Archive for the ‘Worship and Culture’ Category

Grace Demands a Response

January 7, 2017

honorgodGrace demands a response. Well, at least ancient grace. That is, the auction-gavel-2kind of grace in a honor/shame culture of the biblical era of the middle east. We live in a rights-driven culture. Our transactions are judicial rather than personal. Modern grace has a narrower definition.

The church accurately defines grace as, “a free gift of God, that you did not earn and do not deserve.” What is missing in our culture is the patron.

hqdefaultThe patron is the one who grants the gift. It is based upon favors and loyalty. Consider Don Corleone and the opening scene of The Godfather. This is an unequal partnership where the one granting the favor (the patron) expects absolute loyalty from the recipient. Grace demands a response of loyalty by way of respect in demeanor and action as well as publicizing the benefactor’s gift and gratitude. This Sicilian grace is similar to the other ancient Mediterranean cultures.

In our society, we also have something that resembles grace. When someone is laid-off or hurt on the job or has an issue that prevents them from being an active part of the workforce the government offers assistance. It too is a gift that “you did not earn and do not deserve.” It is a kindness. But the patron is lost in the mix. And in a rights-driven culture verses an honor-driven one the gratitude diminishes or altogether disappears. And soon people feel entitled to assistance so that the benefactor becomes the slave and the recipient becomes the deity-like patron.

But this is not a column concerning welfare. I am speaking to those of the faith who take their God-given grace cheap, doing as little as possible to show loyalty and gratitude to our Heavenly Patron. When we forget that grace in the Bible is a free gift that demands loyalty we become our own god expecting answered prayers or we walk away.

offerings-articleGod gave his all in his Son on our behalf. How can we not give our all back in gratitude? Isn’t that the meaning of baptism? There is a difference between paying someone back and paying them homage and gratitude. But I’m afraid little honor culture left in the Americanized church. We are not consumers and worship is not for us. In days of yore they to worship giving expensive sacrifices and long pilgrimages. Now many churches go to extreme expense to encourage and maintain memberships. Once sacrifices and gifts were turned away if they were not without blemish. Now the church welcomes hand-me-downs when members upgrade their own living-room idols. footballSunday used to be the Lord’s Day, now, as the movie Concussion says of football, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.” From the fatted calf to the pigskin.

God’s grace demands a response, even a sacrificial one. We are indebted to Him. Begin this year right by demonstrating gratitude and loyalty to Christ above and beyond all other things.

Christmas Tree Symbolism

December 3, 2016

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a sucker for symbolism. The language of metaphor and symbolic expression is employed heavily during Christmas and has a rich history. Which is good because I’m also the type of guy that needs a good reason to wrestle a fake fir from the attic once a year and test myriad bulbs to find the one that is burnt out. If I am going through all this tedious work, there better be a good reason lest I become a Grinch.

The tree as a Christian symbol starts in the Garden of Eden where two trees resided, one that gave life and the other death. The New Testament begins with the Gospels and Christ’s death upon a cross (which Paul symbolically calls a tree) and ends with the Tree of Life in the book of Revelation. Similar symbols include the burning bush replicated in the Temple as a candelabra, and Israel as often depicted as an olive tree. It is no wonder that non-Jewish Christians erected Christmas trees as they interpreted the prophet Isaiah’s words, “The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the juniper, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn my sanctuary” (Isaiah 60:13).

St. Boniface used the symbolism of a fir tree to evangelize the Germans in the 8th century. By the 11thcentury churches put on plays in the churchyard decorating evergreens with apples and the children would act out the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. They also acted out the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, and Pentecost, to teach the gospel in fun and creative ways since most people couldn’t read. Martin Luther in the 16th century brought the tree indoors and lit it with candles.

swirlychristmastree2cardFrom Boniface to Luther the tree took on specific meanings. The lit evergreen speaks to the light, life, and eternal love of Christ, especially in the stark winter where everything else seems dead. It points towards heaven and its triangular shape represents the Trinity. We top it with either a star or an angel, the first messengers of the Gospel to magi and shepherd, imploring us to spread the message as well. So we spread the message faithfully. God even describes himself as this festive conifer saying, “I am like an evergreen cypress, your faithfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:8)

I also want to remind you of the power of symbolic language. Not only can a picture convey a thousand words, it can also conceal that same message when it is in danger. Christianity has not always been welcomed and the church has often needed to communicate with stealth. We Christians may be returning to a new era of disdain and our public discourse may be challenged. When the blatantly Christian images are stripped from the public square we can still gather around the fake tree and whisper the truth when our children ask, “why does Daddy wrangle with that tree down two flights of stairs and fiddle endlessly with those lights?”

Bee Positively Encouraging

October 29, 2016

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREI love autumn and watching God’s creatures go about their business. There is plenty we can learn observing nature. While doing yard-work this week I witnessed Canada geese in formation hastening noisily to their southern retreat. Around the house my wife’s purple asters are filled with foraging bees. My kids enjoy watching the bees, (my dogs enjoy snapping at them). Sometimes we like to look at them with a magnifying glass. The whole family loves to watch the hive installation at the Franklin Public Library as well.

This past weekend while visiting Pittsburgh we happened to catch a lecture on bees at the Heinz History Museum. It was fascinating to learn about the behavior of bees in the hive. I have heard of the “waggle dance” which is their way of telling others where they just found some great pollen and nectar. We have seen the dance many times at the library. But what I didn’t know is that they also have other “dance moves.” They have a grooming dance which is their way of asking for help from the hive to either take care of mites on her back or clean some pollen off some hard to reach areas. There is also the tremble dance which is akin to a coach’s huddle encouraging each other with a vigorous pat on the back to get out there and produce for the good of the colony.

animals20waterfowl_wild20formationPositive communication goes a long way. Just as the bees use positive and helpful dialogue so do those geese flying overhead. Have you ever wondered why they are so noisy? I thought maybe they were complaining, “Are we there yet?” or, “He should have taken a left at that second cloud.” What researchers have discovered is something the opposite of the ways human talk and travel – they are encouraging the leader. See the geese use the formation to reduce air resistance for the flock but the one in the lead thus must work harder than the others. They aren’t complaining, they are cheering their champion through the resistance.

I think humanity needs some encouragement these days. Everyone seems to be bashing, muttering, complaining, and posting on social media. When the company is going well the praises are few and far between because well, it is supposed to be that way. Once production decreases then the meetings begin with reprimands. The Country, company, church or couples need plenty of positive communication.

This country needs a morale booster. Your neighbor, your church volunteer, your young and old need some tremble dancing. They also need to know that a grooming dance won’t receive ridicule but rather a faithful friend to help. And it starts with one to set the example.

teacher20stamp20kitWe are on this faith journey together. Let us, “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). Those receiving the most resistance need our honking approval. Let’s goose our flying V with encouragement. Where others bicker and complain let us “be the bee” cheering on the hive. We’ve got this!

In God’s Image – Creator or Consumer?

August 20, 2016

lego_r7_c2Much has changed over the years and yet, “nothing is new under the sun.” The desires of Adam and Eve still drive the humanity today, only with cooler gadgets. This summer my girls participated in a Lego Robotics Workshop hosted by the Franklin Public Library. I was overjoyed to see them bent over Legos and laptops while creating in an air-conditioned room rather than bent over handheld screens, consuming a foreign-made app, and walking aimlessly around town. pokemon_goWe have shifted from creators to consumers. America used to create and consume, now we outsource the creation but continue to consume the products. There are some pockets of resistance like this robotics club and maker’s markets for that I am thankful. But overall we are falling back to the original lie in Genesis: to be godlike one consumes rather than creates.

When we think of the Greek pantheon and other ancient mythologies the gods are crafted in our image. What would we want if we were gods? We would want a lazy life, loyal subjects, and ample food and pleasures. The God of the Bible on the other hand was not created in our image, rather we were created in His likeness a creator who calls us to cultivate his garden.

amt-34-ford-5-window-coupe-model-kit-scale-1-25-unsealed-plastic-car-5f5b15322809a83c799e88733b8b84e2When I was young I played with toys of creation. We had Tonka Trucks, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, models, and (of course) Legos. Even the parents experienced the maker’s universe before Christmas as they conquered the chaos of multiple parts, tab A and slot B, building bikes and Barbie playhouses. As I grew I worked for my neighbors, mowing in the summers and shoveling in the winters. Money and extras were earned. My allowance came with dirty jobs like taking out the garbage and clearing the dinner table.

One of the problems with modern America is that there is less emphasis on the making and more on the taking, less on creating and more on consuming. The toys have changed from creating to consuming. Even video games went from level advancement based on skill to advancing based on in-app purchases. Kids aren’t eager to mow or do dirty jobs for an allowance. Afternoon commercials reveal the transformation. When I was home sick from school I saw Sally Struthers encouraging the unemployed on how they could receive new training. Now our afternoon commercials beg us to file lawsuits while staying unemployed.

adam26eveAdam and Eve, even without an iPhone, followed the same mentality. Why work when you can get it by consuming something? They were called to create and cultivate and instead they chose to partake in order to gain the benefits without the work. We forget that the Sabbath Commandment begins, “Six days you shall work…”

As school starts I urge the church and parents to re-cultivate the maker mentality for the next generation. Let us urge them to create more than they consume and therein find the pride of being made in God’s image.

Star Trek, Tikkun Olam, & Tending a Christian Positive Vision

July 16, 2016

leonard-mccoy-leonard-bones-mccoy-6347756-500-379This summer I began watching Star Trek. It started as a Netflix nightcap. I’m not nor have I been a Trekkie. Therefore, I humbly request grace from the Trek Nation. To parody Bones, “I’m a theologian not a astrosciencefictionist!”

Over the past couple years I am disheartened as I read the news feeds or watch the summer blockbusters. The movies are dystopian operas of adolescent angst out to purge some empire. The fiction feed reality as the populace arise in violent protest against whatever imperial aggression a various group is targeting. At night then, Star Trek offers sanctuary to explore new worlds of aliens that remind us being humane is supposed to be a human trait.

Star Trek, as I understand it, takes place in the future where society has improved. Basic needs are met for everyone. Earth is united, and the Enterprise’s mission is to seek new lands and cultures for curiosity rather than domination. This is a Edenic society for men and women of any color, creed, nationality, race, religion, and proclivity.

uhura_chekovOf course, when the original series aired it was the antithesis of 1966. The world was embroiled in a cold war (but Chekov was a navigator on the bridge of the Enterprise). It was the time of the National Organization for Women and the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Yet, before there were female astronauts or military officers in the USA, Star Trek’s Chief Communications Officer Uhura was a black woman. President Kennedy had been assassinated a couple years earlier, we were at war in Vietnam and protesters of various kinds marched the US streets.

It was written by Gene Roddenberry, a bomber pilot and police officer, who gave us a world where arguments were solved with words rather than wars. Star Trek gave us something better, a utopia to look towards. It was a reminder we are better than this and should strive to be better than this.

Our current trajectory mirrors the late 60’s/early 70’s with Russian conflicts, American rights under scrutiny, and a bogged down war in Asia. The world needs a new Star Trek conscience. We the church should write the script. The church has this future utopian society to share. I am worried sometimes we read the prophecies and focus less on the desert blooming and more on the destruction looming. Roddenberry said, “Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow.”

tikkun-olamThere is a Jewish saying called, “Tikkun Olam” translated as “Repairing the World.” From Genesis our first commands are protection and cultivation of the whole planet. Israel was a culture-busting nation. What other nation provides cities of refuge for the accused to have a fair trial for instance? Let us tone down the rhetoric and work to repair the world, to provide a vision of the utopia to be had, where the Joel 2 prophecy of male and female, slave and free, is as obvious in reality as it is on the fictional Enterprise bridge.

Mother’s Day in Church: Healthy or Harmful?

May 7, 2016

This weekend we celebrate mothers on a national scale. It began with the intent of bringing healing and has led to silent hurt. For churches it is one of the most quietly painful Sundays. While I believe we ought to embrace and thank our own mother I question how many people suffer silently on this celebrated Sunday?

ann-reeves-jarvis-program-cover-wvrhcLet me begin with its history. Anna Reeves Jarvis in the mid-1800’s organized a “Mother’s Work Day” to gain awareness and bring together mothers who lost children from both sides of the Civil War in order to care for the poor health and sanitary conditions.

After her death, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, sought to create a national, “Mother’s Day.” Following its commercialization, she lobbied for its abolishment saying, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She even opposed greeting cards saying it was, “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.” Ms. Jarvis died in 1948 blind and poor, never having children of her own.

The holiday we celebrate today has become quite distant from its original intent. If ever there was a time for a holiday to unite the country it would be now. A holiday created to bring grieving mothers to the aid of the less fortunate in their communities; to have a movement of wounded healers, that would be something.

sculpture2_645_469_55On Mother’s Day Sunday I stand in the pulpit and see a different scene than the one promoted in commercials. I see the hurting more than the healing. I see the daughter who still grieves her mom who died too early. I see the empty seats of the lovely woman and her husband who went through many failed pregnancies and the mother of a stillborn who couldn’t find the strength to attend worship today. I see the women who never married, the woman who had to give up her child, the one who had an abortion, and the one who outlived her teen son.

Let us be thoughtful when honoring women for one aspect of womanhood that we do not do greater harm in the church. As I read my Bible I see many strong faithful women who struggled with motherhood for years. Their seats may have been empty tomorrow had they lived in our generation. I see faithful women like Hannah and Elizabeth who were barren for years, Naomi who lost her husband and two sons and her adopted daughter Ruth who lost her husband after 10 childless years. Remember Mary, a pregnant teen due to unusual circumstances. And so the list goes. I wonder how a similar woman feels on Sunday when she gets a consolation door prize though not a mother. This a holiday was meant to bring hurting moms and young widows together and to encourage us to remember our own mothers before they are gone. So let us honor your mother but quietly and not at the expense of other faithful childless women.

Having an honorable witness & positive difference

February 26, 2016

Since our nation’s origins Christianity has played a major role in the public square and the marketplace. When I lived in New England it was plainly evident in the design of their towns. Thinking of America as the new Promised Land they laid out their streets and property in a similar manner of the Israelite camp around the Tabernacle. Instead of a Tabernacle in the center, the central town square was home to the Meetinghouse which was the government building during the week and where the church worshipped on Sunday.
The Puritan worldview also produced laws concerning morality and prohibited certain activities on Sundays, later known as Blue Laws. After a while these laws waned until the suffrage and prohibition movements in the 19th century. Even today in PA certain blue laws remain including no hunting or purchasing vehicles on Sundays. Some of the older generation may remember a time when restaurants and stores were also closed.
The laws’ intentions were to create an opportunity to witness to non-Christians about our care and concern for their body and soul. The ordinances were based upon the Sabbath law of the Ten Commandments requiring a day off from work for everyone including slaves and beasts of burden. Sadly, what began as a blessing became a burden as the intent became lost in the enforcement. So instead of a way to say thank you to unbelievers and a enter into dialogue about why we care it became a prejudicial demarcation of, “us vs. them.” People were turned off by the restrictions and the religious rhetoric of condemnation along with the public disgrace and fines for breaking the laws. The law was meant to give grace but it was received as a punishment.When restaurants were closed it was so that the employees could attend church but they didn’t want to go because the church was so legalistic. So in time the laws changed and now restaurants happily serve on Sundays.

But is it better? The Blue Laws were meant to put God and the church in a good light and failed because we focused on the breaking of it rather than on the blessing of it. The lifting of the Blue Laws gave the church a chance to be a blessing. However, I wonder if you ask restaurant workers if they feel serving Christians on Sunday is a blessing.

As Christians when in the public eye we should be an honorable witness that leaves a positive difference. 1 Peter 2:12 says our behavior should be excellent among those different than us, “that they see your good deeds and glorify God.” I hope that when we visit a restaurant or store en mass Sunday afternoons that those employees are glad they waited on us because we tip better, complain less, are more gracious when the place is busy, and ask how we might brighten their stressful day. Philippians 2:14f encourages us to, “do everything without grumbling and arguing… shining like stars in the sky.”

Planet Nine & the Christian’s Orbit

January 30, 2016

       Recently a credible new scientific paper came forth suggesting the existence of a “new planet nine” in our solar system. It’s the new nine because a few years ago Pluto’s status was demoted to “dwarf planet.” If this was a German publication I could start a whole pun run, but it isn’t and I’m not supposed to write as a pundit in this column anyway. Oops, one of those puns got away from me. But I digress.
      I’m excited by this planet nine theory. Interestingly we have evidence of it’s effect but no actual visual evidence of the planet itself. We have no pictures of it and no verifiable data it is there as of yet. Even Pluto in its diminutive state was visible long before the New Horizons probe gave us amazing close-up pictures this past year. This new planet nine is projected to be 10 times the size of Earth (whereas Pluto is 1/6th our size). We assume this large planet exists by the orbits of smaller objects.
     What we know is that there are six objects that are aligned on the same axis and have their orbits affected by the same gravitational pull best explained by that of a nearby planet. Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor of the Planetary Society, says that for this to happen by chance would be 0.007%. Scientist Journalist Bob McDonald says, “It’s like seeing a disturbance on the surface of water but not knowing what caused it. Perhaps it was a jumping fish, a whale or a seal. Even though you didn’t actually see it, you could make an informed guess about the size of the object and its location by the nature of the ripples in the water.”

     As a pastor and, more simply, a Christian this intrigues me. Scientists are now going to study this phenomenon with great interest and have calculated quite a bit of info from something we don’t actually know exists. They believe it exists (by a margin of 99.993% no less) because of how this invisible heavenly body affects just six small objects by its orbit out of a gazillion in the Kuiper Belt. Yet some would mock that Christianity is a myth about a heavenly body that affects the lives of those who follow God’s orbit, if you will.

     The Bible did say, “The heaven’s declare the glory of God.” And my prayer is that the more Christians actually align their orbit faithfully with God that others will see our data and look for that mysterious and wondrous Lord at our center.

       It reminds me of a scene from the movie “A Beautiful Mind” between genius John Nash and his fiancé about love. He says, “I need some kind of proof; verifiable empirical data.”

“Well, how big is the universe?”


“How do you know?”

“Because all the data indicates it.”

“But has if been proven?”


“Have you seen it?”


“How do you know for sure?”

“I don’t. I just believe it.”

Reflecting Resolution for the New Year

January 2, 2016

I don’t mean to brag but I am known for my brain power. When it comes to interesting biblical tidbits particularly in grammar, history, and culture I’m rather sharp. But when it comes to remembering personal life events or names and such things I suffer from Teflon-of-the-Brain; it just doesn’t stick.

Every Thanksgiving when I was growing up my mother had a tradition to encourage us to be grateful. She would take dried Indian corn kernels and divvy them up between the family members. We took turns sharing one memory at a time from the past year and placing the kernel in the dish. It was a lovely tradition. I hated it. I would furrow my brow all day thinking, reflecting, and trying to conjure up memories to share that evening at dinner, hoping mom had dropped a few kernels before they got to the table. It isn’t that I am not grateful, I just have a difficult time remembering.

The Psalms are filled with history lessons. Some are Laments where the writer remembers when God came to their aid in the past and look to God’s faithful help again. Others are Thanksgiving Psalms that recount the heroic deeds of God for his people that helped define a nation and a religion. Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d adjust it to say, “a life without reflection wasn’t one.”

When we come to New Years it is good to reflect upon the past year recounting the blessings and losses, the trials and triumphs, both great and small. It is important to remember those moments where God felt close and those times he silently led us through shadow-covered valleys. But if you are like me sometimes it is hard to keep track of such things and the end of the year seems like just another revolution around thus sun – different year with the same view.

So, this year I’m going to try something new and thought I would share with any of you who may also suffer from Cranium Teflonitus. I’m not one for keeping a personal journal so I’m going to keep a jar with a pen and post-it note pad or maybe use the unused Reminders app on my phone. When something happens (be it a prayer answered, a personal moment of blessing or loss, etc.) I am going to jot down the date and brief description. Now I know I will not be good at keeping a daily resolution but my goal is a couple random notes a week and forcing myself to think of at least one from the past week every Sunday. Then come next December I’ll have hopefully 50-100 or so memories to read under the glow of the Christmas lights with my wife and children. And, if my mom brings those pesky corn kernels, I can impress her too. But mostly it’s for me to know that through gain and loss God was with me yesterday and will be again tomorrow.

The Christian History of a Thing Called a “Book”

December 5, 2015
'Book of Books' Exhibition Opens In Jerusalem

An original handwritten Facsimilia of Khabouris Codex complete New Testament in Syriac from the 11th century (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

I take delight in books. I even married a librarian. If we ever move I think the foundation of our house will rise when we box up the books. This format, where leafs (or pages) are bound on one side, was propagated by early Christians. Prior to that scrolls were the common choice for documents. Sacred texts like the Old Testament were a collection of scrolls kept in urns. The Jewish community continued using scrolls. And even to this day they are used in the synagogue liturgical readings. But the codex (the early concept of what we call books) was an innovation used extensively by the early church and became so popular that the use of scrolls in the secular world followed suit.

muse_reading_louvre_ca2220_cropped1One question we should have with the above information is, “Why?” I mean the Romans used scrolls. So did the Greeks, the Arabs, and the Jews. All religious writings in Europe, Western Asia, and the Middle East used scrolls excluding the Early Church. This made us very unique, “people of the book.” One prominent reason was the study of the Old Testament.

The Advent Season reminds us that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. The sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts all cite the Hebrew Bible concerning the Messiah. The Gospel was foretold throughout the Old Testament. These scriptures are the foundation of the New Testament and its theology. Just think, 1,071 verses of Matthew are quotes and passing references to the Old Testament. 1 Peter, Jude, and Hebrews individually are about 69% from the Hebrew Bible. Roughly 2,600 of the 8,000 verses of the NT are from the OT with 343 direct quotes of passages and 2,309 paraphrases.

In order to facilitate the reading and understanding of the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament it was helpful to place the pages in a stack so one could flip back and forth to the Old Testament references in the same binding. Often the allusion or quote was meant to express a larger context than just the verse mentioned. IMG_1992.JPGA scroll was cumbersome to unravel in order to find a passage and had no easy way to save your place as you rolled over the original passage. Thus, a book was created so Jews (who knew their Scriptures could then verify the Gospel), and Gentiles (who were not so familiar) could keep their finger in the New and look up the source in the Old.

Every time I look at a book I think of the ingenuity of the Early Church creating an easier way to get the most from one’s devotionals. 004580_w185I’m also reminded that our faith is a reasoned one based on thousands of years of prophetic literature. The Old is important in amplifying the New. Paul used a “Soul-Winner’s Old Testament” to evangelize; could we? Let us embrace the Christian history behind “the book.” And let us use it as intended by Paul who exhorts us to read, “The full councel of God.”

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