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What is Laytham’s primary concern(s) regarding the impact of entertainment on the church? What aspects of Laytham’s critique/wisdom were most helpful for you?

In regard to our technologies, Brent Laytham writes, “In the twentieth century, entertainment became a cultural superpower.  That has, inevitably, inescapably impact Christian discipleship, though not always in the most obvious ways.  Unlike so many authors that focus on the content or ‘message’ of our entertainments, I write with the conviction that entertainment’s massive impact on us is rooted mostly in its mundane everydayness: in the way it shapes our subjectivities, affects our affections, cultures our choices, and permeates our possibilities.  This power isn’t accidental; as a commercial enterprise, entertainment intends to shape patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting…  For disciples this matters precisely because following Jesus is a journey meant to transform how we think, feel, and act” (2).

As Laytham expresses, entertainment has significantly shaped us.  We have moved toward more virtual community rather than actual presence, which creates isolation.  Our words have lost meaning and power because of its erosion.  “There is a corporatized scripting of play and imagination” (4).  It organizes how we spend our “free time” and gives us the perception that we own time.  Laytham further points out that we have allowed television to determine reality through its discourse, which we continue to imbibe.  Laytham states, “So entertainment raises the question of attending to truth, which is finally a question about worship” (6).

Laytham relates a story about a pastor that employed the culture’s forms of entertainment as a way to shape disciples.  After a sabbatical, the pastor returned and was able to see that this form of worship was very shallow.  In essence, entertainment had become god rather than truly worshipping God.  Laytham is concerned that our worship is formative enough to withstand this movement and offers a counter-shaping narrative.

The entertainment culture measures its success and effectiveness by numbers.  The larger the audience, the better it is.  Perhaps this is why mega-churches have sprung up and been made the model of “successful” church in the past thirty years or so.  Number of parishioners in pews, which tends to be our dominant measurement, is the way we usually see how “successful” we are at evangelism and discipleship.

However, these numbers do not tell the whole story of a community.  In fact, merely looking at those numbers can cause us to be blind to sickness in a congregation.  Entertainment is about consumerism and, unfortunately, that is often why people go to such large churches – to have their “needs” met.  Let me be clear to say that attending a large church isn’t wrong.  But, as Laytham suggests, we must always recover the cruciform way of discipleship (whether in a large or small congregation) so that we can properly see our entertainments in light of Christ.

Another aspect of entertainment’s impact on us is how it causes us to arrange our time.  We have come to structure our time around our entertainments, whether vacation, sports games, television shows, and more.  The overall influence can be seen in relation to the Church calendar.  National holidays, sporting events, and Hallmark sometimes largely shape the Church’s calendar over against Christ’s life.  If someone thinks this is untrue, try skipping mentioning Mother’s Day or the Fourth of July.  You quickly learn that these have tremendous sway on our community’s imagination.  The same can be said for Super Bowl Sunday.  Rather than competing, we often allow church Super Bowl watch parties for “fellowship.”  Entertainment has significantly re-arranged our calendars.

Sports is another arena that Laytham points to some serious problems.  It creates an audience (notice quite often that congregations have become audiences as well).  We watch other perform or act or play instead of playing in the game ourselves.  Spectator sports have created an atmosphere that promotes lack of engagements and participation, which runs counter to the Christian life’s call for participation in life!

This is also connected to our idolization of heroes and entertainers.  The cult of personality has exploded in recent decades, even the Church is not immune (think of Joel Olsteen’s naming his church after himself).  This creates a problem when the Gospel is made “cool” by athletes, performers, and entertainers.  It suggests that the Gospel needs sponsors in order to be powerful enough to change lives.  This denigrates Christ’s work, the power of the Cross, the hope of the Resurrection, the revelation of the Word, the will of the Father, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

I think Laytham has several great points that should be noted.  First, he makes a strong argument that entertainment is not an innocent medium.  They are meant to shape culture by shaping our attitudes, desires, and thinking.  In other words, they are shaping our actions through enculturation.  We need to be wary of these formative practices and habits that shape us in “mindless” kinds of ways.  As such, entertainment is not innocent fun.  It has lasting impact on our hearts and minds.

Despite this fact, Laytham does not suggest that we do away with technologies and entertainment.  That would be difficult, if not impossible.  Plus, playing is part of who we were created to be!  Not all entertainment is negative.  As such, Laytham recommends using a dialectical approach to entertainment.  Using these things is not simply a “yes” or “no”, take it or leave.  Instead, it’s about saying “yes” and “no.”  Entertainments call for wisdom in knowing when, how, and the duration for our use of such technologies.  Technologies can have positive uses, even as they can have negative uses.  This calls for prayerful discernment from the community of faith in finding helpful ways to engage our culture.

The final aspect from Laytham’s work that is particularly insightful and helpful is his emphasis on theological anthropology.  Each of the technologies and entertainments that Laytham highlights (iPod, Youtube, Wii Play, etc.) give voice to a deeper longing that each human being was created with in the beginning.  These longings are natural.  The problem lies in allowing these technologies and entertainments to become the primary or only way of meeting these longings.  If God is not at the center of our lives, it is quite easy for these tools to become idols that replace gods for God.

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In Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith further defines what he means by “homo liturgicus.”  He does this primarily through two terms: praktognosia and habitusPraktognosia challenges the intellectualist assumptions of the Enlightenment, which focuses primarily on epistemology and knowing by means of the intellect.  This approach neglects the affective, bodily comportment of our epistemologies.  This is praktognosia.  It is the bodily means by which we come to know and inhabit a world without needing to continuously reflect on our actions.  They become so ingrained in our being that we often act of this knowledge without need for reflection.  For instance, walking in a store’s aisle, we have been accustomed to walking on the right-hand side of the aisle.  Walking on the opposite side would be a violation of the surrounding culture’s praktognosia.  This is not done while asking why or how we have come to these kinds of practices, they are just assumed.

Habitus is a “fundamental orientation to the world… embedded in our bodies” (94).  We become part of a “social order or social body… by conscripting my body through the most mundane means: through bodily postures, repeated words, ritualized cadences” (94-95).  In other words, habitus is the social practices arising from a culture that create disciples of that culture.  In our nation, for instance, we stand, place our right hand over our heart, and pledge allegiance to a flag in unison.  Smith notes that habitus implants an orientation to the world in me by means of the practices and habits that are formed through routine.  Ultimately, this shapes the social and individual imagination (think desires) toward a particular orientation to the world.  This orientation is assumed as true and is difficult to recognize in ourselves because it has become such a deep part of us.

I think this has significant implications for how we understand media and technology and its impact on us.  As Smith notes, every form has underlying assumptions about the world and a particular teleological trajectory.  And, if we are truly formed by our practices and bodily postures, then media and technology, along with its various rhythms in our lives, have a tremendous impact on how we perceive the world and live accordingly.  For instance, iphones and computers teach me that power, information, and my desires are all available at the tips of my fingers and from any location (quite often) in the world.  There is little physical or mental exertion to diligently gain knowledge or experience or my desire.  It is there instantly.  If I don’t get it instantly, I become irritated.

Plus, I am instantly and constantly connected with what is happening in my world and with my friends.  Or, so I think.  The internet and its various media create the perception that I am privy to everything of importance happening in the world.  It is a superficial omniscience that I possess through the various technologies at my disposal.  Not to mention, much of the various forms on the internet are specifically advertising and catering to my likes or desires.  As such, I am shaped to believe that the world is centered on me and my whims.  This plays into the rampant individualism and egocentrism of our culture.  As burden of proof, the DSM V has discontinued the diagnosis of narcissism, primarily because it is so prevalent that it is deemed “normal.”  It seems that our technologies have helped shape us to this point.

Also, our technologies have made “efficiency” and speed priorities.  Not only should our desires be met but they should be met instantaneously.  Delays are problematic and discouraged.  This has significant repercussions for worship and discipleship.  We want instantaneous salvation and sanctification.  We want a life of holiness without the difficult disciplines of discipleship!  Worship that extends beyond our attention spans is “boring” and, therefore, deemed less than important or inconvenient.  We want quick fixes to our deepest issues.

This significantly shapes worship and the Christian community.  If I have come to believe the world is centered on me, then I will extend this bodily orientation to worship.  If the music, or speaker, or community does not meet my “needs” or desires, then I can simply search out another church that will fill those desires.  If I disagree or feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled, then I can justify church-hopping because my current church is “incapable” of adequately supplying for my perceived needs.  Of course, the Church (at least in North America) is not totally without blame.  We have re-shaped worship to reflect our technologically-driven, therapeutically-anesthetized lives.  We have tried to make worship entertaining or about self-fulfillment and self-help.  We are getting the kinds of disciples we shape – consumers.

I like Smith’s concept of liturgical practices and the value they hold for the Christian community.  They teach us to “take the right things for granted.”  In other words, the rituals and rhythms are ways by which we are trained to perceive the world differently and thus to inhabit a world differently.  Or, more appropriately, to inhabit a different world altogether.

Part of the way that cultural liturgies shape us is through the narrative and stories that are embodied in those same practices.  For instance, Smith tells a story about a man that regularly attended worship where confession and absolution were part of the natural rhythms of worship every week.  A significant and difficult situation happened with the man’s son getting into trouble with the law.  Upon entering the room where the son was being held, the son wrapped his arms around his dad and said how sorry he was.  Due to worship where he had received pardon for his sins every week, the man’s only “logical” response was to extend the same forgiveness to the son.  The liturgical worship practices embody a story of forgiveness that helps the man to perceive the world in a different way.

Flowing out of Smith’s work, it seems to me that we need to develop an aesthetics of preaching.  I do not discount Smith’s emphasis on things like sacraments.  However, in my tradition preaching plays a large role in worship, which includes its relation to the sacraments.  I think we need to re-think preaching in light of praktognosia and habitus.  Typically, Enlightenment styles of preaching have focused on principles, points, the underlying message, or the theoretical meaning of texts.  It has been primarily concerned with the dissemination of information.  Salvation was conceived as giving people the right information and allowing them to make the “right decision.”

Fred Craddock was one of the first major voices to confront this emphasis on logic and intellect, from which developed the New Homiletic.  This perspective suggests that the words in our preaching are not merely about “what” we say but also about “how” we say it.  This is akin to Smith’s forms, which cannot be separated from content.  In shaping disciples through preaching, it must move beyond intellect and incorporate into the aesthetic, bodily modes of reality which we inhabit.  That’s not to say intellect is unimportant.  But, we recall Smith’s notion that we are about shaping desire not simply decisions.  There is a difference in a sermon that I find logical and one that grips me in my gut.  Both may communicate similar “ideas” but the impact is significantly different.  I think faithful preaching will continue to facilitate discipleship through “(kin)aesthetic” means.  It still holds a significant place in the shaping of imagination for the Church.

What does Detweiler see as the blessing and curses that come with a technological age? What aspects of Detweiler’s critique/wisdom were most helpful for you?

Detweiler has an optimism for the various technologies that we employ on a daily basis.  This is not to be confused with a simplistic naiveté.  Detweiler’s optimism is grounded in the recognition that we are dealing with God’s very good creation.  The various technologies give testimony to humanity’s original purposes given in the Genesis account and typically encapsulated in the imago Dei.  The imago Dei points to God’s character and activity in the world and humanity’s reflection of God’s Triune nature to be embodied in the Creation as God’s representatives.

As such, the various technologies that we create and utilize are in some way reflective of this original call in Creation.  According to Detweiler, Apple was about aesthetics of efficiency.  Amazon demonstrated the abundance of Creation.  Facebook highlighted our relational orientation.  Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram was about social engagement and participation.  Google was about organizing the chaos.  In other words, these technologies mirror the nature of humanity created by God.

However, as with any good thing, it can be twisted toward improper ends.  So, for instance, Amazon’s abundance is quickly denigrated to hoarding, greed, and co-opted by a liturgy of scarcity.  This over-abundance in creation is co-opted by the “myth of scarcity” that creates fear and disregards charity.  What might have been good – sharing God’s abundance with everyone – is twisted by greed.  Thus, Detweiler suggests that these good creations and technologies are easily turned into idols – igods.

Detweiler’s approach to technology was helpful for two reasons.  First, it allowed me to see that technology echoes the cry of human hearts.  The need for beauty, relationships, participation and creation, and bringing order to chaos are reflected in the various technologies that are utilized.  There is a deeper longing that is tangibly expressed in their use.  This can be a good and helpful thing, especially when it comes to exegeting the culture.

Secondly, technology is not inherently bad.  Quite often Christian approaches to technology bemoans the negative impact of these technologies without also appreciating what good might come from them as well.  The problem with our technology usually comes from how we use the technology rather than what technology we are using, as per Detweiler.  This does not mean that technologies are neutral, rather they are “shaping stories,” as per McLuhan.  This goes along quite nicely with James K. A. Smith’s notion of forms in Imagining the Kingdom.  Although I do not always share Detweiler’s opinion, I do appreciate his balanced approach to the topic.

Another aspect that I also found helpful was Detweiler’s insight into the temptation of technology that pushes us to be formed into its image: “insistent (now!), efficient (faster!), and greedy (more!)” (225).  The lure of this image is the temptation and false perception that, through our technologies, we might be “like God.”  It is the perennial temptation of Babel, to “make a name for ourselves.”  Detweiler points to Facebook as a prime example.  Friends become fans, a base which we must grow and expand.  Our technologies then are meant to serve us rather than us serving others.  It can be a subtle, although significant, shift.

The various temptations, to be like gods, is one that constantly faces our congregations.  Technology gives us unprecedented power and an overall sense of independence and self-sufficiency.  So much is at the disposal of our fingertips.  This orientation makes it difficult for us to see a need for God.  If we’re broken, sure there’s something on our iphones that will help us fix it.  Do we have a need?  There’s ample opportunity to fill that need through the internet.  Are we lacking knowledge?  Google it.  This sense of omniscience, omnipotence, and seeming omnipresence grants us god-like powers to create, sustain, and provide for ourselves.  If that is our situation, where is there room or need for God?  Not to mention, the constant entertainment, noise, and distraction closes the necessary space for quiet reflection in which we are enabled to hear God speaking to us!  Discipleship necessarily must take these shaping forces into account and offer “thick” practices that help to counter-shape our communities.

One of the ways I suspect to be helpful is the emphasis of Sabbath.  Sabbath moves us away from efficiency, speed, and the inundation of our attention by our consumeristic proclivities.  Sabbath reminds us to stop, to be re-oriented, to be re-shaped as image bearers of God’s glory in the world.  Sabbath is hardly popular.  In fact, we often brag about our busyness as a sign of our value.  Sabbath undercuts the value systems of our culture and instills value by virtue of our creature-ness.  In other words, we find value in our connection to God our Creator.  Sabbath reminds us of who we are and whose we are.  We disconnect in order to re-connect with God, Creation, and Others.

There has been a general fad to incorporate technology into worship.  There are various reasons for doing so, both good and poor.  However, due to the infiltration and proliferation of technology’s shaping story in the lives of our parishioners, I am hesitant to utilize very much into worship.  As a space of counter-cultural liturgies, our worship spaces should be carefully considered before we haphazardly incorporate technology into our worship.  Because our technology is not neutral, it takes discernment to weigh the benefits and potential pitfalls for the use and endorsement by means of a “Christian” veneer.

Why is Ellul concerned about the humiliation of the Word? What does that even mean for him? What is “technique” for Ellul and how does that impact the current church culture? How do you think Ellul would prescribe a way forward for the church?

Ellul is concerned with the humiliation of the Word for several reasons.  He sees the word as primarily concerned with truth.  Images, which are dominant in our world, are primarily concerned with reality.  Images, in his opinion, cannot be true.  They can only offer a perception of the world, which is not reality but gives the appearances of containing the whole of reality.  As such, images deny words their power and place and rob people of necessary community for discerning truth.  With the proliferation of images, the word and its vitality are diminished and finally discarded.  This is the essence of the Decalogue’s prohibition against images.  They necessarily (due to the fallen nature of the world) become idols.  But, it is the Word that cannot become an idol, allows us to understand truth, and become open to God’s activity in the world.

Technique is difficult to describe because Ellul never fully describes it.  Essentially, technique if about efficacy, efficiency, technology, and utility.  It’s primarily about productivity and its ability to direct people toward whatever end is deemed necessary.  In many respects, technique is about shaping us to the ideology of the image.  In other words, It constructs a world in which we live but can do nothing about because images call for action but do not actually create action.  Instead, images render us merely observers.  It is only the word that can bring about change.

This is where Ellul sees the largest impact in the Church.  Namely, the liturgy and icons have become the primary vehicles for creating meaning within the Church.  These images do not convey truth but the perception of reality.  People are easily and efficiently enculturated through the use of images.  What can only be an eschatological sign (and therefore inappropriate now) is deemed necessary for creating disciples.  At the same time, the Word is diminished in its power and primacy within the Church.  Part of the reason, in Ellul’s thought, that the Church has achieved such a dominant place in society for so long is due to its use of images, which is later rejected for the Reformers.  The image is domineering and tyrannical in that it creates subservience rather than freedom.

It’s difficult to assess where Ellul would forge a way forward.  In many respects, it seems that he would wish to strip churches of ornament, liturgy, and icons.  He would want simple, austere buildings (if any buildings).  He would not allow media technologies to play a part in worship services.  Words would be read, heard, and memorized.  It would require preaching and teaching that used words about the Word.  So, in many respects, it seems Ellul would have a heavy emphasis on Scripture and singing and prayer.

In all honesty, I agree with much of Ellul’s assessment of the dominance of images and how that impacts our epistemologies, our way of knowing and understanding.  There is little doubt that we have been shaped in significant ways by our technologies.  They are not innocent mediums.  But, every medium has its costs.

However, I largely thought Ellul’s theological and Biblical reflection was full of holes.  He begins by talking about the Decalogue’s exclusion of images.  Yet, within only a few chapters Exodus records the building of the Tabernacle, which included a multitude of images.  The Ark of the Covenant later becomes a symbol for God’s presence.  The same is true of the Tabernacle.  The High Priest also become a representative of God to the people and the people to God.  Those are images, albeit not pictures or movies.

Jesus even takes up these images upon himself.  He claims to be the new Temple, which is then extended to the Body of Christ, the Church.  Also, John 1 says that the “Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (my translation).  That which was invisible in the beginning became visible among us.  Not to mention Paul talks about Christ being the “image of the invisible God.”  If truth and reality were truly divided in the Fall, God has already begun to bring these back together in Christ.  And, as “sent ones” we are called to continue this same work.  Perhaps images aren’t as off limits as Ellul would suggest.

To make one more point, the Creation is spoken into being.  Everything in reality has its origin in the Word.  As those created in the imago Dei, we are both spirit (breath) and dust!  To separate truth and reality, word and image, is to create a false dualism and dichotomy.  Nothing is ever so simple as that kind of bifurcation.  Does the image need the Word?  Yes!  But, perhaps words can also benefit from images as well.  After all, doesn’t the writer of Romans not talk about those that have “seen” the Creation are without excuse and have tangible, visible evidence that God is Creator?

Does the Creation contain the totality and mystery of God?  Of course not!  A picture of any human being does not dissolve the inherent mystery of that person, even if the image might suggest that.  That is where we must do constant, careful work as pastors.  Explain the images that we employ.  Don’t use images haphazardly because they’re cool or look great.  Rather, be intentional about teaching and preaching and leading people to “hear” the images of our faith in faithful ways.  Is it not true that the Creative power of the Word is also capable of breathing life and meaning into icons, liturgy, images, and art dedicated to God’s glory?  I hope that is true, otherwise things like the Eucharist would have no meaning beyond mere bread and wine.

What is a “second orality” and what good things are recovered in the shift back to a culture of orality? What do you think Ong’s word of advice would be for the contemporary church culture?

Primary orality is a culture prior to adapting the language to the medium of literacy (i.e. writing, print, etc.).  The wisdom of the ages is passed down through oral communication rather than written communication.  As such, mnemonic devices are utilized in order for the content to be properly passed on to the next generation.  Narratives have this quality about them because they allow for wisdom to be passed on in easily memorized ways.  As such, primary oral cultures tend to be very conservative.  Otherwise, creativity with traditions threatens the loss of wisdom and cultural narrative.

Primary orality also creates unity and community.  As Ong explains, listening to a speaker an audience becomes unified with each other and the speaker.  However, if the audience moves to reading a handout, each person retreats within themselves and becomes isolated from others.  As such, spoken words bring about connection and relationship.  Written words create individuals that have retreated to their interiors.

There is also a significant distinction between language that is written and spoken.  Written words are more analytical, especially because they have the power to recall prior knowledge via texts.  Oral cultures did not have that luxury and are more conservative because of that fact.  They continue to aggregate knowledge rather than dissect it.

Ong makes a distinction between purely oral culture and secondary orality: “… I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by knowledge of writing or print, ‘primary orality’. It is ‘primary’ by contrast with the ‘secondary orality’ of present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print” (11).  Secondary orality is a culture that is recovering or maintains some of the vestiges of primary orality post-literacy.  Post-modernism, in many respects, has helped our culture make this shift, especially with the current dominance of images through media like television.

It seems to me that one of the natural places where a secondary orality has recovered or maintained vestiges of primary oral cultures is through the utilization of narratives.  Granted, the narratives employed today are different, especially in looking at the characters of the story.  Characters today are not flat stereotypes, but contain much complexity.  However, narratives are again taking a place of prominence in discussions about culture.  For instance, narrative preaching has strongly developed within the last thirty years.  Language as a deconstructing tool has also shifted (in some ways) toward using it to construct meaning through narratives.

Also, audio-visual technologies have created a shift that resembles more an oral culture.  Although we often see words through these technologies, there is also a great deal of emphasis on sound for the determination of meaning.  For instance, television creates dialogue between characters that is overheard rather than read.  The sounds create meaning for the audience, which goes beyond the visualization of the term that typifies literature.

It seems to me that Ong might suggest several things in light of a secondary orality.  Ong would likely suggest that we read more Scripture in worship without the aid of written words on a screen or individual Bibles opened up.  Not that this is entirely inappropriate.  But, if writing is geared toward allowing one to forget, then perhaps listening intently and seeking to remember would help us as a community.  Plus, we would not be separated into our individualized worlds through reading.

Preaching would be geared toward the oral/aural event rather than a written manuscript.  Or, at the very least, what is written would be written with speaking in mind.  This would actually create a different style of writing than prose.  One aspect of this would be the use of narrative structures for shaping our conversations, teaching, and preaching.  The congregation would have no need for “fill-the-blanks” sheets for notes because they could more easily recall the stories.

Implementing the creeds and other liturgies through regular practice would create mnemonic devices for the community to recall their faith without the aid of literature.  Perhaps this would mean that we say something together in unison, much as we do the Lord’s Prayer, so that we might commit to heart and memory those words that we deem most important about Christian catholic community and this local congregation.  The liturgy, though it is typically written, could be utilized in such a way that it becomes part of the collective wisdom and memory, rather than words on a page.  The same could be said for songs that the congregation uses.  Rather than changing songs every week, it might be helpful to sing a collection of songs for several weeks so that they become familiar and part of the cultural liturgy.

The way we use language would also change.  Rather than using language merely as a way to analogical dissection of life and the world and all its mystery, we would not violate the boundaries and limits of language by saying more than we ought to say.  We would embrace mystery, which includes silence – for words cannot be heard unless there is space.  Language, dialogue, conversations would remain open for discovery.  For this reason, perhaps Ong would agree with Fred Craddock move in preaching from deductive to inductive methods.

Literature has convinced us that language is meant to be closed (as a book ends, thus the discussion ends).  However, language, like any conversation, does not solve every problem.  Nor does it bring to end language.  Rather, the flexible nature of language always requires that more be said.  As such, the Church would do well to stay open to dialogue so that we might continue learning, growing, and being stretched beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe the greatest things Ong would hope for would involve discipleship.  Unfortunately, our discipleship has been quick, sometimes giving a book for the person to read, with little personal engagement after they have “been saved.”  In looking at Jesus, he spent three years with his disciples teaching them.  Discipleship is more than a transaction of information.  It is a gift of relationship.  This requires the interiority of the spoken word, which only happens in relational dialogue.  As such, discipleship would begin to look more like Jesus’ methods of discipleship, which required time, teaching, and sharing life (community).  Giving a disciple a book to read (with nothing else) essentially says that Christianity is a solitary religion.  That has never been the Christian faith.  Instead, we are created for community, which only comes through the proper use of language shared together.

My friend, Jonathan Platter, wrote a nice piece reflecting on God’s being is love, not simply an attribute of God.

Explorations in Theology

We are shaped by our loves. As James K A Smith has recently put it, “You are what you love.” As we can see from sporting events, our passion and love shapes our habits (gotta set aside time for game night), behavior (if you wereareal fan you would dox,y, andz), appearance (team jerseys or logos), and values (team-building, competitiveness, loyalty, etc). However, we often don’t see just how influential our loves are on our whole life because we think of love as a feeling or as specific actions. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), it’s easy to assume that he just wants us to try to have nicer feelings toward them. Or when we think of loving one’s spouse, it usually entails anemotion as well as some actions,likedoing things your spouse appreciates.

Christian Scripture recognizes that love has an…

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Ash Wednesday Service

Posted: February 10, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews

I. Call to Worship

Tonight is our annual Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday is the start to the Church season of Lent.  Lent is the forty days, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  During Lent, we are invited to share in the 40 years of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and the forty days in which Jesus was tested and tried in the wilderness. Just as the Israelites were prepared and transformed by God in their time in the wilderness to enter into the Promised Land and as Jesus was prepared and trained up by the Spirit in the wilderness for His ministry on earth, we believe that God will be faithful to work in our lives as we set aside these forty days to intentionally create time and space for Him to work.  In the Lenten season, we voluntarily give up things in our lives through fasting- maybe some of us will give up a certain kind of food or give up an activity to spend time in prayer or fast one day a week- but whatever we choose to give up, we give up in order to intentionally make space and time for the Spirit to fill us again.  We say ‘no’ to the things of this world so that we can say ‘yes’ to the things of God. In our busy lives, we have to be very intentional to create space for God.  Lent is a season which gives us opportunity to intentionally give up things in our lives to create space for God to work.  The idea is that Lent is a time of allowing the Spirit to prepare us for Easter.  Because of this time of examination and repentance and consecration, you and I, together, will be prepared to receive our risen Savior with a new joy on Easter morning because we have come face to face with our mortality and again have seen our deep need for a Savior.

Ash Wednesday is a start to our wilderness journey.  It is a service in which we remember the words of Genesis 3:19, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We remember that we are mortal- that our lives will one day end in death.  We are formed by dust and to dust one day we will return.  But, in the midst of recognizing our sinfulness and our mortality, we also recognize our deep need for a Savior.  Tonight, if you choose to, we will receive the imposition of ashes.  These ashes come from burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday service.  The ashes are then mixed with oil, which represents the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we are marked with the sign of the cross with a mixture of ashes and oil- a sign of our mortality and sinfulness mixed with the sign of the Sprit of the Living God.  The symbol of the cross on our foreheads reminds us and all who see it of the words of Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Lent is a season of again recognizing that apart from the grace of God, we would be hopeless.  We would be heading for death with no hope of life or a future.  But, because of the grace shown to us by God through Christ Jesus our Lord, we are given new life in Him.

May we enter into this season of Lent, expecting God to do great things.  As we humble ourselves through confession and repentance, as we give up things in our lives in order to make space for God to work in and through us, let us give God free reign.  Let us surrender ourselves to the Spirit and the work of grace that the Spirit would like to do in and for us.

II. Response Scripture Reading: Psalm 103:8-18

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. The Lord remembers we are but dust.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; The Lord remembers we are but dust.

As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions form us. The Lord remembers we are but dust.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. The Lord remembers we are but dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. The Lord remembers we are but dust.

But the steadfast love of the LORD is form everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The Lord remembers we are but dust.

III. “Open the Eyes of My Heart”

IV. Response Reading: Psalm 51

Have mercy on me O God in your great kindness; in the fullness of your mercy blot out my offenses. Wash away all my guilt; and cleanse me from my sin.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.

For I acknowledge my faults; and my sin is always before me. Against you only have I sinned and done evil in your sight.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence; do not take your holy spirit from me.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Give me the joy of your help again; and strengthen me with a willing spirit. O Lord open my lips; and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.

V. “Change My Heart O God” 

VI. “Give Us Clean Hands”

VII. Romans 12:1-21

VIII. “Heap Coals on Their Head”

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

IX. Litany of Penitence

We have not loved you with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven. Lord have mercy.

We have been deaf to your call to serve. We have been unfaithful, proud, hypocritical. Lord have mercy.

We have been self-centered, and have taken advantage of others. Lord have mercy.

We have been envious of those more fortunate than ourselves. Lord have mercy.

We have loved worldly goods and comforts too much. We have been dishonest in daily life and work. Lord have mercy. 

We have neglected prayer and worship, and have failed to commend the faith that is in us. Lord have mercy.

We have been blind to human need and suffering, and indifferent to injustice and cruelty. Lord have mercy.

We have thought uncharitably about others, and we have been prejudiced towards those who differ from us. Lord have mercy.

We have wasted and polluted your creation, and lacked concern for those who come after us. Lord have mercy.

Merciful God, we have sinned in what we have thought and said, in the wrong we have done and in the good we have not done. We have sinned in ignorance; we have sinned in weakness; we have sinned through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry. We repent and turn to you. Forgive us, for our Savior Christ’s sake, and renew our lives to the glory of your name. Amen.

X. “Lord Have Mercy”

XI. Prayer and Silent Reflection

XII. Imposition of Ashes

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Turn now from your sins and cling to the cross of Christ.”

Pray: “Grant, (Name/Us/Me), true repentance and consecration, the blessing of your Holy Spirit abiding within, and the holiness without which no person will see the Lord. Make these days of Lenten journey ones of spiritual renewal and deepening, so the (Name/Us/Me) may celebrate the newness of Easter.”

XIII. Sending

O God, Maker of every thing and judge of all that you have made,

From the dust of the earth You have formed us

And from the dust of death you would raise us up.

By the redemptive power of the cross,

Create in us clean hearts

And put within us a new spirit,

That we may repent of our sins

And lead lives worthy of your calling;

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.