Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Into Ancient Streams

This is what the Lord says: 
“Stand at the crossroads and look; 
ask for the ancient paths, 
ask where the good way is, and walk in it, 
and you will find rest for your souls."
Jeremiah 6:16a

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of an ineffable stirring in my heart. As my spirit has opened to God’s whisper and directives, this stirring has evolved into a thirst: a profound thirst like that which arises in barren lands.

There is an emptiness on the road that many modern evangelical churches seem to be traveling. Many church leaders have given in to the unquenchable appetite of our entertainment hungry generation. Many have altered the focus of worship and have made their sole aim appealing to the unbeliever. Relevance and attraction have become more important than tradition and orthodoxy. We’ve let ourselves be seduced by a consumer-driven Christianity that incorporates the latest business practices and capitalistic marketing ploys all in the name of “church growth”, but is in many cases devoid of any real substance or depth. Evangelism in the life of the church is a necessity, but when our worship services become obsessively and entirely centered on the unbeliever, we’ve lost our heading.

After years of walking this road, I became more and more unsettled. I realized that the idea of stripping away all sacred tradition, liturgy, historical discipline and practice, and anything deemed “religious” does, in reality, leave us less able to comprehend and live out our faith. Somewhere along the way, I wandered off this path and onto the “Canterbury Trail”.

Over these last few years, God has been doing something in my heart that I would have never expected. Slowly and methodically, he has drawn our family towards territory that is both foreign and strangely familiar. But the stirring goes back to almost 10 years ago when I first began to thirst for the waters of ancient streams.

The Abbey of Gethsemane

Though this may seem like a relatively recent shift, this process actually started a decade ago. I was walking through an especially frustrating period of young adulthood, searching for direction and seeking God’s purpose for me in this new stage of life. It was suggested to me by a friend that I escape for a few days and visit the Abbey of Gethsemane in the hills of Kentucky to spend some time praying and seeking the Lord.  My heart had been stirred by the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent much of his life at the Abbey, and Richard Foster, a strong advocate for the classic spiritual disciplines, many of which are incorporated into the daily life of a Cistercian Monk. Despite being deeply moved by the works of these two men, my experience with many of the historic Christian disciplines, as well as anything remotely “Catholic” was limited, so I was intrigued by the experience of visiting an Abbey where actual monks lived out their lives of worship. The journey seemed slightly unsettling, and surprisingly exciting as I considered the devotion of these peculiar men of God.

During that first retreat (and subsequent retreats thereafter) I was moved by the peace and the stillness of the place. I felt the silence begin to open my spirit. It’s like I could hear the melody of the Spirit’s whisper in places of my heart that had been too frenzied and noisy to hear before. Clarity came easily. I felt a solemn focus come over me as I roamed the Abbey grounds amidst those who so fully devoted themselves to the worship of God and the service of others. This mysteriously remote and seemingly fleeting “will of God” that I had so earnestly sought after in the days of my late teens and early twenties seemed to be completely reshaped in light of this world, where listening was more important than speaking, and where the ancient was more important than the “next big thing”.

I would go back several times after this initial stay just to exist within the quiet and to listen to that gentle whisper that my soul seemed not to hear elsewhere. I believe my experiences there began to open my eyes to the church catholic (in the literal meaning of the word) to see the full weight of human experience with the Divine through many different Christian practices, disciplines and expressions.

The Dance of Liturgy

In the spring of 2005, Jessica and I were looking for a place to get married. We wanted the building where we took our vows to convey the spirit of how we felt about the covenant of marriage, to be a place of beauty and reverence, a place that invoked a sense of wonder and mystery. We had this in mind when we first visited Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal Church in downtown Nashville. The building itself, occupying the corner of Broadway and 9th Avenue, is exquisite from without and breathtaking from within. We entered from the 9th Avenue sidewalk on that first Sunday morning and were completely awestruck. The interior of the building, the nave, was beautiful, full of dark timber and stone in a gothic style. But the awe that was aroused was the result of what happened when the service started.

Celebrant: “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
People:And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever, amen.”

We were overwhelmed by what we experienced. The shape of the liturgy, the language of the prayers, the full scope of all that was incorporated into an “ordinary” Anglican worship service astounded us: a scripture reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle and a Gospel, a sermon, the affirmation of the faith by the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the lifting of our voices in song, confession of sin, prayers for our own needs and the needs of the world, the greeting of one another with “the peace of God” and finally the celebration of God’s covenant with His people in Holy Communion. The holistic nature of the shape of worship was so different than anything we had ever experienced in the various denominations we had been apart of in the past. And perhaps the most exciting aspect of this “new” way of worship was that we were invited to participate in practically every aspect of the service.

At first, we were intrigued by this dance we didn’t know. Everyone else seemed to know the steps by heart, fluctuating between the rehearsed and the spontaneous, but always in a movement of focused worship, fixated on an awesome God. The movements seemed foreign to us at first. But once we learned the steps, we would no longer be content to watch as spectators or be relegated to the sidelines like wallflowers. We wanted to join in and dance.

“Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever, amen.”

Those two short sentences seared themselves into my spirit. They are the opening acclamation, the setting of the stage where our worship takes place and the clear identification of whom we are directing our attention toward. These words give an unmistakable invitation to all citizens of the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom that we so often lose sight of, to once again give all glory to a transcendent God made present in the person of Jesus Christ.

A Gradual Movement…

Though we were drawn by what we felt and captivated by what we experienced in our first Holy Eucharist on that Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit did not yet initiate a change in our circumstances. Over the next few years I continued to serve in the Baptist tradition, leading worship, going to a Baptist seminary and continued to pursue God’s direction. It was during this time that I started to feel God broadening my own vision for how I always thought I would serve His church, solely through music and worship, to incorporate areas of ministry that I hadn’t previously imagined myself operating in: pastoring and teaching. I also continued to attend a weekday noon Eucharist service at the Cathedral, becoming more acquainted with Anglican liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, the primary liturgical resource for organizing and conducting Anglican worship.

First Steps

In the spring of 2010, I began connecting with several Anglican clergy in order to begin a period of exploration and discovery in several key areas of the tradition in relation to theology and worship. If this was a move that we were supposed to eventually make, I wanted to make sure that it was something we considered prayerfully, deliberately, and slowly. During this time I met some incredible men of God, from both the Episcopal Church as well as the Anglican Mission in the Americas and felt compelled to go into greater depth in my own studies of the tradition.

The more I engaged with the Anglican way of approaching God and understanding theology, the more I felt at home. I was captivated as I read of the “three-legged stool” analogy of Scripture being balanced by reason and tradition, giving a simple yet profound way of approaching life and worship. When digging deeper into traditional Anglican beliefs, I felt like I understood more of why God wired me the way that he had. The nature and beauty of the Sacraments, the utilization of symbols in worship (cross/crucifix, candles, stained glass/icons, colors, vestments, etc.), the incorporation of prayers and writings from faithful Christians throughout the past 2000 years, the full inclusion of all Christian traditions (both Eastern and Western) and even the affirmation of God’s revealed truth through science and attention given to social justice issues all gave me a deeper sense of peace that this move was ordained by God for our family.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this tradition is the idea of “Common Prayer.” The liturgy of the Anglican Church operates within the framework of the traditional Church calendar and uses the Lectionary to journey through Scripture on a yearly cycle. This means that during the season of Advent, we’re reading the same passages of Scripture that 77 million other Anglicans (and countless others in traditions that use the lectionary) across the globe are reading. This is a powerful moment of unity that cuts through the Western ideal of “individualism” being revered above all else.
This re-imagining of my own place in the body of Christ was profound and would alter the course of the ministry that I was called to.

My walk towards the Priesthood

In the summer of 2011, I began to feel the Spirit of God whisper that the time had come for us to make a move. I’d recently connected with several different clergy members from the Anglican Church in North America, a young province-in-forming in the Anglican Communion. I was soon connected with Fr. Jeffrey Jones (a local Rector of a young ACNA church plant in Hendersonville) about what my training and service in the Anglican Church would look like as a minister. I began to feel without a doubt that I was called to teach and shepherd the Church. The Anglican Church believes in the threefold order of ministry as laid out in Scripture: the episcopate (Bishops), the prebyterate (Priests) and the diaconate (Deacons). After months of service and studying, I was ordained a deacon on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2012. As a transitional deacon, I’m serving our young church in whatever capacity I’m needed, leading worship in song on Sundays, preaching, teaching spiritual formation classes, and continuing to train towards my eventual transition into the ministry of the priesthood.

Throughout the last ten years, I’ve seen God’s faithfulness as He’s gently led us to the waters of these ancient streams. Though this tradition is by no means perfect, I know that His hand has guided me to lead and serve this body of believers. I pray that I am always faithful to this call. 

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