happening here which flies in the face of something we progressive/emergent types often fixate on.  We complain that Christian culture is derivitive, that we are busy aping popular culture rather than creating our own.  We often complain that instead of doing our own thing we create Christian versions of things that are already popular; rather than coming up with our games somebody makes the Christian version of Trivial Pursuit; rather than pursue our own forms of literature somebody makes a Christian version of horror, suspense, or fantasy, rather than exploring original Christian uses of the internet we just make Christian versions of Youtube.  Rather than exploring our own genre of music, when heavy metal we form Christian heavy metal bands.

Perhaps there is a little something to these compliants.  Particularly since the imitations are usually far inferior to the originals. 

But the idea of speaking pop culture’s language seems to be in the bible itself.  The idea of taking a secular song and putting God-focused lyrics in it seems to go back to David.

It occurs to me that we’re faced with a catch-22 in this regard.  When we mimic culture we seem shallow and unoriginal and lacking in artistic vision.  But here’s the problem: if we found an authentically and uniquely Christian artistic “language” would it speak to anyone who isn’t a Christian?  Such an art form would lose the potential of sharing God with people who haven’t found him yet.

(This is of course vastly over-simplified.  It overlooks how important Christianity once was in Western Art.  Without Christianity Western “Classical” and “folk” music would have developed quite differently.  If this had been the case, the great grand-kids of classical and folk, today’s pop music, would sound different, too.)

At the begining of this post I asked the question “To what extent should worship music sound like it’s secular counterpart.”  I think the answer is “It should sound quite a bit like it.”

People who disagree with this position would have a lot more credibility with me if they were actually arguing for the sort of music that Jesus was likely to have listened to.  Obviously, no church organs were around in Jesus time.  They had no microphones.  Even the oldest of the hymns currently sung in church are much closer to our time than Jesus’.  It seems like the idea is almost an Amish one: to arbitrarily freeze the clock at a certain point and declare this is what Jesus wanted.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t express their preferences.  It’s just to say they should recognize the preference for what it is. 

As for the issue of character, leadership, and visibility of the worship team… this issue seems a little stickier.

I think implied in the act of performance is role-taking.  I think it’s niave to assume that a singer is always singing from their own perspective.  It seems to me a bit like treating the actor who plays a villian cruely because we dislike the character.  I realize this metaphor isn’t perfect and that others might disagree.

The fact of their visibility is interesting.  And actually, kind-of hard to explain.  Why do we put the band on the stage in the first place?  The person who does the sound board is off to the side.  Why is the band up on the stage at all during the worship service?  I get that it’s good to have something to look at.  In honesty, there’s a couple guys I love to watch play.  There are times I just watch them getting into what they do, and I know that they are close to God.  So I suppose that could be part of the reason.  But it’s not the whole thing.  Maybe it’s just a logistical issue: where would we “hide” a band so that we could hear them but not watch them.

In the Epistles somebody (maybe Paul) says something to this effect “Those who can teach should teach, those who can evangelize should evangelize, those who can preach, should.”  There are also other places where people are called to use their specific gifts for maximum benefit.

In this light, it would seem wierd to me, to treat somebody gifted with musical ability differently.  They are using their gifts for the kingdom, just like somebody who teaches a Sunday School Class.

This issue is also tricker because in some sense of the word, we are spoiled. 

What I mean by this is that everyone reading this has heard The Beatles.  It’s my opinion that The Beatles were one of the best rock bands ever.  (And even if you don’t like them, you could probably pick somebody that most everybody has heard who you do think is one of the best bands ever.)  The wonders of technology has set the bar very high.

Yes, we’ve all heard lots of crap.  But we’ve all been exposed to the most talented musicians out there.   Part of our cultural expectations are for a certain level of excellence in terms of ability.

If we lived two thousand years ago, we probably never would have heard music played by anyone born more than fifty miles away.  Further, my best guess is that they had far fewer people of engaging in lots of practice.  But even if they did have equal playing time,  they still had fewer people they could ever hope to here.

The bar was just lower.  I’m sure that they had God-blessed musicians whose brilliance was equal, even greater, than John Lennon’s.  But chances were slim that you’d actually hear somebody of this calibre.

For the ancient church to speak the language of the wider culture, it wouldn’t need much technical excellence.   Today, though, things are a different matter.  In some sense, we’re spoiled.  We have been exposed to excellence, we expect it, it’s part of the language.

My happy place

     The breeze ruffles the curtains.  It carries the smell of the sea and salt.  It lands on my skin. 

     The room is long and narrowish and light and high.  Ten rows of bnenches fill up the majority of the space in the room, but mostly they escape notice.  The butt and back of the benches are lined with thin burgundy cushions.

     The stage is half a step above the rest of the room.  The cross is bigger than life, which is as it should be.  The sunlight comes in through the skylight and casts a rectangular, God-made spotlight on it.

      This rectangle is echoed across the room by six rectangles of light which fall on the pews and into the aisles.  There are 3 on each side; the long windows let more than just the breeze in.

      It is modest, this place, and some would say small.  I smile as I walk out the front door and take it in from the outside.

       The white paint on the outside is not brand new but the church carries a well-loved air about itself.  It’s the sort of place, that if you put any thought into it, you would just know that it’ll get repainted before the whiteness begins to actually chip.

     The building has a minty green trim.  The shape of it is close to the shape of a capital “L”, except that the horizontal, lower portion is a bit to small and stubby.  This added on room– the horizontal part of the “L”– has no door from the outside but it does have large windows.

      I could walk across the green (but not perfectally manicured) lawn and step between the bushes that hug the perimeter of the building.  I could look through the window and peer at the simple wooden table that dominates the room.    There is a copper platter just to the left of the center of the table.

      Two-thirds of a loaf of French bread sits on the platter.  The reflection of the simple overhead light on the platter is broken by the few crumbs gathered by the open end of the bread.  A mostly-full bottle of wine sits close to the right edge of the table.  The sun has dried most of the condensation that once clung to the bottle.  Only a few drops remain where the neck widens.

 

The above was this image, incredibly clear, and powerful, that just popped into my head.  I decided to get it out of my head and write it down.  It’s a place I’ve never been to, but I love it there.  It’s my happy place, this little perfect church in my heart.  I’ve gone back there, every now and again, to get away from everything. 

Do you have a “happy place?”