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A Christian Watching After Life by Ricky Gervais

I love Ricky Gervais.  I suppose this has a lot to do with The Office–the original one.  That show was genius.  Ricky Gervais is in my top ten “If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead” list.  One of the things want to talk with him about is about faith and religion.

Gervais is a vocal agonistic atheist.  In his movies, interviews and stand-up routines he often sets up and destroys Christian strawmen.  So I have some understanding as to why he’s not Christian, but less of an idea as to how his atheism works for him and provide a moral foundation and purpose to his life.

His new Netflix series, After Life, which he wrote and directed, seems to give some explanation about the meaning of life for Ricky Gervais.

I liked After Life.  I loved some parts, but there were other bits that fell short.

SPOILER ALERT

Meaninglessness is a Superpower

The main character, Tony, is devastated by the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) of 25 years to cancer.

“It broke me,” he says. “I just don’t see any point in living.”

The first five of the six-episode series show us that Tony isn’t dealing very well with the loss.

His nice apartment is a total mess and he’s eating cold curry straight out of the can.

He’s nasty to his co-workers; he heaps abuse on one because she’s boring another because he’s developing “neck fat.”  He abuses shop keepers and engages in a pointless power struggle with his postman.  Perhaps the pinnacle of his horribleness is when he threatens to bludgeon a 10-year-old with a hammer.

Matt (Tom Basden), his  boss and brother-in-law, tells him, “You can’t just go around being rude to people!”  Tony answers, “You can, though, that’s the beauty of it.”  Tony explains. “It’s like a superpower.”  Not caring if you live or die, gives him the power to say and do whatever he wants.  This power is most often expressed by treating people like they are garbage.

Tony tells Matt, that because he, Matt, is a nice guy he, Tony,  can do whatever he wants.  He, Matt, won’t really do anything.  He concludes:

“There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and having integrity.  It’s a disadvantage, if anything.”

Gervais seems to be acknowledging this moral cynicism as an unhealthy possibility in atheism.  It doesn’t survive the series, but is there anything in atheism that will deter it?  One of my questions over coffee.

Atheist Apologetics

Gervais is abundantly clear that Christianity is not an option.  He gives Tony the occasional platform from which to present his atheist apologetic when challenged by the one explicitly Christian character in the show, Kath.

Kath is no match for Tony.  He explains that he simply believes in one fewer God that she does.  She’s not able to offer a meaningful challenge to Tony’s point (as I do here).  Strawman Christianity is no match for Gervais’ atheism.

When Kath, asks, “If your an atheist, and you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, how come you don’t go around raping and murdering as much as you want?” Tony’s answer is, “I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want, which is not at all.”  This is a clever answer; it show’s Tony’s intellectual superiority over Kath who incorrectly thinks that Christian morality is grounded in a fear of hell.  But he doesn’t really give an adequate answer to Kath’s question.  What if you are the kind of person who likes to rape and murder?  What’s to stop you if your an atheist?  Another one of my questions over coffee.

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Without Lisa, life is meaningless for Tony.

Tony has stepped into the book of Ecclesiastes.

He tries professional help. There are some really funny bits here.  He tries drugs.  I think he knew that would be a dead end.  There is no meaning in his work.  Tony writes for a small town newspaper, The Tambury Gazette–local stuff about nothing: “Local baby looks exactly like Adolf Hitler.”  He could have advanced over his career, but he never wanted to: life was worth living because of Lisa.

His dog?  There’s something here.  Each time he takes a step toward the cliff of suicide, the dog pulls him back.  The dog is the first of several honest and open relationships in the show.

Ricky Gervais and the Meaning of Life

“Once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical.”

–Tony

Lisa’s grave is situated next to Stan’s.  Tony has several conversations with Stan’s widow, Anne (Penelope Wilton) who helps him process his loss and helps him to move forward.

In episode 4, she explains to him that he’s completely self-centred, even in his grief.  She tells him,  “We’re not just here for us. We’re here for others.”  Tony thinks she’s going to get all Christian on him and tells her so, but she assures him that the whole God thing is “a load of rubbish.”

“All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done.”

She makes the point that if you love someone you delight in their happiness, even if it’s not yours.

For Gervais, loving and caring for others seem to be central to the meaning of life.  Later, Tony admits that he doesn’t have a superpower because “You can’t not care about the things you actually care about.  You can’t fool yourself.”

“Good people do things for other people. That’s it.  That’s the end.”

–The Widow

So, a few more questions for our coffee”

What about the bad people?

It seems that Gervais has a pretty high regard for people in that there are very few bad people in the show.  Quite a few stupid people, but only the only bad people I saw were muggers.

I’d argue that I’m a bad person.  I fail to live up to the standard for goodness to which I hold others–especially when driving.  I don’t know how I would have behaved if I were in, say the Warsaw Ghetto.  So I think we’re all bad.

But even if Gervais is right, that there are only a few bad apples.  What do we do about them?  They do bad things to good people and often get away with it.  What is their end?  They get away with it until they die and then end up like everyone else.

Who’s to judge?

Tony gives a partial answer.   He commits to continue “punishing the world, but I’m gonna punish the people that deserve it.  I’m  gonna use my superpower for good.”

So bad people will get what they deserve at the hands of the good people.

Who decides who is good and who is bad?  Apparently, this all happens on an individual level.  We each get to decide for ourselves who is bad and then dole out punishment accordingly.

Yeah, what could go wrong?

After Life: Like a Bad Christian Movie

One of my recurring nightmares is to be with a bunch of new Christian friends and the conversation shifts to movies, and someone starts talking about God is Not Dead or some such, even suggesting we all watch it together for our mutual encouragement and growth.  I glance over at my wife who knows what’s coming and she’s already shaking her head.  She knows I won’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that we will never see these people again.

In many ways, Ricky Gervais' After Life is like a bad Christian movie with swearing.Click To Tweet

At the climax of many bad Christian movies, one character tells another character that they are a sinner and need Jesus. There is, of course, a conversion followed by a happy ending.  All the Christians leave the theatre with a warm, fuzzy feeling in their hearts.  The hope is that all the non-Christians in the audience feel convicted of their sin and have taken a significant step toward their eventual conversion.  That’s the idea.  In reality, the movie is just bad because it doesn’t tell a story, it preaches a sermon and it reinforces ideas that are so simplistic, they are almost lies.

After Life is the atheist version of a bad Christian movie.  The protagonist is intellectually superior to everyone else. Those with opposite religious beliefs are particularly dumb and offer up slow lobs for the protagonist to bash over the fence.

Like a bad Christian movie it’s got a preachy bit.  The sermon is in episode 6, delivered to Tony’s co-workers.

As with bad Christian movies, the conclusion is convincing only to those who already agree with it.

Be nice to the nice?

Gervais’ answer to grief in a godless universe is a little too simple, and disappointingly limited.

I was waiting for something a little more poignant.

In its most optimistic, Gervais' approach will result in a temporary, slightly better life for a few people. Perhaps this is reality and theists are just fooling themselves. But perhaps Gervais is settling for too little. Click To Tweet

Over the six episodes, Tony finds meaning in loving and caring relationships. First, it’s Brandy the dog and his nephew George.  Lenny, the drug dealer, and Roxy, the sex care worker are added to his sphere.  Anne becomes particularly important to him.  He eventually adds his father who suffers from dementia, his co-workers and even the postman.  The possibility of a new romantic relationship with his father’s nurse rounds out Tony’s new larger collection of meaningful relationships.

It’s interesting that, at the end of it all, Tony finds meaning in relationships.  Relationships are foundational to Christianity as well.  Christianity is a little broader though–it goes beyond Gervais’ “love good people” all the way to “love your enemies.”

Gervais believes there is no evidence for God.

I know that I’m not going to convince him, but the beauty in the world, especially that which he finds in Brandy the dog and “good people” might be an indication that a something more exists–some transcendent good.

If that good happens to be a God who is so loving that he gives up his life to show us how to love others, and lives within us, then it’s possible for us to do the impossible–to love more than just good people, but also to love our enemies.

“Be nice to the nice?”  can make a difference in people’s lives.  Ricky Gervais has that right, love and caring do counter suffering, but individual contributions, even if many, won’t do much to alleviate the suffering in this world.  I can’t even adequately deal with the suffering that I personally cause in the lives of the people I love.  We need a far greater act of love.  This is where Gervais doesn’t go far enough.  For cosmic redemption, we need a cosmic act of love.

Ricky, I’m going to be in London this summer if you’d like to have coffee.  And if you want, we can upgrade to a pint.  Let me know.

Dystopian Literature and Film: A Christian Perspective

Trixieliko / Pixabay

There has been an increase in the popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in the number of books targeting young adults. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are but a few examples.

Because so many of my students have read these books, I often teach a unit on dystopian literature and film.  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Some students also read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Still others read FEED by M. T. Anderson.  We analyze portions of films like Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Students are often inspired to head to our library and check out other books in this genre, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Dystopian Literature in a Christian School

I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit like this, but in a Christian school, a particular kind of Christian school, it is taught a little differently.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and being human.  The central purpose of each novel/film is to critique the subversion of human value to some other value–some other aspect of creation.

Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre--it uncovers and condemns idolatry.Click To Tweet

This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Human beings have value because they are created in the image of God.  Humanity has been placed at the top of creation and given the responsibility to take care of it.  When God is replaced by some good thing he created, humanity too is replaced from its position above all that was created.  Idol worship always degrades humanity.  Thus, this unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and value, and idolatry.

The creators of dystopian literature and film are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing humanity to our cultural idols:

  • the idols of power (1984)
  • pleasure (Logan’s Run and Brave New World)
  • technology (Bladerunner and Feed),
  • genetic perfection (Gattaca),
  • a longer life (The Island), etc.

The presence and popularity of these narratives are encouraging.  They indicate that there still is a large segment of our society that accepts the premise of human value.

I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular--it will mean that we've stepped off the edge.Click To Tweet

Reading Difficult Material

Hans / Pixabay

A few years ago I read a translation of Paul Ricoeur’s book, Oneself as Another.  This was some hard reading; I felt like I didn’t understand a word.  I needed to understand this book so I read and re-read it, word by word, paragraph by paragraph.  It worked.  I eventually used two of the chapters in a paper I wrote about zombies.  What follows are two entries I included in the annotated bibliography for this paper.

What is remarkable about these entries is that, reading them now, I have no idea what they mean, but at the time I understood them so well that I nuanced one of my professors reading of them.

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “Personal Identity and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Narrative mediates between the descriptive viewpoint of action and the prescriptive viewpoint of ethics. Idem-identity or sameness is associated with the question, “What am I?”  It can be understood as numerical identity: different occurrences—events—of the same; qualitative identity is extreme resemblance; and the third component of sameness is uninterrupted continuity across change which becomes permanence in time. Ipse-identity is linked to the question, “Who am I?” It includes both character and “keeping one’s word” or (self-constancy), which also becomes permanence in time as opposed to permanence of the same. Character is essential to both, but in idem-identity it is descriptive (structural), and in ipse-identity it is emblematic. Narrative mediates between character, where idem and ipse-identity overlap, and the maintenance of self, where they can diverge. Ricoeur holds in opposition self-constancy (keeping one’s word) and character, and by doing so he highlights the ethical dimension of self-hood.

 

Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. “The Self and Narrative Identity.” Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The identity of character is constructed by emplotment. Between action and character we find a conflict: the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance. The act of configuration mediates between the two. Within character we see the same conflict: a “dialectic of discordant concordance.” Within narrative, narrative identity is challenged with the imaginative variations that narrative engenders. When a character is confronted with these variations we find an interplay between self-hood as sameness and the pure self-hood of self-constancy—narrative mediates between the two in that it connects these opposite poles in the narrative circle.

Don't give up on reading something, just because it's hard. You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare. You can get to the point of enjoying the classic novels. Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work.Click To Tweet

For my students, let this be an encouragement to you.  Don’t give up on reading something, just because it’s hard.  You can understand difficult academic texts, and Shakespeare.  You can get to the point of enjoying the Brontes and their contemporaries.  Like anything else worthwhile, it will take work–grit.

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

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

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

pixagod / Pixabay

When I was a kid, Sunday church services were interminable.  I thought that it might be a lot easier to endure if I had some idea as to where we were in the service.  So I asked my dad, the pastor, if he could write out the service elements, in order, onto a piece of paper so that I could track along.  I reasoned that the long bits, like the congregational prayer and sermon, might be easier to suffer if I knew where we were in relation to the end.

Being the child of the pastor, I thought I had privileged access to this information. He chuckled and showed me last week’s bulletin.  There it was–The Order of Worship–a list of all the elements in the worship service.  It had been there all along, for just anyone to follow.  So every Sunday, I followed along and found that the church became less arduous when I knew where we were.

I discovered something else–every service followed the same pattern.  The order of worship wasn’t this week’s order.  It was every week’s order.  Eventually, I didn’t need to look at the bulletin.  I always knew where we were and the pattern became a comfort.

The Pattern of Worship

For a long, long time, all Christian church services were liturgical.  They followed a regular and predictable pattern.  Even after the huge disruption of the Reformation, services were still governed by a liturgy regardless of denomination.

I am only speaking from my own experience, but I began noticing some congregations were abandoning formal liturgies in the late 80s.  I started seeing church signs announcing “Liturgical Services” at a different time from the “Regular Service.” Now we have lots of these modern, non-liturgical churches.

These have a very simple order of worship.  If they did publish one, it would look something like this.

Songs

Sermon

Songs

I’m being a little facetious because there are a few prayers and an offering, but these events have been shortened and are now rather streamline.  It should be noted that the songs will sometimes connect to elements of the old liturgy they’ve supplanted–songs of praise certainly, sometimes confession or Thanksgiving or even a re-worked apostles’ creed–but when we rely on songs to carry these liturgical elements, they are no longer weekly occurrences and this is significant.

I suppose we’ve simplified things so as to avoid confusing visitors to our Sunday service.  After all, many of our neighbors are no longer familiar with church.  This may be reason enough to keep the Order of Worship simple.

But perhaps we’ve lost something.

An Active God

What does God do during the church service?

In the modern, non-liturgical churches it is easy to get the idea that God doesn’t do very much.  At least little is implied about his actions.  During the songs, he might be sitting there listening and smiling.  And what does God do during the sermon?  He is of course speaking, but do we frame the sermon in such a way as to leave the congregants no doubt that it is not just the preacher who is speaking?  Are the faithful are allowed to think God is listening indifferently–after all, he knows it all already.  How many people would say that His attention is drawn to another church somewhere else in the world that happens to be singing at the time because God likes the singing part the best?

In modern, non-liturgical churches, it’s easy to think that the people are the main or only actors in the Sunday service.   We arrive, we sing, we pray, we listen, we eat and drink and then we leave.  (There is another scenario, which is a concern for worship leaders, were only the worship band is active, and the rest passively consume, but this is a topic for another day.)

God merely receives human worship.

Passivity is not a characteristic of God as presented in the Bible.  The passivity we attribute to him is a product of secularization.  In the West, we have created artificial categories between physical things and spiritual things and then we marginalize the spiritual things.  The Western church is not immune to secularism.  Lot’s of people still believe that God is there, but they aren’t really sure what he does.   It seems like he’s a long way off, no doubt hearing our prayers, but is he really acting on them?  Christians influenced by Modernism experience a narrowing and weakening the presence and power of transcendent things in the immanent frame.

By stepping away from traditional liturgies, we’ve not eliminated liturgies, we’ve just adopted new ones.  If we haven’t been deliberate, we’ve simply replaced tratitional liturgies with secular ones.  Thus promoting and perpetuating secular ideas through corporate worship.

Some churches are promoting secular ideas through corporate worship because they've replaced traditional liturgies with secular ones. In secularized Christian worship, God is passive. Agency lies primarily with people.Click To Tweet

Habits and Rituals

Habits, rituals, and liturgies are important.  They shape how we think and they shape who we are.  We can ritualize God’s passivity and the weekly repetition will eventually shape how we think, and even who we are.  God’s passivity won’t just stay in church, we will eventually come to think of God as passive in our lives and in the world as well.

The converse is also true.  If we shape our worship service around God’s active interaction with his people, this idea will leak into Monday and beyond.

Traditional liturgies shape worship as an active dialogue between God and his people–(all his people, not just the ones with instruments.)

The Call to Worship and God’s Greeting

The first words the worshipers hear in the service are important.   At one service, the first words I heard were,

“I want to thank you all for coming to church this morning.”

Seriously?

Who greets us?  This greeting is all about the actions of the worshipers.   We have decided to come to church this morning.  Apparently with some inconvenience, for we have earned gratitude from somewhere.  Who owes us this gratitude?  The worship leader?  God?  Does God owe us something because we chose to come to church instead of watching the first half of the football game?

The Call to Worship suggests that someone is calling.  It is God himself who draws us to church.  He gets the first word.  We are not there because we chose to be there; we are not there because our parents made us come; we are not there because we are trying to impress that cute girl with our religious zeal; we are not there because this is what we always do on Sundays.  We are there because God has drawn us there.

Our bodies are there, but where are our hearts and minds?  The call to worship marks a turning toward worship, toward the throne of heaven, toward God.  The preceding week was full of joys and challenges involving relationships, obligations, worries, and diversions.  In the call to worship we are turned from ourselves, toward God.

And The Greeting is his.

What kind of people do we become if we are regularly thanked for deciding to come to church?  What kind of people do we become if we repeat, week after week, God’s active calling to corporate worship?

Acts of Praise

Next comes an act of praise.  Our action follows God’s action.

Importantly, this act of praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing nor is it caused by the first cords of music.  Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.

Praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing. Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.Click To Tweet

This may not be automatic for everyone.  But it’s what the liturgy teaches through repetition.  With ritual repetition, this will eventually come to be our natural response.

To make the Sunday worship service just a bunch of human activity, well, that’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit without Roger Rabbit.  Our Sunday worship needs to show God’s activity because he is active.  If we can’t see what he does in Church, how can we see him as active in our lives, let alone the world?

God doesn’t just sit up in heaven waiting for Sunday when some people will sing songs at him.  A weekly reminder that God calls us to worship will begin to change how we view ourselves, the world and the God who sustains it all.

Other posts in this series:

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

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

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