Experiencing More of the Church

My three kids are, obviously, pastor’s kids. Yes, that alone is enough to keep them in prayer. But for them, church has been a certain way all their lives. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean they have had a pretty narrow experience of church. Not only are they mostly familiar with Baptist churches, they are mostly familiar with our Baptist church. I know, I know. I can just hear you, “What? Not all Baptists are the same? Get out!”

Beyond that, of course, they have had very little exposure to other Christian traditions such as Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.

However, a few weeks ago my wife and I took our two sons (Alas, we couldn’t convince our 16 year old daughter to join us) to an Ash Wednesday service at the nearest Anglican Church. It was the start of the Lenten season of the church and we wanted to begin it the right way.

For our sons, who are 12 year old twins, it was a very strange experience. The priest wore liturgical vestments (which they called robes). They thought that was cool (and for this reason said I should get some robes for myself). There was an altar at the front of the church rather than a pulpit or music stand for the pastor’s sermon notes. Much more of the service felt formal, of course. And we had to go forward twice, once to receive Communion and once so the priest could place ashes on our foreheads.

It was not at all Baptist-like.

Now, since I have been on vacation during our kids’ March break, yesterday we had the unusual opportunity to attend another church on Sunday morning. We could have gone to any number of churches that would have been very similar to our own, where we would even have known the pastor and some of the people in the congregation, but we really wanted to do something different. Both for ourselves and for our kids. So we went back to this same Anglican church yesterday for a regular Sunday service.

Interestingly, the priest of this particular Anglican Church was raised a Southern Baptist. Given that I was raised Roman Catholic Church and am now a Baptist pastor, it made me wonder how his journey of faith would compare to my own.

Here’s the thing: Our own experience of church–mine and yours–can often be so limited. Understandably, since we can only visit churches of other traditions and styles so often depending on where we live and the opportunities we have. But this can mean that our vision of what church means and what being a Christian means is also narrow. Sometimes by virtue of our limited experience we can reduce what is right, good, and true to our own tradition. We can go from having a limited experience of church to thinking that our experience ought to be normative. How we do church is how church should be done.

Looking back at my own life, I am grateful that I have had the chance to experience a variety of churches. In addition to being raised Catholic and now being Baptist, I’ve worshipped in Lutheran, Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, United, Wesleyan, and plenty of non-denominational churches.

For me, there are at least three ways in which this valuable. First, just like I came to faith in Christ in large part outside of the church in which I was raised, I need to be open to the possibility that it can happen in the same way for my kids. Or that a wider variety of experiences can help them see past the limitations of their own. Christianity is much, much larger than the congregation they know most personally. I don’t want their spiritual journey to be shaped only by their experience of our Baptist church.

Second, there are spiritual riches to receive, and ways to encounter God, by experiencing other church traditions. This is because different traditions have different emphases. I remember, for example, hearing my first sermon in a Baptist setting. I was blown away. I was used to 5 minute homilies. It was such a refreshing change. Indeed, sometimes God can reach our stubborn hearts more easily when we are out of our comfort zones and familiar settings. That’s certainly how God initially got a hold of me.

And lastly, experiencing other church traditions can help us see our own in a fresh light, good and bad. Maybe we (especially if we’re pastors) will see ways of augmenting our approach to worship with practices not typical of our own tradition (in our case Baptist). Most recently, I have made more use of responsive readings and confessions of faith in our worship. I also think it can help us have a deeper appreciation for our own tradition. It gives us fresh perspective.

I don’t know about you, but I can be blessed by God through hymns accompanied by organ or worship songs accompanied by guitars and drums. Both deeply exegetical sermons and more succinct homilies have spoken the word of God into my life. I appreciate quieter, comtemplative worship and more energetic, vibrant worship. I hold in many respects to what one might call “mere Christianity,” the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 1:3). Churches that are orthodox, affirm the earliest creeds (The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, for example), and the authority of Scripture, are ones I feel able and welcome to worship in. Whatever else is true of the particular church beyond that, I can rejoice that I have a much larger family of brothers and sisters in Christ than I am usually aware of.

Reading to Slow Yourself Down Part 2: Reading as a Way of Listening

“He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.”

John Bunyan

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”

C.S. Lewis

So this morning when I first woke up it was somewhere between 6:00am and 6:30am, and immediately my mind turned to making breakfast for our twin sons (who can’t always be trusted to make healthy choices) and getting the laundry out of the dryer (because I needed clean socks, of course). Then, thankfully, instead of leaping into whatever tasks lay before me, I did my morning prayers from the Daily Office, trying to slowly pay attention to the words rather than rush through them like another chore to check off my list.

The Daily Office this morning included Scripture (John 14), prayers (including the Lord’s Prayer), and the Apostles’ Creed. Reading these ancient Christian texts regularly immerses me in a narrative, a worldview, through which I can then approach life and see the world around me. Such liturgical practices orient me so that the other voices competing for my attention and allegiance (media, consumerism, politics, etc.) are gradually stripped of their influence. They also help quiet the internal voices of misguided desire, insecurity, anxiety, and expectations. It’s a way of allowing another, more foundational Voice to have greater power over me and in me. Like Lewis says above, it means “listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”

Such listening can’t happen in a vacuum. In other words, it’s not simply about sitting quiet and still and waiting for a voice–a sense, an impression, a feeling–to descend upon on our hearts and minds, bringing calm and focus. Though, truthfully, most of us could stand to spend much more time being still and quiet. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” No, what I mean is that reading Scripture, paying attention to liturgical texts such as the Apostles’ Creed, making use of traditional prayers like those in the Daily Office, is a form of listening. One that followers of Jesus, I think, are obligated–invited?–to use as spiritual resources in their apprenticeship to him. This is especially and primarily true of Scripture.

We are always being formed. We are always following a narrative. The question is: Which narrative? What is shaping our attitudes, the posture of our hearts? What is forming us? At the risk of pulling a Bible verse out of context, listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:29 should be happening to each believer in Christ: “For those he [God the Father] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Conformed to the image of his Son. To conform means “to give the same shape, outline, or contour to, “to be similar or identical,” “to act in accordance or harmony.” In other words, we are called to become more and more Christlike. Not just in terms of what he did, but how he did it. Notice that Jesus was never in a hurry. He was never pressed for time. He was always acting and living out of his intimate communion with the Father. But here’s the thing: being conformed to Christ doesn’t–won’t–happen by osmosis or accident.

One of the ways it does happen is when we willingly take the time to listen to and to root ourselves in the story of Jesus, in redemption history, in the story of what God in Christ has done, is doing, and will do. It means allowing this narrative to take precedence. It means, honestly, fighting for it’s primary place in our lives. Because there is so much else that is attempting to fill that space. It’s often easier to make excuses and let spiritual disciplines fall to the wayside. There is, after all, too much else to do and think (worry? obsess?) about. Yet we need to pause, take a step, count to ten, to breathe.

Now, lest you think I’m coming at this from some ivory tower or idealistic-pastor-in-his-study point of view, let me assure you that my life is also busy (oh, how I hate that word). I am a full-time pastor. I’m married to a French and Music teacher who is very nearly full-time. We have a 16 year old daughter who does school online from home. We have twin sons who turn 12 next week. As I type this, there is church stuff to work on, laundry to do, rooms to clean, and a multitude of other tasks and responsibilities before me. I know perfectly well what it is like to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. I know what it’s like to want to rush past prayer and Scripture because there’s too much else to do.

But I have also learned what I am like as a person when I do rush past prayer and Scripture. I am less attentive, less patient, less reflective, less prayerful, and less in the moment; and I am more easily tossed about by winds of anxiety, more prone to irritability, and, frankly, more likely not to love others well. I might even become more likely to use more, as our family calls them, “sweary words.” So, yeah, it means not exactly being conformed to the image of Jesus, the God-man who came, who died, and who was raised on my behalf so I could actually experience life as a new human being, freed from slavery to sin and my own selfish proclivity to think of myself first. So, I don’t know about you, but while it isn’t always easy or convenient to make time to “read” God into my life, to listen to him, I know that I wouldn’t have much of a life if I didn’t.