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Archive for November, 2009

I love this picture—“Girls Laughing, Uganda”—the photo of the day from National Geographic.  It seems like an illustration of the Thanksgiving psalm I’ve included below: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.”  Surely if these girls from Uganda can find something to laugh about, we can, too.

My prayer for you this day is that it would be a day filled with “gladness” and “joyful songs,” with much to be grateful for, and if you need some words to get you started, here they are:

Psalm 100

A psalm. For giving thanks.

 1 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

 2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
       come before him with joyful songs.

 3 Know that the LORD is God.
       It is he who made us, and we are his;
       we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
       and his courts with praise;
       give thanks to him and praise his name.

 5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
       his faithfulness continues through all generations.

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In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.

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Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—“A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—“A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.

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On Tuesday night I preached at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.  This is a gathering of a thousand or so “messengers” who come from Baptist churches across the Commonwealth to do the business of the Association and to enjoy times of worship and fellowship.  It was a huge honor to be asked to preach and I tried to take it seriously.  I worked on the sermon for weeks, wrote out a full manuscript, and rehearsed it until I was fairly sure the words were coming out of me and not just off the page.  I polished my shoes, put on a suit, knotted my tie, and shoved a silk handkerchief into my breast pocket.  I was ready, or at least I thought I was. 

I climbed the steps and walked across the stage to the pulpit, opened my Bible, arranged my notes, and then looked out at the crowd.  But I couldn’t see the crowd.  I could only see the bright lights shining in my eyes.  And that’s when I remembered why I don’t like preaching at events like this.

I started in anyway, preaching the sermon as I had rehearsed it, but I couldn’t tell if the congregation was “getting it” or not.  I couldn’t see their faces.  Every once in a while I would hear a ripple of laughter move across the darkened room and once I heard a loud “Amen!” off to my right, but as I struggled through the sermon I realized how much I usually depend on congregational feedback. 

That raised eyebrow in the third pew lets me know that whatever I just said was a little surprising; those crossed arms off to my right may be a sign that things are getting too personal; that warm smile up in the balcony is a clue that whatever I’m saying is going down well; and that look of confusion to my left is a clue that I might need to say that last line again—slowly.  I “read” those faces, I depend on that feedback, and when I don’t get it the act of communication becomes uncomfortably one-sided.

It’s a good reminder that preaching—at its simplest—is one person sharing good news with others.  There’s an intimacy about it that is hindered by bright lights and a big stage.  Some of the best preaching I’ve done has been one-on-one, or in a group of five or six people, or in a tiny country church.  The worst preaching I’ve ever done—in my opinion—was when I read a sermon off the teleprompter in a television studio in Chicago.  Preaching ceases to be preaching in such circumstances and becomes something else:

Performance. 

I’m glad I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon at the BGAV.  As I said, it was a huge honor.  But I’m looking forward to being back in my regular pulpit this Sunday, talking to people I love about something I love to talk about. 

That’s not performing; that’s preaching.

 

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Jacob's LadderOn Thursday of last week, my friend Joe Perez and I were hiking up Bear Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s a beautiful hike, but the trail ascends almost vertically for 2,500 feet.  On the way up I caught myself singing that old spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  It’s got the perfect rhythm for a hike like that—slow and plodding—and the line about “every round goes higher, higher” is not only descriptive, it’s encouraging. 

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

I sang that much without any trouble, but then realized I didn’t know the next verse.  It was something about “Sinner do you _____ my Jesus,” but was it “love my Jesus” or “know my Jesus”?  I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, so I began to sing, “Sinner do you know my Jesus,” and then I followed it with, “If you know him why not trust him,” and then, “If you trust him why not serve him.”  I found out later that those aren’t the real lyrics, but as I sang them I thought about how the Christian faith progresses from one level to the next.  You don’t begin by serving Jesus, you begin by hearing something about him.  If you hear enough you might get to know him, and if you get to know him you might begin to trust him.  

The Christian life goes on and on like that if we are faithful about it; every round goes higher, higher.  If we keep on climbing Jacob’s Ladder one day we will get to the top of it, and the view, like my view from the top of Hunter Peak that day, will be breathtaking.

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Guadalupe Peak

I’m back from my backpacking trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and will be blogging again soon.  I just wanted to post this picture of Joe, Chuck, and Jim on top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.  Hey, don’t laugh!  It’s 8,751 feet high, more than a mile-and-a-half, and a good 2,000 feet higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi.  On the day we climbed it the wind was whipping around the summit and the chill factor made us glad we had brought warm clothing, but what a trip!

More to come…

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RainierJust after worship today I will head to the airport to catch a flight to Dallas, Texas.  I’ll be away for a week, backpacking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park with my friends Chuck Treadwell and Joe Perez.  Here’s a picture from another trip—Mount Rainier in the summer of 2005—just to give you an idea of why I do it.  Yes, I’m grizzled and footsore in this picture, but I’m sipping hot tea on the Wonderland Trail, with Mount Rainier looming over my left shoulder. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

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