Saturday, October 20, 2018

Wesley's Directions for Singing

Methodists are people who sing together. If you open the front cover of a United Methodist Hymnal, flipping through just four pages of introductory material, you will come to a page with the heading "Directions for Singing." These are a set of seven instructions from John Wesley, included in one of his hymn collections from 1761, for how Methodists should sing. Below is an edited list of those directions, with some of the longer explanations cut down for the sake of readability (but you can read the full statements here):

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength...

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony...

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it... it is high time to...sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself...

Wesley's instructions for worshiping fits with his perspective on salvation; congregational singing provides a lens on the nature of our relationship with God. Individual decisions and commitments to follow Christ are necessary in our justification and sanctification, but these works of grace are supported and sustained in a community of other Christians. In an essay on Wesley's directions for singing, Martin V. Clarke writes that all seven are infused with Methodist theology, especially the main instruction in point III: "Sing all." Each person, individually, needs to join in the singing, just as each individual believer needs to make a commitment to join a congregation. It is not enough to sing alone, just as it is an oxymoron to consider someone a "solitary Christian." Just as there is no way to sing the four-part harmony of a hymn with just one mouth, so the church is necessarily made up of a number of voices. Wesley taught that there was no way to be holy by oneself: "There is no holiness but social holiness."

The Methodist revival was all about meeting together for mutual fellowship and encouragement. All Methodists were required to meet in small groups called "classes" and "bands." Wesley knew that the Christian journey is difficult—there are too many traps and snares to waylay the lone traveler. Singing together is more than a reflection of the inherent mutuality that infuses our relationship with God—it is a way to encourage the very act of gathering, an non-negotiable component of our faith.

For great insights on Wesley's rules for singing and a fun graphic depicting John and Charles as modern-day church leaders, check out this article by Charlie Buber, cartoonist and blogger who created the Wesley Bros.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Liturgy Journals

As a doctoral student in liturgical studies, I am becoming acquainted with journals that publish the most up-to-date scholarship on worship. These journals highlight the contributions of scholars who work on historical and theological details from two millennia of Christian worship practices across the world. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of some of the most important ones (not ranked in any particular order):

Liturgy is the journal of The Liturgical Conference, an ecumenical organization that was founded in 1940 to encourage church unity through liturgical renewal. The journal publishes four issues a year, each one with about six articles around a central theme. The articles are fairly short, usually around 5 to 10 pages. The range of topics is quite broad, with interests extending beyond the mainline Protestant denominations that originally founded the organization. Some recent themes include Pentecostal Worship, Worship and Mission, and Worship for Rural Churches.

The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada publishes The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song. The Hymn Society advocates for and encourages congregational singing, and articles in this journal tend to focus on the history and current use of printed hymns: biographies of hymn writers, histories of specific hymn collections, and the development of hymnals in various societies around the world. The Hymn is published four times per year, and each issue includes about four articles (each about 7 pages or less), along with updates from the Hymn Society, columns and features about the use of hymns around the world, music and text of newly-composed hymns, and reviews of hymnals and hymnology-related scholarly works.

Worship is produced by members of the Order of Saint Benedict at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and is distributed by Liturgical Press. The journal was first published in 1926, and despite its Roman Catholic roots, it takes an ecumenical approach to the study of liturgy and liturgical renewal. A quote from the website describes that the work of the journal is "to reflect on the role that the various theological disciplines, as well as the arts and social sciences, play in shaping Christian worship and the lives of worshipping Christians in the world." Worship comes out six times per year, and each issue contains about four articles, each around 20 pages, that cover a wide range of worship-related topics. A glance over the last few issues reveals quite a spectrum: where Roman Catholic priests should face while presiding at Mass, the history of Sunday as the standard day of worship, and the how the breaking of a single loaf of bread shaped the historical practices of Communion. Like most other academic journals, each issue of Worship also has a series of reviews of book on related topics.

Societas Liturgica produces the journal Studia Liturgica, which launched in 1962 to promote ecumenical efforts at research and liturgical renewal. This organization is more global in its scope than the others listed here, with most of its members coming from outside of North America. The range of topics is similar to those covered in Worship and Liturgy, but they include a broader range that corresponds with its European and Asian readership. Recent articles include standard fare such as revisions of Anglican prayers since 1950, as well as a study of inculturation on Lembata Island in Indonesia and the eucharistic theology of the Three-Self churches in China.

Other journals of note, which are not necessarily focused on liturgical studies:
  • Journal of Ritual Studies. Published since 1987 as a forum for study of ritual of all kinds. The scope here includes all ritualized aspects of human behavior, of which liturgy is a part.
  • Faith & Form is an interfaith forum for religious arts and architecture, honoring work from all faiths.
  • Sacred Music is the official journal of the Church Music Association of America. It is aimed almost exclusively at Roman Catholic liturgists and musicians.
  • Global Forum on Arts and Christian Faith is produced online by the International Council of Ethnodoxologists. Each issue features a range of articles, working papers, and reviews on topics related to the expressive arts in Christianity around the world. The topics consider a broad spectrum: music, dance, drama, visual arts, and storytelling. (Full disclosure: I am the Reviews Editor for GFACF.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Annunciation

"No woman has ever taken a pregnancy test without saying a prayer—one way or the other." One warm Friday in June, in the village of Nazareth while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a fellow pastor made this remark about the anxiety that comes from waiting for pee-stick test results. 

Remnants of a cave under the Basilica of the Annunciation
We were walking between the two churches in Nazareth that commemorate the Annunciation—that moment when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would bear a son out of wedlock. The first is the Church of St. Gabriel, a site run by the Greek Orthodox which is built over the only spring in the town of Nazareth. The Orthodox faithful believe that the angel came to Mary while she was drawing water, and so they built a church there to mark this event. The second site is the Basilica of the Annunciation, maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, built over caves that residents of Nazareth used to inhabit. One of those caves may or may not have been Mary's actual home, but she almost certainly lived in a place very similar.

This angelic birth announcement from Luke 1 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and I've read it as least every Advent season for the past 40 years. Yet when I entered the sanctuary of that second church, after hearing my friend's reminder about the anxiety that comes with any potential pregnancy, I carried a new understanding of how troubling that moment was for Mary.

Stained glass window in the Basilica
If you read Luke's account closely, you will see that Mary's initial response was not one of passive acceptance. I wonder if our English translations downplay her emotional response by saying that she was "much perplexed" (1:29). Her first words of response to this news are: "How can this be?" (1:34). No one asks Mary if she wants to carry this burden, risking life and reputation to bear a son she didn't plan. Instead, she is given a promise: "The Lord is with you" (1:28).

We often pray for God to fix things, to get us out of jams by making our difficulties go away. But God's ways of resolving our difficulties—that is, how God heals and reconcilesare different than our ideas about fixing. To fix something means that the problem is removed. But God usually heals instead, and healing still involves the initial pain and memory of the accompanying difficulty. Consider how Jesus's resurrected body still bears the scars of his torture and crucifixion. (See John 20:24-29) Mary still had to bear the risk and shame of carrying a child who was conceived before she was properly married. Thank God that she didn't try to "fix" the problem of her pregnancy.

Everything that God touches in creation is troubledfallen and corrupted by sin. If God were to deal with us by "fixing" everything, then there would be no choice but to dissolve us and make us go away, wiping out all evidence of the mess. But God is greater than that, and God's power is such that it is possible for God's holiness to heal us without wiping us out. In Jesus—both in his birth and his death—we see that God's mighty power to heal means that good can come from trouble. Praise God that none of us have been "fixed."

The well at the bottom of the Church of St. Gabriel

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Letter to my Daughters

Dear Catherine and Maddie,

On this day of your high school graduation, I would like to share some wisdom about navigating the rest of your life. You have each grown into fine women, demonstrating that you can and do make wise decisions. But even as the my days of influence over your life are waning, I hope you will take these words to heart.

Today at your commencement exercises you will be encouraged to leave behind the old and strike out on a new path into unknown territory. I will not be surprised if we hear someone say these very words: "Face the future without fear."

But the problem is that we don't really face the future. You may be moving into the future minute by minute, but you certainly can't see into it. There is much that is true about the Maori proverb:

"We walk backwards into the future, our eyes fixed on the past."

You are indeed walking backwards, and you are only able to see with certainty those things that have already happened. For the rest of your lives you will constantly be faced with those things that have happened in your past, both good and bad—the family who raised you, the teachers who instructed you, the pastors who prayed for you; as well as the mistakes you made, the accidents that you encountered, and the abuses that you suffered. All of those events and people create a complicated fabric of memories and relationships that cannot be changed. If you think those things can be left behind and forgotten by running away from your past, then it will only be more difficult on that day when it all finally catches up to you.

Consider this charge from the New Testament: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." (Hebrews 12:1) On the surface, this verse looks like the standard graduation speech, urging us to leave behind our past and plunge ahead into the future. But consider the words that begin that verse: "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." The writer of Hebrews spends the previous chapter describing the saints of old—people like Abraham and Moses, along with David, Samuel, and the prophets. This means that even as you venture into the future you are accompanied by a host of those who lived before. There are generations of people who have gone before you, testifying to God’s saving work in history, who are cheering you on into the unknown. You can walk backwards into the future because they did. God was with them, and you can know that by looking back to see the evidence of their lives that God is with you, too.

Walk boldly into the future, girls. Just remember that you are walking backwards.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Logic of Renewal

Can anyone deny that the church in America needs renewal? But just what kind of renewal we need is another question entirely. Do we need revival —meaning, an upsurge of enthusiasm? Do we need reform—that is, a new set of (or new commitment to) doctrines? How about restoration, the resetting of things to an earlier era? There is no shortage of energy and effort currently invested in all of these strategies. My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has versions of each of these, all intended to renew a church that 250 years ago was itself a renewal movement within the Church of England.

These matters are not trivial. Some of these current renewal movements compete for the same donors and constituents, duplicating each other's work (and in some cases, working against one another). It would be good if we could agree on just what kind of renewal we want so that we can adopt similar strategies to get us there. William J. Abraham wrote The Logic of Renewal in 2003 to address these questions, and his method of sorting out the various methods is compelling. In seven chapters he pairs together 14 different theologians, essentially setting forth a volume of "contrast and compare" among the different proposals.

Most of the chapters provide a stark contrast between two very different views. For example, the chapter called "Foundations and Food" sets James T. Draper (a fundamentalist Southern Baptist) against Dennis Bennett (a charismatic Episcopalian). Draper asserted that the church lost its way by substituting the reason of a scientific worldview for the revelation of scripture. His plan for renewal was to establish a rule of faith that church leaders could affirm, one that proclaimed the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. (This was a battle he largely won, within the Southern Baptist Convention anyway.) By contrast, Dennis Bennett said that what the church needs most is to be fed, in the form of powerful encounters with the Holy Spirit. If the differences between these two men can be boiled down to a simple formula, one is about the head (renewal comes from right belief) and the other is about the heart (about a direct, emotional touch of the Spirit).

Lesslie Newbigin
Each chapter works through similar comparisons, but my favorite is "A Tale of Two Bishops." Here Abraham compares Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) and John Shelby Spong (1931- ). Spong, a retired bishop in the Episcopal church, says that the church needs to get with the program of the modern age, setting aside commitments to antiquated doctrines like the virgin birth and Jesus's bodily resurrection. He has thrown in his lot with the Enlightenment, urging the church to join up with the science that it cannot beat. Newbigin, a British missionary to India who served for years as a bishop in the Church of South India, also recognized a gap between the church and science. Except, unlike Spong, he preached against our captivity to the Enlightenment. His proposal for renewal was to expose these false ways of thinking, which were characterized by dividing up the world into categories that are unfaithful to God's rule over creation. For instance, he wrote that modern people too often unquestionably accept the assumption that the world is divided into distinct categories of facts and values: facts can be proven through observed and repeatable experiments, whereas values are set aside in the realm of personal opinion. Newbigin also wrote that in order for the church to experience renewal we must recover the commitment to faith in the public and private spheres. Faith is far from optional—the very act of knowing anything requires faith in some form of knowledge. It is actually impossible to be a human being without faith—we cannot separate it out from the rest of life.  Therefore, the church called to proclaim that Christ is Lord over all things, holding together the systems of knowledge, power, and economy that we have come to idolize (Col 1:15-20). We don't add Christ onto anything, as a spiritual booster to our existing reality. Christ is already and always the ruler of everything. Renewal won't happen until we can repent of our idolatry and proclaim Jesus as Lord, which is a task that the local church is called to help us see the need for.

Abraham's bigger argument is that renewal requires more than a revolution in philosophy: "for surely we are not healed or saved by philosophy. We are saved and healed by the living God" (p.158). He wants us to see that the traditions of the church—scripture, ordained forms of ministry, the sacraments of Communion and Baptism—are not just the dead weight of tradition. These aspects of our life as a church are the results of past spiritual renewals, ones that were inaugurated by the Triune God: "Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the church; the Holy Spirit constituted the church" (p.158). In short, the church is a gift from God. To Abraham a renewed church is one that comes to grips with the Spirit-filled nature of its systems and structures: "To see this canonical heritage as a gift of the Holy Spirit or as the life of the Holy Spirit in the church radically alters how the various elements are received" (p.161).

I like this proposal, and I agree with what Abraham is suggesting. (One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is believing that the church is a gift.) That's why I wish he had put all his chips on Newbigin. But, sadly, Abraham dismisses him as too philosophical, failing to see how his own proposal is not far off from Newbigin's. In the last quote listed above, Abraham calls the church "to see." But what is a call "to see" other than an argument to be more philosophical—that is, to construe one's categories of the world a bit differently from other people? That's what Newbigin was doing in calling us to break out of false categories, making illogical separations between faith and reason (or mind and Spirit). He proposed that we find new "plausibility structures"—that is, ways of seeing the world—which we can only do by changing the way we live. That change can only happen when we attach ourselves to a community of people who believe the unbelievable:

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. (Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.227)

But these congregations are not just communal gatherings of like-minded people. They are gifts of God, both Christ-instituted and Spirit-filled:

"What He left behind was a fellowship, and He entrusted to it the task of being His representative to the world...He endowed them with His own spirit to be His witnesses. They were given His authority to case out sickness and evil. To receive them was to receive Him, and to reject them was to reject Him." (Newbigin, The Household of God, p.50).

For Newbigin, the church today is still the same gift that was given to the apostles.

"How is Jesus present to us today?—it is surely clear that at least a very central part of the answer must be: He is present in His people, His apostolic fellowship." (Household, p.50)

I think that Newbigin is calling for the same thing as Abraham. Renewal must come from the church, because the church is a gift from God. Perhaps a part of the next renewal movement will include a reaffirmation of the way we think about the church, helping us to stop seeing it primarily as impediment to faith. If it takes philosophy and new "plausibility structures" to see the church as the active presence of the Spirit-filled Christ in the world, then sign me up.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Dementia, Improvisation, and Overacceptance

I would never have thought about making a connection between dementia and improvisation if I had not heard this episode of This American Life:

In this story from episode #532, Karen Strobbe and her husband Mondy struggle with caring for Karen's mother, whose symptoms of dementia are making meaningful communication increasingly difficult. Karen is constantly compelled to confront her mother, correcting her wrong or nonsensical statements: "No Mom, there are not monkeys playing in the backyard. We live in North Carolina." Mondy, on the other hand, applies his improv acting training to the situation—he decides to always agree with Karen's mother, even when she makes outrageous claims, more or less playing along: "Wow, those monkeys in the backyard sure are active today! Let's invite them inside to play with us." Karen is uncomfortable with going along with something that is not true, feeling as if she is patronizing her mother; Mondy feels that entering into his mother-in-law's reality is the truest thing he can do. This scenario reminds me of two books—one on improvisation and the Christian life, and the other about dementia.

Sam Wells wrote in his book Improvisation that the Christian life is very much like improvised drama—that is, we go about our day to day lives without a set script. When we think about how we should live (something we call "ethics"), no one gives us a pre-determined set of rules to follow. However, when faced with a choice or quandary, we will often look for one "right" answer—"Should I put my father in a nursing home?" or "Is it right to invest my retirement savings in the stock market?" In other words, most people don't think about ethics until there is a problem to be solved. Consequently, ethicists are considered to be specialists or technicians who determine what is right to do (or not do) in given situations. Wells would prefer to have us think of ethics less as problem-solving and more as an unscripted way of life. Like improv actors, we should all be more concerned with living a life that is figured out by interacting with others as we go along together. Improvisation is a primer on this way of thinking and living, which is known as "practical reason." Wells is essentially describing how the church, working as a troupe of fellow improvisers, can form a wise community. It is in the church that we create a way of life, and it is there that we work together to figure out what to do next.

The church lives out these practices by reading the scriptures—not as a script to tell us how to live minute-by-minute, but as a "training manual" that is grounded in Christ’s incarnation and resurrection (page 214). This perspective on the Bible is what Wells and others call "virtue ethics," where right actions are discerned through extensive practice of living out the scriptures in collaboration with others. This kind of ethics focuses more on the virtues we need for life and worries less about the specific "what-if" decisions that we imagine. Christians learn virtues as we worship, and Wells says that correct instincts (that is, virtuous responses) emerge in critical moments because they have been practiced repeatedly in worship. 

Mondy's interactions with his mother-in-law provide an example of this kind of practiced virtue—something Wells calls "overacceptance." If you listen to the story from This American Life, you notice that Mondy does not tell Karen's mother that she is wrong about the monkeys playing in the backyard. Rather, he takes her statement a step further by "overaccepting" it. Too often we think of ethics in terms of yes-or-no decisions, assuming that an ethical life consists of either blocking or accepting the options that are presented to us. Overacceptance shows instead that we live best when we see problems as opportunities to improvise. Wells gives an example of this way of living: A child wandered onto the stage minutes before a classical music concert was about to start, and she began to plunk away at the keys of the grand piano. Her rendition of "Chopsticks" filled the hall, much to the horror of the guests and the featured musicians—not to mention the girl's parents. But in an act of brilliant overacceptance, the evening's featured pianist strode to the bench and positioned himself behind the child. Whispering to her keep on playing, he then proceeded to reach his own hands around those of the child, improvising an accompaniment to go with the girl's simple tune. At the end of this impromptu performance the crowd cheered, the little girl bowed, and the concert pianist was warmed up for the concerto to follow. Wells challenges his readers to find ways to similarly overaccept the challenges of life, refusing to simply block or accept what comes our way: “To have thrown the child out would have been to block, to have let her play on would have been to accept; to weave a wonderful melody around her was to receive her as a gift, to overaccept” (pages 131-32).

Mondy's story shows how his improv training built in him the virtuous habit of overacceptance, which was especially helpful when confronting the ravages of his mother-in-law's dementia. He finds freedom through an option that is more than a simple Yes or No.

John Swinton’s book, Dementia, exposes how committed we are to these yes-or-no distinctions, thinking about life as a series of "this-or-that" decisions. This is especially true of how we quickly accept the terms of a diagnosis of dementia in a loved one. I don't mean that people always embrace such a diagnosis, nor am I suggesting that we should be more skeptical of medical science. I mean that our way of dealing with dementia is locked into narrow assumptions about how the body works, based on neurobiological descriptions of the brain’s defects. Even theological reflections on the nature of dementia tend to start with detailed accounts of brain structures and results of scans. This kind of thinking results in yes-or-no determinations—someone either has dementia or they don't, and once a diagnosis has been made we are trained to either accept it or block it.

Swinton wants us to recognize this tendency by showing how we use words to create a world that forces us into Yes-or-No categories. He writes that medical manuals do this, because their way of describing conditions does more than simply list a set of symptoms for a condition—they create a worldview, defining a new reality of diagnoses and disorders: "My point is that definitions and other ways of naming dementia are powerful storytellers that need to be recognized as such and challenged at the points where the story they seek to tell becomes misleading or just plain wrong" (page 54). It is difficult for modern people, schooled in the language of technology, to recognize that these scientific ways of talking are building such a world.

This is partially because we desperately want our scientific commitments to make sense of a condition that seems to rob us of our most treasured possession—that is, our mind. We are all heirs of the Enlightenment’s definition of what makes us human, with Descartes forming the most memorable value statement: "I think, therefore I am." If I can't think like I used to, then I cease to exist. "Dementia" is a seemingly harmless term, but it means "deprived of mind." This way of talking reinforces a yes-or-no way of thinking, and Swinton wants us to consider how quickly we accept the illogical assertion that someone can "lose" their own mind (page 63). For most Westerners the loss of the ability to reason becomes a "death before death." Since death is the ultimate No, we believe that there are few options when faced with a diagnosis of dementia. So Swinton calls us to tell counter-stories that create new ways of interpreting this condition. He urges us to build a new "language" that will allow us to inhabit a different world, creating new ways of thinking about and living with someone with dementia. Just like Mondy does with his mother-in-law. (And just like Bishop Ken Carder does here when the doctor refuses to speak directly to his wife about her dementia.)

These assumptions about mind and personhood affect how we worship. We assume that Christians are those individuals who "accept Christ" through rational and personal decisions. But Swinton argues that our humanity is not primarily contingent upon our own definitions and decisions. Instead, our memory—like our humanity—is a gift from God. This means that our identity is grounded in the reality that we are remembered, not that we are the ones doing the remembering (page 198). It is because God knows us first that we can have knowledge of God, which we in turn rehearse by remembering God’s saving work as told in the scriptures. These memories are imperfect, and our recollection of them is often disoriented, but that does nothing to diminish the truth of who God is or what God has done. Just as God’s own existence does not depend on our perception of God, our own personhood is not dependent on our ability to think or reason. The remembering that we do in every worship service ("do this in remembrance of me") is a gift both received and given—one that we give back to God. If the gift of remembering, as with the gift of life, is dependent on the giver, then our personhood is based on God’s acts of remembering, not on our ability to think about it.

Swinton's call for a new way to think about persons with dementia showed me that I typically pray in one of two ways: either for the prescribed treatment (inasmuch as there is one) to be effective, or for God to heal the person directly—and almost always in that order. In other words, I pray assuming that the medical community’s way of describing the disease is right. Only later might I ask God to break in and perform a miracle, but that request still fits in the yes-or-no scientific categories that I have unquestionably accepted. In other words, I ask God to remove an illness that I have accepted as a given. I confess that before reading this book I had never prayed for God to show me a different way of looking at a person who suffers from dementia.

Next time you gather for worship, think about all the remembering that is going on in the service. The reading and preaching of the Word remembers the acts of God. We are remembered by other people in the passing of the peace. We remember God’s works in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving (aka, the Communion Prayer), and we ask for God’s Spirit to help us to recognize that which is holy in each other. If Communion truly is a rehearsal of the covenant that God makes in our baptism, then coming to the Table is even more than a reminder—it is a communal act that forms our identities, showing that before anything else we are claimed and remembered by God.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

What is Candlemas?

"The Presentation at the Temple" by Fra Beata Angelico (1442)
Luke's gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after he was born. Actually, Luke doesn't give us the exact day (he just says "When the time came"), but the book of Leviticus says that this event should happen 33 days following a male child's circumcision. If we mark the birth of Jesus on December 25, then his eighth-day circumcision would be December 1, and 33 days after that is February 2.

There were two reasons to bring Jesus to the temple that day -- for Mary to be purified after childbirth, and to dedicate the child to the Lord. This is the moment when Luke says that both Simeon and Anna met Jesus, each proclaiming their respective prophesies and blessings over him. Simeon's words are preserved as the "Nunc Dimittis" meaning "Now dismiss"; he could now depart this world, having seen the Messiah with his own eyes.

Some Christian churches have a worship service on February 2 to commemorate these events. Sometimes this service is called "The Presentation of our Lord" or "Feast of the Purification." Alternatively, it is also known as Candlemas, because at some point in the history of the church this became the day when the entire stock of candles for the coming year was blessed and dedicated. Clearly there is a connection among several Epiphany-related themes: Christ is the light of the world, the role of candles in lighting the worship space, and the desire for all peoples to see God in Christ.

Here is a setting of the Nunc Dimittis, composed by William Byrd (1540-1623), and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer for the Feast of the Presentation:

Almighty and everliving God,
we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day
presented in the temple, so we may be presented to  you
with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

By the way, Candlemas is a traditional day for taking down Christmas decorations, at least in some parts of the world. In addition, most Americans know February 2 as Groundhog Day. I have not been able to locate a link between these two celebrations, although this Wikipedia page seems to hint at the possibility of a common origin:

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Online Preaching Resources

I have been preaching nearly every Sunday for the past four years, all while attending Duke Divinity School as a full-time student. Along the way I have learned a thing or two about time-management, and I don't mess around when it comes to preparing my sermons. I would like to share some online resources that I use almost every week, all centered around the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

By the way, using the RCL is one key to my time-management strategy. I don't have time to be picky about what passage I'm going to preach from. (I have heard that some preachers spend up to 50% of their weekly sermon preparation time choosing a scripture passage!) There are certainly pros and cons about using the RCL, but resources such as these allow me to get the most preparation done in the least amount of time. (Also, I happen to believe that God can speak to my congregations through any given scripture passage, whether I pick it out or not.)


Textweek. This is an embarrassment of riches. Textweek's page links to resources for every passage in the RCL for every week of the three-year cycle. There are links to sermons, historical interpretations, articles on exegesis, and illustrations. This meta-site also points you to artwork, songs, prayers, and other liturgical helps. One downside: Because there are so many links, the anchor websites have sometimes changed, meaning that some of the links are not current.

Preaching and Worship. This is a fairly new site, which means that it is adding new content all the time. Like Textweek, is made up of links to content that lies elsewhere. Unlike Textweek, it uses Search as its primary means of delivering that content. This search feature allows you to designate specific kinds of information: Sermon Illustrations, exegetical helps, worship resources, etc. One downside: Many of the sermon illustrations are behind a paywall.

Working Preacher. This site of short commentary articles also has an accompanying podcast (see below). Since the site has been going for several years (from early 00s, from what I can tell), there are several iterations of commentary for each week of the liturgical year. That means that an article for Lent in 2018 will have corresponding articles from 2015, 2012, 2009, etc. That's a lot of helpful content on one site. (Note: Textweek and Preachingandworship both link to Working Preacher.)

Discipleship Ministries. This site is specifically designed for United Methodists. In addition to sermon helps, it provides worship aids for the RCL passages, tying them to specific prayers, songs, and liturgical acts from UMC resources (such as the Hymnal and Book of Worship).

Ministry Matters. Each week of the year has sermon aids, prayers, calls to worship, etc. Aimed at mainline denominational churches. Note: I have found that the easiest way to find resources is to put the calendar date (example: January 28, 2018) in the search field.


Pulpit Fiction. Each week's episode covers all four RCL scripture readings. Two of those are treated to an extended discussion by the hosts: Eric Fistler, a UCC minister, and Robb McCoy, a UMC pastor. The other two passages are usually farmed out to other contributors who share insights in 2 to 5 minutes. The entire episodes are quite long (usually over 60 minutes), so you might want to skip to the sections that you know you need. Robb and Eric rely heavily on the commentaries from the 12 volumes of Feasting on the Word. These two pastors are unapologetically progressive, so they are especially interested in exegetical insights that put a twist on traditional understandings of a given passage.

Sermon Brainwave. This podcast comes from the folks at Working Preacher, out of Luther Seminary. Three hostsKaroline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, and Matt Skinnerdiscuss all four RCL passages for each week. Each episode is about 25 minutes, so not all the passages get a thorough treatment. Like the Working Preacher commentaries, there is a backlog of podcasts going back several years, so you can listen back to hear different emphases from previous lectionary cycles.

Synaxis. This is the best lectionary podcast out there. Scott Jones is the most prolific podcaster in Christendom, and his insights are exegetically accurate and culturally poignant. Each episode has a guest that Scott talks with about the passages, and the back-and-forth works very well. (Full disclosure: I have been one of those guests.) This is a fairly new venture at the time of this posting, so let's help Scott keep it going.

LectioCast. Sadly, this podcast seems to have petered out in the summer of 2017. I'm including it here for two reasons: 1) there are still archived episodes available online, and 2) hopefully host J.D. Kirk will come back up for air to produce new episodes in the future. Unlike the other podcasts, the format for this one tends to be monologue, with Kirk flying solo.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

When in the Service should you take the Offering?

At what point in the worship service should you invite the congregation to give their financial gifts? Actually, the more fundamental question is whether or not you should set aside time for this activity at all. Many churches opt out of the offering altogether, asking people to donate online or via a donation box placed elsewhere in the building.

Photo from
Offerings have been a part of Christian worship services since the earliest written records of the church. In the book of Acts we read about conflicts among the worshipers regarding unfairness in how the offered food was shared among them (6:1-7). In these early days, food was probably not collected as part of a formal offering, but we know that church meals were connected to the worship service from very early on. For instance, Paul wrote specific instructions to the church in Corinth about appropriate sharing and distribution of the food that was brought for the Lord's Supper. (See 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.)

In later decades, as Christian worship slowly standardized across various culture groups, the offering became directly connected to the celebration of Communion. It seems that initially these offerings were the very bread and wine that would be consumed during the service. In documents known as the Apostolic Tradition, probably written in the third century, we read that deacons would bring "the oblation" (the elements of bread and wine) to the bishop presiding over the service, after exchanging a kiss of peace. This would have happened between the proclamation of the Word and the celebration at the table.

These days offerings are almost always currency of some kind, usually in the form of cash or check. In many churches the offering is taken in the middle of the service, perhaps following a time of singing and/or scripture reading, often before the sermon. However, it is not at all uncommon for churches to take the offering after the sermon, just before celebrating Holy Communion. These congregations remember that the offering is rooted in the ancient practice of preparing for Eucharist. In the United Methodist Church's Service of Word and Table, the Offering happens as part of a bigger movement of responses, thereby linking the preaching of the Word and the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. These five actions are sometimes called the "Invitation-Confession-Pardon-Peace-Offering." The United Methodist Hymnal provides an order of worship that guides a congregation through these steps on pages 7 and 8, along with these prompts for the worship leader:
  • Invitation: "Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live at peace with one another."
  • Confession: "Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another."
  • Pardon: "Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Christ, you are forgiven."
  • Peace: "Let us offer signs of reconciliation and love."
  • Offering: "As forgiven and reconciled people, let us offer ourselves and our gifts to God." 
In this order of worship, the offering immediately follows the passing of the peace because of Jesus's words in Matthew 5:23-24: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."
Placing the offering between the sermon and Communion, as a link between the Word and the Table, is more than a restoration of an ancient practice. It is a way to live out the truth that our offerings -- that is, not just our money, but how we live our entire lives -- are presented as a response to God's revealed grace, as heard in the proclamation of the Word. These offerings also play a role in transforming the givers, preparing us for the work of the church in the world, asking God to be present in the ministry of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Placing the offering after the sermon, whether or not you plan to celebrate Communion, can be a powerful reminder of these truths -- that our acts of grateful response are also transformational, for ourselves and for the world.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

George Herbert on Inside-Out Worship Leadership

George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England who lived from 1593 to 1633. Before his untimely death he wrote a book about how to be a pastor of a church. It was published posthumously, with the pithy title of A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson: His Character, and Rule of Holy Life.

Herbert was writing at a time when ideas about spirituality were shifting rapidly in the English-speaking world. Faith was becoming less something that you enacted or demonstrated in a corporate worship service; it was increasingly thought of as something that you primarily thought and/or felt internally. As the English Civil War was brewing in the early 17th century, and as dissenters against the state-sponsored church were combining forces, some Christian groups (like the Puritans) insisted that one's eternal soul was free from any forced or required demonstrations done in church. According to these folks, one's own spiritual status could be confirmed in a personal way, outside of the gaze of church and state.

Herbert wrote before those anti-establishment ideas were fully en vogue. But he already noticed the need for "authenticity" (my word, not his) in worship leadership. Take, for instance, his instructions to pastors who would lead their congregations in prayer, using outward actions to prompt internal affections. Remember, at this point the prayers were not made up by the pastor -- they were read word-for-word from the Book of Common Prayer:

The Country Parson, when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands, and eyes, and using all other gestures which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, first, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himself alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation, whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly altar to be bathed, and washed in the sacred Laver of Christ's blood. Secondly, as this is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himself, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to a reverence, which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behavior in the very act of praying. Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and slow; yet not so slow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hand and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.*

I would not change much of this advice for worship leaders today. For Herbert, the pastor's outward motions reflected an inward piety, and those very movements and gestures in turn encouraged the faith of others. The leader's role is to prompt a spiritual response in the worshippers, but this is not faked ("feigned" in Herbert's words) as a mere performance, because the pastor's own faith comes from a real (and internal) place.

Herbert, I believe, had a good grasp of human nature. We are neither unthinking animals nor disembodied spirits. Our minds (and its related powers of reason) work in a coordinated way with our "hearts" (think emotion and affections), and both of these aspects affect what we actually do with our bodies -- actions that can turn into habits, which in turn shape our will and affections. Some days we "feel" God more than we "know" God, and other days it is just the opposite. Worship is both a response to what God has done and a means to form our spirits to grow in faith. Those who lead worship need to recognize that faith is neither merely internal nor external; mind and body work together to express what we think and feel, even as these expressions strengthen our faith -- in ourselves and in others.

* Quotation taken from an edition of Herbert's works edited by John N. Wall, Jr., published by Paulist Press in 1981. Pages 60-1.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Magnificat: Praying from the Inside Out

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. – Luke 1:47

At some point during the seasons of Advent or Christmas you will hear these words of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is the opening of one of the Bible’s most important prayers, a song called the Magnificat, which is Mary’s response to God’s promised gift of a son. She sang it in the presence of Elizabeth, who was at the time pregnant with a God-promised child of her own. This song, which makes up the verses of Luke 1:46-55, provides a model for each of us—it is an outline for prayer and praise that can be used by all people, at all times.

My spirit rejoices in God my Savior  (Luke 1:47). Mary’s prayer acknowledges an honest truth—we usually start praying because of a personal need. I’m not saying that Mary was self-centered, but her prayer starts in a way that most of ours do—with the most immediate, close-to-home concern that we face. Mary praised God for her gift, even if the result of this unexpected pregnancy would also bring a great deal of distress. When we pray, we also usually start with the anxiety and fear that hides just beneath the surface of our most immediate concerns.

He has shown strength with his arm  (Luke 1:51). Our prayers might begin with personal concerns, but if we follow Mary's example, we will add to our supplications some remembrances of God’s acts of salvation. Indeed, our prayers should agree with Mary's words: “God has done great things.” The scriptures were revealed and preserved so that we might not forget God’s work—from past to present to promised future. When we pray, we place ourselves within that history, declaring God’s long-term saving work.

He has filled the hungry with good things  (Luke 1:53). God is always on the look-out for those in need: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Our prayers should not stop with our own needs, but they should extend outward to those who are hungry, sick, impoverished, unclothed, and imprisoned. We should also pray for those who are broken in spirit.

He has helped his servant Israel  (Luke 1:54). God cares for individuals, and God also cares for the nations of the world. The newsfeed on our TV makes a great prayer list. Every day the media provides us with an abundance of prayer requests: elections, famines, fires, warfare, storms, and earthquakes.

To Abraham and to his descendants forever  (verse 55). Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote this about the Messiah: “For a child has been born to us…authority rests upon his shoulders…and he is named…Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). When you pray, keep in mind God’s ultimate goal—that in Christ all things hold together, and he will reign over and restore everything that is broken (Colossians 1:15-20). Christ will reign over all of creation -- all things seen and unseen.

It may be that our own immediate concerns drive us to our knees, but it is God’s overall saving work—past, present, and future—that gives us the hope we need to keep on praying.

This post first appeared as a column in the December 16, 2017 edition of the Henderson Daily Dispatch. If you have a subscription to that site, please click through to read it online.

Wesley's Directions for Singing

Methodists are people who sing together. If you open the front cover of a United Methodist Hymnal, flipping through just four pages of intro...