There are always “Externals”

When do you bow? Before crossing the altar on only upon approaching it? Do you have to wear a cassock and a surplice and a stole, or should you wear an alb and a stole, or is it okay to do a prayer service dressed in a suit and a clerical collar? Of a tie? Or dressed casually? How do you handle communion vessels? What about communion kits you use with shut-ins? What do you do then and how do you do it?

These are questions of ceremony. How the rites, liturgies and prayers are performed, and the pragmatic, practical side of us says, it doesn’t matter. It’s all adiaphora– things neither commanded nor forbidden. As “But as regards genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference (as explained before), we believe, teach, and confess that such ceremonies, in and of themselves, are no worship of God, nor any part of it, but must be properly distinguished from such as are…” (SD X.8) We have freedom. It doesn’t matter. The church growth and contemporary, consumerist worship guys will say that these questions are silly. We don’t need this ceremonial. All this stuff is externals. External to the bare spirit and word, and externals don’t matter, they say.

But it does matter. There is always ceremony. There are always externals. What matters is what external you are using. What matters is what your externals are saying. It’s not a question of using ceremony or not. It all matters. We say something when we dress is tennies and shorts, in clericals and slacks, in cassock and surplice or collar only. Everything is ceremony. Everything has meaning. There are always externals. They are not the “worship of God” as the Lutheran Confessions state, but they do matter. They have meaning and value.

What are saying with your externals?

Chanting the Lord’s Prayer

The rubrics (instructions) in LSB tell us that all should speak the Lord’s Prayer or that the Presiding Minister should chant the prayer and the congregation sing the doxology at the end. But at Grace, the most recent custom is different: all speak the prayer and all sing the doxology. We tried something different on Sunday. We all sang the whole thing. It didn’t go too well. Next Sunday we’ll go back to the way it was before.

Fr. Jonathan: How to Vote like an Ancient Christian

Here’s a lengthy quote from one of my favorite bloggers, an Orthodox Priest, poet and intellectual. When he speaks of Christian tradition and the Ancient past, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s read those guys.

The topic? Christianity and government. And this is not what you’ll hear on any radio station nor television network.

In all of these comments, there seemed to be held, as axiomatic, the belief that the Bible and Christian Tradition know all about voting in American elections.

This belief, it turns out, is unsubstantiated. It has no legs.

The idea of “voting” is a more difficult subject than one might expect. In the long history of the church, the vote given to every adult (i.e., universal suffrage) to choose an executive is a very recent thing.

The Church is certainly more used to dealing with Emperors, Kings, oligarchies and plutocracies (like the one we might be in, actually). No matter what form of government, or how intensely anti-Christian (or even “antichrist”) the government was, the Church has been willing to articulate its prophetic voice about certain prevailing concerns.

I suggest that in the use of this new thing — this “vote” — that we follow the Church’s longstanding prevailing concerns (or “values”) when we make our political decisions.

These concerns can actually be tallied up in Scripture (from the pronouncements of our Lord Himself, and also from the Apostles) and in Church History from 90 AD on. What did the Church constantly “complain” about, in the face of the State?

The Church’s “governmental” concern was firstly to be left alone to worship God through the celebration of the Eucharist, in accordance with the Apostles’ teachings. This you can find in the writings of the Apologists, especially Justin Martyr. You might want to call this concern “religious liberty,” but myself, I don’t know — that term, “religious liberty” is tied up inextricably with the concept of modern terms like “establishment” and “separation of church and state.” I rather like some elements of establishment (like certain tax-free amenities) — but this is not at all what the Apostolic Fathers were writing about. And I’m not at all sure whether the Church has evern been sanguine about “pluralism,” either. If we ever get to a state of affairs where we lose our tax privileges, it is not difficult for me to imagine Justin or Clement or Ignatius saying something like “Well, at least now you don’t have to accept the equal validity of other religions, n’est-ce pas?” (I mean, doesn’t it make sense that if you accept at least a rudimentary form of establishmentism, then you must also accept a sort of neo-Roman syncretism, like what modern pluralism really is?)

Another concern was for the treatment of slaves, and the treatment of other disenfranchised people (like women, children — born and unborn, and non-citizens). The Church worked to raise money for the manumission, or freeing, of slaves.

Another concern, especially before Constantine, was about the prosecution of war. For the first three centuries, the Church was largely pacifistic, actively doubting whether anything was worth the horrors of military conflict. Bishop Ambrose of Milan actually locked the door of the church to Emperor Theodosius for his having commanded his troops to massacre 7000 civilians  in Thessalonika.

Another concern was about the appetite for violent entertainment. It was the Church’s complaints, over a few generations, that led the Roman Empire to put a stop to gladiatorial combat. And the Church continued to protest against entertainments that played on violent and sexual themes. The Church has always been more “puritanical” than we’d care to admit.

What became prominent as prevailing concern, stretching over the centuries, was the State’s relationship with the poor. Many, many Church Fathers — starting with James in his Epistle and including figures like the heroic St. John Chrysostom — continually reproached the rich and powerful for their lack of concern about the economic and physical miseries of their fellow man. Chrysostom himself was sent to his certain death in exile because he dared to criticize the Empress for her luxurious aristocratic largesse (Aelia Eudoxia, in haute couture, was lucky to have, willing to join her, a lot of other people whose feelings were hurt by the Patriarch of Constantinople — including the Patriarch of Alexandria and his imperial minions).

Later on, in the exceptional period of time known as the Byzantine Empire, the Church actually invented the idea of the hospital, as we know it today. St. Basil the Great constructed, in his town from his own funds, a vast complex that offered food and assistance to the poor, and healthcare for the sick and infirm. Healthcare and welfare have always been essentially Christian notions — at least, “Christian” in the sense of Holy Tradition.

What is interesting here is to consider what is absent from these prevailing concerns of the Church over the centuries, and under various forms of governments.

Never once did the Church stand for the de-regulation of economic activity, especially usury. The Church has never been “on the side” of free market or business/corporate interests. You may counter that there Christian voices, starting with the Reformation, waxed lyrical about capital and complex interest, industrialism, and the protestant work ethic: if you were to say so, I would gently remind you that laissez-faire theories used to be called “liberal” in the olden days, and were produced by Reformation economic theory that severed the marketplace from the judgment of the Saints (cf. Revelation 20.4-6).

Never once has the Church opposed “Statism” per se, or “federalism” or the centralization of the State. This is hard for me to admit, because I harbor not a few libertarian notions. But the fact remains that the Church has always perceived a single, strong State as an aid to the promulgation of the Gospel. Witness, as an example, the early Church’s very positive view of the pax Romana established by Caesar Augustus — this despite the sporadic (but harsh) persecutions of the Church by Roman officials. The Church has never profited from the breakdown of civilization.

Never once did the Church oppose immigration. Americans, over the course of their short history, have repeatedly opposed immigration. But the Church, in her longer history, has not.

Never once did the Church protest against what we have grown to call today, inaccurately, “socialism.” The Church, historically speaking over the centuries, has never discouraged any “dole” or “welfare” or governmental relief given to the poor. This sort of “Christian protest against relief” is a rather modern anomaly that is troubling, to say the least, and has nothing to do with real Christian values.

Real Christian values — which one expects should constitute the benchmark for Christian voting — has always been “conservative” when it comes to doctrine and belief.

But it has always been quite “liberal,” as it were, when it comes to economic legislation and political enfranchisement.

What You’re Waiting For

We all go through those time periods when life is on hold. We are waiting for the end of the semester, for the baby to be born, the building to be finished, the month to end, the move to happen, the wedding. The worst hold times are those when there is not a cotton-picking thing we can do to prepare–those times when we wait to find out what’s coming next. You put in the job application and wait. You put in the college app and wait for the letter. The work is done and now you sit and twiddle your thumbs and think of all you might have done differently or what will happen and when.

We went through all this last summer, as Marjorie was waiting on this University and that University to decide what she had to do to finish her degree. She made the calls, submitted the applications, did everything she could and meanwhile, we had decisions to make for our family, but everything hinged upon what this and that University would tell her.

If you’re neurotic, these times will kill you. They will eat you from the inside out. And while you wait you miss out on everything else. On life. On the moments of joy that happen every day. You miss out on all these things while you stare at the clock or the calendar.

The trick to surviving these times of waiting and fidgeting and gross neurosis is to remember that all of life is this way. We are all waiting.  “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23 ESV) All creation is waiting and longing and groaning with transitional labor for Christ to come and renew all things. This is life. This is creation. Waiting for the results, for the job offer, for the house to sell, these are simply flies of frustration compared to the contractions we and all this world, visible and invisible is suffering. They are hunger pains while we suffer the true labor of delivery, of the consummation of all things.

It’s almost like a bad joke: You’re impatient in waiting? Hah! If you only knew what you were really waiting for! But it’s no  joke. We wait for Christ and for the new heaven and earth, for resurrection of all flesh. We wait. And when we look for this, for this divine re-ordering of all things, we can begin to see the good that is now, the good that will only be better, the bad that will be redeemed, the frustration that will be filled, the beauty that will be beautified.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Why an Audio Book Holds your Attention but My Sermons Do Not

I drove from Tulsa to Enid and my attention was engaged for whole time. My eyes never left the road but I was in Maine with Stephen King and never left until the last word. Of course, Stephen King is a wonderful author. When reading his books you have the same engrossing experience. Page-turners, they’re called.

That a simple voice coming out of a set of speakers can be so absorbing cuts against the grain of our everyday experience. We live in a fast-paced world of entertainment, a world of jump cuts and three-second scenes, of sampling and remixes, of sound bytes and special effects. You would think a voice reading a text would be as dry as dirt. Coma-inducing.

But when the voice is telling a story, everything changes. Stories rule. We live in a world of stories, worlds of conflict and action, and story and narrative and myth.

We have always lived in a world of stories. Everything from the stories of our own origin, when our mamas told us about the night that we were born, to the stories of grandparents to the stories we learn in school, we are narrative creatures. Plot driven people. We live in story, and tell stories, and think of our own lives in terms of plot and character development, and where it’s headed, and great ideas of steam and structure and where will it all end? What is the purpose of my life? What is the climax?

I think this is the problem, or at least one of the problems, with preaching. It’s not narrative. Preaching doesn’t tell a story. Ok, it tells a story, but not narratively, not in story, with story.

This is not new. This is an old objection, an old observation. Eugene Lowry recognized this and wrote The Homiletical Plot. I didn’t understand when I read it years ago. Maybe I was too inexperienced then, maybe I need to read it now that I have a few years of preaching under my belt. But it is old news. Fifteen years ago at the seminary they were talking about this. They had probably been talking about this fifteen years before that. Of course, they talked about it in terms of lecture, or dialogue, or monologue, or classroom discussion, backspace. Never in terms of plot. Never in terms of a narrative arc.

As far as brilliant observations go in cutting-edge blogging ideas, this is all old, old news. It’s been known for some time, yet the problem remains. Story holds us, makes us, is us. We still can be enraptured with plot, with narrative, with the story. And sermons don’t do that. I’m not sure it can be fixed.

The problem comes in when you consider the nature of story. Story draws the hearer/reader in and forces a subjective interpretation, an explanation of the story. Connotations rule the day in story. But in sermons, clarity rules the day. Objective meaning is paramount. And you don’t get that with stories. Even if the preacher explains the story and provides interpretation, the story takes on a life of its own.

There is not time and space enough here to go into the applications and implications of this, but it does get to the heart of why the bloody hearts of Stephen King draw your attention, but not always the heart of the gospel.

Hearing Books or Reading Books

I’ve listened to two audio books in my life. One by Stephen King and the other by Chuck Palahniuk. Both were much more brutal than I imagined they possible could be. At times I wanted to tear out my ear balls, turn off the radio. I squirmed while hurtling down the interstate at 75mph.

Granted, both were brutal stories. Palahniuk is not for the faint of heart, at least in places. You know what King is like. I know what King is like. I’ve read his novels and short stories extensively. And I’d read Plahniuk before, though not as much.

But the two I read–heard–in the car, their words assaulting my ear drums. It was an auditory hell. Wincing, brutal. It was a particularly bad physical performed by Al Queda torturers. Seriously, seriously disturbing and creepy. It was so bad I had to wonder: was that King novella that much horrific than all of his others I’d read? Had a lucked out in reading Palahniuk’s most accessible and mainstream works before this one?

No. The difference was purely in matter of form. When you read, you can skip over the bad bits, skim over the lines about bones breaking and blood. You can hold your breath in your brain and move on. But not when you’re listening. No, with an audio book the words come unhindered, unstoppable, and the reader/actor lets each one drip and emote. The words and their timbre and connotations are free to pinwheel through your consciousness, aided by the superb diction of the faceless voice coming from your speakers. There’s no avoiding it, no closing your eyes like in a film.

And the imagination is free to roam when listening in a way different than reading. When reading, your attention is always on the page, the little black lines intersecting and curving toward each other, the spaces in between. Reading is visual, and when the images the words are drawing forth are too intense–well, you really are only looking at lines on a page. You are always seeing the page, and the imagination must work to distance what your eyes are seeing and what your brain is telling you.

Not with an audio book, not with a story told dramatically. There is only sound then, the sounds of dripping blood and flesh, the sounds of terror and anxiety, the sound of the breath drawing in, waiting for the next horror.

For the Next Post:

Why an Audio Book Holds your Attention but My Sermons Do Not.