Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worship Revolution

161 years ago last month, a man failed in his attempt to assassinate the young Franz Josef I, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In gratitude for this grace, the Emperor commissioned the building of a neo-Gothic church known as the Votivkirche, the "Votive Church."  It's an impressive sight, especially when lighted at night, on the Ringstrasse encircling the core of the old city of Vienna, Austria.  It's a stone's throw from the University, the Parliament, the Rathaus (city hall).  I walked past it many times during the summer of 1968 when I was a student there and lived a 10-minute stroll away.

But it's a neo-Gothic, not a true Gothic church.  It has taken Gothic architecture and given it a strong dose of overkill.  It's a church that was built as a gift to "The Church" headquartered in Rome but with political power centered in Vienna and the German-speaking empire that would last a thousand years.

The church was not built because Vienna needed more seating capacity for worship, more Sunday school rooms, a men's and women's shelter, or a food pantry.  
Like a votive candle, the church was "offered in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion."  Doubtless, the Austrian Cardinal(s), Archbishops, Bishops and priests loved it.  Surely the Pope would have pronounced eternal blessing on Franz Josef and his family.

A tourist guide has this description:

The architect was Heinrich von Ferstel. The most beautiful historic relic in the Votivkirche is its late 15th-century Antwerpian altar, a masterpiece of Flemish woodcarving, representing scenes from the Passion. The main portal sculptures depict the four Evangelists and figures from the Old Testament, along with four patrons of the Empire’s regions. Many of the chapels inside the church are dedicated to the Austrian regiments and to military heroes.   

The interweaving of royalty and the priesthood, the reach of military power and the domain of the Holy Catholic Church had been through centuries, a millennium and a half, actually, by the time the Votivkirche was built.  There had been fights and struggles and murders, wars among popes, bishops, princes and kings.  There had been a Reformation and schisms.  There had been the Thirty Years' War and the Inquisition.  There had been the black death, famines, the Crusades, colonial empires and the slave trade.  

There had been the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of America, the Baroque period, the Rococco, the French Revolution and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  Imperial Europe was still decades away from the Great War, aka the "war to end all wars."  The United States of America had found by 1879 when the Votivkirche was completed, that we weren't so united after all.  Five years of Civil War and 600,000 American deaths at the hands of other Americans could only leave us questioning.

How could such a church be built in a world always astir?  And what went on inside such luxurious buildings?

1.  Daily masses fed by people convinced that going to mass was a good work and was necessary for their salvation. 

2.  A complex and comprehensive sacramental system in which the Church was the sole possessor and mediator of grace.  

3.  People were compelled to serve that system because it held the keys of life and death, salvation or damnation for their immortal souls.  

4.  And there were elaborate worship services with cantors and choirs and pipe organs and priests and deacons and altar boys lining up in grand imperial processions and carrying on elaborately choreographed movements with censors of incense and monstrances and genuflections and kneeling and prostrations and vestments.  All of the prefaces, the Great Thanksgiving, the consecration of the elements of bread and wine (with only the priest being allowed to consume the wine itself) were in Latin, not the people's tongue.   

5.  Not to mention kingmaking and sanctions for wars and strategic alliances and land deals and royal marriages and dissolutions of convenience...  

And some modern day people with no knowledge of Christian history wonder why there is a problem with having national flags in church.  Oh, my... 

Yet, somewhere under this grinding weight of a royal institution, a little of the work of serving the poor and the orphan was done, mostly by the sisters who had devoted their lives to Christ's service on behalf of the church...  or to the church's service on behalf of Christ.  A few bread crumbs trickled down to Lazarus and the dogs while massive amounts of wealth passed through the upper floors of the high-rise hierarchy.  As far as most people knew, it had always been that way.  And always would be.  It was a monopoly.  You couldn't know Christ apart from, or outside of, the official church.  


From a movement that began with Jesus spending time among Gentiles and tax collectors, mentally ill and outcasts, from a small group that met in private homes behind closed doors and were called "The Way," how did the world ever get to the Imperial Church of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, to Notre Dame and Chartres in France, to the Votivkirche and Karlskirche in Vienna?    

It all began in 313 AD with Emperor Constantine in Constantinople/Byzantium/Istanbul.  When Christianity became not only legal but the official religion of the empire, it became royal and imperial.  The prayer circle of two or three gathered together with Christ in their midst became the grand procession of the Imperial Priesthood.  It was a worship revolution.  

It was then that a large number of humble priests and monks left the city for the desert and the wilderness.  They had to get away.  

How could one accept the grace of God and not be humbled and transformed by that?  How could one, after all, be wealthy and comfortable and propserous--while others were hungry, homeless and living in filth--and call oneself a Christian, a follower of Christ?  How could one be a Christian and not give up nearly everything?  How could one be greedy for ever more power and wealth and find no conflict with the way of Jesus?  

How could worship ("church," if you will) go from neighborhood prayer service to production and performance spectacle?  How could it go from gathering in humble homes to building royal "palaces" as sanctuaries--and not have lost its way entirely?  

The Desert Fathers wondered that.  So have I.  So do I.  Still...  

Meanwhile, Emperors can build votive cathedrals at taxpayers' and peasants' expense, and be given Divine blessing for their good deeds.  Souls of the poor can be held hostage all along the way.    

Worship has never been the same ever since...

Next time:  "The Quiet Churches"     


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Early Worship

It probably began as a conversation or a song.  People repeated in chants what they understood of the Divine and their relationship.  Early peoples understood their weakness and vulnerability very well.  Heat, cold, floods and famine shaped life profoundly.  Not to mention the absolute mystery and unpredictability of diseases.  Lifespan was short, and the majority of children did not survive the first six years of life.

Death was always at the door.   Some force had power over this.  If there was a way to offer gifts and sacrifices to favorably influence that power, people were surely for it.

Cycles of life and activity developed around patterns of the seasons and phases of the moon.  There were times for the people to gather and reflect on the mysterious powers that shaped the world and their lives.  Talking to this power, praying to this power, praising this power, being taught and instructed by this power through the words and deeds of prophets and holy persons became deeply embedded in human life.  It created a moral framework in which people understood the rules of life and their place in it.  And it moved people to do powerful and courageous things on behalf of the people.

Such as spending time in fasting and meditation and prayer to be open to the messages of the Divine.  Also, to trust the Divine power to give them strength in battle against human enemies for the good of their families and neighbors.

Judaeo-Christian traditions of worship that have come to us rely on millennia of human experience and spiritual life that provide much of the framework and vocabulary by which we conceive of spiritual matters and who/what we are as human beings.

Every spiritual system in human experience has had one common feature:  etiology.  That is, the body of understanding and explanation for how things came to be.  After all, what's one of the most ubiquitous questions the three-year old asks with each new awareness of the world?  Why?  Why is the sky blue sometimes but not other times?  Why does the moon come and go?  Where does the sun go?  Where did earth come from?  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?

We live with those questions and concerns even as adults.  We add more to the mix.  What is life for?  What makes sense of me and my life?  Why am I here?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why does/doesn't God do something about all this?

Those are still valid questions even today when we know far more about the cause of diseases, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the solar system and universe.  Who/what are we in all of this?  What does the Divine Creator do these days?  What still fits and shapes my life?  Who is my neighbor?  And what does that mean?  Is there good news to be had today?  Where does it come from?  What does it say?

In the worship of the Israelites, there was a deep tradition of reviewing the moral code, or receiving instruction by reading/repeating parts of the sacred texts.  And discussing its meaning for the people gathered.  There was sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people and to say thank you to God for the gifts of harvest.  The song of the people in music and spoken/sung words and notes was a part of that.  The Psalms were always a part of the expression of the people--both the joy and celebration in good times and the heartache and wailing in bad times.

There was time for singing and dancing.  There was time for silence and contemplation.  The Selah interspersing the segments of longer Psalms was probably a musical interlude in which the hearers could savor and ponder the meaning of the words just said.  Music helps us think with our hearts.  

It was prayer.  Thanksgiving and lamentation.  All together.  Sometimes, the best prayer doesn't ask for a thing.  It simply does an adequate job of stating what is.  It lays all the junk and brokenness right out there.  In pieces.  

Water and fire and food have nearly always been a part of worship.  Fire for light in darkness and consuming the offerings.  Water for washing and cleansing and purifying.  Food both for giving and receiving and sharing together.  We people are least hostile, most community-like, when we share food together.  We are more peaceful, more thankful, when we are fed.  Inside and out.

It gives us the opportunity to know and care about each other, to punch a few holes in our isolation.

We have wise instruction from God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  We have Sabbath time out for God and each other, not because God is a vain and needy God who will go off to pout and toss lightning bolts if he/she doesn't get praised right on Holy Day.  No, the Sabbath was made for us because we need it and all it brings.

Early worship established that.  But more than once along the way, we've lost the idea.

Which gets us back to that first question again:  WHY?

More to come...


Friday, February 14, 2014

Why Worship Anyway?

Over a year ago I went on an excursion.  I didn't leave my house but visited a bunch of church websites.  What was the first thing churches wanted to show me?   Interesting...   

Many churches showed me their buildings.  Some showed me their pastors doing a kids' message on the step of the altar platform.  Some showed me groups of happy workers apparently doing landscaping or yard work around the church building.  For some, it was their choir all bedecked in primary colors and smiling brightly.  Still others obviously were proud of their massive pipe organs.  Some showed me groups of standing worshipers in ecstatic response, arms a'waving.  Others, of course, big praise bands.  

Often, there was a focus-group designed paragraph about "who we are."  Carefully chosen words such as "caring, serving, welcoming, loving, diverse, inclusive" followed as their self-chosen affirmations.  All positive, of course.  Though, curiously, I never found the word "humble" in any of them.  Many had mission or vision statements about "bringing Christ to the nations"--as the old Lutheran Hour radio motto said.  

It's no wonder church websites look much like those of other community organizations.  We are, after all, just that.  However, as a friend said long ago, churches are "just the same--only different."  I hope.  But back to the web search...  

One website stood out from all the rest.  Its welcome mat, the first thing a web visitor might see, was not a statement about the church itself.  In fact, it wasn't a statement at all. It was a question:


Why bother?  Why spend time doing this at all?

What followed was breathtaking.  It led me on a journey that was far more like a poem than a densely packed self-proclamation or committee-crafted mission/vision statement. 

There was space between the lines for me to breathe and ponder.  

It talked about life.  It wasn't an ideal, idyllic portrayal of a church that had it all together in a world coming apart.  It also wasn't a judgmental condemnation of that world.

It was the most honest thing I found in the entire excursion.  It rang true.  It sounded like the world I live in. It sounded like the world that Jesus lived in.  

Better, it sounded like the world that Jesus lives in.  It sounded real.

I was immediately engaged.  I wanted to know more about this church.  Not because it had better answers.

It had better questions.  More accurately, because it had questions at all.  With Jesus there in the middle of them.  

I've never known answers to come in the absence of questions.

"Why?" seems like a very good place to begin.  

Jesus is there in the middle of that.  Thanks be to God!