February 20, 2007

Emerging Confessions Part One In his book on emerging or progressive Christianity, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg questions whether "sin" is the best term for describing our human condition before God. His argument isn't merely theological, but liturgical: "The nearly universal liturgical element of 'confession of sin and absolution' might be replaced or complemented by a 'declaration of what ails us and God's promise to us'" (p. 170). He continues in a note: "I am not suggesting these exact words as 'liturgical headings.' I would hope more elegant phrases could be found, but I am suggesting the notion that lies behind these words" (p. 185, n. 8). Following is one attempt at more elegant phrasing for several of the images Borg mines from the Bible to describe our condition. Confession of Blindness and Promise of Illumination God of Light, we confess that our vision is impaired. Your presence is lost to us in the shadows of our world and the darkness of our hearts. We look, yet we do not see, blind to the daily opportunities to praise you and serve others. Restore our sight, we pray, in the name of Christ whose vision of your kingdom come, led him on the path of salvation. God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has sent Christ as the light of the world. He remains with us in the Holy Spirit, and promises that those who seek will surely find. In Jesus Christ, our eyes are open. Amen. Recognition of Exile and Hope of Restoration God, alone in whom our hearts find their rest, we have awakened to find ourselves far from home. Our paths have led us away from you. We feel lonely and fear we are abandoned. Here, your word seems foreign to us, and we struggle to sing the songs of heaven. In your faithfulness, show us your presence once again, that we, too, may rejoice with all who call upon your name. We have a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep. The Spirit of God still blows through the wilderness and prays for us. The sacred testimony gives us this hope; God delivers us in Christ. Amen. Admission of Bondage and Words of Deliverance Listening God, hear our cries. We are not free. We have enslaved ourselves and others to debt and despair. We are bound by vain desires, and our liberty to love is curtailed by bad habits. Our emotions hold us hostage to wrongs, real and imagined. In our bondage we are less than what you call us to be. Hear and answer us, we pray, in the name of him who came to set prisoners free. The God of the Israelites has shown us the way of exodus. Forsaking what lies behind, we follow our liberating Lord. When we are weak in faith and strength, the Holy Spirit provides daily bread and springs of living water, that we may complete our journey in the land of promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Complexifying the Liturgy As we plan weekly worship here at Fuller Seminary, the worship interns and I have been talking quite a bit lately about three persistent and related problems. The first problem is theologically inspired boredom: we are growing weary of planning and leading the same twenty minutes of “opening exercises” every week. The dominant feature of our pre-sermon worship time is a significant chunk of music interspersed with words of welcome and perhaps a prayer or two. In the past months we’ve worked hard at intentionally selecting congregational songs that have cultural breadth, theological depth, and liturgical clarity. Still, the logistics of the service (including the architectural shape of our space) leave us with a default organizational ordo with which we are increasingly uncomfortable. It is an order that feels not blessedly simple but distressingly simplistic: songs (led by a group from the right hand side), followed by a sermon (preached by a professor from the left hand side). The other problems we’re struggling with are thematic coherence and sacramental expectation. The seminary professors who are asked to preach each week are notoriously tardy in selecting the Scripture and theme for their sermons. Thus, the chapel staff is left to plan the preparatory worship time (singing) with no clue about what we’re preparing for. This is problematic because for some in our worshiping community, the sermon is perceived as the primary locus for encountering God. The musicians, then, feel this burden: the music we sing must serve that encounter or risk total irrelevance. Or something even worse. For others in our community, music itself has taken on sacramental qualities. For these folks the primary means by which the gracious promises of God in Jesus Christ are made tangible and real is in congregational song. Like it or not, that is a lot of freight to haul with two guitars and three chords. We are keenly feeling the need to find a better way to manage expectations for meeting God in worship. In response, we have begun to experiment with an alternative ordo for our weekly gatherings. It is an arrangement that better reflects the history of campus-based worship, and one for which sacramental expectations are spread out over a broader palate of liturgical actions. What we are considering, essentially, is abandoning the songs/sermon ordo in favor of a more complex, though no less mnemonic pattern. Rooted in the structure of daily prayer followed for centuries by the precursors of academics, the medieval monks, it has four parts rather than two: praise/psalm/proclamation/prayer. Services begin with an acknowledgment of who God is, and the natural response to that knowledge, praise. Of course, praise can be fittingly expressed in a number of ways; music is just one of many options. The psalm and proclamation follow. In them we are seeking neither scriptural ground for our expressions of personal piety, nor applicatory fodder for individual exercises of Christ-like devotion. Scripture isn’t a devotional McNugget. Instead, we hope as a community in the Word to receive...

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