Thursday, July 30, 2009

meditation [disciplines of the inner life]

Listening means being released from willfulness, arrogance, and self-assertiveness. It calls for respectful presence to the mystery we are meditating, for humble openness to its meaning. ...Listening is only possible to the degree that we let go of the grip of our egotistic will and become inwardly and outwardly silent, alert, receptive, attentive. Then we may be able to think clearly or meditate; it becomes possible to reflect on our lives as a whole or on a text we are reading. What we hear sinks from our minds into our hearts. Ideas are not exploited to serve our purposes but to direct us to deeper wisdom, to a revelation of persons, events, and things as they are in themselves. We become the servants rather than the masters of the word. -- From Pathways of Spiritual Living by Susan Annette Muto

During this meditation on, well, meditation I was reminded of a journal entry from several years ago: God wants to form a Grand Canyon in me and all I want to be is a rain gutter.

Who knows what to blame: laziness, self-hatred, Baptists, Capitalism or the Devil, himself. I just have the hardest time letting stuff -- truth, prayer, learnings, love -- sit inside me long enough to erode the walls and dullness and form anything of majestic beauty. I continually look for ways to use these gifts up on something productive or reputable. Or to plan ways to spout them off to someone else. Use up the sense of God's presence for a few minutes of selfish pleasure and then let it trickle through me onto something that costs me nothing. [I'll spare you the other metaphor the Spirit gave me for this behavior while I was studying the reproductive carelessness of the men in Genesis 38:9 years ago. The picture at the top of the post just wouldn't be the same.]

But meditation requires sitting, soaking, eroding, allowing the Spirit of the present God to wash and rumble and wear me down into receptiveness. I find myself in love with the idea of this kind of relationship with the Almighty but very much adverse to the discomfort of it. I keep wanting to pickpocket God's glory; to dab a few drops of Him behind my ears and move on with my life hoping that faint scent of Him will cover up a multitude of my sin and ignorance. If I can manage to impress people at the same time, then even better.

It's worth noting that many of my favorite words, images, and experiences point toward an opposite behavior.
Indeed if we consider the unblushing promise of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. - C.S. Lewis
Earth’s crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God, and only he who sees takes off his shoes, The rest sit around and pluck blackberries. -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
With all this excessive flinging about of quotation and metaphor, I'm probably not making myself clear. I am learning that meditation requires being willing to sit and listen and wait and feel nothing. It is an emptying of myself of myself -- and all the baggage I lug along with me each day -- in order to connect with the present God. And to do this without requiring of Him a quota of warm fuzzies or spiritual truths that He's supposed to dispense like Pez candies. (so much for getting rid of metaphor!)

For me to take this on as a discipline I knew I needed some sort of "trigger", and, yes, this is an acknowledgement of my weakness. I read where Thomas Merton said that embracing my weakness as a beginner is all part of the deal. I live in a part of Endicott that is graced with the sound of churchbell chimes every fifteen minutes of the day. I actually love this village charm but find myself not even noticing it half the time. As a baby-step in the discipline of meditation I asked God to alert me to the sound of the bells on each hour and that, in return, I would take those moments to pause, turn down the volume of my thoughts, breathe deeply and listen. For what, I'm not quite sure, but I think that also is part of the deal -- this emptying out of mental, emotional and physical noise to sit with the present God.

I'd love to tell you that the experiment with the church bells was an overwhelming success; as it happened in reality, I only noticed them a couple of times that entire week. I got frustated quickly because -- if I'm being totally honest -- it just seemed like a lot of work to stop mid-track and do nothing. I thought about counting the bell chimes, praying for someone else, imagining something God wanted me to know. I did make up a simple little prayer that went something like: Thank-You, Father, for this new hour to be alive. So that was kind of cheering. I read about another short prayer that a guy named Diadochus wrote in the fifth century: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. That might also do the trick.

I should also take this opportunity to confess that the very same week I was learning in the discipline of meditation I became addicted to a new word game on Facebook. Providential testing or devilish diversion - who knows? I have a strong suspicion, though. If nothing else stuck, this remembering of God's Word did:

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. To live with Him in His house my whole life long. I'll contemplate His beauty; I'll study at His feet. -- Psalm 27:4 NIV & MSG
I spent almost all of this time on meditation feeling uncertain. Lost. Perhaps that's what empty is supposed to feel like. I am reminded of a song written by Aaron Niequist: I will stay empty, I will keep waiting until You fill me up with You.
While I wait I take comfort in Merton's admonition:

People who try to pray and meditate above their proper level, who are too eager to reach what they believe to be a "high degree" of prayer; get away from the truth and from reality. In observing themselves and trying to convince themselves of their advance, they become imprisoned in themselves. Then when they realize that grace has left them, they are caught in their own emptiness and futility and remain helpless. Acedia (sloth, or apathy in spirit) follows the enthusiasm of pride and spiritual vanity. A long course in humility and compunction is the remedy! We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners. -- From Contemplative Prayer
May this truth wear down and form running, living waters in the canyons and crevices of me.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hill Family Vacation 2009 - highlights!

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow: Hill Family Vacation '09

For thirty-eight years I have relished the few days of summer carved out to be with my family. Away from the normal spaces and tasks of life. We have shacked up in a variety of lodgings (most of them cheap...except for the few years some of us were making money) and whittled away the daily hours with all sorts of activities. There are, however, a few constants: a body of water (everything from the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Lawrence River to Stump Pond), a cornucopia of food (everything from steak and shrimp to hot dogs over the fire and, always, a macaroni salad), and hours upon hours of togetherness (thirty-eight years ago it was just me and my parents and now there are nineteen of us!)
At times, I think we have been guilty of idolizing this togetherness. Propping it up as a cardboard cut-out of giddy glee over top of hidden shame and dysfunction. I'm sure that in the next thirty-eight years that will occasionally be true again. For myself, I feel like I am in one of the healthiest places ever to genuinely enjoy this annual festival of our family --without hanging out at one or the other extreme of idolizing or despising.
That does not mean the temptation no longer exists. Even feel like a Jekyll and Hyde tug-of-war several times a day during the time that we are together. Happily, I find myself now more able to be present in the moment, aware of what I am feeling and why and free to enjoy the time as a whole person standing tall in the secure love of a perfect Father.
This togetherness marks us and marks our years. We remember vacations as the year Tami was eight months pregnant with Andrew or the year Ryan had to work in Virginia and couldn't join us or the year Wes' back was out and he had to lay on the floor most of the time. The very act of planning our times together marks our personal and family histories: do our activities accommodate the very pregnant? how can we afford a beach house when three of us have been out of work this year? what date will we pick that fits around the ebb and flow of work and travel and college schedules?
When we were little we planned our days around each other's soccer games and shower preferences. Now we discover we still have more to learn about compromise and selflessness. Coordinating the group to value three generations of individuals is a task of large proportions. Also a great joy.
If someone were to ask me, I'd say that we still have a ways to go in this learning of family as a whole and as individuals. As a divine excuse to huddle in together outside the world and harsh reality. As a place to know and be known. As a place to honor and respect. Also laugh out loud at ourselves. Even if this glorious celebration of family each summer winds down to a beautiful meal under a picnic pavilion playing horseshoes, looking at aging photo albums and eating macaroni salad I hope it takes us at least another thirty-eight years to figure out what family means.
Father, please let the Hill family vacation always reflect lives soaked in prayer and centered in Jesus. Let us always keep in mind that we are flawed and allow us to laugh often and easily at ourselves and any creeping pretensions of "holiness." Please help us to trust always in letting ourselves be loved by God as more important than loving God in some kind of mechanical way. Please help our family to never distort the face of a beautiful God. (adapted from a prayer written by Brennan Manning)
This year was the year that...
  • Lincoln learned to wave and say "hi" each time a new car drove into the campsite
  • Griffin had to wear six band-aids on his toes after cutting them on the pool cement
  • Macia and Ryan missed the first night because they were celebrating their one-year-anniversary-of-dating
  • Dad and Mom had their new tent on the back of Dad's pickup truck
  • The Philly Hills had just come back from their first trip to Disney World
  • Alicia had to leave a day early to teach summer school
  • Natalie slept under the bed of the camper during the thunderstorm. And Macia and Kendra slept in the Murphy's Tahoe.
  • Kaley (aka Cha-Ching on a Shoe String) found us amazing $20 off coupons for $2 at Ithaca's Simeons.
  • Uncle Brian spent hours driving the boat for us to tube and ski and swim in the lake.
  • Wes got a call on Sunday afternoon that he had been accepted as the new youth pastor in Souderton. (and we toasted with wine that Alicia brought for the occasion)
  • Alicia included FIVE Michael Jackson songs, TWO Highschool Musical songs, TWO Huey Lewis songs and ONE Jonas Brothers song on Travel Tunes 2009!!! (as well as far too many country tunes according to her nephews)

    (as in, remember the year Brian turned up his car stereo and a bunch of us did Thriller in that parking lot in Ithaca??)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 4 of 8]: Opening of Worship and Service of Renewal in Grace

The Opening of Worship

*Note: this lesson is taken from the resources found and with the permission of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship*

Scripture: Psalm 95 and Acts 2:42-47


It's really quite an amazing thing when worshipers gather. They come from a wide variety of locations and experiences when they come into the place of worship. They do this in various ways. Some may wander in quite at random. Some are ushered to their usual pew. In some congregations the worshipers gather around a coffee pot in the fellowship area and noisily catch up on the events of the week until they are called in. In still others the gathering takes the form of clergy and choir solemnly processing down the aisle to their respective places.

Stop and take an intentional look at how your congregation gathers.

Those who gather are usually quite a mix. While most congregations are of similar background and culture, it's also true that every congregation has a mix of diversity. People who are strangers are sitting next to each other. We all see a number of other people we probably would not choose to be with in any other setting. Tom Long (in Testimony) says that worship trains us to have a "sort of double vision about other people, to see people, including ourselves, as flawed and broken but also as created, chosen, and beloved by God" (p.45).

As you reflect on Psalm 95, notice the direction in which these exhortations move. We are called into the presence of God. We are exhorted to come with joy, thanksgiving, music and song. We affirm that he is the "great God," our maker and our shepherd. We can expect to be welcomed into his presence because we are the "flock under his care." What a rich spirit in which to begin worship!

The glimpse we receive into the New Testament church in Acts 2 illustrates their practice of what Psalm 95 presented. With awe and faith they came into the presence of God, eager to hear him speak, to speak to him in return, and to enjoy fellowship with each other. The results were seen in deepened commitments to obedience and in warm welcomes to all who came to faith.

Formative Convictions

Basic convictions should always shape our actions. The following beliefs help form our worship practices, and we should intentionally affirm them.

1. The purpose of worship. The opening of worship should clearly establish worship's purpose. The opening actions should make clear that we are here to listen to God and respond in faith.

2. God's identity. God is Trinity, and we worship him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In order to do justice to the way in which God has revealed himself, none of the three should be eclipsed by another. We come to worship all three.

3. Our identity. We gather as the image-bearing creatures of God who bring him honor, but also as the redeemed children of God who bring him our love and needs. We can expect that he is eager to meet us and will respond to us with his gracious blessing.

4. God's gathering act. As worship begins it is vitally important that we are made conscious that we have not gathered ourselves, nor have we as leaders done the gathering. God has gathered us. Worship is not first of all a human activity, but a divine activity. This God-action (the vertical dimension) must be made clear at the beginning of worship.

5. Standard actions. As worship opens nearly all worshipers need certain familiar and standard actions on a weekly basis to reinforce the above convictions. With familiar acts of entrance each week, worshipers will find security and strength in entering the presence of God.

Opening Acts of Worship

Depending on the style of worship and the culture of the congregation, the acts of worship will be quite different from one congregation to another. However, variations in style should always be consistent with the essence of worship and the assumptions mentioned above. Five ingredients usually are necessary for a healthy opening of Christian worship.

1. Prelude/Gathering Music. While it may have different titles, may be with different instruments, and may be played, sung or a combination of both, music is an excellent aid to assist worshipers in making the transition from their daily lives into the worshipful presence of God. The purpose of gathering music is to aid the mind and heart of the worshiper to center into the presence of God, leaving behind distractions and freely bringing along all her/his needs into the welcoming presence of God. Usually a time of centering on God before beginning to sing can be very effective so an instrumental prelude is helpful.

2. The Welcome and Call to Worship. Words that are spoken at the opening of worship are very influential words and should be chosen very carefully. Often the opening words will establish whether the horizontal or the vertical direction of worship is primary. Both are important. Horizontal references make it clear that all are welcomed. They extend a spirit of hospitality regardless of our diversity and give opportunity to welcome strangers and visitors. However, the horizontal is secondary to the vertical. God is the one who welcomes us into his presence. Since worship is at God's gracious invitation, we do well to make sure that the opening words express God's call and welcome to us as even more important than our welcome to each other. This may be expressed in spoken words crafted by the worship leader, Biblical words that are read, or sung words by a choir or the congregation. Often, a physical gesture by the worship leader can enhance this welcome and call.

3. The Greeting. Since we are called to worship first and foremost by God himself, it is appropriate that the primary greeting in worship comes from God expressed through Scriptural words. God's greeting is, after all, even more important than our greeting of one another. In some traditions this was called "The Salutation" and was formulated according to the words of Scripture. The words of greeting found in the opening verses of many New Testament epistles are useful. Posture and gestures can be very expressive. The worship leader may raise a hand in blessing, and worshipers may extend hands to receive it. Some prefer to bow heads with closed eyes to receive it; others prefer to receive it with head lifted and eyes open. It is often meaningful for worshipers to respond with "Amen" or "Thanks be to God" as an act of grateful receipt.

4. Adoration and Praise. Music and congregational song play a large part in the opening of worship. Worshipers enter the presence of God with hearty expressions of their praise, adoration, and awe before God. These expressions may be rich and deep, very reflective, or strong and exuberant. In this action worshipers not only affirm their adoration of the triune God but reject all other "gods" who have clamored for their attention all week. Many Christian songs and hymns of adoration are careful to give praise to God as triune. When you select songs for opening, be careful to look for references to the triune nature of God.

5. Opening Prayer. Sometimes called the Invocation, these words consist of a plea, arising out of both need and faith that God will work powerfully among us during the time of worship. We need not ask that he will be present, for he always is. But we expectantly plead that his work, through the Holy Spirit, will be powerful for all who are present. This invocation may be expressed in a spoken prayer, or it may take the form of a sung prayer by worshipers.

Questions for Discussion

1. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" come through most clearly in our worship services? What aids that?

2. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" do not seem very clear to our congregation? How can we improve that?

3. Try to imagine that you are a visitor to your congregation. Picture yourself arriving for the first time and watch how your congregation gathers. What do you notice? What seems helpful and positive? What might be confusing? How can you make the time of gathering more hospitable? How can you make the time of gathering more clearly illustrate the “Formative Assumptions”?

4. Review and discuss the five "Opening Acts of Worship" cited above. Be sure that all are clear on what is meant by each one. Then review the printed sheets from recent worship services. Ask yourselves questions such as:
a. Which of these are obviously present here?
b. Which are not present?
c. Which are particularly healthy and helpful to all?
d. Where could we improve our opening of worship?
e. How and by whom should that be implemented?

The Service of Renewal in Grace

Scripture: Psalm 32:1-11 and 1 John 1:8-10


Vital worship, like a healthy marriage, requires honesty and openness in order to thrive. God longs for our honesty before him. We are deeply in need of his renewing pardon.

And so, the second step in our worship journey with God is a time in which we confess our sins, and God answers our confessions with the assurance of his pardon. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm the necessity of confession and assurance. In Psalm 32, David extols the happiness that a forgiven person can experience. However, he explains from his own experience how easy it is to delude ourselves, hide our sins and refuse to make confession. Such delusions cut us off from the rich experience of knowing God's forgiveness. Similarly, the apostle John explains that we live in self-deceit when we refuse to admit we have anything to confess. However, we may trust that God is faithful and righteous and more eager to forgive our sins than we are to confess them. The corporate conversation of God with his people, which we call worship, should include this part of the conversation early in the service.

It is in the Service of Confession and Renewal that the good news of pardon through the finished work of Jesus Christ comes through so personally and pastorally. This part of the worship service should not be seen as a negative element, but a time to prepare us for receiving the Gospel with all its assurance.

However, we have observed two challenges that we must consider in dealing with this step in our worship. First, our culture has lost its awareness of sin and guilt. Ever since the fall in Genesis 3, sinning and guilt have been a part of life. The Bible makes it clear there is no peace and happiness without confession and forgiveness. Yet, both in the world and in the church our awareness of this seems thin. With the loss of our awareness of sin comes the tendency to omit confession in our liturgies.

The second challenge is the embarrassment that many Protestant churches seem to feel about the confession of sin in a worship service. Some are afraid that speaking of anything but grace will turn seekers away.

Vital and healthy worship will require that planners carefully assess whether they have adequately dealt with these two challenges.

Good Reasons for Confessing

There are very good reasons for retaining the Service of Confession and Renewal in worship liturgies.

1. Theologically, when we worship, we come before the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is holy and pure. Yet we are sinful. We can either be

  • self-deluding and refuse to acknowledge this,

  • intentionally dishonest in that we know this but deny it,

  • try to ignore it and assume it won't influence our relationship, or

  • make honest confessions and receive the assurance of his gracious pardon that has been made available through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

The basic teaching of the gospel is that only those who make confession of their sin receive the pardon of God's grace. Consider Psalm 32, 51, 1 John 1:9, 2:1 and other passages. Repentance precedes justification!

2. Pastorally, both in Scripture and in observed behavior today personal health is directly related to our ability to make confession of our failures, own our culpability, and receive cleansing. As we plan and lead worship, we ought to remember that many worshipers are dealing with a crippling sense of failure in their moral life, family life, marriages and business. Though most have never been free to admit this to others, the burden within them eats away in the same way that David experienced in Psalm 32. For all of these, the greatest cleansing and healing will come with clearly pronounced words of assurance of pardon after honest confession. These acts can make the worship liturgy richly pastoral! True, it is not pleasant to make confession of our sin. But, as Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. observes, "The problem is that sin is like garbage. You don't want to let it build up. Confessing sin is like taking out the garbage. You want to do it regularly because taking out the garbage is an extremely healthy thing to do" (Beyond Doubt, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p.54).

In both of these considerations, let it be clear that we do not make our confessions in fear that perhaps God will hold these sins against us. We make them confidently as those who are standing on friendly ground, in the presence of a gracious God, who has provided the atonement in Christ, and is eagerly waiting to speak to us of his pardon! So we confess knowing that pardon has already been extended!

Elements in the Service of Renewal

It is wise that the service of renewal be similar in structure each week, for its sameness will speak to the confessing worshiper of security and safety. Yet, freshness and variation in the words and music that are used will retain its vitality. It is also wise to alternate the elements expressed in words and those in music. For instance, if the call to confession is sung, let the prayer be verbal, and vice versa. Normally the structure will involve elements like these:

  1. The Call to Confession is brief words, either from the presider or Scripture or a song, which bid us to confess.

  2. The Prayer of Confession will take different forms. It may be spoken by the presider, printed and read by all in unison, sung by the congregation, a time of silence for personal confession, and/or a responsorial with the "Kyrie" or some similar historic sung prayer

  3. The Assurance of Pardon is a recitation of promises directly from Scripture on the basis of which the assurance of pardon can be given to the confessors, normally by the ordained pastor.

  4. A Response of Praise and Thanks allows worshipers to pass the peace to one another and/or sing of their thanksgiving

  5. A Commitment to Grateful Living gives those who are assured of God's pardon the opportunity to hear God's call to live grateful lives. This will likely include the reading of God's law or some other passage that calls us to obedience.
    Perhaps it is helpful for us to clarify the uses of the Law of God (from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5). In some congregations it has been customary to read the Ten Commandments before making confession of sins. The questions should be raised about the purpose of the Ten Commandments. Historically, we have held that there are three possible functions of the Ten Commandments: (1) a civil function in which it aims to restrain sin in society and make civil society possible,(2) a teacher of sin, and (3) a teacher of the life of gratitude.

If we view the law in the second function, it can be used as a call to confession. If we view it in the third function, it serves as a guide for us to know how to live out our gratitude for God's pardon. Those who are familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will note that the study of the Ten Commandments shows up in the third section of the Catechism, the section describing how we are to thank God for our deliverance. (See Lord's Days 42-44).

Questions for Discussion

1. Do you have a Service of Confession and Renewal regularly, occasionally, or seldom? Discuss the reasons for your practice and how your practice developed.

2. Discuss the reasons that some give for not including the confession of sin in worship ("it makes worship negative…we've heard too much about sin in the past…it will turn seekers away"). Share your insights about such matters for your congregation.

3. Is the Service of Confession and Renewal pastorally helpful in your worship? Do you think those who come with a burden of guilt will actually find release from it? How does that happen?

4. Evaluate the variations that are incorporated in your worship from week to week. Are they adequate? What other suggestions would you make? Put your suggestions together in a list as a help to your worship planners.
a. Is the Call to Confession varied each week?
b. Do the prayers of confession invite us in to make them our own?
c. Does the Assurance of Pardon present the gospel promises clearly and joyfully?
d. What other suggestions do you have for our response of praise and thanks?
e. How can we more clearly hear God's call to grateful living?

5. Does your worship include the Passing of the Peace? If so, is it done meaningfully? How could that be improved? If you do not include it now, should you consider doing so? And where should it be placed in the liturgy? What is the difference between “Passing the Peace” and saying "Good Morning" to others around you?

6. Have a discussion about how you can best educate your congregation to both the need and the value of having a Service of Confession and Renewal.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 3 of 8]: The Service of the Lord's Supper and The Service of Baptism

Week 3: The Service of the Lord's Supper and The Service of Baptism

You all conduct worship as if worship was something that started last week. You forget that we are part of the vast host of saints of those who have gone before and that even now that as we worship God; we worship God in the presence of that vast company of unseen believers who surround us and are clapping their hands as we sing the praises of God. I have a great sense of the communion and fellowship between the church celestial and the church terrestrial. And there’s nowhere in my Christian expression where that sense strikes me more forcibly than in Christian worship. -- Albert Aymer, from the transcript of a panel discussion at Calvin Symposium on Worship, 2006
*Note: this lesson is taken from the resources found and with the permission of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship*

Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20 and Romans 6:1-7


These two passages, along with many others, make clear that Christ expects the practice of baptism will be at the heart of his church. In Matthew 28:16-20 Christ gives his disciples the Great Commission to make disciples and baptize them. Becoming a disciple of Christ and being baptized go hand in hand. The baptism, he says, is to be in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and should be followed by teaching toward obedience (see v.20). This passage opens the door to the remainder of the New Testament and the establishment and growth of the Christian church. Soon after, when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Peter tells the listeners to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38), and all who "accepted his message were baptized" (Acts 2:41). Baptism, therefore, becomes the sign of washing in Christ, the entrance into discipleship, and inclusion in the Christian church.

Paul, some years later, writes more theologically to the Roman Christians to explain the significance of their baptism. In Romans 6:1-7, he says we are baptized "into Christ Jesus" (v.3), and we are, more specifically, "baptized into his death" (v.3). So we are buried with Christ, raised with him, and may live a new life (v.4). In verses 5-7 he develops this thought to show that our baptism is a sign of being freed for a new life.

A Sacrament

The Christian church practices baptism for infants and for adults. When the church baptizes adults, the baptism is always in conjunction with their profession or reaffirmation of faith (Acts 2:38). The church baptizes infants and children on the basis of God's covenant promises. These covenant promises show that God's grace extends before the child has the ability to choose him. Therefore, believing parents have the privilege of presenting their children to receive the sign of God's covenant (Genesis 17:7-14 and Colossians 2:11).

The following are foundational pastoral principles for baptism in the church today:

• Baptism is a celebration of God's grace, not human achievement. It is a means of grace through which God acts to seal the promises of the gospel.

• Baptism is not an end in itself. It always points beyond itself to celebrate God's grace and covenant faithfulness.

• Baptism is a sign of a relationship that is covenantal, not contractual. Our relationship with God in Christ is based on promises, like a marriage.

• Baptism is deeply personal, but never private. It is a communal action of the gathered congregation, which represents the church in all times and places.

The wisdom of the church in its practice over 20 centuries of time has taught us that the baptismal liturgy should contain at least these parts:

• A declaration of God's invitation and promises surrounding baptism, through the words of institution and instruction from Scripture.

• A statement of the church's faith, and the particular promises or vows of parents presenting their children for baptism or those being baptized.

• A prayer of thanksgiving and petition for the work of the Holy Spirit in and through baptism in the life of the community and those being baptized.

• The baptism itself, with words of blessing.

• A welcome into the church and commitment of the congregation to encourage and support newly baptized members.

Remembering our Baptism

Though baptism is administered only once and need not be repeated, we should be reminded of our baptisms regularly for comfort and encouragement. Martin Luther even urged Christian to practice the daily renewal of their baptism by saying I am a baptized person, and today I will live out my baptism. Following his pattern, many Lutheran liturgies regularly refer to baptism as the basis of all Christian living. The task of parents in training their children in the ways of the Lord should involve a regular reminder of their baptism, but the church should reinforce this remembrance. This can be done in several ways:

• One congregation places a "Baptism Candle" on the font at the time of baptism. The candle is given to the parents for their home. They are encouraged to light the candle and place it on their table each year at the anniversary of this baptism.

• The pastor or worship leader could remind worshipers of their baptism. For example, the assurance of pardon is built on baptism by which we were declared children of God. Both the assurance of pardon and the call to worship are good places in the liturgy to do this.

• Periodically the congregation should observe a "Reaffirmation of Baptism Vows" in which all those baptized repeat and reaffirm vows. It can be meaningfully included at the beginning of the year, an anniversary, in conjunction with a sermon on baptism, or in a baptism service.

Suggestions for Baptism Liturgies

The structure of a baptism liturgy leaves ample room for shaping it in a way that has special significance for the participants and the congregation. Especially in congregations in which baptism services occur often, worship planners will want to keep it fresh while retaining the significance of this meaningful ritual. We present here a list of ideas that have come from a variety of congregations and experiences. You may want to consider incorporating some of these in your baptism liturgies. (It is important to keep in mind that our aim is to practice a rich tradition with freshness, not just be novel or cute.)

1. The children of the congregation can be invited forward to participate in the service of baptism. This gives them an opportunity to witness the baptism up close and gives the pastor the opportunity to explain the meaning of baptism to them. If baptism occurs often, the pastor may want to identify several main core ideas and present one each time.

2. The entire extended family of the candidate for baptism can be acknowledged or join in a circle around the baptism font. This extended family is the "covenant circle" into which this person has been placed by God.

3. An elder can offer the prayer of intercession for the person being baptized, asking for nurture, protection, growth and blessing.

4. The congregation can sing the same hymn at every baptism service so that the hymn becomes identified with baptism. This repetition enables children and adults to learn it by heart. It is important that such a hymn carries the message of baptism's significance.

5. A special large banner can be constructed and hung for every baptism service. A smaller replica of this banner or an individualized banner can be made and presented to the person who is baptized or the family of a child being baptized.

6. A member of the congregation can present a red rose to the family as a symbol of the sacredness of this life as a special creation by God.

7. A candle can be lighted at the baptism service to symbolize the light of this life with all its promise.

8. Invite a family member (or two) to read a relevant Scripture passage as part of the baptism service.

9. A personalized baptism certificate and booklet can be prepared and presented from the church.

Above all, it is important that the service convey a spirit of celebration of the grace and goodness of God!

Guidelines for Music in Baptism Services

Because baptism is a welcoming into the church, it is important to involve the congregation in the celebration. This can be done through congregational singing or by involving the musical ensembles of the church in songs and anthems that celebrate the covenant. But because baptism is also a very significant time in families, it is very appropriate that family members be invited to participate in music ministry, particularly when the music used serves as part of the baptism celebration.

For an in-depth message about the Service of Baptism at Union Center Christian Church, listen to the audio stream of Pastor Craig's message from April 19, 2009: The Depths of Baptism.

Questions for Discussion

1. How did your baptism service show that baptism was a celebration of God's grace? Give examples.

2. Would you say that baptism services are an event that includes the whole congregation, or is it a family event at which the congregation is a spectator? Which should it be? How can your liturgies better reflect this?

3. Do you believe that the members of your congregation are aware of their own baptism and its personal significance for them? Why or why not? How could your liturgies improve that?

4. Think about the key elements in a baptism service (God's promises, the parent's promises in the case of infant baptism, the baptismal candidate's vows in the case of adult baptism, the water, the prayers, the hymn, the welcome, and the blessing), and discuss how each one could or should convey meaning.

5. Recall some of the baptism services you have seen in recent years. What stands out as particularly meaningful actions? Explain why.

6. Think about the baptism font in your congregation and the amount of water that is normally used in baptism. Is it prominent enough? What does its symbolism convey to the congregation? Could anything be done to convey deeper symbolism? Does the font have any significance on Sundays when there is no baptism?

Rules for Commenting

  • This is intended to be a conversation that happens over time. (eight weeks to be exact!) Please limit your comments to the subject matter of this post. (in fact, I would be delighted if you used one of the questions as a prompt)
  • It goes without saying, that your comments do not need to be in total agreement with the content in the post but they do need to be respectful.
  • This is intended to be a conversation that involves many people -- no lurkers allowed! If you are uncomfortable using the comment feature on this blog, you can email me your thoughts at

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 3 of 8]: The Service of the Lord's Supper and of Baptism

Week 3: The Service of the Lord's Supper and The Service of Baptism

There is something about mystery in the sacraments. I know we want to make everything so absolutely intelligible and clear and plain that we forget in the worship of God in the sacrament there is a whole lot of mystery. You try to explain to someone what is different between sipping a little bit of wine that the priest allows the wine to touch your lips, and eat a dry piece of wafer or piece of bread in church over against sitting at home in the evening with a nice glass of wine and some crackers and cheese, what makes the one sacrament and not the other? There’s something of mystery and no one has been able to explain it to me. It is something I do by faith. -- Albert Aymer, from the transcript of a panel discussion at Calvin Symposium on Worship, 2006

*Note: this lesson is taken from the resources found and with the permission of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship*

The Lord's Supper

Scripture: Matthew 26:17-30 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34


These two passages are the two locations in the Bible where the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is given to the church. In Matthew 26 (or the parallel passages in Mark 14:22-26 and Luke 22:14-23) the narrative shows Jesus marking the Passover with the disciples to commemorate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. He surprised them when, instead of completing the customary ritual, he referred to "my body" and "my blood" and gave instructions to eat and drink.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul addresses certain matters of worship in the life of the Corinthian church. Among other concerns he speaks about their observance of the Lord's Supper. Paul explains that he is giving them instruction about the Lord's Supper on the basis of the instruction he had received from the Lord.

A Sacrament with Multiple Names

The sacrament that these passages refer to is often called by multiple names. These names emphasize different aspects of the sacrament. Sometimes the sacrament is referred to as "The Lord's Supper," which emphasizes that it is a meal at a table at which Christ is the host. This is a reference to the Passover meal which celebrated the deliverance of Christ's chosen people from bondage. At other times it is called "Communion," which implies sharing deeply with another person and refers to the deep relationships that are present at the sacrament, both with Christ and with one another. Still other times, it is called the "Eucharist," which comes from a word that means "thanksgiving" and suggests that celebrating the Lord's Supper is an act of giving thanks to God. Recognizing all three helps us more fully understand this sacrament.

Whatever title we use, there are many themes that should be kept in focus. These themes can be expressed this way:

  • The Lord's Supper is a celebration of God's grace, not human achievement. The power of the sacrament is not found in our ability to meditate deeply, but rather on the way in which God's Spirit uses this celebration to nourish our hearts.

  • The Lord's Supper is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself to celebrate God's grace and covenant faithfulness.

  • The Lord's Supper is a sign of a relationship that is covenantal, not contractual. It is based on God's gracious promises to us.

  • The Lord's Supper is deeply personal, but never private. It is a communal action of the gathered congregation which represents the church in all time and places.

Ideas for the Lord's Supper Service

If you are a worship planner who is responsible for Communion Services on a regular basis, then you have likely encountered many issues and questions in your attempts to make this time of sacramental worship rich and meaningful. We present here a list of suggestions and ideas that have come from a variety of congregations and experiences.

Preparation. Past practice often placed much emphasis on preparation for the Lord's Supper, especially when it was celebrated quarterly. The week preceding was "preparatory" with worshipers encouraged to search their heart and examine their faith before coming to the Table. Much of this practice has been lost, but it seems that the sacrament is treated as less important when worshipers come unaware of and unprepared for the sacrament. We encourage you to include, at least with some regularity, an emphasis in the preceding week that will help prepare worshipers.

Visuals. The sanctuary should visually speak to worshipers the moment they enter. Banners, other forms of art, and the arrangement of the worship space are all able to convey the message of the sacrament to worshipers. The table is usually highly visible. For congregations that do not celebrate weekly communion, we recommend still keeping the table highly visible for services in which communion is not celebrated as a reminder of the sacrament.

Methods. In some traditions the most common practice is that all communicants come forward to receive the elements. In some congregations they take the elements to their seats/pews and all partake together. In others they partake of the elements as soon as they receive them. Some practice tincture (dipping the bread in the juice before partaking) while others take the elements separately. It is often helpful to vary the practice from what a particular congregation is accustomed to, particularly when an explanation is given. For example, a congregation might be encouraged to come forward and sit around the communion table to focus on the meal aspect of the Lord's Supper, or the participants might come forward, form a circle and pass the elements to each other to emphasize the communal nature of the Lord's Supper.

Elements. Some congregations use wine out of tradition, but others use grape juice out of consideration for those in the congregation who struggle with alcohol addiction problems. Some have options of either. Some congregations use small cubes of bread, wafers, or a loaf from which bread can be broken. Another possible concern is to provide gluten free bread for those in the congregation with gluten allergies. Others will set a large pile of various types of breads to provide a symbolic representation of the diversity yet unity of the body of Christ.

Serving Time. Whichever method is practiced, being served in pews or coming forward, worship planners often wonder how to provide a meaningful setting for reflection and meditation. We suggest several possibilities: The congregation can sing familiar songs that express their faith and hope; the choir or praise team can sing similar songs; the accompanist can provide music that enables private reflection by worshipers; or the pastor or others can read appropriate passages of Scripture that reflect on the ministry, suffering and victory of Christ or the assurance and confidence of the Christian.

The Sanctus. Historically, the celebration of the Lord's Supper included the singing of some form of the "Sanctus" during the sacrament. This exclamation of honor and praise for God's holiness becomes the proclamation of the congregation. The "Sanctus" can be found embedded in a hymn, as in the fourth stanza of "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty" or as a separate piece of music as in "Holy, Holy, Holy/Santo, Santo Santo ". It can also be a spoken response.

Questions for Discussion

1. What words would you use to describe the spirit in which your congregation normally observes the Lord's Supper? Is it consistent with the purpose of the sacrament? How and by whom is that spirit determined?

2. Is the Lord's Supper normally a separate part of your worship service, or does it flow seamlessly in the entire service? In other words, does your liturgy lead naturally into the sacrament, or does it seem "tacked on"?

3. How often is the sacrament celebrated in your congregation? Are the times of observance associated with the events of the Christian or Church Year? If so, how is the celebration different at various times of the year? What themes are emphasized?

4. What term is your congregation most comfortable calling this sacrament (Lord's Supper, communion, Eucharist)? Why? What term makes your congregation most uncomfortable? Why? What could be done to emphasize the themes of all three of these terms?

5. How does your celebration of the Lord's Supper point to God's grace and covenant faithfulness? What could be done to strengthen this connection?

6. What does your celebration of communion communicate about the relationship of the people gathered? Is communion private? Is it a communal act? How does it represent the church in all times and in all places? Is it personal? What could make your celebrations more personal and more communal at the same time?

*to keep this post from being too long the Service of Baptism post will be included in a new post*

Rules for Commenting
  • This is intended to be a conversation that happens over time. (eight weeks to be exact!) Please limit your comments to the subject matter of this post. (in fact, I would be delighted if you used one of the questions as a prompt)

  • It goes without saying, that your comments do not need to be in total agreement with the content in the post but they do need to be respectful.

  • This is intended to be a conversation that involves many people -- no lurkers allowed! If you are uncomfortable using the comment feature on this blog, you can email me your thoughts at

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

mixtape monday [the addendum]

I can't believe I forgot to add these to the mixtape countdown in my last post! On July 4 we headed out to watch an air show from our friends' field way up close to the runway. We ate chicken barbecue, drank beers, moved our lawn chairs around in the mud....and waited.
And the show was totally worth the wait. My friend Jamie Arnold took a bunch of great photos with some sort of huge contraption of a camera and I am quite impressed with the way they turned out, aren't you??
(You can check out the rest of Jamie's photos at his website.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

monday mix tape

i made you a mix tape of all my favorites this week!

Have I mentioned that I love, love, love SUMMERTIME?!? There's just too much good stuff for me to fit in a normal mix tape format so I give you the Mix Tape Countdown instead. Enjoy!

10. Just in this morning from the Don Miller Blog: a lovely welcome-to-the-world poem Donald Miller wrote for his friends at the very same moments they were in labor. It's a beautiful poem and the only thing I don't like about it is that I didn't write it myself!

9. And while we're talking about my favorite links from the past two weeks, go ahead and check out the radio interview my sister and brother-in-law did with the local Christian radio station. The interview features Kaley and Wes' blog, Cha-Ching on a Shoestring. I don't know how to say this without sounding sappy: I am so, so proud of Wes and Kaley. They continue to live large on a limited budget and have not yet touched their savings account since Wes' official layoff last April (2008)! He has persevered working odd jobs and temp jobs while Kaley has busted her backside learning the ins and outs of couponing and finding freebies. All this while preserving their most valuable possessions -- faith, humility and an awesome sense of humor!

8. Speaking of Kaley and Wes, check out their offspring (yes, that would be MY nephew) in his debut acting role at Union Center Christian Church. (and, oh by the way, the big guy is my dad!)

I finally completed the biography of the late great Southern author Flannery O'Connor. I felt like it was important for me to push through this book even though I'm not in love with her writing (please don't tell anyone!) Her life was enigmatic, somewhat sad but at the same time triumphant as she persevered with her craft in spite of debilitating bouts with lupus. I also think I needed to learn about the often-grotesque writing choices she made. This statement, quoting her, gave me some much-needed insight: ...O'Connor insisted that her own use of the grotesque was meant to convey a shocking Christian vision of original sin. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she said, "and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." I think I can understand this. Wish I could have known the woman in person, though. I'd love to chat with her in her yard while her beloved peafowl and her sharp wit and insight into the hypocrisy of people ran circles around me.

6. I am totally digging music from Old Crow Medicine Show and John Fahey this summer. Click so you can dig it too!

5. I'm not sure I've ever included a food category in a monday mix tape (although I know I've included a losing weight category!) but I wanted to include a shout-out for the new deli my friends, Sarah and Jason Hill, have recently opened. We were able to take the family to The Director's Cut Hollywood Cafe and Fine Deli last week during our vacation and we loved the food and the space. Chris Pousseur (another friend) ,the chef, created our burgers and fries and paninis just right! When you go, I strongly recommend the Tear Jerker burger (although the Kevin Bacon would be a close second!)

4. Finished off books three and four
of Madeleine L'Engle's Austin Family Chronicles. Just pure summer reading joy. The Young Unicorns is a slightly odd tale of the Austin family's move to the upper West side of New York during Dr. Austin's year of research at a major hospital. What with gangs, secret underground tunnels and evil religious zealots who wish to take over Manhattan with Dr. Austin's Micro-Ray, the plot is a little more Wrinkle in Time than the normal Austin Family adventure. Still, the characters are intact and we get insight into my favorite part of the city, the upper West side. One of the major characters of the book is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine! (see #3 below... )

As for the Newberry Award winning book four, A Ring of Endless Light, all I can say is *sigh....*
I love this book so much I want to marry it -- or at least take it with me on the ever-threatening deserted island I may be stranded on with only one book and nothing else to read for the rest of my days. I joyfully suspend disbelief as I revel in Vickie Austin's ability to communicate telepathically with dolphins. I smell the salty air surrounding Grandfather's Cove and hear the back porch screen door slamming as the busy Austin family come in and out of the house and I wait alongside Grandfather's deathbed with the family and sense that this is such a right thing to do -- to wait with a loved one as he nears Eternity.
There's more, but you'll have to discover it for yourself. For now, I keep shoving the books into my daughters' hands as soon as I finish reading...just like my own mother did years ago with me. (In fact, my eleven-year-old Natalie is sitting on the bed next to me reading Meet the Austins as I finish this post. She just rolled over and said, "I love Madeline L'Engle." Ahhhh......)

3. Girls' Day in NYC!! Our goal was to leave Binghamton by 4am in order to get in line for Twelfth Night tickets at the Delacorte Theatre in Centeral Park by 7ish. We got there shortly after 7 and got in line behind about 2,000 people!! So...

... we did this instead (Bryant Park for dinner -- Sabrette's!) ...

...walked 22 blocks uptown from Central Park to Morningside Heights and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I will be writing about this glorious cathedral in a separate post, believe me.

But the sort-of-fun coincidence is that the book I took to read while waiting in line in Central Park (and, thus, did not get to read until the next day) was The Young Unicorns mentioned above. The central location for the book takes place right in this cathedral! Apparently L'Engle attended and was very involved in this church. I read that at one time she served as its librarian. Most of our time in the mammoth vaulted nave and its seven surrounding chapels was spent in speechless awe.
By the time we left, though, we felt inspired to do this...

2. Coming soon: My kids are learning the entire choreography to Michael Jackson's Thriller. I can't wait to show you all the video!

1. My little flower garden makes me so happy. We added a perennial bed to this forlorn little spot in our side front yard. As usual, I did my research by taking out 52 books from the library, posting sticky notes on about 110 ideas and then leading Brian around the nursery with my detailed bullet list and several photo-copied charts. Driving home with all those pots of potential beauty felt somewhat like the four different times we strapped our bawling newborns into the car seat to bring them home for the first time. I craned my neck from the front seat to check their safety every time Brian made a turn or stopped too quickly. Every morning, before I even get to the coffee pot, I have to run out to my front porch to check on their progress.

I think we're doing pretty well, don't you?


About five weeks later...

The black-eyed susans are opening now. I'll be back with more pictures soon!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 2 of 8]: Preparation for Worship

Week Two: Preparation for Worship

Your primary role in worship is to be a partner with someone else…to assist them in their effort of worship. What would happen if we came in knowing that God has called us to partner with someone in the community of faith, to assist them in their worship? -- Dr. Constance Cherry, From Passive to Participative Worship, Calvin Worship Symposium 2006

*Note: this lesson is taken from the resources found and with the permission of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship*

Scripture: Psalm 15 and John 4:21-24


When you stop to think about it, worship is a rather challenging activity. We aim to engage in a dialogue with a divine and invisible Being. We aim to meet with someone we are not able to see!
It is difficult, therefore, to overstate the importance of adequate preparation for good worship. We can only imagine the opportunities for good worship that never really happened because someone was unprepared. Missed opportunities are all too common. Yet, nothing is quite as satisfying as knowing that our thorough preparation has helped make worship a very rich time in fellowship with God.

When the Israelites ascended Mt. Zion on the way to worship, they did not go lightly. They knew they were on their way to a royal gathering, and they gave great care to this event. In Psalm 15 David talks about going to "your sanctuary" and "your holy hill." What a sacred destination! No wonder he proceeds to cite the personal qualifications of those who may comfortably go there. His point is that no one may simply barge in on the royal Lord. It takes a prepared heart. You'll find many of the same thoughts and convictions expressed in Psalm 24. Read through the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), and note their cultivation of spirit as they approached worship.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well in John 4, the conversation turned to worship. Their concern was not only where the worshiping was done (on Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem), but also how and in what spirit it was done (in spirit and in truth) (John 4:24). The phrase "in spirit and in truth" carries several levels of meaning, but through all its meanings runs the thread that teaches us the preparation of our spirit is more important than external circumstances or the location of our worship. Because of who God is, how we worship matters! And, therefore, so does our careful preparation.

We can conclude, therefore, that it is possible to "come to church" and still miss worship. And good preparation will likely be the key that makes the difference.

First, let’s attend to attitude. Sometimes we are not aware how our attitude affects others: if I am bored, this rubs off; if I am angry, this rubs off; if I am enthusiastic, this rubs off; if I am grateful, this rubs off; if I am filled with praise, this rubs off; if I am genuinely concerned for others when I make intercession, this rubs off; if I am committed to being there, this rubs off. All this makes a difference not only by affecting others’ participation ability, but it also affects how we are as the church, the body of Christ. If one member slacks off in participation, two things simultaneously happen: first, the body is weakened; second, the others who are participating lift up that slacker. Thus, the attitude of congregants actually is a give-and-take situation. -- Joyce Zimmerman, from transcripts of a panel discussion at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, 2006

Areas of Preparation

Next week we will focus on The Gathering or Opening part of worship and its importance, but first there are a few areas prior to the service that deserve our attention.

1. Internal preparation of heart. Each worshiper carries responsibility for personal preparation of heart. If God calls us to worship him "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24), then we must ask questions about the state of our spirit. Read Psalm 15 again and listen to David in verses 2-5 speak about the integrity of heart and life that is necessary for those who come to the Lord's house. Yet, how often do we ask ourselves questions about our readiness of heart to worship?

2. Pre-arrival preparation. We may want to call it "pre-Sabbath" preparation. We can learn from the Jews who believe Sabbath begins at sundown. Our activities on the evening before worship will have a formative affect, positively or negatively, on our readiness for worship Sunday morning. Also, our personal schedule between rising and the beginning of worship on Sunday morning will have a great deal of influence on our readiness of spirit. Have we raced, or was it done leisurely? How many of us consider that?

3. Pre-service preparation. The short period of time between our arrival at church and the beginning of the worship service is also a critical period of time. Our interaction with friends reminds us that we are here as part of a body in relationship with others. A short while to quiet our spirits will enable us to leave some distractions behind and center ourselves in God. A time of reflective prayer can open our spirit to engage in conversation with God. Even the visual appearance of the worship space will have an impact on our readiness. How conscious are we of these critical minutes?

Worship Leaders

Preparation on the part of those who are called to lead worship is so important it warrants special consideration. Those who stand between God and his people for this important worship conversation must be personally prepared for this role. Whether they are prepared or not will have a significant influence on others.

The heart-preparation of a worship leader is doubly important. The responsibility of worship leaders during the days preceding the worship service is not only to prepare the liturgy and its many parts adequately but also to take care for their own spirits. Times of prayer, reflection, and drawing close to God are necessary preparations for worship leadership.

We have spoken at length in our book (Designing Worship Together) about the work of planning worship together. Even after the worship service has been planned and printed, worship leaders have personal preparation to do.

Nearly all of this preparation among worship leaders will depend on good communication and healthy relationships together. Make sure that all leaders have had face-to-face conversations before the service begins. Are all clearly aware of the theme of this service, especially if some who will lead were not involved in planning the service? Is everyone aware of his or her role? Is it clear how transitions will be made? Are there any lingering questions? Can you identify any potential areas of distraction?

All who will participate in worship leadership should gather for a time of prayer together before the service begins. Let them not only prepare their own heart, but put their hearts together with the hearts of others.

Aids to Preparation

Perhaps your group could brainstorm and put together a list that will help in your preparation. We encourage you to share it with the congregation through your bulletin or newsletter. For starters we would point to these considerations:

1. Use your congregation's website to provide information and reflections to encourage worshipers. Provide ideas and reflections about worship in general. In addition to information about the life of your congregation, post information about the sermon and passage for next Sunday's worship, including perhaps ideas and questions to reflect on.

2. Take a look at your lobby space. Is it an inviting space for worshipers to gather? Is it sufficient in size? Is it welcoming? What tone does it set for worshiping together?

3. Encourage worshipers to arrive early enough to meet others, have time for personal reflection, and be ready to enter the worship space before the service begins. Stragglers who enter worship after it has begun can be distracting to others.

4. Provide gathering music that will set a worshipful atmosphere. Let the gathering music be a transition time from the busy world into the presence of God. An instrumental prelude can be an effective bridge into worship and singing.

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe a "prepared worshiper." Psalm 15 and John 4:24 should help you. What would you look for in such a person?

2. What are some specific habits you have to prepare yourself for worship each week (internal heart preparation, pre-arrival and/or pre-service)?

3. What is a specific habit(s) you would like to implement to prepare yourself for worship each week (internal heart preparation, pre-arrival and/or pre-service)?

4. What distracting habits do you spot among your worshiping community? Make a list of possible ways in which they can be addressed.

5. What intentional efforts are worth reinforcing and encouraging because they are a positive influence in your congregation's readiness for worship each week?

6. Discuss the quotes at the top of the lesson (Dr. Constance Cherry) and in the middle of the lesson (Joyce Zimmerman. How does our own preparation or lack of preparation affect the corporate worship that takes place at Union Center each week?

Rules for Commenting

  • This is intended to be a conversation that happens over time. (eight weeks to be exact!) Please limit your comments to the subject matter of this post. (in fact, I would be delighted if you used one of the questions as a prompt)
  • It goes without saying, that your comments do not need to be in total agreement with the content in the post but they do need to be respectful and civil!
  • This is intended to be a conversation that involves many people -- no lurkers allowed! If you are uncomfortable using the comment feature on this blog, you can email me your thoughts at

Saturday, July 11, 2009

intercession [disciplines for the inner life]

"Today I imagined my inner self as a place crowded with pins and needles. How could I receive anyone in my prayer when there is no real place for them to be free and relaxed? When I am still so full of preoccupations, jealousies, angry feelings, anyone who enters will get hurt. I had a very vivid realization that I must create some free space in my innermost self so that I may indeed invite others to enter and be healed. To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains. Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness.
If I could have a gentle "interiority" -- a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted -- then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbors and embrace them with his love."
-- From The Genesis Diary by Henri J. Nouwen
God has been transforming my ability to embrace the tensions of emotional honesty and Christ-like compassion. It may kill me.

I'm not even kidding.

My understanding of intercession is elementary and cloddish. I imagine long to-do lists of People To Pray For and complex systems of remembering them all. I've at least learned not to tell someone I'll pray for them if I don't really want to do that. Better to risk appearing unaffected by another's plight than to perjure myself.

The holiest, most common, most necessary practice in the spiritual life is the presence of God, that is to take delight in and become accustomed to His divine company, speaking humbly and talking lovingly with Him at every moment, without rule or system, and especially in times of temptation, suffering, spiritual aridity, disgust and even of unfaithfulness and sin. We must continually work hard so that each of our actions is a way of carrying on little conversations with God, in any carefully prepared way but as it comes from the purity and simplicity of the heart. -- from The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Brother Lawrence's journey toward practicing the presence of God began when he was captured by the image of a barren oak tree. I like the symbol -- although I'm not sure for the same reasons as Brother Lawrence. When I was a little girl we spent much of the warm weather months at my grandparents' cottage on a little pond in the middle of the country. On walks we'd disappear into the forest across the road and up a gravely pathway. At the top of the foresty hillside -- just after walking from the cool leafy darkness of the trees into the bee-buzzing sunlight -- stood an ancient, towering tree overlooking a black-berry-bush-infused field and a small twinkly lake. I loved this tree. It marked the top of a climb, yes, but also it had presence. I often would pause my hike long enough to sit against its bumpy trunk and journal or read or wonder. During my sixteenth summer I sat down in the presence of the aged tree in the angsty throes of a teenage romantic break-up. Years later when I took my children on walks around the lake we played games of spotting the tree way up there on top of the hill.

This is not some kind of pantheistic sonnet. Just a symbol of strength and comfort in the presence of something unmoveable and ancient. I think this is what I was supposed to learn about intercession. Well, that and one other: intercession is not about warm fuzzy words for the people we like, but I'll come back to that.

Nouwen's words pierce me. I am quite skilled at providing an external image of warm, hospitable empathy but much, too much of the time my interior self is as the priest states, crowded with pins and needles. This makes true intercession nearly impossible. There is no space to bring another with me into the presence of the Father. There is no place to intercede, to remember anyone outside of my own immediate concerns and preferences. No soft spots for another to stand barefooted in my remembrance.

This is where intercession becomes a discipline. I have no problem remembering people. Or maybe that should read: I have a problem remembering people. I think about, worry about, stew over and stress about people all the time. It's the remembering to the Father part that makes this a discipline. It's kicking the clutter of my soul out of the way to create a clear path to take that person to the Father.

"Will you pray for him?"
Prayer. An act of love, Mother had said.
"Of couse," Grandfather replied. 
"How do you pray for someone like that?"
Grandfather held out his open hand, palm up. "There are many different ways. I simply take him into my heart, and then put him into God's hand." Again he smiled. "That sounds like rather an athletic feat, doesn't it? Nevertheless it's as close as I can come to telling you."
-- from Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
With that truth learned, intercession becomes about all who come to my mind and all I allow to enter my mind and heart. Not just the loved and the lovely; the lonely and the whole, the sick and the well, the wounded and the wounder, the friend and the enemy, the faithful and the faithless. With a gentle interior I am able to make space to bring many with me into the presence of the Father for His care and His judgment and His healing.
A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. ...This is a happy discovery for the Christian who begins to pray for others. There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the fellowship must enter every day...Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away; we see him in all his destruction and need. His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray...To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy. -- from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Bible is full of hearty examples of saints disciplined in intercession. Numbers 14 tells an account of Moses interceding on behalf of the Israelites who were busy with the task of slandering him and grumbling against him. Moses did not intercede out of some twisted sense of self-preservation; he interceded with the goal of God preserving His own Name and reputation in front of all the nations.

In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet admonishes the people for their sin of rejection of God as their king (you guessed it, slandering and grumbling and wish-dreaming for their ideal leader again). He then performed a sign of rain in the dry season to prove God's displeasure. The people begged Samuel to pray for them to not be killed by this God. Samuel assured them and instructed them this way: God, simply because of who He is, is not going to walk off and leave His people. God took delight in making you into His very own people. And neither will I walk off and leave you. That would be a sin against God. I'm staying right here at my post praying for you and teaching you the good and right way to live. (I haven't yet learned the discipline of calling down rain, but certainly I'm capable of staying at my prayer post!)

In Genesis 18 Abraham literally stands in God's way and confronts Him about His plans to to deliver harsh justice to Sodom. Abraham displays a holy blend of boldness and humility - confronting with persistence and frankness while at the same time acknowledging his frailty as a man before his Master. God seemed pleased with Abraham's behavior and consented to his requests.

It is amazing that a poor human creature is able to speak with God's high majesty in heaven and not be afraid. When we pray, the heart and the conscience must not pull away from God because of our sins and our unworthiness, or stand in doubt or be scared away. When we pray we must hold fast and believe that God has heard our prayer. It was for this reason that the ancients defined prayer as an Ascensus mentis ad Deum, "a climbing up of the heart unto God". -- Martin Luther
Intercession as climbing, confronting, remembering, staying, imagining, bathing, welcoming --athletic feats indeed. But none apart from the immoveable, welcoming, all-knowing, ancient, smiling presence of God.

Ascensus mentis ad Deum: may I become lithe with its movement.
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