Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmastide & Epiphany: answering more questions

[From Pastor Ed… 12/30 and 1/6]

I tried to establish before that the season leading up to December 25 is Advent (not "the Christmas Season" or the "happy holidays"); Does that mean that Christmas only gets a day of celebration? This is actually one of the questions that cause people to balk against the historic, liturgical approach to Advent and Christmas: they (rightly) think that the Incarnation of Christ deserves more than a single day, and they (wrongly) assume that it only gets one if the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day isn't devoted to it.

Thus, I want to try to answer more questions about the time following Advent: Christmastide and Epiphany, and the season that follows Epiphany.

When do we get to celebrate Christmas? Are we only giving it one day's attention?

Of course we all know that Christmas Day is December 25 — this is the day that was assigned to the calendar to mark and recognize the birth of Jesus the Christ to Mary, a virgin. What we may not know is that December 25 is the first day of a season which the church calls Christmastide; it is also sometimes called Yuletide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a season that lasts 12 days (just as the song — and occasional name for the season — suggests), from Christmas Day on December 25 to January 5, which has traditionally been called Twelfth Night.

What are the themes and ideas that we focus on during Christmastide?

One obvious theme of Christmastide is the incarnation of Christ as Jesus, along with the miracle of the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit. Other themes that are also vital to Christmastide are the visitation of the shepherds, the visiting and gifts of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings, and the naming and circumcision of Jesus. Also prominent are themes of giving and sacrifice, and many feasts in celebration of Christ and His work.

Why do we celebrate this way? Why not just do like everyone else does?

If 21st century American culture is our barometer and guide, none of this is apparent: there is no Advent, and Christmas decorations go up by Thanksgiving weekend or earlier. Shopping, food, and travel mark the time surrounding Christmas Day, and many (if not most) people take time off from work for the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day (notice the demarcation determined by a different calendar altogether, with the beginning of a new year). But usually by December 26 or 27, people have grown tired of the festive decorations — they've been around for a month! — and the Christmas tree has died anyway, so they all come down long before Twelfth Night; that is, when there is time to remove them, between all of the "after Christmas" sales that start early on December 26!

It's not that this is "wrong" in any way; it simply doesn't focus on Christmas as a Christian holy day, or Christmastide as a Christian season. Thus, it misses key elements: the acknowledgement of brokenness and sin; the anticipation of (held in tension with the "waiting for") Christ's return; the build-up to a genuine need for redemption. All of this leaves Christmas empty and toothless — part of the reason why we must constantly remind folks to "keep Christ in Christmas" and that "Jesus is the reason for the season" is because we have stripped it of Advent, and therefore stripped it also of a true Christmas. We also lose an appropriate pace: instead of the thoughtful, reflective, and even quiet spirit of a fasting season such as Advent, this sort of "holiday season" is frantic, stressful, and exhausting.

Christmas is meant to be a joyful celebration of a Savior's incarnation and birth, and of the promise of His return. In order for it to be either, we must have a great awareness of our need for such things! Celebrating Christmas "like everyone else" (meaning, just like the mall Santas, store clerks, and celebrity holiday TV specials) offers no sense of need — only of self-gratification, even if it is a sort of self-gratification veiled in good feelings about oneself because of nice things done for others.

How does Christmastide "fit" into the observance and celebration of the Christian calendar?

There is a logical flow of thought throughout the Christian calendar: the year begins with Advent, a four-week time of waiting and anticipation of Christ's coming in light of our fallenness; Christmastide follows immediately, proclaiming the truth of Christ's incarnation and the hope of His accomplished work being applied to all creation. This leads to a recognition of His true humanity and life, and also a focus on His earthly ministry. Following that time is Lent, when we consider our sin corporately and individually, and our need for a Savior particularly and permanently; Lent is followed by Eastertide, wherein we celebrate and meditate upon Christ's finished redemptive work and its significance for us. The last "feast days" are those emphasizing the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, and the truth and work of the Trinity.

What about Epiphany? What is that?

Epiphany, which means revelation or revealing, is a celebration of the day when the magi, or wise men, or kings, visited Jesus in his infancy, led by the star of Bethlehem; we celebrate this because it was revealed to them that He was the Christ, the King of kings, and they traveled from the far east to bring Him gifts. Thus, sometimes the day of Epiphany, January 6, is called "Three Kings Day".

What do we focus on during Epiphany and the ordinary time after it?
Epiphany — and the time that follows it until Lent (commonly called "ordinary time") — are a time for focusing on the life of Christ as a fully-human man and fully God incarnate. Christmastide, by the way, is also focused on this. Thus, sometimes things like the events of Jesus' childhood, the baptism of Christ, his earthly ministry, and events in his life such as the transfiguration are helpful themes or topics to focus on. These serve to prepare us well for the season of fasting and preparation that Lent represents, as a time of repentance, as well as for the Cross and the empty tomb!

John Witvliet, who is one of our contemporary experts on Reformed worship, commented that, "in recent decades many churches have recognized that jumping from Christmas to Lent and Easter without attending to the key events in Jesus' life can impoverish our understanding of Jesus' identity and mission."

May it be for us that these coming days and seasons will be a great reminder and encouragement of Jesus' identity and mission on our behalf, and in a new and rich way.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"When will we start singing Christmas carols?" and other questions about Advent

[From Pastor Ed… 12/16 and 12/23]

Advent is inevitably one of those times when questions and even confusion arise in a congregation. If a church is acknowledging Advent in any form, it may be worth considering some of these questions as a help to understanding why we do what we do (and why we DON'T do certain things) during this season.

What Is "Advent?"

"Advent" is a derivative of a latin word that means "coming" or "arrival" — and in the context of the church, it means a focus on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. There is a dual nature to this sort of focus: we focus on the coming of Jesus as the incarnate God who was born to a virgin over 2000 years ago; we also focus on the coming of Jesus who has promised to return forever to reign, and to bring redemption to the whole of creation.

How Is Advent Related To Christmas?

Advent is the preparation time for Christmas. During Advent, Christians have considered our need, both corporately and individually, for the redemption that comes through Christ — both for our own salvation and for the redeeming of all of creation. When we consider this need, it is natural and proper for it to stir a sense of longing in us; this is good for us spiritually, and should be a part of our expression throughout Advent. This is why the themes of Advent are those of waiting and anticipation: with the apostle John, we cry out, "Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus."

Why Can't We Just Focus On The Christmas Season?

We can — and we will! But in the Christian calendar, the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25; it begins then; the season of Christmastide lasts until January 5 — 12 days of Christmas (sound familiar?). Advent comes before Christmas for a reason: as one writer commented, "there is no real need for Christmas if there isn't first an Advent." In other words, without a sense of the need for redemption and a longing for Messiah, there isn't much purpose in celebrating the incarnation of God in Christ!

Our culture, eager to ignore the helplessness and need that Advent demands, would rather turn Christmas into a consumer holiday that is all about shopping and decorations. This is why the world wants to jump ahead to playing Christmas music shortly after Hallowe'en is past! But the decorations and gift-giving have a purpose — the celebration of the generosity of Emmanuel, God with us — and Christians should resist the worldliness that ignores our need for Emmanuel.

What About Christmas Traditions?

The Christian Church is full of traditions (yes, even protestant churches!). Whether a congregation is a few years old or centuries old, traditions in the church will be an important part of heritage and practice. One thing that Christians need to keep in mind — and there is much benefit in frequently reminding ourselves of this — is that we are part of a Church with history, heritage, and tradition that goes back centuries and millennia. Often our sense of tradition is based mainly on what the older members of our congregation can remember, but Christian traditions and practices go back for 2000 years, not just for 50 or 75. And traditionally, the church has acknowledged Advent as the preliminary preparation for Christmas; it has only been in the last century or so that the Church has had so much cultural influence about these practices.

So, When Are We Going To Sing Christmas Carols?

It would seem a little out of place if we were to sing "Christ The Lord Is Risen Today" on the Sunday after Christmas, wouldn't it? That's because we know this is an Easter hymn, but it's not Easter! And the phrase, "risen today" suggests a timing that almost underscores that it is out of place in seasons other than Easter.

Isn't it the same with Christmas carols? When we sing "yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning" (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) or "Christ was born today" (Good Christian Men, Rejoice) before Christmas day, it should feel a little out of place. Meanwhile, there are good Advent-themed hymns that we will sing in anticipation of Christmas, like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Of The Father's Love Begotten," "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending," "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," and "Joy To The World!" (yes, that one is an Advent hymn — especially when you include the fourth verse, which all of the radio and department store versions want to leave out!).

Meanwhile, as our anticipation and longing grows throughout Advent, we will start to sing more and more of the carols that are so beloved and associated with the Christmas season. Even then, though, the way that we sing them should perhaps be slightly different: not sung with Christmas morning joy, but with Christmas Eve expectation.

What Can/Should We Do For Advent?

Our congregation celebrates Advent in subtle, but important ways. For one, as I've already mentioned, we are enjoying the hymns and carols appropriate to Advent, as well as beginning to sing with anticipation carols that evoke thoughts of Christmas. We also include a lighting of candles on an Advent Wreath — a tradition that Christians have celebrated for centuries, reminding us of the tension between the hope of anticipation and the patience of waiting. You may have also noticed that Advent themes are present in other elements of our order of worship, including the Call to Worship, the corporate Prayer of Confession, and the Benediction.

Maybe you want to employ some practices in your home that will be an expression of Advent. How can individuals and families do for Advent? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Advent Wreaths: you can make or buy the supplies for Advent wreaths and light your own! Many families have a tradition of lighting Advent wreaths together during family devotionals.
  • Jesse Tree: another tradition that many families use is the Advent Jesse Tree, which is a daily explanation of how much of the content of the Old Testament points to Christ and His coming.
  • Decorations: some families might decide to "delay" putting their decorations for Christmas up until later — maybe even until Christmas Eve! (Remember that part of Dickens' A Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits his nephew's home on Christmas Eve, and they are having a party while decorating the tree?) Also, by the way, you might consider keeping the decorations up through the whole Christmastide season, until January 5.
  • Online resources: there are a lot of interesting ideas online for how to celebrate Advent; one of the more interesting ones I've seen is an Advent coloring book, where children can color a different page each day to teach/remind them of the truths of Advent. (I linked to a number of them in a post from a few years ago.)

I hope that you will embrace and celebrate in the season of Advent this year — and that it will enrich your Christmas celebration!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tears are the lenses through which Christians see brokenness clearly

As I walked around the grocery store this afternoon, my mind swimming and my heart a bit numb from the stark news of another mass shooting — this time at an elementary school, killing both children and adults — the sounds hitting my ears seemed discordant and out of place:
♫"For we need a little music, need a little laughter, need a little singing — ringing through the rafter, and we need a little snappy "Happy ever after," need a little Christmas now."♪

Though (in this case) unintended, this glib, untimely joy struck me as the very definition of how Christmas has been emptied of its significance; of how Advent is both so desperately needed and also so earnestly avoided. The reason is simple: we don't see brokenness clearly.

The world is rocked by atrocities such as occurred today. Presidents weep. News reporters fight for objectivity. Parents hug their children. Facebook and Twitter light up with words of sorrow, anger, sympathy, mourning. All of us scratch our heads and search for words to say, only to realize there is nothing to say.

Christians and non-Christians alike wonder silently and aloud: how does this happen? What world do we live in where anyone can think it is okay to enter a school and shoot children? Is there any justice? Is there any hope for us?

Tim Keller has said that the answer to these questions is only a half-answer: however deep and painful the sin and brokenness around us, the comfort that is offered to us is that our Savior entered into it in order to ultimately and finally redeem us from it.

So says Isaiah the prophet: "He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…" (Isaiah 53:3a). This man of sorrows, who knew and shared our grief, came in the first Advent to bring relief from the brokenness, and comfort to we who feel its sting. Isaiah continues in his description of the Redeemer:
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified."
(Isaiah 61:1-3)

In the inauguration of his earthly ministry, Jesus read from this very passage. Upon finishing, Luke records, "he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:20-21).

Fulfilled — yet not completed. Not in the final and consummate way that it will be. And so we are left with… what?

We're left with affliction that continues. Yes, but also the comfort in that affliction. We're left with the grief of our sufferings and our sin. Yes, but also with a grief that isn't hopeless. We're left with tears. Yes, but they are not tears of despair; they are tears of sorrow mixed with protest: this is NOT the way things are supposed to be.

The world feels this part the most. Perhaps the one Christian doctrine that is universally acknowledged is that things are broken, that all of this which we face is unnatural: tragedy and atrocity, war and violence, irreconciliation of all stripes, the immediate pain of our sins against one another and the communally-shared pain of senseless violence somewhere else.

The difference for the Christian — for me, as I feel the need to be alone and write in processing my thoughts; for my wife as she seeks an opportunity to talk to our son about what has happened; for those believers in Connecticut who, tonight, are wrestling with the inevitable tension between their faith and the realities of today's events — is that we serve and know the God of all comfort. Even more, that we are known and loved by Him, and He has bound us to Himself and to His body for the sake of our comfort.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort."
(2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

And so we weep, because through our tears of mourning and of protest we see the realities of brokenness more clearly. We see it as the terrible and gut-wrenching pain of sin that it is. We see it for the hurt and trauma that will befall our fellow man and woman for years to come, and we hurt for them as our neighbors, friends, or family. We see the effects of our own fallenness and are frightened at the capacity for sin in us. We see the futility and meaninglessness of it and share in the doubt of any purpose or use of it.

And, by His grace, we also see more clearly the sure promise of a coming end to all of the brokenness. Through our tears — perhaps only through our tears — we see and believe the future Advent reality revealed to us by the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with our grief:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'"
(Revelation 21:1-4)

We believe; Lord, help us in our unbelief.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Leavened or Unleavened?

[From Pastor Ed… 12/2 and 12/9]

Maybe you've been wondering that already. Over the last several months you've surely noticed that we've been serving unleavened matzoh crackers instead of regular (leavened) bread. Several people have asked me, which is the "right" kind of bread to use for Communion?

This is an issue that has been a matter of debate for years — centuries even. It also tends to be a very personal issue, one that many feel strongly about. I don't claim to have the final answer to the question, nor do I believe it should be a question that should cause division among brothers and sisters in Christ. But I do have some thoughts, and the Session has asked me to articulate my thoughts about this issue, hopefully for the edification of our congregation.

There's no doubt that, at the institution of the Lord's Supper (see Luke 22), Christ used unleavened bread; this was at the end of the season of Passover, when the leavening for bread would have been purged from all Jewish homes in Israel weeks earlier. It was also an observance and celebration, of sorts, of the Passover feast originally described in Exodus 12. Because Christ used unleavened bread in the institution of Communion, many contemporary believers have concluded that Christians must likewise use only unleavened bread for a proper observance of the Supper.

Is this so? Or is there freedom to use leavened bread also or instead? To consider this, let's first consider what the purpose of the unleavened bread was.

Leavening itself is a rising agent made from fermented dough, which spreads throughout rest of fresh dough over time, and causes the bread to "rise" — in other words, the fermentation spreads gases throughout the bread which are released during baking, but which make air pockets in the loaves and give it the springy, spongelike texture that we associate with leavened bread. Because unleavened bread lacks these air pockets, it is more solid and hardened in texture, sometimes being more crumbly (almost like a cookie) and in other recipes being cracker-like.

The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was intended to remind the Israelites that they were brought out of Egypt quickly — that they could not wait for their bread to rise, and so made unleavened bread instead (see Exodus 12:39). Thus unleavened bread became regularly associated with acts of worship for Israel. Leavening was prohibited in some of the sacrifices and offerings — those offered wholly to God — but was allowed for those that people would consume some or all of (such as the Peace Offerings).

The nature of leavening makes it a great metaphorical illustration of spiritual things. Jesus warned against the hypocritical "leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1) but also described the Kingdom of God as spreading like leavening. Paul used the unleavened bread of Passover as a metaphor for how we have been cleansed through Christ, our Passover Lamb who was sacrificed: "Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:8).

We cannot therefore conclude that leavening is bad in itself, for leavened bread was permissible in some of the sacrifices, and Christ described the Kingdom of God as being like leavening! But certain things that are like leavening, in terms of how they spread quickly and thoroughly — things like hypocrisy, malice, and evil — should be cast out in the same way that the leavening was put out during the Passover season.

But if some leavened bread is permissible, is it permissible in Communion? Consider this: one of the occasions when leavened bread was required was during the Peace Offering; this was a time when some of an animal was sacrificed by fire to the Lord, while the rest was consumed by the priests and the ones bringing the offering. The meaning of the Peace Offering was to celebrate the communion with God and with one another before God. Leviticus says of the Peace Offering: "with the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with loaves of leavened bread. And from it he shall offer one loaf from each offering, as a gift to the LORD" (Leviticus 7:13-14).

Does this sound familiar? It should: our sacrament of the Lord's Supper is generally considered to be a continuation of the Peace Offerings, as we talked about in a recent sermon. (The Passover itself is also thought to be a particular kind of Peace Offering, though obviously one with unleavened bread.) The sacrament of the Lord's Supper is a celebration of our reconciliation to God and our communion with Him — and, because of Him, our communion with one another also — and a foretaste of the ultimate and eternal fellowship with Him that we will have in glory. Given that the Peace Offering includes the permission for, and at times even the requirement of, leavened bread, we might conclude therefore that leavened bread is permissible for Communion.

Here's another consideration: it is pretty clear that the New Testament-era church celebrated Communion often; if Acts 2:42 is an indicator of their ongoing and common practices, it seems that the took Communion together every time they met for worship! When we look at that verse we see that the definite article ("the") is used with the concepts of "breaking of bread" and "prayers" — thus indicating that it wasn't just breaking bread together, as in sharing in meals and fellowship (though they DID do that too, daily — see Acts 2:46) but THE breaking of bread, which is a euphemistic reference to the way the Gospels also speak of the Lord's Supper.

Would they have used unleavened bread every week? Almost certainly not: while we can go to the grocery store whenever we want to buy unleavened matzoh crackers (or other kinds of unleavened bread, including pita, shortbread, and other crackers), first-century Christians would have had such easy access to unleavened bread. Probably they would have used whatever bread was available to them.

Thus we might also conclude that either leavened or unleavened bread is permissible for use in worship. But, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, not everything that is permissible is also beneficial. We CAN use leavened or unleavened bread; which SHOULD we use?

Here is what the Session has decided about this: we recognize that Passover was a fasting season, leading up to a feast — much like our own Christian calendars hold as a pattern. Therefore, we have decided that, during the fasting seasons of the church (Advent and Lent) we will use unleavened bread. Likewise, during the feasting seasons of the church — Christmastide, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity — we will certainly use leavened bread. During the other times (usually called "ordinary time") we will recognize freedom to use either leavened or unleavened bread.

It is our prayer that our congregation be blessed by this variation and freedom, and I hope that this explanation will be of some help to you in receiving such blessing!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Books for November 2012

The God Of The MundaneThe God Of The Mundane by Matt B. Redmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[Full disclosure: I work as the Publisher for Kalos Press, who published this title.]

As a pastor, I often meet with people who wrestle with questions about their worth before God. Do their lives matter to Him? Does their work have value? Do they need to be a pastor, or missionary, or go to seminary, in order to know God and be important to Him (in their vocation)?

Matt Redmond has written a book for these people — and also a book for pastors like me — who need to be reminded of the value and importance of daily life, even when that daily life is plain. Ordinary. Mundane, even. It’s a book for moms and wives, for husbands and fathers, for people single and married. It is for folks who work in a world that has an earthiness to it, not focused only on spiritual matters, but instead seeing the sacredness and spirituality to everyday things and tasks.

In spite of the fact that Matt is not in full-time vocational ministry any longer, Matt IS a pastor to all who read his book. He affirms, he strengthens, and he builds them up in the value and delight that God takes in their mundane lives. He challenges and debunks the notion that only the strictly ecclesiastical things matter; he pushes back against pastors and leaders who would tell us that if we are REALLY serious about our faith, we will do something, or be someone, different.

I highly recommend Matt’s book to all Christians; you will be renewed and refreshed by both his words and their content.

How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your SoulHow to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book — not exactly what I expected, as I was thinking more along the lines of a “philosophy of design” book, and this is a book about the business and practice of being a working designer.

The author demonstrates and obvious and clear knowledge of the field, having worked as a designer for many years. Those just starting, or who are setting out on their own, will find this book an invaluable resource.

There are some chapters about the philosophy of design, and I found the author’s reflections on the ethics of design especially useful. There are also a handful of interesting interviews at the back, almost as if an afterthought, but with a good bit of design philosophy within them.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sermon series for Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany 2012/2013

Here is our sermon series for this Advent through Epiphany…

12/2 — Luke 1:5-25 ("Extraordinary Work among Ordinary People")
12/9 — Luke 1:26-38 ("The Consolation of Israel")
12/16 — Luke 1:39-56 ("Gut Reaction")
12/23 — Luke 1:57-80 ("What's in a Name?")
12/24 (Christmas Eve service) — Luke 2:1-7 ("The Fullness of Time")
12/30 — Luke 2:8-20 ("Do Not Fear")
1/6 — Luke 2:39-52 ("Growing in Favor")

Monday, November 19, 2012

The benefit of "week-by-week"

[From Pastor Ed… 11/18 and 11/25]

It's Monday… and for the last 24 hours a recurring thought has been going through my head: "yesterday's sermon bombed." I can't quite put my finger on how I think this particular sermon bombed; maybe it was a text that I didn't explain very well, or that I tried to weave too many diverse ideas together, or my application points kept missing the mark. Or maybe it was just boring. One way or another, it was one of those Sundays.

Some pastors are great preachers, and every week it seems like their sermon is a "home run." I don't expect a home run every week — I'll be content if I have a decent on-base percentage! I think most of us who preach feel this way, or something close to it.

And I know that the way I feel today is a common struggle for most preachers, be we sluggers or utility players: it is one of the best ways that a congregation might pray for their pastor, according to Joe Thorne (a pastor in Illinois). I once accompanied one of my seminary professors as he preached out of town; on the way home afterward, he turned to me (and the other two guys with us) and said, "I'd be grateful for your prayers; the Accuser of the Brethren is whispering to my soul, telling me that my words fell on deaf ears and did no good." After we prayed for him, we talked about how this was/is a common challenge and threat to preachers: Satan loves to attack in that vulnerable moment.

The late Presbyterian Preacher Bruce Thielmann defined preaching this way:
"Preaching is the most public of ministries and therefore, the most conspicuous in its failure and the most subjective to the temptation of hypocrisy… There is no special honor in being so gifted–there is only special pain. The pulpit calls them to it as the sea calls its sailors, and, like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest, but always there is the lure of its ‘better and incomparable’ society. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.”

Whew! That's daunting. Yet, in light of that — and in light of my reflections on yesterday's sermon — I have a particular hope: it was just one Sunday.

One of the prevailing concepts through these last two months' worth of sermons on Worship is that the impact and power of worship is cumulative. What happens on any given week matters unto itself, but what matters even more is what happens week-by-week, month-by-month, season-by-season, year-by-year. The power of worship to shape and identify us is as much, if not more than anything else, about the sum of many services of worship collectively — and in that, as in so many things, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

If you have a Bible that you've been using for a while (several years or more), close it and look at the long side where the pages are exposed. Do you see the darkened smudges from where, over time, the oils in your fingers have discolored the edges of these pages? This can't be attributed to a single reading, or even to a few weeks' worth; rather, those darkened edges are the fruit of a season of life — or perhaps even a lifetime — spent immersed in God's Word. Each devotional moment had its immediate impact, but with rare exceptions, the greater impact of your devotional life has come from the net effect of the many readings.

So with worship! And such is my great comfort as a preacher, on Mondays when the special pain of the pulpit is particularly acute. Were your spiritual well-being dependent wholly on the power of each particular sermon, the weight of that burden would be crushing to any preacher, no matter how many "home runs" he delivered. There would be no margin for error, no room for anything less than 100%.

But despite my or any other preacher's best efforts to give 100% to each sermon, some will fall short. Another illustration: a few weeks ago, Marcie and I went to a concert by one of my favorite musicians. I know all of his songs, and we have seen him play and sing several times. His music is a blend of wit and philosophy that resonates exactly with me, and I have also had a few opportunities to interact with him personally. I wouldn't exactly say that I am "friends" with this musician, but it is a warm acquaintance, and certainly some of his songs are dear "friends" in their own way.

Was it the best concert ever? I wouldn't say that, but that's partly because I wouldn't really describe the concert in comparative or superlative terms. I didn't evaluate it based on how well I felt he performed. Rather, it was for me another opportunity to gather with a beloved singer/songwriter, and with others who also love him and his music, and spend an evening together delighting in music, words, humor, truth, and connections.

I think this is true of worship as well: each week, however different from the weeks before, we are invited to gather, commune, pray, listen, sing, and be re-formed. Some weeks feel more disconnected or disjointed than others; some weeks have a stronger resonance with the circumstances of our lives than others. But week after week, we join in the worship of God! And as one of my friends said, "that's kind of like pizza; the worst it ever gets is still pretty good."

I'm thankful that the Holy Spirit sometimes surprises me with feedback of how even those sermons I felt were not "up to snuff" were useful to some. I'm thankful that some weeks seem to echo and soar with the presence of God among His people, and while I am a participant it is obvious to me (and to everyone else) that it has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God and what He is doing!

I'm also thankful that the benefit of "week-by-week" means that, if I was tired, or some folks seemed restless, or the congregation felt disconnected, or yesterday's sermon was a total bomb… there's always next week, and the weeks that follow.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Praying for our President

I originally wrote this up in 2008 for my congregation's encouragement. I believe it is still useful today.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

~1 Timothy 2:1-4

Scripture clearly portrays the faithful follower of Christ as one who extends respect, submission, and regular prayer to the leaders and authorities that God has placed over him or her. In our continual growth in the spiritual discipline of prayer, one of the lessons we might learn is how to pray for the President of the United States, who God has sovereignly and providentially given to us.

Here are some ways that you might be in prayer for the President:
  • That, above all else, he would humble himself in the sight of the Lord, and be exalted by the victory of Christ on the cross to atone for his sins and bring him into a reconciled relationship with God the Father.
  • That he would love his family faithfully, and in the face of the pressures and stress of the presidency remain committed and able to be the husband and father that God has created him to be.
  • That God would grant him wisdom, courage, and commitment to lead and serve the citizens of our country faithfully and well, and that he would not bow to the idols of esteem, power, or pandering even when all around him beg him to do so.
  • That his presidency would be marked by love, mercy, justice, and truth at every turn and in every decision.
  • That he would be quick to repent, publicly when necessary, owning his failures and fallibility and resting in the grace of Christ, not in the illusion of moral, ethical, or political perfection.
  • That God would grant him humility and repentance in the face of wrong policies and positions, and that he would search the Scriptures, his own conscience, and the counsel of the Body of Christ for wisdom and discernment in each decision, policy, signing of law, or other act; and that, with a teachable spirit and humble mind, he would readily reverse even his own decisions when convicted by the Holy Spirit that he erred in them.
  • That God would use him as an instrument of grace, justice, truth, and reconciliation, both within our country and across the world, and that he would be known more as a man of peace than a man of the sword.
  • That he would know his own strengths, and that he would use them for the good of the country and the world, not merely for the good of his own political agenda or that of his political party.
  • That he would know his own weaknesses, and that he would own them freely, granting room for those whose strengths complement his weaknesses and humbly delegating leadership to them for the good of the country and the world.
  • That he would find love, respect, and support from Christ’s church as we fulfill the commands of Scripture, and that we, the church— through our actions, our attitude, and our prayers— might encourage him ever-closer to Christ.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What do you have for the kids?

[From Pastor Ed… 11/4 and 11/11]

I'm often told that a common question, when our members invite their friends and neighbors to worship with us, is, "what do you offer for children and youth ministries?" I'm sure this is a considerable factor for many, and of course as a parent I can fully understand why this is such a frequent question. It may be a difficult one to answer, too, since our congregation's life together as a body is so little-oriented toward program-style ministries.

When the Session announced a few weeks ago that we saw both practical and theological reasons for scaling back our congregation's nursery offerings, most of the discussion focused on the practical side. I thought it might be helpful to consider some of the theological rationale behind this, as well.

The conventional wisdom behind offering a strong and prominent children's ministry is that they need "age-appropriate" ministries to communicate to them the truths of the faith, and that they will be bored and un-engaged in structured events and practices that are geared toward adults. I recognize both the prevalence of this perspective and the grounds offered to support it, but I think it carries with it several pre-suppositions that deserve reconsideration:
  • First, it presupposes that corporate worship, as a prominent example, is geared exclusively toward adults. Is that so? And if it is, then must it be so? Or could it be that corporate worship is for all ages, and can (and should) be viewed and structured as such?
  • Second, it presupposes that the best — and maybe the only — thing we have to offer to children is what we can cognitively teach them. But is there something else that corporate worship (and other events as well) offers? And could it be that the other offerings are even more important?
  • Third, it presupposes that the systems and structures posed by the "experts" of modern-day educational theory know best for our children. Yet, isn't the general shortcoming of our contemporary educational system one of the things that most Christians would agree about? And shouldn't we hope and believe both that God knows a thing or two about how to train our covenant children, and that He may have communicated something about this to us in the Bible?

With these in mind, I want to steer our thoughts on this subject back to some of what we've been discussing so persistently in our sermon series on worship: specifically, that the act of worship is formative, not merely in the cognitive ways that we are instructed by the teaching and preaching of the Word, nor even in the didactic value that the other parts of a worship liturgy contain — those both of these ARE greatly and helpfully formative for us. More than that, though, it is formative in how it builds in us habits, instincts, desires, and love that are Godward in their inclination and godly in their function. It is formative not just in what it represents on any given week, but in how it builds and grows in us cumulatively over time through the week-after-week practices that we engage in.

I recently read the reflections on this from a pastor in the Memphis area, named Joshua Smith. I don't know Joshua, but my thinking on this subject resonates with his. He said:
"A liturgical service is an experience of compounded interest. It can't be evaluated in its component parts or one service at a time. It must be submitted to over many seasons of life in order for its impact to be perceived. To participate in a liturgy is to be shaped by its story in a semiconscious, primal sort of way. It is more of an extended baptismal catechism than a single encounter.

“We are immersed and indoctrinated over time into a faith that holds its power not in the effectiveness of a moment's expression (e.g., a killer offertory song), but in the potency and universality of its narrative."

So let's bring this back around to children: when we invite and bring our children into worship with us, we are offering them this same sort of formation! This is true even if/when they engage in it only peripherally, and even if they don't fully grasp what it is they are doing when they participate.

I had a teacher in middle school who grew to be a friend as I moved into high school. He once told me of his own experience as a child: he grew up in a large metropolitan area, and his parents enrolled him in a 1st-12th grade magnet school, whose focus was primarily performing arts (especially theatrical performance). In that school, they started reading the works of Shakespeare in the very early grades — he remembered reading through entire Shakespeare plays in third grade. This wasn't because the teachers believed that the students would obtain a full, or even partial, comprehension of the content of the plays. It was, rather, for another reason: he also remembered when, in 7th grade, he was first expected to take part in the performance of one of these plays, he thought, "oh — it's Bill! Bill Shakespeare! Yes, I know this stuff!" And the performance of 7th graders contained much of the meaning and substance that the plays demanded, because the students knew already the patterns and stylings of the author.

This is, at very least, what we hope will happen in our corporate worship: as our children grow up, Lord willing, to embrace the faith we are teaching them, they will have been shaped and formed by the habitual, instinct-building practices of worship so much that they engage in worship meaningfully, because they already know the patterns and stylings of the Author of such things.

But it is more than that, too. In my 7+ years as a Youth Minister, I found that, unequivocally, the events that the children grew and thrived in were the ones in which they were integrated into the life of the larger body. No matter how great the programs or ad-hoc events were, no matter how elaborately-planned or well-led they were, the real lasting impressions and growth opportunities came when the children and students were working, playing, fellowshipping, worshiping, and growing alongside their parents and other adults of all ages in the church.

In my own childhood, too, I found this to be so. One of my very earliest memories is when (my mother says) I was about 3, and I recall my father carrying me out of worship and walking to the car. Perhaps simply because it was a different time (insofar as "children's ministry" goes anyway), I was brought into worship at a very early age. As a result, I learned to be quiet, respectful, and even reverent instead of distracting or disturbing other worshipers around me. I also learned the words to favorite hymns, grew in knowing the patterns of our worship liturgy, and could recite creeds, doxologies, and frequently-read Scripture passages by heart.

And I see it in my own children. Jack has a growing list on one of the blank pages of his Bible, where he records the names of favorite hymns. Both Jack and Molly approached us a few years ago, asking: "you say to us every time our congregation has the Lord's Supper that it is for those who believe in Jesus as their Savior. WE believe in Jesus as our Savior! When can WE take the Lord's Supper?" These things are the direct fruit of their inclusion in worship — at times by necessity, but often by choice — from an early age.

We have work to do yet, of course, and there are many ways we can improve from where we are. We still need to have some sort of nursery offering, at least as a ministry of hospitality to visitors and others with particular needs — and we're working on that and trying to figure it out. And we can always do better with actively including our children in worship and in other events and body life. But from a theological perspective, I believe we are on the right path.

So, what do we have for this kids? Here's my answer:
"We offer our children the best thing we have to offer — they are included in our congregation's life of worship, and welcomed into the identity-forming and faith-shaping practices of week-by-week service to Christ in corporate worship. Rather than implying that corporate worship is no place for children, we show and tell them how much we want them to join us. The adults in our congregation love the children, and take seriously their congregational vows to come alongside them in the nurture of their faith: I watch as an older widow converses with my 10-year old for a lengthy conversation, as our pianist shows my 8-year old how to work out a difficult scale, and as a Deacon's wife plays hide-and-seek with my 4-year-old twins, and I know that they are loved and cared-for in ways that no children's ministry program, however great the leaders, could offer them."

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sermon Texts for November 2012

Sorry that I haven't been keeping up with these…

Here are the texts and topics for November's sermons:
11/4 — Leviticus 23:1-3 (The Corporate Nature of Worship)
11/11 — Hebrews 9:1-14 (The Context of Worship: Themes)
11/18 — 2 Samuel 6:12-16 (The Context of Worship: Preparing Our Hearts)
11/25 — 1 Samuel 3:1-18 (God Calls Us to Worship Him)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Books for October 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My son Jack is, of course, no stranger to Harry Potter, even though he has never read the book(s) nor seen the movie(s). From his friends at school, the Lego catalog and video game, and simply the world around him, he has picked up a surprising amount. Still, he can be sort of a fearful kid, so we’ve been hesitant to set him loose with these books, which contain some pretty intense and frightening moments.

Still, it would be a shame to deny him the pleasure entirely, so I promised him that I would read it TO him after he turned 10 — which he did in September. One of his presents, in fact, was a copy of the book wrapped up; not HIS copy, but the family’s, and yet he understood the idea.

It was great fun to read it to him. Rowling’s ability to create a complex yet consistent world is a rare and wonderful talent, and she introduces children (and adults) to that world magnificently. Every time Jack would ask, “what is that?” then the next paragraph would contain a definition or explanation far better and simpler than I could have offered.

Book #1 in the Potter series is probably the one I’ve read least, since I actually saw the movie before reading the book on that one. Actually, Marcie and I weren’t really that interested in them until my sister coaxed us into going to the first movie with her. From there, we were hooked— like most of the rest of the world, I guess.

Women's Ministry in the Local ChurchWomen's Ministry in the Local Church by J. Ligon Duncan, III

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As church ministry goes, my experience has been that women’s ministry tends to be one of the more difficult areas of church life to approach in a healthy, biblical, and dignified manner. I’m sure that is why Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt set out to write this book together. They clearly want to lay out something of a philosophy of ministry for women’s ministry in the local church, and overall they haven’t done too poorly at it (though there are differences that I might highlight).

As I read it, I was struck by several observations, some of which the book addresses better than others. They include:

Why “women’s” ministry? A lot of the sentences in the earliest chapters of book, which begin with something like, “healthy women’s ministry is…” or “good women’s ministry must include…”, could just as well have been written without the “women’s” in there. So why is it needed? If good MINISTRY can be described in exactly the same way, why qualify it as women’s ministry at all? This brings up a parallel point…

Why not “men’s” ministry? So many of the reasons given for women’s ministry in this book stand just as strongly as a rationale for a good men’s ministry, too. Where is the emphasis on that? The same people who are going to say, “we must have a strong women’s ministry” should then argue just as emphatically for a strong men’s ministry as well. But we never hear that — not even in this book, not even mentioned.

The importance of womanhood The real strength of this book is its thorough development of a rationale for women’s ministry based on the need for dealing with womanhood in healthy, godly ways. This is a real truth that I think is overlooked (as is the counterpart of biblical manhood, since the best it seems to get is the Mark Driscoll testosterone-fest) too often in the church. But this also raises an earnest question: if the main and best reason for women’s ministry is so that we can have a context for women to discuss, learn about, and deal with issues related to womanhood, are we consistently employing that? Are our women’s Bible studies, for example, focused on one or more of these issues? Or are they simply gender-segregated studies that have no justification for the segregation (except perhaps to give a woman an opportunity to teach, but we’re skittish about letting her teach when men might actually be present)? There is very little acknowledgement of this in the book, even in the appendix on evaluating Bible study materials.

Big churches only? A lot of the practical implications of this book suggest a structure that works very well for big churches, while the mileage may vary, as they say, for smaller ones. Because most of the book is a philosophy of ministry statement, this isn’t as much the case as I feared it might be when starting into it (since both Dr. Duncan and Mrs. Hunt are in larger congregations). Still, there’s not much help for “scaling” this down to a small congregation’s purposes, and that would be of great benefit — especially since more than 90% of the churches in the country are less than 100 in membership!

Overall, I don’t have any great problems with what is presented in this book. It doesn’t read easily, and at times feels a bit forced (usually in trying to accommodate both Dr. Duncan’s and Mrs. Hunt’s views at the same time). But the content is solid, and their ideas are good ones overall. Local churches will still have a lot of work to do, in trying to determine HOW to take this philosophy of ministry and apply it in their context.

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1)The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Molly was a bit jealous that I was reading a book to/with Jack, so after finishing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with him then I started into this one with her. It’s much shorter, of course, and intended for a younger audience (even though Molly is reading at the same level with Jack) so it went a lot faster!

I thought the book was a good read for us. It is indeed a well-named series: the entire book is, with a few exceptions, a series of unfortunate events. What I liked about it were the following…

It handles the unfortunate events with care, gentleness, and grace, without making them seem less unfortunate. Children will be introduced to the realities of life’s misfortunes in something of an age-appropriate manner, but with seriousness and in a way that dignifies them.

It offers the hope of enduring through misfortune without unrealistic expectations or fantastical solutions. Rather, the kids in the book face their misfortunes with what they have, which is their commitments to each other, their intelligence, and the ability to look to others for help.

It teaches vocabulary very intentionally throughout the book. Clearly the author hoped and intended to build up the readers with a deeper love for reading.

Overall, I think these are good ones. I look forward to reading the next with Molly soon.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another one that I read to Jack. I think, of all of the Potter books, this one is my least-favorite. It’s not simply because of my fear and hatred of snakes(!), but also because I think this is one of the weaker stories in the series.

Jack liked it, though, and I’ve been really grateful for the time to read to him.

The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2)The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second in the series maintained the pace and train of thought established in the first volume. The story was not dissimilar, yet it wasn’t dull repetition of the first tale — it had a fresh take on similar themes.

One thing I like about this series so far is that it is well-edited: the author doesn’t (or isn’t allowed to!) stretch out his stories to a tedious length, nor introduce too many new themes or ideas at any one point. It’s definitely written with a clear concept of a certain level reader in mind, and they do a good job of hitting the mark. (It helps that Molly is pretty-well right in that target audience range!)

Another thing I like about this series is that there is a didactic quality about the books. In terms of vocabulary, for sure (as I believe I mentioned in my review of the first volume) — but also in terms of things like facing disappointments and even pain in healthy, measured ways; when proper manners are appropriate and when they sometimes get in the way of important things; and how people can be well-intentioned but still unhelpful. These are things introduced without fanfare or hyperbole, so they seem like a perfectly natural part of the lives of the main characters — which is itself a didactic approach.

I’m looking forward to continuing these with Molly.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Random Personal Stuff, Hallowe'en 2012

I figured out that the finish on the desk is lacquer, which is good for a couple of reasons: first, it is a finish that stays on the surface of the wood, so when I get it off then the wood won't have much or any residual remnant of the previous finish. Second, it responds well to chemical finish strippers, so it is supposed to come off fairly easily. I haven't done a lot of refinishing like this, so I'm not sure how easy "fairly easily" is supposed to be. So far, I've been working on the drawer faces: a round with the stripping solvent brushed on, left for 15 minutes — then scraped off with some of the finish coming with it. But there's still a good bit of lacquer remaining after. So once I got all of the stripping chemicals off, I went back over it with lacquer thinner — a different solvent altogether — and a rag, wiping and rubbing until the remaining lacquer was removed. This was pretty effective: 3 out of 5 drawers are now fully-stripped. I plan to hit the other two with another round, maybe Thursday. But it takes a good bit of hand strength and elbow grease to use the lacquer thinner, so I may try doing multiple passes with the stripping solvent on the larger pieces. It looks like there's a decent chance my timeline for refinishing the desk may move up by a month or so, which leaves me only about a month! (It also means the chairs are second-priority for now.)

Jack and Molly brought home their annual school photos yesterday, so this morning I got to put them in my frames in my study. I borrowed a practice that my father did (which I didn't know about until after he died): in his office at work, he had frames with my school photos and my sister's, and every year he placed the new one in front, keeping the older ones behind it — sort of an archive of the year-by-year changes in his kids. I have 4 or 5 now for Jack and Molly, and it's so fun to look back at the previous years' photos each time I update them. It's something I forget about through the year, even though I often enjoy the displayed picture; but it's becoming one of my favorite yearly traditions.

The Ford minivan is still shutting down intermittently, even after replacing the computer. The day after we picked it up, Marcie called me to tell me it had cut off on her twice. So we've traded cars for a while, and I'm trying to figure out if there's a pattern to it. It seems like there may be something related to the transmission in it: the shut-offs usually happen after the engine has been revving, then levels off. It's like it's trying to down-shift, but the engine stalls instead. It will re-start immediately — even while it's still rolling (invariably it shuts off when going 30 or 40 mph), shifting down to neutral and cutting the switch off, then re-cranking it will fire it right back up. Sometimes it will cut off again within a few minutes, and other times it will go a day or more before shutting off. But it also happens almost always when I've been driving it around for a while. I stopped by to talk to the mechanic about it, and he agrees that it's a real head-scratcher. We can't really afford right now to put more money toward trying to get it fixed, so I'll be driving it (and re-starting it in neutral) for a while, I guess.

I continue to love my new bike, and enjoy riding it to work as well as for exercise. The bike I rode before was a Trek road bike that I've had since I was a Senior in high school, and I've always loved it too; but I can't ride a road bike comfortably anymore. My friend Matt is a pretty hard-core bicyclist, and he was looking for a good steel-frame bike as a second road bike; he's going to buy my old Trek. I'm sad to let it go, but I'm really glad that it is going to someone who I know appreciates it and will give it a lot of use.

We celebrated the twins' fourth birthday last week. It's the first birthday of theirs that I can remember where they were really excited about the presents; I guess it's all downhill from here. As they grow up together, it's interesting to watch how they interact. Most of the time they get along so well — better, I'm sure, than most non-twin siblings do — but sometimes they so obviously get under each others' skin. A single friend was over for lunch recently, and one of the twins was fussing about wanting to be alone; my friend commented that she had never thought about what being alone meant to twins. It puts it in a whole new light! So now they are four, going to preschool three days a week, and constantly doing and saying things that look and sound older. They still love to snuggle with their daddy, though, so that ain't nothin'!

I think the new iPad Mini looks neat, but I can't really picture how I would use one. I don't use my (first generation, full-size) iPad for a lot of typing — my big fumble-fingers can't quite make adequate use of the on-screen keyboard — but I do a fair amount of other things that seem to require the larger size. I suppose if the main reason someone wanted a iPad was for watching movies and videos and playing games, the new Mini might be the perfect size. It seems like it's about the same size as things like the personal Nintendo things. I could be wrong, though; I've been pleasantly surprised more than once with how well an app that I'm used to for iPad translates down to my iPhone.

Jack and I have been talking about an idea that Apple needs to put to work. The more recent versions of all of the iDevices — iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, even Macs — can stream video and audio content to a TV using the Apple TV; they call it AirPlay. All of those devices can also do multi-player video games using Apple's GameCenter, which is a sort of social network. With GameCenter, I can play games with Jack, each of us on a different device, but playing against each other. So we were thinking, they should connect GameCenter and AirPlay, so that you could play multi-player games and stream the video to your TV. Maybe they could even split the screen to show the views of multiple players, kind of like they do for Mario Cart. Who needs a video console when you have your iPhone or iPod, an Apple TV, and multiplayer streaming?

There are a lot of kids in our neighborhood, and Jack and Molly have started playing with them often. This is a first for them, and I'm so glad for it. It wasn't that our neighborhood in Tennessee didn't have kids, but there weren't many on our block, and it seemed like families moved in and out of the neighborhood pretty frequently, so there wasn't much of a chance to build friendships. Plus, neither of them were quite old enough to say, "sure, go ride your bike around the block without me." This neighborhood doesn't have much through-traffic, and the kids play near our home anyway. Both Jack and Molly are starting to spend their afternoons more like what I remember from my own childhood: come home from school, hurry to finish homework, then head out to play with other kids on the block until dinner time.

I finished up book two of the Lemony Snicket novels with Molly on Sunday afternoon. It was pretty good, and I like how they've built in some clever ways of teaching kids new concepts in these books. I started #3 of the Harry Potter books with Jack last night. We made it clear to him, though, that we would probably wait a few months after #3, before starting into another. Marcie and I both think they get very dark after the third one, and he's just not quite ready for that; some of the more intense parts of #1 and #2 made him have a little trouble getting to sleep, so how much more will the others? There's so much darkness in the real world, and he's racing toward it more every day. I don't feel the need to rush him into it in his imagination too.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Living within Limits

[From Pastor Ed… 10/21/2012 and 10/28/2012]

I've played guitar since I was 12. Even before then, one of the things I wanted above most was to be a performing musician — in a band at first, then as I got to college I thought perhaps of a solo "folk musician" life. Over time I gathered sound and musical gear to equip me for the time when, one day, I would regularly perform in coffee houses and small music halls. My ambitions were not too high: I recognized that I would probably never play venues larger than a few dozen people, or tour, or get a recording contract. Still, deep down I hoped I would get to play for the crowds, however small.

The trouble is, I'm not an amazing guitarist; I'm not bad, and I'm better than some, but there's nothing special there. My singing voice, likewise, is average. I've only written one song — ever — and it wasn't that good. I can play lots of songs written and recorded by others, but nothing about my renditions offers much that is all that interesting.

I know my limits. I remember the point when I finally calculated them, and saw that this was an ambition that would likely not be achieved. I think I even said to Marcie, "there comes a day in a guy's life when he realizes that he's never going to be a guitar hero. That day is today!" And I sold off the sound equipment that I now knew I wouldn't need, and since then have contented myself to be the musician that I am: I love to play my guitar, I love to sing, and my family enjoys when I do both. I am called and equipped for other things, and it is those things that I should find my identity and my hopes in. That's enough.

Every church has its limits. No matter how large or small, how many staff members or how active the volunteer base, how spiritually-mature and passionate or new to the faith — all congregations have limits to what they can do, who they can be.

Sometimes the limits are tested when a congregation recognizes a need, and wants desperately to meet that need. Yet they find themselves unable to do it, for any of a variety of reasons; perhaps there wasn't enough money to put an adequate program together, or enough volunteers to staff it, or a lack of knowledge of how to actually meet the need, or a shortage of interest or buy-in from those in need! Regardless, in these cases the limits of a church are exposed.

At other times, a church's limits are revealed by comparison to other churches. One member recalls how things were done in the church she grew up in; another looks back to his congregation's "mother church" and remembers the strengths that body had. A leader wants a certain ministry initiative to be the top priority for all of the members. A pastor has wanted to build on a particular idea ever since he left seminary. But the limits of a church don't allow for these to take shape in the way they are envisioned, or at all. They simply can't allow it, by the very nature of being limits.

These limits that a church faces should direct and focus the congregation, but often they lead to disappointment and even disillusionment. They can even threaten a church's stability. Why is this?

It may be because the members of a church have held their ambitions or hopes or expectations too tightly. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described, such things are "wish dreams":
Innumerable times a whole community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

This presents us with a true dilemma: do we love our wish dreams more than we love God's people? Do we aspire to know the genuine fellowship of the Body of Christ, or do we aspire to the fulfillment of our ambitions and expectations? Do we submit ourselves — and even our desires for what "church" is like — to Christ and to those He has appointed over our local church, or do we insist on our wish dreams?

Bonhoeffer continues, challenging us toward the self-denial that Christ calls us to embody in the life of the local church:
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.
(Life Together)

So we must, if we love Christ (or even if we merely want to love Him), give over our ambitions, our expectations, our wish dreams to Him, and allow Him instead to shape us into the church that He has for us to become.

This may mean that our congregation doesn't offer the kind of program or study that some members believe we must have. It might mean that, for some people's tastes, our worship service is too interactive, or not interactive enough; it's too long, or too short; it is too diverse in musical style, or not nearly broad enough in musical choices. It could be that not enough members are involved in certain efforts to suit others. And it will certainly be the case that our congregation isn't doing the same things as So-and-So Church across town or in someone's hometown, or even as many of them.

It DOES mean that we will be freed from the burden of diverse ambitions, and freed TO the life that Christ has for us in Him! We can find our identity in serving Christ according to how He has gifted our body, how He has equipped us for ministering to one another and to our communities, and how He has placed us in a particular context for His purposes there.

And that's enough.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Random personal stuff, October 2012

I started last night on a project that will take up my focus for a few weeks to come. We have chairs for our dining room set that have fiber rush-woven seats; the trouble is, this is an older set, and several of the seats have worn through. So I'm re-seating them with new rush. It's a pretty straightforward weave, and it's satisfying work. I've somehow developed sort of a thing for chairs: a few years ago I had great fun replacing the cane seat of an antique rocking chair. Slowly, I'm amassing a new battery of esoteric knowledge. My family will be coming to join us for Christmas — my sister and brother-in-law, plus any children they are fostering, and my mother and step-father — so we will have a great crowd for a holiday feast. Marcie and I determined that I needed to get these chairs fixed in time for that, so that's a healthy goal.

Another project, not too dissimilar (in that it also involves old furniture), that I will be starting soon is refinishing a desk. I have a writing desk that, my whole childhood, sat in one entrance hallway or another in the two homes my family lived in. When my sister was in second grade, she carved her teacher's name into it, so it has a bit of character (maybe a little more than I would sometimes like!). The finish on this desk is in pretty bad shape, and I confess I've never really loved the finish as it is. So, I intend to strip the old finish off, clean up some of the surfaces that are more defaced than is acceptable (though it was suggested that I should keep the names of Weez's teacher in it, for the sake of that history; we'll see), and re-finish it in a finish that I actually like (or hopefully love). I've used this writing desk as one of my main study desks for 13 years before we moved to Tucson, and I'll need it again when we get into a more permanent property for the church. Thus, I need to finish it (no pun intended) by the end of this year, I think, to be sure that it is ready in time.

Marcie's main vehicle — our Ford minivan — is still in the shop. It has had problems with intermittently shutting off for a couple of months now, and we've already had a handful of things repaired or replaced on it. She was in an accident during that time (rear-ended), and it took about a week for the body shop to complete repairs on it; after we picked it up last Friday, it cut off for her on the way home! Of course, it never/rarely cuts off when I'm driving it. Fortunately, we've found a great mechanic nearby — near enough that I can ride my bike to pick up or drop off a vehicle — and he's on the job. Unfortunately, he's informed us that it will be a computer replacement this time around. Will that fix the shutting-off problem? Only time (and a Grand) will tell.

I've been going round and round with Adobe for the last half a month. In late August, I bought the (then) most recent version of Adobe Photoshop Elements, which was version 10. Then, less than a month later, they announced a new release, version 11 of Photoshop Elements! So I contacted their customer support within a day or so of the release announcement, and was promised a complimentary upgrade to the new version: "an e-mail with the code for the free upgrade will come in the next week." Two weeks later, still no e-mail; on with customer support again, and this time I'm promised that the e-mail will come two days later (I was given an exact date to look for the e-mail). It didn't come. So last night, I contacted support again, and this time I was sent to a form where I could submit my request as a support trouble-ticket. Why didn't they send me there in the first place? So I was told it should be handled within 48 hours. What a frustration. On the up-side: a friend caught wind of my difficulty, and offered to give me his old version of the full Photoshop — no charge! (Thanks again, Joe.)

I've been riding my bike to work at least a couple of times a week for over a month now, and it's really great. I got a new bike earlier in the fall, as an early birthday present from my mom. It's a good upright-postured bike, which is helpful with the troubles I have with my back, and it's an easy and comfortable ride. Tucson is amazing as a biking town, for two reasons: for one, the weather here is super for riding, even (maybe especially) as a commute, for well over half the year; probably in the dead of winter and the hottest parts of the summer it'll be less so, but I would guess 8 months or more will be good riding weather. For another, the city is very conscientiously bike-friendly. Almost every road, except the most tertiary residential ones, have bike paths, wide paved shoulders, or a separate multi-use path. I know someone who's been in a few accidents, but he was regularly riding on four- and six-lane roads. Where I ride, I often have the whole road to myself.

I've been teaching Jack to cook. Actually, we decided that one of his regular chores needs to be that he fixes a simple meal for our family once a week. So he's been learning basic stuff that we make from mixes or helpers, like Sloppy Joes, tacos, or spaghetti. He's learning to brown ground beef, how to tell when something it done, and the odd multitasking that is often required by cooking even a simple meal. He really likes it, and it will help a lot with meal-planning to know that he can (and will) do this. Soon, maybe, we'll move onto something with a bit more complexity.

Marcie's new Speech Therapy job seems to be going well; she's working at a place where they offer nursing home care, outpatient rehab therapy, and also home health care — and she'll do some of each. She's worked in nursing homes and rehab facilities our whole marriage, and she's really good with those kinds of patients. The only frustrating thing is the "productivity" demands: because of legal restrictions on what is billable (excluding things like administrative work, which also excludes the paperwork for patient care), all of the therapists have to meet certain demands for how much of their time actually IS billable. I think it's 80%, which doesn't sound like it would be too hard to reach — but it technically doesn't include time walking from one patient's room to another, or going to the therapy office to get another resource, or talking with another therapist or staff member, or writing up the lengthy evaluation that you just completed on a patient. I imagine some therapists fudge a little on some of these; Marcie was actually instructed to by a supervisor at one place she worked. But Marcie is faithful in her integrity, and won't record time as billable that isn't. I can totally understand why this sort of policy is in place, from a patient's perspective and from a business perspective. But the end result is that it creates a culture that is stressful for therapists, is ripe for encouraging deceptive or nefarious practices in billing, and is challenging in terms of befriending and enjoying co-workers. It just seems like there needs to be another way.

Jack and I finished reading the second book in the Harry Potter series on Monday night. Now I'll get started tonight with Molly, on book two in Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books. It's fun to read these to them, and great time to have something special just between us (though Marcie usually comes and listens in too, at least to the Potter books). Jack is, of course, already familiar with a lot of the Harry Potter stuff just by osmosis; whether it is Lego catalogs, Wii games, or his friends at school, he seems to have at least a vague idea of a lot of the content. But the particular delight in hearing the story as it was written by JK Rowling, who builds such a consistent world, is fresh and new to him nevertheless. Molly didn't know anything about the Lemony Snicket books, by contrast, but has enjoyed them just as much.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Video: Wrong Worship

While we're doing videos…

This one is also very funny, and very pointed in its message.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Video: Sunday Morning (on liturgy)

Here is the video I mentioned in my opening illustration yesterday. It's been around for a while, but I'm still surprised at both how well-done and funny it is, as well as how many people HAVEN'T seen it!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Books for September, 2012

A Primer on Worship and Reformation A Primer on Worship and Reformation by Douglas Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a pretty good little book (or booklet, actually). Not my favorite from Wilson, nor (I think) his best writing, but good nevertheless.

Most of this book is solid advice and direction. As is not uncommon for Wilson, there is a section or two of complaints about how far we’ve all fallen from being good at what we’re supposed to be good at; in this case, engaging in full and rich worship. I don’t outright disagree with him on this, but oh how weary I am of such polemical stuff — especially because for some (though NOT Wilson, to his great credit) polemical theology seems to be all they are able to produce. That’s much like a carpenter who only seems to be able to take a project through demolition stage.

As it turns out, I heard 80% of the content of this book in a lecture Wilson gave on the topic of “Life Together” — minus the polemic about the sad state of church life and worship today. The lecture and the booklet were both good, but both left me wanting much more detail on some parts. That’s understandable with the lecture, but a bit dissatisfying, if not unforgivable, in a book.

Still, Wilson’s little monograph has much to offer, and is a quick and easy read for those who would like to begin to think about worshiping more fervently and richly.

Safe at Home: A NovelSafe at Home: A Novel by Richard Doster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading through this novel by Richard Doster: a strong storyline, compelling and believable characters, and an underlying message that both encourage and challenge the heart.

Set in the 50s in the deep South, Doster presents an indirect (and sometimes quite direct!) commentary on civil rights and the struggle of two vastly different cultures to come to grips with life together. At times the tale is surprising; yet had you told me this was a memoir instead of fiction, I would have believed it.

Those who find the accounts of the hardships and difficulties of segregation too far-fetched or exaggerated need only read some of the actual history of the era to learn that, if anything, Doster was too gracious in his representation.

Thanks to Richard Doster for a great read!

InDesign Ebook ConversionsInDesign Ebook Conversions by David Bergsland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very good, though very brief, summary of how to format ebooks using InDesign.

This version/edition has some acknowledgements of the latest version of Adobe’s InDesign (CS6), but only just so — that version of ID had only just been released, so it is somewhat understandable that the author isn’t yet fully versed in the changes. Using his advice within that version of ID, I was able to create valid ebooks without any trouble.

I found this to be a much more approachable and usable guide than the more involved texts like EPUB Straight to the Point: Creating eBooks for the Apple iPad and Other ereaders by Elizabeth Castro. While Castro’s book is thorough, it is perhaps overly so if your intention is to utilize the most recent tools available.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pastoral Retreats

[From Pastor Ed… September 16 and 23]

As many of you know, I recently had a personal, pastoral retreat for several days. On this particular retreat, I visited the Santa Rita Abbey, a Trappist convent where they have a very nice "retreat house" for outsiders like me!

I realized (based, in part, on the concerned reactions that some of our congregation had about the fact that I was taking a retreat) that I've never taken the time to explain about my pastoral retreats. So I wanted to do that now.

An idea takes shape

Very early in my ordained ministry — within a couple of months of being ordained, actually — I was listening to a series of lectures by Mike Bullmore, Senior Pastor of Crossway Community Church in Bristol, WI; and he made some passing references to his use of personal retreats for ministry planning and preparation. Then I found a lecture from him focused entirely on discussing how he uses his retreats. (These and other lectures from Dr. Bullmore can be found at the Sovereign Grace Ministries online store — the ones I mentioned are free.) All of this led me to think of how I might begin to take similar retreats in service of my pastoral ministry.

Thus, the following September, I took my first pastoral retreat; I made use of a conference and retreat center in the Memphis area, where they have two wonderful little "hermitages" for private, silent retreats. Because this place was very close, I was able to do it by day trip — I would drop the kids off at school in the morning, and then go to my retreat; I would return in the evening, maybe a bit later than I usually would (after 6PM), and do the same on the following day. I found that three days was a good amount of time — more would cut too much into my ministry and family time, but less was not quite enough to get to where I wanted to be.

My pattern was to take a retreat like this about every six months, generally at the beginning of the fall and at the beginning of the spring seasons. My Session in Tennessee was supportive of these, and the Session at Dove Mountain Church has likewise been supportive. Lord willing, I intend to continue having these about twice a year throughout my pastoral ministry.

Goals and plans

What do I do when I'm on retreat? For starters, I have several goals that are almost always a part of my pastoral retreats. These are:
  • Personal spiritual renewal and refreshment
  • Extended time in devotional reading of the Bible
  • Longer seasons of prayer
  • Long-term praying, thinking, and planning regarding my ministries of preaching and teaching
  • Sermon preparation — getting ahead in cursory and early-stage writing of sermons
  • Worship preparation — writing and assembling the liturgies for weeks or months in advance
  • Writing projects — taking an inventory on where I am with the various projects I'm involved with, and what needs to be done next

When I'm on these retreats, then, I'm trying to attend to these various goals as I can. Sometimes one or two will necessarily take very low priority to the others, while other times I find a fairly even spread across them all.

Meeting goals

For example, on this recent retreat I took advantage of the particular setting I was in — especially the extreme quiet that I found on one particular morning — and relished it for devotional purposes. I sat and read my Bible devotionally (meaning, I wasn't trying to study it for the purpose of teaching or preaching it) for over an hour, and followed that by a long time of silent prayer and meditation. I also simply sat and listened, watched, and soaked in the view and the surroundings during that time. Then I spent an hour or so reading for pleasure, in a fiction book that a friend of mine wrote. In all of this, I found some measure of accomplishment of the first three goals above.

Later that same day, I began to think about the preaching ministry over the next year or so. We have a sermon series planned on worship that will take us to spring of next year; I wanted to think strategically also about what to preach after that. Next, I looked over the rough plan for the new series on Worship: I already had the text assignments for the first 4-5 weeks, but one of them didn't work quite as well as another, so I changed that. Then I planned out the text assignments for the rest of the calendar year and into January 2013. After that, I began working on outlines for some of the upcoming sermons — determining the big idea, the main points, the sub-points, and finding appropriate reflection quotes when I can. This requires a good bit of reading, study, and consideration for each. I was able to get about 5 sermons outlined this way, and make a start into a couple of others.

At another point in the retreat, I began to plan out the worship service liturgies for the coming months. When I can work on multiple weeks in a row like this, I like to dig into particular aspects — the Call to Worship, for example — and find many of them at once, each as fitting and appropriate as possible to the themes of worship for a given Sunday. So I planned out the Calls to Worship for the rest of the year, and then started working on Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon.

Throughout the day, I take regular breaks from this kind of study and work. Sometimes I'll take a short walk, praying as I go; other times I'll sit and pray for a longer period, or read. Sometimes I'll get a snack — though often I employ some of my retreat time for fasting, which I've found is a great fit for this kind of time apart.

My retreats are often providentially timed, meaning that I will need them when they come around (sometimes more than I realize until I'm actually retreating). But they aren't a sign of burn-out or trouble, at least not so far, and I don't want them to be mis-read in that way. Rather, please think of them as — and pray for them to be — times where I am seeking the Lord for how He would use me in ministry to His people.

And let me take this opportunity to say thank you: to all of you, for allowing me this time away; to those of you who have asked about my retreat, and who prayed for me during it; and to the Session in their open and generous support. I realize that not every pastor gets to take this kind of time away (though I believe it pays great dividends throughout the rest of the year), and I don't take it for granted.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bits & Tidbits, end of summer 2012

Some of the better links I have to offer… I haven't been reading as much of this sort of content, so my apologies if the list disappoints!