A cultural shift to save the culture

by Roger Wiig (bio below)

I think it is true that in the church we have not focussed enough attention on establishing firmly our sense of identity; we are not completely clear about who we are. And that is particularly obvious among the young and disaffected.

When people arrived at church, the sanctuary was completely empty. They gathered in the foyer and started to talk. The normal ringing of a bell announced the start of worship. Someone read Luke 22: 7 – 11 and the invitation was given to all to ‘prepare the room’. Everyone worked together to set up eight trestle tables forming a hollow square. Chairs were put around the outside and the inside of the square until everyone had a place to sit. Children put a glass and a ‘placemat’ in front of every person.

On one side of the ‘placemat’ was the affirmation ‘There is a place here for you’ and the words of the hymns that were to be sung. On the other side a list of all the meals Luke records Jesus participating in and the scripture reading Luke 22: 7 – 22 from the CEV with the words: ‘they prepared the Passover meal’, ‘a cup of wine’, ‘Jesus took some bread’, and ‘another cup of wine’ highlighted in red. The reading was followed, and the actions highlighted became the activities people shared in. Wine in big jugs were passed around and glasses filled. Bread was broken passed around and shared. Prayers and music and conversations about some of the selected readings added to the interactivity of the occasion. The reading continued and wine in the jugs were passed around a second time and glasses were re- filled. There was lots of noise and conversation. Questions then invited people to reflect on the actual experience they were sharing in and what they had learned from the communion in this form. Two cups? Conversation? Why might Paul invent such an occasion? One thing was certain: This event was a unique experience for everyone —a real liturgy, where everyone had work to do.

I tell the story, because I want to ask: In what way is the culture passed on? That is a complicated issue and far more complicated than I can deal with here and probably that I could ever manage. But one thing must be said immediately: Our society and the church has gone through, and is going through, irreversible and cataclysmic changes and there is no going back. But there are those within the many religious traditions who are standing up and asserting that the failure of religion puts humanity at risk, so we must at least think about how we connect with one another around the world and across the generations.

I also want to affirm, there is a way forward. There are churches and religious communities who have faced up to the challenges of modern biblical studies, theology and the realities of the world we live in, who go on to develop their own ways of giving full expression to the traditions and the culture from which they have sprung. Diana Butler Bass shows that in those communities renewal and vitality can spring up again and the next generation can be inspired and join in.

Religion has a role to play for the well-being of all people everywhere and it can do that when we are open to the experiences and traditions of others while being completely true to who we are and to the traditions that have formed us. Religion, when it is focussed on our common humanity, can speak hopefully to a world that is dangerously divided.

That is a bigger vision and will require much of us, but I think there are some small steps we can take towards it. So, in this short article I want to share some convictions and stories that might open up some possibilities for the future.

Sometime back I told the local (Kapiti Uniting) men’s group the story of the night the Dutch Resistance was born just after the German invasion of Holland during the Second World War. A group of Dutch lay people went to see Dr Hendrik Kramer, a missionary who had spent much of his life in Indonesia, and asked him what they should do. Wisely he said, ‘I am not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you who you are. If you know who you are then you will know what to do’. He opened his Bible and read from 1 Peter: ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people claimed by God as his own, to proclaim the triumphs of him who has called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light’. He closed his Bible and asked: ‘Do you know who you are?’ They did! The Resistance was formed.

I think it is true that in the church we have not focussed enough attention on establishing firmly our sense of identity; we are not completely clear about who we are. And that is particularly obvious among the young and disaffected.

In spite of that, however, people have been formed within the church who proved to be great saints, who acted with incredible love and deep wholeness and integrity and we have been better for their example and inspired by their humility and strength. Some people through their devotion and generosity of spirit have simply got it. And where would the church be without them? You will be able to name some of them, and so will I, and we will recognise that they were people who did indeed know who they were and because of that they knew what to do, how to live, how to ride through life dealing, with courage and calm, the many things they were faced with daily.

How did they get there? Singing the hymns, saying the prayers, finding insights in the biblical stories and seeing that the stories were, and are about, how to live, how to deal with the dilemmas, how to care for the earth and its people and yes, then going on to care for the earth and its people and to do that with others. They chose to engage in conversation; to appreciate that their observations and reflections on life had given them a quiet confidence and a humble recognition that they could apply their insights and gifts in gentleness. And behind all that there was, for the people I know, the conviction that God is love, and that love kept them open, kept them caring, kept them accepting, kept them learning, kept them involved, kept them focussed on others and the well-being of the people they met. They became ‘Masters of life’.

If we are honest however, we will know that we haven’t mastered everything. Mastery takes practice! Repeating and repeating and repeating until we are competent and confidant — and that for our purposes includes, telling the biblical stories and telling the stories and telling the stories.

While in the UK I was privileged to be on the 3 Faiths Forum Advisory Board and was deeply moved by the spirituality of my Jewish and Muslim friends — spirituality that was deepened by daily ritual.

Matthew and Linda belonged to the Reformed Jewish Synagogue in Bromley and invited Carole and me a number of times to join them on Friday nights for their Sabbath meal. We noticed that every time they entered their house they touched the Mezuzah on the doorpost. The Mezuzah contains a parchment called the Klaf that contains the words from two passages in Deuteronomy. The first known as the Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates’.

The second reading on the Klaf from Deuteronomy again calls for the people to love their God and receive the benefits of loving God and tell the stories to their children in all places at all times.

Well, then Linda and Matthew would lead us inside where I would be given a Kippah, a skull cap. We would be invited to sit at the table while Linda would light the candle, set in a niche along with a copy of the Torah, and say the prayers in Hebrew. Matthew would say the blessing over the Kiddush cup — always filled with a great red wine! Bread was broken and the greeting ‘Shabbat Shalom’ — ‘Have a peaceful Sabbath’ would be shared and the meal would begin. It was a pattern repeated every Sabbath eve.

Harvey Cox calls the Sabbath: ‘A Cathedral in time’. It is their holy place, their great gathering place. But then they move on through the calendar, festival by festival from Rosh ha-shanah, to Yom Kippur, to the harvest festival Sukkot, to the festival of the Torah and on to Chanukah, Purim, Passover and so on. Judaism tells its story year by year in its families through its festivals and in doing so keeps its faith alive, its culture vibrant.

As a Christian Educator I stand in envy of the life-shaping, culture-forming rituals that give to Jews and Muslims such a strong sense of identity. 

I longed to find ways of helping families pass the stories on, but no resources were produced to help families develop regular ways of reminding themselves of the nation-shaping, culture -shaping stories and how important they are to our self-understanding. We never gave families things they could do together, and it is little surprise that now there are few families excited by their life in the church. So, here’s a question: Is it possible to develop resources that will help families develop some rituals or some ways of taking up  the stories that  have shaped us as a people and that lead us to affirm — along with people of good will everywhere — that our task is to recognise the humanity of all people, to  treat others as we would be treated and to ensure that the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given something to drink, the strangers are welcomed, the naked clothed  and the sick and those in prison are visited.

Of course, our Protestant tradition is sceptical about rituals, but we readily fall into what has been called routinisation. We do something differently and then we repeat it endlessly without checking to see if it really is bringing us life, life in all its fullness.

It just might be that if we stepped outside of our routines and our denominational frameworks and started to think much more of the importance of breaking down the barriers that separate individuals and nations and recognised the humanity and spirituality of all people, and started up some conversations with people who are different, we may find again what is worth passing on to the next generation — and what might be seen by them as a living, vital culture, critical to the well-being of all people to be passed on to their children.

Roger Wiig is a Presbyterian minister who served in the Christian Education Department of the PCANZ that became, by resolution of the General Assembly, the Department of Parish Development and Mission. He then served for 3 and a half years as an Editor of the Joint Board of Christian Education in Melbourne before being called to minister to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in Palmerston North. After nearly eight years there he was appointed Editor of the Methodist/Presbyterian newspaper Crosslink. Called to St Andrew’s Uniting Church in central city Brisbane he served there for almost 6 years before being invited by the Methodist Church in the UK to minister within the Borough of Bromley in South East London. In his final three years (of 8) there he served as Superintendent of the Circuit. He is retired and living in Raumati South on the Kapiti Coast; has been married to Carole for 52 years; has three children and four grandchildren.

Jewish Family Celebrating Shabbat

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