Maybe pastors should stop talking about football


We visit a lot of churches so we have a fairly large sample size to draw from. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it is fairly common for the “call to worship” to include some kind of commentary on football! It is always done in a light touch and a smile and I understand the pastor’s desire to appear relevant to current events. Honestly, I’d rather hear that than some kind of political comment (and, yes, I’ve heard that too).

Listen, I like football and sports in general. I like talking about it with my friends. But when I go to church my focus is on something else — Someone else. Start the service off with something spiritual; maybe a reminder that we are gathering for a serious purpose. That’s not to say we don’t come with joy and expectation – or that we don’t enjoy fellowship with one another. Of course we do.

It seems to me many of us are already struggling to get our minds off of a thousand other things as we come to worship. Instead of legitimizing the trivial how about reading a powerful passage of scripture and reminding worshipers that we serve an awesome God and that we are, right now, coming into his presence?

I have to admit that I didn’t arrive at this opinion early in my ministry. In fact, as a young pastor I let the song leader (that’s what we called them back in the old days) get up and announce the first song. This without any input from me at all. As time passed I began to think about how we were beginning our worship services and decided that some of our high church friends were on to something with their liturgical calls to worship.

I started seeking out scriptures that called people into worship and began opening services with scripture and prayer. It may just be my imagination but I think the services took on a more Christ-centered atmosphere.

Now, all the above, I know, must be taken with a strong dose of common sense. When the home town team is playing the Super Bowl there’s room for some level of public commentary. Also, there’s a lot of good sermon illustrations in the world of sports. Still, that kind of stuff has a very limited shelf life and should be used sparingly.

This is, of course, all just my opinion. Still, pastor, it might be reasonable to consider how to best invite people to enter into a spirit of worship.

Thinking about the tomb that first Easter morning

empty-tombIn a cold, dark, dead tomb a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. No motion, no life.

Then, there’s a small motion as cells in the body begin returning to life. Tissue begins to regenerate and suddenly the body moves as the dead man takes a deep breath.

He stirs and finding himself bound by the shroud casts it off. He sits up and then removes that which was wrapped around his head and lays it off to the side.

There’s nothing frightening about all this. In an unexplainable way it all feels “right” – the way it should be.

In a flash of brilliant white light an angel appears in the tomb. The angel immediately falls to the ground, bowing, “My Lord and my God” he says.

At that moment the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb is rolled away. A second angel bows low, “My King,” he says.

The Resurrected One smiles and cheerfully replies, “Good morning! I think I’ll go for a walk in the Garden.”

Pastors need Mondays

For many years prior to retirement from pastoring I took Mondays off. I generally took a long walk, did some banking, and pretty much crashed. Since retirement, of course, most days are “days off” so Mondays are pretty much like any other day of the week.

Right now, I’m filling in for a friend who is taking Sabbatical leave so I’m back “on the clock” at least in part. My only real responsibility is preaching the Sunday morning sermon although I’m “being the pastor” in a few other ways as well. I certainly don’t have the full pastoral load.

The interesting thing to me is that that old Monday weariness has returned. It has to be the preaching and maybe interacting with a number of people throughout the day because I’m not doing much else. I confess that I’m not much of a people person, so spending a large part of the day chatting and “being nice” does wear me down a bit. Still, I think the preaching is the biggest part of it.

It’s not as though I’m a high energy, pacing, pulpit pounder. My style is conversational, considerably thought through, and much prayed over. To most non-preachers I know that that doesn’t sound like much and some may accuse me of whining or maybe just of getting old and more easily tired. Honestly, there may be some truth in the second accusation and hopefully none in the first.

However, I think that there’s a least a reminder here that pastors work harder on Sundays than most people think they do, even if all they “do” is preach a sermon for 30-40 minutes. The preparation, both academic and spiritual, takes a toll. The energy spent, even with Spirit anointing, is considerable.

I don’t think I’m just whining or wimping out. Pastors carry a burden that takes a toll and they both need and deserve a Monday day of rest.

After Communion

thimblesIn my early ministry I remember seeing a grandmother allowing her grandkids to gather around the communion ware and drink all the left over grape juice from the tiny cups.  I think that was the first time I ever thought about the remnants of the communion sacrament.  At the time, I hadn’t thought much about it but there was something about that approach that was disturbing to me.

Coming from a non-liturgical background as I had I’d given little thought to what to do with left over bread and wine (grape juice for us) after the service.  Our Roman Catholic friends, meanwhile, have it down to a fine art but, then, they believe in transubstantiation too – that is that the elements become the actual body and blood of our Lord.  After the mass they are left with consecrated elements that must be handled with utmost reverence.  For Protestants and especially for non-liturgical groups the status of left over elements is something less.   As we celebrate the sacrament concerning the bread and wine we pray: “Make them by the power of your Spirit to be for us the body and blood of Christ.”  Having just prayed that prayer a short time earlier, just tossing these things into the trash or down the drain is something akin to handling the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy way.  So what to do?

Fortunately, there are godly people who have thought about this.  After some reading I directed those in our church who prepare the sacrament to this approach; maybe it will help you too.

If we are using the little squares of unleavened bread we return it to the container and put it back in the freezer to be used again.  If we are using baked bread, the portion left over from the actual communion is taken outside to a little used area (like a flower garden) and left for the birds, etc. to consume.  The person taking it out offers a short prayer, thanking the Lord for his sacrifice for us.

Grape juice that has been offered is similarly returned to the earth.  That which was never offered in the service can be drunk as a beverage.

While we don’t accept the concept of transubstantiation we do want to be aware that these elements (that we said are symbols of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood) should be handled in a respectful, reverent way.  You might say that this is a fitting conclusion to a sacrament that emphasizes how common place things can take on uncommon meaning.

Reading the Word of the Lord

Most of the Bible was written to be read aloud.  There are a few personal letters, etc., but by and large the writers never envisioned people owning personal, leather bound, red letter, annotated copies of their words.  Prior to the invention of the printing press and the Reformation, a big part of going to church was listening to someone read Scripture.  For the vast majority of Christians it was only at church that they encountered the Bible.  Being a reader of Scripture in church was a honor and privilege.  The reader took that job seriously and prepared for that part of worship with all the effort of a preacher or singer.

With all this in mind, over a year ago I decided to read the New Testament through out loud.  When I finished the New Testament I decided to continue on with the Old Testament and I have now finished the entire Bible.

It has been an interesting journey.  There are passages I know fairly well and usually when I read them I unintentionally go into a sort of hyper drive and speed my way through them.  Not this time.  It was word by word.  The whole process was slower, more methodical.  I tended to hear the message differently than when I just read silently.  I’m not about to tell you that I think it’s vastly superior.  I will tell you that it’s different.  I came away with a different feeling about some passages than before.

The Old Testament prophets were a challenge.  Sometimes there is page after page of condemnation; lots of doom and gloom.  Reading aloud made me feel somewhat depressed.  On a practical level, I realized how repetitive some of those writings are.  The prophet says something one way, then he repeats it another way, and then does it all over again.  Doing it out loud made that somehow more obvious to me than before.

Another challenge is names.  Some portions, in Numbers for instance, are lists of names.  Many of the prophets spend a lot of time with names of towns.  I cut myself just a bit of slack on the names.  If I didn’t immediately recognize the name I’d just say the first letter of the name and keep reading: “A son of Z, son of Benjamin.”  I guess that was cheating a bit, but since no one was listening but me I decided it was a reasonable course of action.

One thing about all those names of people and places, was that it reminded me of just how grounded those stories are in history.  These are real people and real places.  I know it because the writer named names.

I don’t suggest that everyone ought to do this.  Many people just need to read the Bible; to get on a plan and stick with it.  The more you read the more you come to love the Bible.  If you haven’t been reading the Bible, just commit yourself to one page a day.  Start with the Gospels.  Make it easy on yourself.  Some start off in Genesis, enjoy the opening stories and then can’t make it through Exodus not to mention Leviticus.  When you are ready to tackle the Old Testament, mix it in with the New Testament.  Do one chapter of the New and one chapter of the Old each day.  Throw in one Psalm each day if you have time.  Reading the Bible through is a journey and not a race.

Then, maybe someday, you’ll be looking for a different approach.  When you get there, you might want to try it out loud.  Reading God’s Word as it was originally read does have it’s rewards.

God sometimes colors outside the lines

One of our challenges as God’s people is to know what we believe and why, yet at the same time, allow God to work in ways that, to us, color outside the lines. We aren’t saved by believing all the right things — we’re saved by grace. In the OT story of Jonah he knows for sure that the people of Nineveh are bad people, enemies of God’s people. He doesn’t want to go and warn them of judgment to come because he fears they will repent and escape that judgment. He knows God isn’t like him – that God is compassionate and forgiving…and all Jonah wants is to see Nineveh destroyed.

We can arrive at an understanding of the basics of Christianity and pretty much agree that some things are outside of our faith. We can condemn some beliefs as out and out heretical – and do so for all the right reasons. One result is that we believe we are mandated to take the real gospel to those in that “Nineveh.”

At the same time – and here’s the challenge – we have to remember that believing all the right things is, for some reason, more important to us than it is to God. By his grace he colors outside the lines, accepting people who are on a journey and a long way from arriving at the “right” destination.

I’m glad for God’s grace to me. Sometimes, I’m a bit uncomfortable with his grace to you.

Advice to young pastors: Annual Meetings #1

In my Zion, the Church of the Nazarene, there’s a required annual church meeting in which the business of the church is conducted. I’m writing with my own denomination in mind but I wouldn’t be surprised if this approach is applicable for other groups as well.

There are several reports to be heard in this meeting: youth, missions, stewards, trustees, treasurer, secretary, and others. The old way to do it was to set aside a Sunday night for reports and voting. Frankly, it wasn’t an inspiring event and a lot of folks opted to do something else that night.

It’s really too bad. Some of our finest people serve faithfully through the year and the church really does need to hear them tell what they’ve done. Hearing them report reminds the congregation of the many things that happen in the church that don’t take place on the platform on Sunday mornings.

So, here’s the solution. During the weeks leading up to the voting, take time each Sunday morning to hear three or so reports. Ask those reporting to take three or four minutes for their reports. Following each report, have everyone clap and cheer.

This approach will allow the congregation to focus on each report and not get saturated from hearing one report after another. It also puts the church leaders up front on a Sunday morning — giving honor to those to whom honor is due.

Pastors, of all people, understand the importance of highlighting the efforts of dedicated laypeople in the church and this is an excellent way to do it.

Book review -Silent God: Finding Him When You Can’t Hear His Voice

In “Silent God” Joesph Bentz takes on an issue that is oft explored in the Psalms – why it is that God sometimes seems distant and silent? He begins his exploration by looking, not to God, but to us – pointing out that we are seldom good listeners, but instead have lives full of noise, both physical and inner. His observations about cellphones, email, and other technological “noise” hit home for me.

From there, we move to discussions about the possible reasons for God’s silence; that he has a purpose in all he does (or, in this case, doesn’t do). We come away from the book with an appreciation of the power of silence and a realization that God’s silence actually speaks to us and advances us in our journey to Christ-likeness.

I recommend this book as one that will help the seeking reader to go deeper in their relationship with the Lord.