All posts in Church

  • How Does the Church Differ From America?

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    How Does the Church Differ From America
    Brian Zahnd

    What is the church?

    Is the church a religious building with stained-glass and a steeple?
    Is the church a religious gathering that meets on Sunday mornings?
    Is the church a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit religious organization?

    I don’t want to give a quick and jaded “of course not.” There are reasons why stained-glass and steeples, Sunday gatherings and not-for-profit status have become associated with the church.

    But…

    In the end this is not what the church is.

    Maybe the church is something like this: The other way of being human (together). The way given to us by and built around Jesus Christ.

    The church is a distinct way of being human.
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  • Walk the World Like the Pardon of God

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    Walking the World Like the Pardon of God
    Brian Zahnd

    G.K. Chesterton suggested that Saint Francis of Assisi “walked the world like the pardon of God.” It’s an apt summary of the saint’s life. In his wonderful and unique way Saint Francis embodied the grace of God as he walked the hills of Umbria barefoot in his patched brown habit and simple rope belt preaching to birds and bishops. His life was a kind of performance art protest against the pervasive sins of thirteenth century Italy — pride, avarice, corruption, and violence.

    Yet sinners were drawn to Francis. How else do we explain that within Francis’ lifetime forty thousand people joined his rigorous order of radical Christianity emphasizing poverty, simplicity and humility? Like Jesus, Francis could uncompromisingly denounce systemic sin, while extending genuine compassion to the people caught in its pernicious web. To be a prophetic witness against systems of sin and a preacher of God’s pardon for sinners at the same time is the peculiar grace Francis excelled at and the church is called to.

    Two years before his death Francis retreated to the secluded hermitage at La Verna in the mountains of Tuscany for a protracted season of prayer. While there he experienced a mystical vision that resulted in his stigmata — the reproduction of the wounds of Christ in his own body. Francis bore these painful wounds until his death in 1226. Admittedly, this is a mysterious phenomenon, but I am willing to view it as Francis’ final dramatic testament to how the church is to be present in the world. Along with being a prophetic witness against the principalities and powers, and bearing joyful witness to the pardon of God, the church is called to participate in the sufferings of Christ.
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  • Jerusalem Bells

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    Jerusalem Bells
    Brian Zahnd

    If you visit the Islamic world you quickly become acquainted with the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer. You may very well become acquainted with it at five o’clock in the morning! Five times a day, beginning before sunrise, you hear the cry of the muezzin from the minarets — Allahu Akbar. It’s a call to prayer. When I first began to travel in the Islamic world I reacted to the call to prayer with an irritation rooted in cultural disdain and religious triumphalism. I was annoyed by it. I didn’t want to hear it. But eventually I began to feel differently about it. To be honest, I was envious. Here was a culture with a public call to prayer.

    In the secular, post-Christian West we have nothing like this. The best we can manage is to clandestinely bow our heads for ten seconds in a restaurant and hope no one notices. We don’t call people to prayer. Few Christians living outside of monasteries pray five times a day. We pray whenever we feel like it…and too much of the time we don’t feel like it. But in the Islamic world I found a religious culture that publicly calls people to prayer five times a day! I was envious of a society that holds to a religious tradition where prayer is taken seriously and is attended to in a prescribed manner. So when I heard the adhan I would wistfully think, I wish we had something like that. Then one day the pieces fell in place.

    I was walking through the cobblestone streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on a Sunday morning when I began to hear the bells toll. Church bells. A cacophony of sacred sound centuries old. Orthodox bells, Catholic bells, Anglican bells, Lutheran bells. The enormous bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed to belong to another age. It was a wonder I found strangely moving. That’s when it dawned on me — this is the Christian adhan. Church bells are the Christian call to prayer. (A practice predating the Muslim adhan by centuries.) Of course I knew this, but I had somehow forgotten it. I had forgotten the bells just as the post-Christian West has forgotten the bells.
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  • Echoes

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    Echoes
    Brian Zahnd

    I’m trying to listen to echoes these days — the return of earlier sounds. I need to hear the distant echoes of an earlier Christianity. I am beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. It’s only because of our connection with our technological past that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every generation. Likewise, if we maintain a connection with our theological past we don’t have to reformulate the essential creeds every generation. When I encounter people obviously confused about the nature of the Trinity, I think, don’t you know we settled this in 325? Of course, they may very well not know! Or if they do know, they don’t care. They have no respect for the past. To them it’s just old — and old means obsolete. Which is, of course, a ridiculous notion peculiar to the modern era.

    One of the problems with contemporary revivalism is its egocentric obsession with the present and its woeful ignorance of the past. For too much of my life my idea of church history went something like this: The church started off great with Pentecost, jumped the tracks a couple of centuries later, got back on track with the Reformation, and really took off with Azusa street. The arrogance is appalling. It’s why most modern revivalist movements seem to follow this implicit dictum: Re-found the church and prepare for Armageddon. Contemporary revivalist movements always seem convinced that they’re the first generation to recover “apostolic purity” and the last generation before the return of the Lord. They misappropriate 1 Peter 2:9 as they brashly claim “we are the chosen generation.” Without a clear memory of church history we become the Alpha and Omega in our imagined self-importance. Christian amnesiacs could benefit from some echoes — the echoes of Athanasius and Aquinas, Irenaeus and Erasmus, Clement and Kierkegaard. The Holy Spirit has never abandoned the church. Every generation had those who heard and spoke what the Spirit said to the church. We should pay attention to their echoes.
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  • Bread, Circuses, and Violence

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    Bread, Circuses, and Violence
    Brian Zahnd

    On Sunday the Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11). After church someone asked me if I thought the temptation of Jesus was literal. The questioner was struggling with what seemed to be a cartoonish contest between Jesus and the devil. This person was particularly perplexed by the idea that Jesus would actually be tempted to worship Satan.

    So when asked if I thought the temptation account was “literal,” what did I say? I said, yes and no. I certainly believe Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted. But I don’t think the devil showed up in a red suit sporting a tail and a pitchfork saying, “Hello, I’m Lucifer, and I’m here to put you through your paces. Alright, shall we get started? First off, how about turning that rock into lunch? No? Okay. What about showing off with a leap from the temple? No again? Well, how about you just fall down and worship me and I make you king of the world and we’ll call it a day?”

    No, I don’t think it was quite like that. It wasn’t cartoonish. It was far more subtle and insidious than that. I suspect the satan came to Jesus the same way he comes to you and me: disguised as our own thoughts. Just like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I’ve never met a talking snake, but I’ve sure had some serpentine thoughts crawl through my head! So let’s treat the temptation of Jesus seriously.

    What was Jesus doing in the wilderness? Fasting, praying, preparing to begin his ministry. What was on his mind? We might assume he was contemplating how to go about his work. That’s when subtle and satanic thoughts entered the mind of the Son of God.
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  • A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic

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    A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic
    Brian Zahnd

    Ten years ago I was a poverty-stricken Christian…and I didn’t even know it. My poverty was theological and it was the sad consequence of my arrogant sectarianism. By restricting my Christianity to the narrow confines of modern charismatic evangelicalism I suffered from a self-inflicted theological poverty. I needed the riches of the whole church. I needed to be able to draw upon the broad spectrum of Christian thinkers and theologians, mystics and writers. I needed to become eclectic in my approach to Christianity. A Christianity that is sufficiently broad and eclectic liberates us from an arrogant and impoverished sectarianism.

    In my youthful arrogance (the word I really want to use is stupidity) I effectively defined and limited Christianity to my kind of Christianity — a charismatic flavored evangelicalism. As far as I was concerned, most Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and mainline Protestants needed to “get saved” — which is to say, they needed to become my “style” of Christian. There were times in my twenties and thirties when I was particularly antagonistic toward Catholics and mainline Protestants. I thought Catholics belonged to the “whore of Babylon” and mainliners were all “liberal goats.” How egotistical! How stupid! I’m ashamed of all that now. I have repented. Which means I’ve called my former attitude sinful and changed my mind — I simply don’t think that way anymore.
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  • When America Went To Hell

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    When America Went To Hell
    Brian Zahnd

    “How I wish that you of all people would understand the things that make for peace.”
    —Jesus (Luke 19:42)

    Whether or not slavery was the direct cause for the first shots fired upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861 is a matter of scholarly debate. What is undeniable is that two and half centuries of slavery was the fuel that caused the American Civil War to ignite into a conflagration that resulted in 623,000 deaths. From its Jamestown beginnings the American colonies and later the United States practiced one of the most brutal forms of slavery the world has ever known. The preservation of an institution that systematically dehumanized millions of people for the sake of economic gain was not a thing that made for peace. Inevitably that kind of cruel exploitation would overflow its cup and unleash death and hell, bringing everything that is the opposite of peace. During the horror of the American Civil War, the “land of the free” became a burning Gehenna. Thirty percent of Southern men of fighting age were slain on battlefields that saw the birth of modern warfare. From now on, war would be totalized and mechanized. The four horseman of the Apocalypse galloped across America leaving a wake of war, disease, famine, and death.
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  • Ring Them Bells

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    Ring Them Bells
    Brian Zahnd

    We now have a church bell at Word of Life! I’m ridiculously excited about this. I’ve wanted a bell for several years and recently an old church bell was donated to us. We will “debut” our bell this Friday at our Thanksgiving Communion Service and Christmas Tree Lighting.

    But let me tell you about me and the bells.

    I grew up with church bells. My Baptist church had a bell. A group of old men were in charge of ringing it on Sunday mornings. They were quite serious about it. A few times when I was a small child they let me “help” ring the bell. I would hold onto the rope, be pulled off my feet, and the old men would have a good laugh. It’s a fond memory.

    But somewhere along the way church bells began to disappear. They became antiquated. We moved to the suburbs, built our new non-descript utilitarian metal buildings and left the bells behind. Church bells were passé. When we built our church facility in 1996 it never entered my mind to have a bell. And I never thought a thing about not having a church bell.

    Until I began traveling in Muslim countries…
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  • Rhythm (Redo)

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    I’ve been thinking about Advent today. It starts Sunday, you know. (For those of us at Word of Life it really starts Friday night with our Thanksgiving Communion Service and Christmas Tree Lighting.) Anyway, alert reader Gerald Lewis reminded me of this four and half year old post and it seems apropos. So with a few alterations, here is Rhythm (Redo).

    RHYTHM

    Life is full of rhythm.

    The daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset.
    The seasonal rhythm of winter, spring, summer, fall.
    The lunar rhythm seen in the cycles of the moon.

    When we consider the human body we can say life is rhythm.
    The steady rhythm of breathing.
    The syncopated rhythm of the heart.
    The many rhythms of a healthy body.
    When your body is out of rhythm you are sick.
    If the rhythm is not restored you are dead.

    Art is rhythm.
    Dance is rhythm
    Poetry is rhythm.
    Music is rhythm.
    (Pitch is the varying rhythms of frequency.)
    Is symmetry (the essence of beauty) a kind of rhythm?

    Strength is rhythm.
    The engine in your car is a machine for maintaining rhythm.
    When your car is out of rhythm you take it to the mechanic.
    One of the secrets to climbing a mountain is rhythm.
    It’s easier to climb a mountain with rhythm than in fits and starts.

    If String Theory is right…
    (The quantum world consists of single-dimensional oscillating strings.)
    …the entire physical universe is rhythm.

    But we have lost our rhythm. Read more