Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Line of My People

Lo, there do I see my father...
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers...
Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning...
Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them... the halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.

This is the dying confession of the Vikings in the above movie clip from "The 13th Warrior." It appears loosely based on (if internet sources are to be trusted) an ancient "Viking Death Prayer" dating to well into the first millennium A.D. In the context of that story, it is prayed just before the one praying is expecting to die any moment and enter the afterlife. Many cultures have this custom of preparing themselves for death, reflecting on being "gathered to one's fathers" in the moment before leaving this life and taking that "journey" into the next one. No doubt Muslims, Jews and other major religions of the world all have such an incantation. Certainly a Christian would naturally recite The Lord's Prayer or perhaps Psalm 23 in that final moment. Nevertheless, something should be on the tip of the tongue at that moment to remember one's belief and what you expect to behold when your eyes close for the final time.

The "Death Prayer" in the clip above is highly instructive on a number of levels. Among the chief lessons that should be gleaned, though, is found in line three: "Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning." It has become such a maxim that this truth runs nearly uncontested: rugged individualism is killing Christianity in the West. Individualism has become religiously syncretized with Christianity to the point that when someone is asked to give their "testimony" of converting to Christ, they typically speak only of their own religious decision and conversion, leaving out the familial context into which they were born. The instinct to tie one's self with the family line that has come before is so conspicuously absent that missiologists note with regret that even in churches the difference in greeting stands in contrast to the rest of the world (Inside the U.S.: "Hi. What's your name?...What do you do?" contrasted with outside the U.S.: "Hello. What's your name?...Who is your father?"). To combat this tendency it is necessary to remind people just how "tribal" or "communal" Christianity is meant to be.

This concept is ubiquitous throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Specifically, our focus in class recently was on the genealogical record of 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9. For some, reading through this record can become cumbersome, labored and even curing insomnia in some cases as people pass out. This is unfortunate since this record, and others like it in Holy Scripture, is so important for the reader within the faith community to identify with the ancestral story. One did not simply arrive into life with the LORD on their own. There is a tribal tale to tell regarding God's history with "your people." Over and over again God speaks to the people of Israel with the opening reminder, "I am the LORD your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt..." Communal history and personal identity are inextricably linked.

For this reason, the ancestry of faith becomes the most important story one can know and tell. It is because the ancestry of faith trumps all others that it's such an important source of identity. Even Jesus listed his "mother and brothers" as those "who hear the word of God and do it" (Matt 12; Mark 3; Lk 8). So "the line of my people, back to the beginning" is the ancestry of faith for as long as God has been relating to people, holding them covenantally close to himself as a Father holds his children. This "line" is also reflected in how authority in the Church is passed down. The paradigm of "Apostolic succession" for bishops serves as a central uniting strand in "the line of my people." Quite literally, when a bishop can trace his successive "line" back to the Apostles it offers a powerful visual image of "the line of my people" because it truly is laid out on a chart, tracing this "line" back through the centuries.

In like manner, in worship the congregation joins with all that have come before in lifting our hearts up unto the Lord. This communal/tribal sense of worship is reflected as the liturgy confesses "Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Amen" (emphasis added). Thus even in the the process of worship, we rightly can say, "Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning." Any given Sunday is a tribal exercise wherein our individualism can be shed, confessing that we, along with the whole ancestry of faith, will "dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (Psalm 23:6).

For me, one aspect of a Holy Communion service that feels truly "tribal" (or almost "Viking") is the recitation of the Nicene Creed. In reciting it together as a congregation, we confess the same faith as did "the line of my people, back to the beginning." The Church is "the line of my people." But not merely them, for ancient Israel also worshiped the only God who IS until he was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. So "the line of my people" truly does extend "back to the beginning." There is ONE God and he only ever has ONE people for himself that are charged to reveal him to the world; and since the Church as become what ancient Israel used to be, that ONE people is "the line of my people, back to the beginning."

I can see "the line of my people" in Christian icons, in artwork of the ancient Church, in frescoes and wood carvings. I can see them in the heroic tales of the Reformation or in the succession of bishops in the first millennium. I can see them in the Acts of the Apostles authored by Luke, or the genealogical record of Christ authored by Matthew. The line of my people extends back through English reforms of Thomas Cranmer, the translation works of William Tyndale or the Bohemian John Huss. This line reaches back through the missionary exploits of Saint Patrick or the persecutions of Diocletian. This line spans the globe and includes churches on every continent and throughout time, from Tokyo to Antioch, from Philadelphia to Alexandria. It runs across north Africa and through the Scandinavian fjords. It navigates around the British Isles and under the Cape of Good Hope. This line runs through the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. "Lo, there do I see the line of my people..." of all tribes, tongues and nations that at are my fathers, my mothers, my sisters and my brothers though faith in the Lord Jesus Christ "...back to the beginning."

"Lo, they do call to me..." from around the throne of he that was worthy to receive and open the scroll by purchasing for himself a people with his own blood. "They bid me take my place among them..." worshiping with angels and archangels, hearts lifted up unto the Lord. Because the Lord is our Shepherd, we will dwell in the house of the Lord... forever. Amen.

1 comment:

jenni said...

I'm pretty brain-dead from lack of sleep + the heat from the Church patio today, but I loved this blog post! You write very well, and to all of it I say, "Amen!" And look, I'm even following your blog now. I will be reading ... :)