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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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Ashes-to-Go For One: Rethinking Liturgical Individualism

She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship.  “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m.  It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.

It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter.  I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.

Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her.  She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.

Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.”  Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them.  An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go.  My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.

I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.

I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night.  She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake.  I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services.  She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.

Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually.  Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.

Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well.  In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival.  This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.

The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake.  Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite.  Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community.  That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing.  Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central.  It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.

I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience.  I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.

Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.

What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!

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The 1st Business of the Church After the Inauguration

Oliver O’Donovan

How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:

  • elated
  • terrified
  • indifferent
  • angry

It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world.  The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?

A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:

Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning.  The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age.  This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship.  This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.

For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist.  It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.

I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.”  I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above.  A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same.  We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.

In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:

Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts

Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy.  The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do.  In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts.  Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is the truth on which our hope is based.  Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state.  If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater.   This is the confession on which our very lives are staked.  This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.

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The ABC’s of Christmas: A Worship Service for Christmas & Christmastide

by Drew 7 Comments

In searching for an alternative worship service for Christmas day, someone pointed me to this resource over at the Young Clergy Women Project.  This met my needs, since I wanted a service that was a little fun, a bit different, and most of all, substantially different from the Christmas Eve services the night before.  (In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday.)  I adapted the content of the YCW service to make it appropriate for a day service rather than an evening, and added communion and some other elements to make it a bit more substantive.  I share it now in case anyone else is looking for a Christmas service for either Christmas eve, day, or Christmastide.  I used this in conjunction with images for each letter, but it would not require those visuals.  This could also be adapted for a fun family devotional or a program would children.  I used a bulletin that gave a streamlined outline of this so folks could follow along, except where there was a congregational response or a reading I wanted to highlight.  This is what I an the other worship leaders will read, in full  Here goes!

The ABCs of Christmas

Welcome

Opening Prayer 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

A is for an angel, Gabriel, who began the story with a greeting to Jesus’ mother, Mary:

“Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28)

Sing “Angels from the Realms of Glory”

is for Bethlehem, where our story takes place. People traveled from everywhere to arrive in the city; it was a very busy place.

C is for a census (that’s a counting of all the people) the reason so many people filled the city of Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-3 says, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.  This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.  Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.” 

D is for David, Jesus’ ancestor, the greatest King of Israel. Bethlehem was called “the city of David.” Gabriel promised Mary that her son Jesus would inherit King David’s throne: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:31-33)

E is for exhausted, that’s how everyone felt when they arrived – tired from all the traveling!

F is for family: Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus, who was born that night in Bethlehem. Let’s say a prayer for families:

O God, look with compassion on families everywhere. Where they are divided, bring them together. Where they are united, strengthen their bonds. Where they are wounded, lead them towards forgiveness and healing. We pray for families of all sizes and types, and for loved ones who bless our lives, whether they have come to us by blood or by choice. Inspire us through the faithfulness and wisdom of the Holy Family, and make every home a place where Jesus is adored. Amen.

Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem

G is for the Good News about to be shared with all the earth. This is what was said in Luke 2:8-16,
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

H is for herds, all those animals that were present in the stable, and the flocks of sheep in the field with the shepherds when they heard the good news.

I is for Immanuel, the name that the prophet Isaiah gave to Jesus in 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel means, “God with us.”

Carol: Emmanuel, Emmanuel

J is for joy – the excitement and happiness that Jesus brings to us, the joy that we relive today.

K is for kindness, shown by the innkeeper that night, allowing a tired family to stay in the stable when there was no room in the inn.

L is for the love we share with one another all through the year and especially at Christmas.

M is for the manger, it is usually used to hold food for animals, but this time it held the baby because he had no crib.

Carol: Away in a Manger

N is for Noel, another word for Christmas. It also another word for a Christmas carol. One of the most popular carols this time of year reminds us of the angels’ song when Jesus was born, the very first Noel.

Let’s sing the first verse of The First Noel together.

O is for offering, when we give back to God some of what God has given us, out of love. The Wise Men brought valuable gifts for the baby Jesus, and just like them, we are going to share our gifts with Jesus.

Sharing Our Gifts (Offertory song)

P is for prayer and praise and pondering, all different ways people reacted the amazing thing that happened. We pray and praise and ponder together:

Prayers of the People

Q is for quiet, the deep peace that Christmas brings – knowing that God is with us.

is for rejoicing! (Sermon follows.)

S is for one special star that shone bright in the night showing the Magi the way to Jesus. And when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy and worshipped him.

Carol: Joy to the World

T is for thanksgiving, which is what Eucharist means. This is another word for The Lord’s Supper, when we give thanks for all that God has done and enjoy a meal prepared by Christ. Turn to page 15 and let us celebrate Christ together once more.

is for unity, all different people brought together today to celebrate God’s love! Let’s pray:

God, thank you for meeting us once together as gather around your table on this holy day. Thank you that Christmas is a celebration that unites Christians around the world. Take away our divisions, that we can show the world Christ’s love as one church, united by the Holy Spirit. Thank you for this opportunity to remember that Christmas is about more than parties and presents. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.

V is for vulnerable; Jesus came to us as an infant, and like other children he had to be cared for, protected–that’s our job. Just like the Holy Family that searched for shelter, there are beloved people and families in our community that God wants us to welcome and to love and serve. All throughout the Bible we see God’s love for the vulnerable, but we especially see it at Christmas, when God became a vulnerable infant out of His great love for us.

W is for wonder– our amazement at the beauty of how much God loves us, and how much God loves the whole world. Just like the Magi, we are lost in wonder at this great miracle.

Carol: We Three Kings (vv. 1, 2, 5)

X is for Xmas! We don’t shy away from this abbreviation because the x is actually the symbol for Christ – it is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. So when we sign something “Merry Xmas,” we are actually saying Christmas!

Y is for “yule tide carols” – let’s sing Deck the Halls together!

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

is for Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who sang this beautiful song when he met the infant Jesus, in Luke 1:68-79 (CEB):

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, 
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted  that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”

Zechariah’s song reminds why Christmas is good news for the whole world. Let’s leave this place and live this good news and tell others! Let’s close our worship together by singing Go, “Tell it on the Mountain.”
Closing Carol: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Benediction

 

I’d welcome your thoughts on how to improve this, or, if you use it, what worked and what didn’t work. Feel free to edit and adapt this for your own use.  Merry Christmas!

-Drew

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Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

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The Only Purpose for Worship

by Drew 2 Comments

Why do we worship? What is worship about?reaching out without dumbing down

The answer is simple: God.

In the crucial fifth chapter of her classic Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn argues that God is both the subject AND object of worship.  In other words, worship is both something that God accomplishes (the Word proclaimed in Scripture and in the sacraments is only possible because God acts) and something that is about God.  To put it more succinctly: God alone is the purpose of worship.  Dawn cites C. Welton Gaddy to this point:

A constant temptation toward utilitarianism has to be rejected. To use Christian worship for any purpose other than the glorification of God is to abuse it. God expects a church to meet for divine worship without ulterior motives. Thus, worship is not convened so that church budgets can be pledged, volunteers for ministry enlisted, programs promoted, attendance goals met, or personal problems solved. Authentic worship takes place only in order to honor God. People gather to worship God in order to give everything to God.

Centuries ago, Augustine noted that only God can be enjoyed but not used.

Good worship is true to this teaching: it seeks to enjoy God, not reduce God to our own purposes.

Today we see worship reduced to political rallies, self-help seminars, rock concerts, TED talks, artistic expression, and theological lectures.  All of these are a reduction of the great gift of worship God has given us.

Dawn notes elsewhere that if we focused on this piece, many of the artificial questions about “style” would melt away.  No matter the genus of worship, the purpose remains unchanged.  To employ sacramental terminology, the accidents (visible, outward attributes) may change, but the substance (the inward, true nature) remains the same.

Worship is by and for God. Full stop. Anything else – regardless of how “useful” it may be – is abuse.

At the next worship service (or “experience” as some now use) you attend, pay attention. How much of it is actually about God? Who or what is being glorified?

Let us settle for nothing less than worship that is by and for God.

 

Source: C. Welton Gaddy, quoted in Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, 82.

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The Only Free Person: Jesus

Only truly free person who has have lived is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.water and spirit

In the 21st century West, we tend to think of freedom negatively as freedom from: from constraint, morality, obligation, limitation.  Our icons are lone rangers like Rambo and the Marlboro Man.  One person against the world, without care, without accountability to anything outside (much less above) the self.  This is freedom as it is commonly spoken of today.  If you don’t believe it, ask 6 out of 10 millennials what their relationship status is or what they think about having children.

Jesus offers a different model of freedom altogether.

Jesus was free because he was obedient.  His liberty was based not in freedom from all outside constraint, but because his life was forfeit to the Father.  His was freedom for: for the Father, for his mission to Israel and the Gentiles, for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, argues that the one who bows is the only one who is free:

And how truly noble, truly human and genuinely free are those who still know what it means to bow before the High and the Holy, the True and the Beautiful, who know what reverence and respect are; who know that bowing down before God is the true condition of freedom and dignity. Indeed Christ is the one truly free man, because He was obedient to His Father to the end and did nothing but the Father’s will. To join the Church alway has meant to enter into Christ’s obedience and to find it the truly divine freedom of man. (Of Water and the Spirit, 34)

To be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, is to participate in “Christ’s obedience” and discover that true freedom is to incandescent with God’s grace. “He must increase, and I must decrease” is not a figure of speech, it is the via salutis (way of salvation). (John 3:30)

The radical call of the gospel is that any other freedom is merely shadow and illusion.  In bowing before our Creator, we discover the only freedom that is not self-negating, because we are imitating the one truly free person.

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Lent: A Journey Towards Reality

by Drew 0 Comments
Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Doman courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Domain courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Let’s begin with two generals and a monk. 

The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.

Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”

For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.

Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.

This is a very countercultural act.

We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.

We see this in our language, too.  Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it.  We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.

For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.

There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God.  The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.

Ash-Wednesday-crossWe cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God.  We are not immortal.  We do not hold life and death in our hands.

Thankfully, we know the One who does.

The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death.  We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.

And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.

Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood.  Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose.  Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.

Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:

We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander

or

we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.

This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.

Let’s close with a prayer:

God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.

-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)

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The Priority of Worship

by Drew 2 Comments
Catholic_monks_in_Jerusalem_2006

Franciscan monks process in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Abraham Sobkowski via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do followers of Jesus make worship a priority?  The answer is actually not so simple as one might imagine.

Is it a nice addendum, a window dressing to our private devotions and Bible study?  Is corporate worship an aesthetic experience tacked on to the “real” discipleship of service and witness?  Is our praise and preaching, our confession and communion really just a nice – but ultimately optional – show?

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick takes on this line of thought, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, in a post which I would commend to your reading.  He notes,

Worship is reduced to preparation for the “real” Christian life, which is about Christian character, helping people, etc. Thus, worship is where we sort of plug back into the charging station so that we can go out and do the “real” Christian stuff.

How often do we talk about worship in just this way – as a shot of espresso to give a jolt to our “real” life of service and work – and not as a priority of Christian faith?  We talk about worship “feeding” us.  We drive home from worship reflecting on the day’s sermon as if we are judging an episode of Big Bang Theory or Scandal: “That one didn’t really do it for me” or “Wow! Today was a good one.”

Moreover, how many Christians treat worship attendance as something that is only important when there are no other options?  Studies show that while the numbers of those claiming Christian faith are relatively stable, worship attendance continues to decline in frequency even among church members.  (Carey Nieuwhof outlines some reasons for this here.)  For even serious disciples, worship seems to be sliding down the scale of importance.rohr quote

Sometimes we denigrate worship out of a kind of inverted piety.  For instance, I’ve seen the Richard Rohr quote to the right making the rounds on social media of late.  Leave aside that all of these three points are false dichotomies.  The first line actively discourages worshipping Jesus in favor of “following him on his same path.”  This is precisely the kind of move Fr. Damick notes: a supposed priority of witness, of Christian action, over worship.

The problem with this is that gathering to worship is a significant act of worship itself.  The word “worship” comes from “worth-ship,” that to which we ascribe worth.  By gathering to worship, we show our neighbors, our children, our friends that God has worth.  As I outlined as part of a larger argument about online communion, Christians have noted for centuries that simply gathering for worship is itself a crucial act of worship.  Fr. Damick strikes a similar chord:

So the most significant witness a Christian can offer is actually his worship, because it is that worship which is the height and purpose of the Christian life. How he treats others (and all other forms of non-worship activities) is important, but it is important because it points people toward worship.

Christianity is not reducible to activism. Worship doesn’t support witness. Witness supports worship.

Quite simply, worship is the incomparable priority for the people of God.  The gathered community of praise and thanksgiving is not an option or an addendum; our purpose in corporate observance is not merely to an “experience” of enjoyment or fellowship or a jolt to our private spiritual journey.  We worship in this life to prepare for unceasing praise which will shape our lives in God’s Kingdom.

do not neglect churchI close by revisiting the Rohr quote above.  The choice is not between worshipping Jesus and following Jesus.  We worship Jesus because we follow him, for who else has the words of life? (John 6:68) Besides, we may find, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered, that when walk with Jesus, we are drawn to worship almost without knowing it.  After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke tells us in Acts 2:42

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (NRSV)

Note the early devotion to worship as both word (“apostles’ teaching”) and sacrament (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”).  To be a follower of Jesus is inextricably bound up with worship – not listening to music in one’s car, or communing with nature, or meditation – but seeking the Triune God together through communal praise.

From the very first days of the Christian movement, disciples have assembled (“ekklesia“) for worship.  What chiefly separated Christians from their pagan neighbors was not loving the poor or forgiving each other.  What made the early Jesus movement unique – and thus, from time to time, a target of the Empire’s violence – is that they gathered to worship a carpenter who died and was resurrected.  They prayed to him, they sang about him, they read about him, and they ate his body and drank his blood (which is why some pagan critics said the early Christians were cannibals).  The worship of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was a priority.

In the coming century, as increasing Western secularism, spiritual individualism, and a growing reliance upon technology for community conspire to make corporate worship less attractive, it’s possible that the primary distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a lukewarm believer – or between a follower of Jesus and the spiritual tourist or mildly theistic activist – will be the priority of worship.

Perhaps we are already there.

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Hillsong London Just Ruined Christmas

by Drew 12 Comments
No it isn't, Hillsong. Not even close.

No it isn’t, Hillsong. Not even close.

Yesterday, I saw The Force Awakens. It put me in the Christmas spirit.  I know, not a Christmas film.  But the themes of family, joy, the light waging war against the darkness, all just put me in a good holiday mood.

But then I saw this monstrosity from Hillsong London, and Christmas is ruined:

A couple of days ago, I saw this SNL sketch making fun of Christmas Mass.  So before I go all Rambo on Hillsong London, let me just say that there is a lot of truth in the SNL sketch. Traditional Christmas worship can be done quite badly, and we’ve all had worship experiences like the boring, overwrought mess that Pastor Pat is leading here.

But holy hell, that was fiction.  Hillsong London actually turned Silent Night into a 1920’s Vegas showtune.  I don’t even know the words.  I thought Star Wars church was madness.  This is just insane and inane and all kinds of words I shouldn’t use if I want to stay employed by the church.

There is a deeper lesson here as well.  Form and content are not so easily separated as we often suppose. jesus crying The content of Silent Night – SILENT IS IN THE NAME – speaks of a peaceful, holy scene.  Is it a bit sentimental? Perhaps.  Does it whitewash the stench and filth into which our Lord was born? Somewhat.

But Silent Night ripped out of a Scorcese Vegas flick? This is ever so much worse.

As I said recently, I don’t care how “successful” something like this is.

It’s a monstrosity.

Vegas Christmas might draw a crowd.  But this isn’t worship.  It’s a show. And it’s not even a good show.

Thanks for ruining Christmas, Hillsong London.

I look forward to your upcoming burlesque Good Friday service.

 

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