Category: The Church (Page 1 of 5)

Going Back to Church with “Those” People

Soon, we will be returning to in-person church services.

As is often the case, in my church, there were differences of opinions over the wearing of masks and the safety of vaccines.  There was more disagreement over the appropriate Christian response to the governmental closures of religious gatherings and quite a bit of controversy over the use of our church building as a vaccination site.

Since last March, I have been researching the Covid-19 pandemic.  I’ve read all kinds of articles from various perspectives, and I have read whole books on the subject.  I went to a Liberal Arts university, so I have some ability to understand science and as I digested all this material, I developed opinions that I believe are the right ones–they are grounded in my analytical skills and my expertise in the evaluation of sources; they are built upon my understanding of human nature and culture derived from a lot of experience and more than a little reading; they rest upon the foundation of 40 years of deeply reading and studying the Bible.  And lastly, conversations with experts.

So I am confused, frustrated, and sometimes angered by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the various issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

I can’t believe they could be so dumb and so unfaithful to the general themes of scripture, the teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the instructions of Paul to the early church.

And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people with whom I have disagreed.  One’s whose views I believe are totally wrong.  And we will together be worshiping our Lord and King.   So how is that supposed to work?

what do you do when your dating someone but like someone else

The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C. S. Lewis offers us some help here.     In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape provides advice to a novice tempter, his nephew Wormwood, about how best to lead his human ”patient” to damnation.  “Our Father,” then is Satan, and “the Enemy” is Jesus Christ.  Screwtape’s letters give a pretty clear indication as to how the demons plan to use the disagreements about WWII to weaken the church and thwart any of the purposes that God might have through the turmoil.   These demonic intentions are no different in our current situation and it is clear from Lewis’s book that we will either be agents of heaven or the instruments of hell as we encounter events like Covid-19.  Indeed, we already have been.

I have found in these letters three insights that will make it possible for me to come together in worship next to those with whom I disagree on all the issues around the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Best We Knew

In the fifth letter, Screwtape talks about the Second World War.   Obviously, this was a big deal for the original audience of Lewis’s book; it was a time of tremendous turmoil and uncertainty.  He explains to Wormwood,

But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

As you can see from this excerpt, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, the demons want to exacerbate division by turning my focus on the rightness of my own position and the wrongness of those who disagree with me.

This is exactly what has happened during the pandemic.  We’ve taken opposing opinions about masks and vaccines and church closures and using the church as a vaccination site.   I am right, obviously.  If you can’t see that, you are obviously wrong.  So how can we get along?  Well, we can’t because not only are you wrong, you are ignorant and probably not even really a Christian.  Have you thought this?  It’s exactly what the demons want, and exactly what God does not.

The amazing thing about this passage is that all our passion about masks, or vaccines, or church closures might be completely misplaced.  And God’s OK with that.  As long as we are looking to values and causes higher than the self.  God wants us to look beyond ourselves–to principles that we believe to be important because we believe we are being faithful to his will.

So there is a lot of soul searching required.  How much of my passion is about serving the self?  Be honest, some of it is.  If you think you are 100% focused on the good of the Kingdom, you don’t know yourself very well.

Let’s get back to the point: How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues?  They held their views because they thought they were the right ones.  God doesn’t care very much if they were wrong.  And neither should I.

And be honest, there is a possibility that you were the one who was wrong.  Take comfort in the truth that God likes it that you were trying to be faithful.

not dating

Don’t be Extreme

If you still wonder if you can go back to church with those people, here’s a second insight.  In the seventh letter, Screwtape returns to a subject he refers to in an earlier letter.  Again, in the context of the Second World War, Christians obviously took opposing positions regarding the appropriate Christian response to the war.  Some were in favour of the war and others opposed it.   I’m sure that there was a lot of division within the church, and strong feelings, and broken relationships–and behaviours akin to unfollowing someone on Facebook.  Even without social media, there were arguments about which side was faithful, and which was in league with the forces of hell.

So here’s what the demons are up to.  Screwtape says,

I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. [The current age is] unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame [it].

It’s like Lewis has written these words for today, not just for 80 years ago.  Did you notice what side the devils are on?  Neither!  The side doesn’t matter, they just want the extremes.  Extremes are emotional and unstable, and they create divisions that are difficult to overcome–because of the damage they create; people on the extremes can’t listen, they can only shout.  I watch the exchanges on Twitter.  If you have a Twitter account, you know exactly what I am talking about.  Extreme this, versus extreme that.  They talk as if those with whom they disagree are in league with the devil.  What they don’t understand is the devil isn’t on one side or the other.  The devil is behind the demonizing of others regardless of the side.

The divisions in our culture are getting more and more extreme–liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.  And Covid-19 created new issues with new extremes.  The issues are in the church, but we need to keep the extremes out.  In the States, many politicians and much of the media know better but are using the extremes, both sides, for their own political ends.  This, whether liberal or conservative, whether mask or no mask, is what makes the devils dance with hateful glee.  We can’t expect those in politics and media to live in obedience to the king, but it is expected from the children of God.  By his Spirit, we must stay away from the extremes.

It’s not too difficult to infer that God isn’t very concerned about what side we are on.  He is a lot more interested in you still talking to your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And singing with them, and praying.  And disagreeing with them, and still finishing your coffee and shaking hands when you leave each other.

If God doesn’t really care which side you are on, then neither should I.

Charity and Humility

In the sixteenth letter, the local church is described as being “a unity of place and not of likings.”   It brings together people with whom you might not naturally associate too closely. In the church, different classes, generations, races, and political views come together in unity in a particular place.  This is the kind of unity the Lord desires.  The devils want divisions about “likings”:

The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” . . . .  And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application.

We will always have disagreements.  They had them in the early church and we have them now.  The argument around circumcision was a big deal; it was about fully understanding the extent of Grace.  But not all conflict is as significant. Screwtape calls these “unessentials.”  I think sometimes, when we are in the middle of it all, we can’t tell if we are dealing with a serious issue or an unessential liking.  A good rule of thumb is that the closer it gets to Christ, the more essential it is.

The Corinthian church had a contentious issue to deal with.  The issue was about eating meat that has been associated with idol worship.  Most of the meat available in the Corinthian marketplace and at public social gatherings was associated with idol worship.  You can imagine that some Christian thought it was was a sin to eat this meat and that Christians must, then, eat only vegetables.  Others argued that since the Greek gods didn’t exist, the meat was fine.  You can imagine the same passions from both sides of the issue as we have about masks and vaccines and defying government closures and using the church as a vaccination site.

So what does Paul say? Well, he says, go ahead and eat the meat.  But then he says that love is more important than anything else, so consider how eating meat will affect others and refrain from any action that will cause others to stumble.

I’m not sure which side is supposed to move when it comes to the Covid 19 issues.  We have to determine who might be stumbling.  I won’t be stumbling.  That means I’m the one that is supposed to concede.  Crap!

Hell wants us to focus on being right and heaven wants us to focus on loving each other.  When we thwart the plans of the demons, the church becomes “a positive hotbed for charity and humility.”  Whatever side we are on, we’ve got to get out of the “fight because you are right” mindset and embrace an attitude of love.

There are a lot more issues pulling against Church unity today.  It’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic.  Most of the issues have nothing to do with orthodox doctrines about Jesus Christ. I wonder if we can’t take these three insights into all the big issue conflicts we find ourselves in.

  1. Believe in your position, but remember that God is more interested in motives than rightness.
  2. Don’t be extreme, except in your devotion to Him.
  3. If your causing your brother to stumble, his position is the one we are going with.

These are the three insights that I will be trying to remember as we head back into in-person corporate worship because Christ prayed for unity above all things.  These are the very circumstances in which he prays it.  Who am I to place my desire to be right (even though I am…stop it! Just stop it!) above the prayers of the King?

Why Pastors Must Read Fiction

Trixieliko / Pixabay

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.  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, stories which have 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 tools one needs to read the Bible are the same tools one develops when one reads good fiction.

The tools one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same tools 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 frogs, and keeps dozens in his lab, but hasn’t patiently them in the pond.  He knows so much, but his understanding of frogs is illuminated by a fluorescent light and contained within the glass walls of an aquarium.

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, and we will come to understand 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”?

Myriams-Fotos / Pixabay

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

kareni / Pixabay

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

pixagod / Pixabay

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

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