“No Greater Love” – Confirmation Sunday Message on John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17

[Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

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“Come to the Water” – Message on Acts 8:26-40

26An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

How do we make worship contextual?

If you were to visit a church in North America today, chances are you would be faced with a choice: contemporary or traditional. Occasionally there might be a third option of “blended.” There might also be additional styles of worship offered (emerging, recovery, Taizé, liturgical, etc.). Faced with these choices, those assembled are practically begged to answer the questions, “What is my preference?” “What do I like?” and “What works for me?”

These choices for worship have come to be expected in many churches. Is there anything wrong with them? Perhaps they are a cultural phenomenon in a society bent on individualization (a symptom of the Burger King ethos where you can “have it your way”). Perhaps they are the church’s most missional effort to reach as many people possible with the gospel of Jesus. However, a church that encourages self-preferential behavior seems to run against the path of discipleship that teaches, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). What style would worship take if those assembled regarded others as better than themselves?

Reframing the style question

When a new church is birthed or when an existing church launches a new opportunity to assemble for worship, do they ask, “Are we going to be traditional, contemporary, or blended?” Do they look at what the largest church in town does and duplicate it? Is there another way to discern what style of worship a church should employ? Maybe a church has decided that offering multiple styles of worship has become divisive and done more harm than good. Perhaps their question is, “How do we move past traditional and contemporary?”

“Traditional,” “contemporary,” and “emerging” are merely labels. There are instances when our labels are not necessarily helpful or accurate. (see also, “How is worship traditional? How is worship contemporary?”) Regardless of their benefit or precision, these styles for worship have developed and the labels have become affixed to the church’s conscience. In order to move past these labels, a better question may be needed: “How do we figure out what our local worship should sound like?”

 

Nairobi statement

How do we makeworship contextual-

“Jesus whom we worship was born into a specific culture of the world. In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship. God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship. Contextualization is a necessary task for the Church’s mission in the world, so that the Gospel can be ever more deeply rooted in diverse local cultures.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 3.1)

The Nairobi Statement reasons that worship, as it dynamically relates to the given culture in which it is enacted, is contextual. Worship cannot be disconnected from the time and place in which it is enacted. Many of the factors pertaining to how worship is offered are determined by its particular context. “We call on all churches to give serious attention to exploring the local or contextual elements of liturgy, language, posture and gesture, hymnody and other music and musical instruments, and art and architecture for Christian worship.” (Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, 6.1) Faithful worship does not ignore the people or culture in which it is located.

 

Suggestions for making worship contextual

To return to our reframing question: “What should our local expression of worship sound like?” Contextual worship makes use of the music, language, and artistic forms of the local culture the church is planted in. This means that Lutheran worship in downtown New Orleans will potentially be radically different than Lutheran worship in rural Montana. Regardless of how radically different they appear in form and content, they both remain faithful enactments of Lutheran worship. The willingness to connect to the surrounding culture and become contextual make their worship faithfully Lutheran, not their predilection for Baroque-era European music. Contextual worship requires rooting into the neighborhood. There are no shortcuts to contextual worship; real, relational, outwardly focused ministry is the only way to discern context. Contextual worship does not imply a disregard for global music or the historical practices of the church.

 

The sounds of a worshiping assembly should be reflective of the culture that it is planted in. The musical gifts present that are present within a local church should be used to make worship contextual. The Holy Spirit, equipping her for ministry, gives these gifts to the local church. Many churches have a preconceived idea that worship should sound a certain way, requiring particular instruments for worship to sound that way. Instead of hiring a drummer or hiring an organist because of the perception of what worship should sound like, worship should sound like what you are.

The sounds of contextual worship, produced by the people that God has gifted to a church, should be current and modern, as well as reach back into the history of our faith.

P.S. For further analysis of how to enact faithful, Lutheran worship that is also transcultural, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural, see Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture.

 

Weekly Worship Thought – Who Is Jesus?

I am returning home from a week spent at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. I am beginning the work of my Master of Divinity degree and the road to Word and Sacrament pastoral ministry in the ELCA. The week was beautiful, thoughtful, and helped me feel hopeful about the journey ahead.

One of the courses gave us a question to chew on: “If someone were to ask you to tell them about Jesus, what would you say?” The tricky part – you can only use 50 words to answer the question. Here was my response:

“I would say that Jesus was a man that lived in the ancient Near East approximately 2000 years ago and I believe that he lived, died, rose again, ascended to God, and is reconciling all things to God through the incarnational work of his body, the church, in the Spirit.”

Weekly Worship Thought – Hurricane Liturgy

hurricane liturgy

As a resident of the Houston area, Hurricane Harvey has made an impression on me. We take storms of this caliber very seriously. So seriously that schools close for multiple days and churches cancel Sunday worship services. We are better safe than sorry. Flooding and dangerous roadways are the biggest concern.

With so many churches canceling worship services on Sunday, there have been several devotions made available for home use. Here is a list of litanies, prayers, and devotions I found for use in times of inclement weather. Feel free to share others that you may know.

Weekly Worship Thought – TUNE UP Recap

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Thank you to everyone who attended the TUNE UP gathering on Saturday, August 5, 2017. Thank you to the volunteers and Messiah Lutheran Church for hosting us. Thank you to Larry Bose for capturing our day together with photos. This was our fifth year of TUNE UP and we are so blessed that you came and learned with us.

We had over 70 participants from 19 different churches all around the Houston area join us for this day of training and networking. The gathering began with opening worship and presentations from Brian Hehn, Clayton Faulkner, and Richard Birk. They covered the subject of diversity in church music with each presenting on genre, selecting songs pastorally, and why we should incorporate hymns into band-led worship. Then everyone divided into instrumental/vocal/tech tracks, and conceptual tracks. The instrumental tracks were divided by specific area (worship leader, acoustic/electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drums, vocals, and sound tech). Conceptual track offerings included sessions on improving your worship band, running an effective rehearsal, increasing congregational singing, and using video technology. During the “Coaching for Bands” session a volunteer church band from Autumn Creek Baptist Church in Houston received feedback and help with their music from a panel of track leaders.

We want you to know about these helpful resources from some of our track leaders:

Thanks for a great event and stay tuned for future event announcements…

Weekly Worship Thought – #ELCAontheWay

This week I am at the Rostered Ministers Gathering in Atlanta. I am helping with the audio/video logistics as well as sharing a couple of workshops. It has been a great week. Here are some pics:

This was the “10 Ways to Use Video Technology in Worship” workshop.

We had some great discussion in the “Curating Worship for a Cross-Cultural Context” workshop.

This was my spot in the booth for the week. I used two MacBook laptops to display all the video content during worship, plenary, Bible Study, etc.

A really wonderful ballroom space with a huge piece of art as the backdrop.

Good folks from the Gulf Coast Synod.

This was a slide from Chad Fothergill’s presentation on “Singing the Church’s Song in iCulture.”

 

Summer 2017 Update

Summer is here! Hopefully you are enjoying a slower pace and taking time to relax. It really is essential, I have found, to find seasons when you can deviate from the daily grind. Maybe you are able to take a nice vacation. For others it may mean an entirely different schedule than the school year that allows you to enjoy different things. My family will be headed to Galveston a couple of times to see friends, go to the beach, and maybe a little fishing.

Here is my vacation tip (one that I need to practice as well). If you are truly trying to have a vacation, leave the work behind, all of it. That may mean leaving a laptop at home, disconnecting your email app, or turning your phone off completely. The first day is weird. It feels like you left the oven on or forgot to close the garage. Once you get over that nagging feeling, it is freeing to feel undivided. You can fully be where you are and present to whom you’re with.

For me, and perhaps for you too, this is all about control. I like to live under the illusion that I’m in control of things. I am on top of what is happening and I know what needs to be done. I sense that things are going well when I’m in control. Staying connected to my work and people who might need me gives me control. And a vacation might be the most opportune time to let go of control and join God in a Sabbath.

Summer has become a busy time for me over the last several years – go figure. This summer is no different. In July I am headed to Toronto for a week to attend the annual conference of The Hymn Society. I’ll be presenting a workshop called, “Engaging Worship and Culture: (Re)Discovering the Nairobi Statement” and talking about the work I participated in creating a resource for the ELCA. In August I will host our fifth annual Tune Up Worship Band Gathering. This year it is being held at Messiah Lutheran Church in Cypress. Tune Up is a worthwhile event where church musicians from all over the area gather for training. The week after that I will be in Atlanta for the ELCA’s first Rostered Ministers Gathering. I will be presenting two workshops: “10 Ways to Use Video Technology in Worship” and “Curating Worship for a Cross-Cultural Context.” I will also be coordinating video technology for the event.

In September I will be headed to Dubuque, Iowa for my first weeklong intensive at Wartburg Theological Seminary. I am beginning my journey toward rostered Word and Sacrament ministry in the ELCA. I am very happy about these next steps in my calling to serve the church. Fortunately the Collaborative Learning program through Wartburg will allow me to stay at Faith Lutheran and complete my degree and internship without having to leave. I am currently enrolled in a Biblical Greek course over the summer! I am eager to learn and looking forward to more school!

Weekly Worship Thought – Easter Vigil Recap

Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.

Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.

Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.

Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.

I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.

If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.

Weekly Worship Thought – Inner Power

On Easter Sunday at Faith we only offered one style of worship in our sanctuary services (we offer a Chinese language service in our gym). This was a change from how we normally do Sunday mornings. Normally in the sanctuary we have one Heritage service (organ and choir) and one Gathering service (band-led).

After noticing the low attendance at our Gathering-style Christmas Eve service last year, we decided to experiment. For Easter, we only offered the Heritage style worship service. Why? Because our hunch was that people think Easter (and Christmas) should feel like “church.” Despite what hundreds of thousands of people who go to big-box churches might lead us to believe, in our context, for church to feel like “church” it needs the historical flavors of our tradition. That would be organ, choir, vestments, formality, liturgy, and hymns.

Oddly enough the building was packed and no one asked, “Who took away my worship service?”

This is not new, but the continuation of a documented trend. And here.

What is the point?

I’ve been reading a new book about the emergence of contemporary worship in the church (for an upcoming book review in the ALCM CrossAccent journal). The book chronicles the Anaheim Vineyard church as it swelled in growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the components that are considered today to be the backbone of contemporary worship were synthesized at this church (a continuous set of worship songs; intimate, God-directed language; openness to God through music, etc.).

As I read the book, the one thing I am struck by is what many mainline churches have left by the wayside in their adoption of contemporary worship practices: the work of the Holy Spirit. The Anaheim Vineyard was a pentecostal-ish church with the gifts of the Holy Spirit on display in their worship. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words, healings, and other charismatic signs were regular parts of their worship. Participants would show up to church an hour before the service in expectation for God to move. I’m left wondering if we are missing something?

My impression is that, for the most part, mainline churches that employ contemporary worship practices have “taken the meat and spit out the bone” of the Anaheim Vineyard experience of worship (or maybe we just kept the bone). We have hijacked the parts of their worship that we think (hope) will cause people to encounter God (and attract them), but tossed out the questionable parts that don’t jive with our theology or make us squirm. It reminded me of 2 Timothy 3:5, “They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it.” (Forgive me for pulling a sentence out of context.)

What is the inner power of contemporary worship? What is the inner power of any worship?

If the church is not filled with the breath of God’s Spirit as it worships, regardless of the style, there can be no inner power.