Monday, July 26, 2010

The Right Religion

Evaluating our religious trappings and expressions can be a precarious process that threatens to, in typical vampire fashion, suck the lifeblood out of our meaningful worship moments and gatherings. All the same, evaluation is so vitally necessary precisely because deviating from good practice will forever remain easily instinctive. While I have already broached the subject of praxi fide before, some of that warrants repeating here. Belief and practice are inextricably linked, and both communal and personal expressions of them are wrapped up in what can best be summarized as "religion." I get so tired of the foolish statement often uttered by well-intentioned evangelists, "It's not a religion. It's a relationship." Imagine attempting to apply that type of false dichotomy to marriage, suggesting that a healthy relationship is possible without ANY outward expressions of that relationship manifested in the 'rituals' of quality time, giving gifts, physical touching, words of affirmation or acts of service (borrowing from Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages). It's not a choice between a relationship or expressions of relating. It's relating through expressions of a healthy relationship. So it is with our most important relationship - our relationship with God; and practicing a right religion will be symptomatic of a healthy relationship with him.

"Religion" can be defined as: the service and worship of the divine or supernatural through a system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices maintained within a given culture or community. Such a definition is helpful, but leaves us with the notion that if there is indeed a 'received' system "maintained within a given culture of community," it would not only be necessary to identify the various spectra of communal and personal expressions of that "system," but also ways of deviating from that system as well. Thus, in evaluating observable religious practice, two axis can be offered to form a "grid" for 'plotting' religion in relation to a community or culture. A horizontal axis would be the 'normative' vs 'deviant' continuum, and the vertical axis would form the 'official religion' vs 'popular' (or personal) continuum. Click to image to the right to expand it. In this manner, we can identity where a practice falls in relation to 'received' practice in the culture, in relation the religious authorities appointed to facilitate or conduct the religion, or in one's own personal piety. Along with this graphic, some other definitions may also be helpful.

What is meant by these 'types' of religious practice?

Normative religion: adhering to the accepted practice and beliefs received and codified within a given community (i.e. Sacred Scriptures or cultural consensus).

Official religion: practice and beliefs conducted and/or required by authoritative leadership (i.e. priestly or royal figures).

Popular religion: personal piety of the private practitioner influenced by criteria decided upon by the motives and needs of the individual.

Deviant religion: operating outside acceptable normative parameters related to religious thought and ritual.

These categories help us to organize and make sense of the wide diversity of religious expressions evident in ancient Israel, as well as understand how their history offers beneficial lessons for us today. It also helps us to evaluate religion even in our present day with regard to our own Christian context. For example, a popular idea might have arisen among some Christians that differs significantly from what is taught at the official level of professional theologians within a given tradition. Likewise, certain doctrines and practices can be acknowledged as having been 'received' and codified by all Christians everywhere, thus making them the norm from which someone might deviate.

My contention is that any culture's religious expressions fall somewhere into this rubric, but of course in my own case, it is applied specifically to Christianity. Therefore, the 'norms' of Christianity are determined by what the Apostles and church fathers showed to be the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. This creates the normative Christian religion that official leadership is tasked with leading people to follow. At the popular level, it remains the responsibility of each believer to follow the normative religion prescribed by orthodox authorities. It is sobering to realize that leaders can deviate from the accepted norms, and lead others to do so as well. Not only this, but individuals can, at the popular level, deviate from official orthodoxy also. Certainly any pastor might find it disconcerting to discover what superstitions are entertained by those regularly exposed to his preaching (and thus should know better).

For ancient Israel, all of these categories are well represented in their history. Official normative religion is well demonstrated by the orthodox worship conducted in the wilderness Tabernacle or at the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Yet official deviance is shown through Israelite kings following after the neighboring Canaanite gods and, by virtue of their royal office, leading the rest of the nation to do the same. While normative religion is easy to experience through the popular psalms, hymns and poetry of David, Hannah and others, popular deviance is detectable in the household idols used in the period of the Judges.

The personal ramifications are weighty. Having become confident that authorities over me are leading in and facilitating normative Christian religion, it falls to me to follow it and adhere to those norms at the popular level. It is possible that the leadership could deviate from orthodoxy in some obvious manner (as with the Episcopal Church; ECUSA), thereby forcing me to find new leaders that follow Christian norms. However, so long as my leadership is officially normative, my popular and personal piety must align with it. Some in our culture will champion one's right to choose their religion, but it seems more healthy to exercise that choice to adhere to right religion. After all, it expresses my relationship to God, so there is nothing more important to be right about.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

That's Sacred to Me

Growing up, I heard two contradictory messages from Christian authority figures all around me, though I didn't realize it at the time.

1. God is everywhere and with us all the time. He doesn't need special rituals or spaces to meet with us (as was supposedly the dominant reality of Jewish religion in the Old Testament). "We're not like those Catholics," I was told, "who need rituals, robes and ornate buildings to worship. We don't need all that 'extra' stuff." Buildings, things and job positions aren't particularly "special" to God.

2. "Don't run in church!"... "Don't treat your Bible like that!" ... "Dress in your 'Sunday best'"... "Support your pastor. He's a 'man of God'."

You can see the conflict. There was an overt anti-Catholicism in the Baptist tradition that sought to reject 'elements of the sacred' while intuitively practicing them in many respects. Over the years though, I've come to discover that Protestant traditions rightly maintain this unacknowledged instinct because it has such deep roots among the populus Dei ("the people of God" for all time). What is necessary is not to deny these 'elements of the sacred,' but instead to plainly identify them, properly engaging them in worshiping the Lord. I offer here five categories of "the sacred" that the people of God naturally use in the lifestyle of worship:

  • Sacred Times
One of the most easily acknowledged of these categories is the notion of specific times 'set apart' to God for worship or his particular use. The 10 Commandments includes this with "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates" (Ex 20:8-10). Thus the notion of sacred time is introduced in the Old Testament, and carries forward into the New Testament as early Christians gathered on Sunday to commemorate the first day of the week when Christ arose from the dead. Therefore, the Christian Sunday replaced the Jewish Saturday ("sabbath") as the day of the week set apart to the Lord specifically to worship him and enjoy his provision.

However, 'sacred time' was, by no means, restricted to merely a day. Sacred holidays (feasts) punctuated the calender to create the occasional party 'to the Lord.' In addition, even times of day were designated for 'morning and evening sacrifice.' Sacred time is setting aside particular amounts of time for worshiping the Lord and enjoying life with him.

  • Sacred Space
Though not listed specifically in the Decalogue, the element of sacred space remains ever present throughout the Bible. Though it's more easily observed in the Old Testament (i.e. Moses removes shoes on 'holy ground,' Jerusalem as God's 'holy city' and the Temple as the 'house' of the Lord), the New Testament makes no effort to counteract this paradigm. The early Church appears to have understood this level of their continuity with the ancient faith of the Israelites, developing healthy appetites for the 'sanctuary' as designated space for communal worship. The "Don't run in church!" admonishment of the Baptist church betrays a heritage beholden to the ancient Church catholic. What's more? The front of the church building differs from the rear of the 'sanctuary' (i.e. auditorium or 'worship center' for mega-churches). Even if horseplay is tolerated among children after service hours, they still are not allowed to rough-house on the stage, around the pulpit or across the communion table. People of faith have an intuitive sense of 'sacred space' that suggests to them, "the Lord communes with me there in a different manner that he does elsewhere."

  • Sacred rites
It is only natural that protocols and procedures are in place for interacting with the Divine that acknowledges their superior place over the worshiper. This acknowledgment is essential to demonstrate reverence and appropriate respect to the deity one believes is being worshiped. Obviously, one can get around this by simply not believing that a deity is present or listening, but this amounts to a functional atheism unacceptable to the devout. Communal worship in the Old Testament is the very model of rites and rituals all crafted to reflect the holiness of the God being approached through the system of sacrifices. Though all of these would not be exactly duplicated in the New Testament, echoes of them are found in such NT admonishments to "do everything in a decent and orderly manner" (1 Cor 14:40) and worship descriptions as "They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching [suggests a creedal confession of faith] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread [suggests sacramental communion] and to prayer [lit. the prayers]" (Acts 2:42). Even church traditions that claim to be "non-liturgical" demonstrate this principle in how accepted practices naturally emerge as facilitating worship during the gathering of the faithful.

  • Sacred objects
The tradition is long and obvious that God uses stuff as instruments of his presence and power. Whether it is Moses' staff during the Exodus story, the Ark of the Covenant or the hem of Christ's garment through which a woman was healed, objects have been designated by God throughout redemptive history to convey God's 'localized presence.' The fear of overdoing this instinct into a quasi-idolatry should, by no means, retard the tendency to continue what God has instituted in ancient times. If Paul's quotation of Habakkuk that "the righteous by faith will live" suggests a continuity of faith among the Faithful of all time periods (cf. Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4), then God's use of sacred objects to convey his presence among his people is no less appropriate today than it has ever been throughout time. Thus, abusing sacraments in the NT can carry similar consequences to unauthorized contact with the Ark of the Covenant in the OT (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-30; 2 Sam 6:6-7). One appropriately demonstrates reverent care for those objects used for worship today (i.e. Bible, crosses, communion ware, even worship garments) knowing that reverence employed in handling those objects reflects one's reverence before God.

  • Sacred offices
Within a given community, there is always a clear necessity for designated people, set apart and skilled, to facilitate the communal worship rites. This is not merely restricted to the prophets, priests and Levites of ancient Israel. Presbyters, pastors and teachers are listed among the "gifts" God gives to the New Testament covenant community as well. The office of "Apostle" holds special status as the first of Jesus' followers who are trusted with accurately and effectively spreading his message. Thus, it remains necessary for clergy to be ordained by someone that was ordained by someone that was ordained by someone [etc....] ordained by an Apostle and trusted to succeed them ("apostolic succession"). Even now, 'holy men' are consecrated within a given religious community, and recognized as qualified to lead the community in their accepted rites. Being 'set apart' as holding a sacred office, these individuals fulfill an intermediary function, assisting worshipers in connecting with God, reflecting the ultimate and complete manner this function is carried out by Jesus Christ.

These 'elements of the sacred' are clearly evident in the Biblical record, and are reflected in modern Christian practice as well. The most legitimate Christian practices embrace this heritage and seek to maintain the healthy intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In addition, we have not even addressed here the concept of 'scared people,' that renders the populus Dei as the official residence of the living God (sacred space), with a lifespan dedicated to God (sacred time), who is his instrument of presence and power (sacred objects), who are invited into his courtly presence through royal protocols (sacred rites) and must bear his image and represent him to the world (sacred office). This notion of sacred people would thus render all sin a defilement of the sacred.

I grew up in a tradition that offered contradictory messages about 'the sacred.' I now operate in a tradition that maintains better harmony regarding these. In my opinion, all Christians would benefit greatly from acknowledging their instincts toward the sacred as given by God, and that those instincts, while needing parameters and direction from Holy Scripture and the wisely authoritative fellowship of the Church, are ignored at our own peril.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Run in the Rain

Hurricane "Alex" is primarily south of Houston. In fact, its major presence has been felt where Texas and Mexico share a border. Nevertheless, its influence on the weather extends quite a distance out from its "Eye." As a result, the long reach of this storm has even given Houston a considerable amount of precipitation for a few days (I cannot speak to whether it is more than normal, but the recent downpour has certainly been attributed to the reach of "Alex."). For us, rain is always welcome. There is no tendency in this family to peer out the window and lament that all the fun has been "rained out." No Cat in the Hat will be visiting to cause trouble indoors. There simply is no need to entertain bored people cooped up inside while the water cascades in sheets outside... for we'll likely be out in it anyway.

Water is our "family symbol." This legacy began with my father, Ron Ott, who is a renowned water engineer. Growing up, I always heard about his work developing hydroelectric projects, water collection and diversion systems or water quality and cleanup studies. He was the kind of man that didn't "bring work home" per se, but exposed us so successfully to his profession that we all took pride in his work. I remember wanting to learn the names of various turbine types and the hydrodynamic processes that made water behave this or that way. Water became something we all appreciated and knew about. What's more? We lived on the shore of the Sacramento River. I'd watch its high flow periods, ask about its flood stages and respect its currents. Each summer we spent a week vacation on a houseboat on Lake Shasta, water skiing and swimming from dawn to dusk. Heavy storms were an opportunity to listen intently to the rain beating its excited drum beat on the roof, or check local culverts for unobstructed flow. Water was so heavily integrated into our "family culture" that the logo for my father's engineering firm came to represent more than just his business - it was almost our family crest.

Later on, as I became increasingly aware of the biblical use of water as an analogy for the power, influence and movement of the Holy Spirit, that same family legacy took on spiritual significance. Water was no longer just the family business. It was a means of meditating on God, life and the truths that shape one's thinking. Water facilitates reflection on life, lessons of particular importance and connection to creation for living it out. Water provides a connection to the Earth. It refreshes the land, provides homes for fish and animals, sustains human life and cleanses the landscape. To be surrounded by water is to be surrounded by life. Even at sea, when the water cannot be consumed, it's still teaming with life and creatures of wondrous variety. Streams and tributaries are the arteries of the land. Mountains, valleys, canyons and plains all shape themselves in connection with water.

For these reasons, heavy rain is by no means a deterrent from going outside. On the contrary, it "calls" to me. I hadn't run my normal route in a few days and desired a good jog. The "curtains" of rain outside made it seem like a perfect time to go. Donning my jogging shoes, I left the garage and felt the beads strike my face. It didn't take long before the clothes were drenched, so there was no need to worry about that anymore. One hundred yards into the two mile run I realized that I was a truly loving the whole experience. The iPod remained at home, so only the sounds of the rain served as the "soundtrack" to my exercise. The arms and legs felt every drop striking with exhilarating force. Sheets of water pelted my face, daring me to keep my head up and peering down the road instead of staring down at my feet. Occasional winds moved the water to horizontally hit me from a different angle altogether. The roar of the downpour and the swirling blasts collected into a stereophonic challenge to my resolved, and seemed to yell, "This is too difficult and too uncomfortable for you. You should just walk back to the house now and dry off. This is crazy for you to be out running in this. It can't possibly be enjoyable." In response to the challenge I just smiled wider and plowed ahead.

Being engulfed in the elements of the storm, with the rain beating down upon me, I felt so very much alive. To be physically enveloped in the very legacy of the family and the analogy of the Spirit, all the while feeling the resistance of weather, drove me to glory in the harshness of the environment. "Bring it on!" I screamed in my head. It seemed like such a natural setting - being so intensely resisted by the elements, yet simultaneously being "at home." A powerful and mystical combination, to be sure. The entire moment seemed analogous to other pursuits in life as well, being both unaccommodating and inviting at the same time. In any of those moments I will certainly hearken back to my exhilarating run in the rain, and how marvelous it felt to press on in the face of such meteorological "protest." After all, whatever the clouds sought to throw at me only heightened the sense of legacy, tenacity and destiny. I suspect, because of how therapeutic this was today, I'll likely run in the rain more in the future. I'm sure I'll need it.