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Turning Routines into Rituals

In Devotional, Worldview on May 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm

RitualsBoth routines and rituals involve a regular repetition of some action.

But they are very different.

Routines will flatten our lives, but rituals can thicken them.

Routines are like ordinary time and rituals are linked with “higher times.”

With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. You routinely make a breakfast of oatmeal with flax and blueberries to prevent cancer or heart disease, I can’t remember which, maybe both. You grab a coffee on the way to work so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.

A ritual, on the other hand, does not have this clear relationship between the act and purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. At a graduation, we don’t throw the hats in the air because we want them to be up there. In Holy Communion, we don’t eat the bread and drink the wine because we are hungry and thirsty.

The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.

In some Christian circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.”  Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of the human being still dominates the Western church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not supposed to be.  Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense?  Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform the deepest part of ourselves, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.

James K. A. Smith says, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us.  He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  Yes, Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.”  Rather, Smith says we are desiring beings–“I love therefore I am.”  Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies.  If you say a rote prayer before the every evening meal, with folded hands and closed eyes, you are physically acknowledging a presence that deserves your reverence, a providential being to whom you ought to be grateful.  This simple ritual shapes identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person and his food to a transcendent provider–this “mindless” ritual is an incarnational event.  If this simple prayer is such a significant event, think about Communion.

We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long.  I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.  I’ve ritualized the routine of hitting snooze on my alarm clock.  Every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”  This ritual reminds me that the day does not begin when I wake up; during the seven hours that I’ve been sleeping, God has been busy.  I am joining God’s day, “already in progress.”   It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”

I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.

 

“Just a Symbol”?

In Time on January 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Is today (January 28, 2016) closer to

A) January 27, 2016

or

B) January 28, 1986?

The obvious answer is A), because we almost always think of time as sequential, but for the friends and family of the five astronauts and two payload specialists that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this date in 1986, the answer would likely be B).   LambI watched the launch of the Challenger with my grade eight and nine students.  We watched for a few hours after as we tried to understand how this could have happened.  This was a meaningful event.  Chronologically, yesterday is closer to today, but if meaning is our standard, at least for some people, today is closer to this date 30 years ago than was yesterday.

The non-sequential nature of time is something we usually ignore, but it can add significant depth and experience to our lives if we are more aware of it.  I’ll attempt to illustrate this using the elements of Tim Keller’s sermon called “The Story of the Lamb.”

The story of the Lamb is actually the story of three lambs.

The story of the second lamb cam be found in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt and as prologue to releasing his people, God has sent nine plagues upon the land of Egypt.  The tenth plague will be the death of the first born.  In  Exodus 12:23 we an amazing twist in time:

When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

The Destroyer.  This destroyer does not bring regular destruction, but End-Times destruction–Revelation 9:11:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Lamb1This Destroyer, then, who visits death upon all the first born of Egypt is the bringer of End-of Time Judgement, long before the end of time.  Time is bent when the Destroyer of the future kills all the first born in ancient Egypt who were unprotected by the blood of the second lamb.

Importantly, the tenth plague is not just the death of the first born Egyptians, but the first born of any who live in Egypt–this includes the Hebrews.  The Hebrews are not exempt from Eternal Destruction–they are not saved by their own merit, nor by God’s ignoring of their sin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb.  The Passover is the central act of Jewish worship – and it commemorates salvation by “the bloody death of a helpless victim”–the second lamb.

The first lamb is found in Genesis 22.  God says to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. (22:2)

In this culture, the first born already belonged to God; he has a claim on the first born as representative of the family(Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8)–the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family.  Abraham, Keller says, believed that God was just calling in the debt.  Although the father would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due.  Just before Abraham can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”  Then this:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a representative of Abraham’s family.

Lamb2Back to the second lamb. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews understood that God  was, again, making a claims the on the debt of the first born, and that he, again, provided an alternate.  When they heard God’s instructions for the first Passover, they would likely make the connection to the first lamb–the ram caught in the thicket which took the place of Isaac on the alter.  The story of the second lamb doesn’t mean what it means without the story of the first lamb.  Again, time is bent back upon itself.

The deliverance from Egypt wasn’t the solution to all their problems–they still lived in a spiritual bondage, and consequently were subject to Final Judgement. To solve this problem, they need another lamb–Lamb 3, Jesus.  John the Baptist called him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Lamb4The night Jesus was arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  This night, the lamb wasn’t on the table, but at the table.  The first two lambs were just animals.  The ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter did not actually save the boy.  Nor did the Passover lambs save the Hebrews by their death.  The first two lambs only pointed to the third.  The third lamb was the God’s Son, but this time no one yelled, “Stop.” Like the first two lambs, his death was in the stead of those who deserved it.  Unlike the first two lambs, Jesus is the ultimate lamb that provides the ultimate salvation.

The central act of Christian worship, Communion, commemorates “the bloody death of an innocent victim.”  The bread and the wine in which Christians partake an obedient response to Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In it we remember Jesus, the Lamb of God, giving his life for us, once and for all, on the cross.

Christians have different views as to what happens at communion, from the supernatural event of transubstantiation to it being a completely human act or “just a symbol.”  If we think of time only as sequence, the Passover and the Last Supper happened many, many centuries ago. If they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a symbol. If you understand that time has loops, it becomes far more than a mere symbol.

Lamb5When we partake of the bread and wine, we are not simply remembering an event that took place 2000 years ago.  We are standing at the convergence of several events, profound events each involving a substitutionary death.

Jesus died once for all, but as time bends, we stand before him as he says the words “this is my body, for you.”  Communion is not merely a memorial because Jesus is active as he offers us the bread and wine–his body, not many times, but once.  But with the bending of time, he’s offering it now.  One death and resurrection, but a continual offering of Grace.

As you partake of the Communion meal this weekend,  think about the nearness in time, higher time, of the ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter, the Passover lambs that died in order to protect the Hebrews from an early encounter with The Destroyer of The End-Times.  Think especially about the Lamb of God–the ultimate lamb–who died to save us from the ultimate consequences of our sin and who is right now seated on the throne of heaven.  Think about standing at the convergence of all the Communion meals being celebrated across space and time as Jesus offers us the salvation he paid for with his life.

If you manage to catch just a glimpse of any of this, you will not be able to think of The Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol.”

Praise Songs and Higher Times

In Rants on May 20, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Praise 1I know that I said I would look at praise and worship songs as an English teacher, but I’m cheating and looking at praise and worship songs wearing a philosophical hat.

In a recent post, David Murrow explains “[w]hy men have stopped singing in church.”  He says that there are some positives in the switch from hymnal to the projection of lyrics onto a screen in front of the sanctuary, but he concludes that “the negatives are huge.”

One of these negatives is that “[s]ongs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

[W]e went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows (Murrow).

 I experienced some frustration this past Easter for this very reason.  The songs that were chosen for the Easter service were all appropriate thematically, but almost all were new to me.  I’m pretty quick to catch onto songs, so it wasn’t really an issue of not being able to sing them.   I am obviously not the same as the men who don’t sing in the Murrow post.  But there was something else  that I realized that we’ve lost since hymnals have become obsolete.

 And it has to do with the way we view time.

 In our culture, we understand time to be exclusively chronological.  So much so that many who are reading this are saying, “Well, what the heck else would time be?”  Chronological time, or “secular” time, is the idea that one thing happens after another.  There is no meaning behind this ordering of events–it is ordinary time.

 Higher time (kairos) is infused with meaning.  It doesn’t replace ordinary time, but complements it.

Higher times “gather and re-order secular time” (Taylor 55).  If you think of chronological time as a long rope, higher time takes that rope and ties it in a knot so places on the rope that are usually further apart, are now touching.  These “kairotic knots” (54) meaningfully reorder time.

 So, your birthday 2013 is closer in kairos time to your birthday in 2012, than it is to the other days that lie between them.   This is because your birthdays all share the same meaning and the ordering of kairos time is one of meaning.

 In the secular world, this is the only sort of time there is and I think we lose something if we view time as a mere sequence and neglect this other way of experiencing higher time.

 What does this have to do with praise and worship songs?  I think the songs we sing in church can go a long way in helping us to experience higher time.

 Back when we sang from a hymnal, we’d sing the same songs every Easter  In this way, the songs helped to connect all this Easter with every Easter I was alive for.  But all these Easters were connected to every Easter all the way back to the first when Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, “Whom were you seeking?.”

 The principle is the same with Christmas. We also sang the same songs at every funeral, and after the offerings were collected.  The songs linked these events too each other in higher time.

 The modern, secular view of reality is an impoverished view.   This view of reality ought to be countered at every point if people are going to experience a life of fullness available in Christ.  Certainly, the songs that we sing can help us to experience time as meaningful, but all aspects of communal worship can be looked at.

Perhaps a little more attention given to the traditional church calendar is worth a look.

Previous Posts on this topic:

Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors