Endnote. “Can These Bones Live?” is the title of a recent sermon by liberal pastor Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. By “These Bones,” Rev. Jim was referring, via Ezekiel 37, to the Christian Church. Many see what I see; a splintered and impotent shadow of what the Body of Christ was meant to be, the mere dry bones of what was intended to be sinew, flesh and spirit. Not so, writes Phyllis Tickle as she quotes Episcopal Bishop Dyer as saying we Christians have held a rummage sale about once every five hundred years where we got rid of all of what held us back, all of what we could not use at each given time. Is that so?
Pack rats like me know how dangerous rummage sales can be, both to be anywhere near one and thus tempted to buy more stuff or to sell stuff at one. Have you ever tossed something out or even given it to a charity sale and then a year or so later gone looking for it, only to realize it is long gone? In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle has good news for us pack rats. She observes that many of the conventions and traditions which have been jettisoned by the Christian community during one rummage sale or another have not really been lost. No Christian expression, it seems, ever completely disappears. Ancient traditions still exist in one or another small Christian community which themselves were not a part of the “next new big” Christian movement but which continued to survive and serve, almost as museums; collections of ancient traditions and disciplines.
I believe Tickle to be quite right about this. Among those who agree with her, I think, is the Richard Foster. Foster, in his classic, best-selling book, Celebration of Discipline identifies twelve powerful behaviors which have been practiced and supported within one or more Christian community over the past two millennia:
Meditation Prayer Fasting
Study Simplicity Solitude
Submission Service Confession
Worship Guidance Celebration
Here is a critical question: how many of Foster’s twelve disciplines, all of which were marks of the presence of God and doorways to God’s liberating power in the ancient church, are given structural support and are regularly practiced by non-clergy types within your church community or within mine?
My “denomination of origin” practiced only three of these disciplines in any self-conscious and/or intentional way: Worship, Prayer and Study, and only one of them very well: Study. This is not unusual; most denominations today practice and support only three or four of the disciplines, max. Everyone maintains some form of worship which includes everyone but liturgical churches keep a tight rein on prayer: only the clergy may do it: everyone else gets little doggerel verses to recite at mealtimes and such. I mean, no telling what those lay-people would say if we let them just respond to the Spirit in their own words (shudder)!
The churches which do not support Study for everyone tend to be supporters of Service for everyone. Those in the Renewalist tradition which do not support Study or Service have much to teach us all about Celebration. Of course, the Roman church still makes a top-down version of Confession available to every Catholic but no one supports the biblical practice – “confess your sins, one to another” – at all.
The Lost Disciplines
The rest of the disciplines have long been lost or so downplayed and devalued in almost all western churches as to be barely even the object of lip service. Indeed, most of these doorways to the power of God were lost completely 500 hundred years ago when Protestants withdrew from the Catholic church. Not that Catholics had access to most of them either because many of these basic Christian behaviors and core practices can only be found lived out in any structured, supported way in the Catholic regular orders and to practice the regular orders you pretty much have to become a celibate monk or a nun, as though half of the great paths to God were reserved to those who were not married. At least half of the doorways to fruitful life: Meditation, Fasting, Simplicity, Submission, Solitude and Guidance, have been lost to the common folk of the western churches for the last 1500 years since many of these practices disappeared into the monasteries around AD 500.
Actually, Phyllis Tickle writes about this. She notes that the communal life of the early church flourished within stable, settled communities and such towns, villages and cities ceased to exist as such when the western empire fell to wave after wave of destroyers.
Submission: where did it Go?
So how did the disciplines of the early community survive the destruction of their communities? Let’s take what Foster identifies as the outward discipline of Submission as an example. Submission, placing one’s own ambitions and desires beneath those of one’s entire congregation, was critical to the cohesive power and evangelical expression of the Gospel in the face of ethnic jealousy and hatred, as well as imperial oppression. Submission was a mighty manifestation of agape love. The Body of Christ took care of each other; they were each others’ keepers; they maintained common purses and they held their possessions in common until their communities were destroyed in the 5th and 6th centuries.
This submissive love of one for another was first expressed in the common purse of Jesus and the Twelve. It then exploded into the common purses of tens of thousands of new believers in Jerusalem and Judaea after the Pentecost-founding of the new-kingdom community. Issues with distributions from the common purse eventually led the apostles to appoint a group of persons to see to it the common purse was administered justly. The practice was by no means confined to Judaea, however, as Paul several times discusses principles for its administration in letters to churches in Europe and Asia which circulated throughout the world-wide Christian communities.
Nor did Submission and its common purse die out with the generation of the apostles, for the Christian apologist, Tertullian was still talking about it as a part of his experience within the North African Christian community over 150 years later: “…we hold all things in common…” Submission and its common purse, however, did not survive past the 6th century, at least not in the general society. Rather, they disappeared into the monasteries for about a thousand years. For a while the monasteries were the only stable Christian expression in many parts of what had been the western empire.
Yet, even after stable societies were re-established, Submission, like Meditation, Fasting, Simplicity, Solitude and Guidance did not re-emerge from the monasteries and find their places in the practice of new towns and villages. They did not again become established expressions of Christian discipline until the Protestant Reformation, – Tickle’s third great shift – when their practice was restored, but only within the Mennonite, Hutterite, etc., peace churches, still separated from most Christian communities.
Was This Really the Plan?
Fine! I guess? No, not fine! Here is the question again from the last post about God’s will and history but in another form: Should the common purse have not disappeared into the monasteries? Should monasteries have been established at all? Should the regular orders (the more or less cloistered groups of sisters or brothers who lived and still live celibate lives and, among other things, share a common purse) have ever been established or not? Was this all a part of the plan? Seriously? Jesus said he would be with us, even to the end of our age. Is this what Jesus meant by that? Given the track record of the people of God in the past two millennia, how so? How has Jesus been with our wilderness wandering?
In the next post, I will pose two different but good ways of answering this big question.
Peace and grace, Trace
1 Back to PostThis series is an expansion of a long but cryptic post to this blog which I published last fall.
2 Back to PostLast fall I posted (Nov. 04, 2010) a first run at Tickle’s work and a summary of Richard Foster’s classic from the late ’70s, Celebration of Discipline. The book was named one of the top ten books of the 20th century by Christianity Today. If you have not read it there is no way to describe what you are missing. Go get the book, borrow it from your church’s library – if your church does not have it, buy two and donate one copy – and then read it, twice over at least! Let it soak in.