Monday, December 18, 2006

Where formality is suspect....

"Americans are the ones who like to put their feet up on the furniture" she said in a manner that was not judgemental, but matter-of-fact. We were having lunch with an old couple, retired missionaries, she from Switzerland and he from France. They reflected on the dominant casualness of American culture from their perspective. I confess, I like to, read with my feet propped up on the corner of my desk, so I'm part of this casualness as well.
We went to a marvelous choir concert last week. The reperoire was totally classical and sacred. The students memorized everything and sang in German, Latin, Spanish and English. And this was a public school. That seldom happened in Minnesota. Content had to be excized of anything Christian in an attempt to be multi-cultural. So we were delighted at the program. Except, between each song, the audience burst into loud applause with "hoots" of pumped fists in the air from fellows students, like we were at a boxing match! It happened over and over again. I dismissed it with the thought, it is a public school and a secular community. The music was really good and it was performed well. But the reverential was missing.
All these thoughts become wonderful grist for car-ride conversations with Martha. And today, she said something too good to not quote..."Where formality is suspect, there is the tendency to remove reverence."
Where the very thought of formality is suspect or under attack. When the act of wearing a tie or formal wear is suspicious and negative, there can be a tendency to remove thoughts of reverence. When we eschew formal titles like "Mr." or "Dr." or "Professor" and insist on first-names all the time, we can possibly devalue authority and wisdom. The boisterous applause, evacuated reverence from the concert. It was good music, but not good worship.
The same can happen among pastors. I have a good friend who almost can't help himself from injecting dumb jokes at holy moments. It's like he runs from the holy to the informal with the vehicle of a joke. Maybe things get too holy and too scary, and like a good emcee, he injects some levity. But for those who went to his seminars, it burst the bubble. They blessed his wisdom and insight and longed to be allowed to linger in the holy without a quip or a one-liner.
Reverence is a term I know I need to retrun to and go deeper with, especially as it regards sacred space. The question I'd like to through out is: is the emergent church inherently informal? Is formality inherently suspect? Can reverence be informal?


At 1:39 PM , Anonymous kent said...

I believe there is a difference between casual and raucous. Hooting and yelling at concert is not casual, it is boarding on rude. Parents behaving badly. Structure and formality can allow and encourage reverence but I do not believe it creates it. Likewise I believe casual can also be reverent.

Manners are not either formal or casual, they are essential. From what I have seen of the emergent movement their spaces are more reverent than the big box environs that we see so often today.

It may also be expectations and taste. For those who thrive in the classical element, order and quiet are essential givens. For others who look at those concerts as endurance exercises, a little chaos is interesting.

At 2:11 PM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Kent; what is ther relationship between manners and reverence? Are manners culturally relative or are there some, dare I say, absolutes?

At 2:31 PM , Blogger Kate said...

What an interesting topic. I think one can be casual and reverent. The image that comes to mind of this is a friend of Chris' and mine, laying down on his face in prayer in the Westmont chapel - in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt, deeply in prayer. He was a guy deeply reverent, but casually dressed at least.

That said...I think it's important to ask how the audience treated the performers WHILE they were performing? Were they sitting quietly (reverently?) and respectfully listening or were they fidgeting and whispering? I may be someone who wears jeans to church most Sundays, but the second someone leans over to chat during worship or a choir performance I am immediately aware and feel offended for the performer or leader. I think responding with hoots and cheers speaks to a youthful enthusiasm, (and perhaps poor manners)- but I don't think it necessarily means they are irreverent.

At 9:05 AM , Anonymous Isaac Johnson said...

better than yawns and snores...

At 9:06 AM , Anonymous kent said...

Oh great now I have to think. Okay, is reverence cultural? Is what is reverent for one group and same for another group?

I would dare to say that there are absolutes in both reverence and manners. Maybe not many of them but they exist. Silence would be one. Gratitude another. And manners can enable reverence.

Now my head hurts. I need to lay down.

At 6:12 PM , Anonymous garymeans@comcast.net said...

I have never been to formal, high-church service. I was at a Lutheran service where the pastor told a joke and the punchline was in Latin. That was a bit odd, I thought, but I guess he knew his congregation, because a number of people laughed. I didn't recognize the phrase. But then again I only recognize a couple phrases like habis nabisco, which I think means, 'good cookies'.

But I have been to plenty of very stiff services where most of the men wore suits and virtually no one wore jeans. The highest value in that church is that all things are done in an orderly fashion. If the smallest thing goes wrong during the worship service, you can be sure that it will be discussed at the staff meeting that week, to ensure that this mistake is never repeated. It may have been more orderly, polite, and formal, but that certainly did not make that much more worshipful. Just the opposite happened, in my opinion anyway. However, I know that there are many people to whom that approach blesses their socks off.

I have only been to a couple services in an emerging church. In terms of dress, it was extremely informal, although there was one young man wearing a monk's habit. The abbess just wore street clothes. There were icons on the walls, and of course, candles - lending a reverent feel to the room, at least in my opinion. There were also couches and overstuffed chairs, as well as lots of folding chairs.

In these services, there was a formal order of service. This included the Eucharist, a short message, and praying the news, which was excerpts from that day's NPR broadcast, followed by a liturgical response.

In the middle of the worship service we broke into small groups for short discussion of a relevant question, which may have come out of the message. But there was also the option to go to the front of the sanctuary to write a letter to yourself about what you wanted to see change in your relationship with God. Stationary and envelopes were provided, and the church promised to mail the envelopes to you six months later (they paid the postage). Or, you could write a letter to a public official about an issue of compassion or justice.

There was also a time where people shared personal stories which were extremely powerful. The thing I most appreciated about the stories was that they were just shared without an attempt to exploit them by drawing a message from them. This was especially true when one man spoke of his friend dying in his arms after being hit by a car and how it affected his faith. The Body was treated as being intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions.

So the service was informal, but powerful. There was deep meaning and reverence in all that happened. At least that was the way I perceived it. It was casual but serious. Informal, but informed by a recognition that we are children of a Holy God.

The Eucharist was the highlight of the service, not the sermon. That was something I had never experienced before.

One other experience was a guided meditation where Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman was told as a story. The story-teller drew the listener into the story with questions interspersed through the telling. It culminated with Christ asking a question directly, which totally freaked me out because I was so into the story, and the question was way too threatening, even though it was not delivered in a heavy-handed, manipulative manner. It was a simple and beautiful story the way it was told. I think the thing that disturbed me so much was that it was so real, so personal; an encounter with Christ, rather than just another message with bullet points.

The service was informal without being profane, rude, or common. And somehow they made the extraordinary tangible, at least for me.

This was at Church of the Apostles in Seattle, by the way.

At 6:20 PM , Anonymous garymeans@comcast.net said...

Man, I'm long-winded. Sorry about that really long comment. One very quick thing: I think the Evangelical Church has leaned so far toward viewing Jesus as friend, and Father as Abba, that we have a difficult time seeing God as YHWH, El-Elyon, or Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, etc.

At 8:32 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Thanks Gary and Kent and Isaac; I guess the issue is not so much a contrast between formal/informal as between the suspicion of formal and rowdy. I completely agree that clothing is extremely cultural and irrelevant to the discussion, but attitude and behavior is something else.


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