Category Archives: The church to be

Giving Our Money – Perspective

This stained glass depicts Jesus in the regalia of a Byzantine emperor.  While Jesus clearly rejected the power and authority of the state, this image helps remember that he made claims to greater authority than any human being or institution.

When talking about money and the perspective which the bible gives, the starting point is the “Lordship of Christ.”  Basically this refers to Jesus’ claim of being Lord, Ruler, or King of every aspect of life.  There are not some areas in which he is deeply concerned then others towards which he is indifferent or mildly interested.  He says all of your life belongs to me.  If such claims to authority or influence happened in any relationship we might say that such a person is controlling to the point of obsession.  But if Jesus is God – the one who made us, the one who upholds the universe moment by moment, the one who knows what is best for us, the one who laid down his life to redeem us, and the one who conquered death – then his rule over every bit of our lives begins to make sense.  Thus, there is no area that is off limits, no categories in which we can say, “Jesus, this is none of your business.”  As I’ve done a quick mental inventory, every New Testament author speaks about money in one respect or another.  In this way, money is just another area of which the Christian must manage according to God’s blueprint.

The second perspective on giving money that we see in the bible is an emphasis on the heart.  Jesus statement, “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” is recorded both in the Gospel According to Matthew chapter six and the Gospel According to Luke chapter twelve.  In Matthew, Jesus is talking about giving in secret for the praise of God rather than giving publicly so that others recognize you.  He then goes on to say that we cannot serve both God or money, as one must ultimately master us.  Thus, giving is always about the heart.  Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, said “there are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind, and the conversion of the purse.”  True allegiance to Christ will involve all three, so that if the purse (i.e. use of money) does not change over time it is an issue of incredible concern because of what it implies about the soul. Giving expresses our love for God, for his people, and the progress of his cause in this world.

The third perspective on giving is that it is commanded.  In the sixth chapter of Matthew, which is cited above Jesus says, “when you give…” In this simple use of “when” he implies that his followers will give.  The apostle Paul roots the generosity of Christians in God’s own generosity to us in Christ, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”  With a clear precedent in the Old Testament Scriptures we see in the earliest records that Christians were marked by generous giving of their resources (See Acts 2-4).  It is also important to note that simply because something is commanded, that this does not exclude joy and heartfelt willingness.  The commanded to love God does not somehow impinge on us authentically responding in love to him.  Thus, being commanded by God to give in now way contradicts the bible’s command to give cheerfully and willingly.

The fourth perspective that the bible provides is that giving is a privilege.  Again, the apostle Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians,

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints–

Their generosity is attributed to the “Grace of God” being giving to them, which is an incredible privilege.  Furthermore they are held up as an example in “begging earnestly” to participate in the relief of poor Christians in Judea.  Whether in giving, or in any area of life, it is a privilege to obey God and participate in his cause in this world.  In serving God with our resources we become more like our savior, do good to others, store up eternal wealth, see God’s faithfulness, and are encouraged in our faith.  I remember a friend writing how he was so deeply encouraged in his faith by his own generosity.  It went something like this: “money was very tight, yet I still obeyed Jesus in giving of my meager resources.   Then in retrospect I looked at the situation and said, surely God has given me a new heart for I never would have done this before.”

Next week I’ll write about some of the practices of giving that we see in the New Testament.

*This is number 2 in a series on giving.  Week 1 is Giving our Money (and other precious things).
I draw on works from others, particularly David Sherwood, the Sr. Pastor of our mother church Trinity PCA in Providence, RI.


Not “if,” but “where” – church membership

4579243797_183432f005You are a professional football player, but you are not signed by a team.  Waiting in free agency, no one picks you up.
You complete medical school, but do not take boards or receive a license from the state.

In both of these situations your professional status is murky.  There is training and skill, but no actual connection to or acknowledgement by the governing body of your profession.

I put these two scenarios forward as I think about church membership.  Every analogy breaks down in some respects but these two examples help push back against a highly individualized approach to Christian spirituality that comes so easily.  This is a brief overview that I’m going to use as part of our membership process at Grace.  I’d encourage you to read a wonderfully written and more thorough treatment “Re-membering the Body.

What is church membership?  Church membership then is a formalization of a relationship between a church and an individual (or family) with certain privileges and obligations explicitly laid out or at least implied.

Biblical Rationale:*

The “church” is of incredible significance in the bible.  Jesus deliberately gathered followers around himself, connected them to each other,1 imparted his authority to them,2 and set the expectation that they would establish defined communities of faith as his representatives in this world.3  When the first Christians begin following Jesus in his mission they establish churches4 and then establish leaders in these communities of faith, giving them a distinct shape.5
Underlying the significance of the church is the Bible’s understanding of salvation in which someone with faith in Christ is united to him spiritually and thereby united to all those who also have faith in Christ.6

Three ways to argue for formal membership:

1.  Lists:  In the bible there are various references7 to names written in God’s book of life.  It is a way of describing those who belong to him and gives the concept of a membership roll.  There is a distinct list, as it were, of those who are God’s people.  I think it is an arguable corollary that churches should have some sense of who belongs to the people of God.  While this will not perfectly reflect the “heavenly list” we should try.  If the means of knowing who belongs is not some process of membership, what is it?  I think of the progress of the gospel recorded in Acts where new believers are “added to the number”8 (i.e. the church) lines up with the biblical concept of a defined membership.

2.  Leadership:  There are clear instructions to leaders to watch over those whom God has entrusted to their care9 and for all in the church to honor and follow their leaders10.  How is this possible without some defined sense of who the church is?  Furthermore, if there is to be any practice of discipline, as Jesus expects11 and the early church carries out12, this necessitates some type of membership which can, as a last resort, be rescinded.

3.  Love:  While Christians have a broad and far reaching command to love there is meant to be a particular focus on fellow Christians.13  Membership in an actual church gives further clarity to this command as Christians consider their responsibility to adequately fulfill their responsibilities to God and not pass them off to others14.

There is a compelling biblical rationale for church membership.  Practically though, there are many questions both practical and deeply personal…
-What if I don’t find a church that I “fit with” in my community?
-I’ve experienced church leaders misusing their authority, isn’t church membership a veiled attempt to control people?
-I have faith in Jesus.  My name is written in his book of life and I belong to his universal church.  How can some person corroborate this reality?  Why do I need him or her to do so?

*These arguments draw on the article from the article by Henegar as well as writings from Rev. Preston Graham, Dr. TD Gordon and a pronouncement from our denomination the Presbyterian Church in America.

1. Matthew 10:1-5
2. Matthew 16:19
3.  Matthew 28:18-20
4. Acts 5, 8, 9, 13ff
5. Acts 13:  1 Timothy 2:
6. 1 Cor 12:27, 1 Peter 2:4-10
7. Exodus 32:32-33; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 13:8; 20:12,15
8. Acts 2:41,47; 6:7;
9. 1 Peter 5:2
10. Heb 13: 7, 17
11. Mat 18:15-18
12. 1 Cor 5:2 and 2 Cor 2:6-7
13. John 13:35, Gal 6:10
14. Gal 6:2,5 1 Tim 5:9

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The Shape of our Worship

4484801596_1c1fe31d8cOur worship services would be described as “liturgical” that is having a regular shape, set parts that occur each week, and some sense of formality.  In fact the word “liturgy” actually describes what happens when Christians gather publicly to honor God in praise, prayer, instruction and commitment.  A liturgy can be very simple, just a few songs and a brief message from the bible, or very complex. I’ve written before about the general priorities and shape of our worship, and want to talk more specifically about why our worship service is shaped the way it is with specific elements, their content, and their arrangement.  For reference, check out Grace Presbyterian Bulletin Aug 24 (Even having a printed bulletin, rather than projecting words or lyrics on a screen is a choice.) Below is our rationale for the shape of our worship* 1.  The medium effects the message:  You have to choose a medium.  How does the minister dress?  You have to wear something and your appearance speaks.  The architecture of the building, the decorations (or lack thereof), the type and placement of seating – they all communicate something.  How you shape your worship must be thought through from the big stuff to the little. 2.  The elements and the order:  each week we have a call to worship, songs of praise, some type of confession of sin, a declaration of forgiveness, an offering where people give money, a sermon, and communion.  These are all included because they reflect biblical emphases of worship.  When we worship God he is the one who initiates the relationship and so in some way we want to reflect that he calls him near.  When we worship God we realize that he is God and we are not so we confess our sins.  The above elements reflect the essential features of the Christian life. 3.  History:  From as early as the second century there were specific arrangements of worship services to reflect what the church considered essential in its meetings (word and sacraments).  From a historical perspective there is a rich tradition of the elements of praise, confession, offering, scripture reading, prayer, preaching and sacraments which were a regular part of worship services.  While we should not be unnecessarily ruled by tradition we should learn from centuries of church history, especially when many of these practices are rooted in scripture. 4.  Cementing: Our patterns of call to worship, praise, confession, forgiveness, parching, offering, and communion retell the Gospel every week.  This can be done in a free flowing service that includes five songs, sermon, a song, an offering and then dismissal.  The reason we have these patterns so clearly laid out is so that people will take notice and be shaped by them.  If we always include a confession to sin in response to God’s greatness and majesty this should work its way into the hearts of our people.   Having an actual bulletin allows someone to take the worship service home with them and use it to read and pray through the week.  In our family we use old bulletins to sing together and I know newer Christians who use them to get “used to” worship. 5.  The Word of God:  Having different elements like a call to worship, declaration of forgiveness, or scripture reading provide avenues for interacting with more of the bible.  In a given service we will work through a page or two of scripture texts in addition to the passage being covered in the sermon and this is incredibly important because of the declining biblical literacy in the church. 6.  Involvement & Accessibility: In our bulletin we have responsive readings so that there is greater involvement from the congregation.  It is not simply someone up front talking or leading in song.  Every single person participates and by participating learns.  Furthermore, our “liturgical” format is more familiar to many in our region who have Catholicism in their background.  This is one of the ways that we can build bridges with those potentially visiting the church and even having a physical bulletin (which tells them what we’re going to do) is an effort to make church less intimidating.  I realize that for some people being handed a twelve page pamphlet full of writing, may be just the opposite and make them very uncomfortable but I don’t think that is the case for those we are striving to reach. Qualifications: -It is hard to change styles or get used to different things.  If you have been worshipping a certain way for years something else will feel strange, potentially inauthentic, or even like it’s “not worship.”  In all honesty, it takes six months or a year for a church to gel together in it’s worship and that is where our focus must be on offering our hearts to God and letting our emotions catch up. -Some of what I have described is logistically impossible for different churches.  Some may not have access to a reliable printer.  Others may have a congregation in which few can read.  For us, I think it would stress me out more to have a projector and a screen because technology seems to go wrong with me. -Knowing who you are and who you are called to reach is so important in shaping your worship service.  I believe that biblical principles for worship can be expressed in a variety of worship services and styles.  What we’re doing is a fit for us and flows from our convictions and my hope is that every church has a strong sense of clarity based on the scriptures and their unique mission as they consider how they will worship. *These thoughts have been significantly influenced through the churches where I have regularly worshiped over the past fifteen years and specifically draw from Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapel which has an excellent introduction laying out similar ideas. 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Tell Me About Your Standards or “Just under the surface”

Christ reigning – Westminster Abbey

 

Worcester has a significant Catholic population and often folks will ask me who or what a Presbyterian is. While there are many of ways to answer this question – and I’m still figuring out which is best – one of them has to do with the Westminster Standards.  This is a set of documents (a “Confession of Faith” and two catechisms) written in the 1640s in Westminster England. These seek to systematically summarize the major teachings of the bible and function, along with the Book of Church Order (BCO )* as the constitution of our denomination the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America).

What do these documents mean though in the daily life of the church? I can best liken them to submarines. Most people are aware of the presence of submarines only in times of celebration (4th of July, Naval ceremony, exploration, etc) or difficulty (warfare, rescue operations, oil spills) though in fact they are always active. How are our confessional standards like submarines?

The constitution comes out in times of celebration: 
1. Leadership: When a minister is being tested to make sure he knows his theology and can actually explain it to others the Westminster Standards play a significant role. Many being examined for ordination in the PCA memorize large portions the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) using it in both written and oral exams. Furthermore, those who would enter the ministry must explain any significant exceptions they take with the Standards and demonstrate a working knowledge of the BCO. Both the process and actual ordination service rely heavily on the PCA constitution. When new leaders are being trained within the congregation any who would be elected to office must engage with and abide by these standards.

2. Membership Classes & Reception: When people decide to become a member of our church this normally involves a weekend class going over the identity and mission of Grace Presbyterian Church. In this we will give a brief overview of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as a whole, give reading that addresses some particular areas, and provide a copy as part of the membership packet. While we have pieces of this membership teaching put together, other parts still need to be written. Like many things at a new church, this is in process.

3. New Churches: When new churches are first initiated and then eventually formalized both the process and “ceremonies” draw on these founding documents. In the special service where a church is formalized this is highly visible, but in the essential steps beforehand it is just as essential though less seen.

The constitution comes out in times of difficulty:

1. Enduring Truth: Like the world of fashion, there are always doctrines that seem more in style and others which don’t seem to fit the times. The purpose of having established beliefs is to protect the church from simply being a weather-vein always mirroring the winds of the current consensus. There are new insights which emerge from, build upon, and actually enrich our understanding of previously held truths and our historic confessions help us sort out what are healthy developments which need to be embraced and which are dangerous winds which must be resisted.

2. Guidance: Most, if not all, public buildings have emergency exits marked and warnings not to take the elevator in case of fire. These signs, and the planning underneath, help us navigate the unexpected and potentially tragic. In a similar vein both the WCF and BCO give frameworks and specific processes should something go terribly wrong. The church, like every human institution, has its flaws and is made up of sinful people. If a minister cheats on his wife, a treasurer runs off with money, a member is defrauding her employer or a church disputes with the denomination, these need to be dealt with and it is better to have a framework in place than figure it out in the moment. Our constitution gives us this framework, springing into action in time of difficulty.

The constitution is active all the time:

1. A Grid: If you study something enough, incorporating signification portions to memory, it becomes part of the grid in which you think. Like the boundaries of a football field the Westminster Standards help you think as you study and communicate the biblical materials by excluding certain possibilities and suggesting others. In a challenging passage where God’s power appears to be limited historic reflection on the nature of God and his attributes will offer excellent guidance. This grid will filter out in the way the bible is taught so that often when people read the Westminster Standards for the first time, they will mostly say, “yeah, of course.”

2. Practice: The way that we worship, our observance of the sacraments, the structure of leadership all specifically reflect the beliefs laid out in our doctrinal standards. Each week that we do something I will not explicitly say, “we are doing this because…” and if I do give an explanatory remark I usually reference the bible. The scriptures have greater weight than the human documents which summarize them and I’d rather have people begin there in their understanding then eventually see how the bible’s teaching is encapsulated in our standards than the other way around.

3. Surfacing: My guess is that if you’re on the ocean enough you will see a submarine surface. The same thing will happen with our doctrinal standards if you stick around and keep your eyes open. In the bulletin some Sunday when there is silence during a portion of communion there will be a few sentences from the WSC to help us reflect on the nature of communion. At some point when we have formalized Christian education for kids teaching and memorizing some type of catechism will be a part of it. When there is adult Christian Education, at some point down the road, I’m sure we’ll cover portions of the WCF. As a newly begun church there are all sorts of things that I would love to teach to our congregation. So there is always the matter of time and prioritizing.

*The BCO was written in the early 1970s with the founding of the PCA and is updated most years at the annual denominational gathering called “General Assembly.”  While written in the 70’s the BCO draws on historic documents and practices dating to the time of the Westminster Assembly and earlier.

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The Body and the Blood – Leading in Prayer #6

 

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 Each week at Grace we participate in the Lord’s Super.  (This sacrament is also know as Communion or Eucharist and I will use “Communion” because it’s the shortest.)  There are two prayers which are connected to the celebration of communion, both of which have different emphases.  This week we’ll tackle the prayer before the sacrament.  

As I’ve said before prayer reflects theology so what I’m praying reflects my belief in Christ’s real presence (also called “spiritual presence”) in Communion.  So I do not pray that the bread and wine before us will somehow be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  Neither do I simply pray for a more accurate or enlightened memory of Christ’s death on our behalf.  Both of these prayers flow from different theologies of communion (Catholic & Zwinglian) whereas I would look to the tradition as articulated in this short quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith (doctrinal standards for the Presbyterian Church in America, PCA, my denomination)  

Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They were directly instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits and to confirm our relationship to him. They are also intended to make a visible distinction between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world, and solemnly to bind Christians to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

Five Pieces to Praying Before Communion

1.  Rescue:  In Communion we remember that “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God” – 1 Peter 3.  We also remember that Jesus is risen and reigns at God’s right hand.  There is so much that God has done for us in sending his son to rescue us through his life, death, and resurrection.  I call to mind some of these benefits and thank God for all that he has done for his people.   

2.  Embodied:  In communion we experience our salvation communicated to our physical senses in the bread and wine.  I thank God that he is both creator and rescuer and that these two roles are not at odds.  Salvation does not take us out of the world God has made, but comes into our physical reality, even promising restoration of the created order.  I think about all that has gone into the bread and wine before us: sun, rain, soil, cultivation, harvest, and processing.  God nurtures our souls, not only with created things but with products of human culture.  It is not water and seeds but bread and wine.  Sadly there is usually not time to pray through all of this. 

3. Consecrate:  I ask God to set apart this regular bread and wine to his holy purpose.  Much of what has been prayed thus far could fit with praying before a meal (i.e. thanking God for his rescue, being Lord of all).  Yet at this point, I ask for the secret power of Holy Spirit so that as we speak the words of institution and administer communion according to Christ’s command he would be present.  This request flows from my theology in which sacraments are not merely symbols for something, but in some sense confer that which is symbolized.  This is where the mystery comes in, but even if I do not fully understand how this works I can still ask for, and even expect, God to do it.  So I thank him for once again pledging his love to us and renewing his promises to us. 

4. Faith:  I ask God to give us faith so that we do not mechanically participate in some ritual.  Instead, as we eat and drink, we believe again all that Jesus has done for us and actively rest our souls upon him.  I pray that that as we participate by faith our souls would be nourished and we would grow in grace.   

5. Affection:  In anticipation of receiving God’s grace through this sacrament I express our love for God and joy in him.  As God says, “I love you” and we see the great cost, it is right to say, “we love you” in response.  

The shape of these prayers arises from practice, reading, and reflection over the past ten years:
Memorial Presbyterian Church – the first congregation where I experienced the practice of weekly communion and learned so much.  
Given for You – I read this in seminary and it was foundational for shaping my theology of communion.
Leading in Prayer – mentioned already in this series, a summary of church practice through the years with contemporary examples.  
Ordination – in studying for ordination in my denomination (PCA) I memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism which has some brief but deep sentences about the meaning and practice of communion.  Also since being ordained in 2008 I’ve helped lead communion services about every other week.  

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The Voice – leading in prayer #4

4115463516_3132476487Can you listen?  Can you listen?  Close your eyes.  Don’t be distracted by your sense of sight, by the feel of your back against the metal chair, or the hum of lights overhead and traffic outside.  Ask and you will hear…

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” -Psalm 29

This recent series has been focused on leading in prayer.  I find that my thinking is clarified by having to explain what I’m doing and I hope this will be a quick introductory resource as we train leaders at our church.  This week, we’re focusing on the prayer of illumination which comes before the sermon.  I usually do this after the reading of the sermon text but will sometimes do it before the text is read so I can jump right into the sermon. Behind the prayer of illumination stands both my theology of preaching and of the bible itself.  As these are both way too big to get into you can draw conclusions based on what I say about prayer.  I’ll give seven thoughts that shape my prayers for preaching and then four examples.  These seven points will overlap and I’m sure that I don’t hit them all each week, but over time these are the things that most come up.

1. He is not silent: Christians believe in a God who has revealed himself to us.  This is a source of thanksgiving and incredible hope as we do not wander in a grey mist, but have something solid to hold which can guide us.  I thank God for making himself known and in someway try to communicate both the challenge and incredible blessing of his objective truth.

2. We are known: The drive to church, the argument at work, the hidden fears, and how these all fit together are not hidden from God.  Furthermore, God speaks to us in these circumstances.  We do not somehow magically leave our lives behind, rather the living God addresses us with all that we bring.

3. Dead ends and highways:  Each of us carries both obstacles and pathways for the gospel to enter.  We all respond to our environment and circumstances in such a way that there are unique barriers which we use to shield ourselves from God.  Similarly we each have chinks in the armor.  In thinking about a sermon text and the people who listen I try to articulate some of the obstacles to receiving God’s word and incite longing for his truth as I pray.

4.  Encounter:  Each sermon is not only a means to hear about God but encounter him.  While I sometimes remember to pray for learning, I always pray for the presence of the living Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  I forget the name but one Presbyterian theologian described the purpose of preaching as mystically encountering the risen Christ.

5.  The Spirit’s work:  I ask for the Spirit’s activity in both me as a speaker and in all who hear.  I need truth, love, conviction, appropriate emotion, and divine power.  The listener’s need protection from the evil one, hearts that are tender to receive the word of God, faith to believe, and empowerment to obey.

6. Going Viral: Whenever the word is preached it is meant to spread from the original audience in their spheres of influence.  So I pray that as we meet God and experience his grace, it will touch others through us.  This is an excellent time to pray for the many in our community who are doing other things that somehow they would be brought in contact with the life chaining message of Jesus Christ.

7. Skill:  I desperately need God’s help to preach.  Yes, there is the spiritual component.  There is all the preparation that goes beforehand, but each time I enter the pulpit there is no guarantee of eloquence, a dependable memory, or even the ability to concentrate – much less communicate as a representative of the true and living God.  So, I simply ask for help. Below are four concrete examples of prayers for illumination, our outlines.  The first is a link from a pastor in San Francisco who I heard preach while in seminary.  I listened to more of his sermons and what most struck me was the way he prayed at the beginning.  

The three prayers which follow are not polished but come from my sermon notes when I decided to write something out.  Often I’ll jot some ideas or have an outline.

Fred Harrell – he begins praying at the 2 minute mark.

Preaching on Haggai 1:15b-2:9 -Lord, wherever we are coming from, it is both compelling and unsettling to hear from you. We are never really prepared to hear from the maker, sustainer, judge, and savior of heaven and earth. Yet even more we are floored by that fact that you would seek us out and speak to us. Please do so. We need to hear from you. Our various circumstances require the same solution that is found in Jesus Christ. Open our hearts by your Spirit. We look to you expecting that you will answer for our good and your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name.

Preaching on Isaiah 50:10-11 O God… look upon us with your jealous eyes. Regardless of where we come from, draw us… for some of us the darkness, the pain this passage describes is right there at the surface…. Even now our fears and anxieties drag us down; or it’s the disappointment that is settling into hard cold bitterness; some of us controlled compelled no rest desires for success, acceptance, power, pleasure drive us; others feel the chains of indifference, boredom both wanting and fearing anything of significance. Some us have tried to escape, avoid difficulty through lives of triviality and shallowness. Some of us have a religious optimism that always says the glass is half full. And some of us right now have been led by your kindness to a place of refreshment, joy, and rest. Among all of our diverse circumstances though, we look to you and your grace knowing that wherever we are we need your undeserved kindness. Whether we’ve been here for years or are surprised to be in a church we know that we are all messed up, broken, in need of your healing touch. So speak to us. That is our expectation. We look forward to what you will do among us by the work for you word and Spirit. Pour into us so that your healing waters would flow through us to all the people in our lives who need you as well. We ask in Jesus name. Amen.

Mark 1:1-13 Lord you know us… mix of belief and doubt: -Our background issues with the Holy Spirit -Our skepticism, can God dwell in man? -Our feeling that we’re on our own -We’re not sure about the cost -Others of us long for you You have been at work from the beginning, planning to impart yourself to human flesh.   We ask now that as we consider, that you would pour out your Spirit – truth made plain, power, life.  As you poured your Spirit in your servant Jesus do so with your servants today – ask because we are in union with him.

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Our Stain – leading in Prayer #3

3731108469_ed5a63c09dI think of a politician’s worst nightmare, where he or she stands behind a podium with the constant click of camera lenses and the silence of reporters waiting.  Then comes the forced admission of indiscretion, addiction, infidelity, or whatever failure has become public and shipwrecked their career.  Even in this confession, the person making the admission is a moving target, evading the full weight of their failure the powerlessness and vulnerability that comes when every card has been laid down.    I also imagine a trashy talk or reality show where “guests” and “contestants” vomit their indiscretions, relishing this opportunity to “tell the truth” and let everyone know what is real, without a single regret.  Rather than evasion there is confrontation.  “You are just as bad as me.”  “Your misery is deserved.”  And the emotions overflow.  In both of these the atmosphere is charged with shame, condemnation, even mockery – regardless of whether those up front are touched by it.

These two distorted images of confession are well known and provide telling contrast with Christian confession.  Each week in our worship services we have a time of confession, which is described “Rather than shifting the blame or groveling in guilt we openly acknowledge our addiction to self and the ruin it has caused as we look to God’s grace in Jesus.”  This confession takes the form of hearing who God is and who we are meant to be then praying, both individually and in unison.  What does it mean to lead people in prayers, confessing their sin?  Here are seven thoughts – some of which stand in tension with each other.  These are are based on three scriptures:Daniel 9Psalm 51Psalm 32

1. Leading in public: Public confession is not the same as praying prayers of private confession.  In Psalm 51 the prescript makes clear that this confession follows David’s adultery with Bathsheba, yet the prayer itself does not contain any reference to this specific failure.  This prayer has been used countless times because it is tied to a real situation but recast for public use.

2. Common stain: Everyone who leads public confession is themselves guilty.  The leader is not the reporter listening to the broken politician or the talk show host mediating between feuding guests.  The language of us and our will predominate, and God is the only one who stands innocent.

3.  It is owed: While confession certainly benefits us (“when I kept silent my bones dried up” “let me hear joy and gladness”), it is first owed to God as our maker, holy judge (“against you only have I sinned”), and redeemer.  Our confession, like our thanksgiving and adoration, is centered upon God himself.

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame…

4. Hope: Each of these prayers comes with the expectation that God will forgive and restore.  They appeal to God’s character, his promises, and his faithfulness in the past.  In Christ this is true all the more.  Our prayers of confession are not based on our future reformation, but clearly teach that God’s forgiveness will not let us remain as we are.

5. Specificity: All three of these passages use a breadth of descriptive language to communicate the ways that we have turned against God (deceit, stubbornness, transgression, rebellion, defilement, pollution etc.).   These reflect a rich understanding of sin describing it as legal matter, a betrayal of relationship, and self-destruction.  In biblical confession is a clear acknowledgment of responsibility without a hint of downplaying the significance of the action or of shifting the blame to someone else.  There is a similar specificity in acknowledging all that God will do to forgive and restore his people.

6.Emotion: Along with an accurate acknowledgment of sin against God there is heartfelt emotion which conveys the horror of sin, it’s polluting effects and helps those praying along with these passages to feel the appropriate disgust and shame.  The verses below express great hope of what God will do in response to confession but think of what is implied about the horrors of sin:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.    – currently I am defiled and cannot cleanse myself 
 Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.                   -the spirit within me is wrong 
 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.          -I in no way deserve to be in your presence

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked,                  -in your sin you are like a stupid animal

In the midst of these rather devastating descriptions of sin there is no wallowing or self-pity.  Mournful reflection and joyful expectation are woven together in emotionally forceful language.

7. Our Sins:  In Daniel 9, the righteous servant of God confesses sins of his people, of which he himself is innocent.  Thus there is precedent not only for confessing the sins people in our church commit, but the sins of those to whom we belong.  In my case this would mean confessing the racism that is a dark stain in the history American Presbyterianism.  As a resident of Massachusetts, I could confess our greed and self-interest as we have one of the highest per-capita incomes and ones of the lowest rates of charitable giving.  As an American I can confess our country’s increasing tendency to incarcerate the mentally ill (an example).

 In addition to meditating on the scriptures mentioned and others with similar focus I find that prayers of confession that have stood the test of time are a great help in learning how to confess sin both publicly and privately.

Photo Credit: SixRevisions via Compfight cc


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