Sabbath and disciple making...

As a follow-up to yesterday's post re: Sabbath keeping - and learning again from our Jewish cousins in faith about the whys and hows of hallowing time - let me start with this observation from Walter Brueggemann:

Wherever the Lord our God governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, the restfulness of God effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh. That is why in our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods...and it is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, and all pervasive presence of advertising... (as it nourishes) our sense that we are on the receiving end of the gifts of God.  (Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, pp. xiii-xiv)

Sabbath, in other words, unplugs us from anxiety on a regular basis and informs us that we do not have to earn God's love: creation is governed by grace not karma! 

Shortly before I departed for vacation, I was having a conversation with a rabbi colleague. As we spoke about our respective challenges in "doing" congregational administration, I noted that one of the differences between my realm and his is that I can no longer assume anybody knows the same stories. "We no longer speak the same language nor share a common core of spiritual stories." In the postmodern Christian context, you see, on any given Sunday morning there will be a handful of lifelong Congregationalists as well as a growing number of former Roman Catholics, young people who have joined the exodus from fundamentalism and a healthy dose of people who self-identify as spiritual but not religious. 

What that means is that before I can talk about exodus - or Sabbath - or even Easter, I have to retell and explain the story. This isn't a bad thing - Meister Eckhart once said, "Reality is the will of God..." - it just means that teaching and Christian formation must move to a central place in the worship experience. What's more, it must be done slowly, intentionally and with lots of humor. 

It also means that for my congregation - and probably for most in my tradition - we must stop pretending that Sunday School works all by itself. It is NOT the place where people become practicing Christians. It probably doesn't do much harm, if there are loving and committed leaders, but we must no longer suffer under the delusion that Sunday School is where formation occurs. It is a small piece of the puzzle, but I rather like the way John Westerhoff puts it like this in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? "I contend that the church can no longer surrender to the illusion that child nurture, in and of itself, can or will rekindle the fire of Christian faith in persons or in the church."

Rather, like David Ray notes in his book, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, there are three stages to effective Christian formation:

+ Inclusion: creating a welcoming and hospitable place for all people to  meet, worship and gather. This is something that some churches do well and others do dreadfully.

+ Identity: helping people to "freely confess to following Christ as Lord." Too many congregations in our tradition get confused here thinking that such a confession is exclusive and judgmental. Consequently, they are fuzzy about what makes them different from the Kiwanis at prayer or what distinguishes
them from social service agencies.

+ Discipleship: showing and training the congregation to "maturely and consciously act as followers of Jesus Christ." Discipleship means training - and making choices - so that our lives resemble the love of God made flesh in Jesus. As one pastor told me, "Many of our people admire Mother Teresa, but they have no idea how to become like her." Like the New Yorker said to the young violinist who asked, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, man, practice!"

For over 2000 years the church knew how to make disciples: 1) Regular
participation in worship is essential as the liturgy trains us in the ebb and flow of receiving grace and expressing gratitude; 2) Individualized and/or small group training and discussion for adults by mature and faithful leaders models the love of God in Christ Jesus for others; 3) Extended training through acts of service gives young believers both the experience and time for reflection necessary to count the true cost of sacrificial discipleship; and 4) Extravagant welcome and encouragement by the wider community offers renewal and hope because carrying the Cross cannot be sustained in private. It takes a cadre of loving, broken, wise, honest, sacrificial and playful disciples to help us follow Jesus. Without these ingredients, Ray observes, "at best we have church members struggling to be Christian and, at worst, poorly educated atheists."

As I have moved through the various stages of faith, I have come to a place where I believe Christianity must expose itself as a radical, tender alternative to the anxiety of the status quo. We must not only articulate the love of God, we must embody it and train others to do likewise. And while this begins in worship - and ripens with regular participation - training and accountability are essential. What grieves me at this moment in ministry, is that so many of our people are in bondage to the restlessness of this age. They are exhausted and anxious but often unwilling or unable to unplug from the madness. Indeed we may not even know what that means at this moment in time.

To which the Lord of the Sabbath says: come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Practicing Sabbath for us is not so much a geographical exodus, but "rather an emotional, liturgical and economic departure." Brueggemann writes:

Sabbath is a practical divestment so that neighborly engagement, rather than production and consumption, defines our lives. It is for good reason that Sabbath has long been, for theologically serious Jews, the defining discipline. It is also for good reason that Enlightenment-based autonomous Christians may find the Sabbath commandment the most urgent and the most difficult of all the commandments of Sinai...  our departure into restfulness is both urgent and difficult, for our motors are set to run at brick-making speed.

And without such a departure, we are enslaved to serving other gods who are insatiable rather than the God who rests and shares grace with us freely.


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