What is Church For?

I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about church. Not God, or scripture, or prayer, but church. My church, their church, the Church, all the churches. Church culture fascinates me, even when I disagree with it. This fascination has buoyed me through several traditions, through years of studying things like history, art, philosophy, and theology, and led me to a season of working at a church doing some of the on-the-ground stuff that makes ministry happen. So I’ve invested a lot of energy – mental and otherwise – in this aspect of the faith. Which is why I feel okay tackling this question.

There was a season in my life where I was really pissed at the church. I had gone through an evangelical phase that left a weird taste in my mouth, and made me not want to be affiliated with Christianity. I started to come back around in college, but even then, I wasn’t totally on board with the idea of church. It seemed kind of like a useless formality: I was getting an excellent Christian education in school, which was supported by a strong community of peers who loved the Lord. But I went to church anyway and kept going back. It seemed like the right thing to do, even before I understood why. Continue reading →

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God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

Life & Worship: Work

This is the first in a short series of posts for the Easter season, which I introduced last week.

During a good week, the average Christian spends about an hour or two at church – singing, praying, and generally acknowledging God – and maybe a few more hours here and there praying, reading Scripture, chatting it up with other Christians, etc. And the rest of that week is spent at work. That’s four or five hours directly focused on God, and 40+ hours focused on charts, diagrams, budgets, or whatever else working people are up to these days.

This would be a huge problem for Christians if work itself wasn’t a form of worship. But it is.

In my last post, I talked about how the activities of worship include anything that is necessitated by us being God’s image-bearers. That’s pretty vague. To get a better idea of what this might mean, let’s start from the beginning:

Step 1: From nothing, God makes everything seen and unseen.
Step 2: God makes the first human (“in our image”), and calls him “good.” This human has a body.
Step 3: God gives that first human dominion, including naming rights, over everything that He just made. He also tells him to cultivate that garden in the East.
Step 4: God stops making stuff.

At this point, we don’t know very much about God or about people. One of the things we do know is that God is infinitely creative and productive, and that He seems to want people to be as well. Before the fall, God ordains work.

Between then and now, God has revealed Himself to us many times in many ways, including and especially by becoming one of us – the perfect human. This perfect human did a lot of really incredible things, turning water to wine, making a feast out of a few loaves and fish, restoring bodies and lives. And this was over the course of just a few years. For the first 30 or so years of his life, Jesus studied, and made stuff.

Scripture isn’t super clear about how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in the details of our everyday lives, but I think it’s pretty clear about this. We are supposed to work.

Now we’re kind of treading some tricky territory. Our society has a…complicated…understanding of work, what it is, what it’s for, how much we ought to commit to it, etc. For the sake of clarity, I’d like to define work as productive human activity that sustains and grows us, our families, our societies, and our world. This is a very broad definition; incidentally, there are literally millions of things that qualify as work (and we’re thinking up new ones all the time!) – each of them good, necessary, and potentially worshipful.

One of the mistakes that our society makes in its thinking about work is that it is exclusively related to one’s job. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because we’re kind of obsessed with our careers or we really like money or something. But the legitimacy of work is not determined by how difficult it is or how much money it earns.

Lately I’ve been reading and encouraged by Margaret Peterson’s book Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life. In this treatise on housework, she points out that “in a society dominated by its monetary economy, it is easy to assume that any unpaid activity is either a form of consumption or an oppressive waste of time. But housework, although unpaid, is essentially productive; it is among the ways which humans can and do participate in God’s own work of creation” (Peterson 38). In the office, we might not be particularly creative, and that’s okay. But we should fulfill this part of our human end at home, first and foremost by establishing a hospitable and flourishing household.

Sometimes we also forget that work is a means to an end, not an end it itself. Work is only good and worthwhile insofar as it achieves whatever it aims to do. To be sure, the general aims of work are of cosmic significance.

And this is why work – all of it – ought to be done well. The quality of one’s work is essential to the Christian. Somewhere along the line, the Church (particularly the Evangelical tradition) lost its way and began to devalue tangible worldly things, including work, which was rendered a mere distraction from God that doesn’t ultimately matter.

In her book Creed and Chaos – which is about the things that ought to matter the most to Christians – Anglican writer Dorothy Sayers includes a chapter about work. She reminds us that “the only Christian work is good work well done” (Sayers 108). She also argues that churches should be very interested in how people conduct themselves after the benediction, saying that “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables” (Sayers 106).

Peterson also makes the interesting and compelling argument that “work is sacramental…In a traditional Christian understanding, sacraments are points at which material and spiritual things come together and God is present and active in particular ways… (work), while not a sacrament properly speaking, may in a similar way allow physical objects and actions to link believers to Christian memory, hope, and present faithfulness” (Peterson 40).

I find all of this deeply relieving. It means that God cares about how I use my time, and not just because He’s jealous that I’m not using it all to pray or something. It means that every day matters, not just Sundays. And it means that it’s not idolatrous to care about the emails I send in the office or the food I cook in the kitchen.

The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

10,000 Children

In the outcry over World Vision’s hiring policy amendment, 10,000 child sponsorships have been dropped. Until a few days ago, these 10,000 children were being fed, clothed, and educated in the name of Jesus. And now they’re not, in the name of…what? Jesus? Scripture? Theology? A culture war?World Vision

In the midst of this mess, I feel bad for World Vision. They found themselves in a lose-lose situation and now people on both sides of the same sex marriage debate are angry with them, they’re losing donors, and board members are resigning. I also feel bad for World Vision’s married homosexual employees or prospective employees, who love Jesus and simply want to help World Vision care for needy people across the planet. And I pity evangelicalism, a movement that is losing followers by the second and drifting closer toward becoming obsolete.

But all of these people and institutions will ultimately be okay, because they exist in the developed world, where our water is clean, our education is free and mandatory, and our battles take place in cyberspace. Right now, I’m really worried about those 10,000 children. Maybe their lives are stable enough to go on just fine without their sponsors’ support, or maybe they’ll get new sponsors or be picked up by another organization. But what if that doesn’t happen? Will they just stop going to school next year? Will their food just run out or something? What about their next round of vaccinations? And how will their parents explain to them that their lives are about to change significantly because 10,000 adults in America got mad about a corporate policy? Will they be confused?

And to those 10,000 ex-sponsors: what did you do with the picture of your former child, the one that World Vision sent you when you decided, in the name of Jesus, to sponsor a child? Is it still hanging on your fridge or sitting on your dresser, watching you go about your day, disgruntled but otherwise comfortable? Or did you just throw it out?

Note: Right after I wrote this, I did some research and learned, to my relief, that World Vision’s child sponsorship program is modeled in such a way that no individual child will actually be significantly impacted by this scandal. Still, I’m deeply disturbed by the mindset of those 10,000 ex-sponsors, who more or less used these children as leverage in a culture war. In a lot of ways it’s kind of barbaric, and is definitely not Christ-like.

A Tradition Worth Returning To

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Icon Depicting Constantine at the First Council of Nicea. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One Sunday morning, a few weeks into my semester in Italy, my roommates and I accidentally stumbled into a Greek Orthodox mass. It was beautiful and mysterious, but we hardly participated. We were much too focused on observing, trying to figure out what was going on, and praying that we didn’t accidentally commit some sort of international/interdenominational faux pas. But after the priest gave his homily, something deeply familiar happened. The congregation stood up and said something in unison, in Italian. It was not the words that were familiar, but the rhythm with which they were said, the pace, the pauses, the melodic quality to them. It was the Nicene Creed, which was, of course, soon followed by communion. For these moments, I was no longer a foreigner in this church and in this country, but at home with the Church all over the world reciting those same words, and the historical Church that has preceded her.

That was the day that I knew I loved liturgy.

I’m writing about this now because I’m one of many millennials who has proudly returned to this kind of worship, and I’d like to think about why this is. This is also in response to a couple of articles that were published last week which speculate about this alleged trend.

The American Conservative’s Gracy Olmstead suggests that millennials are making their way back to the high church because – in true millennial fashion – we’re looking for meaning. Quoting Jesse Cone, a PCA-turned-Anglican high school English teacher, she writes that  “the single greatest threat to our generation…is the deprivation of meaning in our lives. In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God.”

In a soft rebuttal, J. David Nolan, a blogger over at First Thoughts, argues that this turn toward liturgy has less to do about meaning and experience, and more to do with the fact that liturgy is grounded in doctrine and history – it is, for all intents and purposes, objective. He says that “Higher liturgy emphasizes objectivity in worship and thus a more objective connection with God. Subjective experiences of spiritual union with God are wonderful gifts, but for most of us not the stuff of everyday life. In the context of a liturgical service, Christians offer praise and worship regardless of their current psychological state. Liturgy both takes the pressure off the moment and supplies concrete means to pursue that perfect union with God over time.”

The real question here isn’t the sociological “why are millennials returning to liturgy?” but the far more important, “why is liturgy worth returning to, now and always?” Olmstead and Nolan are both helpful in answering this, and I’d like to reconcile their points.

Another anecdote: I came to faith in a context that tended to devalue the material and emphasize the individual’s religious experience. Looking back, I recall many times where I was pretty uncomfortable with this. Why do the things of this world, and my work in it, ultimately not matter? Why am I, and the people who care about me, so concerned about what’s going on in my heart? This approach to the Christian story has compelled a lot of people whom I deeply respect; I find it lacking. Thus, my return to the liturgical tradition.

The greatness of liturgy is that, through tradition and grace, it instills meaning into things while remaining largely objective. Put differently, liturgy makes things meaningful, regardless of how I feel about it – in the liturgical service, my personal feelings are inconsequential. The liturgical service is still beautiful and honoring to God even when I’m bored, stressed, tired, or just apathetic. That said, because of the meaning that it gives to all things – the bread, the wine, the words, the hands that I shake after I’ve been pardoned of my sins – I have a lot of trouble remaining bored, stressed, tired, and apathetic for very long. The pressure to feel anything in particular is gone, but in my experience, I usually do feel something.

Parts of my entitled, individualistic generation are being compelled by that which makes it less about us (or, not at all about us), and more about God and the things He calls good. Likewise, in a culture that has deprived many things of their ultimate meaning and value, some of us are seeking to restore this meaning and value to our material world. And regardless of the reason, this is a very, very good thing.

[Image: George Cooke. “Interior of St. Peter’s in Rome.” United States, 1847.]