Christian Worship, Song of Solomon Style

There’s a lot to complain about in contemporary worship songs – the kind accompanied by guitars and drums. My children call it 7-11 music: 7 words repeated 11 times. The lyrics are often repetitive, trite and sentimental. The music is equally forgettable and wanders all over the place.

My two biggest complaints, however, don’t have anything to do with artistic merit. First, it often sounds like you are love-struck teenager singing to your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s almost sexual in tone. Is this the way we approach the King of Glory enthroned above? Where is the weight of majesty? Second, the lyrics often lack any connection to the language and themes of the Biblical text. Modern praise music often worships a disembodied Christ, a spiritual presence detached from his story in the scriptures.

And then I read the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem with nothing to say about God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses or David. Nothing about God’s victories over his enemies. Nothing about the law, the temple, the priesthood or the history of Israel. Nothing of the prophet’s call to justice. Nothing about wisdom beginning with the fear of the Lord. It’s just a sexy love song – or possibly a collection of love songs- and a really cheesy love song at that.

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Biblical Foundations for Chaplaincy

Where are Chaplains in the Bible? There are no chaplains in the Holy Scriptures, but the great story-line of the Bible naturally produces an activity of the Church that looks like chaplaincy, no matter what you might call it. The church reaches out to bless the world around it, regardless of how people respond to the call of the gospel. We do so because God blesses the world he loves, even if the world doesn’t bless him back. We are merciful, because God is merciful. God’s work of mercy and blessing are the twin foundations of Christian chaplaincy.

The Character of God

We start with the nature of God. God loves the world.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

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Solomon’s Prayer on Dedicating the Temple

This Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament contains a portion of King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:22-53).


  1. Begins by praising the God who keeps his promises.
  2. Recalls God’s dynastic promises to David through the prophet Nathan.
  3. Acknowledges that God is bigger than the temple. The whole universe cannot contain him or constrain him.
  4. Affirms that God has condescended to establish a house where his name might dwell.
  5. Asks God to:
    • Hear the prayers of his people when they face toward the temple and pray. Most of the petitions make it sound like people pray in the direction of the temple, not necessarily in the temple.
    • Forgive the people when they repent; lead them to fear God and do what is right; and keep them safely in the land promised to their ancestors. These requests pop up repeatedly throughout the prayer and qualify many of the petitions.
    • Render justice in disputes brought to the temple for adjudication, presumably through some act of divination.
    • Bring God’s people back to their covenant homeland whenever they are defeated militarily and taken into exile. This petition is repeated twice, with the second petition being the longer.
    • Deliver relief from drought, famine, plague and military threats whenever they occur.
    • Grant military victory when God sends the people to war.
    • Hear and answer the prayers of foreigners who come to the temple because of God’s name, so that his renown might spread throughout the whole world.
  6. Closes with an appeal to God to hear Israel’s prayers based his election of them as his inheritance, and the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt under Moses.

Overall, the prayer affirms that God has chosen the people of Israel in a singular way, that he delivered them from Egypt and gave them the land of promise, that he expects them to live according to his law, that all people sin, that sin has consequences, that there is no hiding the truth from God, and that God can forgive and restore the penitent.

The most surprising petition of Solomon’s prayer is his appeal on behalf of foreigners. The postexilic tenor of the prayer in its current form is obvious. Given that the text came to us through people who survived the exile,  this petition is remarkable. Even when the nations of the world wreaked havoc on the people of God, their tradition reminded them of God’s hope for the nations, that the Gentiles might be drawn to the glory of God’s name and that he would hear their prayers.

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What Do You Mean by Liturgy?

When I say I love Christian liturgy – and that I think it is important for the life of the church – I am often misunderstood. People think I mean that I like to read words aloud that are printed in a worship bulletin. That’s not quite right.  What I mean is that I like the prayers, songs and other acts of worship that have deep roots and broad usage in the church. In other words, I value the liturgy we have inherited from our Christian forebears.

One of the benefits of a set liturgy is that you memorize large parts of it through repeated usage. Eventually, you don’t need to read the words from the bulletin or the hymn book. You know them. They are a part of you. They rise up within you as you recite them.

I really don’t really like to recite words composed on Tuesday for use on Sunday, to be thrown into the recycle bin on Monday. Of course, some contemporary liturgies are even worse if you actually reuse them. Few of them are weighty enough to endure for hundreds of years or to unite the church across the generations. Their novelty wears out very fast. They have the lasting appeal of a 1970’s kitchen in an HGTV remodel.

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Six Layers of Liturgy

The word “liturgy” can mean several different but related things, depending on context.

  1. Cultural Liturgy. If liturgy is a community’s habitual practice of certain rituals to impart meaning and instill desires, then liturgy is everywhere. It’s not just a church thing. Cultural liturgies attempt to shape our hearts and minds in much the same way that Christian worship does. The writings of James K. A. Smith explore this topic in detail. The secular world may not call them liturgies, but Christians recognize the patterns of religious worship when they see them.
  2. Religious Liturgy. Every Christian community has a worship liturgy. It’s not just a high church thing. The Baptist church to which I first belonged sang “Just as I Am” to conclude every Sunday service. They never would have described the ritual as “liturgical,” but it was. If your church has a pattern of worship that it regularly follows, that’s its liturgical form. Shouting “Amen” during the sermon and praying, “I just want to thank you, Father, God” are just as much forms of liturgy as standing to sing “Alleluia” before the reading of the gospel.
  3. Written Liturgy. People commonly use the word “liturgy” to describe forms of worship that have written prayers and readings for the members of the congregation to recite, whether these forms are of recent or ancient vintage.
  4. Historic Liturgy. The Church, in its various forms, has inherited confessions, prayers, hymns, acts of praise and other modes of worship from earlier generations of Christians. Many of these forms have been in use for centuries, some for millennia.  These acts of worship represent the received faith, one that we share with Christians across the generations. Lex orandi, lex credendi. As we pray, so we believe.
  5. Official Liturgy. Liturgy can refer to the “the whole complex of official services, all the rites, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church, as opposed to private devotions.” (Catholic Encyclopedia). For United Methodists, Bishop Scott Jones has written that our approved liturgy is one level of our church’s official teaching.
  6. Eucharistic Liturgy. In Orthodox and other Eastern churches, the word “liturgy” refers only to the primary Eucharistic service of the church, the Divine Liturgy (Θεία Λειτουργία). Even Arabic-speaking Christians describe the Eucharist as al-liturgiah.

When I say that I like liturgical worship and think it’s important for the life of the church, I mean layers 4-6. More on that tomorrow.