We Can Do Better Than “Loving Liturgy”

I grew up in an almost totally non-liturgical family and church tradition. “Non-denominational charismatic” is how I’ve often described by background to people who ask.

My parents and most of their friends had been mainliners and/or Catholics with a marginal faith before they encountered God in the person of the Holy Spirit in camp meetings and revivals sometime in the 70s. What was born out of those early interactions with the Holy Spirit was the church I grew up in. Alive, vibrant, full of vitality.

I loved that church and will always have fond memories of it. It gave me my identity, my sense of connection to God, my love for his people. The thing about that group of people was—God was SO immediate and present, and kind. I have vivid memories of being in prayer meetings and worship services where the Holy Spirit went from being a vague intellectual concept to being a sort of aura that you could very nearly see with your eyes, that you could interact with with a sort of tangible immediacy. When my friends and I began discovering our own faith in high school, the energy of our love for God found expression in prayer and worship meetings that we would organize, where God would utterly show up. I’ll never forget some of those times… snot and worship and tears flowing, prophetic words and discerning prayer over each other… hours later the atmosphere would lighten and we’d wonder where the time went.

Oh man… my heart burns just writing that.

Years later I started discovering the liturgical stream of the Church and it began to dawn on me that in so many ways, this was the missing piece of my early experiences of God. For in the ancient creeds and prayers and liturgies, what we had were channels that could take that raw energy of our hearts and direct it into the depths of God. Instinctively I knew, as a charismatic, that liturgy at its best was not antagonistic to the Spirit, but complementary and, even better, enabling of the Spirit’s presence and power.

I say that to say that my love for liturgy was and is always about God, about his Spirit, first. It was, and is, about answering the question, “How do we create handles for our worship? How do we construct theologically and aesthetically rich trellises upon which our raw spiritual passion and energy can grow and flourish? How do we help ensure that our worship is not just zealous, but true, knowing that truth enriches our experience of the Spirit of God?” But see… always about God. About a very real and personal interaction with him that cleanses and changes and transforms. Always. Always. Always about promoting and enabling that, and never about some kind of substitution, where liturgy co-opts longing for God.

Liturgy is all the rage in evangelicalism now. Which is fine. And I think mostly good. For the better part of the last decade or so, I’ve been a pretty damn liturgical guy. I love it. I think it’s vital. I don’t foresee myself leaving it behind for something else. I want to go deeper.

But.

BUT.

The thing that I am so much more aware of now that I’ve journeyed for awhile with liturgy and whatnot is that liturgy is a great enabler, but an utterly horrendous substitute for pure spiritual longing. And even more than that, as a pastor, one of the things I am keenly aware of is that part of the reason that many people like liturgy is because it helps them keep a safe distance from the immediacy of a holy God.

Boom. There. I said it.

I actually think that’s part of the reason that many church leaders like it right now. Because in an age where liturgy is all the rage, you can convince people that you’ve really got something good going on in your ministry, what with your incense and candles and call-and-response prayers and contemplative practices and ancient-future whatevers and high eucharistic celebrations and whatever… and no one these days will question it because having kick-ass liturgy has all of a sudden become some kind of rubber-stamp that God is present and active in a church’s ministry.

What we FORGET, or at least we 2nd and 3rd generation charismatics forget, is that there was something called “dead religion” that many of parents fought like mad to escape. THEY OVER-CORRECTED, no doubt, in abandoning the rich liturgical traditions of their forebears. But their core intuition that spiritual energy could be co-opted by or devolve simply into rote ritual was right on the money. God forbid we should fall into the same trap.

And yet… my impression is that many of us are. We’re forgetting. We’re forgetting the love and passion and desire that drove us into deep places of prayer and worship in the first place, that made us dream about planting churches that would change the world. Forgetting what made us love the liturgy when we first discovered it. Forgetting what and for Whom it was all about. Our Love. Our Light. Our God.

I’m reminded of a really stirring passage out of Lewis’ The Great Divorce (please, yes, I know, I’m on a CSL kick). Two friends—one of the redeemed, and one of the “ghosts” from hell—meet. The exchange is memorable, and straight to my point:

“Come, then,” said the spirit, offering it his arm.

“How soon do you think I could begin painting?” the ghost asked. The spirit broke into laughter. “Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about?” he said. “What do you mean?” asked the ghost. “Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.” “But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.” “No. You’re forgetting,” said the spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.” “Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the ghost. “One grows out of that…” “One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare…Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

I think that nails it straight on the head. And I know… I KNOW… because I have TAUGHT it… that these things need not be in opposition to one another. At our best moments they are not. In principle they are not. And yet the snare that Lewis speaks of is there… the endless conversations around liturgy and effort expended to perfect and continue to craft beautiful liturgy when the truth that we dare not admit is that we’ve lost and are losing the love of God that drove us into it in the first place. We’ve grown timid of God. And so we lead ministries that are increasingly timid of God. And instead of God we give liturgy, instead of the Spirit we give form, instead of Christ, we give contemplative practices. And the timid sons and daughters of God among us, sons and daughters who would love to know but a taste of genuine freedom in the Spirit, are confirmed in their timidity because we’ve substituted structure for the dynamism of the Spirit who calls out to each one of us “Come, reach out, and take the free gift of the water of life…and it will become a wellspring surging up from within you.”

God, I want that again. An upsurge of Spirit that cuts through the fog and the doubts and the cynicism and the ridiculous feeling that we cannot possibly be mature or educated in faith unless we are constantly depressed and struggling with our latest dark night of the soul… I would give everything to see that. EVERYTHING.

I loved God, and was utterly enamored with his Spirit, before I loved liturgy.

I will not lose that.

Not for anything.

I hope that you, especially if you’re a pastor, can say the same. Liturgy by itself will not and cannot transform the world.

But a people hungry for God… full of his Spirit, in ways that are outrageously evident…

It has happened before.

It can happen again.

So be it.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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(Mis)Reading C. S. Lewis

Ol’ Clive Staples has always been one of my favorite authors. From the time I first stumbled across a tattered copy of Mere Christianity among my parents’ library in high school, straight through college and seminary, and right up to today, I have always found Lewis to be bold, challenging, inspiring, and breathtakingly clear on some of the most important issues and questions for Christian faith. I have read nearly every book he wrote (most of them multiple times), return to him regularly for clarity, and if I had to pick one author who most nearly captures my own moral and spiritual vision, it would be Lewis, in a rout.

One of my favorite of his works is a book that seemed to experience a new resurgence of popularity in recent years with the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which, as everyone knows, sparked a bit of a fracas within evangelicalism on the age-old questions of universalism, judgment, the possibility of post-mortem salvation, and the like. The book, of course, is The Great Divorce, an absolutely stirring read in which a busload of the damned are given an opportunity to venture into heaven. The tale is utterly profound, piquant, unforgettable… I’ve read it no less than ten times (seriously) but hadn’t read it in a few years, and so decided to give it a run again this weekend. To my great delight, I found it to be more profound (and nourishing for the soul) than I even remembered.

But also, I thought, this book is profoundly misunderstood, misread, and misapplied. In particular, as I read it, I thought of how often I have heard The Great Divorce trotted out as evidence that Lewis believed in things like purgatory and the possibility of post-mortem salvation. From where I stand, it seems to me that the book often becomes a champion of a sort of weak-willed, half-hearted, half-committed universalism where we’re permitted to hold a vague belief that everyone is somehow magically alright in the end (a tolerant and loving position, no doubt). After all, isn’t that what the tale is all about?

Not if you read it closely. A few quotes to make my point, and then a challenge.

From the preface:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld.

That quote alone should be enough to put the matter to rest. Lewis is imploring readers to understand that what he is NOT doing, above all, is engaging in some kind of speculation as to the nature of the afterlife. Rather, what he is doing is opening up the reader’s imagination to the nature of reality using this little fantasy as a lens through which to understand the choices the lay at the feet of all humanity—a point he makes over and over again throughout the work.

An altogether excellent example of this in chapter 9, in one of his memorable exchanges with the great George MacDonald (who himself was, or is thought to be anyway, a universalist), he says:

“But there is a real choice after death? My Roman Catholic friends would be surprised, for to them souls in Purgatory are already saved. And my Protestant friends would like it no better, for they’d say that the tree lies as it falls.”

MacDonald replies:

“They’re both right, maybe. Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till ye are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.”

And once again, in his final exchange with MacDonald:

“A dream? Then—then—am I not really here, Sir?” “No, Son,” said he kindly, taking my hand in his. “It is not so good as that. The bitter drink of death is still before you. Ye are only dreaming. And if ye come to tell of what ye have seen, make it plain that it was but a dream. See ye make it very plain. Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows. I’ll have no Swedenborgs and no Vale Owens among my children.” “God forbid, Sir,” said I, trying to look very wise.

I could multiply examples from the book that continue to make this point, but few are as clear as the ones I have given. And the much larger point here is this: when one reads The Great Divorce with an honest and open mind, the impression one gets is NOT that Lewis is trying to allay our fears about the afterlife and comfort us that all—and all people—will be well. That, I think, is what progressive Christianity is trying to make Lewis say. It is, in my opinion, to co-opt Lewis for the spirit of the age, in which Christianity loses its teeth.

No, what Lewis is doing is altogether different—he is, read within the context of his own moment in history—issuing a prophetic summons and challenge to the spirit of his age. Reality, for Lewis, is not malleable to human whims and fancies. God is not a figment of our imagination. Christ is no mere symbol of human magnanimity and goodwill. The Holy Spirit is not a metaphor for our greatest hopes, dreams, and aspirations. No. No. No.

Reality is as hard as nails

For GOD is the great reality of the universe

And in Christ men and women everywhere are called to bend themselves to that reality, or be lost forever

Lewis was a mountain of a man, who stood like a banner on a hilltop, imploring everyone within the range of his voice (thoughtfully, carefully, winsomely, imaginatively, no doubt) to see through his eyes a burning vision of God, the Holy One, who with and through his Son Jesus held out the only possibility of salvation. The character of his ministry has, from where I stand, almost nothing in common with the caricatures of him so prevalent in progressive Christianity. He cut against the grain, resisted the tide of his time. It is for this reason I think his legacy remains so compelling. Like his contemporary Bonhoeffer, in Christ Lewis found a way to say “no.” He saw what others could not see, in large part because of his deep understanding of the Church’s perennial and everlasting message.

That is not at all to make the venerable Oxford and Cambridge don out to be some kind of narrow-minded fundamentalist. He was thoughtful and generous enough, and versed enough in historic Christian orthodoxy to embrace the possibility that some may, in the end, be saved quite apart from a direct knowledge of Christ (though, even so, always through Christ). But so what? I mean, really. That has always been a valid position within Christianity—that God, being good and just will judge people fairly, based on what they knew in this life, in light of the light and truth that they had. It is a sometimes disputed position, no doubt. But always valid. Heck, even Billy Graham, the arch-evangelical, in an interview with Larry King about the fate of those who had never heard the gospel, was quoted as saying, “I can only say with Abraham: will not the judge of all the earth judge rightly?There just isn’t news here. Who cares? His embrace of that idea was just an outworking of his generous and thoughtful Christianity. But it was not, is not, the center of his importance as an apologist for Christianity.

What I think would be better, and certainly more accurate to the historic and literary legacy of Lewis, is to see him (at least in part) as a prophetic figure who resisted the corrosive tendencies within the church and society that he found himself within and found a way, based on the burning and hard-as-nails reality of God in Christ, to provoke people to repentance and faith. His message had teeth, which is why it endures.

Does ours?

Forgiveness and the Risen, Wounded One

“On the evening of that first day of the week,” John says, “when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ ” John goes on to say that, “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side…“–a telling statement.

We are urged in the gospel to forgive those who have wronged and injured us. More than that, we are told that our participation in the kingdom depends on it and that in fact one of the ways that we can know whether or not we are standing in the love of the Father is if the grace of forgiveness is flowing through us.

But this is hard, as anyone who has tried to forgive someone who has deeply wronged or injured you knows. For forgiveness implies a casting away. In fact, this is what the Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi, means: to cast away, to send away. And so it is that when we forgive, that is what we are doing–we are sending the offense away, out of the midst of the relationship. Or at the very least, out of the midst of our hearts, so that it does not stand between us and the person who has wronged us.

Except…

Except that in our actual experience we find that the hurt simply does not go away that easily. For in the very moment of casting it away, as often as not we find that it is still there. The sliver still in our finger. The thorn still in our side. The barb still buried deep in our foot. Try as we may, the fissures opened up in the wounding are still there.

Yes. Yes they are. As the disciples found. The fissures are still there… BUT… they have found a new integration–in the person of Christ.

Like many, I have often found it curious that the Gospel writers draw such attention to the open wounds of the risen Christ. But perhaps this is saying something crucial about the nature of new creation that is inaugurated in Christ the Lord. It does not smash the old. Neither does it “undo” it, pave over it, or erase it, in some simplistic fashion. Rather, it draws the old into it, including and transcending it, eclipsing it, but never destroying it or leaving it behind. The marks of the struggle of the old creation remain, yes; the wounds remain, yes–but perhaps in him what we begin to find is that the memory of them is transformed, so that the song that erupts from the bellies of the redeemed is “Oh Death where is your sting?!

The wounds remain in the new creation. Forever we will worship “the lamb who was slain…” But the sting will be gone, as we will have cast all our hurt, all our wounds, indeed all our lives–into the new creation, into Him. Death swallowed up in victory. The Wounded One forever present to us, as he is present to us now, declaring, “Peace be with you.”