I typically don’t like posting my manuscripts from sermons, especially because people will read how I speak, and that ain’t right. Also, there are “directions” for me. So yeah.
Today I preached this at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Bardstown, KY.
worship should change us.
One of my biggest frustrations with our scriptures and the way in which they are written and interpreted, and then read in segments, is that sometimes it is very difficult to know who is talking, and to whom.
Is it God talking, is it Isaiah? Is it the people asking Isaiah to talk to God?? WHAT??
Another beef I have with scripture, well its not really with scripture, but how we talk about scripture, is how we talk about prophets.
A prophet is not a future seer.
They are not ones who have the ability to see into the future what is going to happen.
Prophets are people who speak a message from God to the people, and not just that message that they are doing okay, prophets are constantly telling people the thing that they don’t want to hear.
Let us be very clear about this scripture, God is speaking through Isaiah to the people of Israel, these things. And Isaiah is a prophet.
I am going to re-read the scripture, but this time from the Message, a contemporary interpretation of scripture by Eugene Peterson.
READ FROM THE MESSAGE.
There, that is a little more clear, I think.
It is more clear that God is having Isaiah tell the people whats up.
This is not the message these people wanted to hear.
Isaiah is saying, yeah you people are doing one heck of a job when it comes to the rituals you all do.
You are great at not eating, you are great at humbling yourself in the temple…
But what is the purpose of that??
What is the purpose of all that if when you leave your ritual and the temple, you go out and step over the homeless and the poor, and you hate your neighbor, (slow it down) you make your employees work when you are not allowed to?
I was watching a Fox Sports special on the Sunday of the Conference championships a few weeks ago, and it was talking about fans and their rituals during or before the games.
One Kansas City fan said that when he watches the games at his favorite bar in Philadelphia with a bunch of other Chiefs fans, that he has to watch the game in the other room because when he comes into the other room, the Chiefs start to go bad.
One Steelers fan said she had to sit just right in her chair.
There were countless other stories about NFL fans and their superstitions.
But I kept asking myself over and over again, that when you put those shoes on that are only worn during away games in the rain, because they are “lucky,” and then your team not only loses, but gets blown away, and your star receiver gets a season ending injury….
is it all for naught??
These NFL fans are really good at performing their rituals, but they really aren’t doing anything to change the course of events for their team.
This is similar to what the people of Israel were doing.
The people were acting as though ritual and temple worship are all a part of some greater superstition.
Some great equation, that if I fast on the sabbath plus I burn this kind of animal, I am okay with God.
That that is all I need to do to please my God.
Here I am God, its the sabbath, I’ll bow my head.
I’ll not eat for a few hours……
“Ohhhh! Goooood for you!”
All of your sacrifices, your head bowing, your not eating, is for nothing if it doesn’t change who you are!!!!
If you come to the temple with the fattest of calfs, with the hungriest of stomachs, with your eyes closed the tightest, it means nothing. absolutely nothing if it isn’t changing who you are, Isaiah is telling his people.
I don’t agree much with evangelical christianity, but what i absolutely agree with them on is that in that moment when you accept Jesus into your life, and allow for God to work with you, there has to be something at your core that changes.
That at this moment, you stop living for yourself, and you start living for God and for others.
Worship is all for nothing if it doesn’t change us.
If it doesn’t invite people to be different.
Worship is about giving us the energy to go out from this building and to serve God’s people.
Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned.
I am not the first person to say this.
Because if it is just worship for the sake of sitting in the Temple or the church, than coming to the church or the Temple than it is nothing more than superstition.
how do we in the 21st century, in mainline protestant churches, worship??
we show up to church.
we come in, and we sit down.
we say hi to a few folks.
we wonder who those new people are over there.
we sing some hymns, sometimes with great fervor, sometimes just barely.
we read scripture.
we take communion.
some of us face forward.
some of us pass notes to the people in our aisles.
some of us fall asleep.
some of us try to get everyone else involved.
some of us are wondering what are we doing here?
some of us are distracted by what the person in front of them is wearing, or by what I am wearing…
some of us are wondering why aren’t there more people here?
some of us are wondering, what is the point of us being here?
are we here because when we arrive at the gates or whatever that moment looks like, God is going to judge us on our church attendance record?
What happens in many churches today is that we hear messages and we pray what we think we want to hear.
Worship becomes self-serving.
When we sing songs of praise that don’t invite us into being better people, and only compare God to other things in our world, it serves zero purpose, God knows who God is.
We do things because we think singing these songs will please God, we think that if we do things this certain way it will attract people to the church.
But just as the prophet Isaiah was telling his people is what pastors want their churches to know today.
That worship is meaningless if it doesn’t invite people to be better than they were when they walked in those doors.
Isaiah is pleading with his people about what the true purpose of God worship is!
and today, people join churches almost 90% of the time based on worship.
Not, if it is the most contemporary, with the best band.
But if it is authentic worship.
What attracts people to the church is seeing that the worship in a church is authentic to who the congregation is.
What attracts people to the church is seeing a worship service that energizes people to real change in the world and in their community.
One of my favorite theologians, Peter Rollins pleads with the church in his latest book entitled: the Idolatry of God, that the church is not about selling some God product, the way in which a car salesman sells you a car.
The church is about changing the lives of the people within the walls in order to change the community outside of the walls.
Church growth, church excitement does not happen because the pastor is a good story teller who reminds us of what it was like to be a child.
Church growth, church excitement does not happen because a church has the greatest choir in town.
Church growth, church excitement happens because when people come into worship they leave with such excitement that they cannot contain it inside themselves.
Which is what Isaiah says in the last half of today’s scripture.
Read it with me again, verse 6-8.
Read it a loud with me on the back of your bulletin, verses 6-8, and remember this is God talking through Isaiah.
Read with me:
Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
When worship is not about the ritual but about changing who we are, then our lights cannot be hidden.
Our righteousness will be our liberation from our finger pointing, our calling names, our casting people aside, and we will be like a spring that never runs dry.
Our righteousness does not affect our worship, but it should be the other way around.
This is why one of the Disciples of Christ founders, Alexander Campbell left his baptist roots when his pastor before communion made people turn in a certain coin if they had been righteous that week.
Giving them a prerequisite to communion, a prerequisite for worship..
When our worship lures us to being better people then we were when we walked in the church doors, then it is worship.
When we pass the offering plates, and we think about what we give to the church, is it a burden?
Is it just something else we do? Do we give just because we are used to giving?
Or is it an opportunity to change?
And when we share in the bread and in the cup, it has to change us.
Other wise, we are just eating a bland stale cracker, and drinking a few drops of purple high fructose corn syrup.
I stopped reading this immediately when I read “back up dancer” to describe Robin Thicke. Robin Thicke wrote and sings the song that is about the blurred lines of consentuality. He is not an anonymous back up dancer. As much as I love Justin Timberlake, he was the one who removed Janet Jackson’s shirt in that performance in the Super Bowl several years back. And yet it is Janet that we remember. I wonder, will we remember this performance for the over the top performance of Miley and forget that Robin Thicke was even a part of it? Or maybe we will just forget Robin Thicke. But we can’t forget Miley because we love watching train wrecks, for example Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes.
I, as well as millions of Americans, sat in amazement as I watched your VMA performance. No, you are not the first artist to grind on a backup dancer (however you may be the first to grind on a teddy bear but who knows), sing about your life of partying and drug abuse, or to strip down to your chonies. It’s all been done before. So why is your performance evoking such media attention, anger, amusement, and general confusion? Well, I have yet to speak to the millions of viewers personally, but here are a few of my guesses.
1. Yes, we all know that you are NOT Hannah Montana and we are all aware that you are of legal age to make your own decisions and mistakes. I am sincerely sorry that at such a young age you were forced to adhere to the pressure of being…
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I remember one of the first times I took a group of kids hiking for Mountain Camp at Christmount in 2007, a camper looked at me as we were doing some plant identification and said: “I am never going to need to know the difference between a rhodedendron and a mountain laurel plant.”
And I think this is what parents feel when they are faced with the debate of sending their kid to summer camp.
What is my kid going to learn?
How is this going to help my kid get a college athletic or academic scholarship?
Well I am here to say: IT WON’T!
Summer camp is one of the best things we can provide our children in this ever changing world.
I have seen awesome things happen at camp.
I have seen kids who are completely dependent on their parents for everything become individuals who can actually handle daily tasks with ease, ON THEIR OWN!
I have seen kids who are shy beyond belief blossom into some of the most “popular” and well loved kids at camp.
I have seen kids who are afraid that their parents are going to find out how silly they act in a talent show skit, make me keel over in laughter.
I have seen kids who are the biggest pains in the neck become visions of the person that they are growing into.
I have seen kids who have such tortured home lives escape the hell, who, for just one week, get to live in a community of people who actually love them.
I have seen kids who are so far below the poverty line that they didn’t have anything to pack away for a week, show up to the camp dance looking like they had parents who were loaded.
I have seen kids who are normally the bully-type, the cool kid, the all-star, or anything else in that category welcome and guide a child whose autism controls their ability to interact with others.
I have seen kids when that lightbulb hits on what it is they feel called to doing with their lives.
I have seen kids in that moment when they realize that they are, in fact, completely and totally normal.
I have seen adults with learning disabilities become the star of the week who at their group home is just another client who has to take medication.
I have had a child explain to me the true meaning of communion at a vespers service.
And so on and so on.
And yet camping programs are struggling.
Year round schooling and the increasing intensity of childhood athletics and summer homework for classes in the fall have ripped children away from summer camps.
And not just sports day camps, but over night, stay away camps.
Camping programs struggle because year round schooling keeps the things the kids learned fresh in their minds, and keeps them out of trouble on the streets.
But all this really does is create more competition, create more dependency, and create kids who don’t know what its like to stay a week away from mom and dad until their first week of college.
Parents are sending their kids to more athletic practices, which only creates a person whose sense of the world is being better than the next.
It also creates memories, laughter, first-kisses, first time asking someone to dance, a place to not sit alone at meal times, relationships with other kids, relationships with adults who aren’t the child’s parents, and countless of other possibilities.
Camps are not just fun (although they are insanely fun), but camp is our largest and best educator in helping kids discover who they are, building self-esteem, building independence, and yes even learning a few educational things as well.
So why don’t we send our kids to camp?
And of course I have to ask this question: what if the church was more like camp?
[full disclosure: I haven't yet finished Pete's newest book, The Idolatry of God, so I'm cautiously writing this from what I have read of that book, his other writings, and a few of his lectures. Also, I haven't read Lacan at any real depth. Still, this is a reflection on Rollins, not necessarily Lacanian thought.]
This engagement with Peter Rollins concerns ontology, but begins psychoanalytically. It's not so much an argument against Rollins, but an alternative way of seeing – what I think is more compelling and in line with my own experience.
According to Rollins (Lacan), infants undergo two births. The first consists of the pre-subjective period of “equilibrium with the environment” [note: equilibrium is a relational notion, although it isn't explored as such] (Idolatry of God, 13). The second is the emergence of selfhood, wherein the experience of the I comes alongside the experience of the not-I, which he claims creates a sense of primordial lack, of absence, in the recognition that there is what I am not. The claim is that this establishes a primordial longing, a deep and impossible yearning for wholeness – impossible because we can never fill this lack though we ceaselessly continue trying (Idolatry, 14).
A self cannot possibly have knowledge of the experience of this prior equilibrium. The self does not precede the moment of “lack,” of the understanding or experience of the not-I, so there is quite literally nothing here to experience it – and thus no experience of it. It doesn't exist as subjective experience. There can be no self without an other, so there can be no subjective being of equilibrium: “Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us” (Idolatry, 14).
Rollins moves from identifying this primordial psychological experience of lack to diagnosing it ontologically as “the gap at the core of our being” (Idolatry, 49). That is, he reasonably moves from noting this gap as an early sense to claiming it is a part of our ontology. His prescription is to notice this gap, name it, and embrace it – for only in facing it can we stop trying to fill it and move on.
I propose a different way of reading this primordial “separation.” I see this separation as, instead of lack, generative differentiation (which admittedly sounds a lot like Derridian differánce) revealing our relational essence. An unknown-ness/unformed-ness, in the experiential sense (again, sounds like khora), “separates” and self and other result. This might not seem so significant at first, but it is because from here we make inferences and draw conclusions about the nature of our being.
It isn't the experience of lack, but of becoming, of creation. The experience of otherness isn't the experience of lack, it is the experience of selfhood. We are born – that is, selfhood emerges – always already amidst a network of relations (a la Jean-Luc Nancy). But I want to make the point stronger: the self comes to be as a product of relations with others who always already precede the self. We are born always already in the midst of others, and our constitution is our relations with/to them.
The conditions of possibility for relation – which are the conditions of possibility for selfhood – are the emergence of the experience and understanding of an I and a not-I (an other). Therefore the emergence of selfhood is precisely the emergence of otherness. These phenomenon don't coincide, they are dialectically co-emergent. And it seems most accurate to say this differentiation happens from the moment of subjective experience at least until we die. That is, we continue becoming a self at every interaction with others.
If the self is truly co-emergent with the other, the emergence of the self is not from the experience of “not-I” but must always be the experience of “I-and-not-I.” That “I-and-not-I” is very firstly, and necessarily, relational. The formula “not-I” must imply a sense of self, but by not mentioning it risks overlooking the intrinsic relationality. You could say it overlooks the constitution of self which is the relation between internality (the I) and externality (the other).
There is never simply an other, never merely “not-I”; the other is always experienced as other in relation to an experiencing self. It means the primordial experience of self is a self-in-relation, not self-experiencing-lack. The power of this reasoning is that the self-in-relation doesn't simply take place at the initial emergence of selfhood, rather it is the experience of selfhood at every moment. There isn't a “big bang” moment that initiates selfhood but an unfolding of becoming that begins with the very differentiation that continues to constitute it. It isn't the absence of me that generates the self, but the presence of the other and my relation to it.
Therefore you could go on to say the experience of existential “lack” is not the lack of a thing/other, but of a “healthy” relation to things/others. Here the issue becomes not that we can't fill that lack, but that it doesn't need filling – it isn't a thing-sized hole. In fact, you could, from here, criticize the searching for thingness when the lack is relational. In that case it could be diagnosed as a hermeneutical problem, not an unfortunate psychological byproduct: it's an issue with how we read our own situation. I also have to wonder if the notion of a “gap at the core of our being” is a narrowly contextual conclusion – do people outside of the Western, late-capitalist world experience this? Or is the objectification and commodification of our relational nature a product our our context and a problem with our thinking?
In part this is a psychoanalytical point, but it's also an ontological one. I am arguing for a relational ontology – that each self emerges as, and is ceaselessly becoming, a network of relations – over against what seems like a more individualizing one. I'm claiming selfhood is, and is primordially experiened as, relational. Perhaps this difference is just in how we approach the question of selfhood and there isn't a true distinction, but it does seem there is space between these two ways of thinking, even as Pete talks about the crucial role of community.
Perhaps, though, I've misrepresented his argument – which would be unintentional.
What an amazing post. Especially the last 4 paragraphs. Thanks for speaking truth in a place that needs it.
I got to go to the Macklemore concert on Friday night. If you want to hear about how that went, ask me, seriously, I want to talk about it until I die. The whole thing was great; but the best part was when Macklemore sang “Same Love.” Augustana’s gym was filled to the ceiling with 5,000 people, mostly aged 18-25, and decked out in thrift store gear (American flag bro-tanks, neon Nikes, MC Hammer pants. My Cowboy boyfriend wore Cowboy boots…not ironically….). The arena was brimming with excitement and adrenaline during every song, but when he started to play “Same Love,” the place about collapsed. Why? While the song is popular everywhere, no one, maybe not even Macklemore, feels its true tension like we do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. If you’re not familiar, here’s the song:
Stop–did you watch it? Watch it.
Before the song, Macklemore spoke really…
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[a brief, critiquish-review of Insurrection out of mad respect for Pete and his project]
Peter Rollins' book Insurrection is a radical, post-structuralist, Zizek-ian reading of Christianity. The central claim of this book is that the psychoanalytical realities (anxieties) of everyday life give rise to religious structures that provide a “solution” to the uncertainties of human existence: God. Rollins highlights the radical position of Jesus on the cross, experiencing the traumatic loss of God-as-certainty. He claims that only this profound experience of loss can bring us to the place of acceptance of reality as it is in the hope we might become better people. That is, only the traumatic experience of the loss of certainty (“crucifixion”) can help us get over our pathological reliance on false security (God) in order to become more authentic people and create a better world (“resurrection”).
In the strength of this work, Rollins takes us through treatment for the condition of classical theism.* As such, this work is intriguing and important, considering most prominent postmodern thinkers attack classical theism by way of critiquing (Greek) metaphysics. Throughout the text Rollins creatively weaves insights from, among others, Lacan, Zizek, and Caputo into a provocative and timely argument.
For all the post-structural-arity (?) Rollins embodies, he shares with classical theism a central concern: personal salvation (of courses he wouldn't use that term). After all, he does in fact also offer a personal path to wholeness and life with God, albeit first through this total loss of the certainty of the omni-God. That is, Rollins offers “new meaning, joy, and fulfillment” (118). He situates himself firmly within the religious question and gives, ultimately, a very religious answer. In the end, as we see in part two of the book, he still wants to make room for love, meaning, hope, and the divine.
This simply means Rollins' project is indeed religious. However, for me, it sits in awkward tension with the severity of his early argument. There is an abrupt turn, halfway through the book, because his eventual landing on God language, love, and Christ feels at odds with the extremity of his first-half analysis. After all, his argument isn't as baldly existential as someone like Sartre – he stops short of saying we completely construct our own meaning from “nowhere.”
I think it's unfortunate that Rollins finds no way to appropriate or include the life of Jesus. In no small way, as the anti-classical theist/evangelical, he remains dialectically positioned, narrowly fixated on the same thing evangelicals are: the cross. In so doing he implies Jesus' life isn't all that important and that all we really need from him is his death (or, to include Jesus' life we would have to read it as that of a typical classical theist until his faith was shattered on the cross – which just doesn't work for me). It is accurate to say, then, that Rollins is centrally concerned with atonement. Sure it's a different, radical view of atonement, but it's still atonement. What's unfortunate about this, to me, isn't that he wants to talk atonement, but that he misses so much of what the best of progressive Christianity roots itself in: radically re-reading the life and teachings of Jesus. Such fecund material – the vast majority of the gospel accounts – goes untapped. Rollins and the historical creeds share something in common: a neglect of Matthew 1-25. Interestingly, Rollins also doesn't discuss the socio-political powers that executed Jesus, missing a chance to offer more than just a psychoanalytical exploration of the cross.
All that said, Rollins occupies an important role in the future of progressive postmodern Christianity. While I would prefer more subtlety and nuance than Rollins offers, along with more reflection on the life of Jesus, that isn't a critique of the heart of his work – which I think is brilliant and important. His insights are penetrating, his style intriguing, and his method – skillfully diagnosing ontotheology as a pathology – is compelling. He must be commended for his ability to write so accessibly, for non-specialist audiences, which is unfortunately all too rare in progressive postmodern Christianity.
There's something about Rollins' writing that's engaging, magnetic. More thoughts on Pete to come…
* I'm using “classical theism” here to refer to the God-as-certainty idea because it most often presents as the omni-God of classical (Greek) metaphysical thinking (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.). This, of course, takes shape most prominently in the many forms of evangelicalism, especially of the Calvinist flavor.