Archive for the ‘worship’ Category

A prayer for Palm Sunday based on John 19: 16 -22

Lord Jesus Christ,
on this day, your disciples crowned you King
and we have joined their praise.

Yet, you are a King like no other.
You are on your way to suffering and to death
leading us into freedom and salvation and peace.
You offer your very self to heal our brokenness.
You take our violence and fears and hatreds
into your own life
and give back only love.

We pause now before this awesome mystery
watching as your power moves
beyond our weakness
beyond our failures
beyond our sins

Move us deeper into this holy story
and bring us into the wide open spaces of your grace
for yours is the kingdom,
yours is the power,
yours is the glory,
now and forever. Amen


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Call to Worship

God is telling a story in our lives.
It’s quite a story-
full of the promises God makes
and our struggles to trust;
full of mystery and angels
with surprising news;
full of hard endings
and unexpected new beginnings.

Come, hear the story
pay attention to the angels’ message
in your heart
in this place and time.

Then join all creation
in worshipping the God
who tells it
full of grace and truth;
who comes in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
and makes our story holy.

Prayers of Adoration and Confession

Promise-making God,
your steadfast love and faithfulness
surrounds us all our day.

God of all time, Lord of all history,
you create new beginnings
where we have run out of possibilities;
you make a way
were there is no way.

Glorious Lord of hope,
You come into our lives
among the poor and the lowly.
You enter into our suffering.

For all these blessings to us,
in this season of waiting,
we praise you with open and empty hands.

Be born in us,
be present among us,
form us in your love and truth and life,
we ask in the name of Jesus,
whose coming we await.

Assurance of God’s Grace and Love

We are a people on a journey with Jesus. Along the way, Jesus gathers our lives into God’s powerful, redeeming grace. The work of Advent is to receive that good news with open hearts. Christ’s peace be with you.

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In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

First Conviction:     The Church is first and foremost God’s creation and God’s gift. The Church does not belong to us. We do not create the Church. The Church is a gift of God’s grace into which we enter and in which we participate.

When congregations are struggling to survive and when all their attempts to ‘fix’ what is wrong with them do not produce the expected results, it is liberating to remember that the Church is God’s idea before it is ours. In response to God’s grace, we may offer what we are and what we have for the Church’s life and work but, ultimately, the Church’s life and future are in God’s hands. Many years ago, in another time of crisis in the Church, the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote, “We are not the church’s guardians . . . if it were up to us the church would perish before our eyes, and we together with it. But it is another who obviously preserves both the church and us” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings).

Gordon Cosby was the founding minister of the Church of the Savior in Washington D. C. He was often asked, “What do you think the future of the church is?” He would answer, “I have never had a helpful answer to that question. Have no idea. I do not know what the judgments of God are or what will be the breakthroughs of God’s power. . .  I do not need the church to have a visible or successful future in order for me to feel safe as a person. I’m glad to leave it to God’s sovereignty. It is his church —not mine”  ( Elizabeth O’Connor, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures , p. 31).

The Church exists not because of what we do or don’t do. The Church exists because God has chosen to work in and through ordinary people who have been commandeered by the risen Christ and gifted by the Holy Spirit to participate in the Triune God’s work in the world. This conviction frees congregations from focusing on survival. Trusting in God’s care, they can get on with what they are called to be: witnesses in word and deed to the grace and love of the Triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that churches can engage people as people whom God loves and in whose lives the Holy Spirit is already at work. They are set free from treating them as ‘potential new church members’ who will help to fill the pews and balance the budget.

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) Part of the weariness in our churches is the result of people being uprooted from the source of their life and energy. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God; between knowing doctrine and knowing the One to whom the doctrine points; between talking about God and talking to God. “If Jesus is to be anything more than another name, another historical mythic figure for us; if he is to become in any sense “Christ,” “Saviour,” “Lord”; if his name and his story are to arouse in us anything life ‘faith’, then we shall have to encounter him and not merely some ideas about him” (Douglas John Hall, “We Would See Jesus”, The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

In a seminar on preaching, a participant was asked, “Do you know ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’?” He replied, “Yes, I know the psalm. I also know the Shepherd.”

In The Contemplative PastorEugene Peterson writes about three types of language: “Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship . . . Language II is the language of information . . . Language III is the language of motivation. . .  Languages II and III are clearly the ascendant languages in our culture . . . Meanwhile Language I, the language of intimacy, the language that develops relationships of trust and hope and understanding, languishes . . . Prayer is Language I. It is not language about God or the faith; it is not language in the service of God and the faith; it is language to and with God” (pp. 91ff).  Training for leaders will need to include a strong focus on resources and practices that help them attend to God, not just talk about God. It will need to guide them in developing their spiritual lives so that they have spirits that are adequate for receiving God’s truth and life. There is a rich and ancient tradition in the Church of spiritual leaders who were wise in the ways of prayer and in the disciplines of attending to God. Leaders will need to be introduced to these guides and immersed in their practices.
B)  The United Church has largely been focused on the horizontal dimension of Christian life — putting faith into action. Less attention has been paid to the vertical dimension: to who God is. In many congregations, the worship of God has played a secondary role to the action of the participants: “God has no hands but our hands”. If the Church is first and foremost about what God does, then the worship of God is at centre of congregational life. Worship services are the primary corporate events where the community attends to the Triune God who is the source of its life and its destiny. The Holy Spirit gathers the church together to encounter God in the community of Christ’s people and sends the church out to encounter God in the world that God loves. Training for worship leadership will need to attend to the basics of what makes for vital and authentic worship of the Triune God. Worship will need to be something more than ‘what people endure in order to get to the coffee hour’. Worship will need to provide people a way to enter more deeply into the mystery of God and of God’s grace and love.

C) Worship of the triune God at centre of a congregation’s life puts control into God’s hands. This is uncomfortable for churches that are shaped by Modernism with its focus on control and management. Faith in the triune God involves deep trust in the midst of ambiguity. Peterson describes it this way: “All is gift. Grace is everywhere. God in Christ is actively doing for and in us everything involved in the practice of resurrection So what is there left for us to do? Receive. That is our primary response if we are to find ourselves no longer lost in the cosmos but at home in it. For the most part, receptivity is a learned response. Receive the gift” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing up in Christ , p. 68).
Living by the grace of God involves a radical shift of imagination. Vital, robust worship immerses people in Christ’s “grace-sovereign country” (Romans 6:5, The Message) where they are formed to trust in God. Leadership development will focus on curating worship services where people practice receiving the grace of God as well as responding to that grace with lives of suffering love and service.


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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the worship life of congregations as they find their way into God’s mission.

1) Liturgia (Worship)

The nature of worship is changing. The Protestant Reformation gave us a liturgy whose main focus was the preaching of the Word. The sacraments were celebrated only occasionally. The Reformers stressed the need for an educated clergy as a response to the intellectual laxity of many medieval priests. “Protestant clergy were expected to be well schooled in the scriptures, in order to be servants of the Word(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 1). Now many churches are recovering a balance between the preaching/hearing of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Some Protestant churches are celebrating communion weekly and discovering a deepening and strengthening of faith in doing so. Christ gave the sacraments to the church as the way the Body of Christ is fed and nurtured in the grace and presence of God. Strengthening communities of faith will need to include finding faithful ways in which the sacraments can be received on a regular basis. In the United Church, sacraments elders are becoming more numerous, especially in situations where congregations are without Order of Ministry personnel for extended periods of time.

There is also, in many places, a turn away from liturgies that are heavily weighted toward the verbal. Leonard Sweet’s description of EPIC worship: experiential, participatory, image rich, and connected, is shaping worship services that engage the imagination through story-telling, drama, and the arts. Some churches are recovering the notion of the liturgy as “the work of the people”, not just of the performers at the front (choir and clergy). They are creating worship services that engage the whole person and the whole community. Crafting EPIC worship services requires different skills than our typical highly verbal worship. It is not done best as a solo effort. Leaders in worship will need to be trained for collaborative efforts that elicit the gifts of all the people of God.

Another emerging trend is the recognition that it is not enough that worship be entertaining and relevant. There is a “turn toward the formative”, challenging the worshiping community to grow in grace and to mature spiritually. Marva Dawn has named three fundamental criteria for what happens in worship:
*praising God and immersing worshipers “in the fullness of God’s splendour”,
*forming disciples who follow Jesus and “are committed to God’s purposes of peace, justice, and salvation in the world”, and
*building the community as the Body of Christ, “linked to all God’s people throughout time and space” (A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and being Church for the World , p. 343).

Shaping such worship services will challenge the consumer mentality that shapes much of North American congregational life and worship. Worship leaders need to be deeply immersed in the biblical story in order to acquire the countercultural lenses that reveal how our communities are caught by consumerism and narcissism.

Modernity privileged the rational over other ways of knowing and being. Post-modernity has recognized that there is a transcendental dimension that brings depth and richness to life. There is a turn toward worship services that help people attend to the holy in their midst.

There is also a recognition that the church gathered for worship is also the church sent out into the world. Congregations are looking for ways to make the link between the two phases of the community’s life stronger. People are being asked to speak in worship about their ministries in their lives the rest of the week. New attention is being given to the ‘sending’ portion of the liturgy.

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The Turn Toward the Formative in Contemporary Worship (5)

This is the fifth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

One of the topics for the day focused on the “Frames” we use in crafting worship services. Leaders frame worship through the words and actions they use to “focus the attention, stimulate the imagination, shape the perceptions, or form the interactions of worshipers” (John Witvliet in the Introduction to Frames, Deborah Knapp, p. ix). The frames are often made explicit in simple, beautiful ways of expressing why the congregation is doing what it is doing.

In his writings, Robert Webber has suggested framing worship as a ‘dinner party’: you being by greeting all who have been invited, you move into the conversations whereby you catch up with what has been happening with each other, you serve a meal, you depart into the world. Worship moves through  the Acts of Entrance, the Service of the Word, the Service of Thanksgiving, the Dismissal. (Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship)

Johnathan Dobson, Lead Pastor at City Life Church in Austin Texas, frames worship as an alternative to the secular liturgies that seek to form us all week long. “These messages, rhythms, and values create a certain kind of heart posture and longing that drives us away from Christ — individualism, materialism, experientialism, consumerism” (from the handout at the seminar).The gospel’s liturgy focuses us on God instead of self and on the church community instead of the individual. Dodson also notes that their worship attends to the church scattered out in the world. The frame, then, of their worship is: God, Gospel, Community, Mission.

One presenter talked about the basic pattern of Christian living that Jesus gave in the meals he shared: we are a people who are taken up into God’s adventure, blessed, broken, and given to the world. Another described the shape of the journey as ‘singing our way into God’s preferred future” where all God’s children are welcomed home. The introduction to the eucharist could be given as, “This table will one day be a great feast where all people come from north and south and east and west”.

Aaron Niequist mentioned that in Willow Creek’s experimental service, “The Practice”, they do not use a projection system. They hand out paper bulletins. They explain (frame) it this way: We offer you a ‘tactile, analogue experience’ so that you are holding something real.

A way to frame worship intentionally is to ask in the planning process, “What journey are we going on together this morning?” That journey is shaped by the scriptures for the day. The songs and rest of the worship service help move the worshipping congregation through that journey.

I have introduced the Passing of the Peace by reminding people that there are very places in our lives where we are aware of Christ’s peace being offered to us. Then, I would say, “As you pass the peace of Christ to one another, be aware that some people’s lives are so filled with struggle and anxiety that this may be the only peace that they receive all week. What you are going to do is holy work.”

It would be helpful, perhaps revealing, for your worship planners to look at the pattern of your worship services and ask the question, “What is the shape of the journey that happens in worship in our church?”  In what ways could that journey be made more explicit so that your worship is a richer and fuller experience?

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A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday based on: 1 Peter 2: 1-10; Psalm 42; Luke 9: 28 -36

One of the abiding convictions of Christian faith is that God often works in hidden ways. God is alive and active in human history. God is working salvation in our world. We don’t always perceive it.

In fact, we can go for long periods of time largely unaware that God is present. Sometimes, our life is so filled with sorrow and suffering, that we cry out in anguish, “Where is God?” What is even worse, says the Psalmist, are the taunts of unbelievers who point to the suffering of the innocent, or to a horrific tragedy, and then jeer at God’s people, “Where is your God now?” In all of that, we are experiencing what someone called “God’s holy hiddenness.”

Those are not just poetic words that cover over the anguish. They give voice to the longing in the deepest part of our being for glimpse — just a glimpse — of God’s unmistakable presence in our midst. We thirst for a sign that God is healing the world’s brokenness; that God is healing our own brokenness.

The Bible does not answer the question, “Where is God?” directly. It asks the question often. Newly liberated Hebrew slaves find themselves in the middle of a large desert without food and drink. They ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Job loses his home and his family and his healthy in a cascade of tragedies. He asks, “Where is God? Let God show Himself and I will confront Him with the injustice of all that has happened to me!” The Psalmist cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” The question echoes from Jesus’ lips as he hangs on a Roman cross. The Bible asks the questions many times. It does not give a direct answer.

What the Bible does is tell stories. Those stories draw us into God’s presence in the world. In the stories of Israel, Jesus and the early Christian Church, we become participants in God’s actions — healing, saving, transforming, comforting. Even in situations where God seems most profoundly absent, we are drawn into the surprising actions of God.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday of Epiphany’s light before we enter Lent’s shadowed time. Just before this morning’s scripture, Jesus has told his disciples that the Messiah — the one anointed by God to be Saviour of the world — was going to suffer and be put on trial and found guilty and killed and, on the third day, would be raised up alive. The one who had come to save the world was going to be destroyed by the powers he came to destroy.

The disciples are still reeling from this incomprehensible juxtaposition of “Saviour” and “suffering”, of “Lord” and “killed”, of “sacrifice” and “salvation”, when Jesus pushes them even further. Those who want to belong to him, who want to participate in God’s saving work in the world, he said, will be led into a life of suffering and sacrifice as well. You can imagine that the disciples had more than a few questions — fundamental, profound questions, not least of which would be, “Where is God in all of this?”

The reply Jesus gives is to take Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. Actually, Jesus prays. The disciples sleep. Jesus’ appearance becomes dazzling bright and two great figures of the faith — Moses and Elijah— join him. They talk about Jesus’ departure, Jesus’ exodus, that he was about to complete in Jerusalem. The disciples, jolted awake, find themselves in the midst of glory.

Peter, always the one to blurt out what everyone else is thinking, says, “Let’s build a shrine. Let’s mark this as a holy place of God’s presence.” Before the disciples can start a fund-raising campaign or call an architect, they are interrupted by a cloud (which in the First Testament is a sign of God ’s presence) and by a voice which says, “This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.” There is divine confirmation that, in spite of all that is going to happen that will seem to deny God’s presence and saving power, Jesus is to be trusted and obeyed and adored.

Then, it is over. The glory fades. Jesus is standing there alone. The disciples are left speechless, not knowing what to make of what the have just seen and heard.

Most of us do not often receive such a blinding vision of God’s glory. We do not often get such profound assurance of God’s guidance. We may long for it deeply, but most of the time, we are left with only our deep longings. I suspect that, most of us, if we were to be given such an epiphany, would be like Peter. We would want to capture the moment. We would want to memorialize it in some way. We would want something we could hold onto to so we could keep God’s presence near and certain. Then, in those long stretches when God seems absent, we could go back to it and find God there the way we did once.

Peter does get to build his shrine to the glory of God shining in Jesus’ face. He does get to build a temple; he just does not get to build it on Mount Tabor. He does not get to build it with bricks and mortar. After the mountain-top experience, Jesus leaves the place where God’s glory shone out so clearly, and takes Peter and James and John with him down to the valley below. There, they encounter a boy in the midst of a convulsion, his distraught parents and the prayer-less disciples who are unable to rescue or help him. The road from that place leads to Jerusalem and to suffering and to death on a cross, just as Jesus said it would. The road led to Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

That is the last time the question “Where is God?” is asked in the New Testament. It is asked over and over again in the First Testament. It is not asked in the New Testament. (thanks to Philip Yancey for this insight) It is not asked in the New Testament after the cross because Jesus is God’s answer to the question. Jesus, God-with-us, leaving the glories of heaven, entering into our suffering, experiencing our abandonment is God’s answer. Jesus, descending into the darkest place so that, when life takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, you will not be alone. Jesus has gone there ahead of you. He will meet you there. He will restore your soul with resurrection power.

Where is God? Not in some place you can point to. Not in a building we call the church. Where is God? The only answer we have is Jesus, crucified, risen and present with us through the Holy Spirit.

After the resurrection, God sends the Holy Spirit to the Church. Peter begins building a temple made out of people who want to belong to Jesus, who choose to worship and obey him with their lives. The cornerstone and foundation of this living temple is Jesus.

“Welcome to the living Stone,” he writes, “the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; but God set it in the place of honour. So, present yourselves as building stones for a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.” (1 Peter 2, The Message)

You and I are the temple of God. In our life together: in our caring for one another and for the world; in our speaking out against injustice and brutality; in our creating a space where the small and the weak are cherished along with the great and the strong; in a community where the gifts that each person brings are treasured and nurtured, where souls are nurtured and restored and made new, and where we learn together to walk in the paths of righteousness that lead to abundant living. In our life together, we are the temple of God. In our life together, we host God’s presence in the world.

“You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do God’s work and to witness to God’s goodness and to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you — from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.”

It is hard to believe, isn’t it? There are times when we are not very good at hosting God’s presence. We hurt each other. We remain silent when we should shout out. We look for easier ways to follow Jesus on his way to the cross. We try to get by with cheap and comfortable discipleship. Yet, for all that, God does not abandon us. God’s Holy Spirit calls us into worship in the company of God’s people. The Spirit stands us under these stories that tell of God alive and active and present in the most unlikely of circumstances. These are stories of God who marvellously works salvation in places that we are certain are utterly profane. In places that we are certain are utterly bereft of God, God is surprisingly bringing resurrection power.

So, week after week, we confess that we have fallen short of the glory God intends for us. Week after week, Jesus meets us in the emptiness that we offer to Him and He fills it with grace. We become again what He has made us to be: a holy people, a temple of God made to shine the light of God’s glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We don’t deserve any of it. It is utterly a gift from our Holy God. When, in those moments when we do catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and in those stretches of time when we live by faith, we join with saints throughout the ages who, in awe and wonder, stammer out their praise. To God alone — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory and praise, age after age after age. Amen.

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This is the fourth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

There were a number of gems of insight and wisdom that the presenters offered in the seminar.

For instance, one of them offered this insight about communion:  You never take communion. You receive communion. “Taking” is what happened in the Garden of Eden. “Receiving” (life, salvation, healing, hope from the Triune God) is what will put the world back together.

Another: “Ministry is a work of the heart and we labour with a broken tool all the time.”

And: “God is most reliably present where you are experiencing the limits of your own power.”

From Ambrose: “You see with the eyes of your head. The really challenge is to see with the eyes of your soul”.

When considering changes in worship: “The deeper the trust, the sharper the turn you can make; however, the sharper the turn, the slower your speed needs to be.”

“The community is gathered around Christ first and foremost” (not around the leaders with a passive audience)

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