This Advent season, on the eve of the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theology of Martin Luther. Particularly, I’ve been pondering his doctrine of simul iustus et peccator. This doctrine often gets articulated anthropologically—you and I live our lives “simultaneously justified and sinful.” Our experience of life under the simul is described well in Romans 7:15 (ESV): “I do not understand what I do.
Several years ago, I wrote a prayer for Thornapple Covenant Church to use during Advent. It is based on the meditation exercise called “palms down, palms up” in Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline.
In this meditation exercise, Foster encourages the Christian to pray with palms down in a prayer of relinquishment and surrender. (It helps me to hold my hands in the air, rather than on my lap, imagining that God’s hands rest under my own.) Then, turn palms up to demonstrate your desire to receive.
Not long ago I was speaking at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest. After my presentation, a young woman, a leader of the praise band in her church, invited me to think with her about a frustration she had: "What do you do when you only get 15 minutes for worship?" she said. "I need more time than that to get the congregation from here," she said, raising her arms above her head, and waggling her hands, "to here," she said, lowering her arms and folding her hands gently together in front of her, just above her waist.
I remember the first time I used my great aunt’s recipe for ginger snap cookies. I was meticulously following her handwritten notes, certain that everything was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my utter disappointment when the first tray of soppy, run-together cookie dough came out of the oven. Apparently Aunt Mabel had been painstakingly accurate when it came to cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar, but had forgotten to mention flour. A more seasoned baker would have caught the oversight immediately (my wife did!) and added the flour in.
Do you long to see teens and young adults more solidly connected to your church?
Are you a preacher or do you belong to a church that has a preacher?
If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, I invite you to take on the “Preaching Tag-team Challenge.”
The best way to explain the challenge is to tell you this story.
Two wonderful sisters attend our church. One came first. She loved the music and the people. And, as a professional percussionist, found great delight when she soon began to participate. A Christian for much of her adult life, she had been praying her sister would join her. And one day she did.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty—
all things, in fact,
come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
It has perhaps become THE criticism of modern worship songs: replace all references to God with the name of your boyfriend (or girlfriend), and you have a song virtually indistinguishable from the love songs of top 40 radio. Folks like me, who cut their blogospheric teeth on such observations, have made plenty of hay over these kinds of things in posts past. The argument is a justifiable cry that our worship songs need to be more than the mushy, sappy, and touchy-feely. We need doctrine. We need awe. We need reverence.
I can’t wait until November. I’m American, and if you haven’t heard, we are preparing for a general presidential election. During a debate in March, I realized I was tired of the primaries. During the Democratic National Convention, I realized that I was just plain tired. I am tired of the war of words, the hatred, the ideologies. I am tired. I wish November would hurry up and get here, but I’d miss three months of my children’s childhood and my garden’s tomato harvest, so it’s probably not worth it.
The Importance of Preparation
We would see Mr. Tony out on his front porch early on those summer holiday mornings scraping the grates on his large grill, pouring in the fresh charcoal, and starting up the fire that would run throughout the day. He would tend the coals all morning, making sure the flames were just right and that all the coals would get a turn in the middle. He would turn them over, scoot them around, and occasionally pick up a couple that had fallen to the side.
My husband and I moved to North New Jersey in January of 2012 — exactly 10 years and 4 months after the tragic events of 9/11. While 9/11 rocked us to the core, we had moved on. We worked our jobs, I went back to school and graduated five years later, our children grew — our lives continued. We, like many others, paused for a moment on the 9/11s that followed. We said our prayers and then went about our business. We didn’t forget — but the events of that awful day didn’t dominate our lives.
People get ready
There's a train a-coming
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don't need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
The 30-something pastor sat across from me in our local Thai restaurant, and was clearly too excited to eat.
“When we worshiped yesterday,” he began, “I told the congregation that our ninety minutes together was just the trailer for the movie, a tiny glimpse of the kingdom to whet our appetite, and after our worship was over, the real deal would begin: the full length feature movie that develops the plotline and characters and reveals all the gritty details.”
Early this season I returned to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, to attend my Ph.D. commencement ceremony and to be duly “hooded” – i.e., officially welcomed into the company of hopelessly nerdy liturgical and homiletical scholars.
It was the first time I’ve ever sat down for this piece. I had all intention to stand up tall and conduct with precision and as much strength as I could muster, but when the choir processed to the front of the sanctuary and took their places, I looked at their faces, seeing the same deep pain I was feeling, reflected in their brimming eyes, and just couldn’t do it. The familiar three measure introduction rang out from the piano and the choral voices came crashing into the room like a wrecking ball on first impact. “Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
OUR ACHILLES HEEL
I’m a believer in thoughtful worship. I’m a believer in biblical worship. I’m a believer in worship that is theologically deep, historically informed, and intellectually engaging. And yet, many of us who buy into this have an Achilles heel. In an effort to fill worship with meaning, we can end up over-explaining everything.
My daughter turned six recently, and one of the gifts my husband and I gave her was a Bible. As I inscribed it, I had a moment of doubt: “What am I doing giving a child an ancient book that frequently features polygamy, patriarchy, and violence? And, at best, metaphors beyond our context! The Bible is really hard to understand! I’m still working through that! She’s only seen sheep once. And shepherds . . . never!” What I inscribed, however, was different and was an exercise in preaching to myself:
It’s a question everyone must ask. How do we see our life and our calling? When we find ourselves thinking about the things that fill our days, what images come to mind?
For the past five months, I’ve had the unique privilege of leading worship and preaching at Flatbush Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY every week. As FRC is in the final stages of calling a new minister and my church meets at 5 PM Sunday evenings, this has been a great arrangement. FRC is the oldest church in Brooklyn and one of the oldest churches in North America.
“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek:
to behold the fair beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple” —Psalm 27:5-6
A Compelling Pastoral and Discipleship Opportunity
I am hearing a lot about ways to commemorate the Reformation, especially as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in 2017. I am feeling a bit ill-equipped to approach this thoughtfully. What advice do you have?
Let’s start at the very beginning…a very good place to start.
What happens at the very beginning of your worship service? Is it a “good” way to start? How intentional are you about the opening moments? While I think there are many appropriate ways to begin a worship event, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of a processional as a very good way to start.
Not long ago I found myself on a Sunday morning visiting a church where some friends of mine are the pastors—Jim and Steve the lead pastors, and Mark in charge of music (their names have been changed here). The worship was wonderful – strong preaching wedded to both missional and sacramental sensibilities. The people were friendly, the music eclectic and excellent, the Spirit alive in the sanctuary. Yet there were a few moments where I cringed when we sang songs with sexist language in them.
My wife Evelyn and I worship at a congregation which very intentionally invites children, teens, and young adults to engage in worship together. Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church (Ancaster, Ontario) does this quietly, almost organically, so that if you’re not looking for it you may not notice it.
Because it’s almost invisible, I’ve conducted a “Worship-MRI scan” so that I can understand it better. Here’s what I saw: