Category Archives: Devotional

In the Style of Taizé

taizeFor those of you who may not know, Taizé is an ecumenical Christian monastic community in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgandy, France. Established in August 1962, it has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, especially for youth. The community is known for music that emphasizes simple phrases, usually from Scripture, repeated and often sung in canon.

I was recently at a concert in which the choir sang  a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila “in the style of Taizé.” The choir and then the audience sang the following words several times and in a round:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

The effect was very calming and soothing. Any problems I was having that day seemed to be washed away by the words being sung over and around me. God alone is truly all I need in this life, my soul heard loud and clear through that experience.

Shortly after that concert, I was worshiping at my church and the congregational responses to the prayers were sung “in the style of Taizé,” the bulletin noted. After each petition, the following words were sung:

O Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord, hear my prayer, when I call answer me. O Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord, hear my prayer. Come and listen to me.

The repetition of the words and the feeling of the words being sung by me and my brothers and sisters all around me was moving. I could sense the deep desire of the people to receive guidance from God and the constant drive for us to stay connected to God in prayer.

Songs and prayers should always be flowing from our hearts, if not our lips, over and over again throughout the day “in the style of Taizé.” Repeating meaningful words and Scriptures to ourselves can have a positive impact on our faith and life and actions. We have a tendency to forget things. But if we keep reminding ourselves of the good and gracious God we love who loves us in Christ and listens to us and cares for us, we can stay grounded in him.

Find a favorite Bible verse this week or a favorite hymn and speak or sing it several times “in the style of Taizé,” as part of your daily devotionals, and see how how your approach to the day’s struggles can be positively affected and spiritually grounded.

 

 

Trajectory of Engagement

trajectory of engagementIn The Social Media Gospel, author Meredith Gould talks about the trajectory of engagement. This is the movement from online communication to offline relationships.

This concept of the trajectory of engagement is having a large impact on the church today. Engagement on social media may be a good start when it comes to church relations. But it cannot be the end result. We, in the church, know that faith engagement must at some point be face-to-face, person-to person. The trajectory must go beyond technology to faith-based living in the family of God.

So how does this trajectory happen? It happens through concerted efforts to invite those who are engaged in conversations on a church’s social media platforms to join in events at church, be it worship, a small group Bible study, a soup supper, whatever opportunity for personal engagement at the church presents itself.

It is only in the actual presence of other people that the richness and vitality of the Christian Church can be seen and felt most fully by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I know for me in my life, so many conversations I have with people in the church are now through text messages, which can be great for sharing a quick story or an encouraging word but cannot replace being together in the pew or chatting over a cup of coffee at lunch. The online and the offline communication must work in tandom for a deeper connection to develop spiritually.

I often wonder what it would have been like if Jesus had been alive during this time of social media. My first thought would be that he would point us to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Would we be like the priest and the Levite who walked by the person in need right in front of us because we were texting our friends?

It’s time for us to look up from our phones and look at social media in the church not as an end in itself, but a beginning, a doorway, a portal into a life of more meaningful real-life personal relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Be social in life and not just a screen!

 

 

Positive Proximity

positive proximityThere’s a term in urban planning getting a lot of traction these days: positive proximity. The term refers to ways in which neighbors in a community work together in a positive manner to achieve a worthy goal. Revitalized main streets in small towns and parks in subdivisions have resulted from the positive proximity approach.

Churches can be a major player in the concept of positive proximity. Being a good neighbor as a church to the businesses around it can go a long way to build up feelings of goodwill and gestures of kindness down the road.

The church is never to be an island to itself on a street. It is meant to be a part of the action, a major contributor to the needs of those who dwell in the surrounding spaces.

How does this happen? Perhaps after a snowstorm, a church can arrange to have plow trucks clear the parking lots of neighboring businesses as well as their own. I think of a florist that sat next to my church in Cleveland, OH, whom we bought altar flowers from. The florist in turn allowed our church’s school to sell pumpkins for Halloween in their parking lot each October to raise money for ministry.

So many actions can seem so small, but they are really remembered. Just a simple wave to someone who is coming out of their home while you are coming out of church can bring a smile to that neighbor’s face. That neighbor then recalls that gesture when someone else asks about your church. “They’re nice!”

The driving force behind the positive proximity concept is that it can cause a chain reaction of random acts of kindness in a community. One wave can lead to a conversation about working together on a project to keep the sidewalks clean, which can lead to increased foot traffic to shops and storefronts.

It is important in positive proximity to be open and available. Think of the old model of rows of front porches in a neighborhood. Being out and about in front of your church can help neighbors to see that you care about the place you are in and you care about the community. Make a point to engage in conversations with those who walk by while you are putting a new message on your church sign, for instance.

I think of how Jesus was positive proximity in action. He did not stay inside all time during his life on earth. He was more often walking the streets, talking to people, finding out how things were with them and then helping and healing, as we read in Matthew 9:35:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.

That is our role as the church, too, to be the hands and feet of Christ and and not just the dwelling place of God in brick and mortar. Be a positive impact on a next-door neighbor to your church today.

 

Gluttony

gluttonyWe live in a world in which pleasure and happiness are paramount. But constantly feeding our physical and emotional appetites for pleasure leads to one of the great seven deadly sins: gluttony.

Gluttony is greedy or excessive indulgence. The pitfalls of gluttony for us as Christians are that it focuses on self and can lead to diminishing returns. The more we have of some earthly pleasure, the less enjoyable it becomes.

I like what pastor and theology professor Wayne E. Croft Sr. said about gluttony: “Gluttony deceives us into believing we can feed our souls through our flesh. The problem is when I would rather watch reruns of my favorite TV program than pray. The problem is when I would rather check my texts, emails or social media sites than pause to meditate. The problem is when I long for Pillsbury biscuits but not the bread of life” (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Living Lutheran, February 2018, 45).

Our desire should always be to please God first and foremost, beyond our own personal pleasures. Our joy, our satisfaction, our ultimate pleasure should come from being with God and getting to know him more. Our motivation in life should always be to be more like Christ, serving others more often than we serve ourselves.

Unlike the pleasures of the world, our joy in the Lord leads to ever increasing returns. As Psalm 23:6 reminds us:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy we have in God’s love for us in Jesus will continue all the way into eternal life, where we will be singing his praises evermore. That’s the lasting pleasure we seek.

 

 

Sunday School Shuffle

Sunday schoolAs with the coffee hour I discussed a couple of blogs back, the Sunday school hour is not what it used to be in our churches today, especially during the summer months.

The traditional approach of having separate grades in separate classrooms for one hour after church is becoming increasingly rare these days for many of the same reasons for the decline of the coffee hour. There are so many competing commitments on a Sunday morning for so many young families that schedules do not often allow for an extra hour to be at church for Sunday school.

In order to accommodate this pervasive trend, churches are turning to other alternatives to incorporate Sunday school into Sunday mornings. One way is through what is typically called “children’s church.” In this model, just before the sermon or right after a children’s sermon in worship children are invited leave the worship space to come to another room to learn about the Scripture lessons for the day or other Bible readings or stories in a more kid-friendly way. This approach usually involves some sort of craft or activity to reinforce the message. Children are then brought back to the worship space at the end of the service to rejoin their families.

Another model gathers all grades into one room during the entire worship service that is happening elsewhere simultaneously. This design allows for the singing of Bible-based children’s songs, a more in-depth look at Scripture and a more complex activity or craft. The gathering of all grades together also increases the feeling of community and fosters relationships that may not otherwise have happened if children were placed in separate classrooms by grade levels.

Many churches have chosen to continue offering traditional Sunday school for separate grade levels, only moving it to the same time period as regular worship.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of Sunday school shuffle, in my view. The advantages of children’s church is that children take part in both worship and Sunday school in the given hour. The disadvantage is that it is often disruptive, rushed and unsettling to make the transition from worship to Sunday school and back.

The advantage of the combined grade Sunday school is that there is an increased energy, the entire hour is dedicated to Sunday school and church workers can be more creative with their lesson plans. The disadvantage is that children do not get to experience worship with their families.

The plus of moving the traditional Sunday school to the church hour is that children can receive directed teaching that caters to their leaning development level and that children are with other children their own age. The disadvantage again is that children miss church.

There is no clear answer here, of course. I have talked to many church workers who struggle with how best to present the Sunday school shuffle to their congregations. In the end, it is about sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to children in whatever form that may take. Let us rejoice in any opportunity we have to do that.

A Bible for Everyone

BibleOne of the books highlighted in World Magazine’ s Best Children’s Books of the Year issue was a Bible for toddlers called Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible. In it are 52 stories equally divided between Old and New Testaments, conveying the most important parts of the Bible in language that age group can understand, accompanied by kid-friendly artwork.

One of the biggest trends in Christian publishing today is specially designed Bibles for almost every type of person or demographic you can think of. A quick internet search brought up the following:

The Illustrator’s Notetaking Bible (for artists)

The Action Bible (for tweens)

Guys Life Application Bible (for teen boys)

She Reads Truth Bible (for women)

Leadership Bible (for church leaders)

These Bible include such things as artwork, questions to ponder, reflections and discussion starters aimed at a very specific audience. These types of niche market Bibles are important to help people see the Bible not as some stuffy book that is only meant for pastors, but a book that is meant for them.

What I find interesting in The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible is that the word Gospel is front and center in the title. That’s a good thing, and something to remember when we start to cater the Bible to meet the needs of so many different groups.

In all the flashy pictures, cute covers and innovative font treatments, we as Christian publishers should never lose sight of the Gospel, the good news that God sent Jesus to this lost and broken world to save us through his death and resurrection. No marketing strategy can ever replace that.

I encourage you to be on the lookout for a unique type of Bible that appeals to you, but in the process it is my hope that the Gospel message comes through loud and clear within its creatively designed pages.

 

House of Mercy

house of mercyAn article in winter 2018 Lutherans Engage magazine highlighted the work of Rev. Eddie Hosch in Lima, Peru. Part of this ministry there includes a Casa de Misericordia (House of Mercy), a safe place where children can come after school or at other times to be with other children and learn more about Jesus.

Hosch says, “I love the kids. The opportunities here are huge to share the Gospel in a simple way: a lunch, a hug, friendship. All allowing us to teach the children the Word of God.”

This house of mercy works with the prayer that the Word of God will produce faith in these children and their parents and will help them to see Christ’s mercy at work in their lives.

This Casa de Misericordia is a wonderful model for us to follow in our own lives. How can each of our homes be houses of mercy to show others the mercy of Christ? How can we establish our churches as being houses of mercy for those who are in need in our community/

Many programs already exist along these lines with food pantries and clothing drives in many parishes. But what I think is important to foster is the sense that our homes and our churches are safe and loving places to come for help. God in his mercy did not turn people away from his love in Jesus, and we should convey our willingness to be of service to those around us who are truly in need.

I like Hosch’s idea of sharing mercy in simple ways. Maybe it is a wave at your neighbor or an invitation to chat on your front porch. Maybe it is just putting your arm around someone you know is struggling at church. Perhaps it is just saying “You are safe here” to someone who is living in fear.

Several years ago Pope Francis declared a year of mercy, and my recommendation to you this week is to declare this a week of mercy in your own home and see what happens.

Use this as your theme verse:

God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. —Ephesians 2:4-5

Be alive with Christ’s mercy this week!

 

Is the Coffee Hour Dead?

coffee hourIn a recent conversation with my cousin, she was telling me about the elaborate coffee hours they have at her church with cakes, punch, finger sandwiches, cheese trays, fruit salads, doughnuts and the like. My brother’s church has something similar between worship services at his church, and it got me to thinking that I don’t hear much about the coffee hour anymore in church.

I have a feeling that my cousin’s and brother’s churches may be the exception rather than the rule. And I wonder why that is.

Perhaps 20 or 30 years ago the coffee hour after church was something to be expected, a time to just sit and chat with fellow members over coffee and snacks about your week or about the service or about upcoming events in your life. It was am established time to gather as the family of God.

But ever so slowly and ever so slightly, the established practice of a coffee hour has dwindled away. Perhaps that is why for a time several years there was a surge in “coffee house” church in which worship took place in an actual coffee house or churches set up coffee houses inside their walls for people to gather to worship and drink coffee at the same time.

The reality, unfortunately, in our culture today is that Sunday mornings are prime real estate for a myriad of activities and events, including church. In families I have talked to, church attendance remains very important and the hour of worship is very established in their schedule, but what time may once have been set aside for the coffee hour is now eaten up by sports practices, school events, dinners with relatives, work schedules and the like.

My fear in all this is that fellowship loses out. Without an established coffee hour in church anymore, when can the brothers and sisters in Christ gather for fellowship with one another?

The answer lies in many arenas, but one way that fellowship happens is through small group ministry, where people gather in members’ home for coffee and Christian conversation. Another way I heard of recently at a conference is through what essentially could be called a “flash mob” coffee hour at a neighborhood eatery. Taking place especially among young Christians, a message is sent out through Facebook or Instagram to meet at a certain location a day or so later to chat about a topic important to the Christian community. Since people are so often looking at their phones, this practice has been incredibly effective.

So is the coffee hour dead? Not really, I say. It just looks and feels a lot different these days. As long as fellowship is happening, I am OK with any form it takes. As the Bible says, “How good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

The Gift Economy

gift economyThe concept of the gift economy recently came up in a meeting with fellow editors. Apparently the idea of the gift economy is gaining traction and interest again in our society, particularly among Christians, with speakers discussing it at various religious conferences.

What is the gift economy exactly? It is the practice of giving items to people without any expectation of anything in return. This is in contrast, of course, to our market-based economy and even the barter system in which goods and services are exchanged for money or other items in return.

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied these various types of economies within a range of cultures and introduced the terms reciprocity (the expectation of something equal in return), inalienable possessions (things that can only belong to an individual person) and prestation (a cultural offering of a gift or service). The type of an economy that a culture uses tends to say a lot about them as people.

So why is the concept of the gift economy trending in our world today? My hunch is that we, especially as Christians, are recognizing more and more that our culture today is driven largely by money, the stock market, sales and profits. And we in our Christian culture recognize that our life should be less about the bottom line and more about sharing love.

While traditional financial exchanges are important and necessary in a culture, of course, ultimately life should not be about a running tally of who gave what to whom and did those items match up monetarily. Life, in the Christian model, should be at its most essential about giving to others with no conditions. It should be about caring for others as people and not as customers.

The Bible even says, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Giving should be about our hearts and our love for others, not about tracking numbers or keeping score somehow.

Our lives should first and foremost be modeled after Christ, who gave his life as a free gift for us that we can never repay. He gave his life on the cross out of love for us that we might show that same love to others unconditionally and live with him together in heaven one day.

Each day is a gift because of Christ, so we are called to give as freely to others without exception.

 

Sermon Trends

sermon trendsTrends in sermons are changing fast. The traditional approach of preaching on a biblical text in a lecture format through deductive reasoning is being replaced more and more by what is being called in seminary circles as “the new homiletics.”

New homiletics, broadly speaking, looks at the preaching of a sermon more as an event or an experience. Those in the pews often become part of the conversation through question-and-answer formats or personal stories that are shared.

Much of what is behind this shift in homiletics has to do with the rise of social media and our increased comfort level as a society in engaging in a dialog about any number of topics.

The challenge for pastors and other church workers is how to direct and control that conversation within the context of a sermon in order to achieve the spiritual goals they have in mind for their message and for their audience.

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