Friday, September 25, 2009

Three Free E-books about Laestadianism

Warren H. Hepokoski's research on the Laestadian movement has been mentioned here before, but I thought I'd highlight these links to his writings again since being recently made aware that his books are also available as PDF files for off-line reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius and the Revival in Lapland, by Warren H. Hepokoski (HTML) (PDF)

The Laestadian Movement: Disputes and Divisions 1861 - 2000, by Warren H. Hepokoski (HTML) (PDF)

The Laestadian Movement: Background Writings and Testimonies, Warren H. Hepokoski (PDF only)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Communion, Laestadian Style

Some recent comments from Pyhä got me thinking about Laestadian communion again. :-)

See also Sacrament of Communion, by cvow, and Laestadian Communion, by free2bme for previous posts and comments on this topic.

One thing that I didn't see described in the previous posts was a detailed description of the communion service, which I will now do from an ALC standpoint.

These services were always long. Typically an ALC church service lasts an hour, but subjectively seems a lot longer. This is because the congregation plays such a passive role, and the sermon lasts such a long time (at least thirty minutes, often longer.) Because so much time is dedicated to the sermon, very little time is dedicated to anything else. The typical order of service would include an opening hymn, a prayer, another hymn (accompanied by passing the collection plate), the sermon, another hymn, and you're done.

The sermons were generally incoherent and spontaneous, because writing the sermon in advance was thought to "quench the Spirit" and King James phrasing was not always limited to the Bible reading, but also to the pastor's own utterances. Even as an adult with an education I still often cannot discern the point of any given sermon. At best, it is a stream-of-consciousness free association of Laestadian theological and moral sentiments.

Communion was not every Sunday. It was typically once a month, and on special occasions such as Holy Week. Communion added time to the service, as it was generally tacked on the end of the hour-long service described above. Depending on how many people were in attendance, this could add another 30-45 minutes to the service. Confirmation Sunday (worthy of a blog post in its own right) was a marathon in pew-warming, with larger than usual attendance, all the confirmation specific stuff, plus the long sermon, plus communion!

The Communion part of the service started with the congregation reciting the Apostle's Creed. Then we'd launch into "O Jumalan Karitsa, joka pois otat maailman synnit, armahda meille päälemme..." Sometimes we kids would call it "the Mailman song." I never knew this was the "Agnus Dei" or what any of the words meant until I was an adult and left the church. All I knew was that it was a moment of great solemnity, with the a capella drone of the words as the elders in the congregation slowly made their way up to the communion rail.

I had mixed feelings about Communion. On the one hand I liked it because it was a more interesting service. We got to sing more, and there was always the possibility that a member of the congregation would stand up before us and publicly confess their sins, sometimes very emotionally with cries and tears. Usually they were pretty general about what they had done, but once a man confessed to cheating on his wife in front of the whole congregation! One would hope that he had talked to his wife about this beforehand, but no matter what the offense, the congregation would always respond "you are forgiven in the name and shed blood of Jesus Christ." Whether this is touching or trivializes the whole idea of forgiveness and absolution I do not know. As far as I know there was never any pastoral follow-up regarding what got confessed in front of the congregation.

On the other hand, Communion was an anxiety producing event for me. In confirmation class I had learned that if you take communion "unworthily" you were "drinking damnation unto oneself." Therefore it was very important to make sure that you had no unconfessed sins (confessed to God, or to the confessor, according to Luther's Small Catechism). I would usually try to solve this problem by doing a blanket "forgive me for everything" prayer (in addition to specific items) right on the rail before taking the elements. I did this in my head, not out loud to everyone. :) Yet I also worried that this wasn't good enough, and felt guilty about confessing for the same things over and over again. It was as if a slate of sins would accumulate through the month, then they would get "wiped clean" after confessing and taking communion. But then the sins would start accumulating again, sometimes moments after having them wiped away!

In addition to the theological/existential anxiety of Laestadian communion, there was also the logistical anxiety. Typically old people would commune first, followed by "the youth" contingent, and then all other adults. Young children were not allowed to receive. It was entirely up to you to decide when to come forward, and as a teen I was often worried that if I went up "too soon" or "too late" that there would not be room for me at the rail and I'd look like an idiot. I'd have to time my approach just right to make sure that I could get a spot at the rail before it filled up, but arrive too soon and you'd have to stand there before the previous group got dismissed.

Once at the rail and in the kneeling position, the elements were consumed in the most submissive posture I've ever seen in any church. We weren't allowed to touch either the communion cup or the wafers of bread, instead keeping our heads bowed until the presider came by, when we would tilt our heads upward with our mouths open, very much like a baby bird looking for a worm. The wafer would be placed in our mouths, and the wine would be poured from the communion cup directly into our mouths as well. Given how submissive this posture is, is it any surprise that there are no female Laestadian pastors or communion assistants?

There were times when all of this needless anxiety made we want to skip communion altogether. But if you were in attendance, eligible, and didn't take communion, it would prompt questions from the pastor and whispers from the rest of the congregation. So not partaking was not an option. With communion only once a month, though, one could arrange to be out of town, or sick, and manage to go a few months without the sacrament.

I attend a church with a liturgical tradition now, and as such the Eucharist is the high point, climax, and focal point of every Sunday service. There is a feeling of celebration, and an expectation of meeting Christ in the sacrament. I can't imagine trying to avoid communion now, and there is no anxiety surrounding it. I still take communion seriously due to my upbringing, but I can't imagine placing the strictures on it that we did as Laestadians, and I still don't really understand the Laestadian approach to communion.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Authoritarians

This week I've been reading The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. Altemeyer is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. His book is a study of right-wing authoritarianism, with a focus on religious fundamentalism in the United States and Canada. Many of his observations about right-wing authoritarian followers (RWAs) and their leaders (social dominators) rang true for me viz. my experiences with Laestadianism growing up and the stories that many have shared on this blog.

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal.

The "right wing" in right-wing authoritarianism does not necessarily refer to someone's politics, but to psychological preferences and personality. It means that the person tends to follow the established conventions and authorities in society (or in their sub-culture.) In theory, the authorities could have either right-wing or left-wing political views.

A few things make this book different from other works I've read on the subject. First, Altemeyer writes for a general audience, with folksy humor peppered through the work. It's an easy read (although still properly footnoted.) For a more scholarly treatment of the same material, read Altemeyer's 1996 book, The Authoritarian Specter

Secondly, his findings are based on firsthand research experiments he's performed with his university students, identifying the RWA and social dominator personalities through the use of standardized questionaires and putting mixed groups of students through various scenarios to see how they react. The questionaires are printed in the book. I was able to take them myself and see how authoritarian I was on Altemeyer's scale.

Finally, while you can buy this book on Amazon, it's also available as a free e-book PDF file. Altemeyer wants to raise awareness of the role authoritarianism plays in our world, so he's giving his book away!

See also the Wikipedia entry for Right Wing Authoritarianism, which had this helpful definition:

Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Nightmare of Christianity

I recently read this article about Matthew Murray, the deeply disturbed young man responsible for opening fire on parishioners at New Life Church in Colorado Springs on December 9th, 2007.

The Nightmare of Christianity (editor's note: link no longer active)

While I don't agree with the authors premise that this incident is related to the death of the Religious Right or the Republican Party (both are alive and well), I was amazed at Matthew Murray's deep involvement in some of the premier far-right religious organizations of his day (Bill Gothard homeschooling, Youth With A Mission (YWAM), etc.) and how his violent acts seemed to be the result of being unable to successfully deal with the rage and disillusionment he had about the Christianity of his childhood and early adult life.

Some of the descriptions given about Murray's early life reminded me of Laestadianism and the conversations we've had on this site about cults and high-control groups
under the rules, "large homeschooling families abstain from television, midwives are more important than doctors, traditional dating is forbidden, unmarried adults are 'under the authority of their parents' and live with them, divorced people can't remarry under any circumstance, and music has hardly changed at all since the late nineteenth century."

Obedience is listening attentively, / Obedience will take instructions joyfully, / Obedience heeds wishes of authorities, / Obedience will follow orders instantly. / For when I am busy at my work or play, / And someone calls my name, I'll answer right away! /I'll be ready with a smile to go the extra mile / As soon as I can say "Yes, sir!" "Yes ma am!" / Hup, two, three!

Just to make myself absolutely clear: I do not consider Laestadianism to be a cult, or even as extreme as many other groups out there like the one Murray was raised in. It's also an open chicken-and-egg type question for me whether high-control religious groups create psychologically fragile individuals that act out in later life, or if it begins with such an individual who might have acted out to greater or lesser extent even under better circumstances.

I'm left with questions: What kind of intervention in Murray's life might have prevented him from acting out? Does it help to blame Christianity, high-control groups, demonic possession, Satanism, pornography, the individual, or any of the other targets mentioned in the article? How might we offer a welcome to people leaving high-control groups?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Centering Prayer

I've dabbled in contemplative practices like Centering Prayer a bit over the years, and thought I'd share this short video which does a great job of describing Centering Prayer, what it is and what it does with a minimal amount of fuss and technical jargon. After seeing this video you know enough to try it if you want to.



Some biblical verses Centering Prayer practitioners point to are listed below. I think it's interesting that Pentecostals (and maybe even Laestadians who experience "the movement") also point to the first one.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. -Romans 8:26

and

Be still and know that I am God. -Psalm 46:10

One quote from the video that resonated with me as a former Laestadian was, "Centering Prayer can give you an awareness of how much God loves you." This really struck me because as a Laestadian the awareness of God I received was that God was angry, upset, ready to find fault and announce the verdict "Guilty!"

Any practice that can help me find a more gracious God is helpful in this context. :-)

SEE ALSO: Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, by Thomas Keating.

Centering Prayer: New Testament Scriptural and Theological Inspirations from Contemplative Outreach

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Lars Levi Laestadius' Sermons Online

Theoforos originally pointed out this site back in 2006 on the Merry Christmas Everyone thread, but I think it got lost in the holiday cheer. ;-)

Anyway, I recently bumped into this site again, and thought it was worth posting in case you missed it the first time. It's a comprehensive collection of Laestadius' sermons in Finnish, English, Swedish, and Sami.

http://www.laestadiustexter.se

Welcome to Internet-adress www.laestadiustexter.se. On these pages You will find both original manuscripts, old copies and printed books, preliminary translations and other texts. It is allowed to freely use and share all this material.

It is allowable to copy any part of the books by means of the PC printer and photo copier for education and other kind of purposes. All kind of commercial use of the texts on these pages is prohibited.

You can download the files into your PC and read them by means of Your Web browser or Acrobat Reader.


Growing up in the ALC, I knew about Laestadius but never heard or read any of his sermons. I've since learned that Laestaduius' sermons play a much more central role in some of the other branches of Laestadianism, such as OALC, where they are frequently read from the pulpit.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Biblical Dreams and Schemes

I recently ran across this "long, but worth it" article by Dr. James D. Tabor (Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte) entitled What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, and the Future. I think it's worth sharing because in no other article I've read on this subject to date have I seen both modern biblical scholarship and Bible verse citation used to such dramatic effect to convincingly show how biblical concepts have changed over time, resulting in a Bible in which competing and often contradictory claims about death, afterlife, and the future coexist.

There is no simple and single response to the question of what the Bible really says about the future. What one finds is just what one would expect in any book composed of documents from many times, places, circumstances, and authors–variety and development. . . My treatment presupposes no particular valuation of the various dreams and schemes regarding the future.

What is most remarkable about all these images and views of the future, taken from all parts of the Bible, is their amazing flexibility. They were, and continue to be, applied to all kinds of situations and circumstances, always shaping the way readers ask and answer some of their most profound questions.

I increasingly see Laestadtianism in this context. It arose in a specific historical and cultural situation as a meaningful response to valid issues at that time. As evidenced by some of the posters to this site, it remains meaningful to some people today. However to me and many others, Laestadianism fails to address the present day situation. This disconnect causes many people to leave.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pietism, Baptism, and Laestadianism

Yesterday at church a new baby was baptized. The sermon leading up to the baptism tied in well, discussing the meaning of the sacrament from a mainline protestant/Episcopalian perspective.

Without getting into too much detail on the theology, we believe that in baptism we bear witness to and make manifest God's action, washing the baptized from sin and welcoming him or her into God's beloved community. We make promises, "with God's help" to support the family and the newly baptized so that they can grow and mature in their faith journey, a life-long process.

As I sat in my pew, I couldn't help but be struck by how opposite this was from the pietism I grew up with in the Laestadian tradition. Sure, we baptized babies in the ALC as well, but it never really made much sense to me there and seemed to be in conflict with the rest of Laestadian theology, such as it was, which to me seemed to take all the emphasis off of what God has done or is doing, and put all the onus on what individuals must do, under fear of losing ones salvation.

Of course, if you corner a Laestadian pastor and put the question baldly, they'll say that salvation is by grace through faith and certainly not through works. But the pietism in Laestadianism belies this. Without the outward marks of piety, one's faith was called into question. If one didn't dress properly, speak properly, greet properly, act properly, think properly, or feel properly you were skating on thin ice at the very least, and probably headed down the road to hell.

Yesterday's baptism was the joyful expectation of another child starting down life's path, a journey of possibilities and adventure, full of wonder about life, God, and other people. It seemed such a contrast to Laestadian baptisms, where the feeling was much more somber, full of fear and trepidation about whether the child would be "saved" when he or she got older, and the dangers and temptations of the world.

I, for one, am sick and tired of fear based religion. Any religion or religious sales-pitch that preys on people's insecurities or fears is not worth following, in my opinion.