Track 9: "A Rock Chorus"
Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Choruses from 'The Rock'
Track 8: Delicious Distraction
New Song: Lose Myself in the Radio
(I really like this one)
The PCA's Cruel Pastoral Training and Calling Process
The Presbyterian Church in America operates an unethical and cruel system of pastoral training, calling, and support, and we ought to do something about it. If you think I'm exaggerating, read on.
As background, take a minute to read the heartbreaking story of one of my seminary classmates: "A Time to Quit"
In the PCA, local churches search for, find pastors, and then extend a call to the man they choose. Generally, the minister and his family then move to the town where the church is located and begin their service. Before the pastorate is all completely solemnized, the minister must go before the presbytery to receive further scrutiny. At this point, even if the man is a member in good standing in another presbytery, the new presbytery may shut the door, denying the congregation's choice and leaving a man in a tough spot. The standards employed by each presbytery are far from uniform. While all have the same formal standard, the scriptures and the Westminster standards, presbyteries apply different degrees of leeway when considering a candidate's exceptions to or quibbles with the Westminster standards. Thus we have the odd situation where there are ministers in good standing in the Missouri presbytery who teach at the PCA's official seminary yet who could not be ordained in some of the denomination's presbyteries!
Congregational churches (with local autonomy to call the pastor they choose) have problems, no doubt. There is often no authority beyond the congregation to which appeals can be sent when there are scandals or pastoral malpractice. Most congregational bodies have associations to deal with this problem, but many exist in situations where there is no ecclesiastical authority higher than the pastor. Presbyterianism, as practiced by the PCA, avoids many of the pitfalls of congregationalism but it has its own problems as well. The presbytery itself is supposedly a congregation. It does not, however, do the hard work of interviewing and selecting a pastor for its member churches. Member churches often conduct a months long (even year long) search for the man they believe the Holy Spirit wants to bind to their church as pastor. No matter the approach to controversial points of doctrine taken by the congregation (paedocommunion, age of the earth, deaconesses, etc) the presbytery can override the church's choice based on a contradictory opinion on those same contested points. This brings great trials to churches and to the men whose calls are aborted.
Several remedies are possible for this situation:
1. Pastoral search committees could include a certain number of presbyters from outside the congregation. The committee could be prohibited from extending a call to a man without the consent of the outside presbyters and a man so called could not be denied transfer or establishment of credentials by the presbytery for positions already in evidence before the call was issued.
2. The general assembly could impose uniform standards on exceptions to the Westminster documents, thus every presbyter will be fully aware of the standard that will be applied to him when he seeks ordination.
In short, with regard to training and ordaining ministers, the PCA has major problems. It is cruel to train men only to throw them to the wolves. I wasn't exaggerating when I said the system is unethical. If your money or energy goes into the PCA then it is worth asking how complicit you are in this mess. I know I'm complicit given that I'm a member of a church in a state that wouldn't even ordain some of my seminary professors. I don't know what I could do about it, but I'm sure some of you have ideas--please share them in the comments.
New Track: "Torquemada Politely Declines to Attend his High School Reunion on Facebook"
New Song: Lullaby for the First-World Husband
New Single: "Bookish Southern Man"
My longest song to date, and also the first one where I play electric guitar.
My New Single: "Gotta Work"
Recent Natural Law Debates
I have not really been a big part of the recent arguments about natural law except maybe a stray comment here and there on Facebook, and by disposition I'm more in the Rodney King school when it comes to epistemology discussions between reformed Christians, but I thought maybe I could explain a little bit about why I personally bristle at the more recent enthusiasm (some would say 'recovery') of natural law in reformed circles. Witness a quote from my online friend, and a much smarter guy than I, Steven Wedgeworth:
"...people do not have to know how or why something is true to still know that it is true. Most self-evident truths operate efficiently apart from self-reflection." Source
Steven represents a resurgence of young, intelligent, well-reasoned Calvinistic guys who appreciate natural law and take issue with guys from my generation who grew up reading Van Til and generally being skeptical of natural law. The context was important, though. We were thinking about apologetics a great deal. And one of the key linchpins of the Westminster apologetics was to remove all excuses from unbelief. The world was not divided into evidence for and against God's existence. We were uncomfortable treating God's existence as a hypothesis to be tested. Natural reason could not stand in neutral relation to the facts of the world and proceed by a process of induction or deduction to marshall those facts for a conclusion on the "god question." Facts and their relations to each other came into existence and coherence in God's all conditioning power and love, and so a more indirect approach took shape--showing that apart from the story Christians tell about the nature of reality, skepticism wins. Nature doesn't contain within itself a warrant for induction or, worse, for morality. In the words of Love and Rockets, "you cannot go against nature because if you do, it's part of nature, too." If the world is as the naturalist claims, Hume wins.
The real emphasis was not on a theory of perception or even on what people know. Van Til often returned to Romans 1 to emphasize that all people know God in some sense. No, the emphasis was upon justification of knowledge, or warrant. This is why so many of us focus on denying a place for the natural man's natural reason in adjudicating the existence of god or in determining the good. It matters little in an apologetics context whether one party knows the truth. What matters is making the natural man conscious of the stark impossibility of his knowing anything or offering warrant for his true beliefs if the universe is not as the Christian claims it to be.
Yet then comes along someone like Feser, a notable and strident Thomist with a boorish intransigence, into this happy encounter between unbelief, that cannot justify even induction based on its natural reason, and the Christian who believes in a world in which the unbeliever's intuitions about induction and morality actually make sense. Feser takes aside the natural man and gives him a pep talk. "You can use pure philosophy and come up with truth--don't listen to that skeptic in Christian clothing over there. Hume was wrong, Aristotle had it right."
When I scratch the surface, It always seems to me that Feser wins almost every one of his arguments via language games. Essentially everything has an aim, an end. Reason has an aim, ergo reason cannot choose rationally to go against the proper ends of humans with respect to X (where X is marriage, for instance.) Everything comes down to a dilemma between affirming the good and embracing irrationality.
In other words, he is saying that people can know things because the world is a certain way. But that's the very issue at stake in an apologetical encounter--what is the world like? The atheist says the world is like X, the Christian says Y.
Van Tillians, dudes like me in their forties, and people like David Hart aren't denying the intelligibility of the world, the amenabilty of the human mind to the world, or even the power of philosophy as a science. They are denying that the world, were it like the nonbeliever paints it, provides the necessary ingredients to brew up justified belief.
At a certain level, I recognize that classical apologetics and the Vantillian approach can be harmonized, and I appreciate John Frame's way of doing this. But these are very different intellectual dispositions that also appeal to people of very different personal dispositions. And fallacious or not, I think the role of personality here is huge.
Making Some Music Again
Getting Sick in America
Many people posted and discussed this article on Facebook in the last few days: Getting Sick in America Sucks. The story features a guy who ended up with a ludicrous bill for his hospital visit to deal with an appendix problem.
At no point did the man or his family have the opportunity to count the costs. This hospital didn't reveal its rates until after treatment was delivered. It would be like staying in a hotel without knowing the rate and then seeing a 4000-a-night rate at check out time. It isn't the guy's fault, of course; I doubt he would have received a straight answer about the rate. It probably isn't even the hospital's fault; no one else is publishing rates except for the lone boutique experiment here and there. No market discipline imposes itself on the hospital, the insurer, or the patient. Compare this to elective procedures like Lasik. These dropped in cost over the last decade because people have to pay out of pocket for the services and can compare prices and service. Obviously, you can adduce many disanalogies between an elective procedure and rushing to the hospital when you're sick. But money doesn't grow on trees and if we need to introduce efficiency into a market like this and reduce costs, we have two basic routes: market forces or giving the power over health care to the same people who have a fleet of armed drones. State power is coercive, and it is not always in the hands of virtuous people, and so we have to be very careful about giving the power over life and death (healthcare) to the state. Healthcare financing is broken, and we've just outlawed one of the most effective means for bringing the market back into health care (high deductible insurance paired with medical savings accounts). Ronald Reagan explained all this in 1964:
Rob-ism for Your 5th Day of Christmas
Speaking of a lot of good options we need to consider further before action:
"Let's just throw all these into the bushes and see which one growls."
R. Scott Clark the Theologian
R. Scott Clark opens his two-part review of John Frame's new systematic theology with this apparently clean distinction:
"There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways."
Notice how he has set this up: the first group sets out to first appreciate and then appropriate the Reformed confessional tradition and then uses that starting point to "read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art." The second group is characterized by wariness toward the tradition, seeking to revise it in radical ways. You'll notice that he didn't really give you much in the way of a point by point comparison. We'd be unable to populate a chart to fully compare these two points of view. That's because Clark's review depends upon a quick identification of the good guys vs. the bad guys so that he can go on to ply his critique.
But think about this distinction for a moment. Does it strike you as an exaggeration to suggest that Frame is "wary" of the Reformed tradition? That his goal is revision, even radical revision? Likewise, does it strike you as odd that the first group, Scott's good guys, read both the scriptures and modern theology in terms of the tradition? Does "engaging" the "state of the art" include anything more than critique? Does reading the scriptures in terms of the tradition provide resources to critique the tradition? Surely it should.
Now, let us grant that we all read the Bible from a certain traditional viewpoint. But the Bible is different than anything else we may examine because it comes to us by the Holy Spirit; it is a means of grace, and can no more be tamed than a crocodile. Thus, there must be feedback, reading the bible from within the tradition while still holding the tradition to the standard of the Holy Spirit speaking in the scriptures, whether folks like Clark are skeptical that new light will be brought forth or not. Likewise, holding the tradition to the insights that come from the "state of the art" is not an impious act. And this gets us to the nature of confessional identity. I meditated on this in my post Confessional Identity and I think that's still a profitable post to read. Actual, written confessions are snapshots of the exegetical conclusions of a particular community at a certain point in time. As time passes, the tradition needs a new snapshot because it is asking new questions, seeing things it didn't see before, etc. To speak meaningfully of a "reformed tradition" is to speak of a community that approaches scripture with a certain ethos. Disagreeing in 2013 with a confession that was written in 1646 doesn't mean one has left the tradition, it can simply mean that the 1646 snapshot is no longer appropriate to identify the boundaries, concerns, conclusions, and questions of the Reformed community in 2013.
Throughout his critique of Frame, Clark moves like an exorcist or witch doctor rather than a theologian. He gives a name to something, and then thereby feels like he controls that thing and can cast it down. In his two posts about Frame, he uses the word "dialectical" as though he has brought light to the critique with this term. He writes, "By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time." This is sloppy. First of all, affirming and denying something at the same time (and in the same way?) would truly be contradictory, but this is hardly what Frame does. In fact, in Frame's earlier works, he is clear to point out that he is always saying X with respect to Y and not-X with respect to Z. Even at the point that gives Clark the greatest discomfort, Frame's trinitarian theology, Frame is very self-conscious about sketching a non-contradictory doctrine: "Anybody who has studied logic knows that something can be both A and not-A if the two A's have different senses. In this case, God can clearly be both one person and not-one person, if the meaning of 'person' changes somewhat between the two uses." (CVTAAOHT, pp 68-69). Regardless of how you feel about Van Til's one-person, three-persons trinitarian speculation that Frame is trying to defend in those pages (and apparently in his new systematic theology), Frame is hardly being "dialectical" unless by dialectical you mean being careful to specify the senses in which something is and isn't X.
But not only has Frame apparently become "dialectical" but Clark waves the word "latitudinarian" over his work as well. He defines latitudinarianism as having a goal to "tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned." Again, is it likely that Frame set out to tolerate doctrines condemned by the Reformed churches? In the end, it just sounds like Frame is a little too nice for Clark. The example Clark adduces, Frame's discussion of divine simplicity, contains this howler: "The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple..." This is patently false. The theologian is duty bound to disagree with a confession if it is wrong, and confessions ought to be far more careful about denying things than affirming things. Is Clark really saying that there is no sense in which Frame can argue that God is complex? Leave aside the substance of the matter; affirming or denying something that the confession was never intended to comprehend is not latitudinarian. In this case, it is clear that Frame does not mean to deny anything the confessions affirm or confirm anything the confessions deny; he intends to probe further into the senses in which the concept of 'simplicity' continues to protect the values that previous generations of theologians thought it protected.
In general, this is Clark's biggest weakness when he dips into the doing of theology. He approaches theology as a series of terms, definitions, and categories. These terms possess technical meanings and no matter how careful a theologian is to specify how he is using that term in any given context, Clark continues to attribute error, ignorance, or duplicity to him. Take, for instance, his recent podcast where he claims to give a recap and critique of what the 'Federal Vision' teaches. Again, the new critique du jour from Clark is that the FV folks are "dialectical" which, when you really get down to it, is Clark's way of saying that FV people are double minded, drawing distinctions where distinctions can't be drawn, in order to affirm something and deny it at the same time. But this is not fair. Only the catechist cares that terms are defined just so because the catechist is trying to help laypeople or children to have a neat definition or doctrine mentally available when such need arises. This is valuable - suppose Phil Robertson, the hirsute duck call maker, could have told the GQ interviewer that sin is "any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God." That would have been wonderful and an improvement over his random reaching for examples of sins. But the work of the theologian is different than the work of a catechist. Let us illustrate this with Peter Leithart.
Peter Leithart is one of the most well known evangelical scholars in the world. He happens to have his ministerial credentials in the PCA and, to some, he is a feather in our cap. In the opinion of others, like Clark, Leithart is dangerous. Some even call him a "heretic" (yes, people in our tradition use the word 'heresy' in all kinds of inappropriate ways.) Clark looks at the surface language of Leithart and fills in a host of blanks based upon what Leithart must mean (based on catechism definitions) rather than what Leithart actually says he means. In this way, Clark's critique becomes this large impenetrable wall. In order to establish Leithart's point, Clark would have to grant Leithart the linguistic latitude to specify what he means by words like 'justification' but Clark denies Leithart this, and so the conversation can never get started. The minute Leithart utters a word that happens to also be a "term" in systematic theology, Clark holds Leithart to the textbook definition of the term. But words and terms are not the same animal even when they happen to be spelled by putting the same letters in the same order. And it does no good to tell us that one ought to refrain from using "confessional language" in non-confessional ways because this is precisely what the bible itself does all the time. Justification was a word before it was a carefully defined "term" of systematic theology.
A brief example from Leithart's theology should be helpful in illustrating where a method like Clark's doesn't allow the conversation to get started. Leithart, like Jonathan Edwards before him, began thinking about sociology a great deal during his theological education. He started to realize that, as social beings created in the image of a social God, that it is hard to speak of a human "in himself" apart from his relationship to others. Likewise, it is difficult to speak of someone's relationships without also speaking about the person's being - a person is always social. And so if we cannot talk about a "mere relationship" but are always talking about the person-in-relationship, then some of our conceptions about the implications of relationship have to be rethought. This "relational ontology" means that changes in relationship imply changes in being. Put another way, relationship is a constituent aspect of being. Joining the society of the church puts one into some kind of relationship with Jesus, and thus questions about soteriology arise. These are real questions that only go away if we want to say that people aren't beings-in-relation or that the "visible church" has no relationship to Jesus-- two unattractive options. And so when Leithart brings a relational ontology into conversation with reformed distinctives, he does not primarily seek to revise the tradition, he is a son of the tradition, asking new questions that might call for drawing new distinctions.
R. Scott Clark is a dutiful mailman--a bureaucrat of the Reformed Tradition manning the mailroom. Propositions come in the sorting room and he is able to put them in the right post office box based on surface similarity of language. Occasionally when letters come through that call for a new box, he simply has to stamp them and pretend the message was mis-addressed. Sometimes the word matches a box, but not substantively, and he concludes it must be addressed to someone with a nearly similar name and that the sender was unfaithful to the rules of addressing letters. To use another analogy, he is a fisherman with a net that has a 1 inch grid. When the .5 inch wide fish slip through he concludes they must not be fish since he didn't catch them: "What my net can't catch isn't fish."
The theological challenge implicit in taking relational ontology seriously is just one example of a place where Leithart's work is important, and the questions he asks are inescapable. We may not always wish to follow Leithart's conclusions, but we cannot deny the legitimacy of his inquiry. I like the way Leithart is trying to apply Reformed theology to new questions much better than the way R. Scott Clark isn't.
I probably should not spend a lot of time talking about Clark; so often his blog makes my blood pressure rise. But I feel like it is really important to respond to him once in a while. Clark writes in a very cocksure idiom. Everything in his world is just-so, precise and clean. He works hard to get his definitions and distinctions clear. He defines "reformed" in a very specific manner, for instance, eliminating many from that category based on an arbitrary list of confessions and timeline boundaries. Westminster is in, Savoy out, that kind of thing. And so those who comment approvingly on his blog are led further and further into his way of looking at things. But his viewpoint cries out for being problematized. His stridency should not be mistaken for a real argument. In the end, for Clark, "reformed theology" is like that international standard kilogram that used to be kept in a vault to serve as the worldwide standard for the kilogram. It's an endpoint in the history of ideas and needs only to be defended and used in catechesis. I, for one, think Reformed theology is much more than a museum piece. I think it is up to the task of answering new questions in new ways. I also believe the scriptures are a means of grace and that the Holy Spirit continues to speak in them. It would be arrogant to think there is any spiritual power in defining "reformed" a certain way. Our measure is the Holy Spirit speaking in the scriptures, our goal is the glory of God, and our trajectory and ethos were set , in part, by our tradition. Confessions are not endpoints but snapshots. In all of his careful definition making, Clark has missed the simple issue of the purpose for confessions and why they need to be written and revised. In the end, this leads to stagnation in answering important questions, stereotyping brothers with labels borrowed from other times, a difficulty in understanding fellow Christians on their own terms because they are nothing other than analogues of either past heroes or villains, a nearly a Roman Catholic style expectation for the way legitimate ecclesiastical authority should function, and an underestimation of the importance of dealing with new questions and contexts for doing theology.
Liturgical Logic, Part 2
In the first post, I began sketching the logic of the Christian worship service. Several things motivated me to do this, but mainly it is that my own tradition tends to make up things as it goes along. You can see this most clearly in the hamfisted way we celebrate holidays. We often celebrate Christmas these days (historically, the more Puritan leaning Presbyterians would not have) but we don't celebrate Pentecost. We don't talk about Advent, but we never miss Mother's Day. We pick and choose from the church calendar because we have no overarching, common understanding of how to structure the year. The individual worship service is a microcosm of this confusion. And so I was hoping to sort of informally enchant you with the logic of a well-formed Christian worship service.
Remember, these are very informal posts written quickly without a lot of nuance!
Last time, we reached the point in the service after the confession of sins, and after the assurance of pardon where we were then responding to God's grace by praising him and thanking him for salvation in Christ. Notice the priorities - the beginning part of the worship service is not the pre-game show for the sermon. Everything we did in worship was a response to something God did in worship. He called us to worship and we responded. We saw his glory and were overcome and praised him. Last time, I suggested we could praise him like the angels do with holy, holy, holy, but it might even be better to delay that hymn for just a moment, as I'll explain; a hymn of praise is the appropriate kind of hymn, though. We were made aware of our sins and we responded by asking for forgiveness. He responded by forgiving us and we were again overcome with gratitude and praised him for this. At this point in the service we are grateful, forgiven, and ready for intimacy with God. Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of the father. Just as Yahweh presided over the worship of Israel from a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and the smoke of the sacrifices and incense went up to him, we need to ascend in the power of the Holy Spirit for intimacy with God. And so this is sometimes a place where the pastor will say "Lift up your hearts" and we will respond with "We lift them up to the Lord." At this point, it might actually be the best point to sing holy, holy, holy as we ascend into God's presence, joining other believers on earth, and joining the saints who have passed away in song. It's like the earthly building has dropped away and we're in the heavenly temple where Jesus sits, in his body, surrounded by the heavenly host singing holy, holy, holy.
H. Here we're in intimate contact with God and with the church of all time and geography, and it is time to praise God together.
Now, what we need from God, after forgiveness, is instruction. As in worship, all of life is a response to God's grace, and we need to know how to respond. We need the law (what should we do, what should we refrain from doing) and we need wisdom (how to do the right thing at the right time and in the right way.) We need preaching. And this begins with the reading of the word. Traditionally, this means at least three readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from, specifically, the Gospels. We may even add a reading from the Psalms to make four. After each reading, it is appropriate to model a response that is grateful to God for his word, so it might be something like "This is the word of the Lord" and the congregation responds "Thanks be to God." Historically, the church has used "lectionaries" which are basically plans for reading through the whole bible over a certain number of years. Lectionaries have an index and you can figure out which Lord's Day this is (1 - 52) and then it tells you the New Testament, Old Testament, and Epistle readings for that day. You can't simply use a lectionary uncritically - most liberal mainline denominations have expunged controversial passages from the lectionary readings. So use something like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod lectionary to choose your readings. The LCMS lectionary is a three year lectionary, so over the course of three years, you will have read (most of) the entire bible out loud to your congregation.
I. Reading of the scriptures, response in thankfulness for God's Word.
At this point, it is a great idea to confess our faith. We've heard from God's word, and it is a great time for the pastor then to ask us to "own" God's word - to confess our fidelity to it. Christian theology is nothing other than the application of God's word, and so it makes sense to put the summary of our beliefs right here before the sermon as a response to the readings. The order in which the confession of faith comes is a judgment call, of course, and there are practical matters that come into play. Put it earlier and you risk the clarity of the earlier redemption narrative. Put it later and you risk interfering with the Lord's Supper. So putting it here has some practical utility. I won't say much about the confession of faith because I've written about the confession of faith here: The Liturgical Role and Context of a Confession of Faith. In that article, I give a lot of reasons why the best thing to use is a catholic creed like the Nicene or Apostle's creed instead of something narrower or sectarian like a catechism question. So:
J. Confession of Faith
Generally, it is good for the Pastor to say "Christian, in whom do you trust?" and then the response comes - "I believe in...." Again, modeling the call and response and also personalizing it - not "what do you believe?" but "In whom do you trust?"
Now, look where we are - we've heard the whole gospel story - God moves first to save his people by grace and they respond in his power and not of their own strength. We have heard the gospel. If all the pastor does is stand up at this point and say "God be with you" the service will lack not one wit more of the logic of salvation. The pressure is off. Good preacher, poor preacher, fumbling preacher, smooth preacher, each of them stands in a well-formed, contextual stream. A good liturgy takes the weight off of the preacher to be a genius with words. My own tradition has had trouble with plagiarism in sermons, and I have to wonder if it isn't because there is so much pressure on the average pastor to weave together a tiny rhetorical masterpiece each week. But the load is off. The sermon is an informal word before the banquet; it is very important, but it probably one of the less important things that a pastor does each week.
K. The sermon (preaching of the word)
Sermons are the least formal part of the service. Remember Jesus, when asked to read from the bible in worship, sat to read and this was likely what any rabbi or pastor would have done in the first century. Preachers should feel free to sit to preach. Standing is fine, but it is not necessary. Here we sit at God's feet as he explains the word. Of course, you'll never be able to convince your congregation to allow you to sit to preach, so I throw this in just as an interesting aside. You'll no doubt be standing. At the same time, you need to demystify this part of the service; it's not the climax of the service. If you think of the rising action of the service, you move from tension (contrast of Holy God and sinful humanity) to crisis (confession of sins) to rest in the savior. At this point, the sermon, you're on the lee side of the narrative mountain. It's like the host of a dinner party is taking a few moments to say something to his guests before they tuck in for the meal.
What should the pastor preach? Obviously this will depend upon the congregation's need. The pastor will perceive places where a public word will be the most effective way to correct error, provide encouragement, and shore up weak points in the congregation's knowledge. As far as knowledge transfer, Sunday school is much more effective because you can use handouts, take a whole hour, have questions and answers, etc. The clues to the sermon's role are right here - the sermon is public. So ask yourself what kind of public statements have the most utility and make the most sense to say in everyone's hearing, young and old. The sermon is spoken to people who are forgiven and have expressed their faith. The sermon cannot be very long because there is so much other important stuff to do in the service as God serves us each week.
And so what's the most appropriate thing for a brief, public message to an audience of children, women, and men? First, it needs to have propriety appropriate to a mixed group of folks. No graphic sermons about sex are appropriate for this kind of group. If you want to go into ritual purification and the mechanics of circumcision, do it in Sunday school when the ages are separated. If you want to counsel men about the dangers of pornography, do it in a men's bible study. Be ye couth. Second, it needs to be edifying. Your sermon is short, it is an aperitif for the Lord's Supper. Edification can leave people convicted, encouraged, inspired, etc. There is no one kind of mood to leave people in. If you're preaching an apostasy passage in Hebrews, there's nothing wrong with leaving people shaken and all the more clinging to Jesus for their perseverance. If you're preaching a predestination passage, there's nothing wrong with leaving people confident that their God is strong and his plans will be carried out. A sermon in a 3-hymns-and-a-sermon context, which context is really a 19th century revivalistic ordo, has the full weight of redemption upon it. It must convict, bring to repentance, bring comfort, and bring inspiration for holy living all in one package. That's the point of a well formed liturgy, it allows each thing to be what it is. And so the sermon doesn't have to "do it all" once it is placed in its proper liturgical context.
Third, your sermon should often focus on the scriptures. This is modeled to us by Jesus, but there is no reason the sermon cannot be topical. Again, the lectionary readings have just occurred so your congregation has heard God's word read in English - they've come face to face with God's word and so the sermon doesn't necessarily have to be exegetical every time. So what text to preach? In our tradition, as seen in Calvin's method, the lectio continua is popular - preaching straight through the scriptures. The funny thing is that lectio continua is a practice that implies a lectionary. So you'll see a lot of tight-shoed presbyterians who don't celebrate holidays and think a lectionary is bad, but will still preach straight through books of the bible. You aren't stifling the Spirit when you use a lectionary any more than you'd be stifling the Spirit when you choose to preach all the way through Romans. In fact, the lectionary is nice because it means that you're leaning on the wisdom of other brothers and going through the scriptures together. Did you know that every Lutheran Church Missouri Synod mother can call her son at college and they can discuss the same lectionary reading each week? The kid's church back home and his college church will have had the same lectionary readings. The sermon may differ; perhaps one preacher preached mainly on the OT reading, and the other preacher focused on the Gospel reading. But it binds together the body across the world when we go through the whole bible together every three years. This is the farthest thing from stifling the Spirit. Structure doesn't limit the Spirit, anymore than having fourteen lines limits a sonnet. The PCA needs a lectionary!
Okay, the sermon has been preached and this is a word from God through the pastor. How can we hear unless we have a preacher (Rom 10:14)? How do we respond to teaching? Well, generally we respond by offering ourselves in service to God. We've heard his word and now it is time for action. Our entire week was spent toiling away at our various callings. In an agricultural age, this would have meant the production of farm products, etc. In this age, most workers receive money. The way we offer ourselves is by offering a tithe of our earnings as a token of ourselves. Even for people who have no tithe, and people who don't need to tithe this week (perhaps they are paid monthly) they can offer themselves in the liturgy and so it makes sense to sit down at this point, pass the plate, and maybe even sing a song while we're doing it about how we are offering ourselves to our King's service:
L. The Offering
Traditionally, after the offering is collected, the deacons or elders who collect the money will then gather at the back of the church and process to the table in front of the pulpit. They will bring with them the bread and wine for the communion service. Bread and wine are products of human ingenuity. Communion is not celebrated with freshly picked wheat sheaves and grapes or grape juice. It is celebrated with bread, the fruit of a scientific process whereby ingredients like yeast, flour, and various sodas or grains are used to make a product that hardly resembles wheat. And wine takes a great deal of wisdom to produce, from picking the grapes at the right time, using the right yeasts, fermenting for the right period of time, and bottling and aging them. These communion elements are ideal tokens of human work. We are presenting products of human culture to be used in the feast, and so it is a great complement to the offering to bring the money and the bread and wine up at the same time to the table where the pastor waits.
It might be appropriate at this point for the pastor to remind people about offerings and how God says to refrain from offering something if you brother has something against you (Mt. 5:23). This can be a time of reconciliation, exhorting the congregation towards fixing relationships.
After the offering is received by the pastor and he gives thanks for God's blessing upon us and asks that God use the money for his purposes, then elders and deacons can sit down and we're all now ready for the feast to begin. The wine should have filled the sanctuary with nice aromas, and there's no reason the bread could not either. We avoid the "leavening" when we make something other than sourdough. We're not using the old lump, we're using fresh yeast and grains to make a bright, happy loaf. Similarly, this is not wine for a main course, dry and red, this is a tonic before the meal - a jolt of champagne - and so we use a red wine that is aromatic and maybe even sweet. You wouldn't want a whole glass of communion wine.
K. Communion (Lord's Supper / Eucharist)
An so we all lean in and the pastor begins the communion ritual. I've written pretty extensively about the parts of the communion service here: Thinking Through Intinction and there is no need to repeat any of that material. Some highlights - do it like Jesus did it - two prayers. Take each element, give thanks for it (don't just say that Jesus gave thanks for it, actually give thanks for it too) and then distribute it.
In the liturgical story we're telling here, we've moved from tension to rest, and then presented ourselves to God and then he is now strengthening us for the service he intends us to perform. He's saying, "You've presented yourself to me for service, now let me equip you" and he does that through the most intimate contact with Jesus that any of us has this side of heaven: communion. As you drink the wine, you are drinking Jesus's blood, and as you eat the bread you are eating Jesus's life giving body. Yes, his body and blood remain in heaven, but remember that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you ascended to heaven in worship already. The Holy Spirit makes this eating and drinking possible. This is one of the things that our tradition has gotten right - the Lord's supper is dynamic - by doing what Jesus said to do - eating and drinking - we are being strengthened by his flesh and blood. Your whole salvation has, at its root, a mystical union between yourself and Jesus. Because he died, your sins have died. Because he rose from the dead, you will rise from the dead. And this union is forged by the Holy Spirit and it is strengthened by the Holy Spirit especially each week in communion.
It goes without saying that if you do not have weekly communion then your entire sunday morning liturgy falls apart. You have tension without rest and exhortation without communion. Your sermon will have to do the work of comforting people. It would be as if Mephibosheth received a nice letter from King David but never actually ate at his table. This means that the sermon has to be a rhetorical masterpiece with rising and falling action, tension, comfort, etc. all in one. You can never shake people up without comforting them. With communion, you could shake them up and they would still know that they are shaken-up sons of the King, eating at his table.
Okay, hopefully you've a happy communion service with no introspection about your sin; that was taken care of much earlier in the service and you need to believe the gospel instead of doubting. In addition, fencing the table is inappropriate. Just make sure people understand what the invitation to commune means, and let them examine themselves as Paul says. "A man ought to examine himself" is far different from "the pastor ought to remind you to stay away if you fall into this category." And pay attention to the nature of the examination - it is like we noticed with the offering, Paul was warning the Corinthians about taking communion while being at odds with your brothers who make up Christ's body. After all, the gift at the altar was closely related to the sacrificial victim. And so again, the communion service is a time to remind people that they are one Spirit, one Loaf, and must be at peace and reconcile their differences. The army that is about to leave the church has works prepared beforehand for it to do and this work will be completely derailed if there is animosity in the ranks.
L. Response to Communion
The response to communion is gratefulness. You've just had a meal with the creator of heaven and earth and so another song of praise and thanksgiving is appropriate. Some churches use the song that Simeon sung (Now let us depart in peace) when he saw Jesus. Simeon knew that he'd just beheld the consolation of Israel and that he could now leave life in peace. Of course, we're not leaving life on Sunday morning, but we do leave the service with a renewed appreciation for the consolation that Jesus has brought to his people, and so singing Simeon's song is a great way to respond to the supper. Or any song of thanksgiving would be great. And before we go out, the preacher faces the congregation and we look up at him and he doesn't pray, he gives us the Lord's benediction. God has the last word. Aaron's benediction is still the one pastors use - "The Lord Bless you and keep you...."
Having received the benediction, the music starts and we process out of the service and we look at each other and talk. We worship a social God and this should be immediately evident as we mill around and talk with each other. Elders will be aware of visitors and introduce them to others. The parking lot won't empty right away; these are not the conclusions of prayers to a mute idol, they are the conclusions of prayer to the God who spoke creation into being and who knits us together by his Spirit in fellowship. And this fellowship involves talking and gesturing and hugging and kissing. We become like the God we worship.
And so we've reached the end of this tour. The whole point of this is to get the story in your bones. If you can become captivated by this story and captivate others, many of the liturgical difficulties that face the church will fade to the side. Worship is not mere opinion, and ritual is important. It changes us whether we do it well or not. The language of prayer becomes the language of belief very quickly. Add to this, a liturgy like the is perfect for young or old, educated or illiterate.
Now, in the next post in this series, Lord willing, we will answer the proof question. In other words, what source tells us that this is the way to worship? Is it just a nice story? What's the proof? Are we just doing something logical and baptizing it? There are two worship services recorded in the scriptures and they both follow this pattern, so we can look at those to see how this vision is not only captivating but true.
Merry Christmas, everyone!