Monday, February 26, 2007

What’s the Point of Worship?

During the Season of Lent, for the next three weeks, I’ll focus my e-mail messages on worship as the central art of church.

Frankly, I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? I would think that being a Christian is more than sitting and listening. It is also doing. What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and listening?

What is the chief end of humanity?

The proper answer from the Westminster Confession: The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

The Christian faith is a matter of God’s offer of love in Christ and our response to that love. We respond to God’s love with our loving acts of service toward those in need in the church and in the world. And yet we respond to God’s love, not only by loving deeds of service to others, but also by simply doing the things we do for God because God is God and we are God’s children. We are called not simply to obey God but also to glorify God. Above all, we are called to enjoy God.We are called to worship.

Love is not love if it is simply a matter of obeying rules, running errands, and performing duties. Some things we do just because we enjoy being in the presence of our loved one. So we sing songs, write poetry, dance, clap our hands, share food, or simply prop up our feet and do nothing but enjoy being with one another.In these purposeless moments of sheer enjoyment, we come very close to what love is all about.

If someone asked a Christian, “What’s the purpose of your worship? Why do you gather on Sunday and sing songs, dress up, kneel, march in processions, clap your hands, shed tears, speak, eat, and listen?” We could only say, “Because we are in love.”

The most serious, most delightful business of Christians, when you get down to it is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In other words, to worship. Whether we are glorifying and enjoying God in church in our music, sermons, baptisms, and prayers our outside of church in our social concern, witnessing, and charity, it is all for one purpose: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

I can’t put it better than in one of the most “pointless” and wonderful of the psalms, the very last psalm:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 150

Here is the heart of Christians at worship, pure praise done for the sheer enjoyment of love of a Creator is loves and is therefore beloved.

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reflection by Barbara Brown Taylor

In the past month, I’ve met with a couple hundred of you to think about “The Cross of Christ.” Our discussions have revealed the cross is at the heart of the Christian faith. Ash Wednesday, I’ll be with pastors at Huntington reflecting on Preaching the Cross. My friend, Barbara Brown Taylor provides some eloquent reflections for us on this the First Week of Lent.

Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.

This is a story that can happen anywhere at anytime, and we are as likely to be the perpetrators as the victims. I doubt that many of us will end up playing Annas, Caiaphas or Pilate, however. They may have been the ones who gave Jesus the death sentence, but a large part of him had already died before they ever got to him--the part Judas killed off, then Peter, then all those who fled. Those are the roles with our names on them--not the enemies but the friends.

Whenever someone famous gets in trouble, that is one of the first things the press focuses on. What do his friends do? Do they support him or do they tell reporters that, unfortunately, they had seen trouble coming for some time? One of the worst things a friend can say is what Peter said. We weren’t friends, exactly. Acquaintances might be a better word. Actually, we just worked together. For the same company, I mean. Not together, just near each other. My desk was near his. I really don’t know him at all.

No one knows what Judas said. In John’s Gospel he does not say a word, but where he stands says it all. After he has led some 200 Roman soldiers and the temple police to the secret garden where Jesus is praying, Judas stands with the militia. Even when Jesus comes forward to identify himself, Judas does not budge. He is on the side with the weapons and the handcuffs, and he intends to stay there.

Or maybe it was not his own safety that motivated him. Maybe he just fell out of love with Jesus. That happens sometimes. One day you think someone is wonderful and the next day he says or does something that makes you think twice. He reminds you of the difference between the two of you and you start hating him for that--for the difference--enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt him back.

I remember being at a retreat once where the leader asked us to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. When it came tie to share our answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?” According to John, Jesus died because he told the truth to everyone he met. He was the truth, a perfect mirror in which people saw themselves in God’s own light.

What happened then goes on happening now. In the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light.

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Truth to Tell,” from “The Perfect Mirror,” copyright 1998 Christian Century Foundation., 89-92.

Monday, February 12, 2007


“Take thou authority to preach the Word….” These were the words under which many of us were ordained into the pastoral ministry. The issue of pastoral authority is a troubling one for many of us. Here are some thoughts, in a recent book on pastoral leadership, that are instructive for us pastors.

The Reverend John McFadden describes how the difference between worldly power and spiritual authority was revealed to him in the life of the church. The context was his working relationship with his Wisconsin Conference minister (our low-church equivalent of a bishop) in the United Church of Christ. John penned these words at the occasion of the Reverend Fred Trost’s retirement and publicly feted him with these warm pearls of insight.

It was the Budget Committee. Fred greeted everyone warmly, prayed earnestly, and outlined the difficult issues associated with balancing a budget in a year where funds were tight. Then, in a cordial but firm tone of voice, he identified the items in the proposed budget that were not open to discussion or debate!

Having been trained in Puritan self-control, I succeeded in choking back my outrage. Who does this man think he is? What is the point in serving on a committee of the Conference if the Conference Minister makes unilateral decisions? The word “arrogant” was one of the more printable I assigned to him, and I determined to maintain a certain distance. I am certain that for the next year or two he saw me as cool and aloof. The Great Facilitator had met Herr Pastor Trost, and the distance between the two appeared to be unbridgeable.

I can now look back and chuckle at how badly I misunderstood Fred and his motives in that early encounter. What I then perceived as arrogance I now appreciate as conviction; what I then heard as “this cannot be debated!” I now know was “let us debate this with real passion!” I was so deeply schooled in the ways of power that I failed to recognize genuine authority when I encountered it.

Fred Trost stands first among the mentors who have taught me that the integrity of the pastoral vocation grows from daring to claim the spiritual authority vested in us by the church. True spiritual authority begins only when we reject the sinful temptation to embrace the ways of power. Power is self-centered and self-serving; its clarion cry is “my will be done!” Power is measured in dollars, in clout, in control. It is brokered by fear and intimidation. Its goal is always to win and, in winning, to create losers. Power builds fiefdoms and empires. Power always believes in its own wisdom, its own strength, its own purpose. Power answers to nothing beyond itself, not even to God.

Authority is temporarily entrusted to our stewardship by that which is greater than we are and to which we are accountable. Spiritual authority must answer to scripture, to tradition, and to the living community of the church, from which it never stands apart or above. Spiritual authority grows from the humility born of knowing we are creatures, utterly beholden to our Creator. As such, we can never possess absolute certainty that our thoughts are wise, our actions righteous, so the authority invested in us must often be discharged in fear and trembling.

Yet, paradoxically, spiritual authority also grows from the confidence born of knowing that where our wisdom and righteousness end, God’s begin, and that through the actions of the Holy Spirit these frail, earthen vessels may convey deeper truth and work greater deeds than our own limited abilities would permit. Spiritual authority acts most boldly when it first prays most humbly; it speaks with the greatest strength when it first listens most carefully. Spiritual authority seeks to empty itself of the conceit of possessing its own wisdom, so that it may say not “my will be done,” but “Thy will be done.”

True spiritual authority may reside in either a Great Facilitator or a Herr Pastor. It often leads us to a place somewhere between the two. When a Great Facilitator understands the truth of spiritual authority, he or she seeks to help the saints discern the prompting of the Hoy Spirit in their discussion and debate. The goal is not to build consensus or resolve an issue by taking a vote. Rather, it is to discover together how the living Spirit is working and speaking through the gathered community of the church.

When a Herr Pastor understands the truth of spiritual authority, that person spends years in coming to know the saints of the church deeply, grieving with them in times of pain and loss, celebrating with them in their joys and new beginnings, until the pastor can no longer say with certainty where his or her own life ends and the life of the congregation begins. When the line between “I” and “we” becomes sufficiently blurred, Herr Pastor can speak with a clear, authoritative voice that is no longer tainted by the presumption of personal power.

Both the Great Facilitator and Herr Pastor must return frequently to the sources of their spiritual authority. They must study God’s word in Holy Scripture, preferably in fellowship with other Christians. They must pray, both in the stillness of their own hearts, and in settings of Christian community. They must read the thoughts of saints who preceded them, so they can dialogue with the wisdom of the ages. They must worship God frequently, so that they never forget who they are, and whose they are. They must immerse themselves in Christian theology until it becomes second nature to experience the world through God’s eyes, rather than their own.

-- From Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, by Dale Rosenberger, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2005, pp. 87-89

Monday, February 05, 2007

Keeping Work In Its Place

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community of Scotland, said that he took the job of cleaning the community's toilets so, "I will not be tempted to preach irrelevant sermons on 'the dignity of all labor.'"

I haven't preached many sermons on the subject of work.

When I do preach on work, I will tell them that I believe that the fabled "Protestant work ethic" is a decidedly mixed inheritance for the church. Martin Luther attacked medieval monasticism by dignifying all work as divinely ordained. You don't have to become a nun to serve God. Even the lowest servant cleaning floors in the rich man's house mops to the glory of God. God did not simply create the world and quit. God keeps creating and invites us, in even the humblest work, to join in God's continuing creativity.

Luther's thought on work is not so much a glorification of our human work, but rather a celebration of the work of God. When Luther uses "vocation" he uses it more to refer to tasks like marriage and family than to jobs. Our vocation is not work but worship.

Sometime ago, I saw a book for Christian students. It began, "How can you serve Christ on campus?" Answer. "First by studying hard. You are called to be a student. You have gifts and graces from God for study. You are not studying just for yourself, but for what you can eventually give to others through your study. Now, study!"

That sounds like "vocation."

Unfortunately, the "Protestant work ethic" tended to elevate even the meanest job to the status of divinely ordained, so that today, when we say "vocation," we mostly mean "job."

Sometimes the "Protestant work ethic" defended the indefensible. If you're in a demeaning, degrading job, it is because God put you there, therefore, don't strive to better your condition. Such thought was a powerful hindrance to revolutionary thought and action.

Today, most people can expect seven job-changes in their lifetime. Many of these will be forced upon them by external economic factors. How can these multiple changes, forced upon the worker from the outside, be called aspects of divine vocation?

While Protestantism, in its attempt to honor all work as a vocation from God, may have contributed to some of the abuses of capitalism, the Christian and the Jewish faiths also bear within a prophetic critique of work. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, humanity is graciously invited by God to work. God creates a garden, then invites the woman and the man to tend the garden. Yet Genesis also admits that work, gracious gift of God, can also be a curse, when abused and used in sinful ways. Adam and Eve are cursed by hard work when they're kicked out of God's garden.

We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. The "call" of Jesus appears to be a call to ordinary people like fishermen and tax collectors to leave their careers and to follow him on his travels about Galilee.

Thus, while work may be a good gift of God, our present structures of work are not divinely ordained. Work, like any human endeavor -- sex, money, art -- may be tainted with human sin. For some, that sin will take the form of idolatry, in which we give honor and energy to our jobs which should be reserved for God.

I think that we pastors ought to be cautious about claiming too much for work. Most of work's rewards are most mundane. For one thing, most of our friends are somehow related with our work. One of the most dehumanizing aspects of unemployment is the loneliness of the unemployed.

Also, from a Christian perspective, your work has value because it contributes, not to your well being, but to someone else's. As a mechanic said to me recently, "People need me more than they need a brain surgeon. When I put somebody's car back on the road, they're grateful and I'm happy." Work is a major way we discover our dependency on one another, our connectedness in a wide web of other persons' work.

For another thing, most of us work for the mundane, but utterly necessary need to earn a living. Our work puts bread on the table. Rather than debate which forms of work contribute to our personhood and which do not, we ought to focus on which work fairly compensates a worker and which work doesn't. We ought to admit that most of us work for pay. While we are working for pay, we can achieve many other noble human values. But none of those noble values should deter us from the most basic value that all ought to have work and that all ought to be justly compensated for their work.A fair, living wage is more to the point than our high-sounding theological platitudes.

We are right to seek meaningful work, since work is a major task given by God to humanity. We are right to criticize our present structures of work, expecting them to be sinful and in need of reform in various ways. Our work, suggests our faith, is source of great joy, also of much pain. Making a life is more significant than making a living.

William H. Willimon

I hope you will join me at the "Growing Healthy Churches" Event with Dr. Paul Borden on February 9 and 10.