Devotional – Psalm 96.1

Devotional:

Psalm 96.1

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

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I love the so-called “good ol’ hymns.” I love them because I grew up with them, because they remind me of particular people in particular places, and because the theology behind them is remarkable. All I need are the first verses of “Amazing Grace” to draw me to all of the saints that have gone on to glory during my life, or the opening melody of “Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult” will bring forth memories of my grandmother humming the tune in her kitchen, or I’ll read through the words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it will give me goose-bumps thinking about how Christians have used those words for over a thousand years.

The “good ol’ hymns” are called as such accordingly; they are good and they are old.

In the church today, however, there is a strong temptation to employ something new simply for the sake of being new. Rather than relying on tradition or theology, we’re inclined to pull out the shiny new songs in hopes that they will bring about some sort of change or transformation. And, though many new songs are ripe with good theology, many of them fail in that particular category. New songs can have catchy melodies, and stir up emotional responses, but if the words we proclaim are unfaithful, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the new song God wants us to sing?”

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking with the choir at Cokesbury about new and different ways to praise God through voice and song; but not necessarily with new songs. So, we prayed about it, and on Sunday morning I got out my cajon and started playing along with our pianist to the tune of “I Surrender All.” For what it’s worth: “I Surrender All” was written in 1896 and it has been a favorite of Christians for more than a century. But for us on Sunday morning, it felt new. It felt new because we did not somber along with the verses, we did not say the words devoid of meaning. Instead we passed around a microphone to members of the choir, some over 70 and some under 17, and let them sing the verses as the Spirit led them.

It was beautiful, it was powerful, and it was new.

What songs from the hymnal move you the most? What is it about those particular hymns that resonate with you? How has God used a particular song to speak a new word at a particular moment in your life?

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Devotional – Psalm 106.1

Devotional:

Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

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On Sunday morning we will spend most of our worship service confronting the question “Why Do We Pray?” Prayer has been part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of the church. Prayer, fundamentally, is about taking time to be with the Lord as well as a desire to change our circumstances. And for as important as it is to talk about why we pray, the question of how we pray is equally worth our time.

When I was a kid I was taught how to pray using the acronym PRAY: Praise – Repent – Ask – Yield. We begin praying by praising God for the marvelous works God has made real in our lives, then we repent and apologize for how we have failed to be the people God has called us to be, then we ask for how we need God to change our present circumstances, and then we conclude by yielding to God’s will. The PRAY way to pray is helpful for setting up a rhythm of what it means to commune with God, but it can also be limiting.

If our prayers follow the same pattern over and over again, we run the risk of no longer meaning what we say, or worse: we say things without realizing what we’re saying. Additionally, the PRAY model can result in us being tempted to ask God to change trite and insignificant things in our lives, instead of the deep reflection on what it means to yield to God’s will being done in our lives.

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Praying through PRAY can be helpful when we no longer know what to say, but some of the best prayers I’ve ever heard (or read) do not follow the model at all. Because, after all, prayer is not about checking off the box; prayer is about learning how to listen to God in the midst of loud and chaotic world.

Sometimes faithful prayer looks less like getting on your knees and clasping your hands together, and more like sitting in a quiet space for five minutes. Sometimes faithful prayer sounds less like all the big adjectives we use in church on Sunday and more like a conversation we have with a friend over the phone. Sometimes faithful prayer is less about following any model or rhythm and more about finding a way that works for us in order to hear what God has to say.

I have friends for whom using crayons in a coloring book is the best way to pray. For others, prayer is at its best when it is the complete absence of any distraction. And still yet for other, the PRAY model is the best way to pray.

The point of prayer is not so much that we have to pray a certain way, but that we do it in the first place.

Devotional – Psalm 145.1

Psalm 145.1

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.

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On Saturday afternoon, the United Methodist Churches of Staunton, Virginia hosted our 2nd Trunk or Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. Over the last few months we collected monetary donations and countless bags of candy in order to distribute candy to all the children who would come to the park. Each trunk was uniquely decorated and when it was time to begin you could see the excitement in the volunteers and the children snaking in a long line around the lot.

For the better part of 2 hours we gave out candy to over 2000 children. I saw Annas and Elsas, at least 7 Marshalls (from Paw Patrol), a bunch of Darth Vaders, every princess you can imagine, and enough football players to make two full teams. Most of the children were remarkably polite, thanking each and every person as they made their way from trunk to trunk. And through it all we, as the church, lived into the reality of the body of Christ and loved our community through candy and fellowship on Saturday afternoon.

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When the line finally dwindled down to the last few families, we started to clean up our respective areas and prepared to leave. I had a few bags of candy left and my wife suggested bringing them over to the older boys who were skateboarding in the park. Too old to trunk or treat, most of them had watched us over the last two hours and were still skating as we were leaving. So I drove the car over to the skate area, and carried the largest bag of candy right up to who I imagined was the leader of the group (FYI I was still wearing my Hagrid costume). I handed the bag over and said, “Hey, I’m a pastor from town and we just finished this big trunk or treat and I’ve got some extra candy. I know you don’t know me, but I want you to know that God loves you.” To which the skater replied, “That’s like, righteous, man.” And I said, “You have no idea how appropriate that word is in this situation.”

How often do we extoll our God and King? Many of us are willing to take an hour out of our busy weeks to sit down in a sanctuary to praise the Lord, but how do we praise the Lord from Monday to Saturday? Some of us proclaimed the love of the Lord in each little piece of candy we distributed on Saturday afternoon, and even some skateboarders experienced our willingness to praise the Lord. After all, we learn to be generous from the One who is ultimate generosity. But extolling the Lord does not, and should not, be a rare occasion.

If we extoll the Lord, we do so knowing that the Lord is the giver of all gifts, including the gift of life. We praise the Lord because the Lord is the one rightly to be praised. We bless the name of the Lord forever and ever because the Lord has blessed us again and again.

Candy and Trunk or Treats, in and of themselves, can never bring us closer to God. Only when we extoll the name of the Lord, only when we realize that we are making the Word incarnate by becoming the body of Christ for our local communities, will those ordinary things become extraordinary avenues by which others can experience the powerful grace and mercy of the living God.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 148.1

Devotional:

Psalm 148.1

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

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I met Rev. Alan Combs for the first time at Annual Conference when I was in college. I was a lay representative for my home church and was preparing to start applying to seminary so I spent time wandering around the display areas to learn more about the United Methodist affiliated seminaries. I was standing in front of the Duke Divinity School display when Alan walked over and introduced himself. He was wearing a black clergy shirt with a white collar, he had a ponytail and a goatee, and he had a Chrome messenger bag slung over his shoulder. To put it simply: he looked cool.

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Rev. Alan Combs

Years later I was sitting in a classroom while Alan was leading us through the art of Wesleyan preaching. The room was filled with novice pastors and Alan was trying to steer us in the right direction to avoid falling into common preaching ditches. I remember still thinking he looked cool, but his dedication to the vocation and to the church quickly overshadowed his physical appearance.

Alan guided us through some of Wesley’s sermon, he had us break into groups to talk about our own preaching styles, and he asked for us to share examples of how we plan and prepare sermons. But at the end of the class he offered some advice that has stayed with me ever since: Avoid “lettuce” sermons. There is a strong temptation to take text, pray over it, and then offer a sermon with a conclusion that starts with “let us…” For Alan, the desire to transform every bit of God’s Word into an applicable life lesson only perpetuates the worship focus on the people worshipping rather than on God. The people sitting in the pews have been conditioned to ask, “What is in this for me?” and if we use “lettuce” sermons, we will continue to spend time wrapped up in our own little worlds.

The entirety of Psalm 148 is a faithful reminder, like Alan’s advice, that it is good and right for us to take the focus off of ourselves. The psalm calls all who hear it to praise the Lord with actions that draw our focus toward all that the Lord has done instead of our little bubbles. It is a powerful proclamation that God is God and we are not. It cautions us against believing that the bible is about us, and forces us to confront the fact the bible is actually about God.

The powerful gift of scripture is the fact that it can speak into our lives. We can pick up our bibles to read, or be sitting in a pew during worship, and believe that those words were meant for us to hear. But our desire to make scripture into our own guidebook (in addition to the many ways we twist God’s Word around to fit our own agendas) is reason enough for us to remember to praise the Lord, and not ourselves.

Devotional – Psalm 30.4

Devotional:

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

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How often are we really thankful for the people God has placed in our lives? Sadly, it usually takes a profound moment of loss or grief before we are able to recognize how fortunate we were to spend time with them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat with a family while planning a funeral when someone breaks down in tears as they begin to wrestle with how shaped they were by the person now dead. It is a frightening moment when we recognize how blessed we were to have them, and their loss leaves a gaping hole.

On Saturday night I received an email from my home church containing the news that a man by the name of Bud Walker had passed away. As my eyes read over the lines in the email it was impossible to not let my emotions get the better of me as I realized that one of the greatest men I’ve ever been privileged to call my friend is now gone.

I met Bud Walker on a Sunday morning when I was 13 years old. I was responding to a volunteer opportunity from the church bulletin about learning how to run the sound system for Sunday services and Bud was going to teach me how it worked. For a month he stood behind me and looked over my shoulder as I twisted nobs and raised levels so that the whole congregation could hear the choir and the pastors, and for that whole month I was terrified of messing up. And yet, even after I passed my training month, Bud continued to stand with me at the back of the church before and after worship just to talk. I learned about his life and his family, I heard stories from his youth, and I saw what it meant to be faithful. During those incredibly formative years of my youth, I learned about God from the sermons, but I learned what it meant to follow Jesus from Bud Walker.

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At the time, my experience of church was that the adults got to do their thing and the youth got to do their thing. We might all sit in the same sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but there was a clear divide between our activities. Bud never saw that divide. He was one of the first people who pushed me to pursue a calling to the ministry, and he always made me feel like I mattered. And now he’s gone.

Today I sing praises to our Lord for having placed Bud Walker in my life; I am a better person for having spent time with him. As we continue to take steps on the path that leads to following Jesus, let us not take for granted the people God has given to us. Let us find the time this week to reach out to the people who helped to shape us and, if they are no longer living on earth, let us sing praises for the time we had with them.

Praise The Lord!

Psalm 150

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

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I am a creature of habit. I like routines, I like order, and I like preparation. I asked Lindsey to give me three examples of how I am a creature of habit and her response was: “only three?” I like my coffee a certain way, I enjoy sitting in a particular chair to read books, and I have rhythms for most of the events in my life. Sundays are no exception.

Most Sundays I arrive here in the sanctuary hours before some of you are even awake. Of course I start with the practical things like turning on the lights and unlocking the doors, but then I make my way back to the sanctuary to prepare for worship. First I pray on my knees from the third pew on the right hand side and confess where I have fallen short and how I have sinned. I pray for God’s forgiveness, and ask God to show up in my words in worship, even if I don’t deserve it. I then make my way up to the altar and praise God for the mighty acts revealed in scripture and in my life.

When I turn around I walk down the center aisle and I pray over every single pew asking for God to turn them into avenues of connection rather than walls of division. My hand touches every pew and I pray for God transform all of the people who will inhabit them through our worship.

From the Narthex I pray for the ways that we greet people on their way into the church, and I even go out onto the front lawn to give thanks for Staunton, and ask for God to send to us all who need to feel God’s love.

All in all it takes some time to prayerfully prepare for worship, but it’s worth it. When I finish praying, I make my way into the pulpit and read over the bulletin one last time. I check to make sure that the theme of worship is present throughout the entire worship service and, before I read my sermon out loud, I pull out my hymnal.

Like I said, I am a creature of habit. Every Sunday before any of you get here, I pray in this sanctuary and I sing through the hymns by myself. When I’m alone in the church I can belt out the hymns without the deep sighs from our organist Rick in response to me not keeping the pitch, I can let my emotions get the best of me without being judged by some of you from the pews, and I can just be myself up here jamming.

One Sunday, after going through my whole prayer routine, I stood up in the pulpit and looked at the bulletin to the hymn number for “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” And I did what I always do. And I got really into it: (sing Have Thine Own Way)

Of course, when I sing, I often close my eyes and just let the words flow. So here I was singing from the top of the lungs from the pulpit, and you can imagine my surprise and terror when I finished the last note and someone shouted, “sounds okay from back here!

A visitor to the church had arrived hours early, walked in through the narthex, picked up a bulletin, and sat down in the farthest back pew, and was listening to my solo. I stood up here in shock without knowing what to say and I fumbled through trying to explain myself when the man raised his hand to stop me and said, a little too sarcastically, “I’m sure other pastors do this kind of stuff all the time.”

I am a creature of habit and, even though I was embarrassed that one morning, I still sing all the hymns before you get here. Singing the hymns and reading over the lyrics is incredibly important, because when we sing from this hymnal, we are articulating our faith. When we sing from this hymnal we are reentering the world of scripture. When we sing from this hymnal we are praising the Lord.

So let’s go to that hymn that I embarrassingly belted from the pulpit; number 382 Have Thine Own Way, Lord. (Sing together.)

Is this a familiar tune for you? Can you remember singing it when you were younger? Maybe you’ve heard the version that Johnny Cash performed. This is a beautiful hymn. The words quote Jeremiah 18.6 about clay in the potter’s hand. The tune is easy to follow and the theology behind it is great: It is an honest and prayerful desire for God’s will to be done in our lives.

I have always enjoyed singing this hymn, but when I learned the story behind the hymn it became that much more precious. If you look to the bottom left hand corner of the page, you will see that Adelaide Pollard wrote the hymn in 1902. The story goes that Adelaide was going through a rough period in her life and was unsuccessful in raising enough funds to make a trip to Africa for missionary work. In the depth of her struggle, she went to a tiny prayer meeting one night for the local community. She listened to person after person make their prayer requests for medical issues, material possessions, and a slew of other things when an old woman stood up to make her prayer request. Bucking with the trend of the evening the old woman simply said, “Have thine own way with me, Lord.” Impressed by the faith of the old woman, Adelaide went home that night and wrote the words to the hymn.

Psalm 150, the final one of the entire psalter, compels us to praise the Lord through music. Praise God with trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dance, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Toward the beginning of the hymnal, we can find John Wesley’s directions for singing, that pair so well with Psalm 150:

“Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”

So we are going to follow the words of Psalm 150 and the words of John Wesley, we are going to praise the Lord. I would like all of us to take out our hymnal and turn to our favorite song. When you find the one you love shout out the number and we will sing the first verse. (We’ll probably do this for five hymns) Together we will praise the Lord. And as we do, take the time to soak up the words and the let the tune flow over you so that the Lord will approve our singing and reward us when God comes in the clouds of heaven. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 147.1

Devotional:

Psalm 147.1

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. 

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Selecting the hymns for worship on Sunday mornings is a pastoral privilege. Each week I pray over the words for the sermon and seek to find hymns that fit with the general direction of worship. Our hymnal is an invaluable resource that helps us to discover God’s majesty in ways that are powerful and beautiful.

Growing up as a United Methodist, I cherished our hymnal and learned to “sing my faith” on a weekly basis. Though I regularly listened to secular music, is was the tunes from the likes of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Be Thou My Vision” that I found myself whistling and humming during the day. When I became a pastor, and therefore received the responsibility of selecting our hymns, I was very thankful that some of the previous pastors at St. John’ penciled in the dates for hymn selections in the office copy. I immediately knew which tunes were familiar, and which hymns would be a little harder to sing.

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Yesterday our worship service was focused on the importance of love being greater than knowledge. I went through my usual sermon preparation and then went to the hymnal and decided that #617 “I Come with Joy” would be a great way to start our worship service (particularly since we would also be feasting at the Lord’s Table). I processed down the center aisle with an acolyte as the organ moved along and the gathered body was singing, but when we arrived at the 4th verse, perhaps by a push from the Holy Spirit, our organist stopped playing and allowed for us to sing a cappella. The words resonated throughout our sanctuary in such a way that I felt shivers in my body: “And thus with joy we meet our Lord. His presence, always near, is in such friendship better known; we see and praise him here, we see and praise him here.”

The psalmist writes that is good for us to sing praises to our God for he is gracious. When the gathered body is together and we can sing the hymns with every fiber of our being, we are truly praising the Lord! However, singing praises to God is not something that is limited to Sunday morning alone; every day is a new opportunity to sing praises to our gracious God. We can do this through our actions, our prayers, and our conversations with others. So long as we remember that God is the source of goodness in life, singing God’s praise will be as natural as breathing.

This week, as we seek to love God and neighbor, let us explore the many different ways we can sing our praises to the Lord. It can be as easy as humming one of your favorite hymns, and it can be as simple as thanking God for something wonderful in your life. Let us praise the Lord!