Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sermon: Faith Works--7.29.12 evening

Imagine this.  You are following a car. It is a large suburban, circa 1983. It is rusted out, and it is belching out black smoke as it goes down the road. As you are following the car, occasionally candy wrappers and beer cans come flying out of the window. Maybe this would bother you. Maybe it would not.
But now I want you to imagine something else. Plastered all over the bumper and back windows are statements like this:


Now this would cause you to pause and ask some serious questions. Why? Because the behavior of the people based on the car they are driving, the maintenance it needs, and the behavior of the passengers in the car don’t match the beliefs that they advertise on their bumper stickers.
Sounds kind of silly doesn’t it?
Or maybe you are looking to get into shape. You call around and talk to several trainers. One person sounds especially positive and enthusiastic. He talks about the importance of exercise, of proper diet and nutrition, and of the kind of mental discipline it is going to take for to be the kind of person you want to be.
Then you show up to the gym and meet your trainer. He looks like he has not said no to a potato chip in years, he gets out of breathe walking across the room to meet you. He may be a great guy, but someone who does not live what he teaches is not necessarily the guy you want to coach you about how to get into good physical condition.

You see, when someone speaks about their passionate belief about something, we don’t just expect to hear well-spoken words about what they care about, we expect to see their actions back up what they say they believe to be true. When we don’t, we ask questions. We wonder about the authenticity of that individuals belief. We also wonder about whether their convictions are worth believing in if people who advocate those ideas do not even live them themselves.
Do you remember why Pat Buchanan lost in his primary challenge about 20 years ago? Pat Buchanan was talking about the importance of having trade policies that support the American Auto Workers. He was saying that he was a strong believer in American cars, and that we should work hard to keep the industry viable. Then someone decided to follow him around. What did he have? A Mercedez-Benz. His campaign ended quickly. Why? People started to believe he was a hypocrite.

What is true about environmentalist convictions and ideas about health care and car purchases is even more true about what we say we believe about matters of faith. We can say that we believe something, but if our beliefs are not accompanied by our actions, our words ring hollow, and even perhaps false and hypocritical.
This insight, this truth, challenges us in a lot of ways. It challenges what our ideas of faith and belief are. And for some of us, it might appear to contradict our understanding of “grace” and its importance in our lives.

James could not say it more plainly, “faith without works is dead”.  He also says this, “Show me your faith without your deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do”. In doing so, he echoes what Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, where Paul says that we were saved by grace through faith so that we could “do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.”

The question then becomes, how do we live this active faith, this faith that acts as a result of what it believes? How do we understand our lives if we live by faith in Jesus, but we struggle to do what is right?
These are not easy questions. It is why Luther hated the book of James so much, calling it “a straw epistle of works righteousness.”

Of course, I think Luther is wrong. James, as I have said before, is about having a faith that has integrity, where what is on the inside matches what is on the outside, and where what is said as truth with one’s mouth, also makes its way into our hearts.

James begins by continuing the example of the people in our midst that are on the outside looking in at church, the people who nobody would ever vote in for a leadership position. The people who we don’t think belong.

In this case, a brother or sister in Christ mentions that they are struggling financially. As a matter of fact, they mention that they do not have enough food to eat. Their clothes are threadbare and tattered and about to fall off of them. What do you do?

Some folks answer might be, even when they have some extra clothes and they could invite the person over for dinner…you know what we need to do about this situation…PRAY.

Then they would pull you aside, and say, we need to pray about that. And they would sound very holy. Very pious. And then you would pray with them. And they would be done with you. Of course you always want prayers, but what James is saying is that mere words are not enough. If you really have faith in something, it will urge you to action as well.

What is James’ point in this little parable, which he probably saw repeated quite often in churches? It is that we can talk a good game in church, and even give intellectual assent to the truth of Jesus Christ, but if we don’t live Jesus, it doesn’t matter whether we agree with the idea of Jesus. Faith is an action word. An active trust in a living truth.

That is why he says that the devils believe, and tremble. He is saying that the minions of Satan know the facts about Jesus to be true, but they have never surrendered their lives to Him. We can know the facts of Jesus to be true as well, but if those facts never weave their way into how we live our lives, they don’t mean anything. As I said, faith is an active trust in a living truth.

James gives two other examples. He shares Abraham’s willingness to trust God with his promise, even if it meant God told him to sacrifice Isaac, his son. Then he talks about Rahab harboring the Hebrew spies in her home. In each case, the person’s faith was proven by their actions.
This is the way it should work for all of us. If we really believe in Jesus, it should make a difference in our actions, our temperament, in how we live, and how we die.

For too long, especially those of us who consider ourselves evangelical, we have come to understand grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book the “Cost of Discipleship”, as cheap grace. That somehow by agreeing to a creed, or being baptized into a church, or saying a certain prayer at some point in our life, that we have gotten a get out of jail free card, and that is all we need in our Christian life to get by. James says if that is our idea, we just don’t get it. If we live by faith (and faith is an action word), then works will follow.

God, when he calls us to be his disciples wants to give us true life, full life, new life. He does not want us to just put a new mask on an old corpse, and say that we are alive again. He believes that if we truly believe in Jesus that our lives will look different. More vibrantly, truly alive. Our actions will show what we believe.

So many so-called Christians settle for some piecemeal, powerless Christianity that has no basis in Scripture. And so, they have a few ideas and a few friends that are moral, but their lives never really have power, never really see growth, never really experience the power of deliverance and new life. If that is you, you might need to ask, have I surrendered my life to Christ, or have I just intellectually assented to some ideas about the universe. Intellectual assent will not find you eternal life. Surrender to Christ will.

Your life before Jesus and after Jesus should look different, and you should continue to see growth in Christlikeness in your life.

To go back to our original example…

Lets not be the kind of person that calls themselves a Christian and is driving down the road 20 mph over the speed limit, with music blaring out our window in which every other word is a cuss word, smelling of marijuana smoke as our car goes by, honking our horn at everyone in our way and then have a whole bunch of bumper stickers that say things like:

JOHN 3:16 or

You know what I am saying?

If you really believe something, James is saying, your actions will follow what you believe.

It is like if I asked someone to come up here and sit down. They sit down on this chair I have because they believe that the chair is there, and their actions clearly follow their belief. If they did not trust me, or did not trust the chair, they would be more cautious, perhaps they would look where they were sitting before they sat, or perhaps they would say, “No thanks, I would rather continue standing up.” True faith in accompanied by action.

This begs the question then, if faith must have action, then are we really back under the law, and talking about works righteousness and earning your salvation then?
And my answer is, no we are not.

Neither Abraham, Paul, Rahab, or James were perfect after they came to faith, or even after this book was written. They still were human people with human struggles and human issues. None of us is sinless.

But, for believers, if we are truly born again, there is some sense in which God is working in our life, and our lives have taken on a new trajectory because our beliefs, if they are real, have worked their way out of our minds and thoughts, and into our lives and actions.

If our lives do not demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, etc…then we need to ask, am I playing church or have I surrendered my life to Christ.

If our faith does not make its way into our action, we have to begin to ask ourselves, do I really believe this teaching that I say I do. Because if you really place your faith in something, actions will necessarily grow out of that faith.
I hope you can hear the good news of this passage. We are not left alone by God. We are not simply saved and put on a shelf. But if we given our lives  to Christ the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives and transforms us into the likeness of Jesus.

God’s good news is better than expected. Not only does he love us the way we are, he loves us enough not to allow us to stay that way. He loves us enough to use us and grow us and change us, in spite of our sinfulness. Our job is simply not to fight against him. And to understand that although grace is opposed to works-righteousness, it is not opposed to effort.

GET UP--Jarius' Story--Sermon on 7.29.12

Hello. My name is Jarius. I am an elder in my little synagogue on the edge of the land the Jews call their own, near the lake that Jesus seemed to always be going back and forth on during his ministry—the Sea of Galilee. I wasn’t a teacher or a preacher. Instead I was the one that cared for the building, prepared the elements for worship, I planned and prepared the prayer services, and I would teach the children’s classes while the rabbi taught and led the rest of the community. I was in essence the lay leader of my little congregation.

There in our little town on the edge of the lake I lived most of my life. It was hot, dirty, rugged, and beautiful. My marriage was arranged, and after I learned my trade and established myself and took a wife.

Those days were wonderful days. Days when your dreams for you future take up more space in one’s mind and heart than do one’s past and one’s present. We had planned to have a whole quiver full of kids, as the Psalms put it. We were going to fill our house with love for the Lord and love for one another. We were so excited.
Dinah Roe Kendall Raising Jairus' daughter Bridgeman Art Library
After a few years, God blessed us with a child. A beautiful little baby girl. In the following years, we had hoped for more, but we could not have more. That was ok. It seemed that when this little girl smiled, the whole world just lit up. And when she giggled, our whole world was filled with joy. We treasured every moment with that little girl. She was our everything.

One day, everything seemed to go terribly wrong. She started out with a little cough. The cough soon turned to a fever. The fever soon became hotter and hotter. Our little girl alternated between chills and sweats. We tried every remedy we could find. None of them worked.

I was lost. I would run to the synagogue to do some chore or errand, and time seemed to stand still. The task that usually took me five minutes would take me an hour. I was lost for ideas. I prayed. I cried. I asked out loud, “What should I do, Lord, what should I do?” It was apparent without some change our daughter was going to die soon.
So I looked out toward the lake. I don’t know what I was looking for. All of the sudden I saw a boat heading in our direction.

I knew which boat it was. It was such a rickety boat. It was always on the verge of sinking at one point or another. Yet, it carried a very important passenger.
The boat that was coming our direction was the one that carried Jesus of Nazereth and his disciples. They were coming back across the lake from another one of their missionary and teaching ventures. Word was, Jesus had cast demons out of a man possessed by them, and sent the demons into pigs, who in turn ran into the lake and drowned themselves.

I had heard of the many miracles Jesus had done. Was this the man that could help us? Our rabbi as well as our doctor seemed convinced that our 12 year old little girl was going to die. “Begin preparing for the worst,” they told us, “It is only a matter of time.”

I told my wife, “I am going to go down to the city, and see if I can find Jesus, and see if Jesus will come with me. I can do a lot of things, but I am not just going to sit here waiting for her to die and not do anything!”

I walked down toward the harbor where the boats always land and tie up. I walked through a number of small little villages of 50, 30, or 100 people. They all knew me or knew of me, and I them.
I walked along talking to myself, my hands flailing everywhere. I was trying to work out exactly what I was going to say when I met Jesus. People would look at me and look away. They knew who I was. They knew what I was dealing with. Folks are used to seeing people walking around and talking to themselves in some small towns. Everyone has been caught talking to themselves without knowing it. Some of us are just a little bit more embarrassed about it than others. Besides, walking along and talking outloud is the way a lot of people prayed in our time.
So I got down to the city, down to the docks, and it became obvious from looking behind me that other people were also becoming used to seeing that rickety old boat. They were all coming toward Jesus. I fought my way to the front of the crowd. I fell at my feet. I made the speech I had been practicing. I kept it simple. I said, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

Jesus agreed to come with me. Praise the Lord! He was willing to heal her! Oh, my heart was about to explode with joy. Thank God for his sense of good timing, sending Jesus to us at this moment! And so we began to walk. Together. Toward my home.

As Jesus and I began to walk, crowds began to gather en masse. People were not impeding our progress, they knew the urgency of the situation, but they were pushing in on us from every side.

Then Jesus stopped. He paused. He frowned. He looked around. “Who touched me?” He said.

His disciples thought this was a silly question. I did not quite get it either. Everyone was touching everyone.

Everywhere Jesus went was like a political rally. People pressing in from everywhere. Standing room only. Room to walk and wiggle. But people were shoulder to shoulder.

Jesus said that he knew someone had touched him. He then waited for a while to hear the response. He said that he knew someone had touched him because he had felt power go out of him. Eventually a woman came forward.

She shared that she had been bleeding for 12 years straight. That she had been to every doctor and tried every self-help plan and none of them worked. Now she was broke and had no where left to turn.

She said she had been bleeding for 12 years. It made me think of my little girl. She was born 12 years before. The woman had been bleeding as long as my girl had been alive. Jesus was telling her that her faith had made her well. He was touching her. She was moved by his kindness….and in the middle of all of this I felt a hand placed on my shoulder.

I turned around. It was folks who had been sitting with my family up at my house. I looked in their eyes. I knew exactly why they were there.

She is gone, they told me. Your daughter has died. You should just tell him she has died. We no longer need him to heal your daughter. We need to begin funeral arrangements.

Just a few moments before I was thinking that Jesus had the best timing in the world, and that his arrival in this place at this time was some blessing from above designed by God to answer my prayers for my daughter. Now…I don’t know.

It seems like this interruption on the way, with this woman, was just…well…bad timing. Is everything lost? O Lord, help me, I prayed under my breathe.
Jesus replied, even as I was praying, lost in my grief, “Don’t be afraid, just believe!” The word he used is better interpreted “faith” from our language, but faith is a noun in your language, and always an action word in ours. In other words, Jesus said. Fear not, keep faithing…but believing sound so much better in a sentence.

At that point, Jesus’ pace increased. He just brought Peter, James, and John with him. He got near the house, and there was no mistaking where we lived. I did not have to describe which little hut was ours. There were people standing outside of it, filling it inside, crying and screaming. It was more chaotic than a season ending episode of New Jersey Housewives.

Jesus waded through the crowd and into the front door. “Why all this commotion and wailing,” he said, “the child is not dead. She is just asleep.”
The crowd looked at him. They paused. They said nothing. Then they laughed. The laughed loud at Jesus. They did not know what else to do. This man that was supposed to heal my daughter, they thought, must be going crazy.
So Jesus got a little bit angry. He forced everyone to leave the house, except his three guys, and my wife and I. He grabbed a chair. He looked at her lovingly. He grabbed her hand. Then he said, “Little girl, get up”. No magic works. No mysterious prayer. Just, “hey little girl, it is time to rise and shine, and give God the glory.”
And that is exactly what happened. She got up. Just like that. And she began to walk around. Then Jesus reminded us that she had been sick for days, and she might need to eat something if she was going to say healthy. We got her dinner. And she ate…a lot.

Jesus made his way down the road not too long after. He told us not to tell anyone what he did. Guess I am falling a little short with that here talking to you, but of course people have been reading this story for two thousand years. I think the statute of limitations has run out…

So, what does all this mean for us?

As I ponder this passage, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “get up!”
This word “Get up!” is actually one word in Greek, also translated “arise!” The same word as “risen” in “he is not here, Jesus is risen” on Easter morning.

Jesus said to the young girl “Get up!” He said to this lifeless body “Arise!” And he says the same to us today.

Some of us here have spent our lives chasing after money or cheap thrills, thinking that these things would elevate us and our lives, and we have found that these pursuits have left us empty and tired, with our heads down. I say to you, get up, and embrace the new life that Christ offers. Arise to a new life, the life that God offers through faith in his son Jesus Christ.
Some of us have spent our lives slaves to our doubts and insecurities about ourselves. We have had dreams, hopes, callings, and goals, but we have shunned them because we have come to believe that we are not good enough, or we can’t, or that is not worth trying. We have forgotten that God can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We need to get up, and remember these oft quoted words:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. GET UP.

And there are some of you here, well, you are content to simply play at your faith instead of truly living it with passion and gusto. You try to do just enough to get by, say just enough to get by, in the hopes that you might do just enough to impress God and others.

My friend,,,repent of your half hearted faith. GET UP. Give of your best to the master. Make your last years your best years!

But don’t listen to all this just because I said so. Do it because of the one who went to a cross and died on a cross. He was dead and buried. And then on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. The Lord said, GET UP. And Jesus got up. Death could not hold him. Sin had no power over him. And now he sits at the right hand of God.

As we come to this table, we celebrate the hope this offers, that the one who gave his body and blood for our sins invites us to come to this table to celebrate his sacrifice. He invites us to remember though that his death is not the end of the story. That it allows us to proclaim that he will come again to rescue those who believe and give them eternal life.

Get up. Believe. Eat. Drink. Go. Share.


Friday, July 27, 2012

What Now?: Making sense of what happened in Aurora

What Now?: Pondering the Tragedy in Aurora

A little over a week ago I had gotten up between three and four in the morning to feed our little baby Mattea. As is often my habit on weekdays, I turned the station to MSNBC to watch the morning news. I was saddened, as many of you were, to see that there had been a shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.

I was saddened, but I was not shocked. These kinds of things have been a regular occurrence in our country. It is only a few months go by before another young man goes into a school to shoot classmates, or a disgruntled worker enters his employer’s place of business and opens fire, or some religious zealot decides to strap some bomb to his shoe or underwear and hop on plane.

Whenever things like this happen, people in leadership in churches, such as myself, are challenged by our parishioners and our critics to help make sense of what happened, and why it happened. People begin to wonder. Why are things like this allowed to happen? Is this a part of God’s plan? How do we respond?

I think about these questions a lot too. I do not have all of the answers. There is a lot I will not understand until I see God face to face.

What I have seen, in the world, in my life, and in the Scripture is that God can often take the painful, ugly, and sinful things that happen in the world and by some miracle make some sort of beauty and purpose out of them. He does this most often when we are able to grow the “why me” questions that we will never be able to answer and begin to ask ourselves “what now”.

This process is easier said than done when one is in the middle of coping with the evil and craziness of it all, as some in our community are. Dealing with this kind of ugliness takes time.

The process of asking “what now” out of tragedies like this is, however, a process we all have to go through to allow God to create meaning out of a situations in our world that are so contrary to what we understand as God’s will. We cannot fix the evil that happened, but we can begin to allow how we respond to what happened to make the world a better place instead of returning evil for evil. We can, by allowing God to work through awful, painful situations, somehow discover that God has brought beauty and power into the situation and into our lives by how we have responded and how the Holy Spirit has worked in the situation. This is true whether we are thinking about September 11, or wildfires coming to our doorstep, or this shooting in Aurora.

You see, bad things that happen end up being a lot like fertilizer. You first see piles of manure at a feed lot, you may think it is quite an ugly, stinky mess. This is because, at that point, it is. Drive by one, open the window, and take a deep breathe, and you will see what I mean. But take some fertilizer, apply it to a field or a garden in a wise manner, and you will see wonderful, beautiful things grow out of that stinky ugly stuff.

In the same way, God can make beauty out of the ugly things that happen in our lives and in the world. I do not think a deranged man doing evil in a movie theater is what God wants for him, for the people in the theater, or in the world. But I know that sometimes, in fact a lot of times, God has a strange way of taking what is not his will, and weaving it into his perfect plan. And, when he does that, a lot of times fruitful and beautiful things can grow out of what right now just looks like a pile of…well…fertilizer. 

One of my favorite U2 songs

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review of Average Joe by Tony Meeder

Average Joe: God's Extraordinary Calling to Ordinary Men
by Tony Meeder
ISBN 978-1601423078
Multnomah Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

For the last several years, there have been several books geared toward identifying and speaking to a masculine, evangelical spirituality. Most prominently, John Eldridge and his book "Wild at Heart" spoke to this market, but since that book was published several others have followed suit. Average Joe is one of those books designed to minister to everyday American men who are seeking to understand their Christian faith within the context of their day to day lives.

Average Joe speaks to men through the interests they have the roles they play in life. Within the context of those interests and roles, Meeder challenges his readers to see and respond to the presence of God as it is active in those places. He tells stories. He speaks about friendships and mentors. Meeder identifies with everyday life struggles of men without being overly psychological or dramatic. He challenges his readers to grow, and does so in a positive way. He does not beat up men for who they are, instead he challenges them to use who they are for the glory of God.

I enjoyed Average Joe. There were some examples in the book based on life in the Northwest. Having grown up in Oregon and Alaska, and having also lived in Montana and Colorado, I could recognize and identify with some of the things he was talking about.

This would be a great gift for a birthday or Christmas for that guy you want to encourage to grow in his faith a little bit. Pick it up, and share it with others.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review of 50 Days of Hope by Lynn Eib

50 Days of Hope: Daily Inspiration for Your Journey through Cancer
by Lynn Eib
ISBN 978-1-4143-6449-0
Tyndale House Publishers
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I have never had cancer. I hope that I never will. However, if I did encounter my mortality by having to battle cancer, I would want a copy of 50 Days of Hope beside me to guide me on the journey.

Lynn Eib is a cancer patient advocate and a cancer survivor as well. She has a deep faith that has sustained her through her battle with cancer, and she uses her experience as a patient to help her support some people who are going through the scariest and darkest moments of their lives.

Her most recent book, 50 Days of Hope, is a devotional intended to guide people as they go through cancer treatment. Many people focus simply on the physical symptoms. Eib, both through her work and through this book, want to do heart work and soul work with those who are striving to overcome a cancer diagnosis. Because she is a survivor, Eib can speak plainly to the issues people with cancer are going through without sounding arrogant or high and mighty. She knows the spiritual pitfalls that accompany you when the "c" word is attached to your name, and she knows the opportunities for deeper faith in that journey as well.

In addition to being a helpful bit of writing, something should be said about how the book is presented. It is a small book made of imitation leather. It is petite enough that it could be placed in a woman's purse, but it "neutral" enough in its presentation that it does not look like an exclusively feminine product from Tyndale.

I am going to keep this book to give away to someone when I think they might need it, and hope it is not me that might need it first.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review of Passages by Brian Hardin

Passages: How Reading the Bible In a Year Will Change Everything For You
By Brian Hardin
ISBN 978-310-32919-0
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Ever since I was a young child, I was encouraged to read through the Bible in a year. The first time I actually did this I was in sixth grade. These were the days before the "One-Year Bibles" came out, and I was encouraged to simply read four chapters a day. I also strove to memorize at least one verse from every book in the Bible.

Bible knowledge became my ambition as a young teen. This provided a lot of benefit to my life. I began to know and live what the Scripture said. I fell in love with Christ and the church. Reading the Bible through became the foundation of my faith as it grew. It was probably the foundation of my journey toward full-time ministry as well.

On the other hand, knowledge of Scripture became an ego issue for me as well. I would go to church camp as a middle school teen, and enter Bible trivia contests. Most of the other competitors were PKs, or they came from well-established church families. I was from a poor single-parent family that as a whole was marginally affiliated with church matters. Most of the other competitors were high school teens. I was a seventh grader who had not even entered puberty yet. Against these folks, I would often go head to head and win against several of them. When I was not at camp, I would also win Bible memory contests and win prizes. I would go to Bible Study, and the adults would call me the "bible answer man". The result was all this Bible reading and knowledge became more a matter of pride than of faith, and so around my sophomore year I stopped striving for spiritual accomplishments to suit my ego, and made the decision to give up the ego -enhancing activities. That meant giving up reading through the Bible for several years, and ever since then only doing it occassionally, and not EVERY year.

Several times since then, I have attempted to read through the Bible, with limited success. I find other ways to fill my devotional time. Brian Hardin's book Passages, though, might convince me to get back to my roots and read through the Bible in a year all over again.

Brian Hardin has given us a wonderful book here. Part testimony to God's blessing in reading through the Bible, and part exhortation to adopt this spiritual discipline, Hardin puts together a book that both motivates and instructs.

What I love about Passages is that it encourages people to read through the Bible in the right way and for the right reasons. He encourages us to understand Scripture as a story. Hardin wants believers to get the big picture of what God is doing in the world, and become part of it. This book does not have a whiff of the pride and guilt inducing legalism I began my faith with. Instead, it clearly uses positive language to encourage people to take the next step in their journey with God.

Passages is put together pretty well. It challenges readers to read the Bible contemplatively, and not just rust through reading the Bible to meet a goal. Especially during instructional moments, the text is generously littered with personal testimonies of people who have begun to listen/read through the Bible. There are excellent quotes before each chapter. And, the end of the book has reading plans for reading through the Bible in a year--several of them as a matter of fact.

Take the journey with God of reading through Scripture! And take this book along for the ride as a guide and encouragement as you go. You won't regret it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Friar Tuck Learns Worship: The Roundabout Journey Part 3--Other Liturgical Guides


When We Gather--
Grounded thoroughly in the Reformed tradition, this comes from a Presbyterian Publisher called Geneva Press. For my purposes, I love the Call to Worship resources in this book. Each of them are based upon the lectionary text from the Psalms. The intercessory prayer texts are a little long for our purposes at United Churches, and we are not doing an "assurance of pardon" or confession yet. The prayers of dedication are also useful for us during our offering time, although I do not use the prayers from this section on a regular basis.

Grade: B+

The Worship Sourcebook
This text comes to us from Faith Alive Publishers, which a publishing arm of the RCA and CRC churches.
It is a solid book of worship resources. I have enjoyed using this resource for nearly every part of worship at times, although I find that some of the prayers can be overly lengthy.

The Worship Sourcebook is well-resourced for all seasons of the church year. It maintains a reverent tone without sounding old fashioned. It has prayers and responsive readings to cover a number of different ways of approaching the worship service.

Also helpful with this resource is a CD that has all the written material available in digital form as well. I like this when I need to cut and paste for a bulletin and/or to pass material on to our administrative assistant

Grade: A

Revised Common Lectionary Prayers
I originally bought this resource as a partner to another similar resource to help me with personal devotions and prayer time. I have, however, found the material in this book more helpful for developing worship resources than I have for personal study.

What this book is most helpful for in our unison readings during our pastoral prayer time. Many of these prayers, which are almost all written in the form of a "collect" are very helpful for that time of worship.

Grade B-

The New Handbook of the Christian Year
This book is half textbook, and half resource. The resources are especially helpful for the seasons of the church, and less helpful during ordinary time.

I will use this book for thinking through and ordering worship between Advent and Pentecost.

Grade: C-

Psalms for All Seasons
This book is a stretch for me. I purchased it because I wanted to expand my resources in integrating the Psalter into Worship. I also wanted to find non-drab ways of integrating the singing of Psalms into worship. This text does a little of both. There are several songs that have common hymn tunes. I think I will make an attempt at using some of those in worship on occassion. Also, each Psalm is written responsively before the singing of the Psalm, which will be helpful with calls to worship. This resource will take a little bit of effort to use effectively, as it is not as user friendly for a country bumpkin preacher like me as I would have hoped. All in all a great resource though.

Grade: B

The Abingdon Worship Annual 2012
In the beginning, I was wary of an "annual" resource. After all, it is really most useful just for the year that you are using the text. I have changed my tune however, and begin to enjoy using the Abingdon Worship Annual.

This is probably the most used all around resource by me during the church year. I find that often the "contemporary options" in some of the readings are helpful and down to earth. Although the quality of the material is not necessarily even from week to week, the Worship Annual comes up with stuff I can consistently use from week to week.

I often use the "contemporary options" for either gathering or closing. I find that the material in this resource preserves the integrity of our liturgical format without getting in a rut.

Grade: A


Whispers of God and Led By Love
I like these resources. I think that they have a reverence and beauty about them that make them nice for worship. I do, however, think that the readings in each of these texts are a little lengthy, and thus are hard for us to fit in our bulletin.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review of Kneeling with Giants by Gary Neal Hansen

Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History's Best Teachers
by Gary Neal Hansen
ISBN 978-0-8308-3562-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

book cover

As many readers of this blog may know, I am always have my eyes open for books that discuss spiritual formation and prayer, especially if they do so in a unique and thoughtful way. Recently, Intervarsity Press published a wonderful little survey methods for prayer by Gary Neal Hansen called Kneeling with Giants.

Kneeling with Giants approaches the subject of prayer by looking at how saints of old prayed throughout church history. This is a good idea. It allows readers to observe someone else's method of praying to see if it works for them. It allows Dr. Hansen to instruct his readers on how to pray without beating them over the head with how they "should" do this, or have to do that. Hansen approaches his topic with a lot of grace.

As an "NT" on my Myers-Briggs test, I was thankful to see that there were several models of praying in this book that engage the intellect in more than a perfunctory manner. In particular, I enjoyed the instruction from the Reformed Tradition--both the chapter on Calvin and on the Puritans.

The chapters I enjoyed most (Calvin and Ignatius) in particular, included some more detailed instruction on how the specific method of prayer was to be carried out. I enjoyed the "boxes" which asked leading questions and gave a few step by step guidelines to implementing the specific kind of prayer well. For several of the mystics, such as the description of the Jesus Prayer, this may have been less appropriate. But when I have a little "cheat sheet" I can copy off to use and share, I am a little better off.

Most books on prayer take two approaches. The either focus exclusively on intercession, or they neglect intercession for most of the book and focus on prayer as simply the exercise of spiritual disciplines. Thankfully, Kneeling with Giants goes to neither of these extremes. It presents a holistic view of prayer that will be helpful to people wherever they are on their spiritual journey.

I loved this book. I am hoping to use it some day as a primer on prayer for people who are beginning their walks with Christ, and seeking some guidance on prayer. I think Kneeling with Giants will be a helpful book for many, and an interesting study for most praying Christians.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review of Pregmancy by Christian Piatt

Pregmancy: A Dad, A Little Dude, and a Due Date
by Christian Piatt
ISBN 978-0827230323
Published by Chalice Press
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I heard about this book about 9 months before it came out. I wish it was available sooner. What the book is a riotously funny, masculine, realistic look at what it means to be an expectant father called PregMANcy. I actually had the publisher send me this book on a PDF several months before it was realeased. I wanted to be able to review this book while I was the parent of a toddler and had an expectant wife. So, I sat in waiting rooms and patient's rooms reading this fine little book while my wife was getting tested by doctors. And as I read, there were several moments where I would laugh out loud in such a manner that people started to stare at me during those visits. I could not help it.PregMANcy is just that funny.

 To understand the book, it helps to understand the author, since the whole book is about his journey. Christian Piatt is a pastor's husband living in Pueblo, CO. While his wife is a church planter for the Disciples of Christ in Pueblo, Christian Piatt is a writer and and artist who lets his gifts lead him in all sorts of creative directions. As a contrarian and an artist, Piatt's writing goes against the flow of what is commonly written for Christian publishers and expectant fathers.

One thing I appreciated, for example, was the honesty of the book. Piatt is forthright about his anxieties, nerves, and concerns about being a father of a second child. Most of these concerns that he voices are things that I struggled with, but not anything that anyone I know talks about, much less puts down on paper. PregMANcy is also blunt about biological matters, including sexual matters. One chapter toward the end of the book details the nature of his vascectomy. Another chapter shares about the struggles of post-partum sexual intercourse. Piatt is not vulgar as he shares these things, he is quite simply truthful. And the truthfulness of this book and this man's experience will appeal to guys everywhere.

 Also amusing was Piatt's discussion of his son, and his son's dealing with the expectation of a new sibling. At the beginning of each chapter there are quotes from the young man. Most of the quotes are things that a parent would laugh about if their child said something about such matters at home, but cringe if the child said the same thing in the middle of the grocery store.

 Some Christians will be offended by Piatt's direct discussion of body parts, as well as some of his earthy language. For example, he shares about imagined conversations he had with his testicles before they were cut on. He describes sex immediately after childbirth as ultimately unsatisfying because it is like "throwing a coin down well". He uses words like "crap" and "balls" frequently. It is not a book for your average church lady who loves Max Lucado.

 At points I smiled because I didn't believe a Christian publisher would have the courage to publish something as honest as this. Kudos to Chalice for publishing it. Christian publisher or not, I think this is the definitive book for expectant fathers working through what it means to be a father, or a father again. I would recommend it to just about any guy my age or younger, especially those who are learning the art of fatherhood.

Who To Listen To: Sermon on Mark 6:14-29

 Who to Listen To

There is a phrase I say often, that often makes my wife smile at me. She says it is because she enjoys hearing what is going to come after I utter that phrase. I think she likes hearing how my mind works. Sometimes I have wondered if she was just being nice when she gives me that look, and internally she is saying, “Oh boy, what now…”. Because I do utter this phrase quite often. What is the phrase? It is, “I have a theory about that!”

I tend to be the kind of guy who is, as our secretary Aimee calls me, a crock-pot thinker. I don’t think or react quickly. I just kind of stew on things for a while. But when I do really think things through, I tend to do that well.

One of my theological conclusions after reading the Bible through several times and trying to understand Scripture in the “big picture” sense is this. Christian spirituality begins and ends with the ability to listen well.

Listening well in Christian spirituality involves several things. It involves listening, and not simply hearing. In involves heeding and living by the truth one has listened to. Listening well involves discernment. It involves being able to shut out some voices that are opposed to Christ and his kingdom. It also involves being able to hear the voice of God through Scripture, circumstances, and the wise words of fellow Spirit-led believers. Christian spirituality involves being able to hear God’s call and follow it into danger, and even to the place of death.
From the beginning, human beings have had trouble listening well. Adam and Eve listened to the serpent instead of God.  Aaron built a golden calf in the wilderness because he listened to the crowd instead of the command not to make idols. Saul forgot to listen to God in the time of the kings, and his kingdom was stripped from him because of it. Solomon was given wisdom by God, but nearly destroyed his life because he did not listen. There are hundreds of examples throughout biblical history. When we listen to God and heed his word, we are able to live lives of spiritual beauty and power. When we get distracted from listening to God’s voice and obeying it, we find that all other voices lead us astray.

Probably one of the best examples of this truth is demonstrated by showing us the story about the death of John the Baptist, and in particular the folly of Herod. Herod choice to listen to other voices except the Word of the Lord. It cost him more than he ever thought it would.
The story goes something like this. Herod the Great died soon after Jesus was born. His kingdom was divided into four parts. One fourth of the kingdom was given to Herod Antipas, which is the Herod we meet here who imprisoned John. Another fourth was given to another one of Herod’s kids, who this Scripture names as Phillip. Phillip spent a lot of his time in Rome, trying to get on the fast track with the Roman Empire’s leadership program. Phillip had married a woman who was named Herodias.
For some reason, Herod Anitipas went to Rome. While there he visited with his brother, whom we know as Phillip, although he was also kind of known as Herod Jr. While Antipas was visiting Phillip, he fell in love with Phillip’s wife, who was also his neice. They hooked up while in Rome, and Antipas brought his new lady home to his old house. It was not long before his first wife was divorced and kicked to the curb.

Jerry Springer had nothing on the family of Herod the Great. The family tree was quickly becoming just a family twig. And, there was more family intermarriage than the worst redneck family reunion that you can imagine.
Much like the Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise divorce, or the details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal with President Clinton, it was not long before all of this news came to the attention of the general public. And as it came to the attention of the general public, it came to the attention of a well-known eccentric preacher that lived and ministered out in the wilderness.
That well known preacher was John the Baptist. John had generated quite a following. He preached repentance to the people. He was preparing the way for Jesus, and for the kingdom of God. So he challenged people to repent. He baptized them as a symbol of their repentance.
John was really angling toward the spiritual and moral reform of his nation as a whole. This is one reason why, when he heard what Herod Antipas was doing, he had to say something.  So he told Herod, through his sermons and in direct messages, that his behavior was immoral. He had stolen his brother’s wife. The Bible said not to do that. (Not to mention the whole incest thing).

The more John mentioned that Antipas was immoral, the more his wife Herodias got angry. It got to the point where she got tired of hearing about all that John was saying, and she and Herod had him arrested and imprisoned.

Herod was in a bad spot, or so he thought. You see, on one hand, he knew that John the Baptist was a holy and righteous man sent by God. On the other hand, he knew that Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead. So, his solution was to leave John the Baptist rotting in a jail cell.
Although Antipas did not like what he was saying about his marriage, he did like listening to John. His sermons challenged him. Antipas was knowledgable and sensitive enough to know that God was working in John’s ministry and life. So Herod would listen to, perhaps even visit, and tolerate John behind a jail cell. But he believed it would be wrong to kill him. He would, he knew deep down, be killing someone who God sent to speak for Him.

Well, Herod Antipas had a party one evening. And he had all the people who looked up to him, owed their jobs to him, and admired him there. It was Herod’s birthday bash, and he wanted it to be extra-special for his guests, so he decided to have his wife’s daughter dance for him and his crowd. Now, keep in mind, this woman dancing was most likely Herod’s great-neice, neice, and step-daughter at the same time. He had her do, from what the language in the original language hints at, some sort of erotic dance that got Antipas’ crew all hot and bothered by the time she was done.

Herod, now not in his wisest and most logical place in his thoughts, made a fatal mistake. After his step-daughter’s strip tease he told her she could have anything she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.
She quickly went to her mother for advice. Her mother said she wanted the head of John the Baptist. So the daughter came back to Antipas, and in front of everyone said she wanted the head of John the Baptist.

The Scripture said Antipas was grieved, but he did what she said. He did not want to be ashamed and embarrassed in front of everyone who had come to celebrate his birthday. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, but if he wanted to keep the respect and adoration of the crowd around him, he had to do what she asked. So he ordered the death of John the Baptist.
With John the Baptist gone, the man who called he and his wife to repentance was gone. So was the voice one who spoke for God, and called him to the life of faithfulness and repentance. He listened to the voice of his wicked wife and the crowds. He squelched the voice of God through his prophet.

So then, when Jesus’ ministry began to take momentum, he began to be afraid. Is this Jesus John the Baptist reincarnated. Of course, it was not. Jesus and John just had similar ministries, and the message of Jesus was built upon the one who prepared the way for him, namely John the Baptist.

You see, here was Herod’s problem. He heard God’s Word through John. However, he never listened to what God was saying to Him. And so, he lived a life of shame and regret, shame that eventually led him to be exiled to the other end of the Roman Empire, because he did not know who to listen to.
Instead of listening to the prophet of God, he listened to the voices of his wife and his the crowds. He let the voices leading him in every other direction but the direction that God calls lead him astray. He played at faith, but never really embraced it. He understood the truth of God, but refused to surrender his life to it. He did not listen to God, and as a result John died and he remained a paranoid mess for the rest of his life.

You see, we become like those things we listen to.

When we listen to the voice of Christ, or of God through John the Baptist, when we truly listen 
to them, and truly believe what they say and incorporate what they have taught us into our lives, we become like Jesus.

But when we listen to the world, to the crowds, to those people who would try and get us to live for them and do their bidding instead of living for the Lord and doing his will, then we become like the rest of the world—worried, bitter, paranoid, selfish, and hopeless.

There are a lot of competing demands and voices vying for our attention, all around us, even today. I will only speak to a few. One is greed. Many of us our ruled by our appetites. We drink Double Big Gulps. We run and we run and we run because we think we cannot miss out on anything, and we must fill our lives with all sorts of experiences and opportunities that cannot be missed. We look to our checkbook for our security. We think we have to do more, get more, and be more just to keep up. The television tells us this. Our peers tell us this. The world tells us this.

If this is you, I urge you to listen to Jesus who says, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.
Other times we listen to people in our life that are quite simply toxic. Who we choose as advisors, counselors, and friends effect how we see the world. Scripture is clear, “Bad company corrupts good character”.

Especially if you are young in your faith, but even if you are maturing, you need to find wise people to surround yourself with. You need to have people that are not afraid to step on your toes if they know you are doing something wrong, because they don’t want you to make a mess of your life. You need people who are going to encourage you to stay strong and even grow in your commitment to Christ. You need to have friends that are not swayed by every wind of change or every trend that comes along. You need friends that are going to be like what Scripture calls, “Iron sharpening Iron”. You need to have other friends to—friends you are reaching out to and influencing for the better. But you also need those peers and mentors that make you stronger and closer to God instead of leading you further away.

Finally, some of you listen to those voices that tell you that you are not good enough. Maybe there are people who have told you that you are not smart enough. Or our culture has convinced you that you are not pretty enough. Perhaps you have become convinced that you are hopeless. Or you have come to believe that you have made too many mistakes and nobody, much less God could ever forget it.

God’s word says in Psalm 139 that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. Philippians 4:13 says that you can “do all things through Christ who strengthens you”.

I urge you to listen to the voice of God. The one who says that he created you with beauty and purpose. The one who can do mighty things through you if you will surrender your life to him completely. Don’t let your insecurities get in the way of God’s grace working in your life. Don’t listen to those other voices. Listen to the one who created you and has loved you since the foundation of the world.

Our lives are defined by who we listen to. We become like those we listen to most. We become who those who we listen to most say we are.

Let us listen to the one who loved us enough to die for us, and has risen again so that we can have newness of life. Let us listen to Jesus.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Friar Tuck Learns Worship: The Roundabout Road of Liturgical Resource Development Part 2: The Denominational Worship Books


As most of you know, I do not come from a liturgical tradition. When I became American Baptist, I joined a church that was "semi-liturgical", meaning the tradition of the ABC often includes a responsive call to worship, and if it is more formal perhaps a unison prayer as well.

In coming to United Churches, I have encountered a church that is probably less-liturgical than many Presbyterian churches, perhaps similar to many Methodist churches, and on the more formal end of Baptist churches.

One of the first line of resources for liturgy that I discovered were the "official resources". By this I mean the books of worship endorsed by several different denominations, including the three that United Churches is affiliated with.

Each of them have their strengths, and I use each of them for different purposes. The United Methodist Book of Worship is very good about having "short services" for special occasions. I have been guided by the UMC Worship Book for services such as Short-Term Missionary Commissioning, Brief Baptismal Liturgies, and a Maundy Thursday service that included footwashing.

The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship often seems to have good resources, but tends to be a little lengthy and wordy in its presentation. The PCUSA book, though, has better resources for week to week use. It has intelligently written, and often just sternly enough written prayers for my taste. When putting together a special service in the liturgical year, I will often use the UMC book as my outline and guide, but borrow liberally from the prayers and resources in the Book of Common Worship.

The Manual of Worship from the American Baptists I tend to use as a guide for weddings and funerals. I find that the more liturgical traditions can tend to make these services more lengthy than I or my parishoners prefer, but the Judson Press manual for worship gives a nice, structured, somewhat liturgical, yet simple approach to special services such as this.

I was recommended Gathering for Worship by a friend from seminary. So far, I find this book only marginally useful in my context. Though, I also find the prayers probably the best written. I use it occasionally. Its resources just don't always seem to fit our needs. But I am just learning.....

By far the most difficult prayer book for me to use for worship or personal devotion is the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I just find it poorly organized, and difficult to hop around in. Then again, I am not familiar with the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, and it appeals to me the least.