Archive for the ‘Liturgy’ Category

The Incarnation is aimed at man’s transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection. God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where he is, so that we may get beyond ourselves. That is why to reduce the visible appearance of Christ to a “historical Jesus” belonging to the past misses the point of his visible appearance, misses the point of the Incarnation…

Iconoclasm rests ultimately on a one-sided apophatic theology, which recognizes only the Wholly Other-ness of the God beyond all images and words, a theology that in the final analysis regards revelation as the inadequate human reflection of what is eternally imperceptible. But if this is the case, faith collapses. Our current form of sensibility, which can no longer apprehend the transparency of the spirit in the senses, almost inevitably brings with it a flight into a purely “negative” (apophatic) theology. God is beyond all thought, and therefore all propositions about him and every kind of image of God are in equal proportions valid and invalid. What seems like the highest humility toward God turns into pride, allowing God no word and permitting him no real entry into history.

–Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp 123-124

In other words, God is not unknowable, He has revealed Himself, not only in history, but through all time and desires that we worship Him in the fullness of all of our senses, not merely the internal workings of our thought life.

In just a few paragraphs, Ratzinger takes down those theologians who spend their lives trying to reconstruct the “historical Jesus” which leads ultimately to reducing or minimizing worship of the living Son of God, Jesus Christ; as well as those who spend their lives trying to raise Christ to such an exalted position that we cannot know Him or experience Him in this age unless that knowledge or experience is subjective. It seems for both, worship becomes mere rational exercises in restating propositions already known.

Sitting through a worship service where the deconstruction of the Gospels in the hunt for the “historical Jesus” is the attempt to communicate the Gospel to the 21st century or a worship service that is all singing or preaching in a standard-issue, multi-purpose assembly room are apparently not all that far apart in Ratzinger’s thinking.

This may help explain why mainline denominations such as The Episcopal Church are withering while at the same time evangelicals are often observed in worship with their eyes closed. Too much rationality and not enough aesthetic will send us looking for the aesthetic, even if it is only behind our closed eyes.


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My wife receives the print version of the Global Prayer Digest, a daily devotional dedicated to praying for missions that is published by the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California.

Yesterday morning she was cleaning out old stuff from her Bible and tossed out the February 2007 edition which was dedicated to praying for the people groups in Russia and Eastern Europe.  Being a natural reader and packrat, I picked it out of the trash to give it a quick read.

At the beginning of each edition, the editors put together a summary of regional history or some other background information that creates awareness of current issues affecting both the region and the mission of the Church in that region.  Imagine my surprise when I read these two sentences:

After 1600, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon introduced a new liturgy that angered traditionalists into splitting from the Russian church. In a twisted attempt to restore unity, the reformers persecuted the old believers.

Funny how that was going on at the same time as all the religious upheaval, persecutions, civil wars and whatnot in Western Europe, especially England.  The Church of England and the dissenters on either side, Catholic or Puritan were locking horns at the same point in time.

Now what made those two sentences stand out even more were the continued travails of the orthodox within the Episcopal Church today.  They hold to the faith passed down from the apostles and yet find themselves under what increasingly feels like persecution from the revisionist minded leadership of the Episcopal Church.  Just as in those days traditional minded believers were forced out in the Russian Orthodox Church and the Puritans and Roman Catholics were pushed to the edge by the Church of England, so also today we see the same thing happening.

The Episcopal Church seems to bring this on herself from time to time.  Witness the split of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the U.S. 130 years ago over the influence of the Oxford Movement in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.  Consider the rise of the Continuing Churches in the world of Anglicanism 30 years ago concerning the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as well as the ordination of women.  Then see today’s new Anglican bodies popping up in the U.S and the ecclesiastical trials and even lawsuits filed against them for daring to leave with or without their property.  All of them twisted attempts to force liturgical, ecclesiastical and theological unity apart from the authority of Christ and Scriptures.

We’ve been down this road before.  It’s not pretty and it certainly will not glorify God or bring honor to the name of Jesus Christ, except to the extent that those who are being persecuted faithfully stand up and proclaim the gospel under fire.

As George Santayana, the philosopher, famously said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Or even better, King Solomon, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, there is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV)

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Is it still church when the pastor doesn’t show up, but gives his message by video?

The following set of facts is a true story overheard literally on the street last night.

Everything else went as it usually does in this very large church in a very large city.  The congregation was led in music by the normal group of people, an associate pastor led the congregation in prayer and the offering was taken while someone sang and led the congregation in another song.  Then the pastor showed up on the screen, but becasue the place was so big, no one, but those in the absolute front of the church knew he wasn’t stnding in his usual place.  It wasn’t until the end of the service when people stood up to leave that they realized he wasn’t there, it was all a video broadcast.

So, again, is still church when the pastor doesn’t show up to preach but gives his message by video?

I’m not just talking about video simulcasting to multiple sites, but actually not being physically present to preach at one of the sites because he’s away, travelling back from a conference, or dealing with prior commitments.  Pre-recording the week’s message so the flock still get to see their beloved pastor on the screen and hear his voice speaking to them, just earlier in the week.  And making this the standard operating procedure, not just a once in great while kind of thing.  All of this taking place in a church of thousands, with some exceptionally gifted and well-known preachers and Bible teachers on the staff who could easily pinch-hit out of the jam.

Have we really reduced worship in the word to a video series?  What happens after the beloved pastor leaves or dies?  Can we still run his picture and message on the screen as a re-run?

Something tells me this is not going to be a healthy trend for the church.  Worship in church on Sunday mornings (or Saturday nights, as is also the case in the above example) must be more than a lecture series centered around the personality and speaking style of one man.  This is, in my humble opinion, bordering on idolatry.

I just wish this were an aberration but apparently this trend is growing.  We’ll have to come back to this some other time.

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My liturgical church friends will think this post is strange, but having spent the past twenty years or so inside the free-church, low-church, evangelical world I do not think it is so strange or off the wall.

If proper worship consists of Word and Sacrament, how can we do a better job as evangelicals in our worship in the Word?  After all most evangelical churches spend a lot of time in the preaching of Scriptural truths or at least offering messages that are hopefully based on those truths.

My experience has led me to believe that the average Sunday morning service at an evangelical church lasts between 75 and 90 minutes.  Some go longer, some go shorter depending on the church, the occasion, the preacher and other variables in the service.

Of that time, my experience both as a pastor and as an observer has been that the preaching of the message often takes up approximately 20-45 minutes.  The longer the service generally is, the longer the message generally is as well.  Thus somewhere between one-third and one-half of the service is the message.

But many liturgical critics of such evangelical service have noted that evangelicals are Scripture starved in their services.  In other words the only Scripture read is that which pertains to the message.  This is in contrast with more liturgical churches which offer readings in at least two and often three lessons.

When I mention this to some evangelicals there is an immediate defensiveness and quizzical looks flow across their countenance.  They are rightly known as the people of the book, they preach Scripture, their authority is Scripture alone.  How dare anyone suggest that they are not using or committed to using Scripture in their services!

Yet too often this is just the case.  So how might the situation be improved?  First, churches should begin a practice of using the readings from an appropriate lectionary.  This will often bring up charges of moving into Rome or some such accusation.  I would only point out that the lectionary does not belong to Rome.  Anglicans, Lutherans, some Presbyterians and even some non-affiliated Emerging churches use the lectionary to their great profit.  Such use of the lectionary has the advantage of bringing in readings from the Old Testament, New Testament letters and often a third reading from the Gospels.

Second, I would encourage the reading of the ancient creeds during the service.  No, these are not Scripture per se, but they are an excellent summary of God’s Word to us.  Part of worship is the re-telling of God’s mighty acts in history to draw people to Himself, His work of redemption in saving sinful people from the consequences of sin.  This story is best re-capped in the ancient Creeds.

Reading them in worship would only add to the sense that each passage that is read is a part of the larger story of God’s redeeming work in this world.  The Nicene Creed  is more detailed than the Apostles’ Creed, yet both cover the same detail.  To read the Athanasian Creed would take significantly more time, but is certainly useful to be read from time to remind ourselves of the content of our faith in Christ.  There are other creeds found in Scripture or in various church documents which could also be used effectively.  (The proposed revision of the EFCA Statement of Faith would be one such document.)

Third, I would propose the music be picked less with an eye to its popularity on Christian radio or sales figures from the Christian Booksellers Association, but more towards a sung Scripture.  This would make me old-fashioned and open up a charge of being latter day Puritan, but I can handle that.  For starters not every old song is based on Scripture just as not every new song is either.  But there are sufficient of both old and new that teach the words of Scripture to the congregation in song that it can’t but help add to the worship.

When thinking about this issue it is best to remember that God says it is His word that is living and active that cuts between soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12).  It is His word that is God-breathed and useful for instruction, reproof, correction and training in righteousness so we may be equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  It is His word that does not return empty but accomplishes what He wishes it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11).  Adding more Scripture to our worship services only plants more seed for God to work and grow our faith.  And that is what we want is it not?

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If worship is to be divided into two parts, it should not be divided between “worship” and “message,” nor between preaching and music.  If we must divide worship, it ought to come between Word and Sacrament.  Even then this is no division, but only a means of worshipping in the ways that God has ordained for worship.

This is the division properly made when we come to worship the Almighty.  I think this is also the Scriptural division between the parts of our proper worship.  We can see this as we read Scriptures.  Beginning in the Old Testament, many times we will find worship begins with God speaking to His people.  This either happens in theophany, as at Mt.Sinai, or it might happen through His Law being proclaimed to His people as in the days of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah.

When God’s word is proclaimed the people respond with courage and honor for Him.  The proclamation of the Word is not merely preaching, nor is it merely the reading of Scripture.  It is the telling of God’s mighty acts in history.  The Psalms record these mighty acts as songs, so we could even include music under the proclamation of the word.  To proclaim God’s work in history is the purpose of preaching, singing, and reading of Scripture and the recitation of the creeds.

We hear God’s work and actions proclaimed and we respond.  This is also seen in Scripture as the people respond to the Lord’s word with sacrifice and ritual.  The proclaiming of God’s word leads to a response of giving back to God as a sign of their commitment to Him.  In the Old Testament these responses were the sacrifices of animals, produce and offerings of money in the Temple.  Today, these sacrifices are the sacramental gifts we offer to God as we are reminded of the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The sacrifices of the Old Covenant have been replaced with Jesus’ great sacrifice.  He came to fulfill the Law, to bring it to completion and through His righteous, sinless life, death and resurrection; He has finished the work of that Old Covenant.  There is now no more sacrifice to be offered for our sins of for our relationship to God.  He has done it all.  He has provided the acceptable sacrifice.

Thus our response in worship is not sacrifice and offerings for our sins, but looks rather to Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.  It would be improper to call them sacrifices in the same way as the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament.  The sacrifices of the New Covenant could properly be called sacraments.

There is a healthy debate within the church about how many sacraments have been ordained by God for His people at least since the Reformation.  No matter where people stand on this issue, there is general agreement that there are two basic foundational sacraments that God has ordained for His people:  baptism and Holy Communion.

The sacraments are our proper response to the Word of God being proclaimed.  We hear God’s word proclaimed to us as sinners and by His grace we believe and have faith.  This response to the word initially comes in the sacrament of baptism.  Baptism is our response to God’s saving action in our lives.  Our salvation is seen in this sacrament as it reflects Christ’s saving work as a one-time event.  He was offered once for all time, we are baptized once for all time as a sign that we belong to Him.

Recognizing that we cannot be baptized every day for our sins, or even every week, God has provided a second sacrament to remind us of His saving work in our lives, Holy Communion.  This is the on-going response of God’s action in our lives from week to week or month to month depending on how often one’s church or congregation comes to the Lord’s Table.

In one sense, coming to the Lord’s Table for communion reminds us of our baptismal faith and that we are secure in God’s grace.  This does not mean that the Table secures our faith and salvation, it does not.  It does mean that we are reminded regularly that we belong to God as His purchased people who have faith in Christ’s work on the cross.  Christ taught His disciples on the night He was betrayed to remember him in the breaking of bread and the drinking of the cup.  These are the signs of His death for us and the New Covenant we have been given by God through Him.  As such they keep us focused on Christ’s saving work in our lives as we remember them.  The security in such comes from the reminder; it is not made efficacious with the reminder.

These two sacraments were Jesus’ final enduring commands to His disciples.  He told them to break bread and the drink the cup to remember His death and resurrection.  After His resurrection He commands His disciples to go into all the world to make other disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

True worship, then, is not music and message, but rather Word and Sacrament as we hear the word proclaimed of God’s saving work in human history and offer or lives as an act of sacrifice back to God.  This is liturgy’s meaning at its deepest level.  Liturgy is the work of the people.  We need to return to this work of the people in our worship of God.

Music can be an offering and a sacrifice of praise, but it is not the God-commanded offering of response to the word proclaimed.  Good worship music is word of God proclaimed.  To have true worship that involves God’s word and our response we need baptism and Holy Communion.  Forcing music to take on the role of our response pushes it into a role for which it was not designed.  It becomes a man-made replacement for God’s gracious and acceptable gift in the sacraments.

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When did Christian worship get bifurcated between “worship” and “message”?  I have heard pastors of all kinds of stripes divide their services this way.  I have done it myself without thinking about what was happening with the words I was using.  Churches I have attended in the past while in seminary or before also divided their services this way.

In seminary, it was common to hear the unwashed, over-eager, and greatly inexperienced Future Preachers of America speak of hurrying their churches through the music to get to the main event, their preaching.  They were only reflecting their teaching and training that called for a high view of Scripture.  Scripture has the final authority in faith and practice, therefore exposition of Scripture must be right next to heaven.  Thus the desire to get to the sermon and the musicians out of the picture.We want to learn from God’s Word.  It is imperative if we are going to live as followers of Christ that we hear from God concerning our lives and our relationship to Him.  He clearly speaks through His Word to us.  Good preaching should focus our hearts and minds on what God has to say to us in Scripture.

For people who are really word-oriented in their outlook on life this view makes sense.  Preaching is the most important part of the service for them.  They are more apt to evaluate a church on its preaching than any other criteria.  This puts a lot of pressure on pastors to hit home runs with their messages every week.  Often times that pressure is found inside the pastor as well because he is word-oriented as a basic foundation for his walk with Jesus.

I have heard people in the pews make this distinction between worship and message in the other direction.  For these people worship is meeting God in song, really belting out the songs with all of their strength.  For some it involves being moved emotionally by the music.  If the music doesn’t move then worship didn’t happen.  As a result they want to linger on the music and resent the pastor or anyone else insisting on preaching or anything else that brings the singing to an end (like the offering or Lord’s Table).  For such people singing and worshipping musically is the main event of the whole service, everything after that is anticlimactic.

Yet to bifurcate Christian worship into worship and message is to miss the importance of the message and the unity of worship.  The message should be seen as part of the worship of the healthy Christian.  We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:30)  All of those are needed for true worship, including the mind.  Music may carry the soul to the heights, but the message should carry our minds to new heights as well.  I am convinced that God intends the message to carry our souls as well.

Yet to use music and message against each other is to miss the whole purpose of worship.  Is not worship supposed to be our response to God’s incredible grace given to us?  Should not worship be both music and message as we hear God’s word spoken, the truth about our lives, and respond with joy?  We have bought into a mindset that says we need one or the other as primary when both are needed.

Good Christ-centered preaching will lead us to Him and to His grace every time under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit.  Good Christ-centered music will prepare our hearts for the message, as well as preach the message of the Gospel in a different format.  Both ought to be acts of worship and lead to people worshipping God more deeply than they had beforehand.

We need both music and preaching for good worship.  To hold one over the other is to wrongly divide worship and misses the reality that we were made to worship God in many ways.  Both should help us grow in grace and godliness.  That is real worship.

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Last night my church put on a drama skit called The Trial during our Sunday evening worship service.  It was the culmination of weeks of practice for the 12 people involved in the skit.  Overall they did a fairly good job considering only one or two of them have a sense of drama or acting in telling a story.  However, no one is going to say they are ready for the big stage as actors or costume designers.

The drama was about the trial of Jesus and was taken as much as possible from the words of Scripture in the four Gospels.  One of the ladies in the church had been working on it for a few years putting together the different pieces from the different Gospel accounts to create a harmonized version that told the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial in a simple way.

Given that we are a small church, this was an ambitious undertaking.  The hope was that we would use this play as an outreach to the friends and family members of the people of our church.  When I looked around, I noticed that the church was fairly full and about one-third of those people were visitors.  So I thought it was reasonably successful in being in an outreach.

The idea was to keep the play simple and yet the storyline faithful to the Gospel accounts.  In reading the script ahead of time and watching the practices, I thought they had done a fairly good job in keeping to that goal.  It wasn’t the Jesus Film or The Passion of The Christ, but for our church and our location it was pretty good.

Yet during the play something unusual happened.  After Jesus is arrested and brought to the house of Caiaphas to be tried before the chief priests and rulers, He is beaten by the guards who blindfold Him and tell Him to prophesy who hit Him.  It is the first of several beatings in the play that ultimately culminate in Jesus’ scourging as commanded by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

In the play last night every time Jesus was struck people would chuckle.  It started early as a little tittering here and there, but by the end people were laughing great big belly laughs every time the actor playing Jesus was hit.  When it was just a little tittering I thought that was weird, but by the end I was appalled.  It was as if the people weren’t seeing the story played out on stage.

Now I admit no one on that stage was going for an Oscar or a Tony award.  It may be that the people were amused by the scene of a very popular elder in the church being struck by another well-liked elder.  But when the action was taken off stage but with sound effects continuing to demonstrate the brutality of the beating given to Jesus, the laughing got louder.  When the two actors playing Jesus and the Roman soldier came back on stage and the one playing Jesus was covered in stage blood with torn clothes and bloody purple robe on his shoulders, the audience lost it laughing so hard.

How horribly tragic.

Even my almost ten-year-old came up to me right after the play and said, “Dad, that wasn’t a drama.  It was a comedy!”  What a thing to have left as an impression upon a kid who knows better.  The story of Jesus’ trial and suffering became a comedy of laughter for many people.  This should have caused us the greatest shock and sadness as we realized what was happening on stage.

The most horrific event in human history should not be seen as a comedy.  It is not a laughing matter that Jesus suffered and died in our place.  We shouldn’t laugh at His beating or give people a reason to laugh about it as if it were some great form of entertainment like the Romans feeding Christians to the lions.

The seriousness of our sin problem gets downplayed when Jesus’ suffering is seen as entertainment.  We dishonor Christ when we laugh or cause other people to laugh about His standing in our place to be punished for our sin and to defeat sin.  I am appalled that such a dishonoring of the suffering of Jesus Christ took place in church.  I understand when such things happen elsewhere, though I do not like it.  But in church?  It should never happen.

The suffering of Jesus Christ is no laughing matter.  It is not a comedy, people.

Lord, forgive us for making light of your suffering and death.  Forgive us for laughing when we should have been crying.  Help us to see with better eyes the seriousness of our sin and the greatness of your sacrifice on our behalf.  In your precious Name we pray, Amen.

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