Monday, October 07, 2013

"Stripping and Other Meaningful Activities You Can Do in Church" by Vernard Eller

From his book "The Outward Bound":
..And let us never overlook what is without doubt the very best means of cooperating under God's discipline: Bible study -though of a very special sort. It probably needs to happen in smaller, more intimate groups than those of customary classes. In addition the attention should not be exclusively on the text: "How did it come to be? 'What form does it represent? What does each of the words mean? What theological perspective does it reflect?" Rather, the focus must be on ourselves: "What is God saying to me through these words? How do these words judge me? What do they ask of me? What changes would God have them work in me?" In this way, the word itself, communicated through the insights, mutuality, and love of the brethren, can begin to make God's discipline personal, real, and effective.

I do not deny that there can and do arise nasty Corinthian-type situations that call for more stringent (though no less loving) discipline. When one caravaner (or group of caravaners) pulls off in such a divergent direction so as to jeopardize the caravan itself, when he refuses to admit that his direction is divergent, and when he refuses to hear either the brethren or the word that God would speak through them--when this happens, Scripture indicates that God's discipline can be drastic, and it directs the congregation to support God's hand in this as in the other. But the tragedy of the church is that, out of distaste for facing up to nasty situations, we have identified discipline entirely with these emergency measures and therefore abjured all discipline - the normal as well as the drastic. The result is that we live (in the words of the author of Hebrews) more like bastards than as God's true sons.

Now we turn to the activity you have probably been wondering about since you noticed the title of this chapter--stripping. This activity is closely related to discipline in that stripping may be a precondition of discipline, or at least a vital aspect of it.

Let us begin by defining stripping. We have in mind the action of a person baring himself psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually--divesting himself of his facade, role-playing, false modesty (and false pride)--anything that veils self-honesty. Indeed, much of modern psychology and counseling (in and out of the church) promotes such stripping as "salvation," or at least the way to salvation.

I disagree with this view. If one strips before a professional psyche-observer or a group of peering peers, there may be a certain temporary cathartic effect for the stripper, but nothing worth the risks involved. This kind of stripping is no different from strip teasing. Strippers are "exhibitionists," concerned only with showing off and seducing others rather than learning any truth about themselves. Likewise, the observers are "voyeurs" interested more in the gratification of seeing the other's secrets than in being of any help. This sort of relationship, of course, does no one any good. However, under the guise of "sensitivity training," "consciousness raising," or "small-group sharing," a good deal of it has gone on and is going on in our churches.

The only stripping that avoids perversion and opens positive alternatives is that done before God. Psalm 139 (among many similar ones) is the best expression of what we have in mind:
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
O LORD, you have searched me and known me
you descern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways....
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made....
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them--they are more than the sand;
I come to the end--I am still with you....
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting. Ps. 139

This, I suppose, is what has been customarily called confession rather than stripping. I have changed the term to get away from the idea of simply listing the bad things one has said, thought, and done, and having a professional religionist assure one of forgiveness or a professional psychologist assure one that these things weren't bad to begin with. In the opening-out I am speaking of, there may be revealed some things which are much worse than everyday sins and some things which are grounds for thanksgiving, wonder, and praise.
Kierkegaard pointed out that our purpose in revealing ourselves to God is not that he might learn something about us, but that from him we might learn something we have not known, or have not been willing to face, about ourselves. The Psalmist agrees completely. Once we have found out, with God's help, we are also ready to be helped out. Because he is present and active, God can make sure that I do not follow pernicious ways, but instead follow the way that is everlasting.

Obviously, stripping is an intensely personal action of the individual before God and not before the brethren. Yet, I did not say private. In this instance, as in our earlier ones, personal experience can best take place (perhaps even must take place) within the context of community. Thus, in this case, although I do not strip before the brethren, I ought to strip with my brethrenbefore God. The Psalmist himself points us in this direction by doing his own stripping in the form of a public, written account, undoubtedly intended as encouragement to his brethren.

The first way the community can help is by reminding me that I need the stripping experience. Furthermore, the greatest encouragement for me to do it is to discover that my brothers and sisters are willing to bare themselves with me. Also, that we can do this with one another in love keeps me aware that God's attitude toward me is one of love.

Beyond this mutual helpfulness there is an even more basic consideration. As long as my stripping is done in complete privacy before God, there is always the suspicion (it should be my own suspicion) that I have not truly nor completely stripped at all. It is too easy to say that I have opened every aspect of my life to God when that is not really the case. To verbalize these things in the presence of other people helps keep me honest and also gives God an opportunity to verbalize, through them, his love and forgiveness toward me.

This mutuality of stripping before God may be the most important activity of the Christian community, related as it is to the forgiveness of sin; yet it is also the most precarious and difficult activity. It can so easily become exhibitionism or voyeurism; and our only protection is that we focus it wholly upon God and do it only under his direction.

The three congregational activities we have examined--mutual aid in simplifying our lifestyles, mutual helpfulness in applying God's discipline, and the mutual baring of our selves to God--are not actually distinct and separate works. They may even be ascending steps, each making the next possible. In any case, they amount to a basic aspect of discipleship, and they are a basic part of the church's calling. They also point to a basic lack in the life of the modern church and the experience of modern Christians.

None of these three activities can be accomplished in the way the church normally accomplishes activities. They do not happen through committee decision, organizational goal setting, staff programming, or the budgeting of funds (although actions at this level can either encourage or thwart the process). All three activities (in ascending degree) must occur in a group with a strong sense of community (koinonia), an intimate "feel" for one another, a deep sense of trust in one another, and a firm Commitment to caravan with one another. Most congregations do not have the base from which to pursue these activities, even if they wanted to. Although this sense of community is both the motive and the product of the caravan church, it is in no sense a human, sociological creation. It is a gift of God and, more than that, a grace that comes only through being in Jesus Christ and truly letting that action incorporate us as his body.  -Eller,Full chapter; FULL BOOK


You are either exhibitionist or voyeur

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