Archive for theology of worship

A Reflection on the Desiring the Kingdom Conference

tyndale chapelWhen I was in seminary, my professor had us read James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of our course on Spiritual Formation. This book, as I have posted previously, would have a profound influence not only on my personal faith journey but also on my hesitant and wobbly first steps into college teaching. But just because I found it incredibly insightful (or may I say “thick”?), many of the students struggled with the book, and asked questions like:



Why read this?

Is this just an attempt to convert us to Anglicanism?

Why isn’t it more practical?

What is the relevance of endless conversations about liturgy for low-church evangelicals?

What does this have to do with the nuts and bolts of life in the trenches of every day pastoral ministry?

conference programThis week I have been privileged to sit in a three-day conference devoted to exploring the practical outworking, as we considered the question: what does this discussion of thick practices, secular vs. cultural liturgies, and humans being primarily creatures of worship and creatures of desire, mean for Christian formation in our churches?

Together with people from a variety of academic, pastoral and lay backgrounds, we gathered at Tyndale University College for the Desiring the Kingdom conference. James K.A. Smith led us through a variety of plenary sessions where he explained his premise in non-academic, accessible language. And we had a variety of breakout workshops that attempted to look at the practical implications and methods of incorporating these ideas about human flourishing and formation into the various ministries.

We have people working with children’s ministry; youth ministry; catechesis; seniors’ ministry; worship; and intercessory ministries.

We had lifelong Anglicans who are asking what role does the Book of Common Prayer have in the 21st century, especially in reaching disenfranchised cradle Anglicans who have walked away from the church and want nothing to do with what they perceive to be “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote” liturgy.

We had evangelicals, both on and off the Canterbury trail, who are drawn to the richness of liturgy but who are unsure how to incorporate it and/or prevent it from becoming “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote.”

We had teachers and pastors who are trying to figure out how to teach the faith to unchurched or dechurched people (and let’s face it, even most of the Christians in our pews are more like dechurched people given how little Scripture and theology they know).

We had people from dioceses where there hasn’t been active, intentional children’s ministry in their churches for years and now they are ill-equipped to teach children the Gospel.

We had people who are raising children and have thought that it was primarily the church’s job to teach their kids about Christianity, and have no resources for beginning to incorporate formation and teaching in their homes.

And I’m participating as both a PhD student, with an eye to how this applies to an educational context, and as a layperson (training to become a licensed lay reader), wanting to serve my church in the areas of catechesis and worship.

The message, the examples, and the strategies that have been offered in this gathering of Christians boil down to this: Christianity has something to offer to a broken and hurting world. It may not be flashy. It may not be “relevant” in the way that culture shallowly defines it. It may not be pretty. It may not be easy. But, the practices of Christian formation, of gospeling, of praying, of gathering as a community to worship, of practicing hospitality, of reading Scripture, of discipleship and teaching, offer a vision of the world and of humanity that the world is desperately seeking.

And, there are people, brothers and sisters in Christ, who are willing to serve, to minister, and to lean into these thick practices so as to participate with the Holy Spirit in pulling back the curtain and allowing the world to glimpse the amazing event of God revealed in Christ.

If you’d like to a peek at some of the discussions, check out #DesKingdomConf.




The Scandal of the Life of Jesus

sermon_smAnyone contemplating the life of Jesus needs to be newly and more deeply aware every day that something impossible, something scandalous has occurred: that God, in his absolute Being, has resolved to manifest himself in a human life. He must be scandalized by this, he must feel his mind reeling, the very ground giving way beneath his feet;  he must at least experience that “ecstasy” of non-comprehension which transported Jesus’ contemporaries. They are amazed, beside themselves, stupefied, overwhelmed; their reason abandons them (literally). And this happens again and again. In the face of his understanding, his reason, they lose theirs…

In the gospel, anyone who encounters Christ is impelled either to worship him or to pick up stones with which to stone him. Evidently, the gospel does not foresee any other kind of response…

There is no question of our being “ready” to take the shock of the Absolute. We cannot get in training for it and be more prepared to meet it. We cannot manipulate our contemplation in order to acquire some relevant “experience.” When God suddenly appears in Christ, the ground is taken from under us; this is something to which we can only respond with ever greater humility and renunciation, more and more simply and vulnerably, increasingly revealing our nakedness and poverty. And it is this poverty of heart which is called “blessed” in the first of the Beautitudes.

~ Excerpted from Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Word is Made Flesh,” pgs 159-162.

Random Thoughts on Christmas Carols, The Radio, Church and Advent

I made it all the way to December 14th.

It’s a new record.

I managed to avoid “The Christmas Shoes” on the radio for 14 whole days.

It’s one of those songs that tugs at your heart strings, and I inevitably cry every time I hear it. And Friday, I couldn’t avoid it. I couldn’t get to the radio quick enough to turn it off. So I listened to it.

But what made it worse was the song the radio played right after was the same type of song, only this time it told the story of a little boy with a terminal disease who probably wouldn’t live long enough to see Christmas, but does and then dies. Put “The Christmas Shoes” and that new song together on a day when little children were murdered in Connecticut, and needless to say I was a big sobbing mess.

By Saturday I was mad. Those two songs don’t tug at heart strings, they manipulate emotions. Now don’t get me wrong there is definitely a place and a time for songs of sadness, lament and raw emotion. But in this case, these songs do it for the wrong reason. And maybe that’s not the fault of the songwriters, but it is definitely the fault of the radio stations who play them over and over and over again. (How many covers of “The Christmas Shoes” are there now? 20? 30? 100?)

On Sunday we sang advent songs about joy. No Christmas carols yet. And I get the theological reasoning for it, I really do. But it seems really strange that I can hear Christmas carols, hymns about the birth of Jesus, on the radio for an entire month, and yet in church we’ll only sing Christmas carols on two occasions, Christmas Eve, and the Sunday after Christmas as part of the 12 days of Christmas. (edited to add: there might be a few Christmas carols at church this Sunday because it is the children’s pageant). Note: I’m not saying “down with Advent.” I think Advent is vitally important to the life and worship of the Christian community and it’s one of my favourite times of year. I just can’t help but spend a few minutes thinking about the oddity of the secular having more airtime for Christmas carols than the church. (Now of course I get that in the grand scheme of the Church year Easter has been and should be a bigger deal than Christmas and that Christmas being the high point of the church year is a relatively new phenomenon).

Speaking of Christmas carols, a friend of mine posted what has to be the strangest, creepiest, incongruous music video ever. It’s Twisted Sister’s rendering of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Now I don’t have a problem with the musical score, it’s the video itself. It represents a complete disconnect from the lyrics. Do they even know what they are singing? And then add to the fact that in the middle of the bridge they throw in a few bars of “We’re Not Going to Take It” and it has to be the weirdest Christmas music video ever.

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Thinking Through the Benefits and Necessity of Liturgy

“Liturgy is boring.”

“Liturgy is repetitive.”

“Liturgy stifles the Holy Spirit.”

“Yuck, liturgy.”

These are some of the reactions I’ve had when people hear that I’m currently attending an Anglican church. And yet, even before I began attending an Anglican church I knew that liturgy was an important and necessary part of my Christian faith. Even in more low-church, non-liturgical settings, the routine and familiarity of the order of service, of the rhythm of taking communion once a month, the routine of 3 praise songs, the offering, the sermon, the altar call and time of prayer, and the dismissal shaped and discipled my Christian walk.

Today, I want to just explore some reasons why liturgy, especially formal liturgy, can be beneficial:

It creates space to hear the Holy Spirit. There is something about saying the same words over and over again, where they seep into your very core, and you reach the place where you no longer have to follow along with the bulletin or the liturgical text. You’re no longer thinking, “okay, what comes next? What do I have to do?” In that comfortable space, the words that are so familiar become new as you can focus on hearing the meaning behind the words instead of trying to play catch up and follow along. The comfortable words (to use a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) become enhanced with new meaning as the Holy Spirit draws your attention to some new detail that you hadn’t previously considered, or as the Holy Spirit uses the words to heal your soul and give you rest.

It guards against accidental heresy.
We’ve all seen it happen. An elder, or a worship leader gets up and prays. And in the “moment” of spontaneous prayer ends up saying something Arian, or something Docetic, or something gnostic. Words matter, and the fact that the authors of liturgical texts have prayed and thought through the precise use of each word and what they are conveying, demonstrates that the words we say as a Church are deep, rich, meaningful and purposeful.

It connects us with 2,000 years of Christian worship. As I read the Patristic Fathers, in particular, I am struck by those aspects of early Christian worship that are still affirmed today. Take an early worship manual like Hippolytus’: Here is a liturgy that was written in the 3rd century that continues to be used even if just in snippets nearly 2,000 years later. Through liturgy, be it word or practice, we enter into something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our generation. Sure we may find ways to make it contemporary or “relevant”, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel each and every time we do church.

Liturgy happens even when it’s not explicitly called liturgy.
Let’s face it, even the most charismatic, free-flowing churches have some kind of liturgy. It may not be written down, but it’s done pretty much the same way every week. Heck, even “extemporaneous” prayers are often repetitive and follow a liturgical pattern each time: You pray for the needs of those who are sick; you pray for the missions fields; you pray for outreach; you pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the church board as they make decisions regarding the church; you pray for the Holy Spirit to bless the congregation and to make his presence known. Rinse and repeat every week, even if the details are a little bit different each time.

Liturgy is not just a religious thing.
Liturgy happens all around us. How we orient our lives, our years, our weeks, happens in a fairly standard pattern. Since it is now September, take the academic school year. September is the “start of the year”. There is anticipation in August for it as school supplies and new clothes are bought. And then, the day after Labour Day, the parents walk the kids to their first day of school. It’s a rite of passage. And each year for the next 13 (or more) yearsthe students participate in the liturgy of the first day of school. They meet their teachers. They find their desks. They make new friends. They reconnect with old friends. Their days become structured around the school schedule 9-3. Fridays become an important day that anticipates the weekend. We don’t say that this liturgy is boring because we’ve done it every year. Instead, each new year it is approached with both the comfort of the structure, and the newness that the student is another year older and the liturgy of the school year will not so much be the same old, same old, as it will be a deeper experience of a ritual that takes on new meaning and new life each time it happens. And even if there are those of us who dislike school and shed the liturgy of the school year as soon as we can, we still come back to it and put our children in it, so that it can shape and mold them as it shaped and molded us.

Liturgy, be it Christian or secular, profoundly shapes us. It demonstrates a telos or goal of the good life that we aim to achieve. Because we are embodied creatures, what we do affects what we believe. It shapes how we think, how we feel, how we look at the world. James Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that liturgy is important because humans are primarily desiring creatures, over against thinking creatures (Rene Descartes “I think therefore I am”) or believing creatures (the Reformed worldview emphasis). Liturgies, he writes, “are ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire.” (87). Liturgy, and particularly liturgy as found in the practice of Christian worship, is “embodied and material.” (152)

And so, even those who chafe at the thought of liturgy in Church, who balk at the use of liturgical texts on a weekly basis, are being profoundly shaped by the liturgy of being anti-liturgy. Smith asks a brilliant question that every Christian congregation, liturgical or not, should ask itself: What does worship say about Christian faith? (134) If you were to sit in on a service at another Christian denomination what would their service say about what they believe? If a stranger were to come into your church and sit in on a worship service, what would he take away from the service about what your church believes and what it means to be Christian?

(While I am deeply indebted to James Smith’s book, stay tuned for an upcoming post where I strongly disagree with some of the assertions he makes).

Sunday Meditation

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

Holy Ghost, no more delay;
Come, and in thy temple stay;
Now thine inward witness bear,
Strong, and permanent and clear;
Spring of life, thyself impart,
Rise eternal in my heart.

~Charles Wesley

Worship Resource

If you are a worship pastor, and haven’t put together your song list for this Sunday’s service, why not try out this medley?


Theologians Who Just Happen to Be Female

This is part of the ‘Girly Girl’ Week here at Cheese-Wearing Theology.


I’ve been trying to put together a list of female theologians to read. The thing is, I’m not really interested in gender studies or feminist theology, so I find that that significantly limits the number of women theologians I read.

Female theologians are not just writing about feminism. In fact, there are some amazing contributions being made in the areas of Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology and much, much more.

Here are just a few women to highlight:

Kathryn Tanner:
Dr. Tanner is Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. She has written several books, including Christ the Key, and Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. Ben Myers has said this about Dr. Tanner:
“In my view, Kathryn Tanner is one of the best theologians working in the Reformed tradition today – she has both a profound grasp of the dogmatic tradition and an acute sensitivity to the contemporary theological situation.” See also, Chris Tessone’s Why I Love Kathryn Tanner and Tripp Fuller’s I Heart Kathryn Tanner’s Christocentric Christology!


Sarah Coakley:
I first came across Dr. Coakley’s writings while doing research on the Council of Chalcedon for a Barth paper. Dr. Coakley is Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. According to her faculty page, she is working on a four volume systematic theology (Yay!). Check out her suggestions of 5 essential theology books of the last 25 years.


Nancey Murphy:
Technically Dr. Murphy is a philosopher, but much of her work intersects with theology, and has been invaluable to my studies. Dr. Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. In her writings on the human soul, Dr. Murphy argues for a non-reductive physicalist position (i.e., there is no dichotomy of body and ‘soul’).


Ellen Charry:
Dr. Charry is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. I’ve become interested in Dr. Charry’s work on the theology of happiness. There is much overlap between Dr. Charry’s work and work that is currently being done in the field of positive psychology.


Marva Dawn:
Dr. Dawn is a teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Dr. Dawn has written on worship, pastoral theology and much more. Her book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God won a Christianity Today Book Award. And of course, her book Reaching out without Dumbing Down is a must-read for anyone involved in leading worship in the Church.


A few more that I have read:

Catherine LaCugna: God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life.

Elizabeth Johnson: Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology.

Amy Marga: Jesus Christ and the modern sinner: Karl Barth’s retrieval of Luther’s substantive Christology.


So who are you reading?

Some Days My Emotions Need Manipulating

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more than one person say something to this effect:
Contemporary worship music is emotionally manipulative.

And it’s true. The question is whether or not manipulation is necessarily a bad thing.

As many of you know, I’ve been attending an Anglican church in this last academic school year (see my posts on my Adventures in Anglicanism). Through this, I’ve come to reorient myself to speak of worship as the entire service, rather than just the music portion. So, in what follows, I’m going to try to be careful to say ‘worship music’ and not ‘worship.’

This particular church is fairly traditional in its choice of songs, though it has attempted on several occasions to bring in some more contemporary hymns.
I’m not anti-hymn. Hymns, when done well, are extremely powerful. But there has been more than one occasion in which I can’t help but wonder if they’re so concerned with being ‘reverent’ in how they play the songs that they lose the emotion and feel of the hymn. On several occasions, the solemnity with which they have played the processional hymn, for example, has managed to turn it into a funeral dirge.

But at least they’re not being emotionally manipulative.

I popped into seminary chapel last week. There, they were doing some fairly standard ‘evangelical’ praise music. It started with just the guitar and lead vocal. By the chorus, the keyboard and backup vocalists had joined in. At the end of the song, the instruments dropped off, and only the voices sang. There was movement in the music, and the team created a sense of awe of wonder and excitement. I was emotionally manipulated. My hands were raised. My eyes were closed. In that moment, my emotions were driving my worship.

And it was a good thing. I hadn’t realized how dry I was. I hadn’t realized how, in the last couple of months, my worship had become all about my head. There had been no heart in my worship.

25 years ago, Les Miserables opened in London, and was roundly panned by critics for being ’emotional drivel.’ The producers, upon hearing the reviews, were gearing up to pull the plug. They called the box office to find out how many refunds were being issued for tickets. They couldn’t get through. Finally, they got through. The entire run was sold out! The audiences had loved it. The ’emotional drivel’ was, for the audience, an ’emotional connection.’ In a short time, the production moved to the West End, and then around the world. 25 years later, a sold-out concert at the O2, broadcast on PBS and available on DVD, continues to evoke a strong emotional response from viewers. Fans know that, when that final round of “Do You Hear the People Sing” starts, their hearts swell, and they leave the theatre with a song on their lips and their toes tapping. It doesn’t matter that the play ends with most of the heroes dead, and the revolution squashed. For a brief time, the audience entered into a story, connected with characters, and were changed by the experience.

So it is with worship music. For a brief time, we enter into the story of redemption, and are transported into the throne room of God, joining the saints and angels in praising and proclaiming the awesomeness of the Lamb. The music lifts us out of our day to day busyness and compels us to be changed, even if only for a little while.

I left the seminary chapel with a song in my heart, and found myself spontaneously worshiping God throughout the rest of the day, singing snippets of different praise songs and hymns at the most random of times.

So did the contemporary worship music emotionally manipulate me? Yep. And that was a good thing.

Another Adventure with Anglicanism

I’ve been attending an Anglican church for the last six months or so. (You can see previous posts on the adventures here and here).

There are many things I like about this particular Anglican church. It has a good mix of ages and a strong core of seniors. (I’ve really worried about churches that are missing an entire generation of Christians, especially when it seems intentional). I love the liturgy, and I love celebrating communion every week (I will admit I’m struggling with the real wine instead of grape juice, but that’s not a theological issue, it’s more a “my meds and wine don’t play nice with each other” issue).

My biggest learning curve, at the moment is the hymnal. There are so many hymns in Common Praise that are so new to me. And, when they do have “classic” hymns, in many cases the words are slightly different. Part of it is theological differences, and part of it is an attempt to be gender inclusive. For example, the other week we sang “To God be the Glory”, and the words were changed to take out the “He”s. I understand why they have done that, but it was just enough to trip me (and more than several people in congregation) up as we sang.

One song we sang a couple of weeks ago, has been bouncing around in my head because as we sang it, I began to question the theology of it. The song is Bring Many Names. Basically the song takes different images (in particular familial images) and puts them together to describe God.

So God is portrayed as strong mother, warm father, old God, young God, and great God.

My struggle is with the fifth verse:
Young, growing God, eager, on the move,
saying no to falsehood and unkindness,
crying out for justice, giving all you have:
Hail and hosanna, young, growing God!

I sing and I read it, and all I can think of is process theology. Does God grow? On the other hand, is the fourth verse any better, where it suggests the opposite that God is an old, aching God?
Old, aching God, grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,
glad of good surprises, wiser than despair:
Hail and hosanna, old aching God!

And I can’t even stretch it and try to explain the fifth verse as being about Jesus, because the entire hymn is directed at God the Father and not at Jesus specifically.

The last verse tries to capture the mystery and infiniteness of God, but ends up calling him “joyful darkness”:
Great, living God, never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing, everlasting home:
Hail and hosanna, great, living God!

I have no problem with the idea that God is never fully known, indeed that is very Scriptural. But He is darkness far beyond our seeing? Maybe I am too predisposed to imagery of Light in the New Testament…

The Hymn you love to hate Meme

Inspired by last week’s CCM Praise Songs We Have Trouble With Meme, Doug Chaplin over at Clayboy has started The Hymn You Love to Hate Meme.

Here are the rules:
1. Choose a hymn that you love to hate. It must be in a widely used and current hymn-book.
2. Say why.
3. Tag three people.

My first instinct would be to nominate O Canada, Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful etc, but even though they’re in the hymn books they’re not really hymns. (And it always cracks me up that the American patriotic songs end up in Canadian hymn books).

But, instead, Chuck and I are each going to nominate one.

I’ll Fly Away.

I love this song, I really do and it’s so upbeat, and I love how the Statler Brothers cover it (Johnny Cash‘s is pretty good too), but it’s a song full of blatant Platonic dualism.
And it’s not just the flying away chorus, but the second verse says:

When the shadows of this life have gone.
Like a bird from prison bars has flown

Can’t get more platonic than shadows and escaping birds.

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Decent song, except for the one line:

And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. (third verse)

We’re called to save each others’ pride?! Aren’t there certain rather prominent theological traditions that consider pride to be the root of all sin?

So now, I tag Rod (and by extension, Chad), Eric Ortlund and the great multitude over at Near Emmaus.