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Category Archives: theology

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: The Creeds

I became a Christian in a church that didn’t make use of ancient creeds, and then I didn’t recite a creed in worship for the first 25 years of my faith. I was led to understand that the Bible, not creeds, is what we should know and recite (though we didn’t really do either). The old creeds, I was told, are like everything else from the historical tradition of Christianity: extra-Biblical formalism that breeds hypocrisy, mindlessness and boring worship programming.

apostles-creed-session-two-i-believe-in-4-728(Meanwhile, I was encouraged to write acrostic missions statements, paste them on banners, etch them into glass windows, and have my congregations commit them to memory. This wasn’t extra-Biblical, hypocritical or mindless … this was cutting edge church leadership! But I digress…)

I have “graduated” to a wholehearted embrace of creedal Christianity. Specifically, my adopted faith tradition embraces three ancient creeds: The Apostles’ Creed (c. 180 AD), the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and the Athanasian Creed (c. 440 AD). Today, a few words about the Apostles’ Creed, which is truly an “ancient path” that has been traveled by millions of believers over two millennia.

I think of the Apostles’ Creed as the swiss-army-knife of the church: A concise creed with multiple uses!

  1. Personal Faith: Like it did from its organic inception during the first two centuries AD, it provides a means by which we determine who is and isn’t a Christian. It’s a great litmus test for every individual to see if her beliefs line up with classical Christianity.
  2. Teaching: It also provides an ideal outline for discipleship. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, says of the Creed, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” Both at church and in the home, it functions as our syllabus for ongoing instruction.
  3. Evangelism: It is a great tool for proclaiming the gospel. It answers the question, “what must I believe to be saved?” Christians who have the points of the Apostles’ Creed memorized have at their disposal all of the necessary talking points for sharing the central tenets of the our faith.
  4. Worship: The Creed provides for a beautiful act of worship when read corporately. As the Psalmist says, “One generation will declare your works to the next and will proclaim your mighty acts” (Ps. 145:4). When we together in an intergenerational gathering of worship proclaim the Apostles’ Creed – creation, incarnation, sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection, ascension, judgment and heaven – our faith is refined, we transmit our beliefs to everyone in the service (believers or not), and are encouraged by the shared testimony of others.
  5. Contextualization: The Creed is brilliant for use in places where the church isn’t so literate. We can take for granted in our well-educated Western society that truth is “most true” when it’s in writing. But many through history, including many today, must understand their faith in manageable, memorable ways.

Again, I grew up without the Apostles’ Creed. So, my litmus test for belief changed with each new church community I attended (most of which felt compelled to write their own doctrinal statements). My discipleship and evangelism training regularly shifted to whatever the latest popular Christian book had to say. Most of my fellow believers in churches have felt hopelessly ill-equipped to evangelize their family and neighbors, much less their friends, and keep trying to come up with an effective resource and training program for outreach. And, because of a wholesale rejection of classical, formal worship elements (including creeds), my faith was enslaved to the always-shifting spontaneous utterings of my pastors.

Life is better with creeds. A bit on the content of the Apostles’ Creed tomorrow.

– EO

(Some good historical information about the Ecumenical Creeds can be found here.)

 

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“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand by the roadways and look. Ask about the ancient paths, “Which is the way to what is good?” Then take it and find rest for yourselves.‘” (Jeremiah 6:16).

My own personal journey has led me down ancient paths. Over 30 years ago, I was gripped by a love and desire for the experience of the ancient, early church. I have always wanted to be a part of a contemporary Christian tradition that has beaten a consistent path from the first century to the present … and would most fully connect me to the early church, both in word and practice. The journey has led me to the classical Christianity ensconced in Lutheranism (particularly in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). I have chosen to take this path … and have found rest for myself. I recommend it without reservation.

This week our church* is beginning a 9-week preaching series called Ask For the Ancient Paths. It is a study of the six chief parts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Confession/Absolution. This series provides an ideal time for me to share some of my journey as it relates to the foundational teachings of classical Christianity as put forth in the Lutheran Catechism.

Feel free to engage with your questions, comments and critiques. “One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise. Anyone who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever listens to correction acquires good sense” (Prov. 15:31-32). Good sense, wise company, life! My journey continues. I hope yours will, too.

So, grab your hat, your sun-screen, your walking stick … let’s explore this ancient path together.

– EO

* Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (LCMS), Gilbert, AZ

 

 

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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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