Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Death And All His Friends or Sacramental Practice to Make Disciples?

Twenty-four years ago, when I decided to pursue doctoral studies in Library and Information Science (LIS), many people discouraged me. "Libraries are dying," my boss at that time, Director of an academic library in a University said. "By the time we retire, the library may even be dead. There is nothing to study in LIS beyond the graduate professional ALA-accredited MLIS. If you must get a Ph.D get one in a discipline like English Literature, History or even Education."

Well, I was young and it seemed quite the right thing for me to ignore her pessimism, which I did. I left sunny southern California with its breathtaking beaches snuggling against the coastal hills for the cold, gray Mid-western plains of endless cornfields and pioneer stories. Thus, began some of the most thrilling years of my life in a journey which culminated in my Ph.D. in Library and Information Science. Library and Information Science is an inter-disciplinary field and my own passions spanned two amazing areas: centuries-old categorization (or more broadly organization of information/philosophy) and Computer Science (digital information). The University of Illinois was the place to be. Steve Dorner had just developed Eudora (a mail client) and Marc Andreesen (developer of Netscape) was on the same campus as an undergraduate student. Soon, Marc would be writing the first visual browser for the WWW and I would be one of the first to put my syllabus for the Library Systems course I was teaching on the web besides teach HTML programming to Industrial Engineering undergrads. So I, I  was caught up in becoming an "apostle of culture" besides plodding away for the basic right of "intellectual freedom." I was excitedly foraying into the fields then exploding, digital libraries, electronic publishing, distance learning. (Aside: The phrase "apostles of culture" is a reference to American public libraries; they or rather the public reference librarians who shaped them into one of the key forces for the integration of European immigrants into mainstream America. Knowledge became so much more accessible than ever before and the acquisition of information entertaining, not painful).

Well, I quickly learned that, nope, it wasn't libraries that were dying, it was the "schools that trained the librarians" :). More precisely, it really was the fault of the library school faculty who had "abandoned" or forgotten the "historic principles and practices" which had made libraries so great. "These 'liberal' faculty, many of whom had never been librarians but came from fields like Philosophy, Sociology and Anthropology, just didn't teach the right kind of stuff. Was it any wonder that the new breed of librarians did not have the ethos of the ones who came before? Besides, if libraries were going to go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird, it stood to reason, we didn't need librarians, right?"  The arguments were sometimes convoluted to say the least! When I graduated and became a library school faculty, it was deja vu again. Except, now, I was a faculty who had been a practicing librarian and had a Ph.D. in LIS :).

Does any of this sound familiar? Since then, I've come across this kind of "death talk" in many other environments. In fact, Andrews has a fascinating book The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor on just one aspect of this whole battle: the de-legitimization of professions. Professions are expert groups who have a body of abstract knowledge,i.e. they are "exclusive occupational groups" (e.g. attorneys, clergy, librarians, accountants). Training regimes (how one becomes a professional - e.g. a clergy or librarian) are a very important part of the sociological process. With the increasing loss of respect for "authority" in our society (one effect of the increasing access to information) professional training becomes critical, as does avoiding death talk and focusing on life-giving practices. Fast forward to 2006. I became involved in church. What did I discover? "The church is dying. Denominationalism is dead. Why do we need a trained clergy when we can just unleash the laity? Why should we not own our own property and become an independent church?" Picture me laughing? Actually, I just feel like crying a lot of times :).

God, as always, points me back to Christ. Stories about death - death talk - are often riddled with holes, I've discovered. Remember, Jesus died and rose. Still, not everyone could believe and so some Jews still await the Messiah. The problem, with today's death talks, is that we are a people who lead busy lives. We live frenetically in an effort to prove that we are not yet dead or because we are greedy for life. It doesn't matter. We fail to notice the flaws and inconsistencies in the stories we hear.

It took time but slowly and surely we are beginning to realize that traditional libraries - brick and mortar buildings with printed books - will thrive alongside digital libraries. Both are needed and both have a place in society. Similarly, traditional churches and denominations will survive too. Yes, new technologies sometimes replace old ones (horse and buggy has been replaced by the car) but keep in mind that social-cultural institutions aren't just technologies. All three of these - libraries, church and denominations - are socio-institutional structures, and a combination of technologies ("techniques" "practices") that involves entire cultures and humans. Just like libraries have changed and are changing, denominations and churches will adapt and change too. This has been their history all along too. Church, divinely ordained, is the body of Christ. It is to be life-giving, not life-draining. A place of peace. Not discord, or commerce.

Some of our churches, in a rush to adapt with society, have often thrown out worship "techniques" (practices) that they are better off keeping in the interest of "service". In the process church has become life-draining - people are burned out as they now have another list of to-dos - and not the life-giving foretaste of heaven or new society of Jesus' resurrection victory, first fruits of a new creation they are meant to be.

I refer in particular to the practice of sacramental liturgies. In the summer of 2006 (incidentally, the year that I came back to church) the PCUSA General Assembly voted to call all its congregations “to renewal, through Word and Sacrament, of our life together in Jesus Christ, by engaging in practices that deepen baptismal life and discipleship.” They made available a 66-page Invitation to Christ: A Guide to the Sacramental Practices." (clicking on the link will start the download of the Guide in pdf format from the PCUSA website).

The pastoral letter that was sent to all the churches along with the Guide recommended
"believe[d] that the Christian life, engaged as a life of discipleship springing from baptism, can help to center and unify the church around its foundational calling from the risen Christ, to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).
Specifically, we invite every church to practice five simple disciplines over the next two years:

1. Set the font in full view of the congregation.
2.Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
3. Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
4. Lead appropriate parts of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
5. Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated."
I know my church never specifically mentioned any of these (we have Communion service once a month). I wonder how many churches in our Presbytery of Los Ranchos followed these five practices for the two years recommended by our denomination?

Isn't this one of the benefits of being in a denomination; the local church does not always need to develop its own resources. It can borrow, adapt, modify or use as is, resources from the denomination. An Invitation to Christ is a resource from which our Congregation could have benefited deeply about learning to worship God/Jesus in spirit and truth. Here's an example of how item 4 could have been done in worship:
"...leading the Prayer of Confession and Declaration of Pardon from the font grounds our confidence in God’s forgiveness in our baptismal identity. Lifting water with hands as the words of forgiveness are spoken makes this connection even more strongly.
Imagine the increased meaning of all acts of promise making if done at the font where God’s covenant pledge to us is enacted. Reception of new members, including youth, ordination and installation, dedication, commissioning and marriage might all take place around the font. The congregation can also engage the font while receiving the Lord’s Supper. When worshipers pass by the font as they come forward to receive the bread and wine, some will look and see while others will reach into the water and remember their baptism actively.
Baptism gives the church its mission, as well as its identity. Offering the Charge and Blessing from the font (again, lifting water with hands) is a reminder that we are a sent people, baptized for service in the world. Ministry, mission, stewardship and ethics are all rooted in our being washed in grace for self-giving in the world. Leading the intercessions or extending the offering invitation from behind the Lord’s Table can help make similar connections. At this table where the hungry are fed, our prayers and our gifts for others come into focus as ways we respond to the Word and reach out to serve the world Christ loves."
Read the Guide. The rationale is clearly laid out, 8 years ago, the practices beautiful, and the Scripture used is so full of life and joy. I can't help but wonder why if the PCUSA, in 2006, invited their churches with this Guide to enter into a season of sacramental practice, I have never heard of it:

"The Spirit of God is at work, through the Word and Sacraments, to form and reform the church. Therefore, we invite the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to renewed sacramental practice—expanded, deepened, reflected on, in all of our congregations. We trust the church to be the body of Christ, and we trust God’s Spirit to lead us. As we do this faithfully and well together, God will be at work among u
A season of renewed sacramental practice can refocus the church for discipleship and mission. These recommendations are fundamentally about directing the church’s attention to our primary commission from the risen Lord: to make disciples....In an age of widespread spiritual hunger, in a time of theological confusion about the central tenets of the faith, in a time of prolonged membership decline in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a renewed sacramental life can strengthen the church’s ministries of evangelism and hospitality."

I encourage you to read the complete Rationale because it flows so well into other areas of God's call to us: compassion, justice, unity, and discernment too. Why did we not follow it? Is it because it is so much more easier to engage in a list of do-good acts with death and all his friends* than to submit to our covenantal higher authority, and spend time in sacramental practices that turn our attention to the Word, to God, to listen for His voice, and to make disciples as the Holy Spirit leads and not as we/our egos desire?

Related Resources: 

 Living the Sacramental Practices. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/sacraments/living-sacramental-practices/

* The reference is to ColdPlay's music album, Death and All His Friends. Singer Chris Martin explains it thus: "We're aware of all the bad stuff in life, you know , but that doesn't mean you should ever give in to it, you know? So we all sing that bit together really loudly, as kind of a message to ourselves: never giving up and never focusing on the bad stuff too much."

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