John van de Laar

Author's details

Name: John van de Laar
Date registered: March 14, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Sacredise: God’s Call to Take Stock — October 31, 2014
  2. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Crossing Fingers — October 29, 2014
  3. Sacredise: No Excuses — October 27, 2014
  4. Sacredise: Saying No to God — October 24, 2014
  5. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Love — October 22, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Sacredise: What Good Is Faith? — 2 comments
  2. Sacredise: Rev. Dr. Ross Olivier — 2 comments
  3. Sacredise: Welcome Palestine — 1 comment
  4. Sacredise: A Story of Life — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Oct 31 2014

Sacredise: God’s Call to Take Stock

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stocktakeHave you ever found yourself in the middle of a conversation when you suddenly felt the need to stop everything and say, “What were we talking about, again?” While this may not happen when we’re just talking about trivial things, it needs to happen often when we’re dealing with deep issues. It’s easy, as conversation ebbs and flows, for us to lose track of what has been said, and of the places where we have agreed and disagreed. But, when we allow ourselves to stop for a moment, and take stock of the ground we’ve covered, we can ensure that we gain the greatest benefit from our interactions. Then, once everything has been clarified and everyone is back on the same page, the conversation can proceed with greater effectiveness. Some people are particularly good at performing this “summarising” role, an, in conversation, we can refer to them as the Collating Voice.

When we think about the Collating Voice in terms of our reflection on Worship as Conversation  it may be helpful to note that the Scriptures are filled with moments where God does such “stocktaking” with God’s people. When Israel was first liberated from slavery, God called the people to gather at Mount Sinai, and God began a conversation about how they were to live as a free people. Forty years later, when they were about to enter their new homeland, Moses gathered the people again and reviewed all that God had said to them, and all that they had experienced. It was a moment of divine stocktaking before the people began a new phase in their national life together. Through the centuries that followed, there were a number of times that God’s people were called together to hear, again, the reading of the Book of the Law and to assess how they were doing against it.

In the New Testament we see a similar pattern at work. All the Gospels contain moments when the teachings of Jesus are collated into large chunks that give an overview of Jesus’ message – The Sermon on the Mount is one example, the Last Supper discourse in John 13-17 is another, and Luke’s reference to the forty days of teaching between the resurrection and ascension is another. It’s like the Gospel writers knew that, in our conversation with God, we need moments to take stock of how we are doing.

In our worship it is important to allow times for such stocktaking. The Church Calendar provides opportunities for us to reflect on God’s message so that we can hold ourselves accountable. One such moment is when we move from the first half of the year (the “festival” season) into Ordinary Time. Having journeyed through the life of Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the acknowledgement of God as Trinity, we may want to pause and reflect for a moment on what we have heard God say. The final Sunday of the year – Christ the King Sunday (just before Advent Sunday) – is another such moment, inviting us to evaluate how the previous few months have brought us under the Reign of Christ.

But, it is also necessary that we create space each week for such collating moments. It can be very helpful when we take time to remember what has happened in the last few weeks of our worship, and to get a sense of where we’re going. It can be helpful to pause after significant moments in our services to allow the message of our prayers, hymns and rituals to sink in. This means that we need to be careful not to rush through worship too quickly, or to fill every moment with words and activity.

If we take our conversation with God seriously, we will do well to create moments – both personally and collectively – to stop, take stock and evaluate what we’re hearing from God. Only then can we move forward confident that we are still hearing the guidance of the still, small voice.

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Oct 29 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Crossing Fingers

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When I was at school, if a friend asked you to make a promise that you didn’t want to make, but you wanted them to think you had, you crossed your fingers behind your back (yes, we were scheming little brats!). It was commonly accepted that the crossing of the fingers voided the pretend promise. So if you wanted to be safe, you made sure you could see your friend’s hands, with fingers spread out wide to show they weren’t crossed, as the promise was made.

In the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary this week, Jesus instructed his listeners to listen to what the Pharisees taught and to obey all their laws, but not to do what they did. The Pharisees, it seems, were classic finger crossers. They said one thing, but did something completely different. They proclaimed one set of values and beliefs, but they lived by another.

Whether we are following this particular reading in our services this week or not, this passage offers a good principle for worship, which is simply this: don’t cross your fingers in worship. I have heard it said that faith is “believing something when you know it isn’t true.” This is a finger-crossing kind of faith, in which we go to worship, sing our songs, pray our prayers, say our creeds, read our scriptures, but keep our fingers crossed behind our backs the whole time. It’s not that we want to be deliberately dishonest. It’s that we have too often experienced the church as a place where our questions are unwelcome, where faith is separate from reason, and where we are expected to go along with the religious flow, regardless of what we might actually think or believe.

But, what if that defeats the whole point of our worship? What if we have become so concerned about ensuring that we are doctrinally pure that we have created a kind of religious schizophrenia in our souls? What if our fear of being different, of being rejected, or of being labelled as heretics has built a wall between us and God?

Imagine if our worship gatherings were places where we could be real and honest, where we felt no need to cross our fingers. Imagine if we were invited to engage our brains as well as our hearts? Imagine if we learned to speak the creeds as they were intended – not as scientific formulae, but as symbolic invitations into the Mystery of God.

I have come to believe that it is an act of deep pastoral care and compassion to consider very carefully the words that I will expect people to say and sing in worship. I have come to believe that it is my job never to coerce anyone into saying or doing anything in worship that will violate their own integrity. So, I try to phrase my words of guidance as invitations and as questions. I always try to invite people to opt out of any part of the worship they don’t feel honest about. And I try to ensure that, when people find particular aspects of faith difficult to accept or understand, they know that their questions are welcome and celebrated. I also try to ensure that, in my leadership of worship, I don’t do or say anything that I cannot engage in with complete integrity. I don’t always get it right – I’m still learning. But, these thoughts have become increasingly important in my own practice as a worshipper and as a liturgist.

So, let me ask you this: do you ever cross your fingers in worship? If so, what would it take for you to go to worship this week with your hands visible and your fingers uncrossed? And, if you’re a worship planner or leader, how can you prepare and facilitate worship this week so that those who attend can do so without feeling the need to cross their fingers?

If you’re looking for resources for worship this week, check out the Lectionary Worship Resources blog. And if you want to explore what it might mean to have a reasonable faith, check out our sermon series on the Sea Point Methodist Church website (look for the icon and links to the various weeks of “A Reasonable Faith”).


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Oct 27 2014

Sacredise: No Excuses

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I think we over complicate love.

The entire law is summed up in this one word, according to Jesus in yesterday’s Lectionary reading  Love - for God and for neighbour. That’s it. That’s all we are required to do as followers of Jesus.

Do I hear a “but” coming? I’ve heard it many times before. I’ve said it many times  before. Love the sinner, yes…but, hate the sin. Except that it’s very hard to love someone when we’re working so hard to hate what they do. If we really loved them, we would probably never get as far as working out whether we hate the sin or not, because that would distract us from loving.

Or, we might say, “I do love them…but, I don’t have to like them.” Except that it’s very hard to love someone when we’re trying to make excuses for our opinion about them. Whether we like someone or not is irrelevant to the question of love. So why bring it up?

Or, we might say, “I can love them…but, love isn’t enough.” I’ve heard this one expressed in terms of “…you have to actually do something.” In which case I ask what we mean by love in the first place. If it’s not being expressed in action, it’s not love. I’ve also heard it expressed in terms of “…they also have to believe” or “…they have to change” or “…they aren’t saved.” All of which implies that others have to do something to qualify for love before we are required to give it to them – which I never hear Jesus saying. Instead I hear about Jesus loving us before we loved him, of Jesus loving us when we didn’t deserve it, of Jesus calling us to love even our enemies.

All of our excuses are nothing but unnecessary complications. Love is simply this: acting in the other person’s best interest. No matter who they are or what they’ve done, we seek to contribute to their wholeness and well-being. And, not surprisingly for a God of love, in the Bible the call to act lovingly toward God is usually about loving those whom God loves. Which is everyone.

I wonder if, as you read this, you were tempted to make excuses for your lack of love. I was tempted even as I wrote it. We are good at listing extenuating circumstances and provisos. But, if we claim to follow Jesus, we have to see how he lived out what he preached. He loved by forgiving his executioners even as his blood dripped at their feet. He loved by washing the feet of the one he knew would betray him. He loved by touching the untouchable, befriending the friendless, getting unclean with the unclean, and partying with the sinners.

So, what’s your excuse? Isn’t it time to let it go and just do it?

Love God. Love your neighbours. That’s it.

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Oct 24 2014

Sacredise: Saying No to God

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The first word one of my children learned to say was, “No!” – usually with his finger pointed strongly in the direction of the person to whom he was speaking. As parents, in spite of the frustration these finger-pointing negations sometimes caused, we celebrated his ability to speak his own truth to power (us). He was learning to be his own person, to make up his own mind, and to set his own boundaries – all of which are important skills in navigating the world.

Isn’t it strange, then, that God is so often protrayed as the kind of parent who will allow no such defiance, no such identity-defining negation, no setting of boundaries? Isn’t it strange that we, who value boundaries, identity and embracing our own truth, would so easily believe that God would require us to relinquish them?

Which brings us back to the “Worship as a Conversation” discussion. Last week we explored what it might mean to open ourselves to God’s Contrary Voice – God’s “No!” This week we need to consider what it might mean for us to say “No!” to God. If we really believe that God is a loving parent, then we should also believe that God seeks for us to grow into maturity in our relationship with God. Leaving aside for the moment, the paradox that spiritual maturity is to become more childlike, God’s call for us to be mature must include a desire for us to learn to know our own minds, to be willing to express our truth to God (even when it goes against what we believe God has said), and to establish appropriate boundaries in our faith that help us to become more while and integrated as human beings. What a thought!

But, how could contraditcing God ever help us to be come mature? Surely, any identity that is established through opposition to God must be broken and destructive? Well, the Bible doesn’t seem to think so. The pages of the Scriptures are full of stories of those who expressed a strong “No!” to God – who debated with God, challenged God, and questioned God’s justice and love. This sense of contradiction, in the Bible, is seen as a mark of those whom God calls to leadership, those who best reflect God’s purposes and nature, and of those who most effectively serve others through intercession and activism. So, there is a strong tradition of pointing fingers and shaking fists at God as part of a healthy, mature relationship with God.

What might this mean for our worship? I believe it means that we need to grow up a bit, and become more comfortable with embracing this contrariness in our gatherings. I believe it means that we need to stop pretending that we’re ok with everything, stop pretending that we trust that God always does what’s best, and stop pretending that we’re always “happy in Jesus” because we just “trust and obey”.

Perhaps the primary spiritual practice that enables us to express a Contrary Voice to God is lament. Lament is not confession. It is not grieving over something we have done wrong. Lament is expressing our grief over what we consider to be a failure on God’s part. Lament is questioning God, wrestling with God, and calling on God to step and do what God promised. It is always expressed in the context of ultimte faith, but it does not pull punches or pretend that we’re fine with whatever God chooses to do.

I wonder what ti might be like if we intentionally and creatively included lament in our worship more often? I wonder how different we might be as Christ followers if we were taught more purposefully to speak our “No!” to God? I wonder how much more compassionate, gracious, serving, and healing our presence in the world would be if we knew in our hearts that part of our calling was to express the doubt, fear, anger, and grief at God on behalf of our world?

After all, if God is truly God, God will not be threatened by our “No!” but will celebrate the maturity and strength that it reveals – like any other proud parent.

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Oct 22 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Love

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A few years ago I experienced an unsettling visit to a fairly large church building in which a few scattered people had gathered for worship. What disturbed me was not the small number of worshippers. It was that they all sat as far away from each other as possible. I found myself wondering what impression this would have on any visitors that might decide to give the church a try on any given Sunday. I was pretty sure that however much the people might speak of love, the wide empty spaces between them would speak louder than their words.

Which brings me to the Lectionary readings for this Sunday. Whether your church is following the Lectionary or not, the challenge of the Great Commandment (the Gospel reading from Matthew) applies not just to what we say or sing in our churches, but how we behave. In Matthew’s verison of the Great Commandment Jesus brings together two elements. The first is the well-known answer to the question of which commandment is the greatest, which essentially amounts to love God and love people with everything you’ve got. This call to love, Jesus, declares, summarises the entire Bible – which makes it the only commandment we have been given as Christ-followers. When Jesus goes on to declare that the Messiah (obviously referring to himself) is greater than David, he intends to make it clear that he has all the necessary authority to state what the essential message of the Scriptures is. There can, therefore, be no question about Jesus’ assessment of what the greatest commandment actually is.

We sing and proclaim this truth in churches all across the world pretty much every Sunday. Yet in almost every church I’ve been to, if there is space for us to leave gaps between us, we make full use of it. We often gather, go through the service and then disappear as quickly as possible, speaking to as few people as we can as we rush to get home. And, even if we sit close to one another in our local church, and spend time having tea after the service, most churches are known for the way they badmouth other churches. I’m not pointing fingers – I’m as guilty as the next person.

But, if our worship is about loving God AND loving people (and the New Testament makes it clear, again and again, that these two loves are really one – they are inseperable) then we have to recognise that our failure to ACT lovingly speaks far louder than our music, our prayers and our sermons.

I’m not saying loving in action is easy. It’s not. There are people in every church who really offend and hurt us. There are things that other Christians or churches do that make us hide our faces in embarrassment. But, if our first calling is to love, then surely the place of worship is the first place we should be practicing how to love. Which means we try and fail and try again until we slowly, haltingly, get better at it.

And maybe a good place to start is simply by sitting close enough to each other that it doesn’t look like we all smell bad. Maybe a good place to start is to actually show some real feeling when we greet each other or pass the peace. Maybe a good place to start is to make a commitment to go easy on the negativity about other people or other churches – at least until we’ve followed the other thing Jesus said, which is to go to those with whom you have a problem first and try to work it out.

So, as we gather for worship this week, perhaps we can make this question part of our preparation: How will I let my commitment to obey Jesus’ command to love be seen in my actions during and after the worship service? After all, there may just be someone visiting who needs to see that you really do believe what you sing so loudly.

And if you’re looking for further reflecitons and resources for worship this week, check out this post on my bog  and this one on the Lectionary Worship Resources blog.

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Oct 20 2014

Sacredise: Allegiances

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There is a beautiful, poetic symmetry in the synoptic Gospels as they describe Jesus’ ministry. At the beginning Jesus faces three famous tests by the adversary, and at the end he faces three great challenges by the religious leaders. There is a strong resonance between the temptations in the wilderness and the traps set by Jesus’ opponents. And, of course, there is the wisdom and strength with which Jesus resists both the temptations and the tricks.

If you heard the Gospel reading from the Lectionary read yesterday in worship, you would have reflected on one of the three tests from the religious leaders – the one where they ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is a loaded question since, with Israel as an occupied nation, the issue of paying taxes had not just economic implications but political ones as well. If Jesus denounced paying taxes to Caesar as wrong, then he could be accused of stirring a revoution against Rome, and he could be put to death for treason (as others before him had been). But, if he supported paying taxes, he could be accused of being a traitor to God’s people (much like the tax collectors to whom such tax would be paid) and a blasphemer for claiming to speak for God. Either way, it was a neat trap that the religious leaders thought would finish Jesus.

However, Jesus approached the question from a characteristically surprising angle, and turned the trap around. He drove the issue into the heart and raised the question of devotion. Caesar may require taxes – it was Caesar’s currency after all – but God required a far greater sacrifice – the offering of our whole selves.

The genius in Jesus’ response is in his request that someone give him one of the coins used to pay the tax. This revealed two things – first, that Jesus did not himself carry such coins, and second, that the Pharisees did. The coins were hated by the Jews because they carried an image of Caesar (graven images were forbidden by the law) and they carried an inscription claiming Caesar to be divine (also a blasphemy). So, by revealing that he did not posses one of Caesar’s coins, Jesus revealed that he had no devotion for Caesar. But, in contrast, by revealing that the Pahrisees did have one of Caesar’s coins, Jesus revealed that they were already in Caesar’s camp. They were idolaters and hypocrites who had compromised their allegiance to God. I like to imagine that there was a gasp from the crowd when the Pharisees easily pulled one of Caesar’s coins from their money pouch, and that Jesus took it between the edge of two fingers with a look of great distaste on his face to echo the expected revulsion for this idolatrous coinage that the crowd would have felt. Before he said another word, the trap had already been rendered useless – but Jesus had not incriminated himself in any way!

So, when Jesus said they should give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar he was suggesting that idolatry and hypocrisy were fitting not for God’s Reign, but for Caesar’s Empire. Whereas what belonged to God was complete, undiluted allegiance. It’s a little like his earlier saying that no one can serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Which, of course, raises the question for us of where our allegiances lie. When the values of God’s Reign call us to simplicity, not the accumulation of wealth, do we embrace simplicity as an act of allegiance to God’s Reign? Or do we excuse our materialism by calling it God’s blessing? When the values of God’s Reign call us to service and self-giving, not the quest for power and self-protection, do we embrace servanthood and selflessness as acts of allegiance to God’s Reign? Or do we excuse our quest for power and privilege as our “right” as followers of Jesus?

But, if we follow the story through – as the Gospel will in the next couple of weeks – we will discover that what really belongs to God is simply this – the love of our hearts, souls, minds and strength. And, the commitment to love our neighbours – the God-imaged, God-beloved people around us – even as we love ourselves.

If all we did, as followers of Jesus, was give to God what belongs to God, our world would be a very different place indeed. Perhaps you’d like to try it this week?

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