Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Lutheran visits Methodist services (Part 1)

This summer, again, I am visiting other churches when I can. The particular Methodist church that I visited has an 8:30 service that allowed me to attend there and still make my regular service at my home church. My visit was in June, though this write-up is being posted later. I happened to visit during a time after the previous regular pastor had left but before the new one had arrived. That is to say: the church had a substitute pastor, so I don't know if this was a typical service.

The sanctuary

The worship space was reassuringly Christian, with crosses displayed and seasonal dressings on the pulpit. The sanctuary also gave some thought to beauty with its stained glass windows. The projection screens did detract from the otherwise beautiful and timeless interior, in a way.

Liturgy and worship; Methodist particulars?

My previous notes on worship services have had a separate heading for worship and for things particular to a denomination. With the guest preacher at this service, I'm not sure it would be right to assume any Methodist particulars from attending this service, so I'm grouping it all together here. (Though I'm fairly sure the sermon's reference to the brave circuit riders of the frontier days was a Methodist particular, as each denomination had their own approach to getting through the frontier days.)

The service was not one that I would recognize as the standard liturgy. The worship service began with greeting and passing the peace, so it was familiar that far. There was no confession, no assurance of God's forgiveness at the start of the service (or anywhere in the service, for that matter). The congregation confessed the Apostles' Creed, but without acknowledging it as the Apostles' Creed; it was titled "Affirmation of Faith".

There was one Scripture reading (as opposed to the three-readings-plus-a-Psalm that I'm used to) and it was drawn from the Old Testament. That is to say, it was a worship service in which the words of the gospel were not read at all. Neither was there any reading from the New Testament, where I'm accustomed to two New Testament readings. Jesus was worked into the sermon briefly though not in a major way, and Jesus was also in some of the hymns and the "Affirmation of Faith".

There was no communion; I'm not sure how often Methodists celebrate the Lord's Supper. The offering was noted as "Tithes and Offerings" as if the Old Testament command to tithe were considered to be applicable. 

In my mind, I couldn't reconcile the fact that there were liturgical colors on the pulpit with the fact that the Scripture reading showed no sign of following a liturgical reading calendar. Considering that there was a guest preacher, I left that as a question for some other day.

The hymns / songs

During the service, the plainest reassurances of God's love were in one of the earlier hymns. In general, the hymns were singable and had decent tunes. The Doxology was sung in the middle of the service: not where I would expect it, though still welcome. The closing hymn was the biggest surprise. It is a song that I strongly doubt would ever be included in a Lutheran hymnal. (I checked a couple of Lutheran hymnals and it is definitely not included in those.) It was literally the end of the service, and the closing hymn had the closing words
A Charge to Keep I Have
"Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die."
The tune wasn't bad, but the content and the timing -- having eternal condemnation as the last thing in the song or the service --  just wouldn't be done. It's a longstanding Lutheran standard that, when condemnation is mentioned, it is not the final word. The final word is hope in Jesus and trust in God's goodness, as is typical of the majority of books of the New Testament. So it was interesting to see a hymn that closed with such words, and to see it placed so that the entire service closed with such words. It did follow the same pattern as the other differences I've seen about whether grace is considered as important to Methodists as it is to Lutherans.

The Sermon

The sermon was about acting in faith and hope for the future; the text was Joshua crossing the Jordan. The sermon was mainly about not giving up, about moving forward to a new future. The sermon was largely geared toward their current situation of being between pastors. The preacher did manage to include assurances of God's presence wherever we go, though the main point was about not giving up or being complacent with standing still and settling.

I found the sermon unusual this way -- and it may have been the guest preacher or the occasion of being between pastors: There was more ... I'd have to call it self-congratulation ... than I can recall hearing in another Christian service before. The preacher assured the congregation time and again that their church was known in the community as one that prayed. And, again, the preacher assured the congregation that their church was known in the community as "the church that cares". (I've never heard that this particular congregation has any particular reputation; my own either for that matter. So I chalked up those comments as mostly cheerleading, more about building a positive self-image or encouraging them through the transition than anything else.) I didn't know what the congregation might have gone through during the transition, or whether this was something just for the awkward in-between times.

The sermon included the sadly obligatory "distancing ourselves from the others" (disparaging others) comments that you hear in so many churches, my own included. This particular church congratulated itself on being a congregation where everyone is welcome, "unlike some churches where that wouldn't be true, where they don't accept people who aren't like them" (met with nods and murmurs from the pews). Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to ask the preacher what exactly was the subtitled translation there; the reception line after the service was quick-moving so there was no chance to ask. In liberal Lutheran churches a phrase like that would have been in reference to the debates over homosexuality and a disparagement that conservative churches would ask abstinence of a homosexual, but I'm not sure if that's the translation in those particular Methodist circles.

The prayers

The congregation prayed twice during the service, briefly. Rather than mentioning specific people and circumstances during their prayers, those were found in the prayers section of the bulletin. There were no details on what the individual prayer concerns might be. They did pray the Lord's Prayer during the service. 

The leadership

The leaders were dressed in street clothes, without a stole or robes. While the preacher didn't wear a robe, the acolyte did; I wondered why the difference. (I can't imagine the dress code matters much, I mention it more from curiosity.) The only thing that I didn't expect was that they had an official song leader for the songs during the service. A woman with a clear and easy-to-follow voice stood in the front by a mic and led the songs. All in all, there was nothing too unexpected in the leadership. I would likely get a clearer idea of their leadership if I visit again after their new minister is installed.

The congregation

The people seemed a little standoffish, though I don't know whether it was because of my having hit the earliest service, and I didn't see any coffee pots around. (That's a sure sign it wasn't a Lutheran service: no coffee pot that I could see.)

And back at my home service

I was very glad to hear my pastor skip the common reference in the sermon to how different we are from other groups (read between the lines: better). I really wasn't up for that twice in a day. Though it may have been because the sermon text was on Paul's warnings about biting and devouring each other with evil talk.

Paul's warning is really on-target for me in particular as I try a delicate task of visiting different services, and hoping to give a fair hearing to each. There is no way that a single visit to a church can do it justice, and our differences cause me to spend much of the service getting adjusted to what the current congregation is doing, rather than being able to see it for itself. I'll admit plainly that my visit to the church without any New Testament readings, a sermon that was 90+% exhortation, together with that particular closing hymn left me fighting a strongly unfavorable impression. But it was a guest preacher, I keep reminding myself. I have seen some guest preachers at my own church that were far more questionable than that. It would definitely be unfair of me to draw too many conclusions from this one service, and I'd like to visit the same church again sometime. (Which is the topic of the next post ...)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When the prodigal's older brother teaches religion

Once Jesus told a story of a man who broke off his relationship with his father, demanded his inheritance and left home. Much later, after learning some humility, he returned. He returned because things were hard -- and because every hardship reminded him that things did not have to be that way. Compared to his current situation, he knew that his father took better care of his hired men than that. He had a basic trust in his father's goodness that set his feet on the path home. But he still underestimated his father; he planned to ask for a place as a hired hand. He didn't really understand the depth of the love the father held for the one he brought into the world.

Neither did the older brother. When Jesus originally told the story, the older brother represented the religious people, the ones who thought less of grace -- specifically, forgiveness and redemption. It may be because they thought they were already doing the right thing. Did they think that grace was a bad idea meant for bad people, and would undercut their hard-won goodness? Or it may be because they thought it was all about doing the right thing. The older brother always did the right thing, didn't he? While the younger son thought he came home offering to be a hired worker, the older son spoke as though he had spent his long years as a slave. Jesus tells us that the older brother said just that to his father: that he had slaved for him. Just like the younger son, he insulted his father's love and denied the bond they shared. Even though he was "good" (obedient) because he stayed at home and did what his father asked, he did not get to know his own father. The older son did not understand the father's love any more than the younger.

There is a kind of earnest religious rule-follower who is just as much a stranger to the love of God as someone wasting his life in riotous living. The man of hard-working piety is at risk of not knowing what he is missing, because technically he never left. Grace is the gift that the older child should have enjoyed by staying at home. As often as he strives for obedience to God, does he enjoy fellowship with his Father? Does he think that grace is for losers instead of being the ultimate prize?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Paradise to the ends of the earth

God's grace and goodwill towards the earth were established in the act of creation. If the path he has laid out for us is to follow him and to be like God, then what do we make of paradise?
And God blessed them, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it: have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant that bears seed upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, for food.
And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, having the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food" and it was so. (Genesis 1:28-30)

God set up humanity to understand other creatures and care for them. We call the animals by name, just as the Lord calls us by name. (As per the quote above, the book of Genesis says that in paradise, humans may have "ruled over" the animals but were not to eat them.)

Seen in this way, Eden is a template for how we should fill the earth and subdue it. God's establishment of paradise is an action that he calls us to continue, where he intends for us to walk in his footsteps. Later models of "subduing" things were corrupted by sin. But the right kind of rule makes things flourish and prosper, being better than before. The right way to "fill the earth and subdue it" would turn the whole earth into a paradise, keeping to the pattern that God showed.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Grace and a less selfish view of the law

I have heard many people talk about the role of the moral law in a Christian's life. Almost all of these talks have followed one or the other of these patterns:

I have heard this among groups that emphasize God's forgiveness:
The law condemns us. At best, it humbles us and leads us to repentance. But if we do not repent -- if we do not receive grace -- we should recall that the law is set to condemn us entirely for even the smallest of sins. In the law, we see the opposite of God's grace: we see his righteousness insurmountably above us and his wrath turned firmly against us.
This next I have heard among groups that emphasize man's obedience:
The law shows God's legitimate expectations of us; our faithfulness is not optional. We are to live up to God's standards, pursue our sanctification, reach towards our own perfection, and remain free from sin. A Christian may remain free not only of outward sins, but even of sins of the heart. By works done in God's grace, the faithful may fully satisfy the divine law. God's grace is something with which we cooperate in working out our salvation.
In both of those cases, the general outline may not be anybody's idea of a complete view of the law, but instead the part that seems most useful to the speaker's purpose at the time. The church I attend generally acknowledges three uses of the law: 
  1. To restrain our sin and our evil impulses;
  2. To show us our sin, bring us to humility, and lead us to repentance;
  3. To instruct us in righteousness and give us a rule by which to live our lives.
In practice, the church I attend focuses on "the second use" of the law, that is, humility and repentance. Some other churches tend to focus on "the third use" of the law, that is, holy living. (I think that "the first use", restraining sin, has been neglected all around to our own harm. People seem to suppose that our insistence on repentance or holy living will replace the need to restrain evil. The theory sounds plausible but that hasn't been working out too well for us in practice.)

When we look at the law and how it restrains our sin, we do not see the love of God there. "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" does not sound like the love of God to us, so we think of it separately from the love of God. We think of it as a merit or a duty or a call to holiness.

"You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" does not sound like the love of God to us -- but it is towards our neighbor. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" is again not so gracious towards us -- but our neighbor should be smiling by now. Imagine if you were certain that everyone you knew would not steal, or try to deceive you or your loved ones, or murder, or scheme after your spouse (or your family members' spouses), or even badmouth you behind your back. Is there anyone who has not endured heartache on those accounts, either for themselves or for a loved one?

We look at the law and don't see the love of God because we are so self-centered. If God's grace towards the world is supposed to be about us and what we receive, then the law has nothing to do with it. But what if the law is about something else? What if it not meant to ensure that God is gracious towards us, but that we are gracious towards others? What if it's not about us, but about our family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors? What if the law is about not lying to our neighbor, and not telling tales about our coworker, and not taking his stuff, or sneaking around with her husband or his wife? What if it's about not holding it against them that they have the newer car or clothes? What if the law is the next expansion of God's love -- not about God being gracious to us, but about us passing it on to our neighbors? What if it isn't about us earning or achieving or meriting anything, but about how God was gracious to us first? What if the law was never to make us better than our neighbors, but better for our neighbors? Just as our righteousness is "from faith to faith" (from God's faithfulness to our faith/faithfulness), it is also from grace to grace: from God's graciousness to our own. And the law calls us to be just as steadfastly gracious as God himself.

When we call on the the law to lead us to repent, or to restrain us from the wrong path, we may be diligent, or grudging. When the law instructs us in righteousness, we may be dutiful. But when the law instructs us how to spread the grace of God and show it to those around us, we may take up the task more willingly. Our love to each other is the point of the law; that is the reason that love fulfills it.