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“Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist recognized something that our modern era is only slowly learning to appreciate again: ritual. If there’s a word in our Christian vocabulary that’s gotten a bad rap in the last couple centuries, it’s “ritual.” Sometimes you hear it as shorthand for mindless acts of devotion that keep religious people busy, or for something quaint and sentimental, like when secular people put up Christmas trees in December.
Psalm 1 speaks of ritual practice, but it’s hardly mindless or sentimental. Granted, it doesn’t deal with “rituals” like religious festivals or fasting. But notice how the Psalm speaks of routine activities we perform with our bodies: walking, standing, sitting, meditating, and that day and night. That’s because the “law of the Lord” is a four-dimensional thing, something lived in space and time (though also contemplated in the mind). Israel’s book of worship opens with this hymn, suggesting that this is somehow what worship—indeed, life—is all about. We train our affections to delight in the law of the Lord.
I think the book of Psalms begins like this because rituals are routine practices that shape who we are at the most fundamental level of our lives. They give shape to our desires and fashion our loves. They are everywhere, and most of the time we aren’t even aware of it when we perform them. As Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith puts it, we are worshipping animals.
You know who really gets this? Starbucks. When I worked there as a barista, their mission was to become our clientele’s “third place,” after their home and work places. So we hoped to seduce coffee-lovers through what might be called a Starbucks liturgy. A smiling barista would greet you from behind the counter as soon as you enter the door, and (if possible) would welcome you by name. After reading the bulletin (our menu), admiring the icons (our quirky wall-art), and making an offering (at the register), you would partake of the elements in your favorite pew (a plush loveseat) with the rest of the congregants enjoying the aroma of the coffee-scented incense. Ideally for Starbucks, this simple routine would become embedded in your daily rhythm of life.
The Christian Church, of course, has its own liturgy or set of rituals, which are designed to channel our deepest desires to the Triune God, who is love. And this Church exists in a world of competing liturgies, like those of Starbucks (or nation states, neighborhood associations, fraternity and sorority houses, corporate structures, etc.), which are always trying to direct our loves toward other things. In this class I want to examine how Christian practices (ancient, everyday-things-people-got-martyred-for practices that we still do today) play this role of formation in our lives.
In our first four weeks, we’ll study in depth the practices of worship and devotion that the Holy Spirit has used over the centuries to shape the church into the Bride of Christ, who adores (imperfectly, in this life) her all-loving Husband. These include our Sunday liturgy (especially the Eucharist), scripture reading, daily prayer, the creeds, the church year, etc. I am an historian of the Bible and ancient church by training, so my hope is that you’ll gain a fresh appreciation for what we do in the present by digging into the past.
In the last four weeks, we’ll turn our attention to the situation in which we find ourselves in the postmodern world. This part of the class will be much more creative. What forces are at work in our culture, at the level of practice, competing for our loves in our corner of the world in 2013? How can we identify and respond to them in a way that is relevant yet rooted in our historic faith? I’m open to seeing what issues are of interest to the group; potential topics include the arts, internet and social media, the institutions in which we work, etc.
So please join me Wednesday nights in July and August to study (or, better, pursue) the Christian life as one of worship. It is something we do body and soul, “day and night.” It is a historic pattern of practices, and the goal to “delight in the Lord.” That is: worship is for lovers.
Time: Wednesdays at 7:30pm – 9:00pm
Dates: July 3- Aug. 21
Location: The Treehouse Room, Little Falls Presbyterian Church