The place of intimacy with God in life and worship

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz  has recently made a stir admitting he rarely attends church and when he does he doesn’t really get much out of it.

Miller says he can worship God in other ways, and other means of intimacy with God suit him better than the corporate worship of a local congregation on a Sunday (morning).    He assumes a few things about worship:  any form of worship serves the same purpose as any other form of worship. Therefore, as long as you have something in your life you can call worship you are in a spiritually good place.  He assumes worship is about learning about God. He assumes that worship is about intimacy with God.  There are a few of problems with these assumptions.

There is a deficient ecclesiology that underlies these assumptions, which isn’t the focus of this post but will eventually post something here.

 Another problem is that “worship” is a catch-all term for anything that brings you close to God, or provides you with an intimacy with God.  A view of worship that focuses on  intimacy with God, does not jive easily with images of heavenly worship of God found in Isaiah and Apocalypse/Revelation of St John, nor does it easily jive with Ezekiel’s Vision of God on the move with the four living creatures.  These biblical descriptions of worshipful meeting God aren’t intimate affairs.   To be fair, the worship that Donald miller is talking about hardly if at all reflects these biblical accounts of heavenly worship at the throne. I dare say few if any in these churches think that in their worship they are before God at the Throne with the twenty-four Elder’s and the four living creatures, and the seraphim and cherubim, but maybe they should.

I don’t mean to say that intimacy with God is unimportant or that all “worship” must be earthshaking, psyche rending, overwhelming with mind bending beauty and awe described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Saint John the Apostle (though we probably need more of that kind of worship than current American Christianity offers).   There are ways to develop intimacy with God, I just am not convinced the worship of the gathered people of God is the best place to foster that intimacy.

I believe we should cultivate intimacy with God and I agree with Donald Miller that the corporate worship of the church isn’t the place to do it, though we may experience intimacy with God in “church”.  I would argue a more proper place for fostering intimacy with God is in the work of the Church known as the cure of souls, or in more contemporary parlance – in spiritual direction and the spiritual disciplines.

When Miller talks about worshiping God in his work, I say well yes I’m glad you are preaching what Benedictine Monasticism has known for centuries and what a particular monk, Brother Lawrence, taught in a collection of sayings The Practice of  the Presence of God.  And there is also the Apostle Paul as well saying do your work as unto the Lord.  But strictly speaking having a worshipful and prayerful attitude in ones work is a spiritual discipline of  a member of Christ’s body the Church, who is also to have the spiritual discipline of gathering with other members of that body.  So, yes we find God in our work and find it to be worshipful (even if our work isn’t as fulfilling as Donald Miller’s work is, though I’m sure there is drudgery in what he does as well.).  Finding God in our work doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find God in the gathered people of God.  The practicing the presence of God in all things and in all times is a key and important discipline for maintaining and developing intimacy with God, but it doesn’t replace being the ecclesia.

 If  I say I find God in the world it doesn’t mean I won’t find God in Christ’s body the Church. (I seem unable to avoid ecclesiology).

There are many ways through which one can develop intimacy with God: Spiritual journaling, painting icons,  centering prayer, etc.  What does or doesn’t foster intimacy with God will (as Miller points out) vary from person to person.  You should work with a spiritual companion or spiritual mother or father (that is a spiritual director) and work out what will foster such intimate worship and relationship.  Such practices and awareness should eventually permeate your life (though it probably will take your entire life time).

If you think that  going to church once a week will bring you closer to God, well…, you are fooling yourself.  What happens on the day members of the Body of Christ gather together to worship God should certainly permeate one’s life, and one should find ways to carry that corporate encounter with God and God’s saving work and intention for the world into ones daily life.  Yet, that hour on a Sunday morning isn’t going to (on it’s own) provide you with intimacy with God, or really much of anything else.  It’s just an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, out of all the many hours in a week with which we occupy ourselves in other myriad of things.

Certainly there are intimate moments in a worship service, when one receives the bread and wine, or when one is anointed with oil, or when hands laid upon.  There is an intimacy in a number of liturgical, symbolic and ritual acts in worship, but that intimacy might be missed if one isn’t’ practicing the presence of God in one’s daily life.

All in all the point of corporate worship isn’t intimacy.  Corporate worship with God is perhaps actually distancing, and this is as good and true as good and true as the experience of intimacy.  God is after all totally other than we are and is incomprehensible, unknown, and unknowable.  We come together and we are to realize that God isn’t like us at all, and we are reminded that we’ve done somethings were not proud of during the week.  God is confounding, refuses to be controlled by us, and that’s kind of off-putting, even scary.    Being in relationship with God is at times raw and unnerving and a disintegrating encounter with that which is other than we are.   This, perhaps is what corporate worship  is about, and it is out of that experience that we can have true intimacy with God.

Holy Saturday Reflection – and Silence

Rob Bell has a new book out, and Tripp Hudgins and Adam Ericksen are having a blogalogue about it.  Thought I’d link to my Holy Saturday reflection of two years ago, in which I reference Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

Holy Saturday Reflection: Love Wins and Christ’s Descent into Hell(Hades)

I haven’t blogged about Holy Week and the Three Days and Easter this time around.  Mostly because this year I felt silence was the place from which to encounter this mystery again.  I’m not preaching at all this festival cycle, so no sermons to post either.

How does one mark silence as intentional in the cacophony of the internet?

I suppose this is one way to speak around the silence to say I’m being silent for a reason, not just because I haven’t posted anything or haven’t tweeted anything.


….And words past, from Rob and me.

“Enjoy the silence…”


Other past posts on Holy Week and the Three Days:

A Maundy Thursday Reflection

A Good Friday Reflection on a sermon

Review- Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal

Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s book Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal is a feast packed into a small book.  It is a book to savor, and to return to again and again.  A mixture of prose, poems, and recipes creates a delightful read, and a sense of sitting around Milton’s table or sitting with him in his kitchen as he prepares a meal.  This is a rich book that weaves together reflections on the place of meals and foods in our life and relationships and through these stories of food and cooking illumines the author’s understanding of the Eucharist.

Each Chapter of the book is opened with a poem and concludes with a food poem, I mean, recipe.  The connection between the poem the chapter and recipe aren’t necessarily obvious, though the dish of the recipe generally functioned as a central component of the chapter it concludes. I found this as an encouragement to make my own connections and conclusions as a reader.  Through the poems I anticipated what I might find in the coming chapter and the recipe allowed me to savor the chapter just read. In doing this I was continually longing for something more.  Each chapter left me feeling that there was a hollow part of Brasher-Cunningham’s account of meal and Eucharist.

There is so much to affirm and to relish and savor in this book about meal and Eucharist.  The connections between breaking bread around dinner table with friends and family, and the bread broken and distributed, and cup blessed and passed are beautiful and moving.  Yet, these metaphors and reflections tended to send me to the anthropocentric aspects of Eucharist.  In the we make meals, Brasher-Cunningham seems to conclude, so we as humans of faith make the Eucharist.  We become the body of Christ by what we do, by the connections that exist between meal and Eucharist.  I find this hollows out the Eucharist of its divinity.  The transformation offered as only that which other fallible foible filled humans, Rather than by the very presence of the God-human Jesus Christ in bread and wine.

Keeping the Feast then attends to one side of the equation of the Eucharist, and is a beautiful reflection on how one may weave altar and the meals we share with friends and family every day.  The lopsidedness of the book left me wanting more.  And perhaps that is part of the point.

Check out Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s recipe blog

Beauty, Truth, and Cathedrals

I’ve gathered From my Twitter feed the role of beauty and cathedrals was addressed at Emergence Christianity – A National Convention( #EC13 #BigTickle) .  This Luther quote was thrown out there as an answer to the problem (though it is only a problem for a certain mindset admittedly dominant among Protestants):

 “The people need beauty as well as the Gospel because they live in a world of ugliness.”

I prefer “Beauty will save the world.”

Luther’s quote at first glance makes beauty and physical and material beauty in particular secondary.  It divides off beauty from the truth of  the Gospel.  Beauty isn’t the Gospel it only possibly maybe, if the conditions are right serves truth and the Gospel.  God apparently isn’t beautiful, in God’s economy beauty is a second thought.

The Dostoevsky quote, or more to the point a what is said by one of the characters in the Idiot, sees beauty as intrinsic to the world, the gospel, God, and Faith.

This vision is in my mind much more sacramental and truly ecclesial than Luther’s perspective (Which incidentally was also the Frankish perspective at the time of the Iconoclast controversy in the East, and why Frankish Theologians didn’t quite get either the controversy nor understand the theology of the 7th Ecumenical council though they accepted it).

Now one may misunderstand me when I say “sacramental” if one hears reference only to seven (or two) sacraments, and not the condition of possibility within creation itself for the Seven (or Two) Sacraments.  For a full and concise treatment of this condition of possibility I recommend Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.

If we live in a world of ugliness it is because the world has ceased to be what God intended for the universe.  If God can be joined with creation, if bread and wine can be come the body and blood of Jesus Christ, if water can be our passage from death to new life, it is because what is physical, what God created was always supposed to be our communion with God.  If we see what is beautiful and do not see God it is not because beauty is a distraction or secondary, or non-essential, but because the world is no is no longer for us what God created it to be.

But now, as I sit with the Luther quote i have a second thought.  If we no longer hold that beauty is secondary, and if we hold that God is to be met in our physicality,  Luther’s quote is perhaps the same as the Dostoevsky quote.  The ugliness is due to the fall, to our loss of God in the everyday.  We then need Cathedrals, Icons, and beauty to have the truth of the Gospel, and have God, because in the present age the world is opaque to Beauty, but it is to be translucent.  It was to be our connection to our Life.  Sacraments return to us physical things as the whole universe was to be for humanity, the means of our communion with God, our very sustenance in body and soul.  Then in a Cathedral we are in the presence of God through its beauty.  This was my experience of the cathedrals of Europe as a child.  I carried that experience with me until I rediscovered the broad and deep theology of the Sacramental transfiguration of the World in Jesus Christ.


In Defense of J. K. A. Smith, Praise Bands, and Critique – pt. 2

Part 1 is found here

Do praise bands have to be loud and the center of a worship service?  If the band simply, with no frills, leads singing in a congregation does it cease to be a praise band?

I am puzzled that  James Smith’s  critique (“encouragement to think about the what of worship”) was taken as an attack on the use of praise bands and of  “contemporary” worship.  His critique has been taken as just another expression of a disgruntled “traditional” worshiper who saw the praise band as intrinsically antithetical to a worshipful experience.  Even though he said his criticism was intended to offer a way for the praise band to authentically be Christian worship as praise band. He claimed he wasn’t talking about style, nor obliquely mounting a counter offensive for “traditional” worship in the “worship wars”.  I think though that some of his Calvinist assumptions might be mistaken as based in  “traditional” worship style, and his understanding of “participation” was interpreted as down playing things “contemporary” worship values.

Maybe now is the time for the proposed definitions:

“Traditional” style of worship is more oriented to word and theological concepts, it is “modern” in that while it utilizes hymns this worship style emphasizes theological content of the worship and downplays (emphasis here, but not that these things are absent) an emotional connection with God in worship. Thus hymns are prized not necesarily for the experience of worship they produce, but for the theological content of the lyrics. “Traditional” worship is seeking to pass on the content of the faith in a worship service. Due to  “traditional” style to be about passing on content it can at times be expressed as how things used to be done.

“Contemporary” worship style emphasizes the experiential aspect of worship, and is less concerned (emphasis on less, but not unconcerned) about conceptual and theological content. Having an emotional connection with God in worship is what is prized when choosing songs or hymns. One of the ways this is achieved is through use of new songs and format. “Contemporary” style of worship can take on overtime “traditional” elements that can render it traditional when it is about passing on a particular period of “contemporary music, and thus is just how things were done.

‎”Traditional” and “contemporary” styles of worship are forms of worship that have emerged within the Protestant Free Church tradition. While some “traditional” styles of worship may look like services that make use of the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church, “traditional” is not synonymous with “Liturgical”.  

If I am getting somewhere with this definition Smith’s critique of praise bands ( should praise bands attempt to follow his “encouragement”) would not lead to “traditional” worship as defined above.  Smith does not argue for the use of hymns over current worship songs.  He does not argue that the lyrics must have good theological content.  Granted points one and two has a certain resonance of an old man yelling ” turn down that noise!”  And Smith may mistakenly think the only way to participate in a service for the congregation is by singing. Even so, am I to believe that praise bands must be overpoweringly loud for it to be a “contemporary” worship?  And does “contemporary” worship require that a worship band show their virtuosity in every worship service or even multiple times in a service?   I can imagine the use of a praise band/worship band where I could be aware of others singing around me, and where mostly I wouldn’t notice the musical ability of those leading either as amazing musicians nor as horrid musicians.  I can imagine this because I believe I have experienced it in some “contemporary” worship settings.   Though I suppose many of those experiences have been more “Blended” services, where hymns and contemporary worship songs were used together and in which the service wove the music into a set liturgy that didn’t change from week to week.  My point  is that these experiences were with praise bands who had quality musicians using mostly “contemporary” worship songs.  Thus, if I’m to take James Smith at his word it is possible to have a praise band that would not fall under his critique.  I wonder if there isn’t an automatic defensive (understandable) reaction among those who have faught hard to have “contemporary” worship accepted.  I’d say his critique could be read as a defense of praise bands since he wishes them to be truly Christian and not informed by other value systems.

The critique James K. A. Smith assumes the appropriateness of praise band, but calls attention to possibility that praise bands are unwittingly and unecesacerily using “secular liturgies” that are in conflict with what we do in a christian worship service.  So critique here isn’t supposed to argue against but to clarify and improve.

there is another weakness to James Smith’s critique. I have alluded to it already and was brought up in the Covenant facebook Group and is articulated in Gail Song Bantum’s response to Smith:  his assumption of what it means to participate in worship.  In this James remains may still be speaking from the “traditional” worship style because his sense of participation seems to be exclusively focused on the singing of  lyrics, thus focused on words.  In his critique there seems to be a lack of understanding of the non-verbal aspects of worship, that more than the tongue can and does and should worship.  I think this would be a productive line of inquiry to have with James K. A. Smith around his open letter, one I’d imagine he’d welcome

Yet his critique in the end isn’t an attack nor even a counter offensive for a style of worship that is of a particular place of privilege.  He isn’t defending “Traditional worship” but simply offering a critique of an element in having a praise band that may distract from the meaning of Christian worship.  He is not claiming that Praise bands aren’t worshipful.

Smith does attempt to in a very short missive to explain that he really isn’t concerned about the style but that what can happen with worship lead by a praise band is that what people are doing is being an audience at a concert(usually probably unintentionally and maybe mainly in White contexts).  I know these exist, I have been to them,  I will not name names.   Smith’s critique while it has its weaknesses is not inventing something, and granted what he is saying could go for other styles as well, though I think a band lends it more so to this in our context than the use of an organ.  But Kierkegaard’s critique of the Danish Lutheran Churches treating worship as if it was theater or the Opera shows that mistaking worship for entertainment and making the congregation an audience isn’t the sin merely of the praise band, and I think James K. A. Smith would agree.

James Smith’s critique stands, it is a good critique, he’s not defending  organs and choirs claiming that if only we went back to the organ and a choir all would be well with our worship.  If you think he said that please go back reread the article slowly and deliberately. Notice his critique literally does not mention that the solution is a particular music style.  Literally he claims that if  his “encouragement” is followed it doesn’t matter what instrumentation or style of music you use, it will be worshipful.  If someone in your congregation uses this “open letter” to raise the war between “contemporary” and “traditional” politely point that out to them and suggest they read it again slowly and deliberately.  James critique isn’t perfect but it in the end doesn’t side with either side of the worship wars, and it may even be a defense of the praise band used properly.

(After mostly writing this I came across Luke Larsen’s Responce, his post sets off a clearly differing philosophy and theology of worship than I espouse and that I’d guess James K. A. Smith espouses, though I need to read his book Desiring the Kingdom to know for sure.    There may here be in the midst of this, despite my irenic definitions, just some divergent and irreconcilable differences in theology of worship, but that is another post I think.  And as of February 24th, James K. A. Smith published a followup post that more or less makes the point I made about Larsen’s post that this conversation is exposing that there are differences in theology of worship some of  them may be incompatible.)

In Defense of J. K. A. Smith, Praise Bands, and Critique- pt. 1

Over at Fors Clavigera, James K. A. Smith‘s “Open Letter to Praise Bands” has caused a bit of a stir I think.  At least it has among the group of  Evangelical Covenant worship leader, worship pastors, and pastors (who like me plan worship each Sunday).   The stir relates to another conversation that has been going on in this group of Covenanter’s: how do we define “Traditional” worship and “contemporary” worship.    The responses thus far in my circle seem to have assumed that Smith’s critique was a defense of “traditional” worship and an attack upon “contemporary” worship, or at least a key component contemporary worship the praise band.  Oddly in the discussion around the definition of “contemporary” worship we did not include a worship or praise band as a key component to that worship style.  Perhaps we should have (and organ and Choir for “traditional).  Except, that it was this type of definition that we felt led nowhere, or at least kept us from understanding the significant and underlying differences between these styles.

Hold on, I’ll get us back to James K. A. Smith and his critique in a moment – bear with me.  This is relevant to the critique and the responses to the critique.

More important than instrumentation for members of the group was our exploration of attitudes and approaches to worship and God.  We were asking do people who prefer one style over another have a differing way of seeing worship and relating to God.  Matt Kennedy and Niel Gowan and Rick Lindholtz pushed the conversation to explore  how “traditional” and “contemporary” worshipers may relate to God differently.   We were seeking tentative conclusions about differing ways of relating to God and expectations of worship manifested in those drawn to “traditional” and “contemporary” styles of worship.

This was driven home for me in Neil Gowan’s analysis of expectations around a “Hymn of Response”, the song or hymn to follow the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon.  Neil’s observation was that those who gravitated towards what is generally labeled “traditional”, both pastor and layperson, were looking  for an explicit connection between the Scripture read and point of the Sermon and the hymn of response.  The song or hymn didn’t need to be thematically connected with the sermon, all the song needed to be seen as appropriate and worshipful was that there be a key word, or a title that directly referenced the scripture text used.  Where as, those who gravitated towards what is considered “contemporary” worship weren’t moved by a key word or direct reference but were looking for something more thematic or evocative, and thus could find meaningful a song or hymn that played in the themes of the Scripture or sermon without direct or key word reference to the Scriptural text.  In Neil’s observation and experience those who looked for a key word or direct reference to the Scripture text in a hymn or song of response couldn’t find worshipful a song or hymn that was thematically in line with  the Scripture and sermon but did not use any key word or phrases in the lyrics or title.  In a similar way those who looked for a thematic connection in the hymn of response did not find meaningful for their worship experience the songs or hymns that merely made use of a key word or phrase in the lyrics or title.  Matt Kennedy then pointed out how the trend in hymnals (the repository of “traditional” hymns we might say) is more about participation in  the proclamation  of the Gospel through song while the the the tendency in Hillsong/Vineyard/CCM is concerned with evoking an emotional and personal connection with the Gospel.  We aren’t here quite at definitions but close.

Now back to an Open Letter to Praise Bands-

Smiths three points of criticism may sound to those who tend toward the experience of worship above associated with the label “contemporary” as a dismissive of the emotive experience of worship that caries one beyond oneself.   A Rock concert where one is overwhelmed by the entire experience is analogous to worshipful experiences I have had.  One could get the idea then that the Open Letter is attempting to get praise bands to choose hymns that have a more direct proclamation of the Gospel than evocation of themes of the Gospel.  Given Smith’s background and current context in Reformed/Calvinist circles this isn’t an entirely unwarranted conclusion to make.  Reformed and Calvinist streams of Christianity have long been concerned that music and instrumentation not obscure  the words being sung.  However, James Smith’s concerns isn’t for words but people and what people do and how they experience worship and what they think they are doing in worship.  His claim in these critiques (a claim that can certainly be disputed) is that Christian worship is the work of the people and not the work of the leaders of that worship. His claim is that if your attitude toward worship is primarily formed by your experiences at concerts and that attitude is encouraged by the use of a praise band then you have a corrupted sense of Christian worship.  He is still making a Reformed point, but also a general Protestant point : we are all priests by virtue of our baptism, we are all offering ourselves to God through the sacrifice of praise in worship.  Thus, the Praise band should not conduct itself in such away that may obscure or confuse that we all are offering a sacrifice of praise corporately and actively  together as the Body of Christ, not passively receiving another’s sacrifice.  In worship I am, not part of an audience at a concert, but part of the people of God before the very throne of God singing “Holy, Holly, Holy…”  This is at least what I hear Smith saying:  the praise band can never have the place the Rock band has at a Rock concert, if  a praise band does or even approaches having such a place we are doing something other than Christian worship.

Now we are only half way through this exploration of  “Traditional” and “Contemporary” and I have not yet mounted my defense of  Praise Bands, this will follow in part two here.