Liturgy and the “Good Life”

Ok, So What’s Liturgy?

Liturgy sounds churchy and religious, doesn’t it?  Something practiced on a Sunday morning in a few churches that haven’t figured out how, or better yet, chosen not to let go of ancient outdated practices, customs, and traditions.

Well, yes, it’s that.  But it’s so much more.  We are all immersed in liturgies; those practices, habits, rhythms, routines, schedules that make up our daily life. Everybody has liturgies.  Expand your attention beyond a church service and notice how you move through a day and you will perhaps get a glimpse of your liturgy.

Eugene Peterson refers to the Eucharist, for example, as a ritual.  “Jesus’ most honored command produced a ritual – an ordered arrangement of actions and words the Christians reproduce wherever and whenever they want to ‘remember’ and ‘proclaim’ salvation.  There is more going on than I am aware of or can be responsible for.  Reality is larger than me.  A ritual puts me into the larger reality without requiring that I understand it or even ‘feel’ it at the moment.  It keeps us in touch with and preserves mystery.  For reality is not only larger than me and my immediate circumstances, it is also beyond my understanding.  Rituals preserve that mystery, protect certain essential aspects of reality from being reduced to the dimensions of my interest or intelligence or awareness.”[1]

So why is it so big a deal?  Because our liturgies shape us, often subconsciously, into who we are.  They reveal what we love, what we long for, crave for, as our ultimate objective.  Some version of what we call good life.  This immersion in liturgical practices extends far beyond the order of worship in a church service.  Becoming aware of that may enable you to take stock both of desirable liturgies and those liturgies that compete for your loves.  Our liturgies work on us at the level of the heart, the gut.  Your liturgies are determined by a master.  “Show me your schedule, I’ll show you your liturgy.  Show me your liturgy and I will show you your master.”[2]

A Story About the Good Life

Ever been passionately pursued?  Ever come stumbling toward home tarnished from the pigsty, staring at the dust rising from your bare plodding feet, rehearsing your excuses?  Your best hope is to be counted among the hired hands.  Then you glance up and see him.  Without need for dignity, he comes running toward you, both hands clutching his robe so he can sprint.  It’s your Father.  He’s been waiting for you.  He throws his arms around you and lifts you off your feet.  He kisses you and orders his robe to cover you.  Cover you from your nakedness, poverty and rags.  He means to do you good.

That’s an example of a story I can place myself into, allowing the images, the sensory stimulations to move me, bend me shape me toward a relationship I crave.

As human creatures, we are more than what we know, think or believe.  Yes, we have intellect and rationality, but we are more than ‘brains on a stick.’  We are what we love.  My loves are directed toward my version of the good life; how I define human flourishing; and are shaped and bent and formed in me by my little liturgies.

St. Augustine gives a glimpse of the good life that can be found only in God and is initiated by God:

“You have prompted him, that he should delight to praise you, for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”[3]

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, pg. 205, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.

[2] Pastor Jeff Hamling, From a sermon, “What is Your Liturgy?”

[3] St. Augustine, Confessions, pg. 3, 2007, Published by Barnes and Noble Books.

A Deep Breath of Remember – The Poser

All in a Day’s Work

I’m a poser.  I try to manipulate the image you have of me.  I want you to like me, accept me, admire me, compliment me and be taught by me.  I’m the tough cowboy.  You’re not.  Therefore I am superior.  Sucks to be you.

 “Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ.  These toxic views of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular.  Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.”

Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods

There, I am blind to what I just wrote.  But I just made you my idol.  I now depend on you to flatter me or I will feel deprived.  I will feel a deep emptiness.  If you don’t come through for me, I will redouble my efforts to remedy the ache.

But wait.  How can I despise the way I’m wired?  Being a cowboy means I care for God’s creation.   Care deeply.  I get to see things in the raw and rarified light of life and death.  The instincts of a newborn calf, say, like the one born last night in the twenty-below-zero snowstorm.  Our clouds of breath mixed as I struggled to pack her the 100-yards to a safe, semi-warm bed of straw.  She fought it, but I was determined to shepherd this newborn out of danger.  When I joined her back up with her mother and witnessed the everyday miracle of a calf stand, though wobbly, and find the ‘faucet’ for nursing, I was dripping with melting snow, sweat, and care.  I was born to this divine task.

There, I can tell that story without any sense of superiority or condescension.  I can simply be grateful for the chance to participate in caring for and tending to God’s handiwork in a way that lets us be in awe of Him together.

All our idols have an element of goodness in them.  But like tares sown in a field of wheat, we get things twisted and tainted.  Our core motives sometimes reveal themselves and hopefully, by God’s grace alone, separate like dross rising for the skimming.

Timothy Keller puts it like this:

“Idolatry distorts our feelings.  Just as idols are good things turned into ultimate things, so the desire they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming.  Idols generate false beliefs such as ‘ if I cannot achieve X, then my life won’t be valid’ or ‘ since I have lost or failed Y, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.’  These false beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences.”[1]

My patterns for posing started early.  Age 17.  I sat down in the rickety theater seats of the local livestock auction barn and waited.  I’d been commissioned by my dad to learn the techniques used to introduce rapid genetic improvement into a cattle herd.  Artificial insemination.  The cows used for practice roamed the center stage auction floor while our instructor set up his presentation slides.  Cowboy after cowboy wandered in and sat down.  None younger than 50-years old.  Just as I anticipated, one by one, they pulled a can of Copenhagen from their jeans, tapped it twice, opened the lid and pinched a two-fingered wad of tobacco for their lower lip.

Not to be out done, I casually hauled a plug of chewing tobacco called Day’s Work from my shirt pocket and carved off a sizeable slice with my jackknife.  Inserting it in my cheek, I bent to the side and squirted out my first spit on the boot-worn wooden floor.  A sort of euphoria washed over me.  Junior-cowboy-prodigy.


Wisely, I thought, I’d chosen tobacco I could spit because my experiments with Copenhagen, that generates less spittle, had failed.  I listened to words and phrases I was unaccustomed to in everyday vocabulary like heat-detection, semen, liquid nitrogen, cervix, and ovulation float in the air from the soothing drawl of our instructor.  When he’d glance my way, I’d nod my head, topped by my work-worn, dusty cowboy hat, lean over and spit.

The puddle by my boots grew in diameter and I felt slightly embarrassed.  Previous chewing episodes took place on horseback or on a tractor where spit was absorbed by dirt.  So, to avoid getting caught in a scam, I simply spat less often.  That is, until about 20 minutes into our training.  Right when the slides of some of the greatest Beef and Dairy bulls on the globe were projected on the screen, my world reeled.  Light-headed.  Nauseous.  Muttering ‘excuse-me’s,’ I began the long journey, dizzily stumbling along the row of many legs with boots propped up on seats in front of them, on the way to the Men’s Room.  Mask off.  Facade crumpled.  Poser exposed.

I think I eventually completed that day’s session, but it is a blur.  What is vivid, however, is the ingrained image of that plug of Day’s Work splashing into the Clearwater River on my way home along the road winding along its banks.  How I tossed it two-thirds of the way across that broad river is uncertain.  Stomach cramps didn’t help, but the distance that plug was launched accurately related to the distance my idol of projected image had fallen.  It closed the chapter on my chewing-tobacco forays.  If only my dogged determination to be done with posing came so easily.  That takes liturgy.  I won’t do it with self-help, self-determination, or self-will.  I can’t do it.  But by God’s grace, it will be done in me.  It will take practice.  It will take crucibles.  It will take communion cups.

[1] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pg. 148.

A Deep Breath of Remember -The Crucible

crucibleA Barnyard Cleansing

My milking parlor is a crucible.  Heat is applied to my soul.  Dross rises, like cream, to the surface.  The same place of epiphany and mingling of my praises with sparrow-song tributes is the place where my sin patterns erupt.  God’s cleansing me.  One moment I’m thinking about a scripture story, maybe a recent sermon, maybe a passage I tucked in my pocket, now iodine-stained and tattered; the next moment a painful memory slips in and fear creeps in or I nurse a deeply felt, unmet longing and I watch anger grow into gloom.  Hint: there’s an idol down deep in my heart.

Listen to Timothy Keller:

“When idolatry is mapped onto the future – when our idols are threatened – it leads to paralyzing fear and anxiety.  When it is mapped onto the past – when we fail our idols – it leads to irremediable guilt.  When idolatry is mapped onto the present life – when our idols are blocked or removed by circumstances – it roils us with anger and despair.”[1]

“There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message:  What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician.

Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive.  It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation.  We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility.  Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight.  They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.”

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

I’m an atta-boy addict.  I demand it from those close to me, early and often.  Withhold it and a button gets pushed.  “Do you like the faithful service and support I provide around here?  Haven’t heard a thank-you lately.  Did you not notice?”  Now, add in the slightest hint of suggestion or correction, and you just pressed the red nuke button.  I escalate into full blown entitled demands.  “Why are you so good at catching me do it wrong?  A little thanks would go a long way.  How about some encouragement?  Am I on the inside of this team?  I sure feel like the bumbling idiot.  Oh, I am so inadequate.”

A cow swats me with a well-aimed tail, knocking my glasses off.  I can’t find them.  I can’t see.  I want to punch something.  An unexpected, skillful hind leg somehow crushes my forearm between bone and steel.  I do punch something.  Out fly previously suppressed profanities.  Dross arising!

Sometimes, by God’s grace, I hear myself articulating my idea of the good life that’s been denied; partly directed toward those close to me, partly at God.  It’s an awareness, a subtle inward shift in my soul.  Hot anger shifts to piercing conviction.  I feel my need for remedy more than my demand for approval.  I own the dross and confess my sin.

Listen as the Psalmist gives us a voice to our Prayer of Confession:

“Our Father in heaven, we have sinned.  We have done wrong and acted wickedly.  We give no thought to Your miracles; we do not remember Your many acts of kindness.  How quickly we forget what You have done!  We don’t wait for your plan to unfold.  We give in to our craving; we put You to the test.  We trade our glorious God for a cheap imitation.  We won’t believe Your promises to us.  Instead, we grumble and refuse to obey You.  We worship idols, which become a snare to us.  Save us, O Lord our God!  Gather us back to you, so we can thank Your holy name and glory in Your praise.”  (adapted from Psalm 106)

A quick-handed ladle removes the dross.  We have new ears to hear Paul express the Promise of Forgiveness:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  God is the one who justifies.”  (Romans 8:32-33)

“Graciously give us all things?”  There’s the good life I long for.

Another deep shift happens.  Rock and I exchange whispers.

“My dear Ron, what is it that you lack?” 

“Oh, my dear Shepherd, I lack nothing.”

The atta-boy addict emerges from the milking parlor pit with a remedy.  Repentance and forgiveness have worked their wonderful way.  God’s cleansing has removed a layer of dross revealing deep longings aimed in a new direction.

[1] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pg. 149.