July 6th, 2020

turtle

Going through the motions

As part of a prayer or a charge yesterday, the pastor expressed the hope that in receiving Christ in the bread and the wine we also, each one, had opened ourselves up to receiving him in spirit and truth, and that our partaking would be more than "just going through the motions."

Now, this is right and proper to say, I suppose. We Methodists do emphasize in our invitation to the Table that to receive Christ is to receive Christ -- which is why we do not require those who come seeking him in the bread and wine to have gone through some other process first. But, of course, having sought him there, and received him in some fashion, that ought to leave a mark on us. If we weren't Christian before, we ought to be now -- and if we aren't sure what-all that entails, we need to be making progress toward a full commitment at our best speed. So, I don't have a theological beef with the hope expressed.

And yet, I notice -- especially among Evangelicals -- a certain nervousness about outward forms. Evangelicals are always worried that we will engage ourselves in mere ceremony, and miss out on the "real" relationship with God in Christ those ceremonies are concerned with. And while I'm willing to take that concern as a real concern, I still note that the Jellicles have this tic, this constant dichotomy over what is real/inner/spiritual and what is appearance/outer/mere motions.

This concern shows up in a certain attitude toward ceremony; indeed this concern shows up in a certain attitude toward order. A slovenly attitude, I dare say. We are so concerned with rousing the inner person without bothering with the outer person that we neglect the outer person's participation -- as if in declaring that since clothes don't matter, we needn't bother to put anything on beyond whatever we slept in before coming to church. Or perhaps the ideal evangelical Christian is to be like the couch potato who gorges oneself on pizza and beer while showing one's zeal of spirit by cheering on one's favorite football team; then we wonder how someone who participates so deeply in sport is still so fat.

"Going through the motions" is something to beware of. But failing to complete the motions -- making any half-hearted effort toward saying/singing/enacting the great words that move our souls through confession and pardon and peace and communion -- seems to be something we ought to be wary of, too. And it is the besetting sin of the Evangelical church (besides dullness): sloppy agape. We keep calling for a burst of the old-time fiery zeal, but we can't bestir ourselves to any effort to lead well-ordered worship. We call ourselves Traditionalists, but we don't know what to do with the Tradition we were bequeathed.

I don't say this to complain. I'm trying to be helpful, really I am. And meanwhile, there are scores of pastors I know and love, who wonder why they get so little response, and who think that if they just talk longer, surely someone will spontaneously combust and rush the altar. They are trying to force an incarnation without allowing for full bodily life: they are functional Docetists. I'm not saying they should be liturgigeeks, obsessing about the right colors and obscure practices; but it would be nice if they could participate in a ceremony without breaking the fourth wall to comment upon it, if they could lead worship without constantly trying to warm up the crowd, if they could admit sometimes that Thomas Cranmer said it better than they can, if they even left some times of holy quiet in which we might make one of those "real," spiritual responses they'd like us to make.