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.

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