To Be Leaven For the Future

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Matthew 13:33, NRSV

The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich, 14 January 1935

…we share a vision for the future that aspires to realize the Church as leaven for the coming culture and spurns being reduced to ossification as a fossil consigned to irrelevancy, encased in glass, safe for gawking but not recommended for espousal.

Brother Stavros of New Skete, from the Introduction to Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down

dry yeast

As a pastor of two small churches in a secularizing context, I have been thinking a lot about the church that we hand down to future generations.

While some think that if we hunker down and hold on long enough, the 1970s or 1980s will come back, those days are gone and are not coming back, and I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing.

To be Followers of the Way of Jesus is more difficult now than it was when I was a child, and it is more difficult here than some other contexts which are not as far along in the current process of secularization and pluralization. But the greater difficulty is also an opportunity, if we lean into it, to live more fully into the Way of Jesus and to increasingly embody what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.

To take the image from the title of a volume of essays published at the fiftieth anniversary of the New Skete Orthodox monastic communities:
will we hand down leaven or a fossil?

Some faith communities will certainly hand down leaven, a way of existing which is meaningful for whatever the future may hold, a way of existing which is formative into the values of the kingdom of heaven, radically based on the values expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. A way of existing which is entirely different from both contemporary evangelicalism AND mainline-ism. I am convinced that both of these, in their current iterations, will leave the future nothing but fossils.

In one of the quotes at the beginning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of a new monasticism centered around an “uncompromising commitment” to embodying the teachings of the Sermon the Mount. New monasticism does not mean that people will be celibate, living cloistered lives in habits. Rather, it is to speak of the commitments of monasticism to love, service, and prayer. This is the way, I am convinced, that the church will become leaven for the future.

In order to be leaven, it is not as if everything has to go, as if we strip away all traditions of Christianity as a whole or of individual faith communities. The difference between fossil and leaven are not, at the core, trappings of religious practice but rather how we understand ourselves as the pilgrim people of God, as Followers of the Way of Jesus. Fossils or leaven can be passed down either with rock bands or with hymns and an organ or chant. Fossils or leaven can be passed down with either a minister/priest in vestments, or a preacher in jeans. Fossils or leaven can be passed down with either a formal liturgy, or an informal one.

Whether a church passes down fossil or leaven has nothing to do with the trappings of particular faith communities, and everything to do with the commitments of the people who compose the faith communities.

To be completely honest, I don’t know exactly what form things will take, it’s not possible to know. After all, the various contexts in which faith communities are diverse and the forms these communities will take will also be diverse. However, there are some themes that I think are (and will be) important (in no particular order).

Uncompromising Commitment to the Sermon on the Mount

Such a commitment to the values and life expressed in the Sermon on the Mount means that one will not be fully at home in either side of the cultural binary, or in the current categories of fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic, or mainline. It is truly counter-cultural of ever existing culture. Able to borrow from and find itself in all, but not coextensive with any. It will be a primary commitment to living the type of life expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: action and service and love and compassion all driven by faith, and faith which drives us to action and service and love and compassion. The focus is not being good citizens, nor is it focused on going to ‘heaven’ when we die.

Furthermore, it will not be about maintaining the structures and systems that were built for the 1900s or 1950s or 1960s. It is not, first and foremost, about running a not-for-profit corporation, but rather about a way of shared life. It is a way of shared life that we see embodied in Jesus’ life and teachings that is the focus.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:37-38, NRSV

Notice the uncompromising commitment is to the Sermon on the Mount, not on particular doctrinal convictions. This is not to say what we believe doesn’t matter, but it is to say that what we believe isn’t the primary point. Our beliefs must lead us to the embodiment of faith: action and love as we can see taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

A Contemplative Approach to Life

The word “contemplative” often brings up all sorts of images, but try to push those out of your mind. Rather, a contemplative approach to life is a life which is prayerful. This doesn’t mean we always sit with our eyes closed and speaking words, or meditating our way to heaven by secluding ourselves, but rather, a life in which the Divine is always before us.

Jesus was not just voicing hyperbole when he told the disciples “to pray always and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1f). He wasn’t speaking about always ‘saying’ prayers here–his own life never reflected that; he was speaking about living in a state of perpetual prayerfulness, of steadfast faith, an inner climate whose intention is always oriented to God. This is dwelling in pure faith, without any conditions or strings attached, and is the surest way to God. If we listen to the tradition, to its challenge of unceasing prayer, and work at it consciously, our prayer will increasingly take on this reality; indeed, it must if we are to experience it as a dynamic relationship through which we come truly alive, alive in the fullest sense of the word.

This is the work of a lifetime. “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Brother Christopher of New Skete, “‘Lord, Teach Us to Pray’” in Fossil or Leaven: The Church We Hand Down

A contemplative approach to life keeps the Divine before our eyes at all times. Nothing that we do is done outside of the Divine presence, nothing is truly secular. Wendell Berry writes:

There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   

Wendell Berry, from “How To Be a Poet”

To lead a contemplative approach to life is to see all places as sacred, that whether we are in a place set apart for worship or the grocery store or our place of employment or at the post office, we are always in sacred places, which is not to say that all of these places need to display symbols of our faith, but rather it is to say that we are to live as we are always in the presence of God, and that we are able to see the image of God in everyone and see Divine fingerprints and footprints everywhere and in everything.

Additionally, a contemplative life requires a structured life of prayer, both individually and communally. The ancient structure is to pray three times a day: morning, noon, and evening. These do not need to be long liturgies, but they should be relatively structured and consistent. It must be structured because prayer is also a spiritual discipline, and it is those structured times which help us in living a contemplative life always keeping the Divine before us. At least some of these should be together. Communal morning prayers or communal evening prayers depending on the desires of the particular community. But it is important that communal prayer helps to reinforce individual prayer and individual prayer helps to reinforce communal prayer and all of these reinforce a contemplative life lived before the Divine at all times.

An Intentional Life

Linked with a contemplative approach to life is to live an intentional life. So much of life feels like getting on a conveyor belt of sorts, and just following where it goes. But such a life is not fruitful. In order for the church to be leaven, we need to live life with intentionality. We need to pay attention to the things that we do, the causes we support, the activities we engage in, where we give our time and energy. There is no shortage of demands on our time and energy, and we cannot give to all, even to all of the worthwhile causes. An intentional life is one that is lived with a purpose, toward a direction. The things we engage in, the things that we do, these ought to be chosen intentionally rather than passively accumulated. We cannot do this alone, which is why we need the support of the community in this.

A Commitment to a Shared Life

In many (if not most) American contexts ‘church’ is the place where you go on Sunday and to receive religious goods and services. Although many of us grew up singing that the church is not a building, but that the church is people, more and more the lives of people who make up the church are pulled in various and sundry directions (and many of these are good things too, don’t get me wrong) that many people do not live a shared life, and in many cases, do not know one another.

In order for the church to be leaven, people need to know one another, people need to care about one another, people need to be committed to one another, people need to trust one another and most of all people need to love one another and be loved by one another. While everyone in the community also has their own lives, there needs to be an intentional shared life. Historically this was done in (1) coming together weekly for Liturgy to experience the Divine through Scripture and Sacrament and (2) coming together to share meals. There is something significant about breaking bread together that is not easily replicated. We can still see remnants of this in many churches today where potlucks are still practiced. People bring something of themselves to the communal table and all share together.

Commitment to a shared life by a common rhythm of life which includes regularly sharing meals together, not all of them, of course, but perhaps once a week. In this way people are able to share joys and griefs, worries and hopes, excitement and devastation in such a way that the community is able to minister to one another, which is the form of community that the Sacred Texts envision. There is certainly a role for a pastor (shepherd), but that role is not to minister to everyone, but to help to nurture a culture in which everyone belongs and where everyone can minister to and care for one another.

Revisiting Ancient Ways of Existing

To revisit ancient ways and practices is not to just do now what was done then. That is not possible and most certainly not fruitful. But this is not the first time that the Followers of the Way of Jesus have existed in a pluralistic context. This context is not something to be feared, but it is something to be leaned into. But to lean into this requires that we pay attention to what form the church has taken in the past and gleaning from it what is applicable for the future and what is not, what kinds of things will help us to be leaven, and what things will ossify us into fossils.

And the history of which I am thinking is not the 1960s or the 1860s, or the 1760s, but back to the first, second, third, fourth, fifth centuries. The early church was a community that was a minority and lived under pressure. Those who claim Christianity are not a minority in the United States (though most are secular Christians akin to secular Jews), and Christianity is most certainly not under pressure. But we can learn how our forebears sought to live faithfully in a context which was not culturally Christian. While we will not simply recreate what was, we can learn something of how we might pass down a living church to our descendants.

One source that might be especially helpful is the ancient Didache or “The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations” (it’s quite brief and well worth a read at the link) This is the earliest extant manual the life of the Christian community.

A Life of Encountering Mystery

The Western mind has a deep desire to figure everything out, to be able to have an explanation, to make things nice and neat and tidy and clear.

We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and we ought to continue to grow in our understanding of our faith. However, our comprehension is always limited and can never be complete. Rather, we are to open ourselves to encountering the Divine mystery, and to embrace mystery for what it is. Mystery is not bad, mystery is the recognition that as much as we may try to understand, we must, at some point, be content with experiencing rather than comprehending.

The sacraments are sometimes called holy mysteries, because even with all of our attempts to understand, the essential part of the sacraments remain incomprehensible, they are, rather, things that we are to experience, and in experiencing we can encounter the Divine.

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 

1 Kings 19:11-13a, NRSV

Liturgy Imbued with Mystery and Transcendence

As much as we try to understand the Divine and the faith that we seek to live into, we are reminded, regularly, that the Divine remains a profound mystery. And so we must continue seeking to understand the things that we can understand, and experience the rest.

There are many things about most Protestant worship services that can be gained elsewhere. An inspiring and meaningful message? The best that the world has to offer is available at everyone’s fingertips. Want to hear beautiful music? With the press of a button playlists are there in which you can enjoy the most beautiful from around the world. These are the things which used to be the main emphasis points of churches in modernity. And while I think excellent preaching and music is still important there is one thing that cannot be gained elsewhere: an experience of transcendence.

Historically, much of Christian worship has been geared toward this experience of mystery and transcendence, and this can still be seen, especially, in the Orthodox churches, but also in the Roman Catholic churches. Iconography and chanting and incense and the movement of the liturgy was designed to allow people to get caught up in the Divine life for a period. It was not the value of entertainment but transcendence which was the goal.

If the church is going to be meaningful in the future, this must be recovered. People do not need churches for content, entertainment, or even for community anymore. People can find community elsewhere. What cannot be found elsewhere, however, is transcendence. What cannot be found elsewhere is the opportunity to get caught up in the Divine life.

There are many ways to help this, and Protestants will have to work to re-learn the practices of the church of the ages to help gain some insight. One important thing, however, is weekly celebration of the Holy Supper. The early church saw weekly celebration of the Holy Supper as not only normal, but also normative. That is, it is the way it is supposed to be. Even in my own tradition, John Calvin saw it important to celebrate the Supper frequently, at least weekly. Looking to the future, we can obtain content anywhere. What we cannot gain everywhere, however, is a deep and real encounter with the living Christ in Word and the Sacrament—Holy Mystery—of the Holy Supper. It is in this moment that we experience transcendence as we are joined in with the Divine life and receive Christ within ourselves and are united in the deepest and truest way with Christ and saints of all times and places. This is an example of true transcendence that is so essential in a world which is so very disenchanted.

This kind of life would require commitment, and would require intentional sacrifice. Sacrifice is often a bad word, but we sacrifice things all the time. To say yes to something is to sacrifice something else by saying no. The issue is not how to avoid sacrifice, but rather, to pay attention to the sacrifices we make. This kind of life requires commitment, but I think this is worth it.

I want to pass down leaven to my descendants, I have no desire to pass down a museum piece. And it is this kind of reality that find life-giving as a shepherd, rather than simply minding the store which the pastorate can so often be today. I have no interest in maintaining machinery just because. I have every interest in inviting people into an encounter with the Transcendent God who also took on flesh and lived among us. I have every interest in a community which seeks to transform lives in a holistic manner: body, mind, spirit, circumstance. I have every desire to help shepherd a community which is uncompromisingly committed to a life which seeks to follow Jesus the Christ by seeking to embody truly counter-cultural (of all cultures) values of the Reign of God.

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