Repetition & Beauty

3 01 2016

For two relatively short years my family and I lived less than a mile from the shores of Lake Erie.   Naturally, we greatly enjoyed spending time on the beaches nearby. We loved the sand, shallow waters, and smooth, black slate rock– not to mention the frozen waves in winter which formed large mounds we could climb. During the warmer days of summer, one of the favorite activities for my wife and kids was to carefuseaglasslly comb the beach for “sea glass”. I realize it’s a bit of misnomer given the fact that we were on the shores of a lake, not a sea. Nevertheless, the finds that were made was akin to finding sparkling gems of great price. Often very small, coming in a multitude of colors with smooth rounded edges, the sea glass embodied an amazing icon of redemption.

 

Broken, useless glass, which was formerly a useful vessel of some sort, cast into merciless, cold waves.   A tragedy to be sure, but not the end of the story. Those same waves that initially appeared so menacing become an instrument of transformation for the jagged glass. Waves plus time plus rocks and sand eventually round off the sharp edges of the discarded glass. And at the last the waves wash the glass ashore, now a glittering jewel to be discovered and treasured.

 

Please forgive me if I have lead you astray to believe that I am making an analogy between the elements that create sea glass and our redemption and Jesus’ work on our behalf. I’m not intending to make an overly simplistic and cheesy sermon illustration. What the sea glass gave me was yet another glimpse into a world where our heavenly Father seems utterly obsessed with making all things new and glorious. He has made sure that our encounters like this are plethora.

 

The one point I want to make is much more pedestrian and dull than the grand scope of human salvation. The broken glass cannot become rounded and beautiful without the repetitive pounding of the waves.

 

We live in a time and place that seems to despise repetition of any kind (except commercials, of course!). We are hopelessly addicted to the “new”. New versions of our favorite books, comic-books and movies (note the endless string of re-makes and re-boots!). New news, new tweets, new tech (like the latest i-phone), new kitchen and bath, new relationships— on and on it goes in an endless parade. Now, let me be clear. I am the chief of sinners in the cult of “new”. If I had my way, I’d live in a new-construction home and drive a new car wearing my new favorite shirt.   But it’s worse: in this I’m also a terrible hypocrite! I want everything to be new, except in worship at church where I want all things old. And part of my love for the old worship is that it is relentlessly repetitive like those cold Lake Erie waves.   And being a creature of great forgetfulness and many sharp, broken edges, I cannot overstate my desperate need for the steady, reliable repetition that the waves of the old liturgies provide.

 

Such repetition is not fun, entertaining, tweet-worthy, or in any way “new”. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, and a much needed antidote for our “new” obsessed land.

 

What I’m currently trying to figure out is how it is that the same churches who constantly labor to produce new and exciting elements in their worship services give me the feeling that it’s the same-ole, same-ole. While the “boring”, repetitive liturgies of the old days seem always fresh and rejuvenating to me. A mystery and a paradox to be sure, but there are explanations that I will not go into here. (But I will confess that I’m not sure how many more liturgically un-rooted and disjointed worship services I can endure– heaven help me!!)

 

Despite my digression, the point is that as disciples of Jesus repetition is indispensible and unavoidable if we are to be made nemarthamchurchstainedglasswindoww. The repeating of prayers, Scriptures and Sacrament will be irreplaceable elements in our redemption and renewal if we willing submit ourselves to them. Just like the broken glass in the waves of the sea.

O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, And lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, And all your walls of precious stones. (Isaiah 54:11-12)

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Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.

 

Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.

 

The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.

 

This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).

 

My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?

 

Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?

 

I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.


Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)

 

The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.

 

 

Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.





Dangerous Power

2 05 2012

Music is a powerful, emotion-laden tool. As with most things imbued with power, it can do great good…and great harm. Note the horrendous effects of the “worship-wars” that have taken place across all denominations over the last 30 or 40 years. All because certain types of songs and styles of music evoke such strong emotions. The worst part is that so many well-meaning believers have reduced the concept of “worship” to the music portion of our Sunday morning gatherings. Certain styles of church music are incorrectly labeled “praise and worship.”
The following quote is by David Walker, who is asking what we should do when we find ourselves addicted to the music of worship. My response to his question follows.
I’m a worship leader in a church that immensely values the musical expression of worship. I love music that connects and gives people an opportunity to respond

to God. With all that is in me, I feel this is a good thing.

But what happens when this musical expression becomes the central focus, instead of the King who it is for? As worship gatherings happen all over the world week in and week out, how much time is the church actually spending worshipping the King of Glory, and how often are people instead worshipping worship itself?

From what I have seen and experienced, this addiction to worship is a common problem. So how do we break out of worshipping worship?

Pasted from <http://weare3dm.com/wayfarer/we-are-3dm/when-worship-becomes-an-addiction/#comment-237>

I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”. It is like a marriage or family– don’t we all have little rituals we do at home with spouse and children. Don’t we frequently say, “I love you” even when we don’t necessarily feel loving? Sometimes liturgy is boring, or even feels dumb– but so too with our family lives. But our little family rituals always, no matter if they’re exciting, normal or boring, point us back to the love that binds us together. So does ancient liturgy: boring or thrilling, it ALWAYS points us to the Trinity, and helps us enter into the eternal love, joy and strength of the Trinity. That same-ness so many find boring in liturgical worship is also the thing that keeps us properly centered– just like that silly thing your kids and my kids insist that you or I do for them every night (a song or funny face or whatever it is)! Saying “I love you” every day is sometimes full of emotion, sometimes devoid of it– but it is ALWAYS a powerful symbol and icon pointing us to the truth that holds life together. So with liturgy.





Ancient – Present Prayer

17 07 2011

“Remember God more often than you breathe”, says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389). Prayer is more essential to us, more an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Without prayer there is no life. Prayer is our nature. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays, a eucharistic animal, capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.

I hope the preceding and subsequent quotes from Kallistos Ware on prayer stir your heart and soul as much as they have stirred mine. These comments come from his introduction to a little prayer book that is a translation of Greek liturgical manuscripts from the late 700’s (which means the prayers are much older than that, as they would have been in use several centuries before being written down).

Ware is speaking as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but I find his comments “spot on” and applicable to believers across most denominations. Also, he reminds us why the prayers of the early church ought to be a regular part of our praying.

This next comment describes how the Incarnation should guide and shape our prayer life:

Orthodoxy recognises no sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, every aspect of our daily life and work is blessed by the Church and so brought within the realm of divine grace. As Christians we are necessarily materialists; ours is an incarnate faith, earthy, rooted in this world. Thus our Orthodox service books contain prayers for sowing, threshing, and wine-making, for diseased sheep or cattle, for blessing cars, tractors, and fishing nets, for insomnia, for children starting to learn the alphabet or students taking their examinations. In the older editions there are even rites for cursing caterpillars and removing dead rats from the bottom of a well. Jesus Christ at his human birth took upon himself our whole nature — body, soul and spirit — and so he is rightly involved in everything we do. We meet him everywhere.

Ware points out four themes that forcefully emerge from praying with the ancient prayers of the church: Mystery, the Trinity, Community, and Mission.

  1. The [ancient] prayers are marked by a strong sense of God’s holiness and mystery, by a spirit of reverence and wonder. We approach the living God “in fear and trembling”, “in love and awe”. . . . [The one who prays] feels the nearness as well as the otherness of God. Transcendent, ineffable, he is also at the core of everything, closer to us than our own heart, “everywhere present and filling all things”, as we say to the Holy Spirit in an invocation at the start of each service.
  2. [The ancient prayers are] deeply Trinitarian. “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”, says the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky. The threefold invocation, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, with which each prayer concludes, is not an optional extra but sums up the very essence of our prayer. We do not simply address God, but explicitly or implicitly we always pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To pray is to be taken up into a network of relationships, an interpersonal dialogue, that exists within God himself. As we pray we hear the Father say not to Christ only but also to ourselves, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11); and by the power of the Spirit we respond in union with Christ, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), becoming sons in the Son. So through prayer we are assumed into the perichoresis, the mutual love or “round dance” of the Trinity. God as Trinity is the source and end-point of all our prayer.
  3. All prayer is communal – prayer of the total family, of the entire Church invisible as well as visible. Prayer is our entry to the communion of saints. [The Lord’s prayer and all the ancient prayers use “our” and “we”, never “mine” and “me”.] … The Christian is the one who says not “I” but “we”. Prayer is “heaven on earth”. . . . This does not diminish the love that we feel for Christ our Saviour, “the one mediator between God and humans” (1 Timothy 2:5), but renders him all the closer to us.
  4. In prayer we do not think only in vertical terms about the Church in glory and the communion of saints, but we also think horizontally about our involvement with the rest of humankind. . . . [Portions of these ancient prayers] form an all-important reminder that the Church is by its very nature missionary, outward-looking, existing not for itself but for the sake of the world.

    This last comment speaks to the purpose and goal of prayer. Read the last sentence at least 3 times—and let it really sink in.

    “Pray without ceasing”, says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17); and the Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky writes: “A Christian has to feel himself personally in the presence of God. The goal of prayer is precisely to be with God always.” I hope that the prayers in this book, designed for the different hours of the day, will help us in small but significant ways to do exactly that: to be with God always, to make our prayer, not just an intermittent activity, but a dimension present continually in all that we undertake– not simply something that we do from time to time, but something that we are the whole time. For this is what the world around us needs: not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of payer.

      (From Kallistos Ware’s forward in Praying with the Orthodox Tradition)





Is Christ in Us?

28 01 2011

Worship. Discipleship. Holiness. These go together because they were designed to. Each flows into and out of the others. One of the by-products of these three working together is effective evangelism. Without them our “evangelism” becomes the product of mere human effort (which can still accomplish tremendous things, but in the end it remains something substantially less than what Christ intended for His Church).

Worship trains us as disciples and connects us to the Trinity in tangible ways that makes us look more and more like Christ– which is what holiness is, that, and a deepening union with God. As we are discipled by others we also become disciple-ers and in the process the fire of our love for God and each other is stoked higher and higher into a holy flame. Naturally that flame erupts into more worship. From those flames flare out powerful evangelism, works of mercy, redemption of our neighborhoods, towns, cities, businesses, government, and more.

All things are possible if Christ is within us, if we have taken him into us. How do we take him into us? We ingest His Word, we partake of His Body and Blood at His Table, we pray continuously, we give Him thanks and praise in all circumstances; and yes, we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross. When we have done these things and find His grace coursing through our entire being, then we are free and empowered to sacrificially love others and advance the borders of His Kingdom against the kingdom of darkness.

Theologian Andreas Andreopoulos, in his book The Sign of the Cross: the Gesture, the Mystery, the History, traces the practice and spiritual impact of Christians’ uses of the sign of the cross. In the earliest days (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries) believers would cross themselves on the forehead. Later, they would cross themselves in the now familiar pattern from head to heart, from shoulder to shoulder. It was (and is) a beautiful and powerful act of worship that could be practiced by the poorest peasant as well as the richest king. Additionally, it could be used at any time, in any place, and in almost any circumstance. The simple action proclaimed: I belong to Christ and He is in me, all things are possible!

Andreopoulos gives this summary of the meaning of crossing oneself (pg. 82-83):

” The sign of the cross, from its early forms and throughout the history of the church, has brought together, in a spiritually functional manner, the depth of the journey to the innermost parts of the self alongside communal worship. The sign of the cross helps Christians internalize the messages of the crucifixion and the life of Jesus, making the message personal. At the same time, the sign of the cross connects us to other members of the church. It is a sign as private as it is public, as individual as it is communal. In tracing the sign of the cross over our body, we acknowledge our connection to Jesus, to the church and the community of saints, and to the Kingdom of Heaven that resides inside us.” [emphasis mine]

The sign of the cross also reminds us that Christ’s story is meant to be our story (a phrase I’ve stolen from John Eldredge). And by “our” I mean His redeemed people, the church. We are to do what Jesus did as we become one with the Father as He was one with the Father. The Scriptures are so crucial because they show us these things and even empower us to do them.

Below, Andreopoulos discusses the early church’s view of the Scriptures and the life of Jesus and the sign of the cross:

(chp. 4, “A Prayer to Christ” – pgs. 96-97)

[For the early church] the life of Jesus had its focus not in the historical account of the life of an exceptional person, but as the key to eternal salvation.

In addition, the Christian Bible does not end with the ascension of Jesus, but the history of the early church continues with the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, integrating the life of the early church with the life of Christ. More important, the gospel and the church were not seen as two different poles of spirituality (as was sometimes the case at points in later centuries). Both were seen as necessary in approaching the ineffable truth of Christ, as they revealed something about each other. The gospel was the product of the church, which exists because of the gospel of Christ. Both were indentified with Jesus and his continuing presence on the earth.

The church is the body of Christ on the earth, and the feasts of Christ are feasts of the church. Therefore, all the events in the life of Jesus were seen as events in the life of the church, or at least as events whose meaning was useful so far as they spoke meaningfully about the life of the church. The liturgical life of the church is not a mere commemoration or reenactment, but an active engagement with Christ made possible by the various liturgical symbols. The summation of the life of Jesus in the symbol and the sign of the cross is not meant so much as an act of “taking up” the cross, as it is of “taking the cross inside.” The direction of the sign of the cross is inward, which suggests embracing and internalizing the life of Jesus. Nevertheless, this inward direction suggests that, starting with the historical events of the life of Jesus, we live these events here and now, appropriating them outside time and space, as we become one with the timeless Christ.

Our prayer does not stop with historical commemoration; prayer starts with it. Beginning with the gospel, we embark on the ascending journey of prayer, which transform our lives. Living the life of Christ does not mean, for most people, that we transfer ourselves mentally to Calvary, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, or transfer ourselves to experience the nails of the cross in the form of the stigmata, but in accepting the living Jesus inside us. We emulate his life as members of his church and his body on the earth, filled with his grace.

Is Jesus in me? Is He in you? Are we acting as His living, powerful presence in the world? How about just in our churches? Let us be challenged to prayerfully cross ourselves and seek to know the love and power of the living, risen Christ within.






Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality

27 10 2010

I recently finished reading Lorna Khoo’s doctoral thesis, which is now published in book form under the title Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality (published by Australian Theological Forum).

 

First I should note that the topic of discussion in the book is the theology and practice of Holy Communion by John and Charles Wesley and not the Wesleyan Church in particular.  In fact, Lorna Khoo is ordained in the Methodist Church in Singapore where she has carried out pastoral ministry over the last 26 plus years.  Also, she was the director of the Charles Wesley Heritage Centre in Bristol, England.

 

The first half of the dissertation is spent discussing: the historical background of Eucharistic practice before, during and after the time of the Wesleys; the Wesleys’ Eucharistic theology and practice as seen in their Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, their personal journals and letters, and their respective ministries; and finally the sources for the Wesleys’ thought and practice (Anglican, Moravian, Catholic, Patristic, Medieval, etc.).  The second half works to flesh out a Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality that could be put to good use for the spiritual children of the Wesleys in the 21st century (especially those now growing strong in places like Singapore).  Khoo’s emphasis is more on practical issues of spiritual growth than on abstract theology, hence the use of “spirituality” in the title rather than “theology.”  Overall I found Khoo’s study to be full of things I was ignorant of and a solid contribution to a much under-discussed topic for those who bear Wesley’s name but tend to downplay, be ignorant of, or reject his impassioned call to a Eucharistically centered spiritual life.  Other, more specific comments follow.

 

The Lord’s Supper as it is a Sacrifice.

This aspect of the Wesleys’ understanding of Salvation and Communion surprised me the most, despite my training in church history.  John and Charles believed that at each service of the Lord’s Supper the church is lifting up a holy reminder to God of the all-atoning sacrifice of His Son on our behalf.  Jesus took into himself on the cross the full wrath of the one true and holy God aimed at a sinful humanity.  This is substitutionary atonement through and through.  Today we say, “Christ took my place on the cross, receiving the punishment I deserved.”  The Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (HLS) are replete with such themes.  I bring this up first because it the one area of major disagreement I have with the Wesleys in the area of salvation theology.  I am much persuaded by Orthodoxy which sees penal substitutionary atonement as a spurious and inaccurate description of what happened on the cross.  I wholeheartedly believe in the reality of God’s righteous wrath– after all, the Bible is clear that it is so.  Now, to be honest, I have a good deal more thinking and researching to do on this topic, but to this point I fail to see where Scripture clearly indicates that it is God’s wrath that Jesus is enduring on the cross.  Yes, he is suffering for our sins, he is receiving our just punishment.   But, is he doing this at the hands of God the Father?  If we say that Jesus did just that, then we have a serious mess to figure out in relation to Trinitarian theology.  The eternal Father unleashing His holy wrath upon His eternal Son?  Is that the only way God’s wrath can be assuaged?  Isn’t God able to “repent” of his decision to visit wrath on His people as we see in the Old Testament?  At the end of the day, notions of Jesus somehow absorbing or deflecting God’s wrath on our behalf do not fly with me.  It all feels a bit too pagan, where the placating of the gods’ anger is the primary preoccupation of life.   Rather, Jesus is taking our place because we had given ourselves over to Satan, sin and death.  In fact, Satan owned us as a result of our sin– our blood belonged to him, we were his property.  Our only hope is to be ransomed– but only one person, the God-Man, can accomplish such a task.  Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world because he was sinless, holy and perfect, and Satan could make no claim on him (and neither could death).  But Jesus willingly handed himself over to evil and death when he did not have to do any such thing.  He offers himself on our behalf thereby breaking Satan’s claim on anyone who is in Christ.  Satan and death are the Enemy that Christ must deal with on the cross– not God’s wrath.  Therefore, when we take the consecrated bread and drink the holy wine, we enter into the spiritual reality that Christ is in us and we in him– we are no longer under the dominion of Satan, sin or death.  The Wesley’s would certainly agree with that.  And who knows, at the end of the day, I might be wrong about God’s wrath and the Atonement!  (I feel better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest!)

 

Before I offer a list a summary points of Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality, I think it important to give this captivatingly powerful summary statement from Khoo:

The Wesleyan eucharistic spirituality’s view of life creates a very secure person, grounded in the assurance that one is deeply and truly loved.  There is a freedom of healthy detachment in one’s life.  There is no need to grab at things or people for security.  Life has meaning.  The meaning is not tied to mere self-centered understanding of fulfilment.  Instead, meaning comes as one gives one’s life away to God and others in response to the love one has experienced.  There is a great deal of joy there– for the world is a place of promise and life.  Time is not an enemy but a space for God’s surprising work and for love to mature. Eternity is tasted and the feast awaits beyond the door of death.  The person walks thus in the world with a sense of spaciousness, utilizing its gifts, enjoying them with the five senses as well as with imagination, always conscious of the fact that the one who loves him/her is always with him/her, never leaving him/her nor forsaking him/her.  (pg. 212)

 

Now here are the summary points of Khoo’s study that lead her to make such a statement (which come form the 7th section of her 4th chapter):

 

  1. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is unflaggingly Christocentric.  Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is radiating with intimacy, immediacy, and expectancy with and for and because of Christ
  2. The Wesleys give primacy of place to God’s grace at the Eucharist rather than on the preparedness of the recipient.  Christ’s unique and unrepeatable act on the cross makes this necessary.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit is an active “companion-sanctifier” who works this grace into the recipient through participation in the sacrament.
  3. “Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality has Christian perfection as the goal of the Christian life firmly in view.  The Eucharist is the main formational instrument towards that goal.”
  4. “Growth towards that goal of Christian perfection is seen in a therapeutic manner.  From the sickness of sin the believer grows towards healing and wholeness.”  This is a key aspect of formation.  (I find it highly significant that the Wesleys saw salvation as more than just a legal transaction related to guilt– something many Evangelical Christians mistakenly do.  We are not just guilty we are soul-sick, which makes sin and selfishness the default behaviors.)
  5. “It is a hymnic spirituality.  The HLS not only informs the Christian’s faith:  the hymns form the Christian’s outlook in life.  Hymns deepen the Eucharistic experience” [in a way that only music can accomplish].
  6. Key to a lived-out Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is the support and persistence of the faith community.  Both strong clergy and lay leadership are crucial to the “mentoring and monitoring of one’s spiritual life and discipline.”  The preaching, teaching, and accountability groups (Wesley’s “classes” and “bands”) of early Methodism helped lead believers deeper into the divine reality experienced at the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality provides a comprehensive world-view– a particular way of looking at God, self, others, time, eternity and the temporal things of this world.  For example, one can enjoy temporal things with an appropriate sense of detachment.  Just as the Lord’s Supper, as wonderful as it is, is only a foretaste of the feast to come; so also are the good gifts of our earthly life now.
  8. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality “is a spirituality of joy.”  Early Methodists celebrated the Lord’s Supper with “reverential joy” in contrast to the always somber seriousness of most Anglican and Catholic services.

 

Lastly, Khoo discusses the future of Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality in the context of global Christianity (specifically, global Methodism).  She catalogs the reason for the rapid decline of Eucharistic fervency after the death of the Wesleys and then offers some things that may help to bring about such a revival in our own day.

 

First, the liturgy used for the Lord’ Supper needs to match what Wesleyans actually believe about it (she notes that the current United Methodist liturgy is a good step in the right direction).

Second, the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper must be re-appropriated and used often in our Communion services.  She points out that there is a translation problem– how to translate 18th century English poetry into modern English and other languages without losing the theological and spiritual impact of the original?  Khoo, I believe, is correct to encourage a fresh effort of creative hymn writing that re-works Charles Wesley’s original themes, and theological emphases into new works– lyrically and musically.  I admit some things may be lost in this effort, but some things are going to be lost regardless.  In truth, such efforts will not be perfectly true to the Wesleys, but their hymns themselves are not perfect either (not theologically or poetically).  So it is time to get over these fears and strongly encourage a fresh outbreak of creativity to come forth that is inspired by Charles Wesley’s own creativity!

 

Third, the theology and practice of spiritual warfare in relation to the Eucharist must be explored much more fully.  The church in Europe and North America may be resistant to engaging in and talking about spiritual warfare, but they are the only ones in the world who are!  If the Eucharist is to be a key element in the believer’s growth towards holiness, we must get our minds and hearts around how it can help in setting the believer free from the chains of Satan, sin and the world.  As we confront demonic powers, persistent sins, and emotional woundedness, what does it mean that at the Lord’s Supper Christ is very present and that the communicant “feeds on Christ in his heart with thanksgiving”– i.e. that Christ is in the one who partakes of his body and blood in the sacrament?  This must be explored to the fullest extent.

 

 

I end with a small caveat.  Khoo advocates a Communion Table that is not only open to believers of other denominations, but a “free” Table that is open to the sincere, seeking unbeliever.  She takes her cues from Wesley’s belief in the primacy of grace at Communion and his belief that it could be a “converting ordinance.” What of the historic truth that only baptized believers have been permitted to the Table?  She recognizes that in Wesely’s day nearly all were baptized even though many did not really believe or trust in Christ.  This, of course, is how Wesley, a strict adherent to all that he understood of the practices of the very Early Church, could speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance”– it converts the baptized unbeliever.  Khoo puts forth the sadly common scenario of a young believer (pre 18 years of age) whose parents are Muslim or Buddhist and will not allow him to be baptized as long as he is under their authority.  While I cannot identify with this, I certainly sympathize.  But I fail to see how making the Table “free” to all is a real help to this problem.  It is a “fix” that will only cause more problems in the long run by making the Eucharist less potent to spiritually form the people who receive it.  The Early Church was unwavering on this point.  And the believers of the first three centuries faced no less difficult circumstances as they lived and moved in lands hostile to the Church.  Often, for a variety of reasons, believers put off baptism for years (sometimes until the very last days before death!!) remaining a Catechumen who could not approach the Lord’s Table and was even dismissed from the building after the sermon.  I’m sure this will sound unduly mean and harsh in our politically correct age, but I would counsel that teenager whose parents would disown him (or worse!!) if he were baptized into Christ and the church, that he trust the Lord.  Trust Him by patiently waiting for the appropriate time to be baptized or trust Him by getting baptized against his parents wishes.  This young person then personifies before the church the real cost of claiming Jesus as Lord, AND the unsurpassed treasure that Jesus and His Kingdom are– worth paying ANY earthly price to obtain.





Irrelevantly Relevant

27 05 2010

One of the constants in discussions concerning church growth and evangelism is the issue of “relevance.”  At a popular level, “being relevant” as a church or ministry means to do things that are considered normal in the world outside the church.  Large projection screens, worship music with drums and guitars, preachers in blue jeans, and café style seating are all attempts at being relevant to the culture at large.  The argument goes that unless we do such things all the lost sinners in our communities will never come to our churches to hear the Gospel and, consequently, our churches will shrink and die.  To be “irrelevant” (which I suppose means things like using an organ, singing old hymns, the preacher wearing a suit or vestments, sitting in pews, etc.), therefore, means to turn people away from the Gospel, condemn them to Hell, and slowly watch our churches die.  Of course, many mega-churches and other contemporary churches have the stats on their side in this argument—many success stories.

But I have a question.  What if what is relevant to the culture at large is irrelevant to entering the Kingdom?  Which leads me to more questions:  What if in our striving to look like the world in order to attract the world we inadvertently proclaim a false gospel?  What kind of disciples are we making through our “relevant” worship services and ministries?  And what will the church look like in a generation from now as we reap what we have sown?

Let me be clear:   I’m not advocating a return to worship spoken only in Latin, nor am I calling for sermons that only doctoral students can understand.  I am calling for a serious engagement with the practices of the ancient Church that brought about unbelievable growth, solid disciples, and longevity to the Church.  Practices, by the way, that have by and large been jettisoned in favor of more culturally sensitive things.

The counter-argument claims that it doesn’t matter what we dress the Gospel in (jeans or an alb, crosses or art-deco walls) as long as we stay true to its content.  The flaw in this reasoning is exposed when we realize that humans are not merely verbal creatures—but also auditory, visual, and sensory.  I would not go so far as to say, “the medium is the message,” but I think it is obvious that how a message is packaged communicates a great deal to the recipient about the nature or value of that message.  I suppose I’m just odd, but to see the Gospel Book carried high in procession to the middle of the congregation, handled by robed worshipers as people sing, bow to and even kiss the Scriptures speaks a great deal more about the value of God’s Word than a preacher in blue jeans with no pulpit who reads only those passages relevant to his sermon.

But wait (it is often argued)!  The pastor in blue jeans is communicating to the average person out there that the Gospel is for everyone and is accessible to all and can be understood by all.  High-falutent liturgy just makes it seem like God’s Word isn’t applicable to daily life.  Perhaps… but God’s word is also holy, life-giving, and worthy of our rapt attention.  And quite frankly, in my daily life I don’t need another common, easily accessible word.  I need a high and holy Word and that is above me, able to rescue me and to instruct me in the Way that will set me free from my daily anger, selfishness, and fear.  The preacher in the blue jeans does not reveal the other-worldly power of God’s Word.  And it is power from that other world, God’s Kingdom, that I need the most, that is more “relevant” to my need.  I don’t need more advice, even Biblical advice.   I need God’s very power and love coursing through my physical and spiritual veins.  I need a Word that I ought to bow to and give my undivided attention to, not a word that I can passively listen to while sipping my latte.

If the people in our churches are missing the full and powerful and confrontational Gospel because of the relevant garb we have dressed it in, then we must come to confess, sooner or later, that we are proclaiming a half-gospel; or more likely a false gospel.  A gospel that proclaims, “It’s all about you and what you like!  Whatever you want we’ll do it just so you’ll come to our church.  Big screens, espresso machines, a cool preacher, symbol-less décor, lots of fun for the kids—whatever it is, we’ll provide it!”  This sounds suspiciously like a wide and easy road to me. . .

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

My advice:  Let’s save our blue jeans for the actual café down the street where we can invite our un-saved co-worker to discuss life issues over a cup of joe.  And then, when that co-worker is ready and the Spirit leads us, invite him or her to a whole new world—the worship and community of the Church.

This passionate post was inspired by an article entitled “How the World Lost Its Story,” by theologian Robert W. Jenson (re-published in the March 2010 issue of FIRST THINGS).

In it Jenson points out that the postmodern culture around us has rejected the idea of a true story—a story that all can have a part in and that is heading towards a happy ending.  He argues that the Protestant churches have spent the greater part of the last 200 years striving to be relevant and acceptable to the modern culture surrounding them.  So the language of worship was changed (even the terms used for the Trinity!), the embarrassing parts of the Bible were carefully explained away, outdated art and liturgy was removed, and the church became a major political player in order to “save” society.  Liberal Protestantism was born—and is now already near death.  I would ask, do we think our current attempts to be relevant will prove to be any more successful 50 years from now?

Jenson argues persuasively that:

“In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant’, here is the first step:  It must recover the classic liturgy of the Church, in all its dramatic density, sensual  actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life.  In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.”

He goes on the state that in conjunction to this, the Church must also be the place where the Gospel story is realized—a place where the promises of Scripture become real and tangible.  For example, how can the “seeker” believe that God will keep His eschatological promises if His people do not keep their promises within their own community?!  The Church must look something like the Kingdom it is proclaiming.  As Jenson puts it, “The assembly of believers must therefore itself be the event in which we may behold what is to come. . . .  ‘Going to church’ must be a journey to the place where we behold our destiny, where we will see what is to come of us.”

Lastly, Jenson asserts that if we are going to communicate the Gospel narrative successfully in a postmodern world, it will require not only the classic liturgy, and a genuine Kingdom of God community, but also a re-appropriation and use of sacred art.  The clean, blank walls of our churches must once again surround us with the Gospel story.   Jenson states:

“If we in our time rightly do apprehend the eschatological reality of the gospel promise, we have to hear it with Christ the risen Lord visibly looming over our heads with His living and dead saints visibly gathered around us.  Above all, the Church must celebrate the Eucharist as the dramatic depiction, and as the succession of tableaux, that it intrinsically is.  How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?”