Sunday, August 31, 2008

More About Worship

There was a core issue of worship which finally set in motion my leaving the “successful” pastoral position I had (and the salary contract that went with it). It was an issue that even compelled my willingness to embrace a radical shift of identity (that some people in what has been our circle of close relationships still seem unable to handle — the prejudice of Evangelicals toward Catholics is quite real, with concern whether Catholics are “real” Christians, and if they are it is said that it’s in spite of the Church).

Anyway, as I began to read more extensively in the early Fathers it became apparent that there was a particular focus in Christian worship from the beginning. The clear practice of the early Church (in the NT, and then extending into the second, third, fourth, etc. centuries) testifies to Christian worship culminating in the Eucharist. Likewise, there is a particular understanding of the Bread and the Cup in the earliest writings. Jesus himself uses literalist language in John 6 that offended the sensibilities of his hearers. The Epistles give a practical testimony to the ultimate sacredness of the Eucharist when Paul tells the Corinthians that those who partake without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves (2Cor 11:29). This is hardly the kind of warning one would expect from God about a “symbol.” That the Church embraced this literalist understanding of Real Presence from the beginning is confirmed in a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35–107), whose life overlapped that of the Apostle John (so Ignatius, a respected leader in the Church, would not have been wrong in what follows):

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. .. . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins. . .” (Epistle to the Smyraens, VI, VII; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: William D. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979], 89).
One generation later we have a description of Christian worship given by Justin Martyr:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors [give assistance to] the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
Yet I found myself, as an Evangelical pastor in the “free-church” tradition,” essentially trying to re-invent the wheel every week as I labored to construct a "meaningful worship service.” And no matter what I did, I knew it was out of bounds in my tradition (because no ecclesial community is free of the effect of a tradition of some kind) to have weekly Communion. And if, by chance, the congregation would have been willing to go there it still would not have been a Communion recognizing the Real Presence of Jesus in the Bread and Cup. So I was compelled by what I believe to be the truth of the Church — which is traceable to the very beginning — to embrace the Eucharist as the core of Christian worship.

As I began to express my questions and sentiments prior to my “big decision,” people would say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have Communion too often or it will lose its meaning.” I knew there was nothing to be gained by argument, yet became even more convinced that the meaning of Communion goes beyond the subjective sentiment of the person in the pew. I have also heard, repeatedly, the criticism directed by free-church Evangelicals toward Catholics (and even other liturgical Protestants): “Doing the same old thing is so boring....”

A bit over a year ago, with this fresh on my mind at the time, I made the following entry in my journal (which I’ve edited a bit for here):

This past Saturday found me again in worship and the Communion liturgy. It was one of those times when earth rises to heaven, and our earthly offerings of worship were explicitly connected to the imagery of John's Revelation (chapters 4&5). From the Trinitarian greeting and confession of sin, going into the Glory (always a high point for me), then seeing the drama of redemption acted out by the priest presenting the Bread and Cup, followed by the Holy, Holy and then Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world... have mercy on us.... This is worship — taking the very imagery God has given us, embracing it and then giving it back in a way that says, "This is reality.... this is where my hope lies.... this is the essence of Christian Faith."

I enter the sanctuary (and get there early enough not to be hurried) and consciously affirm my baptism — “I belong to you, my Lord” (and I tell myself each time not to let myself make it a mindless, mechanical gesture). I bow, remembering that the very physical presence of Jesus is in this place. I quiet my heart, inviting the Holy Spirit to work his life into me yet again. I sing when the procession begins, letting my voice give tangible expression to what I have prayed.

"But it's so repetitive," critics say. "It is so mechanical. It gets so boring just doing the same thing..."

The next day found my wife and me in the intimacy that we have shared together so consistently for over thirty years. I found myself telling her that it never gets "old." She is new and wonderful to me every time. This one woman that I have looked upon through her self-giving only becomes more beautiful, in spite of passing decades. Why doesn't she become boring to me? (That’s what the world accuses marriage of being, or at least it’s the justification for bailing out when “she doesn’t make me happy anymore”).

Surely this is part of the mystery of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and his Church. "Innovative worship" seems to be to be a sign of misplaced focus, as if "worship" was about keeping us entertained instead of entering, again and again, into the age-old delight of the Lover of our souls and finding our deepest joy and hope in the wonder of a redemption that is beyond anything we could have imagined on our own. Love is what keeps "repetitive" and "mechanical" from displacing beauty and wonder. And like little children who cannot get enough of a father's playful attention, we go into the mystery of Communion with the need to say to our heavenly Father, "Do it again, Daddy, do it again."

This is not boredom with the "same old thing." This is entering the Mystery that cannot be exhausted. And until He comes, we need to do it again and again.

When true Christian worship (and by this I mean the forms passed down through the Church) is “boring,” the problem is not with the form of worship. The real problem is found by looking in a mirror. And then we need to find a time and place to pray...

I have taken my eyes off your cross...
I have allowed my own desires and/or agenda to distract my heart....
My love has grown cold...
Show me your glory....

Is worship boring to you? Do you know what is wrong? Look in the mirror.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Remembering John the Baptizer

Today is the memorial for the “Beheading of John the Baptist.” (In my late teens I heard Leonard Ravenhill call him “John the Baptizer,” saying the Baptists had had him long enough, and that has stuck with me all these years — thus my title.)

The Office of Readings for today is taken from a homily by Venerable Bede in which he says of John: “His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth.” How many who claim to follow Jesus remain silent about truth while the world around them proclaims lies that take us further and further into calamity? Bede continues — “Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth? Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

Then, in masterful homiletical style, Bede draws a series of contrasts that exhort all of us to faithfulness:

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life and deserved to be called a bright and shining lamp by that Light itself, which is Christ. John was baptized in his own blood, though he had been privileged to baptize the Redeemer of the world, to hear the voice of the Father above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him. But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such men as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.

The selection from Bede ends with a quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. May we all hunger and thirst for such faith!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some Thoughts About Worship

Thinking about worship has been a particular focus of mine for almost forty years. For thirty-three of those years I had a pastoral role in shaping worship from week to week. As I look back — it is said that hindsight is 20/20 — I see so many assumptions that were taken for granted.

What are the parameters for Christian worship? By this I specifically mean corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day, the latter of which is already based on something I consider to be foundational (i.e., a Thursday night gathering for believers, to cite a model that has been popular in recent years, is not the same).

Some would argue — or at least presumptively practice — that Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are all that’s needed: worship.... in spirit and in truth (Jn 4). It should be obvious, though, that those words need a lot of interpretation. Does “spirit” mean that form is totally relative? Does “truth,” on the other hand, mean that form in worship is part of an authoritative tradition that was established from the beginning? (Of course, this brings up the issue of authority, which would take this post to a far deeper and more involved level; those who truly are interested on basic issues with authority could start with a recent triple post on another (and very thought-provoking) blog:

I recently read something that both exalted a “spirit” of worship and denounced any forms of “empty rituals” (again, there are basic presumptions with the adjective, “empty”). This caused me to reflect on what is often the catalyst for the energy so routinely connected to “great” / “moving” / “thrilling” worship — music. Increasingly over the past several decades, that which is called “great worship” is usually connected with music that is performance-based, more and more professionally oriented, and quite often emotionally manipulative.

I am not saying good music in worship is wrong — far from it, but I do think it is important to warn against what can be “good” taking an undue place of preeminence. I know how “moving” (and dominant) music is in our culture. I have heard too many people talk about “why my church has such worship: the worship band is incredible — they even have commercial CDs.”

I wonder how Paul and the other apostles managed to spread the Christian Faith over Europe and much of Asia without an electric praise band! What made the gospel compelling without a few crooners hovering over a microphone and gyrating to Jesus?

To those two questions I would offer two substantive things: First, a quality of life — modeled after Jesus and enabled by the Holy Spirit — that caused those early Christians to be willing to suffer and die to be able to love others like the One who had died and risen. Second, worship that was anchored in what Jesus gave His Church: His very presence in the Bread and Cup.

Some things in worship truly are relative to culture and even the abilities of a given congregation. They can be good and helpful. But those things should never overshadow what has been the essence of Christian worship from the beginning; there is meaning to “spirit” and “truth,” and it is found in The Great Tradition (which is another subject worth extensive reflection).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Saint Bernard

Today is the memorial for Saint Bernard. My earliest association of his name was with the hymn, Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee. As one reflects on the words of this love-poem to Jesus, the strong faith and commitment of this medieval saint is beyond question. The fact that almost all Protestant traditions use this hymn is testimony to its broad and enduring value (but I know of no hymnal that includes all fifteen verses!).

Bernard’s father Tecelin was a knight and vassal of the Duke of Burgundy. Bernard was educated at Chatillon, where he was distinguished by his studious and meditative habits. He entered the monastery of Citeaux (the first Cistercian institution) in 1113. He was well known in Rome, and founded 163 monasteries throughout Europe. Bernard was a man of exceptional piety and spiritual vitality. Martin Luther, 400 years later, called him, “the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.”

The thing that would unsettle some about Bernard — if they knew the details — was his devotion to Mary. He not only wrote passionate lyrics to the Lord Jesus, some of his hymns to Mary express a level of devotion that, to an Evangelical Protestant ear, seem mutually exclusive to commitment to Jesus. Yet to many Catholics the two are natural and even inseparable because Mary is always pointing to her Son.

My own appreciation for Bernard is in his hymns to Jesus. One has been a long-time particular favorite of mine. The following words are a wonderful aid to prayer:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thoughts About Church

I have been reading several books by an Orthodox Church apologist. He is as adamant that Orthodoxy is the only, true, right Church as any Fundamentalist I’ve ever come across claiming the exclusivity of “King James only.” I will grant the Orthodox writer has far better arguments than the Fundamentalist. Yet this champion of Orthodoxy dismisses John Paul II’s language of “both lungs” (East and West) of the Church. Again, his unequivocal position is that Orthodoxy is right and anything else is heresy.

This, of course, has had me thinking about the nature of the Church. I know the Catholic Church sees herself as being the Church called into being by Christ, but — neophyte that I am — it seems Catholicism is far more charitable to Orthodoxy than Orthodoxy is to Catholicism. As I assess both claims I find that each has strong and weak points in respect to the other. The historical arguments with details of Councils and the philosophical nuances attendant to each position is enough to make one’s head swim.

I come from years of ministry in an ecclesial community with roots in Anabaptism. I was initially attracted to the Anabaptists years ago because I saw Jesus in the lives of the evangelical Anabaptists of the 16th Century. When almost all the other Christian groups were persecuting those who were not like themselves, the Anabaptists would not retaliate. They would suffer for Jesus, but they would not revile in His name.

Before I make the point of this particular entry, I want to preface my “ruminations” with a couple of caveats. First, I believe there is Truth which has been committed to Christ’s Church, and all who belong to Christ are to seek and submit to that Truth. Second, I also believe that any individual believer’s perception of perfect Truth is limited by a variety of qualifiers in a broken (fallen) world — which means, practically, that no one’s salvation is dependant on living in response to a perfect understanding of theology (I don’t think we’ll be given a Theology 101 exam to get into heaven). Salvation is by grace, available on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection for all who hunger and thirst for God. Attitude is far more crucial than understanding. Because of God's grace that extends through Christ "far as the curse is found," heart trumps mind.

So, here is the focus of my recent thoughts: The apologetic material I’ve read in the area of ecclesiology is mostly consumed with history, biblical exegesis and philosophy. Hardly anywhere have I found a cogent discussion of the place for “fruit” — e.g., Jesus’s words about false prophets (by their fruit you will know them) and His characterization of His followers (All people will know you are my disciples if you love one another). The question I’ve been pondering is: In what “streams” of Christian tradition are the fruits of the Spirit most evident? What communities of faith have best modeled the love of our Lord? Doesn’t this have a major factor in how we understand the identity of the Church?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Hymn-Prayer: Spirit of God Descend

This George Croly hymn has been one of my favorite prayers since discovering it in my late teen years:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
and make me love Thee as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.

Hast Thou not bid us love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own: soul, heart, and strength, and mind.
I see Thy cross, there teach my heart to cling;
O let me seek Thee, and O let me find.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
to check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
one holy passion filling all my frame;
the baptism of the heaven-descended Dove,
my heart an altar and Thy love the flame.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Brief Picture of Reality

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which always triggers in my mind the phrase “a brief picture of reality.”

I often think of things the world around us presents as “reality.” We live in a WYSIWYG world — What You See Is What You Get. People are obsessed with circumstantial pleasure, convinced that is the way to happiness, and the big threats in life — the weakness of poverty and physical limitations and what is assumed to be the finality of death — are thought to be the most horrific things possible.

On what basis dare anyone believe anything different? Christian Faith says the reason is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But yet again, how can a “modern mind” dare believe this is true? The Transfiguration offers a single picture of the bigger truth.

When Jesus was on earth, what people saw when they looked upon the Incarnate Son of Man was.... a man. Sometimes they saw Him do some amazing things, but He was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Yet Christian Faith came to recognize, as John wrote, we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. This theme recurs again and again in the NT. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by the Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Still, those looking at Him during those earthly years would have asked (if explicitly told this was the glory of God): Where? How? In a WYSIWYG world, Jesus was — even though engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating — just another man.

But one day — one time on one particular day — three of the disciples had their WYSIWYG world expanded. Peter, James and John saw His glory as he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. This “brief picture of reality” helped lay a foundation for understanding the greater reality to follow in the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter gave this clear witness and exhortation in his second letter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Those who know the Gospels well remember that when Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountain, the next incident was the lack of faith in the other disciples to heal a boy. Those who lived in the presence of the Glory every day were unable to act on that reality.

Do we not too frequently live on that level? How often have we heard the question (or asked it ourselves): If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? It is a question sparked by a WYSIWYG world.

Jesus let three of His disciples see His glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established as an Apostolic Rule of Faith. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived — in such a contrasting way to who they previously were — so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

The Transfiguration calls us — warmly and powerfully invites us — to “see” the glory of God in a way that goes beyond the WYSIWYG existence of the world-spirit.

The glories of this world do not last. The threats of this world do not have the last word. There is a glory promised to all who follow Jesus.... a glory that was fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who follow Jesus will know the power of the resurrection — the glory of the Son which is the inheritance of all who belong to Him — but not apart from, first, the cross with the accompanying darkness of not having everything yet fully visible. Christians live in the hope of glory, knowing that Jesus is the way. On this Transfiguration Day we remember this glimpse — a brief picture of reality.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Morning Prayer

We (my wife, daughter and I) have been praying this prayer from St Francis Xavier. It is a great thing to add to the start of one's day:

I adore you, God the Father, who created me;
I adore you, God the Son, who redeemed me;
I adore you, O Holy Spirit, who have so often sanctified me and are still sanctifying me.
I consecrate to you my whole day for the pure love of you and for your greater glory.
I do not know what is to happen to me today, whether troublesome things or pleasant ones, or whether I shall be happy or sad, in consolation or in grief. It will all be as you please. I abandon myself to your providence, and I submit to all your wishes.

Site Meter