Tag Archives | worship

My first Christmas sermon

I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.

Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor. Continue Reading →

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A prayer for Sunday morning

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Lord, it gets harder to pray these prayers.

You must have noticed how I struggle. How could you miss it?

I stand on Sunday morning, I face my congregation, I do my best to look strong and confident, and I say, “Let us pray.” Continue Reading →

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Is ministry a career?

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I started with the best of intentions. We all did.

My seminary classmates and I absorbed a great deal of advice from – where else? – an older generation of pastors, and then we did our best to follow that advice, working long hours, honing our pastoral skills, sometimes even receiving additional and impressive-sounding degrees.

Today I look back and realize that we got a lot wrong.  So, what follows is a confession  – not the titillating sort you half-expect to hear these days from pastors and hypocritical religious leaders, but in a way more serious, more devastating.

When I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament – going on four decades ago – I signed up for a career. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and would have denied it, if you had pointed it out to me, but looking back that’s what it was. Was it “naked careerism”? I’m not altogether sure what that is, but it sounds really bad, doesn’t it? No, I’m certain it was not naked careerism. We thought we were doing God’s work, laboring in the vineyard, building the kingdom, and even winning the occasional soul for Christ.

But the truth is, we were building careers and trying to be professionals – not doctors or lawyers or accountants, but professional clergy.

On my first day I was enrolled in a medical plan and, even better, a pension plan and what was called “a supplemental retirement account.” I had a title and a parking place. I had an automobile allowance and four weeks of vacation. I thought of myself as a professional, even if I didn’t look like one.

What was missing on the first day was a wardrobe so, as quickly as I could, I added suits and dress shirts and ties and of course a better haircut. I even bought myself a pair of black, size 13 Florsheim wingtips, which I polished every week to a nice, bright shine. It now seems clear, looking at the old photographs, that the off-the-rack suits looked silly on my tall, skinny frame but, no matter, I was on my way to what I hoped would be a good, long career.

Lately, though, I have become aware of a radically new way of thinking about ordained ministry – okay, not new, but definitely a change from the previous generation.

I had lunch last week with a young pastor whose church in the U.S. has sent him and his wife to “plant” a church in Zürich, where I currently serve what we like to call an “established church.” I’m not altogether sure what that is either, but it’s definitely not a church plant. When my new friend emailed me to ask about the possibility of renting space from us, I responded and suggested that we meet for coffee.

A few days later I listened – convicted – as he explained to me what he is attempting to do.

He started the very first Sunday – jet-lagged and nervous – with worship in his small apartment, more of a Bible study, really, but there was singing and prayer and even an offering. As he explained it to me (the vastly more experienced pastor in this conversation), “There’s no better time to start than the first Sunday.” I nodded as though I knew this to be true, but really I was marveling at his courage – to move to a new city, a new country, and a new continent, and on the very first Sunday to hold worship, not knowing if or when an actual congregation might emerge from this small gathering.

The group, he tells me honestly, is still quite small, though it has outgrown his apartment, which is why he turned to me. Weren’t the numbers small at the beginning in Ephesus, he asks, and Philippi and Corinth and Thessalonica, for that matter?

I noticed that he neglected to mention a retirement plan or how much vacation he would receive. There is no parking place, apparently, not even an automobile allowance. He has no fancy degree, not even the basic seminary degree, and right now does not see the need for one. The Bible, he tells me, is the only textbook he needs.

My new friend is not alone, of course. Church planting seems to be very popular right now, and maybe, as much as anything, it’s a much-needed correction after a generation of pastors who have grown comfortable and career-oriented and entitled.

As Rick Warren tells the story in one of his books, he graduated from seminary one day and then took a map of the U.S., closed his eyes, and pointed his finger at … yes, Orange County, California. The cynic in me wonders why the finger didn’t point to western North Dakota, instead of the most affluent county in the U.S., but my cynicism misses the point.

The point is that he planted a church in the living room of his first apartment in Orange County, not knowing if or when anything would come of it. He trusted God in a way that I never did. And today his tiny “church plant” is of course known as Saddleback Church.

One reason I do not despair about the future of the church is that there are many others like my new friend who have listened to God’s call in their lives and then set out, like Abraham and Sarah, to a land that God promised to show them.

As long as there are pastors like my new friend, there will be a church, and thanks be to God for that.

(Photo: That’s from a recent hike. It’s a view from the mountain behind my village. If you look carefully, you can see Sammi at the lower right, photobombing as always.)

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A ritual I look forward to each week

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We have a cool ritual on Sundays at the International Protestant Church of Zurich, something I look forward to each week.

But first a word about that word “ritual.”

Where I grew up, ritual was always a bad thing. For one thing, maybe the most important thing, ritual reeked of Roman Catholicism. Catholics had rituals. We Protestants didn’t. It was that simple.

And when we spoke about ritual, the word was usually preceded by another word – “empty.” Ritual, almost by definition, was empty. In other words, mindlessly going through the motions.

The ritual I am referring to here is neither empty nor mindless. In fact, it’s exciting. I thought I might tire of it, but the fact is I get more and more interested each week. I look forward to it. Which is the best kind of ritual, I suppose.

What happens is that I stand up at the beginning of worship, move to the center of the church in front of the first row of seats, and then – in a non-ritualistic manner – offer a welcome to all in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. I also offer a special welcome to visitors and ask if they wouldn’t mind introducing themselves.

Each week, surprisingly, they do. Introduce themselves, that is.

Where I come from, asking visitors to introduce themselves or say anything at all in worship would probably make visitors feel uncomfortable and not want to come back. But here, in Zurich, something very different happens. As one stands to speak, another will feel more confident about standing, and then still others will pop up, until we have several people, maybe 10-12 of them, waiting their turn.

An usher hurries over with a microphone (and a welcome package) so that all can hear.

I sense that everyone enjoys this moment as much as I do. Even the youth, who sit in the same place each week on one side of the balcony. (Another ritual, but then I’ve probably made my point about that matter.)

What makes this time of worship so interesting?

First, of course, it’s the places people come from. Australia, Greece, Singapore, the U.K., Korea, South Africa, and – yesterday – Princeton, New Jersey. An audible murmur is heard when a far-off and exotic country is mentioned.

Princeton, New Jersey! Can you imagine?

The other reason this moment in worship is so interesting is that it reminds us of the global reach of the Christian church. If we had any doubts whatsoever that the church exists (and thrives) all around the world, this ritual – sorry, not sure what else to call it – reminds us that we do not exist alone, that every Sunday on nearly every continent people of faith are gathering and singing and listening and offering themselves in worship.

Yesterday, much later in the service, as members and visitors came forward to receive the elements of communion, I was aware – as I am nearly every time we do this – that the family of God is far more varied than I sometimes imagine.

For God so loved the world…

(Photo: My Saturday morning hike took me away from the village where I live. This was my view somewhere near St. Moritz. That’s a cell phone photo, regrettably, because I left my fancy new camera at home.)

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What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?

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This is the big week, the one we’ve all been waiting for!

In my sad, dark, out-of-touch corner of the world, this is the week that Lent begins, always preceded by the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite days on the church calendar. I look forward to preaching about the transfiguration every year.

But then that’s me.

The rest of the world has been waiting – breathlessly – for the release of 50 Shades of Grey, a movie based on three novels by E. L. James. I assume there will be at least two more movies, and maybe the last book will be divided in two, which seems to be the trend, resulting in a total of four movies about … a fictional and, from the reports, utterly implausible relationship that I don’t care anything at all about. (Most billionaires I know, unlike the main character in the novel, spend long hours at the office doing actual work.)

But there is always someone in the church wanting me to “take a strong stand” about whatever is happening in popular culture.

I remember back in 2003, when The Da Vinci Code was published, that there was a clamor for me to “say something” about the book “from the pulpit” because those “new to the faith” would be harmed by it.

Ordinarily, a book like The Da Vinci Code would not be on my reading list, but at the time I felt compelled to read it. I don’t usually enjoy reading books I feel compelled to read, but I found The Da Vinci Code to be entertaining, more of a guilty pleasure, though not especially great literature. I ended up offering an adult education class about it anyway. I even bought the curriculum developed by the denomination to refute the book’s main points.

Even after a lot of publicity fewer than 10 people attended.

I feel the same pressure once again to “take a strong stand” about 50 Shades of Grey. And to be honest, I feel more sympathetic than I have in the past because I too am concerned about the topics addressed by the books and the movie. Being a father to two daughters has changed my mind about lots of things.

But is this what a sermon is supposed to be?

In the last community where I served, a pastor started a church that grew almost overnight to several thousand attendees on a weekend, and his sermon titles, published in the local newspaper, were always eye-catching. He once preached a series on “What would Jesus say to…?” LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, and a host of other sports and popular culture figures.

Maybe he was on to something. Maybe my sermon tomorrow should have been titled “What would Jesus say about 50 Shades of Grey?”

That’s not the title I chose, sadly, but now that I think about it, what I have planned fits that topic.

What Jesus did on that mountain with three of his disciples, what we call the transfiguration, was to offer an alternative, something not based in popular culture, something deeper, richer, more compelling. The glimpse of glory that the disciples saw stayed with them for the rest of their lives and became the focus of their lives.

The transfiguration, I believe, was Jesus’ way of “taking a strong stand.”

If you happen to be in Zurich tomorrow, join us at the International Protestant Church as we all “take a strong stand.”

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A prayer for Sunday morning (and the annual meeting that follows)

 

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Merciful God, you know how we anticipate this day, clinging to hope that this year will be different, but mostly feeling fear and dread that this year will be like all the others. We will do our best to pray and sing the hymns and listen to the sermon, your Word to us, but really, if we are honest, our hearts are focused on what comes later – the annual meeting.

We are human, after all – pathetically, inescapably human.

Even though we pray that this year will be different from other years, and that we will be fully present to you in worship, we know that our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, will be on budgets and reports and elections. If there is something in scripture about budgets, it would be helpful if you would point us to it, but then we seem to know, deep down, that none of this matters, not really, that when your Son announced the kingdom of God he wasn’t really thinking about church buildings and leadership boards and budget deficits. He seemed to have so much more in mind for us. He seemed to want so much more for us.

In so far as it is possible, lift our own minds from that which has no eternal meaning … to that which you would have us know and believe and trust. Keep us from mean-spirited thoughts. Help us to think the best of others, whose opinions – forgive us – we cannot abide. When we would stand and offer an opinion not worthy of you, push us firmly back to our seat. And when we would sit quietly and listen to – forgive us again – nonsense, prompt us to speak.

Above all, give us wise and discerning hearts, mostly to remember that your church will never quite measure up until that day that you make all things new. And for that day we pray that you will make it come … quickly.

Amen.

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I may start going to church again

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I can be very critical, especially about the church.

I seldom like the sermon. I can be picky about the music. Frankly, I can (and do) find fault with just about everything, even with the cookies at coffee hour. (When was the last time you had a really good cookie at a church coffee hour? Right, my point exactly.)

When people talk about spending eternity singing in the heavenly choir, I hate to admit it, but I don’t look forward to it. I hope it’s okay for me to admit that. My point is that I hope worship in heaven is a lot better than it usually is down here.

But worship today was a happy exception.

A friend invited me to go with him today – this, by the way, is how something like 90 percent of first-time visitors come to church – and I loved every minute of it. From the greeting before I even set foot in the building, to the singing, to the prayer of confession (no kidding), to the message, to communion. I could do it all again next week, except that I don’t live around here.

What was it? I don’t know. I am trying to put my finger on it. Part of it was that no one tried very hard. What I mean is that worship wasn’t a show. Pastors and worship leaders were real, authentic, genuine – and that goes a long way.

Another part of it, I think, was the blend of old and new. The people were given responses that date to the earliest days of the church, and then there were elements that might have been written yesterday. I felt connected to believers of all times and places, but I also had the sense that the faith was being newly expressed.

There was more, of course, but I realized, with some relief, that it doesn’t take much. I’m not that hard to please. I just like to know that I was in the presence of God.

(Photo: One last look at Big Red until next year.)

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I don’t go to church much anymore

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I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

So, occasionally – on vacation, for example – I’ll wake up on Sunday and think about going to church. But going to church sure seems a lot harder than it used to be.

For one thing, going to church means getting up and getting out of the house on a day off. I had thought about hiking one of western Michigan’s many scenic trails this morning with my brand-new hiking boots, which I’m really excited about, but instead I showered and got dressed.

Next, there was deciding what to wear.

Really, what do people wear to church these days? I haven’t gone to church in such a long time that I haven’t had to think about the question. In the end I opted for shorts, but almost immediately felt uncomfortable, even though most of the other men, as it turned out, were also wearing shorts.

My mom and dad used to say that I should dress for church the way I would dress to go to the White House and meet the President. In older adulthood, apparently, I have a hard time not following that direction.

Singing was also much harder than I expected. I love to sing, but I should point out that loving to sing is different from singing well. It would be more accurate to write that I love to sing when no one, except maybe God and my granddaughter, can hear me.

I knew the first hymn – “Be Thou My Vision” – and started singing it enthusiastically, as though for God’s and my granddaughter’s enjoyment, only to discover that no one around me was singing. Not a single person. For a couple of stanzas I tried to create some musical excitement around me, but finally gave up when a couple of people turned around to find out what the croaking toad behind them looked like.

And then there was the message.

Now, I know a little about the degree of difficulty involved in preaching, so I was willing to give a lot of bonus points for sincerity and effort and conviction. But not even a lot of sincerity and effort and conviction can make listening bearable for 25 minutes.

I thought about leaving during the last hymn, but noticed that a large group near me was already doing that. Maybe they were late for their brunch reservations. Instead, I decided – heroically – to stay all the way through the Benediction.

Will I be going to church next Sunday? I think so. I have a whole new level of respect for those who do it.

(Photo: That’s the inside of a church in Lucerne, Switzerland.)

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Celebrate Pentecost

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(I first posted this a year ago, though the incident I describe here happened 10 years ago or so when I was serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois.)

Imagine my surprise early one Friday morning, as I was sitting quietly at home with my coffee and the Wall Street Journal.  There on the op-ed page was a piece about my church.

Actually, it wasn’t so much about my church, as it was about the sign in front of my church.

Facing a well-traveled street in the Chicago suburb where I used to live was a church sign board.  On one side of the sign board we posted worship times and a welcome to visitors.  On the other … well, that was the problem.

What do you post on a church sign board?

For some reason this was a responsibility that always fell to me.  As hard as I worked to delegate it, I always ended up with the final decision about what to put out there.

I resisted the use of clever and catchy sayings.  What I preferred was to announce events like Vacation Bible School, the Mother-Daughter Tea, Nursery School registration, and so on.  However, there were church members, now and then, who wanted to do more than that.  Much more.  And they would bring in pictures of sign boards from other churches to make their case.

One year, heading into the summer season and without a lot of church activities to announce, I gave the custodian two words to put out there on the signboard, two words that I thought were utterly innocuous: “Celebrate Pentecost.”

I ordinarily don’t go looking for controversy.  But to one driver who passed by my church in the days leading up to Pentecost a few years ago those were words that couldn’t be ignored.

“Celebrate Pentecost?” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column.  “What could those words mean for a Presbyterian Church?”

She argued that celebrating Pentecost would be understandable in a Pentecostal or charismatic church, where speaking in tongues and faith healing and so on were practiced.  But a Presbyterian Church, she wrote, was being misleading at best by encouraging its people to celebrate Pentecost.

Misleading?  Really?

What does Pentecost look like for a Presbyterian Church?  The truth is, I’m getting a lot of blank looks from staff members this week as I try to make plans for this special day.  It seems they’re not exactly sure what a Pentecost celebration would look like either.  “Why is the color for Pentecost red?” one of them asked.

I’m stunned.  In popular culture, I realize, Pentecost doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter, but within the biblical account I would say Pentecost is an important day – very important.  I would say the story tells us a great deal about how God calls a people to himself – and then sends them out again to be the church.  Maybe our ignorance about Pentecost says a lot about where the American church is today.

I plan to say something about this on Sunday.

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A prayer at the Table on Memorial Day weekend

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In my new, international context, the Lord’s Supper has taken on a new depth and significance. The people who come forward once each month look to me like the kingdom of God, or how I imagine the kingdom will look. There is no Memorial Day weekend here in Switzerland, of course, but as I prepare for worship this morning I am aware of the holiday, am thinking about it, am trying to make sense of it.

Here’s my payer for later this morning…

God of all nations and peoples, tribes and tongues, God who calls us all to be one around this Table, we prepare to receive the bread and cup today knowing – or at least having been told – that you love us and that your great love for us is made visible in this meal.

We come here today from good weeks and bad weeks, and often from weeks that were a mix of both. But we come, hoping for a glimpse of you, hoping to hear a word from you, hoping to see meaning and purpose in lives that too often feel random and messy.

We come just as we are.

Here in your presence we think of ourselves, of course, because our own needs are always before us, but we also think of those close to us – family members and friends who have particular and urgent needs today – and we lift them to you in prayer, trusting that you will heal and comfort them.

We think of this congregation, its work and witness in this city, and we pray for its people, its leadership, and its direction. Teach us to mobilize the many gifts and resources you have given us to do your work in this place.

And of course, because the images in the news are inescapable, we think of the world around us. We pray for places where there is war, where governments teeter, where leaders fail, where your church struggles to remain faithful.

On this Memorial Day weekend, some of us are remembering those who have fallen in war, who have given their lives for a cause higher than themselves, who teach us with their sacrifice how precious our freedom is.

As we come to the Table today, we pray that we may learn to live our own lives as you lived yours among us – with love and forgiveness and sacrifice.

And now, hear us as we say together, either in English or in the language we first learned this prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name….”

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