Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Sacraments and Sacra-Mentality

A friend of mine, Keith Anderson, published a blog post today reflecting on some of the response following Rachel Held Evans' new book and her entrance into the Episcopal church. Much has been made that she, a former evangelical, has found value in the sacraments (for her and some in the Episcopal church, they number seven: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, Extreme Unction (anointing and laying on hands for the sick),  ... for others they number only two, Baptism and Eucharist... but that is an old debate that need not be rehashed here.) Keith rightly points out that many mainline churches are "breathing deep sighs of relief, patting themselves on the back, and smiling in self-congratulation." 

Keith criticizes those who think if they just keep doing what they are doing, the young adults disaffected by the rock music, or coffee bars, or light shows, or anything else that tries to make church "cool" will find their way back to their pews with the liturgical tradition that has remained largely unchanged for decades. Keith writes: 
Judging from the comments I’ve seen in the days since Held Evans’s article was posted, I’m afraid that her assertion has had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the tendency toward inertia exhibited by some Mainline ministry leaders. “See, we’re fine. We don’t need to change,” I can hear them saying. “We can keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s put on some coffee, order some new communion wafers, and wait for the young evangelicals to come pouring in.”
Good luck with that.
Such interpretations of Held Evans’s post are problematic because they reinforce our maddening fixation on matters of worship, to the detriment of extending ministry beyond our church buildings, deepening faith formation, serving the poor, and helping our neighbors.

One of the issues that this brings to mind for me is that for those of us who are sacramental, liturgical traditions, we often confuse the notions of sacrament and liturgy. Liturgy is important and I find great value in the traditional liturgy, and yes, the locus of sacramental life is within the regular liturgical of the community. But there are plenty of places out there where the liturgical life, well-executed and following the rubrics with precision, is as much a show as some of the so-called "entertainment evangelism" services. The sacraments are located within the liturgy but are not necessarily dependent upon it. 

Many communities that look to the liturgical tradition, particularly the "high" tradition with organ and incense and acolytes and crucifers holding their implements in just the right way, are often seeking to cultivate some sort of emotional response. And I get that. Despite coming from a tradition that is generally (and rightfully, I believe) wary of religious experiences that manifest themselves primarily emotionally, I have been brought to tears by some of these high worship experiences. The preaching or the music or even just a moment of sheer sublime artistic beauty, like when in Munich, I stepped into a Catholic church at just the moment the body was singing Schubert's "Zum Sanctus" from his Deutsche Messe while the altar was being censed during the eucharistic liturgy. I stood there holding my nearly one-year old son while the smoke drifted up into the lofty sanctuary while the full pews (really, a church in Germany that was quite full for this moment), and the beauty overwhelmed me. 

But one thing I have discovered from a lifetime in the church, and over a decade as a pastor, that experience is fleeting  and impossible to replicate on a predictable basis. Yes, there are wonderful ecstatic experiences within it, but the point is not generate experiences. The point is to proclaim the gospel in a conrete and real way. Enter the sacraments. And to be honest, when I look back over religious experiences with the sacraments, they come precisely because of their connection with the very physical realities of my life. 

You see, the sacraments (baptism and eucharist) and other sacramental acts (the other five practices listed above, although there might be others... Augustine after all held that there were twenty-six sacraments) are not about some vague spiritual experience, but about God's presence in the nitty gritty details of our daily life and being communicators of grace there. I wept and was profoundly moved on the day of my wedding, when my wife and I pledged vows to one another in the presence of God and loved ones. On the day of my ordination, in my home church, surrounded again by people who loved me... the makeshift choir even took the time to learn the hymn version of tricky Veni, Sancti Spiritus to sing as we approached the laying on of hands. I was moved on the day I baptized my youngest child, and the moment I communed each of my children for the first time. I have felt God's presence as I sat at the bedside of a number of parishioners as they lay dying and we prayed through the commendation of the dying. I wept and was deeply moved on Christmas day 2011 as I presided at my last Eucharist in the congregation I served before moving to a new call in campus ministry. 

The power of the sacraments and the experiences they evoke are not in the details of the liturgy, but in the details of the everyday life in which they are embodied. Sacraments are not about some disembodied experience, but the very opposite, an embodied experience. The sacraments give us something physical to hang onto. They declare a holiness to our lives. They provide us with a Sacra-mentality, an idea that our lives and the world around us is a sacred wonder. They declare God's love for us all creation because God has promised to be present in particular ways through the very material things of creation and not in a slippery spiritual existence. God gives us concrete things to attach love and grace to... water, bread, wine... and loved ones and the lives we share. 

Which brings us back to Keith and Rachel. The place for sacraments is that it should provide us with that Sacra-mentality, a desire and drive to engage the world, this imperfect and incomplete world that is aching to hear that it is loved. The sacraments should drive us into the world to carry God's presence. Here with this way of seeing our life, we need not argue over worship styles. Can we recognize a sacred mode of existence where people who have experienced God's presence in very real ways can pour out their lives for others sanctifying and blessing them, creating an awareness of how God loves them. 

Keith is right... this is not a time for sacramental traditions to pat backs and relax, but to re-engage what the sacraments mean and point to. This renewed Sacra-mentality will help us then re-engage the world anew. This isn't just what young adults are looking for... it is what almost everyone is looking for. 

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