Saturday, January 28, 2012

Participating in History

In my recent post on the practice of family prayers, I mentioned that the biggest deficiency of our liturgies is the portion dedicated to the extemporaneous prayers. Because traditional liturgies have been filled primarily with praying and with Scripture, any attempt I make of imitating those liturgies in our family prayer times can only improve by doing the same.


I have been working on a system of prayers that will accomplish several goals. First, our prayers need to encompass God’s entire creation. Paul urges believers “that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (2 Timothy 2:2). In order to accomplish this large task, we need to rid ourselves of spontaneity and become systematic the task.

Second, our prayers need to be specific. Though prayers should be all-encompassing, we need to avoid simply generalized prayers. Common prayer books are very helpful in reminding us of all the occasions for which a believer must pray as well as in giving us general ideas for prayer, and we would do well to be well-versed in those prayers. Yet, we also need to incorporate specific names and circumstances into our prayers. Specificity provides us the ability to anticipate specific answers to our prayers.

Third, our prayers must be knowledgeable. We need to inform ourselves of the contexts of needs, the offices of rulers, and of histories behind problems. We must seek to develop a vested interest in the needs of the whole world. The world depends upon our intercessory work. As a priestly kingdom, we exist for the life of the world. Thus, the more we understand the needs that be bring before God, the more powerful our prayers will be.

Last, and related to the previous two, our prayers need to be toilsome. Prayer is an awesome burden that we bear on behalf of the world. No doubt it is truly miraculous that simply by bringing requests before God changes the world. Yet, our efforts of prayer can also include real work in seeking to bring them to pass. Thus, we can perform activities that deepen our connection to needs as we strive to see them met.


In an effort to accomplish these goals, I have developed a strategy for prayer. As a family, we have four times of prayer each day, corresponding to each meal and before bed. Each of these offices of prayer has a particular focus. During matins, we pray for needs pertaining to Christ’s church. During midday office, we pray for the needs of individuals and families. Vespers focuses on the needs of the civil governments and of the culture all around us. And the prayers during compline relate to the spread of the gospel into the whole world.

We have a chart (or two) for each separate prayer office for every day on which we write down specific requests. As we pray, then, we record the dates on which we pray for each request. We also update the requests or cross them out as they get answered.


As I mentioned, the matins prayers focus on Christ’s church. On Sunday, we pray for the church universal. Requests are particularly related to the participation, as the church catholic, in Lord’s Day worship, the greatest work of God’s people in the world. We pray that God would use the worship to transform this world. We also pray for liturgical reform in all Jesus’ body as well as for other requests that pertain to the one holy catholic church.

On Monday, our matins prayers focus on our own local church, especially its leadership (elders, deacons, musicians, etc.). Tuesday morning prayers relate to other ministries of our church, like Sunday School and choir. Wednesday focuses on our church’s denomination as a whole, its leadership, and its needs. Thursday relates to our church’s particular presbytery, its leadership and needs. Friday morning carries to God petitions regarding the leadership and needs of other presbyteries in our denomination. And Saturday focuses on other denominations and churches throughout Christ’s body.


Midday prayers relate to needs of families and individuals. Sunday focuses on our own family; Monday and Tuesday on our extended family. Wednesday midday prayers relate to our neighbors; Thursday to our co-workers; Friday to educational institutions; and Saturday to our community group and closest friends.

Additionally, during midday office we have pray for a list of “Promised Prayer” requests. We maintain a chart of prayer requests including those requests that we have promised to others that we would take before God. I think it was C. S. Lewis who lamented that the most frequently broken promise among believers is the promise to pray for someone about a specific need. Yet these prayers are vital! So we write these needs down, pray for them, and constantly monitor God’s answer.


Our vespers prayers relate to civil rulers and to the culture that surrounds us. On Sunday, we pray for the one-world government, that of Jesus sitting on His throne putting all of His enemies, one by one, under His feet. These prayers are similar to the morning prayer, but being Sunday, that’s okay. We simply pray that through the church and her faithful worship and service in the world, Jesus’ kingdom would come more and more and that His will be done more and more on earth as it is in heaven.

On Monday, we pray for our local city government; on Tuesday, for our county government; on Wednesday, state; and on Thursday, federal. On Friday, we pray for the needs inherent in the top domestic news items, and on Saturday for the international ones.

Additionally, on Monday through Thursday vespers, we pray for specific cultural issues, like abortion and idolatry, that drag down the society in which we live.

Operation World

The prayers of compline include requests pertaining to the spread of Jesus’ kingdom. Under the fantastic guidance of Operation World, we pray for the countries of the world, making it around the globe in one year. That book provides a lot of valuable demographic information and provides specific requests regarding the gospel and the church in each country. We also will inform ourselves about the key issues each nation is facing at this time. Also, Sunday through Tuesday, we pray for different missionaries; Wednesday and Thursday for missions agencies; and Friday and Saturday for charities and ministries.

By means of this system, I have attempted to cover all realms for which a Christian should pray. If you detect any glaring holes, please let me know!

Additional Benefits

In additional to the primary benefit of lifting the world before God’s throne, these exercises also provide other benefits.

First, the practice of corporate prayer itself is significant to our development as believers. This is an ancient practice that has been eclipsed in many ways by individual, devotional prayer. Yet, as we pray corporately, we develop an appreciation for the intensive connection within Christ’s body.

Second, by means of this practice, God is nurturing our affections. Our day would be incomplete without prayer, and it would seem downright odd. We gain an awareness and a burden for the needs of all people around us. It is difficult to maintain animosity toward someone for whom we pray! Due to constant exposure to it, we develop a sensitivity for the needs of our society, our neighbors, our governments, and our family. Our prayers are an act of laying down our lives for our friends, neighbors, and enemies.

Third, whereas the previous benefits focus on the primary task of formation of believers, if this system works right, it will have significant informative benefit. Each capable member of the family will be tasked to perform research about the specific realms for which we pray. By necessity, we will need to understand the workings of government, the leadership of churches and denominations, and the crux of the cultural and newsworthy issues of our day. And to gain this understanding, we all will develop our skills in research and presentation.

Additionally, as part of our procedure in maintaining our mindset of connectedness with others, all who are able will write letters to other people: missionaries, governors, judges, pastors, and family members. This will increase our urgency in prayer as well as develop our skills in writing and communication.

We can also volunteer our time and energy in seeing our prayers answered. Because of our praying, we develop a longing that ills be corrected and needs be met. Our prayers give us the impetus to make meals for those in need, to volunteer our time and resources for the defeat of wickedness, and to present the gospel to the lost.

Finally, each of these persons and issues for which we pray are rich in discussion topics. Meals and other family times will be filled with discussion of current events, ethical dilemmas, Biblical relevance, and the ebbs and flows of history. We will become more developed and informed individuals who can converse about a variety of topics with others.

My family is still in the beginning stages of carrying out this plan, but already we are pleased with what God is doing. We trust that by His grace, God will mold our hearts and make us people of prayer and of the Word. And by our frequent prayers, we can participate in the course of history.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Selective Review of Teaching and Christian Practices

Ever since I read James K. A. (Jamie) Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy years ago, I have had a deep appreciation for his perspective and, indeed, have been greatly shaped by it. Though he speaks more from the perspective of a philosopher than a Biblicist, his critique of modernism and advocacy of essentially premodern ecclesiastical solutions must be heard. While not confined to ancient history, he counters modernism with old resurrected ideas in a manner that echoes the scathing assessments made by postmodernism, as is evinced in his excellent Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Formative Education

Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is a must read for everyone involved in Christian education and in the raising of children for that matter. In it, Smith makes a case that truly Christian pedagogies must take into account the fact that humans are desiring, affective beings more than they are thinking beings. Thus, education is more about formation than information, and educators must pay closer attention to the modes of education than its content. While subject matter is important, the practices used to teach it are even more.

The fountainhead of all Christian practices is Lord’s Day worship in the sanctuary in the community of God’s people.

Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and LearningSo, as a father and an educator, I was greatly interested when my pre-ordered copy of the book Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning edited by David I. Smith and Jamie Smith arrived on my doorstep. For it is in this book that presentations are made of what I would describe as experiments that test his aforementioned hypotheses. These experiments consisted of college-level teachers integrating historic Christian practices into their classrooms in order to focus on the formation of the individual in concert with the requirements of the course material.

An Introduction to Christian Practices

The introduction of the book sets the stage of the project by describing its theoretical impetus, clearly echoing Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom but bringing in other material specifically geared to education. Written by both David I. and Jamie Smith, this introduction states that “these scholarly conversations represent, among other things, a move away from the notion that rational deliberation on ideas is the primary shaper of the self, and toward a more contextual and embodied understanding of how what we do with and among others shapes who we become” (6).

Smith’s appreciation for Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is clear in the descriptions of a “practice.” Summarizing MacIntyre’s argument, the introduction describes practices basically as habits, which are “acquired dispositions and inclinations that are absorbed over time by participating in the routines and rituals of a tradition, as well as by imitating the models upheld as ‘exemplars’ by the tradition” (8). The outcome of practices is incorporation into a community.

Christian practices, thus, are those activities performed by the historic church community that form the “dispositions and inclinations” (i.e. affections) of a follower of Christ.

The underlying purpose of the book’s project is clear: “[We] want to push back on reducing Christian education to the dissemination of Christian ideas.” They are in harmony with authors Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, who “have contested the reduction of Christian faith to intellectual assent to a set of propositions.” Educators especially must experience a “shift from considering Christianity as an intellectual system to (re)emphasizing the church as a community of practice” (14).

In exploring the relationship between particular historic Christian practices and the modes of pedagogy, the participants in the project discovered that the possibilities are nearly endless. Through the experiments recounted in this book, the authors seek to further the conversation about specific questions about this relationship, questions like: “Since Christian practices are themselves… pedagogical devices to help form the self in particular directions, then are there ways in which they can function as models for, analogies to, or guiding metaphors for educational practices?” Or consider, “Can an involvement in learning experiences built around Christian practices provide some degree of counter-formation to the secular cultural liturgies that otherwise shape our lives and perceptions?” Or, “Are there present patterns of educational practice that are in tension with the kinds of formation implicitly aimed at by Christian practices, such that we need to consider restructuring teaching and learning lest their rhythms be in competition with Christian formation” (18-19)?

Christian Practices in the College Classroom

The book is worth its introduction alone, and my enthusiasm for what remains is tempered by the nature of the project. The strengths of the book lie in anecdotal successes and in the possibilities they subtly intimate. But when a college professor creatively applies key ideas about Christian practices to one class, which is only one of several in which each student is enrolled, the results are necessarily limited and modest. The episodic nature a college class that meets three times per week (and in at least one case, only once per week) works against the very ideas of what a practice is supposed to be and do.

My favorite successes are as follows.

Philosophy professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung elucidated Aquinas’ teaching on the virtues and vices through the historic practice of silence. She modified the practice for her particular goal, which was to demonstrate experientially the vice of vainglory by requiring the students not to talk about themselves for a week:
[No] commenting about your feelings, no offering your opinions or judgments, no wry witticisms or clever criticisms, no long-winded narratives about how your day went and what frustrated or elated you, no interrupting with ‘bigger and better’ stories, no fishing for compliments, no calling or texting to share what you’re doing, no blogging about your opinions or favorite movies or annoying neighbors or pet peeves, no complaining. And perhaps hardest of all, no defending what you did, no pre-emptive spin to prevent others from getting the wrong impression of what you’re doing, no rationalizing, no excuse-making. No nothing. Instead, be still. Listen. Let other people talk. Let your actions speak for themselves (32-33).
By means of this exercise, the students sought a sanctifying, deliberate practice which served the dual purpose of understanding a Thomist concept as well as demonstrating its immediate relevance to our time. While not advocating that this particular application be permanent, Professor Konyndyk DeYoung was able to communicate the very unfortunate fact of most people’s self-absorption in a much more memorable and poignant way than simply reading and lecture (though, of course, those practices also have a laudable history).

David I. Smith, one of the editors of the book and professor of German literature, incorporated practices involving what he calls “spiritually engaged reading” (43) or “religious reading” (44). He describes this type of reading in this way:
The kind of reading in which religious people become practiced is repeated and ongoing, revisiting texts multiple times. It seeks to be slow and attentive, drinking in the details of the text and approaching it reverentially. The reader comes to the text expecting it to make moral demands, and is willing to submit and be changed. Reading takes place in a communal context with a shared tradition of interpretation, and faithfulness counts for more than creativity. The act of reading seeks personal transformation through attentive encounter with significant texts (44).
Though in his chapter Smith does not specifically tie the practices in his class to the historic Christian reading practice of lectio divina, his previous exploration of that connection, which he develops elsewhere, is clearly in the background. As a teacher of literature, I appreciate Smith’s focus on reading a text charitably, which means slowly, deliberately, and attentively. This is particularly difficult in the high school survey-style literature class because of the temptation to read widely rather than deeply.

I further enjoyed Adolescent Psychology professor Caroline Call’s incorporation of the traditional practice of hospitality (including food) into her once-per-week, two-and-a-half hour class. Even with her extremely limited venue, she learned valuable lessons. She took the simple step of providing food for the short break in the middle of the class period and discovered that “students found the sharing of food to be the central element of a shared sense of community” (73), unsurprisingly confirming the sacramental nature of eating. But the greatest lesson she learned, however, was that “hospitality does not happen in single, isolated events, and it is not expressed simply by discrete actions” but instead “flows out from an individual’s orientation of heart and requires constant reflection, monitoring, and support” (78).

Jamie Smith’s limited application of the liturgy of divine hours to a midday class he taught on “Philosophy and Social Sciences” had what I regard very modest results. But because this practice is one I strongly advocate, I appreciated the time he took to expound the formative nature of “Christian timekeeping,” applied both in the daily offices of prayer as well as in the church calendar. He expands:
I wanted the received practice of fixed-hour prayer to function as an example of alternative ‘world-making‘ — a way of subtly rewiring their imaginations by means of an alternative story repeated over time in the mode of a prayer. The liturgical year is constructed narrativally, re-enacting the life of Christ in rhythms of repetition, inviting the people of God into that story such that the story of God in Christ becomes the story of the people of God. As Christian Smith suggested more generally, the liturgical year is a liturgical, narrative dramatization of a moral order; its unique timekeeping is an alternative practice of meaning-making and world-making (147).
Again, Smith’s ability to achieve these lofty purposes in a class that met for 75 minutes, two days per week was, unsurprisingly, meager.

Other practices that participating professors implemented in their classrooms include communal meals, pilgrimage, journaling, prayer labyrinth, conversation, meditation, and confession.

Liturgy: Reorienting the Shape of Christian Learning

Besides the Introduction, the one chapter that made the entire book worth the time to read was the one by Paul J. Griffiths, the subtitle of which is “Catechizing the Appetite for Learning.” His project is to reorient the whole conversation about Christian learning:
One of the directions in which Christians must catechize the appetite for learning in a time like ours is toward radical redirection, so radical that it may look like extinction: to understand and to seek learning as Christians do is very different from understanding and seeking it as pagan academicians do — sufficiently different that we approach equivocation in calling both “learning” (105).
Making a careful historical and conceptual distinction between “curiosity” (bad) and “studiousness” (good), Griffiths’s descriptions beg certain questions: What is it about Christian “learning” that makes such a reorientation necessary? How is Christian “learning” distinctive? His response is unequivocal: liturgy.
Christian thinking about preparatory, ancillary, and informing practices must begin from thinking about the liturgy. That is because Christian life is lived most intensely and most fully in the liturgy. It is there that the church is most fully herself as sponsa Christi… Attending to the liturgically given shape of the Christian life is of great help in seeing what ought to inform a fully Christian pursuit of learning (113).
He continues by describing key elements of liturgy that ought to carry over into all learning and life, including a “sacrificial gift-exchange,” eagerness to give a sacrificial gift solely out of love, “confession of our incapacity” and “unworthiness,” and repetitive “wastes” of time (113-115). Applying these elements to learning, Griffiths advances the Christian tradition of prayer before study, careful “attention to particulars” (akribeia), and relative indifference to outcome in favor of learning as “a gesture of loving intimacy (119). The final appeal in his essay is for grace and humility in the action of learning:
Liturgical agents stammer and lament. So, and for similar reasons, do studious learners. First, we lament our own incapacities: we are in various ways and to different degrees, stupid, inattentive, lazy, domineering, and blind. Being catechized in the direction of studiousness rather than curiosity does not by itself remedy these defects… Lament is not, for the curious, a value, but rather a sign of weakness. For the studious, lament at one’s own incapacity for study and one’s failures as a student is intrinsic to learning (120).
Understanding the complex arguments of Paul Griffiths that he advocates in his brief essay is indispensable to reorienting our understanding of distinctively Christian learning and teaching.

A Broader Scope Necessary for Success

The successes of the book mentioned above (and many more) make it worth its perusal. It is rich in ideas and tips that can be implemented at any level of education. However, the episodic nature of the applications made by college professors shows limited fruit: they demonstrate truths on a small scale, like an experiment in a petrie dish. In order to be truly successful, the ideas of the book need to be tested in a context that is broader than a laboratory.

The ideas advocated in the introduction are much, much bigger than simply techniques that certain college professors may attempt in one of their students’ many classes. To demonstrate their validity, which I emphatically affirm, these ideas need to be implemented with a broader scope.

But by “broader scope,” I don’t mean to overhaul any particular institution, though that would be a fascinating project outside of a monastery. Rather, the scale I am talking about is the comprehensiveness of these ideas to an individual’s whole life. By the time a student achieves his freshman year at college, his community and the practices associated with it are fairly intrenched. To begin a radical shift in educational paradigm at that stage is very, very late in the game. (Several of professors in this volume expressed a need even to be sensitive with students who may not buy into their project or who might not even call themselves Christians.)

To demonstrate the contentions about Christian practices most convincingly, one must start at the very beginning, with children. The authors would agree that the issue is not the presence or absence of a community of identity and its accompanying practices but rather which community and which practices are being nurtured. Through the practices that they instill in their children from the earliest age, parents nurture the inclinations and affections that shape their children’s identity with certain types of communities.

The educational overhaul needed is not just altering pedagogical techniques but a more comprehensive reorientation of the goals of education. Christian practices are not techniques (and I’m not saying that these college professors would claim that they are) but are real, historical actions that demarcate the historic Christian community. I concur with the author who expressed the need for an accompanying “church community beyond the classroom to provide a place for continuing apprenticeship in such practices” (34). The church needs to to take an active role in perpetrating those distinctively Christian, liturgical practices, applying them when needed in an academic environment, and nurturing all her children’s affections toward Jesus and His kingdom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Questioning the Spheres

One possible response to my claim that goal of educating children is to develop skillful worshipers is that such work is the work of the church. This type of training is presumably the responsibility of pastors in their care for the souls of their people. Christian schools or even parents who take on this task would thereby be overstepping their bounds and encroaching on the work of the church. This objection stems from a certain understanding of the “governments” by which God rules the world. Let me explain.

It is a prominent understanding in Reformed Christian education that God has established four primary “governments” on earth: self, civil, family, and ecclesiastical. Each of these spheres has all the essential characteristics of a “government,” which are, according to Gary Demar, “sovereignty (legitimacy to rule: Romans 13:1), representation (accountability to the rule of another: Exodus 18:17-23), law (a moral code by which to rule: Romans 13:4), jurisdiction (authority to enforce sanctions in the name of the ruler: 1 Peter 2:13-14), and continuity (stability and longevity of government: Deuteronomy 28)” (God and Government 198).

Each of these characteristics of a “government” distinguishes each of the governments established by God. Accordingly, each of these governments has its own jurisdiction and must not encroach upon that of any of the others. Thus, the civil government must not assume responsibility for education because that does not lie in its sphere of responsibility. Families must not administer the sacraments because they are not authorized to do so. Though there is certainly interaction among these spheres, a Biblical society must maintain a separation of church and state and family.

Indeed, there is no essential priority among the spheres. The authority figure within each one gets his or her orders from Scripture and answers directly to God. (Many advocates of this scheme, however, strongly imply the superiority of the family as the cornerstone of society.) Thus, the hierarchy consists of God at the top, mediating His rule through Jesus by His Word, ruling over three essentially equal institutions: the family, the church, and the state.

The responsibility of educating children, according to this paradigm, belongs in the sphere of the family. Most advocates require parents to be directly involved in the education of their children, whether by homeschooling or by delegating the actual tasks of teaching to a Christian day school. The school then acts in loco parentis and works along side the parents in their duty. Nonetheless, education is primarily the responsibility of the family.

This construction, while clean and helpful, deserves close scrutiny. It is helpful for us to make distinctions among the different roles and responsibilities God has placed on men in history. But its very cleanness gives me reservations and questions about the particulars. I do not want to misrepresent this widely-held opinion because I simply want suggest improvements to the reality rather than lob stones as fantasies. What follows is a rather disjointed list of reservations about the basis of this tidy construction and about how it is playing out in real life.

First, it seems to me that the governments theory tends to a diminished view of the institutional church. It tends relegate to the church “spiritual” activities. Plainly, the church’s most important activity is its work of worship around God’s throne on the Lord’s Day. But it would also stand to reason that the church has a role in training all of its members in participating in that worship in a skillful way.

On the same note, it seems to me that Scripture places a sort of priority upon the institution of the church in Jesus’ rule in the world. The sanctuary is in the middle of the world, and the river flows out of the throne of God for the healing of the nations. Though this is not the place to articulate exactly how that priority works out in particulars, the flow of history makes clear that the sanctuary is the center, beginning in the Garden and ending in the City.

Of course, throughout history, churches have taken this role seriously and have been actively involved in starting and/or overseeing schools for the education of God’s children. Elders, who have been examined and sanctioned by Christ’s church as able teachers, are best able to construct a curriculum that equips children first to become skillful worshipers and second to fulfill the calling God has placed on their lives.

Against Christianity by Peter Leithart Second, and closely related to my first reservation, is what seems to be an improper understanding of the nature of Christianity. Presumably, the church should deal with “spiritual” matters, and the family and state deal with the other matters. The proper principles that guide decisions made in all these matters presumably fall under the umbrella of “Christianity.” Christianity has thus been reduced simply to a transcendent philosophy, a system of ideas and thought that must be incorporated to every area of life. An heavy emphasis on “worldview” thinking feeds this mindset.

But Christianity is not merely an -ism. Christendom is civilization with its own distinctive history, stories, music (styles, lyrics, and songs), culture, and government. She is a nation of a peculiar priestly people. Her Anointed King is Jesus, Yahweh of Hosts. He sits at the right hand of the Father ruling the earth until all His enemies are under His feet. He administers His kingdom by His Spirit, who fills His people. And He is beautifying His bride until she has no more wrinkles or blemishes so that He may one day present her to His Father.

This is no mere “spiritual” or “invisible” body. Jesus’ kingdom has real, physical people. His baptized communion of saints is governed by real, human elders. This body enjoys communion, the eucharist, with her Savior and thereby mystically receives Jesus week by week. As a kingdom of priests, Jesus’ body is a servant to the world, taking to the world what it has been given her in the sanctuary: peace, forgiveness, hospitality, food, wisdom. She is in the service of the world and takes on herself its burdens and filth. Her very suffering brings life to the world.

In history, this body in not always beautiful and a times is down right shameful. Yet, this body here on earth is the justified body of Christ for whom Jesus died. And the work of education must be a work that trains the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, imperfect as they are, to conquer the world through glorious worship. Clearly, this training includes much more than just intellectual rigor (though, of course, it does include that).

Because the historical, institutional church is inextricably linked to the entirety of Christ’s kingdom, removing from its jurisdiction certain tasks and relegating them to the family or the state diminishes its role. Though the church does not carry out the specific functions of the family or the state, it does have the responsibility of ensuring that they are carried out properly. As the light of the world, the church makes sure the world runs properly.

Third, I caution against an overemphasis on the role of the family. Anyone who knows me knows that I take my role as a father very seriously. Yet a recent emphasis in some circles on patriarchalism is unhealthy and unbiblical. One of the many results of loyalty to Jesus is a redefinition of even the most basic categories of the family (Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 14:26).

I am not advocating an abdication of the roles of father and mother. Rather, I suggest that parents view their primary relationship with their children as that of brothers and sisters, whom they are discipling and training, above that of daughters and sons, whom they are feeding and “educating.” Having a structured family life, a home life of order and liturgy, does not serve primarily to establish order and obedience (though it does do that); rather, such structure accomplishes the primary task of training habits and affections for worshiping God around His throne. Like a graced bootcamp.

At the very least, the church should provide oversight and accountability to parents as they raise and train their children to ensure that they train God’s children in the right way.

Fourth, Christ’s position as king over the world, ruling with a rod of iron until His last enemy is under His feet, has strong “political” implications. Suffice it to say here that a hierarchiless, flat construction overly simplifies the way in which Jesus, in part by means of His church, is King of kings. As the Savior of the world, Jesus is a greater, occasionally rival, Caesar.

Fifth, I suggest that sequestering the family from the state too completely is overly simplistic. Again, neat, clean systematized categories tends to oversimplification and ignoring of certain Biblical data. John Frame in his “Toward a Theology of the State” suggests that what we think of as the “state” or the “civil government” should actually be viewed as an extension or outgrowth of the family. Even if we are not to accept his premise completely, I suggest that we allow Frame’s handling of the Scriptural texts to qualify descriptions of watertight spheres.

Finally, my personal observation of how this construction of governments is actually executed in reality is that certain vital tasks just are not being accomplished. I can’t say how systemic my personal observations are, but it seems to me that some of the tasks that God considers to be most important are being neglected and being crowded out by other priorities. Perhaps the fault of this neglect lies elsewhere, but I suggest that at least in part these faults are a result of the paradigm.

If skillful worship requires a knowledge of Scripture, then believers must have a curriculum in which they learn the Bible. The more thorough a worshiper’s knowledge of Scriptural data, the more completely he or she is able to enter into Lord’s Day worship. So, in what sphere is a methodical teaching of the facts, types, and flow of Scripture? Whose responsibility is it? The church? Fathers? The Christian school? The danger of the current paradigm is that representatives of each sphere are able to disavow the responsibility.

When the focus is on worship, the Christian school, in the sphere of the family, tends to demur from specific training. Presumably, that is for the church.

If skillful worship necessitates beautiful music that includes skillfully played instruments, then believers must have a way to develop those skills. Spirit worship is glorious and musical. Spiritual music is instrumental. So, in what sphere is the development of vocal and instrumental skills? Whose responsibility is it? The church? The family? The Christian school?

Government schools have bands.

My primary concern is the fact that in some of the areas that apply most directly to the training of skillful worshipers, the tasks are just not getting done. Disavowing the responsibility will not solve the problem. Perhaps, realigning our understanding of the roles and responsibilities that God has placed on certain institutions may be a first step to a solution.

Once again, most of the reservations are meant to qualify the conventional paradigm so that its categories are less watertight. As in most of life and theology, there are fuzzy edges, and our categories must be able to take these into account.

Alasdair MacIntyre on Conservatives and Liberals

I was recently given by a very generous friend After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. Having read only the Prologue, I'm hooked. Speaking about the modern conventions of liberalism and conservatism, he has this to say:
My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining the forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception (xiv-xv).
And this:
This critique of liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary conservatism. That conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes... And, where liberalism by permissive legal enactments has tried to use the power of the modern state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactments now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes... So the conservative moralist has become one more stock character in the scripted conversations of the ruling elites of advanced modernity. But those elites never have the last word (xv).
Perhaps Christians should consider an alternate conversation than the ones carved out for us by our overlords.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Training for Spirit-worship

In Jesus’ discourse with the Samaritan woman, he tells her that God the Father is seeking a certain type of person. A statement like that should cause us to sit up and pay attention because it gives us a pithy description of the type of person all believers should strive to become. And parents should be keen on moulding their children into this type of person. What type of person is the Father seeking? John 4:23 says that the Father seeks “worshipers” and specifically ones who worship Him in Spirit and truth.

Spirit-worship is worship that is in the realm of the Holy Spirit. That is, it is worship like the glory cloud that hovered over the original creation and the tabernacle and that filled the temple. In history, the Holy Spirit takes raw material and glorifies it, from glory to glory. Thus, Spirit-worship is skillful, beautiful, and glorious worship.

Most Western (Prussian) education today, both secular and Christian, operates on the assumption that the goal of “education” is to train the intellect, that is, to manufacture sophisticated homo sapiens. “Spiritual” training is relegated primarily to other spheres, if the person or a parent chooses. Christian education may attempt to develop “character” by means of hard word and discipline.

Yet God is seeking worshipers. Those overseeing the training of Christians must operate with the objective of developing liturgical skills.

Of course, the entire life of the follower of Christ must be characterized by worship. That is, everything a believer does must be, in a general sense, acts of worship and sacrifice to God. But this is not the sense that Christ uses the term with the Samaritan woman. In context, Jesus is speaking specifically of sanctuary worship. Worshiping God around His throne on the Lord’s Day is the great work of the believer. (All other “acts of worship” in the rest of life flow out of the sanctuary.)

What should a church and its parents seek to train in order to produce skillful worshipers? To answer this, I am presenting a partial and undeveloped list of descriptions of Spirit-, that is, skillful and glorious worship. A curriculum for training worshipers must purposefully focus on these features.

First, Spirit-worship involves the whole man. It involves the emotions, the affections, the mind, and the body. It does not despise feelings. It does not focus “primarily” on the “heart.” It is intellectual but does not restrict physical activity. It is sensual and provocative. It is calming and arousing. It involves the whole gamut of human experience. It is deliberate in incorporating as broad a spectrum of earthly and heavenly participation as the Spirit breathed into Scripture, history, and life. Efforts for training for such worship must address the whole man.

Second, Spirit worship is productive of love for God. This is a statement that may sound unfamiliar to many conservative evangelicals in American today. Yet, liturgists have known since the beginning of the church that, stated plainly, one’s repeated external rituals are productive of his affections. Certainly there is a two-way street, but Christians must recognize that the “outward” habits that they incorporate into their lives (and into the lives of their children) produce their “inner” inclinations and desires.

Acknowledgement of this truth results in a worship that is highly structured, planned, and deliberate. It is very precise and predictable. By repetition and ceremony, it creates habits that are productive of heart affections for God and His kingdom. I would, therefore, argue for “liturgical” or “high church” worship. I prefer to think of it, though, as military training of God’s army.

All life is repetitious. It is “liturgical.” Thus, training a child to become skillful in highly liturgical worship should make the specific acts of the liturgy very natural. The typical day of a school child should be structured and predictable. And it should prepare him for the songs, prayers, and sermon in the coming Lord’s Day worship.

Third, Spirit-worship is musical. The Spirit produces music (Eph. 5:18-19). Singing is speech that has been made glorious. Sanctuary music is accompanied by instruments. Musical instruments are the weapons of our warfare.

Music is not just some people’s “thing.” Music is every Christian’s “thing.”

Training for musical worship includes a knowledge of the Psalms and the other songs of Scripture. By rote. All of them. This internalization of the Psalms is essential before we can produce our own songs.

Musical worshipers must be able to sing confidently and enthusiastically as “the sacrifice of praise,” the very “fruit of our lips” (Heb. 13:15). Thus, they should be able to read a part of music. Most people are also capable of developing basic keyboarding skills. And most people can develop some proficiency in another instrument. With this capability, most worshipers will be able to bring a gift of instrumental accompaniment before the altar when called upon to do so.

Fourth, Spirit-worship is Scriptural. Scripture is prayed. It is recited and repeated. It is preached. The dialogue of the liturgy is rooted in the vocabulary and grammar of Scripture. Thus, the minds of worshipers must be filled with Scripture. They must know it thoroughly. It must mould their thought patterns. The more the Christian worshiper exemplifies Scripture in their whole being, the more fully they are able to worship God at His footstool.

Each of these descriptions could be developed at length, and several more could be added. Yet, the point is this: the intention of the entire project of training a child is the fashioning of skillful worshipers who can present their entire being as living sacrifices that are acceptable to God.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Practice of Family Prayers

I have benefitted a lot from reading James K. A. Smith ever since I read his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy about five years ago. As a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, he sets in proper philosophical context many of the issues facing today’s church in a “postmodern” world. His philosophical perspective is a helpful supplement to the biblicist perspective I favor most highly, given by the likes of James Jordan and Peter Leithart.

Naturally, when just over two years ago he published Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, I immediately bought and read it. In that book, he lays the conceptual foundation for understanding man primarily as a desiring, affective being. He argues that our pedagogies should grapple with the reality that education is more about formation than information, that a person is defined by not so much simply what he knows and believes but, rather, what he loves, and that repeated rituals are more formative of our affections than anything else, truths that liturgists have known for thousands of years.

My response to Smith’s book was an intense desire that God form my own affections as well as those of my family, through daily liturgies, that are oriented toward Him.

Because Lord’s Day worship is the most relevant activity for cultural transformation that Christ’s church performs, believers must become skilled at it. Even more important than our ability to know our cultural milieu, to “engage” in or critically evaluate that culture, to argue for our faith—even more important than all these laudable activities is our ability to worship God skillfully.

The primary goal of our education programs must be to produce skillful worshipers.

During the season of Lent following my reading of Desiring the Kingdom, I decided to put into practice this belief. I bought The Divine Hours, Pocket Edition by Phyllis Tickle, and for the 40 days of Lent I observed the seven daily offices of prayer: Midnight, Night Watch, Dawn, Morning, Midday, Vespers, and Compline. These divine hours are ancient practices of the church and continue to be practiced in portions of Christ’s body.

“Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:164).

“Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Psalm 55:17).

Those brief six weeks were truly transformative for me.  They produced in me the same desire as the psalmist for both myself and my family.

Thus, I put together a series of family prayers that we could perform as a family, and for almost two years now, we have thoroughly enjoyed performing them. Here’s how they work:

  • We have four offices every day (Matins, Midday, Vesper, and Compline) performed before each meal and before bed. Each office includes at least one Psalm, which is read, sung, or chanted, a song, and a corporate prayer (except Compline).
  • Our corporate prayer for Matins is a confession of sins and is followed by a promise of forgiveness. It is also during Matins that we perform our family Bible reading. We read about a chapter every day (except Sundays) and should make it through the Bible in four years (one year for each “testament” of Scripture).
  • Midday office is the shortest and usually doesn’t take more than 2-3 minutes.
  • Compline includes any one of longer ecclesiastical songs (a through-composed version of the Nicene Creed, the “Te Deum,” or a chanted version of the Anathansian Creed). We also sing several Psalms or hymns around the piano. Because our church publishes the following week’s music a week early, we practice the corporate worship music all week long.
  • The cycle revolves around our progress through the Psalms. We read all the Psalms every five weeks. When we complete the 5-week cycle, we start over.
The biggest need for improvement is in the area of praying. My next project is to work on an organized system for specific requests for which to pray in our extemporaneous prayers rather than just addressing things as they come to mind. Also, I would like to replace some of the oft-repeated ecclesiastical corporate prayers with prayers directly from the Psalms.

I could note many benefits that I have noticed from our performance of our family prayers, but I will just mention a few the come immediately to mind. First, because we perform them at the same time everyday, it is much easier to be consistent. Indeed, because children are always involved, it would be nearly impossible to skip them. They wouldn’t hear of it!

Second, and most important, because these times are practice for Lord’s Day corporate worship, we expect our children to behave as they should in church. That is, they participate. They also learn how to sit quietly when expected to do so. Because rehearsal is similar in many ways to the actual performance, they have learned how to bring their best to God on Sunday.

The last benefit I will mention is “intellectual.” They are learning all the Psalms by heart. The Scripture reading is frequently the topic of discussion at breakfast. They know the songs we sing at church, even the ones who can’t read. They know a creeds of the church, long ones. They can pray many traditional prayers of the church, which will remain with them for many years.

Recently, I typeset our “Family Prayers” and had them printed. It was my Epiphany gift to my family. I am pleased with the outcome and am thankful that we no longer have to find the Keynote slide on the laptop before every meal. If you think it would be helpful for yourself and your family, you can purchase one of your own. Simply follow the link to the left.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Practice of lectio divina

While seeking to develop affections and inclinations that are thoroughly Godward, the follower of Jesus must construct a network of distinctively Christian practices that form a life liturgy that is equally God-centered. In her wisdom throughout history, the church has developed distinctively Christian activities that are oriented very specifically toward the face of God as well as Christian ways of performing actions that are common to virtually all people.

One such uniquely Christian practice is lectio divina, an ancient monastic method for reading Scripture. Forgotten by much of Christendom, this practice can inform us in our reading not only of Scripture but also of any sort of literature.

The Latin term lectio divina literally means “divine reading” and comprises, depending on the specific tradition, four distinct actions: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

Jeremiah said, “Your words were found and I ate them, And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; For I have been called by Your name, O Yahweh God of hosts” (15:16). The practice of lectio divina has been described in terms of feasting, like Jeremiah, on God’s word. By reading, we put in our mouths what is set before us. By meditating, we chew and ruminate on it. By praying, we relish (or pucker at) the flavors of the text. And by contemplating, we swallow and digest it. Thus, like Jeremiah, God’s words become the “joy and delight” of our hearts.

These actions encourage a slow, careful reading of Scripture and discourage a consumerist, scanning of the surface in search of brief thrills or nuggets of truth. This type of deliberate reading is a more loving reception of the gift which is the text. And by loving God, the Giver of the text, we participate in the text at a much more affective level.

(The same can be said about our reading of any other type of literature, even if it be pagan. In order to do justice to the gifted nature of a text and to the neighbor who is the giver, we must read works in a manner commensurate with their nature as literature. Detailed, deliberate texts must be read slowly and carefully. Action thrillers may be read quickly and shallowly. Reading texts in these ways is obedience to the Christian injunction to love our neighbor, but it does not require turning our enemies into our friends.)

This year, as part of our education (worship practice), the readers in my family will be practicing a form of lectio divina as we read through the Bible. I have tried to formulate the four actions in a way suitable for children. Here are the instructions and descriptions I framed for them:

Pray before you read:
Deal bountifully with Your servant,
That I may live and keep Your word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
Wonderful things from Your law.
I am a stranger in the earth;
Do not hide Your commandments from me.

Read (listen) - “Please receive instruction from His mouth And establish His words in your heart” (Job 22:22). Write a brief summary of the passage for the day.

Meditate - “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8). Write down a question in response to today’s passage that you want answered and that you will think about throughout the day.

Pray - “May my prayer be counted as incense before You; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.” (Psalm 141:2). Write a prayer of consecration that asks God to change you according to the words of today’s passage.

Contemplate - “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:21-22). Keep God’s word in your heart and mind throughout the day, and put it in practice.

The children have journals on which to write their thoughts and use one page per day. So far, I am pleased with the outcome. In addition to appreciating their childlike handling of the Biblical text, I am also happy for the opportunity to give them writing instruction. When I get home in the evening, I have each child in turn bring me his or her journal, and we talk about them. I give affirmation and guidance about the quality of their responses. At dinner, we discuss the meditation questions as a family.

Of course, we have only done this three days so far, but I think that this will quickly become a fruitful daily ritual in the life of my family. Ultimately, I hope the fruit will be an increased love for God and his word as well as a greater ability to worship God on Sunday with His people more fully.

(Some of the ideas about charitable reading came from Alan Jacobs’s rather dense book, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Educating for Worship

I am convinced that man, created in the image of God, is most basically homo adorans, a worshiping, affective being. A person develops his humanity by becoming a skillful worshiper of God. This view, of course, is in contrast to an overly intellectual understanding of man as basically homo sapiens, a thinking being. I believe that worshiping God with His people in His sanctuary is man’s greatest activity, most pertinent for fulfilling Christ’s commission and most relevant for forming godly culture and thus for fulfilling God’s mandate from man’s very creation. This special worship is far more important for evangelism, for sanctification, and for transforming this world than any other activity.

Pedagogical methods will reflect the type of human one desires to produce. One who desires to produce an excellent thinker will devise commensurate methods. Because I desire to become and lead my children in becoming excellent worshipers, the methods I chose in education will fit that goal.

Education is more about formation than it is about information. The methods one uses to educate one’s children are more formative of what a child becomes more than the ideas that are verbally communicated to them. Even pedagogies focused on the intellect will mold the desires and inclinations in a certain direction. But a child’s education, his formation, includes much more than just what takes place during the formal moments of schooling.

A person is known more by his affections than by his “beliefs.” The activities in which a person engages are a product more of his desires than of his stated beliefs. People, in general, do what they want to do. Indeed, some estimate that up to 95% of a person’s activities throughout a day are done without conscious reflection. Our habits, those activities that define who we are, are instilled not merely by persuasion of the intellect. They are formed by repeated rituals or practices that form the liturgies of our life.

Thus, as I seek to raise my children to be godly Christians, my efforts in “educating” them work to instill distinctly Christian practices into their lives that will form them into skillful worshipers of God, who worship Him because they truly love Him.

I am currently fascinated by a current realm of study that has to do with practices, and as I learn more I want to incorporate more and more distinctly Christian practices into the life of my family. And as we do so, I trust that God will use them to transform our affections toward worshiping Him as He desires.