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Glorious Jargon

To be honest, common sense sometimes isn't.  Here's an obvious truth: To help the church move forward, take out of worship any strange archaic vocabulary rooted in some bygone age.  This is especially true if the words or phrases would not be understood by a visitor.  Out with churchified jargon! What could make more sense than that?

Sermon: Rachel Weeping at Sandy Hook

In addition to teaching at Ozark Christian College (Joplin), I also serve as the interim pastor at the small Christian Church of Liberal (Liberal, MO).  

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, my sermon addresses the apparent contradiction between the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the message of the Nativity.  You may download it or listen to it streaming online. 

Rachel Weeping at Sandy Hook

Pope Debunks Christmas?

Pope Benedict recently prompted blazing headlines across the front pages of America's news outlets by making what some pundants seem to imagine are shocking assertions: Jesus was not born in the year 0, he may not have been born on December 25, and there is no mention of "cattle lowing" in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Jesus.  No mention of livestock at all.  It doesn't even say that the little Lord Jesus did not cry.  Some go so far as to suggest there was no little boy playing his drum for Jesus.

Stay tuned next week for another shocking papal announcement: it has been discovered that Jesus was a Jew, we don't actually know the number or names of the Magi, and,, yes, it has also been proven that the Pope really is a Catholic.

The Threadbare Edge

Kryie eleison.  Lord, have mercy.

We demonstrate our significance to one another by being busy.

Important people are busy.  Productive people are busy.  Industriousness, not holiness, is the identifying halo of sainthood among the professionals of the modern American church.  The man or woman who works tirelessly twelve or more hours a day, particularly if the work is productive, is introduced to an audience with admiring illustrations of astounding self-discipline, along with a litany of personal accomplishments.

Underwater Prayers

A room used for baptisms.
The main gathering room is larger,
but the wall art did not survive.
In the barren Syrian desert, near the Euphrates, are the ruins of a once-thriving Roman settlement: Dura-Europos.  The town was destroyed by Persians in the middle of the third century, never to be rebuilt.   Around the year 235 the houses along the inside of the western wall were vacated and incorporated into widening and strengthening the city wall.  Ironically, it was this very act that means several of these houses, complete with wall art, were buried under rubble and preserved for 1800 years.  A few of the houses have been painstakingly restored.

Thanksgiving Baskets

Mrs. Miller?  Mrs. Samantha J. Miller?

Mrs. Miller, I’ve got some great news for you.  You’d better be sitting down. 

Are you sitting down?

I’ll wait.

Drinking Poison Together

The outbreak of serious illness and deaths at a local congregation has now been traced to a bizarre religious ritual that involved the ingestion of food and drink at a series of recent church dinners.  The tragedy has touched a number of families in the church.

Matters were made worse when people from a conservative congregation in another state showed up outside the church this morning carrying signs that read, "This is the judgment of God on the people of this congregation."

A reporter from the major local newspaper asked the church's pastor about this: "We're confident we will get to the bottom of this.  But, I can assure every one of you right here and now that this is simply an accident and no one is to blame."

The pastor got it wrong.  The illnesses and deaths in the church were no accident.  Some people were being regularly poisoned.  And, at least part of the blame points directly at God.

Thank God and Pray for President Obama

What must politically conservative Christians do with the results of the recent elections?

The answers are clear and unambiguous: Thank God and pray for President Obama.

First, we should thank God.

We should thank God because the promise that all things work together for good applies to more than just stubbing our toes or not getting the job we wanted.

Juicy Communion

Did you ever find yourself wondering, when you are in a church communion service: Why grape juice and not wine?  Why all the little cups?

Yeah, this post is hardly revolutionary or inspirational.  But, since the questions do come up from time to time, a little lesson in recent (by church history standards) events will answer our two questions.

When No One Showed Up for Church

The two old pastors braved the deep snowfall and made their way to church.  They also shared a similar dilemma.  It had snowed eight more inches that night and both of their congregations had recently started a third, and very early, Sunday morning worship service.  Neither thought it was a great idea.  And, in both congregations, the early service attendance was usually so low only a handful of scattered people were sitting in the sanctuary.

One final thing the two pastors shared in common: On this cold snowy morning, the stood there in front of an empty sanctuary.  No one was there.  Not even the musicians.  It was clear to both of them no one was coming to the worship service.

Worshipers and the Wrathful God, Part 2

The question of the worthiness of God's wrath as a cause for worship was introduced in the previous post.  The subject is complex and there is no doubt blog posts are not the venue for detailed theological discourse and analysis.  Here I will simply raise two questions:

Worshipers in the Hands of an Angry God

Worship and the Book of Revelation

We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. “And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth. 
It is easy to assume anger is a negative thing. 

Should We Participate in Devil Worship this Week?

There is absolutely no doubt all believers should be against it.  Against it from top to bottom.   We should not only not do it, we need to confront any who claim to be Christian and yet go along with the rest of our heathen society in doing it.  It dishonors God and has to be labeled as a sin. The reasons are clear and simple.

Where's Grandpa? Talking to Children about Death

[This post, dealing with the sensitive question of how to address the subject of death with young children, is written by Linda Lawson.  She is on the faculty of Ozark Christian College and teaches in the area of Children's Ministry.] 
       Solomon Grundy
       Born on Monday
       Christened on Tuesday
       Married on Wednesday
       Took ill on Thursday
       Worse on Friday
       Died on Saturday
       Buried on Sunday
       And this is the end of
       Solomon Grundy

The Withdrawal of Death from Childhood
       Of the more than five hundred “Nursery Rhymes” preserved in the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes, more than one out of ten, like Solomon Grundy, deal directly with death. 

Contemporary is Getting Old

Contemporary getting old?  Well, certainly for some people this may be true.  But there is another sense it which it is true for everyone.  Contemporary music is increasingly tapping into the ancient history of worship to recover lyrics and thoughts the move beyond the "dating Jesus" lyrics of earlier decades.

The exciting song of both Christ's resurrection and our spiritual rebirth by Matt Maher and Mia Fields,  Christ is Risen, reflects Maher's deep roots in the classic liturgy of worship.

A Crucifix in Church?

      If you look up in Sunday worship next week and see a large crucifix, you can be pretty sure you are not in an Evangelical or even mainline Protestant church.  Crucifixes are Roman Catholic.  Well, they are found in some other groups, like Anglican or among some Orthodox.  But, it would still be accurate to say a crucifix is not what most non-Catholics in America expect to see this coming Lord's Day.

Preaching in a Hallway

My best sermons are hallways.  My worst are houses.

I discovered long ago something unexpected about sermon preparation.  Often, when I am coming to a sermon topic that has produced intense interest and so was given a much greater than usual amount of preparation, something ironic happens. What comes out of this much more than normal pre-sermon ends up being a much less than normal sermon.  In fact, describing these sermons as just sub-normal might be overly kind.  These are sermons I suddenly find myself thinking while speaking, "Just stop.  Stop right now.  Stop and apologize.  Send them home."  And, I know in my heart they'd all be grateful.

Awakened by Deep Worship

We know from the men and women who have walked long on the paths of devotion, we should never think of the deepest worship as something rehearsed, or controlled.  They remind us the truly deep moments are not those times we are lifted to to mountain peaks to happily dance among the angels.  Those are great times of worship.  But, they are not the deepest times.

I kept a journal of that first long year after Robin unexpectedly died.  It's on the bookshelf right in front of me. I still pull it down from time to time to read over the pages of scribbled thoughts, trying to remember the man I was.

The deep moments of worship are never fun and rarely planned.  They sometimes emerge out of suffering or loss. If an image comes to mind, it's like being torn open until the darkest part of our soul lies exposed before the white-hot light of God.

It is those moments that leave us  trembling and strangely changed.  Like moths drawn toward the flame, in deepest worship we are pulled toward something so beautiful it truly hurts.  Just like Anthony and Francis and Teresa discovered centuries ago, agony and ecstasy are so sublimely intertwined, we cannot hold onto one without embracing the other.  Easter must stand alongside Gethsemane.  Both or neither.

A Watchman's Confession

"Son of dust,
I have appointed you
as a watchman for Israel." 

Ezekiel 3:17

The old man thought for a moment, and then continued to write out his sermon for Sunday:

A watchman always stands on something high, so that he can see off in the distance whatever might be coming.  It’s hard to preach this.  My own words come back to judge me.  I cannot preach that well.  But, when I do, I still face the fact that I do not live up to what I’m saying…

Phony-Baloney in Church

“We have to protect our 
phony-baloney jobs here, gentlemen!  
We must do something 
about this immediately!”  
– William J. Le Petomane 
in Ã‰tudes Théologiques et Selles Flammes (1974).

The church I serve as an interim pastor has lovely flowers up front at various places on the stage.  They add a certain attractiveness to the overall effect.   They are beautiful because, of course, they are not real. 

The Magic Story

“And it was right then,” the old man continued, “that I saw magic.”
You could feel the room grow quiet.  Even people who knew what was coming couldn’t wait to hear it again.

“I saw it.  Real honest-to-God magic.  Not the sleight-of-hand we’ve all seen at parties.  I’m talking about actual magic.  No fooling.  Something that’s just downright impossible.  But, I saw it.  Saw it with my own two eyes.”

You could have heard a pin drop.  Everyone held their breath, waiting to hear the rest of the story.

Killing Relevance

“The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since
it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call.
We make ourselves believe that we are called to be
productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show
that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation
as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government.”
– Henri Nouwen

Relevance is something we hear a lot about today.  We want to make the message relevant.  We need to show people a Jesus who is relevant.  A good deal is riding on the automatic assumption that relevancy is always a good thing.

What if it's not?

Dining Alone: A Eucharistic Prayer

Dining Alone

Some people say he’s hidden
   In chalice prayer and bread
Substance transformed like Eden reborn
   In part the whole is fed

Listening to God in Worship

Before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public - Rowan Williams

At first impression, reading certainly seems a higher order of communication than listening.  After all, children listen.  Adults read.  Listening requires no particular skill.  Reading, however, comes as the result of  years of intentional education.  Reading takes focus.  Listening is seemingly easy and natural.

I say seemingly because, just like reading, listening takes effort.  

A Community Called Atonement

     Well known author and New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, was on our campus this past week.  The focus of much of his attention over the past several years has been on forming the framework out of which a more gospels-centered (that is, Jesus-centered) understanding of the Christian life might be formed.  His recent bestseller, Jesus Creed, is one example of this.

     But, it is his best known work, A Community Called Atonement, that continues to impact students, pastors, and laypeople that I want to talk about here.  Many of us have been raised to think of the work of Jesus as almost entirely centered on the act of dying for our sins.  Because of that, many of us focused far more on the epistles than on the gospels.  I look back on my own epistles-dominated preaching emphases back in the 1980s, and I understand why John Piper, who still champions this approach, can speak of  "the religion of Paul" as theological shorthand for Christianity.
     Today a large number of preachers and teachers and scholars are challenging these ideas.  Some are challenging the whole notion of penal substitution (Jesus' death as a punishment from the justice of God offered in our place).  Some, are questioning the traditional doctrine of hell.  At least some of this is the common phenomenon present in reactive theology: what my grandmother called throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The Chameleon Pharisee

There he stands.  Pompous.  Full of himself.  Arrogant.  Self righteous.  He is the stuff of Christian legend.  The Pharisee.  In our shared imagination, he is a thoroughly distasteful fellow.  Face in an almost constant scowl.  Over sized phylacteries prominently displayed.  We smile as the story Jesus is telling continues.

"I thank Thee, Almighty God," the man prays.  

Perfect.  He's using King James English.  A sure sign of a Pharisee if there ever was one.

"I thank Thee that I am not like that sinner over there," he intones, pointing to the pitiful tax collector cowering off in the shadows not far away.

"I fast many times ever week.  I study Thy law.  I keep Thy commandments."

What a sap.  Keep His commandments?  Yeah.  You pompous jerk.  I bet you're running around on your wife and ripping off little old ladies at work.

And then Jesus turns his story toward the sad sobbing Publican.  

A Litany for Worship: You Have Left Your First Love

I have written previously about the need to bring regular times of facing and acknowledging our sins int out primary* Christian worship.  There are, of course, a number of ways this might be done.  One way, though not always the most effective, can be through music.  The song "I'm Sorry" by Paul Wright (from the album Kingdom Come) is an example of such a song.

A Litany of Confession

In all the major traditions of Christian worship until the arrival of free church Protestant worship, early in the time of worship the celebrant would lead those present in a time of confession of sin, seeking the mercy and forgiveness of God, and then celebrating that forgiveness (usually with the Greater Doxology: Gloria in excelsis Deo).  Since the typical Litany employs liturgical dialogue largely foreign to American Evangelicals, the one below revises it to be more usable for those who do not typical engage in liturgical dialogue.

Pentecostals and Dead Ritual

David was what we often call a "non-traditional student."  If you are not familiar with the term, it had nothing to do with David's tastes in worship.  It simply refers to an older student.  Someone who, years after high school, decides to enroll in (or return to) college.  Like many older students, David was a hard worker and brought a good amount of life experience into his college work.  Also, like many, David was already serving as a local church minister.

The fact that David was not from a Stone-Campbell church is also not unusual.  Most Christian colleges of the Stone-Campbell (or "Restoration") Movement, even those focused exclusively on training church leaders, have many students who come from, and remain in, other denominations.  What was slightly less common was that David was the pastor of a classic Pentecostal church.  He had participated in a course I taught on worship, often bringing good insights and diligently studying the books and materials used in the course.

It was at one of the final school banquets, just before graduation, that he took the time to search me out and talk to me.  He wanted to share something and then give me something.

Inflexible Worship

"Let's sing number 319 instead of the one in your bulletin."

In 1970, the phrase would hardly have raised an eyebrow.  In an era when less planning and work went into the music portion of worship than went into mowing the church's grass, it was not unusual for song leaders to make on-the-spot changes.

There's a lot about those good old days that weren't so good.   Mediocre was perfectly fine.  An exceptionally well-planned song service meant the music might, if you thought about it long enough, actually be on the same theme as the sermon.  It really was all rather stale, at least on most Sundays.

Still, that sentence, "Let's sing number 319 instead of..." is worth remembering.  And not just because it reveals churches used hymnals.  What is really shocking is that anybody could make that big a last-minute change in the worship music.  

New Research on Mega-churches (link provided)

"Interviews with 470 megachurch members revealed a repeated theme of belonging, with congregants emphasizing how welcoming and 'unpretentious' the churches are."

Research coming out the University of Washington on the growth (now more than 1,200 in the US) of megachurches (2000 and higher typical attendance).  The study, cited in a Sept 2, 2012 Huffington Post article, suggests several reasons why, at a time of declining faith, Americans are increasingly flocking toward mega churches.

Megachurch Study Suggests Big Congregations Make Worship 'Intoxicating' Experience

The Things Shoes Can Tell You

The astute Worship Minister develops skills in learning to assess the subtle nuances needed to adapt Christian worship to various recognizable groups.  Worship in a Korean congregation is not the same as worship in rural North Dakota.  The skills needed to analyze the makeup of a congregation to allow for those minuscule adjustments in scripture readings, musical styles, and song selection can make all the difference between "That really helped me out," and "We'd like to help you out -- where'd you come in?"

In The Field Guide of evangelicus americanus, noted author and researcher Dr. Frederick von Hultmann gives the modern worship minister the tools needed to quickly and effectively assess who is out there staring back at them.  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12, Assessment by Shoes.

The Greatest Gift People Give a Pastor

The Gift

       I remember the evening, a number of years ago, when this lady gave me just about the greatest gift I ever received as a minister. I was, and remain, overwhelmed by it.  I felt embarrassed to receive it.  I had done nothing to warrant a gift of that magnitude.  I knew that other members of my church would never be given a gift like that.  In fact, I was sure it was something I'd have never been given if I were not a pastor.
       And, interestingly, the whole episode started with some promises I made to a lady I did not know.  Here's the thing.  I don't exactly remember making those promises.  I didn't even know her name when I made them.  But, I'm sure I made them. 

Are Worship Ministers Real Ministers? It Depends....

Everybody is not Always as Involved in Worship as We Think
     Like Youth Ministers of previous decades, many Worship Ministers (or Worship Pastors) feel that not everyone sees them as "real" ministers.  Some have told me they feel the only time some people even talk to them is to complain about something that happened in worship.  Considering the amount of work, not to even mention years of education, that many of you put in every week, this sense of frustration is entirely understandable.
     But, as is also sometimes true of Youth (or Student) Pastors, the blame for this chasm of understanding about your role is not entirely their fault.  

How to Have the Greatest Worship Ever

For 25 years, I have researched a key question: What makes something the greatest worship experience ever?  

The Survey

Year after year, semester after semester, I have asked students the same thing: Tell me about the greatest worship experience of your life.

What the...?

So, I'm excited to report that I've discovered,  in order to church the unchurched, what we need are churches designed and staffed and marketed for people who don't like church.

Yep, a church for people who don't like church.  What kind of church do get you when get a church of people who don't like church?  Think outside the box.  

Modern Medieval Worship

good advice comes 
from unexpected places.

      The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were an era of tremendous achievements in art throughout Europe.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Italy.  Paintings, frescoes, and sculptures from that time still stand today as unsurpassed examples of beauty formed by the hand of man.  People of that time grew up in a world where visual art, including complex symbolism and representations, were widely understood.  A carving of a torch on the wall of the church was the Garden of Gethsemane.  The stylized lily of the fleur-de-lis was as much in honor of the Holy Trinity as it was the French monarchy.
       In Sunday worship, also, there was a great deal of emphasis on the beauty of the visual arts.  Church buildings were adorned in so many obvious and subtle depictions, in both painting and stonework, that a modern observer needs a very knowledgeable guide to see the rich complexity.  As Kieckhefer points out, it is literally a "theology in stone."
       Knowing this may help us understand one of the great oddities of Christian worship in that era.  Ordinary laypeople did not seem to do much of anything at all during worship.  

The Church without Christ

Adapted from a very short story...

     There was once a church without Christ.
      It was not a particularly wicked church.  It was not a church of militant agnostics raising angry hands against God.  It was not a church that had abandoned Christian truth for distorted heresies.  It was not even an unhappy church.  Indeed, it was a happy church filled with people who knew that there was a God in heaven and that Jesus was His one and only Son.  But, as I already noted, it was a church without Christ.

Nobody Does My Traditional

Missionary Baptist Church, Rawhide, Virginia
       "Why don't you play some worship music I like?"
       This normally should be translated to mean, "Why don't you play some worship music I grew up with."
       That's understandable.  Most people will always have a special affection for the worship music of their childhood.  A melody, even a style of music, can transport anyone to different places in the story of their own faith journey.  This is what Randy Garris has called our musical heart language. 
       So, everybody likes music from their childhood.  So, what will be it?  The 1970s?  Hey, let's do something by the Gaithers.  Or, maybe the 1950s?  Let's see, maybe something by George Beverly Shea.  The 1930s?  Wow, that's really getting back there, grandpa.  
       But, what if your "traditional" is a style and sound you're pretty sure no one in the church but him had ever heard?  

Sorry Church Music

       I really would like to hear some sorry church music this coming Sunday.  Honestly.  But, chances are, since I'm going to be in the worship service of an Bible-believing Evangelical church, I won't.  What a shame.

Meeting Needs

Meeting Needs
A Poem of Lament

In the empty darkness of a soul's great fall
When the siren song of ending whispers her seductive lies
When unseen angry voices press the mind to desperate silence
And from some small last bit of strength 
You find you are holding a phone

Patriotic Worship

     It is a question being asked repeatedly in church after church in this second decade of the twenty-first century.  Should the church be political? And, behind that, an even more controversial question: Should the church embrace American patriotism at all?
     In case you haven't noticed, take a look around you this Sunday when you go to worship.  If you see an American flag proudly displayed in the front of the sanctuary somewhere, chances are your church is more than thirty years old.  If you look around and see no American flag anywhere, chances are your church is less than twenty years old.  Now, this is far from a hard and fast rule.  There are many exceptions.  But, it is true enough to indicate a seismic shift in the assumptions churches have regarding their role in relation to the United States of America is underway.

If We Sang Reality in Church

       The music we hear and sing in church.
       This music often reflects the highest ideals of our faith.  From the church's repertoire of music emerge some of the greatest achievements of art and beauty in history.  In these lofty realms of glorious music Handel joyfully sings the songs of Issac Watts, while Graham Kendrick quietly plays the ancient plainsong chant on his guitar.
       In the church's songs of worship the people of God embrace the highest ideals of what the Christ-centered life is to be on earth, as it is in heaven.
       But, in a moment of wild abandoned, I found myself thinking, what if we changed the rules one Sunday. 

Worship: Party or Funeral? Let's do Funeral

       "It's Sunday morning," I happily announce to my wife, "What will it be today?  You want to go to a funeral or to a party?"
       "What do you think?"
       "Right.  Funeral it is then."

Can a Gay Marriage be a Legal Marriage?

       The short answer to the question raised by the title is, "Yes."
        Now, I know that answer is provocative.  Bear with me in this rather long post.  I want to explain to you why, as a biblically conservative Christian, I believe the answer yes to the question in the title is true.  But, I also want to explain why this answer does not make gay-marriage morally acceptable.  Finally, I want to offer a surprising appeal:  the church should get out of the wedding business.    

The Pause Button

       Sabbath is rooted in a Hebrew word that can be translated, among other things, pause.
       As Eugene Peterson points out in one of my favorites of his many books, "Working the Angles," sometimes we need to stop our working so that we can begin to see His.
       I was recently visiting the small central Kansas of Greensburg, where my oldest son serves as a pastor.  The town was made famous by its nearly total destruction by a EF5 tornado and the later reality TV series, "Greensburg." (TJ and Julie are featured in a number of the episodes, by the way)  It is the kind of small town you can find all over the Great Plains of the central US.
       One unusual feature is the town has been a focal point of a number of new techniques in building for residents and small business that make maximum use of new building materials, geothermal heating/cooling, passive and active solar, and the like.  It is an odd mixture of an classic cowboy culture with high-tech green technology.
       Then there's the issue of the town's emergency siren.

Randy Garris: Music Means More than Just the Words

Randy Garris (College Heights Christian Church, Joplin, MO) offers an insightful and thought provoking article in the Christian Standard online edition on how each of us has our own collection of worship music through which we connect to our own faith's story and out of which we share a sense of belonging.

What Do You Say About Church Music?

Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone...

When I consider your heavens, 
the work of your fingers, 
the moon and the stars, 
which you have set in place, 
what is man that you are mindful of him, 
the son of man that you care for him? 
(Psalm 8:3-4)

August 1, 2012
written from Greensburg in Kiowa County, Kansas

This morning, as the eastern sky is slowly brightening with the early dawn, a bright golden full moon is slowly setting in the west.  The summer sky is already brightened enough that only the brightest stars (or are they planets?) can be seen.  But the bright full moon, giving the illusion of being larger and larger as it nears the distant flat horizon, draws my eyes and the wonder of my heart.

August 2012 is somewhat a rarity in months.  It will have two full moons.

Praying about the Role of Women in Worship

Although truth may exist objectively, we all are left to perceive it from within the envelope of our own subjective place.  Like looking through a very old glass window, there are ripples of distortion that shift if we make even the slightest movement to the left or right.  The transcript below of the conversational prayer of two leading members of the First Church of Relevance last Sunday morning reveals a few ripples.

Dirty Talk about Worship

     It’s part of the Sunday liturgy of most families.  A kind of lauds through which the morning of the Lord’s Day is to be acknowledged:     

     “Go clean up.  I am not taking you to worship looking like that.”
     When I was growing up, I was taught that cleanliness was next to godliness.  Once I became a parent, it was not long before I realized the truer truth, that cleanliness with boys is also next to impossible.

Confronting the "Everything is Worship" Mindset

“Everything we do is worship.”
      That sound admirable.  And, to be honest, we are faced with a problem of vocabulary.  The meaning of whatever people mean by "worship" can be pretty fluid.
     But, at least in the sense the word might have been used in reference to the temple sacrifices or the praises of the synagogue, the statement is an absurdity – a self contradiction.

There Was this Preacher in the Bar...

So, the bartender looks up, and this preacher comes in...
      Wait. Is this some kind of joke?
       Not exactly. But it is pretty much what happened one night in the bar of a hotel in Indianapolis...
       A few years ago a young Canadian studying ministry at Kentucky Christian College (now Kentucky Christian University) traveled to Indianapolis for a two-day national gathering of preachers. He, along with other students, anticipated hearing outstanding preaching in a gathering of more than four hundred men.
       The student's name was Jacques. But, since he was named after his father back on Prince Edward Island, everyone who knew him just called him Junior.
It was a little after midnight and Junior was sitting by himself at a table in the little club having a drink on the main floor of the hotel.

I Am Not a Temple of the Holy Spirit

       I am not a temple of the Holy Spirit?
       I am a part of that one temple.  But, not one of millions of little temples.
       That needs a little more explanation.  Or, of course, you could just proclaim me a heretic and start looking for firewood.  Okay, so, while somebody gathers some branches and kindling, bear with me and read the rest of this post. 

The More Things Change: Worship from 1850 to 2010

This post is not poetic, reflective, or inspiring.  It is, to me at least, interesting.  We all know that worship has changed over the years.  We often think of those changes as if it went from the Latin Mass to Protestant hymn singing to contemporary praise worship.  The changes are both more subtle and more radical than that.  It is also interesting that worship is often changed by completely unrelated things, such as the coming of electrical wiring or the invention of the radio.

Every generation wants to believe they are unique.  A "watershed" moment in human history.  More change today than ever before.  No one before us has seen anything like this.  This, at least, is what we tell ourselves. A better informed understanding of history, however, often challenges this somewhat self-serving confidence.

Refused Communion

     This is a true story.  My memory of it is not as rich in detail as I would like.  It is truth, nonetheless.  I was a child.  It was a Sunday morning in early fall.  We were in church in Keokee, Virginia.  We came expecting that worship would include Communion.  But, an elder from the church announced that it would not.  Oh, it had been prepared.  Everything was right there on the table in front of the pulpit.  Everyone could see it.  But, that Sunday, we discovered, it was not going to be served.

You Should Have Been There: The Problem of Multi-Campus Churches

     Not long ago, one of the largest and best known Christian churches in Lexington expanded their ministry by planting a new site a number of miles south of their main campus.  Land was acquired and a building was education and worship was completed.
     The preacher of the church, one of the best known pastors across the nation, was a major reason the church was so large.  So, naturally, it was decided that the new location would use a projected presence of their lead pastor.  

Church-Mart:: We Do Church Your Way

                 From    Pastor of Expansion
                 To         Associate Pastor of Commercials
                 RE:       This week's radio ad for WRNG AM/FM
     A once-in-a-lifetime bargain for you and your family.
     That's right, this is the church you’ve been waiting for all life.  Come on down this Sunday.  We're the big church just off exit 17. 
     Don’t like singing in church?  We don't even try.
     Sick and tire of religion that all rules, but no tools? 
     Tired of the narrow-minded?  Afraid of the broad-minded?  Well, how about a church that never expects you to have any kind of mind at all?  Isn’t that what you’ve been hoping to find?  Then this Sunday, you know where you need to be.

What I Learned from a Baptist Preacher

       Those of us in ministry have a hard time being gracious when a new church starts a block from our own.  It's never easy when a new man or woman comes on the staff who is a lot more talented than us.  We try to be polite, but it seems pretty unfair.  Some of our co-workers will be on our side, of course.  Other people will come up and encourage us by pointing out what a rotten deal we are getting.
       In this one city I know, that will remain nameless, that's pretty much what started happening.  One of the Baptist preachers there had been struggling for some time. 

Rain on the Unjust

I am writing this morning from Austin, where the drought-parched Texas countryside has been thoroughly drenched from a series of late-night thunderstorms.  We do not normally welcome the rain.  Dark cloud and storms are images of suffering or danger or worse.  Behind every dark cloud lies a silver lining assumes the speaker does not seem to think much of dark clouds.

Why Sunday Morning?

       The Lord's Day.
       For many people, it's just another way of saying Sunday.  Certainly, as scholars acknowledge, that's part of what John on Patmos or the writer of the Didache mean in using the phrase.  The first day of the week which, in typical Semitic fashion, is also the eighth day of the week.  The first and the last.
       Two reasons are noted in the ancient church to explain why this day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, became the day of gathering.

Broken Things at Home and Church

       Once a year we have a garage sale.  For me, it is not a happy time.  It is a kind of cathartic ritual of displaying my many home repair failures in broad daylight before our chuckling neighbors.  Behind the wreckage of my folly in believing the DIY YouTube video that assured me this was a repair job any idiot could do at home, it is not hard to imagine snippets of marital dialogue.
       “Turn it back off!  Whatever you did made it worse!”
       “Look, is that smoke coming from the back of the microwave?”
       “OK, the repairman came this morning.  He worked on it for two hours.  He said whatever you did to it the last time you tried to fix it…well, let me read it off the $200 bill he left for labor, “Like Humpty-Dumpty, this thing is broken – broken is underlined.  PS: In the future, keep all tools away from your husband.”
       And so it goes. 

Theological Education: Why Waste the Money?

       Education does not really matter.  
       Whether everyone accepts that or not is irrelevant.  In today's world, we know that it's true.

       So, the six people in the search committee looked at each other around the table.  They knew they'd found their man.

Church-going Godless

I can pray without loving God
I can go to church without loving God
I can love worship music without loving God
I can be inspired by great preaching without loving God

Hauerwas Critiques Contemporary Worship

In 2001 Time magazine called Stanley Hauerwas America's best living theologian (Hauerwas wryly responded, "Best is not a theological category.")

Here's a link to a brief video in which he expresses his dismay over the ugliness of contemporary worship.  Always challenging. Sometimes outrageous.  Consistently Christ centered and radical.  Hauerwas' observations need to be watched and serious discussed by anyone interested in pursuing worship that is faithful to what God intended to the church to be about.

Hauerwas on Contemporary Worship

Finding God in a Crowd

My wife and I have just returned from traveling in the western US.  The scenery from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains to the stony shores of Big Sur along the pacific was spectacular.  To many Americans, these vistas of unspoiled wilderness are an opportunity to commune with the spiritual.  C. S. Lewis reflects this modern perception when, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan’s country is described as green hills that climb higher and higher until they disappear from sight.

It might be surprising to note that only from the eighteenth century onward do artists paint great scenes of nature as images do be hung in the houses of the wealthy.  Prior to that, scenes of nature, when depicted at all, only served as a backdrop to whatever was the main subject of the painting. 

Misreading Romans 12:1

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 
Romans 12:1 (KJV)

      One rationale some use to downplay the importance of going to church (gathering to sing praise, hear scripture, share Eucharist, etc) is the insistence that the NT never associates the Christian assembly with worship.  A parallel argument, then, is that worship is actually what we do outside of church.  This post is the first of two that will address the question: Is Sunday morning worship actually worship?