Join our mailing list

Paul Louis Metzger on Setting the Spiritual Clock

Paul Louis Metzger shares about the formative nature of the church calendar, which emphasizes that Christ in the fullness of time is what shapes us and how we inhabit time.

See all episodes in Season 5

Episode Transcript:

Paul Louis Metzger 00:00:07

When we don't account for the Christian calendar, it creates a void where an alternative liturgy takes its place. It eclipses, so to speak, to use the language of the title of the book.  

Kristen Verhulst 00:00:28

Welcome to season five of Public Worship and The Christian Life, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This season highlights the new Worship and Witness book series by CICW and published through Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. The Worship in Witness series seeks to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation on the theology and practice of public worship, a conversation that will be integrative and expansive. CICW staff member Noel Snyder, also one of the series editors, and Kristen Verhulst talk with the authors of the first seven books in this series. We are pleased you join us in this conversation and we look forward to sharing this learning with you.  

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Kristen Verhulst, a staff member at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I'm so pleased to have my guest today on the podcast Paul Louis Metzger, who is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah University and Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Paul also is the director of the Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins. Paul, thanks so much for joining me today.  

Paul Louis Metzger 00:02:00

Great to be with you, Kristen. Thanks for this opportunity.

Kristen Verhulst 00:02:02

I'm excited today to talk about your new book, part of the series that the Institute is sponsoring with Cascade Books. The series is called Worship and Witness, and your book is titled Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. And I would like to start us out by just asking you, why did you write the book? What's the story behind it?  

Paul Louis Metzger 00:02:33

Thank you, Kristen. So back in the day when I was teaching a seminary class and some very keen, thoughtful seminarians were engaging material related to a book on ecclesiology I wrote for Baker Brazos, exploring ecclesiology with a colleague, Brad Harper, we were talking about the church calendar and one of the students . . . had said that he was struck by how so often when we don't account for the Christian calendar, it creates a void where an alternative liturgy takes its place. It eclipses it, so to speak, to use language of the title of the book or the themes behind the book, The Secular Eclipse. So that just stayed with me, that whole theme of an alternative or an alternate or a different liturgy taking the place of the sacred liturgy of the church calendar. It stayed with me over the years, and then I started writing, reflecting on it further, and it just kind of materialized as this book.

Kristen Verhulst 00:03:37

As I mentioned, this is part of a new series that we're doing. And your book, I think, was just the second one. So it's been out for a couple of years. And what have you been hearing from your readers? What questions are they posing back to you, or comments?

Paul Louis Metzger 00:03:51

Well, I think one of the issues that the book sought to highlight was our trinitarian God, a Christocentric thrust. So I think that stood out to many readers, that ultimately it's not the time of the church calendar that shapes us, but it's Christ in the fullness of time that shapes us. He's the subject, and the church calendar is the predicate, so to speak, in this position. So that stood out to readers. I think also that it was irenic. It's not sectarian; it's not in any way, shape, or form seeking to dismiss or demean the secular. We need to account as Christians for our calendar and not allow it to be eclipsed, but it doesn't mean that we should disparage the secular calendar. So there's a navigating, a dialogical, hopefully an irenic spirit, an ecumenical spirit that even includes the secular domain.

I was struck by one of the reviews that indicated—understanding it wasn't meant to be a book on church liturgy, it's really to introduce to people who aren't taking seriously the church calendar to help them acclimate—but I thought there were some helpful items, like if I were to do another book or another edition, maybe accounting more for lectionaries. What really stood out to me, a fascinating point by a reviewer, Gordon Lathrop, who's a liturgist, and it had been interesting to see how the author—that is, me—would engage some of the dialogue that was taking place historically in the ancient church with the pagans—and I mean that constructively—in terms of the sun and equinox and solstice and things of that sort. You know, I work with neopagans, and I think that would be fascinating. I would love to get into that more. So I thought that was really inspiring to me to hear that and reflect. I thought, Oh, I wish I had done that. But there's always more time to do these types of things.

Kristen Verhulst 00:05:55

That's right. I'm recognizing that some of our listeners, of course, are going to be very familiar with the Christian year or the church calendar, those terms. But if we've got some people listening here who are new to this idea, this way of embodying time, how would you define what you see as this calendar you're referring to, the Christian year calendar? 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:06:18

Well, it's really seeking to account for the story of Jesus Christ, and it's certainly the Father, Son, and Spirit from an Orthodox Christian perspective. But it's really the biblical story. I do deal with Jewish festivals. I was actually at a rabbi's home the other day with the world religions class I teach, and he was showing us [how] they lived in a tent. We just finished that with one of the great pilgrimage festivals, and just walking into the rabbi's home was like walking into the biblical story, and it's like walking into Narnia. So I think there's a sense in which it's a new way of being. It's a new way because we exist in time and space as creatures. We're not atemporal, aspatial beings. We're temporal and spatial beings. So walking into the rabbi's home, it was very tangible. It was very much flesh and blood, which is so true of Jewish thought, how they make use of symbols and reenact. So I would always say that it's the biblical story. It's the story of God and Jesus Christ and the Spirit, of the community of saints. So it's like we're inhabiting this universe, a new way of being in space and time; even though it's ancient, it's renewed and renewing every year as I have to constantly learn to re-inhabit, to have a Christocentric imagination. So those are some of the types of things I'd want to get at, and feel free to press into it more if I need to go deeper into that.  

Kristen Verhulst 00:07:54

No, I love the idea for those who do practice this calendar, but there's always a renewed sense as you enter each season again, that there are deeper ways to embody and inhabit these practices. I wonder if you might pull out a few examples even from your own worship community, worship life, where you found this renewed sense of a practice in worship that just deeply connects to this Christian calendar or Christian way of embodying time. 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:08:30

The one that has been most pressing to me and impressed upon me in the last couple of years has been Lent. In my evangelical tradition— and I'm thoroughly evangelical; hopefully I see the strengths, hopefully I see the weaknesses, and those are hopefully my strengths and my weaknesses. But Lent is not something that we take very seriously in many evangelical circles for a variety of reasons. I think it's the culture of celebration more generally, the prosperity gospel that can easily enter into any American Christian's psyche; it doesn't have to just be evangelical Christian. But I think for many evangelicals, oh, that's a Catholic thing, as if that's necessarily problematic or what have you. And I have found Lent both lifegiving and in a sense, a longing for more because of it. You know, in the the manual or the worship handbook of your own denomination, Christian Reformed, it's not simply focusing on the sufferings of Christ, which it is that, but it's also preparing us as part of the baptismal imagery for a union with Christ through baptism on Easter. So as we get union with Christ, it's the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension that Lent is part of. It's all part of the same story. But for my family and me, you may know that my son endured a catastrophic brain injury in January 2021. Christopher—bearer of Christ, his name means—endured this injury as a young adult, and it's a daily sojourn, and there's a daily sense of lament in Lent. And I've often felt lonely and forlorn the last few years because so often if you only have a culture of celebration, a liturgy of celebration, Lent actually provides comfort, lament provides comfort in the midst of it. And it's not a funeral dirge. It actually means that God identifies with us, that Christ walks those adult care facility halls with me. And so that's lifegiving to me. It provides hope. It's not a hope that's unrealistic. It's very realistic. And it enters into our lives and our imaginations in the midst of pain. So I'd say it's with more longing, actually, that we would take Lent all the more seriously. I'm not alone in that. I meet people all the time who struggle with mental illness or with depression as godly Christians, and Lent and lament—40 percent of the psalms, right? . . . So that one probably has been most pressing to me. That occurred right after the book came out. So it was in the book, but I had to start living the book in a way that I wasn't expecting nor wanting to, and yet I'm thankful for Lent; I'm thankful for lament. And it's a joyful sorrow in the midst of it, because [Jesus] is a man of sorrows and he goes through that with us. I can go on and on about that, but that's where it stands out most to me.

Kristen Verhulst 00:11:41

This makes me think, of course, of a trauma we all have come through, which is the COVID pandemic. And that, too, really messed with people's expectations around time and even embodiment. I wonder if there's any learning or connections with this way of a rhythm of embodying our Christian life that does help us prepare for those moments in life when it's going to be disruption, trauma, pain. 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:12:16

Yes. Thank you, Kristen. What a powerful thought you shared in the question you’re asking, so thank you. You know, I think part of the Christian life, especially now, because we're not out of COVID, and the aftermath of everything that occurred culturally, politically, and in so many ways related to this global pandemic. And I think disruption, to use your word, is so much a part of life. And I'm learning, very slowly, how with our son's situation, which was right in the midst of COVID, not being able to see him right away, etc., etc., feeling that loss, feeling very much lacking power and an ability to engage, feeling very helpless in many respects, I think, but learning not to be surprised by surprises. I mean, we're always going to be surprised, but not to be so surprised by surprises. Learning to be successful in our adaptations in life, and the whole theme of the incarnation, while [Jesus] came gently and meekly—strength under control, so to speak—it was a disruption into the world. I mean, he came in a very disruptive time in the Roman Empire, and it disrupts. God disrupts our lives in order to heal us and make us whole, but there is a divine disruption. I'm learning to mind conflicts for gold. I'm learning to see these disruptions as a way in which God breaks into our tragedy. God breaks into the other disruptions of life. In some respects, COVID has caused us to speed up in time because it causes us to get more animated in our thoughts and almost in a state of panic, perhaps. But I'm having to learn to settle down and slow down in my thought processes to take the deep breath. And the church liturgy causes us to hit the pause button. It's not simply about being at a place on time. It's where we are fully in time. I think of Wendell Berry's poem [in which] a man went on vacation, but he was never in his vacation. He was always filming his vacation. And I think so often I'm just constantly going through life and not really experiencing life. It's time shaping us and using us at times rather than us making the most of time. And that usually doesn't mean, like, milking it, but really was I present to others? Were others present to me? God with us, Emmanuel. So I think in the midst of COVID, it's a great opportunity for us with all of this disruption to say, “Lord, what about the divine disruption of my life?” And the church Liturgy causes us to be more mindful. It's the fullness of time. It's kairos, not simply chronos. It's the matter of in the fullness of time, Christ came. So I think as a mentor of mine who's a friend of Calvin, Dr. John Perkins, said, he wants to be creative in his suffering. And I think there's a sense in which the church liturgy helps us to be creative in our suffering, creative in the midst of disruptions, because God allowed himself to be disrupted by our time and space and disrupted it from the inside out to make us whole. As Karl Barth says, God makes space and time for us in Christ. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:15:52

This also makes me think of a particular age group: young adults or emerging adults. I think they have been deeply affected by the pandemic, but more so by just a lot of other experiences at this moment in time. And I think the research is clear that they're a very spiritual group of people, but perhaps not religious, or at least in a certain sense that many of us who lead in the church would connect with. What might be a way of engaging sacred time, setting a clock by the life of Christ—how can that be a point of connection for young adults who are deeply thoughtful about these sorts of things, but maybe don't have the same religious language or inclinations?   

Paul Louis Metzger 00:16:48

Well, yes, thank you, Kristen. I worked a lot on themes of sacred and secular and the whole point of liminality and being in places of transitions. And I think a lot of young people—people of all walks of life and age groups—I think especially now feel that sense of liminality, of being in transition, in transitional spaces in life because of all the disruptions that have gone on. But religion, the Latin root, some have said religio means “to rebind a broken cosmos.” I think for many people, when they think about spirituality, they're thinking about that rebinding element. If we think about religion as compartmentalized, parochial, detached, well, yes, I mean, who would like religion like that? Spirituality is holistic. It's not fragmented. At least that's often what it's about. It's hopefully more irenic, the way we often think of religion. So I think biblical religion is a very good thing. But when we talk about spirituality today, I think for many people what would have been in the core of religion in so many contexts in the ancient past, they mean by that “spirituality” today. So if we just play off spirituality, a lot of young people, from what I'm reading, are just really questioning, buying stuff. Is that really what it's about? So they're not wanting to invest in buying stuff, but buying experiences. And even more so than buying experiences is experiencing lives with others, whether you buy it or not. And I think the church calendar is about a certain kind of experience: being present to God, to be present to others. Throughout church history. I've always been fascinated that every Sunday, when I was in England with part of an Anglican church, when we lived in Japan, that people are worshiping across the world—different time zones, but today, celebrating Christ today, and that kind of global phenomenon of worshiping with people across space is fascinating. And I remember the movie on Malcolm X, a very different context, but when he went to Mecca and he was finding Muslims coming together to Mecca for the pilgrimage, it blew his mind. People of all walks of life and such. I think for Christians, that sense of all walks of life coming together at this time, there's a connection with that. A lot of young people feeling just disrupted, uprooted, there's a connection that can happen even globally as people participate in this liturgy through our own age, but then also through the ages. We're not uprooted. We're not always to be fragmented. And that sense of meaningfulness with people, that we have rootedness in the midst of having so many connections taken away from us, that's what I'd want to speak to. And that it can be irenic. It doesn't have to be pejorative, paternalistic, parochial. The church calendar is not meant to be “us versus them.” It's to engage dialogically openly within a secular age, but to make sure that the Christian calendar really is Christian, that we are accounting for the story of Christ. And I think people are still compelled and fascinated with that person. Jesus through the centuries, as Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, his significance throughout the centuries. So I think he looms large. He must loom large. And that's what I would invite people to think through, is how can we make sure we hit the pause button and how we're using time, how time is using us, to make sure that we are mindful of living well with others in space and time today, and the church calendar is offering an ancient spirituality to help us as we seek to explore spirituality in the contemporary context. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:20:40

That reminded me: At the beginning of the book, I think you reference Robert Webber and the ancient-future worship, as— 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:20:46

I was just thinking about him myself, ancient-future faith, and who better than Webber to articulate that!  

Kristen Verhulst 00:20:52

Yeah, to help us remember history going back, but also looking ahead. 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:20:59

Back to the future.

Kristen Verhulst 00:21:00

It does root you in a really healthy way. Any little gems that you might want to lift up in the book that were exciting for you as you put it together?

Paul Louis Metzger 00:21:15

Sure. I think, for example, even looking at some of the secular holidays, I enjoyed writing about the Fourth of July, not to demean or disparage, but then to reconfigure. Yes, I think it's good for Christians to account for national holidays. If I'm in another country, maybe it's Guy Fawkes Day in England. When we lived in Japan, again, accounting for holidays. So wherever one lives in the world, it's not to disparage holidays. I've loved how a particular Christian group, a Brethren group made use of Obon, which is the ancestral spirits coming home. Now, this Christian church, very conservative church in Nagano, Japan, wasn't going to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors in the same way. But they said, let's have a service where we remember our ancestors. And they invited some of their pluralistic neighbors, too. I thought, that's genius. It's brilliant. But at the same time, we have ancestry in the faith, a great cloud of witnesses that the church calendar accounts for, like even some of the great saints days. So I think there's a way in which we need to account for—and sometimes secular contexts or very other religious pluralistic contexts can teach us that, because the Japanese understand we're not disconnected from those who came before us. We have some of that more so in America. And here was this Japanese Christian group doing that. But whether it's secular holidays, or from our vantage point, non-Christian holidays [like] Obon or Fourth of July, Memorial Day. So I was writing about that, and again, Gordon Lathrop and his discussion and reflection review of it for Worship journal, I was struck by that, how I was engaging not in a disparaging manner, but in an irenic manner, the secular holidays, but also framing them from a Christian lens. Because again, we have to guard against Christian nationalism. It's a very deeply disturbing phenomenon to me. And I think how we can use the Fourth of July or it uses us, or Memorial Day, and yet how to honor people, how to honor people in our society, not to mock, not to be cynical, but to always make sure Christ is the first, middle, and final word in all. That's his story, not our story apart from him, as the Christian calendar rightly presents.

Kristen Verhulst 00:23:46

Yes, agreed. Paul, I'm really grateful for your book, Setting the Spiritual Clock, and I wonder if you want to offer a closing word of encouragement, especially to those who plan and lead worship on a weekly basis, who are invited into a liturgical calendar or are thinking about beginning to do that, what would you encourage them with? 

Paul Louis Metzger 00:24:15

Well, I think for those who may be experiencing this for the first time, it can be a real uphill battle. If you're leading a worship context where this is not part of the weekly, the monthly, the annual cycle of how we see things, that can again be quite challenging, helping your congregation see the significance of this. Why would this matter? We've never done it this way before. And so I think at the very least for them to be saying this is how it's spoken to them, because if they trust you as a worship leader, it's like, wow, this really speaks to this particular pastor, this worship leader. It's like Tom Sawyer, where supposedly he's painting the fence, and he hates painting the fence. It was something he had to do. And he's lying through his teeth telling his friends how much he loves painting that fence, and finally they say, Wow, this must be great! And they want to pay him to do it. So he basically gets paid to hand over the paintbrush because at least he was sensing or showing that he actually seemingly loved it. But if we really do love it, we're not faking it, we're actually smoking what we're selling, people would actually be struck by the fact that this really speaks to us. Like what I said about Lent: I told my students, I said, this speaks to me. So even if it doesn't speak to them yet, but it speaks to you, they might taste and see that the Lord is good in that context. So that's one thing. And then I think also just in the challenges, COVID, post-COVID, the culture wars, to know that the church throughout the centuries has faced so many challenges. We think about even Christ’s life, and the children in Bethlehem slaughtered through Herod, and all the upheaval in the Roman Empire. But, you know, Christ rose bodily from the dead. Christ is risen; he's risen indeed. And a suffering church throughout the globe, throughout its history, that resilience, that resilient hope. I think that the church calendar, when pastors and worship leaders in congregations are going through upheaval thinking about are we going to be able to make it this next year; is our church going to close? But [Jesus] doesn't close. Our triune God doesn't close. And God will be with us until the end of the day throughout the ages, God with us, Emmanuel. That, to me, the church calendar reminds us of over and over again. It didn't start yesterday. The church didn't start with me and it won't end with me. And we're part of a story much bigger than our own, and that Christ has big shoulders. He's been to Mordor and back again, and we can count on him. That's what I want to close with. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:26:58

Paul Metzger, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Paul Louis Metzger 00:27:02

Kristen, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure and an honor.