Archive for December 2012

Worship When We Hurt

December 17, 2012

Em Candlelight Here we are in one of the most festive times of the year, anticipating the coming of Christmas Day.  Advent worship is suppose to be about this anticipation, about remembering the first “coming” of the Messiah, and about the brilliant hope of the second “coming” of our Lord.  Then following a myriad of newsbreaks from the media, our hearts are broken.  Our carols turn toward a minor key.  How do we worship in the face of such hurt?  Candles waiting to be lit to represent peace, joy, and hope in our lives become candles lit as prayers for lives snuffed out by insane acts of violence that make absolutely no sense to us.

The tragic news from Newtown, Connecticut has brought to mind one of the deepest hurts known to humankind.  The hurt of separation.  The Hurt is more basic than the hurt of knowing that innocence has been shattered by a gruesome act of violence.  I believe it to be deeper even than the unthinkable pain a family member might have of knowing your loved one committed such atrocious acts before ending his own life on this earth.   The core reason we cannot wrap our minds and emotions around what has happened, or around these subsequent ripples of horror that result from initial occurrence is separation.  Children separated from parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends.  A mother taken from her husband and children.  It could be said that separation is in fact the core unfathomable dynamic in all aspects of this and other hurts we face in this world and in the next.  Is separation from God, indeed, not the very essence of what is Hell?

In his book on sin Cornelius Plantinga states, “God hates sin not just because it violates his law, but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be.”[1]  He goes on to describe evil as any spoiling of shalom.  

Surely genuine Christian worship reorients us toward peace, toward shalom.  Such engagement in no way ignores the peace-disturbance, nor would it ever ignore the emotional and spiritual pain so severe in the aftermath of that disturbance.  To the contrary, worship acts to incarnate our Lord, the Prince of Peace.  Worship embraces the brokenness.  Songs of faith are just that, faith.  It is disingenuous (often blatant hypocrisy) to pretend we can sing happy songs to stare down the rape of peace.

In fact, as numerous blogs and facebook posts by fellow believers have reflected, the psalms themselves, the greatest songs ever written and core expression of Hebrew and Christian worship, express the full gamut of human emotion including the deepest depths of anguish, especially in times of separation.

Most haunting for me is Psalm 22.  Sung by Jesus from the cross, this psalm cries the cry that is outside our grasp.  Father and Son, Who are One, separated?  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  I think I will never forget a sermon from this Psalm that I heard several years ago when conducting a worship conference with our recently deceased friend and author, Calvin Miller.  He spoke of the cry of Psalm 22 being the cry heard throughout the universe throughout all time.  In his poetic and eloquent manner he ran through a litany of painful separations, and in each instance asked the haunting question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  If the sermon were preached today, surely included would be the loved ones of each of these lost in this tragedy, who must have moments of doubt, feeling forsaken.  Thus we come back to the question,

How do we worship in the face of unspeakable pain and overwhelming sorrow?  Psalm 22 eventually turns a corner.  In verse 25 the psalmist rediscovers where song comes from.

 From You comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows. (Ps 22:25)

 Our faith is in the God of grace, whose mercy is everlasting.  In worship we point toward Him who sympathizes with our weakness. (Heb 4:15)  We love Him, love one another, and love our neighbor as ourself, which we may only find possible when we rediscover our song from Him.  The strong aid the weak, even at this time of Advent and Christmas we can sing in faith knowing He hears us, Who said, “Bring the little children to me.” (Luke 18:16)  Indeed, the message of Advent and Christmas is exactly what we need to help us remember our song and anticipate our great hope.  Emmanuel – God with us.

           Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay                

            Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;

           Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care

          And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.

                                                            -Thomas McFarland


Coen Candlight 2

[1] Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 1995) pg. 14.


December 3, 2012

Christ the Lamb stained glass For more than a year I have wanted to attend a Sunday morning worship service at Covenant Church in Cookeville, Tennessee.  This church plant was envisioned by its pastor and his family and birthed more than a year ago.  One of the reasons I have so wanted to worship with the young congregation is my longtime relationship with Pastor, Dr. Jonathan Nelms and his precious family.  What’s more, though, I wanted to worship under Jonathan’s leadership due to my absolute confidence in the level of integrity in the worship environment where I knew God’s Word would be honored and trusted to speak for itself.  I was certainly not disappointed.

Dr. Nelms’ message so effectively captured the essence of the Advent season that I want to share my impressions from the morning’s worship service, and more specifically, to convey what I believe is our calling in our day and age to deliver a prophetic word to our congregations and our communities through the songs we sing, the sermons we preach, and the prayer we help them to pray in our present context.  Jonathan helped worshipers understand that we live in the tension between the “Yet,” that which we testify to, which has already occurred, and the “Not yet,” that which the Bible promises is still to come.  The words from our worship study are anamnesis, that which we remember, and prolepsis, that toward which we look, holding to the hope of God’s promise.  Simple, yet incredibly powerful, and hugely important for all of us who plan and direct gathered worship.

More than once in my life I have been reminded that tension is an indication of life.  Somewhere between anamnesis and prolepsis is really where we live, as we engage the present in light of these two realities.  Living in that tension certainly does not make life carefree.  It does, however, offer tremendous sense of purpose and spiritual connection to the One Who has given the past, and holds the future, and is the very reason in it all; past, present, and future.  It is important for me to live beyond my work; my job. my career.  While I may recall the past vividly, the truth is that it is history – gone.  I cannot live in the past.  While I may resound with hope for the future, the future is yet to be realized, and thus is engaged only through faith.  I cannot live in the future.  So, what of the now?  Jonathan did a wonderful job of communicating in his message Sunday.  Through effective illustrations he reminded us of systemic changes of our day that effects how we communicate; how we project ourselves to many places, so to speak.  Technological advances are challenging us with a new way to live.  Rather than just being swept into the melieu without thinking, our Christian faith and indwelling Holy Spirit can help us in walking the narrow way.

Through the Advent season reflection based on the Gospel reading in Luke 21:25-36, we were reminded at Covenant Church Sunday of our freedom in Christ to live a way that is different.  In the fourfold pattern of worship that Jonathan has so faithfully taught and modeled as worship pastor in his previous church setting, and now as teaching pastor in his new church, we moved from Word to Table Sunday.  Taking the bread and the cup with this new fellowship was a deeply meaningful way of recommitting my own self to trust the Lord Who narrates the world, past, present, and future.  My spirit is resonant reflecting on the sounds of this new congregation lifting the Triumphant strains of the Revelation Song, proclaiming Him, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!  Who was, and is, and is to come!”

Amen! and Amen!

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