A little bit ago, Evan wrote in response to my post about labeling the assembly. I was replying a couple of days ago when I realized that at least part of this really should be a standalone post. So, here are most of his comments (see his complete comment here), and my “reply,” adjusted a little….
ES: Labeling is one of those things that sometimes feels an unfortunate necessity, [snip]
Take for example, the labeling of “spiritual things.” When we talk about our “spiritual life” or even in your post above; “…the Bible’s way of labeling spiritual things…”
The Hebrews didn’t have a world for spiritual in the way that we think about it. They had “spirit” but not “spiritual” because there was no separation in their mind of two lives…one spiritual and one not…everything was spiritual. [snip] Why should we separate our “spiritual” life from our “regular” life?
BC: Evan, I gotta admit that sometimes my mouth hangs open, figuratively and in a good way, when I read what you think/write. I of course remember when you were a kid, and you didn’t share much spiritual thinking some of those years. Now, you have so much to share, and it’s all valuable. God must be faithful.
I like your phrasing–that labeling is an “unfortunate necessity.” In the context of the official name of a church/congregation, I have felt the same way and once lobbied hard for getting away from labeling altogether, but I’m resigned now to the fact that a church probably needs a name. I’m not giving up on the idea of a changeable (read: less permanently denominated) sign, though. The Bible doesn’t have a single label for the church, and I don’t want to, either.
So about the “spiritual things,” I do wonder … hmmm … I sometimes like the phrase “things of the Lord.” You may not like that much, either, because it separates lawnmowers from communion and gravel from doctrine. But I know you’ve been deeply involved in gut-wrenching conversations about “the things of the Lord” before. Isn’t it somehow, some way, for some reason appropriate to designate those subject matters differently from the weather and politics and the day’s schedule? For me, it’s not that God isn’t in the weather or that He can’t be related to politics; it’s that I have trouble seeing the eternal significance in some things, but other things are more clearly Kingdom matters.
I’m interested in blending, in making meaningful connections, so yesterday, when “academically advising” a somewhat troubled student, I offered advice from the handbook but spoke also of the heart and of the prayerful support of friends. When signing a form for an exception for a student to take more than the limit of credit hours, I affirmed his desire to take Greek instead of Spanish–he wants to learn NC Greek and minor in Bible. These conversations were not ostensibly about “things of the Lord,” but those “spiritual things” were weaved in. That’s what we aim for, I think–to relate God to everyday life. But I’m still compelled that some things are more Kingdom things—spiritual things—than others. I assume you’re basically right about the Hebrews, but I’ve found things like this to be a little more complex, in the final analysis, than you allow—translation of Hebrew words to English, for instance, is going to be problematic. We’d be hard-pressed to say that their word was the precise equivalent to our “Spirit” or that there was nothing that remotely matched our word-notion of “spiritual.” Anyway, the Hebrews probably had something right, it seems. But I don’t know that I’d like the theocracy in which they lived! That would make it a lot harder to detest big federal government and to resent paying taxes to a dysfunctional state government with a leadership that garners no respect and can’t seem to tie its own shoe to save its life.
The Christian college at which I teach is fond of the notion of “integrating” the disciplines, including a Christian worldview. Various ones attempt to integrate “world music” and basic music theory with practical musicianship here, or they attempt to relate faith and chemistry on a daily basis, or teaching and living, or adolescent educational methodologies with classic spiritual disciplines. Some of this stuff resonates with me, and again, I do practice making connections between the “secular” and the “spiritual,” but I still feel the need to label what’s what.
There is a difference between a sociology textbook and the words to a worship song. There is a difference between a bowl of soup and a cup of grape juice that represents Jesus’ blood. Between stubbing my toe on a loose stone and falling down in my Christian walk. The former things in each pair may be great illustrations or springboards or things to analyze with God’s glasses on, but the latter things are more clearly things to dwell on. Don’t you think? For my feeble mind, anyway, there is often the need of delineating, of speaking clearly and isolating what’s what. It just helps me.
Then again, maybe this is what’s lacking in my “spiritual life.” Maybe I’m too disintegrated. Even my boss (whose Christian perspective has moved far from my own), though, understands that, for me, connections are more natural. Whereas for most of the Christian world, more blending is needed, I grew up with a basic notion that Christianity is all through the week and that the Bible is not just about Sundays. What I think I tend to need more is definition and delineation–more specific focus–and not more integration. I may be in a small minority!
ES: You pose an interesting question at the end…if we would act differently with a different moniker attached…. For some (especially specific generations), the word “gathering” may seem too informal for the time that they set aside each week in what they deem to be a sacred act for God. “Meeting” may carry the same connotations for them. For the younger generations, church and service carry the opposite … for many of that group it is just a building and a time where we can get together to celebrate and share and be united physically.
BC: Thanks for this genuine response. I think you offer some helpful possibilities. Reactions to words like “gathering” may not be defined by age/generation as much as by sub-culture. By that I mean that a specific 20-something Christian group in a metro area might prefer, in a postmodern sense, a fully liturgical “service,” with all that word implies and then some, but another 20-something group in a suburb might have come to love the connotation of the word “gathering” or “assembly,” based on their particular set of experiences. “Meeting” certainly has more negative, cold, businesslike connotation now than it did for the general populus 50 years ago, when a nice dress in Tennessee might have been labeled a “Sunday-go-to-meetin’” dress! Let’s keep thinking about this. For me, “a new gathering of Christians” could be “house church” could be “Bible study and worship” could be “getting together.” The label isn’t nearly as important as the hearts and activities!!
ES: To be honest, that should happen a LOT more often, and more of it in our homes as well. Would we call it “service” in our homes? Is there a reason we shouldn’t?
BC: Totally agreed that these things should happen a lot more in our homes. And I would personally find it really odd if anyone called it a “service” in a home, even if the basic activities were the same, but that’s just me. (In a home church gathering, after Bible discussion and a little singing, I did once witness an honest-to-goodness pulpit being rolled out into the rather small living room. Talk about mouths hanging open, and in a bad way this time! We were aghast! Maybe they would have called it a “service” there, as they had a few of the trappings of a high-$ church building and might have been imagining the rest of the trappings.) When “going to church” is punching a clock and doing official things, it can function like lotion for the soul. Feels good for a little while, but the basic spiritual eczema remains, under the salve. Words do change in meaning, and “service” is probably one that is undergoing change in the current era, but it still connotes official proceedings and ceremony, to some degree — witness its use in the case of funerals and some weddings.
May pulpits and pews fade in the coming decades, toward environments that foster a feeling of “family” in the Christian gathering. May there be webs of such congregations that pervade our countrysides and suburbs and cities. Last Sunday, we were in a home church that felt … well, just almost perfect to us. There was table time, and checking in with each other on the things of life and of the Kingdom, and worship, and discussion, and lovingcaring, and requests made of God on specific matters, and attention given to the biblical history of His people. All was informal and personal, but there was enough structure and plan to make it meaningful.
May more spiritual things, and spiritual ways of thinking and talking about mundane things, surface in everyday life, and may Sundays truly be opportunities for vertical and horizontal connecting, recharging us for living.