Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What it DOESN'T mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper [repost]

I've been using some of this, originally posted in July 2011, in my "From Pastor Ed" column in our Dove Mountain Church worship folders. Below is the entire contents.


One of the areas where, as a pastor, I consistently notice misunderstandings is with regard to the sacraments. Really, there is misunderstanding left and right in that area. A particular part that is misunderstood, however, is what it means when church members are encouraged to "examine themselves" and/or "prepare their hearts" for the Lord's Supper.

One common(mis)perception that to prepare one's heart or examine oneself is simply to think, "hmm... now, what sins have I failed to confess to God, that I need to be sure to confess and ask forgiveness for before I can rightly take Communion?"

This is a wrong view, for several reasons. First, it implies that the barrier (or fence, if you will) between someone and communion with God is a matter of a work of their own-- in the form of a particular confession! In other words, the thing we must do to receive God's grace through Sacrament is the act of confessing. In fact, however, no work of our own, however religious, spiritual, or even biblical can or will gain us entrance to the table of God's Communion. This is a sacrament of grace, not of works; in order to obtain God's grace, we must be given it freely and mercifully.

Second, it implies a belief that our sins are not forgiven-- and therefore, we are not reconciled to God-- unless we have particularly confessed them. In fact, those who are in Christ truly have their sins forgiven before they even commit them. Our sins are known to God without our confession, their punishment has been paid by Christ on the cross, and they are wiped clean from our record, having been accorded to Christ. Receiving Communion is not contingent on our confession; it is contingent on Christ's finished work on our behalf.

Third, it implies that we are actually aware of all of our sins and able to confess them. Yet how often have I, by the maturing work of the Holy Spirit, come to realize an act-- or even a pattern-- of sin years after its commitment? You do, too. In fact, God knows the depths of our sin far more than we, and His forgiveness extends fare beyond our awareness. This is why Jack Miller so aptly stated something to the effect of, "You are more sinful than you ever dared to admit! But Christ is more gracious than you ever dared to dream!" As we mature in our faith, the cross becomes bigger and bigger-- though never big enough, in my eyes or yours, to truly account for just how gracious Christ is and has been with us.

Does this mean we shouldn't confess our sins? No-- we should confess our sins: to God, to those we've sinned against, even to one another. What it does mean is that there is not some measure of adequate confession that admits or forbids us to the Table.

Another common (mis)perceptionis that we must have sought reconciliation in every broken relationship before properly partaking in the Lord's Supper.

This is a wrong view, though it is frequently perpetuated by pastors. The appeal is made to Matthew 5:23-24:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."

At the risk of stepping on the toes of fellow pastors, let me point out a few things about this as it applies (or doesn't) to Communion...
  • Notice that the verse begins with "therefore"-- which implies that we're missing at least a few verses if we want to gain understanding of this text. The immediate context is the two verses preceding these, which say, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." In the larger context, Jesus (in the beginning portion of the Sermon on the Mount) is teaching about how he came to fulfill the law, and challenging the religiosity and formalism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law. In brief, these verses are not rebuking someone who is otherwise properly worshiping, but demonstrating how the so-called worship offered under these pretexts is false.
  • The Communion Table is not an altar. No sacrifice is being made there; we are not re-crucifying Christ every time we celebrate Communion. That analogy is both poor theology and pastorally deficient. The death of Christ as recognized in "remembrance" in Communion (Luke 22:19) and which is "proclaimed" in Communion (1 Corinthians 11:26) is a finished work, not one that we must re-create each Lord's Day (or once a month/quarter/whatever).
  • The Sacrament meal is not something that WE are offering! Rather, it is something offered TO us. By its very institution, Christ offered the Sacrament to His disciples; this was, as at least part of the meaning of the Supper, a replacement of the Passover feast (which was ALSO a gift of mercy and grace offered by God to His people). By this point, we should be starting to seriously question the usefulness of this text as it is sometimes applied to Communion.

Is there no use or application of this passage with regard to the Lord's Supper? Yes and no. The setting Christ describes is worship-- so really, we ought to apply this text to our whole sense of corporate worship. Insofar as the Lord's Supper is a part of that (which, of course, it is inseparable), we should apply it appropriately. Yet, orthodox theology of corporate life together as the Body also teaches us that reconciliation is only possible through Christ, which is the very nature of the covenant renewal that takes place week by week. So the application to the ordinary life of the church-- and her individual members-- is limited in its scope. (See the above contextual comments.)

As I have said, these are common-- but they are certainly MISperceptions about the Lord's Supper. In a future post, I'll address what it DOES mean to "prepare our hearts" for the Lord's Supper.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christ-Centered Worship discussion #2

Our Session's second discussion of Christ-Centered Worship was this morning covering chapters 4 and 5. Once again, these are the questions I presented to the elders in advance of the discussion.

(Because the chapters were very similar in content— and my questions combined the ideas from both— the questions are not divided by chapter as they were last time.)

  • Calvin led worship in French, because he wanted to be understood. What are some ways that we order our worship "in the vernacular"? In what ways could we do better?
  • Chapell discusses how Calvin both participated in worship and led the congregation as "God's representative" (p. 43). What elements of worship are strongly participatory in our liturgy? What elements could be more so? How do/should our leaders demonstrate equal participation? How do/should our leaders (especially the pastor/preacher) demonstrate a role as God's representative?
  • Are you familiar with the "regulative principle of worship"? What does your familiarity (and agreement) with it suggest to you about what should be included in corporate worship? About what should be excluded?
  • Unlike the Roman Catholic liturgy, Calvin and Westminster put the Confession of Sin and Assurance of God's Pardoning Grace immediately in response to the call to worship and acknowledgement of God's glory— toward the beginning of the worship service. What is the function and place of the Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, in your view? Why?
  • Calvin and Westminster made heavy use of Psalms sung and read. Why do you think the Psalter was so prominent in their liturgies? Why do you think the evangelical church has moved away from using the Psalms more frequently in public worship?
  • In contrast to Luther, Calvin (and Westminster) employed congregational singing frequently and heavily. How do you think song and music "fit" into worship today? What would happen if congregational song was taken out of worship entirely (a la Luther)?
  • Calvin saw the whole Bible as "preachable" (in contrast to Luther, whose preaching focus was narrowed to the New Testament). Westminster did, too, and also employed more frequent readings throughout the liturgy. Does our worship service make good use of all of Scripture? Why do you think so many worship styles/liturgies today include fewer readings than were historically common?
  • There are many individual elements of worship that are included in most or all of the liturgies we've seen so far in Chapell's book. Which ones are included in our liturgy? Which ones are missing? Which ones are placed very differently in ours than in these historic liturgies? Why do you think we have included some but left out others? Why have we placed ours where we have them?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sermon Texts for January, 2011

Here are my sermon texts for January at Dove Mountain Church (sorry they are a bit late!):

1/1 — Isaiah 55:7-13 (A Call)
1/8 — Isaiah 56:1-8 (Salvation for All)
1/15 — 1 Peter 1:1-2 (Strangers & Aliens)
1/22 — 1 Peter 1:3-12 (Praise for Salvation)
1/29 — 1 Peter 1:13-21 (Holiness by Identity)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christ-Centered Worship book discussion #1

The Dove Mountain Church Session is reading Bryan Chapell's book, Christ-Centered Worship, and discussing it together. For December, we read the first three chapters and discussed them on the second Wednesday.

Below are the discussion questions that I presented to the elders prior to our discussion; feel free to read the book and make use of these.

Overarching Questions
  • In each of the various liturgies, and in our liturgy, how do the liturgical elements account for the "stranger in our midst"— those who are unfamiliar with, or unbelieving toward, the Gospel? How do the elements disregard unbelievers?
  • What do the liturgies (including ours) — and our congregation's participation in them — communicate about the various elements of worship? How can we employ different forms, styles, and/or modes of these elements to accomplish the same goals?
Chapter 1
  • What are some ways that you have seen structure communicate a clear message?
  • In what ways are we in danger of being ineffective communicators in our worship?
  • Looking at the chart in chapter 1 (surveying the different liturgical patterns), where do you see similarities in the various traditional liturgies? Where do you see differences?
  • At this point in our reading, where is our liturgy similar to the various liturgies on that chart? Where is our liturgy different from them?
Chapter 2
  • What elements of the Roman Catholic worship liturgy do you see echoes and hold-overs of, in our liturgy? What elements have you seen carried over in other congregations that you have worshipped with?

Chapter 3
  • One of Luther's goals in shaping his liturgy was to make worship a more participatory experience, in order to emphasize the communal nature of the church. What are some ways that this goal is met in our congregation's liturgy? What are some ways it could be better met?
  • Are you surprised to see how much of Luther's liturgy continues the forms of the Roman Catholic liturgy? Why or why not?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Inconsistency and the Pro-Life position

The state of Mississippi voted last November to defeat Poposition 26, which offered an amendment to the (state) constitution that said:
“As used in this Article III of the state constitution, the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

The discussion surrounding this issue was wide and varied, and a number of arguments were offered against it. I won't go into the details of all of them (I'm not sure I could), but I will point to one interesting take by a Mississippi pastor, Stephen Wedgeworth: An Examination of Mississippi's Proposition 26.

What I do want to consider is something that arose as an interesting part of the discussion among Mississippians. It may not surprise you to hear that this referendum was contentious and divisive, but it might surprise you to learn that it was contentious and divisive even among those claiming a "Pro-Life" position. Popular (outgoing) Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for example, spoke out against it because defining life as beginning at fertilization, rather than at conception (which I presume would be defined as the point at which a fertilized ovum implants into a woman's uterus), meant that some forms of birth control might be made legally-questionable by this definition. Others acknowledged that this represented an open challenge to the ethics of some aspects of in vitro fertilization (such as unimplanted zygotes being disposed of).

My response to these is, "exactly."

Of course, this definition would have substantially restricted (if not eliminated outright) the practice of abortion in all, or nearly all, circumstances, even raising legality concerns when the mother's life is threatened by the circumstances. Indeed, I'm fairly confident that the prospect of such was precisely the motivation behind this proposed amendment.

In reality, however, those who are consistently "pro-life" should already know that questions reaching far beyond the issue of abortion need to be raised. It shouldn't take the potential passing of a legal, constitutional definition for socially-conservative thinkers to consider the ethical implications of matters of a less cut-and-dried (at least in the eyes of the so-called pro-lifers) nature.

Consider birth control. Many who claim to be "pro-life" have probably never pondered at length the implications of many forms of birth control. However, many of the oral means of birth control ("the pill") contain an abortifacient, which is to say they contain some substance that prevents a fertilized egg (aka a zygote) from implanting into the uterus.

The thinking behind oral birth control goes like this: the primary substance in the birth control medication is meant to inhibit fertility by providing an artificial hormone which prevents ovulation. Secondarily, penetration of sperm through the cervix is inhibited by decreasing the viscosity of cervical mucus. In other words, between the two, it should be very unlikely that a viable egg would form in the first place, and if it does, that it should be fertilized.

However, in the event that these two both fail to prevent fertilization— or in some cases, as an alternative secondary measure— some oral contraceptives also contain the abortifacient mentioned above. Scientists will disclaim that the secondary measures are almost unnecessary; thus, they say, "pro-lifers" should not have a problem with it. This begs the question: why include the secondary measures in the first place, then?

Such matters are part of the reason why Mississippi Proposition 26 failed; it would make the legality of such birth control measures questionable, at least. But it seems to come as a surprise to many Pro-Life folk that this question even emerged as part of the equation. (For the record: our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have been far more consistent on this question than we protestants. In fact, it was a Roman Catholic doctor who invented the condom, believing he had found a means for birth control that was clear of these ethical puzzles— though he was castigated by the Roman Catholic church nevertheless.)

Or consider the husband and wife whose infertility prohibits them from conceiving naturally via intercourse, but whose doctors have advised them that they would be good candidates for in vitro fertilization — where the wife will receive hormone therapy to increase her production of ova, and these will be "harvested" (removed) from her, then fertilized in a petri dish with her husband's sperm. At a certain point, decisions must be made: of the 10 harvested eggs, 7 were successfully fertilized; how many should the implant into her? They recommend 4, as it is likely that 2 or 3 of them may not be able to attach properly to the uterine wall, so she would probably conceive with twins or a singleton. Even if 3 attach, though, she will then only have triplets.

But what about the ones left in the petri dish? And the one (or more) that is expected to fail to attach? Ethical puzzles abound about these. Had the Mississippi referendum passed, all of the other zygotes would be legally considered persons and would be treated accordingly, insofar as legal rights are concerned (leaving the doctors and parents legally responsible for the well-being of the rest of the zygotes).

Without the law, all we have is ethics. But a pro-life thinker should be clear about this, as well: the zygotes in the dish are still their offspring (or, at least by the most liberating definition, potential offspring), and they mustn't dismiss the implications of this. Doctors will sometimes advise that the fertilized eggs be kept and preserved, in the event that the first implantation doesn't succeed and the couple should wish to try again. But the implanting procedure is financially costly (not to mention the emotional strain that the entire process puts on them both, and the physiological challenges for the wife), and many cannot afford to ever try again. Often these zygotes are simply thrown out. (Remember, the proponents of embryonic stem-cell research advocate that these "left over" zygotes be harvested for research purposes.)

Some friends of ours actually went through this, when they faced infertility obstacles in their own family. Their solution was to go ahead and implant all of the eggs that had successfully fertilized (in their case, this was only 3) to avoid the dilemma of having to decide what to do with the rest. For our friends, only one zygote attached, and he is doing well.

As for the one or more that are implanted but do not attach: well, here the ethics is even more gray, because the same set of events occurs naturally on a regular basis. Through intercourse, a couple may actually have an egg fertilized that does NOT attach to the uterine wall, and therefore the zygote never becomes a fetus, baby, adult, and so on. We don't mourn these fertilized eggs, even though they may be people; we don't even realize that they exist. Does that mean that the artificially-fertilized, harvested-then-implanted egg is not an ethical concern? Not so fast: it's really more of a "yes" and "no" answer. Remember, that zygote wouldn't exist had the mother, father, and doctors never begun the process of in vitro. There is some responsibility for its brief life in their hands, and its brief life's end.

This is not to say that parents for whom zygotes fail to implant (whether those zygotes are naturally or artificially fertilized) are irresponsible. At the bottom line, there is the matter of God's sovereign hand upon all things, and there is a limit to the accountability that is appropriate in such circumstances. My point isn't to try to parse these ethical issues, but to point out a few things:
  • Many, if not most, Christians have never considered that their claim to being "pro-life" ever amounts to anything more than being "anti-abortion"— when, in fact, the above issues (and others) are closely related.
  • The question of life and viability is often appealed to by Christians as the irrefutable claim against pro-abortion arguments; what is clear, however, is that many of the most conservative segments of our society haven't considered this argument out to its reasonable end.
  • Christians should not wantonly or thoughtlessly embrace fertilization technology on the basis that "God loves children and families" but most be more discerning about techniques such as in vitro fertilization and the ethical implications surrounding it.
  • Likewise, Christians need to be more thoughtful about using birth control; not eliminating it altogether, necessarily, but understanding what is actually going on by its use and considering whether these things are ethically consistent with their positions.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Books for December 2011

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting WorldA Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul E. Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably the best book I’ve read this year.

This book was challenging, encouraging, strengthening, and edifying. Miller presents himself, and the lessons God has taught him, in a personal and vulnerable manner, rich with accounts from his and others' (in his family, mainly) experiences. He debunks several of the common struggles that keeps us from praying, offers solid theological foundations for right approaches to prayer, and includes concrete and practicable methods and approaches to living a praying life. Yet, none of it seems legalistic or method-driven.

I foresee returning to this one over and over again: in study with others, to be taught in Sunday School or small groups, and of course for personal growth. I’m sure I’ll probably give several copies away as gifts this year, too.

View all my reviews

I also read a manuscript for a book that, I hope, I'll get to be involved in publishing in 2012: Margie Haack (of Ransom Fellowship and Toad Hall) has written a memoir tentatively entitled The Exact Place; currently, we ("we" being Doulos Resources and especially Kalos Press) are discussing publishing this memoir. It's a wonderful piece, well-written and heartfelt, with engaging stories from Margie's childhood and youth. She reveals much of herself in these pages, even if subtly and with a modest consideration for not telling too much.

I love how Margie gives permission and blessing to those whose path to faith is neither straight nor obvious, even though she herself began to embrace faith early. I could see this being a book I invite my daughters to read in their early teens, introducing them to a companion in life as emerging adult women of faith. Thanks, Margie, for this early look at a promising book!