It was Dr. David Naugle, a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, who introduced me to the problem of “bits and pieces.” In his book Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), he described the way that we fail to make connections as the “bits and pieces mentality.” He says that it is a characteristic of our age not to connect the dots. We tend to see things in complete isolation from each other. Our lives are a random series of events and experiences, actions and reactions, with nothing holding them together, nothing helping us to make sense of them as a unified whole. And so what happens in church on Sunday is completely separate from what happens in the office on Monday, or at home on Tuesday, or in the home owners’ association meeting on Wednesday, or in the conversation about the Refugee crisis on the Mexico border with friends on Thursday, or paying the monthly bills on Friday, or on the golf course on Saturday. And what happens in church this Sunday, at least in many of our minds, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in church next Sunday. They are all completely disconnected, totally unrelated moments; each one existing in splendid isolation from all the others.
In The Genesee Diary ( Image Books – 1981), his reflections on his seven month stay at a Trappist Monastery in Western New York State, Henri Nouwen said that he went there to directly confront his “compulsions and illusions,” to answer the questions – “Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world? Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?” (14). This is not just an assignment for a spiritual giant like Nouwen who had some time on his hands; it’s a project that all of us must undertake in our search for meaning and purpose.
Back now from my two month Sabbatical, the pace and demands of ministry in an active and busy congregation like Northway have forcefully reintroduced themselves to me. I didn’t ease back into it like stepping into a hot bath, a little bit at a time. No, it was more like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. From the first day back there have been meetings to attend, people to see, staff to be consulted, hospitals to visit, worship services to arrange, sermons to write, Bible Studies to prepare and conduct, pastoral contacts to be made, problems to be solved, reports to be prepared, planning to be done, funerals and weddings to be conducted, church visitors to be followed-up, outreach into the community to be undertaken. I’m not complaining – I love this life, I really do, and I know how blessed I am to have been able to do this work with this people for the past 17 years. But the shift from the rather leisurely and largely unstructured Sabbatical pace to the full-throttled, wide-open pace of a typical week of ministry around here has left me grappling with the question of the location of the still point around which everything else spins. What holds this life and its work together?
One of my favorite theologians is the late Donald Bloesch. An evangelical in a mainline denomination (the United Church of Christ), he has been something of a role model for me through the years for my own ministry as an evangelical in a mainline denomination. One of his books, perhaps my favorite, certainly the most used, is Faith and its Counterfeits (IVP – 1981). He called this book “a handbook on evangelical spirituality,” and he named its purpose as being “to show the difference between true Christianity and some counterfeit versions of the faith” (11).
He named six “counterfeits” to “true religion” (“true religion” defined by the standards of James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”) –
1. Legalism – a relationship to a moral code rather than to a living Savior ;
2. Formalism – preoccupation with propriety in worship and theology, the acceptance of doctrine without the Spirit, embracing the forms of godliness without the power (2 Timothy 3:5) ;
3. Humanitarianism – the effort not to permeate the world with the leaven of the gospel, but to remold the world in the image of enlightened humanity [47-48];
4. Enthusiasm – the quest for a direct or immediate experience of God, seeking after a premature redemption, a dramatic anticipation of the glory that is yet to be revealed ;
5. Eclecticism – the willingness to bend the Gospel to fit the preconceptions of the surrounding culture, upholding the spirit of religion over dogma, the quest for truth over a definitive witness to the truth [76-77];
6. Heroism – climbing the ladder of perfection and expecting mastery over self and triumph over the principalities and powers rather than being a humble recipient of divine grace who responds with acts of loving-kindness and mercy [90-91].
Any one of these six “counterfeits” can be dropped into the center of a church’s life and become “the still point” to which its life gets anchored and around which its work rotates, with disastrous consequence. And so Donald Bloesch concluded –
The bane of many churches today is an empty formalism or a barren Biblicism, either of which degenerates into an oppressive legalism. Other churches that seem more vital are plagued by a perfectionist enthusiasm or a frenetic activism that borders on humanism. What is needed is a recovery of the depth and breadth of apostolic faith, a revival of true religion. It is important to bear in mind that Jesus Christ is not just a moral ideal or a prophetic genius but a living Savior. He is not simply the human representative of God but God himself in human flesh. It is not enough to know the historical facts about the life of Christ, how he lived and died. Each person must know that Jesus died for him or her personally. (106-107)
It is the Gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-19) that is the glue that holds the “bits and pieces” of our lives and world together. Historically, we who are “Disciples” have known this. Our life as a church centers around the Lord’s Table where every week the bread gets broken in remembrance of Christ’s body given for us, and the cup gets poured out in remembrance of His blood shed for us. Just to be clear, it’s not the Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup themselves and the act of eating and drinking them that is the glue that holds our “bits and pieces” together, but the Gospel of which they are the Lord’s appointed emblems. Communion is just a finger that points to the greater fact of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and it’s His death, burial and resurrection, how He died for our sins as our Savior and was raised for our transformation as our Lord and not the bite of bread and the sip of juice that anchors everything else we think and do as a community of Christian faith. All of which is to say that the Gospel must be “explicit.” As J. Mack Stiles makes clear in his writings, when the Gospel is “assumed,” it soon gets “confused,” and it will eventually get “lost” and will be “forgotten” (Marks of a Messenger – IVP – 2010).
In a time and place when “things are falling apart,” fragmenting into “bits and pieces,” because “the center does not hold” as Yeats put it, it is time that we be absolutely clear that there is a center to the church’s life and work, and that it holds. It’s not legalism, formalism, humanitarianism, enthusiasm, eclecticism, or heroism, it’s “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). He alone is the church’s and the world’s center of spiritual gravity, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And it’s our job to be absolutely clear about it. DBS+