Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Times They Are A'Changin

Old Friendship Baptist Church,

Great story last Monday in the New York Times about Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church.  Friendship is the oldest of Atlanta’s African American Baptist Churches, established during the heart of America’s Civil War in 1862.  Morehouse College and Spelman College (then known as Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary), two of the oldest institutions of higher learning for Blacks in the United States were founded in Friendship Baptist facilities.  Four generations of Atlanta African American families, families that have included judges and educators, clergy and businessmen, athletes and entertainers; families that have been very rich and worshippers who have been among the poorest of the poor have called Friendship their spiritual home.  And now the old sanctuary is to be torn down to be replaced by the Atlanta Dome, new home to the Falcons.
It is not the end—by any means—of Friendship Baptist.  The Congregation received a handsome price for the sale of their historic building that is enabling them to build a new sanctuary only a few blocks away.  But what should draw our attention is the culture-shift this represents.  The Church gives way to the Sports Field.  So many of our churches—Catholic and Protestant—are seeing a dwindling attendance on Sundays, but have you tried to by a ticket to a baseball game lately? The guy who throws five dollars in the Sunday basket can get a seat for about $15 but you will spend 50, 60, 200 dollars for a good seat.  And even more if you are ready to shell out the bucks.    And, of course, you have to park the car—not going to be cheap.  You want a beer?  You want that traditional hot dog?  You are going to spend some money at the ball park, let me assure you.  And if your think Baseball is expensive, just try to get a ticket for the Redskins or the Giants or the Bears—or, I suppose the Falcons.  And you know, people do it. 
I am not much of a football fan, but I do love to go to a baseball game.  I really don’t care about the game;  I only understand it in the most simplistic faction.  But it makes me feel good.  It is a liturgy.  You stand for the national anthem.  You yell when your team comes on the field.  You have your sacramental brew and a dog.  You sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” at the seventh-inning stretch.  It is all prescribed by tradition and we all follow the ritual and we are all the better for it.  Of course, while I will drop $100 at the Park without a thought (I usually take communion, always in both kinds, at least twice) that kind of money sees the collection basket once or twice a year at most.  And I wouldn’t dream of spending three hours at Mass.  Nor would I come forty minutes early nor sit around with yet another sacramental beer and hotdog afterwards, talking to my neighbors while the parking lot clears out.  You have to have your priorities.  “The Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; when he finds one of exquisite value, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”  Right.  Let’s face it: the Kingdom of God is not the priority for Joe (or Josie) Average American.  We have found our new religion.  And it ain’t about Jesus.
I don’t think it was wrong of Friendship Baptist to sell their historic building, though I always hate to see historic artifacts destroyed—even for a more noble cause than a football stadium.  (I would feel just as bad if it were a baseball stadium.)  The revenues permit them a new and more expansive campus.  It gives them funds to use in mission—and as Church we need to be about mission, not museums.  But both Friendship and the rest of us had better consider what we need to do to bring Jesus and his Gospel about the Kingdom of God back to center in peoples’ lives. 
Lately I have been writing a bit about “Evangelical Catholicism.”  I like the way George Weigel interprets this term.
Evangelical Catholicism is thus a reality of Word and Sacrament, in several senses.  The Gospel word preached is also the Word of God, the Lord Jesus, the Sacrament who is present to the Church through the seven sacraments which are never celebrated without reference to the Scriptures.  Growth in faith, hope, and love—growth in friendship with Christ—is nurtured through a regular and frequent reception of the sacraments, and that growth in turn breaks open aspects of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments that may have been previously obscure, unclear, or entirely hidden.  It is all one package, one evangelical Catholic reality.  Word and Sacrament are no more separable than Gospel and Church, Scripture and apostolic tradition, mission and service.   
Unfortunately I think Weigel then extrapolates this into a vision for the Catholic Church that is inconsistent with his own defined canons of “evangelical Catholicism.” Of course none of us is consistent with our ideals, so I will cut him slack on that account.  But his basic vision is brilliant.  But would that we did have a full sacramental life in our worship.  Would that we could recognize not only that Christ is truly present under the form of bread in the Eucharist but that it was indeed bread, real bread, life-nourishing bread, that conceals his presence.  And would that we weren’t somehow afraid of the wine and would take a nourishing and refreshing gulp, not just the tiniest of sips, of the wine that has become his precious blood.  And would that baptisms were real baptisms: plunged into the pool of death and raised again to newness of life in Christ.  (Once you have seen adult baptisms done by immersion you weep in despair when you see a few drops trickled on a forehead bent over a font.)  And you know chrism has the most marvelous scent which is part of its Sacramental value in conveying the Holy Spirit—but you won’t find that with a smudge.  Oil, whether chrism or the oil of the catechumens or the oil of the sick needs to be poured.  We are such sacramental minimalists.  I am not a big fan of incense, but if you are going to use it, let’s get some smoke.  And don’t sprinkle me with that funny thing that looks like a ball on a stick—get some branches that what you shake them send streams of water flying over God’s People.  Geese, what good is it to be a Sacramental Church when you treat all these things like you were in a Ebola ward?  Why isn’t Sunday morning worth my effort?  You go to church and there is no welcome at the door.  The people around you sit and look straightforward at the altar as if they were at a funeral staring at the coffin.  The music is mediocre both in choice and performance.  The readers can’t be heard.  The homily was obviously prepared on the way down the aisle.  The priest seems as attentive to what he is doing at the altar as a bored housewife working through a basket of ironing.   We have some dissolvable plastic disk pretending to be bread so that it can be consecrated and become the Eucharist.  Eucharistic ministers come up in flip-flops and cut-offs to distribute the Eucharist.  Enough wine is consecrated for the first 40 of the 300 present.  Do we take this seriously?  Do we take Jesus seriously?
And don’t tell me that the “old Mass” was better because I am old enough to have been an altar boy and I remember the burn-holes in the altar clothes, and those same clothes littered with specks of wax and charred wick and dead flies.  And Father scratching his backside as he climbed the altar steps, still mostly asleep at 6:30 Mass.  And the grease stains around the collars of the stoles and chasubles.  It wasn’t better and it isn’t better in those places that celebrate the “Old Mass” today.  Father, decked out like the Infant of Prague, stands at the altar doing “his thing” while the people in the pews with assortments of novena books and rosaries and missals do theirs.  And the music—if there is music—is relegated to a choir just as limited in talent but far more ambitious in what they think they can do than any Novus Ordo “folk group.”  And people sitting smugly in their pews with no awareness that Christ is sitting among them in his Body, the Church. 
We have the pearl of Great Price.  And I don’t mean the Eucharist—as central to our faith as it is; I mean that we have been entrusted with the mysteries of the Kingdom of God if only we open our eyes to see and our ears to hear.  “Bloom Frozen Christian!  Springtime is at hand!  When will you ever bloom if not here and now?” (Angelus Silesius)  

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