O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
“Star Spangled Banner”
As a country, we just celebrated our 240th anniversary. And, during these centuries, as a country we have upheld personal freedom as a primary value.
As a “child of the 60’s,” I remember the freedom movements driven by our desire to throw off authority and live more freely (“Tune in, turn on, and drop out”; “Don’t trust anyone over 30”). In our country today, we are seeing the logical extension of that youthful drive for freedom in that not only can one marry regardless of gender, but one can now self-determine one’s gender.
From that beginning in my formative years, personal freedom has remained a big part of my life. Growing up believing I could be anything I wanted to be, I have had four different “career” types of jobs. I have lived in nine different states. I even eschewed having kids believing they would only inhibit my personal freedom.
The Church herself has not been exempt from our human drive for this kind of freedom. In the 11th century, the Patriarch of Rome broke away from the other Patriarchs of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church over a disagreement regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Great Schism separated what we now call the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years later, Luther and Zwingli sought additional freedoms and turned their backs on the authority of Rome and the Traditions of the both the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestantism was born. Now, there are thousands of denominations within Protestantism.
No Freedom in Freedom
Jazz great Branford Marsalis has been quoted as saying about playing Jazz: “You don’t play what you feel. There’s only freedom in structure, my man. There’s no freedom in freedom.”
As I look back over my life, now being closer to the end than the beginning, I can see the effect of my avoiding some of the traditional structure of life and trying to find “freedom in freedom.” As I have flittered about trying this and that, I now find I have few generational “family traditions” and no one to pass them on to. I have no life-long friends. What I had always thought was “personal freedom” now appears to me more like self-induced slavery.
I see a parallel in my journey with God, as well. I worked for a time as a pastor of a small, but mainstream Protestant denomination. I felt as though I was working hard for God, but my relationship with Him was stagnated. After a time I found myself in physical and emotional anguish, longing for a deeper relationship with Him. I didn’t know how to pursue such a relationship. I knew to engage in some of the ancient practices, such as fasting, but I was unsure how. For example, I knew it is biblically important to fast, but I often wondered how much fasting was enough. Was it just up to me to decide how much and when to fast? I began to read various authors, but I couldn’t understand what made this author or that author the expert on a fasting rule? Some simply said to “let the the Holy Spirit guide you.” I discovered that the “voice of the Spirit” can sound an awful lot like mine!
Then I found others with a similar longing for God. Before long I was deeply engaged in the Protestant spiritual formation and spiritual direction movements. These were–and still are–wonderful movements based on practices of the ancient Church. Their intent is to help participants move toward a deeper relationship with Christ.
As part of this work, I was meeting regularly with a couple of groups of local pastors and lay leaders from various Protestant denominations. We were trying to develop the path toward a deeper relationship with God that we could offer to churches. Reading books, developing spiritual community, meetings with a spiritual director, a deepening prayer life, engaging in the spiritual disciplines, and spiritual retreats were all part of the path we developed.
At the same time I became trained as a Spiritual Director. I would meet one-on-one with others who were seeking a deeper relationship with God. I would offer them the path my colleagues and I were discovering. I was helping to lead spiritual retreats across the country, introducing others to this path we had found.
Wandering in a Desert
After a few years, my work with these groups and my attempts to spiritually guide others left me feeling even more lost. In my research, I discovered that a number of organizations were publishing books on the path they had discovered. It felt just like the rise of “denominationalism” all over again! Ours was just one more path among many.
I began to wonder whether the freedom to worship God as I wanted was not freedom at all. I found Marsalis’ words true; there was no freedom in my personal freedom to follow the worship path I had found with others. There were too many choices, too many authors, too many individual ways to worship. What made me think my way was God’s way?
Worse yet, I was discovering that I could no longer give guidance to those I was supposed to be directing toward a deeper relationship with God…all I could offer was the smorgasbord of choices I had found myself. Without knowing why, I began to feel like I was operating outside of the Church. You know the church, that Spirit-filled body of Christ Paul talks about. Did it even exist anymore in that sense, I wondered.
I stopped giving spiritual guidance. I stopped leading retreats. I stopped blogging.
Old Testament and New Worship
Our God is a God of order and structure. Reading through the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), one easily sees that God gave the Jews a structure for worship. In these books He is attentive to the smallest detail in the order and manner of worship of Him. The Jews were not free to worship Him as they saw fit. God new there was no freedom in freedom, so He gave them plenty of structure.
On that first Sunday morning after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, the Apostles and earliest Church members did not create a worship experience from a blank page. After all, they were Jews. Instead, they began to modify the structured worship of their Jewish tradition based on God’s revelation of Jesus, the God-man. Psalms were still sung. Scripture was still read and interpreted, but from the perspective of the revealed Christ. Sacrifice still continued, but no longer animal sacrifice. Instead, they partook of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God: the Eucharist. In short, they maintained the long traditions of the original Jewish “Church” but now modified and interpreted through the revelation of Christ.
The Ancient Path
Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask about the eternal pathways of the Lord. See what the good way is and walk in it. Here you will find purification for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)
Over time, the Church, that Spirit-filled body of Christ made up of monastics, ordained clergy, and laity, have been led by God onto the path toward oneness with Him. And that path is a way life. It is a life of prayer, fasting, and alms giving, a life of participating in the sacraments of the Church, and a life of liturgical worship. It is not a path on which one picks and chooses as one individually desires; there is no freedom in that kind of freedom. Rather, as Marsalis suggests, it is a path of freedom within structure, a structure provided by 2000 years of the Spirit-indwelled Church.
After years of searching, I have finally found freedom in worship. It came not from pursuing my own path to communion with God; rather, it came from beginning to give up my personal freedom and worshipping God from within the structure of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. No longer do I need to try and decide how I think is best to worship God.
It is a very new path for me. I’ve only been on it for a few years. I still do not give spiritual guidance. I still do not lead retreats. But, I may blog a little if only, and this has always been the primary reason for this blog, to help me think.