John van de Laar

Author's details

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

Latest posts

  1. Sacredise: If We Won’t Die We Can’t Love — September 1, 2014
  2. Sacredise: Your Story Matters — August 28, 2014
  3. Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Giving Our Lives Away — August 27, 2014
  4. Sacredise: Binding and Loosing — August 25, 2014
  5. Sacredise: A New Liturgy — August 22, 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

Sep 01 2014

Sacredise: If We Won’t Die We Can’t Love

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Yesterday I preached on Jesus’ words in Matthew 16. After rebuking Peter for trying to stop him from talking about his coming death, Jesus said those tough words about taking up crosses and losing our lives to save them.

There are so many ways these words can be applied. But, perhaps this week, there’s one specific way we could consider working with this truth – in our closest relationships.

I make no claim to offer all the answers to the complex issues of marriage and family. But, one thing I have noticed in many of the people who seem to be struggling with relationships: they struggle to let go of their need to protect themselves in some way. It’s as if we have forgotten how to love selflessly.

In so many Hollywood movies and TV shows the words “I love you” are portrayed as synonymous with “I need you”. And, of course, the worst thing anyone can do to any other person is expect them to change for the sake of love. I must confess to losing self-restraint sometimes, and shouting at the TV screen when I watch two tearful lovers end their relationship because one or both of them has to “follow their dream”. The idea that the dream could be fluid and dynamic, and that the relationship could itself be a dream that opens doors to other possibilities never seems to enter anyone’s mind. In trying to save their lives, they lose them.

I know these are just stories, but I’ve seen the same pattern play out in real life couples too. So let me say, based on Jesus’ words, what I believe to be true:

  • “I love you” and “I need you” are not synonymous. The latter is focussed on the self, the former on the other.
  • If our love does not lead us to give ourselves to, and for the sake of, the ones we claim to love it is not really love at all.
  • Until we are willing to stop protecting ourselves, and open ourselves to both the agony and the ecstatsy of love, we cannot know what abundant life is – because love and life are as close to synonyms as you can get.
  • Love is, in a real existential way, a death. We cease to be who we were before we gave in to love, and we become someone new, someone joined to - made one with – another person. But, if we choose this death over the quest to save our independent self, we will discover a life that is more vibrant and abundant than we could ever have imagined.

So maybe, when our relationships hit a tough road, it would be helpful to check to see if we’re falling into a self-protective pattern of trying to save ourselves at the expense of the other, or of our relationship. And just maybe, if we were to choose to lose our lives, to embrace the cross of dying to our independent self, we might find that many of the issues that are ripping us apart fall away.

This coming weekend my wife and I will celebrate twenty-eight years of marriage (thirty-one of being together). I can no longer remember the man I was before I met her – he’s been dead a long time. But who I am now is more alive than I ever could have dreamed. And every day I choose to die again, so that I can hold on to this life and the love that sustains it.

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Aug 28 2014

Sacredise: Your Story Matters

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I love the late Robert Webber. His writings about worship have been formative and inspiring for me for a long, long time. But, that doesn’t mean I always agree with him.

This week I came across this article which quotes Webber as saying:

What does it mean to say, “Worship does God’s story?” It is this: Worship proclaims, enacts, and sings God’s story. Worship is not a program. Nor is worship about me. Worship is a narrative—God’s narrative of the world from its beginning to its end.

I have encountered this idea many times – that worship is all about God’s story, and that we shouldn’t “tarnish” worship by making it “about us/me”. But, while I accept that God is to be our focus, and our motives need to be God-centred, not us-centred, I cannot go so far as to say it’s “all about God” and “not about us” at all.

In fact, if worship is to achieve what the Bible says it should – transformation (see 2 Corinthians 3:18) – it cannot only be about God’s story. It has to be about our story too. Here’s why I say this:

  1. We have no access to God outside of our own story. Every person who encounters God does so in a particular context. God does not meet with us outside of our particular life – with all it’s various facets of biology, sexuality, relationships, culture, geography etc. God meets with us in our story. God has never done anything else, and it is impossible for us to step out of our story in order to encounter God in a way that is not affecfted by who we are and where we come from. Therefore, worship must take our story into account – it doens’t just “do God’s story” it also “does our story” in a way that we can find the best possible version of our story and learn to live into it in the light of God’s story.
  2. If worship is about intimacy with God, it has to be a dance, not a one-way interaction. It is common to speak about worship as intimacy with God. But intimacy is never a one-way interaction – unless it is a “mutual self-disclosure” it is not really intimacy. It is common to think of worship as us offering our “performance” (of music, prayer, etc.) to an “audience of One”. But, in worship there i no audience, or it is not really intimacy, and it is not really worship. A performance is just a performance, even it’s done for God. Until our worship is a dance in which we are encountered by God’s revelation of God’s self, and respond by becoming completely open and vulernable before God, we have not worshipped. This means, that we have to bring all of ourselves – our story – into the worship. To leave our story out of it may be safer because we don’t have to be expose the truth about ourselves to God (or to ourselves), but it is not more authentic. It is less so.
  3. God’s Story can only be expressed through our story. As we respond to God, whether in prayer or ritual or song, we cannot do so except in the language and embodiment of who we are. So, even as we dive into God’s story, we do so through the medium of our own selves, of our own story. And, as we carry our encounter with God into the rest fo our lives, we do so through who we are and where we live. Our story is the context for our worship – which is why worship can be so different as we move from place to place, language to language and culture to culture.

These are just some thoughts about how our understandings of worship may need to be examined a little more closely. You may also want to check out this series of blog posts which try to answer the question: “Who is worship for?”

So, what do you think? Is worship only about God’s story, or do you find it helpful to bring your story with you into worship? How has you encountered God within your own story, and how has this changed your story? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Aug 27 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship: Giving Our Lives Away

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I wonder: if Moses had known what would result from his curiosity over the burning bush, would he still have moved closer to see what was going on, or would he have run screaming in the other direction? Or did he, perhaps, have some intuitive knowledge that the time had come for him to give his life away? And, when, in the end, he walked up into the mountains to die alone, so that no one could turn his grave into a shrine or an idol, did he look back on his life with a sense that in giving himself away, he had found life in such abundance that it was beyond his dreams? If I could ask Moses one question it would be this: “Was it worth it?”

In spite of everything we know of the Gospel, it seems that one fundamental element of the Story keeps eluding us – “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of [Jesus] will find them” (Matthew 16:25). Peter didn’t get it – he had seen that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but he did not yet understand the kind of society that God’s Messiah was sent to establish. For Peter, following the Messiah was still a way to prestige, security, power, and wealth. So, when Jesus began to predict his own death, Peter had no frame of reference to process it, and he arrogantly took Jesus aside to set him straight – as we do when we hear Jesus calling us to release some of our own privilege, wealth and power for the sake of others. So, the story into which our worship invites us this Sunday is the same one into which Moses and Peter were invited – the story of finding abundant life by giving our lives away.

Out of this story, we should naturally find our Language embracing words that sound strange in our self-protective, self-developing, self-centred world: the language of sacrifice (which, in its original meaning meant “to make sacred”), of generosity, of embracing pain and suffering instead of avoiding it, of seeing God’s Reign here and now in this life before we die, because we have died to the values and priorrities, the attitudes and actions, of human empires.

The most obvious Symbol of this story is one that has, unfortunately lost its much of its meaning. We wear crosses around our necks, and erect them over our church buildings, even as we decorate them with finery and protect them from those who are different, or poor, or vulnerable, or (in our view) dangerous. But, with some creative thinking we can still let the symbol of the cross speak – by presenting it in a new, different way, or by engaging with it in some sacrificial way (through an act of service or giving, perhaps). But, the burning bush image is also powerful and challenging, as is the image of Satan, expressed through Peter’s ignorance and arrogance, being told to get behind Jesus.

Finally, it may be helpful to include some sort of “cross-carrying” Ritual in the worship this week. We could be given crosses to carry with us through the week – preferably ones that have not been sanded to a smooth velvety finish. Or perhaps we could be invited to draw near to some sort of burning bush symbol and listen for God’s call on our own lives (if the Exodus reading is the focus of our worship). Or maybe we could take a moment in meditation to write an obituary for the life we now lay down for the sake of Christ – recognising the ways we need to die in order to enter into the Jesus kind of life.

These are just a few thoughts and ideas for how our worship can engage us and challenge us to go deeper in giving ourselves away for the sake of Christ, and how, in doing so, we can find a new, abundant life in service of God’s Reign. So what are your ideas? How will you enter into this challenging invitation in worship this week? If you’re designing the worship service, which readings will guide you, and how will you invite your congregation to enter into the story, learn the language, and engage with God’s invitation through symbol and ritual?

For further reflection and more resources for worship, check out this week’s Lectionary Worship Resources post.


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Aug 25 2014

Sacredise: Binding and Loosing

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If your worship was focussed on the Lectionary readings for yesterday, you may have explored Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ. If you read my “Brainstorming for Worship” post last week, you will also have thought about what Jesus words in response might have meant. Here’s what Jesus said:

“Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19 CEB)

The new community, built on the revelation that Jesus is God’s Messiah who establishes God’s Reign among us, is now tasked – in subversion of the gatekeeping tendencies of human empires and of religious institutions – with fastening (binding in the old translations) and loosening. As I suggested on Wednesday, what we bind is anything that would oppress, imprison or harm God-imaged human beings – injustice, economic inequality, violence, hatred, discrimination, war. And what we are called to loosen is anything that would bring about human dignity and wholeness – peace, justice, equality, connection, generosity, inclusion, celebration, love.

But, what does all this mean for us as we seek to live out the truth of God’s Reign in our lives this week? Here are a few suggestions:

  • We begin with our own hearts, and ask ourselves what we need to bind and loosen within us. What attitudes, actions, priorities, values and perceptions keep us from experiencing and expression the Reign of God in our families, workplaces, and places of leisure? As we identify these things, we ask God to help us to “bind” them – to limit their influence on us, our relationships, and on how we live in the world. But also, What attitudes, actions, priorities, values and perceptions help us to experience and express the Reign of God in our own lives? As we identify these things, we seek to “loosen” them – to increase their influence in our lives and relationships and give them more of a free rein to direct us and motivate us.
  • Then we begin to look at our corner of the world, and ask what we can participate in binding and loosening there. Where do we see people being oppressed and imprisoned and how can we help them to find freedom? It may be that we can share some of our knowledge or expertise with children who are struggling at school. It may be that we can share groceries with a family that struggles to make ends meet. It may be that we stand alongside someone who is being harmed or silenced and give them strength through our presence. It may be that we call attention to some act of evil that is being kept hidden. Or it may be simply that we contribute to making our neighbourhood a friendlier place by smiling at and greeting our neighbours, and treating strangers with kindness.
  • Then, we may find opportunities to look at the wider world and see ways we can add our small contribution to a much larger act of binding and loosing. Where do we see people or organisations making a difference that we can contribute to? Perhaps we can add our name to an online petition (like those organised by Avaaz which really do make a significant difference on a global scale). Perhaps we can join in a protest march, or stand with others to celebrate something important. Perhaps we can volunteer our time to work for an organisation that is making a differece, or participate in a movement for good (like the ALS ice-bucket challenge). Perhaps we can make calls to our local politicians to seek change around issue sof justice in our community.

Binding and loosing is not a mystical thing, and it’s got nothing to do with who gets into heaven or not. It’s simply about making a daily choice about what forces, influences, values and priorities we will allow to shape our lives and our world – and, if we seek to follow Jesus, we better be sure that it’s the Reign of God.

So, what do you need to bind in yourself, in your corner of the globe, and in the wider world this week? And what do you need to loose. And how do intend to do just that as you commit to living out your worship in your daily routine?

Feel free to add any thoughts, comments, question or challenges to the comments. I’d love to hear your ideas!

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Aug 22 2014

Sacredise: A New Liturgy

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More than once I’ve been in worship gatherings where I’ve found myself becoming silent while those around me sang. More than once I’ve read the lyrics of a song I am being invited to sing and have shaken my head. I believe, with all my heart, that the hymns we sing shape our faith, and therefore, our lives. This means that when we sing words that are shallow, or self-centred, or violent (“When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy”), or exclusive, or individualist, or just plain wrong, we are shaping our lives in ways that are very unhelpful and even unChristlike. This is why I regularly challenge those who plan and facilitate worship to take note of what they are singing, and to consider the message of the hymns they choose critically. This is also why, I must confess, I am usually pretty disappointed by new music that is sold to the church as “the most powerful worship songs of the year”.

I long for worship music that is theologically responsible, liturgically helpful, and spiritually engaging. I long for us to sing songs that connect the passion of our hearts with the curiosity of our minds and the energy of our bodies. I long for worship music that leads us deeper into intimacy with God, and that leads us deeper into service of others in the name of Christ. It’s not often that I find such music, but my friend Aaron Niequiest is a notable exception. Over the last few months I’ve been living with five recorded worship experiences (I can’t call them albums – they’re much more than that) called A New Liturgy (Numbers 1- 5). Full disclosure: I got them as a generous gift from Aaron, but no expectation was suggested that I should write any review, positive or otherwise.

These recordings are each a moving and beautiful blend of music, poetry, prayer, meditation, and song. They stand as works of art on their own, but they are also profound and engaging acts of worship. Each is focussed around a particular theme (my favourites are Numbers 2, Blessed To Be A Blessing and 4 Creation) which is explored with great theological and artistic sensitivity. It’s not often that you find resources that manage to address both of these elements, but A New Liturgy does it. The songs are easy to learn and sing, and should work in any congregation, and the shape of the worship that is presented in each volume gives a window into how “traditional” elements and considerations in worship can be carried into “contemporary” worship gatherings in a way that enhances the worship and engages worshippers in a deeper way.

Each recording is a complete experience in itself, and fits together seamlessly, but I feel that many of the songs could easily be “lifted” out and used as part of other worship experiences. In short, I’m a big fan of A New Liturgy and I look forward to seeing what else Aaron has in store (I believe volume 6 is in the pipeline). If you’re interested in learning more, you can find A New Liturgy on iTunes (in the South African iTunes Store I can only find No. 5 though). Or you can buy all five volumes from the A New Liturgy website. I encourage you to check them out, and if you do, let me know how you like them.

Thanks Aaron for giving the Church A New Liturgy and for showing us that our worship can be more than we sometimes allow it to be – both in our own personal worship time, and when we gather as God’s people.

Check out Aaron’s introduction video:

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Aug 20 2014

Sacredise: Brainstorming for Worship – Talking About A Revolution

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By Electroglyph (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Cornerstone by Electroglyph

What might it mean to have your mind “renewed”? This statement, which occurs in chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and is one of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday, is somewhat enigmatic. It does not mean that we simply “change our minds” about things, although that is certainly part of what must happen if our minds are to be renewed. But, for me the word would indicate that things have become old, routine, bored, fixed, inflexible. When our minds grow rigid and closed, when we become fixated on certain ideas and ways of perceiving, our minds may well need some renewal, and this, I suspect, is part of what the apostle asks of us. In context, Paul is talking about the radical idea that God’s chosen people have missed God’s gift of grace, which has now been extended to the (previously excluded) Gentiles. So, God’s chosen nation needed a “renewed mind”. But, of course, it goes further than that. The original statement contains these words: “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by…” So, a renewed mind is one that opts out of the patterns of this world. 

Which brings us to the other readings for this Sunday. In the Old Testament, we read of how Moses’ mother and sister (and perhaps even Pharaoh’s daughter – she must have known what was going on) conspired to save the boy who would become the liberator of Israel. In a world where the simple solution to racial fear was to wipe out the male babies of the oppressed race (why does this sound familiar?) these women had renewed minds. They boldly dared to think – and act – differently, subversively, in a way that undermined the unjust and destructive status quo.

In the Gospel, Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Messiah leads Jesus to affirm the truth of Peter’s conviction and proclaim that this (I suspect it refers more to Jesus and the truth about him than to the person of Peter – see below) would be the foundation for a new community, a “church”, an ekklesia or “called out community” (note: not a religious organisation, a particular denomination, or a building). But, notice something about this community: what the ekklesia “binds” on earth would be bound in heaven and what the ekklesia loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. This is a deeply subversive statement because in Jesus day and society, it was the priests who were the “binders and loosers”. They were seen as God’s appointed gatekeepers. If someone became sick (especially with skin diseases or strange emission sod bodily fluids), they were “bound” by the priests – kept away from society and declared unclean. But, when they became well again, they would need to go to the priests to be “loosed” or declared clean and free to enter society again. In the Roman world, the Emperor and his agents were the ultimate “binders and loosers”. They would determine who lived and who died, who was innocent (like guilty Barabbas) and who was guilty (like the innocent Jesus). So, for Jesus to proclaim that his new ekklesia would have the power to bind and loose – even more than this, to impact what heaven would bind and loose - was about as subversive as you could get!

This is not saying that Jesus’ new community could now become power brokers with the blessing of God (even though we have often interpreted this passage this way). It is to proclaim that, in the same way that Jesus bound the evil forces of Empire, of hypocrisy, of domination, of legalism and of exclusion in his ministry (which has been the focus of much of Matthew’s Gospel up to this point), so followers of Jesus are to “bind” the evil we encounter – by refusing to give it free reign, by refusing to participate in institutional, systemic, or even personal violence, injustice, domination or oppression. And, in the same way that Jesus “loosed” – freed and liberated – those oppressed by demonic, physical, spiritual, ethnic, factional, economic, gender or religious oppression, so followers of Jesus are to declare freedom to those who have become imprisoned by injustice, violence, abuse, poverty, or hatred. Our lives are to declare that we refuse to leave the power of “binding and loosing” to those who will use it for their own gain. Rather, as we follow Jesus, we are to be the community in which we subvert the “patterns of this world” and loose those who are bound by the world’s systems, while binding those who are “loosed” by them. And this is the glorious, subversive, challenging, liberating Story of this week’s worship.

Out of this story flows the subversive Language of liberation. The gates of hell cannot stand against a community that refuses to participate in the hellish games of power, wealth, fame and exclusivity. When we begin to “talk about a revolution” (to use Tracy Chapman’s words) in whispers and shouts that set the oppressed free, all the rhetoric of hell sounds like empty noise. When we refuse to judge those whom we are instructed to judge, when we insist on fellowshipping with those whom we are instructed to shun, when we welcome those whom we are supposed to turn away, our words become a liberation to those who have heard nothing but judgement, dismissal, or rejection. So, may our mouths be filled with subversive words like kindness, peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, unity, justice, equality, and, yes, freedom.

The Symbols, Images and Metaphors of this week’s worship are just as subversive: The rock – which, as the writer of Peter’s letter described it, was rejected – becomes the cornerstone of this new community that binds only evil and looses all of God-beloved humanity; The living sacrifice who willingly gives up the kind of life that is shaped by the “patterns of this world” in order to live by a different set of values and priorities; the key which unlocks all that is bound by systems of human power and control and brings freedom to all. These images can speak with great power, and can set our hearts free even as they invite us to be agents of freedom to those around us.

Finally, The Rituals of this Sunday’s worship can be, themselves, an experience of subversive freedom. Perhaps we could subvert the regular order of service that we’re familiar with. Perhaps we can allow those who usually are unseen in our worship (children, cleaners, those who are part of support groups for addicts, for example) to be the leaders, greeters and preachers in some way. Perhaps we can receive stones as a memorial that the cornerstone of our new life is the One that was rejected. Or we could receive keys as a sign that we are called to bind evil and loose the oppressed.

These are just some brainstorming ideas that could have the effect of renewing our minds just a little through worship this week (For more ideas, reflections and resources, see this week’s Lectionary Worship Resources post). What ideas do you have? How are you planning to facilitate or participate in worship this coming Sunday? In what ways can you open yourself anew to the subversive, mind-renewing Christ who calls us to be his ekklesia to bring liberation into our small corner of the world?

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