Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.

7+ Years In, Preaching Anew

More than 7 years into ordained ministry, and 19 years since I first entered seminary, I have renewed my practice of preaching – both delivering and preparing the sermon.

I had always preached with a manuscript

Most of these manuscripts were not paragraph’d pages looking as if they belonged in a book, but a more free-form movement of phrases written not for reading but for speaking. I took pride in my words, in the development of my argument, and in the construction of these manuscripts that helped me to speak, I thought, naturally.

My process for writing manuscript sermons usually involved a reading Scripture, perhaps a commentary or two, and reflection, all geared toward finding that thread, that hook, that angle for my sermon. I would then spend hours sitting at my computer and writing the manuscript, usually over two or three sittings. With my thread for that Scripture set, I would work in a more-or-less straight line fashion from start to finish. Most of my sermon-prep time was spent on that manuscript, on that thread that got the ball rolling, on one particular insight into the text.

Army chaplaincy changed my preaching

7+ years into my ordained ministry, and many more years into my experience as a preacher (I preached several times/year prior to ordination), I went to my final phase of training at the US Army Chaplain Center and School for my Basic Officer Leaders Course as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard. In addition to preaching for classroom assignments, I was given the opportunity to preach for a Holy Thursday service during our class five-day capstone field experience.

2016-03-22 11.10.08While at the Chaplain school, where I heard from experienced chaplains and had the opportunity to preach in a variety of training settings, it became clear to me that preaching to a very small group of Soldiers huddled around a Humvee in the field required a different method. For one, my computer-based writing process was all but impossible in the field. But more, delivering a polished manuscript sermon for a small group of Soldiers in the field who are experiencing the fatigue of training – or deployment – seemed to miss the mark. A manuscript designed for pulpit preaching wouldn’t work for such a setting.

I heard fellow students – mostly from traditions fairly distinct from my Lutheran church – preach. I found myself jealous as many of them proclaimed effortlessly without notes. I learned that the context of military preaching may require impromptu “Word of the Day” messages, or unexpected words of comfort spoken at a moment’s notice to a group of battle buddies grieving a fallen Soldier. No manuscripts for these settings, either.

Given these experiences and insights I committed to leave the manuscript behind – in my military ministry setting, but also in my civilian ministry. I had considered this years ago, wondering if the altars and pulpits in our churches served, unwittingly perhaps, as barriers between people and pastor. Making this decision to set aside the manuscript resonated with my earlier concerns about the relationships between worship leaders and the congregation of worshipers.

To be sure, the first few times trying this manuscript-less preaching in my civilian ministry were rough. My baseline for sermon preparation was still the manuscript, and I was trying to replicate my manuscript-writing process for my manuscript-less sermon. What resulted were very detailed, almost manuscript-like, notes prepared on my computer. As I tried to pare back my manuscript, I found myself almost vomitously uneasy just prior to preaching.

Journaling as sermon preparation

2016-07-30 23.36.39But then I bought a notebook and a good mechanical pencil and began journaling the Sunday texts by hand. I first write the text in the notebook, leading me to give more attention to each word than I ever did by simply reading the text. After writing the Scripture in my notebook, I simply write. Disconnected phrases. Questions. Insights gained from reading commentaries or other Scripture. Parallels to my life, to my congregation’s life, to my community and country. Connections to music or film or television. Anything. There is no structure yet. There is no thread I’m trying to weave. Just reflections and thoughts and questions. I do this for several days.

By Friday or Saturday I pull together a rough outline, prepare some slides to accompany my preaching (using Canva), and write a “Good News Statement” that concisely defines the point I’m trying to make, the Good News I’m trying to proclaim. Some or even much of what I had journaled in the past few days ultimately gets set aside.

It is not until Sunday morning that I actually rehearse. I’ll run through the sermon 2-5 times on Sunday morning before worship, focusing especially on my opening, transitions, images, and conclusion. Very little new material makes its way into my sermon at this point, but sometimes that happens.

And then I preach. I preach perhaps with a few notes in front of me, but also perhaps with nothing in hand at all. I preach with that outline and projected slides guiding me, and days of journaling, reflecting, wrestling, praying supporting my proclamation. I have a comfort level with the entire passage that I never had in my earlier manuscript method, which too early in the process narrowed my message down to a single thread or angle that perhaps wasn’t ultimately fruitful. And, free from the precision of a manuscript, I am able to add last-minute insights or images, perhaps that were noted only as I greeted people on their way into worship 20 minutes before I begin preaching. Again, my comfort with the Scripture text and the outlined movement of my message allow me to make such adjustments on the fly.

I have received very positive feedback since making the switch. “Pastor, your sermons without notes are 20 times better than when you use notes,” one church member said to me recently. The feedback is consistent – I’m more natural, “myself.” In this way, I’m more effective as a preacher, which is the goal. 

For any who have made their way through this post, I hope that perhaps my experience can be helpful for you if you’re working on renewing your practice of preaching. Or, I hope that my example might help any clergy considering reserve component chaplaincy to see just one of the many ways in which the military ministry can positively impact your civilian ministry.

Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.

So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.

1. The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. This is pretty bad.

“[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.

For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.

The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). Bafflingly, it paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). “No linkage”? This is laughable. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary seem here to forget that Scripture is read in worship surrounded by Christian hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments.

For about half of the year the RCL offers an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).

2. The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.

3. The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year.

The RCL replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Acts is fantastic. This is true. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.

4. The year is all off.

I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.

5. The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. 

When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.

The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.

“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a linchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.

 


 

I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the movement of the RCL’s daily lectionary.

Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionarya year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.

Originally published in August 2015. Lighted edited December 2017

Creating Space for Communion Before Baptism

Who is welcome to receive Holy Communion?

Are all invited to receive the sacrament? All baptized Christians? Or, all baptized Christians who believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament? Variations on these three invitations can be found printed in worship bulletins across our church.

Communion in the HandThe longstanding understanding of the church is that communion is for the baptized, a teaching that is upheld in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on The Practice of Word and Sacrament, adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997.

THE HOLY COMMUNION IS GIVEN TO THE BAPTIZED Principle 37
Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

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Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?

Maybe.

Capture - Bob Merrit lectern

Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

DSC_1123

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

DSC_0975

Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Worshiping Elsewhere

Yesterday with members of my church’s outreach committee I attended two churches for worship to experience how these churches welcome visitors and newcomers. One church was a campus of a large, multi-site evangelical church, and the other church was a large congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (my denomination). At the Lutheran church, we attended a contemporary service.

What follows are some observations, particularly about the nuts and bolts of the worship experience.

  • Both places were warm and welcoming, though one church in particular was amazing in this regard. I was greeted no less than 10 times. Not high-pressure tactics, but simply a warm greeting. Looking me in the eye. Saying hello. Opening a door. Asking if I’m new. Answering my questions. I was acknowledged, greeted, welcomed, and thanked for attending. It felt nice to be welcomed in such a way.
  • This church didn’t have a “Welcome Center” or a “Visitor’s Booth,” but instead the whole place was welcoming. Hosts at the curb, at each of the double doors, inside the gathering area, at the doors to the sanctuary, and just inside the sanctuary. There was always a helping hand, ready to open a door for me (I didn’t touch a door once at this place) and help me find where I was going (but, I didn’t need help to find anything anyway. The flow and signage was very clear.)
  • Trained church members stood in the gathering area, and greeted people entering the space. Upon learning that it was my first time there, one of these people gave me a new visitor packet. He didn’t have to go fetch the packet. He had it in his hands, expecting to see newcomers.
  • I didn’t have to open a book at either service. Nor did I have to look in a bulletin. It was nice. No juggling an unfamiliar book or unfamiliar bulletin and inserts and whatnot. The projection, and the words and gestures of the worship leaders, kept me moving along the way. Nothing in either service was assumed. Everything was very, very clear.
  • Thanks to the projection and the generally-engaging worship leadership, I was looking up the entire time. Not down at books and papers, but up at the worship leaders, the text and graphics on the screen, and at any ritual action taking place. I was never confused as to what was going to come next, or what I was supposed to do next. It was easy to follow along and participate in these services.
  • Signage is important. One church had small a-frame signs on the street, directing cars to the church, and then to the parking lot or to the drop-off area. Inside both churches, signs clearly marked literature racks, information stations, and so forth. One church had, among other things, well-placed restroom signs in the gathering area. (The signs were about 7 or 8 feet off the floor, a foot or so from the ceiling, sticking out from the wall, so as to catch your eye. A foot or two lower, and a tall person could have whacked their head on the sign, and/or blocked it from view.)
  • At both churches worship was prompt and tight. Worship was well-led. Worship began on time, segues between different worship actions (prayer and song, for example) were smooth, and technology always worked. The music – guitar bands in both places – was very good. Clearly the music, the worship leaders’ actions, and the message were rehearsed.
  • The worship leaders were personable. They led prayer and made announcements without reading notes verbatim, and shared a small (yet not annoying) level of banter with the other worship leaders. The worship leaders were accessible and relatable.
  • The worship leaders dressed casually (the pastor at the Lutheran church did wear clerics, but no robe). The overwhelming majority of worshippers dressed casually.

I will have more to share, particularly after meeting with members of the outreach committee tomorrow – two of whom visited two other churches – to gather all their insights. But this was a great experience, not just for what we observed but for having the experience of being a visitor, a newcomer to an unfamiliar worship space.