Palm Sunday has Enough Passion of Its Own

A Christian Century blogpost by Karoline Lewis (Against Passion Sunday) has inspired a few posts among blogs I read, and a wonderful conversation on my Facebook profile. In her piece, Dr. Lewis recalls her childhood experience of worshiping on Palm Sunday. "It was celebratory, festive, when as child I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like." She then notes that for practical concerns – many people who worship on Palm Sunday will not be in worship for Holy Thursday and Good Friday – it might make sense to read the Passion narrative, but she laments what is lost by that practical consideration.

"I wonder if we need Palm Sunday's moments of praise for what they are, not what they will be in a few days. A celebration of Palm Sunday alone might bring back a pattern of faith that we need: the moments of pain, of suffering, of the victory of the world, are bracketed by hosannas and alleluias, by glory, laud and honor. It's a structure of belief that is inherent in the Gospel story."

I agree that the celebration of our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem – paradoxical as it is, with Jesus the King riding into town on a donkey – needs its own day. In the current practice of Palm/Passion Sunday, we read the Palm Sunday narrative as an entrance rite, but then within minutes we're reading a long Passion narrative, and the tenor of the day takes a quick, whiplash-inducing turn. We hardly get time to soak up the irony of Jesus' royal entrance, before we're rushed to his royal coronation on the cross.

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Vom Himmel Hoch

Vom Himmel Hoch is my favorite Christmas hymn (and the only hymn I refer to by tune name, for some reason).  I was in the church choir growing up – I was the bass section for three years – and we sang this hymn on Christmas Eve, variously alternating verses between soloist, choir a capella, and congregation.  Silent Night eat your heart out – this hymn is the high point of my Christmas Eve.

Here it is, Vom Himmel Hoch, in all its fourteen verse glory.  A blessed Christmas to all!

From Heaven Above

From heav'n above to earth I come

to bear good news to ev'ry home!
Glad tidings of great joy I bring

to all the world, and gladly sing:

To you this night is born a child

of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
this newborn child of lowly birth

shall be the joy of all the earth.

This is the Christ, God's Son most high,
who hears your sad and bitter cry,
who will himself your Savior be

and from all sin will set you free.

The blessing that the Father planned

the Son holds in his infant hand,
that in his kingdom, bright and fair,
you may with us his glory share.

These are the signs that you will see
to let you know that it is he:
in manger-bed, in swaddling clothes

the child who all the earth upholds.

Now let us all with joyful cheer

go with the shepherds and draw near

to see this wondrous gift of God,
the blessed child to us bestowed.

Look, look, dear friends, look over there!
What lies within that manger bare?
Who is that lovely little one?
The  baby Jesus, God's dear Son.

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
through whom this sinful world is blest!
You turned not from our needs away;
how can our thanks such love repay?

O Lord, you have created all!
Wow did you come to be so small,
to sweetly sleep in manger-bed
where lowing cattle lately fed?

Were earth a thousand times as fair
and set with gold and jewels rare,
still such a cradle would not do
to rock a prince so great as you.

For velvets soft and silken stuff
you have but hay and straw so rough

on which as king so rich and great

to be enthroned in humble state.

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child,
prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
a quiet chamber in my heart,
that you and I may never part.

My heart for very joy now leaps;
my voice no longer silence keeps;
I too must sing with joyful tongue

the sweetest ancient cradle-song:

Glory to God in highest heav'n,
who unto us the Son has giv'n.
With angels sing in pious mirth

a glad new year to all the earth!

—–
Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. Lutheran Book of Worship

Text © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Advent: Blue or Purple?

Reposted from my congregation's December newsletter, The Steeple Light

What is the “proper” color of Advent – blue or purple?  Purple was the long-standing color used by Lutheran congregations, as well as other liturgical churches, through most of the 20th century.  The purple of Advent and of Lent served two purposes – emphasizing the royalty of Christ, as kings in western culture over the centuries were often adorned with purple garments.  Furthermore, purple has a penitential nature to it, inviting introspection and repentance on behalf of the believer.

Indeed, the connection of Lent – with its pilgrimage to the suffering of the cross – with penitential acts is pretty easy to make.  As we reflect on the sin of the world that nailed our Lord to the cross, we also confess our own sin and seek to live more faithful lives. 

But penitence in Advent, in preparation for Christ’s birth?  Absolutely.  For as we prepare to see Christ face to face, in the Christmas incarnation and in his promised return to earth, we anticipate both joy and judgment.  Joy, for in coming to us God is bridging the gap that separates humanity from its Creator.  But judgment, too, for in coming to us God will confront our sin and brokenness, and pass judgment on the degree to which humanity has been unfaithful to God’s commands and vision for human community.

That’s a pretty good case for a purple Advent, don’t you think?

Well, blue has a pretty good case to make, too.  In the late 20th century, some churches began to use blue for Advent, while retaining purple for Lent.  Why?

I can’t give you the historical details – what great church councils or scholars or congregations first began the shift.  But I can tell you that blue offers us a different shade, so to speak, of Advent.  If the purple of earlier years resonates with the penitential nature of the season and draws certain parallels to Lent, the deep blue of Advent highlights the expectant nature of the season, and of our faith.

Deep blue is the color of the clear, predawn sky, the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east.  Most of us are not looking at the sky at that hour – perhaps we’re still asleep, or too weary to notice it as we get onto the Metro or hop into our car for a long commute.  Nonetheless, a deep, dark blue is the color that covers us in the dark, cold hours before the sun dawns.

Thus we use deep blue for Advent to shade the season with a hint of expectation and anticipation of the dawn of Christ.  Surely penitence and spiritual discipline is part of the traditional Advent observance, and this is why so many of you are using Advent wreaths and our congregation’s Advent devotional to mark the days of Advent.  Advent is a time to recommit to our faith and to our God – no matter the color!  But Advent involves more than penitence, and by using deep blue we err on the side of emphasizing the church’s hope-filled and faithful watch for Christ.  The deep blue of Advent is meant to inspire in us the hope of faith, and to encourage us to keep watch for the promised light of Christ to break over the horizon, changing night into day, darkness into light, and filling our lives and our world with a holy and righteous splendor.

No matter your color preference, I hope and pray that you will find this season to be shaded by both the purple and the blue, by the reflective self-examination suggested by the penitential purple, and by the hopeful anticipation suggested by the predawn blue … for both colors call us to lives of faithfulness in this time before the coming of our Lord.

All Saints Confusion

(The following is a heavily edited and updated version of a similiar post from three years ago, All Saints, All Souls, and the Return of Christ.)

I find myself a bit confused by the festival of All Saints in our Lutheran practice.  On this day we remember our loved ones who have died in the past year – "saints" – who have gone before us.  Yet we hear a Gospel text of blessings and woes that reminds us of our callings to live as "saints" today.  And in the proper preface for the day we recall the "witness of the saints," who with the choirs of angels and the hosts of heaven praise God's name.  It seems to me that our Lutheran practice of All Saints refers, even if in muddled fashion, to three kinds of saints – the exemplars of faith who have gone before us, other departed souls, and living saints today.

This sounds a lot like the three expressions of the Church my friend Derek outlined several years ago in a wonderful post, Musings on All Souls.  He writes (bullet formating my emphasis):

Traditionally we spoke of the

  • Church Militant (all of us living folks here on earth still slogging away),
  • the Church Expectant (those who have died and are generally hanging around waiting for the resurrection), and   
  • the Church Triumphant (those souls who are already participating in the fullness of God and who are – even as you read this – interceding before the throne of God on behalf of us poor slobs).

This way of describing the church corresponds to the Church's traditional manner of honoring and remembering the departed over a span of two consecutive holy days.  On All Saints Day (Nov 1) the Church traditionally honored the Church Triumphant, the capital 'S' Saints, those faithful models of the Christian life who have departed and are interceding on our behalf (ie, St Francis, St Anthony, St Catherine, etc. – all those Saints that, for better or for worse, were thrown out with the Reformation's bathwater).  On All Souls Day (Nov 2), the Church commemorated the Church Expectant, the faithfully departed, ie, our friends and family who have gone before us. 

This distinction is all but absent in the Lutheran Church, and I'm not sure that All Souls was ever really practiced among Lutherans.  Rather, we remember both the Church Triumphant and the Church Expectant on one day, All Saints Sunday.

But we don't use the language of Church Expectant or Church Triumphant these days, and indeed making a distinction between the two riles our protestant and modern insistence that we're all saints.  Arguing for the recovery of All Souls Day, Derek supports maintaining the language (and distinction) of Church Expectant and Church Triumphant:

I think that the current protestant attempt to recover the saints in general and All Saints in particular has really wrecked the church’s sense of All Souls. As you probably know, the standard early 21st century protestant take is that everybody gets to be a saint. Yeah, I know there’s *some* theological basis for that…but where does it leave All Souls? If we’ve already celebrated all the baptized yesterday [on All Saints], who were we celebrating today [on All Souls]? All the non-Christian dead? I mean–in one sense, yes, since we are celebrating literally all souls but… The way to recover it, as far as I can see, is to draw the line and say–look, yes, we’re all saints in one sense but in another sense some people really did do an exemplary job of showing forth the love of Christ in their lives. These people really should be held up as exemplars and as intercessors.

Now, I don't share Derek's concern with recovering the practice of All Souls Day (the subject of his post), but I am concerned with about how the church looks at the dead and the promise of their resurrection.  As we bring all the blessed dead together into one pool and celebrate on All Saints their presence among the heavenly hosts and with God himself, we lose something.

First, we lose an emphasis on the life and witness of those who were truly exemplars in the faith.  Too often All Saints Sunday becomes a sort of shared funeral service to remember loved ones who have died.  Whereas such a remembrance is a blessed and holy and wonderful thing, I think we Lutherans can benefit from focusing on the capital 'S' Saints  every now and then – modern and ancient, those canonized by Rome and those recognized in a more ecumenical context – as models of the Godly life and exemplars of faith.  We Lutherans could benefit from a further exploration of our understanding of the Church Triumphant, those Saints who praise God's name in eternity and – perhaps even – intercede on our behalf.  (If they're not interceding on our behalf, what exactly are they doing in paradise anyway?  I teeter on believing in the intercession of the Saints.  See my post, The Company of Saints, written several years ago during my 9-month residency as a hospital chaplain.)

Most sigifnciantly, however, our confused practice of All Saints helps to perpetuate an unfortunate yet commonly held view of heaven – that upon death, one's disembodied soul shoots up into  paradise like a rocketship heading toward the moon.  Rather, I understand the afterlife in a "Church Expectant" way.  I see in Scripture an understanding that while some exemplars in the faith indeed do ascend to our Father in heaven – Elijah and Stephen, for example – most of us will die and rot in the ground, waiting for the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.  Not the sweetest sounding thing, but that's what I see. 

A strong belief in the soul's eternal dwelling in heavenly paradise weakens our church's expectant hope for Christ's return.  If we all just go to heaven upon death, why bother believing in a second coming or a resurrection of the dead?  What need is there for any other work of God?  Indeed, such a view of heaven – that our life's goal is to have our souls transported to a disembodied spiritual realm – leads us to care less for our bodies and for the created world, and to shrug our shoulders at our Lord's promise to come again and remake the world, to join heaven and earth in a new creation. "Thy Kingdom come," we pray, and in the creed we confess, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."  But these commitments are largely disregarded by the belief in heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm and final destination for souls.

Holy Scripture and the church's tradition teaches that death initiates a period of waiting, a season of Advent, for the return of Christ.  In death we are not separate from Christ – for Paul in Romans teaches us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – but we are not automatically whisked away into heaven, either.  There is a waiting.  That is why old tombstones used to read, "Rest in Peace," for it was beleived that death was a rest until our Lord's final wake-up call.  What exactly that waiting looks like, what level of consciousness we may or may not have in that period of waiting, I have no idea.  But it is a waiting in the love and embrace of our Lord, so I figure it's got to be pretty good.

Lutherans will likely never celebrate All Saints and All Souls as distinct celebrations, and that's fine with me.  However, perhaps we could celebrate All Saints by recalling those Saints who are exemplars of faith and join with them in praise of God, while also remembering and praying for those beloved souls who have gone before us and who are waiting – indeed, as we here on earth are waiting – for Christ to come again and bring us to eternal life.  In so doing, we will preserve the fundamental hope we have in Christ, that he will come again to bring his kingdom on earth.

Christian Worship on the 4th of July

This newsletter article, a reworking of a past blogpost, appeared in my congregation's July newsletter.  My sermon for the 4th of July also touches on church/state issues.

The 4th of July this year falls on a Sunday.  Though there will be flags waving outside of houses, and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products, at church there will be no flag on display or any patriotic celebration.  This is intentional.

When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God.  Worship is a time of praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God.  Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music.  Yet if a hymn's theme is secular, it is not appropriate for Sunday morning Christian Worship.

Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership.  This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully considered. 

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance, such as we did here at Resurrection at the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009.  But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns might guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers.  However, such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God's Word.

Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community.  Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies.  Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the county parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies" is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we can and should pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism.  As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples.  We don't cease being Americans when we come to worship, but we don't come to worship to celebrate our American heritage.  We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

May we start our Independence Day holiday this year at church, honoring the day of the resurrection by praising God, receiving our Lord in Word and Sacrament, and offering prayers for our church, nation, and world.  And then let us go out into the streets and give honor to our country by celebrating with neighbors and friends the freedoms we share.

—–

Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.

Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.

Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Preaching and Plagiarism

To what extent is there an expectation that a preacher's sermon is original work?

Surely the expectation is that the preacher proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But is there also an expectation that the words of the proclamation are original words composed by the person speaking them?

If sermons are borrowed from another source, should that fact necessarily be announced in the Sunday bulletin or even from the pulpit itself?  ("Today's sermon comes from Great Lutheran Sermons Volume 32").

What about particular ideas, concepts, or quotes?  Should the sermon follow the term paper rubric, such that every idea, concept or quote that comes from another source is cited?  How should those citations be shared in the delivery of the sermon?  Surely it could be cumbersome to speak and to hear a sermon that constantly references theologians or writers, for example.  Truly, how many of the ideas and concepts we share in our sermons are really original, anyway?

Most Lutheran congregations do very little that can be considered original on Sunday mornings.  Our liturgy and its prayers have been handed down to us over the centuries.  The readings are chosen according to a lectionary cycle and church year calendar that too has been shaped by a tradition that is much larger than the local congregation.  The hymns and anthems?  Almost always they are not original, but composed by others and given to us to use for the glory of God.

So should preaching necessarily be different than these other elements of our Sunday service?  I don't think it makes great pastoral sense to simply pull sermons from http://www.easysermons.com (not a real website) and deliver those week after week on Sunday mornings.  But if the point is to proclaim the Good News – and not to display a particular preacher's creativity, intellect, or faith – what does it matter the source of the sermon?  And if the sermon is not original, or if it is full of borrowed ideas, what is the best way for the preacher to give credit to these sources without clogging the delivery with endless citations and references?

I write all of my sermons, and have never borrowed sermon text from any outside source.  However, are my sermons "original work"?  Not entirely.  I borrow quotes and ideas all the time.  I will reference a source in my preaching if I read from a direct quote (ex, "as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his The Cost of Discipleship …").  Otherwise, when I incorporate substantive ideas or interpretation of a particular text from a commentator, I incorporate those ideas into my sermon generally without making reference to the source in my delivery.  However, when posting sermons online, increasingly I insert a footnote and a link, if available, so that readers might know the source of the particular idea.

At our evening prayer services during Advent and Lent, however, we do not preach original sermons but instead read excerpts from great pastors, theologians, and writers.  We will read from Luther, Bonhoeffer, the Church Fathers, contemporary theologians, etc..  Many of the readings come from the wonderful little prayer book For All The Saints, which includes as part of its order of prayer readings from theologians and writers from across the centuries.  These readings, and their authors, source, and a brief historical context, are always announced prior to the reading.

Funerals: For the Living or for the Dead?

"Funerals are not for the dead, but for the living."

That's a popular sentiment, and one which I've uttered many times.  After all, at the funeral we speak words of comfort to those who are mourning, and words of hope to the living that death is not the end of the story but simply one part of the everlasting life we have in Christ Jesus.  We proclaim that "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," not even death.  These are words for the living.

Furthermore, we don't tend to believe that in the prayers and worship of the funeral liturgy we actually do anything for the deceased.  Again, a popular sentiment – which I've uttered – is that God has already taken the deceased into his loving care, so that there is nothing we can do for the deceased because God has already worked in and for the deceased.

The burial of a lonely woman with no living relatives, with no one to grieve and thus no one to comfort, has caused me to question these sentiments which, until now, I had never examined in any depth.

If a funeral is essentially for the living, but there is no one living who really cares about the deceased, then is there a need for a funeral at all?  And if God will do what God will do whether or not we pray (I think of Martin Luther's explanation to the second petition of the Lord's Prayer), then why bother with all this funeral stuff – especially if there is no one who needs to be comforted by the Gospel?

I'm still working on how I would answer my own questions, but let me start out with these words: We bother with the funeral because, though God will do his thing, "nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and to drum into his ears our prayer." (1)  Indeed, we are commanded to pray, whether or not we see a "pastoral need" to pray with the living.  As Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, "[God will not] allow our prayers to be futile or lost, for if he did not intend to answer you, he would not have ordered you to pray and backed it up with such a strict commandment." (2)  I also think of Abraham, bargaining with God for the life of the righteous in Sodom (Genesis 18).  Our prayers, our appeals, our words to God matter.  God listens, and God promises to respond.

As I pray this day for a deceased child of God and lay her body in the ground, I do so in obedience to God's command, to ask God to fulfill the promises he made to her in baptism, and to give thanks to God for the promise of resurrection life in the new heaven and new earth of God's coming kingdom.

—–

Some of these questions get to the matter of what happens in the act of worship.  Is worship just for
our comfort, as
I've suggested in the past
?  Is prayer a
means to an end
– in this case the end of pastoral comfort – or is prayer an
end in and of itself?  Does our worship and prayer actually affect
God in some way?  Yes, I believe it does, for the Bible is filled with stories of God being
moved by the prayers and appeals of his people.  But this conversation is re-opening my eyes to the ways that we often use prayer and liturgy merely as a means for personal comfort and not as an end to which we are commanded and to which God promises to respond.  Indeed, our Lord's command to pray is filled with promise.

OK, more to think through on this matter …

—–

1) From the Introduction to the Lord's Prayer, in Martin Luther's Small Catechism – pg. 440.2, Book of Concord, trans. Kolb/Wengert, Augsburg Fortress, 2000).

2) Ibid, pg 443.18

Liturgy, Copyrights, and the Internet, revisited

Two years ago I was denied permission to publish an edited version of Responsive Prayer from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) on my blog, and was forced to take down the order of prayer that I had been posting for several months (see past post, Daily Prayer Permission Denied – note that some links in that two year-old post are now broken). 

I chose to use Responsive Prayer, with slight amending, because that order of prayer largely follows Martin Luther's instructions for morning and evening blessing in the Small Catechism.  I amended that order to include a recitation of the Ten Commandments, in order to conform to Luther's instructions in the Large Catechism drill oneself in the catechism daily (an instruction echoed elsewhere, including in his letter to Peter the barber, A Simple Way to Pray). The form I used for the Ten Commandments came from the Book of Common Prayer, which has no copyright protections and thus is free for any to use and publish online.  The order that I posted at the time included attributions and links to sources.

Recently I wrote back to Augsburg Fortress Publishers, who administers the copyright for the materials in ELW (copyright is actually held by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, however), asking them under which circumstances liturgical material from ELW could be published online.

Are there any circumstances under which the text of a liturgy (not the music) from ELW could be posted online, such as Responsive Prayer or Morning Prayer?  To what extent can collects or litanies be posted online (with attribution, of course)?  Would it make a difference if these texts were posted on a personal blog or on a congregational website?  We have such liturgical riches, and it is a shame that they stay under copyrighted lock and key rather than be freely shared via Facebook, email and blogs in a congregation's ministry.

I received a quick response, saying that my questions have been forwarded to their worship team for discussion.  So, we'll see, I guess.

However, there are some things I can post online, thanks to the less restrictive copyrights of the daily lectionary (held by the Consultation on Common Texts) and the copyright-free material found within the Book of Common Prayer.  In the coming week or so I will repost an order of prayer, based on Luther's instructions, and including readings from the daily lectionary and liturgical texts borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer.

Variety in the Liturgy

Frank Senn makes an interesting comment on variety in the Western liturgy, suggesting that the confusing variety in the liturgy led to the development of a distinct – and much simpler – popular piety.

The most characteristic feature of popular devotions such as the rosary and the Way of the Cross is that they are repetitious and unvarying.  The penchant for variety, which characterizes the religious professional (e.g., the monk or member of a religious order), does not excite the ordinary layperson.  It may be that one of the features of Eastern Christian worship that has ensured its popular character is that, unlike Western liturgy, is not only highly ceremonial but almost unvarying throughout the church year.  The consequence is that in the Eastern church, there was no rift between liturgical spirituality and popular piety such as occurred in the Western church during the Middle Ages.

– from Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pg. 239

I made my own comments about variety in the liturgy some while ago, wondering if seasonally-changing liturgical texts were unhelpful in forming the faith of Christians – Variable (or Vagarious?) Liturgical Texts.

The Gift of Worshiping with my Family

I'm a pastor.  I wear the funny shirt, the robe, the stoles.  I say the P parts of the liturgy.  I sit up front.  And I love it.

But one thing I don't love so much is that I no longer sit alongside my wife and children in worship.  Before I was ordained, I loved worshiping with my children. Yet I no longer worship alongside them, hold worship books for them, whisper instructions to them, or help them with their Bible story coloring sheet.  I do enjoy seeing their faces as they worship from my seat up front, and I cherish the opportunity to declare the forgiveness of their sins, and to place the sacrament in their hands.  But still … I'm no longer there, by their side, holding them, whispering to them, coloring with them.

Tonight I received a special gift as I attended my wife's cousin's wedding (yes, a wedding scheduled on the Monday after Christmas!).  There we were, Mommy, Daddy, and our two daughters sitting in the pew together (Naaman, our two year-old son, was more than glad to romp around in the nursery.  We were more than glad to let him!).  I held my 3 year-old up high so she could see the pastor's gestures as he said the Words of Institution.  I took her to the bathroom during the Prayers of the Church.  I struggled to hold a hymnal as I held her in my arms.  Yes, by doing these things, I wasn't tuned into every moment of the liturgy.  But I was participating and praying with my children, gathering with them around the table and at the foot of the cross, held with them within the Body of Christ and surrounded by the sights and sounds of God's people at worship.  It was a beautiful thing.

And so tonight I am grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift – the gift to worship as a family. I wouldn't give up my job for anything.  I love what I do.  But I also love when I get the chance to worship alongside my wife and children.  Thank you, Ben and Marissa, for getting married this evening.  You've given me a wonderful gift!

Blessings to Ben and Marissa, and to all in this Christmas season.