CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Several years ago, I taught a class called, Crossing the Threshold: A Journey into Transformative Worship. Here are some thoughts, revisited in 2020. If you want to listen to the original talks and see the notes handed out in class, they are all under the Teaching page on this site.
When you start out on a journey it is important to know the place from which you are starting; that is, if you have any hope of finding the place to which you are going. Take the giant map in the shopping mall for example. You first need to find the star that says, “you are here”. Once you discover it, you can orient yourself and find where you are and where you are going. Or remember how you spent an entire day of orientation in a new school, where you were given the lay of the land so to speak. After that day it was possible for you to navigate the maze of classrooms and winding halls. Even the most famous road trip, Dorothy’s trek down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City began with orientation from the good witch, Glenda. It wasn’t enough for Dorothy to know she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
To orient means to set right by adjusting to facts; to put oneself into correct position or to acquaint oneself with the existing situation. Unfortunately, most people never receive an orientation lesson to life. No one says to you, here you are on the map of history and tells you what that means or why it should matter to you. After all history is just a boring subject often taught by boring teachers who rarely connect the subject to your personal life. It is flat, dull, in the past and irrelevant to your life in the here and now. Or is it? Could it be that history is more like a story with an author, a plot, a setting, a theme and characters? Christianity maintains that history is His story; God’s story. If that is true wouldn’t it be important to know where you are? To know what part you play so that when you step out onto the stage of history you can play it well?
Fellow pilgrim, you and I are going on an amazing journey over the next few moments. This journey will take us out of the ordinary world, crossing the threshold into a very special world. We will meet interesting characters, cover vast amounts of terrain, have a few awesome encounters and return home, like all good pilgrims do, having been transformed by our adventure. But we need to know where we are. We need to find the “you are here” star on the map of history.
The Sacred Secular Split
We live in a divided world. It wasn’t always this way. We will get to how it became divided shortly, but it is important to understand the division and how it affects your life today.
The Modern Western World has two basic compartments; the secular and the sacred. Some people try and live their entire life in one compartment or the other; most of us however go back and forth without ever thinking about it. Let’s take what you “do” for example. Work, school, entertainment, neighborhood activities, vacations, sexual intimacy, all go into the secular box while things like worship services, bible studies, prayer meetings, volunteering for the homeless, and mission trips all get thrown into the sacred compartment.
It isn’t just what you do that gets sorted into one box or the other. It affects everything in your life; the music you listen to, the art you appreciate, the books you read, the movies you watch, everything is labeled and sorted sacred or secular. I know some people whose voice changes depending on which box they are in at the moment!
You see the division is not just confined to the external world. No, the division goes deep into your internal world dividing you at the core of your being. Sensing something is not quite right you may try and bridge the divide by taking the sacred box into your secular world; saying a prayer at work for instance. Or you’ll bring your secular world into your sacred box by inviting someone to go to church with you. But neither of these constructs ever seems to work very well, and there is a reason why. The world was never designed to be divided into compartments of sacred and secular. When you go along with this man-made order you are going against the design of the world’s creator. You are going against God.
Now we can start with our history lesson. Let’s take the year 1400 AD. You can use “1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” if it is easier to remember; a few years won’t make a difference for our purposes. In all the time before the year 1400, for as long as man existed on planet Earth, he lived in a “sacred” world. By this I mean he had knowledge of something wholly other than himself, a different order of being, and a power before which he knew he was nothing. In other words, a god. Opposite this god, this sacred, was the profane which simply meant darkness, chaos, an abyss. So, it was natural that man wanted to live in as close proximity to the sacred as possible. Therefore, he would consecrate every aspect of his life; food, sex, work, home, everything to his god.
Werner Herzog produced the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in which he went deep into the Chauvet Caves in Southern France to film the oldest known cave paintings by Homo sapiens. Herzog says we really should call the early cave dwellers “Homo spiritus” (one spirit) rather than Homo sapiens (one knowing) for there is clear evidence of religious ceremony within these most ancient caves. Think of that; from the beginning of time man has been a worshipper and has lived in a sacred universe.
Thousands of years after the men painted the cave walls in Chauvet, the Apostle Paul stood on Mars Hill in Athens and gave his famous sermon recorded in Acts Chapter 17. Speaking to all the Athenians he said “…I observe that you are all very religious in all respects” (NAS).
This is not what is so typically thought of today as St. Paul making an “evangelistic” call to a crowd of non-believers so they can “get saved” and go to heaven. He is telling them that, “yes you are all religious men (for there is no other kind) and you live in awe of the gods because you have statues everywhere to please them…in all respects you make every part of your world sacred. Now let me explain to you, your own statue to ‘an unknown god’. There is only one true god who has now made himself known through the incarnation, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. It is he that I proclaim to you”.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkein believed that the step from paganism to Christianity was not that great a step, for all men believed in a god, in the sacred, in something more than themselves. All men were worshippers. No, the great chasm was the one that separated the Christian World of the Middle Ages and the Modern Western World. We must now explore that rift in order to bring us to the “you are here” star on the map of history.
The Modern World
Years ago, I read the Introduction to Peter Kreeft’s book, Heaven the Heart’s Deepest Longing. What I gleaned from that introduction helped me learn how to teach 2500 years of Western Civilization in about five minutes, in a way people seldom forget. I use my body as a diagram.
Looking out at the ancient world there were two small people groups around the Mediterranean Sea that became the source for all of Western Civilization: the Hebrews and the Greeks.
Think of these two peoples as two streams (my calves). One was the Classical stream from the source of Reason, the other the Biblical stream, rose from the source of Faith. These two streams became great rivers (my thighs!). The Greek stream flowed into the Roman river which created a world empire but remained essentially Greek in its mind. The Hebrew stream flowed into Christianity. Jesus did not create a new religion. He was the Jewish Messiah; the King of the Jews. These two great rivers came together during the Middle Ages (my torso) and created what can best be called a Christocentric world.
I like how John Eldredge describes this world in the book he coauthored with Brent Curtis, The Sacred Romance
“Once upon a time the Western World had a story. Imagine you lived in the High Middle Ages. Your world was permeated with Christian imagery. You marked the days by the sound of church bells and the weeks and months according to a liturgical calendar. You lived in anno domini, the year of our Lord. It wasn’t football season it was Advent. Your role models were the saints, whose feast days were regular reminders of a drama greater than yourself. The architecture of the Cathedrals, the music, literature and sculpture all gave you a vision of transcendence, reminding you of the central elements of that great story. Even the everyday language reflected the Christian understanding of life’s story, expressions like God be with you, upon my soul, and by Christ’s blood. Birth, death, love and loss all of your personal experience would be shaped and interpreted by that large story.”
The world had a large story; a metanarrative and everyone’s small story fit into that large one giving their life meaning and purpose. That world no longer exists, for the High Middle Ages was ripped apart by two movements: The Renaissance (my left arm) and The Reformation (my right arm).
Starting in the 1300’s, Europe began to feel a number of “birth pangs”. The Black Plague rapidly spread, killing one third of the population. While wars, religious strife, economic depression, occultism, invasions from the east and corruption within the fundamental institution of Medieval society, led the church to a season ripe for movements of renewal. The Reformation longingly looked back to the river of Biblical faith. It wanted to cleanse the church, reform it and purge it of its corruption. The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” was something entirely different. For what emerged out of the Renaissance was something that had never existed before in human history; a secular society. For the first time, a civilization was being built on a foundation that had no spiritual life, no religion, and no god as a source for its formation.
The Renaissance was followed by other movements; The Age of Scientific Discoveries, The Enlightenment, the Democratic and Industrial Revolutions and by the time the Modern World emerged it was evident that man had been “reoriented”. No longer did he give allegiance to God; he was now the Captain of his own ship, sailing along on a sea of secular humanism with the notion that progress, and the wonders of technology could take him anywhere he desired to go.
The Victorian Dream had briefly tried to keep God in the story as a remote author, saying that he gave man all these wonderful discoveries and technologies to build his kingdom on earth. But by 1900 belief in science, pursuit of raw power, and a thirst for glory, had ejected God from the picture altogether. No longer was man God’s steward of creation, his Genesis vocation, now he was his own god and he was out to conqueror the world.
There probably isn’t a more fitting symbol of man’s arrogance as he enters this new age than the White Star Line’s luxury ocean liner, the Titanic. Named for mythological deities of ruthless greed and power the largest ship ever built was promoted as being “unsinkable”. Divided by economic classes into first, second and steerage, she was the perfect metaphor for what the industrial titans in her first class were actually doing to the rest of the world; dividing and conquering. On the night of April 14, 1912, she was making her maiden voyage crossing the Atlantic when she struck an iceberg and sank. The entire 20th century might be viewed as Titanic’s descent to the bottom of the ocean floor. Wars, genocides, economic depressions, weapons of mass destruction, totalitarianism…death and destruction of a magnitude never seen before in history.
You Are Here
We now come to our “you are here” star and we find ourselves in what is called the Postmodern World. But what exactly does that mean? You know something is wrong when experts have a hard time defining it. Richard Tarnas says that you can’t really have a postmodern worldview because the postmodern paradigm is fundamentally subversive of all paradigms. Make sense?
Or how about this one by Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodern is “incredulity toward metanarratives”, which simply means the Postmodern worldview is that there is no large story, no metanarrative.
So here is a picture definition of postmodernism that may help you understand the world in which you live. Watch the end scenes of James Cameron’s 1997 movie, Titanic. After the Titanic sinks, fifteen hundred people are left splashing around in the frigid dark waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. They are all desperate to save their own lives by clinging to whatever piece of wreckage they might be able to find. There you have Postmodernism. Remember in this world there is no metanarrative, no large story of God and his plan for saving and redeeming the fallen creation. People are entitled to their own private subjective spiritual beliefs; their own “piece of wreckage”, whatever they think might save them. However, those beliefs cannot enter or interfere with the objective reality of the secular world. Hence the world is divided by man into two compartments; the sacred, where you may privately believe in whatever god you want to, and the secular where science is god and man is king.
How did the church come through this great rift? Unscathed? Did any of the Titanic survivors come through the sinking uninjured? Hardly! They bore the scars for the rest of their lives. Once again, the church was divided, this time between Catholic and Protestant, a division which just seems to keep multiplying (think: Mainline, Fundamental, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Seeker etc.) There are volumes written by learned scholars on the impact of man’s reorientation from being one who worships a god to one who thinks he is a god. For our purposes we need to understand three major changes that occurred. There was a shift from the corporate to the individual, from the heart to the head, and from the objective to the subjective.
This great divide brought about a radical shift in allegiance from the corporate church to the individual. The Reformation led the way with Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”. This was both a natural response against the abuses and corruption of the medieval church and a scriptural one. However, the ideas that glorified man coming out of the Renaissance and the movements that followed, fed what was to be corrective in nature into something more far reaching. Very subtlety a reorientation was taking place that would lead people away from the corporate body to a more privatized and individualized faith. Not only did this affect their understanding of what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ, it also resulted in a diminishment of the Gospel.
Today the Gospel is often presented as the means by which an individual gets “saved” so they can go to heaven when they die. It is rather like a glorified life insurance policy sold by energetic salesmen, and it is all about you. It is all about what happens when you die and where you go when you die, and that Christ died for your sins. A gospel that emphasizes death more than life and sin more than godliness, Dallas Willard calls it a “gospel of sin management”. There may be elements of truth in such a gospel but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the “good news” is about a whole lot more than you.
As N.T. Wright says the good news was news about an event that actually happened, an event that changed time and eternity forever. The Resurrection from the dead of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, meant that God’s project for renewing and restoring His entire creation was now going forth. The life of the age to come had now entered time and was being made available to all. The invitation was and still is: you can be part of God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) by receiving Jesus the Christ (the King) and in so doing you become part of his corporate body the church. You enter a fellowship, a “royal priesthood” where sacrificial love replaces ego driven spirituality.
Not only did the great rift divide the church, it also divided human beings. In the 17th century the great head heart split occurred when Dr. William Harvey dissected a human body and held up the heart as a pumping machine. The mass of tissue, blood and muscle became part of the evolutionary process and design while the Biblical heart, the seat of wisdom and the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23) was lost. If the heart retained any mystique, it simply became the seat of emotion. The human mind, the storehouse of empirical knowledge and scientific fact now became preeminent.
This shift from heart to head infiltrated the church. Knowing God in the Biblical sense of intimacy (Adam knew Eve and she conceived) was replaced with knowing about God intellectually. This radical intellectualism led down a slippery slope to a modern day form of Gnosticism. Your spiritual life is now confined to your mind/spirit, which is “good”. Your physical body is only matter and is part of the fallen world; therefore, what you do with it is inconsequential. One day your spirit will leave it behind and you will depart this evil world for a disembodied existence in the heavenly realm. This is not orthodox Christian belief, but it is the mindset of many professing modern day Christians.
The third shift I have suggested is from the objective to the subjective, and it is more difficult to define. Perhaps an illustration will suffice. When the elderly Rose comes to the end of her story about her time on the Titanic in the James Cameron film, she says of her lover and savior.” Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me in every way a person can be saved. I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists only in my memory.” Jack has gone from being an objective real person to being a subjective memory in Rose’s imagination. And so, has Jesus to much of the world. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern World kept moving God out of this world. Like Jack slipping out of sight in the dark waters of the Atlantic, or a helium balloon floating away into the upper atmosphere, God was gradually being removed. He went from being a real presence here on earth, one that could be known through the sixth sense of the heart as the Comforter, Teacher, Advocate, Holy Spirit (which Jesus himself said was better than his actual physical presence …), to being by the 18th century a remote god out in heaven, one that got the whole thing going by an act of creation but really was not interested or involved, to the god of today, who now exists only in the mind of the believer.
Most people can “see” Jesus in his first coming walking the roads of first century Palestine or hanging on the cross. They may be able to picture his second coming by envisioning him coming in clouds of glory. But where is he today? Right now? Well for most people the answer sounds much like Rose’s “there really was a person Jesus Christ (they think it is his last name) but now he exists only in my mind. The objective, real, present God who created the universe has now been reduced to a subjective experience that exists only in our imagination. How tragic. How fatal!
We live in a divided world. The sacred secular split goes deeper than just dividing what is sacred from what is secular. The split has divided heaven from earth, time from eternity, body from soul, and Christ from His church. God never intended for his world to be bifurcated (that means forked like a serpent’s tongue) that came from another source.
The end result is that the secular world lost the truth. They lost the one true God and his large story. Interestingly enough they retained a love for story, for narrative, the language of the heart. Look where everyone wants to go these days….the movies. If they cannot afford to actually go to the movies they will buy a large screen television and bring the movies home. Why? For most, it is their moment of transcendence. For a couple of hours they can be caught up in something larger than themselves. Having lost God’s metanarrative there is little hope for something epic to be a part of. Movies will have to suffice and very subtlety becomes a form of worship.
The Church retained the truth but lost the story. Having confined the beauty, intimacy, and adventure with God to the past or future they have nothing to capture their hearts in the present. Reading the Bible like a scientific text book filled with doctrinal truth and biblical principles does nothing to quench the emptiness of the heart. Like the secular world, they too live in a small story, albeit a religious one, and they often watch the movies the secular world produces to give themselves a fleeting moment of transcendence. Indeed both sides want out of the mundane ordinary world because in their heart they know they were created for more.
In order to find this “more” we must go on a journey. First we need to enter the secular realm and dive into the story that captures everyone’s heart and imagination. When we have a good grasp of that story we will step over into the sacred realm and discover perhaps for the first time what God’s real intention was for his people. Finally, we will weave the two realms back together. Our diagram of history (it was headless after the split) will finally be complete because it will at last have its Head.
So let’s begin where all stories do…..”Once upon a time there was a hero”
In the beginning…..Once upon a time…..A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, these are words that capture our heart because they take us into the world of story. Story is important; it is far more than mere entertainment. Story is a way of seeing, a way of understanding, and a way of knowing. Take your own personal life; without your family story how would you know who you are? Indeed, people who have been separated early in life from their family story often struggle with identity until they find a new family story to inhabit. Story helps you find your place in the universe. It brings order to your life; it pushes back the chaos by placing you in time and giving your life a framework.
Story also helps you remember. The world is extremely complex, so full of facts and information. Story helps you take all that data and place it into “story files”; giving you the ability to remember people, places and events by the context of story.
Story is a language, a mother tongue. As a baby you learned to communicate with words like Mama, Dada, and baby. These weren’t just first words, they were placing you as a character into an already ongoing narrative. This most basic orientation to life came through story.
Everyone deep down intuits this; they know they are a character in a story. They may not like the part they have been cast into, but they sense they were meant to be part of a story. That is the appeal and the power of movies and novels. Most people want out of their own ordinary story even if but for a few hours; so they escape into a fictitious story, one that promises more.
There is one story above all others that appeals to this “more” and resonates with in the heart. It is the heroic adventure. Think of the movies you love: Braveheart, Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Avatar, Gladiator, Harry Potter, Lion King, Robin Hood, Polar Express, Indiana Jones, Finding Nemo, ET, The Wizard of Oz, all of these and so many more have one thing in common. They all are about a hero who steps out of the ordinary world and into an epic adventure.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
In 1949 a book by Joseph Campbell entitled, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, was published. This may not seem like a very momentous occasion especially if you have never heard of the man or his book. However, on a timeline for Western Civilization that lists great events for each year beginning with 2000BC and ending with 1990AD; the year 1949 has only four entries and Joseph Campbell’s book is one of them (Passions of the Western Mind). What was so important about this book that it would be given such acclaimed status?
Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime studying cultures all over the world, and he became a keen student of their stories, legends, myths, and oral traditions. He observed that all these vastly different cultures shared one universal story about a hero who went on a journey. The heroes may have had different names, but the story followed the same basic pattern. He recorded his discovery in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Since the publication of his book many people have studied Campbell’s work and developed variations of what is now commonly referred to as The Hero’s Journey or The Monomyth. There is one version that I have found to be most helpful in understanding this foundational story; it is contained in Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Mr. Vogler confesses that there is nothing new in his book; the ideas are “older than the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the earliest cave paintings…the theme of the hero myth is universal occurring in every culture in every time.”
So, let’s embark on the Hero’s Journey using the twelve stages Mr. Vogler has identified as the basic pattern. After we become familiar with each stage, we will introduce the characters or archetypes that inhabit the story.
The Hero Journey - Act I
Act One: Separation
The Hero is first introduced in a very Ordinary World. There is nothing special or remarkable about the hero at this point and certainly not his world. All is not well though, as a problem or challenge is presented to the hero. Think of Chuck Noland, the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away. He is just a regular guy in a FedEx world who doesn’t have time for anything, not even a trip to the dentist.
Or consider Balian the common blacksmith in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. It is winter in 12th c. France; Balian’s young wife has committed suicide after the death of their infant son leaving him in state of shocked numbness.
For a heroine take Rapunzel in Disney’s new animated movie Tangled. She is confined to her tower doing her everyday chores wondering and singing “when will my life begin”. The story starts in the mundane world and zeros in on one character and then something happens.
The Call to Adventure
The hero receives a Call to Adventure which requires him to make a choice: stay in the Ordinary World or step into the adventure. For Chuck Noland, the call comes through his pager on Christmas Eve, responding to it puts him on that ill-fated flight over the ocean.
Balian’s call comes through his real father who suddenly appears and identifies himself and offers Balian a new life in the Holy Land.
Adventure beckons to Rapunzel yearly on her birthday when mysterious floating lights appear in the sky speaking to her in a special way. However the Call to Adventure may come, the hero will be faced with a choice to make, and a risk to take.
Refusal of the Call
Usually the Call to Adventure is at first refused. Why? Because of fear. Fear of the unknown is very powerful and that is why there is so much risk involved. Will the hero overcome the very first obstacle; the initial fear of leaving what is known? Will Frodo leave the safety of the Shire and step out onto The Road?
Meeting with the Mentor
At this point a wise man or woman may show up to help the hero. Cinderella is in the Ordinary World of her Stepmother’s house when an invitation to the King’s Ball arrives. The shredding of her hand me down dress by the ugly step sisters forces Cinderella to refuse the call. Now the fairy godmother appears with exactly what she will need for her adventure. A mentor may supply special gifts like the godmother does to help the hero overcome fear. Old Ben Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker his father’s light saber and invites him into the world of the Jedi; but he can only take him so far. There comes a point where the hero must continue on his own.
The Hero Journey - Act II
Act Two: Descent and Initiation
Crossing the Threshold
The first four stages of the Hero’s Journey comprise Act One in the story and they are about separation. Now the moment comes when the hero must actually Cross the Threshold from the Ordinary World and go into the Special World. There is always some sort of a boundary that separates these two worlds. It may appear as a door, a bridge, a wilderness, an ocean, a forest, a river, it can be almost anything. However it appears, it is the demarcation between two worlds.
Harry Potter runs into a brick wall at Platform 9 ¾, Rapunzel leaves a stone and mortar tower and touches grass, Mattie and Rooster Cogburn ford a river into Indian Territory, Moses crosses a desert and leaves Egypt, Hero Boy steps onto the Polar Express. Sometimes the boundary crossing results in a crash. Chuck Noland’s plane crashes in the ocean, and Balian’s ship to the Holy Land is crushed by waves, both men wash up on distant shores in new worlds. Whatever the threshold is there is no doubt that the hero is out of his mundane world and has entered a new one.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World. Think of Dorothy waking up in Oz or Jake Sulley landing on Pandora in the movie Avatar. Both characters arrive in worlds that are radically different from the ones they left behind. The new environment of the special world forces the hero into a series of tests that actually serve as training for what lies ahead. He will also be forced to make new allies while being confronted with powerful enemies for the special world is not a safe place. This stage can go on for some time, but it is always going in one direction…downward. If Act One is separation, Act Two begins with a descent.
Approach to Inmost Cave
The hero is pressing into the very heart of the new world where as Mr. Vogler writes “the greatest treasures are guarded by the greatest fears.” This is a dangerous journey that often goes underground to where the object of the quest is hidden. It can even be a descent into hell itself.
The Ordeal is where the hero hits bottom. It is the crisis of the heart; the facing of the greatest fear which usually is a death of sorts. It can be facing a failure, a death of a relationship, or an inner struggle. Whatever it is it becomes the turning point of the story.
My favorite Ordeal scene is the unmasking of the gladiator in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator. After winning ‘The Battle of Carthage’ in the arena, Maximus is ordered to remove his helmet and reveal his identity to the emperor. When he does he comes face to face with Commodus the man who murdered his wife, son and the true emperor Marcus Aurelius. This is a life and death moment, for Commodus now has the power to execute Maximus on the spot.
Having survived the Ordeal, the hero takes possession of the treasure. For Maximus it is the crowd’s approval. Proximo his mentor told him “win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom”. This special weapon (love) is one that Commodus is powerless before. As the whole arena erupts in chants of live, live, live, Commodus has no choice but to demur to the crowd’s demands and give Maximus the thumbs up sign. Great jubilee breaks over the arena as Maximus marches off triumphantly. Celebration is typical for the ending of the Reward stage. Act Two is now complete and the final act begins with a turn toward home.
The Hero Journey
Act Three: Return
The Road Back
The hero is not safe yet nor is the journey over by any means. The enemy usually comes back with great vengeance. Commodus unleashes his fury after his humiliation in the arena and all of Rome feels the brunt of it. The Road Back is leading in one direction; to the final and ultimate confrontation.
If the Ordeal is the crisis of the story then the Resurrection is the climax. This is the final clash between life and death and usually includes a sacrifice. Something must be given up, surrendered in order to “sanctify” the story. This is Harry Potter’s walk ‘Into the Forest Again,’ it is Chuck Noland’s loss of Wilson the volleyball, and it is Jack and Rose’s final descent into the waters in Titanic. From this last most dangerous meeting with death the hero will emerge transformed.
Return with the Elixir
The journey is now over and the hero returns to the Ordinary World having been transformed by the experience and brings with him the elixir. The elixir can be a treasure, a lesson learned, love, and friendship. Whatever it is the hero will be forever different and will enter into a new life.
Not only does change come to the hero but the elixir he returns with can change the Ordinary World. “The whole world is altered and the consequences spread far. There is a beautiful image for this in Excalibur. When Percival brings the grail back to the ailing Arthur, the King revives and rides out with his knights again. They are so filled with new life that the flowers burst into bloom at their passing. They are a living elixir, whose mere presence renews nature.” (The Writer’s Journey)
Since The Hero’s Journey is a basic foundational story, there are some basic characters better known as archetypes that are associated with it.
First and foremost of course is the hero, the central protagonist in the story. We may be tempted to think of heroes as being strong and courageous however these are really secondary qualities. Mr. Vogler says “the word hero is a Greek word, from the root that means ‘to protect and to serve’…a hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others, like a shepherd who will sacrifice to protect and serve his flock.” The true mark of a hero then is a willingness to sacrifice. To surrender something of value, perhaps even their very life on behalf of another person, group, or cause.
Heroes also show us how to face the ultimate fear by facing death and doing it well. Some may lay down their life like William Wallace in Braveheart, others may die symbolically like Chuck Noland in Cast Away, while others simply face the possibility of death like Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows. Whatever the outcome is, a hero is someone who does not give death a victory. They transcend it.
Mentors are wise old men and women who come along side the hero to teach, guide, and protect them. Often they are former heroes, ones who have survived the tests, trials, and ordeals and grown to an old age full of wisdom. They are willing to impart to their young protégés all that experience has taught them.
A mentor will often speak as “the voice of God” and serve as the source of divine wisdom in the story. Along with lifesaving advice they may give magic gifts like magical weapons. They help the hero to overcome his fears and impart a code of virtue that all heroes are required to have.
Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Yoda, are all classic examples of a hero’s mentor.
One of my favorite visual scenes in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring comes toward the end when the small band leaves the Woods of Lothlorien and paddle up the river on their quest to reach Mordor. They come to these immense stone figures…The Argonath, The Pillars of the King; here is how Tolkien himself describes them:
“As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening….Upon great pedestals founded deep in the waters stood two great kings of stone: still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gestures of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long vanished kingdom. Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down, shutting his eyes and not daring to look up as the boat drew near.” (The Lord of the Rings) These are perfect images for the archetype known as Threshold Guardians.
Threshold Guardians stand at the threshold of new worlds to keep out those they deem unworthy. They maybe a boss, a watchman, a sentinel, a guard, or anyone whose job it is to block the way of the hero.
A herald is a forerunner used to introduce or give tidings, to make proclamations or announcements of significant change. They can be as small as the robot R2D2 in George Lucas’ Star Wars or as large as Hagrid the giant in Harry Potter and the Scorer’s Stone. They are used to present the challenge and get the adventure going.
A shapeshifter is exactly what the word implies; a figure who changes shapes at least from the hero’s perspective. Are they friend or foe? Loyal or traitor? Honest or Dishonest? They are not the villain but they may be used by him and they always keep the hero guessing.
The Shadow of course represents the dark side. They are the forces of evil that are dedicated to the hero’s destruction. They can be outright villains who want the hero’s death, or they may be antagonists, those who are after the same goal but do not like the hero’s way of achieving it.
The hero usually has a few close allies who make at least part of the journey by his side. They serve different functions; messengers, sparring partners, figures who fight along side in battle, loyal servants, and companions. It would be hard to imagine Frodo without the Fellowship, Arthur without his Knights, or Robin Hood without his Merry Men.
This is the Hero’s Journey, the world’s most basic story. It exists in all cultures at all times. It is a three act story that transcends cultural boundaries, time, language, gender, politics and religion, and resonates in the heart of every person in every time and every place.
Where did it come from? Who is its author? Certainly not Joseph Campbell, he just made the observation that the world had a Hero Myth. Nor did it originate with Mr. Vogler or any of the other authors who have devoted study and scholarship to writing on The Hero’s Journey. They all acknowledge the origin of the Monomyth to be in the primordial waters of the time before history...the time they call Myth.
If you were to ask most people in the postmodern world; what is myth? The answer coming back from both the sacred and secular arenas would surprisingly be the same: a false or untrue story. Differing on just about everything else these two opposing factions find common ground by dismissing myth as fable at best or worse an entrenched lie.
Wheaton College Professor Emeritus Rolland Hein says this low meaning of myth; a discredited popular belief is the complete degeneration of its high meaning. It is essential in our examination of the Hero’s Journey to regain the true high meaning of myth.
For Hein myths are “first of all stories; stories which confront us with something transcendent…the eternal expressing itself in time”. Clyde Kilby former President of Wheaton says “myth is the name for a way of seeing, a way of knowing.” For these men and many others including the great Christian mythmakers C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, myth is the only way certain transcendent truth can be expressed in a comprehensible form. Far from being entrenched lies, myths are stories that help people see and experience the transcendent in ways the rational never can.
The high meaning of myth: a means by which the eternal expresses itself in time, went to the low meaning of myth; a discredited popular belief , in much the same way Christianity went from being the one true metanarrative of the one true God to being….well myth!
In the undivided world prior to 1400 Christianity looked upon earlier pagan myths, not so much as lies but as primitive attempts to express God’s eternal truth prior to the coming of the full revelation of His truth in Jesus Christ. They did not dismiss the pagan myth; they sanctified it by using it as a means to communicate in story language the one “True Myth”, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is exactly what we earlier saw the Apostle Paul doing in Athens; taking the myth of an unknown god and explaining it with the true myth, the gospel of Jesus Christ. You see, beyond myth in the primordial past lay true myth in eternity, for as Mircea Eliade says myth is simply “nostalgia for eternity”.
When Christianity and the Bible were rejected as fable and falsehood by The Enlightenment, the world lost this understanding of true myth. Instead of being the source from which all truth originated the Biblical narrative was reduced to just another “myth” and all myth was reduced to its lowest possible meaning; a false explanation or a pleasant lie.
This loss puts men in perilous circumstances for “whether or not people are aware of the fact, they cannot live without myth, nor can they reach full stature as people without true myth. Wrong myths destroy lives; those partially true affect the human spirit like disease. A proper response to true myth is necessary to moral and spiritual health” (R.Hein)
What is the proper response to true myth? It is not to deny it like the secular modernist do; nor to relegate it to a subjective personal belief signifying nothing like the postmodernist does. And certainly it is not to abstract it from scripture making the Biblical text nothing more than a set of doctrinal truths and moral precepts, the way so many in the religious world do.
A proper response is to see that true myth is essential to who we are as human beings. We were created in the image of God to live a mythic life in an epic story. The proper response is to identify true myth with Truth himself Jesus Christ, for only then can we understand “why we respond as we do to patterns of myth, why the human heart is so strongly moved and fascinated by them and where they come from in the first place.” (R. Hein)
The Hero's Journey
Now that we have a better understanding of the word myth we can return to The Hero’s Journey or Hero’s Myth without automatically thinking fable, falsehood, untrue story. We can now begin to see its cosmic pattern and perhaps by “looking along and through” as C.S. Lewis would say, connect the myth of the Hero’s Journey with the “true myth” of Jesus Christ.
In Chapter Two I used Christopher Vogler’s Twelve Stage version of The Hero’s Journey and we will return to that, but let me give you another formulation that may also prove to be insightful. In his book Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, David Adams Leeming outlines the journey like this:
1. Miraculous conception and birth
2. Initiation of the hero-child
3. Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
4. Trial and quest
6. Descent into the Underworld
7. Resurrection and rebirth
8. Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement.
Oh, does this sound familiar? If I had not revealed the source of this eight point list you could easily have thought, “I know this story, it sounds very much like the one that’s been going around for well let’s see, two thousand years; the one about Jesus!” If you attend or have attended a liturgical church you probably recited either The Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, both are very early statements of the Christian faith and both include the essential outline of Christ’s life: miraculous conception and birth, trial and death, descent, resurrection, ascension, atonement. You see Joseph Campbell was wrong in one respect; the hero does not have one thousand faces he has one, and the Hero’s Journey that we find in all cultures at all times does not originate in the primordial past, it originates in eternity.
So let’s take a look at God’s Eternal Story in a fresh new “mythic” way by seeing it as The True Hero’s Journey.
Genesis the "Backstory"
Our story starts with a hero of course and before we step out on the journey with him we have to understand one of the many titles given to him in scripture. In First Corinthians 15:45 Jesus Christ is referred to as “The Last Adam”; what does this mean? We find the answer by going to the Genesis account and looking at the First Adam, the son of God (Luke3:37). This back-story is vitally important to all that follows in the biblical narrative.
In Genesis on the 6th day of creation God created man in his own image and gave him the vocation of ruling over the plant and animal kingdoms, as well as commissioning him to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. In ordinary everyday terms God was making man his “vice-regent”; someone he would uniquely empower to rule the earth along with him. We have a great distortion and perversion of this idea when we see ruthless dictators setting up their own images all over their countries, as a reminder of just who rules the place. Man (Adam) created in God’s image was to be a reflector of God; of his glory, giving an exact representation of who God is by exercising benevolent dominion over the earth. Being fruitful, he would multiply and fill the earth with the glory of God.
In Chapter Two of Genesis this vocation is more clearly defined when in verse fifteen God takes man and places him into the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and to keep it”. Adam is given the priest-king role of serving (to cultivate) and guarding (to keep) God’s first temple Eden. This includes keeping out all uncleanness. In “journey” language Adam leaves his Ordinary World, the ground from which he was created, and enters the Special World of the garden. When he is placed in Eden he is confronted with a test; will he obey the one command God gave him? Only one stipulation: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Adam failed the test; he failed to love and trust His Creator.
Do you remember our definition of Hero in Chapter Two? The word hero comes from the Greek root of the word that means “to protect and to serve”; a hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others, like a shepherd who will sacrifice to protect and serve his flock. Protect and serve was Adam’s Genesis vocation, he was called to be God’s shepherd over creation. Adam did not reflect God when he allowed the unclean “serpent” into the garden, he was not willing to lay his life down to protect his flock instead he willingly chose to sin. He turned in on self and became the first tragic hero.
What was God to do? Scrap the whole project of filling the earth with glory by using his image bearers; his priest kings? No, he had spoken his word. Did he know Adam would fail? Absolutely, and he already had a plan for the great rescue operation. God’s salvation is not about saving some people so they can go to “heaven” when they die. His salvation encompasses rescuing his entire creation; of restoring the earth and reuniting it to heaven, of restoring his images bearers to be his royal priesthood, and of saving the plant and animal kingdoms that have been subjected in bondage to corruption.
For the task of saving God’s creation, another Adam had to be found. The Last Adam would be one that would not fail the test but be obedient even to the point of death; one who would be the true hero by sacrificing his own life to protect and serve his flock and in so doing defeat all the powers of evil unleashed by the first Adam’s disobedience.
I am adding a note on Israel for it is important to see we don’t just jump from Genesis to the New Testament and the Last Adam. This often happens when you reduce God’s story to three act play: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
It is crucial to understand God’s plan of redemption begins in Genesis; first with the promise (Genesis 3:15) of one who will come and defeat the evil one, and then his initiation of a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. God promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) that through his seed all the nations will be blessed. God’s “project” for filling the creation with a people who will offer up “right praise” and reflect his glory into creation pushing back the darkness, is to go forth through Abraham’s “seed”; Isaac then Jacob, who becomes the nation Israel.
This is the recapitulation of Eden. God will dwell with them, he in the tabernacle/temple, which is in the midst of the garden/land. Israel is to be King /Priests (Exodus 19:6), a royal priesthood like Adam and Eve were, and sadly like their parents they too enact the primal sin of idolatry. The entire Old Testament is the story of Israel going after other gods.
Finally in the book of Ezekiel (10:15-19) the glory of the Lord (His presence) leaves the temple and in 586 BC Israel is expelled from the garden/land into exile, just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. And even though Israel returns to the land in the second temple period it is important to understand they were still in a state of exile for the glory of the Lord had not returned to the temple. In the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament they are still waiting for the glory of the Lord to return to Zion and inhabit the temple.
And that is where we pick up our Hero Journey story with the Last Adam. He is the climax of the six act story God is telling. He is the one true Israelite through whom salvation of God’s entire Kingdom will be accomplished.
Act 1 - God Establishes His Kingdom: Creation
Act 2 - Rebellion in the Kingdom: Fall
Act 3 - The King Chooses Israel: Redemption Initiated
Act 4 - The Coming of the King: Redemption Accomplished
Act 5 - Spreading the News of the King: The Mission of the Church
Act 6 - The Return of the King: Redemption Completed*
*Six acts from “The Drama of Scripture” Bartholomew & Goheen
Jesus and the Hero Journey
Act One: Separation
Once upon a time…In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2). The story of our Hero, the Last Adam begins in the heavens; the part of God’s one good creation not contaminated by sin. The Apostle Paul captures this beautifully in his Epistle to the Philippians when he writes to his tiny flock and tells them to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:5-7).
Our hero leaves The Ordinary World of heaven and enters The Special World of earth. The Incarnation is the beginning of the restoration of God’s entire creation and the reuniting of heaven and earth. It begins microscopically in the womb of a maiden from earth and a miraculous conception with a life from heaven (Luke 1:35).
The Call to Adventure
Shortly after our Hero’s birth comes the first Call to Adventure. Jesus is presented in the temple by his parent’s in accordance with the Law of Moses for “every first born male is to be called Holy to the Lord (Luke 2:23). In the temple is a devout elderly man named Simeon who is waiting for the fulfillment of a promise God made to him; he will not see death before he sees the Lord’s Christ. Simeon is a Herald bringing The Call for upon seeing the infant Jesus he blesses and proclaims him to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel. Turning to Mary, Jesus’ mother he gets more specific; “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and Resurrection of many in Israel and a sign to be opposed and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed”
The Refusal of the Call
Silence replaces the Refusal of the Call. From infancy to adulthood the scriptures are virtually silent on the life of Jesus. The one exception is the record of his visit to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast in his twelfth year. After losing Jesus for three days his parent’s find him sitting in the temple dialoguing with the teachers. His response to his mother’s query may sound strange, “Why is it that you were looking for me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke2:49). It does tell us that he understood his Call even if his parents by their bewilderment did not.
Meeting with the Mentor
All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give an account of Jesus’ baptism. The Gospel of John however skips the actual baptism in favor of recording the testimony of another Herald John the Baptist. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus is baptized by his cousin to “fulfill all righteousness” and immediately after he comes out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit descends on him. A voice out of heaven declares “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. (Matthew 3:16-17). The Father Mentor has spoken and given to Jesus the Son all he needs for the adventure that lies ahead.
Jesus and the Hero Journey
Act Two: Descent and Initiation
Crossing the Threshold
Act Two begins with a Threshold for our Hero to Cross; Jesus is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It is so easy with our rational minds to read this in sort of ho hum nonchalant way. He was tempted by the devil and of course he is God so he passed the test…period end of story. It changes everything when we think mythically. Jesus laid aside his divinity and became man, one with all the vulnerabilities of man. He fasts for forty days and forty nights becoming weak and hungry. Now the Devil, God of this World, Accuser, Apollyon, Angel of the Abyss, Murderer, Ruler of Darkness and Demons to name just a few of his names moves in, to tempt his prey. He is the Villain, the slithering serpent of old, the source of all evil who seduced Eve and destroyed Adam. Remember they were first God’s glorious created ones, vice-regents; royal priests of the Lord Most High that is before their tragic fall and corruption.
The Villain has pursued Jesus since birth; this will not be their last meeting.
Tests, Allies and Enemies
After successfully withstanding the wiles and temptations of the devil; Jesus returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. Having Crossed the Threshold he is now fully immersed in The Special World. Jesus chooses to commence his earthly mission by entering the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. After reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah Jesus proclaims his Call to literally be the Hero, the Messiah, the Jubilee of Israel, while at the same time he is a Herald inviting others into the Call. Immediately the room is divided between Allies who believe and receive his Call, and Antagonists who want to kill him. There is no middle ground with Jesus.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
During the three years of his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, Jesus is always headed in one direction; toward the final confrontation with civil and religious authorities in Jerusalem and the spiritual power that lies behind them.
The glory is returning to the temple from which it departed (Ezekiel 10), but in a way no one anticipated. It does not come with a Messiah on a white horse leading an army to destroy the Roman occupiers; rather it comes in an interesting prophet riding a donkey with a rag tag assortment of ordinary people following him into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast.
Jesus, the Passover Lamb Approaches the Inmost Cave not by an ascent but by a progressive descent; first to his knees in the garden of Gethsemane, then by being nailed to a Roman cross and finally by being lowered into a tomb.
Act Two began with descent and it climaxes with initiation. What was Jesus being initiated into? Death. We return to Paul’s letter to the Philippians; “and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians2:8). The sentence of death rested upon all men; for all men were “in Adam”. All men came from his corrupt seed and all had fallen short of the glory of God. The one and only spotless lamb must be initiated into the death of all in order that “in Christ” all may be saved.
The mystery of the tomb remains just that, a mystery. Scripture and creed proclaim that Jesus descended into the lowest parts of the earth. Like the mystery of a seed germinating and bringing forth new life, we will never know all that transpired during His three days in the tomb. We do know Jesus received a very great Reward. “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
Jesus and the Hero Journey
Act Three: Return
The Road Back and Resurrection
C.S.Lewis captured the mythic beauty of Jesus’ Resurrection in his famous tale, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan the Christ figure, exchanges his life for the “traitor” Edmund held captive by the White Witch who rules Narnia. After his Resurrection from the dead, Aslan explains to Edmund’s sisters Lucy and Susan what it all means, giving us a glimpse of the full work of Christ.
“It means”, said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
Death itself would start working backward? Yes, the undoing of death, the undoing of the curse, the undoing of the fall. A new kind of life is now on release through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Return with the Elixir
The Hero returns from The Special World with the Elixir. He is forever changed by his adventure but the Elixir he brings back has the power to change others and the world itself. Our Hero’s Elixir is the Holy Spirit; the eternal life of the age to come is now available to all who believe and all who will receive as their Lord and Savior; Jesus the Christ, Jesus the King.
The Gospel of John that began with a new Genesis …”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being, that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it” (John 1:1-5), now concludes with the giving of the Spirit…. “And when He had said this He breathed on them, and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22).
This is not the end of the story; it is the beginning. The coming of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts is the ongoing story of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ now on the throne of the universe fulfilling the original commission to man to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth with the glory of God. How will He do this? Through His Body the Church.
We have seen that The Hero’s Journey, the story that captures the heart and imagination of the world has its origin in the eternal story of The Son of God, Jesus Christ. Does this surprise you? Did you realize that with stories like Braveheart and Lord of the Rings God was wooing you, speaking to you in a language your heart could understand; the language of story? Have you ever seen The Hero’s Journey as an invitation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Probably not. Truth be told for some of you the moment I connected Jesus Christ to The Hero’s Journey your heart sank. And the reason why? Quite simply you associate Jesus with religion and religion is a lifeless confining box you do not want to be in. Neither do I
The Sacred Box
We could spend (and waste) a lot of time defining and discussing how Christianity was reduced to a religion. Do the words reduced to a religion startle you? Christianity is not a religion. Religions exist where there is a wall between God and men; Christ shattered the wall. Christianity is not a religion it is a Life. That we do not know or understand this shows how far we have come and how much has been lost. Religion exists to help men cope in a fallen world not to bring them the life of a new world. Christ came that we may have life, the life of the age to come; the life of New Creation.
We do not need to waste a moment in the box of religion. Our journey is to explore worship for the true and genuine way it is to enter the Life of Christ; the life of New Creation. This will not be easy and it will be opposed; life always is. If you have spent most your life in the secular world you may feel we are heading into religion; we are not. If you have sojourned long in the compartmentalized religious world it may be hard to think of what "life with God" is really like. For all who persevere on the journey, I can promise you worship is the portal into the Kingdom of God and the presence of the Lord of Life, Jesus Christ.
Worship: A Response to a Revelation
What does the word worship mean to you? Push the pause button and stay with the question for a moment. Maybe fill in the blank; I worship__________. Having trouble with the word worship? How about what do you revere or pay homage to? What do you idolize? The answer to these questions probably ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, anywhere from God the Creator to chocolate chip cookies. And once again the divided world realm from which you hail will determine a lot about how you answer the question. Secularists will probably verbalize it in terms of love. I just love Michael Kors, Justin Bieber, or NPR. Things such as food, sex, nature, causes, people, and clothes are what get idolized, loved and worshipped. Religious people tend to reduce worship to something you do out of duty or obligation. For those who come from Mainline Denominations, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, worship is a service you attend where you sing hymns, recite prayers, and listen to a sermon or homily. To those who follow the Charismatic or Evangelical traditions worship is equated to the inspirational singing and praising part of the service before the sermon. Indeed to pump people up in “worship” has become an expensive art in the post modern church.
But what is worship? Why do we worship? To whom do we give our worship really? These are extremely important questions, the answers to which have eternal as well as temporal consequences. First and foremost human beings were created to worship. It may surprise you to learn that it is part of our original design, part of the Imago Dei. Worship was meant to be our primary vocation, calling, and lifework. Therefore, it is not a matter of choice as if you can choose to worship or choose not to worship. If you are a human being it is inherent in you to worship. The only question is to what or to whom do you give your worship.
A Response to a Revelation
So let’s begin with what worship is. “Worship means literally, acknowledging the worth of something or someone. It means recognizing and saying that something or someone is far superior to oneself.” A key phrase in this definition by N.T.Wright is far superior to oneself. Worship is a response to a revelation of a wholly other; to one far superior in power, being and reality.
Let me illustrate this definition for you by using a scene from The Two Towers, the second book in J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are in pursuit of their friends Merry and Pippin when they enter the ancient woodland known as Fangorn Forest. They come upon a shrouded figure who they presume to be the evil wizard Saruman and are about to attack him when suddenly…
“The old man was too quick for him. He sprang to his feet and leaped to the top of a large rock. There he stood, grown suddenly tall, towering above them. His hood and grey rags were flung away. His white garments shone. He lifted up his staff, and Gimli’s axe leaped from his grasp and fell ringing on the ground. The sword of Aragorn, stiff in his motionless hand, blazed with a sudden fire. Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air, it vanished in a flash of flame...”
All three are totally disarmed by a power, being, and reality far superior to their own.
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white like snow in the sunshine, and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under the deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun, power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
The revelation of the wholly other Gandalf now returned from the dead produces an instinctive response in the man, the dwarf, and the elf. They are simply undone and caught up in a state of wonder, joy and fear. They are caught up in worship.
Tolkien was a devout Christian, and there is no doubt that in writing this scene he had other moments of “Eucatastrophe”, the in breaking of Joy, in his mind.
“And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.” Matthew 17:1-2
“And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across the breast with a golden girdle. And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire; and His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades.” Revelation 1:12-18
You see one of the great tragedies of the Post Modern World is that we have no one greater than ourselves to worship. We have diminished God. He is not the Holy other, He is not even the wholly other. The secular realm has done more than diminish Him. They have dismissed Him as entirely irrelevant; the old man in the sky sort of thing. The religious folk have not dismissed him as much as they have reduced Him, brought Him down to a manageable size, and created Him in their own image. Simon Chan writes of this diminished god “he is nice, accommodating, friendly and always expected to meet my needs; solve my problems.” A diminished god evokes diminished worship; a caricature of the real thing. Diminished worship produces diminished human beings. Diminished human beings are the tragic lives we meet everyday.
Reflectors of God's Glory
Does this last sentence surprise you? Diminished human beings….really? The word diminish means to make less than; to lessen the authority or dignity of; to degrade or abase. Have you ever considered the condition of human beings as degraded or abased, less than what they were created to be? Perhaps. Have you ever thought this about yourself? Maybe. But have you ever tied this diminished condition to worship? I am afraid that connection is too often overlooked and clearly not understood.
We need to ask the question ‘Why do we worship God?’ and not simply settle for the pat answer; “He is God and we are not; He is the Creator we are the created. He does not need to explain anything for He is worthy of worship simply because He is God.” Of course all of that is true but does it really give us all we need? I think not. The “why” question is vitally important, for why we do something, anything, even something as mundane as taking out the trash has a source of energy, power or motivation behind it. In the “why” question we find not only the reason for why we should do something, but also the reason for why we actually do, do something. The “why” is a double edged sword. Therefore, when it comes to the question of why we worship God; if we do not know or have the correct reasons as to why we should worship God, we will never have the right reason for why we actually do, and this not having the right reason to worship is grievous to God and ruinous to human beings.
In speaking to the Pharisees and scribes Jesus said “You hypocrites, righty did Isaiah prophesy of you saying ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt.15: 7-9) God hates false worship; it is vain, empty and an abomination to Him. The why of worship matters deeply to God. So just as a loving father who does not have to explain his reasons to his children but does so in order to train and capture their hearts, God gives us reasons to worship Him and they all begin with original design and original glory.
The famous theologian N.T.Wright says that Creation is God’s “project”; it is not static but is going somewhere. What started in Eden was simply the initial colonizing of what God fully intended to do with the entire earth. The Prophet Habakkuk captures this beautifully when he writes “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (2:14). In order to extend his glory and fill the earth with it, God created man: male and female in His own image (Gen.1:26-27). Inherent in this original image bearing design is the unique ability and vocation given to mankind alone to be reflectors of God’s glory. This is what it means to be truly human.
God blessed Adam and Eve his first image bearers and commissioned them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth with more image bearing reflectors of His glory. This royal priestly vocation to which all human beings are designed and called to, is twofold: it means to stand at the interface between God and the Creation, to reflect and bring his wise loving rule to that creation, and then to offer up worship to God by voicing the praise and thanksgiving of Creation. In order to carry out this vocation Adam and Eve were provided everything they needed and more importantly everything they hungered for. Their source of life, of power, their “why” was God Himself.
We who live on this side of Genesis Three know that something happened to break this life in union with God, and resulted in the distortion of all His image bearing reflectors. We call this “The Fall” and so often see it as the breaking of a rule by Adam and Eve for they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which God instructed them not to. Once we reduce “The Fall” to the concept of rule breaking we enter the realm of religion and “the doctrines and precepts of men”. Asking the hard “why” question tells us that something had shifted in their heart before they ate. Quite simply they ceased to be hungry for God alone; for life at His banquet table. The rule breaking was the result not the cause of dehumanized behavior. When they turned from God, the source of all life, to the serpent they began to re-image the creature, and their actions were only the outward manifestations of what had already happened in their heart. This brings us to the first golden truth of worship: you become like what you worship.
This brings us to the first golden truth of worship: you become like what you worship.
G.K. Beale explains this well in his book, We Become What We Worship. “What do you and I reflect? One presupposition of this book is that God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in Creation…what people revere they resemble either for ruin or restoration”
The Apostle Paul came to this very conclusion in his famous Epistle to the Romans. He urged the brethren...”to present their bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” (Romans12:1-2). In other words, he was telling the Roman Church do not be reflectors of the world for what you reflect you will literally become. If you are “conformed” to the idols of the world; to money, sex, power you will become these “things”. Instead present your bodies to God so that you might be transformed/re-imaged into His likeness.
We now come to the second golden truth about worship: worship of the one true God; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is what makes you truly human. We forget or do not understand that when we are born into this world we are born into the likeness of the first Adam. Sin is already at work in our body and soul distorting our image and making us less than truly human. We are diminished human beings.
There is a beautiful parable of this in the famous fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. A handsome prince is turned into a hideous beast reflecting the ugliness that is in his own heart. The spell cannot be broken until he learns to love and to find someone who will love him in return. In Disney’s Broadway Musical version, the curse covers all the inhabitants of the prince’s castle, slowly transforming them into the objects they once used. After Belle arrives they get their hopes up that she may be the one they have been waiting for, the one whose love will save them from their dehumanized state and they sing a wistful tune entitled “Human Again”.
We'll be floating again, we'll be gliding again
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like the real human does, I'll be all that I was
On that glorious morn' when we're finally reborn
And we're all of us human again
This last stanza from the Alan Menken song could be sung of the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, for He has broken the curse, he has loved the “the beast” sacrificially to the utmost. It is a glorious morn, for the One True Human has risen and for all those that are “in Christ” who live in His domain, they are reborn and become what God intended…they are human again.
Before we leave this parable we must see one other facet of truth that it teaches us about worship. Not only did someone have to be found who would love the Beast but he had to learn to love in return; and so do we. Sin is not a behavior problem, it is a relationship problem. Adam’s sin and therefore ours is that he loved himself more than God. Adam’s disobedience was not about right and wrong; it was about love. He turned from loving God to loving self thereby breaking the relationship, not the rules. The test was, and always is about love. It was for Adam, for Abraham, for Israel, for Peter, for Jesus Himself and it is for you and me.
Worship is how we learn to love God and in learning to love God we learn to love others. It is what shifts us from a posture of life curved in on self, to a posture of reflecting the glory of God. It is learning the love language of the royal priesthood in anticipation for life in the New Creation. Therefore, if our worship is not a heart response of love to the revelation of the risen and glorified Christ, but is for any other reason no matter how noble, it originates from the self, which makes it vain, empty and idolatrous. We become what we worship either for ruin or restoration.
Who Do You Worship?
It might be good to stop here and really consider the implications of what you have just read. Worship is a response to the revelation of the wholly other. Who is the wholly other? Have you had a revelation? How are you responding? Worship is inherent in our original design; we were created to worship. Who or what are you worshipping? We are imaging creatures that become what we worship. What are you becoming? When we lay it out like this it becomes startlingly clear that who we worship and whose image we reflect determines our destiny.
I have never met an atheist. I am sure there are a few, but it would be wrong to conclude the secular world is filled with people who do not believe in a god. Secularism is filled with ‘spirituality’ and has a pantheon of gods. Here lies the problem, the mass profusion leads to utter confusion; which one do you believe in? Risky business if your eternal destiny and who you become forever hangs on it.
The religious realm can be just as confusing. Religions divide into denominations and sects, who tend to conform their god into their own image. How then do we know who to worship really? How do we know who the one true God is? How do we know how to re-image Him? We know because He came and revealed Himself; He became Human and lived among us. This is the unfathomable truth that sets belief in Jesus Christ apart from all other faiths and belief systems. Christianity is not a religion; it is Life in union with God.
The One True Human
The Author of a story is the creator of the story not a character in it. He may use his life for the raw material out of which he crafts his story, but it is impossible for him to actually enter the story and become part of it... unless of course He is God. The “Storyline” of the Bible is how God the Creator/Author literally entered His story to become its Savior/ Hero-King. Mind boggling yes, but why would we think He would be anything less?
The Old Testament is the revelation of God the Creator living in union and rebellion with His image bearing children. The first two chapters of Genesis recount how God created Heaven and Earth as one “good” creation to be overseen by kings and queens, reflectors of His glory, who would live in intimate union with their Creator. As the story unfolds the first king and queen grasp for something that is “not good,” shattering their union with God, with each other and amazingly the creation itself as Heaven and Earth are divorced from one another. God who hates divorce will have none of this and the rest of the Old Testament from Genesis chapter three to the end of the Book of Malachi is how the Creator God calls, loves, woos, and pursues a people who will live in union with Him, advance His Kingdom and reflect His glory. The called out people is named Israel and unfortunately like the first king and queen, their heart goes astray as they grasp for what is “not good” and they too turn to other gods.
The New Testament is the revelation of God the Savior King who does not grasp like Adam or Israel but empties Himself, laying aside His divinity and becoming the outstretched “arm of the Lord”. This is the message men stumble over; only God could accomplish the great work of salvation, only His own arm could defeat the powers of darkness unleashed by sinful man’s rebellion and yet in order to do this He had to become a human being. He had to become the One True Human who would not grasp for what he wanted but would freely surrender to what God wanted. He had to become the One True Image Bearer who would live in loving union with God regardless of what evil men or foul spirits would do to Him. He had to become the One True Son who would love God more than His own life and would willingly offer Himself as a sacrifice. He had to become the One True Israelite in order to renew God’s Covenant with His people. And He had to become the One True Reflector of God’s Glory even when that glory was unveiled on a Roman cross. “Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” asks the Prophet Isaiah. How God became the One True King of the world is a message that needs more than believing, it needs revealing.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has been reduced to a one time “miracle” that is the foundation for a religion called Christianity. It has been diminished to a doctrinal precept that is a required belief for all those who profess to be truly Christian. It has been denied by those who call themselves Christian and are not. It has been labeled a fabricated lie by the unbelieving masses that make a mockery of it. Why has it been so assailed from within and without Christendom? Because the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ by the Spirit is the revelation that He is God the Savior King, the living embodiment of God the Creator. This is the message, the “gospel” the entire Bible bears witness to and it demands a response.
“This Jesus God raised up again to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet. Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ---this Jesus whom you crucified.”
“Now when they heard this they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren what shall we do? “ Acts 2:32-37
That is the right question to be asked. You may receive the revelation and respond to it by believing in the One True God and enter the Life of the New Creation. You may reject the revelation whereby you remain tied to the Old Creation that abides in death for it killed the very Author of Life. You may not reduce the revelation to religion and recreate it in your image, for therein lies the primal sin of idolatry.
Jesus is both Lord and Christ; both God and King.
Brethren what shall we do?
By entering His Story.
I tuned into the ABC television series Lost only one time; and frankly I was so lost I never tuned in again. This is what happens when you enter an ongoing story long after its inception. Who are these people? Why are they on this island? How did they get here? Having no answers and lots of questions I became very confused. I just couldn’t track with it. I could not enter the story. Perhaps if someone had been there to explain it to me I might have considered it more worthwhile. As it was I was lost, so I simply turned it off.
I think this same scenario plays itself out in a secular culture like ours, where on any given Sunday a non-church going person just happens to wander into a Christian worship service. Who are these people? Why are they here? What do these rituals mean? What story are they trying to tell? Confused and finding no story interpreter they simply exit the pew and do not return.
Sad? Yes, but it is understandable. There is, however a more troublesome problem; what if the visitor had been brave enough to stay and bold enough to ask questions. Who are you? Why are you here? What story are you enacting by your actions? Would the people in the pews have been able to give the visitor compelling answers? By compelling answer I don’t mean an invitation to stay for the coffee hour or an invitation to a pot luck supper. I mean the kind of answers which would “compel” the visitor to say “this is the story I’ve been looking to be a part of all my life”. No, I seriously doubt they would have... Why? The people in the pews are just as lost; they don’t know their own story.
A Portal into Heaven
Christian worship is a re-enactment of the Christ Story. It is the means by which one enters, lives and participates in God’s great cosmic drama of redemption, restoration and renewal of His Creation. A Christian worship service rightly understood is a celebration of life in union with God. Let me give you an analogy that will help you grasp what I am saying.
C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful children’s series entitled, The Chronicles of Narnia. In the most famous chronicle, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe there exists two separate and distinct realms: World War II era Great Britain and The Land of Narnia. These two realms are accessible to each other through a large wooden wardrobe, hidden away in the spare room of an English Country Estate. The Pevensie children accidentally stumble upon the wardrobe during a game of hide and seek. Peter, Susan and Edmund see nothing more than an old wardrobe filled with fur coats; Lucy on the other hand discovers a portal into a new world. Lucy walks into Narnia.
Opening the door to a Christian worship service and peeking inside, the casual observer is much like Peter, Susan and Edmund; they see only some old “fur coats”. But to a Lucy, worship is the portal through which one enters the very throne room of the High King in Heaven and having entered becomes a living participant in His ongoing story.
The Early Church Pattern (part one)
I came to the end of my notes on Crossing the Threshold but not the end of the class! I actually left off at the very climax of the story. So I am going to briefly explain the last few lessons and hope that if you have followed along thus far you will take the time to listen to the talks located under Crossing the Threshold on the Teaching page.
We have learned thus far what worship is (a response to a revelation), and who is to be worshipped; the Triune God made know in Jesus Christ. We have also looked at the why of worship; it is what we were originally created for and the means by which we are restored as image bearers, royal priests, and true human beings. We want to examine next the how of worship; how does this transformation take place. For that we must look to the early church pattern, but before we do let’s understand where we are in God’s story.
God’s Glory has returned to dwell with his people and even though his own did not receive him and end up crucifying him, death cannot contain him for in him was life and that life was the light of all mankind ( John 1:4). With Jesus’ victory over death the new creation begins in him and for all those who enter into union with him what’s true of their King becomes true of his people. At their baptism they die to the old creation that is fading away and are raised not just as a new creation but as new creation (II Cor.5:17), meaning their very existence is part of the new creation which is now beginning. They are reflectors of his glory, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s very own possession (I Peter 2:9). God’s Genesis “project” disrupted by the “Fall” is now going forth in a way that can never be disrupted for Jesus Christ has all authority and is on the throne in heaven. He will exercise dominion over creation as the Last Adam through his body the church. Heaven and Earth have been united, never to be separated again.
The Early Church Pattern (part_2)
The church is a called out community of people who belong to one another because they belong to the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. They are the recapitulation of Edenic “royal priests” created to offer “right praise” (meaning of orthodox) and then reflect the image of their Creator back into the creation. In other words they are to be actors in God’s story; the one he is writing, producing and starring in, a story going forward, a living story.
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:24 NASB)
In Acts 2:42 we see the four part basic pattern or “liturgy” that will extend throughout the church’s history...gathering, word, sacrament, and sending. A called out people responding to the revelation of the incarnate God in Christ Jesus gather out of the world to come to worship him (offer right praise). The service consists of two parts hearing of the word (apostle’s teaching) and sacrament, (the fellowship of the breaking of bread). At the end they are not dismissed they are sent forth to be the image bearers of their God and King to reflect his glory into the world (Christian means “little Christ”) and to tell others the “good news”.
Word and sacrament were always meant to be held together for they are indispensable to each other. The word portion; reading the scriptures, sermon, creed celebrate the whole salvation story of who God is. The Sacrament portion (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist, Mass) is the means by which the church proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes (I Cor. 11:26). Word is how our minds are transformed, sacrament is something we do with our bodies and doing it says it like a kiss or a handshake. I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s little book, The Meal Jesus Gave Us for those who want a greater understanding of the importance of sacrament.
I am including a link here to the quotes I used in the talk on the early church pattern and would encourage anyone who is interested to listen to the talk. As we will see in the next few posts “going to church” was never just an intellectual exercise or religious thing to do. It was and is a leaving of the earthly dimension and an entrance into the heavenly dimension/realm.
Ok what did I mean by that last sentence about leaving the earthly dimension and entering the heavenly realm? I think the best way to explain this and to open eyes to the beauty of Christian worship is to take you to a little island in the heart of Paris. Right in the middle of the Seine river are two small islands, with the largest one holding the most glorious chapel built in the 13thc. by King Louis IX to house his collection of Passion relics.
Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) has two chambers; a lower chamber built for the King’s household and an upper chamber where the relics were kept and the King himself worshipped. Today one enters the lower level first, it is a beautiful room having a dark blue ceiling with gold stars and golden arches, giving one the feeling of being on earth and looking up at the night sky. There are small windows letting in limited light which adds to the impression of being “underground”. In the corner is a small staircase which leads to the upper chamber and when one “ascends” and comes into the King’s chapel it is difficult not to gasp. Actually there is a holy hush in the room as people file in and sit transfixed by the incredible stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle.
What King Louis was trying to capture in his masterpiece was the “New Jerusalem” coming down, described by John in Revelation 21 and 22. The windows sparkle like jewels when the light shines through and the twelve pillars of the apostles are all meant to give one the feeling of having entered the heavenly city. Yes, Sainte-Chapelle proclaims heaven and earth have been reunited in Christ; he is the staircase, the gate, the door, the ladder whatever metaphor you want to use to say that in him one can now ascend into the very throne room of God (Hebrews 4:16).
Look up some images of Sainte-Chapelle’s lower and upper chambers as an exercise of your imagination. We will go back to “going to church” in the next post, but it might be good at this point to pause and give thanks to our glorious God for all he has done in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Going to Church
Most people reading this have probably seen at one time or another Disney's movie, The Lion King. The opening scenes of the movie are both memorable and powerful; the music is stirring and the scenes are beautiful but I want to suggest there is much more going on as Circle of Life plays than meets the eye. If we look “along and through" rather than “at”, as C.S.Lewis would say (Meditation in a Tool Shed) we are being given a glimpse of the first chapter of Genesis where God is creating the heaven and the earth and filling it with all “kinds” of beautiful things. The crown of creation of course comes on the sixth day when God says “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” He gives to Adam and Eve the role of royal (king) priests over His creation; they are His image bearers. Can you not see now how they might have been held up before all of creation by God their Father as young Simba was by his?
What on earth does this have to do with “going to church”? Well everything! As Simon Chan writes in Liturgical Theology “the first act of worship is the act of going to church” (pg.130). The people of God are leaving not just their homes and their work; they are leaving this world and entering the Kingdom of God. If you have ever attended a liturgical church where there is a procession up the aisle of choir and robed ministers with a priest, vicar, or pastor at the end you are once again seeing a re-enactment of the opening lines of the story. We are the first fruits of the New Creation and as such we are being gathered out of the world to enter His courts “joining with the hosts of heaven to sing praises to the One who sits on the throne” (LT pg130). God the Father is holding up His Son the Anointed One (Messiah) for all to come and worship Him. He is the one True King to whom all of creation gives glory honor and praise…this is quite simply the meaning of “going to church”.
How Things Get Lost
Years ago I was involved with a prayer group for a Christian school. Every year before the year began the school held what could be described as a holy convocation; administrators, teachers and families would come together to consecrate the year to the Lord. The headmaster would cast his vision for the year and principles and teachers would share what they hoped would spiritually take place in their respective schools and classes. Last but certainly not least everyone would unite in prayer.
However a day came when a new headmaster arrived. He was a godly man I have no doubt but it seems that no one told him about the convocation. So a “back to school” festival was planned, which looked more like a picnic and trade show. Tables were set up in the gym where every club and sport was represented. Teachers were in the classrooms so parents could visit and see where their child would be. The campus was filled with people but no one was connected; each was doing their own thing. From that day the school took a different turn. Something precious and powerful had been lost.
I tell that story to illustrate how much the true meaning of Christian worship has been lost over the years. The whole concept of leaving the world and entering the Kingdom as I shared in the last post has disappeared. Most church goers if they were told that truth today might well say “What Kingdom”? But I have to say that the loss of the Sacramental portion of the service and its meaning is to me the greatest loss by far.
I am not getting into Catholic verses Protestants debates over what takes place in the Lord’s Supper, as I have already recommended N.T. Wright’s wonderful book, The Meal Jesus Gave Us which discusses the Eucharist in great detail and a balanced way. What I want to share which has been lost is that it is at this point in the service of worship that the church enters into heaven. The Sursum Corda is the Latin meaning of “Lift up your hearts” the salutation offered by the minister to the congregation; with their response being “we lift them up to the Lord”. As Simon Chan writes in Liturgical Theology; “In this dialogue the liturgical journey reaches another critical point. The Sursum Corda signals the church’s ascension to heaven” (pg142).
After being gathered out of the world and immersed in the whole story by the word portion of the service (sermon, scripture reading, creed, and prayers of the people) the individuals have been shaped into a corporate body. The body of Christ now ascends into heaven to be united with him, sitting down at his table to share in the life of the New Creation to come.
As Galadriel spoke in the opening lines of the Lord of the Rings……. “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost”.
I am going to try and wrap things up for the series, Crossing the Threshold, by weaving narrative (story) back into worship. Just as a brief reminder, in the first part of the series I took you on a journey into the world of story; specifically the story which is known at all times and in all places as the Hero Journey. I proposed that the reason this story is mythic in scope and touches peoples’ hearts is because it is God’s eternal story of his son Jesus Christ.* Then we diverged and went into a whole section on the what, who, why, and how of Christian worship and now we are going to put the two parts, story and practice, together to try and recapture a truth which has been lost. It is a truth which can transform your worship, your life, and call you into a much larger story…but in order for this to happen you will need your imagination.
Imagination is something which is seriously lacking in Christianity as it is so often practiced in a sacred/secular split world. I want to recommend a lecture given by Kevin Vanhoozer entitled, In Bright Shadow: C.S.Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship. Don’t let the title scare you …it is wonderful and can be found on the internet and on You Tube. One of the many quotes I liked in this paper (I printed all 28 pages off to save) is: “Where Reason excels in taking things apart and analyzing individual pieces, the imagination perceives the whole of which the pieces are a part. Imagination is the organ of discerning meaningful patterns. It is the power of insight, that Eureka moment when all the parts fall into place, transforming what would otherwise be an incoherent jumble into a meaningful whole.”
Ever since the 18th century “Enlightenment” reason has excelled taking apart the Bible, making the 66 books individual pieces…you know “Bible stories” not a story. There is no qualm now about taking verses out of chapters and using them for inspirational posters or bumper stickers in which they lose their entire context and meaning. Worship services have also been broken down into pieces and parts which can be rearranged and changed by every new pastor. It is no wonder then, most people are unable to see the world in biblical terms and often find their faith waning.
What we need is a “baptism of imagination” (C.S. Lewis’ term). We need not only to see the whole story to which all of the pieces are a part, we need a way to enter and embody the story. To prepare for the journey it might be good to stop and pray asking the Lord to baptize your imagination!
Story and Worship
We have finally come to the climax of our series, Crossing the Threshold and will begin to weave the story back into worship. We want to see using our imagination the whole story instead of simply going through motions of ritual which we process like pieces of information. More importantly we want to see with the eyes of our heart the person who is the focus of our worship; the one in whom all of ourselves; body, soul, and spirit ought to be centered as we enter his presence. Lastly we want to enter into his Kingdom, his story, his life and have union with him in order that we might be transformed into his image. This is what worship is all about… so here we go.
We have seen there are four parts to the Hero Journey which is the life of Jesus Christ; the four Acts are: Act I Separation, Act IIA Descent, Act IIB Initiation, and Act III Return. This is his life, his story, his journey it is all about him.
We learned there are four “Acts” to the early church pattern of worship which has been carried on through most Christian denominations, they are: Act I Gathering, Act IIA Word, Act IIB Sacrament, and Act III Sending. This is the life, the story, the journey of his body the church, and it too is all about him.
Act I: Separation/Gathering
Just as the hero receives a call to adventure to leave his ordinary world and enter the special world; the church, each Lord’s day is invited to leave the world of space, time, and matter and be gathered together to enter the special world of the Kingdom of God…to enter His presence.
Refusal of the call is always a possibility; one does not have to go and can remain in the ordinary world or one can go physically but not mentally; there are always threshold guardians who pop up desiring to subvert the journey and prevent the body from connecting with its head. This is one reason why prayer in preparation for worship is not an option it is a vital necessity.
The opening songs of praise and adoration, along with prayers and the reading of scripture are all led by the Holy Spirit; he is the teacher, comforter, mentor given to the body of Christ to come along side and help them cross the threshold into the presence of their God and King. Just as in the Hero Journey the mentor gives the hero a special weapon; ….the word of God is…sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The reading of the scripture in a service is powerful and serious, the Holy Spirit is speaking individually and collectively to the congregation with words they need to know for their lives and their mission.
Story and Worship - Act IIA: Descent
The second act of the Hero Journey is divided into two parts; descent and initiation, as is the second act of worship; word and sacrament. I think it will become abundantly clear why the two parts of Act II should never become separated; they are two parts of one act.
Act II commences with the crossing of the first threshold as the hero descends further into the special world. At this point he is fully engaged, committed to the adventure and the story really takes off. In worship, having entered into the courts of heaven with praise and thanksgiving, having been equipped with the word of God which has been read, the congregation is ready to begin its own descent and cross the first threshold going deeper into the kingdom with the sermon. The fact that your heart just went thud shows how much of the story has been lost….so we need to pause here and exercise our imagination.
I want you to place yourself in a company of soldiers on the front line of an imminent battle in World War II. Your commanding officer has orders he believes are accurate when suddenly a messenger with a word from the highest command breaks through enemy lines informing him it’s a trap (This is the plot line of the excellent movie, 1917 by the way). Wouldn’t it be good to know this vital information?
The sermon should be viewed as a message from the High King of Heaven carried by the Holy Spirit to the Pastor who with his/her congregation is on the front lines in a very real spiritual battle informing them of what they need to know….now.
This part of the service has to be seen in this context for the church’s mission is to implement Jesus’ victory of the cross in the world. The sermon contains orders; the creed is our response, a willingness to receive and obey; the prayers of the people are the weapons we engage with, and at the very bottom of our descent is the inner most cave of confession of sin and absolution. We are to be holy people; royal priests who die to self, pick up our own cross and follow the King.
Story and Worship - Act IIB: Initiation
The first part of Act II ends with the confession of sin; in most traditional services this is a corporate confession followed by the proclamation of a minister’s absolution reminding the church of the finished work of the Cross. In the Hero Journey this stage is called the ordeal and it is where the hero hits bottom and has to face his greatest fears; he must die a type of death in order to be born again. As we weave the Hero Journey and Worship together it should be evident that the ordeal/confession stage is far more than a rote recitation of a liturgical prayer; rather it should be the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s heart after hearing the word of God in scripture and in sermon. It truly is a coming into the inner most cave of self and seeing what is left of the old creation and have a willingness to (confess) die to it, in order to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Act IIB Initiation/Sacrament commences with the receiving of a reward. For the hero on his journey there is usually some type of reconciliation to be experienced after having passed through the ordeal. In the worship services we have been following, “the peace of Christ” is passed after confession. Peace with God has been affirmed in confession and now that peace is to be manifested one with another….or another word to use would be reconciled one to another. This is absolutely critical for the next stage of the journey is the “road back” where in the worship service the church makes her ascent into the very presence of her Lord in heaven, she does this as one body.
Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and the Mass are all terms used by different denominations to describe the sacramental meal the body of Christ participates in by receiving bread and wine. The one thing that can be agreed upon about this meal is that it looks back to Genesis 1 and forward to Revelation 21 and brings the union with the triune God that was and will be into this moment to experience now. It is the life of the new creation much like the manna in the wilderness was for the Israelites as they journeyed to the Promised Land. In the Hero Journey the road back is followed by resurrection, what better word could there be to describe the sacramental meal that Jesus himself instituted for his disciples?
Story and Worship - Act III: Return
The third act of the Hero Journey finds the hero returning to the Ordinary World with something he has gained from his adventure. It can be a treasure, a lesson, or an elixir for healing; whatever it is, it is not just for the hero but for the Ordinary World as well. As we have said the Hero Journey is the life of Jesus Christ; after his ordeal of the cross and his resurrection from the dead he ascended into heaven returning to his Father’s house with redemption accomplished. Heaven and Earth have now been united in Christ, and he has poured out his Spirit so that his body can become the living temple filled with the glory of God, thus fulfilling the prophetic promise of Habakkuk 2:14, For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
For the worship journey we have been on, following the life of Christ, Act III is the sending forth of the church back into the world. Having ascended into the presence of Christ in heaven and been fed in word and sacrament we return to our “ordinary world” filled with his Holy Spirit who is the treasure…the elixir of healing not just for us as individuals but for the world. We are to be for the world what Jesus was to Israel, as the Father sent him so now he sends us (John 20:19-22).
I would like to bring this series to a conclusion with a few after thoughts and an invitation. First I would like to make note that this series of notes came from teachings I did numerous times which were recorded and are on the “Teaching” page of this website. In these notes I skipped over one week entitled Sacred Time and Sacred Place; for those interested in what day of the week Sunday is and the church calendar I would recommend listening to that talk. One of the quotes I used that week was by Robert Webber from his book, Ancient Future Time:
“I am of personal opinion that the true meaning of Sunday worship has been lost in many of our churches. In some communities Sunday is revival, the day for the seeker, or the day to teach. Historically Sunday is the day of God’s re-creation, the day that promises that God will renew the face of the earth. Historically Sunday worship expresses three truths: It remembers God’s saving action in history; it experiences God’s renewing presence; and it anticipates the consummation of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth.”
I think this last sentence is the best description of what Christian worship is all about. I believe in the very beginning of the Book of Acts as the first disciples met (Acts 4:12), this is what they were doing…remembering God’s saving action of sending His Son into the world to redeem it, experiencing the renewing presence of the triune God in the Holy Spirit, and anticipating the consummation of God’s work in the new heaven and earth.
In Crossing the Threshold, I have laid out the life of Jesus Christ in the story which touches all hearts the Hero Journey, for he is the one true savior of the world. I have taken the stages of Christ’s life and laid them over a traditional Christian worship service to show how the early church was entering into and experiencing the very life of Christ in Sunday worship. They were being gathered out of the ordinary world, crossing the threshold into the special world of his presence, remembering in word his saving action, and experiencing his presence and anticipating his return in sacrament and then returning to the ordinary world with an invitation for all to enter “The Great Dance”.
“The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made….Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? But how is he to be united to God? How is it possible for us to be taken into the three-Personal life?...Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”(C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity)
My invitation to you is quite simple: go on the hero Journey with Christ next Sunday, enter into the pattern and take your place in the Great Dance for which you were created…Blessed is He. Amen.