Thursday, October 29, 2009

Get Ready for the Holidays

This week is Halloween. So it starts, the Fall Rush to the end of the year. Next up is Thanksgiving, and then the mad dash to Christmas. I don't really look forward to it. But, I don't have to live by that calendar. We are so aware of Time. Every where we look we are reminded of the time. It is on the bottom of our computers and on the face of our phones. It stares at us from the dashboard of our cars. Someone has called it the Tyranny of Time. Days fly by, we say. Or, Time drags if we don't have enough to do or are in pain. Some of us live weekend to weekend and look forward to the next time we get "off island". Which is often at holiday time. For Holidays, we live by the world's calendar. Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc, and we let the expectations of the holiday seasons set our clocks. We go through the motions like we are punching a time clock for a job we don't really like.

There is an alternative. Some Christians since the early days of the church have set their clocks differently. The calendar of the Church Year follows the life of Christ. Conforming our days to that calendar was seen as a way to help us conform our lives to Christ. So, it is not Halloween this week; it is All Saints Day. Thanksgiving is every day. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday of Advent which is our preparation time for Christmas. The last Sunday of November is the first Sunday of the new year, not January 2. According to the Church Calendar, we have a whole month to wait for the Birth of Jesus. That is what we are doing in December instead of frantically preparing for the secular celebration of Christmas which drains our budgets as well as our energies. Then, it is Epiphany, which is followed by Lent which leads us to the celebration of the great saving event of the death and resurrection of Jesus ( no, there is no time for an easter bunny). After Easter, there is Pentecost and the Pentecost season which runs for six months and is a time for going deeper into the Bible's teachings about who we are supposed to be, and what we are supposed to do, as the church.

Am I saying we should abandon the secular holidays. No, not completely. Halloween can be a fun party time with costumes and games and goodies. My brother in law, who is a pastor, loves to play around with Halloween dressing up in outrageous costumes and "scaring" kids who come to his house for treats. Thanksgiving can be a low key holiday spent with friends and family; a time to be grateful for God's gifts of people in our lives. Christmas can be a time to focus on the Gifts God has given to us in Christ and a time to give gifts to others, mostly to those who need them. We can think about what these celebrations mean and who we are taking our cues from for their meaning. Does walking into Walmart start us thinking about what we have to do, what we have to buy to fulfill Walmart's expectation of what the season means. Or do we control how we spend the holiday, and what we spend our time and money on?

This year may be time for a change so you have time for a change. Spend Halloween night at the party at church enjoying the costumed children at their games. Play games and laugh with them. Get involved in the cakewalk or leading a game. Charlaine was always there painting faces until she moved. Any face painters in the area? Have a simple meal for Thanksgiving so you don't spend all week getting ready for it. Invite over some people who don't have family to gather with this time of year. Share your lives. Play some games. Think about how you can make some changes to get on God's Time this Christmas instead of running, and spending to stay on the world's Christmas timetable. Make church attendance and scripture reading a priority. Practice letting some things go.... no Christmas letter this year... or less decorating ... less buying. How can time be used as a gift from God? This year the church is hosting Ten Thousand Villages in early December. At this bazaar third world craftspersons sell their wares. It provides a market so these people can feed their families. Buy your gifts from places like this. The first Friday after Christmas is a day of prayer at the church. Wouldn't it be nice to enjoy more time for prayer and reading during the holidays? No reason why you cannot, is there. Wouldn't it be nice to have more money to give away during the holidays? No reason why you cannot, is there?

Where is God in your plans this holiday season? A good resource for shaping our lives according to the life of Christ as we follow the Church Calendar is Robert Webber's Ancient Future Time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Worship Renewal

Most of what we do in the church has deep roots, in many cases going all the way back to the earliest days of the church. The word for church body (building) comes from a Latin word meaning ship (nave). From early days (375 A.D.) the church was likened to a ship with the pastor/bishop as the captain, the deacons as the sailors and the laity the passengers. Often, the bishop's throne would be placed in the middle. At times, the laity would stand in the aisles while the elders and the presiding bishop were center stage. In the Middle Ages, churches were often used for secular gatherings where there was drinking, dancing and the performing of plays.

The Pulpit which is front and center in many Protestant churches has a Biblical reference in Neh 8:4 from which Ezra the scribe addressed the people. But there is little evidence that the sermon was given from a pulpit in the early days of the church. Later on, the bishop usually gave his sermon while seated on his throne (cathedra). Pulpits seem to come into use in the church in England around the thirteenth century. They were usually found on the side of the church. After the Reformation which centered on preaching the word of God, pulpits became more prevalent. In the 18th century, three -decker pulpits were popular. On one level was the church clerk, then the lector and up top was the preacher. Pulpits are pretty much front and center in a lot of churches today although more and more modern churches are forsaking the pulpit for lecterns or just a stool on which the preacher sits. Funny, how when we think we are on the cutting edge we are often just going back to the way it used to be!

Of course, most of the congregations in the early days stood. It seems the only person(s) seated were the leaders. Sometimes church buildings had stone ledges around the sides where the weakest members could find a seat. Eastern churches still mostly stand for the service today. In the Western Churches, seating was introduced around the end of the thirteenth century. The first seats were backless benches. In the 15th and 16th century, wood carvers took great pride in crafting pews which were situated in the center of the sanctuary allowing ample room for movement. Later on, after the Reformation, box-pews (high pews) filled the sanctuary and cut people off from one another. By the 19th century these high pews were gone and replaced by smaller bench pews. Pews are still common today but newer churches are using chairs and auditorium type seating. In poorer churches, people use backless benches or stand. What matters is that people are there to worship and what they are sitting on or even whether they are sitting - has changed a lot over the years.

It seems clear that what people were there for - at least in the beginning is what we call Communion or the Lord's Supper but was originally called the Eucharist which means Thanksgiving and entailed the distribution and participation in the body and blood of Jesus. In the early days of the church, people received the bread in their hands but did not touch the chalice which was lifted up to their lips. People always approached the altar to be served. Later on, many small changes occurred so that people could hold the chalice or sometimes dip the bread into a chalice (intinction -which was condemned by the western church in the thirteenth century for some reason). In England the Puritans changed the means of distribution by bringing the elements to the people. Most congregations have stood for communion while some kneel and some sit. The communion table seems to have shown up in churches after the Reformation, the Reformers being uncomfortable with the Roman Catholic altar. A Table seems to better present the idea of the fellowship of the body of Christ at communion, as well. At first, the worship service seems to have been built around the Eucharist. It was celebrated every Sunday. Before the distribution of the elements there was prayer, a scripture reading, sermon and the kiss of peace as a sign of fellowship. An offering for the needy was taken afterward. Originally it seems the church offering was an offering of the bread and the wine and gifts which were distributed to the poor. Many churches had lists of the poor and widows that they were responsible for. Potlucks ( called agape meals) were usually held on Sunday evenings. They were kind of a combination of a potluck and a Sunday night service with scripture and sermon and communion. An offering was normally taken for the poor. You can see how the Lord's Table was the central act of worship not the sermon (and the sermon was never at the end of worship - that is a carryover from the revival days in America so an altar call could be given right after an evangelistic sermon.). You can also see how the church's offerings were used primarily for the care of the poor in our midst.

Music is an important part of worship, too. Choirs were an important part of OT worship. The tradition of the Temple Choir was maintained until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. Christian choirs were quite popular after the era of the persecution of the church was over. Both Judaism and Christianity insisted on a certain level of training and skill for those who served in the choir. The Council of Laodicea (360 A.D.) even forbade singing in church except for the trained choir members! That prohibition did not last long but by 600 clear principles were in place to govern singing in the church. The congregation was given simple melodies while the choir was expected to sing more elaborate ones, and provide soloists. Luther took a bold step at the time of the Reformation to encourage more singing from the people and used secular tunes to do so. Calvin introduced metrical psalm singing. Both Reformers, however, saw the value of a trained choir and kept them intact. Calvin who was fearful of the potential for the emotional abuse of music had the organ in Geneva removed from the church. After the Reformation, the role of choirs changed. They were no longer seen as performers for the congregation but the leaders of congregational singing. Worship teams have taken the place of choirs in many churches today and they need to be reminded that their role in worship is leading the congregational singing not performing.

Standing, kneeling, sitting and raising our arms are all postures that are seen in churches today. We tend to identify certain postures with certain church traditions, ie, kneeling in Lutheran/Episcopalian/Roman Catholic churches and raising one's arms in Charismatic churches. But all of those postures were present in the early days of the church. Bowing the head was common during certain acts of worship. Kneeling was a common posture for prayer. So was standing with arms outstretched. For well over a thousand years in the church the congregation stood (only the clergy sat) except when they knelt for certain times of prayer. The widespread custom of sitting in church never really took hold until after the Reformation. Today, things are reversed: clergy stand and the congregation sits.

The Lord's Prayer and the Doxology have pretty much been in continual use in church services since the earliest days of Christian worship. They were often used in the context of the Lord's Supper.
Candles originally were purely functional. They were needed to provide light for worshippers at night time vigil services. By the 4th century candles and lamps were regularly used in worship. Using candlesticks on the altar was not a common practice for over 1000 yrs. There was much discussion in the late middle ages up to the 18th century about the proper use of candles in the church.

Amen! is commonly heard in African American churches but not so much elsewhere. It was a common response in the early churches. Amen comes from a Hebrew word meaning certainly or assuredly. It was often said by Jesus but at the beginning of his words rather than at the end signifying that these words were true and trustworthy. It was taken up in the early church as a response of the people indicating agreement and trust in the worship words that were spoken.

So what do I take from this brief sample from the history of Christian worship. It is good to know that all these years down the road we are still worshipping in the same stream with the saints who have gone before us. No matter what the brand name on the church, there are certain fundamentals that have proven the test of time in all times and all places. When we talk about being faithful to the ancient (first) practices of the Church, what are we talking about? Should we stand or kneel? They did both. Should we raise our hands or bow our heads? They did both.

What does stand out is the Eucharist ( Lord's Supper or Communion). Where our worship needs renewing is replacing the pastor/sermon with the Lord's Table as the central act of our worship. The first acts of worship, ie, prayer, singing, scripture and sermon lead up to the Lord's Table and the other acts of worship such as the Lord's Prayer, Doxology, Intercessory Prayers and Offering follow as our responses. Our Deacon's Fund Offering is an important response as well so we can care for those in our midst who need financial help. If we are serious about worship renewal it seems like this is the place to start.

For Those Who Care: World Series Preview

Ok, so today is game 5 of the ALCS championship series. If the Angels somehow manage to pull out a win, the Yankees still win the series in 6 or 7. C.C. Sabbathia is the best pitcher on the planet right now and if the Angels get to game 7, that is who they will have to face. He totally dominated their lineup on 3 days rest and game 7 will be on full rest. Phillies won last night which was good since they may the only team in baseball right now that can match up with the Yankees. It should be a great series. I still pick NY in 7 because Sabbathia can pitch 3 games. The Phillies have Cliff Lee and when Sabbathia and Lee go arm to arm, it should be an epic pitchers duel. Beyond those two both pitching staffs drop off quite a bit. Hamels and Burnett are good but can have lapses when they can't throw strikes. Petitte has trouble getting beyond 5 or 6 innings. Which is ok because NY has the stronger bullpen by far. The lineups match up pretty well. The Phillies have hit almost as many home runs as NY and they were flying out of the Phillies park last night just like they have been flying out of the new Yankee Stadium all season. The edge has to go to NY though because ARod is hitting like he can and erasing memories of his postseason power outages of the past. Texiera is looking like ARod of postseasons past but he is always a threat to wake up and win a game with a home run. Jeter is playing like Jeter which means like the MVP of postseason play. But the Phillies have a good lineup that combines speed with power. They are scrappy and won't be intimidated by the Yankees. They will be helped by the DH rule in the world series. Matsui is always a dangerous hitter and he could be out for 3 games. The other intangibles are the weather and the umpiring. Both, have been equally bad this postseason. The weather on the east coast in late Fall can be like Kodiak baseball weather: raw with rain and wind. The umpiring has been amazingly bad for what is supposed to be the best crews in the game. Fortunately, it does not seem to have actually cost any team a game although the Twins could argue Mauer's fair/foul ball bad call did. In the last Angels/Yankees game Tim McClelland who was the third base ump made two of the worst calls I have ever seen. With two Yankee runners stranded in no - mans land off third base and both tagged out by the Angels catcher, he called a fielders choice and awarded one of the runners third base! The other call went against NY when he called Swisher out for leaving third too soon after a caught fly ball in the outfield. Swisher tagged and scored. The Angels appealed and McClelland called Swisher out. Swisher was caught on camera with a look of total amazement as the replay clearly showed that not only did he not leave early but the ump was not even looking at the play at third! Later, after watching replay, he admitted he did not see it, but in one of the classic lines of baseball lore, he said, I felt in my heart he left early. The only way the Angels win this series with the Yankees is if McClelland is behind the plate and he feels in his heart they should win!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Health Care Reform

Last week I preached on Job. This week it's the blind man called Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel. Jesus healed Bart and he became a follower of Jesus. Job suffered, too, before his life got much better. He gave God the credit. Christians have led the way in health care initiatives in the past. Rodney Stark in his book, The Expansion of Christianity, says the growth of Christianity in its earliest days is explained by the sacrificial care during crisis times demonstrated by Christians for their neighbors. Throughout the globe, Christians were often first on the scene providing relief for human need by prayer and action, meaning in many cases missionary doctors and hospitals. Thomas Cahill in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, comments that "humanists do not run leprosariums" but Christians have and do. St Francis and Mother Teresa are arguably much better testimonies to the reality of the Christian faith than countless sermons.

Given, then, the influential involvement of Christians in health care, why is it so hard to hear a Christian voice in the present debate. We know what the Republicans think. Or do we? Seems like we know that they think they don't like what the Democrats think. We know what the Democrats think. They think we need health care reform. We know what the insurance companies and their army of lobbyists think. The entire debate has become politicized and most Christians I have talked to have staked out their position along political lines.

What do uninsured people think? If they are healthy now, they may think I just hope I don't get sick because I don't know what I will do. If they are sick, they may be frightened or panicked. If they are elderly, they may not be able to afford the medications their doctors say they need. They may have a hard time finding a doctor who will take medicare. They may live in fear of getting sick, too.

Health care is expensive. No one can afford it. Even with insurance, serious illness and long term treatment can wipe out a person's savings. The health care reform debate is complicated. I don't pretend to understand it or which program is the best one.

There was no health care industry in Job's day and Jesus was the health care industry in his day. He told a story about health care reform. We call it the Good Samaritan. Helmut Thielicke, the German preacher/theologian of 50 years ago, said if you are the broken man on the side of the road you can think of plenty of reasons why every person should stop and help you but if you are the one passing by you can think of plenty of reasons why the broken person is someone else's responsibility.

We are blessed with a tremendous health care system in this country. We often take it for granted every time we go to the doctor and someone pays the bill for us. Millions of people have no access to that kind of quality care. You can find them in every community. They are the broken people sitting beside the road. What would Jesus have us do?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Palin's Life Story and Ours

Sarah Palin, former vice-presidential candidate, who is currently a best selling author of a book that has not been published yet, has set some kind of a record for writing an autobiography in the shortest amount of time ( of course, she did not actually write the book but she provided the material for it and that takes time, too). Judging by the number of prepub sales lots of books are going to be sold but how many will be read. I didn't think that many people still read any kind of books! I wish her well. I know she has legal fees to pay and her husband quit his job on the slope.

It's a curious fact in this facebook/twitter age how many people want others to read their autobiographical details. Put together many facebook comments about oneself or tweets and anyone could come up with an autobiography in record time. But, again, who would read it? I have been thinking about my life and how it would look in book form. I think I could finish it in about 3 days if I had one of those days off. Of course, like Palin, I would have to find a really good ghostwriter to make my life sound more exciting than it is. I know people like John McCain are waiting anxiously to see what she will have to say about their campaign infighting and others are genuinely interested in her political perspectives (although far fewer people than before the campaign and her subsequent retirement from the AK state job she held). I can't think of too many people who would hold their breath waiting to see how I turned a phrase or two about the relationships in my life. Maybe my Mom. We had some battles. She used to bait me about my favorite baseball player, Mickey Mantle, and I fell for it every time. I think she would still get a kick out of it, if she thought of it.

Still you have to wonder about the desire these days to get yourself out in front of other people. I mean, the real personal stuff like the days you have a headache or feel bad about your favorite team losing a game. This stuff does not make for riveting reading. Maybe that is why we do it. Our lives are most interesting to those who love us. It is wonderful to have a spouse or a child or a Mom or a friend who cares, really cares, about your aches and pains, and your successes. And we know that the closest thing we will ever get to someone reading our autobiography is a facebook comment that takes even less time to write than Palin's autobiography. While she has no idea who is reading her book among the thousands who are buying one, we know our friends who are waiting with bated breath to read our next facebook comment. That's no small consolation in this life.