Going Through the Motions

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A person can attend every church service, faithfully tithe, and beneath this righteous public display be concealing an adulterous affair.  One can go through the ritual of Holy Communion without being truly reconciled with their brother or right with God. False religion makes a mockery of the Church and the true faith of the Saints.

It is because of that fake devotion that many do throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all religious practice is useless.  My generation, for better or worse, longs for authenticity and has rejected the motions of religion on that basis.  We all know hypocrites, those who dressed in the correct prescribed manner, who acted right and abused, neglected, or mistreated us.

This is likely one of the reasons why church attendance is dropping.  People had a bad experience (or many) and decided it is better to stay home than to simply show up for sake of appearance.  Why hang out with people who are phony, who do not truly live out what they claim to believe, yet will judge you because you are sincere and don’t follow all of their forms?

This is, after all, what Jesus did during his ministry, he challenged the pretentious, the religious elites, and brought the focus back to being genuine in love for each other.  And yet this is not to say that he was not an observant Jew or irreligious.  We know he was taken to the temple as a child, we know he was active in his own synagogue and kept the feasts.  

Sure, he chased out the corruption.  Sure, he corrected the misuse of the law.  And there was also the condemnation of those who were circumcised and imposed their tradition on new believers.  But that doesn’t mean that Christianity was without ritual or religion, it certainly does not mean we would be better to practice our faith only when we feel like it or completely agree with the application.

Authenticity is a good thing.  However, as an artistic cousin of mine (employed as a writer and musician in Nashville) once told me, you must practice even when you do not feel like it.  That is why I write almost constantly, and whether I feel like it or not, because regular practice is the only way we get better at anything.  If we always waited for the right amount of inspiration before going to work we would severely limit our potential.

Practice makes perfect and going to the gym every day, the repetition of various motions with the right amount of intensity, will allow us to build strength over time.  That is the power of religion.  It is not vain repetition to go through the motions of prayer or treating others with love, that is what builds muscle memory and leads to gain.  Had we just stayed home, to prove our authenticity or whatever, we would miss out on the opportunity for growth.

The danger of taking authenticity too far is that we never show up because we don’t feel like it.  My natural disposition would be to attend St. Mattress on Sunday morning and not have to face some people and their hurtful behavior that is inconsistent with their Christian profession.  It is triggering, it feeds deep-seated doubts and makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I go to work in the morning or the gym despite feeling unmotivated.

That is why we go through the motions of religion.  Faith is what it does.  And, if you want to move mountains or slay giants, then you need to show up for the small tasks as well.  David was a good shepherd who tended and protected sheep before he became king of his people.  Daniel prayed, faithfully, three times a day, before he faced down the lions.  Religion, going through the motions, can strengthen us.

However, at the same time, we can’t expect any gain through the ritual alone, at some point this must translate into tangible acts of love or it is fake. The Pharisees, we are told, were diligent in their religion and yet unloving in their actions. The church should never be a toxic environment where problems are never adequately addressed. St. Paul was brutal in his letters in addressing neglected issues. James too makes it clear that profession without concern for our brothers and sisters is not enough:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NIV)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Religious discipline, without love for each other, is only ever a dead work.  It is false security for those relying upon their own strength.  We’re not saved by the number of prayers we pray nor by our participation in the rituals and tradition of the Church.  All of this, without genuine love, is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” a hollow act, worthless noise, and meaningless.

Maybe do not have any unmet material needs anymore, like those mentioned in the passages above, but we do have emotional needs and a need for real connection. And, let’s not forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can even go through the motions of intimacy and love. The truth of our faith depends on the authenticity of our love one for another; what we withhold from our brothers and sisters we withhold from God.

It is disappointing when the church is like a social club, people go through the motions of relationships, and there is no true depth or commitment to real love. It does seem that many lean towards this idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Jesus” or something between them and God alone, basically impractical religion, but that is not the attitude of those in the true Church. There is no love for God required to sit alone at home.

In Search of Authenticity at an Amish Wedding…

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Protestantism aimed to strip away the inauthentic part of Christian tradition and, in the process, fractured the church into many competing sects all claiming to be the authentic article.

I was reminded of this while attending an Amish wedding and thinking of how quickly many outside of this peculiar tradition would dismiss Amish forms as dead religion.  The rituals of the service, all in German, while beautiful in their own rite, did not speak to me as an English speaking person.  I’m also doubtful the words did much for the many dozing throughout the three hours of singing and sermon.

Many Evangelicals, because Amish do not hand out tracts or speak of their “born again” experience and whatnot, openly question the salvation of Amish.  This includes many conservative Mennonites who (while also denouncing other Evangelicals as being too unorthodox) at least go through the motions of missions and schedule “revival meetings” every year to remind each other to be more authentic.

The Dilemma of a Doubly Non-conformed Mennonite…

Normally, in a traditional Mennonite context, non-conformity means conforming to their written (and unwritten) standards and being intentionally different from their “worldly” neighbors.  But for me non-conformity has always meant more than only doing things acceptable for a Mennonite.  For me non-conformity meant a) independence from public school peers and also b) authenticity at church.

I have spent my life as a non-conformed Mennonite.  This was a constant tension for me.  It made me uncomfortable with inauthentic conformity to Mennonite culture yet also always longing for full acceptance and wishing to be fully conformed.  I never wanted to be anything other than Mennonite and accepted there.  But it was equally important, as one seeking to be authentic as a matter of conscience, that I never do anything just to be accepted.

In practical terms this meant that I would not go to Bible school or to the mission field hoping to find a mate.  I know this is how many Mennonites do find a partner (despite their stated intentions and anti-fraternization policies) but it seemed dishonest to me.  So, as a result of this conviction to be forthright, I didn’t go and planned to go only when the reasons for going fully matched my expressed aims.  That, more than anything else, is probably what ensured my bachelor status and one of many ways my desire for authenticity cost me.

Doing anything without a full commitment, including singing hymns while down and only half-hearted, was painful for me.  I would sooner risk offense and remain silent than utter words without being completely genuine.  For me authenticity meant not going through the motions and not doing cliché things only to please culture expectations.  Unfortunately, in a culture that values conformity over authenticity, this was at odds with my hope for full acceptance.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Christian?

The other day I was talking to a couple curious about my religious roots.  The question came up, “Do Mennonites love Jesus?”  To that I answered “yes” but then went on to explain what differentiated Mennonites from other denominations.  Mennonites, like their Amish cousins, claim to love Jesus.  However, to be one of them you will need to prove your authenticity by keeping their traditions and following their rules.

Sadly, being authentically Mennonite does not make a person is authentically Christian.  Even assuming that Mennonite standards were absolutely correct, even if a person were able to follow those standards perfectly to the letter, and even if these forms are of temporal benefit, there is no salvation to be found in religious conformity.  We know this because Jesus said this when he encountered a man who had kept his religious tradition perfectly and was still lacking something:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)

We read that the disciples were “greatly astonished” by what Jesus had told this man.  How could anyone be saved by this new standard that Jesus gave?  This man had followed all the rules.  He was the good Mennonite, did his missionary service, attended every service, tithed faithfully and was a reputable man, perhaps even homeschooled his children, but somehow this was not enough for Jesus.

1) Authenticity is not preserved in keeping tradition…

Tradition is intended to guard authenticity.  Many measure the authenticity of others by how they measure up against their own tradition.  Mennonites question if authenticity can be found amongst Amish singing their centuries old Ausbund hymns.  Those not Mennonite, despite admiring our devotedness to our religious practices, question if we love Jesus.

Early Anabaptists and early Christians were right to understand that authentic Christianity was about more than keeping religious traditions.  In fact, they often, to the vexation of the religious, dispensed with the established rules and defied tradition.  They are like Paul and Barnabas who were adamant in their opposition to defenders of tradition:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1,2)

Basically these Judaizers (Galatians 2:14) were trying to force non-Jewish converts to keep Jewish customs and be circumcised as a condition for acceptance.  But the apostle Paul preached against this and used language quite strong to express his contempt:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-12)

Paul is saying that these traditionalists are at odds with authentic faith.  He comically calls these defenders of circumcision to go further and completely emasculate themselves.  It seems that the real problem with the Judaizers was not that they followed Jewish customs themselves, but that they tried to force to new converts to keep their traditions as if salvation depended on them and this came at the expense of authentic Christian love.

2) Authenticity is not a produced by destroying tradition…

Many in search of authenticity abandon tradition and try to rebuild from scratch.  This has been the modus operandi of many since Martin Luther hammered out his ninety-five theses in 1517 in protest of the selling of indulgences and has led to the great fracturing of the church.  Those seeking authenticity apart from established church traditions have gone in a thousand contradictory directions.

Some think authenticity comes from spontaneous and disorderly outbursts during church services, which goes against Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.  If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.  And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Originality is not evidence of faith, innovation in worship is not a sign of deeper spiritual life, and being anti-formality does not make a person more authentically Christian.  And, according to Paul, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…”

In practical terms, this means God is probably not bedazzled by our light shows and high-powered musical programs.  Conversely, nor is God likely to be impressed by our long-winded sermons, our wielding of giant leather-bound Bibles on Sunday mornings, our flowery prayers with “thees” and “thous” nor any of our other attempts to create authenticity apart from living in true faith and loving as Jesus commanded.

In a generation or two those who attempt to remedy dead orthodoxy by destroying tradition often end up in a weaker position and with a tradition more corrupt, more incomplete and more unbalanced than the one they left behind.  Their innovations evolve into forms and soon the only stability they have comes from their condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to their own particular denominational brand.

3) Authenticity transcends our dichotomies…

Evangelicals (especially conservative Mennonite evangelicals who fear being confused with their more non-conformed brethren) look down on Amish and question the authenticity of their faith because they don’t use evangelical terms to describe their experience.  But, in my working with Amish, I have found them to be very genuine and generous towards me.  I do not see them as much different from conservative Mennonites in their focus on outward conformity and there is nothing that makes the conventions of modern Evangelicalism more authentic than the more traditional alternatives.

You can worship in a non-denominational house church or recite liturgy in a cathedral in Rome and miss the point of Christian faith entirely in both places.  As many Mennonite ordained men lament, pleading and trying to prod through the blank stares of their congregations, “Did you think about the words you just sang?”  And thus they prove that even the best-written hymns of the past couple hundred years can be sung beautifully and yet the meaning of the words missed.  Which makes me wonder why they think their own appeals will be heard?

Whatever the case, true authenticity is not a product of the religious form one follows, it is not a matter of being more or less traditional.  I have actually found it easier to worship God in a liturgical service than I did in the less ordered and less orthodox Mennonite setting that I grew up in.  Why?  Well, because it is an authentic love of God that gives our worship life.  I’ve found it easier to lay aside all earthly cares while in a liturigical service.  For me there is greater peace in the cloud of witnesses and ancient tradition than there is in the many opinions of a men’s Sunday school class.

That said, I firmly believe there are authentic Christians in the whole swath of traditions old and new from Anglican to Zionist and everything in between.  What matters, what makes a Christian authentic, is not the costume that a person wears nor the prescribed language they use, what truly matters is whether or not we love each other as we were commanded.  All tradition, and all abandonment thereof, is only meaningless noise without love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)