Liturgy and Worship

your formative years?

I’ve been reading James K A Smith’s book, Desiring The Kingdom. And I’m absolutely loving it!

Although, I have to say that it leaves me in equal parts thrilled and freaked out.


Check out this provocative description of what makes many people’s time at university so formative (pages 115-116):

[T]he university’s formative, liturgical power extends well beyond the classroom and the lecture hall; indeed, it might be that the dorms, stadium, and frat houses are even more powerful liturgical sites within the university — shaping students into certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent on certain ends.
Consider, for instance, the consummate ritual of initiation: Freshers’ Week (or “Frosh” Week, as it’s known in Canada). This is an intensive experience of initial formation that functions as a veritable boot camp — a week of immersion in the life of the university that often has quite little to do with the task of learning or research. It is intensely communal and intergenerational, where older students initiate new students into the books and crannies of the university’s life and not so subtly communicate what is valued, which often amounts to carefree social interaction lubricated by alcohol, cult-like devotion to the football team, and the solidification of social networks that will be instrumental and instrumentalized for the sake of personal benefit and gain.

(Obviously, this reflects the North American campus experience. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make the necessary mental adjustments for our Australian context!)

As an example of Smith’s larger argument, I hope this gives you a sense of what’s so thrilling and frightening here.

I’m excited by his affirmation of the importance of our bodiliness — and with it our ‘thick’ significance-laden, identity-forming habits and practices (think spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting your tousled look rather than your regular tooth-brushing).

And I’m freaked out by the picture he paints of the pervasiveness and power of the (liturgical) identity-sculpting forces coursing and heaving away beneath the surface of university life.

How can we resist — or equip university students (or potential students) to resist — something that seems as inexorable and irreversible as erosion?

This is the challenge that’s got its hooks into me at the moment. So expect to hear more about it!

interlude: the biblical case for liturgical formation

Yesterday I preached on James 4.13-5.20. As far as I’m concerned, the crowing jewel and tip off about what lies at the hidden centre of this passage (and holds together all it’s different elements) is this:

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

James K. A. Smith – eat your heart out!

Here’s James’ word for those who know that Jesus is Lord. Here’s the nuts and bolts of how to put away self-concern and train your hearts to long for the Lord’s appearing as the farmer longs for the rains — banking on it 100%.

What’s his word?

Turn outwards.

In trouble. In success. In sickness. In the desperate struggle to stay afloat when life threatens to swamp your faith.

Take daily, disciplined, habitual action — like repeated liturgical action — to form and shape your desires in response to the gospel.

This is the only way to break free of the massive gravitational pull of self-concern so you can begin to orbit around the true centre of gravity of the moral universe — the Lord Jesus who is coming to judge…

then I’m too small to wield the key

So I’ve started to realise that the real work of discipleship — changing hearts and shaping our desires and abiding habits — is too massive and demanding for me.

Like Alice after drinking from the bottle labelled “DRINK ME”, I’m left feeling small and inadequate.

The enormity of the task is overwhelming. And I certainly can’t get a handle on the key that opens the all-important door. Only God can break up the stony ground of our hearts and reorder our affections — so we love the right things in the right way.

I’m not sure whether this realisation is deflating or liberating. (Like I said when I invited you to join me on this adventure, things are kind of out of proportion down here!)

But before I let myself — and you — off the hook too quickly, let me remind you that God uses means.

What this means is that in his sovereign and loving freedom God typically chooses to work with and through the ordinary stuff of creation. His Spirit did preside over his ordinary week’s work of making everything in Genesis 1.1-2.3, after all!

And this also means God often chooses to use us — in our inadequacy and insufficiency to the task of changing hearts — and our ordinary human words and actions to achieve his life-realigning purposes.

The theologian John Webster would put this under the heading of the sanctifying work of the Spirit — which he describes as “God’s unceasing, ever-fresh act of bestowing holiness upon the creature by the creature’s consecration” (Holiness, page 77).

But it’s what Webster goes on to say that I find most helpful — and dizzying: “the primary mark of creaturely holiness is … its external orientation, its ordering towards God as its source and the object of its praises”.

If I ‘ve understood this (and there are no guarantees I have), then I think it means that as we — in our stumbling and faltering way — learn to delight in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of our life and the infinitely-praiseworthy centre of everything, we can be confident God is at work in us — making us holy and, ultimately, fit to achieve his purposes.

And that is a towering responsibility!

first I’m too big to get where I want to go

The first disorienting situation Alice encountered down the rabbit hole was the corridor with many locked doors of different sizes. And the only one she could find a key for was too small for her to get through.

Which is a little like how I feel as I size up the summons implied in my gradually dawning recognition that right theology must open out onto right worship.

Basically, I feel like I’m way too big to get where I want to go.

Where I want to go is deeper than either merely cramming people’s heads with more information (the right answers, good theology, a Christian worldview etc) or simply giving people advice about how to lift their game spiritually or transform their lives.

Now it ‘s not that I’m opposed to good, solid gospel-centred theology and an integrated Christian worldview. I’d be the last person to suggest this!

And I also know that the best accounts of Christian theology and worldview-thinking conceive of these things less as a pre-loaded encyclopaedia of right answers to every question or situation we might face and more as a way of seeing things that has at its centre Jesus and the defining stories (e.g., creation and fall, Old Testament promises and New Testament fulfilment, resurrection and new creation) and symbols (e.g., the cross, the body of Christ, etc) of our faith.

Likewise, I’m a huge fan of life-transformation. I’ve grown and benefited heaps from having older, wiser heads advise me or share tips that help me lift my game spiritually. And I could tell you lots of stories about times when it’s been doing something that I know is right that’s sort of ‘led’ my heart into right attitudes and beliefs.

But like I say, I want to go deeper than that. Because — as I know not only from observation but also from personal experience — it’s all too easy to know all the right answers (and even write high mark-earning theology papers about them) and yet have an harbour sin in your life. And I also know that moral reformation can be a fig leaf for an unbelieving heart (like Tim Keller often says, the gospel demands we repent of our ‘righteousness’ as well as our sin).

Worse, it’s even possible to get so wrapped up in being right that you end up a whole lot more like the Pharisee than the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable. (And we know which one of them went home in the right with God, don’t we?)

All of which is to say I want to lead people into believing, trusting, loving and surrendering to God. Which is exactly where right theology is supposed to take us, I think.

But narrow is the door — and few enter into it.

And I’m constantly wrestling with the fact that I find I’m still too big to fit through — let alone lead others through.

I’m too wrapped up in my own stuff. My own sense of entitlement (“the universe owes me”) and self-importance. My own desperate desire to be right. whether it’s because I like the attention and kudos of being the expert with all the answers or because ticking these boxes plays in to my own inner craving for control and having it ‘all figured out’.

I guess I need a dose of the spiritual equivalent of whatever was in that bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ that Alice stumbled upon…

come with me down the rabbit hole…

Photograph by Jenny Ihn (detail of a work in progress)

Photograph by Jenny Ihn (detail of a work in progress)

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve sort of disappeared underground lately.

And I’m not just talking about the past few weeks. In reality, I’ve been gone for months — hoping to distract everyone (myself included) from this fact by chucking a half-baked post up here and a rambling collection of thoughts there.

Instead of explaining or trying to excuse my absence, I’d like to invite you to come with me down the rabbit hole I’ve fallen into.

But be warned! Things down here are a little bit awkward. The proportions are outlandish and kind of dizzying — you never seem to know if you’re too big or too small. And you may well be surprised by some of its denizens…

To cut to the chase, James K. A. Smith’s 2012 New College lectures — which you can download and listen to HERE — have helped me bring into sharp focus something I’ve been catching blurry glimpses of for the last 18 months:

Right theology (or, more broadly, an integrated Christian worldview) isn’t an end in itself; it’s got to open out onto right worship — in action as well as adoration.

Sounds simple. Uncontroversial even.

But the impact of taking this insight seriously… The alien light it throws on everything I’ve learnt… The dissatisfaction it has instilled in me when it comes to my otherwise perfectly serviceable preaching and Bible teaching…

It’s massive.

I’d love you to join me on the adventure!

getting out of the depths

I’ve been spending some time in the Psalms lately. It’s been good for my soul. Very good.

One reason it’s been good is that I’ve been more or less able to stop my ears against the insistent bleating of the flock of interpretive questions I’ve gathered over the years. It’s (mostly) just been me and Israel’s hymnbook.

And yet there have still been a few puzzling moments — where I struggle to know what it means to take the Psalmist’s words to my lips (or even if I can).

As I Protestant, I have the obligatory difficulty with all David’s talk of his righteousness and longing for God to smash his unrighteous enemies. Added to this is my postmodern recoil from the potential social/relational implications of this kind of (apparently) self-assured, vengeful talk.

And as someone who’s had my fair share of emotional ups and downs, I’m also a little puzzled by what makes it possible for the Psalmists to pour out their hearts in agony and oppression and yet somehow suddenly reverse this and get out of the depths.

Psalm 13 is one example of this that I’ve sat with recently:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

I can follow the trajectory from complaint (I think the technical term might be ‘lament’) to impassioned plea down through verses 1-4. As the darkness around him descends, David begs God to give light — the light of life — to his eyes.

But what I don’t get is how he turns the corner into verses 5-6. What gets him out of the depths?

Obviously, the things he mentions here have something to do with it — God’s constant and steadfast love, the salvation he has effected (or will effect), the way he’s dealt bountifully with David (presumably in the past, although it could be in the present moment).

But what triggers these thoughts for David? What stirs him up and prompts him to attend to God’s character and (habitual) works?

Other Psalms trace the path more carefully. But this Psalm is silent. Something happens somewhere between verse 4 and verse 5. But what happened, where it came from, and how it happened… Who knows?

And maybe that’s the point. We can’t manufacture this or follow a pre-package recipe. God in his goodness has to lift us up — so that the glory goes to him.

how to renarrate hardship in the light of the gospel

Even from what little I’ve read so far, James K. A. Smith’s Desiring The Kingdom is a book bristling with insights.

One of the most potentially fruitful insights is the chapter he devotes to exploring how the different elements of Christian liturgy can ‘school’ our desires and worldview. For example, Smith argues that the role of scripture reading and preaching is to renarrate the world.

And it’s really true, isn’t it?

How many times have you had the experience of being able to see aspects of your life or situation differently as the result of reading something in the Bible or hearing a great sermon?

This even seems to be the more or less explicit aim of many parts of the Bible — as is certainly true of a passage I heard preached on recently: 2 Timothy 4.9-22.

There, Paul mentions the costs of his ministry — costs like the grief of saying good-bye to people (verses 9-13) — the conflicts and sometimes very deep hurts that characterised much of it (verses 14-18), as well as some of the people and relationships that could perhaps be regarded — especially by Type A personalities — as obstacles to the tasks of ministry (verses 19-21).

These hardships could easily have made him feel frustrated and bitter. Of anyone, surely Paul had reason to feel God owed him a comfortable, conflict-free, strength-to-strength experience on the home stretch of ministry.

But Paul recasts each of these hardships instead. The costs he recasts in terms of generosity. The conflicts in terms of opportunity. And the people and relationships in terms of priorities (reflecting God’s own priorities).

It’s important to see that Paul is renarrating his experience here. He’s not denying the reality of the hardships. But he is ensuring that the story doesn’t end there.

So what makes possible this radical renarration of his tough experience of ministry?

Ultimately, it’s only the gospel promise and reality of God’s presence and grace. And that’s the very thing with which Paul concludes this passage — both wrapping up his final letter and issuing a standing invitation to renarrate our own hardship in the same way:

The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.

the church does NOT have a body

I’ve been reflecting further on what I said about Christianity’s opposition to tribalism last week. And I want to offer a corrective for my provocative suggestion that genuine Christian community is incoherent (because it finds its origin and continuity outside itself).

So let me try to recast it. Now I’m thinking that it’s better to say:

The church does NOT have a body.

There. That clears any confusion right up. Doesn’t it?

Well … probably not. At this point something along the following lines may be running through your head: “Dude! What are you smoking? Of course the church has a body — it’s the body of Christ!”

But that’s exactly my point.

The church does not have a body. It is a body. The body of Christ. He’s it’s head. That’s the way the New Testament presents it.

Considered apart from Jesus, we’re a headless cadaver.

Gruesome, right?

Well, the prospect of losing touch with Christ our head is gruesome.

Christ is our life. He gives the church not only its existence but its integrity and direction. We owe him any distinctiveness and power we have.

Surely that’s why we don’t proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord!

Lest you think I’m getting all hot and bothered over a technicality, let me point out at least one implication of taking this seriously.

The worship debate has flared up again recently (as you can see HERE and HERE). A number of influential Christian leaders are suggesting we shouldn’t refer to the church gathering — or any aspects of what goes on when we’re gathered (e.g., singing) — with ‘worship’ language.

I’ve followed the argument closely (I used to be a strong proponent of it). And I can hardly fault the claim that misapplying worship language and terminology can erode the gospel — leaving us with an impoverished message of connecting with God through particularly intense experiences facilitated by the ‘worship team’.

But I wonder if one of the ways worship language could function when we get together is to focus us on Jesus, the one we adore and from whom our life and fellowship derives.

If ‘worship’ isn’t the right language for this (and it may not be), we badly need to find something that is…

Social Design for mission and ministry (9): it begins and ends with identity

Towards the end of the chapter on ‘Jesus-shaped community’ in Joined-up Life Andrew Cameron gives an evocative thumbnail sketch of New Testament churches (page 172):

[These churches were] bands of people ‘in Christ’ … who came together to learn, train and grow the Jesus-shaped version of their identity in small, reconciled groups.

I love this — especially what it suggests about the dynamics of mission and ministry in and through churches.

First and foremost, it says that what we’re on about begins and ends with identity.

It begins with the new identity we’re graciously given through Jesus. We are people ‘in Christ’. That’s the reality. That’s the reason we gather together — to reflect, express and enact who we are — individually and together.

But it’s also the goal and purpose of our gathering — to enter more and more into the reality of who we are in Christ. To experience it more deeply. To grow and develop in practice this Jesus-shaped version of ourselves together — because we can’t go it alone.

And this is where I think the Facebook Social Design guidelines about curating identity can help.

For as we heed their wisdom about being context-relevant, we’ll learn to stretch our community and activities between two poles:

  • The particular people who have been given to each other by God — their specific gifts and personalities as well as their unique histories; and
  • The common God-given identity we gather to embrace — our oneness in Christ, etc.

Among other things, this means thoughtfully negotiating the tension between language expressing the particularity of the people gathered and language drawing us deeper into our Christian identity.

So, among a group of ex-prostitutes, for example the language of shame and victimisation will be affirmed, critiqued and transformed as it interacts with biblical categories and narratives.

Likewise, as we take on board the advice to curate content and tell stories, we’ll learn to draw on the identity-forming resources of word and sacrament to help people inhabit the story of Jesus.

We’ll continually recall the new life Christ’s death and resurrection has secured for us and how it continues to nourish and sustain us. We’ll learn its patterns. And together we’ll discern its particular texture and feel in our situation (e.g., where it rubs up against our ‘natural’ ways of thinking, feeling and ding).

And, finally, we’ll apply the injunction to highlight interesting information by finding ways to help each other focus on the living and active, judging and sanctifying presence of Jesus in our midst.

That is, by listening obediently to his voice we’ll seek to allow him to illuminate our individual lives as well as our common life.

In this way, we’ll strive to stay in orbit around him — stirring each other up to adoring, prayerful, humble responsive action that joyfully embraces our new identity in Christ.

Social Design for mission and ministry (5): missional community with a twist (ii)

I’m trying to sketch a vision for Jesus-shaped community in response to Facebook Developers’ Social Design imperative to utilise community.

I’ve dubbed this vision ‘missional community with a twist’. And I hope what I mean by this is beginning to emerge as I distinguish it from some of what’s become associated with the missional community approach.

So, without further ado, here are two final reservations about ‘missional community’:

First, this approach often fails to enact the conviction that mission is a God-thing before it’s an us thing in the way they suggest we ‘do’ church.

While it helpfully pushes against a Church Is All About Making Us Feel Good (Or Safe Or Whatever) mindset — rightly opposing the sort of insular, separatist, fortress mentality that churches can slip into — it can simply instal a Church Is All About Making Others Feel Good (Or Safe Or Whatever) mentality in its place.

Either way, thing have gone haywire. Because church isn’t fundamentally about others any more than it’s about us (or, worse, me).

It sounds dumb to say it, but church is fundamentally about Jesus. It’s his body after all!

That means that our overriding aim and focus should be Jesus.

Everything we do should be done in loving response to his initiative and joyful recognition of his lordship. Everything we do, that is, should be worship.

Second, the missional community approach typically fails to engage with the bodiliness of the church.

I’ll have more to say about this as we continue. But for the moment I want to focus on one particular aspect of the church’s bodiliness — its integrity (a big part of what makes a body a body is its distinction from other bodies).

The missional community approach characteristically insists that churches should have ‘porous boundaries’ if they’re to be truly Jesus-shaped.

There’s certainly something to this. Jesus ate with notorious sinners. The apostles apparently assumed that ‘strangers’ would be present in our gatherings (see 1 Corinthians 14). And attempts to define the limits of fellowship risk undermining the gospel of grace by drawing the boundaries too tightly (or too idiosyncratically).

But none of this comes at the expense of the integrity of the church body — an explicit theme in the New Testament on more than one occasion (e.g., Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5).

Jesus’ shocking welcome of sinners didn’t endorse their lifestyles. Paul’s assumption that non-Christians would be present in Christian gatherings may have given him reason to favour (intelligible) prophecy over tongues, but it wasn’t meant to dilute the specifically Christian content of what went on.

For all the value talk of ‘porous boundaries’ can add, it’s a problem if it leads us to start diluting the ‘Christianness’ of our Christian gatherings. That is, if it detracts from our focus on the living Lord of the church who is present and active, ruling by his Word and Spirit.