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Category Archives: Sacraments

The Song “Open Up the Heavens”

Recently a friend of mine was talking about the worship song, “Open Up the Heavens”. It’s quite popular (the #27 song in the land this week, according to CCLI). I made a flippant remark about its troublesome theology, which saddened my friend. You see, he likes the song. He finds it encouraging, fun to sing, etc.

So, I feel like I have some explaining to do. Mostly to myself, and for my own sake. I would encourage anyone reading this to provide some pushback if you think my critique is out of line. On the other hand, if this exercise causes you to think that maybe, just maybe, we should be more discriminating when it comes to our song selections, I encourage you to join me in these kinds of considerations.

“Open Up The Heavens”

We’ve waited for this day (1).
We’re gathered in your name, calling out to you (2).
Your glory like a fire (3a), awakening desire (3b), will burn our hearts (3c) with truth.

1. We’ve waited for this day. I’m not sure we’ve waited for “this day” if what is meant is the worship service these people are attending. Our eschatological waiting is far grander than that! Not a deal breaker.

2. Calling out to you. Often, I believe we think that worship is something we inaugurate with God through our calls to Him. Worship is a receiving of the grace of God through the means He has prescribed. He calls out to us, not the other way around. Again, not a deal breaker.

3. Fire…desire…burn our hearts.This is SO emblematic of our contemporary worship pursuits. Rather than receiving God through His prescribed means (one another, His Word, His sacraments), we seek some sort of inner “burning”, some sort of elevated emotion, or passion, or desire. In fact, most of our services are measured by whether or not we attain to this kind of “burn”. Funny…I don’t see anything like this in the pages of scripture. In fact, key Reformation leaders saw (and still see) this kind of approach to God as extremely problematic: We center His manifestation within us, rather than embrace His incarnational reality outside of our selves. This is a deal breaker. We cannot and should not be fostering this kind of expectation among our people, as though it is normal or normative.

You’re the reason we’re here. You’re the reason we’re singing.

(True enough, though a bit obvious, and not really a Psalm-like expression. It feels more to me like some Christianese used to sing over a chordal bridge into the chorus.)

Open up the heavens (4). We want to see you (5). Open up the floodgates — a mighty river flowing from your heart (6) filling every part of our praise (7).

Yikes. What in the world does this mean?

4. When we sing “Open up the heavens”what are we asking? Really? Something more than God has already done in His Son? Are the heavens closed? I thought He has descended upon us in the form of the Holy Spirit … has gives us His Word … is present in His sacraments … is powerful by His Spirit toward us in the mutual gifting of the people around us … what more are we seeking? And should we be seeking more than what He has already given us? Are we hoping for the opening of the heavens as described at His second coming? I don’t think so, because that would be literal, and the rest of the chorus surely isn’t literal (I hope)

5. We want to see you. This sentiment confuses and saddens me. It’s a very popular one. Yes, it is a very Biblical concept to “seek the face” of God. It’s also a Biblical maxim that no one can see the face of God and live. My question again: What are we really saying when we sing this? If God did what we’re singing, what would happen? I’m sure 99+% of worshipers have zero expectation of a literal “seeing” of God. So what is it? Some sort of inner vision of God?

As someone who embraces the classical, incarnational understanding of the sacraments, I’m thrilled that God has given us material manifestations of His presence. We see Him in water, the wine, the bread. We see Him in the face of one another. I sense that the contemporary Evangelical community, without a robust understanding of how God has already promised to be present with us, is seeking after something else – something neither realistic to obtain, nor promised in the Word.

6. Flowing from Your heart… I could use a chapter and verse for this one. I’m not sure what the river is (the Holy Spirit, like in Ezekiel 37 perhaps?). I don’t want to get hung up on poetic imagery, but I just don’t know what “flowing from God’s heart” means.

7. Filling every part of our praise. Okay, this is where CCM idolatry truly takes hold, and I just don’t think we’re aware of it. We’re asking that the “heavens” will “open”, and that a “river” will flow from God into … our praise?!? Like the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, running around the altar, cutting themselves, crying out to God … it seems to me that our contemporary worship practitioners rehearse up their weekly incantations, lay them out on Sundays, and ask God to come and ignite them – the songs – with some sort of divine additive.

Worship is receiving God. Why are we so hell-bent on asking God to magically enhance our music sets? Didn’t Jesus say the most answerable worship is beating our breasts in the back row, and saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?” I may be wrong, but I’m pretty convinced that we collectively want a Holy Spirit buzz in our worship not because we believe that will be most pleasing to God, but because that is the coolest thing for us … and we want to feel good about our worship services. (We especially want our buzz to be stronger than the one at the other big church down the street.)

Your presence in this place. (How? Buzz? Word and sacraments?)
Your glory on our face. (Seriously? What do you mean? Like Moses and the veil? If so, that isn’t our reality. I’m in church every Sunday, and I have never seen the glory of God on the faces of those around me.)
We’re looking to the skies. (If awaiting His return, yes. Otherwise, this is Psalm 121 all over again – “the skies” is not how He promises to be present with us today.)
Descending like a cloud, You’re standing with us now. No. First, clouds don’t descend. Jesus will descend from the clouds, but He doesn’t descend like a cloud. Second, He doesn’t arrive with us like this weekly, so He can “stand” with us “now”. Again, what are we saying when we say He is “standing with us now”.

Lord, unveil our eyes. I’m all for this. The great lifting of the veil comes through His Word, as offered in the pages of scripture, in the proclamation of the gospel, and the celebration of His Word-enlivened sacraments. No mystical “unveiling” is going to take place apart for these means. To seek such an extra-Biblical experience, especially when ignoring the means He has already given us …

CONCLUSION: My biggest fear in saying these things is not that people will thoughtfully counter me theologically. Instead, it’s that people will express something like this: “Just relax. It’s not that big a deal, it’s just a song. People like it, and it helps them focus on God. Just let it go.” I’m sure I’ll be the bad guy for wanting to call this out.

But our worship is a BIG deal. To God. Spirit and truth. No ear-tickling. The keepers of the deep truths of the faith need to speak up, not dumb down. Souls are being shaped around these worship expressions. The shape is not true. Let’s keep it true.

– EO

 

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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: Means That Justify the Ends

Ancient Paths: Means That Justify the Ends
 As we “Ask For the Ancient Paths”, we will soon be speaking about the sacraments of the Christian Church.
It is my conviction that, for the past 500+ years of Early Modern history, the world has run roughshod over the means by which man is to engage with God. Many say, “One doesn’t have to be baptized, take communion, go to church or receive absolution in order to be a right Christian. The ends (being right with God) are independent of the means (the God-prescribed ways of communion with Himself).”
Yet, the scriptures are deathly serious about the means. Whether the ark of Noah, the circumcision of the Israelites, the bronze serpent in the wilderness, the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, attendance at festivals, the prescriptions for both tabernacle and temple worship … God is abundantly concerned with the appropriate means. For God, the prescribed means cannot and will not be circumvented in the name of an alternative path to the desired ends.
So, I intend to turn the phrase: We want to see ourselves in appropriate relationship with our God. And the God-given means are non-negotiable for us to get there. The means DO justify the ends.
In a political sense, I would add this: For those who believe in the principles of democracy, it is not okay to get to desired conclusions through inappropriate means (e.g., good policies via the benevolent dictator). One cannot enjoy good “ends” if the “means” have been inappropriate. For those championing a political system, the means are pivotal to the justification of the ends.
But back to the church. God has always been one to give us means. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, even the Syrian king Naaman … they were called not only to champion certain convictions and beliefs, but were given strict orders for carrying out their calls — means. This remained true with Jesus in the New Testament: His charge to the 70, his administration of at the Wedding in Cana and the feedings of the 4,000 and 5,000, His institution of the Lord’s Supper, and His great commission, where he charged us with means – to go, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach.
God has chosen to justify us through means. The ends don’t justify these prescribed means. They are justified because they are God’s dictates and they must be adhered to for us to have justified ends.
The means justify the ends.
More on this soon – especially how the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are non-negotiable means for the experience of our justification before God! …
– E.O.
 

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Why People Don’t Like Christians – Part 1

Christians aren’t very popular these days. Never have been, really. This is no mystery, for people who have called themselves Christians have given the world plenty of reasons for a less than favorable review.

ghandi-quoteOne of primary reasons people don’t like Christians is because they think us to be hypocrites. We regularly fail to live up to the high standards to which we aspire, and about which we preach. We compound the world’s frustration when we lobby to see those standards embraced by everyone (e.g., championing “family values”, even political legislation) when we do such a poor job of living them out ourselves.

Genuine Christianity, however, is not hypocritical. In fact, it is the only faith that isn’t.

You see, all other religions are built on the idea that we must muster up a righteous life in order to please God. In all other faiths, the assumption is a) we are good enough to live right, and b) we are committed to living right. I can, and will. If you truly can, then claim you will, and then don’t … that’s being a hypocrite.

(And some people think this is what Christianity is: A group of people who have decided to live as the Bible describes, and who tell others they should, too. Sunday services, then, are a combination ethics class/pep rally, designed to motivate people to get it together. Then, when they go out and live poorly yet again during the next week, the world brands this approach to religion as a failure. And they’re right.)

But genuine Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the other manning-quoteBiblical writers,is totally different.

We believe that man is not good enough to live right. God describes right living in the scriptures, and affirms in those same scriptures that it’s unattainable. Sadly (for us), He also said that only the righteous are compatible with heaven. We can’t, and won’t. Wait … we can’t do what we need to to get to heaven? What hope do we have?

This is where Jesus comes in: He lived among us as the one and only man Who lived a righteous life. (Have you ever heard someone say something bad about Jesus?) He then told us how if would be possible for us to be righteous (and get to heaven), too. Quite simply, He has to do it … in us. This is what Christianity refers to as the Holy Spirit – God Himself, living in us, being righteous through us. Jesus refers to this phenomenon as being born again in the Spirit. He can, and will. It’s the only way. And this is totally different than any other religion.

You may say, “so, if Christians have God living in them to be righteous through them, why are they still so lame?” You’ve got us there. We ought to be living our lives at a very high quality, but often look no better than our neighbor, and sometimes even worse. A few reasons why:

  1. Counterfeit Christianity abounds. As I already mentioned, there are many people practicing “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Sadly, they claim to be able to live well, but can’t. They’re hypocrites. I’m afraid this group makes up the majority of Christians in our churches today.
  2. Appropriating divine empowerment is a discipline. Theologian J. I. Packer says this: “The agent of [making us live well] is the Holy Spirit who works in us to make us will and act according to God’s good pleasure. Again and again we need to go down on our knees and admit our helplessness and ask to be empowered … If this sounds easy, it shouldn’t, because [it] is a battle. We never have our hearts entirely set on the things of God, so that even if our actions are right by external standards, our hearts are never quite right. It is struggle and conflict all the way.” The Spirit is available and willing, but we must “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff) in order to experience Him at work in us. And we often don’t.

This is why we are supposed to gather as a church. It isn’t primarily get a coffee, get emotionally “fired up” through faux rock-concert experience, and to recommit our hearts and minds to a series of best-intention propositions dispensed by a life coach. This approach to church will never fail to produce hypocrites.

No, church is so much more than that! We gather in the presence of God to recalibrate our spiritual relationship with the God Who can lead and empower us to live well. That’s why we confess our sins (primarily the sin of not living in the Spirit in the days prior), hear His Word (Heb. 4:12), receive empowering grace through His ordained sacraments, and experience the Holy Spirit through the yes-x-no-bettergiftings all our brothers and sisters around us.

People who practice this type of Christianity (e.g., real Christianity) are still fickle, still bumble, and will still likely disappoint the non-believing world by their less-than-Jesus-like lifestyles. But they’re not hypocrites — at least in the traditional sense. They know that they’re in a battle (“struggle and conflict all the way”), and they make no claims that they’ll bat 1,000%. They are not too surprised when they fail. Still, they forget yesterday, and press into today, prayerfully clinging to the God Who can bear the fruit of righteousness in them now.

On behalf of Christians everywhere, I apologize for the poor examples given by people who call themselves Christians, but are simply powerless moralists. I don’t like them either.

dont-like-selvesMy encouragement is for all to look beyond those poor representations of an incredible faith. See instead the real deal, the substance of genuine, classical Christian living. I am sure that, if our churches were full of these humble, prayerful, fruitful people, that Christianity would have a much better name in our world. You might even be interested in joining their ranks.

– EO

 

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