My earliest memories of church involve sitting in little wooden chairs for Sunday School. You young people may not know, but back in my day, Sunday School was just that: a whole school of classes for various age levels that met one hour before the main worship service on Sunday mornings. Here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church, we have a remnant of the old Sunday Schools, our adult Bible study class that meets before worship.
At my childhood church, Sunday School often began with all the grade levels in one room. There was an old upright piano in there, and we would sing a few songs before going off to our separate classes. Usually the children got to pick out the songs, and we picked out the same two songs every single week. It probably drove our teachers crazy.
One song that we picked was,“He Lives” (“I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today…”); and the other was, “Onward Christian Soldiers” (“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…”).
It just wasn’t Sunday morning at church if we didn’t sing those two songs.
I guess we liked the way those songs sounded. They both move at a good pace, a good marching pace; “Onward Christian Soldiers” especially. They certainly didn’t drag along slowly and lethargically like some of the other hymns we were used to hearing. They had energy and passion and excitement.
When I was in high school, I started to hear people talk about how one of those two songs - “Onward Christian Soldiers” - wasn’t really appropriate, because it is full of war imagery, and Christians are supposed to be people of peace. And yes, it’s about spiritual warfare, but even so, it was deemed theologically inappropriate.
I was disappointed, because of my happy memories of singing that song; but when I looked at the lyrics, I had to admit that they were right. “Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war… like a mighty army moves the church of God...” It’s about armies and crusades and going forward into battle.
“Onward Christian Soldiers” was written in 1865, right at the end of the civil war, and draws its inspiration from 2 Timothy 2:3. The Salvation Army even adopted it as their official hymn.
Of course they did.
However, Jesus never used imagery like this. Jesus said that the way of the sword was not his way. Jesus built upon the teachings of the prophets - prophets like Isaiah, who said that, in God’s ideal world, there would be no war, and that swords would be made into iron plows, and spears would be made into tools for pruning. Jesus never called people to take up arms against enemies or oppressors, but he did weep openly for the people who did not know how to make peace in their communities.
Given all this, lyrics about warfare and battles and marching into war really aren’t appropriate to Christian worship.
So we stopped singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And by “we,” I don’t mean just the church I grew up in. I mean many, many churches stopped singing it. And hymnals stopped including it. It’s not in the Chalice Hymnal. And that is as it should be.
All that being said, there was one good thing about Onward Christian Soldiers and its battle imagery: it motivated us. It energized us. It got us excited. It told us that we were going into battle because we had a cause that was worth fighting for!
I think that’s why American Christianity held on to battle imagery and metaphors for as long as it did.
As I got a little older, my musical tastes changed. I got excited by some Christian rock bands: Stryper. Petra. They weren’t just rock; they were hard rock. Talk about music that excited a person! The first big concert I ever went to - out at Irvine Meadows - was Petra.
Like many Christians before them, these bands liked the war imagery, and though I liked the excitement and passion in their music, the war imagery made me uncomfortable. Petra even had a song titled, “This Means War.” It was loud. I won’t ask Barb to play it on the piano.
I cringe when I hear those songs now. And I think Jesus does, too. They don’t reflect the kind of savior Jesus is. Jesus refused to take up arms, even to defend his own life. Instead, he chose to bring life to others through sacrificial love and compassion.
Which makes the use of battle and war imagery inappropriate to the way of Jesus.
So we’ve gotten rid of it. Mostly. To follow more closely the way of Jesus, we avoid using violent imagery and metaphors.
Unfortunately, without all that, it’s been difficult to maintain the same level of passion, excitement, and motivation. You know what I’m talking about, right? “We’re waging a battle! Join the fight!” It all has such a good, powerful ring to it. But where is that excitement and passion today?
With such language and imagery no longer available to us, I feel as if we’ve become somewhat lethargic in our faith. Apathetic, even. Or maybe just plain lazy. We’ve lost some of the fire, the spirit, the passion that we once had back in the day - back in the day when we used images of wars and battles. We haven’t figured out a way to motivate, inspire, and energize since we gave all that up.
I’ve been thinking about all this...pondering these things... searching for an appropriate language that can replace language that is violent; I’ve been searching for language that can still motivate and inspire and energize without speaking of battles and warfare.
And I think I found it. Actually, it has been staring me in the face for quite some time. It’s our identity statement - the identity statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
You’ve heard me recite this statement before. Right now, I want you to recite it with me…
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table, as God has welcomed us.
If you were at the General Assembly that is taking place right now in Indianapolis, you’d be hearing this language a lot.
We are a movement for wholeness! Not an army or a crusade, but most definitely a movement. A movement for wholeness…
And wholeness, we know, means healing, salvation, peace, shalom, aloha, having things put back together so all is right again, so all is restored to as it should be.
And, we are Disciples! Not soldiers, not warriors, but Disciples! We are disciples in the movement.
And we have a cause that is worth devoting our lives to. It’s the cause of justice, the cause of peace, the cause of love and equality.
This is something worth getting excited about! This is something worth being passionate about! It is our calling. It is our mission.
And when we are moving toward wholeness in our lives and in our world, I feel that passion and excitement.
It’s what made the mission trip to Hawaii that I led so meaningful. Let me tell you what I mean.
In Hawaii, our group of 16 divided up into smaller groups, and each smaller group was created to be as diverse as possible.
In my group of five, we had hispanic, African-American, Korean-American… and me. One day we went to a farm that practiced traditional Hawaiian farming, preserving and teaching Hawaiian culture while growing food. We worked in the kalo lo’i, in watery mud up to our chests, side-by-side with interns who were descended from the first Hawaiians.
And as we worked, we talked. And we listened. And we learned about each other’s lives and built lasting friendships.
These were amazing conversations! Conversations that many in the world say we shouldn’t be having.
The world instills in us a prejudice that too easily takes the form of racism. The world tells us that we shouldn’t be having conversations like the ones we had in Hawaii, that we shouldn’t be having conversations like the ones we have here in our own congregation, conversations that transcend barriers of race and culture and age.
But we did.
And we do.
So many in the world are trying to divide us, trying to shape our world into a world of hostility, a world of fear, a world of separation, but we are doing just the opposite. We are shaping the world into a world of friendship, a world of peace, a world of unity.
That’s what it means to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
I am super excited about this! This is what fuels the passion within me….
Something amazing was happening in that Hawaiian mud, and something amazing happens every time we gather together here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church for worship.
We take it all for granted, but it truly is amazing. There are so few places in this world where this is happening! There are so few places where people who are of various races and cultures and generations and orientations and identities gather together, around a table, in love and friendship and unity.
Yet this is who God has called us to be. This is who we are. We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. And, as part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table, just as God has welcomed us.