John van de Laar

Author's details

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

Latest posts

  1. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – God’s Hide-And-Seek Reign — July 23, 2014
  2. Sacredise: Leaving Judgement Behind — July 21, 2014
  3. Sacredise: Why Your Worship May Not Be Helping You — July 18, 2014
  4. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – The Wheat & The Weeds — July 16, 2014
  5. Sacredise: Preparing the Soil — July 14, 2014

Most commented posts

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

Author's posts listings

Jul 23 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – God’s Hide-And-Seek Reign

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In a world where bigger is better, and louder gets more attention, the Gospel reading in this week’s Lectionary is very challenging. It offers a series of parables that describe what God’s Reign is like: the tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree big enough to provide a home for birds; the yeast which works its way through an entire bushel of wheat flour; the hidden treasure for which the finder is willing to give everything; the rare pearl for which the merchant sells all his (or her) wealth. All of these parables highlight the radically subversive and hidden Reign of God. Where human systems of power, wealth and personal gratification are obsessed with more, bigger, better and louder, God’s Reign works through less, smaller, more ordinary, and quieter. Yet, the impact of God’s Reign is far more creative and healing than anything our human politics, economics, or religion can muster.

These parables are then followed up by two others that seem a little out of place. The first is the parable of the fishing net, which uses another very ordinary activity to describe the workings of God’s Reign. As the soil in the parable of the sower from a couple of weeks back “captures” the seed, so the net captures the fish. Similarly God’s Reign seeks to capture us. But, we are still required to choose a response. The soil does not always provide a place for the seed to grow, and not all the fish are good. Similarly, we will need to choose whether we will live as those who are captured by God’s Reign, or who allow ourselves to be consumed by the fires of our own greed, addiction, and ego-driven need for applause.

Finally, Jesus gives us one last parable – the mysterious chest from which both old and new treasures are drawn. Here, it seems, Jesus is challenging his hearers to recognise that God’s Reign is both ancient – an expression of the dream of the prophets and the law-givers of times past – and brand new – a radically different way of being from that which human society has embraced since, at least, the dawn of agriculture. This is not change for the sake of change, and nor is it a reactionary clinging to the past for fear of change. God’s Reign brings radical and sweeping changes to our world, but it is not a trend or a fashion. It is a whole new order which can lead the world into vibrant and abundant life.

In the light of this the Story of this week’s worship is the story of God’s Reign – God’s dream for our world. It’s a dream in which we release our need to be “special”, our obsession with celebrity and with more, and discover the life, the abundance and the joy in  the simple, the ordinary, the small. If we can enter worship this week with some memory of an ordinary moment that was filled with joy, healing and/or God’s presence, we will be connecting with the story Jesus is trying to tell.

Out of this story (or stories) we are offered a different Language from that which fills the conversations in our society. Instead of the language of power, or of wealth, or of fame, or of size, we are offered words of smallness, quiet, and hiddenness. Yet, we are also given the language of joy, of finding what we long for, of dreams fulfilled and life made meaningful. There is also the language of choice, and the language of joining an ancient movement that is new in every generation. Whatever words we choose, we will do well to speak simply and gently in our worship this week, and to avoid the language of extravagance and excess.

The Symbols of this week’s worship are very clear – the parables are full of wonderful images, metaphors and symbols that could all become icons for our meditation. We will probably need to be careful not to try and use too many, or become too complex in our imagery. However any symbol that speaks of the small (like the seed or the yeast), the hidden (like the treasure or the pearl), or the ordinary (like the net or the chest) could be helpful this week.

Finally, as we seek to engage with the message of the Scriptures through Ritual, there are also a number of wonderful opportunities.

  • If you have children in your service, you may want to include a game of hide-and-seek (don’t forget to include the grown-ups!) as a way to experience and explain God’s Reign for ourselves.
  • We could receive a seed which we can either take home and place on display to remind us of the small, hidden Reign of God, or we could plant it and watch it grow, even as God’s Reign is doing throughout the world.
  • If our facility allows it – or as a response to the worship when we get home – we could bake brad, remembering the work of the yeast which causes it to rise.
  • Or we could have chests on display in our worship spaces and place our gifts into them as a sign of offering ourselves to be signs of God’s Reign – God’s treasure – to the world.
  • Alternatively, we could place Scriptures or other small “treasures” in the chests and invite people to receive them and take them home as a reminder of the ancient-future Reign of God.

There is certainly no reason for our worship to lack creativity and richness this week! For further reflection this blog post - The Hidden Kingdom (which is based on Mark’s version of some of the same parables) – may stimulate further thinking. In addition, this week’s Lectionary Worship Resources blog post has additional reflections, prayers, hymns, liturgy, and video suggestions.

What other ideas do you have for worship this week? Are you planning to focus on one of the other readings than the Gospel? Please add any thoughts or ideas to the comments. And let’s have fun as we prepare, facilitate and participate in worship this week.

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Jul 21 2014

Sacredise: Leaving Judgement Behind

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If your worship was based on the Gospel reading for this week’s Revised Common Lectionary, you would have been challenged by Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13. I’ve explored the meaning of this parable already (here and here), but now, as we seek to live out what we experienced in worship yesterday, I want to ask what this parable means for you. Here are some quesitons I’m wrestling with this week:

  • If Jesus calls us to accept that, in this world, wheat and weeds must grow alongside one another, and that we can’t really know the difference, how will this change the way I interact with other people, and how I view the world with all its struggles?
  • If Jesus asks us to leave judgement to God, and trust that God’s Reign is at work – and unhindered by the weeds that may seek to get in its way – how will I work to avoid making judgements about others, or about situations, or even about myself? How can I trust that God’s purpose is able to work out in my life and my world, even though I may not be able to see it?
  • And if Jesus does promise a time when evil is dealt with in God’s way (whatever way that may be), how can I allow this promise to inspire and strengthen my hope and faithfulness even in the darkest times?

The news has been full of shocking and horrible events in the last while. There is lots of reason to lose hope, to make snap judgements, and to turn away from our commitment to the small, hidden acts of kindness and life-giving that Jesus calls us to. But, if we can trust that, however spoiled God’s wheat field of the world may seem, God still has hope for it and God continues to nurture and care for it, maybe we can resist the cynicism and negativity, the alarmism and the line-drawing, that separate us, lead us into despair, and leave us with little faith, hope or love. Maybe, if we can believe this parable, even a little bit, we can find ways to focus on the wheat and leave the weeds to God.

As 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.”

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Jul 18 2014

Sacredise: Why Your Worship May Not Be Helping You

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As I reflect on my practice of preparing and leading worship, and participating in worship gatherings myself, I am often struck by two potential problems in the way our worship services have evolved over time.

  1. It often seems to me like we worship in a way that resembles very young children. What I mean is that, at the earliest stages of development, children don’t really play with one another. Rather, they play alongside each other – in the same space, and even using the same toys, but completely univolved in each other’s play. Sometimes it seems that, when we gather in church, we worship alongside each other, not with each other. We are not really a community in which we each seek to encourage and inspire those around us in worship. Rather we are encouraged to “forget about everyone else” and just focus on Jesus. This is not a biblically, or theologically, sound way to engage in worship, in my view.
  2. It seems that worship has become a weekly activity, removed from the routines of our lives. The way we speak about worship often sounds rather escapist to me, and the practice of worship seems to be experienced as an optional extra for those who may need a “touch from God” or a new “filling by the Spirit.” There is little sense that what we do in church is essential, rather than optional, or that it has any connection with our personal spiritual practice (if we have any) or with what goes on in our homes, our workplaces, our places of learning, or our places of leisure.

This is why I have become increasingly convinced that the Sunday congregational gathering is only one part of a three-tiered practice of worship, that, when practiced well, connects our worship with our lives and leads us into a regular and consistent spiritual practice that can actually bring about the kind of transformation that we Christians like to talk about. Ideally all three tiers should be based in the same journey from a biblical and thematic point of view, and they should all inform each other. Today I wil simply list the three tiers, but in the next few weeks I will spend some time speaking in more detail about the importance of each tier and how they work together to create a healthy and transforming spiritual life for us as individuals and as communities.

So, what are the three tiers of worship? Quite simply:

  1. The Congregation – Sunday worship gatherings.
  2. Small Groups – Cells, Bible Studies or Fellowship Groups.
  3. Personal Worship – The daily personal time of prayer or devotion (like that which is guided by my Daily Worship guides) that, in my youth, we called a “Quiet Time”.

How do you experience these three tiers of worship in your own life? How do the three different expressions of worship connect in your own spiritual journey – or are they completely separate and unrelated experiences? Does it change anything to see these three tiers as part of one whole, rather than as separate activities?

I’d love to hear your responses, and if you’re looking for a good resource to explore why it’s good to be part of a community, which you can study in all three tiers, check out my book Learning to Belong.

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Jul 16 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – The Wheat & The Weeds

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All is not always as it seems. And much as we would love to be able to know with certainty where the people we meet and interact with stand with regard to good and evil, we can’t. The truth is, we can’t always know where we ourselves stand on the goodness or badness of our own hearts, actions, or attitudes. How often don’t we follow a course of action that we think is right, only to discover later that we were tragically wrong – sometimes with destructive consequences for others or for ourselves. And this is one of the essential messages of the Gospel reading for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – the parable fo the wheat and the weeds.

There are a number of ways this story can be told. The thoughts above are one possibility, but there are others. The parable speaks of the hope that God will ultimately sort things out and deal with evil one way or another. It reveals that we are unable to judge others (or ourselves) accurately, and sow e should leave whatever necessary judgement there may be to God. But, whatever angle we may take, the story of this week’s readings is one of humility and the willingness to recognise that we are all a complex mix of creativity and destruction, helpfulness and harmfulness, light and darkness, wisdom and foolishness, good and evil.

It may be good to remember that the words we use are also ambivalent. This week, the Gospel includes the language of judgement, of fire and of the destruction of the evil people. However, to take words that form part of a parable – even the explanation of a parable -literally, is never wise. It’s always important to remember the mysterious, metaphorical, and deliberately tricky, way that Jesus used parables in his teaching. For this reason, it is probably wise to ensure that there is a strong dose of humility and openness in our words.

The symbols, metaphors and images of this parable are very strong, and there may well be no need for any others. Wheat and weeds are evocative terms for us – although even here, it may be good to remember that weeds can sometimes be defined as helpful plants that are growing in the wrong place. It is also good to remember that, in the parable, the “bad guy” is not the weeds, but the enemy who planted them. Again, these images are not to be taken literally, but can be helpful in exploring how God’s Reign confronts the bad, and encourages the good, within each of us.

As we gather for worship it may be helpful to engage with this parable through some sort of ritual that challenges us to confront the “weeds” in our own hearts, while celebrating the “wheat”. One possibility would be to have two stations to which people could go for prayer or meditation – one with weeds and one with wheat or flowering plants. Then people could be encouraged to spend time in silent confession and petition as they acknowledged what they feel are the weeds in their own hearts, and then to celebrate and give thanks for what they consider to be the wheat. Alternatively, to allow for the openness to recognise that we don’t always know wheat from weeds, we could engage in a ritual of letting go, in which we open our hands and release our addiction to judging ourselves and others.

These are just a few thoughts to spur some creativity and thinking as you prepare for worship on Sunday. Please feel free to add your own ideas and thoughts. Also, check out a more in-depth reflection on this gospel reading in this blog post – Holding on to Hope. For more resources for worship, check out this post on the Lectionary Worship Resources Blog.

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Jul 14 2014

Sacredise: Preparing the Soil

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The parable of the Sower, which you may have heard in worship yesterday, is sometimes referred to as the parable of the soil. This is a fitting description – the point of the parable is the different environments into which the seed is sown, after all. This parable is among the few that are actually explained in the Gospels. The explanation that Jesus gives offers four different environments into which God’s word – which in this case refers to Jesus’ message about God’s Reign – is sown:

  1. Footpath – Those who don’t understand the message and therefore are unable to have it settle into their hearts and lives. It is “snatched away”.
  2. Rocky soil – Those who at first receive the message with joy, but fall away when things get tough.
  3. Thorns – Those who hear God’s word, but the noise of fear, responsibility and the “bright shiny objects” of the world crowd it out.
  4. Good soil – Those who hear, and understand (which clearly means it becomes part of their values, priorities and way fo being), and produce a harvest which is way beyond what is expected.

We are all a mixture of these four soils. As a friend pointed out, God never stops sowing the seed – God’s message is constantly seeking entry into our hearts and lives. The message which this parable refers to is not about going to heaven after we die. It’s about how we live here and now. It’s about embracing the alternative values of God’s Reign – values of sharing power, connecting with others, being generous, keeping our needs and desires simple, and being willing to give of ourselves for the sake of the common good.

Sometimes the message of Jesus just doesn’t make sense to us. We are so indoctrinated by the capitalistic, consumeristic, materialistic, individualistic, and nationalistic propaganda of our society that the message of God’s Reign doesn’t compute. When this happens we either reject it altogether, or we reinterpret it to fit with what we already know, which allows us to keep living as we always have while claiming that we are following Jesus (think of the prosperity movement, as an example). When we respond like this – and we all do at times – we are like the soil on the footpath, and the seed of Christ’s message fails to grow.

Sometimes we get excited about Jesus’ message, but the moment we bump our heads against the real cost – to our prestige, our comfort, our sense of belonging in our society or community, or our physical well-being – we turn away from it. We may not even realise we’re doing this. We may continue to worship. We may even speak the language of justice, mercy, grace, inclusivity and love. But, we have lost our devotion to living a truly alternative, God’s Reign inspired, life. We all have these rocky soil moments.

Sometimes it’s just that the hard work of making ends meet, caring for the kids and fulfilling our responsibilities at work and church and home are too al-consuming. There is no space left to consider the challenge of the Gospel, or to do the tough work of aligning the way we live with the values and priorities of Jesus. We are thorny soil, and the thorns of our cares and responsibilities choke Jesus’ message.

But, we all have areas in our lives where the way of Jesus can take root. There are places of good soil where we really do hear and understand what Jesus asks of us, and we have both the capacity and the will to embrace it and live it out. And, in these places in our lives, we do bear fruit – often beyond our wildest expectations. We leave a mark of joy and wholeness on thre world that does make a difference.

It’s easy to beat ourselves up for all the ways we are bad soil. But, when we do this we ignore the good soil that is within us. And here’s the miracle. As we nurture where the good already is, it expands. It’s good, of course, to work on clearing the bad soil and working to make it fertile and productive again.  But, if we neglect the good, we may find that we end up with a heart that is like a fallow field – lots of soil, but nothing growing in it. But, when we nurture the good, and allow it to produce a harvest, we find that it expands, and the good soil begins to overflow into the areas which before were unfertile.

So, how can you nurture the good soil in your heart this week?

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Jul 11 2014

Sacredise: Top 20 Worship Songs for 2014

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While I’m always a little ambivalent about top anything lists when it comes to worship – worship is, or should be, the least competitive environment we could ever know – it can be interesting to explore the Top 20 Worship Songs list from I say interesting, because it does offer some insight into popular trends in contemporary worship music, and also into the theological themes that are prevalent in the worship of many churches at this time. It’s like a small snapshot of the current state of the Western, contemporary church.

I am very aware that the Top 20 songs on Worship Leader leave out much of the music that influences most of the global church. All of these songs come out of the USA, the UK and Australia, and so you won’t find any insight into indigenous worship music in the countries of Africa, Asia or South America. Nor will you find any helpful information with regard to what is being done in what we could call traditional styles of music. And, since the focus is on music, there is no insight into other elements of our worship services that influence the church. So, this Top 20 list is limited in what it can reveal. However, thanks to the huge marketing machine behind contemporary western worship music, these songs will have at least some influence in cultures across the globe – for better or worse. For that reason, I think it may be helpful to reflect on what these songs may have to tell us.

To begin with, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprsied on a number of counts. In the past I have been fairly depressed at the songs that have reached the Top 20 on the Worship Leader site. But, the list at this stage in 2014 shows some encouraging trends:

  • There seems to be some attempt to reconnect with the history and heritage of faith. There are a number of songs that draw on ancient prayers, Psalms, or traditional hymns, if not directly, then in spirit. It’s good to feel like contemporary worship is getting some roots at last.
  • Lyrically, it was nice to see some movement away from the usual glut of songs about the substitutionary atonement theory and God as Creator.
  • Musically, I was glad that more meditative and prayerful music is becoming popular, with some songs even having a slightly chant-like feel. Also, some of the arrangements were quite sparse which was a nice change from the overdriven guitar based stuff of the recent past (although there were still many of these in evidence).

There are still some concerns that arise from this list for me though:

  • Most of the songs are still very much based in what God does for us. We haven’t shaken our tendency toward faith as a consumer product that gives us security, happiness, or well-being.
  • Most of the songs are populated by individualistic me and I language. I was pleased to see a few that connected us with community, but this pendulum still needs to swing a lot further in that direction before we’ve corrected the imbalance.
  • Although there are some musical differences, there was, paradoxically (for me anyway), still a “sameness” to the music. Lots of building crescendos followed by sudden breaks in instrumentation. Lots of driving guitars and rhythm sections. Lots of hipster cool that didn’t stretch the pallet much at all.

For me the stand out song in this list is number 15 – I Shall Not Want by Audrey Assad (If you can’t listen to it using the Spotify link on the Worship Leader page, try this YouTube video. And read the lyrics here). It is really refreshing to see a song that links God’s goodness and grace with the transformation that our faith should bring. This is the only song on the list that I know I will be teaching to my church in the near future. It is musically and melodically simple enough for a congregation to sing, and the lyrics communicate a theology and a message that I believe reflects the mission of Jesus well. I may teach one or two of the others, but this one is a definite for me.

I’d love to hear your responses to the list. Which were your favourite songs? What is your impression as you go through the list? What am I missing? Please respond in the comments. Over to you!

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