Archive for December 2014


December 26, 2014

Jesus Nativity Gerard_van_Honthorst_001 Christmas is such a powerful, miraculous moment in the Gospel story.  Although it is beyond our human capacity to really comprehend, it is a core element of Christian faith, and thus a reason for singing.  God came into the world as a human baby.  Amazing!  My dad was a Baptist pastor and my mom church organist, so I have grown up celebrating the significance of this season, and have been singing the carols since childhood.  The music of Christmas has a special beauty and festive nature.  The miraculous truth of God becoming one of us in order to save us despite all of the evil of our hearts, past, present, and future, deserves music that rings with joyous celebrative and triumphant spirit.  As often as I have sung it, and as much as I have loved being part of music making in 2014, it never gets old.  I found special joy in our family celebration as our six and seven year old grandchildren re-told the Christmas story in their own words with heartwarming detail.  It gave me a sense of renewed hope that we were passing on the faith from generation to generation.  After the kids told and acted out the story with a special manger scene made up of stuffed dolls, we sang carols.  This is Christmas!  In the midst of church pageants and singing Christmas tree presentations, Christmas Eve services, and family gatherings, we run out of words that can begin to capture the power of this miracle.  I think that is a reason why I love the singing and music-making so much.  Words of carols written by gifted poets help express our worship and praise.  I also love reading and re-reading the writings of Church Fathers as they hammered out theological truth.  Consider writings from Augustine on 1 John 1.

Life Itself Appeared in Human Form

from Augustine of Hippo’s commentary on the first letter of St. John, 5th Century

‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life’.  Who could touch the Word with his hands, were it not that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?

 This Word, who became flesh in order that he could be touched by hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb.  But he did not then begin to be the Word; for St John says, ‘That which was from the beginning’.  See how his letter corroborates his gospel, from which you heard a short time ago, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’.

Possibly some may understand ‘concerning the Word of life’ as a vague expression referring to Christ, not meaning that very body of Christ which was touched by hands.  But you must take into account what follow, ‘And life itself was made manifest’.  It is Christ, therefore, who is the Word of life.

 And how was life manifested?  It was from the beginning, but it had not been manifested to men; yet it had been revealed to the angels, as they saw it and were nourished by it as if it were their bread.  What does scripture say?  ‘Man has eaten bread of angels’.

 So the life itself was made manifest in the flesh, because it depended on ‘manifestation’, that a reality only perceptible to the heart might also be visible to our eyes, and thus heal our hearts.  For the Word is seen only by the heart, but the flesh is seen also by bodily eyes.  There was in fact flesh which we could see, in order to heal the heart, the means by which we could see the Word.

‘And we are witnesses’, he says, ‘and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest among us’; to make the text clearer it is permissible to read ‘was made manifest to us’.

‘That which we have seen and heard therefore we proclaim to you’.  My dear brethren in Christ, take note of this: ‘that which we have seen and heard therefore we proclaim to you’.  They – namely the writers – saw the Lord himself, present in the flesh and heard the words from the Lord’s own lips, and proclaimed them to us.  So we also have heard, but we have not seen.

Is it to be concluded that we are less blessed than those who heard and also saw?  How then does the writer add, ‘that you say have fellowship with us’?  They saw, we have not seen; and yet we are in fellowship with them, for we hold a common faith.

‘And our fellowship is with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And’, he adds, ‘we are writing this that you joy may be complete’.  This complete joy of which he speaks is in that very fellowship itself, in that very love, in that very unity.

Augustine article from


December 15, 2014

Christmas-program-angel-m So I am walking into a card shop to look for an appropriate Christmas card and my ears perk up to the mishmash of seasonal music that is playing in the store. Most of the tunes are the usual “feel good” attempts like I Saw Mommy Kissin’ Santa Clause, Frosty the Snowman (Christmas??), and some rendition of Jingle Bell Rock (Christmas??). Though my piety is duly disgusted, I catch myself kinda whistling – humming – and head bobbin’ along. One of the medleys morphs into an upbeat version of Angels We Have Heard on High with its familiar Latin refrain, “glo……ria in excelsis deo!” As I’m listening, I’m thinking, really? What arranger thought, “these things go together?” Of course, I am also thinking that if this muzak was playing in my house (not too likely), I would be either singing along, or coaxing one of my grandkids to dance a jig with me, especially to that Jingle Bell Rock song. I refuse to be the Grinch or Scrooge who threatens coal in the stockings if anyone in the household mentions the guy in the red suit, or enjoys the generic “holiday” songs. With all that is truly bad in our world, I find it absurd to waist my righteous indignation on debunking children’s belief in a costumed legend who brings them toys if they behave. Dare I say that I am less concerned that store clerks say “Happy Holidays” than I am that so few of us Christians convey the true spirit of genuine desire for everyone to have a merry Christmas? And this brings me to the point of this posting. Our worship needs to be centered in the truly good news of the Gospel.

The Advent – Christmas season provides a perfect time for us to move definitively in the direction of presenting good news, and preparing to live it out. Whether we are stirred more by the details and miracle of Jesus’ first coming, or urged to action by the anticipation of His eminent return, we simply must center our worship in the metanarrative that pronounces His activity throughout, and our place in Gospel living in the in-between. Let us find and point to the relentless hope that is voiced in every Christmas carol we sing, and foster heart and mind connection to the Gospel truth! But be careful, because we likely have some pretty serious confessing to do if we are going to declare hope that is to be fleshed out with our ministries. But fear not! Our confessing helps proclaim our position, not as those who have grasped grace, and thus no longer have need. Rather, we are those in the grasp of grace, and thus overflowing with gratitude, must proclaim it! Let’s look at lyrics of just a couple of Advent-Christmas hymns, and consider our seasonal worship, confessional and celebrative:

             Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

            Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

What am I doing to help souls know their worth? Do we seek to share the hope of soul-worth with those who do not look, think and act like us?


            Truly He taught us to love one another

            His law is love and His gospel is peace.

            Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother

            And in His name all oppression shall cease.

How well am I loving others? Are we more consumed with pointing out people’s oppression than we are sharing with them the freedom for which we say they long?


            O come, Desire of nations bind all people in one heart and mind.

            Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Am I an agent of peace, or a promoter of division by political, social, or economic argument? Do we value God’s peace above our way?


            For lo! The days are hast’ning on, By prophets’ bards foretold

            When with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold;

            When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

            And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing. 

If I believe in a returning and reigning triumphant Savior, then do I also reflect that confidence in the face of all the negative around me? Is the church dispensing religion or grace? Do our tactics indicate we are about saving lives, building Kingdom or cornering market share?

So many wonderful Christmas hymns and carols reinforce the stream of eternal praise for Christ, as Holy Child, as Incarnate Word, as Hope for all the world forever and ever. I have sung so many of these carols and hymns my whole life, yet different phrases, words, or refrains catch me each year, as if the first I have sung them. It is a season dripping with Gospel – good news!! So, let’s sing it! And then, let’s live it! Joy to the World! The Lord is come!

Merry Imperfect Christmas (take 2)

December 8, 2014

I enjoy reading posts by Stacey Gleddiesmith and commend this to you in case your Christmas seasons, like mine, tend to be other than perfect.

thinking worship

This morning at Columbia Bible College’s final chapel service of the semester I was given the opportunity to share a little bit, taking inspiration from a Christmas blog I wrote last year called Merry Imperfect Christmas. So this is a re-visitation of a concept that does, perhaps, need to be revisited. The permissions at the end were used as our benediction.

"Tangled Light" by Tom Cochrane, flickr creative commons “Tangled Light” by Tom Cochrane, flickr creative commons

I hate watching TV at this time of year.

Too many perfect families (mom, dad, 2 kids, a dog) gathered around a perfect table… or in front of a perfect tree… finding each other the perfect gifts… lighting up with the prefect reactions….

And if anything does go wrong it goes adorably wrong. So the dog knocks over the Christmas tree, and everyone laughs and laughs (while looking at each other creepily)—and no one actually has to go over and…

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December 8, 2014

Rituals I grew up during the 1960’s and 70’s in the South and Midwest, where conservative evangelical views reigned supreme. During those days there was a marked anti-Roman Catholic attitude among many conservative evangelical preachers and leaders. The sentiment was predominant among church members of the day as well. The negativity expressed itself in several ways. For example, although I was only eight years old at the time, I remember vehement discussions at the barbershop, the grocery store, and at the church-house during the election season of 1960 when Roman Catholic, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States. The largely fear-based reactions made me, as a little kid, feel like we were all doomed to soon be speaking in Latin and singing Gregorian chant for our before-mealtime blessings. Another means of anti-Catholic reaction was resistance by many evangelical churches to anything that smacked of ritualistic symbolism. Candle lighting , use of responsive readings, usage of decorative symbols, and the like were discarded by many evangelicals as inherently meaningless. In many churches liturgical form was supplanted by formats that resembled revivalist crusades. The pragmatic move was seen by many leaders as a way to fend off any hint of ritualism, while at once focusing their churches’ attention on evangelistic zeal, or so they hoped.  In the meantime what was also lost was a more robust reading of scripture in public worship, and other worship acts with strong biblical affinity.

Ritualism and ritual are two different things. Ritualism could be described as ritual that has turned in upon itself, robbing ritual of its intended meaning. Social Scientist, Robert K. Merton, in his theory of deviance says, ritualism is a “form of quasi-deviance in which people obey norms outwardly by ‘going through the motions,’ but they lack inner commitment to their roles and the underlying values of the social system.” He goes on to say that widespread ritualism undermines morale and commitment as others observe the lack of commitment.  Wow!  I will let you make your own applications in the case of this frightful description.  Regardless of whether the expression is overt formalism, Pentecostalism, traditional revivalism, or contemporary-styled worship, ritualism tends to raise its ugly head as faith fades, and genuine spirituality is lost. I have written previously on Michael Walters’ proposal that says, “ritualism is worship divorced from life.” (read here) By contrast, Webster’s dictionary says ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed according to set sequence. Greeting someone with a handshake is a ritual. Saying, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” is ritual. Ritual comes from rite. Weddings and funerals are rites, and we who are Christian believe these rites are best administered by the church with a clear Christ-centered message at their heart. Ritual is important to worship. Many symbolic acts of worship are ritual. We bow our heads or kneel when we pray. We may raise our hands in praise and/or as testimony to our desire to surrender to the Lordship of Christ. We may call for people to walk an aisle as a means of spiritual response or decision. We baptize new believers. We partake of the Lord’s Supper either in unison acts, or through actions of coming to the Table. These gestures, words, and objects performed according to sequence are rituals, but certainly they are intended to be filled with meaning. Those with sacramentalist understanding of some of these acts may even say they are means of bestowing God’s grace. Those with a different view would say the acts and elements are more symbolic.  Symbolic ritual does not guarantee the essence of the activity, but rather serves its enactment. Kneeling or bowing one’s head does not guarantee we are communing with God in prayer, but these ritual actions foster the spirit of prayer and their practice offers worshipers a means of indicating they are engaged in prayer. Likewise, raising hands in itself never assures praise or surrender. Even going to church for Sunday worship in the first place is ritual, but not one that assures we are living as disciples, or worshipers of Jesus. We could perhaps all participate in writing personal testimony as to ways meaningful ritual can drift into meaninglessness that becomes ritualism. Pride certainly finds a welcome home in ritualism as worshipers gone cold may continue attempts to appear spiritually warm and pious.

Worship ritual clearly must be rooted in Jesus Christ. While none of us can claim absolute doctrinal purity, we can seek to faithfully root our worship in Christ. Biblical research, as well as study of the Church’s history reveals the ongoing need for reformation in the church. Study of the ancient church reveals the foundational practice of Word and Table.  Years of add-ons and complicated schemes of indulgences and other additions led to the Reformation.

Just as with other ritual activities, singing is an act that can either drip with full-hearted meaning and significance, or can drift into ritualism.  We may blame the songs, or style of the music as being meaningless.  Often, what has become meaningless is the singing itself.  Half-hearted, rote participation, or complete lack of engagement at all can rend the ritual of singing our worship meaningless.  Singing can even end up serving as a means of dividing the church, rather than opportunity to shape her into the worshiping community of “many members, one body” that scripture teaches. Seems to me the oneness for which Jesus prayed (John 17) is either helped through our serve-one-another worship singing, or thwarted by our age-segmented, or preference-driven divisions.

Lord, help our singing to engage head and heart in the Gospel in a spirit of ministering mutuality such that our worship always points us to Jesus, and shapes us in His image through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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