From “God and me” to “God and us”: Church Worship and Traditional Liturgy Made New

From “God and me” to “God and us”: Church Worship and Traditional Liturgy Made New

I am still far from proficient when it comes to talking, or writing, about traditional liturgy in Christian worship. I often feel like there is a really good, fancy word for how to refer to something but I simply don’t know that word. Regardless, I think I am starting to better understand the power of liturgy in Christian worship and I am finally able to describe it and talk about it in a way that I definitely wasn’t able to a few months ago. Thank you, C.S. Lewis.

My entire life, I have attended what most Christians describe as contemporary Sunday worship services. I am not just referring to the musical part of worship, but to the whole pie. Whether collective church worship happens on a Sunday, Monday morning, Wednesday night, Friday night, or Saturday at noon, it doesn’t matter because I am referring to the entirety of church worship.

To make a long story short, about four years ago I hit a wall in which I no longer understood what was the point of “church worship.” What was it about? Is it a collection of my Christian brothers and sisters doing stuff in the same place? Is it a tool to deliver the Gospel to people? Is it a musical concert with a nice message at the end? I was asking myself all those questions because “church worship” had lost its meaning. Was it just a place where we hang out together, because if it is, then isn’t that what we do in small groups? Is it a place for just teaching, because if it is, then why is it so seeker-friendly and why do we put so much emphasis on “new people?” Isn’t church worship for…the church?

I was at a bad spot. I was in a really bad spot and, instead of hitting automatic and cruising through it, my wife and I decided we were going to ask God to show us what was the point about “collective church worship.” This decision led us away from what had been our home church for many years. I had been attending that church for twelve years! Twelve years! But looking back on that decision, I am overjoyed by the journey that we have undertaken alongside the Holy Spirit, which brings me back to the point of this writing.

Even though each Christian’s experience is somewhat different, God has used traditional liturgy to powerfully reawaken my walk with Jesus and my desire to be part of worship alongside a church community. Having only experienced contemporary church worship for 28 years, it has been through liturgical worship that I have come to actually see and feel what it is like to “collectively” worship as a church and not as an individual. Let me give you some examples.

The first time I sang out loud the Doxology, I started crying and I don’t know why, but all I knew was that the entire congregation was declaring these short, simple, but powerful truths together in a way that united us as a flock and a community. The first time that I saw a pastor perform a “collective prayer” and ask the congregation for prayer requests, I understood that Sunday morning could be a time in which I could actually learn and help carry my brothers and sisters’ burdens. It was through Sunday after Sunday of a pastor or priest explaining, in detail, the significance and symbolism of the Eucharist or Communion that I finally understood why it is so important to church worship. I had never knelt to pray in church, but now we do, together as a church before the Holy Spirit, and it is a rite that brings me closer to my fellow Christian. As a final example, I have never felt the power of collective church worship more than each time that at our current church we kneel and bow to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to declare out loud the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, to pray a Psalm together, or to read a prayer out loud as a congregation, and to receive the Eucharist.

Yes, traditional liturgy is old, and to many Christians it reminds them of the “old way of doing church.” Trust me, I thought that way too. Liturgy was just “too Catholic” for a neo-Calvinist like me; however, it has been through a journey in Presbyterian, Catholic, and Anglican churches and services that I have finally understood the power it has to bring a community of worshippers together. God used traditional liturgy to help me grasp what it is like to be in a room on Sunday morning and actually feel that we are all, collectively, as a body, and not as individuals, engaging, worshipping, and having community with the Trinity.

Having said all this, traditional liturgy maybe isn’t for everything, and I totally get it. If you’ve asked me 7 years ago to be part of an Anglican, Lutheran, or liturgical Presbyterian church, I would have laughed at you and told you why all those traditions and rituals are “too Catholic, and they are getting between you and your personal walk with Jesus.” I would have definitely said or thought something along those lines. But then I realized that the contemporary, individualism-centric, mainstream, and upbeat church worship that I had been experiencing for many years wasn’t really leading into church worship at all, because if church worship doesn’t draw your closer in fellowship with your brothers and sisters across the aisle and across the sanctuary, then why even call it church worship?

Final Thoughts: There are a lot of comments in this post to make a lot of people angry. I have a lot of friends that would question my faith knowing that I am now “down with the old school liturgy.” Additionally, some of you will read this and say, “he is bashing my church,” but that is not the case. If your contemporary church worship actually leads you into collective, communal worship, then that’s awesome. It wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t doing it for us.

When I think of C.S. Lewis, I used to most often think about his classic books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. However, it didn’t hit me until I started reading Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm that C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, and that every Sunday he went to church and worship in a traditional liturgical style that, for many years, I looked down and judged. I find it extremely humorous that God is using an element of ancient Christian worship that I ridiculed in order to bring me back into the fold, to help me better understand church community and worship, and to better grasp the role that as believers, we have in one another’s lives.

 

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“From Dust:” Lent Season

“From Dust:” Lent Season

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

Psalm 103: 11-14

For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. I couldn’t do much else but to let tears run down my face as the congregation read aloud Psalm 103 last night, during the Ash Wednesday service that we attended. Then, verse 14 hit me like sledge hammer cracking walls of concrete around my heart, and suddenly I could do no other but to sit there reflecting on the fact that I am finite, I am but dirt of the ground, I have a beginning and, outside of God, an end, yet God is eternal, and He endures through the ages.

It wasn’t a moment of guilt, even though the Spirit led me to conviction many times last night. Sometimes, when we are at our lowest and when our guilt consumes us, we can feel like crap, like dirt that deserves to be stepped on. However, this wasn’t the feeling that awoke within me from verse 14. To be reminded that the Lord knows my frame, dust, and yet He chooses to love me, is an incredibly powerful truth, and one that I would love to be reminded of every day. The entirety of Psalm 103 is an invocation of God and how, from the heavens where sin has no foothold, he reigns down mercy and grace upon His people. Does He have to? No. He chooses to. Through Christ, our mortally sick and broken selves are lifted from death into life, from curse unto holiness, and we are shown true freedom: the freedom to live a live everlasting in worship and true uninterrupted communion with the Triune God.

For he knows our frame, He knows our frame. He knows our frame. He remembers we are dust. We are dust, and yet He delivers compassion, justice, mercy, grace, love, I couldn’t think of a better way to begin this season of Lent than to be reminded that regardless of my finite condition, my brokenness and my constant failures and shortcomings, the Father chooses to think of me, the Son calls me brother, and the Holy Spirit comforts my heart.

Seeking God’s Heart for This City

Seeking God’s Heart for This City

We’ve recently moved across the country and a source of constant stress and worry has been finding the right church. When we began this blog, we didn’t know we would be moving to another location so soon. Yet, here we are: new state, new city, new neighborhood, new home, no church.

Now, this is silly because we are part of the universal church. Kat and I, as Christians, belong to the world community of saints and believers that have placed their trust in Jesus Christ and God’s grace. Knowing this, we are also never alone for we have communion with the Holy Spirit and the Word of God; however, I am a “church man,” and not having a new home church has been a source of concern in the back of my mind.

The Holy Spirit spoke to me a few mornings ago, while reading Psalm 40, specifically verses 9 through 11, which read:

“Go up on a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

This passage is a prophecy from Isaiah to the Hebrews, threatened with conquest at the hands of the Assyrians. The Hebrews faced doom, war, destruction, and the conquest of their homeland. Yet, Isaiah proclaims “behold your God!”

Kat and I aren’t facing the same situation the Hebrews and the Kingdom of Judah faced at the hands of the Assyrians. Not remotely close. However, we have had to leave our home and come to a new land, a new context, and we’ve had to leave behind our church, community, and friends.

As someone who was raised in the church, I don’t enjoy this phase of being church-less. Once again, I highlight that we are never without a church in the sense of the community of believers and that the Holy Spirit is with us; however, sainthood was meant to be lived in community. Kat and I have each other, but we have always thoroughly enjoyed being in the presence of brothers and sisters, being part of small groups and life groups, feeling at home in a church, and leading whenever we are called to lead. We share a strong conviction, depicted in the Gospel and New Testament, that fellowship is at the core of the Christian life, and that even though God is there for Christians without fellowship, we are called to seek and enjoy fellowship centered on the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.

However, we haven’t found that community yet. We have attended two awesome churches, and we even volunteered at a local food distribution center with one of them. We attended a small, non-denominational church-plant that meets at a local school. We also attended an Anglican congregation that is in the process of planting an inner-city church. At both of these congregations, we were welcomed with incredible love. The preaching at the small church plant was excellent and the liturgy at the Anglican church was truly fantastic. This weekend, we plan to attend a church that congregates at the local university—we are excited to experience their form of worship and learn of their work in this city. We hunger for community and fellowship.

The passage in Isaiah spoke to me because it reminded me that God is sovereign, regardless of our condition. Yes, we don’t yet have a local church, but God is looking out for us. Yes, we don’t have a solid community that we can plug into, and yet the Holy Spirit is constantly here ready to have fellowship with us. In the midst of my quiet time reading Isaiah, the LORD said to me: “You are set on finding the right church, but remember that I am at work throughout this whole city. I am not bound to one church or one building, for my passion is for this whole city. You are set on finding the right church, but I tell you to focus on being salt and light and understanding how much this city needs the Good News. Seek first my passion, my desire, and will for this city, and you will find fellowship when the time is right.”

I don’t claim to have the gift of prophecy, but I am certain that the words that were spoken to me were the Holy Spirit intervening. I was convicted of fixating too much on finding the right church, prior to setting my heart on learning the work of God that needs to take place throughout this whole city, across all churches, congregations, urban villages, neighborhoods, and communities. This conviction is mighty yet comforting, because I immediately felt all the anxiety and worry exit my soul. I understood, once more, that God cares more about Kat and me understanding His heart passion for this city and its people, more than the limited and often short-sighted goal of finding the right church.

If you are in the same place we are, church-less or seeking a church, be comforted by the fact that you aren’t alone. I would love to run a nationwide survey of Christians. I think we would be amazed by the thousands (if not millions) of Christians that don’t have a current local church. Additionally, I’d encourage you to look beyond the objective of finding the “right church,” and instead focus on understanding God’s passion for your city, town, community, and region. Today, I have to walk to the bank and then to the local FedEx store and my hope is to walk in prayer, seeking to learn God’s heart for this polis.

The end of Isaiah chapter 40 states that they who wait for the LORD “shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (v.31). I know that the prophecy here is context-specific—we aren’t the Hebrews facing conquest. However, take faith that God is ready to engage with us in fellowship whenever we are ready to sit down and listen. He will renew our strength and we shall not faint. Seek first His kingdom here, and all else will be added.

Talking About Sin and Other Light-Hearted Stuff

Talking About Sin and Other Light-Hearted Stuff

Let’s talk about sin and other light-hearted stuff. Well, maybe we won’t talk about sin quite yet, but have you ever been in that Bible Study or small group meeting when the opportunity to bring up your sin came up, but instead everyone internally chose not to make the situation weird? Yeah, I’ve been there many times. This is one of the reasons why it is important, essential, for churches to have, in addition to small groups, men-only and women-only groups where the issues of sin can be discussed at a deeper and more understanding level.

Don’t get me wrong. Sin will destroy your life. Sin rips you away from God at birth and we are only restored by the blood of our Savior who was brutally murdered on a tree. Let that sink in for a couple seconds. There is nothing light or sympathetic about sin. I am not saying this as a judge, but as someone who has suffered through brutal sin, sinfulness used against me and from my own doing. However, in the Gospel there is grace and mercy. When we approach our brother’s sin (or sister’ sin) we are call to rebuke the sin and sinful act, but to love the person. God hates the sin and loves the person. We are called to do likewise. A college campus minister, Jeff Wilkins, used to always start RUF meetings by saying, “absolutely no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace, nor beyond the need of God’s grace.” I have carried that phrase upon my heart for many years.

And yet, we shy away from sin in small group gatherings. We feel shame, or at least I do. Maybe I am the only one who is fearful of being judged by my peers. I’ve experienced grace. I’ve been forgiven by the Father and yet I become a slave to shame, guilt, and fear. Why? Do I need not fully grasp grace? Is my God too small?

I re-watched the film Boondock Saints a couple days ago. It’s a mature film with a lot of cursing, a lot of killing, and some nudity. You have been warned. However, there is a scene in which a couple of the characters interact through a confession booth at a Catholic church. I don’t even know if that’s what they are called…confessions booths. Catholic friends, hook me up on this one. Nevertheless, the only reason why they scene stuck with me is because it got me thinking about the utility of public confession. What is decided, as a church body, to call out our sin publicly? What if I stood up on Sunday morning and shouted out “Lust!” “Envy!” “Anger!” “I don’t believe God will actually answer my prayers at the moment! I am doubting sovereignty right about now! Just though EVERYONE should now!” Would that make the church healthier? Would it drive some people away from public worship? Or, would it make us more legitimate? Would it strengthen us in understanding that we are really, really, really broken and that there is a VERY REAL REASON why Jesus had to die on the cross. I am not sure. I lean towards the latter, and yet, I am uncertain.

We hate talking about sin because it makes us feel not just unclean and broken, but because we are fearful of walking backwards. I am super guilty of this. As a Calvinist (because that label is obviously in Scripture…it isn’t), I fear that I am not persevering sometimes. I sometimes fear that my life isn’t showing the Gospel of Jesus enough…that I am walking backwards and not forward. As a Calvinist, I at least believe that I am chosen or not, because I would hate to believe that I could lose my salvation. That would majorly suck. We hate sin, we detest sin, we rebuke sin, and yet we fear sin. Fearing sin, is sin (insert sad “LOL” here).

I want God to conquer my fear and my shame. I want God to transform into someone who isn’t afraid of sin. I want to fully embrace the truth that Jesus died for my sin, rescued me from having to pay for it myself, and has given everlasting life and a restored, beautiful, and truly pleasurable relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. I teared up a bit writing that last sentence. It hit me deeply, somewhere inside.

On the topic of community, I want brothers who bring up sin (insert another “LOL” here). I want brothers who call me out on shit. I want brothers who not only call me up about watching the game, hanging out, or going out for food, but who also ask me: “how’s your heart, man?” “What are you struggling with? No bullshit.” I want that. I don’t have that right now.

This post wasn’t specifically about sin, but on talking about it. I don’t know if it is actually worth reading, but it’s something that I needed to write. In my search and understanding for better Christian and Covenant community, talking about sin and our struggle with it is something I definitely want God lead the way on.

Thanks for reading.