A Confession, A Liturgy, And the New Ancient Way

This is a multimedia post. Please take the time to listen to the pieces as you read along.

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This is a thing about which I have not written much. It’s a thing of shame, of hot regret. Lord have mercy.

Fifteen years ago, I was employed by a burgeoning mega-evangelical monster in the heart of the midwest. It was a conservative denominational church, one which touted its full orchestra and hymn-driven worship services. We were put together with buttons and ties, and the lot of us considered ourselves the guardians of the Old Old Story. We were not welcoming to those seeking God, or being drawn by God, or coming to God one way or another. (Soteriological semantics aside.) This is the kindest way I know to describe us.

It was the turn of the millennium, and the American church was progressing past the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition—oh, the politics of the faith—and was transitioning into a sort of widening. The seeker-sensitive Bible churches were on the move, and the people were flocking to hear those pastors who donned jeans and sported less rigid hairdos. They were hip churches, churches with cool bands, and good lighting. They were adding hundreds, sometimes thousands in very short spans of time, and we lamented this in the office of the Old Old Story. The church was going the way progress, of liberalism.

Nothing brings a family together like a common ideology to oppose, and this new seeker-sensitive church movement became ours. The chief offenders were two. One will go nameless. The other was the booming mega-church of Illinois, Willow Creek Community Church. The common attack went something like this—the folks at Willow Creek were too loose, too permissive, too culturally sensitive, and they were willy nilly in their steering of the broader church.

Thank God we were not like them.

The truth is, we were a church in the middle of a building campaign, and I wonder how much this had to do with our criticism of Willow Creek. After all, if seeker sensitive services became the modern mode of the church, if it became the primary expression, it might lead to a loss of congregants, to the exodus of those who’d signed pledge cards. This might sound crass, or counter-judgmental, but I was there. I know who we were.

It’s interesting how we clung to all those judgments born from so much fear. It was the fear that drove our judgment, our pride, the assumption that we were the put-together ones. There was no room for confession, or imagination, or humility. There was no room to celebrate the work of our brothers and sisters in the modern movement of the church, especially the work of the folks at Willow Creek.

It's been years since I was on staff at that conservative mega-monstoer, and I left all that self-indulgent fear behind some time ago. I hung up my certainty in certainty, pastured the non-essential points of theology, or doctrine, or dogma. Amber and I walked in a different direction, and for a season I hated the stewards of all that conservative fear. Sometimes, I the old hate still crops up. It’s part of my own human condition.

Can’t we all admit together we’re not fine?

The story behind the story can wait for another day, but let me be clear in saying it this way: I’m still actively repenting from my participation in the power matrix of fear.

Active confession, active repentance: aren't these the foundational stones of the true and ancient faith? Isn’t this the way of The Way?

It’s ironic, really. All those years ago we lambasted a church in Illinois that we’d never attended. We had no connection with its staff. We had no interaction with their congregants or the products of their theological outworking. And last night, nearly fifteen years later, I sat at my office desk and listened to music created and produced by one of Willow Creek’s musicians. It’s called a "A New Liturgy" (the music attached to this post), and it pointed me to the ancient way.

What is the ancient way? Recognition, confession, repentance, belief in the abiding presence of Christ in our daily lives—these are ancient. The church has been celebrating these since the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

The music pushed me deeper into that ancient story, and if this is the fruit of Willow Creek’s ministry, I’d say it like this: it’s good. And if you asked me to put it another way, I might say it like this: this is the clearest proclamation of the Gospel I’ve heard in music.

I'm not saying that Willow Creek has it all together, or that the conservative church of my way-back-when had it all wrong. Neither is the be-all-end-all. Life rarely works in these sorts of all-or-nothing dichotomies, see. But here's what I can say. For so long, I clung to systems all white-knuckled until those systems turned to ash in my hands. Open handed, the ash blew away on the wind of the Spirit and I was left with nothing except an open hand. Maybe that’s the point.

Now, I see the beauty in the Gospel story as presented by some of my mega-bible church brothers and sisters. I see  it in the beauty of the liturgy of my Anglican brothers and sisters. I see it in the orchestral performance of "The Old Rugged Cross." It's not all or nothing. It's not us versus them. It's only the Gospel, wherever I find it.

In time, and in humility, grace changes things. It covers a multitude of sins—pride and dogma included. It opens our eyes to see how many of us are trying to live and share the Gospel message the best we know how. The best we know how is all we have.

Oh to grace! It cuts the crap and leads us in the way everlasting. Doesn't it?

Amen.

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This is a small story, a story about how I've found myself out of sorts with my earlier systems of belief. Sarah Bessey has written her own book about this very thing. It's titled Out of Sorts, and I do hope you'll FOLLOW THIS GREAT BIG LINK AND PRE-ORDER IT TODAY.

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And if you'd like to support the musician who cobble together A New Liturgy, you can find their music here.

***TINY LETTER***

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Viral Blog Posts or Local Liturgy?

There was a time when I hoped to write the great American novel, the one studied by students in universities forty years from now. There was a time when I hoped to write the definitive poem on the present American context. And if these were too much to ask, I harbored a secret hope to write at least one viral blog post, a post that took on a life of its own, one that was picked up by CNN, or The Huffington Post, or Christianity Today. It's the goal of every writer, after all, to have his words recognized. Make no mistake, I would love to participate in the success of larger-than-life novels, definitive poems, and viral blog posts. These days, though, my writing goals have begun a sort of slow shift.

A few months ago, I was reading the Wendell Berry essay, "Wallace Stegner and the Great Community." The essay, as the title denotes, is a celebration of Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and author best described by Berry as a regional writer. Of Stegner, Berry writes that he was a "naturally... reticent man, not given to self-revelation or self-advertisement...." From that humble position, Stegner was content to focus his literary efforts on the exploration of his local context, and wrote primarily of the American west. Of regional writing, and the lessons learned from Stegner, Berry writes, "if one both lives and writes in one's region, one becomes aware of good reasons to be more watchful and more careful."

This leads me to the crux of it. Once I hoped that I could pen a few viral words, and on some days, I still nurse those hopes. Lately, though, I've been considering the concept of regional writing. I've been considering working within the local church to create and curate readable, relatable, yet stretching liturgical pieces. These aren't the words that will make a man famous, there is no doubt. But this quieter work feels small and right. It is the kind of work that gives a congregational artist "good reason[] to be more watchful and more careful."

In the last month, I've written pieces for my local church body and for an ecumenical gathering. The pieces grew from a particular American context--the Ozark region to be exact--and were offered to the people of that region. I've had the joy to both read, and watch the pieces be read over those congregations. I've felt the deep sense of connection between the words and the people. I've had conversations after both services about the words, how the participants enjoyed them, or disagreed with them, or felt the tension in them. These interactions were not comments in a viral blog post; instead, they were honest-to-God, in-the-flesh human interactions. There was give-and-take, push and pull.

I was privileged to share two poems at my home congregation yesterday. We were in the gospel of Luke, and discussing the concept of the Kingdom of God. Had you been there, this is one of the pieces you would have heard:

“Cash is King,” they say, and if this is so, the kingdom is the market where we, princes and paupers are made subjects. It is an envious, green king, which bends us only to our own desire.

“Democracy is King,” the patriot says; this is coarse metaphor. By it, he means only that most effective rule is best centered in the will of the majority, in the ability to judge ourselves as just.

“Elvis is King,” the folks from Memphis say. He was a man fueled by fried peanut butter banana, and bacon, by Rock and Roll, by pills. He was benevolent? Maybe. A slob? Perhaps.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not a green kingdom that leads only to temptation.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not the kingdom of liberty that knows only men’s will.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come; not the kingdom of suede, of cardiac sandwiches.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come! With reshaping power, with glory to silence all rock cries, come!

Come a conduit from heaven’s coffers; Come with a level for the rich and poor alike!

Come like the seed of forgiveness, the speck that’s planted small and sprouts into the eternal tree of life come!

Come with a new, lasting language, that bends every knee, cypress and human alike.

It seems to me that the best use of our gifts is first within the local context. Perhaps those gifts will one day reach the masses, will spread far and wide and make our names and faces well known, but that isn't the primary goal. The goal is something smaller, something eternally more humble, something that starts small like a seed planted in local soil (be it Ozarkan, Californian, or Appalachian) and grows into a well-rooted tree.

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The Preface (Psalm #6)

On Monday's I've taken to writing psalms. I penned this one recently in the nine o'clock hour of the Sunday-go-to-meeting, which I suppose is as good of a place as any to be writing prayers.  Please don't tell my preacher. For those of you who are unfamiliar with more a liturgical church setting (i.e., mass), the italicized words come from the prayer preceding the Eucharistic cannon, which is sometimes known as the "preface." This portion of the mass is my second favorite, as it contemplates our hearts being raised up to the throne of God. Of course, there are minor variations among the more liturgical protestant denominations, but the essence remains the same across the board, and is captured below. Yesterday, as I moved through the protestant machinations of the Sunday-go-to-meeting, I found myself missing the preface, and so, I started repeating it to myself. It's funny how childhood things creep up on you from time to time.

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The Preface (Psalm #6)

The Lord be with you.

By prayer and meditation, we are divided; tender sympathies from alter ego, suit color from skin, we are peeled back like the midnight blue from dawn’s dew grass, where new creation sighs the gentle, easy coming of morning.

And with your spirit.

You have created in us endless opportunities hidden among traffic jams and horns honking their fitful good-mornings, their restless official tinkerings. You have woven us into the fabric of the serpent quilt— oh, how we might together become our own gods!— but left a thread-tail, for pulling, and pulling, and pulling us free.

Lift up your hearts— peel us back!

We lift them up to the Lord— we, the endless opportunities!

Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God— pull us, pull us, pull us free!

It is right and just— to give you thanks and praise!

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