Excerpts from the Ekklescake Bestiary

It was a shock when it was realized that the Devil himself had hold of Churchville.  But it shouldn’t have been–for even friends were beginning to act weird–they weren’t being, well, friendly, to each other.  And for a rural community of Christians, that signaled trouble, indeed, danger.  I hear about what they say, what they do, from a distance, and think: can these be the people I know?

***

A small church of a denomination known for its strictness has recently fallen prey to a number of small, insignificant but proliferating liturgical foul-ups on Sunday mornings.  Miscommunications, repeated dropping of a sequence of balls, lack of attentiveness, poor prioritizing, procrastination…and the result is awkward smiles and giggles, apologies and plenty of ‘Oops, was that my fault?’ while trying to ‘act casual’.  And the congregation looks around, for reassurance, for leadership, for a sign that things are actually on track–that someone, somewhere, knows what he or she is doing.

Is it important that a local church be an organized body?  And what does that mean?  What does it mean for ‘things to be done’ not only ‘decently’, but also ‘in good order’ [I Cor. 14:40]?

In the Church’s past, much time and thought was devoted to considering what constitutes discipline and orderliness in Christian practice; the Rule of St. Benedict is one example: minutely detailed, and covering a wide variety of topics, it includes sections (cch. 18-9) on the Order and Discipline of Psalmody.

The Belgic Confession, in articles 27ff., outlines responsibilities of the church itself in  maintaining its own order and those of believers and church members themselves.  The BC itself is rather laconic in its description of church order:

Article 32: The Order and Discipline of the Church

  • We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.To that end excommunication, with all it involves, according to the Word of God, is required.  (full text available at http://www.reformed.org/documents)

It is evident that the concern of the authors is biblical grounds for aspects of order and discipline, respecting Christian liberty while striving for practice and government that promotes ‘maintain[ence of] harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God’, and to preserve the authority of Scripture through guarding ‘against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us‘.

Also, throughout the accompanying articles on the church, other standards are implicit in the language used: the church is ‘a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit‘ (Art. 27); ‘all people are obliged to join and unite with [the holy catholic church], keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body. And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God’s Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church,’ (Art. 28); ‘we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church…The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults (Art. 29); ‘We believe that ministers of the Word of God, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by a legitimate election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord, and in good order, as the Word of God teaches.  So everyone must be careful not to push himself forward improperly, but he must wait for God’s call, so that he may be assured of his calling and be certain that he is chosen by the Lord’ (Art. 30).  The church is holy, set apart, called, sanctified; church members have duties and obligations to the Lord and to each other; they ought to be diligent, sober-minded, Gospel- and Word-oriented, waiting on the Lord’s will and call.  The church, what she does and how she does it, is serious business.

   Churches in various branches of the Reformed tradition of course differ on what the Bible permits, prescribes and proscribes; churches subscribing to Westminster and Heidelberg may yet disagree on whether instruments are  appropriate to accompany singing, or on how much of corporate musical worship should consist of Psalms, Hymns, contemporary songs–all three, two of three, or only one?  On the denominational level, ‘discussion’ ought to be more than an argument stemming merely from different tastes, which in itself can be destructive enough to split a church– disagreements ought to only to be voiced, considered, and acted upon after thoughtful, reasoned, often prayed-over searching and study of the Word of God.  Proper priorities must be maintained, and grace given in the face of divergent conclusions.

The issue of music is only an example–the point I am trying to make, in a clunky and round-about way, is that all aspects deliberately introduced into the corporate life and practice of the church, particularly in worship services, need to be introduced with purpose.  What is more, that purpose ought to be clear to most if not all of the congregation–the average sheep in the flock should be able to articulate the purpose, the reason for the component of the service.  And this articulation ought to go a long way toward establishing whether the component is in line with, among other standards of Christian practice, the BC.   Should everything that is part of a worship service have a reason for its existence, a reason that can be explained and justified by appeal to principles either derived from the Bible or tried and tested tradition and practice?

If so, what function is served by  a sudden introduction of coffee, first in the narthex, and then trickling, cupful by cupful (with a chic lid once there’s been a spill that’s left a stain on the carpet), into the sanctuary for the morning service?

People might wonder how a pot of coffee could be a cause of damage, even of deep, long-lasting hard feelings–but it’s because, for many people, on many issues, these ‘little things’ signify so much more than what they appear on the surface.  It isn’t just subpar, bitter tar; wrapped up in the toting of coffee through the narthex and into the sanctuary, without any official discussion, and with no consultation of either leadership or the congregation at large before its introduction as a feature and indeed, an additional responsibility, are aspects of sensitivity, priorities, values–even reverence.  In a church in which such a situation has arisen, in which coffee has suddenly appeared, it is likely those aspects–the fact that some people would have concerns–never occurred to the folk who decided that coffee must be served before the service as well as after it (the church had always done the latter, and in a space designated for refreshments–not in the narthex).  Obviously, as well, potential concern over the (admittedly varying) conceptualization of sacred space never occurred to the involved parties either.  Or, disturbingly, it may well have done–but it evidently was not entertained as serious, since no-one bothered to consult outside parties or the church leadership in light of it.

Thoughtfully, though no doubt with an agenda (probably good intentions), coffee is made part of the worship service itself by tempting, allowing, encouraging a kind of slovenly informality–the implicit invitation, or at least, suggestion, that people can treat the pews like their living room sofas–and the service itself with all its aspects of worship, as entertainment.

But perhaps that was the case already–in my opinion, one would already have to have a faulty view or incomplete doctrine of the corporate acts of worship in order to be muddled enough to think that introducing Maxwell House effectively into that worship is appropriate (because again, the fact that it is offered as part of the time set apart after worship for fellowship was insufficient; to include it before, when people ought to be preparing themselves for something other than the ‘usual’ is an entirely different matter).  What does coffee signify?  A warmer welcome?  Where did the idea come from?

I believe it is another sign of our continual anthropomorphising of our God.  He is so accepting of us, so like us, that He’s more our buddy than the center of our devotion and awe.  We’d rather think of Him as our friend, family-member, co-worker–anyone else with whom we’d share a coffee in our couch-potato clothes, or when we’re letting our hair down in between talks at a conference and schmoozing with colleagues.  Every connotation of coffee in this sort of context is thus negative, because it is inappropriate.  No explanation of providing beverages and promoting their consumption during sacred time in a sacred space could possibly mesh with biblical concerns for things being done unto unity, upbuilding, solemnity, reverence–it is simply another step toward making the church experience like everything else, like home, like work, like recreation.

I for one can’t imagine veiled sacrificants in a rite dedicated to Capitoline Jupiter approaching his altar with their Solo cups in hand; certainly that kind of pagan, and more mystic-minded conservative Roman Catholics, would ‘have one up’ on such casual (and usually Protestant) Christians.

Am I saying that allowing, or even providing, service-time coffee is a heinous sin, or the worst newfangled thing that could be introduced into corporate worship?  No.  I raise it because it is on my radar screen, just like ‘gay marriage’ is on the front-burner in the public square; homosexuality is not the worst of all possible transgressions, but it must be part of Christians’ public conversation because it is a facet of the West’s cultural decline at this time, and we are surrounded by vehement, unbiblical arguments for its acceptance and even promotion.  Serving coffee and encouraging it in the sanctuary is merely another example of changes in the American church culture, and a useful one to discuss.

On an intellectual level, I find such a move (the sudden impulse, then sudden appearance of the 50-cup pot)  impossible not to deride, because it seems like a ploy, a technique.  I would be happy for someone to prove me otherwise; I wonder whether there is a treatise or apology on the topic?  What is the biblical, Christ-centred, God-honoring reason for making the sanctuary like our kitchen tables?

***

I had dream the other night about Honeycomb cereal–big boxes on offer at the Co-op for 97p.  And I reached out in anticipation, excitement–Lo, the box was empty.  And on both shelves, every box in the 1-row-deep displays was the same.  They were sealed as if brand-new, but there was no cereal in them.  I was most disappointed–in reality, we don’t have Honeycomb in this country.  And yet they were selling them as if there was actually something inside…

***

What explains the difference between two small Bible-believing churches from similar backgrounds on the nature of God’s Word and the purpose of preaching?  In one, everybody’s a critic–in the other, parishioners say, ‘Tough passages lately, pastor, but you handle them well.’  In one, ‘Can’t you just pick something else, preacher?  We’re bored with that Book’; and in the other, ‘Thank you Lord, for giving us, in your Providence, all that we need to hear, and at the right time.’  The shepherds’ approaches are like identical twins.  What accounts for the difference in the response of the sheep?  Perhaps this is a question for another post.  Thankfully, other Christian bloggers are tackling the same sorts of issues.

***

I don’t feel like ‘reality’ is slipping away, slipping through my fingers–it’s being wrenched from my grasp.  From ‘Caitlyn’ Jenner to Rachel Dolezal to homegrown community-wide delusions, I pray God keeps my mind and vision clear–don’t let me follow the rest of the mob into warped Wonderland, madness & chaos!  All these things hanging over our heads like indistinct, queer asteroids.

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The Contagious Night

It was a bright Monday morning

when Dawn Iverson awoke with a start.

The beaming sun promised a warm spring day

but Dawn didn’t see the gold nor the green.

She saw only what her dreaming eyes had seen

moments before.

…She’d been in her usual Sunday place

in the pew she’d occupied weekly

in her family church for nigh forty years’ span.

A long time, she’d often thought.

And who doesn’t, from time to time,

visit his real-life haunts in his night wanderings,

haunts known from earliest childhood?

But something was wrong.

The parson was up front, in his seat behind the pulpit–

the pianist, Dawn’s own mother, at the ivories,

and her lifelong friend, Jasmine,

at the lead of the worship in music.

She could see nothing out of place–

all was surely well.

But no–it wasn’t–what, where–was it?

She began to glance, furtively at first,

but then more widely, openly–

Dawn was turned almost all the way

’round in her seat

when she spotted it–

something above the door,

over the lintel of the

old-enough so bland so as-usual

sanctuary door.

But what was over it she’d never seen before–

or, she realized, never noticed.

It was a skin, an animal pelt–

she didn’t know from what.

Deer heads, and brass-anchored horns

of the Texas variety,

even a set of springbok spirals were

mounted on farmhouse walls in the neighborhood–

this was unique.

As she looked again,

she knew somehow, the animal didn’t matter.

Painted straight onto the fur

was lettering, were words–

words in a language and script her great-grandmother

all the great-grandmothers knew–

the language of their people

when they lived in the land

of their blood, of their roots–

where the tongue was born

before they came over the sea.

Dawn knew none of it.

But the lettering was faint now,

since, somehow, the pelt hadn’t been properly–

preserved?

Much of the coat was patchy, ugly–

the hairs were all falling out.

And around the edges,

a strange dark speckling

green-grey, blue-black, like the spots on

sparrows’ eggs or

dingy shower curtains.

And upon recognition she could

smell it.

Mildewed, worn

the pelt was aging, spoilt.

And still it hung there, like a trophy.

A memorial of victory and

a promise of hope.

Dawn left off looking at it, tried to focus at the front

but deep inside, there was a creeping feeling

of disgust.

And she woke up feeling just this way.

**

The kids were off at school, she’d had a half-day at work–

over coffee at her mother’s, she couldn’t help it–

the dream came tripping, flowing out

like a river over pebbles.

With her mother gazing at her, tense,

she regretted she’d brought it up,

til warm-smiling Sadie softened

and said, ‘I had the same dream.’

…from the piano she could look ’round

the room, and look she did,

until her eyes alighted on a cause of unease–

the skin above the door…

Mother and daughter mused, wondered.

Not three hours later Sadie’s husband was home,

distracted after a night

on call

and all day on the road,

catching emergencies,

chopper-lifted with a four-year-old

to the big city hospital,

where tiny victims of trauma were best seen to.

A tough job!  Sadie’d made cottage pie,

and toffee cream torte for dessert,

to mellow the memories of the day.

And yet, drifting off to sleep side by side,

she heard Douglas sigh, once, twice, thrice–

‘What is it?’ then a long pause–

and he begins, ‘I had a dream last night,

while sleeping at the station.

We were all in church…’

**

Thursday finds Douglas with his ecclesi’al colleagues,

round a dark-stained pine table

with the agenda before them.

The tired parson, too much on his plate,

clears his throat and calls the meeting to order.

Four elders, four deacons, the preacher makes nine.

They move through their business, not always smooth,

but at the end the floor is open.

Douglas feels a pressing in his chest,

and fidgets in his seat.

A big man, staid, normally calm–

but now finds several pairs of eyes

fixed on him

as his chair squeaks and his clothes rustle.

‘Are you all right, Doug?’ asks

deacon Sinclair.  He nods in hesitation,

gives a lame smile–parson says,

‘Are you–sure? You look as if–

as if you want to say something.’

‘I don’t,’ comes a quick reply,

‘but someone does.’

The men look at each other, puzzling;

in the long silence, half a minute,

Banny Foley wants to laugh, but nobody

else does, so he quells himself.

He looks at the parson, whose

patient gaze invites Doug to speak

when it suits.

Finally–

‘So, Sadie wanted me to say this…’

**

Nine men in a consistory room;

none said a word after ‘That’s it’

for some time.

The parson’s eyes flashed, one face to another.

He’d never seen anything like it.

Eight glances looked fearful,

some hands were pulled

off the table

so no one–too late–would see tremors.

As they allowed the

unacknowledged ‘wait’,

they realized, first the parson, then Doug,

Sinclair, Ross, Alex, Colm, Harry, and McKnight,

and Banny Foley last of all–

‘We’ve all had this dream.’

!!!

‘What’s it mean?!  What do we do?  Did God send it to us?

Who else had it?  Should we make calls?  What’s it mean?!

What do we do?!’

The parson was puzzled–

what had the pelt to do with anything?

He was from Outside–

his name was Jenkins.

He left the meeting deep in thought,

and once in his office, deep in prayer.

‘What, O Lord, do you want us to know?’

One of the ladies–Beryl Sutherland by name–

had made a scrapbook for the church’s centennial.

It had been thumbed by someone,

but he hadn’t put it away.

It sat on the parson’s fax machine.

An impulse pressed him to his feet,

and moments later an answer was before him

on the open page.

A black-and-white photo from

the church’s founding

a big man, one of the principal donors–

Byron Ferguson, was hanging something

on the wall of the narthex.

(There were yet a lot of Fergusons.)

It was blurry–Jenkins couldn’t tell what it was.

But a companion piece from that day,

taken within the sanctuary, showed something else–

a crude little cross over the door.

Both these things, he thought,

are long, long gone–

why is that the stuff of dreams?

There were pictures of later times,

events–church gatherings, meals, activities,

catechism competitions, costume parties

commemorating the old country,

a programme from when the church hosted

a denominational congress.

His eyes narrowed when he saw a page

devoted to family trees…

He shut the scrapbook, and another answer.

He’d never noticed it–a queer subtitle:

A Proud Tradition.

**

It took the next three days for the

news to get out,

and come Sunday morning,

the door was darkened

by the Erskines, the Macloeds,

MacPhersons and Hartleys–

families who’d not been in

on the same Sunday

in years.

They were known to have ‘belonged’

there–

but never together.

It had simply been–the way things were.

Always.

But Everyone was in that morning.

Parson Jenkins looked like he

hadn’t slept.

He wasn’t the only one.

But though the air was tense,

faces were hopeful–

today was the day.

Today was the day to empty the hand,

let things go,

take hold of something else.

The singing was solemn at the start–

today they would pray.

Some of the folk kept glancing back

at the place above the door.

There was nothing there, and yet–

they knew it was there.

‘God help us,’ Jenkins began,

‘help us be rid of it.

We can’t see it, but it’s there–

we must take it down,

and throw it away.’

And in perfect agreement,

the congregation took down the pelt

and burned it like rubbish in a

communal bonfire in their hearts.

And it was gone.

There was singing, and a sermon,

and then an unveiling–

Banny Foley the joiner had carved

a new little cross.

It was hung above a single line

of lovely stenciled manuscript,

painted atop the lintel–

Dawn had gone to Beryl’s house, made an enquiry.

In the old language

was written simply,

‘Christ Jesus our hope’.