Worship III

About 20 years ago we heard a lot about “worship wars”,  In other words, whether traditional worship forms and music should be replaced by more “contemporary” types of worship with upbeat “praise music” replacing hymns, bands replacing organs and pastors dressing in Hawaiian shirts and jeans instead of albs or suits.

It was said that non-churched people, also known sometimes as seekers” felt more comfortable in such settings than in traditional churches with their more elaborate settings and music.  “Contemporary” worship was, it was thought, also more appealing to young people.  This was what all the church growth folks pushed and we could see it was working in the American evangelical settings where mega-churches were showing up everywhere.  Chancels were replaced with stages, pews with theater style seats and everything was going to be so cool and new.

The problem with all of that is real worship was too often replaced with entertainment, doctrinally sound hymns with vapid praise songs, and theological depth with something a mile wide and an inch deep.  The focus of way too many services became emotionalism and feelings.  Instead of focusing on God’s self revelation in Christ Jesus, churches began to focus on how to make our lives better in this world.  Instead of preparing us for eternity, people were prepared for dealing with conflict in their daily lives.  Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not unimportant, but the Gospel isn’t about having your best life now, it is about Jesus Christ crucified and risen so that our sins are forgiven and we can have eternal life in presence of God Himself .

One of the country’s first megachurches publicly admitted a year or so ago that they did not do a good job keeping people, they could get them in the door, but once the people had been there for a while, they left because the church never moved from milk to meat in its teachings.

It is God’s desire that His people gather together.  But it is also His desire that people grow in the knowledge  of the Truth revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.  Anything that promotes greater understanding of the Truth of the Gospel is good, but anything that fails to do that should be tossed in the trash bin as the flawed idea that it is.

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Worship II

I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!)  Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us.  Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.

First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace.  The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments.  There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace.  For example, confession is not a means of grace.  The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law.  Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication.  Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.

We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us.  His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture.  And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship.  While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding.  The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith.  And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)

The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect.  “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)   “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)  The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly.  Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit.  It does not save those who are not elect.  In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith.  That is why Communion is  only for the baptized.

So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened.  There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.

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.

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.