Tag Archives: Worship

Hump Day Hymns: Father, whate’er of earthly bliss

Hymnal

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free;
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My path of life attend;
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.
Anne Steele (1717-1778)

“God wants you to be a champion,” the man on television tells me. The man with the million dollar smile and the thousand dollar suit. “God needs you to plant a seed,” another one tells me. “But if you plant that $100 dollar seed — if you give something for God to work with, you will receive a harvest of ten-fold.” “Allow the blessings to multiply your material investments — name it and claim it!”

It sounds nice. It sounds attractive. All I have to do is think good thoughts and and say good things and Jesus will make all these blessings will flow my way? I must have been doing things all wrong for much of my life thus far.

This equation of God as a vending machine can be read both ways. If we do this, God will give us that. This also leads us to reading it the other way, if this bad thing happened, we must have done that bad thing to deserve it.

While one one level, it is one thing to think that God will give us whatever we decide that we want, the true damage of this line of thinking cuts much deeper. I minister in a poor community – in a neighborhood where wants and needs go unmet or insufficiently met. What truly grieves me to my core, though, is that when things are truly not going well, when they are not sure how they are going to pay their rent, when they get laid off…again, when their children get caught up in a multi-student brawl at school which require several police officers, people tend to think that God hates them. “I don’t understand why this is happening, Pastor,” they tell me. “What do I have to do to get God’s favor?” they ask me. “I pray, and pray, and pray, and it seems like God never listens!” they cry out in desperation.

This saddens me more than I can express.

But really, who can blame them, or anyone, who follows this line of thought. Turn on any television and you will get some version of prosperity theology.

I try not to alienate folks, but sometimes that goal is difficult. So I’m just going to say it…I don’t like prosperity theology.

I grate against anything that promises us financial blessing, worldly success, expanded territory, or anything of the like. I don’t like it because it attempts to offer an alternative to Jesus’s message of taking up our cross (whatever that may be for us) and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

What is so lamentable about this is that when we get so caught up in what God isn’t giving us and what we did or didn’t do to not get the thing that we wanted/expected/thought we needed is that we may miss the actual core of everything: God.

This is not, however, to exonerate the church from its responsibilities of mercy and care for physical needs. To be sure, the church must work to meet physical needs. We need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has access to clean water for drinking. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has a level playing field in the world. After all, the church is (and should be) a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

But, it is terrible to get caught up in the, “God didn’t give me this car that I asked for, so God must be ignoring me”, which can easily lead to the more insidious, “I am poor/troubled/&c., therefore God must hate me.”

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…“(John 9:2-3a)

***

The question that I always ask myself is this: “Is God enough for me?” That is, if God is all there is, if there is no prosperity or wealth, no worldly success or honor, no power or authority, if there is even no sense of security or stability — if simply God is all there is…will that be enough?

I think of the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism (if you can forgive the gendered language, I’m quoting directly):

Q: What is the chief and highest end of man?
A: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

God exists to be enjoyed. We are not to enjoy the things that God gives us or does for us, we are to enjoy God.

***

Hymns are formative — and this is the reason why the hymns and songs that we use in worship must be good hymns which speak honestly, deeply, and soundly into the Christian life. This hymn helps correct the prosperity fallacy.

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace…

Steele writes beautifully about desiring to be given a “calm [and] thankful heart”, to be free from murmuring — to live only to God, to allow God to be the light in our journey and to be the goal of what we seek.

My concern with over-materializing our relationship with God is that what we truly desire is not God but the material thing which has been promised, which we can attain or obtain. But this is nothing short of idolatry, and rings as hollow and shallow as idolatry.

The good news of this hymn is that struggles and even denials of “earthly bliss” are simply a part of life in the not yet. The challenge is to remember that the only “sweet hope” that we have — that we could ever have — is that “Thou art mine.”

***

Truly if someone like Anne Steele, whose mother died when she was three, was disabled at age nineteen, and whose fiancé drowned the day of her wedding…if someone like this can write these words, I can sing them and allow them to speak to my life.

The Saturday Demon

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

It’s simple really. All I have to do is put one word in front of another, types of words ordered in a particular way. As I often do when I am having difficulty writing, I begin gazing around my bookshelf and my eyes stop at Stephen Dobyns’s book, Best Words, Best Order. That’s it, I think, all I have to do is find the best words and put them in the best order.

I have the opportunity to tell the story of grace and redemption every single week. I cannot think of a greater privilege than this.

But today it does not feel like a privilege. The best words cannot be found and the best order cannot be mapped.

It is the Saturday Demon.

The Saturday Demon comes around on Saturday when I am trying to put the finishing touches on my sermon for Sunday. I have spent all week studying, reading, praying, researching, translating, and beginning to write, but Saturday is my finishing day.

“It doesn’t really matter” the demon whispers in my ear. “None of it really matters.”

For me, the real danger that the Saturday Demon poses is not that it creates doubt, it is that it highlight and fortifies the doubts which are already so present.

“You’re a fraud,” it tells me. “You lie to people and give them false hope.”

The Saturday Demon knows exactly how to attack. I begin to wonder if this is worth it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps I am doing this all for nothing, perhaps none of this is real.

Confession time: I am a pastor, and I have great doubt.

***

I’m a doubting Thomas, as some might call me, although I loathe this term. Why does Thomas get such a bad rap? Peter denied that he knew anything about Jesus of Nazareth not once, not twice, but three times. Do we remember Peter only as a denier?  Do we call someone a “I Don’t Know Him Peter”? No.

But Thomas’s reputation is forever stained as being a doubter, and doubting is seen as something terrible. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, we tell our young people, doubting is weakness. Doubting is sin, we say, God wants us to have confidence.

***

The more I try to ignore the Saturday Demon, the louder is speaks. Rather than trying to ignore it, I decide to listen to it for a moment. Hear it out. After all, Jesus didn’t just try to ignore the devil when he was being tempted in the desert, he carried on a conversation.

“Just stop,” it tells me, “none of this matters anyway, you’re just wasting your time.”

“Are you finished?” I ask the Saturday Demon. “I’m going to get back to work now,” and I continue pounding away on the keyboard trying to find the best words and trying to find the best order. The Saturday Demon continues to assault me, but it is important that I do not give in to its attack, I cannot become defeated, and the best way to do this is to keep working, even when these doubts erupt on schedule like Old Faithful. After all, I have people who depend on me.

I’m a pastor. I’m a doubter. Maybe this is why God has called me to this kind of ministry at this point in my life, so that even when I have great doubts, I still have to show up, stand in front of the congregation, and tell them the good news of the story of grace and redemption. It is through telling of the same story over and over again that I can, in some way, continue to believe even with my doubts.

Perhaps the reason that we will always link doubt and Thomas together, perhaps the reason that we remember Thomas for nothing other than his doubts is that we see ourselves in Thomas. In seeing in this mirror, we can see in ourselves what we so greatly despise, and we attempt to ensure that we keep him and his doubts at arm’s length.

This disapproving way that we speak of doubt is incredibly unfortunate. Truly, if doubt has no place in the church, it is no wonder why so many young people leave the church. If doubt has no place in the journey of faith, it is no wonder why there are an increasing number of “nones” when asked about religion.

Perhaps it is not the absence of doubt which is to be prized, but the ability to have faith and doubt at the same time, and live with the tension.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

How the Teacher Becomes the Student

The highest assembly of my denomination, the General Synod, meets annually in June. There are delegates which are elders and ministers, and there are corresponding delegates which can speak but not vote. Corresponding delegates are often people with particular expertise or particular experiences that make them valuable additions to General Synod and the denomination values their input. Among these corresponding delegates are those from the three colleges of the Reformed Church in America and from each of the regional synods.

These students are part of a program called “Call Waiting”. This is a program which guides them through the process of General Synod, but also guides them through an exploratory process of call — how and where they feel God calling them and leading them. It is a lofty goal to attain, but it is a process in which we seek to engage as deeply and authentically as possible. For the second year, I have had the privilege of leading the Call Waiting group.

I was recently asked what I enjoy about directing this program. My first response was that I appreciate General Synod and I enjoy helping others to appreciate it as well. While this is true, I do not think that this adequately describes why I truly enjoy directing this program. My true enjoyment comes from the other focus of the program: helping the participants to explore their call.

In order to do this, I choose various “calling” stories from scripture and invite them to reflect upon those stories, first bringing their life close to the story and eventually bring the story to their life. I never cease to be amazed at their insight, self-reflection, and grace. Many of these students have a faith which is very alive and which is very passionate. Some of these students were not raised in the faith but were gifted with faith later, others were born children of the covenant and have recently had the fire of faith rekindled within them, and still others of them have always felt near to the divine.

I am certainly not arrogant or self-centered enough to suppose that I help them to discover or understand their callings; rather, I try to create an environment where we invite God to do this for them. It is a privilege to be able to witness “light bulb moments,” when it is evident that something has “clicked” or that they experienced a revelation of some sort. It is also a great privilege to witness their struggling and wrestling, often things which are so personal and private.

I enjoy facilitating this program not only so that I can see the sparks of their faith, but because they also build up my faith.  At times my faith can be shopworn, and I find cynicism and lack of hope to be easy paths to go down.  However, when I work with these students, I find myself getting pulled back to a road of hope and I find my faith being restored.  It is by witnessing God working in these young people that I can sense God working in my own life as well.  It is seeing these young people who are so passionate about God, that I have a hope for not only our denomination, but also for the church in general.

I enjoy facilitating this program, not only because I have an opportunity to share my knowledge, my experience, and my passion, but I am also able to receive much more than I could ever offer.  I may offer these students some historical perspective, some basic operations of our church order and parliamentary procedure; however, these students, likely without realizing it, offer me hope and they do amazing things to restore and build up my faith.

On Being a Doubter-Sensitive Church

I had a conversation with someone the other day on the sidewalk in front of church.  I was picking up some trash that always blows into our bushes from the park across the street.  A person stopped and asked me some questions about our church, which I answered.  I told him about our Saturday morning breakfast ministry, and I also invited him to join us for a service on a Sunday morning.  He mentioned that he’ll probably show up on a Saturday morning rather than a Sunday morning, for now, because he didn’t want to have to pretend.

He took his leave and we exchanged pleasantries.  His comment about not wanting to pretend stayed with me for quite some time.  As is usually the case, after time of reflection, I came up with some good responses.  You don’t have to pretend, I thought, everyone is welcome.  You are welcome to come as you are, I thought.  You are welcome to journey along with us, regardless of where you are on your journey.  Of course, he was gone, and like many people I meet, I will likely not see him again to share these insights.  So at this point, the best that I can do is learn from it.

What was even more important than how I would have responded to this fellow is why he would felt as if he would have to pretend.  Perhaps he was referring to the more ecstatic utterances that some traditions emphasize.  Perhaps he was referring to singing songs and hymns of praise if he didn’t believe what he was singing.  The truth is, however, that I will never know what he meant, and what prompted him to say that.  However, what I am able to do is to reflect on what our church says not only to those who are members or adherents of our congregation, but also those who come in off the street.

Now first of all, our church is quite unique.  We are a church properly organized according to our denomination’s government.  However, in actuality, we function more as a mission.  We are placed in a community that has a lot of churches, but also a community where a high percentage of the population is not regularly involved in a church.  Therefore, our goal is first and foremost not teaching doctrine, but to introduce people to God in word and in deed.

I come from a subculture where the hot topics were debating the benefits and drawbacks of the Canons of the Synod of Dort and whether or not Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is based on sound biblical exegesis.  In my current context, however, those doctrinal discussions have turned into basic, “who is Jesus and why does he matter?” discussions.  Most of the people in my community don’t care about doctrine, they care about how God impacts their daily life.  This is not to put them down, it is simply a reality.  I have come to understand that debating and discussing the finer points of doctrine is an activity in which the privileged are able to engage.

I have found that the mindset in which I prepare sermons must change.  I can no longer prepare my sermons with the assumption of faith, but I must always prepare my sermons with the intent of inviting people to faith.  There are some that argue that “reaching the lost” is not the purpose of Sunday morning, however, I disagree.  Even those of us who identify as Christian, or who identify as disciples of Jesus are still lost, in one way or another.

I believe that faith is a gift from God, but I do not think that faith and doubt are necessarily opposed to one another.  There are many days where I’m not even sure if I have faith!  After all, I think that in some way, we are all crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  Even for those of us who have faith, it is only natural for us to have times of doubt.  Sunday services are then, not simply a time of expressing faith, but also a time for creating and renewing faith.

The church, then, should be the best place for us doubters.  Those who have iron faith should be hermit monks in the desert to whom others can visit on pilgrimage.  The church is the place where we can go when we have seeds of faith, and the church is the place we can go when we are sure that we don’t have any faith. Our church is certainly not “seeker-sensitive.”  However, I don’t think that our church operates on the presumption of faith either. The best thing that our church can be is “doubter-sensitive.” A place where no one has to pretend, but where folks want to have faith, regardless of whether or not they feel like they do at the time.  After all, faith is a journey not a destination.

In all of our hearts, there is a voice, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  I love it when people passionately express some variant of this.  When it comes down to it, I am no different; I am just another pilgrim on the journey to restoration and redemption.

First Words in Worship

Ever since I became a pastor I have put a lot of thought into the first words of the worship service at our church, and I have also begun paying attention to the first words of church services that I attend.  There are, to be sure, many important words in a worship service, but the first words are arguably the most important.  The first words set the stage for all that is to come, the first words are the conduit through which the community enters the worship experience.  Just as first impressions are so very important, the first words in the worship service are very important.

One way that is often done, and was done here at my arrival was to start the worship with, “Good morning.  Welcome to ____________”.  This is, of course, a fine way to start.  Welcoming people and greeting people is certainly a good thing to do.  However, I’m not sure if this is the best way to begin a worship service.  You can place anything in that blank, be it a church, a school, a football game and it would be appropriate.  While there is nothing wrong with these words being the first words in the worship service, I don’t think that they are sufficient for what we are doing.

Another popular way to begin a worship service, and one that I thought about is, “This is the day that the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  This is very clearly a theological statement, as our joy and gladness is rooted in the fact that God made this day, rather than the fact that the sun is shining or it is not snowing or whatever.  However, my concern with this declaration is that our church may be confused with prosperity type Christians.  Those who think that you have to be happy all the time, those who think that if you’re faithful God will cause you to prosper and not have troubles and hardships.  Many people aren’t happy when they go to church for many reasons.  Some may have just had a big fight with their partner, others may have pulled their hair out trying to get their children ready, others are wondering how their empty cupboards will get filled, others slept on the floor last night because they do not have a mattress or bed, still others may be mourning the death of a loved one.  The last thing that I want to do is to ask people to put on a fake smile, and I certainly do not want to make those who are not happy feel as though there is no place for their mourning or pain.

Finally, I have settled for the Votum, which are the first words given in the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America (the worship book for my denomination).  The votum is simple, but very complex: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The votum is peculiar because it is neither a greeting, nor a prayer, nor a call to worship.  The votum is a declaration of faith which comes from Psalm 124:8.  This is something that is thoroughly theological, and appropriately sets the stage for Christian worship.  This is something that we can all enter into regardless of what is going on in our lives.  For those who are suffering, it declares that God is our help, and it calls to mind the promises of God that God will never abandon us in the midst of our dark places.  For those who have been delivered from suffering, it provides a reminder that our deliverance, or our help, comes from God.

This is fitting for the first words of worship because it reminds us who God is, and what God is about.  God visits us in our distress, and provides aid.  The God who gives us aid is the same God who created everything.  This is why we can trust that God will visit us and provide assistance to us when we are in distress, because the God who created all is still involved in the world, and is still working out God’s purposes.

“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  This is what I want people to remember, and this is how I invite people into worship.  These are words that I take with me everywhere I go, and my hope is that my parishioners would do the same.  These are words which form us into a community. The words are not, “my help” but “our help”.  God is not just my help, but everyone’s help. The only help that we have in times of distress is God, and this is what we all share together.

I trust that these words have a power and a life of their own, and I trust that God makes these words effectual.  In worship I don’t explain the votum, I allow it to speak for itself.  I don’t tell people what to do with it, I allow it to work on them.

These are some of the reasons that the first words of our worship service are “Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”  This is before a greeting, a welcome, or the call to worship.  The way our service begins every week is with this short declarative phrase which invites people to worship the God who created heaven and earth, and to worship the God who helps us in our distress.  It reminds people why we gather, and it reminds people that God is in our midst.  This is a statement that is the result of faith, and it is a statement that creates faith.  Worship, after all, is not just an expression of faith, but it is to create faith as well.