Facing the Light of Life: Chapters 11-12 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By IanWalden

After a couple of chapters squarely focused on Advent, Chittister here returns to her habit of interspersing thematic musings between her considerations of specific feasts. All three of us are finding that these tend to apply to the nature of discipleship and spiritual practices in general, rather than the liturgical year in particular. So I’m going to take this as licence to focus on chapter 12, on Christmas – using chapter 11’s comments on ‘Joy: The Essence of It All’ as postscript and illustration.

Reading Chittister joyfully requires practice and patience, and chapter 12 is a great example! After five pages of what seem like irrelevant filler on the origins, dating and history of the feasts (East and West) of Christmas, she hits us with three pages crammed full of helpful observations, with some memorable one-liners thrown in for good measure.

Hers is a nicely ecumenical stance, emphasising what the West has to gain from the Eastern Church, and suggesting we see their feasts as one single celebration of Christmas/Epiphany, between them portraying four aspects of Jesus, Divinity in our Midst. He is baptismally-declared Son of God Almighty. He is Hope and Lord of the Nations, to whom eastern magi (and one day the whole human race) pay their homage. He is Lord of creation, transposing mere water into rich, intoxicating wine. And oh, yes – He is also manger-baby, thoroughly one of us in all our poverty…

This, then, is our first major feast of the year: “the clear manifestation of the One we follow.” It forces us “to recognize who it is that we, like the people of Jesus’ own time, will, in everything we do in life this year, either accept or reject.” It’s a shocking reminder that the God we have longed for in Advent is rarely the God we wanted; far less tame, far more apt to embrace humiliation, far harder to explain or answer, far sadder to hide from.

And yet this, like all the liturgical year, is (Chittister insists) really about joy. Good News of Great Joy, even. It brings us “face-to-face with life stripped down and effulgent at the same time, simple and radiant at once. Here in the Child is promise and meaning, purpose and potential.”

And these very things – “something to do, something to love and something to hope for” are the essence of joy, both human and divine. “At the very outset of the liturgical year, the church presents a model of them all: a Child who lives only to do the will of God, who opens His arms to love the entire world, who lives in hope of the coming of the reign of God by giving His life to bring it. At the very outset of the year, we are given the model of how to be happy.”

Here are a couple of questions to get the conversation started:

If Christmas is so multi-faceted, so awe-filled, so complicated, a “very adult feast,” should we even try to convey some/all of that to children? How? What do they take in, beyond the fun of lighting candles, dressing up, and swinging toy sheep round by the tail? Maybe that’s enough? What does it look like for a child to confront this Light, this Joy, for themselves?

Where have you seen Christ living out His joyful life recently? Especially from within his saints (even yourself) – what did it look like? What impact did it have on you as witness of it?

Joy Is Not the Opposite of Pain

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of pain is? If you type the question in to the wonderful world of Google, you will read a variety of answers including: pleasure, getting high, bliss, good health, wellbeing, and joy. I’m not going to harp on most of these definitions, but I do want to query the idea that opposite of pain is joy – not because it is likely driven by the Rob Base song “Joy and Pain” (sunshine and rain), but because I think this idea sets up two different concepts as opposites: lament and praise.

While lament seems to be a difficult concept for the modern church, it was a common Hebrew expression of faith. We see this in the proliferation of lament psalms used in Hebrew worship.  Most modern psalters and hymnbooks, however, use only pieces of these psalms. The tendency is to neglect the honest portrayal of pain, confusion, and struggle in favour of what is all too often called the “praise resolution.”

Psalms of lament generally have four parts (they can be broken down further, but these are the basic components): an address, in which the author names the person he is speaking to; the complaint, in which the author honestly, and often vividly, describes his painful circumstance; a request, in which the author asks for specific assistance from the person whom he is addressing; and an expression of trust, in which the author states his confidence in the one he addresses. What we so often do is skip over the more difficult bits, chop off the “expression of trust,” and use that as a song of praise.

This approach, however, does not really result in praise. The psalmist reaches that “expression of trust” through his circumstances – whether or not they are changed. When we divorce praise from the real contexts in which we live, we foster a weak, circumstance-based, superstitious religion in which our praise is dependent on whether or not things are going well. That is a façade – not a faith.

Allow me to use a personal example. I am currently, as mentioned in a previous post, struggling with the possibility of infertility. Viewing lament and praise as opposites would lead me to believe that because I am currently in a state of lament, I am therefore unable to praise. Viewing praise as part of lament, however, allows me to lay my soul bare before God (i.e. yell at him for a while), and also to rest in my confidence in his goodness and power. If I didn’t believe that praise is a part of lament, I would fall in one of two directions: I would sink into despair; or I would feel unable to express the depth of my anguish, and end up wearing a mask. Instead, my lament draws me into the presence of God (because that is who I am addressing); it allows me to express the full extent of my suffering; it prompts me to ask God to change my circumstance, knowing that he is able to do so; and it allows me to push past my circumstance and into praise as I focus instead on the character of God, and his presence in my life. My heart breaks at the thought of not being able to bear a child – but no matter what happens, I know that God is good. I know he will help me to work out my calling toward motherhood in one way or another. That is the basis of my praise: not whether or not he does what I want him to do. And I could not honestly reach that place of praise, unless it was an integral part of the lament my heart is currently singing.

So no, praise and lament are not opposites. And neither are joy and pain. No, the opposite of pain is comfort. We are not called, as Christians, to live a comfortable life. Not in this world – not if we are called to participate in the transformation and redemption that Christ began and finished and will finish. We are not called to a life of comfort, a life free from pain, but we are called to a life of joy. We are called to a life of deep painful joy in which we see the truth of God’s character alongside the suffering of the world.

Chapters 9 & 10: Let’s start at the very beginning…

By Andrea Tisher

Advent. The beginning of the liturgical calendar. The darkness into which the light will dawn. The waiting. The anticipation.

But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a time of other-ness. It’s the counter-season to the commercial Christmas that starts right after Halloween (oh, for American Thanksgiving that would give us one more holiday to hold out for before switching over to Christmas…).

Chittister goes so far as to say that the liturgical calendar helps us to plumb the depths of human experience, and that Advent starts with the basic and essential dimention of human life – waiting. She writes that Advent “teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious…Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” (59)

And waiting does seem to me to be an essential part of the human experience. Life can be painfully slow at times, particularly as we wait for growth. Other people take FOREVER to change. And then we compare the pace they take with our own and realize that change in our own hearts is positively glacial. Waiting will turn out to be a necessary discipline.

But what are we waiting FOR? Surely it’s more than a chance to open all those presents amassing under the tree, or to feast with family and friends that we may or may not be excited to see. Advent reminds us of the big picture – of the three comings as Joan rightly points out. The coming in the past – the birth. The coming in the present – God’s presence in Word, Table and Community. And the coming in the future – the parousia or ‘arrival’, the time when the Kingdom of God will finally come into its fullness (from Chapter 10). The function of Advent then is not simply preparation or anticipation of the birth of Christ, but of the WHOLE story. Of the whole calendar. Of the whole of history. As Chittister writes, “Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life?” And I can’t think of a better time in our culture to re-adjust our perspective on the big picture.

How has your participation in Advent helped to ready you not just for Christmas, but for the coming of God into your present life, and for re-aligning that life to the reality of a Kingdom that is here already but not yet in full?

Belated Anticipation

My Christmas tree is still up. I’m ashamed to admit this, considering the liturgical season of Christmas finished a week ago. It is, however, but a symptom of a larger problem: how to live in the present liturgical season while reflecting on the previous season and planning for the coming one. It’s an issue that every worship leader faces, in one way or another.

So Christmas is over, Epiphany flew by, we’re now in Ordinary Time, and preparing for Lent. This cycle, I’m discovering, can be exhausting – even for the most experienced of us. I’m discovering that celebrating the Christian calendar (especially in a church that does not have historical liturgies on which to draw) requires incredible organization and foresight, not to mention ninja multi-tasking skills. And that’s when the rest of life doesn’t impinge itself on your planning and reflection process.

So – not only is my Christmas tree still up, but my church plans for Ordinary Time are unfinished, I haven’t reflected on Epiphany, and I haven’t even begun my personal plan of reading through the gospels starting last week. I’m tired. And lately this constant pressure to follow the Liturgical schedule feels heavy. I feel as if I’m on a treadmill with no emergency cord.

Yet, even as I feel stress gathering in my shoulders, and panic breathing down my neck, I’m aware that something beautiful is happening. The edges of each season are blurring, and the connections between them are becoming clearer.

Christmas, divine celebration of Christ’s birth, is essential to our understanding of the revelation of God (the Epiphany). God reveals himself to us in many ways, but the key way in which we know who God is, and how he behaves, is found in his Son, and the way he lived as one of us. And as I begin my plans for Lent, I discover that the key way in which God is revealed through Christ is in his death and resurrection – that God would become a servant (Christmas); choose to heal the sick, free the captive, and serve the poor (Ordinary Time); and submit to death (Lent) is a profound revelation indeed (Epiphany).

These are connections that were made by theologians long ago – and I have known them for years – but the belated anticipation of each season that I’m experiencing this year (as I reflect, and live, and plan for each season) is making them come to life. If I can live, somehow, with my feet planted in the present season, and my arms stretched between the previous and the coming seasons, if I can facilitate this stretched-out-way-of-life for my congregation, I think we will come to know Christ better. I think we will learn to know ourselves better.

So no, I’m not keeping up. I’m running back and forth like a maniac. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Christmas Is Not A Children’s Story

This post comes a bit late (although still within the liturgical season of Christmas) because my husband Andrew and I received some bad news during the Christmas season that has set us back on our heels. We have been trying for a baby for three years. This Christmas we discovered that not only do I have endometriosis, but I have a severe case requiring complex surgery. My gynecologist gravely informed us that he may not be able to save my ovaries.

We have been grieving, we are grieving and, to be honest, the season of Christmas is a crappy time to contemplate childlessness. Christmas is about a pregnancy. A miraculous pregnancy. Christmas is about a baby. Not only that, but our society has made Christmas into a season that is directed primarily at children. Almost every Christmas commercial contains a wide-eyed child waiting for Santa, or an excited child ripping into a gift. Christmas movies inevitably contain cute kids oozing “Christmas Spirit.” Believe me. I know. TV is no place to turn for distraction at Christmas – not if your problem is infertility. Nor is facebook a place of refuge these days. I have so many friends who are pregnant, or who have recently had babies, that sometimes all my news feed seems to contain is baby news. I’m happy for my friends. I really and sincerely am. And I want to hear their baby news. But for now, just for a time, I’m taking a bit of a break from their joy.

I can’t, however, take a break from the joy of Christmas. From the celebration of the Christ child. Not if I want to continue my journey through the Christian calendar. So my question this Christmas has been: “how do I celebrate the baby Jesus in the midst of potential barrenness?”

As I began to wrestle with this question (and believe me, although it sounds nice and clear and cold at this point – it started out as an emotional mess… and continues that way), I realized that there is something very wrong about the way in which we celebrate Christmas. It’s not actually about kids at all. Or, at least, not to the degree that we make it about them. Just because Christ came first as a child does not mean that Christmas is only for children. In fact, I think our focus on kids at this time of year has led us to sentimentalize Christmas. To make it less than it is. We somehow feel that, because the story contains a baby, it must be a simple one. A story easily explained to a child.

Don’t get me wrong – you should tell your children about baby Jesus in the manger every single Christmas. You should see your kids glow in anticipation of their favourite day of the year. But Christmas is not primarily about kids, and it’s not primarily for kids.

On the surface, it may seem like a simple thing to conceive a child. (Girl meets boy. Girl “lays with” boy. Girl gets pregnant. Girl has a baby.) But if we delve below that surface, something we tend to do only when we have difficulties, we find unimaginable complexity. There are hundreds of little bodily functions that need to fall in line for an egg to be fertilized and implant on a uterine wall. If even one of those functions fails, conception (let alone the birth of a healthy child) becomes unlikely, maybe even impossible.

On the surface, the Christmas story might seem like a simple thing. (Mary meets Joseph. Mary and Joseph become engaged but don’t “lay together.” Mary becomes pregnant. Wait. What?) It’s funny how we’ve learned to read this story by rote – skipping blandly over miracle after miracle, and seeing it as primarily a story for kids. Really? Try to explain the virgin birth to a three year old!

This story is anything but simple.

Mary is not representative of all other mothers. She alone had the experience of bearing a child that would also be her Saviour. King of kings. Lord of lords. God with his people at last. For the Christmas story, in its full telling, explains to us that God, the baby Jesus, is Friend to the weak and oppressed (the shepherds); that he is Messiah to those who have waited (Simeon and Anna); that he is King to the excluded (the wise men); that he is Trouble to the comfortable (Herod); and that he is Glory to the unremarkable (Mary). This baby is, in fact, God. God reaching out from his internal Trinitarian relationship, and welcoming the whole of the human race into that unity.

We rejoice, not just in the birth of a baby, but in God becoming part of his creation. We rejoice, not just at the swaying of a tiny fist in an animal’s feed trough, but at the chorus of angels proclaiming – at last – peace to humanity. We rejoice, not merely at the tiny stirrings and noises that a baby makes, but at the song of God that shakes creation. The song that will, one day, make all things new.

This is something I can celebrate. This is a reason to lift up my pain and rejoice.

Have an Uncomfortable New Year: chapters 1-2 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

As you know, I celebrated New Year’s Day on November 27th this year, having decided to practice the liturgical cycle in a conscious and considered fashion (at least once in my life). Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure I fully considered the consequences.

Thus begins a new blog series, which will include posts from two thoughtful friends of mine: Ian Walden, and Andrea Tisher. Ian and Andrea have consented to read with me through Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year,” at a pace of two chapters every week (although we may skip a week here or there). Each week, one of us will write a blog entry and then we will proceed to have a comment conversation in which you are welcome to participate. These post are not intended to read like book reviews (although taken as a whole, I’m pretty sure the book will be thoroughly reviewed by the end). Instead, we will use Chittister’s work as a jumping off point for wider ranging discussions about the Liturgical Cycle and its effect on our lives, and the life of the church. Please do consider picking up a copy of the book and joining the discussion.

Now back to the first two chapters.

Near the beginning of her first chapter, Chittister states: “The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it.” She speaks about the different ways we have of defining our years: fiscal years, school years, planting and harvest, cycles of the moon, etc. As I thought about this, I realized that my life has been shaped by the educational year. September 1 feels far more full of promise and newness than January 1 ever did (and certainly more than November 27th!). I tend to make resolutions every Fall (“I will stick to a new schedule,” “I will write for an hour every morning,” “I will get every paper in before its due date,” “I will keep my life more balanced, and eat and exercise to fuel my study”), and I also follow the New Year tradition of breaking each resolution, almost ritualistically, one month in.

What Chittister’s first two chapters made me consider, however, was how this view of my year has caused me to evaluate my life. She says, on page 6, “Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.” Huh. Can we derive from that statement that whatever “year” we choose to make the driving force of our life also has something to say about the way we measure our progress though life, and the way we value ourselves and others?

It’s completely natural for kids to look up to kids in higher grades (and I had three older brothers to catch up to!), but with me it went beyond this. I remember watching one of my brothers colour a map as part of his homework. I wanted so much to know enough (and to have the colouring skills) to be able to do the same thing. In fact, I even planned out how I would colour the map. In detail. A plan I brought to fruition five years later when I was given a similar assignment. In university, I shuddered every time I failed to reach above the class average on an assignment or an exam. When I reached grad school, each course I completed was one more notch on my educational belt, and my heart sank every time I received a B. My ritual of counting my years by the academic calendar has resulted in a life measured according to knowledge and skill.

So what would it look like to count my years as Chittister suggests: as levels of our spiritual growth? This is where things become uncomfortable.

In chapter 2, Chittister describes the liturgical year as “a lesson in life” (pg. 10). She states: “Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same” (pg. 10). *Insert swear word of your choice.*

So living the Christian year over and over again will make me more like Christ. *Repeat swear word.*

How many times have I said/sung that I/we want to be more like Christ? How many times have I really meant it?

Quite honestly, if I measure my life by the standard of spiritual growth, I’m afraid I’m more than a bit stunted. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m fearful. The list is longer than a chimpanzee’s arm in that direction, and shorter than my own pinky in the other. The fact is, if I’m really committed to Christ, if I really live his life each year through the liturgical cycle, I would have to give up an awful lot of things and activities. And I would have to do an awful number of things I’d rather not. I’d rather not go out of my way to speak to people on the margins. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to confine my conversation to people I already like. I’d rather not take Jesus’ attitude toward the poor seriously. It’s much more comfortable to save up my wealth to buy things I “need.” I’d rather not govern my time more effectively so as to use it in service of others. It’s much more comfortable to take a morning off here, and an afternoon there, to indulge myself.

So it seems, from what Chittister has said, that I’m about to have a very uncomfortable new year. Terrific.

Ian and Andrea – over to you.

(note to readers: I strongly suggest that you subscribe to the comments for these posts about Chittister’s book, as that is where we will be engaging in further discussion.)

Advent, Not Christmas

Besides Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, Advent is probably the most widely celebrated Christian season – or is it? As the weather gets colder, and the snow finally sticks to the ground, our thoughts turn to… Advent?

Each year on November 1st (Canadian storekeepers seem to feel that they can leap over Rememberance Day straight to Christmas – orange and black come down and red and green go up), the glitz, glitter, and glorias break out in every store. Every piped-in song contains the tuneless rhythm of “jingle bells,” and every available retail space is crammed with tinsle, trees, lights, and the latest Christmas trend (this year it seems to be “shoe ornaments”). The commercial world wants us to skip right past any sense of waiting and run full steam ahead for the holiday of holidays: Christmas.

I’m not about to compare churches to retail frenzies (although in some cases there are, perhaps, comparisons to be made). What I am about to do is to bemoan the fact that the church, too, hops directly over Advent and into Christmas.

For most churches, especially those that don’t follow the habits and traditions of the liturgical year, when we decorate the church three to four weeks before Christmas we are beginning a long-drawn-out celebration of Christmas, rather than beginning the season of Advent. We put up our trees and lights. We start singing Christmas carols. We begin (sometimes) hearing sermons about Christmas. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. It’s just that there’s something missing.

Christmas is a season of triumph and joy. We rejoice in the coming of our King; we rejoice in the knowledge that God lowered himself, and took the position of a human baby so that we might know him better. Advent, by contrast, is a time of sober reflection and preparation. Advent is the experience of waiting with Israel for the Christ – and waiting together as the church for the second coming of Jesus. It’s the fast that makes the feast taste extra good.

What are we missing when we skip over Advent?

The fast before the feast, yes – but also something else. Advent gives us the opportunity to tell God that things are still not right down here. We weep over the state of the world; we bring to God those things in our own lives that aren’t right. Advent establishes in the people of God a renewed sense of longing for Christ’s second coming – for the day when all things shall be renewed under the lordship of Christ. As we wait with Israel, we feel some of Israel’s pain and desperation – and we join our own pain and desperation to it. We see oppression, war, and hunger in the world and we acknowledge that this is not the way things should be, that this is not God’s intention for the world. We stand in the face of injustice, sorrow, and sickness and say: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Christmas contains none of this longing, and rightly so. Christmas is pure celebration of the fact that Christ has come – but our celebration will ring false if we don’t first acknowledge, through Advent, that we desperately need him to come again.

Liturgical New Year

This year I’m celebrating New Years on November 27th. I’m not going to stay up till midnight on the 26th. I’m not going to eat oliebollen (sorry, Dutch food reference). And I’m not going to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

What I am going to do, is take some time to pray in preparation. As another liturgical year begins, this time around I hope to live it mindfully. And in the company of my readers.

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church – a denomination that falls somewhere between high and low church. Let’s call it middle church. This means that we had things like congregational readings, and we celebrated some aspects of church/liturgical calendar, but we didn’t go whole hog. I have since attended and been in leadership in Alliance churches, Baptist churches, and Pentecostal churches, but it wasn’t until I attended Regent College that I came into contact with full celebration of the Christian year. Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, Ordinary Time, Epiphany… I had a basic knowledge of what they comprised, but I’ve never actually lived them in a cyclical way. I’ve observed one feast one year, and maybe tried a different one in a following year, but I have never observed them sequentially. And I want to.

In preparation for my year of liturgy, I’ve begun reading Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. What I love thus far about this book is Chittister’s contemplative approach (she’s a Benedictine nun, which may have something to do with it). The liturgical year is, she says:

“…the attempt to live the Jesus life over and over again all the years of our lives… It is about the spirituality of joy and suffering, of waiting and faith, of asceticism and celebration, of loss and hope that marks all our lives and that needs to be strengthened, deepened, revisited, and rediscovered in the life of Jesus and the life of the church every year of our lives” (xvi).

She speaks of the Christian year as a means of slowly – drip by drip, she says – becoming Christlike. One year, one feast at a time:

 “The liturgical year… proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God” (6).

That’s what I want to be (on my better days). So I want to explore this life – to orient my year around the life of Christ, rather than tie it to the earth’s rotation around the sun, or the cycle of education, or the yearly accumulation of finances, or the payment of taxes.

I hope to write at least once a week (perhaps even more often, if I can manage a few regular posts here and there between the Christian year). Some posts will contain church liturgies (I also hope to use this year to explore what it means for a “non-liturgical” church to experience the Christian year). Some posts will contain explanations of different fasts and feasts. Some posts will track my personal experience throughout the year. Some posts will be biblical reflections from within a particular liturgical season.

If there is a type of post you would find particularly helpful – or a question you would like me to research during the year, please feel free to post a comment and let me know.

If you are interested in participating in this journey with me – let me know that too. Consider picking up Chittister’s book as a starting point, and prepare with me to ring in the New Year on November 27.

What’s Wrong with the Temple?

A couple of weeks ago, I preached John 1:14, looking back at God’s gift of the tabernacle and Solomon’s construction of the temple in order to answer the question: How does God dwell with his people? The tabernacle and the temple are key aspects of any Theology of Worship study (or should be), and as Solomon’s building of the temple is an especially fascinating passage, especially when combined with John 1, I decided it merited a blog post (how arrogant does that sound?!), especially considering the implications these passages have for the church.

Retelling the Story

When Israel was wandering in the desert, God graciously handed Moses the design of a tent in which he promised to dwell with his people – in the center of the camp. It was a visible way in which God made it abundantly and graciously clear that he was with his people.

Time goes on, and Israel finally manages to occupy the land God has given them. In 2 Samuel 7 we see David sitting cosily in his palace, after a life of fighting. As he reclines on his throne, he has a qualm of conscience and says to God’s prophet, Nathan: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan says (basically) “Good point!” But then God comes to Nathan at night with this message for David:

Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5­-7)

God denies David’s request to build him a house – instead, he offers to build David’s house:

The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11-16)

So we arrive in 1 Kings 5-9 in which Solomon, David’s “own flesh and blood” proceeds with the building of the temple. Here the subtle language of the text begins to cue us in to the fact that something is wrong.

The First Hmmm

In 1 Kings 2 David, on his deathbed, reminds Solomon of God’s promise, but the unconditional fatherly promise given in 2 Samuel reads more like a conditional warning here:

If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4, emphasis mine)

Suddenly a big “IF” is inserted into God’s seemingly unconditional promise in 2 Samuel. This is a tension that will be played out throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Kings, and certainly as we continue to work through Solomon’s building of the temple.

The Second Hmmm

Solomon starts out well enough. He asks for wisdom that he might reign well over Israel. God is pleased and grants him not only wisdom, but also wealth and power. And, at first, we see that Solomon’s wisdom, wealth, and power result in a people that “ate, drank, and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). We get stories of his wise rulings, and his scientific discoveries (1 Kings 3 and 5). He is portrayed as a wise and good king.

But, as Solomon begins his preparations for the temple, you begin to get the impression he thinks he’s pretty important. This impression is confirmed when, between the building of the temple and its furnishing and dedication, you read an interesting little insertion about Solomon building his palace. (Right in the middle in Hebrew text often indicates something to which we should be paying close attention.) This insertion is absolutely brilliantly worded – and the transition is money.

…the temple was finished in all its details according to is specifications. [Solomon] had spent seven years building it. It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.” (1 Kings 6:38-7:1)

The emphasis in the text is mine – but the structure of the Hebrew certainly suggests it. This is where we really start to wonder if Solomon has his priorities in line.

The Third Hmmm

God’s response to the dedication of the temple highlights the shaky ground on which Solomon and the kingdom of Israel are standing – the blinking “IF” that David inserted into God’s promise. God appears to Solomon in 1 Kings 9: 3-9. If you read this text, you’ll discover that it doesn’t sound like much of a “thank you.” It doesn’t sound like much of a blessing. Instead, it is a harsh and dire warning. God is essentially saying: “Well Solomon, if you have to have a temple, fine. I’ll be there. But this is not going to go very well.”

The Result of Hmmm-ing

And, of course, we know that despite all the warnings Solomon fails miserably. Very shortly after the temple’s dedication we read that Solomon used forced labour for all his building, including the temple. We read of his shady business deal with Hiram, king of Tyre; of his excesses in wealth (now portrayed as luxuries, rather than food – and as benefitting the court rather than the people); and, finally, we read of his 700 wives and 300 concubines (all from other nations) and of the temples he built for their gods. And we read of Solomon going to worship in those temples. That “IF” is blinking pretty hard by this time.

The Final and Perhaps Most Interesting Hmmm

Before we move on to the implications of this, however, I want to draw your attention to one final shift in language. In 2 Samuel 7, God says to David “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in…. I have been moving about from place to place with a tent as my dwelling.” But when God talks about David’s offspring building a temple, it very clear that the temple will house only God’s name. There is never any mention made of God dwelling in the temple as he did in the tabernacle. This language is repeated in David’s warning to Solomon, in Solomon’s long-winded dedication, and especially in God’s response to the dedication of the temple: “I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there” (1 Kings 9:3).

It is very clear that, while God promises to bless the temple and pay attention to it, he does not promise that he will dwell there as he did in the tabernacle.

I’ve spent considerable time wondering what this shift in language means, and this is what I’ve come up with: the main difference between the tabernacle and the temple is that one moves, and one doesn’t. That’s the conclusion to which my brilliant logic has brought me.

When God responds to David’s desire to build a temple in 2 Samuel 7:6-7 he states:

I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar? (emphasis mine)

Why specify all the Israelites. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that “the Israelites” already refers to all of them? I think the author is using intentional redundancy here for emphasis. In the tabernacle, God dwelt with all his people, moving with them from place to place. Now, as Israel spreads out to occupy the land, and as a permanent temple structure is built in Jerusalem, it is no longer possible for God to be seen to dwell with all his people in one location. Is it possible that the text is subtly stating that God’s place is with the whole of his people, rather than in one specific location – rather than in the seat of power?

The HMMMs of 1 and 2 Kings leave us, I think, with two essential questions: will there ever be a king in the line of David who can fulfill God’s requirement of righteousness; and will God dwell again with his people?

Cue John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, uses two words to translate the Hebrew Mishkahn. When it is in noun form, it’s translated as skaynay (tent/tabernacle), while the verb form is translated kahtoikayoh (to dwell). In the Greek of John 1:14, then, where a verbal form is warranted, we would expect the Greek word kahtoikayoh (to dwell). Indeed, that is generally how it is translated in English. Instead, the author of John uses the Greek noun form: skaynay. So “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” could be translated as “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” He pitched his tent among us.

I think there is an intentional contrast to the temple happening in this passage. It’s not the only thing that’s happening in the text, but I think it’s there. The contrast is emphasized by the fact that Jesus is continually on the move, throughout the book of John. Almost every chapter has Jesus moving to another place: from Bethany to Cana to Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to Galilee… (and that’s just chapters 1-4). There’s a reason that John uses the noun “tent” rather than the simple static verb “to dwell.”

What was the main difference between a tabernacle (a tent) and a temple again?

God will not be nailed down to one place or to one specific segment of his people. He does not sit still and wait for his people to come to him. When Jesus claims, in John 2, that he is the temple (and note how closely this follows “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”) he’s announcing his death and resurrection – but that’s not all he’s doing. He’s saying that he is the place where God dwells – but that’s not all he’s saying. He’s also proclaiming that his people, his whole people, all his people, have access to him again. Because he’s not waiting for us to come to him – he’s coming out to meet us. He’s travelling with us. He’s putting his tent down right next to ours.

So what does this mean for how we worship him? What are the implications of this amazing truth for your church?

It means that we cannot claim God simply for ourselves. The “God’s with us, but not with those other guys who call themselves Christians” mentality simply will not work. We don’t have a corner on the God-market – no matter how right we might think we are, and no matter how wrong we think the other guys are. This does not mean that all truth is relative. It does not mean we never use judgement, and that we accept every idea and method blindly. It does mean that we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The bigger implication, however, is that the church cannot stand still. There were two questions from Kings to answer: would there be a king fit to rule eternally, and would God once again dwell with his people? In Jesus, both questions are answered. He is able not only to inaugurate the eternal kingdom, but also to build a temple in which God can again dwell with his people.

1 Corinthians 3 tells us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We, the body of Christ, are now the place in which God dwells with his people – all his people – everywhere. It is not enough for us to sit within the doors of the permanent structures we have set up and assume that people will come to us if they want to seek God. This is not the way Jesus functions, and nor is it the way we should function. Sometimes we get so tied up in our buildings that, like Solomon, we forget the point – and our building becomes our idol. God is not against buildings. But he is against sitting still. Worship of God is not limited to church buildings – true lives of worship should extend outside of our buildings into every aspect of life. If people are to meet God in this time, and in whatever place your congregation inhabits – the temple of God must be on the move – it must be a tabernacle, not a temple.

Rant 1: “Just Throw a Few Songs Together”

A couple of months into my first job as music director of a church, I called a guest preacher to ask about his text and the substance of his message for the upcoming Sunday. “Oh I don’t know,” he answered. “Just throw a few songs together, it’ll be fine.”

Thus begins the first post in a series I will simply call my “rants.” My former housemates used to (more than) occasionally roll their eyes and say “here comes the rant,” when they recognized one of my triggers. I will refrain, in these posts, from digressing into my standard rants about things like Hertz Rent-a-Car, land use policies (or lack thereof), and dog owners who think their dog is God’s gift to everyone. Since this blog is intended to be focused on worship theology, I will limit myself to worship-associated rants. I will also do my best to write as I see it, rather than censoring myself to avoid ruffling feathers. Feel free to air ruffled feathers in your comments.

(Never use Hertz Rent-a-Car.)

Having just said I would be happy to ruffle a few feathers, I’m now going to offer a caveat or three before I launch into this first rant:

  1. I believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through a few songs “thrown together.” Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully as I plan with little or no information about what the rest of a service will look like.
  2. I realize that preachers are perhaps not used to the types of questions that I ask before planning a worship service. The response of “just throw a few songs together” is sometimes given because a preacher feels I’m asking for information he or she can’t provide at the moment, rather than because the preacher feels that worship should be planned in this way.
  3. Although I have heard the above words far too frequently there are, of course, a myriad of preachers (and others) who place a high value on congregational worship, and who have an astute sense of the time and effort that goes into planning a worship service.

Alright. Caveats over – gloves off.

My biggest concern about “just throwing a few songs together” is the underlying assumption that this is all worship is. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging assumption. As stated in my post on Subliminal Liturgy, gathered worship forms our congregations (thinking of the service as a whole now, with music acting as one part of that whole): it forms our behaviour inside the church and outside; forms the way we think about God; forms the way we think about the world; forms the way we think about ourselves. If we treat any part of our gathered worship lightly, we are in danger of shaping our congregation passively (at best) and negatively (at worst). There is nothing in scripture that leads me to believe we are to treat the worship of God lightly or casually.

So “throwing a few songs together” implies a dangerous attitude toward worship, but – if I’m honest – it’s the implied lack of respect for worship leaders and the work they do that gets under my skin and rankles. It takes hours and hours to research/write/deliver a sermon. I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself. Most members of a congregation will affirm the amount of time it takes to preach a good sermon. What drives me absolutely batty is that those same understanding individuals, and often the pastor as well, while agreeing that the sermon is a time consuming and important task, think it’s a matter of minutes to put together the rest of the service. Choose a few of your favourite songs; throw them up in the air; see how they land; and then just get up there and play. (Note to readers: Please congratulate me on my forbearance in not using strong language here.)

It generally takes me 10-20 hours to research (yes, research)/plan/practice/lead a service. Other worship leaders will take more or less time, depending on their process and (sorry if this sounds overly frank/harsh) on the value they themselves place on the act of gathered worship, and on the task they have been given. Since I realize the above estimation of time may be surprising to some, and therefore will demand some justification, I thought I’d share my planning process with you.

How to plan a worship service in 10-20 hours:

  • Speak to the preacher, generally asking four questions: what text are you preaching from; where do you plan to start; where do you plan to finish; and is there any specific response you feel this passage requires from the congregation.
  • Read the passage and its context several times, preferably aloud.
  • Work through a mini-exegetical process focusing on the following questions: how is the original audience led up to this point; what is the text communicating; what does the text say about God; about the church; about us as individuals; what kind of response does this text demand from God’s people?
  • Spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal his word both in the text itself, and through the Spirit (speaking a particular word to a particular congregation at a particular time).
  • Begin to pull songs – anything that rests briefly on, leads to, or provides response for the thoughts and ideas that are now circulating.
  • Spread songs out and begin to group them, tracing themes and working through how a congregation might be led up to the particular word of God that will be preached. Keep in mind the standard elements of the service which must be included (congregational prayer, announcements, kids message, offering, etc.), and note which songs might provide an opportunity for the congregation to respond fittingly.
  • Begin to play through some of these groupings, determining how songs fit together musically and thematically. Note where additional transition might be needed and how songs can be fit together in such a way that they add meaning to each other.
  • Consider additional elements: write a spoken liturgy or prayer; determine what participation children will have in the service; determine if there is an additional biblical text that compliments the sermon text, or adds an additional layer of meaning; examine transition points to determine how best to lead the congregation through them (scripture, prayer, liturgical reading, musical shift, etc.)
  • Write out an order of service, complete with who will be leading the various elements, and how they will fit together.
  • Practice the service as a whole to ensure timeliness, to affirm that the service will assist people to move from one place to another (rather than simply circling a theme), to map out any difficult musical transitions, and to match musicality to meaning.
  • Ensure that details are in place: correct words available to congregation; necessary participants on board; ensure participants are informed of their part in the service and how it fits into the rest; ensure that all needed objects (music, decorative elements, readings, additional instruments etc.) are printed out/gathered.
  • Practice with others (if there are additional musicians), paying special attention to transitions and tone.
  • Lead congregation through the service.

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly. Maybe I take things a bit too seriously. But I don’t think so. I think we are intended to treat the worship of God with careful consideration, with respect, with joy, giving it the weight of our time and effort. Giving it the weight that it is given in scripture.

God’s set-up of Israel’s worship of him is not a brief and un-detailed “throwing together of songs.” It spans chapter after chapter of text. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1/3 of the Torah (first five books of the OT, Israel’s founding text and therefore ours) is concerned, in one way or another, with how God’s people do, do not, or should worship him. God’s set-up of Israel’s worship involves complex structures, rituals, and planning; involves careful attention to detail and joyful contribution of time, resources, and effort; involves careful reading of surrounding culture and avoidance of cultural worship practices that would lead God’s people astray.

Surely, then, our own worship, our own planning, should be more than “throwing a few songs together.” Not only can we do better than that – if we are to follow God’s ways with his people as portrayed throughout scripture – we must.

Discuss.