Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sermons: Considerations for Pew Sitters



In today’s media age, we are constantly bombarded with messages, whether on TV, via our hand-held device or computer, and through a continual onslaught of traditional in-print advertizing. This has caused all of us to be rather selective in our attentions, forcing new-casters and product peddlers to coat their pitches with entertaining stories, visual pleasantries and a pretended informality.


Then we find ourselves on a Sunday morning listening to a sermon. Today’s preachers are forced to compete (at least by subconscious comparison) with talk show hosts, comedians and some of the country’s most creative and talented (and often heretical) preachers, otherwise known as televangelists. Certainly, all of these cultural considerations should demand that preachers take their task even more seriously and work both on improving their content and how they deliver it.
Yet, as Christians, we each have a responsibility to make the most of every sermon we hear. The sermon is an opportunity to explore the themes of Scripture more deeply; to be challenged and comforted by God’s Word, and just maybe, to hear specific instructions for our life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here are eight suggestions for how you can make the most of every sermon you hear.
First, get a good night’s sleep. It is far easier to focus on the liturgy and to worship our Lord after having had enough rest. Of course, there will be times when we come half-awake to worship merely out of habit and commitment and this is a good thing, but we will have far more ability to take in the sermon and to be alert for the Holy Spirit if we are wide awake.

Second, arrive early and settle in. If you’re in the parenting stage of life arriving early and settling in will be more difficult, though not always impossible. Being there early allows you to breathe and push aside distracting thoughts. When we come late or barely on time it often takes half the service (including the sermon!) for us to clear our minds and give our full attention to what is happening in the liturgy.
Third, review the Scripture readings ahead of time. Some people do this as a personal practice on the Saturday night before worship. This isn’t a bad idea and could be a way for individuals or families to get ready for Sunday worship. More people do this prior to the service which highlights the importance of arriving early.
Fourth, pray. Prayer could be listed along with every other suggestion I’m making in this article. Pray over the readings, pray that you will be awake, pray that God will speak through the preacher to you, and the entire congregation. Pray after the sermon that God would give you the strength to live out its message.
Fifth, stay focused during the sermon. This, as most worshippers know, is not as easy as it sounds. Make an intentional choice not to look at the person walking in or to stare at the baby in the pew ahead of you who is playing with her mother. Depending on your day and how things are going, it’s also easy to just fade away into distant thought or into a sort of trance. Even if the preacher is not engaging, you have a responsibility to listen and hear what God might be saying.  
Sixth, talk about the sermon afterwards. This is a good habit to cultivate. Spouses and family members can do this on the ride home, as can friends out a lunch after worship. Knowing you are going to have to talk about the sermon with someone will help your retention considerably. In addition, these sorts of conversations can be spiritually uplifting in themselves and often your conversation partner will have been moved by portions of the sermon you weren’t.
Seventh, on occasion follow up with the preacher about the sermon. Preachers usually receive little meaningful feedback about the sermons they deliver. Following up with the preacher to ask a question or make a comment will help you to digest God’s Word more easily. In addition, you may provide some much needed encouragement to a preacher who is wondering why he or she bothers to spend so much time in preparing sermons that no one responds to.
Eighth, review the sermon later in the week. This would be a good discipline to do mid-week to check how much you remember and more importantly, how well you are living out the message of the sermon in your daily life. You could review your sermon notes (yes some people take these!) or listen to the sermon again via a podcast or a CD made available by the parish. Certainly, a written manuscript would also be helpful, though most sermons are designed to be heard rather than to be read.
By recognizing the importance of the Word of God and by implementing one or more of these suggestions you will be more likely to fulfill the Anglican vision for engagement with Holy Scripture: “Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen“(BCP, 236). 
 


Friday, July 4, 2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't Miss Out on Lent

Missing out, Lent? Yes. Lent is the forty day season before Easter (it starts next week on March 5). Lent is a heavy-weight season of the Christian year full of richness, potential for encounter with God, and life impact. Unfortunately, Lent is usually taken – if at all – as a light-weight season for giving up chocolate, going to an extra worship service or two and collecting loose change for some good cause. These are all fine things, but taken by themselves they miss the flight on what Lent is intended to be all about.

Life is a journey; cliché, but undeniably true. Likewise, Christianity is meant to be journey. Christianity is not meant to be an event, but a life. We’re all human; we all bleed; we all laugh; we all cry; and we all dream. Christianity is a way of becoming more authentically human; tapping into all the wonders of life, from Sunday symphonies to Wednesday blues and Saturday rock and roll. The seasons of the Church Year are designed to help us become better at being human; better at savoring ordinary joys, like a good cup of tea; weathering the horrible sorrows, like the loss of a loved one. How? By helping us to live more intentionally and to give more attention not only to our ever-present to-do lists, but to the spaces in our lives we ignore, where strangely and scarily, God is often to be found.  
Lent is designed to do this by challenging us to take our spiritual lives more seriously. To set aside forty days to ponder our relationship with God and God’s universe, God and God’s people, and God and our innermost selves. The classic Biblical image for Lent is Jesus’ forty days and nights of temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11); while in the desert, Jesus had plenty of time to ponder life’s mysteries; to pray, to fast, and to be tested. During Lent, the Church invites us to take on the spiritual practices of silence, Scripture reading, and fasting in order to grow into more authentic human beings (for more on spiritual practices click here).
If we miss out on Lent, we might miss out on being our very selves as God intended us to be. If we miss out on Lent, we may become less human, not more. I encourage you to take advantage of Lent this year. Make it a heavy-weight season, not a light-weight season. Don’t miss the flight that is Lent; if you do, you’ll miss out on going to some transforming places.  

(Click here for more posts on Lent)

Archbishop Rowan Williams On Lent
Two Minute Crash Course on Lent
Observing Lent as a Family



 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy New Year!


Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christian year, begins this Sunday, December 1. Advent is one of the more important seasons of the Christian year (also called the liturgical year), for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is the first (for more about Advent and how you can observe it click here). In popular imagination, the Christian year is often reduced to a color coding device for determining what colors are used on the altar and worn by the priests. This reduction is a tragic one. The Christian year with its flow of feasts and fasts, seasons and observances, is primarily meant to be celebrated at home, within the ordinary fabric of our lives. I dare to say that a renewal of the Christian year in our homes would result in a renewal of Christianity in North America. We are rapidly moving further and further into a post-Christian world. Fewer and fewer people are exposed to the Church and those that are (especially young people) tend not to return after leaving home. Instead of making Christianity a one-hour sport on Sundays, the observance of the Christian year takes the faith and weaves it within the regular ups and downs of family life. Instead of “Church” and “God” being something outside of the family on Sundays, spirituality becomes woven into the very fabric of family life and day to day living. The Christian year can and should be celebrated not just by families, but by single people in their homes and in their workplaces. If you want your faith to be more meaningful; if you want greater spiritual richness and depth in your daily living; then I encourage you to start observing the Christian year at home. Advent starts Sunday, make your plans now!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Making the Most of Holy Week



Rowan Williams, who recently retired as Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “In all sorts of ways, Holy Week really is the most important week in the Christian year, because it’s a week when we discover, in a way we don’t do at any other time,  just who we are and just who God is.” Williams’ concise statement captures the heart of the mystery of Holy Week, but sadly, for many people, it’s a mystery left in the dark and scarcely observed.
Many Christians do attend some or all of the services of Holy Week and this is a good thing, but attendance at divine worship alone will not make the most of these seven days. The Christian year with its celebrations and fasts is meant to be observed not only corporately (for an hour on Sunday or a couple of extra hours during Holy Week), but daily, personally, and with one’s friends and family.
 Finding meaningful ways to observe Holy Week, in addition to attending the appointed services, especially the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, will go a long way in unveiling the power and glory of Easter to you, your friends, and family.
Below are a number of ideas for observing Holy Week, which begins this Sunday (March 24).  You don’t need to do everything that’s listed, just select one or two practices per day, and also feel free to create your own. In the comments section feel free to share how you’ve observed Holy Week in the past or what ideas you have for observing it this year.  Some of the practices go together (i.e. the Bible reading suggestions), but most stand alone (I have a pdf version of this, slightly modified, if  you'd like one just e-mail me.)
 
Palm Sunday
-          Do something fun (i.e. go out to eat, go to the movies, etc.) in celebration and remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
-          Begin reading the shortest of the four Gospels, Mark chapters 1-2
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week and/or Easter service
-          Attend a Palm Sunday service

Holy Monday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV, cursing, coffee, or _____
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 3-4
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week service and/or Easter service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Your idea _____________________________________________

Holy Tuesday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV, cursing, coffee, or  _____
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 5-6
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week service and/or Easter service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Your idea _____________________________________________

Spy Wednesday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV, cursing, coffee, or  _____
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 6-7
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week service and/or Easter service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Confess your sins to a priest or pastor
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
 
Maundy Thursday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV, cursing, coffee, or  _____
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 8-10
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week service and/or Easter service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Confess your sins to a priest or pastor
-          Minimize and/or eliminate the use of lights, phone, computers, technology in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death when “the light of the world” was hidden from view
-          Take a long walk by yourself, with your family or friends to ponder Jesus’ own long walk to Calvary and to his death
-          Do the practice above but carry a cross with you  
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
-          Attend a Maundy Thursday service

Good Friday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV, cursing, coffee, or  _____
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 11-13
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Invite someone to join you for a Holy Week service and/or Easter service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Confess your sins to a priest or pastor
-          Minimize and/or eliminate the use of lights, phone, computers, technology in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death when “the light of the world” was hidden from view
-          Take a long walk by yourself, with your family or friends to ponder Jesus’ own long walk to Calvary and to his death
-          Do the practice above but carry a cross with you
-          Dress in black to remember Jesus’ death
-          Don’t socialize or “go out” instead stay home and remember what Jesus did for you
-          Watch the Passion of the Christ or similar film about the life of Jesus    
-          Go to a Passion Play
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
-          Attend a Good Friday service

Holy Saturday
-          Fast or partially fast from meat, texting, TV,  cursing, coffee, or  _____
-          Continue reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 13-15
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Invite someone to join you for an Easter Service
-          Spend five or more minutes in silence, pondering God’s presence
-          Take a long walk by yourself, with your family or friends to ponder Jesus’ own long walk to Calvary and to his death
-          Do the practice above but carry a cross with you  
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
-          Talk about faith, God, life, and spirituality with a friend or family member
-          Minimize and/or eliminate the use of lights, phone, computers, technology in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death when “the light of the world” was hidden from view
-          Confess your sins to a priest or pastor
-       Don’t socialize or “go out” instead stay home and remember what Jesus did for you
-          Watch the Passion of the Christ or similar film about the life of Jesus    
-          Go to a Passion Play
-          Attend a Holy Saturday or Easter Vigil service

Easter Sunday

-          Finish reading Mark’s Gospel, chapter 16
-          Say grace at one or more meals
-          Throw a party! Invite friends, family, and others to celebrate the Resurrection!
-          Your idea _____________________________________________
-          Attend an Easter service

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Learning from other religions?


 
Historically, the Christian Church has taken two major approaches when it comes to other religions. Just to be clear, when we’re talking about religions, we’re talking about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Christianity, etc. We’re not talking about Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Lutherans and so on. These groups are all members of the same religion (Christianity), albeit different denominations of that same religion. Hopefully, it is clear to most Christians today that we immensely benefit in learning from one another how to follow Jesus more faithfully.

The question about learning from other religions is more complicated. As mentioned, the Church has tended to take two major approaches to other religions throughout history. The first (and older) is to take what is good in that religion, what is compatible with Christianity, (and much in other religions is not!) and incorporate it into the faith (e.g. Celtic Christianity). The second (and newer view) is to reject wholesale anything associated with another religion.  

These twin approaches are rooted in specific theologies of revelation and truth. Behind the first view is an understanding that while the full truth and power of God are found only in Christ, this does not mean that there is not some truth about God and some truth about human living to be found in the other great religions of the world. The second view is that there is no truth – whatsoever- to be found in all these other religions; they are nothing more than idol worship.

If you hold the second view, the only learning you can glean from other religions is how not to do things, how to rebel against God and so on. If you hold the first view, it is quite possible to learn from other religions. However, learning from other religions can be dangerous, because on some fundamental points they disagree with what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. This could potentially lead one away from God as He truly is (which is by the way a definition of heresy). However, a mature Christian, who is well connected to the Christian community, could certainly learn from other religions.  Some things to keep in mind while doing this:

1)      Does what you’re reading/listening to/doing lead you away from God in Christ? If so, this is a red flag and something you likely need to stop. Learning from other religions shouldn’t involve non-Christian forms of worship or prayer (in which you are not worshipping the Triune God but something else), because as Christians we worship one God through Christ (Matthew 22:36-40, John 14:6).

2)      Does what you’re reading/listening to/doing encourage you to center your spiritual life in anyone or anything but Jesus? If so, this is a red flag and something you likely need to stop.  

3)      When you find something interesting in another religion you should search the rich treasures of Christian history and spirituality to see if there is a Christian counter-part. For example, part of my own spiritual journey included experimentation with various forms of Eastern mysticism. My choice to become a committed Christian and to distance myself from these other religions was the discovery of the Christian mystics, who anchored their experiences in the person of Jesus.  

A whole lot more could be said about this, but in short, with careful discernment, and careful guarding of our hearts and minds, I think it is possible for Christians to learn from other religions (for one attempt at this click here).

What am I missing here? What have you found helpful or dangerous?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Becoming Fully Alive

     
        
The goal of Christian living might aptly be thought of as the process of becoming more fully alive, more fully human. So often we think of holy people or saints as being super-human or rather un-human in their pursuit of God. However, Biblically speaking, and throughout the centuries of the Church, Christians have understood the opposite to be true. It is the human being fully connected to God that is most fully alive, most fully human, and capable of seeing, feeling, and experiencing things that most of us are not.  This concept is not a new one. Saint Irenaeus, a third century church father, is often quoted for his memorable statement, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  
  
Instead of thinking of Christian growth (read “sanctification” if your more Protestant minded or “holiness” if your more Catholic minded) as the pursuit of a set of strange behaviors and an even stranger set of mental beliefs, think of Christian growth as the process of you becoming more fully you. Christianity has always said if you want to see what it means to be truly human look at Jesus Christ for “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Since we we’re created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we look at Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) to see what that image should look like in a flesh and blood human being.  
 
This doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to grow long beards and wear sandals. Becoming more fully alive, more human, is not about becoming Christ Himself (impossible, sorry would-be-Messiahs!), but about becoming a unique reflection of the Triune God. You do that by taking all the elements of who you are and by grace developing them into their God given best. Fully alive persons (often referred to as saints in Church history) come in all sorts of packages, with differing personalities, are women and men, lay and ordained, single and married. In other words, when we run from sainthood, holiness, Christian growth, discipleship (whatever you want to call it), we are actually running away from our true selves. We are actually heading in a direction that will make us less human and less alive – sounds like a dead end to me?