liturgy

The Church Doesn't Need "Children's Church"

The Church Doesn't Need "Children's Church"

The church has a long and colorful history of shooting itself in the foot. I’m not talking about cringe-worthy mistakes. Installing shag carpet in the sanctuary in the 1960’s—now that was a mistake. Letting families purchase or rent their own private pews—that was plain dumb. We may shake our heads at these blunders, but we can let them pass. It’s not like they un-churched the church.

We All Show up Late for Church

We All Show up Late for Church

The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. Little James would spit up his breakfast all over his church clothes as they strapped him in the car seat. Lindsey would hog the bathroom and delay Garrett’s shower. Tom and Cindy would hit snooze one too many times.

Taking the Road More Traveled By: The Benefit of Tradition in the Church

I grew up over-singing ''Just As I Am'' and watching folks get drenched from head to toe in their baptisms. There was something of a rhythm and rhyme to our Southern Baptist services; it certainly wasn't a charismatic free-for-all. The hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call all fell into place. But it had little akin to what I was to discover in my late teens when I began my pilgrimage into a liturgical church. There, I encountered psalm chanting, creedal confessions, vested clergy, an altar with real wine (!) atop it, worshipers making the sign of the cross, the rare but occasional smoke of incense, and plenty of other practices that sent my non-traditional sensitivities into shock. Some might suppose that, awed by the reverence imbuing the service, wooed by its sacred antiquity, it was love at first sight. But, no, to be honest, I didn't like it, not one little bit.

Twenty five years later, having written a Eucharistic hymn that is sung in the liturgy, presided as celebrant and deacon at various altars in the Lutheran Church, and contributed regularly to a journal devoted to the traditional divine service, I guess you could safely say that my first impressions of traditional worship were not my lasting ones. Like an arranged marriage, it took me years to get to know this heretofore unknown liturgical bride, to delve into her past, learn her eccentricities, and eventually fall in love with her. Now, a quarter century after our initial meeting, I can't imagine life without her.

What Good is Tradition?

Devotees of various faiths, Christian and otherwise, have their distinctive traditions and their reasons for perpetuating them. Some like the way these practices are transhistorical, providing an unbroken ritual link with prior generations of the faithful. Others appreciate how traditions tend to concretize doctrine, embodying religious teachings in religious rites, so that the eyes and ears and other senses participate fully in what a faith teaches, rescuing it from becoming a bloodless religion of the mind. Still others embrace tradition as the communal expression of the faith, the participation of all in a shared rite, thereby bonding them, and avoiding the tyranny of individualism or clerical whim. And there are some who simply enjoy the artistry of religious rites, how they lift the common to new heights of aesthetic beauty. My own gradual appreciation of Christian rites involved all of these. Ultimately, however, I fell in love with traditions—and specifically, traditional worship—for a single, overarching reason: its components, to varying degrees, are all in the service of the Gospel.

Tradition in the Service of the Gospel

What you'll encounter in a traditional worship service is a framework of readings, creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers that pulsate with the language of Scripture, with Christ Jesus at the heart of it all. By the repetition of these, with new elements circulating every week, truths seep into the hearts and minds of worshipers, steeping them in vivifying words. Every element of worship flows toward, into, and from the altar, where Jesus sits as Lamb, Priest, King, and Man, all rolled into one, giving his blood and body into his people and thereby literally embodying them with God. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus came to save not only the soul, but also the body, the body participates fully in this worship. Knees bow before the regal Lord; hands trace the sign of the saving cross upon themselves; mouths dine at his feast; eyes soak in the portrayal of his Passion in crucifix, icons, stained-glass windows; and noses spell the aromatic incense wafting prayers up toward God's throne. Moreover, just as the world operates according to a calendar, so the church follows a calendar of her own, with seasons and festivals that punctuate the year, each in one way or another preaching the mystery of Christ crucified and resurrected for us.  Though some of the elements of this worship are mandated by Christ--the preaching of his Word, baptism, his Supper--others are not, but are part of the heritage of prior generations, who bequeathed to us rites and ceremonies which glorify God, beautify worship, and work in concert with the Gospel.  All is claimed for Jesus—time, art, movement, architecture, music—so that in everything he may be glorified, and his people receive him and his gifts for their salvation.

Interest in the Traditional Liturgy Among Baptists

Though my own participation in liturgical worship happened after I left the church of my upbringing, I was surprised and delighted to read that in the Baptist church there has recently been a groundswell of interest, especially among young believers, in such worship. In a CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans, writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions– Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.” Whether this is merely a passing fad or a change of more substance and longevity remains to be seen. Needless to say, I hope it is the latter. If so, I pray that their spiritual odyssey may leave them not deeper into tradition but that tradition may leave them deeper into Christ.  For if tradition is not in the service of the Gospel, it is fool's gold, worthless and void.  But if it is in Christ's service, it is gold worthy of becoming a receptacle for heaven's blessings.

The Road More Traveled By

The poet Robert Frost famously spoke of taking "the road less traveled by" when he came to where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Perhaps in some aspects of life, that is sage advice. But when I came to where two roads diverged in the church, I took the road more traveled by, smoothed by the feet of the faithful for centuries, tried and tested by time, a path free of the pitfalls of modernity and the quicksands of fads, which leads always to the God crucified and risen for us. And that has made all the difference.

Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral

There will come a day, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, when the man in the coffin will be me. They say the dead don’t care, but I’m not dead yet, so as long as I’m still alive, I’d like to have some say in what goes on at my funeral. And, truth be told, I think the dead do care. Not that they will be privy to the details of what happens at their own funerals, but they still care about the world, about their family, about the church. The saints in heaven continue to pray for those who are still on their earthly pilgrimage, so how could they not care about them?

Because I do care now, and will care even after I’m with the Lord, here are some things I hope and pray are not said at my funeral. I care about those who will be there, about what they will hear. I want the truth to be spoken, the truth about sin, the truth about death, and, above all, the truth about the love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, please don’t say…

1. He was a good man. Don’t turn my funeral into a celebration of my moral resume. For one thing, I don’t have one. I’m guilty of far more immoral acts than moral ones. Secondly, even if I were the male equivalent of Mother Teresa, don’t eulogize me. Talk about the goodness of the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. Talk about our good Father who’s made us all His children in baptism. Talk about the good Husband that Christ is to His bride, the church. Don’t say, “He was a good man,” but “our good God loved this sinful man.”

2. Chad...Chad...Chad. I don’t want to be the focus of my own funeral. I was not the center of the liturgy on Sunday mornings, so why should it be any different during my funeral liturgy? If anyone’s name comes up over and over, let it be the name that is above every name—Jesus. He is the one who has conquered death. He is the one in whose arms I will have died. He is the one, the only one, who gives hope to the bereaved. Let me decrease that Christ may increase.

3. God now has another angel. Heaven is not going to de-humanize me. In fact, once I am resurrected on the last day, I will be more human than ever before, for my human soul and human body will finally be in a glorified state that’s free of sin. People don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever. God has enough angels already. All He wants is more of His children in the place Jesus has prepared for them.

4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in "The Tragic Death of the Funeral") do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins. The only person’s life to celebrate at a funeral is the Savior conceived of the virgin Mary, who became our sin on the cursed tree that we might become His righteousness in the blessed font, who buried sin and death in the empty tomb He left behind on Easter morning.

5. Chad would not want us to weep. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Those tears betoken a God who’s fully human, who experienced the sadness and grief we all do at the death of those we love. To cry is not to deny that our friend or family member is with the Lord, but to acknowledge that in this vale of tears there is still death, still loss, still suffering. I do want those who mourn my death to weep, not for my sake, but for their own, for it is an integral part of the healing process. But while they weep, let them remember that in the new heavens and new earth, God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain,” (Revelation 21:4).

6. What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad. What’s in that coffin is the body that was fearfully and wonderfully made when our Father wove me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). What’s in that coffin is the body that Jesus baptized into His own body to make me part of Him. What’s in that coffin is the body that ate the saving body of Jesus, and drank His forgiving blood in the Supper, that I might consume the medicine of immortality. And what’s in that coffin is the body that, when the last trumpet shall sound, will burst from my grave as a body glorified and ready to be reunited with my soul. My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me. And one day I’ll get it back, alive, restored, perfected to be like the resurrected body of Jesus.

Of course, there’s always more that could be added to this list—and perhaps you’d like to add more in the comments below—but I believe these get the point across. I want the beginning of my funeral to be focused on Jesus, as well as the middle, as well as the end, as well as every point in between. I care about those who will attend. Let them hear the good news, especially in the context of this sobering reminder of mortality, that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, for He is the resurrection and the life.
**Here is a short YouTube video in which I talk about death, so-called "natural death," the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ.