Presumption, Preparation, Parrēsia, Perichōrēsis

and Worship

 

 

This talk was given at the AWAF conference, June 2009

(Ancient Wisdom,  Anglican Future)

 

Present were Anglicans, "emergent" missioners, and various other Christian teachers and leaders. 

The conversation was lively and deep, ranging from mission to worship and ecclesiology.

 

 

 

Wooed by wonder!

 

 

 

 

Three luminous moments...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where has the wonder gone?

 

 

 

 

Is Casual worship the result of fear of God's mystery?

 

 

 

 

 

Do we think that creating the worship moment is OUR job?

 

 

Born of faithlessness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We gradually enter worship by the gate of PREPARATION.

 

 

The four Ps

and Worship

 

 

Clashing presuppositions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vain repetition?

 

The Lord's model

 

 

 

 

 

"Be merciful to me, a sinnner!"

 

 

 

"Strive to enter God's rest"

 

 

 

 

Avoiding "soteriological over-confidence"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparation in the Bible

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparation of the whole person, including what our bodies are doing

 

Worship as theatre?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repentance is ongoing for the believer

 

 

 

 

The Holiness of the Eucharist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Service of the Word prepares for the Eucharist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhythms of fasting and feasting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OUr hope of the glory of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parrēsia is "holy boldness"

 

Perichōrēsis does not mean a democratic "round dance"

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Trinity as "submitted to human beings" ???????

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mystery of mutuality and order

 

 

 

 

 

 

How astonishing, to enter into God's light!

 

 

 

 

Some specifics for worship:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem of Wonder

Whatever one thinks of the animism and ideals of the Disney movie Lion King, the weighty effect of the opening scenario is undeniable. The music, with its chant undecipherable except to the few who know Zulu, nevertheless communicates its message of anticipation and welcome:

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba 

         [Here comes a lion, Father]

Sithi uhm ingonyama          

          [Oh yes, it’s a lion] …

Siyo Nqoba                   

          [We're going to conquer]

 

The music swells, coming to a climax as the priestly primate presents the newborn prince to the host of animals far below. “Oh yes, it’s a lion; we’re going to conquer!”  The lion-cub looks down, wide-eyed, as animals of every kind stamp for joy. A ray of glory from the unveiling cloud-cover is trained upon the young messiah, and the whole assembly bows the knee and closes their eyes in reverence.  The first time I saw this, its joyous sobriety brought tears to my eyes, despite the accompanying trite lyrics about the “circle of life.”   The juxtaposition between old and young, awkward and beautiful, open and closed eyes, near and far, is evocative of life with all its complexity and simplicity.  And the whole extravaganza, the spectacle of it all is an apt preparation for the epic lionine drama to follow:  even the unwilling are ushered into the story. We have been wooed by wonder.

 

The experience of being overwhelmed, of being overcome by astonishment, is basic to the human condition. As another song in the Lion King puts it, when we are faced with some luminous experiences, “It’s enough for this wide-eyed wanderer/That we got this far…It’s enough to make kings and vagabonds/Believe the very best.” 

In my own life, three such vignettes stand out.

 

In the first, I am in the back of my parents’ car, a five-year-old who has just become the incredulous owner of a golden cocker spaniel puppy.  It is almost Christmas, and the snow is swirling around the car as we return home from the farm.  I sit in the back, a newspaper between my coat and the squirming puppy, with tears streaming down my face.    “What’s the matter?” asked my mom, “Don’t you like her?”  I can hardly choke out the words, “I can’t believe she’s here!” For me, Advent is over, and the New Jerusalem has descended—and the lump in my throat matches the fullness of my heart.

 

Second scene: Again, I am with my parents. It is very early on Easter Sunday and we aren’t in our usual place, the red brick Salvation Army Corps where I would worship for 20 years, and from which I would be married. Normally at Easter I would have been wakened early by my folks to go and stir enormous pots of scrambled eggs in the kitchen for the crowd that will come down after the Sunrise service.  Instead, we have finally found a parking space for the car in downtown Washington D. C., trecked a long way up a hill to an enormous stone Church, and are watching a man in a strange hat banging on the huge wooden door with a staff. As we go through the doors, to the strains of the organ, I hear my dad say, “There’s no seating.  Shall we forget it?”  “No,” says my mom, “let’s stay until she gets restless.”  Restless?  The singing is glorious, the smell intoxicating, the whole thing wonderful and most wonderful.  We stayed for the whole Easter service, standing through my first experience of a traditional liturgy.

 

The final picture is much later than the first two, and of a different sort.  I am beyond exhaustion, physical and emotional.  I have slept at the hospital for four nights, on the little cot beside my father, who knows that I am there, but who hasn’t been able to speak for some time.  For a while we had hoped that he would pull out of the downward spiral, but this morning I know better. His breathing has changed now, that strange start-and-stop breathing that spells out the end.  Others are gathering, trying to be kind, but it is almost as though my mom, my dad and I are alone in the room.  Once or twice I think it is over, and then, it becomes apparent that it really almost is. Something is gradually changing in my father’s entire appearance, and then, there it is; or rather, there it isn’t. My dad hasn’t been himself for years, but this is entirely different.    In the place of a vibrant, though ill person, there is his beloved body, but I don’t see his eyes smiling out any more. The peace is a relief, after all his effort. But there is something else happening to me besides that commingling of relief and grief. I am amazed:  how is it possible that this strange yet still familiar body LIVED, that it ever spoke, laughed, argued, walked on the beach, read books with me?  Somehow, by watching life ebb away, I have been reminded of the wonder of creation—God molded the man, and breathed life into him, and he became a living being!  At the threshold of death, I am compelled to remember the Creator. My cousin, who is the official minister at the death-watch, asks if I want to pray.  I do, and oddly, it’s a prayer of thanksgiving.

 

Joy, wonder, fear and awe. When I was four, five and nearly 50. Through one of his tiny creatures, through ceremony and through death, God had forcibly borne down upon my life, taking me out of myself, reminding me of the tenderness, the hugeness, the strangeness of what we experience every day.  Everywhere there are new puppies, everywhere people send up hymns to the Lord, every minute someone’s beloved father dies. Yet these commonplace things served as windows to a world of wonder, a world that is made to praise God.

 

The experience of being overwhelmed is basic to the human condition. Perhaps it is only natural that a young child should be mesmerized by worship.  But why is it not ALWAYS natural for us?  Where has the wonder gone? What is it about our worship that makes us blasé?  Perhaps we should ask, what is it about US? Is familiarity the problem? I do not think that it is simply that familiarity breeds contempt.  Because, you know, it needn’t.  Think of the toddler who wants that same story again and again, or the adolescent who wants to hear her favourite song one more time, or my husband, who listens repeatedly in the car to scratched recordings of the Goon Show (now digitized) until I think I will go MAD. No, it isn’t our familiarity that takes away wonder; it’s something else.

 

Could it be that we are fearful of too luminous a meeting with God?  Consider the adolescent who has misbehaved and knows that his father is going to “have a talk” with him. Several strategies might be adopted by the delinquent kid—avoidance, rebellion, deceit.  Or, there is the more sophisticated strategy of nonchalance:  “Um, yes, I did smoke that cigarette that you left on the coffee-table, but you know, it is important for me to have new experiences, and I didn’t really like it, anyway. I tell you what, Dad, you stop smoking, and I’ll promise never to take another one of your cigarettes?  Deal?”  And so it is that even Christians frequently have approached God with deliberate casualness— down-playing the meeting, talking to God in the business-like language of contract and exchange.  Casual worship can be a pre-emptive move to mitigate our fear.  Certainly I myself have kept God at arm’s length by doing my duty in worship or in personal devotions, adding it onto a long list of other things that I must accomplish: no wonder that, unprepared for God’s mystery and unrepentantly distracted by other concerns, the worship is flat.  I have avoided staying quiet long enough in my personal prayer times to allow the full weight of God’s presence to impose.  Who knows what I might be shown about myself, or what other reality might disturb my cherished presuppositions?

 

Then there is a reaction, in contrast to the dutiful mode.  Do we think that creating the worship moment is OUR job? Worried that for many people worship lacks life, worship leaders strive to make the moment meaningful, to amplify its significance by adding a touch of colour, a dash of emotion, a new symbol, a rush of engineered excitement. Such a move is common in various evangelical traditions.  Here there are those who think that it is their role to be what we would call “psychopomps,” actually initiating worshippers into the mystical world.  A complementary action is also followed among the worshippers themselves, who learn all kinds of ways to excite their own emotions, and mistake this passion for an authentic meeting with God.

 

These approaches to worship are born of faithlessness. The first casual or contractual approach comes from fear that God does not know how to velvet his claws, so to speak. The second meddling approach comes from fear that God may not appear at all, that we are the only actors in the service or the meeting.  At these extremes, corporate worship is rendered a hum-drum business affair, or an orgy of hysteria and melodrama.  The depressive pole is seen in the group known as Jehovah’s Witness—have you ever attended their services?  SO serious.  SO dutiful. SO devoid of joy or wonder. The manic pole is present in other cult meetings, such as those surrounding Vernon Howell whose rhetoric swept away his followers so that they truly believed themselves to be part of the cosmic drama led by their very own Lamb, David Koresh, “the Christ.” But these problems are not limited to the cults. We see them in mainstream churches as well.  Our dilemma concerning worship is a complex one in the West, for many of us continue in the Protestant reaction to the “magical view” of the sacraments that we believe was inculcated in the Middle Ages, and yet we yearn for awe.

 

What is to be done to regain the mode of anticipation and welcome that matches our Servant-King, our majestic and tender God?  One of the prescriptions enjoined both in the Scriptures and in the traditional liturgies of East and West is that we come to worship, and enter gradually into worship, by the gate of PREPARATION.  If preparation for the great meeting with God is in place, we will not easily don the attitude of casual indifference.  If we use God’s own means of preparation, then we will be given eyes to see and ears to hear the wonders that are truly there. We will not be tempted to engineer worship or to monitor our responses, priming the pump of the “meaningful.” 

 

This afternoon, I would like to talk about four P’s and their relationship to worship—presumption, preparation, parrēsia and perichōrēsis.  (If you are fuzzy on the last two p’s, don’t worry—I’ll define them when we get there!) Though I will engage in some critique of worship practices that are common in the West, I want to say up front that what I am sharing with you is part of a steep learning curve for me, not something that I have attained!  So let me begin with presumption.

 

Presumption

Here, again, I go back in my memory, over 25 years ago!  My husband and I are worshipping in a new venue, and find some of the elements of the service familiar, but others very odd. Salvationists in an evangelical Anglican service are not exactly fish out of water, but there are some clashing presuppositions.  We come to the general confession.  I examine the words intently: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.  We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We are heartily sorry and we humbly repent.  For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we might delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.”  Puzzled, I write on the side of the bulletin, communicating with my husband so as not to disturb those around us:  “Don’t these people believe that they are Christians?  It sounds like they think they have to get saved all over again!” Then comes the absolution, and again I am concerned—don’t these friends know already that God forgives?  Why do they need somebody to reassure them of it?  And what right does that man have to talk in God’s own voice, anyway?

 

The same kind of cognitive dissonance is often expressed by friends and family who come to my new-found church home, observing their first Eastern Orthodox church service—“why do they keep saying over and over, ‘Lord have mercy’?  Don’t they believe that He has?”

 

Of course, there are some serious theological issues here that we could discuss, and this would take days. Can I simply say that many who have come from traditions like mine have mistakenly believed that the dissonance comes from their theological convictions about justification, when frequently we are simply displaying garden-variety human “Presumption”—presumption that we are a-okay, that it’s all done, that we have attained, that God doesn’t care about our sin, that it is unnecessary to persist in prayer, for, after all, God has answered.

 

Are corporate prayers for mercy and forgiveness vain repetition?  Do repeated requests for God’s mercy, does repeated repentance signal a lack of faith in God’s love?  Consider what Jesus commends to his followers when he gives instruction in prayer. 

 

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, what did he do?  He gave them a template, a model, a set of words, phrases that together express humility and expectation before God:  “hallowed be thy name,”  “Give us this day,”  “forgive us,” “Lead us not into temptation,”  “Deliver us from evil,”  “For thine is the glory.”  Doesn’t God KNOW that he is holy, and don’t we?  Why ask daily for our needs?  Why ask that we be forgiven, if we already are?  Why ask the Lord that he not test us—do we expect that he would, if we don’t ask to be excused?  And do we expect that our loving Father would actually refuse to be our deliverer?  And why finish by speaking about his glory?  Surely he does not need us to pat him on the back!  But this is the nature of the prayer that Jesus passes on to his followers. Surely this prayer is utterly realistic, matching our nature and our needs to the character and will of God almighty.

 

Remember, too, that he commended the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), who lowered his eyes, beat his breast and cried out “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  There is no whiff of the idea that this kind of prayer is only suitable for the first-time repentant, for the would-be convert! Rather, he tells the parable to the religious, to those who might presume upon the grace of God.  And the parable comes in Luke’s gospel just after Jesus’ comforting words concerning the repeated prayers of God’s own people: “his elect, who cry to him day and night?” To those who pray persistently, like the widow, God will grant justice! (Luke 18:7-8).  Then there is the sobriety of Paul himself, the apostle of justification—“it is not as though I have already attained…but I strain towards the goal!” (Phil. 3:12-14)  And, there is the strong warning in the book of Hebrews, that we should not presume like the Hebrews in the wilderness that we belong to God, but that we should, paradoxically, “strive to enter his rest”  (Hebrews 3:7-4:13). Finally, there is the word of God himself, calling in yearning to his people in John’s Apocalypse, “Come out of her, my people”; God’s call to action matches the description in another vision that his people have “washed their robes, and made them white” (Rev. 7:14), so that at the end they will be as a bride, adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2).

 

We haven’t time to work out the grave and substantive theological debates that have led to Protestant squeamishness concerning repeated calls for God’s mercy, or even for the need of ongoing repentance.  However, the passages above, including Jesus’ own teaching on prayer, should put a brake on soteriological over- confidence. Here are three principles that may be helpful:

 

  • A theology of justification should not lead us away from an earnest search for holiness.

 

  • A theology of Jesus’ victory should not lead us to be unreal about our continued sin.

 

  • A theology of security in God’s love should not lead to careless presumption.

 

In short, we need to read the whole of Scripture—and, I would say, read the whole of Scripture in concert with the universal Church. This means to sustain the paradox found in throughout the New Testament, a paradox that has generally to do with the inter-relationship of grace and human activity, and specifically with our approach to worship:  “work out your… salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God at work in you” (Phil. 2:12-13); “strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11)  A reading of the book of Hebrews will put away any notion that the new covenant people may approach God with less awe than did the Israelites!

 

Preparation

So much for presumption.  What is the alternative to such cheerful carelessness?  It is to get and stay ready!  There are several Hebrew words translated as “ready,” associated with preparation for a meal (‘asah), readiness for war (qadash), being stable or firm (kuōn) and with “turning” or poising oneself (panah). The New Testament uses at least three Greek verbs: prothumos (having to do with eagerness), etoimos  (having to do with being equipped) and peraskeuazo (having to do with supplying what is necessary). From the beginning of the gospel, where the Baptist’s task is to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17-18), through Jesus’ parable that the bridesmaids be ready, and not presumptuous (Mat 25:10-11), through his warning to his disciples “You also be ready: for the Son of Man will come unexpectedly” (Luke 12:40), through to his explanation to the sleeping disciples, “The spirit is truly ready, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38), the theme of preparation sounds.  Most luminous is that last night of Jesus’ ministry, first where Jesus speaks to Peter of the importance of washed feet (even for those who are largely already clean! John 13:10) and later, when he speaks of his disciples as branches who must be purged, or made clean by God’s word (John 15:3).

 

How, then, are we made ready to worship?  Of course, the radical preparation has been done in the God-Man, Jesus, who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters, and who has made us bold to pray, “Our Father.” We have been emboldened by the work of God, but, as Jesus puts it, the Father is always working!  This means that personally, corporately and liturgically, we need to be prepared.  In the Great Tradition of both East and West, the attentiveness required to enter God’s presence is fostered by prayer and fasting. It may be that some have taken these resources mechanically, as if rote prayers and absence from food were a magic key, unlocking the gate to God’s house.  Since my childhood formation was in the protesting, non-sacramental Salvation Army, I understand well the argument that familiarity breeds contempt and that human activities cannot leash the Spirit. God can, of course, break through even when we are unprepared—yet at our best, we say, with the Psalmist, “I will prepare him my heart.”  Such inner preparation includes also what our bodies are doing, for we are whole people.

 

Yet, we forget this, especially when our services are conceived in terms of theatre or spectacle. A group of worshippers that jostles into the worship space, chatting and distracted, depends upon the worship leader to call their attention to the deep words of the hymn or Scripture song, to repeat again the words of the Scripture, in case they have not been heard, to say to them, “Do you not feel the presence of the LORD?”  But these mediating actions themselves can be self-defeating.  They highlight the mood, the mechanics, the vehicle of our praise, rather than pointing to the Lord. If we come with quiet hearts, determining to set aside competing thoughts, and to enter into worship from the beginning, then those leading us will not be tempted to act as stage directors.  The words of the Preacher are salutary:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.  2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.  (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2)

 

It is a tricky thing, of course, to talk about attitude. Let us get more concrete and consider the importance of simple penitence: repentance for our brashness, for our carelessness, for those all those things that we have done both deliberately and unwittingly. Repentance, in the Scriptures, is not simply an entrance requirement to the following of Jesus, but it is ongoing. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is seen in the gospel of John, where we hear of multiple “turnings” towards the Lord Jesus, and not simply one crisis of conscience.  Consider Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Peter, and how on Easter morning, they are several times led to “turn.”[1] We need to be continually realigned, for the flesh, what we are as fallen human beings, is weak. This is not a matter of distrusting God: it is rather to allow a sober realism to accompany our Christian joy.

 

What does this mean, practically, in terms of worship? It means that we prepare, both personally and corporately, to come into God’s presence. Historical liturgies actually work by means of preparation, leading worshippers up the stairs, and into God’s presence. In less liturgical settings, singing has been used for this purpose, in the recognition that folks often rush to Church, and need to settle in. John Wesley commented that the holy eucharist can be a converting ordinance, but he would have been horrified that some contemporary Christians have made this a rule!  He was, after all, living in a day when Christianity was the norm, and when those who believed intellectually needed for their hearts to be warmed—he was not speaking about admitting unbaptized pagans directly to the table.  “Conversion,” in the sense that he meant it, was when someone who was a cold Christian met the Lord in the Eucharist, and was taken to a deeper level.  But his regard for the utter holiness of the Eucharist is clear from his writings, and from his brother Charles’s hymns—though we have forgotten some of the hymns about the Supper![2]  Now in some places we have tables that are completely unhedged, on the precept that Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  Now we have some churches using the Lord’s Supper as a way of limbering up the congregation so that they will be better prepared to hear the Word, as though it is the Scriptures that lead us to the holy place, and the Eucharist is merely an exercise in meditation. 

 

Attention to why the historic Church put the service of the Word before the Eucharist is indicated!  Remember, the Service of the Word was open to those who were inquiring, and to those who were preparing for baptism. The Eucharist was kept separate because it was the height and depth of the people’s corporate meeting with the LORD—“holy things are for the holy.”  As Jesus declared, the Word makes us clean (John 15:3).  Then, cleansed by his word, we enter into his life, receiving from him.  We help each other in the service, as we come together before the LORD.  There is both kneeling and standing, postures of penitence and boldness before our Father.  The priest asks forgiveness of the people, and does not simply proclaim pardon and absolution—because we are all leveled before the holiness of God. Standing before the gospel trains our bodies to receive the Lord, as our minds listen to the word and our spirits are enlivened. Proclaiming peace (and if need be, asking forgiveness) with each other is a requisite to the great event itself.  As described by Alexander Schmemann, the entire liturgy is one great action of entrance, and entrance, and even more entrance—like Reepicheep, we are called “further in and higher up.”  And as we leave behind our worries, we do not leave behind the world that we love, but carry it in our prayers before the throne of God.

 

The Church year, itself, adds a further element of preparation, a rhythm of fasting and feasting for us, creatures who are in time.  Prior to Easter, we even “excommunicate” ourselves, fasting from the Eucharist on Holy Friday, sitting in darkness, or even leaving the Church building prior to the Easter Liturgy, so that the light and the door and the meal can be opened to us by the LORD, and we can enter into his joy. It is not a matter of pulling long faces on Good Friday, or of “pretending” not to be redeemed prior to the Easter joy.  Rather, we acknowledge that we are creatures of time, and that not all is yet healed—always there is more to die to sin, always more for the Lord to raise up.  He has done, and is doing it, and will do it! And so he charges us to prepare.

 

Presumption and preparation—where does holy boldness, called in the NT parrēsia, come in? And what is the difference between presumption and boldness?

 

Parrēsia

We are bold because God has, in Christ, made us his very own children.  Children can be “at home” in God’s house—though the salon is different from the rumpus room!  Parrēsia is different from Presumption, because it retains the quality of WONDER.  How wonderful that we should be called the children of God!  St. Paul speaks about the ongoing wonder of the Christian in this way:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

 

The Christian stance of hope is deliberate, looking to its foundations in the work of Jesus, and knowing that even suffering will bring fruit. We will not be ashamed, because our entire life is predicated on what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do.  Even St. Paul, who persecuted Christians and so called himself “least of all” possessed this character of holy boldness, and described it as having an “open face” before the Lord and before his brothers and sisters. We have boldness in knowing that we can actually bless the LORD, because he has enabled us to do this—isn’t that a cheeky thought, that we could bless the Master of the universe?  We have boldness to pray, boldness to worship—and we know that this is a marvel, that we are called to enter his presence and to participate in the priestly work of Jesus.  This should not lead us to presumption, but increase our wonder.

Parrēsia, then, remembers that everything is a gift, that God is the initiator, but that he intends for us to walk on water, too.  Godly boldness is characterized by gratitude, and moderated by remembering that we have not yet become all that we are meant to be. It holds on to the main thing, that God is our Father not by our nature, but because of the one who is the unique Son.  He became poor that we might become rich.

 

Perichōrēsis

Let’s finish, then, with a glance at the wonder of perichōrēsis, that mysterious relationship that there is between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Full disclosure, here!  I am on a crusade!  It is urgent that we stop using arrogant words about our ability to understand and enter into the mystery of the Godhead.  Perichōrēsis is the term used by the ancient theologians to speak about the mysterious interchange and unity of the Trinity.  Contrary to the common wisdom, the term does not come from the root noun chŏros (meaning “chorus,” as in Greek tragedy, or “dance”) but from chōra (meaning “place”).  Perichōrēsis therefore means “going around and beyond one’s place” or “making room for.” The word refers to the reciprocity, alternation and interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity  It was not meant to evoke anything so frivolous as a democratic round-dance, but is used to describe the great mystery by which Persons of the holy Trinity occupy the same “space,” yet are “near and towards” each other, in their distinctness. So the talk that we hear in some places about the “dance of the Trinity,” and our entering blithely into that dance, is mistaken.

 

It is urgent that we stop making the Holy Trinity into a mascot of our own human ideas, and allow God to be God. Let me read to you a section from the well-known novel, The Shack, in order to show you why I am concerned:

[Jesus is speaking]  “That’s the beauty you seen in my relationship with Abba [the Father] and Sarayu [the Holy Spirit].  We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be.  Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her.  Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.  In fact, we are submitted to you [humans] in the same way.”[3]

 

So, then, the theology of The Shack argues that obedience is not part of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and not even a part of love. We hear otherwise in the Bible:  “The Son only does what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19);”  “The Son was made perfect in obedience (Hebrews 5:8-9);”  “The [Holy] Spirit…shall glorify me (John 16:13-14); “No one has seen the Father” (John 1:18; 6:46).  There is an order in the Holy Trinity that does not rob the Persons of their mutuality, but expresses their love.  The Spirit glorifies the Son who glorifies the Father. Yes, it is about love and respect: but it is also about authority and about obedience. These things are not mutually exclusive.  Just as the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from all eternity from the Father, so the second and third person of the Trinity give glory to the Father, who is their eternal source:  and yet they honour each other, each divine Person recognizing the other as God.

 

If the Son submits to the Father, let us have no loose talk about God submitting to us—though, ineffably, God did submit to the incarnation and crucifixion, and has so forged for us in an astonishing way. Let us have no illusions about our entering the so-called dance of God as equal dancing partners. When we enter into that mysterious love of the Trinity, it is by means of our obedience, our honor, our giving glory to God!  In Christ, we give our worthy praises to the Father; by the Spirit, we glimpse who God is, and enter into that light.  How astonishing!

 

We enter into that!  Jesus did not, remember, name God “our Father,” without further clarification.  Rather he said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father”  (John 20:17).  It is by virtue of the one who is the unique Son that we are children of God; it is through the service of the high priest Jesus that we serve God in worship; it is through the prophet Jesus that we speak the word of God truly; it is by the King of kings that we are made ruling priests to serve God.  We are, even more than the Israelites before us, a royal priesthood, whose major delight is to worship in wonder.

 

Given what we have seen concerning presumption, preparation, parrēsia and perichōrēsis, I’d like to suggest some specifics for those who are given to lead worship. Though these come from one who is used to a liturgical style, with blended worship, I believe that they can be adapted to other situations:

 

  • Don’t constantly call attention to what we are doing.  It’s like a book or film that constantly reminds us of the technique or the frame of the story. This is suitable for a comedy like Space Balls,[4] but not helpful to worship.
  • Don’t meddle with the historical order of worship. For example, don’t put the Lord’s Supper before the preaching, thinking that the Word can be prepared for by the Eucharist. Indeed, don’t rely on novelty to keep the attention of the congregation. As C. S. Lewis said, “Jesus commanded ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Teach my performing dogs new tricks!’
  • Don’t interrupt the service, e.g. putting an announcement/Sunday school skit in the middle of the Eucharist, after the solemn words and before the fraction!
  • Allow for quiet prior to the service.

 

  • Prepare the children (and teachers) if they are to receive the Lord’s Supper.  Either include them in the preparatory prayers of the congregation, or prepare them before they rejoin the congregation.  Signal the holiness of the Reading of the Word, too, by prayer, action, song. Show by our actions that these things are holy.
  •  Allow time for quiet after the reading of the Word, and during communion, not relying on special effects instead of the work of the Holy Spirit, not imposing the joy of those who have received upon those who are still receiving.

 

In the end, we want to treasure the wonder of God-with-us without devolving into an unreal world that presumes we are already complete. We want to take seriously the universal command of the One whom we love: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’” (Mark 13:37). And, in all our preparation, let us remember that this, too, is the work of God: “LORD, you have heard the desire of the humble: you will prepare their heart” (Psalm 10:17). If we will just get our agendas, and our presuppositions out of the way!

 

O LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, our fathers, keep this for ever in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of your people, and prepare their heart unto You. (1 Chronicles 29:18)

 


 

[1] For an analysis of Johannine passages on repentence, see  Humphrey, “‘And I Shall Heal Them’ –Repentance, Turning and Penitence in the Johannine Writings.” Pages 105-126 in Repentance in Christian Theology. Eds Mark Boda and Gordon T. Smith (Glazier/Liturgical Press, 2006).

 

[2]  Consider these three verses, among others, that express wonder in the Supper, cited by Frank Colquhoun, “Charles Wesley’s Eucharistic Hymns” Churchman 63/2 (1949), accessed May 2009 at http://www.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_063_2_Colquhoun.pdf

 

Endless scenes of wonder rise

   With that mysterious tree,

Crucified before our eyes

Where we our Maker see:

Jesus, Lord, what hast Thou done?

Publish we the death Divine,

Stop, and gaze, and fall, and own

Was never love like Thine!

 

OR

 

Who can say how bread and wine

God into man conveys?

How the bread His flesh imparts,

How the wine transmits His blood,

Fills His faithful people’s hearts

With all the life of God!

 

OR

 

Sure and real is the grace,

The manner be unknown;

Only meet us in Thy ways,

And perfect us in one.

Let us taste the heavenly powers;

Lord, we ask for nothing more:

Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours

To wonder and adore.

 

 [3] William P. Young, The Shack (Los Angeles: Windblown, 1997) 145.

[4] I am referring to the point where, in a dramatic crisis, the flight attendant finds the cassette of Space Balls in the spaceship’s library, and rewinds it, so that the characters can figure out what is going to happen.  But they end up looking at themselves looking at the tape!  The story devolves into self-reflection.