John van de Laar

Author's details

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

Latest posts

  1. Sacredise: Saying No to God — October 24, 2014
  2. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Love — October 22, 2014
  3. Sacredise: Allegiances — October 20, 2014
  4. Sacredise: A Contrarian God — October 17, 2014
  5. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Caesars — October 15, 2014

Most commented posts

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

Author's posts listings

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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Oct 17 2014

Sacredise: A Contrarian God

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring what it might mean to think about worship as a conversation with God. We’ve explored the various different ways that such a conversation might be initiated (Causative Voices) and what it would mean for us to agree with God and God with us (Collaborative Voices). So far so good.

But, now we come to a movement that is far less familiar and comfortable than what we’ve explored thus far. In any conversation that seeks to increase the intelligence or effectiveness of the group, there is a need for what I call the Contrary Voice. If all we do is sit around agreeing with one another, we never learn anything new, and we never have any reason to question our assumptions. This means that we become stagnant or stuck, and our responses to the world become fixed, rigid and thoughtless. Agreement is nice, but for growth to happen, we need  to be challenged, questioned, and pushed to think more deeply and carefully.

In all spiritual traditions this sense of the Contrary Voice can be found. There are the dark night of the soul moments, the via negativa (negative way) moments, or, in theology, the apophatic tradition (or negative theology). All of these various streams of thought recognise that we need moments when we are disrupted, when our assumptions are challenged, and when we are forced to go deeper, to try again, to learn more, or change direction.

At its heart, this is what repentance is all about. The Scriptures regularly reveal the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus confronting thinking, attitudes and behaviours in people that are stuck, unhelpful, or even destructive. The purpose of these confrontations is not to heap guilt on people, but to lead them into a new way of being. It is to reveal the inadequacy of people’s current patterns of living, and challenge them to seek new, better ways.

If our worship never leaves us feeling like God is a contrarian, if we never face a divine “No!”, if we are never challenged, or questioned, or disrupted, it is unlikely we will ever really be changed by anything we do in our worship gatherings. A spirituality that does nothing but make us feel comfortable is worthless. We all too easily give in to our worst selves, and we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged, and we need to be changed so that our best selves can emerge, and so that we can be a positive influence on our corner of the world.

Which is why we should expect, fairly regularly, to experience God’s Contrary Voice in worship. We should expect – we should even seek out – opportunities to be shaken out of our complacency and self-satisfaction and be confronted with the things in us that need to be healed and transformed.

Of course, worship has always had practices that are designed to do exactly this (although we often tend to domesticate them so that they can disrupt us very little). Perhaps the primary “contrarian” practice is confession. But, we are also faced with God’s “No!” when we receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday, or when we practice the Lenten disciplines of prayer, giving and fasting, or when we meditate on the cross on Good Friday. We hear God’s “No!” when we read the prophetic Scriptures, and when we listen to the confrontational teachings of Jesus. And we hear God’s “No!” when we are forced to welcome those with whom we would prefer not to mix, or when we are forced to sing music we don’t like, or when we are encouraged to greet each other in a language that is not our own. Any time something in our worship makes us uncomfortable we have the choice either to allow the Contrary Voice of God’s Spirit to disrupt and change us, or to settle back into our rigid, self-protectiveness and complain about what we don’t like.

The amazing thing about all this is that, according to James Surowiecki (in his book The Wisdom of Crowds) studies have shown that the presence of Contrary Voices always make a group collectively more intelligent – even when those voices are wrong! So, even if we have a good theological reason for objecting to whatever upsets us, we cannot deny that the discomfort holds the potential for growth, change, and a deeper engagement with God.

So here’s the million dollar question: How willing are you to be disrupted and challenged by your worship?

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Oct 15 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Caesars

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“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21)

What does God ask of us? What do we have that belongs to God which we are required to give to God? In the Gospel reading for this Sunday in the Lectionary, Jesus raises exactly this question, but I suspect that, in order to grasp what this question may have meant for Jesus, we need to hear some of the other things Jesus said about money and giving to God. And what we may find would suggest that Jesus was not talking about money at all in this encounter with the religious leaders. And, what Jesus was talking about is crucial for how we design, lead, and participate in worship – whether we may be focussing on the Lectionary or not this week.

Think about these two statements:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

What we do with our money has to do with the state of our hearts, and where we place our allegiance. Money is not a neutral object. It is a reflection of our values. It is true that our bank statements are theological documents that reveal the priorities and values that hold the true devotion of our hearts.

So when Jesus calls us to give to God what is God’s he is speaking about our hearts and their devotion. He is calling us to find our deepest treasure, our greatest value, and the priorities that guide our lives in the purposes and priorities of God’s Reign – and not in the purposes and priorities of the Reign of any Caesar that may seek our allegiance. And if we have given our hearts to God’s Reign, this will automatically be reflected in how we use our resources, including our money. Heaven forbid we claim to be devoted to God’s Reign but use our resources only for our own comfort, pleasure, or self-protection!

Here lies one of the struggles I face with the way we often do worship. As an example: In the last week, I was offfered complementary tickets to a worship gathering in which two well-known British worship leaders would be leading. In other words, there was an entrance fee being charged for a worship event. But the Bible is clear that there can be no gatekeepers for worship. The place of worship is to be kept wide open for the poor, the marginalised and the least to be welcomed in. Surely to exclude the poor from worship (by charging an entrance fee) is a contradiction of the Gospel? Surely this is failing to “give to God what belongs to God”? Yet, it is a common practice that regularly happens in churches – but which is aligned more to the values of Caesar than of God, in my opinion.

In what other ways may our worship be more aligned to the values of Caesar? Perhaps when we value numbers of worshippers in pews over the impact of the congregation on their local community? Perhaps when we measure success by the financial wealth of our churches, rather than by the levels of sacrifical service offered by the members? Perhaps when we make decisions about music choices based more on what is popular on the radio, or on which “famous worship leader” (a contradiction in terms for me, by the way) wrote the music? Perhaps when we seek to be comforted and encouraged in our quest for worldy success, influence and material objects, rather than be challenged to give up these things for the sake of eternal values?

Remember that this encounter with the religious leaders happened in the Temple, the place of worship. Jesus’ statement is a direct challenge to the values we bring into the sanctuary – both as worship leaders and as worshippers.

So, how can you plan and particpate in worship in such a way as to give to God what is God’s this week? And how can you leave what belongs to Caesar out of the equation? It’s time we stopped making the sanctuary a place that reflects more of what belongs to Caesar than of what belongs to God, don’t you think?

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Oct 13 2014

Sacredise: Not Included

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I have been known to say that I wouldn never close the doors of the church to anyone. But, that’s not completely true. If an abused woman was sitting inside, and her violent partner came to drag her out, I would close the doors on him. If a politician came to my church demanding to use the pulpit for party political ends, I would close the doors on him or her. If someone sought to be part of the church in order to win the trust of children so that he or she could mistreat them, I would certainly shut that person out.

There is no question in my mind that the Gospel of Christ offers the widest, most extravagant and all-embracing invitation we could ever imagine. When Richard Rohr says “everyone belongs” I agree with him. But, this is not to deny that the Gospel is also a message of confrontation. To use the language of Matthew Fox  the Gospel calls us to nurture and celebrate biophilia - the love of life. But it also calls us to stand against necrophilia - the love of death. These are the two main paths of our faith – the call to celebration (or mysticism in Fox’s scheme) and the call to activism (or the prophetic in Fox’s scheme).

The teachings of Jesus, like the Parable of the Wedding Feast from yesterday’s Lectionary, proclaim both of these aspects of the Gospel. Christ invites us to follow him, and assures us that God’s grace welcomes us into God’s family, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. But, Christ also confronts the brokenness, destructiveness, self-protection, and lovelessness in our hearts. The message of Jesus is one of love, yes. But it is also one of justice. Which means that, the invitation is to be welcomed freely and unconditioanlly by God, but it is also to be changed by the grace and love of God into our best, most loving and just selves.

So, while everyone is welcome, not everything we may do, think, say or believe is welcome. To use the metaphor of the above parable, unless we’re willing to wear the appropriate clothing for God’s wedding feast, we will never be at home in God’s Reign.

Flowing from this, here are some questions: What invitiation is God offering you this week? And what might God be seeking to confront in you? What invitation is God asking you to share with those around you? And what might you need to confront in your part of the world?

It’s good to remember that God’s love and grace extends to all. But, God is always biased towards protection of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and those whom Jesus calls the least among us. And some stuff is just not included in the kingdom of God.


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