Weird Liturgies: The Happy Birthday Song

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Like all churches, my church has a liturgy.  We have a set worship structure with consistent worship practices that form and shape us every Sunday morning.  We read Scripture three times.  We sing 4-5 songs, guaranteeing a proper mix between ancient hymns and newer choruses.  We pass offering plates and listen to a sermon.  We pray about 4 times.

And we sing “Happy Birthday.”

We don’t sing it every Sunday out of the year.  But every week where someone in our congregation celebrated a birthday, we sing it.  We also note the anniversaries but nobody has yet penned a “Happy Anniversary” song so we don’t sing about that.

I usually pepper the announcements of birthdays and anniveraries with a cycle of corny jokes that I have borrowed or penned throughout my years.

“Happy Birthday Tom!  We are glad you were born!”

“Larry was born and actually lived to tell the tale!”

“Lisa turned another year younger this week!”

“Ann managed to stay married to Bob another year and that is quite the accomplishment!”

“Happy 46th anniversary Yvette and Wendell!  But watch out.  I hear year 47 is the really tough one!

“86 year old Harriet turned 29 again this year!”

“The Thompsons anniversary is on Wednesday, so if they manage to stay married until then, Happy Anniversary!”

A few people laugh, most (my wife included) roll their eyes.  I personally think they are hilarious.

Some people in our church are flattered we remembered their birthdays.  More are glad that we noted their anniversaries. Others are embarrassed.  They try to hide from me and I am always overjoyed when someone snitches on them.  To be fair, I don’t go around mentioning my birthday either.  .  .and someone always tattles on me.

Still, we don’t make the announcement and sing the song to flatter the children and embarrass the old.

We announce the anniversaries because marriage is a sacrament.  God uses marriage and the married couples to provide grace to the entire congregation.  Also, I have found that the grace marriage gives increases exponentially the longer people stay in it.

So we announce the anniversaries and make the jokes because  behind all of this is a recognition that God has given us a gift through the married couple.

Then we sing, “Happy Birthday.”  We sing it because we are one body and each of us is a part of it.  We sing it because we really are glad that the people in our church were born and are still around.

But we also sing “Happy Birthday” because we know that in our older congregation we might not get to sing it next year.  At least one or two will not be around in 365 days and while they are here, we celebrate their presence among us.

We also sing it because even in a day of great technological sophistication, still-births and miscarriages happen.  They are every bit as tragic and heartbreaking as they always have been.  So we sing Happy Birthday because we know that every live birth is a miracle and it is worth celebrating even 86 years after it happened.

So Happy Birthday to you whenever your birthday may be.  I hope you live another year.  I hope you have a congregation that loves you and loves life enough to completely embarrass you.  I hope you love your wife enough to tattle on her birthday to your pastor.  I hope the church choir hits the 3 part harmony perfectly right at the, “Happy Birthday, God Bless You” and I hope your mock surprise and red face are signs of the coming Kingdom!

Happy Birthday to You!

The Stuff Jesus Never Always Did

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I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books.  I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.

Many of them come from the same stock.  A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better.  They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it.  So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus.  Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book.  After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it.  Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”

The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”

One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions.  .  .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.

One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture.  Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested.  That is hardly a trend.

One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody.  .  .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.

One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper.  .  .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.

One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people.  .  .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.

The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.

The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers.  .  .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.

The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches.  Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.

And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you.  .  .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too.  It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.

They all say that Jesus always led by example.  .  .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.

If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath.  .  .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.

Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught.  And those things changed from context to context.

The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.

But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.”  When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.

To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables.  Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard.  .  .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.

Sometimes He says, “come follow me.”  Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.

One time He said, “let the children come.”  Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.

All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices.  Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).

This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.

Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.

And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.

Sometimes that means listening to children.  Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you.  Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors.  Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions.  But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Tale of 2 Cancers

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This is a post in the ongoing series “What’s Pastor Kevin Reading” where I briefly summarize recent books I have read and explain why they are important for Christians (particularly pastors) to read.

I make it a practice to read one book a week.  And while I often fall into the trap of reading 150-200 page tomes on pastoral self help I have tried recently to branch out into popular novels and heftier theological and academic materials.

Over the last two weeks I have read two stories about cancer.  The two have much in common but they come from entirely different perspectives.  The first was John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”  It is fiction (though I use that word hesitantly) and written from a secular, atheistic perspective.  The second was a memoir called “Same Kind of Different As Me” written by Ron Hall and Denver Moore.  It was non fiction and deeply spiritual, bordering on bizarre.

It was not my intention to read 2 books about cancer back to back.  I ran across “The Fault in Our Stars” in a bookstore and flew through it in a day.  A friend of mine recommended I read “Same Kind of Different As Me” the following week.  He was the kind of friend that you feel obligated to read books he recommends so I downloaded it and read it in a week.

John Green’s book is every bit deserving of the hype it has received.  I personally think it is the best thing to happen to Young Adult fiction in years.  Instead of specializing in the stuff of vampires and wizards and dystopian heroins, Joel grounds his narrative in the very real world where death comes without prejudice and there is no victory against it, just the frustrating endurance in suffering by all involved.

As I read the novel a line from another popular TV show echoed in my mind.  In that TV show a decidedly anti-religious person argues to a Fundamentalist Christian, “I will never believe that God gives us cancer to teach us self help lessons.”  That may as well have been the thesis for Green’s novel.  And I could not agree more.

The push in Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity, has been to treat death as something painless and shallow.  A glance at my Facebook wall testifies to a sub culture that believes death can be easy dismissed by pithy cliches and shallow puns.  If you slap a picture of a cat or a flower on them it makes it all the more disgusting.  Green dismisses all of these cliches with his haunting descriptions of two teenagers aging rapidly and dying before their time.

In doing so Green calls Christianity back to our biblical roots where death is not a tool of God, teaching us self help lessons.  Neither is it a nuisance that can be easily ignored.  Death is the enemy.  It is an enemy so severe, destructive and all encompassing that it would only take the death of God on a cross to overcome it.  When we belittle death, we belittle the cross.

Green does not end at the cross but where he left off Ron Hall and Denver Moore picked me up.  I did not realize that “Same Kind of Different As Me” was about cancer until I had read half the book.  I thought it was about a white, upper class, art collector befriending a black, homeless, plantation worker.  But right at the halfway point the art collector’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.  So  I was once again subjected to the raw details of cancer, slow killing the body and the soul.  And I had just stopped crying over “Fault in Our Stars!”

Ron Hall is an evangelical Christian so I was worried that he would fall into the trap of narrating his wife’s death using those pithy cliches we slap over pictures of flowers.  However, he avoided them, choosing to be as honest as could be about how the cancer process exhausted him to the point of depression.

Interestingly the answer to his depression came not in the form of those lousy sentimentalism’s but in the friendship of Denver Moore, the homeless, drug addict.  Their friendship was a true representation of Christlike love.  As they worked together to both build a new homeless mission and create a garden space around Ron’s wife’s tomb, the two men gradually realized the conquering power of the cross.  They chose not to give each other easy advice but endured the suffering together, often times in silence.  It was only through that bond that they were able to continue with some semblance of faith and hope.

It would seem that the answer to death’s destructive ways are found in the cross and the community of true friendship that the cross creates.

Next I am reading a book titled, “Reading for Preaching” which exhorts all of us preachers to read and read often.  I barely need to finish that book because these last two books have convinced me that I must dig deep in the narratives surrounding us, both secular and religious to find the voice of God at work.

Paul’s Lousy Thank You Letter

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In preparing the sermon I wrote about earlier today I turned Paul’s thank you letter in Philippians 4 to a thank you letter from a grandson to his grandmother.  Although the English text gives us lots of “poster perfect” Bible verses for our inspirational calendars, when you read it like the thank you letter it is, you might conclude that Paul is lousy at writing thank you letters.  Below is my creative paraphrase.  Below that is the actual NIV Translation.

Dear Grandma,

I am writing about the Superman action figure you gave me for Christmas.  I rejoice that at last you have shown that you care about me!  I mean, I know you always care but you haven’t had opportunity to show it lately.

Not that I needed the superman action figure.  In fact I was doing just fine without it.  You know me, I can turn any old trinket into a toy.  I have learned to have fun with brand new toys and old paper dolls that you probably played with when you were my age.  In fact I was perfectly happy without the toy.

Nevertheless, it was good for you to give.  After all the giver is more blessed than the receiver.  So you did yourself a favor by giving it to me.  After all, you know last Christmas my other grandparents did not give me barely anything, just some clothes that I outgrew in 6 months.  But you alone are a great giver who has always given wonderful gifts to me.  But don’t misunderstand me, I don’t need any more toys because I have enough all ready but all I want is for you to have the blessing of giving so keep the toys coming.

But I wanted you to know I did indeed receive the Superman and found it to be quite fun and it is a wonderful sign of our great relationship.  I trust that God will give you everything you need.

With much love,

Your Grandson Paul

And now the NIV:

10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.