Schmemann: Life is Sacramental

Review of Alexander Schmemann's For the :Life of the WorldAlexander Schmemann. 1973. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy.Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What makes the majesty of God real to you?

In a mechanistic, materialist culture, such as ours, how do you look past the physical world on Sundays to worship an immanent and transcendent God? Presumably, the causality works in reverse, but our true feelings are frequently revealed by our tepid response to calls for money, time, and effort. For postmodern people, the majesty of God is often illusive.

Introduction

In his book,For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann writes:

“…the very purpose of this essay is to answer, if possible, the question: of what life do we speak, what life do we preach, proclaim, and announce when, as Christians, we confess that Christ died for the life of the world? What life is both motivation, and the beginning and the goal of Christian mission?”(11-12)

Schmemann sees Christians falling into two camps, those that focus on the spiritual life and theose that try to make life better through social justice (12-13). This is, however, is a false dichotomy. Schmenmann remarks—“Man is a hungry being. But he is also hungry for God.” (14)—and he sees his mission as:

“…to remind its readers that in Christ life—life in all its totality—was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist.” (20)

In the sacraments, both aspects of our hunger come together and become inseparable.

Outline

Schmemann writes in seven chapters preceded by a preface and followed by two more chapters occupying an appendix. The chapters are:

  1. “The Life of the World
  2. The Eucharist
  3. The Time of Mission
  4. Of Water and the Spirit
  5. The Mystery of Love
  6. Trampling Down Death by Death
  7. And Ye are Witnesses of these Things

Appendix

  1. Worship in a Secular Age
  2. Sacrament and Symbol”(v)

Schmemann was a former dean and professor of liturgical theology at St. Vladmir’s Orthodox University in Crestwood, New York.[1]

Secularism as Tepid Faith

An important motif in his writing is the influence of secularism, which he views as a Christian heresy that has forgotten its roots and refuses to worship God. (7, 118) His emphasis on worship in defining secularism is interesting because the problem is not unbelief, but failing or refusing to recognize God’s majesty, a kind of tepid faith.

Schmemann’s attitude about faith is strikingly similar to that of James, who writes: Even the demons believe– and shudder!” (Jas 2:19 ESV) Or maybe the Apostle John when he writes about the Church at Laudicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!”(Rev. 3:15) Schmemann’s definition of secularism comes close to the definition of a nominal or cultural Christian. Still, Schmemann sees secularism as a religion having its own faith, eschatology, and ethics—the erosion of a sense of transcendence among Christians suggests that secularism also practices evangelism (99).

The Eucharist

Schmemann sees the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, as a communal journey to join with Christ in heaven (28). He writes:

“When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.”(37)

Sign and sacrament are inseparable in this journey because he defines a sacrament as a “visible means of the invisible grace.”(135) Schmemann’s discussion of the Eucharist is his longest chapter and it spills over into his appendix.

Baptism

Schmemann reminds us that baptism in the early church followed preparation that could continue for as long as three years, similar to today’s seminary studies. In the Orthodox tradition, the baptism service had three parts: “the exorcisms, the renunciation of Satan, and the confession of faith.”(69) While exorcism is no longer a part of most baptisms, renunciation of evil as an abstract concept and confession of faith is still part of most adult baptism services. (Theology and Worship Ministry Unit 1993, 406-409)

Schmemann continues:

“The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it.”(70-71)

While many postmodern American flitch at the idea of evil as something other than the absence of good, Schmemann was born in 1921 and experienced the horrors of World War II first hand in his native Estonia.

Assessment

I first read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World as I took a worship class during seminary and gladly re-read it to prepare this review, in part, because I enjoyed his treatment of liturgy. This is a book written for seminarians, worship leaders, and pastors who may find it challenging to read. Nevertheless, it is worth the time and effort.

Reference

Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. 1993. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Footnote

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Schmemann.

Schmemann: Life is Sacramental

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithDelight yourself in the LORD, 

and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

(Ps 37:4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual.

Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church because the center of your being is not adequately engaged. Emotions and thinking are more like appendages to the will, not its center. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about the thoughts and attitudes of the heart? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” `If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart]” (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

The Future is Always Present

Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith (2016, 89) observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith (2016, 46) spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film, Home Alone)⁠1 or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (Smith 2016, 47-53).

Hospitality as Apologetic

If the heart is the center of our identity, not just our emotions, we need to think about apologetics differently. An apologetic focused on heart needs to appeal both to the mind and the emotions. Let me offer three examples.

The first example concerns the first letter of Peter, where the most famously quoted verse is: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15) The thing is that the rest of the book focuses on lifestyle evangelism, as it says.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:12)

Works like hospitality speak directly to the heart without words. 

The second example arose in the fourth century when we see that Saint Patrick was famous as the first successful evangelist in Ireland. His success was not anticipated because Patrick, as a teenager sixteen year old, was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For the next six years he worked as a slave caring for his master’s cattle in the Irish wilderness. Later, he escaped and traveled abroad to study to become a priest. Much later, he returned to Ireland as the church’s first missionary bishop and evangelized the Irish out of love for them. His love of the Irish was obvious and his evangelism focused on offering hospitality. In the end, Patrick and his companions planted more than seven hundred churches in Ireland (Hunter 2000, 13-23).

The third example is more recent. In the city of Rio de Janeiro  there are many young people caught up in the gangs of the drug culture. In Brazil they call young people with mixed blood (blacks and Indians) as the “killable people.” Many of them die from the violence, but those that survive and are incarcerated by the police don’t have much hope. In the jails, the police do not feed them or offer medical care. For the most part, the gangs control daily life in the prisons. In this hellish world, there are few visitors, not even Christians, but those that come are mostly Pentecostals who provide food, medicine, and worship services. As a consequence, the gangs respect the Pentecostals, providing security for their services and allowing young people who really come to Christ to leave the gangs—the only option other than a body bag (Johnson).

As we have seen, hospitality can be more than just food. In these stories, it can be a faith journey that travels the path to the Hebrew heart.

References

Hunter, George G. III. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Johnson, Andrew. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford. (Review)

Smith, James K. A. . 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Footnotes

1 ps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Alone. In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Hebrew Anthropology and Apologetics

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Hebrew_Heart

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Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Anyone who works in Washington DC quickly learns that when something is broken, it is seldom an accident; someone typically benefits from the brokenness. In the case of the Hebrew heart found everywhere in the New Testament, it naturally leads one to take a holistic view of life and ministry. If thinking, emotions, action, and character formation are all intimately tied to one another, discipleship requires personal mentoring over years that cannot be reduced to a seasonal program or delegated to strangers. Church programs are event-driven or tackle one issue independent of the others without the holistic integration required for discipleship.[1]

The Future is Always Present

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”(89)

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”(46)

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film Home Alone[2]) or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (47-53).

Clearly a lot more could be said about this book. Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work.

Assessment

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.

Footnotes

[1]Discipleship is much more doable in a rural, small village setting where everyone knows everyone else and families spend large amounts of time together. In the Gospels, we see this sort of mentoring (a kind of pastoral care) in the stories of Jesus with the woman at the well (John 4) and his visit with Nicodemus (John 3) and in Paul’s pastoral letters. In today’s urban setting, lots more intentionality is required to achieve the same result and often only active youth volunteers in the church receive this sort of attention. Not surprisingly, such youth frequently enter mission work or attend seminary.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Alone. In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:  http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Evangelische Kirche

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

Evangelische Kirche

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Towards the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, I briefly began attending a church, but not long enough to get involved or remember the name.[1] In that church, it became immediately obvious that I should have attended church from the moment of my arrival because I would have met more people and learned more Spanish—I knew my English Bible well enough that I did not need to look up the translation when I read the Bible in Spanish. So later when I returned to Cornell University, I ordered a Spanish Bible from the American Bible Society[2] through the mail.

My experience with church in Puerto Rico led me to seek out a church immediately after I arrived in Germany. From my dormitory on Rosenbachweg, I was able to walk or take the bus to a number of churches, but most had one thing in common—few if any members. Most churches, even cathedrals, that I visited in Germany were empty on Sunday morning with only a few old widows and the pastor in attendance for worship. The exception, I learned, was a little village church, Kirche Herberhausen, which my friend, Hermann, drove me to one Sunday.

Kirche Herberhausen was different because it was packed every Sunday with women and students, many of whom no doubt attended Göttingen’s seminary. Every week worshipers would come in, grab a hymnal (gesangbuch) from a shelf near the door and have a seat—even the loft was full most weeks. Then at the appointed hour, the pastor would come in through a door in the chancel, give his sermon, and leave again through the chancel door—he never engaged the congregation in conversation or shook anyone’s hand. In Germany, clergy receive a government salary and are not dependent on the morning offering. In a Christmas visit to Germany in 1982, I learned that Baptist churches in Germany, who are not officially sanctioned by the government, operate more like American churches and one gets a hand-shake.

I remember the Sunday morning routine at Kirche Herberhausen clearly because I had to decide each week whether to walk or take the bus. The bus schedule either brought me to church very early or about ten minutes late, in which case I would not be able to get a scarce hymnal.

In my first attempt at using the bus, I arrived more than an hour early and, because the church door was locked, I stepped out for a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, whose door was also locked. But I noticed as I stood there that people kept walking by me and around to the back of the building. So I joined them going to the back of the building and through the door. There I discovered a room full of men—apparently, the tradition of frühschoppen (morning pint) amounted to men tipping beers while the women attended church. I later bought a hymnal and started walking to church, which was interesting because Herberhausen and Göttingen are separated by a beautiful park.

In addition to a hymnal, I bought a German Bible, complete with concordance, to supplement the New Testament with Psalms that I had brought with me from home. Like any typical student in those days, I traveled to Germany wearing my winter coat and carrying a backpack, which meant precious little space for a full-size Bible. Most of my biblical study at that point in my life was of books in the New Testament so not having the Old Testament did not crimp my style, but I came to love this new Bible.

My beloved German Bible never made it home. As I packed to leave for home, I was moved to ask a friend whether she needed a Bible. Being Catholic, she responded that she had never even owned a Bible so I left my Bible with her. Consequently, my only German Bible today—other than my New Testament with Psalms—is published by the American Bible Society and does not include a concordance.[3]

Shortly before I left Germany, I received admission to several university doctoral programs, including the one at Michigan State University, which I accepted in a long distance call from Germany. This call became an interesting talking point because the department secretaries perpetuated the rumor that I was myself German and every time a foreign student needed to be picked up at the Lansing Airport I got tapped with the responsibility. Of course, I did not mind at all because I met some very interesting foreign students, but I did not immediately learn the reason for my good fortune.

Between my experience at the Kirche Herberhausen and the influence of my friend, Jon, who had become a Lutheran pastor, when I studied at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan I began attending University Lutheran Church (ULC),[4] whose pastor was German. Like many university churches, ULC’s charter called for them to reserve a portion of their leadership positions for college students so I was quickly elected to serve on the worship committee and became chair of the committee, which meant that I also served on church council.

While I was happy to be of some use to the church, it was probably a mistake in view of my busy schedule with doctoral studies. Instead of fellowship and quiet time with the other students, I found myself engaged in long committee meetings focused on ULC’s stressful financial problems and discontent with the pastor. The financial problems arose because the church built a small cathedral without adequately estimating potential growth, only to find themselves strapped with a burdensome mortgage. The pastoral problems were compounded by weak and obstinate lay leadership. I remember being so frustrated with one attorney on the personal committee who instead of offering reports would dodge and weave reasonable questions—after a point I made it a personal policy to walk out of the meeting and read a book outside whenever he would make a report.

My mistake in taking on such responsibilities at ULC ultimately soured me on the Lutheran church, perhaps because I never really had a chance to enjoy it, and when I left East Lansing to live and work in Northern Virginia I returned to worship at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, where my parents were also members. Still, it was at Kirche Herberhausen and ULC that I came to appreciate the usefulness of the liturgy for dispensing God’s grace in spite of the limits of our linguistic abilities and human frailties in our hour of need.

[1] I walked from my boarding house on Calle Manila in Santa Rita to church so it could have been several churches. However, it was likely las Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal.

[2] The date written in that Bible is August 20, 1978.

[3] The American Bible Society does not publish Bibles with concordances, in part, because the concordances pose a fault line in arguments on how to interpret scripture.

[4] http://ulcel.org.

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