keeping the gospel front and center

I have come to believe something like I believe scripture and that scripture is the written word of God because I believe in the gospel. And that I don’t believe the gospel because I believe or accept scripture as God’s word written. And that churches which in one way or more keep the gospel front and center are doing well, whereas churches that fail to do this are not.

While scripture itself and faithful exposition will to some extent help us against this, there is a tendency to fit what we understand of it into our own world view and goal for life. For example our goal may be to somehow find something of “the American dream.” Not all of that is necessarily bad in and of itself, but like anything good, it can easily become an idol. We can somehow think that following Christ can help us along to our goal, can make us a better this or that. On the other hand whatever our calling actually is can be well enhanced through the gospel, as we live for Christ and for the gospel and not for ourselves.

The gospel (gospel meaning good news) pure and simple is Jesus Christ and God’s grace and kingdom come in him. At the heart of it is Christ’s death and resurrection, ascension, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church for life and mission to the world and the promise of Christ’s return when heaven and earth become one in judgment and new creation. The gospel is that Jesus is Lord. It is a saving gospel, as particular as each one of us, but as large as all creation. Saving us from our sins and bringing us into new life.

How do we keep the gospel front and center? I like N. T. Wright’s teaching that we read and see all of scripture as part of God’s story which is actually a gospel story fulfilled in and through Jesus. That is the Christian way of reading the Hebrew Bible along with what we Christians call the New Testament. And I endeavor to look at all of life in light of the gospel. I measure politics in light of it since the gospel is indeed political in terms of the kingdom of God come in Jesus. Again the gospel is as big as all of creation encompassing human culture. Jesus fulfills God’s calling to Israel to be the blessing to the world which puts the world not only on the right track, but on a new track altogether. But certainly in fulfillment of God’s calling to humankind in Genesis which we see in the ending of the story in scripture in the Revelation. In all of this Jesus Christ and God’s work in him is kept front and center. The Spirit is poured out when that’s the case.

Good liturgy and regular participation in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Table, or Holy Communion) weekly in our church gatherings can help us keep the gospel front and center. I need the gospel myself, everyday. I  need to be not only encouraged to keep on keeping on because of that gospel, but I need to be confronted by the demands of that gospel as well, the call to regular confession of sin with the forgiveness in Jesus that accompanies that. And the call to take up my own cross and follow Christ to the end, and the many details involved in that.

The gospel is the vantage point from which I see all of life. I can’t explain everything in light of it, but I seek to view everything in its light, and I find whatever good is in anything (excluding sin) is fulfilled in the gospel to be realized in some measure now and completely later in and through Jesus.

And so I seek to carry on along with others in the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, the gospel of King Jesus.

For a full, succinct telling of the gospel, see Scot McKnight’s, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.

prayer as worshipful fellowship/communion with God

Concerning Prayer
149. What is prayer?
Prayer is turning my heart toward God, to converse with him in worship. (Psalm 122, 123)
150. What should you seek in prayer?
In prayer I should seek the joy of fellowship with God, who made me for fellowship with him. (1 Chronicles 16:28-30; Psalm 96; John 17; Revelation 22:17)
151. What is fellowship with God?
Fellowship with God in prayer is relating to him as his children, as we approach the light and glory of his throne. (Revelation 7:9-17)
152. How can you have fellowship with God? Through the death of Jesus as both High Priest and sacrifice, and in his Holy Spirit, I have fellowship with God in Word, Sacrament, and prayer. (Hebrews 4:16; 1 John 1:1-4)
153. Why should you pray?
I should pray, first, because God calls me so to do; second, because I desire to know God and be known by him; third, because I need the grace and consolation of the Holy Spirit; and fourth, because God responds to the prayers of his people. (Luke 11:13)
154. What should you pray?
In addition to my own prayers, I should pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and the collected prayers of the Church.
155. When should you pray?
I should pray morning, noon, and night, and whenever I am aware of my need for God’s special grace. And I should learn “to pray without ceasing” as I grow in knowledge of God’s nearness. (Psalm 55:17; Daniel 6:10-13; Matthew 15:21-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Hebrews 4:16)

TO BE A CHRISTIAN: An Anglican Catechism, 39

more than a pleasant diversion

There are some good diversions built into life to keep us sane and not transfixed on the troubles which can land us in an abyss of darkness. Not to say we may not struggle with some darkness regardless. But I am thankful for the daily tasks at hand which though may sometimes be tedious and monotonous, are at the same time a good diversion from other things. But the main point of this post is how the faith in Jesus from the spectrum of all of scripture can be a good diversion from the troubles which inevitably come our way and seem to be a part of life. And more than that, actually grounding us well no less than in God and in the faith so that in all of our weakness we can walk through them in the will of God.

In front of me I have at least three major summer projects (more like four), one done, and I’m still amazed that is finished, with the help of a friend and brother in Jesus. I realize I have to take one thing at a time. I don’t have money to throw at everything, so I try to do as much myself as I can, and budget well the rest (my wife excels at that).  Things I frankly would like to avoid all together. Much more yet to come before we move out of this house, I’m afraid.

Scripture and the gospel can help us, as long as we keep at it on a regular basis, really everyday and throughout our days. We need help beyond ourselves, this is not a self-help project for sure. And yet what we do or fail to do can make all the difference in the world in this. And it’s not a matter of only getting certain things into our heads and hopefully into our hearts. But into our hands and feet as well. We are changed over time in the process.

Maybe that’s in part why I’ve imagined I would like a monastic life. Ordered and together with others tackling difficulties that come, but engaged in good works for those in need. And in much prayer. That may be in part why I’m attracted to more liturgy. Though I believe in the “charismatic” side as well. We need to be in scripture and keep Jesus and the good news of God in him front and center.

words and acts being holy

We hear of those churches either rooted in the Great Tradition, or closer rooted to it of the importance of the ministry of the word and the sacraments. Of course referring to scripture and at least to baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or, Meal, referring to the Eucharist or Holy Communion). I would agree in the sense that both the words and the acts are holy, not only in terms of the human participation in them, but of no less than God’s participation in them as well. We can say they’re symbolic, but we can’t stop there. The sign is imbued with the reality, in other words something of the reality accompanies the sign I take it– by the Holy Spirit of God. Just how all of this happens, take for example in the Lord’s Meal, I don’t think we need to know. Except that both the past and the future is brought into the present by the Spirit in and through Jesus. N. T. Wright in this little book makes a good case for that.

Good, well thought out liturgy such as we find in the tradition Thomas Cranmer began in the Book of Common Prayer carries with it both a beauty and power which reaches deep into the human experience, indeed into our humanity bringing into that nothing less than the divine in and through Jesus. And by that a working toward the fulfillment of our true humanity made no less than in the image of God. The prayer book takes one through scripture along with prayers and song and opportunities to pray for a host of things, good and important reminders.

In so many evangelical churches while there is some good liturgy by virtue of the songs sang and the scripture that is read and preached, it is often hit and miss in terms of the gospel remaining front and center in it all,  I’m supposing. The words and acts in such services are certainly no less holy, and there’s not one way of meeting together in corporate worship. But I am thinking there are certain basics which need to be covered which are the usual common fare in the churches of the Great Tradition.  And we do well to learn from such in this regard. There is a Roman Catholic church in our neighborhood which I attended (a 5:00 pm Saturday service) once. So rich in liturgy both in the reading of scripture and in prayers and song. Only about 5% I’m supposing was Roman Catholic, the rest being common to us all. I have also been impressed from what I’ve seen of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in this regard. Symbols being treated as they really are: holy. Because through such we are taken into the very presence of God in and through Jesus by the Spirit.

We could say adoration of God in praise, confession of sin, thanksgivings, along with supplications meaning petitions in prayer to God should be basic in all of corporate worship. Along with the proclamation or preaching of the word. And I think it is good to leave open room for the unusual, what is nowadays called the charismatic, movings of the Spirit in God’s people outside the normal rhythm, yet in harmony and resonant with that. The good order and normal flow and work of the Spirit may at times be accompanied or temporarily suspended by a needed holy interruption. Before getting back into the normal flow.

Our church is good at incorporating something of this into each service. So that we have a good balance between the liturgical and what might be called free or spontaneous. Again there is no one way of being church in the corporate worship setting. But it does seem essential to acknowledge and remember that our words and acts are especially marked out as holy in those places and times.

the place of good liturgy

Every church has its liturgy. Not every church is liturgical. And of course there might be bad liturgy. Our church, in the free church tradition is a healthy mix between set worship and spontaneity. So we use good liturgy, in song and in prayers, along with scripture readings. And of course, the sermon which is at the heart of the worship service, as we seek to hear from the Lord, anew and afresh. Unlike many evangelical churches, although I suppose more and more are changing in this regard, the Lord’s Table is not just an aside or something celebrated now and then. Everyone participates in it once a month and it is offered weekly, a good number gathering at the end of each service to partake. And most Sundays we recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Liturgical churches have some degree of spontaneity, but largely everything is set. There is an order of service which is followed. In a good liturgy, scripture is prominent, prayers mixed in, along with song from the best of Christian tradition. There is the sermon which has something of a central place in hearing the word of God proclaimed. But what is at the heart of such services is the Eucharist, remembering our Lord’s death in the participation ceremonially of his body and blood through the bread and cup.

Every church has its liturgy. I was raised Mennonite, and the singing of hymns was in large part our liturgy. And many of the hymns we sang were really good, solid poetry in expressing something of the wonder and beauty of the faith centered in Jesus Christ and flowing from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are churches in which spontaneity is given pride of place. Or we might say from the best of such, a dependence on the Holy Spirit to direct the proceedings. Not to say nothing is planned, especially in sermon and song, but set prayers are avoided, the Lord’s Prayer itself rarely if ever recited.

As one who believes in the charismatic side and wants to be open to the Spirit’s moving, I also believe in the liturgical side. I think we do well to practice something of both. The two are not necessarily separate from each other. Not everyone prays in tongues, one form of praying in the Spirit, that is prayer (or even song) in an unknown tongue. But prayer offered in a known tongue should be every bit as much offered through the Spirit, even when (and we might say especially when) offered in great weakness. Praying in the Spirit is done in a good number of ways. In fact priority of place should be given to that which is understood by all, so that everyone can be built up in the faith.

I don’t like to compare churches. All kinds of churches can be vibrant and Spirit-filled regardless of the differences. I will offer the thought that churches which are steeped in good liturgy, often called liturgical  churches, can be more dependent on scripture and on the gospel. And less dependent on personalities, gifted though they may be. Or in lesser, questionable things, such as worship people like.

In the end we are all one Body in Christ, even as we seek to be true to the one faith and our calling together in and through Jesus. We need to avoid thinking that our way is the right way. At the same time wanting to grow up together in Jesus into maturity and as a witness to the watching world.


the desire for a liturgical life

For my forty years of being a Christian I have been a Bible person. From the start, I listened to the KJV New Testament read from the same small vinyl records my grandmother who had passed had listened to. For most of those years I have listened to the Bible being read over and over again. And have attended church all of those years. All churches have their liturgy, even if it may not be much in volume or depth. Of course “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” has plenty of meaning and depth in and of itself. We do need other words, if we take the Bible seriously. And that is what the best in Christian orthodox tradition has done through the centuries. We do well to plug in, and learn. And from that actually participate.

The fullness of life is in Christ and is Trinitarian in essence: of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This life is centered, or we could say finds its center in Christ. And in his death and resurrection. Of course his incarnation, life and ministry preceding that; his ascension, the outpouring of the Spirit, and his return (to come) following. So our existence is cross shaped and it is rich.

I have been well trained—especially in the past, the formative years—to at least be suspicious and more likely shun all things Catholic. It is so ingrained in me that I am not sure I’ll ever be over it, not that I am considering becoming a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox either, for that matter (I did at one time consider considering becoming Roman Catholic, but decided against that). I now can appreciate and respect at least much of what is in that tradition, without buying into all of it.

But I am becoming more and more convinced that we would do better to incorporate more of liturgy into our lives. I think of prayers read along with scripture, and other things which accompany that. I think of the Lord’s Table, called the Eucharist being more central in our practice. And yes, even though I’ve regularly pushed back against sacramental understanding, there is no denying that sacrament does have some part in life, and perhaps more than what I’ve been taught or have accepted. One can arguably make the case for a more sacramental understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Table from scripture.

And I have been heavily influenced by Scot McKnight, who recently was ordained an Anglican deacon. Since I was raised Mennonite, it was rather natural I suppose for me to come back to and embrace a pacifist understanding for the follower of Christ. I read two of McKnight’s commentaries years ago, found his blog, Jesus Creed, in its relatively early going, and found in him a Biblical scholar I could almost entirely track with (not that I could keep up with all of his thought). I was, by the way revolutionized in my theology and turned around back toward my Anabaptist roots through N. T. Wright’s, The Challenge of Jesus.

Our own church, Redeemer Covenant Church through our pastors Jack and Sharon Brown is much more steeped in the tradition of church liturgy than any church we’ve been a part of before. And we appreciate that. We’ve been around, actually as part of good churches and a variety at that. We in Jesus are all in formation, hopefully. I see myself moving toward more of a liturgical stance, not taking away from what I’ve learned to appreciate of other aspects of the fullness of life that is ours in Christ.

I have really only an introductory appreciation with very little practice of the Book of Common Prayer. Everything I have taken from it I appreciate. I do love my NIV, and I imagine I always will, and do wish it could be incorporated into the text, but I can live with another translation in that (I like the NRSV maybe second, and appreciate that is translates the Apocrypha).

Churches not steeped in the tradition of Christian liturgy can depend far too much on human constructs. But more about that perhaps in another post. For now, I simply close with one of the many liturgical notes we find in scripture itself:

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

to be centered in Jesus

This weekend is the beginning of the most sacred week of the year for Christians (the Orthodox calendar, the same this year): Holy Week. During this week we remember our Lord’s suffering for us, in his crucifixion and death. And what immediately led up to that including The Lord’s Table, or Holy Eucharist. And then the Sunday following we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and victory over sin and death.

Scot McKnight becoming an Anglican, and the extent that liturgy is played out at our church, along with what use I have made of liturgy, especially of the Book of Common Prayer in recent years, has made me think anew on the importance of being centered over and over again on the gospel: the good news of Jesus. This good news to which either all of scripture points, or is moving toward. Somehow finding its fulfillment in that, or more precisely, Jesus somehow fulfilling scripture.

I see great value in liturgy. And maybe liturgical churches are closer to the truth on their understanding of sacrament, then other churches. I may remain a bit of a skeptic or at least an agnostic on some of that simply due to my understanding of what scripture says. What I am a believer in (and my wife with me) is both the power and beauty of a liturgy rooted in scripture and gathering from the best of Christian tradition. And I think engaging all of the senses to help our worship can be helpful, or at least it has seemed that way for me.

And so as we being Holy Week tomorrow with Palm Sunday, let’s think of it in part as an opportunity to become centered in God’s revelation in Jesus. And thus to be forgiven and carried in God’s triumph in him. A victory not just for us, but for the world. As we look forward to the completion of God’s new creation and kingdom come in Jesus.

a longing for monastic living

Of course I’d want to be part of a married order, but I’d love to live a monastic existence. I love the rhythms of a set order of life, with all the scripture readings, prayers, songs, and ceremonies. Yes, some incense and partaking of the Lord’s Table daily. And in and out of that rhythm is a life lived both in communion with and for the service of others. For the community, doing common work together, as well as the special tasks to which each one would be called.

That kind of an existence, which continues in many places is rooted in the early monastic movement in which both men and women sought to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly, in spirit and body to God. It is a welcome contrast to so much of at least what is highlighted in Christian history, the wrongs done by the church at times even in the name of the Lord. There were exceptions, such as Francis of Assisi. He preached the gospel in harms away to a sultan. Whether he opposed the crusades entirely is uncertain, and I think doubtful, but that he opposed much if not most all of the violence is likely certain. Unfortunately to this day it is tit for tat: they harm us, we’ll harm them back. What is going on right now in the Central African Republic.

I doubt that any such life will open up to us before we leave this world (my wife and I). And so I would like to live out that kind of existence insofar as I can within a “normal” setting. But actually that is the kind of life in and through Jesus we’re all called to. Yes, rhythms, not to be slavishly followed, but commitment to such is something which can be beneficial for us from the monastics, given the disordered free-for-all, free fall in which we “live.”

Of course it is a choice of the heart, something also in which we grow into. Not isolated necessarily from life as experienced by others. But seeking to live out the calling God has given us in Jesus with each other and for the world. In the love of God in Jesus.

New Year’s Eve celebrations

I am not sure why the world makes such a big to-do about New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve Celebrations. I can find it more or less interesting with reference to looking back on the news of the world, even on the political news.

I really like the church  calendar and regret that I discovered it (and am discovering it) late in life. The other calendar is important to me for marking birthdays, holidays, vacations, appointments, deadlines (not in that order, I’m afraid). Apart from Christ I can understand simply boozing it up, or engaging in some trifling occasion. Another year has come and gone with another one around the corner. What purpose does everything have, anyhow? At least one needs to lighten up and have some fun. We can’t carry the world on our shoulders. Maybe we can get off of it, for a bit.

For the follower of Christ, such a time can be a good pause for reflection, maybe joining a bit in some of the fun, but above all thinking in terms of the day itself, the significance it has in the world, and trying to both learn as well as contextualize ourselves, in terms of that. We don’t do well when we simply cut ourselves off from culture. Actually in some ways we need to cut ourselves off, but in other ways not. We need wisdom from God to know the difference.

What I’m likely to do, after working ten hours today, is go home and crash. Maybe drink a little of the wine with my wife, I got for her recent birthday. Maybe do a little reading. Maybe have the television on when the Apple falls down on Time’s Square, although I doubt it. Maybe have some good music concert on, or another program beforehand. For me, nose in a book with classical music on would be ideal, no doubt dozing off here and there in the process. This is a time of grief for us at the loss of my wife’s father, who was a father to me, as well; the funeral just ahead.

We are reminded of the prayer in the psalms that we do well to pray:

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Even as we continue to pray the prayer the Lord taught his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

the problem with us evangelicals

Ted Haggard has an interesting, insider take on the weakness of evangelicalism. From my much more limited perspective, I can agree.

Perhaps how I might frame the matter is in terms something like this:  The church needs to be gospel centered, which means Jesus and Kingdom of God oriented to the core. In the grace in which the law’s demands are met and even fulfilled, in and through Jesus, by the Spirit.

The evangelical proposition is too much hit and miss in terms of the above, I’m thinking. It is certainly committed to the teaching of scripture, and to the gospel. And how that is worked out will differ according to each church, and the gifts in each, especially those of the leadership, specifically the teaching and especially so in the pulpit.

I dislike generalizations especially when finding fault of movements, even if I think they can serve some good purpose. I want to say that the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of God’s word should not depend so much and probably not at all on who is doing it. Granted the different gifts and ways the teaching is made known. There ought to be a common core, so to speak (a contemporary term in our country, the U.S., concerning public education), in both content and manner of making known the gospel. With the understanding that the gospel is central to the existence and orientation of the church.

While I think I’m thinking over my head (which in a true sense is always so on this blog, given the subject to which it is devoted), I also think this is pretty basic. Church traditions like the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox have it over the rest of us in this, I am suspecting. Because there is a common understanding and practice which does not at all depend on one or a very few people. Grounded in the Christian orthodox faith, with freedom within that commitment and practice.

It is not essential or important that churches all do everything the same way. If one thinks about it, every church has its own liturgy, in other words its own way of teaching and seeking to be faithful to Christ, to the gospel. For example a large part of Mennonite liturgy is in the hymns they sing. Neither is the concern here to get everyone to agree on interpretations, such as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, etc. But the drive ought to be to get us more oriented to a gospel-centered existence in which God’s grace and kingdom in and through Jesus is the sphere in which we live and grow and serve, the mission to which we are committed.

Liturgy as in scriptural readings, songs and prayers can be beneficial. A regular practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer together is a good common practice. A common lectionary may help us stay grounded in keeping us in all of scripture and not just in the places to which we gravitate.

There are no easy answers to this. I appreciate the Evangelical Covenant church my wife and I are members of. The Lord’s Table is open every week and a part of the regular service once a month. We at least list scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. We are most certainly gospel centered and oriented in both content and manner of sharing in the faith each Sunday morning.

We in Jesus are all in this together. We can learn from each other. From the center- Christ, and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom come in him.