Tuesday, July 30, 2013


My reading is pretty focused these days - thesis! - but I'm not finishing much. I'm eager to wrap up my evening, bedtime read, The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. I got such a kick out of his earlier memoir, The Know-it-All. (subtitled: One man's humble quest to be the smartest person in the world) There are some fascinating insights, some important reminders, and a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the book I'm trying to finish now. And then, it looks like I'll have to find and read Jacobs' Drop Dead Healthy: One man's humble quest for Bodily Perfection.

Thesis reading has taken me down a surprising road this month. I'm behind my own writing schedule, for reasons not entirely in my control; but the month has been fascinating. In short - much more on this later - some of the work I thought I was going to have to do, I find has been done for me. At the  moment I'm thinking specifically of the potential of music to carry meaning, to represent; the prospect that music may be (within careful bounds, and cautiously) interpreted. This is important for my thesis, but beyond that it gets at my larger project, namely, that music matters (that is, the notes, the tunes and accompaniments) and supports or undercuts the words used in worship. Oh, so much more on this, later.

Then, there are all those blog posts that people paste into their Facebook statuses. I don't spend a lot of time following bloggers. I do, but am not the guy who starts or ends each day checking in on favorite sites. I have many more book-marked than I can get to each week, and I generally look at them while I'm filling spare moments between things. There has been a vigorous flurry of posts about why young people are leaving the evangelical church. In general, I note that most of the solutions skirt the issue of gathered worship . . . even though the churches many young evangelicals are leaving for are historically liturgical. There seems to be a blind-spot in non-historical, free-church evangelicalism that believes if we just get our theology and the gospel right, young people will stay with our a-historical, culture-driven, rootless worship services. Now, I don't think the evangelical church needs to adopt the Book of Common Prayer to keep its youth. What I do think is that  evangelical churches need to commit to some historic, theological, liturgical structure - in keeping with their tradition (they have one, they just don't know or admit it) - and work in that context to serve the present age. Solid old theology, dumb new worship; go figure.

Which brings me to a post I was pointed to this morning. I don't know who Paul Washer is, and frankly I don't have the time or interest to find out nor to read what I'm sure is an excellent series of books. And as far as I know, I've never read Tim Challies' blog, and no I won't bookmark it and follow it. Though I have no doubt that I would benefit from doing so. But thanks to a Facebook friend's status and link, I appreciated these thoughts today. Challies interviews Washer about the "New Calvinism." After affirming some positive aspects of the movement, Washer ticks off seven concerns. The first four I recognize, but  have not rubbed shoulders with "new Calvinists" who exhibit these traits. Two of the last three, though. Oh my:
5 - embracing the great doctrines of the Reformation, without letting go of unbiblical models of ministry.
7 - the attempt of many young reformed to appear "contemporary, hip, cool, or even avant-garde."

Which simply sets up a critique I've kept to myself for a while: when it comes to worship especially, this movement would rather be trendy than right.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Privilege I Don't Covet

I admire good preaching. For three decades I have had the privilege of planning Christian worship centered on well-crafted, intelligent, thought-provoking, life-changing preaching. I have worked with four senior pastors, good preachers all but not at all like each other in the pulpit. I’m a church musician whose m├ętier is planning a service around the sermon scripture; it’s a partnership I thrive in . . . and currently miss.

Over the years, I have had a number of opportunities to preach. My earliest sermons are embarrassing, my later ones personally unsatisfying. Thankfully, I believe that God blesses sincere preaching that comes from faithful study of God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit graciously sorts out the preached word to accomplish divine purposes in expectant listeners. Otherwise, you know, I’m pretty much hosed as a preacher!

I’ve had good models for preaching all my life. But when I came to College Church seventeen years ago, I was thrust into a hothouse of expositional preaching. First, the examples of two sermons every Sunday, all year round, with duties shared by an amazing pastoral staff led by a world-class preacher. That sort of rubs off on you. But there were also the annual Workshops on Biblical Exposition – a “spring training” event for preachers of all levels of experience and ability. As a member of staff, this was one of those other duties as assigned, and it wasn’t limited to being the music guy who got the workshop singing, then went back to his – you know – job. No, I was politely required to participate fully in the workshop: study certain texts in advance, sort out how to preach them, then in a small group of (actual or wannabe) preachers make my case for preaching a passage in the way I had arrived at.

Intimidating? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I was always the one in the group who wasn’t preaching or aspiring to preach; I was out-gunned. No, because after all I was the “music guy” and no one really expected that much of me. Thankfully, some of the small group leaders over the years didn’t let me off that easily, and encouraged me along the way. Still, this was always going to be a required course, and preaching a sideline at best.

I will say this: those Workshops helped in my personal Bible study, in my occasional role as a Bible teacher, and especially as a worship planner. While I never spent anywhere near the time in a sermon passage as the preacher would, I grew immensely in my ability to work from the preaching text to song selection and service order. And for that reason alone, I have long encouraged other church musicians to find some similar enterprise. (And I still wonder, why aren’t more preaching pastors bringing their worship leaders to such workshops? Actually, I have a cynical answer to that, but that’s for another post.)

Over the years, I will admit, I’ve been pleased with one or two sermons. A 20-minute sermon on Israel’s monarchy (part of a series in the Storyline of the Bible), preached in an Evensong context. In a series on the Women of the Bible, I got to choose and preach on Deborah, the judge of Israel. (They wouldn’t let me preach on the Whore of Babylon.) I rather liked that one. I like to think I can put together a rather nice homily for a funeral or a wedding. In those contexts, I’m your 12-minute preacher. (Time me.) For the most part, though, preaching has always been added to my regular duties, and I have felt that the sermons did not get the time they warranted.

All of which is just some background to the delightful opportunity I had to worship with, and preach for, the Lombard Mennonite Church this past Sunday. My friend Curtis is the chairman of the congregation; he invited me to preach in their summer series on the Fruit of the Spirit. I was handed the “love” card. The church is in a pastoral interim, and the summer series was covered by members of the congregation  and guests like me. It was a privilege, enhanced by the warmth of the fellowship of the congregation, the thoughtful worship leader, and vibrant a cappella singing.

Still, I was reminded why I am not a preacher, and reminded again that preaching is a privilege I don’t covet. There is a certain something that distinguishes preaching – an ethos, a connection to peoples’ lives, a knack for making the scripture come alive and for vividly making application to real life. I know it when I hear it, and I always know when it is missing from my own sermons. I realized that it is not just a matter of having “enough time” to prepare in the midst of other pressing duties: after all, in my current transition, time is a gift I have in abundance. Still, I have this confidence that the God who speaks is not bound by human frailty; that the Holy Spirit always accomplishes more than we can expect or predict. And that, in any case, someone will come along next week to preach again. And as long as I’ve been diligent and faithful, perhaps I will have done no harm.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I Want You to be My Pastor Now, OK?

The summer has brought quite a change for my Karen and me. Late in the spring, Karen and her brother learned that their mother had a brain tumor. Karen’s already established monthly trip to the parental home (don’t ask) became bi-weekly. By June Mom was in the hospital, then a nursing home. Karen drove  her parents to the University Hospital for a consultation with a neurological oncologist. Later, the children took the parents back, together, to meet with a surgeon.

Then things went quickly. Before addressing the prospects for surgery, the medical staff felt that Mom needed other, more critical attention. The “day trip” ended with a hospitalization, and lots of questions. Karen came home, then turned right around and spent most of the July 4 week sitting with her mother in hospital. Then, after another two-day trip home, we went back together. By now it was becoming clear that whatever would happen with Mom’s health, coming back to her home was not likely to happen soon, if ever.

I have a sister who lives conveniently close to the Hospital, and that is where Karen stayed – and later where we both stayed – while sitting with her Mom. We were not sleeping well through Thursday night, but from whatever sleep we were woken at about 2:30am Friday, with a call from the nurse. No, we didn’t need to come just then, she just wanted to be sure someone could be there before the 9am transfer to a hospice care facility. Well, then of course we weren’t sleeping at all.

At 4:30am the nurse called again. Yes, now perhaps we should call Karen’s brother and father, and come in. We threw ourselves together and hopped in the car. That’s when Karen said to me:

“I want you to be my pastor now, OK?”

Well, I’d like to think I would have been. But I probably needed the prompt. Maybe it isn’t common for a music pastor to have a lot of hospital experience. A little death bed experience. I don’t know. I’ve had enough that I hope I know how to comport myself, what to say (and not say), what to read, how to pray. But I’m not sure that would have been my natural mode in the wee hours at my mother-in-law’s bedside. My Karen is very pulled together, capable, thoughtful but not emotional, and I’m not entirely certain I would have slipped on my pastoral shoes for her. But of course, she had never sat and watched someone die. And here she was headed to sit with her dying mother.

I don’t really have a set litany of bedside readings. There are some obvious passages; and then there’s the Holy Spirit, whom we have to trust to lead us in our reading and our praying. We entered Mom’s room, spoke to her, stood by her bed, and took our (unprofessional) stock of her condition. Karen did what she could to help her mom be comfortable. She held her hand, spoke with her, stroked her forehead and put Vaseline on her dried lips. I stood on the other side and read scripture, and prayed. We were mostly quiet. Karen had some music on her iPad, that Mom had enjoyed in previous days.

First I read John 14, “let not your hearts be troubled.” 1 Corinthians 15, on resurrection. Revelation 21 and 22, on heaven. Psalm 84, “How lovely is your dwelling place . . . The Lord God is a sun and shield, blessed are all who take refuge in him." We prayed. We were quiet. More hymns. Then I read from Psalm 62 and 63. Our friend Jerry Sundberg’s recording of our friend Ed Child’s arrangement of “This is my Father’s world” was the last thing Karen’s mother heard on this side of heaven. (We are told that hearing is the last remaining sense.) She was gone, and Karen put on a piano recording of Mom’s favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (arranged and recorded by our friend Levi Henkel).

So, in the end, I was Karen’s pastor. I was also her husband. I may give a pastoral hug to the grieving, but not a neck rub, not an embrace, and different tender words. I didn’t need an invitation to be her husband. But I’m glad that Karen reminded me to be for her what I also have been for others. If only for those ninety minutes, twenty-seven years of preparation were worth it.