Saturday, February 20, 2021

Lent, Baptism & Getting Ready for Easter

For a long time it was normal for churches to baptize new Christians on Easter Sunday. The season of Lent began as a 40-day period of preparation that involved extra study and prayer, getting the candidates ready to experience their first full taste of Christian worship and Communion. Priests and bishops would fill these classes with scriptures, describing the salvation history of God in both testaments and painting a picture about the expectations of their new family, the church. Even the sponsors of the baptized—people we often call godparents today—would join in the classes. Giving things up for Lent therefore has a long tradition, as fasting during specific days of this baptismal preparation was one way of getting ready for Easter.

Baptism prepares and reminds all of us about the new Easter life that is available when we leave behind the old life. The resurrection of Jesus transforms time itself—it renews our past while creating a new future. Sometimes Christians call Sunday the "8th day" for that reason; the resurrection created the first day in a new week, making Sunday the "Lord's Day." It is simultaneously the end and the beginning. This is why many baptismal fonts have eight sides, reminding us that Christ reordered time. So in baptism we die to sin and are raised to new life, prepared to live into a new day: "When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:12). 

The waters of baptism remind us of this new relationship which God reveals in the scriptures. After cleansing the world with a flood, God promised Noah that the sins of humanity would never again provoke God to such wrath (Genesis 9:14-15). Moses led the Israelites to freedom and salvation through the parted waters of the Red Sea, taking them to a new land with new forms of worship (Exodus 14). Jonah was given another chance at ministry after being submerged in water (Jonah 2:5-6). 

But the greatest meaning of baptism comes from Jesus submitting himself to the waters of the Jordan River. These waters of baptism are shared by all, meaning that no Christian can ever look down on another, regardless of differences in race, class, gender, education, or age. Everyone who has been baptized has been reborn into the same new family: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28).

You can get ready for Easter by leaning into your baptism. Read the scriptures to remember the new life that Christ has offered you. Lay aside those things which lead to death, not just for 40 days but for good. Embrace your role as a child of God, which brings with it family ties to billions of others who have also set aside the old life.

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on us your servants the forgiveness of sin and have raised us to the new life of grace. Keep us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give us a searching and discerning heart, the courage to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
 (adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 308) 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

How to Say Grace

If you are ever going to pray out loud in front of other people, there is a good chance that it will be to offer a blessing—or, say grace—for a meal. 

Some people know a memorized prayer or two to use in that situation (see here for examples). But you can always pray in your own words by following these guidelines.

First rule: Keep it short. 

If you have heard pastors pray in a worship service, they usually try to cover several things like the confession of sin, an expression of gratitude to God, requests for healing, and intercessions for mission work. Likewise, in your personal and private prayer time, you will want to cover a lot of ground. Some models for doing can be found in the ACTS outline or the collect form

But when people are waiting to eat, you don't want to mention all those items in your prayer.

My advice is to keep four things in mind:

1. Name. Your prayer is addressed to someone, so start by saying who. Some good options are "Lord," "Eternal God," "Father," "Heavenly Father," or just "God."

2. Thanks. The people in the room are thankful for something, so say what that is. (Hint: You can always mention the food.)

3. So That. Why are you thankful for that thing? What benefits will it bring? Will the food make you healthy? Will the fellowship of the others there bring you encouragement?

4. Amen. There is no rule that you have to close a prayer with Amen. But most people know that's a sign that you have finished.

So here's an example:

Dear God, we are grateful for the gifts before us today. Thank you for the food that you have given us, and thank you for the friends at this table. May the nourishment of this meal and the presence of these folks strengthen and encourage us to do your will. Amen.

You can expand on any of those things if you want, depending on the situation. Or, if you are in a pinch and don't have much time, drop the #3 step and just go with Name, Thanks, Amen.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Messy Origins of Christmas

Christmas observances didn't start in the time of Jesus, or even in the lifetimes of the biblical authors who wrote about his birth. As Bruce David Forbes puts it in Christmas: A Candid History, Christmas came along relatively late in the history of Christianity, centuries after the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection we know as Easter.

Indeed, from the earliest days Christians were Easter people. Jesus' birth only takes up a handful of verses in the Bible, but the death and resurrection story takes up numerous chapters in all four gospels. (Remember, Mark and John don't even mention Christ's birth at all.) When Paul sums up the core of the Christian faith in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, he makes the resurrection the focal point:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.

Christmas came along later, and the history of its development is a bit messy. At first, Christmas rivaled the feast of Epiphany, which most churches hold on January 6. For several centuries, different churches celebrated one or the other, mostly based on geographic region. Epiphany, first celebrated in the eastern Roman empire, focuses on Christ's revelation to the nations, especially through his baptism and the arrival of the Magi. Christmas was developed by western churches and was more about Christ's incarnation as told in the gospels' birth narratives. After a time of coexistence, both holidays were deemed important. By 500 AD, rather than merging them into one day, most Christians were celebrating Christmas on December 25 and Epiphany twelve days later, with the time between marked as the twelve days of Christmas.

The church has held on to Christmas, in part, because it teaches an important theological lesson. The fourth century was a time of intense debate about the nature of Christ. Was he merely a human being, or was he actually God? Church councils were convened (especially in Nicea and Chalcedon) to settle this theological matter, and the results would define the nature of the church and its theology forever. By keeping Christmas as an annual memorial of the incarnation, the church maintains a strategic opportunity to proclaim the essential doctrine that Christ is both fully God and fully human.

Christmas has not always been embraced by all Christians. For instance, the Puritans didn't like it and set up Thanksgiving as a rival winter holiday. Even today some think Christmas has become too worldly, so they boycott the gift-giving, decorating, and partying that go along with it. Others get uptight about Christmas getting "hijacked" by a secular society that replaces "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays." 

I think these Scrooge-like reactions show how we have lost sight of the original purpose of the holiday. The church has Easter as it's central and defining story. That leaves Christmas as an opportunity to engage the world, even if it means accommodating secular practices like harvesting evergreen trees and burning yule logs. As early as the mid-300s, John Chysostum saw that Christmas celebrations were effective for evangelizing non-Christians, writing that "this day has developed quickly and borne much fruit." 

If Christmas is a time when we remember that God got mixed up in a messy world by coming as a baby, then surely we can have a holiday that gets a little mixed up in the world's endeavors, can't we?


Friday, August 14, 2020

What is Confirmation?

As a United Methodist pastor I affirm that persons of all ages are welcome to participate in God's covenant of baptism. This stance is not without controversy in the wider church, as many Christians do not baptize those who are too young to make a verbal profession of faith. United Methodists, as well as others who baptize infants and children, don't think that a personal profession of faith is unimportant, but we believe that this step can be delayed until later, sometimes happening years after baptism through a process known as confirmation.

A public profession of faith can happen whenever a person is old enough to make the following vows:
  1. To recognize and renounce evil in its cosmic, systemic, and personal forms
  2. To assert that God enables you to be victorious over evil, thereby calling you to work actively to oppose sin
  3. To affirm your commitment to Christ as Savior
Then follows a pledge to remain a faithful member of Christ's church, which includes a call to be an active member in a specific congregation.

Confirmation is the process that prepares someone to affirm these vows in public. Many churches have confirmation classes for children above a certain age, usually around the time one reaches middle school. (For adults these sessions tend to be known as "membership classes.") The pastor of each church has a great deal of freedom to tailor these classes according to the needs of the confirmands. Often the sessions cover aspects of church history, theological doctrines, details about worship practices, and ways to serve the church with one's spiritual gifts.

UMC Confirmation class from Pennsylvania  photo credit:

Once someone has both been baptized and professed their faith, they are considered a "professing member" of a United Methodist congregation. In the time before a baptized Christian is able to make the profession for themselves, they are still a member of the church. There is a specific designation for such folks that we called "baptized members."

Just one note: United Methodists do not practice "first communion." Some Christian traditions require children to wait until a certain age or to go through certain classes in order to take communion with the congregation. The UMC does not teach that there needs to be a gap between baptism and reception at the Lord's Supper.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Remembering Nagasaki

On August 9, 1945, the US Army bombed Nagasaki, Japan. It was the second, and last, time a nuclear weapon was used in warfare. The bomb, code named Fat Man, was a plutonium weapon, somewhat more powerful than the uranium one (Little Boy) deployed over Hiroshima just a few days earlier. However, due to the uneven terrain of Nagasaki, there were fewer casualties than in the first attack. The flatter Hiroshima lost around 100,000 people, compared to 70,000 in the second attack. These twin bombings effectively ended the war in the Pacific, preventing an Allied invasion of the Japanese islands. Japan announced its surrender on August 15.

All warfare casualties are tragic, but the attack on Nagasaki seems especially arbitrary. Japan had decided not to surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima, figuring that the US had additional bombs to wipe out only two more cities—losses the empire could afford to absorb. But Nagasaki was not at the top of list of potential bombing sites for the second attack. Kyoto was a more strategic target, but it was removed on a nostalgic whim: US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had honeymooned there several decades earlier and had fond memories of the place. Then on the morning of August 9th, problems with the plane's fuel pump caused  the crew to divert to Nagasaki instead of the intended target of Kokura.

The bomb that ripped Nagasaki apart also devastated the Christian church in Japan. Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in that country; it was where missionaries from Europe brought the gospel in the 1500s. During the intervening centuries Japanese Christians in and around Nagasaki had persevered under repeated and extreme waves of persecution from leaders who sought to eradicate their faith, perceived as a Western influence. Among the numerous causalities that August morning was Urakami Cathedral and all those who were worshiping inside.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Worship Language #4: Sacramental Worship

For those who speak "Sacramental" as their primary worship language, the encounters with God in baptism and the Lord's Supper are the focal points of what all of worship is about. This is often accompanied by a strong sense that the order of worship should stick to an underlying pattern—that a worship service should have preaching (Word), followed by Communion (Table). This follows a commitment to the four moves of the service, starting with Gathering and ending with Sending, with Word and Table in the center.

Signs that you might speak Sacramental as your primary worship language:
  • Luke 24:30 is a key verse in understanding how Christians should worship. Jesus's actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread are models for how all worship services should be structured. In other words, these four actions reveal an outline for worship in general, not just for what happens with the bread when Communion is celebrated.
  • Documents from the church's first 400 years provide a special model for how worship should be done today. If this is your primary worship language, then modeling today's worship after some of these ancient documents is the key to renewing the church's worship.
  • If you speak Sacramental as your primary worship language, you probably place a high priority on getting people to do the actions of worship, in the right order. Emotions and faith follow the right actions, they don't drive them.
  • Perhaps this one is obvious: you like to take Communion, a lot.
This perspective tends to predominate in Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and other mainline Protestant circles.

Check out these books from a Sacramental Worship perspective:

Holy Things by Lutheran Gordon Lathrop is a liturgical theology built on the assumption that the church's worship is at its best when structured around ancient forms and patterns.

Constance Cherry, a United Methodist, lays out the four-fold structure for services in The Worship Architect. For Cherry, all worship services should have a significant portion in which the congregation responds to God's revelation. This can be accomplished by taking the Lord's Supper, but there are other elements that can fill this role. Whether one celebrates Communion or not, that responsive section of the service should be there.

Robert Webber's book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (originally published in 1985 and revised by Lester Ruth after Webber's death), follows those who have changed their primary worship languages from Biblical Worship to Sacramental Worship.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Worship Language #3: Gap Worship

"Gap Worship" is a language spoken by people who want to bridge cultural barriers in order to win converts through relevant worship services.

Some have said that 16th-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called for setting Christian hymn texts to secular tunes. Two centuries later, the Wesleyan revival included robust congregational singing of easy-to-learn songs. (The degree to which those melodies were actually borrowed from popular secular songs, such as "drinking songs," is debatable.)

Charles Finney was an 19th-century evangelist who used "new measures" to move people toward conversion in his revival meetings. This included several methods of increased cultural awareness such as using colloquial forms of speech and extended times of singing to prepare people for the upcoming sermon.

The use of popular music forms was an instrumental (pun intended) part of William and Catherine Booth's founding of the Salvation Army. William actually saw the use of music as a spiritual and strategic tool: "I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes, and, after his subjects themselves, music is about the best commodity he possesses. It is like taking the enemy's guns and turning them against him."

The Church Growth movement, begun by American missionary Donald McGavran in the 20th century, was founded on communicating the gospel in culturally intelligible ways. While it did not originate as a movement of worship renewal, many people applied Church Growth principles to music and singing. Congregations like Willow Creek Community Church saw popular music as one of the primary ways to draw unchurched people into their services.

Gap Worship is the primary language spoken by several varieties of evangelical churches, and it is prominent in many pockets of mainline denominations.

Here are some signs that "Gap Worship" might be your primary worship language:
  • Your key verse is 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some."
  • You see a clean break between the worship of the Old Testament and the New Testament: while the Israelites were bound by rituals and sacrifices, Christians are free to worship (more or less) however they choose. You may even read John 4:24—that we should worship God in spirit and truth—as a key description of this freedom.
  • You cite the overall lack of verses about worship in the New Testament as a rationale for using whatever cultural forms are most effective at winning unbelievers.
Note: The ethnodoxology movement, which seeks to use traditional arts and music in worship, fits within a gap worship framework.

Here are some books that present a "Gap Worship" mindset:

In 1996 Walt Kallestad, a Lutheran pastor, wrote Entertainment Evangelism to argue that the church needs to incorporate more popular forms from the culture. The opening quote of the book is from Walt Disney.

Zero to 80 by Olu Brown applies Church Growth principles to worship. For instance, his Impact Idea #58 is named: "Look to Culture for Creative Worship Sparks."

It's also worth mentioning church growth consultant Lyle Schaller. He wrote dozens of books for congregations seeking to grow in size. While none of them were focused solely on worship, many of his tips were about scheduling and planning services so that they would reach and accommodate as many people as possible.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Worship Language #2: Gift Worship

The worship languages of Gift and Gap are related. These names come from Lester Ruth, professor of worship at Duke Divinity School, who came up with them as a way of understanding the history of the Contemporary Praise and Worship (CPW) movement. A "gift" view of worship sees the 20th-century contemporary styles of worship music as just that: a gift from God for the renewal of the church. The "gap" perspective tends to view CPW music as an opportunity to win new people to Christ, thereby bridging a cultural gap.

The gift language of worship is widespread among Pentecostal churches and others influenced by the charismatic renewal movement of the late 20th century.

Here are some signs that Gift Worship might be your primary worship language:
  • You make a distinction between praise and worship. Praise is a style of exuberant singing that often comes at the beginning of a service. "Praise songs" tend to be upbeat and focused on who God is and what God has done. "Worship songs" tend to follow praise songs in a music set, and they are often slower in tempo and more introspective. (This distinction between two kinds of songs—a faster and upbeat praise style, followed by a slower worship set—is not as predominant today as it was in the 1990s.)
  • Two verses from the Psalms are your touchstones for describing worship: Psalm 22:3: "You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel"; and 100:4: "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise." For "gift worship" folks, these verses are commands for how we should approach God. In other words, praise is something that a Christian must do to be faithful to God.
  • You see the wide-spread use of band-based styles of contemporary (or modern) worship as a God-ordained means of bringing the world together. The success of popular CPW songs from the US, UK, and Australia is a sign of God's anointing on them. If this is your view of worship, you are probably not so concerned that these songs might replace or crowd out indigenous expressions of local churches in various places around the world.
For a perspective of gift worship, check out these books: 

Extravagant Worship by Darlene Zschech, a worship leader from Hillsong in Australia, is about the role of worship in the energetic renewal of one's own spiritual life. Like with the Biblical Worship language, Gift Worship literature encourages people to see their everyday activities as worship, not just what happens in church.

The Unquenchable Worshipper by Matt Redman, the popular songwriter, also links modern worship music to personal renewal, especially as it affects one's emotions.

Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin argues that contemporary worship principles will lead to a renewal of the church.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Worship Language #1: Biblical Worship

 If "Biblical Worship" is your first worship language, you probably talk about corporate gatherings as a way to fulfill scriptural mandates. You likely do this by quoting specific chapters and verses in the Bible and interpreting them as explicit instructions for how the church ought to worship today. This is often linked to a "plain reading" view of the scriptures, where you see instances of worship in the Old and New Testaments as clear models that should be (within reason) copied for today.

If Biblical is your primary worship language, then the following might be true:
  • When assessing worship, you take a full sweep through the Bible—from Genesis to Revelation—to look for practices and principles that can be applied to your current-day worship services. You may even have a chart or list of verses that is organized in that manner, running from the beginning to the end of the scriptures.
  • You speak about correct and incorrect (or true vs false) kinds of worship. The verses that you pull from the scriptures are divided into two categories: good examples of worship and bad ones. Again, you may have charts with columns that divide up these examples from the Bible.
  • You talk about false worship as idolatry. Your column of bad worship examples in the Bible includes various passages from quite different contexts, from the golden calf (Exodus 32), to Uzzah's mistake with the ark (2 Samuel 6), to those who take the mark of the beast (Revelation 13).
  • Worship extends beyond the gathered body of believers. In other words, you probably describe worship as encompassing "all of life" and quote Romans 12:1 (probably in the NIV) to support that. Worship is meant to be something that you take with you from the church into the rest of your life.
This is the primary worship language used by a wide variety of evangelical churches. It's no surprise that you would find it among folks who hold a high view of scripture and have an assurance of their own ability to read and understand it.

For a perspective on this worship language, check out these books:

Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship by David Peterson takes a full sweep through the scriptures, starting with Genesis and going through Revelation.

For the Glory of God by Daniel I. Block disagrees with some of Peterson's conclusions, but the two authors share the assumption that the Bible can be read as a playbook for how churches should worship.

Called to Worship by Vernon Whaley takes a comprehensive sweep of biblical passages on worship, which the author claims is a task that includes every aspect of a creature's life.

A brief note: The late author Robert Webber often used the phrase "biblical worship," so you may wonder why he doesn't appear on this page. While Webber was indeed fluent in this language, his primary worship language was Sacramental. In fact, he is a good example of someone who changed  primary languages; growing up evangelical (some might say fundamentalist), Webber learned Biblical Worship. Later in life, as he studied the worship of the early church, he began to center more of his theology in the practices of Communion and baptism. Webber eventually became a primary proponent of Sacramental Worship, although he never forgot how to "speak" in Biblical Worship.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Worship Languages

In his Confessions, Augustine describes two different ways of learning a language. One is how we usually acquire our first: in the home, picking it up naturally as we hear it spoken by family. This is often called our "mother tongue." Augustine's first language was Latin, which he describes as learning "with no fear or pain at all" (Book I, chapter xiv (23)).

The second way one acquires a language is at school. In contrast to the joy of learning our mother tongue, Augustine says this academic method of learning created "violent pressure on me to learn [words] was imposed by means of fearful and cruel punishments."

Learning a second language need not be that painful, but it is always different from the way we learn our first. That first one usually remains our primary language throughout life, shaping the way we think and providing the scaffolding for our ideas and emotions. Picking up another language in later years always involves discipline, and we never cease to perceive that additional language as a foreigner.

The same is true about the way we think about worship.

Each of us has a primary "language" of worship. I'm not referring to the various styles and forms that we prefer: high church versus low church; traditional versus contemporary; long service versus a shorter one; organ versus guitar. I mean that each person has an underlying reason for what worship is all about. It's how you answer the question, "Why bother to worship at all?"

I find that Christians fit into four primary language groups that define their fundamental assumptions about what worship is supposed to do:
  1. Biblical Worship: the Bible is the primary worship textbook, providing instructions for right (and wrong) ways to worship.
  2. Gift Worship: renewed forms of worship, especially music, are given by God as means to renew the church and the world.
  3. Gap Worship: worship services are for building bridges between church and the world and drawing unchurched people into Christian fellowship.
  4. Sacramental Worship: the Lord's Supper and baptism are the models for how all worship services should be structured.
Like an actual language, we have a special affinity for the first worship language we learn. It never leaves us, even as we acquire—and perhaps become fluent in—other worship languages; you will always an "accent" that serves as an indelible marker of your "heart language."

Most of us are multi-lingual when it comes to how we understand worship, so it is helpful to untangle some of the influences behind our own personal histories. Check out the links above to read more about each type. In the process you may uncover some aspects about your spiritual influences that you had not recognized.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Christians are People Who Intercede

Christians pray for others. There is no form of our faith—whether ancient or modern, in any part of the world—where intercessory prayer is not a key aspect of worship. There is a profoundly theological reason for this: Christians believe that worship happens in the presence of Christ, and where Christ is present, so are the needs of the world.

Consider how we celebrate Communion. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is present at the table. (Just how he is present is a matter of considerable debate, but that's a subject for another time.) Remembering that the Son is incarnate—that is, a joining of the Creator with creation—Communion is an act of God meeting the world. We celebrate that joining by eating and drinking ordinary bread and wine together.

In Communion we also see how God takes on the world. Our worship is therefore a way to acknowledge that God bears the wounds of the world, even the effects of sin and death that surround us. Just as the body of the risen Christ bears the scars of his torture, so God bears the particular needs of the people. The bread which is broken at the Communion table represents our Lord's solidarity with the world that is being torn apart by war, racism, sexism, greed, ignorance, and idolatry.

Christians who take Communion therefore find it necessary to pray for the broken world. In prayers that we call intercessions, we address the God who took on the sins of the world, naming those areas of brokenness which need to be reconciled and healed. Sometimes these intercessions are woven into the very prayer that precedes the breaking of the bread, traditionally coming in the part known as the epiclesis. This section of the prayer—often marked by a statement like "pour out your Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts"—is especially concerned with how God meets what is broken. Some intercessions happen during the Communion prayer itself, including prayers for the persecuted, sick, or dying. In this way the body pours out the concerns of the church during the very act in which we remember that Christ was broken and the Spirit given for our salvation.

Intercessory prayer is also a necessary part of baptism. Justin Martyr, a church leader in the second century, wrote that praying was the first act of the newly baptized believer. After coming up out of the water, a new Christian would first pray, only afterwards moving to greet his or her brothers and sisters with a kiss of peace. This was such an important connection for the early Christians that they did not allow unbaptized worshipers to participate in the prayers of intercession. If you had not been baptized, there was a part of service—usually immediately following the sermon—when you were dismissed from the gathering. That meant that you did not participate in the prayers, the offering, the kiss of peace, or Communion. To be joined to Christ in baptism means that you are joined to the body of Christ, and the body's prayers for the broken world constitute one of its most important roles.

Note: Much of this information about baptism and Communion comes from Worship as Theology, a book by liturgical historian Don Saliers.

Lent, Baptism & Getting Ready for Easter

For a long time it was normal for churches to baptize new Christians on Easter Sunday. The season of Lent began as a 40-day period of prepar...