Tag Archives: Spirituality

Domesticated Ritual

Any one who talks theology with me, or just skims this blog, probably already knows this: I like ritual and liturgy. Whether it is the rich practice of the Brethren Love Feast or a simple celebration of the Eucharist, I like me some ritual.

Yet, despite the beauty and significance of Love Feast for the Brethren, it seems we are about as anti-ritual as we are anti-intellectual. That is, we don’t like too much formability or structure. Never mind the fact that a collection of bulletins from any congregation will show just how much we are set in our ways.

Such antipathy to ritual comes in many forms— It is too formal, not enough room for the Spirit; Ritual reinforces a hierarchy foreign to our priesthood of all theology; Too much pomp for our commitment to simplicity; Too much like what Catholics do, and we don’t do sacramentalism.

Brethren come from a long line of radical traditions that, among other things, rejected clericalism and sacramentalism. It is this latter rejection that quickly surfaces in any conversation about the rites and ordinances of the church. We steer clear of any theology or practice that implies something is actually happening when we break and share bread, or when we stoop to wash feet. In good Kantian terms, we simply do our duty in obeying what Christ told us to do. So we often feel most at home in theologies of communion that lean heavy on the memorial aspects of the practice. We follow Zwingli who emphasized not the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but the “remembering” of the event.

With such an emphasis on memorialism we do two things. First, we argue for a thin understanding of a symbol. It is all “just symbolic”— it only points to an idea we hold in our head. Second, because it is symbolic, it must have a limited range of meaning and so we dare not do it too often for fear of the rite losing its meaningfulness. There is a limited range of what can be thought of, so repetition somehow erodes the significance.

To be blunt, I think this is all hogwash. First of all, while the rites of communion or feet washing are symbols, they are thick symbols. They involve our whole body in ways that typical symbols do not. We literally sense the meaning of what we are doing, way below the conscious level of remembering. We feel the implications of what we do on our tongues and with our feet. And when we put these feelings along side the scriptures, our prayers, and songs a whole range of meaning opens up before us. This is what liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop calls juxtaposition. When texts, materiel things, musical notes, and body movements come together meaning erupts.

Second, we tame this eruption of meaning with heavy-handed explanations of what we are doing. We tell the congregation that the bread and juice are “just symbols” of Christ’s sacrifice and love. We over determine the act of washing feet by saying it is symbol of service. To be fair, all liturgies and rites have moments in which we describe or interpret what is being done. However, when we have an anemic theology of symbols, we domesticate the action by limiting their meaning.

I remember a class on the Eucharist in seminary in which we were required to read several sermons by Augustine. I was amazed at the meanings he could elicit without sounding like he was determining exactly what the Eucharist meant. It hit home for me when in one sermon he could say Christ is present in the bread and wine and in the very next sermon he could sound very Brethren and say that Christ is present in the congregation of believers who call on his name. Both are true, and yet one statement does not contradict the other.

To be honest, our fear of all things ritual leads us to a place where we domesticate the rites of the church. When we over-determine the meaning of course we would shy away from regular and repeated practice. The meaning is exhausted as soon as we confine what is possible. And the only resort of such a thin conception of meaning is to rely on “meaningfulness,” that inner emotional response to the moment. And when the newness of that emotion wares off, we are left with an over-determined symbol and a nostalgia for the past. However, when we let the texts, songs, and postures play in the field of juxtaposition, highlighting the range of possibilities, the rite comes alive. It reorients our vision of the world and ourselves. It brings new perspective to the things happening around us at this very minute and draws us paradoxically from remembering to the present.

It was Annie Dillard who said that if we had any idea of the power we invoke when we gather for worship we would bring hard hats to church. Unfortunately, it seems we don’t actually believe in that same power, or at least we are afraid of it. We determine and confine the meanings of our rituals, and spread them far a part in time so that we might remain comfortably stagnant in the past, and domesticate the very wild idea that God will meet us in the present and set us on new paths, opening new possibilities with these ancient practices.

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Inauthentic Me?

I recently had a great conversation with a young leader in our denomination. This person asked the right question: “Do you feel like you can’t be you since you work with the whole denomination?”

It is the question of a generation.

Authenticity is a big deal today. Are you being true to yourself? Are you being who you say you are, or are you morphing into someone everyone else what you to be? And for many today, inauthenticity is the 8th deadly sin.

To be honest, I am not one to champion authenticity. I might cry foul when someone is politicking me or putting up a front, but I don’t think that being authentic is the remedy. I just don’t think we should start making Authenticity, with a capital A, the newest Cardinal Virtue.

Simply put, sometimes the “me” I want to be isn’t the best me. Or to phrase it another way, there a lot of times I rely on a simple motto: The first thing I thought, not the first thing I said.

See, I can get angry. My frustrations often get the better of me and my repines is not the best side of my personality.

I can jump to judgements without hearing the whole story, or taking the time to understand what is going on.

In a personality survey, I test low in “Rule Consciousness.” Basically, when rules make sense to me, I follow them as best I can. When they seem superfluous or overly legalistic, I tend to work from “Ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

And quite frankly, I am naturally anxious. I get nervous about how I come across. I worry as the expectations mount, and fear failure above most everything else. The end result is that I can easily become paralyzed in my anxiety and fear. The easiest route for me is not to try, or to hide away and avoid the possibility of failure.

If I am being me, then these things come out. And sometimes, the post-modern desire for authenticity says that these come without apologies. I am who I am, and I should be me in any circumstance.

In Christian spirituality this often is categorized under “Being who God created me to be.” Or at least that is the excuse. God has made me an angry, judgmental, expedient, and anxious person. Yet, when I live there, I am not the person I most want to be. In old fashioned churchy language, I sin. I hurt others. I hide rather than witness to God’s work. And I don’t enter the doors God has called through.

Think of Moses as he hears God’s call to return to Egypt as a liberator. “God, I can’t do that … that just isn’t me.” Yet, in the presence of God’s call the true self emerges. Its funny as we read through Moses’ journey from the Sinai to Egypt he makes all the speeches. His “press secretary” Aaron, the one God appointed as Moses’ companion, doesn’t say much. The stuttering shepherd became the eloquent leader.

Our emphasis on Authenticity today has ignored the reality that we each have two selves. There is the me I project and try to maintain, what Thomas Merton often called “the false self.” In the transforming grace of Christ, however, we each discover our “true selves.” We come to know our faults, and yet live into the gifts God has given us for mission.

Unfortunately, I don’t live as my true self all the time. Occasionally the true me surfaces and good things happen, but more often than not I look back and see the parts of me that cause hurt or paralysis. To be sure, the false self can be the one that others try to force onto me. The graced me, the Josh God is helping me to become, fights that projection just as much as the one I create. Yet, authenticity doesn’t get at the True Self. It does not ask me which self I am being true to- the false one, or the one God is leading me towards.

In the light of Christ my aim is to be my True Self, the one I am called to be, not necessarily the one I am.

The better antidote to the vice of inauthenticity is better understood as humility. I am Josh, the some times angry, some times anxious and judgmental. I am the Josh who tries and stumbles and tries again. I am the Josh who has some ideas, but not all the answers. And I am the Josh that needs others to help me see the whole picture. Humility as a virtue says to all those around us that we are who we are, but we are striving towards the “me I want to be.” Humility asks those around us to join that same journey, simply because we are more ourselves when we are with others.

Some might throw up warnings that too much emphasis on “me with others” leads to stifling of my true self. Yet, I think that Rowan Williams says it best in his book Tokens of Trust: “Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others’ lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence.” (105).

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