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Archive for April, 2009

Back in the age of dial-up, when regular people were just beginning to get on the internet, the first things I discovered were message boards. There were tons of them. And the ones I seemed to gravitate to the most were theology boards and ones devoted to debating Christianity with atheists and agnostics. Generally speaking those debates generated way more heat than light, but every now and then you’d have a conversation that went deeper, perhaps via email off the boards or in private messages. And more than once a more level-headed, non-angry atheist would say something about how they appreciated my approach and kindness (I wish more would have felt prompted to say that about me, but I sometimes struggled to keep my temper and sarcasm in check) and that they looked at me or others on the boards and wished they could believe.

That always seemed to be so odd to me. Someone who looks longingly at Christian faith and sees beauty and peace and something desirable, but can’t bring themselves to say they actually believe it. It seemed so sad. All I could do was pray for them and try to answer whatever questions I could and encourage them to keep an open mind on it. You can’t just make someone see something they don’t see. I can’t imagine not believing in God so sometimes it’s hard for me to really put myself in their shoes and feel what it would be like to really NOT believe…until now.

I’m starting to understand where they are coming from, but it’s not what you may be thinking. I’m still a believer. The world literally makes no sense to me without God in it. I can’t “unbelieve” such a thing any more than I could unbelieve that my wife and children exist. But I do wish that I could believe something. My friend is so certain and so at peace with his decision to become Catholic. He did his homework, read a ton and came to the conclusion that the Catholic church was the church Christ founded and that it’s the church we all should seek to be reunited to. I on the other hand have read far more and for a longer time than he did, but I’m still wandering in the wilderness. I admire so much about Catholicism and find much about it to be so attractive. I have similar admiration for other traditions such as Orthodoxy, traditional Anglicanism and Lutheranism too, but particularly on the latter two (in addition to traditionally minded Reformed churches) I still run into the question of authority. Who has the ultimate authority to decide between widely divergent interpretations on Scripture and Christian doctrine? It just seems that splintering over and over becomes inevitable no matter which tradition you choose, except Catholicism.

But though I look longingly across the Tiber at what seems to be a much more stable and solidly rooted faith, I find myself thinking, “I just wish I could believe…” And the wishes are about many things. Among them, I wish I could believe:

…that the Pope and Magisterium truly were infallible on matters of faith and interpreting Scripture.

…that the bread and wine in the Eucharist truly were the literal body and blood of Christ.

…that the Marian dogmas were true and that asking her and other saints for their intercession was truly effective rather than idolatrous.

…that I could agree with the Catholic Church fully on their stances regarding divorce and contraception.

…that if I chose to cross the Tiber, that I wouldn’t be sitting there 5-10 years from now unhappy again and wanting more out of church and the Christian life but now being completely befuddled as to where to go next.

I could go on and on I suppose but I guess what this really speaks to is that I’m so tired and weary. Nearly exhausted mentally and emotionally. I’m tired of being restless in my spirit and mind. I’m tired of not feeling like I can really jump in with both feet somewhere because of all these unsettled theological questions.  I’ve been through the emotionalism of my Pentecostal days, the intellectual high of Calvinism and Reformed theological study and the seemingly endless quest to be “culturally relevant” (which seems to be closely related to some vague notion of “hipness” sometimes).   Right now I’m just attending church but I don’t feel like I can really engage with my whole heart because I question everything.  I just feel like I’m in this state of suspension with no solid foothold anywhere, not because there aren’t several options purporting to be solid footholds, but because I’m in a crisis as to which one to trust.  I believe the Bible, but on the deep stuff, it’s increasingly unclear as to who is viewing and interpreting it properly. It’s wearing me out. I just want the truth. And I need a place to stand.

I just wish I believed…

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There’s an excellent discussion over at iMonk’s site about liturgy.  I wanted to highlight one response from a Baptist minister in particular because he comes from a decidedly “non-liturgical” background.  I’ve said similar things in describing why I like liturgy to my anti-liturgy friends but he does an even better job.  Go check the full post at iMonk’s blog though to see the responses from the Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic contributors as well.  Here’s the snippet I liked the best:

I think I’d want to start with the inevitability of liturgy. Here is something I’ve learned after a lifetime spent in churches that pride themselves in being free of liturgy and dead ceremony (terms used interchangeably in some places): the premise is absurd. There is no liturgy-free worship, and the monikor “non-liturgical” makes about as much sense as “government intelligence.”

The same churches that will ostensibly operate beneath the feigned guise of “free” worship or “Spirit-led” worship will inevitably, predictably, and without fail fall into a liturgy that is so set it makes the Greek Orthodox look like wild-eyed Pentecostals on speed. I’ve heard Baptist deacons anathematize written prayers only to turn around and say the same prayer over the offering plates that they were regurgitating back when Herbert Hoover was in office (i.e., “Father we just…”, “bring into the storehouse…”, “our tithes and your offerings…”, “bless the gift and the giver…”, with about 10 more “just’s” and “umm’s” thrown in). I’ve seen the same Baptist people who mock the formulaic worship of the liturgical churches respond to small changes in the customary bulletin layout with a venom that makes Genghis Khan seem like Stuart Smalley. I’ve known pastors in churches which chide the physicality and symbolism of liturgical churches almost get martyred in the center aisle for suggesting that the flag be moved from the sanctuary, or for putting their Bibles on the communion table, or for projecting a song instead of singing from the hymn book. The same Baptist who will condemn the Catholics for their relics will threaten to murder you in your sleep if you move the black-and-white picture of Miss Bussie from the display cabinet in the foyer. I’ve met more Tetzels in Baptist land than outside it.

The only difference between the “non-liturgical” churches and the “liturgical” churches is that the former’s liturgy is (1) present but denied, (2) inherited instead of intentional, (3) culturally defined instead of ecclesiologically mandated, and (4) largely pragmatic instead of theological.

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A recent dustup on another blog inspired me to post something about this notion of repetitive or recited prayers. Typically, a certain canard gets thrown out when discussing liturgical worship with certain evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants. Catchphrases like “man’s traditions”, “dead ritual” and “repetition” are bandied about. You could set a sundial by this entirely predictable phenomenon. It centers around Christ’s commands regarding prayer.

But let’s examine the verse in question where Jesus talks about prayer, specifically repetitive prayer:

Matthew 6:7
“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The ESV does a slightly better job in my opinion of conveying the meaning of the Greek in this verse:

Matthew 6:7
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The Greek word translated as “vain repetitions” or “empty phrases” literally means “to stammer.” It calls to mind more of what you’d imagine a Buddhist monk doing during Eastern forms of meditation such as humming or repeating this one syllable over and over again in an attempt to empty their mind completely. This is obviously not the idea behind Christian prayer and meditation. In Christian prayer and meditation, we’re actually doing the opposite…we’re filling our minds with something such as passages of Scripture, thoughts about some aspect of God and His character, recalling His wondrous works or His promises, focusing on events in the life of Christ (the Incarnation, the Passion, His death and resurrection). These are all good things.

But sticking just to this notion that repetition itself is forbidden in Scripture…it’s completely off base. For instance, take Psalm 136:

Psalm 136

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
4 to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
5 to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
6 to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
7 to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
8 the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew [1] Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Twenty-six times the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” is repeated. There are other Psalms with similar repetitive patterns. Then there is this passage from Revelation:

Revelation 4:6b-8
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
(emphasis mine)

Are these living creatures that “day and night…never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” engaging in vain or meaningless repetition? Because we’ve already established that they are engaging in repetition. If God had something against repetition in prayer or worship, then He should banish these creatures from His presence right away so as not to contradict Himself!

The takeaway is this: Jesus did not condemn repetitive prayers. He even gave us one that we frequently repeat in church every Sunday known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (or for you Catholics, the “Our Father”). Repetition is not the problem, meaningless or vain repetition is the problem. Simply babbling a bunch of nonsense or repeating words over and over as if they are some sort of Christian equivalent of “abracadabra” that gets you what you want is the problem.

Don’t be put off or concerned about the misuse of the passage in Matthew if you like to use prayer beads, employ prayer books such as the Book of Common Prayer, follow the Daily Office or participate in a Liturgy of the Hours. Obviously, the content of the prayer is important (none of that mindless humming, people) and just as important if not moreso is the intent of the heart in praying. One can turn anything into meaningless repetition (even The Lord’s Prayer or a psalm) if they absentmindedly mumble their way through it thinking that merely uttering certain words scores brownie points with God. Spontaneity is not the hallmark of true prayer and worship. Meaning what you’re saying when you pray is where true prayer begins.

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