Friday, April 23, 2010

Will's Time Machine


Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday.

I knew that this morning; my daughter reminded me as I headed out the door. I didn’t know what to do.

Bow?

Weep?

Sigh?

Then I attended grandparents' day at my granddaughter’s school. During the presentation, some students recited Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” It’s my favorite sonnet.

I first learned it in high school because I thought it would impress girls. It didn’t. The line about going to the edge of doom was too much for the girls I dated. Also, I didn’t know what most of the sonnet meant. I just learned it to impress people. Now I know what it means. I discovered that the “remover”, removes things that we find attractive and alters things that threaten to alter love. However, I also know that these alterations do not alter real love because it is an “ever fixed mark.” Love is not time’s fool. Time, which removes and alters things, is helpless when it comes to the “love of true minds”. The Bard was right about that, as he was about so much.

The students who recited that sonnet today do not know any of this yet. They have only memorized words. But as they experience life, they will have a road map to help them recognize real love –the sort that is “an ever fixed mark.”

Not many students in our schools care about Shakespeare now. That’s because the culture doesn’t care about him. So, far too many of them will leave school without a roadmap. They’ll know how to make a living but not how to live a life.

This same principle is true about spiritual life. The creeds and hymns – even the Holy Scriptures themselves, frankly -- do not automatically grant spiritual life. One can read them, memorize them and recite them without ever knowing God. However, it is the duty of the church to teach them, so that as we do experience God, we will understand what is happening to us.

Most Christians now are as bored with the creeds as the children are bored with Shakespeare. Both are bored for the same reason: immaturity.

My blogs are a cry in the dark to those who want to shake off the immaturity of our times and become wise. You can decide later (if you wish) that the creeds are not for you. But you should know them and know what they mean before you decide that. Otherwise, you are just praising stupidity and trying to claim it as holiness and piety.

Whenever we recite the Apostles Creed, we are repeating the core doctrines of the early Church. Every generation of Christians tend to emphasize some lines of the creed and downplay others. Each generation also seems to struggle with certain phrases that conflict with popular ideas of their own era. In our times, we seem to have a special difficulty with the line, “I believe in the holy catholic Church”

That line is usually difficult for Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It is especially difficult for those of us who are members of “independent” churches.

In early blogs, we discussed why many believers have a problem with the word “catholic.” With a bit of education we can get past that problem. However, what do we do about the high view of Church that this line seems to suggest?

Independently minded, post-modern Christians tend to see the Church as a convenience. Church is a nice warm place to assemble and meet other believers. We tend to treat our churches like shoes; when one pair of shoes gets too tight we get a new pair! When one church seems not to work for us, we just change churches.

We are just not happy with assigning too much importance to church. So when we hear the phrase, “I believe in the holy catholic Church” It’s just too much. We know that God is holy. We don’t object to that. (At least not yet!) So, we can say easily confess the holiness of God. But is the Church holy? We are not really sure that it is.

The Nicene Creed adds to our discomfort. It asks us to confess, “One holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

We have a problem with the word “one”. If there is one church, then which one? “Holy” is a problem for us too. We don’t seem to be very holy. “Catholic,” as we have already discussed, is a problem. And now, this strange word “apostolic.” What does that mean?

Each one of these words in the creed is important. They each describe different aspects of the church.

The Church is “one” because it is the single entity upon the earth vested with authority to cast out demons and proclaim the Word of God. It is “catholic” because despite its cultural diversity, every local assembly, every mission, every para-church, every group of any kind that claims to represent the Church of Jesus Christ, shares a common essence. All believers are bound together across generations, race, language, national borders - even across death itself. The church is united through the presence of the Holy Spirit, by the common deposit of teaching, by the table of the Lord, and by the living link we have to the apostles. That’s what it means to be “catholic.”

But we have talked about all of this already, haven’t we? So let’s look at this new word, “apostolic.” The word “apostolic” means “in succession with (and sharing the teaching of) the apostles.”

There are many ways that this apostolicity is expressed in the life of a church. For example, all believers are baptized by someone who was himself baptized. The one who baptized that person was also baptized by another. This chain of baptized and baptizer, goes through time, back to the apostles. That is one living link we all share with the apostles.

Also, when Christian ministers are ordained, they are ordained by someone who was himself ordained by someone. The newly ordained minister takes his or her place in a chain of spiritual leaders stretching back to the apostles. Some of the older churches question the apostolic succession of those ministers who are ordained in Christian communities other than their own. This is another disagreement between Christians. After the Reformation, most Protestants did not keep careful records of their ministerial lineage. Also, some churches do not even see this link with the past as being very important. Nonetheless, the vast majority of ordained Christian ministers of all denominations are ordained by the laying on of hands of older ministers who were themselves ordained, and are therefore, a part of a living link stretching back to the apostles.

There is an even more important link than these sacramental ones to the apostles, however. When we preach, teach and experience what the apostles taught, preached and experienced, we are linked to them. A local church, in order to be apostolic and to possess the quality of catholicity, must above all else, teach and live that which has “at all times and in all places been believed”.

In Acts, chapter four, St. Luke tells us that the early Christians were faithful to the “apostles’ doctrine”. When we learn the creeds, when we pledge to be faithful to the doctrines that they contain, when we experience what the apostles experienced, we are making good on our intentions of remaining “apostolic,” of being faithful to the apostles’ doctrine.

None of that may be very important to you. It is certainly not important to a new believer who is just glad to escape from hell and be rid of sin. But once you have any level of responsibility in spiritual leadership, the doctrines of the church become a roadmap.

Yeah, I know. This stuff is really, really old.

But love is not times' fool.

There are some things that time cannot remove or alter.

One who truly loves the church will not admit impediments to learning what our ancestors asked us to learn. Even if we decide to disagree, we at least will know how to get through our “brief hours and weeks, even to the edge of doom.”

‘If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ nor no man ever loved.”

Happy Birthday, Will. I’m glad there is still a living link between us and that the link survives somehow, as I heard from the students today. You have helped us live richer lives because we learned your words before we knew what they meant.