Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Depending on where you grow up in church, there are some hymns that are so familiar you just know them deep down in your bones. All you need to hear is the first note, or the first word, and before you know it the rest of the hymn comes floating out. And, more often than not, you get the hymn stuck in your head all day long after worship.

However, for as many hymns as we know deep in our bones, there are an equal number of hymns that are so unfamiliar, that if we were to hear the entire song, we’d wonder if it was in our hymn book at all.

Throughout my life I went to church on Sunday; I prayed when I was supposed to, I listened when I was supposed to, and I stood up to sing when I was supposed to. There are hymns in our hymnal that immediately draw me to a particular time and place when I can remember it being used in worship. But prior to becoming a pastor, I had never heard the hymn “This Is The Day.”

I’m not sure how’s it possible, but I can remember being at one of my first clergy events having just been assigned to my first church, and everyone started singing it together and I had no idea what was going on. Embarrassed, I started opening and closing my mouth as if I knew the song, and spent most of the rest of the session looking for it in the hymnal and pondering how I could’ve missed it.

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Fast forward to Sunday, when our choir both began and ended worship with “This Is The Day.” After half a decade of ministry I’ve used “This Is The Day” to start more worship services than I can count, but yesterday was the first time I ever heard the hymn at the end of a service.

And it was perfect.

This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! What a wonderful way to be sent out into the world to be God’s people. The words are not meant for our orientation to worship alone. They can be a tremendous blessing and reminder that God has made each day, that we can rejoice and be glad in it.

Can you imagine how differently we would live if we started and ended every day with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of life every morning, and express gratitude for the joyful day every evening?

As we take steps closer to the end of Lent, as we prepare to enter into the darkness made manifest in the shadow of the cross, as we wait for the promised joy of the first Easter morning, let us give thanks to the Lord our God for each and every day, knowing we can rejoice and be glad.

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Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

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It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

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I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.

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?

Lost

Luke 15.1-7

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”

On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.

While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.

After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.

However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.

When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.

I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.

Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.

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Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”

After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.

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We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.

The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.

We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.

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 104.33

Devotional:

Psalm 104.33

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

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Our service yesterday was filled with music: We began with the wonderful hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” as we praised God for the many blessings of life. Our Preschoolers offered wonderful renditions of “This Is My Commandment” and “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” all with corresponding hand gestures. Our Youth Choir faithfully proclaimed the words to “You Are My All In All.” And as a congregation we all joined together for “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Out of the numerous responsibilities that come with being a pastor, selecting the hymns for Sunday morning is one of my favorite privileges. I love spending time deep in God’s Word to begin crafting a sermon, but spending time in the hymnal and choosing songs to complement the thrust of worship is incredible. I grew up learning to sing my faith out of the hymnal and I believe hymns are vitally important for us to continually learn what it means to be faithful today.

After worship, while we were celebrating our preschoolers with a reception, I had a couple come up to me to thank me for worship. We talked about how cute the children were and how wonderful it was to see them in church. We exchanged stories about what we remember from our days in Preschool (not a lot). But before I was going to thank them for their words and pick up some more food from the table they had one more thing to say: “We heard God in the songs today.”

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Have you ever been in the middle of a hymn during worship when you started to really understand it for the first time? You might’ve known all the words to something like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” but one Sunday it finally clicked? Or you’ve heard children sing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” but when you saw them pointing at you during the service you realized, for the first time, that God has you in his hands?

“I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Singing our faith is at the heart of what it means to be faithful because our words, and the music, help us to grasp who we are and whose we are.

This week, let us all reflect on the meaning of the hymns we sing.

What is your favorite hymn? What has it taught you about faith and discipleship?

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!