The Poetry of Obedience – Psalm 119:1-8

You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)


Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry.  We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code.  We think about punishment and reward.  It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences.  Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church.  God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution.  This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus.  It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”

This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better.  For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility.  And, it is!  But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about!  Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head.  And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath.  It was confusing and eventually unsustainable.  I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it.  Ultimately, that has been to my loss.

I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation.  Do good = get good.  Do bad = get bad.  It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God.  If I performed X, I would receive Y.  “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers.  The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc.  The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree.  In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.  I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose.  Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love.  Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact.  But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it.  That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control.  Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament.  Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.

Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience.  It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world.  It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive.  It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow.  It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.

The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey.  We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees.  And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing.  It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed.  This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness.  Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God.  It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion.  It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.

In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill.  Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world.  God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do.  In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.

Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).”  We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.”  We are God’s poem.  Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience.  It is a song of beauty.  It is a song of redemption.  It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.

Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry.  Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair.  Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry.  Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world.  Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.

“Let My Life Song Sing to You”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You


Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Lord I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You



Let my lifesong sing to You


“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

Wesleyan Covenant Service (Adapted)

We recently did the Wesley Covenant Service 2016 at our church.  You can click the red highlighted text above to see the content of the service in booklet form.

We began our evening of reflection over the Genesis 15 text.  In the text, Abram hears again God’s promise to give him an heir to carry the promise.  Abram is fearful that God is slow on fulfilling the promise and that there won’t be a true heir to follow him.  Abram complains about God’s timing or inability to make good on the promises given.

Despite the complaint, God invites Abram again into the mystery of the promise.  Go outside and count all the stars, if you can (in broad daylight).  God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, but there’s likely only one star visible in the daylight hours.  Just because something isn’t seen doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  God’s promises apparently work in that way at times.

Then, God tells Abram to kill a heifer, and a male and female goat, and to bring two birds (not killed).  The heifer and two goats are to be killed and cut in halves and placed on either side, making a runway of animal parts.  Gruesome.

This ritual was significant in that time period.  It was called a Suzerain treaty.  When two parties and people would agree on peaceful terms, the more powerful of the two factions would march the lesser party through the dead animal parts as if to say, “Break this pact and you’re likely to end up like these animals – dead meat!”

The text says a dread fear fell over Abram.  Perhaps he recognized his peril.  God would grab him by the scruff of the neck, march him through the animal carcasses, and tell him that he would be ripped apart if he dared step a toe out of line.  Abram is clearly at God’s mercy as the weaker party in this agreement and how is Abram to make good on a promise that he can’t fulfill or keep?  After all, he’s too old to have children!

Suddenly, inexplicably, a fiery pot and a flaming torch appear – fire often is used to represent God’s presence.  And, rather than being force marched through the animal pylons, Abram is astonished to see God move through the gory pathway first – not Abram.  God makes the first move.

God stakes God’s very life on fulfilling God’s promises.  The One who promises is the One who is faithful to complete the work.  God puts God’s name on the line, placing God’s honor, reputation, and glory on seeing this plan through to fruition.

As we reflect on the nature of making covenant with God, Wesley reminds us that it is God’s work into which God invites us.  God invites us to participate in the divine life and plan, but it is something that God accomplishes – yes, working in and through us – for our sake and for the sake of the world.  The appropriate response, as with Abram, is awe, wonder, joy, and thankful receiving of the promise.

The promise may seem slow in coming, but we can rest assured in God’s faithfulness.  This is especially true for those that understand Jesus to be both the promise, fulfillment, and the one by whom the new covenant with God is entered.  All the promises of God are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, God is willing to put God’s life at risk to accomplish that which is promised.

To enter into covenant with this risky God means that God is not willing to settle for anything less than our whole selves.  God desires to be all in all.  Covenant is no small matter, no small step.  It is the bid to come and die.  Yet, in great surprise, we find that the risk we thought we had entered into was really our gain for we were invited to partake of God’s life, to drink deeply of the Spring of Life.  God shouldered the risk and, for those who commit their very lives to God, we became the benefactors of such abundant grace.

To be a covenant people is submitting our lives to be shaped into the likeness of Jesus, to fall upon his righteousness, and to humble our hearts for holy service.  The promise of God may seem slow in coming – but, God has given God’s very life to see it through to completion.  If God is willing to stake God’s life on God’s promise, then it seems like such a small risk (though perhaps very painful or difficult in practice) to give my life to the One who will complete the good work started.

3rd Sunday of Advent Reflection

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:1-6).

God’s anger is like a consuming flame, like the refiner’s fire.  Flame and fire are painful elements.  The pain of judgment seems at odds with joy – until we discover that God’s anger does not endure forever.  It is like the shadow of night that passes with the dawning sun.  Joy comes from the discovery that God’s anger and judgment, God’s fire and flame are intended to purify us, to make us holy.  God does not simply give us salvation but becomes our salvation.  And, what once was the fire of purification now becomes the water of rejuvenation.

Deliverance from judgment breaks forth in joyous song, jubilant pronouncement of God’s Name and deeds among the nations – to all peoples!  We sing his praises, for he has done gloriously!  Is there any corner of the earth that should be kept in the dark about God’s deliverance?  Shout aloud and sing for joy, “for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!”

Let us pray:

Leader: “Blessed be you, Lord God of Israel, for you have looked favorably on your people and redeemed them; you have raised up a mighty Savior for us, just as you spoke through your holy prophets of old.”

People: “O Lord, mindful of your great mercy, grant that we may serve you without fear, in holiness and righteousness, this day and all of our days.”

All Together: “Break upon us like the dawn, O Lord, to give us your light this day and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen!”

Romans 4 – Ashes and Oil

There’s an old saying, “The only thing that is certain is death and taxes.”  This is partly true.  There’s plenty of people that manage to skip out of taxes, one way or another.  Sometimes they’re caught.  Sometimes they manage to hide it.  But, nobody can hide from death.  It levels the playing field for everyone.  Poor, rich.  Old, young.  Beautiful, plain.  Weak, strong. Male, female.  It impacts everyone.  Nobody escapes its icy grip.  Perhaps the only thing that is certain is death.

Today’s Ash Wednesday.  The faithful will gather, have ashes smudged on their foreheads in the sign of the cross, and leave under the darkness of night.  Soot fills our noses.  Our mortality stares us straight in the eyes.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  These are the very words that will accompany us to the grave.  We are ash.  We are dust.  We are dead.

Our culture does its best to avoid aging and death.  Makeup commercials demonstrate the reversal of the aging process.  Clothes promise to keep us hip and cool (I just dated myself a bit).  Technology gives us access to power to control our lives, make them efficient, and keep us busy so that we can’t reflect that we are but dust.  We live such frenetic lives that we aren’t great at just being, reflecting, and facing who we really are.  Peter Pan never wants to grow up.  Toys-R-Us helps us put into liturgy our disgust at growing up and getting old.  And, the job market makes it readily clear that getting old means you are outdated and replaceable.

The Church has not been unaffected by this trend in our culture.  We are often escapist in our mentality, hoping to get to heaven so as to avoid any unpleasantness that we might experience here on earth.  We’re even uncomfortable talking about Jesus’ call to “come and die.”  How shocking it is to be confronted with our own death… our mortality… our dust-ness.  Yet, there is nothing we can possibly do about that.  We can curse and scream, avoid it, throw money at the problem, buy everything to make us happy and sedated, engage in risky behavior, bargaining with God by promising to be more religious or pious.  None of it works.  We are but bodies of death… and who can rescue me from that?

Romans 4 recalls a story about an old man and woman.  There isn’t anything particularly special about them.  They are average, run-of-the-mill kinds of folk.  Abe is a rancher, somewhat successful, though he travels a lot with his family.  About the time they get settled, they uproot and move to a new location.  Sarah is a beautiful, but old woman.  Never could have children.  She keeps up with the household tasks and responsibilities.  But, she has always felt a bit empty at not having children.  And, to be honest, she is kind of a difficult person to work for… just ask her maid.

Would you believe that God calls these normal folks… this couple that is just about to kick the bucket?  Would you believe that God tells them they’re going to be parents – of a great nation!?  Incredible!  People that could never have a child before are now going to conceive a nation that will be a blessing to ALL nations.  What’s all the more incredible is that Abraham trusted God.  He wasn’t focused on how he couldn’t have children, how he and his wife were both infertile and incapable of producing an heir.  He trusted God.  Abraham trusted that God’s call included a promise to bring it to completion… especially where Abraham and Sarah were incapable.

The smudge that will mark our foreheads this evening are ashes that mark us as dust, as mortal.  But, ashes are not the only thing that are placed on the forehead.  Oil is also mixed into the ashes.  Oil is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life.  In remembering we are but dust and as good as dead (just like Abraham and Sarah), we are also invited to receive the very Life of God which is able to take our ashes, our disappointments, our failures, and our inabilities and breath new life into the midst of them.  Though we are marked as dust, that does not have to be the final word.  But, it is not something that we can do… it is only God’s gift through the Spirit.

Barren Belief or Fruitful Faith?

Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and a well-known pastor and theologian, once stated, “A recent survey showed that 93% of Americans and 100% of demons believe in God.”  This tongue-in-cheek humor has its basis in the letter of James.  The author of James instructs early believers that faith and good works are to be held together.

Martin Luther, the great Reformation leader, called James an “epistle of straw” because he thought that the letter promoted works-based righteousness.  That is to say, he thought James was saying that we were saved by what we did.  James is not saying this at all.  Rather, “good works” are the natural outflow of faith.  Good works are the fruit of faith’s seed.

James says it this way: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:18b-19).  In other words, if there is no fruit then the seed of faith must not have taken root in our lives.  John Wesley talked about faith and holiness as both personal and social, but never private.  It should impact our daily lives.  This should give us pause… I mean, we really should consider what James is telling us.  Faith not lived out in tangible ways is dead.

Yes, we have to be careful not to think that our good works make us more acceptable to God or somehow that we are made right because we do what is right.  Luther was right in saying that works do not save us.  But, that does not mean we should do nothing!  Remember, Jesus tells his disciples (and us) that part of what it means to be disciples is to learn everything that Jesus taught and live in obedience.  I like to think of it this way.  Our obedience is the thankful, grateful response to what God has done in and for us!  And… even our faith is a gift from God!

As we enter into this journey of Lent, a journey toward the Cross.  We reflect on the context and content of our lives.  What is the fruit of our lives?  What does the fruit of our lives suggest we have placed our faith in?  Do we reap the fruit of the Spirit?  Is it fruit of the Kingdom?  Is it good seed that dies and produces an abundant harvest in the lives of others?  What is the natural outflow of our faith?  More importantly, does it reflect Jesus to our world?

Liturgy and Tradition

Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” Many people think of liturgy as formal rituals. But, it’s more than that. Even churches that are not “formal” in style have a liturgy. Liturgy is the community of faith‘s response to God’s grace. And, it’s how a church orders itself and works together. Every church has a particular rhythm and pattern of life and worship together (not just the services on Sunday). Liturgy is the practices that shape and inform faith. This can be on a bigger scale, too. There are liturgies that are unique to particular denominations (i.e., not drinking alcohol) and liturgies unique to all Christians (i.e., communion and baptism).


Another word for this is “tradition.” Tradition is the practices that have been handed down to us by the community of faith over time. Sometimes traditions are fairly recent (i.e., use of guitar in worship) and some have a very long history (i.e., saying “amen”). You can even distinguish between “thick” and “thin” practices or liturgies. “Thick” liturgies are the significant practices that we will always keep (i.e., prayer, communion, baptism, preaching, to name a few). We keep these because they are significant ways that we are shaped. If we stopped doing those things, our identity would be something entirely different than Christian. “Thin” liturgies are practices that aren’t nearly as significant in shaping our identity. These will usually change from time to time. This might be as simple as saying that we always have three songs before we go to a time of prayer in a service. We could change it to four songs before the prayer and it wouldn’t change our identity.


Ultimately, liturgy should be Christ-centered and in line with the teaching of the apostles. When it goes beyond those boundaries it’s probably a good idea to remove, re-purpose, or replace that liturgy. Tradition sometimes needs to be corrected and changed. Although tradition can be extremely useful and helpful, if it becomes the sole authority over our lives, it becomes quite destructive. When that happens it is called “traditionalism.” This statement helps me to distinguish between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of dead men. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men.” Liturgy and tradition should always point toward Jesus, not back to the tradition or liturgy.


Anytime you go into a new culture, it takes time to learn the language and way of life in that new community. The same is true of visitors in a church. It takes time to learn the liturgy of a church. But, that doesn’t mean that the liturgy shouldn’t be accessible to guests. Since liturgy is the “work of the people”, the people of the congregation should help guests understand what is going on and why they do the things they do together. Pastors will often help with this by continuously explaining what is happening and why it is happening. As guests become a part of a church, the liturgy becomes a part of them and they then help shape the liturgy for the future.

“The Preaching Life” by Barbara Brown Taylor

We are increasingly in a Post-Christian context.  The Church and the world are disillusioned.  Taylor makes the argument that this is a great place to be, if one has eyes of faith to see.  In fact, disillusionment unmasks the lies and urges us to search deeper.  Our idols are unveiled and a more mysterious, dynamic vision of God is revealed.

The call is an essential part of the preaching task.  We are all called to follow Christ (vocation), but each is called to follow Christ using their unique spiritual gifts (office).  The pastor is one among many equal callings.  But, it is still a lofty calling to equip the believers to do every good work.  Christians are called to be mindful of the sacramental nature in the mundane elements of life.  God is at work and calls us to see grace already present in the world.

This is an imaginative act.  That’s not to say that it is an act of fantasy.  Instead, it is the ability to see with eyes of faith the underlying reality of God present and at work.  Scripture plays an important role in this imaginative work.  We don’t only read Scripture but Scripture reads us.  That is to say, that life is viewed through a new light that gives us new eyes for the situations in which we find ourselves.  We wrestle with the text (despite its “human fingerprints”), finding that there is something more at work than the human element.  The Spirit breathes new life through the pages of these texts, even if we cannot “explain” them all.

The liturgy of worship connects us together, both past and present.  Worship, as Taylor suggests, is like a dance whose elements we have practiced for so long that they have become engrained in us.  They become secondary nature.  Word and Table shape the identity of the community by engaging all of the senses.  God is made known through the tangible elements, teaching us that there is no real separation between the sacred and the secular.  The rhythms of the liturgy inform the rhythms of our daily life outside of the sanctuary.

The sermon is an interesting phenomenon.  Taylor states that the parts of sermon construction can be taught, but it is difficult to teach how those parts go together.  In mentioning her own “best” and “worst” sermons, she highlights the fact that there is more at work than just the preacher.  It is a triangular relationship between God, people, and preacher that make up the sermon.  Imbalance in one area is like a three-legged stool that is unstable and likely to fall over.  As preachers, it is important to recognize this and not take ourselves too seriously.  What may seem like brilliance to us can fall flat to a congregation.  What may feel like a poor sermon may be given life by the Spirit in ways that we cannot imagine.  What matters most is that we are entrusting ourselves in that preaching to the One who is the Word.

The final chapters are a few of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons.  I will summarize what I learned from those sermons for the art of preaching.  One of the things that struck me about her sermons was the fact that she weaves stories throughout her preaching of the text.  These stories unlock or unfold something in the text that may not have been directly visible before.  The use of stories invites the reader, sometimes unwittingly, to go along for the journey to meet the God of Scripture.

Taylor also wrestles with the text and the questions of the congregation effectively.  She gives voice to their concerns and acknowledges the difficulties in the passage.  However, the sermon always ends with a Gospel message revealing how God is at work and present in the text.  There is concrete language used, but her sermons utilize language to evoke the realities of the text in her hearers.

Worship Old and New by Robert E. Webber

As indicated by the title of this book, Webber makes a case for incorporating old forms of worship into modern worship practices.  Webber believes that the biblical basis for worship must be recovered in order to maintain the message, story, and faithful content of Scripture.  As such, there has been a trend among churches to re-discover and integrate early church forms of worship.

Webber believes there is a four-fold pattern in biblical worship: Assembling, Word, Eucharist, and Sending.  Each of these acts is an enactment of the story of God, which we are called to embody, not simply remember cognitively.  Within the worship model there are three things to consider as we assemble (called), listen and respond, give thanks, and enact social justice: content, structure, and style.

Content is the most important part of worship.  Worship is directed toward God and is about God.  Losing either of these elements makes worship shallow and egocentric.  Worship is a holistic life of obedience.  Worship is also the Gospel at work in the world.  It is the power of redemption experienced in the lives of the community of God.  It is not simply ascribing “worth” to God, nor is it a message to the congregants.  Worship is initiated by God and for God.  That should sober our attempts at making worship relevant to us… especially since worship is not about us.

Structure is a necessary and important part of worship.  Every church has a structure which correlates with their view of worship.  If we desire a more holistic worship experience, it is necessary to structure our worship to facilitate this desire.  Content helps dictate the structure.  In all things, our structures must participate in the “narrative” of God’s story and not simply be a “presentation.”  Structure moves us from observers to participants in the grand narrative of the Gospel.

Finally, style is a contextualizing of the message.  It is a “flexible” characteristic of worship.  This is often the conflict of the “worship wars.”  Most often, it is based upon preference rather than accessibility to others.  There is no “right” style.  Rather, style allows us to situate the Gospel in a certain culture.  As such, it is necessary that we are inclusive of other styles that help generate a whole, rather than segmented, community.