We Are The Songs We Sing

Revelation 5.11-14

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

“Were you crying during the first hymn?”

She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.

We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.

The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.

But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?

I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”

John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!” 

John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.

And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?

A song.

A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again. 

And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.

Listen to this: My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought. My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.

And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.

We are the songs we sing.

The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”

Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?

In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.

Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.

It is a strange love. 

Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.

That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.

Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.

And yet God loves us anyway.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.

Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.

We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”

And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.

They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.

Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.

A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.

And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.

C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”

I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.

More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!

At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants. 

Worship gives us Jesus.

There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”

Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”

Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”

And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.

Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.

Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible. 

John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time. 

And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.

The last word in worship is “Amen.”  Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”

Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.

We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.

A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed. 

The residents sat in abject silence day after day.

We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.

I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”

And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.

It was Amazing Grace.

Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:

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 the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.

’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 residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.

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

Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:

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

Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:

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

With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:

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

We are the songs we sing. Amen. 

The Methodist Blues

Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, once opined in song about what it means to be part of the people called Methodists:

I’ve been going to church every Sunday morn,

Still don’t know if I’ve been reborn,

I’m sixty years old, is there something I’ve missed?

Or is it just that I’m Methodist?

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

The organ is soupy and the pastor is bland

Leave afterward and I shake his hand

Sometimes I’d like to shake my fist

That’s what it’s like to be Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

The sound system’s bad, there’s a buzz in the speaker,

The budget is busted, the collection is meager,

This great big debt load we been carryin’

Maybe we oughta be Unitarian.

People gossip about who did what,

The ladies circle is a pain in the butt.

Want to slap their face or at least their wrist,

But I can’t cause I’m a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

We’re not big on shows and dances,

Mixed drinks or big romances,

I’ve been hugged but never French kissed,

That’s because I’m a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

Everybody wants to sit in the back pews,

Want the sermon to reflect their views,

Some of these Christians, they are the rudest.

What do you say we try being Buddhist?

The same ten people always volunteer,

Half of them old, the others just weird,

How do we ever manage to persist?

We do it by being Methodist!

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

People offer to help then they don’t remember,

It can make you almost lose your temper,

Sit and steam and clench your fist,

But you can’t hit them, you’re a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues.

Everyone’s afraid of change.

Don’t like anything new or strange.

Or we get our underwear in a twist,

That’s how it is with a Methodist.

I’ve got the Methodist blues. 

We were founded by John Wesley,

Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley,

We’re not so hip but we persist,

We go on being Methodist.

What does it mean to be Methodist? We’re currently in the midst of a confirmation class at church in which we attempt to answer that very question each Sunday with and for our confirmands. Ask the average Methodist on a Sunday morning what it means to be Methodist and you might hear something about John Wesley, or holiness of heart and life, or prevenient grace. But you’re just as likely to hear about casseroles, singing hymns, and being the via media between Baptists and Catholics.

The longer I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church the more I am convinced that, like with marriage, you can only figure it out along the way. One day you’ll be singing a hymn between the pews and realize, “Oh yeah, I do believe this!” Or you’ll walk down to receive the bread and cup and be overwhelmed by what Christ did, does, and will do. Or you’ll sit in the silence of a prayer and receive an assurance that, to use Wesley’s words, “Christ has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Every denomination carries its own blues. We Methodists even sing about them at the start of every annual conference: “What troubles have we seen / What conflicts have we passed / Fightings without, and fears within / Since we assembled last.”

But that is only part of the song we sing. For it ends thusly:

But out of all the Lord

Hath brought us by His love;

And still He doth His help afford,

And hides our life above.

Then let us make our boast

Of His redeeming power,

Which saves us to the uttermost,

Till we can sin no more.

Let us take up the cross 

Till we the crown obtain;

And gladly reckon all things loss,

So we may Jesus gain. 

Let us therefore boast and rejoice even in our blues, knowing that Jesus is the difference who makes all the difference. 

The Naughty List

Hebrews 10.10

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another. 

I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?” 

Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.

Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” 

The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.

The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.

The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.

But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.

That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one. 

And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.

Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever

Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection

Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.

But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!

In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?

Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond. 

And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.

The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us. 

God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.

God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.

That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.

And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.

Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway. 

Identity

Isaiah 12.2-6

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praise to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout along and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

A friend of mine, Kenneth Tanner, is a priest who defies all sorts of labels. He is both Charismatic and Anglican. His church has icons and their band plays songs by U2. He wears a collar just about everyday and, when necessary, he can say things you’d never imagine hearing from a priest. He serves a church called Holy Redeemer outside of Detroit, Michigan. Last week, he got an urgent phone call to go to a grocery store right near Oxford High School which had just experienced a mass school shooting.

Ken arrived and stood among the gathered parents who were all waiting to be reunited with their children immediately after the incident.

Teacher were there having just experienced the trauma themselves.

And even the employees of the grocery store did what they could to help.

Ken was there for hours, ministering among the families, helping to connect desperate kids with their desperate parents.

And, eventually, it became clear that a few families no longer had children with whom they could be reunited.

Ken, afterward, said that his experience of darkness in that moment, the total and upmost despair led him, once again, to the conclusion that either Christ is resurrected from the dead, or there is nothing.

I don’t know if it has been your experience in the past, but it seems like we are confronted by the harsh realities of life most during this season of the year. The rates of depression and suicide skyrocket during these weeks, more CPS reports are made, all while we decorate our houses with twinkling lights and we tune our radio to the same 25 songs being played over and over again.

When I talked to Ken after everything he witnessed and experienced last week he said, “Whenever I come this close to the darkness, even in the midst of its most horrifying degrees, the only thing I can cling to is that God is our salvation; God is the only hope we have.”

That, in a sense, is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims for us today: Surely God is my salvation! Come to the wells of salvation that will never run dry. Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the people, sing it out to the whole earth; God is with us.

That’s a powerful word for those who sit among the ruins, for those who are overwhelmed by the darkness, for those who don’t experience this as the most wonderful time of the year.

In life we are told again and again who we are. We are labeled by the world for all sorts of things, be it our jobs, vocations, mistakes, shortcomings, on and on.

We can receive one hundred compliments and one critique and it will be the critique that we hold on to. And, after time, we start to believe the critique, whatever it was, is more determinative regarding our identity than anything else. We internalize those things so deeply that we become what we fear.

And yet, in the life of faith, none of us really know who we are until God tells us.

We are who God says we are.

The church, at her best, functions as this proper mirror by which we can see ourselves. We lift up the cross as the reflection for us to really see who we really are. 

The church exists to tell the truth – We are sinners in need of grace and Jesus is the power in our lives who makes us more than we could ever be otherwise.

And, let me be clear, that does not mean that the church exists to make people like you better and better. We don’t get together in order to rejoice in how good we are. We are not a gym nor are we a self-help program.

Jesus has already changed us. The only thing we have to do is act accordingly.

Which can be both extremely easy, and dangerously difficult.

Surely God is our salvation! That’s Good News! But’s it’s also hard news to receive because if God is our salvation, then it means that we are not.

And if there’s one thing we don’t like to do, it’s relinquishing control.

There will always be other things in life we chose to trust instead of the Lord. We will cling to the powers and the principalities in life, we will even lean on our own ability to do certain things.

But those idols will never give us life.

They cannot and will not bring us the love and the salvation we so desperately need.

There is no gift under the tree that will bring us the fulfillment we seek.

There is no promotion at work that will prevent us from the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.

There is no perfect parent to fill us with just the the right amount of love just as there is no champion of a child who will fills the holes in our souls.

And yet, it’s those types of things that we turn to when we know not where else to turn.

Isaiah’s proclamation is meant for a people who have no home in this world. It is for strangers in a strange land. Whether it was in the exile of Babylon, or the places we find ourselves in today surrounded by objects and obsessions that promise life and only give death, this is a Word for us. 

It is for us because Isaiah calls for us to celebrate the coming of God’s salvation to a land that is in the deep darkness of God’s judgment.

We don’t talk much about judgment in the church today save for the ever present reminder that we shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. And yet God is the God of judgment. God holds up these scriptures and calls us to task. 

Look at what we’ve done, look at what we’ve become! Those stories on the news, the ones that leaves us quaking, they are about us! This is the culture we created. 

And that is a difficult word for us to hear! It is challenging because we are addicted to control. At least, we’re addicted to thinking we’re in control.

We make lists upon lists of all the right gifts for all the right people. We map out the perfect holiday meals and grocery stores runs to make sure we’re able to procure all the essential ingredients. We curate playlists of just the right songs to put us, and everyone else, in the right mood. And that’s just during Advent! 

We also do what we can, explicitly and implicitly to make sure that we never have to bump into the wrong kinds of people. We turn on the news and assure ourselves that we’ve taken all the right precautions to make sure those kinds of things never happen to us (until they do). We build up these stories about who we are and what we stand for all the while things are crumbling all around us. 

But Jesus is our Salvation! The strange new world of the Bible bombards us with the declaration that Jesus is all we need to live in a world out of control. 

You see, following the Lord is just training for learning to live out of control. Faith is just a word for letting go of our obsession with trying to fix everything. Everything has already come out right because we have seen the end in Jesus.

The end that is Jesus makes it possible for us to go on even though we are not sure of where we are.

That’s not to say that we can’t do or change anything. To learn to live out of control guarantees that our lives will include suffering. Remember: these words are for people in exile. For those who live between the times; for Advent people.

Advent, therefore is the blessed and bewildering opportunity not to turn away from darkness, but to stare right into the heart of it knowing that the light of Christ will always shine in it. And then we take that light, whether in our prayers or in our singing or in our talking or our walking, and we live according to it rather than the darkness that creates nothing but fear.

We cling to the old rugged cross, that stands in the shadow of death, in anticipation of the new dawn that is redeeming grace.

Because if this is it, this world, in spite of efforts of good people, if this is it, then it’s nothing but unmitigated bad news. 

I don’t know, maybe Advent isn’t the right time to think about all of this. I’ve got a job, I’ve got presents wrapped under the tree, I’ve got a family, maybe you’re like me. But there are people, lots of people, for whom this world, this life, has been one disappointing misery after another.

There are families in Michigan who will wake up on Christmas Day without a teenager they had just two weeks ago.

There are families here in Roanoke who have no bright hope of tomorrow because all they can see is the darkness.

There are people here in this church, right in these pews, who are terrified of the future because they see and hear nothing but bad news day after day.

And yet, hear the Good News: Jesus comes to make all things new.

So maybe that’s why you’re here. Perhaps you’ve come to church not for some tips and tricks on how to make it through another week. But instead you are here to have your minds blown and your imaginations opened. 

Maybe you’re here for hope.

Hear me when I say there is no greater hope than this: God is our salvation. God does for us that which we cannot do. God saves us.

If our hope is only in ourselves and in the machinations of this world, then we have no hope at all. 

But, by the grace of God, we have hope because hope is born in that little manger in Bethlehem, born to live, die, and live again, born to set us free, born to return with the resurrection of the dead, born to make all things new.

In the end, that’s why we set up the decorations. We do so in defiance of the powers and principalities that rule through darkness. We do so as a reminder to ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us from the temptation of believing that violence is the only answer. We do so in anticipation of the One who returns to us with holes in his hands and says, “I forgive you.”

We are called to practice resurrection. That is, we Christians live according to the Good News of the Gospel which means we are different. We belong to a new age and a new time and a new kingdom in which death is not the end. 

Our rejoicing, therefore, is not naïveté. 

We don’t come here to pretend that everything out there isn’t actually out there. 

We come here precisely because the darkness is so overwhelming, and we need something we can cling to in the midst of it all.

That something has a name: Jesus Christ

Surely God is our salvation; that is why we rejoice.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen. 

Feeling Your Feelings

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [A] (Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8.6-11, John 11.1-45). Todd is a Baptist pastor serving Snow Hill Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Baptist autonomy, cross denominational friendships, dry bones, speaking creation, holding dirt, edgy professors, the songs of Frozen 2, the agency of God, the Gospel in the West Wing, fleshiness, and rejected for election. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Feeling Your Feelings

Fruit Of The Womb

Luke 1.39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

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Mary was the first to carry the gospel. 

Our choir was singing those words with a particular gusto because the truth of that statement is a profound one. In Protestant circles Mary tends to be overlooked and is relegated to the side of the Advent/Christmas stories. Sure, she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, but she was just a vessel right?

Wrong.

No. Mary is much much much more than a vessel and her role in the salvation of the world is one worthy of our time and attention.

She is a young and engaged version with the angel Gabriel shows up with supposedly good news. Imagine having to tell your fiancé that you were now pregnant with the Son of God!

And yet her faithfulness in the midst of something that appears terrible is bewildering. 

Let it be with me according to thy will…

Harmonizing with God’s purposes in the world is no easy endeavor, and in Mary’s case it sends her to relatives’ house, Elizabeth and Zechariah. 

Now, remember, this is a time before Facebook and viral pregnancy announcements, there was no gender reveal party or even an opportunity for a baby shower. Mary merely enters the house, and John the soon-to-be Baptist leaps inside his mother, Elizabeth’s, womb.

I’ve been playing the drums for a very long time and I’ve taken as many opportunities as I could to play with a variety of groups in a variety of places. I’ve played in jazz combos at bars, I’ve classical music in benefit concerts, and I’ve played jam-band music in more garages than I can count.

But my first love of drums came in worship music. I played for a contemporary Christian worship band nearly every Sunday from the time I was 16 until I was 25. And I loved it.

I loved practicing with a group during the week, I loved bonding over music, and I loved providing the rhythm for the praising of God during worship. And the people I’ve played with other the years are some of my very favorite people.

While I was living in North Carolina I practiced with a group every Tuesday night, and we would play for a worship service every Sunday evening. We would always wait until everyone arrived for practice and then we would circle up to pray before we did anything else. It became an important habit that shaped how we practiced such that we always remember for whom we were playing.

On one such night, we went around the circle sharing our concerns, when our leader, the pregnant pianist, suddenly departed for the bathroom and left us standing there holding hands.

We patiently waited for her to return until we heard her scream in the bathroom, and the girls from the band immediately ran to check on her.

Later, we found out that she was spotting and assumed that she lost the baby. The terror in her voice has haunted me ever since.

She went to the doctor the following day and, miraculously, she learned that the baby was okay. But she didn’t feel him kicking or moving around.

The doctor, the trained professional, had told her everything she could’ve possibly hoped to hear, but because of her experience, it didn’t feel real. She had to make it through day after day in that horrible tension of being told something that didn’t seem true.

Until Sunday, when she had to sit at the piano and sing to the Lord.

I can remember that Sunday evening, sitting behind the drums, playing away, and looking over at her as she stared off into the distance. She was there, but not really there. She was playing all the right notes, and singing all the right words, but her heart wasn’t into it.

But we kept playing anyway.

And then, in a way that is difficult to describe, it felt like the Holy Spirit blew through the room as I looked over at her in the middle of a song, and she was crying with a giant smile on her face. The tears were falling on the keys and she was singing in a way that none of us had ever experienced – it felt like the heavenly hosts were lifting her voice up to praise.

As soon as the song ended she looked back over her shoulder at the band and she said, “The baby started kicking along to the song, he was leaping in my womb.”

The jumping of John in his mother’s womb was enough to get Mary singing a song that Christians like us have been proclaiming and declaring for centuries. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” The Spirit moved in and through her to sing from the depth of her being that God was doing a new thing. That God refused to leave God’s people. That God would do whatever it took to rectify this world.

And so, what else can we do, but magnify the Lord with our songs? 

Drunk With The Spirit(s)

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The massive sanctuary was eerily quiet at 7am as four of us gathered for morning prayer. It was my first year of seminary and I had committed to join together with the Episcopalians every morning to pray through the liturgy and read scripture together. Some days the room would have 20-30 people, but every once in a while only a few of us would gather.

I remember it was raining and I assumed thats why so few of us managed to make it out so early. I saw by myself, which wasn’t hard to do, and I centered myself for prayer. Typically one of us, a student or a professor, would guide us through the liturgy, but on that day an Episcopal priest walked down the center aisle and guided us from behind the altar.

I know we all raised our voices a little louder than usual as were were tasked to respond because it felt like we needed to. And then right before the final “amen” the priest began praying over communion.

Up until that point in my life I had received communion hundreds of times, but only in the context of a United Methodist Church where we dipped our bread in the common cup, so you can imagine my surprise as I, the last one in line, walked forward the the priest began to bring the chalice to my lips.

I reached out my hand to take the cup myself, but he ignored my movement, and began tilting the cup. Immediately my mouth filled with the strangest and warmest liquid. I, a good Methodist, foolishly assumed that I was about to take a sip of grape juice, but I was wrong. Instead my mouth was filled with warm port wine, and the priest wouldn’t stop pouring. 

I later learned that he was going to have to drink whatever was leftover, and with such a small number of people in attendance, he tried to share the burden with me.

I kid you not, my cheeks were both puffed out as I held the wine inside my mouth, debating whether to swallow or not. I even made it back to my seat before I decided to just get it over with. The sickeningly sweet taste of the port rolled down my throat and my belly immediately felt like it was on fire. It would have been helpful had I eaten breakfast that day, or had anything to drink other than coffee, but of course I hadn’t.

So there I was, sitting in a sanctuary at 7 in the morning, a little buzzed.

I gracefully exited the sanctuary with what probably looked more like stumbling, and I giggled as I made my way to my first lecture for the day. I remember receiving a lot of strange looks from my peers as I gave them my brightest toothy grin with lips that had turned a subtle shade of red, and then as I got closer there noses began to sniff with a detective like quality.

But I was feeling fine.

Right before my professor began the class, one of my friends leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I know Paul said that we’re supposed to be filled with the Spirit, but I don’t think he meant the spirits.”

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Be careful how you live, and make the most of your time. Do not get drunk with wine! But be filled by the Holy Spirit. Paul is getting close to concluding his letter to the Ephesians and he has some final exhortations. Time is a fleeting thing, is it not? Most of us here are all too aware of how life seems to keep passing by regardless of our best efforts to slow it down. 

This thing we call time is all we’ve got. No one can add days on to their life. So with the beautiful and finite time we have, Paul urges us to resist foolishness, to withstand the temptation of temptations, and make the most with what we’ve been given.

No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, all of us will experience times of emptiness. It can manifest itself in strange ways, and with unexpected consequences, but those moments will come for us all.

When the kid leaves home for college.

When the retirement celebrations come to a conclusion.

When we bury a friend.

When we see an empty pew.

And Paul knows that we need to fill those empty spaces, and Paul even knows one of the ways we do it the most: through wine!

Now, to be clear, Paul is not just standing up on his soapbox to address the virtues of temperance, but he is probing and prodding the people of Ephesus with a question, “What’s filling you?”

It’s all too easy to be filled with all sorts of trite and finite salves. Coming home from a hard day on to wallow away in a bottle leaves us withered and distracted. Reeling from a difficult conversation only to waste away some money on a gamble leaves us hollowed and guilty. Feeling frustrated by relationships only to discover the dark and frightening temptations of the internet leaves us ashamed and never truly satisfied.

So Paul suggests that we fill ourselves with something else; not a temporary fix or a hit from the nearest distraction. Paul says we should sing.

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We know today, thanks to scientific studies, that our brains literally change when we are involved in the act of singing. Endorphins are released, feelings of joy and euphoria are present, and something within us transforms.

I could regale all of you with countless stories of visiting older people in retirement homes, people whose communication with the outer world had all but stopped, until I started humming a familiar hymn and the curtain of dementia was be pulled back as we sang together.

O I could tell you the story from Acts 16 when Paul and Silas we singing in prison, singing in the midst of their bondage, when an earthquake happened and it set them free.

Or I could tell you about the time John Wesley was on a ship traveling to the colony of Georgia when a storm appeared out of nowhere and it destroyed the main mast. While he and nearly everyone else thought they were going to die, a group of Moravians were quietly singing psalms. When the storm later passed, Wesley asked them about their strange behavior, and why they chose to sing in the face of death, they responded, “If we die, we know where we’re going.

Music can make us lose control, in the best ways possible. Through music the Holy Spirit somehow grabs hold of us, and shakes us or moves us or prods us to feel something we’ve either missed or ignored. We lose control of the control we so desperately cling to, and sometimes music reminds us of the hard and beautiful truth – we’re not in control.

And most of us have a really hard time with that! Perhaps its because most of us have come of age in a world we are told again and again that we must be in control – that life is up to us, and us alone – and that if we lose control then we’ve lost everything.

Singing, music in general, is a gateway to unanticipated blessings like losing control.

Paul implores the hearers and readers of the letter to not be distracted by things that claim to fill but only leave us empty – he uses music as an alternative, and it would be easy to leave it there. It would wrap up nicely if all we really needed was to sit down every once in a while with our favorite song, or hear our favorite hymn in church.

But it’s about more than that.

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are filled together by the Spirit – it’s not something we’re left to do on our own. And that’s what often confounds us the most — we need each other!

The thrust and theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is that they, and we (!), are no longer strangers! The community of God called the church is a people who respond to the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do together!

Do you know how hard that is? Waking up in the midst of our frustrations and failures only to believe that the way, the best way, to handle it all is to share it we each other… Who wants to do that? Who among us wants to stand hand in hand and sings songs knowing full and well that our lives do not look like what we portray on Sunday morning?

Well, of course, all of us here do. That doesn’t mean its easy; in fact, its incredibly challenging. Most of the time its hard to find the joy and glamour in all of it. But as we live out the ordinary moments of our lives, as we experience both the mountaintops and deep valleys together, we can be filled to overflowing with the Spirit.

This, after all, is the call of the church: to be the body of Christ, a community together, in spite of all our differences. This, all of this, is made possible and tangible in the person of Jesus Christ who came to live and die and live again in a way that makes intelligible our commitment to community.

Our call is to be the church, in all of its simplicity and complexity. And, to use Paul’s language, time is of the essence! Right now is the moment for us to make good on all the possibilities for redemption and transformation and fullness in Christ Jesus. We, the church, cannot afford to waste our time, or fill our days with frivolous pursuits, or miss this particularly poignant call.

When we, the church, are out of touch with our vocation it’s as if we’re stumbling around in the darkness like drunken fools. We might feel a welcome reprieve from the mundanity of life, we might get the hit we need to forget our frivolity, but without our call we cease to be the church.

So the questions arise:

Do we know, deep in our bones, what we are called to do and who we are called to be?

Or, are we just stumbling around in the darkness looking for the next drink, the next distraction, the next filler?

Are we drunk with wine, ego, money, power? 

Or are we filled with the Spirit?

God, strangely enough, desires our drunkenness. God wants us to be so filled and fueled by that which we consume such that we are forced to rely on the person to our left and the person to our right as we stumble around through life. God hopes and yearns for us to throw our cares to the wind as we are three sheets to the wind! 

The time has come for us to lose control and to be filled with the right Spirit. Amen. 

Breaking The Silence

Isaiah 40.1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arms rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question recently: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” It’s a great question because it accomplishes three things: It’s gets a conversation going even among people who don’t know each other very well, it sheds light on what kind of hopes and expectations people place on this season, and it helps me learn which hymns you all know how to sing on Sunday mornings!

The answers have been marvelous; I’ve heard memories of standing with long lost family members with the words of O Holy Night passing between them. I’ve been told about the power of Handel’s Messiah and it’s ability to make even the tightest lip quiver with joy. I’ve even learned about bizarre traditions like family competitions to make up new words to Joy to the World on the spot without any practice.

There is some really good Christmas music out there. Perhaps we think it’s so good because we only listen to it for a season every year and therefore are not overwhelmed by it. But nevertheless, there is at least one song that drives me crazy this time of year, one song that I will immediately shut off the radio if I hear the opening chords, one song that has no place in the Christmas lexicon: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was younger I loved the song. There’s something about Dean Martin’s voice that just makes the song sound like melted butter, and the scene in Elf when Will Ferrell starts singing it in the shower makes me laugh no matter what. But as I’ve aged, the more I’ve realized how problematic the song really is.

When you pull back the veneer of incredible voices and dynamite harmonies, the song is nothing more than a man forcing a woman to stay the night against her own will. It is, in verse and chorus format, sexual misconduct.

Check it out: I really can’t stay, I’ve got to go away. This evening has been, so very nice. My mother will start to worry, my father will be pacing the floor, so really I’d better scurry, but maybe just a half a drink more… The neighbors might think, say what’s in this drink?

All the while the male voice is doing everything in his power to convince and force her to stay.

The cultural acceptance of a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is precisely why we are hearing, every week, about more people (and in particular men) being accused of this kind of behavior.

Behavior we learn about in an all too beloved Christmas song.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Who are we supposed to be comforting this time of year? Those who sit in the warmth of a church sanctuary on a cold December morning? Those whose trees are almost hidden behind mounds of presents? Those who have a full family around the table for dinner every night?

A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord declares that a reckoning is coming; all will be made new. The mighty shall be brought low and the weak shall be made strong. Only then, only with the reversal and evening of all things, shall the glory of the Lord be revealed.

During Advent we are forced to recognize that God is in the business of toppling things over, particularly the things we’ve grown all too comfortable with.

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Over the last few months there has been a continuous revealing of sexual harassment from some of the most powerful people in our country. Whether substantiated or not, we haven’t gone a few days without another name bubbling to the service. Roy Moore with young girls many years ago, Al Franken both before and after he became a senator, Matt Lauer installed a button to lock his door to trap women in his office, Harvey Weinstein repeatedly used his power to assault and manipulate young actresses. Even our president has not escaped the scores of women coming forward to name the terrible things that have been done to them. And I don’t think the naming is going to stop any time soon.

But to make matters even worse, many of these men have had these habits for a very long time and nothing was ever done about it. The abused women were made to feel powerless and threatened if they ever revealed what happened, others in power knew about the behaviors and made light of them, and many of us have grown all too comfortable with a world where women are made to feel inferior.

Even the United Methodist Church is not immune to the degradation of women. In the Virginia Annual Conference, clergywomen who have the same education and worked the same number of years make, on average, $12,180.94 less than their clergymen counterparts. (UMC GCSRW)

I could go on and on with examples of how sexism and disruptive power dynamics have done terrible things to and against women. A song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is only scratching the surface but it goes to show how deeply entrenched these practices and behaviors really are.

The word from Isaiah, from God, comes as the people are suffering under an oppression that seems inescapable. God declares that a new thing is happening to and for a people who feel no hope. Babylon, like too many men today, rules with an iron fist, the power feels inescapable, and that precisely when God describes the coming change, the evening of all things, and we’re part of it.

I’m ashamed to admit that as more and more names have come out, the Kevin Spaceys and Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.s, I’ve been surprised how pervasive this is. My surprise is embarrassing because I see the world through my own lens (white male) and therefore have ignored or been blind to what actually happens. When I talked with my wife, and my sisters, female friends and church folk, they have not been surprised. Their lack of surprise is due to the fact that for every famous and powerful man that asserts his will or degrades a woman, there is an equal (if not higher) number of men in the workplace or in the community who do the same.

We live in a world where women are made to feel less than men.

And God is doing something about it.

During the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel existed in a state of misery: they were stripped of their institutional structures that shaped their lives, their temple was destroyed, and they were compelled to worship the Babylonian god Marduk. And God, like God had done before, has a new vision for God’s people, a way through the wilderness, a wilderness reshaped by the Grace of God.

Today, we are captured and captivated by a culture that tells us all is well when we know that all is hell. If the world had it’s way, we would be prevented from entering and contemplating these difficult things, but we come to a place like this precisely to hear a counter to the culture.

Women in the world exist under the threat of male chauvinism, physical and emotional abuse, and a patriarchal frame of reference that would make Jesus turn even more tables.

It is good and right for us to receive this word from Isaiah during the season of Advent, while word of female suffering comes forth every day. It is good and right because the story of Advent is one about believing what a woman says about what has happened to her, namely Mary. Advent is the season in which we relearn how God identifies God’s self with those on the margins, and not with the powerful. Advent is the time where we look for the ways God is turning the world upside-down and we give thanks.

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When we hear these words from scripture, about comforting the people of God, they are meant for those who have been forced to the margins of life by the powers and principalities. They are words of hope to those with no hope that a new thing is beginning.

And for those of us who feel too comfortable in life, too comfortable with this season, too comfortable with the status quo, those of us who might not be able to witness the suffering of others because of our towers of privilege, there is something for us to hear as well.

We should hear this word and tremble.

This Word helps to establish the distinction between those who rejoice at the word of God’s arrival and those who see God’s rule as a threat to their own power and position. Advent shines a light on the truth of our lives in a way that most of us would rather avoid. The prophet shouts to us through the sands of time and beckons us to imagine where we have fallen short, to wait for God to judge our iniquity, and to respond to God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is the God we worship. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “Here is your God!” The One who makes all things new, who brings down the mighty, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, who makes a way where there is no way. Here is your God who provides a voice to the voiceless, who empowers the powerless, and breaks the silence.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, as we step closer and closer to the manger in Bethlehem, as we wait for the next Advent of God’s Son, the Word grabs hold of our souls and begs us to consider: “Are we aligning ourselves with those on the margins? Are we listening to the people that Jesus listened to? Are we participating in the great reversal of all things?”

God is making a way where there is no way, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

Here is our God! Amen.

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?

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.