The Liturgy of My Local Gym


Last summer I bought a membership at my local gym and began running on its treadmills for a half hour 3 or 4 times a week.  When the school year began I terminated it but this summer I renewed it and have spent another 12 weeks making regular trips to the treadmills.

As I have spent my time in purgatory, watching the calorie tracker tick up and the clock tick endlessly down, I have thought a lot about the works of James K.A. Smith, my friend Brent Peterson and others which have helped me see the hidden liturgies around me, that is those sacraments and rituals that form and shape us in invisible ways.  The culture of my local gym has provided a fitting case study.  As I have sought to distract myself from the anguish of running in place, I have studied the surroundings and wondered about how my local gym has a liturgy that subconsciously forms and shapes us for better or worse.

To be sure there is a definite liturgy to any gym.  There is a sacrament of initiation with a catechism.  That happens the moment you sit down with a trainer and begin filling out all their forms while they quiz you about your “fitness needs” and explain to you the basics of exercise.

My gym also has sacred texts, those blackboards scattered around that tell people what workouts to perform and rules to follow to live into the good life.

As for the good life, my gym shows us icons of it.  Those are the pictures hanging everywhere of the saints who have come before.  In those pictures the saints who have submitted to the liturgy of the gym are flexing their many muscles, showcasing their toned physiques while wearing very little clothes and holding trophies.  Those pictures seem to say, “if you follow our rituals and submit to our sacred texts, you too can wear little clothes, have great muscles and earn many trophies!”

There also is sacred music playing over the loud speakers, those high energy rock songs which feed our desires to run faster, lift harder and become better toned.  Without those songs we may not achieve “the good life.”

The sacraments are not hard to note.  Those are the weights, the machines and the bars and the actions we perform with them.  They are a sign of the reality and they also participate in that reality.

Initially, the purpose of noting all of these things as I ran on that interminable treadmill was somewhat critical.  Surely this liturgies and the sacraments of the local gym were forming and shaping us away from Christ.  By working out there we were becoming less like Christ and not more.

As evidence of this I noted that despite the rock songs and the sound of the machines, there was an eerie silence in the gym.  In my gym, those exercising don’t talk to anyone.  This very morning, the sacred rock songs turned off and I discovered there was no noise at all.  I looked around and realized nobody was socializing.  Instead everybody had headphones in their ears and a screen in front of their faces.  That’s when I realized that in the church of the gym we are expected to pursue the good life individualistically, in a way that says, “You pursue your fit body in your way.  I’ll pursue mine in my way and never will we compare notes.”  I am proud to say that is not the case in my local church congregation.  Surely we are better then the gym in that one instance.

But then I took a second glance and I noticed that my gym is incredibly diverse in every way there is to be diverse.

All colors of skin are represented and that almost equally.  This is probably not true of all gyms but at the very least my gym is an actual representation of the demographics of my community.

So also, those at my local gym have diverse body shapes.  Despite those icons of the muscular life, people of all shapes and sizes gather there and feel welcomed.  Today I did pull ups next to a man who was borderline obese.  He almost dropped his weights on a girl skinnier than a stick!  And all felt welcomed.

There isn’t a dress code either.  While most people wear some form of “workout” clothes, those clothes differ drastically and every time I go, I find someone working out in jeans.  It probably isn’t wise but they aren’t judged, at least not that I’ve seen.

My gym also breaks down class barriers.  The subscriptions are quite cheap so anybody can afford it.  The aforementioned lack of dress code makes it hard to tell if someone is living in a mansion or a single wide trailer and I don’t think anybody cares.

There isn’t an age limit either.  Every time I go there are many people much older than me.  They are not pursuing “the buff life” but trying to stay fit with what years they have left.  At the end of the age spectrum, my gym has an excellent children’s ministry which is most of the reason I go.  Children are welcomed and nurtured so their parent’s can attend to their exercises and many parents can be seen instructing their children on the how to workout and the virtues of it.

So, I began this project with the goal of explaining how my gym is worse than church but now I am wondering if my gym is a better reflection of the kingdom of God than most Christian congregations…

And that means we pastors may have some work to do.



Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small


Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

Why Lent, Why Fast Part 4: Feast Days!


Very early on in Christianity the new believers began meeting every Saturday night or Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  They thought the Resurrection was such a world changing event, they celebrated its anniversary every single week.  Contrary to popular belief, they did not believe Jesus created a new Sabbath on Sundays.  They just were so appreciative of the reality of the resurrection, a resurrection that guarantees our own resurrections, that they threw a dinner party for it once a week and invited anybody who wanted to come join them!

For that reason, when they eventually began the season of Lent, they allowed those fasting to break their fasts on Sundays, a practice which continues to today.  The thinking was that if Lent is suffering with Christ, we should not suffer on the weekly anniversary of the Resurrection.

With that said, I have never celebrated the feast days until this year.  I figured the practice was a little trite and some part of me felt guilty for breaking my fast for the Feast days.  I am not sure what changed in me but this year I decided I should celebrate the Feast days just to see what happened.  Spoiler alert: I found the practice quite meaningful.

Not only did the feast days better accentuate Sundays as the miniature celebrate of Easter that they are, but it also made the weekly fasting more meaningful.

The very first Sunday of Lent, I had just finished my very painful detox of caffeine.  I was so miserable at that point, that the very thought of giving my body that which it had been craving, only to take it away again seemed cruel.  And if I hadn’t decided to celebrate the feast days before that moment, I would have gone without coffee that day and probably all 45 days of Lent.

But I always do what I set out do, so that first Sunday I brewed some coffee.  After pouring it into my mug, I took a moment to smell the glorious aroma.  I then sipped, very slowly and very cautiously the bold, black substance on my walk to church.  The very next day I was suffering with Jesus again with headaches, chills, spasms and lethargy.

Now it has been five weeks and the preoccupation with caffeine is almost entirely out of my body, if not yet out of my soul.  I am not lethargic.  I am not shaky.  I feel just as energized as I did with coffee and I certainly don’t get any withdrawal symptoms on Mondays.  But Sundays certainly have a new enthusiasm and energy as the caffeine provides double the energy it formerly did!

But the feast days have not been about the renewed energy.  They have been about that first smell of coffee, that wonderful aroma drifting up into my nose.  Smell, after all, is the least appreciated sense.  I heard once that aromas are locked into our memories long after sounds and tastes and sights are gone.  The very waft of a smell can bring back a flood of nostalgia or hatred.  A smell can alter our mood quicker than any of the other senses can.  And on the weekdays without coffee, I miss the smell the most.  So on Sundays when I first hover over the mug, the smell reminds me that as dour and dark as this world may be, there is a newer, brighter day coming when our bodies shall be raised from the dead.  Those who are dead in Christ shall be made alive!  We are new creations!  Jesus is making all things new!  I long for Easter that much more and for the better world that Jesus’ second return will bring.

This morning I talked to my congregation about the necessity of not losing hope.  I argued that when we lose hope we crucify Jesus all over again.  When we escape our strongholds of hope, we become enslaved again by fear and rage and death.

And sometimes all we need to remain in the safety of hope is the smell of dark coffee on a Sunday morning.

Tune back tomorrow for some Holy Week reflections.

An Open Letter to Pastors, Worship Leader, Sunday Teachers and Other Leaders About Worship


Dear You Who Is Leading Your Congregation in Worship:

You could be a pastor who is just starting out in ministry.  Your nerves could be causing an epic amount of stress that is taking years off your life.

You could be a song leader who has been serving the church for years in this capacity.  Your Sunday morning routine has been established long ago and now you go through the motions every Sunday in a sort of rote fashion that betrays your underlying passion for music.

You could be that Sunday School teacher who has been running your children’s ministry for decades.  You love the kids dearly and to you, those kids are your worship, though you long for a few months break every now and then.  (Seriously, just go ahead and ask for it.)

Or you could be that poor sap that just started going to church and accidentally let someone know that you played the drums in a garage band in high school.  Yep, that was a mistake because next Sunday you are going to be drumming on that platform!

Or you could be an usher, a counter, a Scripture reader.

Whoever you are, I want you to know you have an incredibly important role each Sunday.  I believe wholeheartedly that worship is the most important thing Christians do.  When we do it well we preside over the ministry of reconciliation, drawing people closer to each other and to God.  When we do it well, sins are forgiven and not just by God but by us.  When we do it well we go out into a world to serve the least and lonely and poor and orphans and widows alongside our Creator.  When we do it well we begin to see God at work in all parts of creation!

And when we do it bad.  .  .well, we bring ourselves under the wrath of God.  We eat and drink and sing judgment upon ourselves.

For this reason, every Sunday morning I have my own routine.  I have developed it over the last few years and it serves me well.  I try to wake up before my children so that my peaceful house feeds my peaceful spirit.  I walk to church while listening to the sounds of nature.  They are the voice of our Lord inviting me into worship.  When I get to the very edge of my church property, I stop.  I look at the building and spend time breathing in and out.  I do not move until I hear God wooing me into worship.  I do not move until I step onto the property with a spirit of gratefulness and anticipation.  I am grateful that God is calling me to worship and even chosen me, the least of these, to lead it and I anticipate that God will change hearts and lives.

When I get to the front door, I pray a prayer that goes something like this:

Heavenly father as I open the doors of your church may you draw through them those who need your love, mercy and grace.  Upon entering, may they find fellowship, grace, power and love and after having found, may they depart through these doors having everything they need to do your good work in the world.  Amen.

When I start turning lights on I pray a prayer that goes something like this:

As I light up your church, may you enlighten us.  May you correct us, instruct us, equip us and pour your Spirit out upon us.

Then I sit in my office, light and candle and read Scripture or devotional material until the first congregants show up.

I am not saying this to brag but to confess, because all that participation, prayer and correcting my spirit is not enough.  It is too quickly undone when the first angry congregant shows up and chews me out because the carpet wasn’t vacuumed or because a light bulb was left on or because there was a typo in the bulletin or because someone else is late or any number of things they perceive have all ready gone wrong an hour before Sunday School begins.  Seriously, God is not so weak that a typo in the bulletin or some crumbs on the carpet will derail your whole Sunday service!  They seem to believe so though.

With a few exceptions I have always tried to answer politely but inwardly my spirit of anticipation and gratitude is gone.  It has been replaced by an angry frustration that people care more about carpet and light bulbs and bulletins than they do about worship and prayer.

That is my fault because I didn’t pray enough.  I shouldn’t start praying for worship on Sunday mornings.  I should start on Saturday nights like many of my other colleagues do.  Actually I should start praying for next Sunday on this Sunday’s afternoon.  And I should be inviting more people to join me in prayer.

Therefore, can I invite all of you who are leaders on Sundays to join me in prayer?  You don’t have to walk to church but can I ask you to turn the music in your car off on Sunday mornings?  Even if it is so called “Christian music” it is a poor substitution for the things God speaks in silence.  Can I invite you to not enter your church’s building or worship space before you are grateful to God for bringing you to worship and excited for how God is going to move that day?  As you enter the building, can I implore you to pray that God would draw people through those doors and into God’s presence?  Instead of fixating on the tedious can I beg you to fixate on your fellow worshipers, whose hurts, needs and desires are far more important than anything else going on that day?

Maybe you can start small and try only one of those things this Sunday.  Or if that is asking too much, can I instead just ask you to leave your fellow worshipers alone about all those dumb crumbs and light bulbs and bulletins?  Our worship time is so incredibly important for those things to get in the way.

And if I can borrow from the words of Red Green, “I’m pulling for you.  We are all in this together.”

Booming to Save the Boomers


This is the 3rd post in a series on my attempts as a Millenial pastor to engage the different age groups in my community.  On Monday I wrote an introduction to the series.  Yesterday I talked about my difficulties with The Silent Generation.  I argued that the younger clergy should be grieving with them and as I have met them in their grief I have been able to pull some of them to hope as they spend their last days in this tumultuous world.

That has been hard but not impossible.  Compassion, after all, is a biblical mandate and one I feel us younger folks have in high measure.  With that said, my real struggle is relating to Baby Boomers (my parent’s generation).

They were named the Baby Boomers because of the high birth rate during the 1940s and 50s.  However, “boomer” might also define their predilection towards everything noisy, glitzy, glamorous and showy.  A big production, whether a concert, a reality TV show, an action movie or a Promise Keeper’s Revival trumps all else in their minds.

It was this generation that fell in love with Rock And Roll and the crazy concerts that followed.  This generation loved and invented the classic action hero, an unstoppable lone wolf played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson who took down an endless number of bad guys, aliens, robots and monsters in movies like “The Terminator,” “Die Hard,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and the like.

It also took this generation three months of watching Titanic in theaters once a week to realize the movie actually didn’t have a plot.  What it did have was sappy emotionalism between shots of a ship sinking.

But it was also this generation that fell back in love with Jesus.  Before them Jesus was a ticket into heaven.  Christians before the Baby Boomers were much more likely to talk about “God” than “Jesus.”  But the Baby Boomers, particularly the hippies among them, rediscovered Jesus in the 1970s and have led the world back to the gospel stories.  This was an incredible and needed movement in American history.

But no sooner had they fallen back in love with Jesus than the cross became a trademark and Jesus became a product.  Cue the invention of Christian music (and the radio stations that came with), Christian T-shirts, Christian movies, Christian coffee mugs, Christian book stores and, my favorite, Jesus on Facebook.

All of this is bottled and sold in the now classic mega-churches with their business-like church growth models and worship services that resemble rock concerts.

To the Baby Boomers Christianity is a club and Jesus a product to sell.  He is the ultimate Boomer rock star with the ultimate Boomer rock concerts.  He is the Boomer Action Hero that can dodge a million bullets but fire six that magically land in the enemy’s torso.  He is also the fulfillment of all their felt needs.

The Baby Boomers love sappiness.  They are the ones who are currently filling my Facebook feed with horrible and over used cliche sentiments like, “When God Close a Door He Opens 10,000 windows” (add picture of sunlight through 10,000 windows).  They “like” and “follow” Jesus and insist that if you don’t, you are a less than par Christian.  They are quick to forward culture war propaganda and rally behind anybody who is “standing up for Jesus” by re-tweeting or re-posting or re-forwarding whatever out of context Bible verse darts across their screens.

Like their movies, they like their worship services loud with dashes of sentimentalism.  They love perfectly played music and are quick to dismiss an entire service as being “devoid of the Holy Spirit” if there is even one tone deaf note.  My dad calls it a “lack of pastoral leadership.”  I think it is a sign of a great pastor who is willing to put the least and the lowly on the stage.  More on that in a bit.

Their love of glamour redefined the Christmas Pageant and the Easter Plays.  Now we have live camels bringing Jesus in for Palm Sunday.  We have fireworks that go off to announce Baby Jesus’ birth and we actually hammer nails into crosses on Good Friday.  The Baby Boomers love everything that booms.

They are the ones teaching us to be “Spiritual” but not “Religious.”  Religious is a code word for quiet, unassuming, and boring.  In turn, spiritual means loud, crazy, sentimental and booming.

And those are the very things their children, including myself, are rebelling against.

When I hear booming I see superficial.  Clever is manipulative.  Sappy is shallow.  And fireworks at Jesus’ birth betrays the unassuming and secretive nature of the entire passage in Luke 2.

The Baby Boomers replaced pews with chairs.  We are replacing chairs with tables.  They replaced hymns with electric guitars.  We are unplugging the guitars and going acoustic.  They rejected the hymns.  We are bringing the good hymns back but adding a lot more mellow to them.

My Power-points have a dash of clever but that cleverness is more ironic than glitzy.  Instead of a clever background image with three points, I go for black ink on white backdrop with words flying in from everywhere because the clever backdrops take away from the text I want you to see.  Most of the time, I drop text all together and just put funny pictures up there to illustrate what I am saying.  If the pictures are not funny I will make fun of them with a quip like, “That is an actual Polaroid of Jesus’ baptism!”

Beyond worship, many in my age group have abandoned the language of “caring for felt needs” and replaced it with “suffering faithfulness.”  Instead of a Jesus we can trademark, bottle and sell, we preach a Jesus who is fully human and fully God who calls us to a follow Him with sacrifice and service.

But do not get me wrong, this is not a “who is right” and “who is wrong” post or even series.  In fact, I have found as I relate to Christian baby boomers, that there is a very real and deep spirituality underlying their cliches.  For example they are just as likely to post calls for prayer for dying friends as they are to post sappy cliches.  An emotion based faith still can be “faith.”

So I have learned to “like” the sappy cliches that fill my Facebook feed. I affirm them when they post stuff I agree with.  I also look for opportunities to be sappy and “needs based” when the text or my experience allows.  I clean up my Powerpoints from time to time to make them more showy and sometimes I will even talk about the God who dries our tears.  I also listen to Christian music here and there and will quote lyrics in my sermons if I find any that are deeper than “God’s Not Dead.”

I use all of these as opportunities to build bridges from their showy, booming trademarked god to the very real God that meets us in whispers on mountaintops, works through the foolish and powerless and goes almost unnoticed while reconciling the whole world.

I have found this tension to be a very delicate tightrope.  After all, this is the generation who will quickly call your entire faith into question if you don’t listen to Christian radio or re-post the latest culture war on your news-feed.  I found they will even call you “Religious but Not Spiritual” if your sermon is about 2 Kings 12 instead of about “God Cares, Concerns and Creates.”  (Acronyms are everything to them because they combine sentiment with clever.)

But I have found a lot of success as I have learned to boom sentimentalism before I whisper the call of God.  I have also found that with all ages and peoples, that as they age into retirement the Boomers are still looking for something real beneath the artificial world they created.

And I believe wholeheartedly in a God who can provide that for them.

Get It Over With Sunday


I regularly remind my congregation that when you do 52 worship services a year, some are just going to stink.  There is no avoiding it nor is there any picking or planning which ones they are going to be.  Some mornings things are just not going to come together.

By all accounts this morning at around 8am, things looked to be going that way.  First of all I was still home at 8am despite my attempts to be at church by that time.  Between 8:00 and 8:10, I walked the mile between my home and the church building, trying to pray.  Instead I found my mind was a jumbled mess of stray thoughts all trying and failing to find a well-organized logic structure to call home.  On top of that, my body was a chaos of sore muscles and achy joints because the last two weeks I have been doing the workouts with my Cross Country team despite being in the worst shape of my life.  Add to that the fatigue and exhaustion of my spirit after a long and stressful week and the result was a Kevin who was not in any frame of mind to be “Pastor Kevin.”  Then it occurred to me that half my worship team was gone, which probably meant half the church was too because we no longer celebrate the “holy” on holy-day weekends but instead we go camping, unless we are unlucky enough to be the Pastor.

At 9:30 I watched the parking lot with eager anticipation, expecting three families to show up with their toddlers to a new preschool class we are launching.  These families all guaranteed me they would be there.  My wife had gotten out of bed early so that my daughter could join them.  The 3 families did not show.  I had woken my wife up an hour earlier than usual so she could play with my temper prone daughter in our nursery for an extra hour.  She did that spouse thing where she knows it isn’t my fault but wants to blame me anyway.  I was apologetic.

That all suddenly became irrelevant because I remembered that my youth leader was not going to be there either.  As if on cue, three teenagers showed up late.  I intercepted them and had a conversation about the “Problem of Evil” in my Sunday School office where I half connected with them and half bored them to death.  That was okay, though, because I fully bored myself to death.

Then people started trickling into church.  I got stuck in the sound booth because we had our usual audio and video problems with which to contend.  Of course, our regular AV person wasn’t there so we had to equip another saint to step in (one of the teens from Sunday School).  As I ironed out those problems, my treasurer had business that needed my input (the writing of my paycheck, which I was all too ready to give back if the Sunday didn’t start looking up) and several well meaning souls reminded me one by one by one by one that the “most important announcement ever” (also known as the community hymn sing) did not make the bulletin.

After fixing the AV and expressing my condolences one by one by one about the announcement not getting its due in our Sacred Bulletin, I met with my tiny worship team.  We prayed and entered the sanctuary and I found myself wondering, “is it noon yet?”

We sang a song, did the greeting time and I got up to give the announcements (giving the hymn sing its due) and to my surprise the sound was not broadcasting very loudly despite being turned up quite loud.

But suddenly I could hear the congregation sing, which was surprising considering we had 30 people.  When we have 60, I regularly do not hear the congregation.  But because of our sound issues I could hear almost everybody’s voice and, man, that was beautiful.

Then I got up to preach.  My sermon looked good on paper but I hated preaching it to half the congregation, particularly on a day when my own well was running dry.  To top it off the PowerPoint automatically advanced the slides every 10 seconds whether I wanted it to or not.

But somewhere between the songs and my sermon, the Sunday stopped being “Get It Over With Sunday” and started being something sacred.  I don’t know if it was hearing the congregation sing or if it was that once I started preaching, I found an untapped vein of Holy Water in my otherwise empty cistern.  Or it could have been that one wonderful congregant who hung on every word of my sermon.  She came down to pray at the altar during the closing songs and I invited the congregation to gather around her to pray for her.  

Needless to say we had a moment as the people of God that won’t soon be forgotten or undone.

Isn’t it amazing that when I am not fully present, God still is.

Overcoming Moral Therapeutic Deism


It should be of no secret to the 5 of you following this blog that I have spent the last few weeks studying, thinking and writing about why we bother with Sunday morning worship services.  It has been a fruitful journey for both my congregation and me (and I hope the 5 of you, including my mom).

One of my guiding presuppositions is that corporate worship results in our sanctification.  I am unashamed about being a Wesleyan-Holiness preacher and only a bit ashamed at my liturgical leanings, especially in such a free church, libertarian setting.  So I have been praying, reading Scripture and thinking about the elements of our worship and how God uses them to sanctify us.

I have sought to be as careful as possible in talking about sanctification.  I have clarified that sanctification is not necessarily for individuals but for the community who is “one body, worshiping one God with one faith.”  I have also defined “sanctification” as Christlikeness, which necessarily means more loving.  I have also reacted quite rigidly against the popular belief that when we sing praises, mobster god hears them and decides not to make us swim with concrete shoes.  But woe to us when we don’t praise Mobster god enough, especially if we do it reluctantly and with no joy and gladness.  I have also opposed the idea that the only thing God is up to in the world is getting people into heaven, because I always oppose that idea.

However, in all this tension another presupposition has been outed.  Somewhere over the past year I have begun to preach and believe that good religion is nothing but a self improvement project.  Certainly I have always clarified that we do not help ourselves but it is God improving us. Despite that I have been too fond of saying the only reason to worship God is so that God can make us nicer, more polite people.

I am very uncomfortable with that movement in my spirit.  It just sounds too much like, “Moral Therapeutic Deism” which is the belief that God is up in heaven working only to make us feel happy and help us become moral people, who maybe tip %16 instead of %15 and hold doors open for the elderly at the grocery store.

I think God does want us to be gracious and selfless and I certainly believe God aids us in that journey.  However, my sermons about worship and sanctification have become too reductionist.  In the spirit of rejecting “mobster god” and “low self esteem god” and “only powerful enough to let some people into heaven god” I had accidentally embraced, “helper god” who wanted nothing else but to “help” us.

This led to great and deep prayer and meditation.  I needed an alternative if I was to reject “helper god” and I eventually found that alternative in the glorious phrase, “mystical communion.”  

If the goal of worship is “mystical communion” this means we don’t get together on Sunday mornings to get help from God in our quests to become a happy, feel good, moralistic, nice guy (just like Jesus!).  Instead, we worship to become one with God.  The goal of worship is indeed sanctification but sanctification is not becoming a nicer person.  It is uniting with God.

God is the Spirit that hovers over the waters of all creation.  It is that same Spirit who at Pentecost was scattered to all the nations.  This means when our hearts align with God’s heart, they beat to the rhythm of all creation.  The goal of worship is unity.  We become one with a God who is reconciling all things to God’s self.  When we worship, we don’t just become a holier-than-thou community who is now able to stand above those less-than-thou sinners.  Instead our genuine worship is about humming along to the rhythm of God which reconciles us to all creation.  When that happens we do become nicer people.  We become a people at peace instead of at war and a people who love instead of hate.  We might even be a people who tip our waiters and waitresses a percent or two more and who patiently hold the door open for the elderly.  But when we speak of sanctification, we speak of nothing less than God reconciling us to all of creation.

It is fitting that I close with those wonderful words attributed to St. Francis of Assissi.  You can listen to them below.  The lyrics are below that.

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices, let us sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beams,
thou silver moon that gently gleams,

O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heaven along,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice,

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day
unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise him, Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
let them his glory also show:

And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care: (R)

And thou, most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
and Christ our Lord the way hath trod:

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, Three in One:

Why It’s Okay to Curse Others in Church


I am spending the week preparing a sermon about why we sing songs when we gather to worship God.  This meant I spent the week falling back in love with the great Hymn book of our faith, the Psalms.

The reason I love the Psalms is because they easily shatter any box we try to put the Scriptures into.  if Scripture is God’s love letter to us, than what do we do with the 6th Psalm, which appears to be a love letter from us to God?

If the Bible is “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth” than what do we do with the 72nd Psalm that seems to consist more in Basic Instructions for God while we live on Earth?

If the Bible is the grand narrative of God’s workings in the world (which admittedly I fall back on) then what do we do with the very 1st Psalm that doesn’t narrate anything but makes a simple and poetic comparison?

If Scripture is just meant to comfort us by God’s presence, why am I not comforted when I read the 120th Psalm which begins happy enough but ends in despair?

And if Scripture reveals to us a God of forgiveness and grace as opposed to a God of rules and laws, why is the 119th Psalm (the longest chapter in Scripture by the way) sing nothing but unashamed praises for God’s commandments?

Yet perhaps the Psalm that stands out the most is the 109th one.  It is what we call a Psalm of Cursing where the writer/singer just doles out curses against his enemies while praying to God.  Here are some of my favorite lines from this piece of art:

8 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand.  (We will taken evil guy over this guy!)

9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

Now I must confess I have been angry at people a time or two in my life and maybe wished they would be fired from their jobs because they were lousy at them.  However, I have never gone so far as to curse their grandparents, parents, spouse, children and grandchildren.  They are singing, “God just do away with the whole lot!”

I used to work at a Rescue Mission and after reading this Psalm in chapel, a homeless man said, “Whoa, that guy is pissed!”  And he is right.  The writer of this song was pissed.

It is made more entertaining by the fact that although one person initially wrote it about one group of people, the ancient Israelites were so spiritually moved by it they decided to get together and sing it in their worship services.  Could you imagine showing up at church one morning to hear your worship leader say, “We are returning to one of the ancient greats today but it will be new to some of you.  It is hymn number 1-0-9.  Once again that is 1-0-9.  We are going to sing out the wonderful words, “Appoint someone evil oh God, appoint an evil man to accuse!”  It kind of sound like a rap song actually!

But here is the thing, this man or men, or maybe even women, were hounding to death the poor and the needy.  A God of compassion does not tolerate injustice towards the poor and needy.  And maybe there is room in our worship services to name and reject and even curse the intolerant, unjust, wicked leaders of our day.

I don’t necessarily think God answers the prayer requests, especially the one ” to make his children wandering beggars.”  In fact, I am very uncomfortable with a God that would answer that request.  But I have no problem with a God who hears us when we pray our curses, who is on the side of the poor and needy and is working to remove from power those who “hound to death the brokenhearted.”

So I think there is room in our worship to be honest about our righteous anger towards those who refuse to be compassionate.  Although I might not go so far as to write songs that curse them, I would leave room for those prayers and even scripted poems in the liturgy of our services.  It seems a Psalm like this one has a role to play in aligning our hearts to beat with God’s compassion.  And compassion has a dark side, which I call “wrath.”  And that wrath is expressed towards those who refuse to show love and care for the least and lonely.

Until His Return.

Preaching the Eucharist in a World At War


I spent the week doing many things, not least of which was preparing a sermon on Communion in my sermon series on “Why We Worship.”

As many of you know evangelical churches seem to be falling back in love with the sacrament after about 70 years of forgetting about it.  I managed to get in early on this trend because I was lucky enough to attend a youth group in high school where my youth pastor celebrated the Eucharist every week.  In fact, I would have liked to preach 6-8 sermons just about Communion but my preaching calendar prevented me.

So I have to try to scratch the surface in one sermon.  But what do you say in one sermon that summarizes the 2,000 year tradition of eating bread and drinking wine together?  This has been my question and my problem.  I started with John 6 where Jesus says, “unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no part in me and I have no part in you.”  This verse leads to the wonderful sentiment expressed by many lately that when we partake of the Eucharist we don’t just recall Jesus’ death but we are “re-membered” into Christ’s body, meaning we become members of Jesus’ body again.

One of the central acts of the Eucharist is the breaking of bread to remind us that the body we are membered into is a broken one.  I absolutely love how vague Paul is when he recounts the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.  Paul says that Jesus took the bread, broke it and said, “do this in remembrance of me.”  Does “do this” mean “eat this.”  Or does it refer to “break” so that Paul meant, “Break in remembrance of me?”

If it is “break in remembrance,” then maybe when we eat the broken body we become a broken body.  The Eucharist does not stop there.  We go one step further and drink spilled blood.  The blood and water that poured out of Jesus’ side are contained for us in the Eucharist goblet of wine.  This reminds us that the solution to the world’s suffering might not be in taking the blood of others but by shedding our own.

And in a world saturated with conflict, especially over the last few months in places like Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and now Ferguson, MO, it might be important for the church to be re-membered into Christ’s broken body.  Many in our culture currently seek to label the good guys and the bad guys in any given conflict, then encourage us to exercise violence accordingly.  When we listen to them, we find ourselves looking for the good lions who will rush onto the scene and destroy all the bad guys in paw’s reach.  We cry out, “Who will break their bones and take their blood?”  In our prayers we ask God to send down those lions.  And we are not surprised when many hurt and broken people volunteer, excited they finally get to execute “swift justice.”  Then we are surprised when the media puts them under a fine microscope and shows us they are no conquering heroes, but very flawed individuals whose pursuit of “swift justice” destroyed what they were trying to protect.

In such a world, in such a time, the Eucharist reminds us that to save the world, God didn’t come as a lion but as a lambe.  God’s body was broken and the blood shed and that begins the process of making things right.

When I finger those small pieces of unleavened wafer in my hands on Sunday mornings, I find myself asking the question a popular worship songs asks, “Who could have thought a lamb could rescue the souls of men?”  Who would have thought that a broken body and shed blood saves the world?  Then when I eat and drink, I become re-membered into that body, a broken body that refuses to break other’s bodies (even the most vile) and all in the hope of resurrection to come.