Bringing Heaven Down To Earth

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Friday, January 18, 2008

"From life's first cry to final breath"

This week in DCM brought us a stark encounter with the reality of death and the hope of resurrection. On Monday we watched the wrenching Frontline documentary on Thomas Lynch's funeral home, followed by two segments of N.T. Wright's stirring DVD on the resurrection.

On Tuesday, we visited a local cemetery and held a "Service of Reaffirmation of Resurrection Hope" in the chapel there. These words from "In Christ Alone" took on new meaning as we sang them there:

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no human plan,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Another report on DCM visit to St. Nicholas

Another report on our visit to St. Nicholas, this one by Rob VanderVennen.

For our DCM class, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, we attended St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in order to learn more about their denomination and style of worship. This fit in with our class very much because for the Orthodox, worship is heaven on earth. Orthodox worship is done in a very different manner than what I am used to in the Christian Reformed Church. The service is much more formal and it is based much more on tradition. They still quote lines that are in Arabic and some Greek, referring to Mary as the Theotokos, or birth giver of God. Chanting is used very often by the leaders and congregation as a form of worship. There is also a choir in the back balcony that sings out lines such as “Lord have Mercy” after the priest has read Scripture. The purpose of having the choir in the back is so the people do not focus on the choir but the meaning of the words.

They also had icons all over the church of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and various other people. According to Paul Meyendorff, “They intend to convey this: you stand in the presence of the living God, together with the Saints and the righteous of every age.” I appreciated these paintings but was not sure whether or not I liked them in the church. It seemed they belonged more in an art museum. I noticed that there were children involved in some of the worship service such as when the deacons would walk around with incense, there would be boys holding some poles with candles burning in them. I also noticed that all members of the Orthodox Church eat the bread and get a scoop of some powder. It seemed similar to our form of communion.

Visiting the church was quite an experience and I am glad that I attended the service. I thought it would be similar to a Catholic service and in some ways it was, but it was also very different than the Catholics. I felt a sense of deep reverence in the church and felt closer to God at St. Nicholas than my own church. It was easy to tell that the Orthodox tradition was being preserved in the church, whereas in my own church we are changing with the times and becoming more modern.

I liked the congregation participation during the service as they chanted things back to the priest. One thing that I did not like about the Orthodox service was the short sermon. I thought that it would actually be too long but it was too short in my opinion. I think a sermon should be at least fifteen minutes and that most of one’s spiritual growth comes from the sermon. I was not sure how I felt about the singing of the Scriptures. It was very poetic and pleasant but seemed out of place; I think reading the Scripture would give the same effect. Overall, I actually enjoyed the experience and I give a lot of respect to the Orthodox believers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Busy Thursday in DCM

Yesterday was a busy day for us in DCM 150-41. After a morning discussion on ethnic diversity in heaven, based on chapter 3 of Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In, we left for the Grand Rapids Art Museum. We had at least five reasons from our course for going to this art museum:

- the GRAM is the first newly constructed LEED-certified art museum in the world, which fit with what we said this week about creation care.
- one of the exhibits at the GRAM is "Nature Revealed," which helps illustrate what we've been saying about heaven on earth.
- a temporary exhibit at the GRAM features the work of local artist Chris Van Allsburg, which echoes our reflections on the importance of imagination.
- our discussion of culture as the work of our hands developing creation--which includes art and architecture.
- the experience of being downtown set up our discussion today of urbanism and heaven.

In addition to particular paintings that echoed some of our course themes, the visit left me with one more metaphor to connect to our class -- what the docents said about "learning to see." Not learning the correct way to see, but learning how to look at a painting -- or, as the Orthodox would say about an icon, how to look through it -- looking at it long and repeatedly, letting new details or interpretations come to you as you look. This struck me as a pretty good (though not perfect) metaphor for learning to look at the apocalyptic visions of Scripture.

In the afternoon, we joined two other DCM classes at the Bunker Interpretive Center to hear Janel Curry talk about the range of Christian responses to the crisis of global warming. (You can listen to a version of this lecture and follow the PowerPoint here -- scroll to Oct. 26, 2007.) Then we helped the other two classes, which have been talking about global warming, adapt Dr. Curry's framework for responding to global warming to their own.

'Heaven on Earth' at St. Nicholas Antiochian Church

In DCM: Bringing Heaven Down To Earth, one of the first things we did was introduce Eastern Orthodox worship as "heaven on earth" (using this article from Christian History magazine) and visited St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church ( here in Grand Rapids.

Nicole DeFillipi wrote this reflection on our experience.

Many denominations of Christianity have different views on how to worship God. The Orthodox church is an example of a denomination where the style of worshipping is quite different from many other churches. The members of the Eastern Orthodox church believe their worship brings a piece of Heaven to earth. While trying to explain this idea on Orthodox worship, Paul Meyendorff writes an article named “A Taste of Glory.” In this article Mayendorff explains “we are transported to where he is, so that every time the church gathers for worship, we experience a foretaste of the kingdom.”* There is a sense of mystery and greatness to the Orthodox way of worship. This aspect alone has drawn many to the Orthodox church.

Chanting is the primary way to worship God. Although this form of worship is different from many other churches, it can be revered and regarded as a sacred act. Icons are also highly respected because they help remind the Orthodox church members of Bible stories and why they are worshipping God. The icons are painted all over the sanctuary. Beautiful gold paint is used in most of the icons. Important people such as Jesus, Mary, the disciples and various saints are painted on the walls. The architecture is also meaningful. There is a dome that extends the ceiling even higher in the sanctuary. This represents their worship and how it penetrates into Heaven. Worship is able to break the barrier between Heaven and Earth. The Orthodox architecture helps to explain what occurs in their place of worship when the name of Jesus is lifted.

The experience of an Orthodox church service is not one soon forgotten. Although visiting the Orthodox church was an enlightening experience that greatly broadened my horizons, they practice many things which I do not agree with. The services seem to be based mostly on tradition. The actual sermon was very short. This bothered me somewhat because I have a hard time understanding how the congregation could grow spiritually from a short sermon. It is understandable that the congregation can learn things from being in God’s presence but I believe this must me accompanied by a teaching of his word.

I am not opposed to all artwork in churches but I believe the interior artwork in the Orthodox church is too excessive. I am aware that Orthodox members do not worship these icons but I believe that they have the potential of hindering worship. I also do not think children should be allowed to partake in the sacrament of communion. Small children were eating the bread as if it was a snack in the middle of service. 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that communion is not a snack. It is a sacrament that is to be revered. I do not think children should partake in this act until they understand what it represents and that it is not to be taken lightly. These are the major concerns I have.

It is remarkable, however, that a denomination has remained the same over hundreds of years. The tradition of Orthodoxy is obviously appealing because members of other denominations are becoming Orthodox members. Orthodoxy provides structure for its members. It also brings out a feeling of commonality since their worship style is virtually the same as Orthodox members from centuries ago.

* Meyendorff, Paul. "A Taste of Glory." Christian History Issue 54. p. 41

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Friday, January 04, 2008

New Yorker on 'The Afterlife: Cutting Back'

I had to chuckle at this satirical piece in the New Yorker: The Afterlife: Cutting Back, a fictional internal memo about downsizing hell and improving customer satisfaction in heaven:

There is trouble in paradise as well—beginning with the fact that the amenities We have provided, though immeasurably burdensome to maintain interminably, are currently perceived by their beneficiaries as “kind of boring,” “not exactly what I was expecting,” or “O.K., I guess” (to cite the three most common responses from a recent opinion sample). It may be that rivers of bright light and ladders of gold seem less impressive to contemporary reviewers than they did to Dante, Blake, and others. Studies have indicated that replacing all such benefits with just two activities not currently offered—sex and golf—would increase consumer satisfaction by many percentage points while cutting costs by orders of magnitude. Such a change might also reduce the prevalence of another common complaint—namely, that “all the interesting people are in the other place.”