Archive for the ‘Random Topics’ Category

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.

 

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There is fear that is not fear

There is faith that is not faith

There is hope that is not Hope

There is peace that is not Peace

There is success that is not Success

There is failure that is not Failure

 

There is presence that is not Presence

There is absence that is not Absence

There is victory that is not Victory

There is defeat that is not Defeat

 

There is life that is not Life

There is death that is not Death

 

For our eyes see but do not see

Our ears hear but do not hear

Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend

The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up

Mass murders, gruesome decapitations, and bombings mark headlines seemingly non-stop.  ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups have made it clear that they want nothing but the destruction of Western civilization and the implementation of Sharia law.  It is an aggressive and violent program to bring others into submission, to assert control and power over their enemies.  Christians have been no strangers to the persecution that follows groups like this.  Many have lost their lives because they refused to bow the knee and denounce Christ.

Seeing this reality has caused many Christians to be alarmed at any and all Islamic groups, painting them as a homogenous group with the same agenda.  Influential voices, like that of Franklin Graham, have communicated concern for the future if Islam is allowed more power and Christian influence in the American culture continues to wane.  In fact, Franklin Graham recently said, “I believe it’s going to get worse, and we see no question gaining influence in Washington by those that represent the Islamic faith.  We do have a problem in this country and we are losing our religious freedom and we’re losing it a little bit day by day.”

Let us pretend for a moment that Islam is a homogenous group (a very unfounded claim) and that Graham’s concern for our religious freedoms in this country are being attacked, diminished, and eradicated.  Let us imagine that all of Islam has the same goal and that goal is domination of Western culture, elimination of Christians, and the imposition of Sharia law on all peoples.  That is a legitimate claim for at least some Muslims, but let us assume for the moment it is true of all Muslims.

It is ironic that Graham denounces the imposition of another religion’s system of laws while lobbying for Christians to employ the same tactics to ensure our power and our rights.  The jihad-like call to return to a “Christian nation” resound from many Evangelical leaders, including Graham.  If we can only get enough voter turnout, then security and the maintenance of our “freedom” will be ensured.  While Islamic extremist groups evangelize at the point of a sword, Graham is calling for a Crusade of his own.  The methodology between the two isn’t extremely different because they are both based on a will to power and a hope in political systems to achieve their goals.

As a pastor, I find it deplorable that so many of people within the Church have given ear to this kind of thinking.  It isn’t inherently Christian.  The will to power, the desire to protect our rights, and the perception that freedom is achieved through a political process is misguided and misplaced.  If Christian still means to follow the life and example of Jesus, then we need to reconsider again what it means to be the imago Dei (image of God).

First, how we use power is of great importance.  God demonstrates the way power is intended to be used.  It is not through domination but through humble obedience and kenotic (emptying) service to others.  This is the way of the Cross and the Kingdom of God.  Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king.  Jesus is cryptic, but says that if his Kingdom was like that of Rome and others his followers would defend it with the sword.  But, that’s not the kind of politics Jesus is enacting.  Jesus doesn’t make the move to will power.  Instead, he gives it away.  Ironically, in giving it away Jesus receives all power.  But, again, it is not a power to dominate but a power of dominion (proper ordering), stewardship, holy-love, and compassion.  That is power.

Second, I find the use of “rights” language problematic.  “Rights” are assumed to be something that I possess, own.  This language tends to revolve around the individual, thus denying our need for the social.  And, where my “rights” are in conflict with another’s “rights,” they must be defended at all costs, lest I be trampled under foot by the world.  Because it isolates the individual as the sole possessor of these particular rights, we also negate our contingent and dependent nature.  Not only are we social creatures, but we are also not the Creator!  Our life is not a “right.”  It is a gift.  And, should we lose our life, the One who gives life is able to restore it – even from the depths of Sheol.

We are reminded in Philippians 2 that Jesus empties himself, not considering equality with God something to be grasped, and humbles himself unto obedience – even to death on a cross.  His very death that does not grasp and cling to his own life is what brings life to us.  As the Christian community, we are constantly called to “daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus.”  If we have any “rights,” they are not to be grasped and held onto with such tenacity and fear.

Finally, the idea that freedom is dependent upon a political process is sadly mistaken.  The reality of persecution is all too real for many in the world.  I don’t diminish the sacrifice that many make by giving their lives while giving faithful witness to Christ.  However, these martyrs demonstrate what freedom in Christ really is all about!  Paul and Silas sing in prison after being beaten!  Peter testifies to Jesus’ work and ministry before being crucified upside down.  John is exiled to the island of Patmos because he proclaimed Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

The early Church, and many since then, have been those that did not have “freedom” in the political sense, yet demonstrated profound freedom in Jesus to love as Jesus had loved them.  Their lives proclaimed forgiveness, healing, mercy, and love that even extended to their enemies.  After Christians became a separate movement outside of Judaism, they experienced intense suffering and persecution.  They often did not have political or social clout or power.  They were branded atheists and threats to national security.  Yet, the Christians persisted in loving those society did not deem worthy.  They served the poor, the sick, and the hungry.

They embodied a new social ethic that enacted peace, extended mercy, and manifested love in tangible ways to friend and foe alike.  Few can deny the profound impact the Church had on its surrounding world, even while they had no power or freedom of which to speak or protect.  We can learn a great deal from our heritage on the means for engaging the world as cross-bearers embodying a new way to live in the world.  The freedom to love, pray for, and do good to our enemies is also freedom from a life entrenched in fear of the future.

Works Cited

You may find the above Franklin Graham quotes here: http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/03/08/rev-franklin-graham-christian-persecution-we-are-losing-our-religious-freedom

This is a small piece I wrote about why I read Walter Brueggemann.  He is a significant voice for Old Testament studies and has been a significant voice that I have come to value in my own studies and development as a pastor and theologian.  His social critique has been helpful in many regards, as well as, his imaginative interpretations for our context.  For your viewing pleasure: http://www.walterbrueggemann.com/2013/11/07/levi-jones-why-i-read-brueggemann/

Recently, our denomination had its large gathering.  People from all over the globe gathered to discuss the future and make decisions to guide the denomination forward.  I was quite intrigued with the process, since I have never actually been able to attend but was able to view the proceedings via live feed. 

One particular conversation stuck out to me.  Our manual currently states that every church must have the denominational name attached to its name.  This came up for debate.  Many who have been in the church for a long time felt it was necessary to maintain this rule so that we wouldn’t lose our identity.  They felt it would compromise our heritage and voice.  The other side countered that not having the name attached provided opportunities to reach the community that might not otherwise be possible.  Distrust in organizations and denominations made it difficult to reach the younger generation.  Of course, this a narrow characterization of the various stances for both sides.  But, essentially, everyone had their reasons for voting for or against this resolution.

In my estimation, this whole conversation misses the point.  I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Two lovers kept apart because their families are feuding like Hatfields and McCoys.  Yet, despite the fact that they are supposed to hate each other, they find they would rather be together.  There’s a great balcony scene.  Juliet is on her balcony.  Romeo is serenading her fromt he courtyard.  Juliet is worried that Romeo will be caught and killed.  But, Romeo can’t be persuaded to leave.  He summarizes the whole situation quite nicely: “What’s in a name?  Wouldn’t a rose by any other name smell so sweet?” 

Indeed, what is in a name?  There are churches within our denomination that put the denominational name on everything they have.  They are gungho about the institution.  And, yet, the Gospel is not preached in their midst.  Likewise, there are churches within our denomination that do not place the denominational marker on everything.  They’d rather avoid any responsibility to the larger community of faith of which they are a part.  And, sometimes, they also do not preach the Gospel.

Vice versa.  There are churches in our denomination that do and do not attach the donominational name to their church’s name.  And, yet, miraculously – the Gospel is preached and lived out. 

Indeed, what is in a name?  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to avoid useless arguments about something as short-lived as an institution?  Wouldn’t it be better to focus on preaching the Gospel, proclaiming the Kingdom, and pronouncing the way of Jesus to the nations?  If those things were at the heart of our mission, would it really matter what denomination we claim or that claims us (not to say that those things are entirely unimportant)?  The Kingdom and the Gospel are much grander visions than our denomination… even if it is a faithful denomination.  Because it is only a tiny fragment of the Church universal, which is One Body, with One Lord, One Faith, having experienced One Baptism, and empowered by the One Holy Spirit.

What is in a name?  Perhaps the name we should be most concerned about is “Christian.”  Wouldn’t a Christian that has been brought into the Way, by any other name, be a fragrance pleasing to God?

 

Dr. Dan Boone is the President of Trevecca Nazarene University and also a well-known preacher in the Church of the Nazarene.  This past year he spoke at a local church and I had opportunity to go and listen.  It was a very powerful sermon on living in a time when there is a sort of nostalgia for the past that cannot be fully recovered but must be re-appropriated for the future.  Israel finds itself in a similar situation in Isaiah 40-55.  His sermon text focused on Isaiah 45, on which I took a few notes.  These may be seemingly random thoughts, but I found them helpful in looking at our current context in light of Isaiah.

Dan begins with “odd names” of towns.  He moves to a town (fictive) called “yesteryear”, which is the ideal of 2 generations previous.  “Exile” is the reality of today, though without the harsh Babylonians.  From this context, there is a “sigh for yesteryear.”

History: People of God are living in Jerusalem in security when “exile” happens.  Israel is now confronted with the gods of Babylon.  It is culture shock – in Jerusalem, everything pointed to YHWH.  That is the subtle assurance of “yesteryear.”

Isaiah 45

God calls Cyrus – “Does/Can God use ‘pagans’?”

God is doing a new thing unlike it was done in the past.

God is Creator.

Are we willing to let God use Cyrus, which leaves us unsettled?  Our reaction is typically fear.  In exile, we are susceptible to false gods and the culture that surrounds us.  Isaiah teaches Israel to respond faithfully.  The gods that requier us to save them are not the One, True God: YHWH.  God will carry us into His future.  It is too tiny a thing to take Israel back to “yesteryear.”  Instead, He calls them into a new future. 

We do not need to save God.  If we must save God from our culture, then we do not really serve God in the first place.  God is not in danger of defeat.

Where do we move from here.  It is like teaching a child to walk.  You prop them up on something sturdy (yesteryear).  You call them to come (a move into a future they wouldn’t have done without being called).  That is the very thing that God does with us.  We are called to remember, not so that we can go back, so that we can move into God’s new future.

Preaching and Leading Worship by William H. Willimon

            Willimon begins by highlighting several considerations for making changes in patterns of congregational worship: 1) Do not change a congregation’s accustomed worship pattern until you have some clear understanding of the function of the accustomed patterns and unless you feel that the change is essential to preserving the vitality and fidelity of the congregation as people of God, 2) Never make liturgical changes solely at the pastor’s discretion, 3) Be honest with yourself (“As C. S. Lewis once said, ‘The charge is feed my sheep,’ not ‘run experiments on my rats.’”), 4) Use every means to explain the proposed change to the people, 5) Welcome comments on the changes, 6) Introduce some innovation at a “special” service at a time other than Sunday morning, 7) Utilize the new worship resources of your own denomination in reforming your congregation’s worship, 8) Finally, be willing to consider trying something else or backing off (be careful not to take worship away from the congregation).

            Next, Willimon surveys common weaknesses in worship: 1) Lack of focus and coherence in the acts of worship, 2) Inadequate treatment of Scripture, 3) Inadequate opportunities for congregational participation and response, 4) Insufficient attention of the acts of gathering, 5) Architectural setting not always conducive to the type of worship climate we wish to create, 6) Exclusion of children (work to restore children to a key place in our worship), 7) Poor formation and leadership of public prayer, and 8) Many Free-Church Protestant guilty of a woeful neglect of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

            In chapter 2, Willimon looks at a pattern for worship.  He breaks up the worship service into two parts: Word and Table.  Each part contains several elements.  Included in the Word section are the following: Gathering of the Church, Proclamation and Praise, Response and Offerings.  The Table section is composed of the following: Taking of the Bread and Cup, The Great Thanksgiving, Breaking the Bread, Giving the Bread and the Cup. 

The pastor plays an essential role as host, which requires two areas for effective leadership: preparation and style.  Preparation is vital.  Our preparedness impacts the preparedness of the congregation.  How we present Word and Table will be reflected in the congregation’s reception of these gifts.  Secondly, we must take into consideration the space and our personal capability.  Our actions must be appropriate to both.

Presiding in the pattern, each element of the service plays an important role in shaping us as God’s people.  The Gathering of the Church sets the tone of the worship service.  Proclamation and praise declare who God is and provides space for our response.[1]  Responses and Offerings can be multi-faceted.  It may include reciting the creeds; passing the peace; and receiving the tithes and offerings, which should be placed on the Table after receiving them.  The taking, thanking, breaking, and giving at the Lord’s Table conclude the service.  The benediction blesses and sends the people forth into the world as God’s ambassadors.

Willimon provides several suggestions for ceremonial acts: our actions should highlight the important aspects of our worship; our actions should relate to the size of the building; our actions should relate to the style of the worship space; the size of the congregation makes a difference in how we lead them; the nature of the congregation also influences how we lead them; the relative importance of the day will make a difference in our leadership style; and, our own personalities affect how we lead.

Vestments can also play a role in worship.  It shows continuity with the past, giving voice to the fact that we are part of the universal church.  The vestments can give voice to the seasons of the Christian year through the visual senses. The vestments also remind us that the clergy function as a representative of the congregation, not simply as an individual.  This leads us to Willimon’s last section.  He reminds pastors that we must do a better job of sharing leadership with the laity.  This means that we must intentionally train them for leading worship.

Chapter three discusses public prayer.  Public prayer is approached differently than private prayer.  Both are necessary, but public prayer is not dictated by the one praying.  It must give voice to the whole congregation.  Willimon provides five guidelines for public prayer, especially for practitioners of “free prayer”: careful construction of a prayer does not mitigate against the concept of free prayer; opportunities for congregational participation in public prayer should be looked for; a good service will have a mix of both types of prayer, free and liturgical, according to the movement of the service; generally speaking, the trend in public worship is to include a variety of short prayers of various types rather than one long prayer that attempts to include everything; and, a good pastor is a good listener.  To conclude, Willimon also lists four guidelines for our language in public prayer: the language should articulate and enliven the Christian ideas which we understand to be essential to the faith; the language should not manipulate or call attention to itself; the language employed should be an adequate idiom for this particular group and for this particular service; our language should be inclusive.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments.  “Sacraments and ordinances are everyday objects, like bread and water, and everyday actions, like eating and bathing, that when done among God’s people in worship convey both God’s love for them and their love for God” (52).  Willimon notes a shift in ecumenical agreement on the purpose of the sacraments.  He suggests four things that has shifted due to the ecumenical discussion.  First, there is widespread agreement on the biblical and historical centrality of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Secondly, the theological focus of our Sacraments has often been far too limited.  Third, we have often made the Sacraments into individualized, privatized acts of personal piety rather than the communal, familial, ecclesial acts they were meant to be.  Finally, the Sacraments are linked to the most basic, primal, everyday experiences of life; to disjoint them from those human experiences is to undercut their power.  Willimon then outlines some practical implications of these thoughts: restore the Lord’s Supper to its rightful place in our Sunday worship; utilize the new sacramental rites of your denomination; preach and teach on the Sacraments; pay close attention to the mechanics of your leadership of these rites; and, prepare people for more meaningful participation in the Sacraments.

Preaching has become more biblical, moving away from the popular topical sermon.  Willimon suggests this trend can be contributed to several factors: the lectionary helps pastors not focus on favorite Scripture and theology; there are now more resources for unpacking the lectionary; pastors are also finding that the Bible is the very source of our Christian identity (I would add a corrective and say that the Bible testifies to the One who is the very source of our identity). 

Willimon proposes a method for constructing the sermon: read the whole book through, in one sitting if possible; establish the text; detailed word study of the text to make sure that you know what the text means; read the entire text again with an ear toward its general thrust; state the theme of the proposed sermon in one sentence; how shall I say it? (form and genre); jot down some ways in which your congregation needs to hear or can relate to this text. 

The process of constructing a sermon is fraught with pitfalls.  Willimon notes several that can become a great hinderance to hearing the text properly: transference – Scripture means today what it has always meant; allegorization – if a person believes that every portion of Scripture is useful for today’s Christian, that person may be tempted to imbue troublesome or questionable passages with alleged symbol meaning; parallelism – the preacher draws a simple parallel between a biblical situation and a situation today; universalization – a given text that applied to one situation is now applied to a whole array of circumstances; psychologizing – a previous generation of preachers was often guilty of ‘spiritualizing’ a text; moralizing – perhaps the most frequent modern interpretive pitfall is moralizing (an attempt to draw simple moral inferences from the text).

Composing the sermon comes next.  There are all sorts of ways to compose a text.  Willimon suggests three potential models.  One model starts with the Biblical text (what it says), moves to exposition of the text (what it meant), and finishes with the contemporary situation to which this text speaks (what it means).  A second model begins with the contemporary problem, moves to the Biblical text that is relevant to this problem, and finishing with what would happen if this text were applied to this problem.  A final model suggested begins with a contemporaroy story that portrays some aspect of the human condition and moves to a Biblical story that illuminates the situation.

Willimon now moves to delivery of the sermon.  He begins by noting that good preaching involves good listening.  First, it requires listening to the Biblical text.  Secondly, it requires that we be lovers of language, for it is our toolbox.  Thirdly, listen to your listeners.  Watch their body language for indicators of hearing.  Fourth, listen to yourself.  What are your strengths and weaknesses in communication (verbal and non-verbal)?

One’s voice can create difficulties in preaching.  There are several elements to pay attention to closely here: intensity (volume), clarity (clearness and articulation), and variety (intonation and pitch).  And, like any art, practice makes perfect.  Preaching takes practice.

Illustrations give concreteness to our sermons.  There are several things to think through the use of an illustration.  First, we must be careful not to use an illustration that might embarrass someone or that might divulge some pastoral confidence.  Second, a good test for personal material is the question, Could this experience have happened to anyone in the congregation?  It is important to find a system to file these illustrations, but keep it manageable and up to date.  It is also important to find ways to evaluate and improve upon your preaching.  Surveying a select group from the congregation over several weeks can be helpful toward this goal. 

Willimon writes, “A clericalized, sacerdotal presbyterate, in which a clerical upper crust lords it over the lowly laity, is an ecclesiastical deformity” (103).  He then states, “Good pastoral leadership strives to get everyone into the act” (105).  Willimon suggests gathering a group to act as a music and worship committee to get laity involved in worship planning.  Worship task forces can help construct seasonal emphases and involve others in the process.  Most importantly, this requires education of the church.  It is important to note that it should not be all didactically explained.  Sometimes it requires the action to be the educational process, whereby we are drawn into the mysteries of God through worship.

Overall, I thought this was a very good book that covered many of the basic concerns for leading worship.  Sometimes it was heavily practical and concerned with the mechanics.  However, Willimon also infused the text with theological reflection that provided a good foundation for the leading worship.  I would recommend this as a great introductory read on preaching and leading worship for both pastors and laity.


[1] This is my assessment of the purpose for this piece.  Willimon focuses on the practical aspects of how this element should be carried out (i.e., how to read the Scripture).