Friday, April 10, 2009

The Varieties of Religious Experience

We now take a detour away from my current train of thought to focus on what's really important. For most of the Christian world, today is Good Friday, the commemoration of the crucifixion. The title of this post is stolen from the title of a 1902 book on religious pyschology by William James, but that book isn't what's on my mind. What I'm thinking about is the many varied ways in which we reach out to God.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to encounter God in two very different ways, neither of which is part of the faith tradition of "my" church. First,we had a special chapel service at my (Episcopal) school which incorporated the Good Friday liturgy and also celebrated communion as part of the Maundy Thursday service (the Last Supper). My church was formed in the 1800s in America as part of a movement hoping to "restore" first-century Christianity. One of our movement's maxims was (and is), "no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible." So our forebears rejected later developments such as the liturgical calendar and feast days, and we intentionally turned away from such reformation-era innovations as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Therefore, we don't "do" Easter (or Christmas, for that matter... but Santa and the Bunny still come). However, I attended Roman Catholic and Episcopal schools as a child, and spent many years of study on the topic of the medieval church. So I have a personal affection for "high" church, for vestments, candles, processions, incense, and even old hymns on a big pipe organ. Yesterday's chapel was moving and meaningful. And there is a certain enhancement of the sense of small-c "communion" with like-minded Christians when you reflect that the same liturgy, the same prayers, the same Gospel readings (the passion according to John) were being shared word-for-word by millions of Anglicans yesterday and today. That doesn't mean I'll be suggesting we read from Archbishop Cranmer's Prayer Book when we break bread at the Summerville Church of Christ on Sunday. But reaching out to God in a "foreign tongue" had its benefits.

Then last night I had the pleasure of attending The Thorn at Seacoast Church, where my brother-in-law is a minister. Seacoast is a non-denominational community church built on the seeker-friendly "Willow Creek" model. Although theologically closer to my Church of Christ than the Anglicans, the difference in worship styles could not be more pronounced. The most obvious difference is that while one of our distinctive marks is a capella singing (based on the lack of any examples of instrumental music in the first-century church), one of Seacoast's biggest draws is its amazing worship band performing contemporary Christian rock. Not only do they celebrate Easter, but they do so with a 21st-century passion play which puts humorous dialogue in the mouth of the Apostle John. The chance of that happening in most Churches of Christ is pretty much zero.

I must say, by the way, that calling The Thorn a "passion play" is akin to calling Michael Jordan "some ballplayer." It was AMAZING, tracing the story of Jesus' victory over sin and death from the fall in the Garden of Eden to the empty tomb. My brother-in-law portrayed a "warrior angel" who fights the forces of darkness during Satan's pre-Genesis rebellion and guards the praying Christ in Gethsmane. An accomplished martial artist (black belts in two disciplines), he wielded a samurai sword in his role. I came primarily because he is one of my best friends, but I wound up spiritually strengthened and uplifted. I cried (just a little, and quite manfully) three times in an hour and a half (once during the ministry and miracles of Jesus, once during the scourging, and again as the stone rolled away).

I'm sure if members of either Seacoast or an Epsicopal church were to find themselves at my congregation, they would find some of our worship foreign (where are the vestments? where are the instruments?), but they may also find themselves strangely drawn closer to God by the simplicity of our service, and also by the differences with their own. I think if I had grown up on a liturgy, it could easily become stale and rote (as a young Presbyterian, I could mumble my way through the Lord's Prayer or Apostle's Creed with never a thought of the words). But seasoning my regular low-church diet with just a little high-church spice is spiritually very nourishing.

Happy Easter, all!


Pete said...

More importantly, I believe anyone who gets to know you in your faith (even from the small port-hole I have to view in) would be drawn to closer to the Father because of your humility and character.

Wish I could have seen this Thorn thing... I'm assuming it was an on-stage drama.

~ Stephanie said...

Loved this post. This is so "where I am" . . . enjoying both ends of the spectrum and drawing strength and encouragement from both as well.

We, at Reidland, are having our first "Good Friday" service this evening . . .

Coach Sal said...

Yes, Pete, it was a "stage" production, but the stage was the entire 1400-seat auditorium, including acrobats, gymnasts, the aforementioned martial artist angels, some characters whose makeup took 3+ hours to apply, awesome special effects, the works. It's like what the staff at PBC would do if we had 6 months prep time and tens of thousands of dollars in budget. You would have loved it! Thanks, both of you, for reading, and for the kind words.

Geoff Surratt said...

Great post. Your brother-in-law is an awesome warrior on many fronts. I'm glad you found The Thorn inspirational.

happyathome said...

I love that even though you have very strong convictions about your faith, you are so open to the faith and especially the traditions of others. God uses many avenues to draw us close to him.