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Category Archives: Contemporary Experiences

Can Traditional and Contemporary Worship Be Complimentary?

091018-image.jpgSince my ordination in May, I have been charged by the leadership of Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (Gilbert, AZ) to explore ways that we might plant new works in the Valley of the Sun. This has led me to seek out pastors in our network to find out what they’re doing in mission, and to seek ways that we might be able to advance the gospel through collaborative projects. In getting to know our neighboring Lutheran churches, I’ve been greatly blessed! … but also discouraged.

Worship Styles

One of the areas that creates tension between us is our approach to worship. Some churches have such a strong dedication to the classical forms of liturgy that they see contemporary expressions as inherently wrong – to the point that some of these traditional churches want nothing to do with partnering with the contemporary ones. Equally distressing are the churches that are so enamored with the positive reviews and growing numbers of contemporary churches that they have abandoned substantial principles and practices that are foundational to classical Christianity (and, therefore, Lutheranism). They look at churches dedicated to traditions as hopelessly out of date, and destined for a death-by-attrition, as the old-school believers eventually pass away, their churches and styles with them.

This isn’t just a Valley of the Sun issue. It is a huge issue for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod denomination. Already this issue has divided us relationally. It threatens to divide us institutionally if we can’t find a way to lovingly coexist moving forward.

Worship at Christ’s Greenfield

Without patting ourselves on the back too briskly, I do want to point out that … well, we seem to be doing something right. I think it looks like this:

Traditional Worship: At our traditional worship services, there are some strong commitments to the most important principles of corporate, Christian worship. Yes, we sing mostly hymnody, and most often with organ accompaniment. Yes, we make much of the Lutheran Service Book (readings, chanting, sitting and standing).

Incense
If you think this kind of worship could never “work for you”, you may have an unhealthy bias against traditional worship styles.

But this isn’t the substance of our traditional worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call.

Many traditional worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of this verse: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service–yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me.” (Isaiah 29:13). I’m sure this happens in pockets at CGLCS, but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just by formula, but by deeply thankful intention.

Contemporary Worship: Over in the Life Center, there are also some strong commitments. We sing songs that are more representative of our cultural norms and context. There is more casualness in appearance (no robes, no altar) and actions (more clapping, hand-raising, laughter).

But this isn’t the substance of our contemporary worship. What is important is our emphasis on the Word (readings, preaching), our allegiance to the Lord’s Supper, our practice of Absolution, our commitment to shared prayer, and our understanding of the need for these things to be placed in their appropriate narrative order. Like the prophet’s experience in Isaiah 6, we see the Lord, are humbled to repent, hear the proclamation of forgiveness, are made ready for the hearing of the Word, and are given opportunity to offer ourselves to our God and His call. (See what I did there?)

guitar_jesus

If you find this image sacrilegious, you might have too strong a bias against contemporary worship styles.

Many contemporary worship services I’ve visited recently remind me of the story of Aaron, the people of Israel, and the golden calf. The people love what they love, and will clamor for it, even if it’s not appropriate. The measure of “good worship” becomes their enjoyment, not God’s prescriptions. “Confessing sins? Long scripture readings? Standing for prayer? These are uncomfortable, and bad theater!” I’m sure there are a few at CGLCS who hope that our contemporary services move away from our moorings, and become like the Jesus infomercials of modern Evangelicalism … but overall I believe we are a church of people whose hearts are close to the Lord, and that we are entering into worship not just out of personal preference, but out of thankful obedience to God, and a desire to please him in all that we do.

What CGLCS is getting right:
 Our traditional and contemporary services are the same in all the most important ways. This allows us to go back and forth, and still be a part of the same worshiping community. It also anchors

What CGLCS needs to be cautious about: We can never adopt an animosity toward what is going on in the other worship venue. Appreciate your preference, yes … but the day we start lobbying for our preference alone, and condemn the practices of our brothers and sisters across the courtyard, is the day we get infected with the poison that is crippling our denomination.

How CGLCS can help change the world! Rather than succumb to our propensity to divide, we need to shine as an example to the broader Christian and Lutheran communities of how alternative worship styles can remain grounded, compliment one another, and bear much fruit. If we can do it at 425 N. Greenfield Rd. in Gilbert, perhaps we can do it across the country? I believe so.

– EO

(This article was originally published via the Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church Blog.)

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Ancient Paths: A Diversion to the Jordan

In our look at the “ancient paths” of the people of God, I continue to be struck by the way God has always used very physical means by which to manifest Himself to the world. This modus operandi of God stands in sharp contrast to our modern, “enlightened” expectations of how we think God is obliged to act.

In what we historically call the Modern world — the era spawned out of the European Renaissance, fanned into flame by Humanism, metastasizing into what we call the Enlightenment, and bearing the fruit of the scientific revolution — we have become enamored with that which we can measure. Through measurable experimentation we thhave come to “conclude” that things happen according to what we call “natural laws”. This consistency — this sameness that we find in the created order, we chalk up to being “natural”, and therefore no longer in need of divine impetus or explanation. “If God is going to reveal Himself”, we now say, “it has to be through some sort of super-natural expression.” A burning in the bosom. A miracle. A still, small voice. Still, by modern definitions, none of these things can be counted on as genuine “truth”, because they are immeasurable. Spiritual experience is, by modern definition, doubtful.

All this stand in stark contrast to the Biblical testimony of the Apostle Paul, who says in Romans 1:20 , “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But, because we can measure things, we have become blind to the revelation of God as God, choosing instead to give the glory for created order to Mother Nature, a big bang, or (dare I say) a super-natural capacity for creation to rise above its clearly measurable bent toward entropy and atrophy to evolve through heredity and selection.

Okay, back to the River Jordan. I’ve been spell-bound (now there’s a supernatural term for you!) by the stuff-ness of the first chapters of the book of Joshua. Here, we have an estimated two million people who are about to enter the pro800-Joshua-03-Ark-Rivermised land near Jericho. Manna is falling daily from the sky. The Ark of the Covenant is in tow. A red piece of cloth is signaling salvation for Rahab and her family. The waters of the flooded Jordan are brought to a standstill when the feet of the Ark-carriers hit the water. God is commanding that stones be gathered and stacked as lasting remembrances. A mass circumcision is performed at God’s urging. Passover is celebrated, including the eating of the prescribed unleavened bread. There is the very real, physical encounter between Joshua and “the commander of the Lord’s army”, where Joshua is told to remove his sandals, because the ground is holy. Then, when it’s time to take Jericho, God specifically calls for marching, the Ark, seven priests, seven ram’s horn trumpets (with a specific prolonged blast), and a prescribed shout.

The (by now obvious) point I’m making is this: For Joshua and the Israelites, their ongoing relationship with God was wildly physical. Inescapably tangible. Any notion that one’s spiritual life was relegated to internal feelings or convictions is completely jerichofallabsent from these descriptions. Rather, God unfolds His covenant with His people in ways that “all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD’s hand is mighty, and so that you may always fear the LORD your God” (Josh. 4:24). Through these tangible means, God says, “Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you” (Josh 5:9). They all knew that they were now “crossing the plains of Jericho in the LORD’s presence” (Josh. 4:13). God, present, forgiving, proclaiming … through stuff.

Most of us would count scientific progress a great blessing. But the undergirding values of our age which have allowed for great advance have profoundly victimized our faith. They have served to emasculate God in the hearts and minds of the “enlightened”. We now find ourselves the product of a worldview that severs the natural from the divine, honors the former while doubting (and then ignoring) the latter, and is hopelessly preoccupied by our own measuring. With no vision for how the creator makes Himself known to the people of His creation through the stuff of His creation … we have become, not enlightened, but blind. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, worshiping and serving what has been created instead of the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).

the-baptism-of-jesus_WCA8889-1800This is also why we have such a hard time embracing the Ancient Paths of the sacraments. Our modern minds can’t calculate how God could have covenanted with His people through stuff — the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the Church as His body. Imagine the proto-gnostic of Joshua’s day, saying God isn’t really manifesting himself in physical ways, because “it’s the thought that counts.” That person would stand condemned. Meanwhile, today, especially in Evangelical circles, we reduce our spirituality to mental ascent and inner conviction. In our quest to not worship creation, we have exiled creation from our spiritual lives, and have lost His means for manifesting Himself to us — and to the world.

The recovery of the Ancient Paths of the sacraments is so much more than a stray piece of adiaphora. It is human obedience at its core. It is our collective return to all that God is and does. It is fullness of life in the Promised Land.

– EO

 

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Ancient Paths: The Lord’s Prayer

Ancient Paths: The Lord’s Prayer

I attend a church now that recites the Lord’s Prayer as part of every Sunday service. It also encourages its recitation in home devotions, both morning and evening.

That’s quite a leap from becoming a Christian in a church tradition that never recited this prayer. In fact, that tradition never recited anything. We didn’t even have scripture readings. Everything was spontaneous, except for the more-prepared portions of the sermon.

This practice was a bi-product of a strong bias … that written and recited acts of worship aren’t “sincere”. Or “authentic”. Or “genuine”. Only the spontaneous can be “real”. Everything else, because it has taken a preconceived form, if form-al. Because it can be said by rote, one can never know if there’s heart behind the recitation.

offering prayerInteresting. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus did not say, “Just talk to God like He’s your best friend.” He did not say, “Pray whatever is on your heart, as long as it’s what your really feel” (as though your feelings is the barometer of whether or not your prayer is appropriate!). He did not say, “Pray over these types of topics.” He never said anything like these well-worn approaches to prayer we find in our shallow, contemporary spiritualities.

He said, “Pray thus.” Then He said words. As Christians, we usually are very cautious about mincing the words of Jesus. But not when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer. We not only can find it dispensable … we often consider these words boring and inadequate.

The ancient church did not make this mistake. They recited the Lord’s Prayer. This was central to the liturgy for 1,500 years, and remains central in the expressions of classical Christian traditions today. But, from the outset of Early Modern thinking, the Lord’s Prayer has been trivialized by huge swaths of Christian practitioners. I don’t think what has replaced its use has been anything like an improvement.

A few principles to consider when it comes to written prayers in general, and the Lord’s Prayer in particular:

  1. We should be careful with our words before God. Spontaneous worship acts can get us into big trouble — just ask Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2). A concise presentation of well-chosen words is to be preferred — just ask King Solomon (Eccl. 5:2) and Jesus (Matt. 6:7-8).
  2. Only pre-written prayers can be prayed in multiple locations at once. In our service book, we have what are called “collects”, from the Latin word collectia, which means “gather people together”. These prayers not only gather the thoughts of everyone within earshot in the service, but also with churches all over the globe. How else could we pray together with our brethren in the global south if we didn’t have written prayers?
  3. The Lord’s Prayer is the Word. Your prayers are not. Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer secures our trust, and demands our reverence. Spontaneous prayers can be a crapshoot.
  4. whiningSpontaneity is a shallow well. Do you really want your congregation’s dialogue with God to be limited to the off-the-cuff thoughts of your leaders? Isn’t it to our advantage to led in prayer by mature, thoughtful saints, from both the past and present? If you’re going to have spontaneous prayer, it had better be done by people with deep doctrinal equipping who know what they should be praying and how.
  5. Spontaneity is no more “genuine” than thoughtfully selected written phrases. For years I have endured “spontaneous” prayers in church that are nothing but the same drivel that has been prayed a thousand times before. Often it’s an auto-pilot prayer which has as it’s only priority providing enough time in the service for the band to get off the platform.
  6. Spontaneous praying makes it hard for people to pray. Do you ever bow your head, and wonder what you should say? Especially when you’re asked to pray out loud, in a group? Written prayers free up those who aren’t so glib to enter into solid seasons of prayer without the pressure of coming up with good stuff. This may be a key reason why there isn’t much actual prayer in most contemporary church services.

My prayer for all of us is that we would be liberated from the cul-de-sac of our limited minds, and be freed to embrace the rich tradition of our church’s prayer life that is stored for us through literature. Jesus’ prayer is indispensable. So are the Psalms. May the Word, and those God has given to us to be its pastors and teachers, give thoughtful shape to our ongoing conversation with God.

– E.O.

 

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Ancient Paths: The 10 Commandments

Ancient Paths: The 10 Commandments

Over 3,300 years ago, the Israelite prophet Moses was called to the presence of God on Mount Sinai. It was there that God spoke the words we now refer to as “The Ten Commandments”.

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Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille (1956)

In May of 1964, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, in partnership with Hollywood movie director Cecil B. DeMille, gifted the state of Arizona with a monument depicting the Ten Commandments. It was placed in Wesley Bolin Plaza, just east of the Arizona State Capitol. In 2003, the memorial became the target of an attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to have it removed. They argued that it violated the concept of separation of church and state. They didn’t succeed, but the controversy surrounding the inclusion of something so religious on government grounds continues.

Why the secular world disapproves of the Ten Commandments.

Duh. Though three out of four North Americans still believe in God, there is significant doubt that the God of the Jews is the one true God. There is also doubt about a) the historicity of the Sinai event, b) the credibility of the Bible that contains the Sinai story, and c) the relevance of the Old Testament of the Bible to the New Testament practice of Christians.

Perhaps more to the point: Americans, in general, don’t like others telling them what to do. Particularly ancient religious guys like Moses. We don’t have the Code of Hammurabi, the Analects of Confucius or the Koran in Wesley Bolin Plaza … so why the Ten Commandments? Though I disagree with the assessment that the Decalogue monument is some sort of violation of anybody’s liberties, it is a bit odd to have them there.

But, in the church? Should they be prominent there?

Why believers promote the Ten Commandments

The Order of Eagles and DeMille felt like the U.S. was slipping away from its Biblical moorings. They were right, and the slippage continues. They wanted to see Biblical content remain central to American life. This reality, too, is fading.

Even in our churches.

9781595478603In our church, the Ten Commandments are an ancient path that is a critical part of our teaching and practice. Well, it’s a big part of what we call our Catechism, which is taught to our young teens in our Confirmation programs. We continue to believe that the Ten Commandments are part of scriptural revelation from God, and we read the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages when they come up in the cycle of public readings.

But many Christians who have practiced their faith for years are unable to list these ten commandments for memory. Many haven’t read them for themselves in years. It’s not enough that the Ten Commandments be conveniently memorialized in our Catechisms. They are an ancient path that needs to be hiked regularly for the good of our souls. How might we do that?

More tomorrow … from the pen of Martin Luther.

– EO

 

 

 

 

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“Changing the Lord’s Prayer?”

The headlines are all over my news feeds: “The Pope wants to change the Lord’s Prayer!”

maxresdefaultMOMENT OF CLARITY: The Pope is NOT trying to “change the Lord’s Prayer”. He is encouraging a better translation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Is there a better translation?

As recorded in Matthew 6:13, the Greek translation of what Jesus said is written thus: “And not bring us into temptation”. “Bring us” is the Greek word “eisenenkês”, which literally means “lead into”, or “allow to enter into”. Jesus makes it clear that God is one who leads us in this life. Our prayer is that He will lead us to places free of temptation.

James 1:13-14 tells us this: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” God does not tempt, but Jesus says in Matt. 18:7 that “It is necessary that temptations come.” Paul tells us that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

So, temptations are a necessary part of life, but they are not the intentional acts of God. Instead, in our relationship with God, we seek that A) in His leadership of our lives, He would keep us far from temptations. But if temptations come, B) He will give us the wisdom to see His provided escape (that is, He will “deliver us from evil”).

The problem Jorge Mario Bergoglio (a.k.a., Pope Francis) sees in the traditional translation “Lead me not into temptation” is that “it speaks of a God who induces temptation”. It actually doesn’t, but it could be misinterpreted in this way.

One of the proposed changes is, “Do not submit us to temptation”. This affirms God’s sovereign leadership, but it seems to me that this can be misinterpreted in the same way as the original. Is there a big difference between God “submitting us to temptation” or “God is tempting me”?

Another proposal is “Do not let us enter into temptation.” This seems to make us sovereign over our own lives, with God serving us a “spotter” in case we drift into bad places. This nullifies the idea that God may, indeed, WANT us to experience certain temptations for our growth, and that some temptations, though not acts of God, are the will of God.

My conclusion? I’m good with “Lead me not into temptation”, accompanied by robust Biblical teaching that clarifies its meaning. Perhaps better teaching is the better answer for the Catholic Church — because, whatever they change it to … it, too, will be misinterpreted by some.

* E.O.

 

 

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12/4: Staying Sharp

12/4: Staying Sharp

First Monday of Advent: Amos 1,2

Christians long for the second coming of Jesus, “the day of the Lord”. It will be a time of great joy for those who believe. But it will also be a terrifying day of judgment for those who do not. Jesus said, concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:2). He calls his followers to wait and be ready for His coming. But for many, it will be a surprise, and they will be caught living godless lives — which will result in judgment. The blatantly irreligious will be found wanting, yes … but also many who believe they’re a part of God’s inner circle. 

amos-600mapIn Amos 1 and 2, the prophet foretells the judgments of eight nations. Six of them are “secular,” and two are the divided kingdoms of the people of God, Israel and Judah. In sum, they provide a litany of specific offenses that will lead to condemnation from God. Wartime tortures (1:3,13), human trafficking (1:6,9), denigrating other foreign leaders (2:1), forsaking peace accords (1:9), “forsaking pity” and staying perpetually hostile (1:11) … all for the sake of imperialistic land-grabs (1:13). All of these charges have to do with international politics.

But then, to the (supposedly) godly nations of Judah and Israel, God brings punishments for different reasons. Here are three:

“They have rejected the law of the Lord, and not kept His statutes. Their lies have led them astray” (2:4).  God had uniquely revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The words of that revelation through the law of Moses was their special gift, and also their distinctive measure. They had let this inheritance slip, and were letting the lies of their day pull them from obedience to mandates of their God. I can’t help but think that Christians today are following this same path. 

“They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6). The people of God had grown materialistic. They cared more about what they could purchase for themselves than the welfare of their neighbors, especially their poor ones. They spent more on shoes than on the poor. I can’t help but think that Christians today are following this same path.

You made the Nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy'” (2:12). God ordained spiritual disciplines, which helped keep the peoples sharp and attentive before God, were downplayed, and even forbidden. Had they become passe? No longer appropriate for their then-contemporary world? Too legalistic for their enlightened minds? Had they grown tired of all that talk of sin, righteousness and judgement? For whatever reason, their faith-lives had gone unpracticed and unfueled. I can’t help but think that Christians today are following this same path.

Amos’ Advent challenge to the people of God: Yes, the world is full of unspeakable evils. It’s easy to say, “Hey, I’m no terrorist.”  But our plumb line is different. So, we need to let our love of God and His Word keep us from falling for the lies of our culture! We need to quit living for the promotion of our bottom lines, and be generous! We need to embrace our disciplines (e.g., be appropriately religious), and amplify Biblical truths! All the more, as we eagerly await the Lord “roaring from Zion” on that final day. May we not then be found to have lost our edge, and unconsciously drifted from God.

Stay sharp! “Prepare your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He Who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:12-14).

– EO

 

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Any Chance We Might Grow Up?

Withholding love from another person is the supreme act of childishness. Forbearing, proactive love … that’s the trait of a mature adult. We need God for that.

———————

This from one of Christianity’s most popular texts, 1 Corinthians 13: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (13:11). What are these childish ways that Paul is talking about? In the context of this chapter, it’s quite simple. It is childish to withhold love.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” If I lay out articulate Facebook rants, and can share quotes from my favorite talking heads, but am snarky, antagonistic, profane or dismissive of others, I’m just noise.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” If I, in my self-perceived brilliance, believe in my convictions can change the world around me, but cannot be kind when I present them, I am nothing.

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Even if I “walk my talk”, and am involved in all kinds of service projects that support my causes, but my heart and attitude toward others who disagree with me remains angry and contentious, the gain of my good works is nullified.

So, what is this love that Paul speaks of? It is, primarily, staying active in hard relationships. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Kind. Love suffocates in non-relationship. It breathes through activity. Being kind is love. Just choosing to be neutral — to not be unkind — isn’t love.

Patient. Bearing. Enduring. Never-ending. Love assumes things will get difficult, and stays in the game anyway. To bail out on a relationship when it doesn’t go your way, that’s childish.

Arrogant. Rude. Irritable. Resentful. If these words describe you, then you’re acting like a child.

If you are so bent toward someone that you actually rejoice when things don’t go their way … this is the height of immaturity.

Children always think they should be given a second chance, but still carry grudges against others, and withhold them their kindness. Children want the benefit of the doubt for themselves, but they choose to meditate on the negatives of others, thus exchanging joy for bitterness. Children want people to believe in them, but they magnify and believe the worst in others. Children want others to see it their way, but give up hope for a better tomorrow that comes, as promised by God, through reconciliation and sticking together.

Children think they know. Then they become judge and jury over you. You will be found guilty. Love is gone. Existence becomes null and void.

Childish politics conceives contentious gridlock. Childish religion creates suicide bombers.Childish academes squash thoughts from a different point of view. Childish employees trash talk their bosses behind their backs. Childish church members leave their congregation when something happens they don’t like. Childish marriages produce divorces. Childish friends feel they’ve been so wronged that they have to withhold their ongoing care, affection and kindness.

God, through His Word, calls us to put away these childish behaviors. He provides the means to do so. But these days few are listening to God, and even fewer are availing themselves to the divine empowerment that makes change possible. Even those who find God interesting remain unwilling to hear His call to us to exercise the self-sacrificing kind of love that could change the world.

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Any chance we might grow up? Our chance is contingent on our love for God … which will enable our love for our neighbor. Without God? No chance.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

– EO

 

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