The Ways We Worship

I’m preparing a few lessons for the adult Sunday School class on Lutheran worship–why we do it the way we do.  Now I’m perfectly aware that not all Lutherans organize their worship lives in the same way, and that’s generally okay with me.  But there are some things that I think must not be left out if our worship is to accomplish its principle goals.

Before we discuss the “ingredients” of proper worship we should probably say why we gather for worship at all.  Couldn’t we just be independent Christians happily reading our Bibles and meeting occasionally with friends to pray?  Well, the writer of Hebrews seemed not to believe that to be a good idea because he tells us we are not to cease to meet together as some have done. (10:25)  So Biblically  speaking, we are to gather with other Christians for worship.

There’s a funny web site called the BabylonBee which spoofs things in the Christian world that need spoofing.  One of the recent posts there referred to the many Bibles in America with heretical handwritten notes in the margins.  That is indeed a reason not to stay away from organized worship–we can err in our understanding if we lack proper teaching.  Satan would love nothing better than to have us all stay home on Sunday and develop heresies in our living rooms.  When I was ordained one of my clergy friends gave me this advice–if you believe you’ve discovered some new Christian truth that has been unknown heretofore–it’s most likely a heresy.  And his advise was quite wise.

In addition to avoiding heresy we also gather for worship because we need to worship.  We don’t worship to please God, we worship in order to be fed with His Word and strengthened in our faith.  The principle service done on Sunday mornings is not our service to God, but His service to His gathered people.  That’s what the Gospel is all about.

The traditional pattern of Lutheran worship makes this quite clear.  We gather before the Lord and confess our sins, after which the pastor assures those who have confessed that, if they are in Christ, their sins are forgiven–not at that moment and not just for what they’ve done in the last week–but forgiven because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary 2000 years ago.  And we say Thanks.

Then God’s Word is read that we might know and understand His saving grace even more.  And we say Thanks.

Then the pastor expounds on that written Word, bring its meaning and purpose to the lives of the gathered people of God.  And again we say Thanks.

Then God provides us with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, truly yet mysteriously present under the elements of bread and wine.  Our faith is strengthened and our hopes fulfilled.  And we say Thanks.

Then finally, at the end of every service we receive a benediction which sends us on our way rejoicing and saying Thanks.

I’ll write more about our worship lives in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to start by saying Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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Looking Back

The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you.  Now there is some wisdom in that statement.  An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future.  And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future.  God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.

Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced.  As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.

That’s been true in my life also.  I was raised in the church and taught its importance.  But then  I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell.  But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway.  Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.

The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday.  There have been times of success and times of failure.  Times of growth and times of decline.  There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving.  The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely.  A lot of things can happen in 191 years.

I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons.  My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith.  We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century.  We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery.  Looking back will teach us something.  It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.

Vacation

We’re leaving on Wednesday for a 2 week vacation.  For 2 weeks I will read books, visit with our daughter and son-in-law, go to a Revolutionary War battlefield, tour a plantation and eat out a lot.  I’m sure I will enjoy myself and I pray I will come back rested and ready to take up ministry with new vigor and enthusiasm.

The idea of taking vacations is relatively new in our world.  I’m pretty sure that my ancestors who came to these shores in 1737 never had one–they were too busy just trying to stay alive.  That’s the way the most people lived for most of history.  Some still live that way.  I think about that and feel sort of lazy for taking time off when there is still work to do.  And then I remember Jesus.

Now we couldn’t say that Jesus took vacations as you and I understand that term, but Scripture does give us more than one instance in which He went off to be alone with His Father in prayer and meditation.  And while the Lord taught His disciples whenever He could, He did take them away on several occasions from the crowds and the ministry they did among them.

Don’t get me wrong–Jesus doesn’t tell me to go take 2 weeks at the beach.  But what He does model for me and for you is the need we all have to put down our tools and rest in the arms of God.  The Lord who made us and shared for a brief time this body we inhabit, understood the importance of rest for anyone who has hard work to do–whether that is physical labor, mental labor, or simply showing love to our neighbors.  Without rest our work will be subpar and it will end early.  The word “burnout” was coined in the 20th century, but it existed long before that.

So I encourage everyone to find a place and a time where you can relax and feel the presence of the Lord anew.  And when He has refreshed you with the living water that will never dry up, then you can be His good and faithful servant.

Filing

I hate filing.  It’s boring and I can always find an excuse for doing something more “important.”  So for quite some time, rather than filing my sermons neatly in appropriate folders I’ve just been dropping them in a drawer, rendering them fairly useless if I want to look up something that I may have already said–or just about anything else for that matter.  So I’ve hired my granddaughter to put my files in order.

This got me thinking about what else I may be failing to keep in order.  Is my spiritual life organized and in the process of deepening?  Are my prayers as full as they ought to be?  Is the rest of my labor at church focused or is it just a hodgepodge like my files were?  Am I being the type of pastor God wants me to be to the people here at St. Paul’s or am I failing to be that which I should be just because I’m too lazy to do what needs doing?

My wife and I are going on vacation next week and I want to spend some time pondering how I can be a better servant, a better pastor, a better subject of the King of kings.

Now I suspect many who read this are just as likely as I am to avoid unpleasant tasks.  No one wants to do boring things and no one, especially, wants to do hard things.  But putting them off just makes more trouble down the road, and there won’t always be someone like my granddaughter to pick up the slack.  So here are a few questions for you to ask yourself this week:

+How go things with your soul?  Is your life a good reflection            of the life of a follower of Jesus?                                                            +What work for God and His people have you been putting              off?                                                                                                                  +Are you simply drifting in your spiritual life, showing up on            Sunday for church but not doing to much else?                              +Are you praying for anything other than your self and your          immediate loved ones?

There are a lot of other questions you could ask, but you get the idea.

Coming Home

Last week my wife and I were at our national conference in Minneapolis.  It was a good conference, a chance to catch up on what is going on in the AFLC at large, and an opportunity to touch base with old friends and make a few new ones.  We drive to the conferences because flying became such a hassle–long lines, TSA searches, 3 inches of leg room–that the time savings isn’t worth it to me anymore.

Unfortunately, driving has its own issues.  We got a flat tire going around Chicago which I managed to keep inflated by stopping frequently on the way to South Bend.  That’s when I had to stop and buy a new tire.

Right now you’re probably asking, So what?  We all have problems every day.  And that is most certainly true.  But sometimes those problems seem to have a cause that isn’t necessarily random acts of irritation–and my flat tire might be one of those.

Sven Oftedal, one of the founders of the Lutheran Free Church wrote that our annual conference is “the great powerhouse of the LFC.”  In other words, the conference is where those who attend get recharged and ready to go for another year.  It does have that effect on me quite often.  So I’m driving back to Maryland thinking about all we could do here at St. Paul’s and the possibilities ahead of us and suddenly those thoughts are driven out of my head by this irritation.  It is possible that Satan did that, for our enemy hates the Church and any thoughts of making it better.  It’s also possible that the problem was satanic in origin but simply another event in life.  I don’t know.

But what I do know is that for a short time, I took my eye off the ball and stuffed all the good things from the conference into the back drawer of my mind and focused on the bad thing in front of me.

I think we do that all the time and it is not good for us.  Yes, of course we have to solve our problems and deal with the irritating things in life.  But too often we let those things take over and create grumpiness.  Too often we lose sight of the big picture and focus on the little smudge in the corner.  It would be far better for us to look at all we have and all we are and all that God is doing around us and save our mental energy for the things of eternal importance.

My wife read something really cool last week as we were driving.  Someone wrote, if you woke up tomorrow and all you had were those things you thanked God for today–what would you have?  Think about that a bit.

Motivation

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? (please don’t say the alarm clock, you know what I mean).  Seriously, why bother to get up and face this world we live in?  Well, I think there are some pretty good reasons.

First, we get up because God exists.  Simple as that sounds, it’s profoundly true.  If God didn’t exist, neither would we.  But for any agnostics out there, if God didn’t exist there would be no reason to get up and go out into a world which would so very often give us pain.  If God didn’t exist, why would we want to go through all the terrible things that happen in our lives, knowing that we were just animated carbon on our way to being inanimate carbon and that ultimately there was no meaning to life?  If I didn’t believe in God I would have killed myself long ago.

Second, we get up because God has given us a new day.  It’s unfortunate that we so seldom recognize that important fact.  God, who holds all existence in the palm of His hand, who wills everything’s existence, has chosen to give us another day here on the 3rd planet from a minor star in a corner of the universe (okay, so the universe doesn’t have corners–you still know what I mean)  We are here today because God wants us to be here.  And with the new day come new opportunities to do the work He prepared for us before the beginning of time.

Third, we get up in the morning because we have sure and certain hope in our future and we have that hope because Jesus Christ died upon the Cross, enduring the punishment we deserve for the sin that clings so stubbornly to us, and He rose from the dead on the 3rd day that death might be forever defeated for His chosen people.

Finally, we get up in the morning because we just might meet someone today who needs to hear the Gospel and that there might be joy in heaven.

Go in peace and serve the Lord.

As One Approved

I am working now to refocus my ministry.  I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry.  Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be.  It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.

There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian.  It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter.  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”

Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16).  And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message.  Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world.  The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go.  Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives.  Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.

Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment.   On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation.  We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will.  We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God.  I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins.  But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.

I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview.  The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things.  Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.

If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world.  Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.