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


“Sabbath for the Rest” – Mark 3:1-6

This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  


The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral by Thomas G. Long

Thom Long’s book was fantastic and I will definitely be using several of his ideas in my own ministry.  Long states, “A society that has no firm hope for where the dead are going is also unsure how to take the hands of its children and lead them toward a hopeful future.”[1]  This is profound and truthful.  If everything is for not, then what good is life or what purpose is there apart from nihilism or hedonism?  If there is no future hope, then we have no future to orient ourselves toward or that draws us into that future!  Funerals are about proclaiming the hope that we have found in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Long notes that funerals arise out of “necessity, custom, and conviction.”[2]  We have to do something with the body of the dead.  There is a prescribed (generally) way of disposing of the body and acknowledging this life.  And, the manner of our convictions often dictates how we do this as a community.  We must be aware of our culture, the assumptions underlying that culture, and we must ultimately see those in light of the Gospel.

Dualism, the belief that our soul is separate from our body, is prevalent in the culture and has infiltrated the Church.  But, we are both breath and dust.  Neoplatonism has created a sense that we are merely souls and the body is unimportant.  I agree entirely with Long that we have tried to distance ourselves from death and the bodies of the dead.  We have forgotten the hope of bodily resurrection.  This is a place where the funeral must re-capture the hope of the Gospel.  In this way, the funeral actually becomes a counter-cultural act when we proclaim that Death has no power but has been defeated.  We are not there to commemorate a soul or to imagine a disembodied person that floats off to heaven.  Rather, we assert again that the “perishable has become the imperishable.”

Essentially, there are three ways to view death and resurrection.  First, the body and soul separate at death and reunite at the resurrection.  Secondly, there is a general resurrection.  Finally, purgatory is waiting place for souls “in-between places.”  However, this only takes into account chronological time without eschatological time.  Because we believe that to be human is to be embodied, this presents a problem for the three views mentioned.  However, eschatological time, which is God’s time, might allow for bodily resurrection while the body of the deceased still remains dead with us.  This doesn’t lessen the mystery, but it does allow us to maintain the bodily resurrection without the separation of the soul!  Moltmann suggests that God’s salvation is outside of time because God exists outside of time.  Thus, we are raised in an instant “Today.”

Long outlines two ways Christians understand death: natural death and death as mythic force (enemy of all God wills in and for life).  But, there is a third way to understand death, which is death in Christ.  This is important because death happens both on the individual and corporate level.  There are “powers” that impact all of Creation.  However, “death in Christ” actually, and ironically, becomes the vehicle for life.  Because we are crucified with Christ, we are also raised to new life.  It is about our baptism!  I love this connection.

The purpose of worship, and thus the funeral, is narrating the great drama of the journey to God.  It is the re-enactment of the Gospel.  It is something that must continuously be proclaimed and performed as the community.  As we remember we are re-membered (put back together).  Thus, funerals are not merely utilitarian in nature.  Rather, they are to shape our being.  In this sense, the funeral is a procession.  We march with the dead once again in worship on the last leg of the journey of faith.  We are rehearsing for death but not embracing it – it is a foe.  Rather, we speak a defiant word – the Gospel which is Christ.  But, it should be noted that we die as we live.  Thus, the way we live out our faith in ordinary time will also be the way we die (i.e., begging, blessing, angry).  Anointing the sick with oil is a time-honored tradition.  It recalls baptism and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, therefore, calling to mind that we are God’s children.  As in baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised to new life with Christ also.

There are four necessities for the Christian funeral: holy person, holy place, holy people, and holy script.  Although we don’t lie about a person’s life, we also see their life in light of God’s redemption – which names them as saints of the Church.  This is naming our hope.  Holy place is significant because it recalls the community, the dedication and vows made, it recalls God’s covenant, and it signifies belonging.  Place is vital to who we are.  We ignore holy place to our detriment, not surrounded by the symbols of faith and life.  Holy people is also significant, despite being neglected.  The funeral has become individualized.  This is a place where we can push back on the privatization of the culture.  The holy script helps us to recall the purpose of our meeting: worship.  Yes, the dead is an essential element in the funeral, but ultimately the funeral is not about them or about those grieving.  It is about God.

Long then highlights eight purposes of a funeral: kerygmatic, oblational, ecclesial, therapeutic, Eucharistic, commemorative, missional, and educational.  There will likely be some overlap.  But, these were helpful distinctions that I will certainly employ.  It helps us keep in mind that we are proclaiming the Gospel but that it must also be contextualized.  Depending on the situation, we must be willing to adapt and exercise pastoral wisdom in how we approach the funeral and the sermon.  Long also mentions things that make funerals more difficult: a person outside the faith, cremation, infant death, suicide.  Each of these situations takes pastoral care and consideration, but there are also resources available to aid us in providing meaningful liturgies for the community of faith (and even those outside the faith).  Overall, Long’s book was immensely helpful and challenging.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 7.

[2] Ibid, 8

Theological Reflection on Preaching

Preaching is an audacious act.  It is strange that a person might claim to speak about God.  It is exponentially presumptuous to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.”  It is an audacious act.  Yet, when we speak under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is a faithful act.  And, it says far more about God’s character and nature than it does about the character and nature of the human mouthpiece – after all, God spoke to Balaam through an ass.  God speaks, which is to say, God acts and interacts directly with and in this world.  But, God always empowers and acts through agents.  That God entrusts us with such a great gift suggests that God is less concerned about getting something accomplished but is concerned with relating with all of Creation.  As such, preaching is not simply about communicating information (although that does happen).  Nor is preaching simply about accomplishing a task (say, “getting people saved”).  Instead, preaching is about communicating the heart of a God who invites us into relationship with God’s Self and brings us into engagement with our world.

Preaching is such a large task.  After all, how might a person actually communicate the mind of God or the heart of God, especially if we are finite, limited beings?  It is an impossible task, an exercise in futility.  It is beyond our capacity to know God when we struggle to even know ourselves!  Add the brokenness of a sinful world, of which the preacher is a part, and you’re more likely to scale Mount Everest in biker shorts and tank top than communicate a genuine word of the Lord.  Thus, preaching begins with the recognition that only God can speak on God’s behalf.  Apart from God nothing can be communicated about God other than perhaps vague generalities (i.e., God exists).  But, vague descriptions about God do not allow us to know God’s character and nature intimately.

Yet, thanks be to God, God has tangibly revealed God’s Self to humanity.  John’s Gospel gives us insight about this proclivity in God to move toward God’s Creation.  The prologue of John ventures into a world of new creation.  Darkness gives way to Light.  What was once barren now teems with life.  God speaks into the void and amazing possibilities now are opened up.  The fourth Gospel opens with focused intention on the Word.  It is a Word that was with God in the beginning and, to our surprise, is also God.  This same Word has power to create ex nihilo.  And, it is a Word that has become flesh (incarnated) and “tabernacled” among us.  This Word is the glory of God made manifest in our midst.  The Word, whom we discover is Jesus, gives new birth, opens blinded eyes, restores broken lives, and even conquers death.  Through Jesus the world is reconciled to God.

As a community that has experienced God’s redemption, we testify to God’s work in our lives.  We are a community rooted in praise and engaged in proclamation, announcing God’s salvation to the world and living it out as ministers of reconciliation.  Language is the tool for the craft of preaching.  Language is learned in community and is a way to comprehend the world and to live into that world.  Language is not simply the communication of ideas, although that’s part of it.  More than that, our words are embedded in a culture and embodied in actions.  Language describes and prescribes a way of life.  Each culture re-tells its story, holds up exemplars, and implements practices that mold identity toward a particular telos.  On a practical level, that’s what preaching is about.  It’s about forming a community’s identity (culture) and creating disciples (identity) by rehearsing God’s story of redemption, remembering exemplars of the faith (both positive and negative), and reflecting God back in the world (practices or cultural liturgies).  After all, the very meaning of theology is “God words.”  It is the language of the community about God.

The old adage says, “Knowledge is power.”  Typically, that is how our world employs language.  It is used to control, coerce, and command.  The media and politics have become particularly adept as using and changing language as a means of transforming culture.  Because our people and pastors participate in the world’s culture, they are susceptible to being shaped by that culture.  We can name powerful influences in our culture: consumerism, nationalism, militarism, traditionalism (tradition for tradition’s sake), and other such labels.  When this happens, the Church’s language (and life!) are infiltrated and shifted to mean something entirely different.  Thus, our culture (sometimes positively but often negatively) infiltrates the Church’s culture by changing its language.  The world’s telos replaces God’s telos in our lives, although we may maintain a thin Christian veneer over the world’s culture.

For this reason, language must consistently and constantly be re-energized and re-vitalized.  In this effort, preaching must take into account that we are not simply “preaching against” the world.  In fact, preaching must name God in the world!  But, neither does preaching assume that the world’s (or our country’s) motivations are God’s desire.  Thus, preaching must communicate redemptive engagement and prophetic disengagement with the world.  Another problem arises at this point for the preacher.  Preachers have acquired a reputation for preaching condemnation while placing themselves on a pedestal.  Brueggemann calls this “triangulation.”  Basically, in any relationship of three individuals, if two side together there is a power shift which leaves the lone individual in a defensive posture.  Preaching has a similar dynamic with preacher, congregation, and Scripture.  When the preacher sides with the Scripture, there is a power shift which leaves the congregation defensive.  However, if the pastor joins with the congregation as one standing exposed before the Word, the congregation is able to hear the Word in a non-defensive position.  Of course, in order for that to happen, the pastor must be humble, willing to be open and listen to the Spirit, and honest and open before the community.  This does not mean that the pastor needs to air out all of their dirty laundry.  Yes, there should be transparency.  But, too often pastors simply use this as another way to draw attention to themselves rather than the Word.  The preacher shouldn’t be the “hero” of the sermon.  Christ and the Gospel are always central in the sermon.

As noted earlier, a theological understanding of language is rooted in the drama of Creation.  God breathes, speaks, and inspires (ruach) the world into existence.  Space is opened up where life is created, sustained, and blessed.  This same breath or spirit both enlivens Creation and empowers the disciples for their commission (the story of Acts).  The Spirit descends on the disciples as they are gathered together in worship.  In that moment, they are emboldened and equipped to preach and proclaim the Gospel.  And, most importantly, it is a proclamation re-presented in both word and deed in and through the community of faith.  As such, it is important to note that preaching is not merely what we say.  Instead, preaching must arise out of a life of faithfulness lived before God.  In other words, it is only through communion with God lived out with the community of faith that we can preach a faithful word.

Preaching is situated in worship.  The pattern of worship historically has been four-fold: Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending.  It is a dialogical pattern – invitation and response.  God initiates the encounter (prevenient grace) and we respond back.  God calls us together, gathering us as the Body of Christ.  We respond through praise.  God speaks through the preached Word.  We confess our sins.  God offers us fellowship and forgiveness through communion.  We receive these gifts and are then sent out into the world to represent God.  As the gathered community, the Church is a microcosm of the Kingdom present in this world.  That is what God is doing through worship – forming and shaping a people (“kingdom of priests and a holy nation”) that proclaim the glory of God among the nations.

Preaching plays an important role for the community.  Preaching opens up the Scriptures and proclaims a word from the Lord for today.  In preaching, we remember God’s work in redeeming the world and we are called to re-member as God’s people living into God’s future.  The sermon is one of the most poignant opportunities for the community of faith to be shaped theologically together.  Faithful preaching re-presents the Gospel.  Some have understood the sermon to be a means of apologetics.  But, the early Church’s apologetic was kerygma, the story of salvation.  As such, preaching must continuously communicate the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  When this is our motivation, we join in the work of Jesus who came to proclaim the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

When God is at the heart and center of preaching, when there is a genuine Word of the Lord communicated, we do not need to provide conviction.  We don’t have to “twist the screws.”  We need not use fear tactics to generate salvations.  Nor do we need to use emotional manipulation to make converts.  Rather, when the Gospel is communicated, the Spirit convicts those who hear and is able to cleanse them!  The pastor is a vessel.  The pastor that attempts to play the role of the Spirit has succumbed to the sin of pride.  Again, as discussed with “triangulation,” the pastor must stand in a position before the Word to be convicted first and foremost by the Spirit.  If we are not open to the conviction of the Spirit, it is likely that our preaching (and our walk) will lack power (1 Cor. 2:3-5).

Romans 10:14-15 highlights the importance of the preaching ministry: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”  Preaching is at the heart of the Church’s ministry.  Preaching is intimately connected with evangelism (“good news” in the Greek).  Preaching, in this sense, shoulders the task of sharing what God has done to redeem the Creation with a world desperately needing God’s healing touch.

Paul charges Timothy, and thus all preachers: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:2-3).  Preaching is also for the community of believers.  The preached word serves to correct, rebuke, and encourage the community.  Furthermore, it continues to hold up “sound doctrine” for the congregation.  In other words, preaching continuously holds before the community a picture of God’s faithfulness and what we are called to embody as the faith community!

Acts records several sermons and mentions “preaching the word” seven times throughout its pages.  Acts’ testimony of the Church empowered by the Spirit, helps us easily recognize that preaching is at the heart of the Church’s ministry.  That has not changed, though the methods certainly have changed.  All that suggests is that preaching remains vital to the life of the Church while it must always be re-contextualized.  This is no easy task, but it is the task that we are called to by God.  In addition, this is the charge given to ordinands – “Preach the Word.”  Ordination is the call by God from within the community of faith to be devoted to the proclamation of the Gospel and the preservation of true doctrine.  Ordination, in many respects, is the handing down of that ministry to each new generation of pastors – extending the ministry of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church into the future.  Thus, we are called to preach a faithful word, not a novel word.

“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.

Verbal and Symbolic Communication in Worship

Robert Webber’s book Worship is a Verb describes the communication that occurs in worship.  Webber believes that there are two forms of communication: verbal and symbolic.  Both of these modes of communication are well represented within Scripture.  This two-fold process of communication is also noted in scientific studies.  Webber writes, “I have been surprised to discover that recent studies in neuropsychology and communication theory affirm these two forms of communication as valid and significant means of passing information, values, and perspectives” (89).  If Sabbath living is about passing information, values, and perspectives to ourselves and others, then we may need to incorporate both verbal and symbolic communication.  Doing this will allow us to worship holistically.

“We now know that the left hemisphere the brain specializes in verbal skills, while the right side of the brain centers on nonverbal and inductive skills such as the spatial and poetic impluses of the person.  The left side of the brain is more word oriented and orderly while the right side of the brain is more symbolic and creative.  Now, we function from both the left and right sides of the brain, but some of us function more from one side than the other.  This is why for some people the communication of words is more effective while for others the communication of symbols is more powerful… since all people are capable of communication through both methods, improvement of both the verbal and the symbolic methods of communicating Christ in our worship experience is desirable.  It is also important for us to remember that communication in words and symbols is two-way.  While God communicates to us through words and symbols, we also respond and communicate with him through words and symbols.  Worship as an act of communication contains the ingredients of speech, symbol, dialogue, interaction, and relationship” (89-90).

The primary distinction between verbal and symbolic communication lies in the terms transmission communication and cultural communication.  Transmission deals with verbal communication.  It is about transmitting information from one source to another.  Information is passed along, analyzed, and learned.  Cultural communication deals with symbols.  It is worship that is done and acted out.  These can be nonverbal ways of communication (i.e. kneeling, communion, creating art).  Together, both forms of communication can impact the mind, will, and heart of the individual.  I say this because what we fill our minds with becomes what we act out and what we act out becomes our very character.  Worship when approached through both verbal and symbolic communication not only informs us but transforms us.  As such, there is a need for us to incorporate both into our worship.

This is undoubtedly true for Sabbath practice and living as well.  Sabbath is about communication with God.  It is opening up space for God to speak to us and for us to respond.  As with all relationships, we communicate on both levels.  We transmit information about ourselves to the other party.  But, we also use nonverbal, symbolic language to communicate: we hug to show affection, we nod to show we are listening, we smile, we clap, we fold our arms.  Objects can even take on special significance in representing our relationship (i.e. a gift, keepsake, or event).  Why should Sabbath be any different?  What sorts of practices can emerge out of both verbal and symbolic communication as a way of relating to God and growing in Him?  Moreover, what practices can we institute in our families that will also engage them in Sabbath together as was the custom in Jewish and early Christian homes?  As mentioned in other posts, worship cannot remain simply an intellectual affair if it is to be character shaping, both personally and socially.

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.

Worship in Ancient Israel by Walter Brueggemann

Israel’s worship is the practice of covenant: “covenant-making, covenant-keeping, covenant-renewal.”  It is a “dialogic interaction,” whereby, God calls and the people respond.  It is a two-way interaction between partners.  “Worship is about a relationship… that relationship must be given concrete material articulation” (Brueggemann 23).  The festivals of Israel allowed them to relate to God and the community by acknowledging God as Creator and Redeemer in all of life.  Faith and worship are built by utterance and gesture, word and sacrament.  God gives both command and assurance, to which we respond through gesture.  It required attending the assembly and having faithful ministers to proclaim the word of God.  This ritual gave Israel confidence to enter a hostile world and be the people of God, which was embodied in material ways.

Brueggemann believes that worship is a remembrance of the creating, saving, redeeming acts of God.  From this stance, praise is the most common characteristic in the worship of Israel.  God is “glorified” for His action in the world.  However, praise is not the only characteristic of Israel’s worship.  Lament is a dominant and integral part of worship.  Therefore, worship is truth-telling.  It testifies about life and calls God to be faithful to the covenant while confessing Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the covenant.  The lament voices helplessness against the forces of evil while articulating rage against the abuse received by the Israelite community.  Therefore, Israel reminds God of His promises that now need to be honored.  This is not manipulation, but dependence upon God.  Act and word, utterance and gesture cannot be separated from worship.  Israel must dedicate itself in both word and deed to their Lord and Creator.  It is a trust and consecration to this God.

Israel also holds tensions within their life in seven primary areas, according to Brueggemann: obedience/freedom, holiness/justice, state cult/family and clan, Torah/king, presence/absence, praise/lament, and memory/hope.  Each of these areas must be held in tension with its counterpart or risk becoming misconstrued and legalistic or chaotic.  As such, worship is about holding these tensions in moderation, keeping us from becoming too comfortable in our walk with God.