Liturgies, Ritual and Idolatry

From time to time Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about interposing human traditions between God and his beloved creatures. He could get really peeved when he encountered human precepts that established elaborate liturgies and ritual to identify who was in, who was out, and what one had to do to stay in or be kept out. Lest we Christians get too self satisfied about our freedom from all those rules, it’s well to be reminded that it was not just a problem for first century Jews living in Israel. The Church has struggled with the same thing for two thousand years.

Reformations come and go, new denominations pop up, congregations split apart, and every time in every place new liturgies and ritual come into being to more clearly define who is in, who is out, how to stay in and how to keep out. It sounds terrible and if often is. I believe it is one of the primary reasons that people give up on Christianity, or at least give up on the Church. Having said that, there is more to be said because not all human tradition or precepts are bad. Some are very important to opening up and clearing the way for human intimacy with God in “holy communion.” Liturgies and ritual are two aspects of that.

One way or another, liturgies and ritual are ways of acting out beliefs whether about God or something else. As has been said of we Anglicans, if you want to know what we believe watch how we worship. Our liturgies, and the ritual through which they are articulated, reveal what we believe about God and our relationship with God and one another. They are a part of our tradition, not the whole of it, but an important part just the same. The same is true not only for the so-called liturgical churches, but also for non-liturgical churches. Just go to one and see for yourself how the non-liturgical service takes on an expected order repeated more or less intact each week, how spontaneous prayers tend to be repeated in hardly varying words, and how standards of what to believe and how to believe are expressed and enforced.

Liturgies and ritual serve an important purpose in the Christian Church. They are conduits through which one enters into holy time and holy space for an intimate encounter with God. When liturgies and ritual will not or can no longer serve that function they become useless, or worse, become an impediment to communion with God. And that is what got Jesus so riled up. We surely do not want to get Jesus riled up so is there a correct liturgy or ritual that will always meet with his approval?

I, for one, am deeply wedded to and moved by the liturgies and ritual of the Episcopal Church. They lead me into the inexplicable profundity of God’s imminent presence in Christ. So I’m pretty sure ours are the ways that Jesus likes best. But my friend Jeff, a local Pentecostal preacher, is dumfounded at that and finds our way of worship to be so quietly boring that God must fall asleep waiting for us to arrive. I find his services so noisily rattling that God must be hiding until the din is over. And isn’t that a part of the great good news of Christianity! There is a place for everyone, and Jesus seems to show little partiality for one over the other.

The problem comes when we take those ways and place a heavier burden on them than they can carry. I’ve experienced Episcopalians up in hysterical arms because the candles were lighted in the wrong order, the gospel book was set upright or laid down flat, the Sursum Corda was said and not chanted, incense was used or not used, the acolytes were not wearing black shoes or folding their hands incorrectly, and so on. I have no idea what might set off people in Jeff’s congregation. Maybe the drummer didn’t show up one Sunday and how can you worship without a drum? I don’t know. The point is that this is where human precepts become more important than the worship of God to the point that liturgies and ritual are undermined and their values collapse. It’s something we have to guard against at all times, and it’s very difficult to do. There are always demands from some people who desperately want to know what the right way to worship is, and there are others who are quite sure that they know what the right (and only) way of worship is. Failure to do it right might invalidate everything and make God really angry. That’s the point when we might as well start tossing virgins into the volcano for all the good our liturgies and ritual can do. At the same time, it is important, truly important, to be faithful to one’s tradition. That means knowing and understanding what that tradition is and how it is employed for the fullness of life with God through Christ. It means acting out our beliefs through liturgies and ritual with holy intention and respect, but not with idolatry.

Sins of the Heart

Ah, it is good to be back in Mark, and for the coming Sunday we have his dandy list of no-no’s that have their origins nowhere else but in our own hearts: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly, these come from within and they are what defile us. Oddly enough I have a few friends who have claimed that it’s all God’s fault. He was testing them with these temptations and they were just too weak to refuse. They wonder why God would do such a thing, but they have no doubt that it is God’s doing. I think maybe we see a bit of that with more than a few politicians as well. I recall trying that excuse myself in younger days, but was fortunate to have some stern voices advising me otherwise.

However, self satisfaction has to be placed very deep in the back of a closet on a high shelf. How many ways are there to commit fornication? Put another way, how many ways are there to sell one’s self for a few bucks, and how many ways are there to try to buy the favors of another? How many ways are there for us to apprehend for ourselves something, anything, that is not ours to have or use? How many ways are there to murder another in small bits and pieces with our words and actions? How many ways are there to “cheat” on our friends, co-workers, neighbors and loved ones? You get the idea; I don’t have to go through the whole list. The point is that these are very common sins of which we are all guilty in one way or another.

Isn’t that what James is getting at in his opening words, that we have to be a lot more intentional about being doers of the word and not just hearers who deceive ourselves?

Thanks be to God that it’s not entirely up to us. A bit later on in Mark we will come to those wonderful words of reassurance that if it was up to us we would never make it through that narrow gate: if it was up to mortals, no one would make it, but with God all things are possible.

I don’t have to be perfect, but I do have to be intentional. As a practicing curmudgeon, that is not always easy, but I shall try.

Olan Mills?

Tell me about your Olan Mills experiences over the lat few years, and in particular whether you have had any feedback on satisfaction with their style of photography, the poses they use, the background screen colors and patterns and the like. Thanks.

Prayer Warriors?

Prayer warriors. What exactly is a prayer warrior? I hear it all the time and often think it is one of those catch phrases people use without thinking much about what they mean. Years ago, some well-meaning person donated a very large mural to the primary meeting room in our cathedral. The smiling prayer warriors, all dressed in medieval crusader armor (the Errol Flynn Robin Hood version) are on the hilltop just outside Jerusalem ready for the charge that will free it from the infidels who most surely are the agents of the very devil himself.

Having taken a quick look at a few of the prayer warrior entries on the Internet, I find my self more confused than ever. I’m relieved, on the one hand, to discover that most introductions about how to become a prayer warrior emphasize that it’s not about trying to change God’s mind or instruct God on what to do. It’s more about being at one with God’s will and interceding on behalf of another in the context of that oneness. On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of blessed assurance about what God’s will is that is more connected to the cultural values of particular warrior groups together with their sure and certain understanding of what it means to have a biblical world view. Moreover, there appears to be an underlying current that in these desperate times of the last days we are at battle with the wiles of the devil and the cosmic powers of this present darkness along with the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, the outcome of which is by no means certain. Finally, there is a sense that we are battling for the souls of those who have not yet accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior. Without prayer warriors God might lose.

These are precisely the issues that many of us will address on Sunday, August 23 in the reading of Ephesians 6:10-20. But we will also be coming to the conclusion of the bread of life passages in John, and in that light I wonder if Ephesians might be read differently. Fed with the bread of life one no longer need fear death, and that means that evil itself, whatever else it may do, cannot conquer. Consider that the armor we are to put on is truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith and the word (Word?) of God. To me these are words that conjure up an irenic, humble and supremely self-confident image of one who is prepared to follow where Christ has already led, not as a warrior but as a bearer of light. Whatever the present darkness may be, it is made less dark by the light of Christ brought into it by those who follow him. Earlier this week a colleague pointed out that Paul does not request that prayers be offered up for his freedom from chains, nor does he desire the defeat of his enemies, but only that he be given power to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in the place where he is and among the people with whom he is in contact. That is the prayer of one who would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.”

We cannot adopt warrior language without having enemies we are willing to kill, and we cannot be willing to kill until we have dehumanized and demonized them. I confess that, in a lifetime of learning how to follow where Christ has led, I remain largely ignorant of God’s will and mostly have to just “let it be” as I experience the wholly unexpected along this most amazing journey of adventure. But this I know, I am not called by God to dehumanize, demonize and kill, spiritually or otherwise. If I had my way I’d get rid of the warrior language altogether. We are not wise enough for it, and I doubt that there is enough wisdom for it. And I’d get rid of that mural in our cathedral.

Integration of Life as Discipleship

I’m taking one of my own comments from a conversation on the recent post about the Constitution and reworking it a bit as a post of it’s own. What got me started down this path was a cogent point made by my friend Bruno about the linkage between claiming the Christian faith and the responsibility of citizens to take seriously the highest ideals of our Constitution that inspire us to become a nation of justice for all.

The problem, as I see it, is that it is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not just a matter of differing political viewpoints. It has more to do with contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and secular political views that cannot be easily reconciled with them. In my experience, a great many of us are able to compartmentalize our claims of being Christian on the one hand and our daily secular lives on the other. I’m reminded of a Truman economic advisor named Carr who held that private morality and political and business practices should have no connection. As long as an act was not blatantly illegal, one could and should use any stratagem to win regardless of what happens to he loser.

That is a very extreme example and Carr was not lauded for it. But in fact we are able to compartmentalize more than that, and find ways to live in little boxes labeled home, spouse, work, church, friends, etc. We easily find ways to rationalize their separation, but this dis-integration of one’s life inevitably leads to problems of all kinds including physical and mental illnesses that, grouped together, can become social pathologies.

I think it also leads to extraordinary attempts to create the illusion of integration, and am reminded of very wealthy friends who live in neighborhoods designed to create little integrated worlds catering to their needs and tastes but physically and visually isolated from the less attractive realities surrounding them. Oddly enough I have other friends of very modest means who try to do the same thing by living in remote paces isolated from whatever it is that they fear. I also think that the inherent conflicts in this sort of dis-integration contribute to the fear and paranoia of the current “tea bag” kinds of protests.

To be a Christian is to enter into a process of formation as a disciple of Christ, and that formation requires the re-integration of the various elements of our lives. That is always what is at the heart of the healing acts of Jesus and most profoundly proclaimed in the picnic on the beach scene in the closing paragraphs of John’s gospel, but for many it is a painful process that requires a lifetime of baby steps. Jung, for example, may not have understood Christ very well, but he fully understood the need for that kind of re-integration as an essential part of mature emotional well being.

We are not required to be Jungians, but we are required to understand a fundamental element of our Christian faith to be a transformation in which the totality of our lives become integrated into, with and by the teachings of Jesus. Consider the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate as a model for what that means. What follows is a the familiar Cecil F. Alexander version:

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

It’s been made into a very long hymn, and with a couple of changes of tune and pitch, it’s not all that easy for some to sing. Its strong message of the integration of one’s life with Christ is an even harder thing to accomplish. I suspect a lot of pastors just skip it and congregants are happy to avoid it. Obviously more to be said.

Psalm 119 – An Adventure in Faith and Life

There was a time when I found Psalm 119 to be the most boring of psalms as it droned on and on about the law in such obtuse ways that I lost all interest in reading it. I’m not sure when that changed. But somewhere along the line I began to sympathize with its author (or authors) because I saw in it a very genuine struggle with what it means to live in harmony with God.

The psalmist loves God’s law but does not understand it. He has studied it all his life and does not know it. It helps him through every day but troubles still overwhelm him. Enemies of God’s law prosper and oppress while those who follow it suffer. He knows more than all his teachers and knows nothing at all. He is afflicted and prays for healing yet proclaims his afflictions as the gateway to understanding. His lips are filled with praise, adoration, supplication, complaint, desire for revenge, thanksgiving for intimacy of life with God and confession that he has wandered away from God to become a lost sheep.

It portrays a life filled with contradictions that could tear it apart, but it is held together by the over arching and underlying presence of a God who lives in an intimate relationship with the psalmist, and whose ways provide unlimited trustworthy mid-course corrections amidst the confusion of daily living.

Skeptics no doubt would label it as a life held together by delusions and childish fantasy. Such lives have a very hard time dealing with reality in any form, but the psalmist seems to have a firm grasp on his own character and the conditions that surround him. I see him as one for whom the ultimate reality, the “ground of being”, has thrust through ordinary character and conditions to open a pathway toward a different way of being, one that is able to live in harmony with itself and the conditions that surround it because it is in harmony with ultimate reality. In that sense it sounds almost Buddhist, and that may not be all bad. The ‘almost Buddhist’ ends with the recognition that the psalmist is very aware of the presence of injustice and understands that to live in harmony with God is to seek justice not only for himself but for the whole of his community because justice is God’s way.

In short, I have come to treasure Psalm 119 as an adventure in faith and life. Reading and meditating on it has become a joy.

The Whole Constitution or Only A Part Of It?

A number of gun toting protesters at presidential events have made the public eye, along with the rancher from Montana who announced that he was a proud member of the NRA and believed in the Constitution (he was not carrying a firearm and asked some very good questions). My question is, does he, do they, believe in the whole Constitution or only the NRA version of the second amendment? It’s an important question. After all, the Constitution contains seven articles and twenty-six amendments (keeping in mind that one enacted prohibition and another repealed it) interpreted by over 200 years of Supreme Court decisions. Some protesters have yelled out their fears that the current administration might be stripping away their constitutional rights. I don’t recall them yelling that out when the previous administration actually did strip away rights. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.