Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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Wine in the Morning

One of my consistent findings over the last few years (including over a decade now in pastoral ministry) is that few topics stir up more interest than the topic of alcohol and drinking. This is true for sermons, blog posts, lectures, as well as just casual conversation.

And so it is that I have found myself marveling over the past year or so (ever since I was ordained as an Episcopal Priest) at the mirthful, exuberant experience of drinking wine in the morning.

Now, I only do this once per week, mind you.

And in fact, it only happens on Sunday mornings (though I’ve heard of priests for whom this experience occurs in a more quotidian fashion).

But every Sunday morning, with few exceptions, over the last year or so, I have drunk wine in the morning. And not sissy wine. Not “small” wine. Rather, 18% alcohol (that’s 36 proof!) Tawny Port.

And, interestingly enough, it only happens at the altar of the cosmically propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. That is, it only happens at the table of eschatological feasting, where, with all the saints and angels, we celebrate the victory of God over all our enemies, sins, and fears. That is, it happens only at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Now, granted, when I drink wine on Sunday mornings, I’m not drinking it alone. Far from it: there are masses of co-celebrants who drink in the tangy-sweet liquid of surprising joy. However, I am left to consume all that remains in the chalice, that vessel the beauty of which is solely designed to laud the priceless nectar it contains.

And so there I stand, Sunday after Sunday, at this altar / table of torture / joy, called on to consume all the blood / wine that remains in the sanctified goblet. And consume it I do, Sunday after Sunday.

Sometimes there is not so much left.

Sometimes, however, two of the largest gulps I can manage are required to do the job, and on these Sundays, my head swims with mystery.

The mystery of love made drink, the mystery of wine made blood, the mystery of a God who chooses to intoxicate his Beloved as a way of making them more sober, more sane, more serious about what Life is all about.

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Questioning our Worship (X): why so much repetition?

This is part 10 (the final installment) of a 10-part series.

A few weeks ago I had a riveting conversation with a man here in Tyler, a prominent academic, about liturgy and worship. “Episcopal liturgy is boring,” he honestly expressed. “It’s not exciting; I never learn anything new in the liturgy.”

And then, just last week, I was honored to be a part of another conversation about church and ministry and worship, this time with a couple of local Starbucks baristas, one in her twenties and the other probably in his 30’s.

They extolled the worship at their church, because (unlike the local megachurch they had once attended but then had left) the worship was not over-programmed. There was far less of a sense of manipulation and infinitesimally planned, staged, and choreographed performance.

“At our new church, the worship is free. If the Spirit leads, then we might keep on worshiping for hours,” she said with a deep sense of satisfaction.

I’m really grateful that, having been in Tyler now for ten months, it seems like I’m at the point that people are willing to have real, authentic conversations with me. These two examples above have been particularly important because they center on the great strength of our Anglican tradition: worship.

In these and other discussions (including in my Christian Formation class), I have used a couple of different analogies to help folks imagine what the purpose and point of the liturgy might be. (For Thomas Aquinas, analogy is perhaps the foundation of his whole theology.)

The first is language learning. How does a small child (one year old, two years old) begin to learn language? Does she learn it from a book? From an owner’s manual? From a Power Point Presentation? No. Instead, the little one is thrust into an already existing community (which, by the way, she did not choose). Then, over time and with lots of repetition, the muscles in her tongue and lips begin the difficult work of forming habits. (Habit is a key word for thinking about what the liturgy is.) In this way, the child learns, gradually, over time, and with fits and starts, how to say, “da da,” an utterance which eventually gives way to the fully formed “daddy.”

What are we doing in the liturgy if not learning a new language, which will then form us into a different way of thinking and living (Rom 12:1-2)?

A second analogy comes from ancient Roman military practice. When the Roman armies would move into a new territory of battle, they would always set up their camps in the exact same way. The bunks and the latrine and the fire place and the kitchen were always in the same place in the camp.

Why did they do this? To be sure, efficiency was one reason. But in addition to that they knew that what the soldiers needed was a measure of stability, familiarity, and even comfort in a disorienting, chaotic, and stressful situation.

Today more than ever we live in a world (even here in Tyler) which is more fragmented, more rootless, more anxious than ever. One more entertaining and distracting venue is about the last thing we need. As Neil Postman wrote well over a decade ago, we are “entertaining ourselves to death,” primarily as a way to escape the stressful anxiety of the world we live in.

We don’t need more stimulation; we don’t need more dopamine. We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Questioning our Worship (IX): “Baptism: why water, why babies?”

This is part 9 of a 10-part series.

When you hear the word “salvation,” what do you think of?

Many modern people, both in the church and out, imagine (in a way quite foreign to the thought world of the Bible) “salvation” to be some sort of mystical “zapping” of the soul such that, after the magic “zapping,” one now has an unbreakable and unquestionable connection to God.

On the contrary, however, when a first century Jewish person imagined “salvation,” he or she would have thought of images very earthy and mundane: lots of flowing wine, the fatted calf roasting on the altar, lots of children and grandchildren running around, good land to live on and to work, justice and mercy and material blessing for the poor and the outcast. One thinks of shalom, embodied life in the Kingdom of God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, when it comes to “salvation” in the church of Jesus Christ (who, after all, was a first century Jew), such blessing comes to us through ordinary means: the vibrating vocal cords of a preacher, printed words on a page, bread and wine.

Baptism is a case in point. When God chose to create a rite to ingraft us into the community of God’s people, he chose water as a primary means to do so. Why?

There are too many reasons to list, but a perusal of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our baptismal rite (BCP 306) is a good place to start.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage

in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus

received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy

Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death

and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Water is central to the creation story, the exodus story, the Jesus story … therefore it is central to our salvation story.

But now for a more taxing question: why do we baptize infants, in addition to adults?

In my Christian Formation class at Christ Church, we are discussing four arguments for infant baptism:

1. The argument from redemptive history: we perform this rite because an analogous rite was performed in the old covenant: circumcision.

2. The argument from ordinary means: if salvation is not a zapping in the heart, but rather comes to us through ordinary means, then this practice makes sense.

3. The argument from corporate solidarity: scripture teaches that salvation is primarily a “community thing,” and only secondarily and “individual thing,” so infant baptism should be seen in that framework, as a way of bringing a little one into the community of God’s people.

4. The argument from prevenient grace: if God chooses us before we choose him (as 1 John 4:19 seems to imply), then it makes sense that we have a ritual which gives expression to that fact, as infant baptism surely does.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Questioning our Worship (Part VIII): “C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ?”

This is part 8 of a 10-part series.

Over the years as I have had an ongoing conversation with Isabella, my seven year old daughter who is a budding theologian, about what is going on in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, particularly in “the service of the table,” the communion service.

After all, Bella and I wonder, what is going on with the bread? Why do we call it “the Body of Christ?”

One way we have discussed this, which has been particularly fruitful and enjoyable, is in terms of the “three givings or gifts of the Eucharist.”

First God gives to us, the human race also known as “Adam,” the good gifts of grain and grape, and this is the first “giving,” the first gift, the gift of creation.

Now grain and grape are good, but God has asked us (see Gen 1:28-30) to take them, and to make them even better, to transfigure them, bringing them “from glory to glory.” And so, we, human beings created in God’s image, take the grain and the grape, and we transfigure them into bread and wine. In obedience to God, we (“Adam”) cultivate the earth.

Now, in the Eucharist, what do we do with this bread and wine? We don’t eat and drink it, at least not yet. What we do is we give it back to God. Think about all the language of “offering” in the Communion service: “… these, thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee …”; “… and here we offer and present unto thee …” This language of “offering” brings out the oblationary aspect of the Eucharist.

And this is the second giving, the second gift. God receives our gift and then, what does he do with it?

Now, bread and wine are good. But God takes these gifts, he transfigures them, bringing them to a better state of glory, and now they “become” something even better: the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, keep in mind that, historically, there are three different senses of “body of Christ.” There is 1) the “typological body” (the soma typicon) which was “literally” nailed to a cross and “literally” buried in the grave, etc. Then there is 2) the “true body” (corpus verum) which is the Church, the living members of the Body of Christ. Finally there is 3) the “mystical body” (corpus mysticum) of the consecrated bread of the Eucharistic Rite.

Is this consecrated bread “really” the body of Christ? It is, indeed. It is his body because is it ritually connected to his “typical body” and to his “true body” the Church, the “living stones” gathered at the feast. Because of the first two “bodies of Christ,” the bread is more than just bread. It is a sacrament of the whole world, already but not yet transfigured and transformed into the very life, the very body, of Christ.

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Questioning our Worship (VII): Why Sacraments?

This article is part 7 of a 10-part series.

In his magisterial For the Life of the World, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann begins his articulation of the sacramental life with the statement, “Man is what he eats.”

Think about it. Even our narrative of God’s work in the world begins with a story about eating. The man and the woman in garden (imagined collectively in Genesis 1 as “Adam”) are somehow restless, somehow wanting more than they have received. And so what do they do? They eat. They grasp after some thing God had made, and they put it in their mouths, chew it, swallow it, and assimilate it into their very bodies, their very selves.

Fast forward to the end of our story, the last two or three chapters of St. John’s Apocalypse. Here again, what do we see? We see an amazing scene of a feast. In fact it is the very best kind of feast: a wedding feast! What better reason to celebrate than the joining of a man and a woman in the deepest possible love, the deepest possible union.

So we see, in the beginning and end of our story (not to mention all along the way in between: see Isaiah 25:6 as one of countless examples), that the idolatrous, gluttonous eating of Adam has been transfigured into the faithful, joyful, satisfying celebration of the New Adam, together with his Body and Bride.

In light of all of this, can it be any surprise that at the center of our lives lived before God, we find ourselves eating at a table with our brothers and sisters? More is going on at that weekly feast called Holy Communion than time or space permits me to develop right now, but suffice to say that, since God’s salvation (think “shalom”) is for our whole selves, body and soul, it is only fitting that he put his abundant, indestructible life into us not only through words and ideas, but also through food. Or, better (as Peter Leithart has written in his Blessed are the Hungry), through “love made food.”

And when it comes to Holy Baptism, we find a similar reality. God made us not only as individuals, but as members of community. As I told the youth confirmands recently, we are like a jigsaw puzzle, designed to “fit together” and to make a beautiful mosaic which is bigger than any one of us. In light of that, of course it makes sense that God would give us a ritual which includes us in God’s love not just as individuals, but as a larger community, called to “image” God’s own communal life, his loving dance, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?

This is part 6 of a 10-part series.

I have spent the last five installments in this series discussing our liturgical worship which we as Anglicans perform. My next question is rather simple, but profound: “Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?”

Well, yes and no. One the one hand there are passages such as the following:

In Isaiah 6 we behold scene in God’s throne room / temple in which we see that confession and absolution precede sending out into the world.

Nehemiah 8 gives us an example of the public reading of Holy Scripture in which God’s people stand in unison to hear the Word proclaimed.

In the Words of Institution (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Cor 11) in which Christ instructs us in the particular actions to perform in the Service of the Table, or Holy Communion.

The Book of Acts gives us snapshot after snapshot of first-century worship in which we see the preaching of the Word and the breaking of the bread, going hand-in-hand.

Revelation 4-6, in which we are shown a worship scene in Heaven which gives us many images and precedents for us to implement in our worship of God.

As you can see, the Bible is full of useful instruction on how we are to order our lives of worship. And yet, nowhere in Holy Writ do we find something like a manual or a “how-to” guide for worship. Why is this?

I can think of several reasons.

First, God does not tell us explicitly how to worship him because we are free in the Spirit to figure it out for ourselves. After all, God wants us to be mature and discerning in our decision making, not like little children who must be given direct instructions all the time (Eph 4:13).

Second, the liturgy of the Church predates most or all of the New Testament texts. One of the oldest liturgies of the Church we have, The Didache, is dated by contemporary scholarship to around the year 100 AD, which means that Christians were worshiping in the way it prescribes at least as early as 60 years after the birth of Christ. (The Didache is the same in basic shape as most liturgies used in the East and Western churches of “The Great Tradition” to this day.) That is, the liturgy is older than much of our New Testament Scriptures, a realization which makes sense when one remembers that the first Christians were mainly of Jewish descent.

Third, and related to the second reason above, “faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17), which indicates that the Holy Scriptures are primarily something to be heard, not something to be read from a book. That is, the Holy Scriptures are first and foremost a liturgical thing. They are not an instruction manual worship; rather, they are intended to be used in the worship, as worship (which is why something like 80% of the BCP is composed of Scriptural texts)!

Fourth, Scripture itself presents us with multiple examples of what can only be called “oral tradition:” Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30; John 21:25; 2 Tim 2:2; 2 Thes 2:15. The Church has always held that it is from this “source” that much of our worship is derived and passed down, and not simply from the Bible alone.

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Questioning our Worship (V): Why so many words?

This is part 5 of a 10-part series.

One of my favorite movies, and one of the ones I love to watch with my six year old daughter, is The Neverending Story. I love this film because in it, the main character, a little boy who simultaneously longs for and fears adventure, listens, night after night, to his grandpa reading a story to him. It is a story about flying dragons, enchanted castles, and many more wonderful things. What is so interesting, though, is that at some point during his enjoyment of this story, he actually gets “sucked into” the story itself, and becomes a character on the inside of this narrative world, right alongside the dragons and other magical creatures.

Now, something very much like this is what happens in the Christian life. You are brought up as a young person in a secular culture and you might have an awareness of the Bible, but it is just a static book over there on the shelf, whereas you, on the other hand, are a real person in the real world of televisions, automobiles, etc.

But then, at some point, it gradually dawns on you that the story-world of the Bible is what is actually real.

It is the liturgy of the Church (through which the Holy Spirit works) which prompts this epiphany, this shift in consciousness. My favorite example of this shift – a reality which the Church calls anamnesis – is the Prayer of Thanksgiving over the waters of Baptism (BCP 306): “We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water…. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” In this prayer, we realize that these baptismal waters are the same waters as the ancient Red Sea, just as they are also the same waters as those of Noah’s flood (see I Peter 3:18-22). This shift of consciousness, this getting-in-touch with true narrative reality, is anamnesis, the “re-membering” of the narrative of Holy Scripture*. (We could multiply examples of this from our Eucharistic prayers, as well.)

St. Paul’s theology, shot through all of his epistles, is also about this “remembering.” Over and over again Paul encourages the Church to realize that we are “members of Christ’s Body,” that in his death we have died, and that in his resurrection we have risen to new life. Christ’s narrative draws us in; we are now inside the Story. We are living inside the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This is exactly what is going on in the Creed, which occurs immediately after the Scriptures and the Gospel are proclaimed and interpreted. The Creed is not an expression of our private beliefs; it is our narrative world, our world of words, in which we live and move (note: we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross during the Creed) and have our being. It is more real than TV’s and cars and yahoo.com.

Why are there so many words and sentences and paragraphs and texts – so much reading and talking – in our worship? I hope you can see why. We have a rich and interesting story, a story of words which culminate in the Word Made Flesh, Jesus.

But, more to the point, it is a story that we don’t simply “have.” It is a story in which we live.


* This word anamnesis occurs in Luke 22:19 and I Corinthians 11:22-23, accounts of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.

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Questioning our Worship(IV): Why all the Standing & Kneeling?

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series.

Before giving some reasons why we as Episcopalian Christians use our bodies in the worship of God, I would like to point out a reason why some (indeed, many) Christian traditions do not use their bodies in worship.

Bishop NT Wright in his (highly recommended) book Simply Christian devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of Christian worship. In it he mentions the Quaker tradition as an example of one group of Christians who, historically, have resisted ritual and bodily movement in their worship. In many Quaker gatherings, the people simply sit in silence for most of the service.

Often such traditions fear that any kind of ritual movement in worship is some kind of “deed” which might tempt folks to think that we are “earning” our salvation before God. As Bishop Wright points out, however, the decision to sit in silence is still a decision to do something, and any kind of action or decision to “do” (or not do) something can be seen either as an act of merit (as if we are “earning our salvation”) or as a response of gratitude to the gracious initiation of a loving God.

Moving now to some positive considerations of why our Anglican worship in particular so involves our bodies and its movement, there is, first of all, the simple yet profound fact that God made us not just as souls but as bodies. Historic Christian theology has always affirmed that “I am my body.” A moment’s reflection serves to underline the point. We don’t say “the ball hit my body,” but rather “the ball hit me.” Any kind of worship which tries to deny my embodied existence as a human being denies a basic aspect of who I am, and is therefore radically incomplete.

In addition to this point about who we are as human (“theological anthropology”), another reason for our bodily participation in worship has to do with liturgy and liturgical action as a movement through time. Christian theologians down through the ages have pointed out the fact that (as Plato first said) “Time is a moving image of eternity.” As both ancient philosophy and quantum mechanics agree, movement and time are connected. Motion is something we do with our bodies. In our worship, as the altar party and the choir process through the nave from the font to the altar, as the priest rehearses the paschal mystery of Christ in the Great Thanksgiving, as God’s faithful people sign themselves at specific points during the liturgy, we are “copying” the Triune God, whose infinite life takes place not in time but in the reality to which time itself points: eternity.

Related to this last point is a third: we cannot fully image God without our bodies. St. Maximus the Confessor famously taught that the church is the image of God. As we have pointed out in previous installments of this series on Anglican worship, God is eternally and unendingly involved in something like a Great Dance. In the liturgical worship of the church we are participating in that Great Dance, caught up in the movement of love between the three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How could we do this dance without our bodies? One can no more dance without a body than one can eat a succulent steak fajita or drink a salty margarita on the rocks without a body. It’s just not possible!

Have you ever noticed that there is only one place in the Creed where we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross? It is when we say (in that version of the Creed which we call “The Apostles’ Creed”) “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” This is no coincidence. In so doing we are saying (among other things) that we believe that one day we will participate in the indestructible life of God, fully and finally, not just with our souls, but with our bodies.

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Questioning our Worship (III): “Why is worship so boring sometimes?”

This article is part 3 of a 10-part series on Episcopal worship and liturgy.

The Series Introduction is here.

As we come to the third in our series of questions about Episcopal worship, we turn to a practical matter which many people struggle with: boredom in worship. After all, if worship is not entertaining or at least stimulating, why bother?

Such thinking is the product of our secular, market-driven culture, and is flawed for many reasons. To take just one reason, this line of thought is illusory (and therefore dishonest), in that it cannot deliver what it promises. Consider the alternative lifestyles on offer to us modern consumers. Whether one’s particular lifestyle revolves around online video gaming or virtual communities, golf, physical fitness, the great outdoors, academia, or the club scene in downtown Austin, boredom and “let down” inevitably ensue. This is a fact of life.

Consider the realm of relationships, perhaps with a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. All relationships have “ups and downs.” My relationship with my wife, for example, is full of vibrant life and energy. And yet, do you think that Bouquet is never bored with me? Of course she is; this is just a part of life.

The real problem, though, is not the boredom. The real problem is with a world and a culture which pretend to provide endless thrills. I am reminded of what CS Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, where he says that the thrill of romantic love is like a spark, designed by God to get a long-term love relationship up and running, sort of like the spark plug of an engine.

Once the engine, however, is ignited by the spark, then what? Folks who are expecting “the spark to never die” find themselves ditching their spouses or lovers, trying to find someone more “sexy” or “thrilling.” Not only is this kind of behavior dysfunctional, it is non-sustainable and deeply damaging to others.

Indeed, as Lewis goes on to point out, there is something better than the spark: the long-term, deep and steady running of the engine or the relationship. Much of my life, personally, over the last ten years or so has been precisely about this issue of learning to live a life “beyond thrills.”

Worship has been key here. The purpose (the Greek word here is telos) of worship is not entertain or to stimulate, or even to make us feel better about ourselves. The purpose of worship is to put us into real and living relationship with God and the reality of his inbreaking kingdom. Often times this does in fact end up make us “feel better.” To put it another way, it “stacks the deck” in favor of health and happiness.

However, the health and the good feelings are merely a bi-product of our worship, and my feelings are an unreliable barometer of the reality of what’s going on in worship. A much better barometer is faith.

Why is worship sometimes “boring?” One reason is that, as we have seen in our previous “questions,” worship is a discipline, the cultivation of habits which do not come naturally. In addition, though, worship is sometimes “boring” because we have been conditioned by our culture always to expect thrills, and also because, sometimes, what we perceive as boring is in reality the best thing for us.

But I close with a thought similar to the one with which I opened. I would challenge people to name any healthy and sustainable practice or activity in our world that never seems boring. Work? Sex? Food? We live in a broken world which will never fully satisfy us all the time, and is it OK to admit this.

And sometimes, when we admit the boredom and come face to face with it, it vanishes away and God visits us with his presence in truly transformative ways. Even He can’t do this, though, unless we show up and participate in his presence, in worship.

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Questioning our Worship (II): Why ruin my weekend?

This article is part 2 of a 10 part series written for my church newsletter. Go here for the intro, and here for Part I.

“How was your weekend?”
 
Every Monday morning, as the parents of St. Richard’s pre-schoolers file into the narthex for Monday chapel, this is the question du jur. Usually the answers contain summaries of Saturday outings, perhaps a child’s birthday party, maybe a sick family member, or a date with the spouse. Occasionally, though, someone will mention church: “Church was really great; our pastor preached a really good sermon!”
 
Now, I of all people rejoice when folks approve of their pastors’ sermons. And I don’t want to make too “loud” of a point here, but I am often tempted to respond, “Wow, that’s great! But … I asked about your weekend.”

 

Surely such an odd response would produce blank stares of consternation. And yet, the underlying point is valid, even if unsettling: we don’t go to church on the weekend! We go to church on Sunday, the first day of the week.

 

About 10 years ago I started asking my nephew (around 5 years old at the time), “Why do we go to church on Sunday?” The programmed response (taught to him by me!) came back, “Because that’s the day Jesus rose from the dead!”

 

And so it is. In chapter 20 of St. John’s Gospel, the risen Christ makes three appearances to his discouraged and confused followers, and each time, the writer is at pains to stress that the risen Lord comes to his people on the first day of the week. (See verses 1, 19, and 26 of John 20.) In precisely the same way, and for the same reason, the earliest church we know of – the apostolic church of the Book of Acts – gathered to break bread together not on the “weekend” but on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

 

There are some powerful implications here upon which to meditate, especially during this season of Lent. First, as Christians we enter in to joyful worship and rest before we work. This is to show that all of our work, indeed all of our lives, should and can be permeated by rest and worship and joy.

 

Second, as theologians down through the ages have pointed out, the first day of the week is also the eighth day of the week. (It is significant here that circumcision in the old covenant took place on the eighth day, which is one reason many baptismal fonts are octagonal in shape.) That is, the first day of the week, Sunday, is the day of new creation. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, there is a new creation in which we live and work and love. God has triumphed! This is his world. As reigning Lord, he is bringing his purposes to fruition in his own time. Hence, we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, conquering all our enemies and dysfunctions and sins and fears.

 

For me, this so often means that I must “rest by faith” or “feast by faith.” Which is to say that Sunday worship, setting apart this one day of the week for this “royal waste of time” (to borrow a phrase from theologian Marva Dawn), is actually a kind of discipline (both for me individually and for my family). Even when I am all burdened with stress or anxiety, I am called – especially on Sunday – to “let go” and to rest in God, knowing that it is his job (and not mine) to make everything right. Indeed, knowing that I am not God is a great relief, and this fact makes it possible truly to rest! 

 

Now, for a over-scheduled person in our hypermodern world, this is a very strange mindset, is it not? Indeed, it is. Maybe that’s why the New Testament describes us as “strangers and aliens.” Perhaps that is why St. Paul exhorts us to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” into radically different ways of thinking and living.

 

And as our frenetic, volatile, violent, unsustainable culture teeters along the precipice of its own decline, God’s faithful people are quietly and compellingly modeling a better way to live. A way of rest and peace. A way of faith and festive joy. A way which begins not on the weekend, but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. 

By going to church on Sunday, we are not “ruining our weekend.” We are, in fact, saving the world.

 

 

 

 

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Questioning our Worship (I): Why go to Church?

This article is part of a larger series, the introduction to which is here.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor of mine about going to church on Sunday.

When he found out that I am a “pastor type” he apparently felt the need to justify why he does not really believe in going to church on Sunday. “I can have ‘church’ at home,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Well,” I responded, “certainly lots of people feel that way, and it kind of makes sense, I guess. But I think it is important to consider what the Bible says about things like that.” I went on to allude to I Peter chapter 2 by saying, “One of the images that the Bible gives us of God’s people is that of living stones.”

I continued by saying that if you look at a stone wall of a building one of the interesting things is that the stones are resting upon one another. That is, the stones need each other. A single stone cannot make a wall.

A similar dynamic comes into play when we consider the biblical image of “many members, one body.” Here the many members come together to form a whole organic unity, a complete body. An eye, or a spleen, cannot hope to constitute a healthy human body in all its complexity, as St. Paul teaches in places like I Corinthians 12.

It is the same way with “going to church” and the Christian life. In general is not possible for only one person to worship God by herself, if she never gathers with the community. Our private devotion and meditation (“in your prayer closet”) flows out from the worship of the gathered community, from the “work of the people” (which, as we saw last month, is what “liturgy” literally is).

The bottom line here is that in the Christian life, we need each other. “There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians.”

I want to bring out, however, a second aspect to all this. There is another reason why staying at home on Sunday to read our Bible (or to watch a “televangelist” on TV) is not full Christian worship in the way the Bible describes it.

What are we doing when we worship God? The collects in our Prayer Book which we say over and over every Sunday give us a strong hint. Almost every one of them ends with some version of “through Jesus Christ … who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit….” You see, worship, at its heart, at its core essence, is a participation in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. It is as if in worship we are entering into a stimulating conversation or a beautiful dance which has already been going on between three Persons who deeply love each other. This loving community hospitably invites us into their joy, into their peace, into their glorious life.

But reading the Bible in my armchair at home, as important as that is, is not conducive to this kind of fellowship with the Divine community, if separated from the worshipping life of the people of God. When I read words on a page in my armchair at home, there is no conversation there: it is just “me, myself, and I” with static words on a page. But in worship on Sunday it is all about conversation, dialogue with God in and through other people. In the responsive psalm the people dialogue with the choir. In the confession and absolution we dialogue with Christ. After Jesus summons us by his Word in the sermon, we respond in conversation in the word of the Creed.

In this way, we are caught up into a Great Conversation with the Divine Community in a way that just cannot happen in my armchair at home. The real purpose of my armchair at home, and the real purpose of my Bible reading, is to re-member and to extend the Great Conversation in which I was caught up last Sunday.

In a sense, then, worship is prior to Scripture in that worship provides the context for Scripture. This makes sense historically, as well, when we realize that the continuous worship of the new covenant church actually predates the writings of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Bible is tremendously important, but its true home, if you will, is not primarily my armchair at home or my home office or study, but rather in the liturgical worship of the church. Out of this fountain, the rest of our Christian life flows.

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Questioning our Worship (intro): Why Liturgical Worship?

The following is an article I wrote for the people of my church.

As a relative newcomer to the “Anglican Way” and the Episcopal Church, I have lots of friends and loved ones who view the liturgical worship of the Episcopal Church with puzzlement and confusion (sometimes mixed with boredom). “Why all the pomp and circumstance?” they often ask, with glazed over eyes, perhaps in not so many words. Some of these friends are still in more “evangelical” churches such as non-denominational “megachurches” or the Baptist church like the one just around the corner from your house. Some of them, quite frankly, are not in any church at all (hence I think of them as more “secular types”).

Perhaps you can relate to this experience of mine. Perhaps you have brought friends to Christ Church and they have been confounded by (what they perceive to be) the lofty pageantry our worship. Whether it is the bishop’s mitre (one friend at my ordination service exclaimed, “I can’t believe bishops nowadays really wear those hat thingies!”) or the procession of the choir and altar party at the beginning of the service, the liturgical aspects of our worship can seem deeply foreign to modern people.

So why do we persist in doing these strange things? After all, perhaps our church would grow faster if we focused more on entertaining people. Maybe if we stopped fussing about all this liturgical stuff, we could get busy doing “real work” like feeding the hungry or assisting the poor.

Good questions, all. And I think that if we are not asking them and struggling with the answers, then our Baptist and megachurch friends might actually be in a more healthy place spiritually than we are!

In light of all this, I want to introduce you to a series on liturgical worship which I will be doing in The Crucifer during 2011, called “Questioning our Worship” (see below). I hope that you will take the time to engage in these and other questions you have about our worship at Christ Church.

  1. Question #1: Why come on Sunday if I can read my Bible at home? (The role of community in worship.)
  2. Question #2: Why ruin my weekend (I need to sleep in on Sunday morning!)? (Sunday as Day of Resurrection.)
  3. Question #3: Why is Worship so boring sometimes? (The role of discipline in an entertainment culture.)
  4. Question #4: Why all the standing & kneeling? (Worshipping with our Bodies).
  5. Question #5: Why all the Words, Scripture, & Creeds? (Anamnesis as re-membering the Story.)
  6. Question #6: Does the Bible tell us to worship this way? (Worship as prior to Scripture.)
  7. Question #7: Why Sacraments? (The Importance of Christology in Worship.)
  8. Question #8: C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ? (Anglicanism on the Eucharist).
  9. Question #9: Why water in baptism, and why babies? (Anglicanism on Baptism.)
  10. Question #10: Why so much repetition? (Worship as the development of habits which train us in virtue.)

For now, though, I wanted simply to discuss this strange word “liturgy.” What exactly does this word mean, and where does it come from?

The word “liturgy” comes from two Greek roots. The “lit” part comes from a Greek word that means “people.” The “urgy” part derives from the Greek ergon (think of an “ergonomic chair” which helps one perform work more effectively). So “liturgy” means, literally, “the work of the people.”

This idea reminds us of the words of I Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.” When St. Peter wrote these words, he was not writing to some elite class of “super spiritual” people, and he was not writing only to priests or bishops. He was writing to “ordinary” Christians just like you, who have been baptized into Christ, and who are members of his body by virtue of that baptism and your faithful participation in the Gospel.

As priests, as a priestly people, our primary work or service, then, is to worship God, and this is why we worship the way we do.

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