John van de Laar

Author's details

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

Latest posts

  1. Sacredise: Goodbye To Awesomeness — July 28, 2014
  2. Sacredise: Are You Living on Spiritual Junk Food? — July 25, 2014
  3. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – God’s Hide-And-Seek Reign — July 23, 2014
  4. Sacredise: Leaving Judgement Behind — July 21, 2014
  5. Sacredise: Why Your Worship May Not Be Helping You — July 18, 2014

Most commented posts

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

Author's posts listings

Jul 28 2014

Sacredise: Goodbye To Awesomeness

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20140728-120038-43238972.jpgI’ve been struck, in the last few months, by a number of articles that speak about how social media can make us unhappy. The reason for this unhappiness, is that we only post the positive aspects of our lives (for the most part), and only see the best parts of others’ lives. So we end up comparing ourselves against a false picture of good experiences, new acquisitions, and great relationships, but forget that behind all of this is the same struggle, frustration and daily routine that we face. It’s a problem of competing “awesomeness” – and it creates the impression that ordinary is not good enough. But, when everyone has to be above average, most of us will fail – that’s a mathematical certainty.

Of course the church has no automatic immunity from this disease. The same comparisons, and need to be awesome, are just as prevalent in the church. Books, conferences and, yes, social media all have the potential to convince us that if our church is not a mega church, or if our growth is not fast enough, we aren’t being faithful. Or, on an individual level, if we don’t pray, witness, read the Bible, or “worship” passionately, loudly, or often enough, we just don’t make the grade.

Which is where this weekend’s worship was so liberating for me. If God’s Reign is like a mustard seed, or a pinch of leaven, or a hidden treasure, or a rare pearl – all small, insignificant (seemingly), unnoticed things – then God’s Reign can be at work in my small, hidden, ordinary, largely unnoticed life. My task, then, is not to beat myself up for not being awesome enough. It is not even to work harder at trying to be awesome. It is to allow whatever seed or leaven is at work within me to do its work. As long as I am faithful to whatever calling God has given, and I am seeking to express Christ’s grace, compassion and justice in whatever small ways I can in my daily interactions, that is enough.

After all, God’s Reign is not an individual project. It is built through millions of small, Christlike actions each day, which together leave a mark on the world. Awesomeness is God’s problem. Mine is to learn to live with awe at the miracle that my small life can have any value at all for the Reign of God – and then not let that value go to waste by neglecting it in my quest for awesomeness.

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Jul 25 2014

Sacredise: Are You Living on Spiritual Junk Food?

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Last week I raised the question of whether we truly worship with one another, or, rather, like children, actually just worship alongside each other. I made the suggestion that part of our struggle with worship is that it is an independent activity that is separated from the relationships and activities of our daily lives. And I promised to explore worship in terms of three tiers – personal, small groups and congregation.

Today I want to explore the first tier – our personal worship.

It seems to me that in many branches of the church, and much of the way our spirituality is taught and developed, a daily spiritual practice is not viewed as worship. Our language has been particularly unhelpful here. We refer to “personal devotions” or  a “quiet time” in which we may read a bit of the Bible, and perhaps pray a bit. Judging by the thousands (millions?) of copies of devotional books like Faith for Daily Living or Upper Room that are sold, a large number of Christians rely to a large extent on a devotional life that is based on other people’s stories, and short, often disconnected, biblical reflections.

While these practices are good as far as they go – and are certainly better than no practice at all – I am a little concerned that they fail to do the work of transformation that worship is meant to do. If all we do is a quick read, and then move on with little thought or deeper engagement with Scripture, it’s a bit like living on a diet of junk food. We will receive little or no challenge, call for justice, or engagement with any part of us other than our minds.

But, what if we were to think differently about our personal spiritual practice? What if we were to think of it as worship? What if we were to take seriously the implication in Jesus’ teaching on prayer, that we never really pray alone (He taught us to pray, in private, “Our Father…” Matthew 6:6-13)? How might this change the way we engage with God, both when we’re on our own, and when we gather with others?

Here are a few quick thoughts:

1. Our daily practice would expand to include additional elements, beyond just a reflective reading and a quick, grocery-list prayer:

      • Perhaps some liturgy (like the daily prayer or office of some of the more liturgical churches);
      • Perhaps some music, or even singing or chanting;
      • Perhaps some movement – a finger labyrinth, kneeling, raising hands, genuflecting, or even dancing.

2. Our daily practice would be connected, thematically and theologically, with our meditations in our larger worship gatherings and our small groups, instead of being a separate, unrelated activity – which would also mean that we would engage more deeply and personally in worship when we did gather with our companions in faith.

3. As Robert Webber wrote, we would gain a sense that we’re always either moving toward, or being sent out from, worship (Worship Is A Verb [Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 1992], p213). So, every activity, interaction, and relationship in our lives would feel like it happens in the context of worship.

4. We would be diving more deeply and personally into the meaning of Sunday’s worship for ourselves, and so we would overcome the problem of forgetting what we did on Sunday, and of Sunday having no connection with our lives.

I could write a lot more, but I think you get the point. Richard Rohr comments that there are no grandchildren in God’s Realm. We all need to connect with our divine parent ourselves. But, to do so effectively, we need the influence, the teaching, and the support of a community. This means that we need to develop a personal spiritual practice that is connected with the gathered church, and that engages us in every part of ourselves, and connects our worship with every part of our lives. This means that worship must be more than just a weekly event. It needs to be a daily discipline.

This is the motivation behind my free Daily Worship resource. Although it is still focussed on words and reflection, it is designed to connect with the weekly themes of the Revised Common Lectionary. It also seeks to connect with the daily routines of our lives through a practice and breath-prayer that can be carried through the day. Ideally, it should be coupled with a worship framework that includes prayers of the church, ritual, symbol, music, and movement of some sort. I hope to create such a framework and make it available through in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned!

What is your daily worship practice? How does it connect you with Sunday’s worship, and how does it connect with the daily “stuff” of your life? How can you create a daily spiritual practice of worship that makes you aware of how your whole life is lived in the context of worship?

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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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