CategoryThe Church

Why Pastors Must Read Fiction

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Recently, I heard a pastor admit from the pulpit that he didn’t read fiction–I’ve heard this before.  These confessions are not usually necessary for it is usually apparent from their sermons.

I have heard the reasons.  Some don’t read because they see reading fiction was a frivolous endeavor, even a dangerous one.  Others, because they have no time.  After you read the Bible and the theology texts, blogs, and all those books on Christian living, there isn’t any time for fiction.  Some don’t read fiction because, “Well, it just isn’t my thing.”

I perused several articles in which other pastors exhort their colleagues to read fiction.  These articles offer some very good reasons for pastors to read fiction, but they didn’t give the most important reasons, which I will save for last.

It’s Relaxing

Reading a novel is relaxing, and pastors should find time to relax.  Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson is a great read, but it’s a book for the beach.  I’m not arguing that pastors read more beach books, although it couldn’t hurt.

Get Out of Yourself

We all live narrow lives and look at the world with a fairly limited vision.  I am a white, North American male who was born in the early 1960s.  I look at the world through these lenses.  I was never sexually abused.  I don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant or a tanner in India. I don’t have autism or a brother with schizophrenia.

When you read good fiction, you are immersed in the reality of these things.  Can you see how imaginatively understanding these things would make one a better pastor?

Experience the Beauty and the Power of Language

Good art, be it visual arts, music, or fiction, is good because it is rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by creative human beings. Art isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and what he initially declared.  When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to other human beings, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Good Fiction is True

Good fiction challenges us where we need challenging: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says fiction “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest to us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”  If Gardner is right, and I think he is, what human being, let alone pastor, wouldn’t benefit from the reading of good fiction.

As poetry is “the art of saying what cannot be said” (Alan Watts), narrative attempts to explain the inexplicable.  You can’t deal with ideas like Good, Sin, Death, Sacrifice, Grace, Love, Redemption, etc. propositionally.  Only narrative is up to the task.  A sermon delving into topics like these needs the support of a mind that has been broadened and deepened by fiction, which has taken the preacher to an understanding beyond personal experience and theology.

If you can't read fiction, then you can't read the Bible. Click To Tweet

You can’t read the Bible if you can’t read fiction.

These are all great reasons for pastors to read fiction, but there are still more compelling reasons.

The Bible is a collection of all sorts of literary genres, and all of these are ancient expressions of these genres.  Ideally, you’d need to read all sorts of ancient texts, in their original languages, just to begin to get a sense of how to read the biblical text.  There are people who can read these texts this way, and we can read their books and articles, but our access to the original texts is indirect.  We need direct engagement with texts in general in order to understand the role of the reader–a role that involves far more than our mind, but our heart and soul and imagination as well.

The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe.

Russell Moore

The Bible is not simply a text that we mine in order to extract nuggets of truth.

It’s not an encyclopedia, and it shouldn’t be read as one.

The skills one needs to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.

The skills one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.Click To Tweet

Many North American Christians are still under the influence of Modernism.   We tend to equate truth with fact.  We think that for the Bible to be true, it must be factual.  This gets us into all sorts of problems with our interpretation of the Bible.  We will reject the intended meaning of a text when we reject the very mode in which the text was intended to be read.

Most pastors know that the Bible is not anything like an encyclopedia, but we have been so steeped in Modern thinking for so long that it is sometimes a struggle to step out of a rationalist reading of the Bible, and reading a steady diet of theology reinforces this error.

The pastor who reads theology, but not fiction, is like a biology lecturer, who has dissected a thousand of frogs, and keeps dozens in his lab, but hasn’t studied them in the field.  He knows so much, but his understanding of frogs is incomplete.

How can we reset our default settings–our idolatrous, Modern settings–so we can better read the Bible?

Read good fiction.

Reading fiction will develop the understanding that the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.

The opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.Click To Tweet

Many sermons can be preached effectively by a pastor who doesn’t read fiction, but there certain times when a broader reading list would greatly improve what we hear from the pulpit.  And occasionally, it will protect the speaker from coming off sounding silly.

Recommendations:

What should I read?

Read from the “top 100 books you must read before you die” list.  Read from the best books of 2020, or 2019.  And read old books.  C. S. Lewis explains why.

OK, so here are some recommendations.

My favourite book of all-time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  It’s funny and profound.  I’ve written about why this book is so essential for Christians to read in a series of posts.  But read the book before you read the posts.  It’s far better, and less propositional.

Any and all of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.  Pick up one of her collections like Everything that Rises Must Converge.  O’Connor takes a hard and critical look at Christianity in a Modern context, and she also reintroduces readers to God’s Grace despite ourselves.

If I were ever stranded on a desert island, and I couldn’t take the Bible, I would take The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It doesn’t replace the Bible, because it isn’t the inspired word of God, but it contains so many of the essential Biblical themes and truths, that it might sustain me until I get rescued.

1984 by George Orwell is one of the best books of the 20th Century.  Everyone should read it.  It’s brilliantly written is is as relevant today as it was in 1984, and 1949 when it when it was published.

Watership Down by Richard Adams is about rabbits, but it’s also about human nature, faith, trust, and leadership.  And another thousand things.  This one is great on Audible, read by Ralph Cosham.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes the reader to India in the 1950s.  You might not be interested in India in the 1950s.  It doesn’t matter.  The book is very well written and you become invested very quickly.  If nothing else, it exercises our empathy, helping us to step in the shoes of others who live in very different circumstances.

You’ve heard of the problem of evil, the strongest challenge to the Christian God.  Like all of his work, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the problem of good.  This is a dark novel, but the distant glimmer of light and hope argues that life must be about more than suffering and death.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  This one is a doozy.  It’s monstrous.  (Read this hilarious article about “How to Read Infinite Jest.“).  This book rivals A Prayer for Owen Meany for my all-time favourite book.    But if you are not a fan of fiction just yet, hold off for a year or 10.

The good news is there are thousands more.  You’d find a lot more recommendations in the comment section if this blog had a huge following, but there might be one or two there as well.

Happy Reading!

That Doesn’t Count as a Hymn

Photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

We usually sing at least one hymn in church every week.

I don’t know, but there might be a hymn quota.  A requirement of some sort that we sing a hymn every week to appease the hymn lovers.

I am one of these, a hymn lover.

But sometimes I am unappeased.

If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.

If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.Click To Tweet

When the Hymn Doesn’t Count

  1.  When you change the harmonies.  One of the reasons we like to sing the hymns, is we like to sing the harmonies.  We know our parts.  Something special happens when we are able to contribute something musically beautiful to the praise and worship of our Lord.  If we sing one of our favourite hymns, say “Holy, Holy Holy,” but I can’t find my part, the discrepancy between the joyful worship I might have experienced and the frustration I actually experienced . . .  Well, it would be better if we didn’t sing it at all.
  2. When you add a flakey chorus or bridge.  Perhaps the fad is over, but for a while there we were always singing hymns with new choruses added.  A few of these were quite good, most added nothing to the song, and some are downright bad.  If we are going to sing hymns with added choruses, they should be only those in the first category.  Otherwise, just toss it.
  3. When it’s not a hymn.  There are songs that sound like hymns, but they aren’t really hymns.  Let’s sing these songs, but they can’t be counted as having sung a hymn.  “In Christ Alone” is one such song.  “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” is another.  These are wonderful, but they don’t count.
  4. When you change the lyrics.  The song has already been written.  If you want another song with a different theological emphasis, write it, but you can’t rewrite this one.  It does us no harm to sing in words that are not contemporary–it might do us some good.
  5. If it’s a Sunday School song from decades ago.   Hymns are old Christian songs, but not all old Christian songs are hymns.  It is a condition for many under 30 to lump together anything that happened before their birth into the category ‘old.’  Consequently, a young worship leader can easily conclude that “Pass It On” is a good old hymn. It is not.
  6. When you change the musical style of the hymn, it’s awesome.

Different Musical Styles

Perhaps you expected me to rail against changing the way a hymn sounds.  That’d be a silly thing to complain about.

 

“Worship Christ the Newborn King” or “Coming King”?

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This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent. We sang some advent songs.  That was awesome.  Mine isn’t a liturgical church–it’s more of a Modern one–so there’s not too much attention given to the Church Calendar except the biggies like Christmas and Easter.  I like liturgy and The Calendar, so I like it that Advent gets some attention.

One of the songs we sang was “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”  But the words were different.  Rather than singing “Come and Worship Christ the newborn King” we sang “Come and Worship Christ the coming King.”  Well, I didn’t sing that.  I stuck to the real lyrics, not out of stubbornness; each time we got to the line, I was already halfway through the familiar, so I just forged ahead.

I wondered about this change.  It’s obviously a shift in focus from the Incarnation to The Second Coming.  The verses of the song are about the Bethlehem story, so perhaps the lyric-alterer wants to generate some relevance for the modern worshiper by also anticipating Christ’s future coming.  Maybe he thought this made the hymn a little more well-rounded.  This argument for breadth makes some sense, but if we sing about everything in a single song, aren’t we in danger of singing about nothing.

My view is that there is much to be gained by a focus on the Incarnation during the season in which we remember it.

The Significance of the Incarnation

Advent celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world when God takes human form.  We Modern, Western Christians often fail to fully grasp the significance of the Incarnation.  The ancient Hebrew faith was unique in that there was one God and he was outside creation.  He seemed to make it a priority of being with his people, first as a pillar of fire over the Tabernacle and later in the Holy-of-Holies in the Temple, but his holiness made approaching him problematic.  In the Incarnation, a wholly transcendent God took on flesh–he became one of us.  This is remarkable.  It redefines humanity’s relationship with God.  He’s accessible and present.  At it’s most basic, the Incarnation means that God is with us–Emmanuel, which has been his object all along.  The incarnation also reminds us of our value; when God takes on flesh and remains enfleshed, he’s telling us a little about how he views humanity.

Human beings were special in creation–we were made in the Image of God.  There are tremendous forces loosed upon the world that are degrading human value at every point.  Contemporary idols, Choice, Freedom, Ease and Pleasure demand human sacrifice upon their alters.  Politicians continue to insist on hierarchies and institutions suppress dialogue.  Posthuman ideas whisper into our ears, as did the serpent in the garden so long ago–human beings are not special.  And don’t get me started on the dehumanization of social media.  We need every reminder as to our position in creation and the value conferred upon us by our creator.  We need to be reminded of our Hope.

The Incarnation is a significant part of a long, long story of Redemption.  This story also includes the call of Abraham, the Exodus, King David.  It also includes Good Friday, Easter and the Second Coming.  To reduce this long story and all it’s parts to “Jesus was crucified rose from the dead, and is coming again” is to degrade the story.  We need to delve deeply into each part in order to experience the significance of each.

So, at least for these weeks in December, let us worship the newborn king.

Why We Won’t Go To Heaven When We Die

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We don’t go to heaven when we die.

In a previous post, I presented 12 questions that might reveal the degree to which we unknowingly separate God out from the rest of life.  In a comment, Monica asked me to go a little deeper into question number 3:

3. Do you speak of going to heaven when we die?

Answering this in the affirmative might be an indication that you suffer from Modern Secular dualism: the idea that material things and spiritual things are radically distinct.  This separation leads to two false views of reality.  The first is the secular manifestation of this idea: that the spiritual world does not exist, or is irrelevant to our lives.  A second error, like unto it is that of the Christian under the influence of Modern Secularism–that although the spiritual realm exists, it is very distant.  This view leads to the idea of “going to heaven when we die.”

Since its beginning, the church battled heresies involving the relationship between physical and spiritual realities.

Gnosticism: Material Bad

Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that was very influential in the early centuries of the church.  One of the basic ideas of Gnosticism is that the spiritual world stands in opposition to the material one because they have to distinct natures–the material is evil and the spiritual is good.

Accepting this premise, it follows that the body is evil and the soul is good.  The soul is imprisoned in the physical body, but upon death, it is freed and goes to a spiritual heaven where it has always truly belonged.

Modern Secularism is a lot like Gnosticism in that it also separates the physical from the spiritual.  The difference is the Gnostics undervalued the physical and the Moderns undervalue the spiritual.

We find neither devalued in the Bible.

Genesis

In the first verses of Genesis, God creates all that is.  He called it all good.  On the sixth day, he created people.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

Human beings are certainly physical beings, but we are spiritual beings as well.   Both are good.  Jesus offers and even more complete anthropology when he quotes the Old Testament command to

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ Luke 10:27.

Human beings are created with bodies and minds and hearts and spirits–all of these are declared it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The Fall results in a twisting or distortion of all things, not just physical things.  Contrary to both Gnostic and Modern teaching, all dimensions of humanity are valued, all are fallen.  Consequently, all aspects of humanity are in need of redemption.  In his death on the cross, Jesus redeems all of the whole person, not just her soul.

God declared all of creation to be good.  All of creation is fallen because of Man’s sin.  All of creation, not just some human souls, have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

This is why we speak of the Cosmic Redemption–Christ redeems the entire Creation–all that God has made.  On his return, he will complete redemption when he makes “all things new.”

Revelation

At the end of the book of Revelation, we see a picture of where history is headed.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21: 3-5

John sees the new Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, “coming down out of heaven.” God will dwell among his people, on earth.

This is not new.  It is a biblical pattern.  God delights to be with human beings in the Garden.  He travels with the nation of Israel, living in a tent as they did.  He lives with the Jews in the temple in Jerusalem.  He dwells among us as the God/man, Jesus.  Today, Christ takes up dwelling within us in his Spirit.  So it is no surprise that God would once again be the one who comes to us.

It sounds to me as if we won’t be going to heaven.

God lived with his people in The Garden, in the wilderness, in the temple, in the first century, and indwells us today. Why do we talk about going to live him in heaven when we die? Isn't it likely He'll stick to the same pattern?Click To Tweet
It seems pretty clear that none of us, or very few of us, are going to heaven when we die.Click To Tweet

Eternal life starts now

One’s view of heaven can make a tremendous difference in our lives right now.

If heaven is just spiritual and spiritual things are distant in both time and place, then eternal life has little to do with “real” life.  The Christian life is a life of waiting.  And so we wait.

If heaven is a holistic reality involving the whole person and all of creation; if Jesus lives in us and if heaven will be on earth, then a lot of the conditions for heaven are already in place and it is pretty close.  Eternal life will certainly be different when all things are made new, but it will also be a continuation of what God has started in us and with us.  This makes the present, eternally significant.

Modern liturgies reinforce the idea that the spiritual is non-existent or far away.  Christians need to counter these with our own liturgies that practice the wholeness of creation.  Ones that reinforce the spiritual significance of our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Ones that increase our awareness of the nearness of Christ in us.  Ones that help us to see all life is worship.  Ones that equip us to embrace our purpose to steward creation.

 

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

God had the first word in the worship service.  And he gets the last word.  His last word is a blessing.

The Benediction

We have encountered our active God throughout the worship service and are now released into the world with his blessing.  The benediction reminds us that the Grace we received through the Word and Sacrament, follow us out the door.  The benediction signifies that our whole lives are covered by his Grace.

Sacred and Secular Dualism

The ritual of the benediction can train us into a proper understanding of the relationship between Sunday and Monday.  We need some instruction here because our culture proclaims that Sunday has very little to do with Monday.

Dualism is the idea that all of life can be separated into two categories: the sacred and the secular.  Traditionally, faith and life may have been distinct, but they weren’t separable.  Faith and life were part of each other.  Today, the modern obsession with clear categories assumes a radical separation between the two.   Modern life is filled with these dualities, false dichotomies.  Here are just a few:

    • physical and spiritual,
    • temporal and eternal,
    • natural and supernatural,
    • body and soul,
    • faith and reason,
    • state and church,
    • public and private,
    • science and religion,
    • Sunday and the rest of the week.

The Sacred/Secular dualism profoundly affects how both Christians and non-Christians experience reality.    In many cases, non-Christians find it fairly easy to dismiss half of the equation and live under the illusion that half of reality isn’t even there, or at least it is irrelevant.  Christians maintain at least an intellectual belief in both sides, but many see them separated by a vast abyss.

These 12 questions can begin to help us see the degree to which we, or our individual congregation is unknowingly separating God out from the rest of life.

    1. Do you think that singing worship songs and prayer are more spiritual than eating and sex?
    2. Do you reduce redemption to the saving of souls?
    3. Do you speak of going to heaven when we die?
    4. Do you think that eternal life starts when we die, or sometime later?
    5. Do you believe that missionaries and pastors have a more spiritual calling than plumbers and accountants?
    6. Do you assert that certain parts of the creation are “off limits” to Christians?
    7. Are you more concerned with personal piety than the environment?
    8. Do you assume that faith has very little effect on the work we do?
    9. Do you believing that one’s spare time has nothing to do with what one believes?
    10. Do you thinking that the church is out of touch with “real life”?
    11. Do you use the word singing interchangeably with the word worship?
    12. Do you live as if work is an unpleasant necessity?
Here are 12 questions that can help you determine if you suffering from Christian dualism. 1. Do you think that singing worship songs and prayer are more spiritual than eating and sex?Click To Tweet

 

In Modernism there is a radical separation between the sacred and the secular.  It is often useful to differentiate between the two, to consider them as aspects of a whole, but they are each a whole unto itself.  Our bodies and our souls, our reason and our emotions are all part of a whole person.  Our private lives and our public lives are both parts of a whole life.  Worship in the church of Sunday and worship in the world are a part of each other.  The benediction is a declaration that that the two are inseparable.  In both life is worship and worship is life.  We are depended on God’s Grace as we worship in church, and we are dependent on Gods Grace as we worship in the world.

Worship in the church on Sunday and worship in the world are a part of each other, and it is in the benediction that the two are fused in to an integrated whole.Click To Tweet

 

In the benediction God says, “Go.  Make disciples,  Do the work for which I equipped and called you.”  The benediction blurs the lines between our worship in church and our worship in the world.

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

 

Order of Worship (6): Lord’s Supper

The dialogue of worship continues.

Ordinance or Sacrament?

As an ordinance, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial.  We remember Christ’s death on the cross.  As a sacrament, we commune with the risen Lord and receive from his hand the life he extends to us.  All churches who celebrate Communion do so “in remembrance of what Christ did for us on the cross.  The question is, is that all it is?  Is it just a memorial?

This is where I started thinking about God’s involvement in worship.  If it’s an ordinance, Communion is just a memorial, an act of human remembering.  In this scenario, human beings do all that there is to be done in Communion–they remember.  This seemed to me to be a contradiction because if you argue ordinance it seems silly to proclaim God’s active sovereignty from the pulpit.  How can God be active in our lives, when he’s inactive in Communion.

The essential difference between an ordinance and a sacrament is whether or not God is doing anything in the event.  You already know where I am going with this.  I have been arguing that God is active in our Sunday gatherings, so of course he’d be involved in the supper we’ve named The Lord’s Supper.

God is active in Communion and his first act is to invite us to the table.

Invitation to the Table

It is fitting that the first action belongs to God.  In the establishment of the First Communion, Jesus was very active.   He found the room, gathered his disciples, washed their feet and moderated the sacramental meal.  God does the same for us and his Invitation is an act of Grace.

Communion

God is active in The Holy Supper.  What does he do?  He speaks.  He says, “Take” and then he extends something to us.  What does he offer?  Well, we are not exactly sure, but if we read the symbols, it might have something to do with nourishment and sustenance.  Literal bread and wine are basic foods that nourish our physical bodies.  Spiritually we need sustenance as well.  His body and blood are nourishment for our spiritual life.   Perhaps he is conveying unity; all Christians eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ, and in so doing, we are united in him.  The bread and wine are symbolic, but this term is not understood by those steeped in Modern reasoning.  The communion elements aren’t “just symbols.”  (The allusions present in the sacrament itself ought to be enough to convince us of this.)

In some way we receive Christ and Grace by the Holy Spirit through faith.  What actually happens at the table is a mystery.  Modern secularism doesn’t like mysteries, and neither do modern Christians–we like to have clear explanations for spiritual things.  But we don’t get to have clarity here, and I don’t think we should want it.  A ritual engaging in a spiritual mystery will teach us that reality is comprised of mysteries that we can neither understand nor control.  We simply receive and accept by faith.  This might go a long way to counter the secularizing pressures of living in the Modern world.

In Communion, through the physical elements of bread and wine, Christ signifies our salvation through his sacrifice on the cross.  The really interesting thing here is that we are presented with a convergence of the spiritual and the physical reality.  Modernism wants to make distinct and separate categories, again, so do Modern Christians.  But the two are not as distinct as we naturally conceive it.  That Word became flesh, and yet never ceased to be God.

All of worship, all of life, all of reality is both physical and spiritual–sex is a spiritual communion, Kraft Dinner is morally reprehensible, coffee tastes terrible in Styrofoam, the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning is likely an act of worship, and we ought to fold our hands when we pray, and possible consider kneeling or lying prostrate.

Screwtape, senior tempter (demon if you will) in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters tells us why.

At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Because we struggle with seeing the spiritual reality in our ordinary lives, we find it easy to dismiss it from Communion.

But this is the very reason why we should emphasize divine agency in the Lord’s Supper.  We need to be be trained out of the foolish view that the physical and the spiritual are separate.  We are trained by ritual.  By regularly entering into the mystery of the Eucharist, we again and again experience an incarnational reality.

Because we struggle with seeing the spiritual reality in our ordinary lives, we find it easy to dismiss it from Communion. But this is the very reason why we should emphasize divine agency in the Lord's Supper. Click To Tweet

A Sunday encounter with the mystery of the incarnation in Communion can perhaps be the vehicle by which we begin experience the nearness of the Holy Spirit on Monday.

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

The Liturgy of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer and the Offering

Prayers of Intercession/Pastoral Prayer

In the dialogue of Sunday worship, the people continue to speak in this section. The Pastoral Prayer is a continuation of our response to God’s word.

This prayer is primarily intercessory.   In it, we petition God for the needs within the church, the universal church, and the world.

This was the killer for me as a kid.   It was “the long prayer,” and for some reason, I could not be fortified with a peppermint as I had been for the sermon.  It was interminable because there was a lot of need in our particular church, but this prayer’s scope was global.  It was long but learned a lot about reality from the Pastoral Prayer even when I was very young.

What I learned from the Pastoral Prayer
Seven things I learned from 'Pastoral Prayer.' Or 'the long prayer' as I called it. It was interminable, but its lessons have stuck with me. Click To Tweet
  • We can speak to God about all of our needs.
  • God is big.  My father was the pastor, and he was talking to God whom he addressed as “father.”  He talked to God like he was big.  When I was a kid, my father was big too–so to hear my father speak to God this way was revealing.  He prayed like God could really do something for the missionaries in Africa or the victims of flooding in China.  All my father prayers started, and still do, with praising God for who he is.
  • God is Father.  My father talked to God with familiarity and sincerity as well as respect.  This paradox was not lost on me as a young child.  I learned that God is big, but he is also good.  A heavenly father.
  • God cares.  He cares about this person who had this ailment, and that family who has lost someone.  He cares about the people in the world who didn’t have clean water or food.  He cares about the missionaries who are bringing good news.
  • I learned that he wasn’t just the God of people in my church, and not just the God of Christians, but of everybody.  We prayed for our town and about the leaders of the country, and for the leaders of other countries.  That they would be wise and that they would be obedient.
  • I also learned that God could do something about these things we were praying about.  My father prayed with expectation.  But I also learned that the prayer wasn’t some kind of a magic trick.  The prayer wasn’t valuable for its utility–there was something else going on.  That prayer was, in large part, for the sake of the one who prays.
  • At some point, I figured out that I could send my own small requests to God during the Pastoral Prayer.  My father had opened the conduit, as it were, so I figured I could still fire up some requests alongside his.

There are more things that I learned, but the important thing is that I learned them because they were repeated every week.  They have stuck with me for many decades now, because of the repetition.

My current church always prayers for another local church, and a missionary.  I love this ritual it shapes us.  we come to know, among other things, that the Body of Christ involves other congregations and denominations in this town.  These other churches are not in competition with us but are all trying to achieve the same thing–the learning and spreading of the Good News.

Offertory Prayer and the Offering

We continue in our response to the Word with the offering.

The offertory prayer is a regular reminder that God has blessed us richly.  All that we have comes from him.  He gives the gifts through which we love our neighbours.

Giving is both a sacred duty and a “joy.”

These terms seem contradictory, but they are not–when you fully understand that God has given you everything, and everything you have belongs to God, giving is quite easy.  When you think that what is your’s is your’s, cheerful giving is impossible.

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy. Click To Tweet

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy.  The joy that comes from understanding that all we have belongs to God and are to be used for his purposes.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (6): Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

Order of Worship (4) The Creed

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The dialogue continues.  God contributed most to the conversation in the Proclamation section of the liturgy.  In this section, we do most of the talking as we respond to the Word and the Grace we received from our Father’s hand.

Song or Hymn of Response

The song we sing after the sermon is not just a song.  At least it shouldn’t be.  It should be a song that articulates musically and poetically, the appropriate response to God’s Word and Grace.  Which song we sing depends on the sermon, for the service is a unified whole.

In some churches, a great deal of thought goes into the choice of this song.  The content of the lyrics is a significant determiner.  Some churches just sing one of the ten songs that we’ve been singing for the last few months.  What the song says doesn’t matter as much as the feelings the song generates.

The concern here is the dialogue of worship.  God says something, presumably significant–let’s say today’s sermon was about “Gracious Giving”–and our response is, “Glorious Day.”  It’s nice to have conversations each Christmas with dear Aunt Martha, they are beautiful and relational, but because of their lack of coherence, they don’t really go anywhere.  In this analogy, we are dear Aunt Martha.

The Apostles’ Creed

Although many proclaim it, there is no such thing as a “No Creed But Christ” church.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it.  The problem here is that culture tends to influence the formation of this creed.  Either way, you will be a “creedal” church.  And your creed will be reinforced with ritual.

I suggest that we might as well adopt the traditional creeds of the Christian tradition.  The Apostle’s Creed is the one that reviews the foundational doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

The Apostle’s Creed affirms

  • the Trinity,
  • the historical facts of the gospel,
  • the person and work of the Holy Spirit,
  • the existence of a “holy” universal church,
  • the communion of saints,
  • the forgiveness of sins,
  • the resurrection,
  • and life everlasting.

This creed is not infallible, but it is based on the Bible within a long tradition.  It is old, and in this, there is some merit.  New is not necessarily improved.

Even with the regular recitation of a traditional creed, we are still in danger of ritualizing other non-biblical cultural beliefs.  But without this practice, what is to prevent the church from sliding away from the basic tenets of Christianity without even being aware of having done so?

In the absence of a Creed (or despite one), here are 12 organic creedal statements that some churches may have passively adopted. Click To Tweet

Here’s a partial list of organic creedal statements that rise out of context and a particular interpretation of the Bible.

  1. “New means improved.”
  2. “We experience the Holy Spirit in worship through our feelings.”
  3. “The most important aspect of the Bible is its inerrancy.”
  4. “It is better to be married than to remain single.”
  5. “There are spiritual things and then there are sacred things.”
  6. Sin is doing bad things.”
  7. The worst sins are sexual.”
  8. Christian living is about striving.”
  9. “All people are created equal” 
  10. The worshiper’s experience is important in the Sunday service”
  11. “Worship is singing and singing is worship.”
  12. “Efficiency and practicality are Christian virtues.”

Would you add anything to this list? The comment section awaits.

If you don’t recite a creed, take a long hard look at the implicit creeds that have been ritualized in your church.   This is a good practice for every church, even those who regularly recite a traditional creed.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it. Either way, you will be a 'creedal' church.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

Order of Worship (3): Proclamation

If the liturgy is a dialogue between God and his people, in the Proclamation section God does most of the talking.

God speaks to us primarily through his word–the Bible.  The sermon is an encounter with, not just the Bible, but God as revealed in its pages. What we find in the Bible is a collection of ancient texts that were written for us, but not to us.  The Bible is a story.  That’s not all it is, but it helps us to understand how to approach it.  It is not our story, but it is the story in which we live, not just Christians, but all of humanity.  It is a story centered on Jesus Christ–the Word as spoken of by John in the first verses of his gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Prayer for Illumination

Rituals are not empty, they are full in the sense that they train us on the deepest level.  What sort of training is provided by the weekly repetition of the prayer of illumination?  It trains us how to approach the Bible.  This prayer is an admission that we need God’s help, to understand what we find in scripture, an admission that we can’t rely on our own reason and knowledge to understand.  This is an acknowledgment that the Bible is a book that must be read with spiritual assistance–the Holy Spirit.

This prayer focuses our attention beyond ourselves as readers, indeed, beyond the text to our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God.  In this prayer, we anticipate the working of his Grace through our encounter with the text.  In a real sense, then, we are preparing for a supernatural event.

The Sunday Prayer of Illumination will change how we approach daily devotions on Monday, for it is a reminder that the words of the Bible are a site of miraculous encounters.

The Sermon

The sermon is, or ought to be, about the Bible.

What is the Bible?

What the Bible isn’t is an encyclopedia, or an instruction manual for life, or a rule book.   It’s hard to resist looking at the Bible in these ways because our cultural default is set to view everything as an object that might have a use.

In a recent Tweet, Tim Keller said, “It is impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols.”  This applies to our culture as well.  And one of our idols is Reason.  Rationalism is the idea that the best, or even only, way to know things is through human reason.  Our confidence in human reason has taken some blows in the last century, but we still stubbornly hold onto our faith in it.   It is so powerful that it has effected how we read and understand the Bible.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is true.  As Westerners, we believe that truth is an object of human Reason.  The Bible, then, becomes nothing more than an object that we study and use as rational subjects. We look for “applications,” instead of implications.   We get too wound up about biblical inerrancy.  But truth is much bigger than fact or useful information.  The Bible becomes something more like an encyclopedia than a story, or a poem, or a painting.   As Western Christians we must resist this limited notion of Truth.

So what is the Bible?

Rather than give a long rational treatise on what the Bible is, let me do what the Bible does and offer a picture of what a sermon, rooted in the Word, can be.

The image is found in Ezekiel:

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lordsays to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army

We are dry and lifeless.  The Word of God, preached by inspired human authors, brings life.  God could himself speak directly to the bones, but he chooses an intermediary–Ezekiel.  He uses the preacher before us.

This image presents the Word, not as an object that we approach as rational subjects, but as active agent.  We are the passive pile of dry bones–we are the object; the Holy Spirit is the subject.  He brings life though the hearing of the Word.  God is active in the sermon.

Do we listen to the sermon to learn about life or to receive it? The former is a happy by-product. The sermon is not simply the knowledgeable reflections of a pastor. The sermon is an act of Grace, and we receive the life that flows from it.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

Order of Worship (2): Confession

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In some churches, there is only an occasional song of confession, but somebody usually includes a confessional element in a prayer at some point, but confession isn’t a very big part of what I call modern, non-liturgical church services.

Confession is important.  It is about sin, and sin is a big thing in Christianity.  We all sin more or less continuously, so we need to repent again and again.  And when we do so honestly and regularly, we get a much better picture of who we are.  And how much we need forgiveness.

In the traditional liturgies of most denominations, we practiced confession weekly, and in this repetition, garnered long term beneficial effects.  These benefits are derived from turning our love toward God, through ritual.  Rituals have the power to shape our identities, and if we are not deliberate, cultural liturgies will shape them instead.

The Law

The liturgical worship service is structured around a dialogue between God and his people.  God calls us and Greets us, we respond with praise.  Then God speaks through his word; we are reminded of God’s expectations for us in the reading of the Law.  This is often the Ten Commandments, but there are many suitable passages, like Micah 6:8.  The point here is that we need to be reminded that God has expectations, and we have failed to live up to them.  We are disobedient and rebellious.

Thus, we need to repent.

Call to Confession

We are called to confession.  We have to be called because we don’t really want to do it.  True confession is hard because we have to look at who we really are.   An honest look at oneself does not happen easily.  We might need some practice–maybe even a thousand cracks at it.  But if you deliberately practice confession in church every week, it will begin to be a daily rhythm, and you’ll be good at it in less than 20 years.

The call to confession reminds us that what’s wrong with the world is not out there somewhere but within me.  I need a reminder, especially if I look at social media occasionally.  The sins of others are so obvious on Twitter.  The call to confession repeated weekly can begin to remind me that I am the problem with the world.

Until we realize that our biggest problem in life is not out there, but in us, we haven’t really come to a Christian understanding of reality.  The repetition of ritual helps us to accept this reality in ways far deeper than intellectual consent.  This is the power of ritual.

Prayer of Confession

If confession is just a mention in a prayer by the worship leader, then I might quickly confess the first sin that comes to mind.  I can usually remember one.  But, this is inadequate.  I have committed a lot more sins than this one.  Then there are the sins of omission.  Then there are the sins that I would have committed in different circumstances.  All of these damn me.

Our appreciation of God's Grace is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it. Click To Tweet

Our appreciation of God’s Grace in Redemption is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it.  The only way for us to understand our need for God’s salvation is to meditate on our sin, and then confess it.

This past summer I was in England and I worshiped in Anglican churches.  Praying in unison each week a prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer is a moving experience when you attend to the words.  Here’s an example:

Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.

We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God.

Amen.

Ritual Confession

“But if you confess every week it is no longer moving, or special.”

We overemphasize experience in our culture–in church, we have a danger of emphasizing religious experience.  Occasional experiences don’t shape us as regular ones do.  The function of the liturgy is not to be new and special, but to shape us into a particular people.  To conform us to reality, if you will.

It’s almost a given that we must avoid “empty ritual.”  But what we must realize is that there is no such thing.  Rituals are full.  We give a child a quarter to drop into the collection plate every week.  We insist a child say the words, “I’m sorry,” even when they clearly don’t mean it.  These are important things to do, for they shape the identity of the child.  The shaping isn’t intellectual–in the head–nor is it a changing of the heart.  In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says that routines and rituals affect us in our gut or bones.

We are shaped into a certain kind of people by a liturgy of confession.

The ritual reminds us of two things--it reminds me that I am no worse than anyone else, and it reminds me that I am no better.Click To Tweet

Then, in the dialogue of worship, God speaks again.

Assurance of Pardon

As difficult as confession is, before we even start the confession, we know what’s coming.  Amazing Grace.  The assurance of pardon.

Human sinfulness is a big deal in Christianity, but God’s pardon and adoption into his family is the other half of the story.  Both should, then, be a significant part of our weekly gathering.

God’s pardon is really good news.  In the Old Testament, regular blood sacrifice established a pattern of purification.  Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.  The sacrifices reinforce the idea that death is the penalty for sin. But it’s clearly an act of Grace that God even allows for a substitute.  Old Testament animals functioned as a substitute death.  The inadequacy of these sacrifices is evidenced by the need for repeated sacrifice.

The death of God himself on our behalf is a once and for all sacrifice for our sake. We do nothing to earn it.  It is a free gift.  We do nothing but open our hands and receive it.

At this point in the liturgy, God gives pardon.  And we receive.  Repeated every week we become persons and a people of Grace.

In the prayer of confession, we come to realize and admit that we are in a hard place.  We cannot save ourselves.  We are unworthy to be anywhere near a holy God.  When we get honest about our sin, we come to an understanding of how much I need Jesus, and then we experience his Grace.

Response of Thanksgiving

We confess, God pardons, and then we express gratitude.

This is to be the pattern of the Christian life.  Like inhaling and exhaling.

But in order for this to become the pattern, it needs to be reinforced.

If we don’t practice it weekly, we won’t ever get the hang of it.  We will spend a lifetime not knowing ourselves, and worse yet, not knowing the extent of God’s Grace.

Occasional confession is a liturgy of omission.  A church that occasionally confesses is not much better than one that never confesses.  The repetition is where the shaping occurs.  The church that has a significant confession element every week will more effectively disciple the people into experiencing a pattern of confession and forgiveness that will alter their lives. The Sunday confession models the prayers we can offer on Monday and beyond.

If your church does not practice regular Confession and Assurance, is it time to consider including it in our weekly worship services?  If it does, allow the power of ritual to turn out love towards God.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (3): The Proclamation

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

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