Tag Archives | worship

A prayer at the Table on Memorial Day weekend

Lord's Supper

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….”

Comments { 3 }

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

This is the second post from a year ago that I am re-posting this week. Interestingly, thanks to the magic of search engines it’s already the most viewed post of the day, with more than 180 unique views – and it’s still morning in the states. “Holy Saturday” originally appeared March 30, 2013. The last line still gives me chills.

It’s Saturday, the day before.  And I just came in from the Easter egg hunt.

For some reason it happens every year on this day, the day before Easter.  Every church I’ve ever served has done it exactly this way.

Right now the park across the street from the church is teeming with happy children, watchful parents, and even a few smiling (“isn’t this wonderful!”) grandparents.  I talked with just about everyone, and everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time, even a few of the older children who have aged out of the actual hunt and are being asked this year for the first time to hide the eggs, instead of hunting for them.

But there’s something odd about this day too – and something odd about having an Easter egg hunt on this day.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but hearing people say “Happy Easter!” on Saturday feels strange.

I keep thinking, “No, no, no, not yet.”

We Protestants don’t have a well-developed theology of Holy Saturday.  Our Catholic friends could probably tell us a thing or two about this day and what it means.  And yet, maybe there’s something we could say about today, the day before.

I’m sitting at my desk now about to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’s a good one too, because there are few things worse than having to preach a sermon three times that you know (after the first time around) is a turkey.

So, I’m feeling a sense of anticipation and a twinge of nervousness and a pinch of fear.  And that, I suspect, is what this day is really for – getting ready for what’s going to happen tomorrow, living with the nervous excitement, knowing (but not knowing) that Easter will be better than anything we can imagine right now.

In just a few hours the stone will be rolled away.

Comments { 7 }

The problem with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

The problem with Palm Sunday is that it’s hard to face up to the truth about the day.

You should know that your pastor is struggling mightily right about now, getting ready for tomorrow, because the truth about Palm Sunday turns out to be very different from our expectations. Your pastor is wondering how honest to be.

Here’s the thing: most people love Palm Sunday. And who can blame them? It’s fun to see our children waving palm branches and singing. And it’s fun for adults to sing, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” I saw a YouTube video this week of an American gospel choir singing “Ride On King Jesus,” and I found myself wanting to go to that church tomorrow to sing and dance and shout along with them. (Unfortunately, that church is a few thousand miles from here.)

As I child I loved going to church on Palm Sunday. Not only was it a welcome break from the tedium of Lent, but people seemed genuinely happy, even joyful, which you didn’t see very often in the church where I grew up. I thought then that Palm Sunday worship was a dress rehearsal for Easter, the mother of all happy church celebrations.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Preach about the dark truths of the day? Only the brave (or the ones nearing retirement) would do that. Mention that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to die? That would bring everybody down. Remind listeners that Jesus may have been the only person that day who wasn’t enjoying himself? I’ve done that, and there was no applause.

If, as Luke tells us, Jesus wept over Jerusalem in the minutes before mounting that donkey, then his eyes would have been puffy and red. If he smiled, it was a forced smile, the smile of someone who doesn’t want to take the fun out of the day for other people.

But surely the people closest to Jesus could see his growing sadness, apprehension, and determination to see the mission through. They at least knew the truth.

Palm Sunday is a mixed bag of emotions – kind of like life as we live it. I find that even my best days, even my happiest moments, have at least a small twinge of regret or sadness or pain. You don’t get to be my age and not accumulate a few scars.

Speaking of scars, when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning, having triumphed over death, having destroyed sin once and for all, his hands and feet and side still bore the signs of his crucifixion. I suspect that he wore those scars proudly – and did nothing to hide them.

I think that’s honesty.

Comments { 4 }

A prayer for Sunday morning

first reformed church

Lord, it’s hard for me, as you know, to sleep on Sunday mornings. Almost as soon as I open my eyes, my mind goes to work – the adult ed class I will teach, the sermon I’ve prepared, the people I am hoping to see.

So, I sit at my desk – half-awake, in the early light – and I contemplate the day, this day, the day you have made. (I’m not quite ready to rejoice and be glad in it, though that will come.)

I like the sermon I’ve prepared. It’s got a couple of good laugh lines and also what my father-in-law used to call “meat-and-potatoes.”

It’s not unusual for me to feel good about the sermon at this point in the morning. What happens is that I probably won’t like it so much in a few hours, but then we’ve been all through that, haven’t we, Lord?

I promise to give it my best, and then I’ll try not to spend the rest of the day criticizing it and thinking of all the ways it could have been better.

As for the people, I’m grateful for them.

I’m amazed, frankly, that any of them will show up. It’s such a gloomy, rainy, chilly day that I wonder if I would take a shower, get dressed, and go to church, if I didn’t have to be there. I’d be tempted to tell the preacher later in the week how I can contemplate you just by looking out of my window with a cup of coffee in my hand, which is pretty much what I’m doing right now.

But that’s just the thing: not many of them do that – stay home, I mean. The church, I know from experience, will be mostly full. And there will be lots of children too, a couple hundred of them, thinking that it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to church on Sunday morning. Little do they know.

I am grateful for this day, Lord, for this gift you have given me to do what I love to do. May it be a good day – for you and for us.

In Jesus’ name, I pray.

Comments { 7 }

The selfie comes to church!

Remember this…from the Academy Awards broadcast a week ago?

academy awards selfie

Well, how about this…from my installation last Sunday at the International Protestant Church of Zurich? No Brad, Angelina, Meryl, Jennifer, and others, but some fine people nonetheless.

academy awards response selfie

Comments { 2 }

When a door closes, a window opens

swiss windows with flowers

Until yesterday morning I couldn’t stand that expression – or idiom, or whatever it is.

I’ve expressed my dislike for those words in conversation, in sermons, even in a book I wrote a few years ago about vocation.

I don’t think the thought is biblical, though lots of people have searched scripture to find words that sort of, maybe, if you stretch the meaning a bit, might possibly say the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always loved people who live their lives that way, who just know that when disappointment happens, something else – and maybe something even better – will come along.

Doesn’t everyone remember Maria in The Sound of Music saying, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window”?

It sure beats my usual outlook on life.

For me, sorry to say, when one door closes, I expect about three more to slam shut at about the same time. (It’s true, sadly, that I’ve never been as cheery as Maria.)

So, yesterday, I’m pretty sure my outlook changed.

After teaching my Sunday morning adult education class in the Kantonsschule Stadelhofen, a nearby public school where my church holds most of its classes, I ran ahead of the class to get to my office, which is in a different building.

After all, I was late, and I had to get back to put on my Geneva gown and go over last-minute worship-planning details with the other worship leaders before heading over to the church, which is in still another building.

Never having been in the Kantonsschule before, I ran out the nearest door – and suddenly realized that I had no idea where I was. I turned to go back into the school, but found that the door had locked behind me. I pounded on the door for a few seconds, for what seemed like an eternity, but no one was around.

As I found out later, no one who wanted to go to church would have even considered going out that door.

So, trying not to panic, I wandered around outside looking for a way around the school building. I could see the train station in the distance, so I knew where I was – approximately. I just couldn’t get to where I needed to be.

I glanced at my watch and realized I was in trouble. Worship was starting in a few minutes, and I was standing outside the locked door of an unfamiliar building.

At that exact moment I saw a light in one of the classrooms and ran over. I saw someone inside. It was Maria. Not Julie Andrews, but the wife of my associate pastor who was straightening up after teaching her high school class. She opened the window, and I climbed in.

Normally when men my age climb in the window of a school after hours, an arrest will occur soon after. But Maria pointed me in the direction of the building where my office is, and I took off at my 5000-meter pace.

If I seemed slightly sweaty and out-of-breath yesterday as I gave the Call to Worship, it was because I had just learned a little life lesson about closed doors and opened windows.

When a door closes, a window just might open up. That’s my experience.

Comments { 7 }

What we preach


My recent post about idioms in preaching did what it was supposed to do – it started a conversation. My friend Scott Hoezee responded – humorously at first, and then thoughtfully – and so I asked him if he had other thoughts about preaching that he might like to blog about.

And being a preacher and a teacher of preachers, Scott said yes.

I’m happy to introduce Scott to you. He is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the author of several books, most recently Proclaim the Wonder: Preaching Science on Sunday (2003).

Recently in an interview with a student who would soon apply to become a pastor, I asked if there were any parts of Reformed theology (since he was becoming a pastor in a Reformed denomination) that gave him pause. Somewhat predictably the matter of election (and its dim opposite of reprobation) was mentioned. This is, of course, a knotted area of theology and not just for Calvinist types. Most people are fine with the idea that we want to keep salvation as 100 percent God’s doing and 100 percent God’s initiative by grace alone, but just how people get on board with that program is where things get interesting.

But I mention this in a blog post on preaching because of one side comment the student made. At one point, even as he indicated his broad agreement with this area of theology, he also said, “I can’t see that I’d ever preach reprobation but . . .”

At the time I did not follow up on that little remark but what I wanted to say was “Well of course you would never ‘preach reprobation’ because that would be the very opposite of what preaching is supposed to be!” If you scour the New Testament, you will discover that basically all of the verbs and nouns used to refer to the act of preaching tie in snugly with the notion of proclaiming, heralding, shouting Good News. To preach is to present hope, joy, grace.

Yet I am not naïve: there are long traditions of the so-called “hellfire and brimstone” preachers who in a sense really did “preach” not just reprobation but all kinds of other scary, frightening scenarios. Many sermons in history were loaded with bad news, with threats and warnings and dire predictions. These themes dominated. Fear, therefore, was often the primary “take away” of such sermons.

But is that authentic preaching?

Well, let’s admit that you cannot have Good News without that message standing in contrast to something else, something less-than-good. Even to admit that you need the cross of Jesus as your only way to salvation is to grant in the same breath that your need is so great because your sin is so great. Preaching, therefore, cannot dispense with the prophetic voice, with the call to turn around and repent.

Still . . . at the end of the day what we preachers should be able to affirm loud and clear is that what we preach is Good News, not bad news. We preach salvation, not damnation. We preach the grace of a sovereign and loving God, not the dark sorrow of anyone’s being flung into perdition. Whether it is a sermon aimed primarily at those who have never yet believed the Gospel or a sermon in a more established church where most people have been serving God for many years already, in the end the sermon should be a heralding of a message that will fill people with hope and joy.

Preaching in the New Testament tradition should be a joyful heralding of profoundly Good News. People should be drawn to that Gospel—whether for the first time or for the thousandth time—not because the minister did such a good job preaching hell fire but because the preacher did such a good job at depicting the beauty of holiness, the listeners could not help but yearn to be inside such beauty themselves.

(Art credit: that’s a photograph of Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment.)

Comments { 7 }

The problem with one really good sermon

A good sermon

The problem with one really good sermon – I hesitate to write “great” in connection with a sermon – is that there is always next Sunday.

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect most preachers will agree with me about this: As good as it feels to preach an excellent sermon, to receive lots of compliments about something you’ve said, to have a full inbox of congratulatory email by the time you get home on Sunday afternoon, you realize at some point that you’ve got to do the same thing all over again the next week.

A mentor early on in my ministry used to talk about the “disturbing regularity of Sunday morning,” and I very quickly I came to understand what he meant. Preaching a good sermon – perhaps even an excellent sermon – felt good on Sunday afternoon. And maybe it felt good for a little while on Monday. But by Monday night, the following Sunday would be staring me directly in the face. I knew I’d be expected to do the same thing all over again the next Sunday.

There is no escaping it, the pressure to do it every time. Even a hall-of-fame baseball player only gets a hit every three times at bat. How can a preacher be expected to be better than that?

I’d like to think that I’ve preached a few really good sermons over the years. Sometimes the ones I feel good about receive a kind of ho-hum response, while others, which seemed ho-hum to me when I put the finishing touches on them, turned out to be huge crowd-pleasers.

Either way, I’m guessing that I’ve hit a home run at least a few times over the years.

How do I know? I’m not sure. It’s a combination of things, I guess. Standing ovation? Haven’t had many of them. I received one for the last sermon I preached at my last church, but had mixed feelings about it. No, to tell the truth I had mainly negative feelings about it. I was embarrassed. That was hardly the response I was looking for.

I grew up in a large and growing suburban church. At one point in my childhood that church was the largest in the denomination. We always had overflow crowds. Every fourth Sunday or so my family would have to sit in the church basement and watch via closed-circuit TV because there were no seats left upstairs.

Was the preacher of my childhood a great preacher? I think he was. Can I remember any of the sermons he preached? I remember a few, mainly the ones I disagreed with. So, what made him a great preacher? Lots of reasons. He was a good speaker, of course, and he always seemed to have something to say. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged.

But there was something more, a bit harder to describe.

A few weeks ago, after my dad passed away, my family asked him if he would officiate at my dad’s funeral service. He’s not much younger than my dad was; he must be at least 80, but he said yes. I sat in the front row with my mom and my sisters, and I realized then what made him such a fine preacher. He preached the gospel.

He didn’t shout or wave his arms. In fact, I don’t remember that he raised his voice or gestured at all. He simply spoke in a reasonable and compelling way about what we believe. There weren’t all that many people in the funeral home for the service – a consequence of outliving most of your friends – but the pastor from my childhood preached in the same reassuring tones I remember from childhood. He said what I most needed to hear.

Next Sunday morning is coming, and I tell myself that I don’t need a great sermon. I need more than anything to say what’s true, what my congregation most needs to hear.

Comments { 15 }

Praying at Epiphany

adoration of the magi

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers – “write hard and clear about what hurts” – could probably apply to those of us who pray as well.

A dear friend who had been through a particularly tough year wrote to me not long ago and asked for scripture to guide her thinking and praying.

Without thinking too much about it, a reflex more than anything, I suggested that she read the psalms.  “Not all the way through,” I wrote. “Just dip in, here and there.”

A few days later she wrote back to say: “I had no idea how dark the psalms are.”  The tone of her email suggested that they might have been too dark.

For every “make a joyful noise” in the psalms, there are several more: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalms teach us to pray.

Religious professionals – by which I mean people like me, the people for whom Jesus reserved his harshest words of condemnation – tend to think that people want to feel better about themselves.  We reason that when they come to church they want to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.

One church member told me recently that he comes to church to “get really pumped up about Jesus.”

And so, consciously or not, we tend to plan worship along those lines – more uplift than reflection on what hurts.  After all, you can’t drag people down and then expect to send around the offering plate.

But the history of spiritual writing suggests something different.  More people, it turns out, should pray “hard and clear about what hurts.”

Over the last year I’ve prayed quite a few Ernest Hemingway-style prayers.  Weighed down by worry and anxiety, I didn’t get all that “pumped up about Jesus,” but I did sense that my spiritual life was deepening and expanding in a way that it never had before – or that it hadn’t in a long, long time. I was praying honestly and transparently, hard and clear, about where I was in my life.

It wasn’t easy.  It never is.  But with the light of the season approaching – Epiphany – I find my spirit slowly and surely being restored.

From one of my favorite hymns at this time of year…

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

(Art credit: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.)

Comments { 2 }

Why do people put up creches at Christmastime?


So far I’ve stayed out of the “white Santa” and “white Jesus” controversy.  Aren’t you glad?  Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that the topic is getting as much attention as it is.

A more uplifting, maybe even inspiring topic?  Why do people put up crèches at Christmastime, anyway? 

Stay with me here.  This is good.

The following is by L.V. Anderson, an assistant editor at Slate.  She covers food and drink for that publication, but apparently has a few other interests as well:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

While this part of Bonaventure’s story is dubious, it’s clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis’ display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis’ nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.

Within a couple of centuries of Francis’ inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe.

Two thoughts: One, Francis needed permission – from the pope, no less – to set up this first living nativity? Oy. And I complain about the bureaucratic nightmare of getting new ideas approved in the church.

But, more important, I am struck by Francis’ creativity and passion for communicating the good news of the gospel story. Instead of arguing over the exact tint of Jesus’ complexion, maybe we could deploy some of that passion in this direction.

Comments { 6 }