Sunday, March 27, 2016

Of a dream about dirges, Sunday School "classes," and the presentation of the Gospel

About a month ago, just before a regular Bible study I attend, I overheard two of the leaders--who are also leaders of my church--lamenting that our church, in a major outreach, had recently started several new topical Bible study "classes" during the "Sunday School" hour, with topics geared to answer practical questions of younger people, but no one was coming. They wondered why no one was coming. I didn't interrupt their conversation, as I wasn't a part of it. But I had a dream a few days later that illustrated the answer to their question, in a weird way.

As with most dreams, I didn't remember most of it for very long after I awakened. But the part I remembered long enough to write it down went like this:

I was with some other people, in a vehicle, of what type I don't remember, and I was aware that we were moving out of a temporary house to somewhere else. I heard celebratory, probably sales-type, music coming in through the window of the vehicle, and commented that it should be a "dirge" instead. The others in the vehicle then reproved me, not because they were joining the celebration, but because none of them knew what a "dirge" was. They didn't understand the word, and I apparently couldn't explain it in a way that would permit them to understand. The word and the meaning seemed both to be obsolete. I started to explain that a "dirge" is "funeral music," but then corrected myself when I realized that a "dirge" really isn't modern funeral music, at least in our American culture. Modern people make no space, at least no public space, for dirges. Instead, we have very brief "celebrations of life." Mourning is all done in private. A few sessions of "grief counseling," some antidepressants if the counseling doesn't work, and then get "back to business," is the expected norm. It is business--mostly maintaining sales, which requires a "positive attitude"--which must go on as usual. Death, the last enemy, is ignored in a way which is not possible, and not thought natural or healthy, in other cultures going back to antiquity. We do not grieve. We do not sing dirges. We do not even understand what a "dirge" is or why one would be sung.

But if we can't understand what a "dirge" is, if we consciously ignore death, what does the Resurrection mean to us? Nothing! At least nothing, except possibly at funerals, where death can't be entirely ignored. It is no wonder that Easter has come to be a celebration of a rabbit that lays eggs and buys candy and greeting cards!

So it is with many inconvenient emotions in our culture that were given full expression in other cultures--including the cultures in which the Early Church flourished--and which were allowed full expression in our own cultural past. They are stuffed into "private" boxes that must be allowed only very minimal time and exposure, or sent to professional counseling or given pills to get rid of them. They are ignored in the interests of business as usual in every sphere of life. We no longer even truly understand the words for them. Yet Jesus reached people in these emotions, and through these emotions, by using words and his touch. The one condition he had the most trouble reaching through was self-righteous business-as-usual, the condition of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and also of modern Western humanity generally.

Unfortunately, churches have historically taken the lead in the suppression or required hiding of "negative" emotions in favor of maintaining a "positive" sales atmosphere. Of course, in doing so, churches wouldn't call what they are doing maintaining a "sales" atmosphere, but the underlying purposes for it are at least partially the same as in the commercial world: maintaining numbers, maintaining offerings, and just not being bothered by other people's "problems." Many churches, to their credit, have in recent years, started separate church "programs" to help people "deal with" their negative emotional baggage and its consequences--I personally participate in one of those, a twelve-step program called Celebrate Recovery. Still, even when such separate "programs" are established, "those people"--the ones with "problems"--are expected to keep them quiet during the regular church program, that they may not interfere with the regular "business" of the church.

One aspect of this shelving of "negative" emotions in the church actually goes back many centuries: the insistence that parishioners should derive most, or preferably all, of the support they derive from the church from formal, one-way instruction. In the traditional churches, the liturgy is fairly fixed; but even in churches with freer habits, there are fixed liturgical expectations within which the people must express their collective worship. Outside of this liturgical pattern, the leaders teach verbally, and the people learn silently. If leadership becomes aware of a problem that needs to be addressed, a sermon will be preached about it, or a class will be offered on how to "deal with" it. But even an organized class is still mostly one-way "instruction," with a fixed curriculum around which any discussion is centered. The people are expected to be able to take the factual propositions being "taught" and apply them to their lives in a manner that causes minimum of unpleasantness to other church or class members.

This aspect of limiting life involvement mostly to one-way teaching of factual propositions ("propositional truths") started within the first few centuries of the Church, and was largely a reaction to "heresy"--groups that actually had substantial non-leadership participation could get out of the leaders' control. However, in the early centuries, and up through the Middle Ages to the time of the Reformation, there were other outlets for the "negative" baggage. There was the practice of aural confession, which, for all of the problems that accompanied it when it developed into a way of buying forgiveness by doing penance, had a positive value. There were also real communities that cared for each other, and had systems outside the formal church structure for dealing with some of these "problems." After the Reformation, the practice of aural confession was rejected by the whole Protestant side of the Church, and the stresses introduced by the Reformation and its wars largely destroyed many of the cathartic aspects of medieval "community" even in places that remained Catholic. The Enlightenment, followed by political revolutions and industrialization, continued the process of impersonalization of all "business," including the religion business. The economic and social transition into the "modern" world finished the process. It is expected that anyone with "personal" problems should deal with them quietly--either through impersonal one-way instruction or through professional counseling that doesn't interfere with "sales."

There are two huge problems with this shelving of emotions, other than sales "enthusiasm," in the Church. The first is that the Church is composed of real humans, not economic machines. All real humans have "negative" emotions. "Negative" emotions are not limited "those people" who we put in a separate corner as having "problems," as people not like "us." Everyone has problems, and the "negative" emotions occasioned by those problems are often God's way of getting our attention. The emotions engendered by facing our last enemy, death, are a very good example of this. A major part of the message of the Gospel is that Christ came to deliver his people from the fear of death, a fear which we are told had previously subjected each of us to "slavery" (Hebrews 2:15), not by learning to ignore it, but by actively trusting and proclaiming Christ's resurrection. In Christ, I defeat the fear of death, not by ceasing to feel it or pretending to no longer feel it, but by clinging to the hope that the enemy who still has the "power of death" in this world has been defeated (Hebrews 2:14-15). I would submit that similar things can be said about all of the other "negative" emotions we try to cover up.

The second problem with the shelving of certain emotions in the Church for the sake of business is that the Body of Christ itself is a living organism, not an economic machine. Whether we successfully live it out or not, all who are in Christ have a shared life. Even if we are careful not to talk about it, "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." 1 Corinthians 12:26. This means, as some of us are now beginning to learn, that when Syrian Christians we've never met are murdered, we all suffer. But it also, and much more pointedly, means that when the person sitting next to us is suffering from a "problem," we all suffer, even though fear, tradition or etiquette will not allow that problem to be shared. It also means that the whole body suffers with my problems, even if they are kept hushed up. We are all members of one another. (Romans 12:4-5). Jesus dealt with people in their "problems." A gospel which does less than this is not the true Gospel, but a only feeble shadow of it.

What all of this means as applied to the concept of repentance, and comments on how we can reach our emotionally stunted culture in spite of their businesslike lack of understanding--or even of language--for dealing with most human emotions, will be discussed in future posts.

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