Kenneth N. Myers's Blog
October 25, 2016
A fellow tells me the Scriptures are inspired by God (I agree), and that’s how we know what is and isn’t Scripture (that doesn’t even make sense to me). He tells me we know what Scripture is because it is inspired by God and we just know when we read it. Then, in a somewhat sarcastic way, he writes to me, “What’s your answer? That God inspired a particular catholic council? Or that inspiration is impossible to discern?“
So, I wrote this, and I offer it as my super simple crash course on how we got the Bible. I hope someone reads it and finds it helpful:
My answer is that there were a lot of individual pieces of Scripture floating around being used by various churches, and some of these churches were also using some books as Scripture that weren’t ultimately included in the canon.
Then, various heresies started emerging and to counter these, this church and that church appealed to these various writings as authoritative; and while they mostly had books in common, there were discrepancies.
Then, this heretic named Marcion made up his own canon, and all the others said, "Woah! Wait just a minute! THAT ain’t right!”
Then various bishops of various areas started saying, “Well, folks, in the province that I lead, these are the texts we’re gonna use as canonical!” But, of course what one group of churches used varied slightly from what the neighboring group of churches used.
Then, in 367, Bishop Athanasius from Alexandria, Egypt sent out a letter to all his churches with a list of 27 books and said, “Dudes! THIS is the New Testament!”
Then, 30 years later in Carthage, in 397, the churches from the whole north African region said, “That Bishop Athanasius from over in Alexandria hit the nail on the head. What he said is what we say. Yeah, that’s the ticket - those 27 books are the New Testament; oh yes we are including Revelation! And no, silly, the Gospel of Thomas isn’t on the list.”
Then, in 431, the Council of Ephesus (which was a global council; an ecumenical council) said, “Know what, everyone? We totally put our stamp of approval on the work those guys did in Carthage back in 397, so, ok, the whole Church recognizes those 27 books as the New Testament.”
And there you have it.
August 26, 2016
When I was in the third grade I discovered The Banana Splits, a wacky Saturday morning kid’s show about four furry animals in a rock band. There was a “club” you could join, and I sent in my application and got back an official membership card and all sorts of other things that made me special.
Then I got my neighbor and we started an Emory, Texas branch of the Banana Splits Club. Outsiders were called “Sour Grapes.”
My brother was an outsider.
When we called Paul a Sour Grape and told him he couldn’t come into our bedroom clubhouse (never mind that it was his bedroom too), he went crying to my dad, and my dad made it clear in no uncertain terms that if this club of mine was going to continue it was going to be open to Paul, and theoretically to any other kid who came through the door.
I eventually got over the disappointment of being forced to include my brother in my super-duper special club, and after 55 years of having him in my life, I don’t think he’s a Sour Grape anymore. Most of the time.
Now that I’ve shared this affair of my childhood, let me tell you about a conversation I had yesterday.
Calvinist to me: “Anyone who does believe the gospel CANNOT deny the truths of any of the five points of the doctrines of grace.”
Me: “Are you saying all non-Calvinists don’t really believe the Gospel?”
Him: “That is precisely what I am saying.”
Me: “But, doesn’t someone have to ‘believe the gospel’ in order to be saved?”
Him: “One is lost while they are left believing another gospel…”
Now, I get it that this isn’t what all (or even most) Calvinists believe. But it serves as an example of a modality that lots of Christians operate by: “If you don’t believe like I do, then you aren’t the real deal.” Oh, it may never be put in these precise words, but the sentiment is there - that if you don’t think like I do about all things religious and spiritual, then you are either no Christian at all, or a lesser Christian than I am. It is spiritual arrogance, and it is unchristlike.
Many Christians are unchristlike because they perceive God himself to be unchristlike; they see him as petty and particular; if you don’t have all your ducks lined up then you are outside of his favor.
This kind of thinking is what makes me say, more than I probably should, “If this is what Christianity is, then I am not Christian.”
“God is love”, people. Why can’t we get that?
“The Lord is…patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Why can’t we get that?
“He is the savior of all men, especially those who believe.” Why can’t we get that?
“For God so LOVED the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Why can’t we get that?
I think a lot of people can’t get that because somewhere deep down inside them, they have approached Christianity as an “us vs. them” club, that unless you know the password you can’t get into the clubhouse, and only those inside the clubhouse are “cool."
Look folks, our faith is not about being in the cool club. Our faith is not exclusive, it is catholic - it permeates the whole. When God came among us in the person of Jesus he infuriated all the people in the cool club by hanging out with the Sour Grapes - with the outcasts - with “the last, the least, the lost, the little and the dead” (to quote Robert Capon). Jesus ate with shady tax collectors and prostitutes. And he forgave people their sins in a downright scandalous way.
I’m not picking on Calvinists here. Anything in our faith can be twisted into something that excludes others: our church government, our view of creation, our thoughts about the future, our spiritual experiences. I guess my point is, if we are really Jesus followers, we need to run away as fast as we can from anything that looks like an “us vs. them” club.
I mean, we need to make like a banana, and split.
March 26, 2016
“So what happened on Holy Saturday?” A friend of mine asked the question on Facebook, and there were lots of good answers. “Lots of hiding,” someone said. The eleven disciples vanished into the background after the arrest of Jesus; they weren’t even there when the crucifixion happened. Someone else pointed out that there was a lot of frustration and seemingly broken dreams. Peter went back to fishing.
But from another view - a “down below” perspective, something big was going on, and the event is headlined in that four word phrase from the Apostles Creed, “He descended into hell.” What was Jesus doing in Hell? Some say he was just sleeping the sleep of death. Others say he was laying waste to the joint.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches, and more and more in Protestant and Catholic churches, icons are pictures that serve as windows into heaven, windows into the life of Christ, windows into our faith. My favorite icon is called, “Resurrection,” or, “The Harrowing of Hell.” The icon shows Jesus bursting forth from the grave on Easter morning, the gates of hell broken and scattered, locks and hinges tossed about, and some versions even have the Devil under the feet of the risen Christ. Christ’s robe is flapping in the wind, showing the movement of him leaping out of the tomb - out of Hell - and it looks very much like a precursor to Superman’s cape. Wiith one hand he’s pulling up Adam, with the other he’s rescuing Eve, and a whole slew of people are following them out of the underworld. In other words, Jesus razed Hell.
This is how the early church understood Holy Saturday. And it is best captured from a kind of Holy Week drama written in the 6th century by St. Romanos the Melodist. I have adapted two of his “scripts” (his 22nd and 42nd Kantakian) as a reading for three voices and a chorus. I suggest you make it part of your Easter season devotion.
Narrator: The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,
For a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.
The sting of Death and the victory of Hades were nailed to it.
But you appeared, my Saviour, crying to those in Hades:
‘Be brought back
Chorus: Again to Paradise’.
Narrator: Nailed to the form of the Cross
As truly a ransom for many
You redeemed us, Christ our God,
For by your precious blood in love for mankind
You snatched our souls from death.
You brought us back with you
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Narrator: All things in heaven and earth rightly rejoice with Adam,
Because he has been called
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Narrator: Three crosses Pilate fixed on Golgotha,
Two for the thieves and one for the Giver of life,
Whom Hades saw and said to those below,
Hell: My ministers and powers,
Who has fixed a nail in my heart?
A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.
My insides are in pain, my belly in agony.
My senses make my spirit tremble,
And I am compelled to disgorge
Adam and Adam’s race, given me by a tree,
A tree is bringing them back
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Narrator: When he heard this the cunning serpent,
Ran crawling and cried,
Devil: ‘Hades, what is it?
Why do you groan for no reason? Why produce these wailings?
This tree, at which you tremble,
I carpentered up there for Mary’s child.
I intimated it to the Jews for our advantage,
For it is a cross, to which I have nailed Christ
Wishing by a tree to do away with the second Adam.
So do not upset yourself. It will not plunder you.
Keep hold of those you have. Of those whom we rule
Not one escapes
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Hell: Away with you, come to your senses, Beliar’, cries Hades
Run, open your eyes, and see
The root of the tree inside my soul.
It has gone down to my depths,
To draw up Adam like iron.
Elijah of old painted its image in prophecy
When he drew the axe head from the river.
With a light object the prophet dragged a heavy
Warning you, and teaching you
That by a tree Adam is to be brought up
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Devil: Who gave you such an idea, Hades?
Whence now this cowardly fear, where once there was no fear,
Of a worthless tree, dry and barren
Made for the removal
Of malefactors and those who welcome bloodshed?
For Pilate discovered it, persuaded by my counsels.
And do you fear it, and reckon it powerful?
The universal executioner - will it in your view prove a savior?
Who has misled you? Who has persuaded you
That he who fell by a tree is being raised by a tree,
And, that he may dwell there, is being called
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Hell: ‘You have suddenly lost your senses,
You of old the cunning serpent.
All your wisdom has been swallowed up through the Cross
And you have been caught in your own snare.
Lift up your eyes and see
That you have fallen into the pit which you created.
Behold that tree, which you call dry and barren,
Bears fruit, having tasted which, a thief
Has become heir to the good things of Eden.
For it has outdone the rod
Which led the people out of Egypt,
For it is bringing Adam back
Chorus: Again to Paradise.
Devil: Wretched Hades, cease this cowardly talk,
For these words of yours reveal your thoughts.
Were you afraid of a cross and of the crucified?
Not one of your words has shaken me,
For these deeds are part of my plan,
For I would again both open a grave and entomb Christ.
So, you may enjoy your cowardice double,
From his tomb as well as from his cross.
But when I see you, I shall mock you.
For when Christ is buried I shall come to you and say,
“Who now is bringing Adam back
Chorus: Again to Paradise?
Narrator: Suddenly Hades began to call out to the devil—
The eyeless to the sightless, the blind to the blind—
Hell: ‘Look, You are walking in darkness, feel around, lest you fall.
Consider what I tell you, hard of heart,
Because what you are doing has quenched the sun.
For the tree which you boast of has shaken the universe,
Has convulsed the earth, hidden the sky,
Rent the rocks together with the Veil,
And raised up those in the graves.
And the dead are shouting,
Chorus: Hades, understand.
For Adam is running back
Again to Paradise.
Narrator: Your path into Hades, O my Savior,
no one has fathomed clearly, except for Hades himself,
for by what he had seen and endured
he could perceive your power…
So, tell me first, Hades, eternal enemy of my race,
how could you hold in the tomb the one who loved my race?
Who did you take him for?
Hell: Do you desire to learn from me, O man,
how my murderer descended against me?
I have been annihilated, and I do not have the strength
to tell you, for I am still dumbfounded…
And the hands which I had previously bound, he places
around my throat,
and all the people I have swallowed
I disgorge as they cry:
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Hell: Why do I mourn for the dead of whom I am despoiled?
I mourn for myself and the way I am mocked.
For gluttonous and omnivorous they call me,
those who have escaped me.
And with such words they irritate me, saying:
“Why do you open up your large gullet?
Why do you thrust in your mouth any old thing in any old way?
O greedy and insatiable one why do you rush for food,
causing distress to your stomach?
For, lo, having emptied you…”
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Hell: No one has ever imagined or accomplished against me what he
did. I ruled over the kings and was in control of prophets and of those
who cry out:
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Hell: And now, once a master, I became captive,
once a ruler, I turned into a slave.
I am entirely naked for he has taken from me all my possessions;
he commanded, and suddenly all surrounded him
as bees a honeycomb.
And then having bound me tightly, he told them to mock me,
and to strike my head and to bend my back,
and crush my unyielding heart, exclaiming:
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Hell: It was night when I endured these things,
but by dawn I saw a different sight,
as the fiery assemblies rushed in to greet him,
while fears from without and battles within held me,
I dared not to look one way or the other, since all threatened me,
And so, hiding my face between my knees,
I cried out, tearfully:
“You, who have crushed my gates and shattered my bars, move on,
since I cry out…
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Hell: He, smiling at these words, said to those behind him:
To those in front he said:
“Precede me, since it is for this that you have come.”
Suddenly, silence and fear prevailed over the whole creation.
For the Lord of Creation came forth from the tomb,
and in front of him were all the prophets,
repeating what they had prophesied,
and making known to all that “This is the One,
who voluntarily came down to earth,
and of his will departs from it.”
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Narrator: These things Hades said to me as he answered me;
and he did not persuade me by words;
But he was revealed by facts, demonstrating
how naked and destitute he was.
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
Narrator: You are without beginning and without end,
Creator and Lord of Truth,
You have caused death to die, and made man immortal.
In the last hour, when you come to resurrect me,
have mercy on me, my Savior
And do not then condemn me, so that I may say:
“Not for my punishment but for my redemption
Chorus: The Lord is risen!
And THAT, my friends, is good news!
March 9, 2016
“When God looks at me, he doesn’t see me, he doesn’t see my sin, he sees Jesus.”
I bet you have heard that before. I bet you might have even said that before.
Such a silly idea. And so completely unbiblical.
Why do we keep repeating sentimental platitudes that aren’t true and don’t hold up under scrutiny? Another one that drives me crazy is when there has been a tragic death and people say, “Well, God just needed Sally in heaven.” I call malarkey. If God just needed Sally in heaven (does God need anything?) he could have taken her poor soul without making her endure anguish or suffering. You know, he could have made her die peacefully in her sleep like my grandpa did, and not screaming in terror like the passengers on his bus. OK, enough with the jokes, back to the point at hand.
When Christians say, “When God looks at me, he doesn’t see me, he sees Jesus,” what they are doing is molding a theological idea into a soundbite platitude.
The notion came about, I think, through the sentimentalization of the Reformed doctrine (which later pretty much made its way into lots of other Protestant circles) of “imputed righteousness.” I’m not going to get into the whole argument of imputed versus imparted righteousness here, but the popular level understanding of imputed righteousness goes something like this: I am a wretch that pretty much sickens God because of my sin; in fact he can’t even be in my presence because I’m so despicable. But Jesus died for my sins and bore the wrath of God on my behalf. Since God has poured out his wrath on his Son, who did not deserve it, he is able to look at me, who does deserve it, as having an account, “paid in full” by the sacrifice of Christ.
So, the idea is that God pulls a kind of legal fiction, and “sees” me as righteous because of the great exchange between Christ and myself. I’m not really righteous, I’m a filthy sinner, but because of what Jesus did for me God will just sort of pretend that I’m righteous. God watches me while I lie through my teeth to my best friend, or steal a cigar from a smoke shop, and because of this legal situation brought about by Christ’s sacrifice, says, “Well, look at Ken, I see no spot or wrinkle in him. He’s as pure as the driven snow. What a guy!”
The problem with this line of thinking (other than it not being biblical) is that, if God looks at me and sees Jesus, then God isn’t seeing reality. He isn’t seeing the real me. And I am stuck in my sins, even though God pretends I’m not.
But God does see reality. God does see me. Warts and all, sins and all, shortcomings and all, failures and all. And precisely because he sees me as I really am, I have hope that I will not always remain as I am. I have hope that the Spirit of God working in me can change me into a better me, into the me that God desires, into the me that is “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8.29). God isn’t playing the pretend game, he is playing the real deal and he is in it to win - to win me; to have union with me; to save me; to make me like himself. Call it what you want, sanctification or theosis or deification, but our salvation doesn’t happen through a legal fiction of God moving us out of the guilty column and into the innocent column because Jesus paid our debt. Our salvation happens through the transformation of who we really are: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3.18).
We have to abandon the notion that God can’t be in the presence of sin or sinners. Of course he can. He’s done it since the beginning of time. And he saw every one of those sinners for what they really were. After her encounter with God, Hagar exclaimed, “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16.13). God saw Hagar. God hung out with Hagar. And I’m pretty sure Hagar was a sinner. God isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, he isn’t afraid to become dirt for us. He took on human flesh (ashes to ashes, dust to dust; you know,) in order to reconcile us to himself, and in the person of Jesus Christ he scandalized the religious leaders of the day by…wait for it…
Hanging. Out. With. SINNERS!
The good news is not that God pretends to not see us as we really are, the good news is that God sees us precisely as we really are, loves us intensely, and is going to transform us into his image.
July 7, 2015
FAIR WARNING: IF “VULGAR” LANGUAGE REALLY, REALLY BOTHERS YOU, PLEASE DON’T READ THIS POST!!!!
A couple of years ago (December, 2012) I was in an online conversation where a fellow was complaining about Christians using “cuss” words. I took time to give a relatively detailed response. Here’s what I wrote:
Interesting background info:
In 1050, with the Norman Conquest of England, the language of the aristocracy and court became the Latin based French, instead of the German based English. The English tongue was considered base or vulgar or profane (interesting that our word “vulgar” in English, means both common [unrefined] and nasty). Most English “cuss” words are simply the Germanic/English base word which, if re-stated with the Latin/French base word, would be perfectly acceptable in mixed company.
The very thing that makes them “profane” is that they are from the common tongue of the peasants instead of the court tongue of the aristocracy. If I describe an object or action with the German based word, I’m cursing; if I describe the same object or action with the Latin based word, its all fine and dandy. Examples:
Fuck - Copulate
Shit - Defecate
Piss - Urinate
Cock - Penis
Puke - Regurgitate
Hell - Hades (Greek)
Butt/Ass - Derriere (a generation ago butt was vulgar)
In another example, we see the same force at work regarding food. The meat as it is in the field is called by the Germanic based name; the meat as it is served at table is called by the French based:
Cow - Beef
Pig - Pork
Deer - Venison
All this to say that “bad words” are culturally based. What is considered a bad word today won’t be tomorrow, and vice versa.
On the one hand, we are cautioned in the Scripture to avoid coarse speech. On the other hand, God doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what words we use; words are words. Everything is contextual. If I use “foul” language around friends and in a non-condemning way that’s perfectly fine. If I use the same “foul” language in some social settings, it would be scandalous, and as a representative of Christ, I ought not bring scandal. In other words, field and court still exists, even in our societies. C.S. Lewis describes a true knight like this: “The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”
Even the notion of taking the Lord’s name in vain (and breaking the 3rd Commandment [or 2nd, if you’re Roman Catholic]), has to do not so much with vulgarity as with manipulation. The person who says, “I’m a good Christian, you can trust me,” and then sells his customer a piece of crap for twice what it’s worth, is taking the Lord’s name in vain more than the guy who stubs his toe and inadvertently blurts out, “God damn, that hurt!”
There is a time and a place for a good cuss word.
March 26, 2015
A clergy friend of mine just got back from Jerusalem and bemoaned the frustrating show of disunity he saw there among Christians. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ burial, four different ancient Christian groups took turns censing the place in a pecking order of whoever had the most dominant presence. The Roman Catholic priests went first, accompanied by the loudest bells. Next came the Orthodox, with their bells ringing a bit softer. Then a smaller group of Coptic Christians, with bells more akin to wood than brass. Finally, a single Armenian priest with no bells at all. Each group had to wait for the previous and larger group to finish before they could do their thing. And it seemed to my friend that none of them had any joy whatsoever about offering praise at the place where Jesus’ body was laid while he vanquished hell.
My friend left Jerusalem saying if he weren’t a Christian nothing he saw there would have convinced him to convert. The older churches there seemed dead and somber, and the Christian tourists seemed childish. I guess this was just one more example of why Jesus prayed that his followers might be one, so the world believe on him (John 17.21).
I say all that to preface what I am about to say about worship; because I’m going to say something about liturgy vs. non-liturgy, and if we aren’t careful those among us who worship God with liturgy are in danger of getting smug and condescending toward our fellow believers who don’t. For heaven’s sake, in the Anglican circles which I call home, people can get downright mean over which prayer book you use - 1662? 1928? 1979? Ours is obviously superior to yours, and ours makes us real Anglicans, and if you had half a brain you’d see the error of your ways. Sometimes it’s enough to make our non-liturgical brothers and sisters wash their hands of the whole mess. Even the best liturgies, approached with the wrong spirit, become not much more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Co. 13.1).
BUT - in spite of all the bickering, whether in Israel or these United States of America, in spite of all the mean-spiritedness, I would suggest that worshiping liturgically offers something that non-liturgical worship often simply misses. It offers a single voice and a single focus.
A Single Voice
Too often Christians (both the liturgical and non-liturgical kind) think the gathering of the congregation is just the gathering of however many individuals in one place, each doing their “own thing” in encountering God. I suppose this might be a modern problem, or maybe an American problem; it is certainly a problem of too much individualistic thinking. Christian worship should indeed be personal but it isn’t meant to be individualistic. But what commonly happens is twenty or a hundred or a thousand individuals gather into a building, sing some songs, listen to a sermon, and if they pray at all pray their own prayers individually.
But there is more to worship than a gathering of individuals. We are ‘the people of God” the Church (the ekklesia), the Bride of Christ, and when we come together we become something more than a group of solo worshipers - the whole is greater than the parts thereof. We become one entity, offering worship and prayer and thanksgiving to our Lord.
Liturgy helps make this an experiential reality. We say responses together with one voice, we pray together with one voice, we offer thanks with one voice. We become one. In non-liturgical settings perhaps the part of the service where this is most likely to happen is during the singing of songs, when we are all singing the same thing; unfortunately in many churches even this has morphed into a kind of “show’ where “the singers” are the people up on the stage who are doing something closer to performing rather than actually leading the congregation in praise. I have been to services where the musicians and singers on the platform were incredibly talented and gifted artists, but where the congregation was more or less non-participatory, listening to the music instead of being part of a great choir of worship.
I am not opposed to good music or gifted musicians and singers. But care must be taken regarding the intention of the thing. The people of God as a whole are the ones who should be worshiping, and no matter how skilled the leaders are, their first responsibility is just that - to lead - to lead the congregation in worshiping God.
Liturgy helps this happen. When we come together with an ancient form, where the people are all actors on the grand stage of worship, all doing their part and speaking with one voice, the focus changes even on a subconscious level. It is no longer “me and Jesus” (to quote the great country singer Tom T. Hall); it becomes the people of God together as one offering the sacrifice of praise and performing the role of a spiritual priesthood.
A Single Focus
Not only does liturgy provide a “single voice” in worship, where we all with one voice rejoice together as God’s people, it also shifts the focus from “us” to God.
I once asked a group of pastors a trick question: “How many are in your audience?” I received a variety of answers: 50, 100, 300. My point was, if worship is done with the right and biblical understanding, there is only One in the “audience”: the King himself. Our worship is a command performance for the King. God alone is the audience. Everyone else is a member of the cast. Sure, there are different roles to be played, but we all have a part to play in the drama of thanksgiving which we offer to the Lord. There are no spectators.
Even churches that have no liturgical elements at all have held on to one word that hearkens to this intention: “The worship service is at 10 a.m.,” our signs may read. Worship is a service. It is something we do; a service we provide; an act we participate in. If we see the audience as however many people are gathered in the building, then we begin to change our focus from God to the people - what would “wow” them, what would draw more of them next week, what would make them feel good? Again, I’m all for people being drawn to church and feeling good about the experience, but the real focus should be on God himself. We are there to worship Jesus! Whatever else happens is, as folk in south Louisiana say, lagniappe - “something extra.” Of course, when we do turn our focus on God and see ourselves as actors in the drama of thanksgiving and praise, God does indeed pour out his blessings on us and we are richly rewarded. But the goal of our gathering together is not for us to learn something new in the sermon, or to get an emotional high in the singing. Our goal is to declare the praises of God and give him great thanksgiving. Other things will happen, for sure, but our purpose is worship - God oriented worship.
Liturgy helps with this too. It assists us in coming together as one, and offering our worship to the One. It helps us keep our focus on God.
I have, on occasion, been asked by leaders in non-liturgical churches how they can begin making a shift toward a more liturgical mindset, toward recovering the single voice and the single focus. The first step is to begin teaching the principles and talking about it. After that adding even a piece or two of the liturgy to a non-liturgical worship service can make a significant difference in the hearts and minds of the worshipers. For example, adding the Lord’s Prayer on a weekly basis, where everyone is praying the same words (and, mind you, words that Jesus himself gave us) can go a long way toward leaving behind the “me and Jesus” attitude: “Our Father…give us…forgive us…”
But even churches who have full blown liturgy need to teach and emphasize the principles of one voice and one focus. The liturgy itself becomes pedagogical - it teaches us how to think and believe. Praying shapes believing.
Liturgical Christians have a lot to learn from our non-liturgical fellow believers - about church growth, about leadership, about team ministry and a host of other things. If you are a liturgical Christian, don’t get all high and mighty and look down your nose at others. Learn from them in humility. But I would also say that non-liturgical Christians have a lot to learn from their liturgical fellow believers. Don’t deride them for being formal (even though you need avoid their sometimes formalism). Instead, see that this kind of worship stretches all the way back to the Old Testament, carries through to the New Testament and the early Church, and has continued for 2,000 years since them, giving a strong and solid foundation of faith and practice for believers.
We should learn from one another. We should love one another. We should share our riches with one another. And we should all make a fresh commitment to making God the center of our worship.
(If you would like to discover more about some of the principles of worship, I encourage you to read my book, How Christians Worship).
You can learn more about the Graceworks Teaching Ministry by visiting www.kennethmyers.net.
February 5, 2015
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” 1 Timothy 2.1
This morning I gathered with a group of about 20 pastors who meet every Thursday for an hour of prayer. All kinds of traditions are represented by this band of brothers - Baptist, Bible Church, Assemblies of God, Anglican, Non Denominational, Church of Christ, Charismatic, Pentecostal and a few others thrown in for good measure. We have blacks, whites and Hispanics. And we really do pray for an hour. Someone leads us, and we focus on a text of Scripture as a guide for our prayer that morning. We have grown to love and care for one another, help one another, and sharpen one another.
This morning we prayed through the first seven verses of 1 Timothy 2. But one tiny word in the first verse caught my eye and then caught my heart: for. Paul told Timothy (and us by extension) to make prayers “for all people.”
Now, for (hyper in Greek) can mean a couple of different things that are closely related. It can mean “on behalf of” or “in the place of.” An example of the former is, “I will put in a good word for you.” An example of the latter is, “I will go to town for you.”
We are admonished in this verse to offer supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for all people. The idea is most certainly that we should pray on behalf of other people - but it can also mean to offer prayers in the place of other people.
One of the biblical doctrines recovered in the Reformation era is the priesthood of all believers. The idea isn’t that we don’t have a priestly leadership, but that all believers, by virtue of their baptism, are ordained into the royal priesthood of Christ. The primary job of a priest in the Old Testament was to offer sacrifices, but one aspect of that ministry was that the priest offered sacrifices for - that is, “on behalf of” and “in the place of” other people. For example, on the Day of Atonement the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies and offered the sacrifice of blood on behalf of and in the stead of all the people of Israel. As members of the priesthood of all believers, we are called to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and to offer supplications, prayers, and intercessions, for all people.
What hit me as the pastors were praying was this: there would be many people from their congregations who would go through the day without praying. Maybe they should pray, but the reality is they wouldn’t. Moms with four children at home, high schoolers rushing off to class, people working hard on the job - a lot of these folk simply wouldn’t find prayer as part of their day. But what if these pastors could pray in the place of them, in their stead? What if these pastors could go before God and say, “I know Bobby probably isn’t praying today, so, Lord, I’m praying on his behalf and in his stead. Won’t you please have mercy on him, bless his life, draw him near to you, and reckon my prayer as his own?”
And if for Bobby and the other folk from the congregation, then what about doing this for those who don’t even know Christ, or for those who don’t even believe in God? Might not we - and by we I do not mean only pastors but Christians in general - might not we pray to God for them, both “on their behalf” and “in their stead”?
Charles Williams, a close friend of C.S. Lewis and a man who has been called “the oddest Inkling,” coined the phrase co-inherence to give a word-handle for the concept that all human beings are interrelated and dependent on one another, not only in the physical realm, but also in the spiritual. Through exchange and substitution (and Williams took this to very mystical places), we all do things for others; our lives, whether we realize it or intend it, have a significant impact on others. John Donne said it best when he penned those immortal words, “No man is an island”:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
No one, not even the hermit or the loner, lives life to himself. And the Christian ideal is that none live their life before God to themselves either. Saint Paul shared a glimpse of this when he wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1.24). Paul saw his life and ministry as a continuation of the life and ministry of Jesus, whose very life and death were acts of co-inherence, exchange, and substitution. And so, when we pray, we ought to make supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings, going before God in our priestly roles, standing before his throne on behalf and in the stead of all people.
When I was a young non-denominational pastor in northern Wisconsin, I met an old Russian Orthodox priest who lived alone on a rural hilltop where he had built a small chapel. He had a red flashing light on top of the chapel which signaled to everyone, “Do not disturb me. I am busy talking to God right now.” I once asked him what did he pray for during all those hours, and he told me, “I pray for the whole world.” Jesus said (in John 6.51) that he gave his life “for the life of the world,” (that is, “on behalf of and in the stead of the life of the world”), so why shouldn’t old Father Jerome spend his days and nights praying for (“on behalf of and in the stead of”) the whole world? Just maybe, we will discover sometime in eternity, that old Father Jerome’s prayers made all the difference in keeping the whole world from coming apart at the seams.
All this to say that I suggest the next time you pray, you do so with the intentional mindset of representing others before the throne of God, seeing yourself as their advocate, their partner, even their substitute, calling on God for his favor in their lives. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray in the plural: “Our father…give us…forgive us…as we forgive…lead us…deliver us…” None of us goes to God alone. We are all in this together.
November 18, 2014
Advent and Christmas are rolling around again, and for the first time in 37 years I am not pastoring a church and leading holiday services. That in itself is an odd feeling, but also a little refreshing because for the first time I won’t be saddled with the responsibilities of leading the services and can just enjoy the whole thing instead.
Having said that, I do have a few suggestions that might make the holidays more meaningful for you and your family (or congregation). If you are from a church tradition with a long history of celebrating the fulness of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, these may already be familiar to you, but for those who are new to this game, or just beginning to explore the Church Year, these may be helpful.
The Christmas Cycle
No, I’m not talking about a shiny new Schwinn under the Christmas tree. There are two cycles in the Church year - the Christmas Cycle which focuses on the birth of Jesus, and the Passion Cycle (or Easter Cycle) which focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Christmas Cycle is a total of about six weeks long, and it begins four Sundays before Christmas itself (which means either the last week of Sunday of November or the first Sunday of December).
For four weeks we celebrate Advent, which is not about the birth of Christ, but about getting ready for the coming of Christ. “Which coming,” you may ask, “the first one or the final one?” And the answer is, “Yes!” During Advent there is a twin theme of the Old Testament focus of preparing for the birth of the Messiah, and the New Testament focus of preparing for the Second Coming. All the Scripture readings for the season point to one or both of these events.
Some Advent Suggestions
Advent Readings If you aren’t in the habit of daily Scripture reading, here is a great opportunity to read along with millions of other Christians from the daily readings. Each day has a lesson from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. You can find a handy resource for the daily readings by visiting http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/the_daily_readings.
Advent Wreath On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, set up an Advent wreath in your home and experience the growing anticipation as Christmas nears. An Advent wreath (you can make your own, or buy one) is a circle of four purple candles (or sometimes three purple with one pink - focusing on Mary during the third week) with a white Christ candle in the middle. Candle One is lit each day of the first week of Advent, Candles One and Two are lit each day of the second week, and so on. You can light them during a time of devotion, or at mealtime, or whenever it works for you. On Christmas Eve the all the candles are lit including the Christ candle in the middle.
Advent Calendar If you have children, this is a particularly wonderful tradition. Again, you can make your own or buy one. The calendars have a little door for each day of Advent, and behind the door is…well…something. You can buy calendars with chocolate behind each door, or a Lego piece, or lots of other possibilities. There are even online Advent calendars that have doors you click on for each day. Just Google “Advent Calendar” and look at all the options. But, like the wreath, the idea is to kind of be on a journey toward Christmas, building in anticipation as the day approaches. Speaking of journeys…
Christmas Creche Set out the Nativity set on the first Sunday of Advent. But keep it mostly empty. Maybe some cattle and sheep, and an empty manger. No people. Now, keep the baby Jesus wrapped away and stored until Christmas Eve because, you know, he isn’t born yet. Next, send Mary and Joseph on a journey (Nazareth to Bethlehem, if you will). Each day move the couple to a different spot in the house and as the Advent season progresses they slowly move closer to their destination. On Christmas Eve or the night before, they finally arrive at “Bethlehem,” and either late on Christmas Eve or early on Christmas morning you add the newborn Savior to the scene, along with adoring shepherds and angels. BUT DON’T YOU DARE ADD THE WISE MEN UNTIL JANUARY 6! More about this later.
The Christmas Season
Christmas isn’t just a single day, it is a season, and folk who celebrate just one day miss out on a lot! And, get this - the season doesn’t end on December 25, it begins on that date. We’ve all heard the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but most folk tend to think those twelve days lead up to Christmas itself. They don’t - they flow out from it. The Christmas season is the twelve days from December 25 (Christmas Day) to January 6 (Epiphany).
Now, some purists don’t even put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, and leave it up for the twelve days. If you have a tree, may I suggest that whenever it goes up it not come down until the last day of the season? Leave it up and celebrate the birth of Christ for the whole twelve days. Some people (as the carol describes) actually give a small gift on each of the twelve days of Christmas. One of the most special gifts I was ever given was from a woman in our church who gave me a basket on Christmas Eve. Inside the basket were twelve individually wrapped gifts, and I was to open one each day. They were thoughtfully given and had the theme of travel. A coffee mug, a travel journal, a travel guidebook, a nice pen, etc. Each day as I opened a new gift I was, well, like a kid on Christmas morning!
OK. Christmas season comes to an end. It is now January 6. Epiphany. You can bring out the wise men and add them to the creche. Because Epiphany is the day that celebrates the wise men coming and worshiping Jesus. The biblical account makes it clear that they didn’t show up the night Jesus was born, but some time (maybe as much as two years) later. Epiphany is a celebration of the first Gentiles worshiping the Lord - the light of Christ shining into the dark world. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah says.
Which brings me to my final suggestion, one which is incredibly politically incorrect and environmentally hazardous to some minds. On the evening of Epiphany, burn your Christmas tree. In fact, if you have a place in the country and can get friends to join, burn a bunch of Christmas trees - as a symbol of Christ being the light of the world. As a congregation we used to do this every year, and one year we had over 200 Christmas trees. Talk about a bonfire! When all the trees were finally ablaze no one could stand within 30 yards of the heat. We took the evening of Epiphany as an opportunity to sing one last round of Christmas carols, read the Scripture readings for the day, share some hot chocolate or a chili dinner, and enjoy a nice warm fire on a cold North Texas night.
There you have it. I am sure you can find even more ideas for celebrating the season if you do a little searching. But I hope you see that incorporating elements like these into your holidays helps turn the focus away from commercialism and toward the true focus: “Immanuel: God is with us!”
September 16, 2014
Down here in Texas one of the phrases of our culture, printed on posters and t-shirts and held dear in the hearts of the people, is, “Remember the Alamo.”
Of course, no one alive in the early 21st Century does. We don’t “remember the Alamo,” if by that we mean what the phrase originally meant. It was originally a battle cry against the Mexican army, which had only weeks before given no quarter to the survivors of the Alamo siege. The event was within the living memory of the Texians. It was visceral. It was real. It was part of their existential lives.
But I personally don’t “remember the Alamo.” The battle happened 133 years before I was born. I can’t remember it. There are a lot of things I can’t remember, because they happened before I was born.
However, speaking of the ongoing service of Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Table, or the Eucharist), Jesus said, “As often as you do this, do this in remembrance of me” (Lu. 22.19). Thousands of churches around the world, which embrace the Zwinglian notion of the real absence of Christ in the bread and the wine have carved into their Communion tables, “Do this in remembrance of me.” If they knew what it meant, they might sandblast the words away.
The Greek word is anamnesis, and it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. It doesn’t mean to fondly remember a thing or to mentally recollect a past event. In fact, actualizing that definition is an impossibility for us. If I were to ask you, “Do you remember when Christopher Columbus planted the Spanish flag on a beach in the Bahamas and claimed it for Ferdinand and Isabela?” your answer would certainly be, “No.” You may know about it, but you don’t remember it because it happened on October 12, 1492, and you weren’t there! Neither do you remember Jesus dying on the cross. You weren’t there. You may know about it, meditate on in, believe it, and understand it, but you don’t remember it.
But anamnesis doesn’t mean to recollect an event. It means to “make present the past which can never remain merely past but becomes effective in the present.” (1) The word comes over into English in the medical field in the phrase anamnestic reaction: “a renewed rapid production of an antibody on the second (or subsequent) encounter with the same antigen.”
I bet that is as clear as mud! So, unless you are nurse or a doctor, let me put it in plain English. An anamnestic reaction goes something like this: you are out enjoying a picnic with your sweetheart and a nasty old red wasp stings the living daylights out of you. Bang! Ouch! Right on the ear. What you didn’t know, because you’ve never been stung by a nasty old red wasp, is that you are deathly allergic to it. You swell up, turn red, your heart beats faster and you have to go to the emergency room for a shot lest you go into anaphylactic shock. Five years later, you are out boating, enjoying a nice summer day with your sweetheart, and another nasty old red wasp sneaks up and hits you on your thigh. Only this time, something really strange happens: your ear swells up like it has just been stung too. It hasn’t of course; it was stung five years ago, but that sting from the past “happens again” and now it is like you have been stung twice. This, my friends, is an anamnestic reaction.
And this is the word Jesus used when he said, “Do this in remembrance - in anamnesis - of me.”
Every time we come to the Table, we experience a re-presentation of Christ and his sacrifice; we are entering into that once and for all singular sacrifice of Christ which happened 2000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, but which transcends time and space and is therefore eternal - we enter into the eternal moment of that singular sacrifice. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we offer thanks to God for the reconciling death and resurrection of Jesus, and his death and resurrection become effective for us in the here and now. The benefit is not contingent on our understanding it or on our emotional condition; it just is. We don’t try to close our eyes and furrow our brows and remember something we weren’t there for, we just experience his presence - his Body, his Blood, his sacrifice, his victory - in the act of Holy Communion.
(1) Balz & Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990; Volume I, p. 85.
August 20, 2014
They say there are two things you should never watch being made: sausage and laws. I’ve seen both being made, and I think watching the meat grinder of sausage making is a far more pleasant experience than watching the conniving, bickering, and backroom trickery of laws being made.
But I would ad a third thing that is maybe more unpleasant to watch than either of these: the making of theology. If you read the history of how some incredibly important doctrines were hammered out, you will find it to be disgusting, mean-spirited, and worse than any political machinations coming out of Washington, D.C.
Case in point: the fourth century clarifications on the Trinity (a subject about which I am currently writing a book). I mean, we stand on Sundays and confess the Nicene Creed and have classes explaining each line and marvel at how beautifully true it is. We see it all polished and setting on the mantle and admire how perfectly it expresses the Christian faith. It has become, in fact, the “symbol of faith” for Christians everywhere.
But how we got it - and how we got the finely tuned doctrine of the Trinity - is another matter altogether, and there is nothing polished or marvelous or beautiful about the process. Here is just a sampling of the many ugly facets of fourth century Christianity:
The heretic Arius gets punched in the face by Bishop Nicholas of Myra (yes, St. Nicholas - Santa Claus).
The emperor Constantine throws around his imperial political weight, though he is more concerned with a united empire than a true faith.
Theological opponents connive to get one another thrown out of their churches - actually exiled from their cities (Athanasius was exiled seven times).
Secret meetings are held and others are forcibly kept away by conspiring military forces.
Some bishops say one thing, then say another, then insist the other thing was what they had been saying all along, when clearly this wasn’t the case.
Character assassination is the de rigueur - it is practically expected of everyone to slam the ethics and morals of “the other side.”
Backroom deals are made and compromises are agreed upon.
Best friends from childhood (Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil) end up being bitterly opposed to one another because of the politics of the church world even though they are on the same page theologically.
OK, now that I have painted such an ugly picture, allow me to approach the matter from a different angle. What shall we say about all this - about the nastiness of theological development? I think we have three possible responses.
The first isn’t really a response, just an ignorant and happy position that a lot of us Christians embrace: “Oh, isn’t our faith beautiful! And what a wonderful thing that such godly men were peacefully led by the Spirit to defend our precious faith against those nasty heretics.” This isn’t really a response because it is embracing a fairy tale instead of true history.
The second response is, “Well, then, it’s all bunk. It’s a bunch of conniving, corrupt, politically motivated, self-centered, agenda driven men doing everything they can to have it their way and be in control. You can’t trust that! So the whole thing is just rubbish. Every person has to find God in his or her own way, and forget about this messy, ugly, nasty, stinking pile of ungodly mean-spirited archaic theology.” The odd thing is, this is actually a more valid response than the fairy tale one. It actually works. It may not be the right response, but it at least makes decent sense.
The third option (I have obviously saved the best for last) is, “Lord, have mercy! How awful this history is, how terrible even some of the ‘good guys’ were. But look! God is at work in, with and under all of this, bringing about a beautiful understanding of truth. Sometimes God is at work in his Church in spite of the leaders more than because of the leaders. And in spite of their brokenness, fallenness, and sinfulness, God still works to bring forth that which is true and good and beautiful.”
And isn’t this precisely how God does work? Isn’t it how he has always worked? I mean, start with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - not exactly stellar upstanding examples of godly ethics - they were liars and connivers that God chose and used for his purposes and his glory, to move his plan forward a step or two. Move on to some of the judges of Israel (Jepthah, for example, who made a human sacrifice of his daughter, or Sampson and his whole sordid story). How about King David, the adulterer and murderer? We could go on all day with Old Testament examples, but let’s jump to the New Testament. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, a wavering, doubting, Christ-denying man, a reed blown by the wind. Or Paul - I love me some Paul, but let’s admit it - he had a mean side. He actually wrote (in what has become Scripture to us) that he wished those semi-Christians who insisted on circumcision would just finish the job and castrate themselves completely! One gets the feeling that he would have happily wielded the knife himself.
Enough about them - let’s talk about you and me. We are sinners, we are full of mistakes, we have taken a thousand wrong turns along the way, we are still sometimes very much a mess (in spite of the pretty facade we show the world). And yet, don’t we find God mercifully and lovingly at work in us, most of the time in spite of ourselves? And don’t we find that the wrong turns we make end up being circuitous routes to where he was leading us all along? And doesn’t he sometimes turn our mistakes into things of beauty, our scars into stars? Lady Julian of Norwich asked God about all the mess of the world and how in heaven’s name he could deal with it, and his response (famously borrowed by T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets) was, “And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
God is in control. Usually in spite of us. But he is in control in a kind of “left handed” way (as Robert Capon used to say). We are expecting a right handed God to do things in a right handed way, and he surprises us from out of nowhere and does things completely different than we expect. St. Paul got this: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being[d] might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1.27-29). And in another place, “ And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).
So - back to the Nicene Creed and the fourth century Christian sausage-making machine: it isn’t pleasant to watch the process, in fact it is downright disgusting (kind of like looking at the process of our own lives). But the end result is a work of God, and a beauty to behold. “All manner of things shall be well.” It is a lesson of trust - trusting that God really is in control, and really will bring about the good, the true, and the beautiful. And that, my friends, is good news.