Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Into Ancient Streams

This is what the Lord says: 
“Stand at the crossroads and look; 
ask for the ancient paths, 
ask where the good way is, and walk in it, 
and you will find rest for your souls."
Jeremiah 6:16a

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of an ineffable stirring in my heart. As my spirit has opened to God’s whisper and directives, this stirring has evolved into a thirst: a profound thirst like that which arises in barren lands.

There is an emptiness on the road that many modern evangelical churches seem to be traveling. Many church leaders have given in to the unquenchable appetite of our entertainment hungry generation. Many have altered the focus of worship and have made their sole aim appealing to the unbeliever. Relevance and attraction have become more important than tradition and orthodoxy. We’ve let ourselves be seduced by a consumer-driven Christianity that incorporates the latest business practices and capitalistic marketing ploys all in the name of “church growth”, but is in many cases devoid of any real substance or depth. Evangelism in the life of the church is a necessity, but when our worship services become obsessively and entirely centered on the unbeliever, we’ve lost our heading.

After years of walking this road, I became more and more unsettled. I realized that the idea of stripping away all sacred tradition, liturgy, historical discipline and practice, and anything deemed “religious” does, in reality, leave us less able to comprehend and live out our faith. Somewhere along the way, I wandered off this path and onto the “Canterbury Trail”.

Over these last few years, God has been doing something in my heart that I would have never expected. Slowly and methodically, he has drawn our family towards territory that is both foreign and strangely familiar. But the stirring goes back to almost 10 years ago when I first began to thirst for the waters of ancient streams.

The Abbey of Gethsemane

Though this may seem like a relatively recent shift, this process actually started a decade ago. I was walking through an especially frustrating period of young adulthood, searching for direction and seeking God’s purpose for me in this new stage of life. It was suggested to me by a friend that I escape for a few days and visit the Abbey of Gethsemane in the hills of Kentucky to spend some time praying and seeking the Lord.  My heart had been stirred by the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent much of his life at the Abbey, and Richard Foster, a strong advocate for the classic spiritual disciplines, many of which are incorporated into the daily life of a Cistercian Monk. Despite being deeply moved by the works of these two men, my experience with many of the historic Christian disciplines, as well as anything remotely “Catholic” was limited, so I was intrigued by the experience of visiting an Abbey where actual monks lived out their lives of worship. The journey seemed slightly unsettling, and surprisingly exciting as I considered the devotion of these peculiar men of God.

During that first retreat (and subsequent retreats thereafter) I was moved by the peace and the stillness of the place. I felt the silence begin to open my spirit. It’s like I could hear the melody of the Spirit’s whisper in places of my heart that had been too frenzied and noisy to hear before. Clarity came easily. I felt a solemn focus come over me as I roamed the Abbey grounds amidst those who so fully devoted themselves to the worship of God and the service of others. This mysteriously remote and seemingly fleeting “will of God” that I had so earnestly sought after in the days of my late teens and early twenties seemed to be completely reshaped in light of this world, where listening was more important than speaking, and where the ancient was more important than the “next big thing”.

I would go back several times after this initial stay just to exist within the quiet and to listen to that gentle whisper that my soul seemed not to hear elsewhere. I believe my experiences there began to open my eyes to the church catholic (in the literal meaning of the word) to see the full weight of human experience with the Divine through many different Christian practices, disciplines and expressions.

The Dance of Liturgy

In the spring of 2005, Jessica and I were looking for a place to get married. We wanted the building where we took our vows to convey the spirit of how we felt about the covenant of marriage, to be a place of beauty and reverence, a place that invoked a sense of wonder and mystery. We had this in mind when we first visited Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal Church in downtown Nashville. The building itself, occupying the corner of Broadway and 9th Avenue, is exquisite from without and breathtaking from within. We entered from the 9th Avenue sidewalk on that first Sunday morning and were completely awestruck. The interior of the building, the nave, was beautiful, full of dark timber and stone in a gothic style. But the awe that was aroused was the result of what happened when the service started.

Celebrant: “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
People:And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever, amen.”

We were overwhelmed by what we experienced. The shape of the liturgy, the language of the prayers, the full scope of all that was incorporated into an “ordinary” Anglican worship service astounded us: a scripture reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle and a Gospel, a sermon, the affirmation of the faith by the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the lifting of our voices in song, confession of sin, prayers for our own needs and the needs of the world, the greeting of one another with “the peace of God” and finally the celebration of God’s covenant with His people in Holy Communion. The holistic nature of the shape of worship was so different than anything we had ever experienced in the various denominations we had been apart of in the past. And perhaps the most exciting aspect of this “new” way of worship was that we were invited to participate in practically every aspect of the service.

At first, we were intrigued by this dance we didn’t know. Everyone else seemed to know the steps by heart, fluctuating between the rehearsed and the spontaneous, but always in a movement of focused worship, fixated on an awesome God. The movements seemed foreign to us at first. But once we learned the steps, we would no longer be content to watch as spectators or be relegated to the sidelines like wallflowers. We wanted to join in and dance.

“Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever, amen.”

Those two short sentences seared themselves into my spirit. They are the opening acclamation, the setting of the stage where our worship takes place and the clear identification of whom we are directing our attention toward. These words give an unmistakable invitation to all citizens of the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom that we so often lose sight of, to once again give all glory to a transcendent God made present in the person of Jesus Christ.

A Gradual Movement…

Though we were drawn by what we felt and captivated by what we experienced in our first Holy Eucharist on that Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit did not yet initiate a change in our circumstances. Over the next few years I continued to serve in the Baptist tradition, leading worship, going to a Baptist seminary and continued to pursue God’s direction. It was during this time that I started to feel God broadening my own vision for how I always thought I would serve His church, solely through music and worship, to incorporate areas of ministry that I hadn’t previously imagined myself operating in: pastoring and teaching. I also continued to attend a weekday noon Eucharist service at the Cathedral, becoming more acquainted with Anglican liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, the primary liturgical resource for organizing and conducting Anglican worship.

First Steps

In the spring of 2010, I began connecting with several Anglican clergy in order to begin a period of exploration and discovery in several key areas of the tradition in relation to theology and worship. If this was a move that we were supposed to eventually make, I wanted to make sure that it was something we considered prayerfully, deliberately, and slowly. During this time I met some incredible men of God, from both the Episcopal Church as well as the Anglican Mission in the Americas and felt compelled to go into greater depth in my own studies of the tradition.

The more I engaged with the Anglican way of approaching God and understanding theology, the more I felt at home. I was captivated as I read of the “three-legged stool” analogy of Scripture being balanced by reason and tradition, giving a simple yet profound way of approaching life and worship. When digging deeper into traditional Anglican beliefs, I felt like I understood more of why God wired me the way that he had. The nature and beauty of the Sacraments, the utilization of symbols in worship (cross/crucifix, candles, stained glass/icons, colors, vestments, etc.), the incorporation of prayers and writings from faithful Christians throughout the past 2000 years, the full inclusion of all Christian traditions (both Eastern and Western) and even the affirmation of God’s revealed truth through science and attention given to social justice issues all gave me a deeper sense of peace that this move was ordained by God for our family.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this tradition is the idea of “Common Prayer.” The liturgy of the Anglican Church operates within the framework of the traditional Church calendar and uses the Lectionary to journey through Scripture on a yearly cycle. This means that during the season of Advent, we’re reading the same passages of Scripture that 77 million other Anglicans (and countless others in traditions that use the lectionary) across the globe are reading. This is a powerful moment of unity that cuts through the Western ideal of “individualism” being revered above all else.
This re-imagining of my own place in the body of Christ was profound and would alter the course of the ministry that I was called to.

My walk towards the Priesthood

In the summer of 2011, I began to feel the Spirit of God whisper that the time had come for us to make a move. I’d recently connected with several different clergy members from the Anglican Church in North America, a young province-in-forming in the Anglican Communion. I was soon connected with Fr. Jeffrey Jones (a local Rector of a young ACNA church plant in Hendersonville) about what my training and service in the Anglican Church would look like as a minister. I began to feel without a doubt that I was called to teach and shepherd the Church. The Anglican Church believes in the threefold order of ministry as laid out in Scripture: the episcopate (Bishops), the prebyterate (Priests) and the diaconate (Deacons). After months of service and studying, I was ordained a deacon on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2012. As a transitional deacon, I’m serving our young church in whatever capacity I’m needed, leading worship in song on Sundays, preaching, teaching spiritual formation classes, and continuing to train towards my eventual transition into the ministry of the priesthood.

Throughout the last ten years, I’ve seen God’s faithfulness as He’s gently led us to the waters of these ancient streams. Though this tradition is by no means perfect, I know that His hand has guided me to lead and serve this body of believers. I pray that I am always faithful to this call. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Often Pagan Nature of Worship

Anybody still out there? I haven't posted in a while here but I stumbled across this article and wanted to share. Link to site is at the bottom of the article...

What is worship? Our English word comes from the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe, which means "to honor" or "to ascribe worth." It is interesting that, in this regard, the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, includes within the vows for the solemnization of matrimony: "with my body I thee worship." That is a fairly succinct statement of the biblical understanding of sexuality.

The Old Testament Hebrew word used for worship means "a bowing down." Keep this in mind. For the Hebrews, worship was a verb, something you did. The same idea is behind the New Testament Greek word for worship which means "to serve." In anticipation of what I will be saying later, let me suggest this to you: the difference between a biblical and a pagan understanding of worship lies in the difference between a verb and a noun. For the person of the Bible, worship is something you do. For the pagan, worship is a state of being.
What is it, then, we do when we ascribe worth to God and bow down and serve him on Sunday morning? I believe we engage in a ritual drama. By ritual, I mean we use certain fixed forms of words, i.e., sermons, prayers, hymns. By drama, I mean that the telling of a story is woven throughout those rituals: the story of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Let me give you an example of what I mean from popular culture. When we worship God, we do essentially the same thing I did when I watched on television last month, for the eleventh time, a replay of USC's great 1974 victory over Notre Dame. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this bit of Heilsgechichte (sacred history), that was the game in which USC was down seventeen points at half-time. Anthony Davis of USC received the second half kickoff one yard in his own end zone and ran it back 101 yards for a touchdown. For the rest of the second half USC totally dominated Notre Dame with Davis' runs and Pat Haden's passes to J. K. McKay. The final score: USC 55, Notre Dante 24.

"But," you protest, "you know everything that is going to happen. Why have you watched it so many times?" My answer: That is precisely the point. I watch it over and over again because I know what will happen. Certain values I have are confirmed and reaffirmed. Once again, good triumphs over evil, light over darkness.
You do the same thing whenever you watch your favorite television program. Dramatized, in story form, will be certain values and beliefs you hold to as an American. They will be about life and what it means, its problems and its solutions. Some social analysts call popular television programs, especially the interminable series variety, ritual drama. That's because they, like my favorite USC/Notre Dame game, reaffirm what we believe. They are like worship services. For many Americans they are worship services in that they are weekly, and sometimes daily, confirmations and reaffirmations of the core of values we hold in common as citizens of this country.

The Bible is filled with ritual drama. Revelation 5:9-10 is a good case in point. The multitudes of heaven are gathered around the throne of God. At his right hand stands the Lamb who has just been declared worthy to take the scroll in God's right hand and open it up. The scroll is of immense importance because it contains the decrees of God for the future of the planet Earth. The occasion is one of great joy for the congregation of heaven, so they break into a service of worship of the Lamb singing:

Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth. Ritual drama: that is what we are witnessing in this spectacular heavenly worship service. The story of salvation is in some way retold and its values upheld, all as the worshipers offer thanks and praise.

A pivotal question must be asked here, the answer to which takes us to the heart of what happens in truly Christian worship. In this ritual drama, who is the audience and who is the performer? Clearly, the answer is that God is the audience and the congregation is the performer. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, in Christian worship God is the audience, the congregation the performer, and the minister, choir, and other leaders are the prompters.

If just this one fundamental truth were to sink into the consciousness of Christians, worship would be transformed. The overwhelming majority of Christian congregations have the roles reversed. The congregation regards itself as the audience, while regarding the prompters and God, I suspect, as the performers. The congregation comes to have a "worship experience." That is not only idolatrous in its reversal of worship roles, but pagan in its understanding of worship itself. Worship theri becomes a noun, a state of being, an experience induced by God or the choir or the pastor. Biblically, however, worship is a verb, something the congregation or performer does.

At least three implications flow out of this understanding of worship as ritual drama. The first has to ! do with history. God is the God of history: of the past, the present, and the future. The Lamb was slain, and has made us free and we shall reign, say the words of the hymn in the Revelation passage.
Christian worship is essentially an act of remembrance. That is what the Lord's Supper does. It remembers the Lord's death, even as it celebrates his resurrection presence and looks forward to his return. There they are again: past, present, and future.

One of the fallacies and conceits of our times is that God has done little or nothing since the death of the last apostle until right now. We place great stock in the New Testament and first century i church, and in our own. In my congregation there I are those who want to sing only the new songs and those who want to sing only the old songs. What is funny about all this is that the "old songs," at their oldest, may date back to nineteenth-century revivalism.

The God of past, present, and future whom we worship in ritual drama was just as active in the fourth, eleventh, or seventeenth centuries as he is now. Our songs, prayers, sermons, and confessions should recognize this in worship. Besides making us a more biblical people, it would give us a perspective on ourselves and relieve us of a bit of our conceit.

The second implication has to do with preparation. Because we are the performers, we must come to worship prepared. Can you imagine your chagrin if you paid twenty dollars to hear a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the orchestra came into the concert hall late? What if the director stood before the audience and said something like this: "Wow! Have we had a busy month! Lots of travel, several recording sessions, and now here we are, and we haven't had a chance to rehearse tonight's concert. Listen, I have a great idea. Everyone here is an accomplished musician. What do you say we just have a jam session for the next ninety minutes? Just let it flow. Be spontaneous!"

You would be angry if the orchestra arrived late and unprepared because you paid a lot of money for the performance. What did God pay for our performance? The blood of his own Son. What does this mean pragmatically? It means things like a good night's sleep on Saturday. It means things like arriving on time. I believe Sunday morning tardiness is a theological issue. It means things like prayer and Bible study on the days leading up to Sunday morning. Howard Rice has said that reformation worship assumed of the congregation that its individual members had spent an hour a day through the week in Bible reading and prayer!

All of this contradicts what Tom Howard calls the "myth of spontaneity." It is a very appealing myth. It says we would all be free, direct, and spontaneous if we could just dismantle tradition, structures, and conventions. Unfortunately this contradicts everything else we know in human experience. It was hard work, austerity, and discipline that produced the Dialogues of Plato, the B Minor Mass, and the Theory of Relativity. Should it be any different in our relationship to God? Just as not much that is worthy, substantial, and noteworthy proceeds from mere spontaneity in other forms of human endeavor, so it is in Christian worship. I believe God is, at the very least, unimpressed with merely spontaneous worshipers.

A good metaphor for the true freedom of disciplined Christian worship can be found in the dancer's art. Nothing looks more free and spontaneous than a great dancer performing. But beneath all of that freedom and spontaneity are years of drills, repetition, sweat, strain, and more drills.

Sunday morning worship is to the rest of our lives what cultivation is to a garden. We weed, prune, water, and feed to the end that the garden may be beautiful—spontaneous gardens are not; disciplined gardens are.

The last implication has to do with focus. And with this I close, because it sums up everything.
Christ is at the center of Christian worship, not us and our experience. We are not there to get, but to give. The question we should be asking ourselves on the way home on Sunday morning is not, "What did I get out of it?" but rather, "How did I do?" For when all the sermons have been preached, all the anthems sung, all the worship renewal workshops conducted, and all our innovations come and gone, that is all that will have mattered: that we said with our whole being, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"

From here.