Baccalaureate Homily

At SPU there’s a baccalaureate service the night before commencement for all the graduating seniors and their friends and family.  Along with a very intentional liturgy of songs, scripture readings, and prayer that’s constructed months in advance, it’s tradition for the Baccalaureate Committee to select two graduating seniors to give reflections on their college experience and relate it to the theme of the service.  The theme of this year’s service was ‘renewal’ and I was deeply honored to be chosen as one of the student reflection speakers.  What follows is the transcript of my speech.  Mind you, I had to speak in front of about 1500 people!  A major milestone in my life. 

 

Seattle Pacific University Baccalaureate Homily

June 13, 2014

Nolan Kurtz

Well hello.  My name’s Nolan Kurtz.  For the last four years I’ve been studying Christian theology here at SPU and I’m finally done!  I chose to major in Christian theology after being pre-med for one whole day.  Theology is one of those fields of study that makes your friends and family and probably your dentist ask you why in the world you picked theology instead of science or business.  For our purposes tonight I’m not going to directly answer that question, but I am going to give a brief reflection of my time here at Seattle Pacific and how I feel God has shaped me through it all.

I don’t know about all of you, but looking back I’d say SPU has caused me to confront a great deal of my weaknesses and insecurities, and that’s something I’m truly thankful for.

I remember coming to SPU and wanting nothing more than to make friends.  In high school and middle school I didn’t find many lasting friendships and really longed for Christian friends. Freshman year here, I found just that and it was wonderful.  The only downside is that I was having DTR’s all the time. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t, and you’re one of the lucky ones.

Then sophomore year I joined group staff as the drummer.  group is the Wednesday night worship service that meets in Upper Gwinn.  I was the shy guy behind the drums that had dreadlocks covering his face.  I was so afraid to be in front of other people.  I remember getting so nervous to even read a small Bible passage in front of the congregation.  I was even the last one to share my life story on staff because I was so afraid to share my story with other people.  But that community was such a blessing for me because it forced me outside of my comfort zone and something profound starting happening to me that year.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was beginning to enter into a new phase of my faith.  I began to question my own theology and Christian faith a lot, which is ironically what motivated me to apply for the coordinator position on group staff the following year.

Junior year I became the group coordinator, and that experience has formed my character perhaps more than anything else in my entire life thus far.  That year was tough.  Maybe you can identify a year of college that was harder than the rest.  For me, junior year was definitely the hardest. If you know me personally, then you know that chronic insomnia is a big part of my story. Junior year my insomnia crept back into my life and I struggled off and on with really severe fatigue,  which caused doubts in my faith, and deep depression.  I lived in the tension of being this ministry leader and often feeling bereft of hope.  I was unsure of how I could lead this staff of twelve people and lead worship each week if I had all of these questions of faith and pain and depression that I was going through.  Bob Zurinsky, the group advisor, told me something I will never forget.  He explained simply that being a ministry leader doesn’t mean having it all together.  Life is a journey.  Your entire life will be a journey.  And the important thing is to be true to yourself and seek God in the midst of it all.

Being Christian doesn’t mean we have all the answers, and I thank SPU for teaching me that.  This insight empowered me to be group coordinator a second year as a senior, and I’m so thankful I did that. My faith has grown tremendously and I don’t define myself so much by my fears anymore.

So often the faith response is that we know why everything happens, even why very bad things happen to good people.  But being Christian forces us to be honest with the uncertainty of things.  We can’t prove that the Christian story is the right version of the story of the world and we shouldn’t try to.  In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through my time here at SPU is that, as Christians, we actually embrace the struggles and the ambiguities of life because we are grounded not by knowing the truth about everything, but by our hope that God is in the process of renewing us and will one day establish the kingdom of God on earth.

No matter where life ends up taking you once you leave here, no matter what job you end up taking or what state you end up living in, your vocation in the world will always be the same.  Your role is to live into that kingdom of restoration and redemption and complete love here and now as best as you can as if your destiny is already your present reality. And that’s who we are as the church, as the People of God. We are a people living for the redemption of our world and we believe in our reconciliation with one another with all of our hearts.

It’s my prayer that as we graduate from this institution we go out into the world as both a people honestly aware of the brokenness of our world, the injustices and sin all around us, and also as a people secured in the hope of God’s victory over it all.  Are we prepared to give our hope to the world, even though the world may often give us reason to feel hopeless?

Thank you.

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Recovering the Liturgical Intentionality of the Church

In many aspects Christian worship has become something very different than what it was in the early Church. In ancient Israel, worship was a way of perceiving the world, not just a way to feel good on a rainy afternoon. It was not an escape from the world, but a way of imagining the world, giving the worshipers eyes to see. We see this in Chronicles with the careful attention to detail within the temple of the LORD. King David establishes a profound sense of holy space, holy time, and holy personnel that permeates the temple in such a way that causes the reader to take notice and ask, “What’s the importance of Christian liturgical practice?” Chronicles teaches us of the importance of Christian liturgical practice for forming habits, rhythms, and rituals for the worshipping community that develops a cultivated conscience and love of holiness within its individuals.

Religion and liturgy are deeply embedded in Scripture. In fact, they are so deeply rooted in the biblical text that Christians often glance over it. A closer look at a text like Chronicles shows that the goal and task of a Christian institution is formation rather than (in)formation. Towards the end of his life, king David tells his son Solomon how he would like the temple of the LORD to function as a liturgical institution. He insists on having committed people at work in the temple at all times. David has the Levites of at least thirty years old counted and then makes a detailed ordering of who will work in the temple saying, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to be in charge of the work of the temple of the LORD and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose” (1 Ch. 23:4-5). In other words, there’s going to be constant work being done at the temple. Broadly speaking, this is often referred to as “perpetual liturgy.”

James KA Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), picks up this fascinating idea from Augustine, which simply says that human beings are primarily affectional creatures, rather than intellectual beings. Simply said, “We are what we love.” This gets straight to the point of what the Chronicler is getting at with the attention to detail with regards to the temple of the LORD. David finds much importance in developing a holy institution that is dedicated to the formation of disciples who think critically and carefully about the world in which they participate in out of a cultivated love for God and God’s plan for the world.

In Chronicles, David’s emphasis for the temple is on the actual temple practices, which suggest a kind of liturgical habit, a liturgical lifestyle. He goes on to explain what sort of role the Levites, the musicians, the treasurers and other officials have in the temple. In this way, the Chronicler is portraying David’s desire to establish an ideal community that won’t make the mistakes of the past. This is the basis for the new community post-exile. And at the core, this community is one that takes liturgical practice seriously. Before he passes the task of building the temple over to his son Solomon, David says, “LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided” (1 Ch. 29:18-19). David wants nothing more than his son to carry out his vision for the establishment of a temple that enacts the will of God in its worship and helps to re-narrate Israel’s identity as the People of God. And this re-narration is towards the overarching Christian story, tracing the universal trajectory of creation towards its complete eschatological restoration, and locating the mission of the Church directly in the middle of that story as the people who live in the hope and vocation of redemption here and now.

Following in his father’s footsteps, King Solomon, as depicted by the Chronicler, is one who takes the nature of the temple very seriously. He values the grandeur, splendor, and beauty of God so much that he insists on emphasizing that in the very architecture of the temple. “The temple I build must be large and magnificent” (2 Ch. 2:9). He urges us to see that church worship is not a time to disregard liturgical competency. We learn how to relate to the world on a subconscious level through the liturgy of our worship services. Our vision of “the good life,” our vision of the Kingdom of God that we are pressing toward, isn’t something we’re born with. It’s a horizon of our reality, a set of affections that is built in us over the course of our lives. How we present a holy space that directs our attention to the heavenly is very important and requires every aspect of our imagination and attention to detail.

Today, the Protestant Church is somewhat allergic to the idea of habit because of its fascination with spontaneous worship. But we have to get over our reservations for repetition. We think repetition – engaging in habitual practice – is bad in the Church, but as Chronicles teaches us, we are liturgical ritualistic creatures and our desires are built. A clear issue today is that the form of the North American Church is neutral and the content is central. Churches are centered around sermons that are often constructed around three points, which begin with “cute” and what follows is a worship service that is disjointed because the lyrics of the songs are communicating ideas that often contradict one another as well as the sermon and the overall structure of the service. The reality is that we are not merely brains on a stick! We are highly influenced by the form! We’re not pre-programmed to love a particular thing; we learn to love. And how we learn what to love doesn’t come primarily from textbooks and sermons, but from the mundane habitual practices of our lives.  I think if we know why we’re doing what we’re doing as Christians, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, then our habits can have global implications. We will have a particular story and message that we identify in, and one that we can articulate to other people not merely through forced evangelical words that teach us and the community that our particular Christian vocation is to “save” everyone around us, but through the very manner in which we live our lives as a testament to our hope that this world is not yet as it surely will be.