This past Sunday, we had a little bit of a technological snafu, and I thought it might be helpful to explain what was going on. Somehow, the responsive reading that appeared on our screen was the reading from the previous Sunday, not the psalm that was intended for this Sunday’s service. When we discovered the mix-up, Heather offered to lead the reading as it appeared on the screen – from Psalm 34:15-22. But I knew that Psalm 146 was the correct reading for the day, and that it was printed out (like normal) for Heather to read from the pulpit. So I asked her to read the entire psalm aloud by herself, thus nullifying the “responsive” part of this week’s responsive reading.

When we worship together, content is more important than form. What we sing, read, pray, and communicate is more important than the way in which we do it. I would much rather change a responsive reading into reading done by one person, rather than have everybody involved in reading something that doesn’t quite fit into the flow of the service.

You see, our services at Mt. Haley are carefully designed to move from one item to the next, always with a central theme in mind. Each week, when I plan the service, I sit down with the scripture texts for the day. Those usually (but not always) come from the “lectionary,” a structured way of working through the whole Bible, which is used by many different Christian groups around the world. I sit with those passages and consider what they have in common, what kind of theme they suggest for us to experience together in worship. With that theme in mind, I then select songs and the “between-song” scripture verses, so that the entire service is, more or less, about that particular theme.

For example, this past Sunday was all about “Jesus the healer.” The sermon text, Mark 7:24-37, tells two stories of Jesus healing different people. The reading from Isaiah 35:3-7 is an ancient prophecy of the Messiah who would come and bring healing to the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. The songs we sang reminded us of Jesus’s ability to bring healing in all areas of life: physical, spiritual, emotional, and so on. Through his sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus gives us abundant life even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

So our responsive reading, which came very early in the service, needed to set the tone for the rest of the service. We needed to hear Psalm 146 proclaim its ancient truth:

God “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146:7-9 NIV)

All of this is to remind you that our worship services are not cobbled together by accident. Each service has a theme, a guiding principle, something that draws together every piece of what we do. That theme is printed in the bulletin at the beginning of the service. Just this morning, Stacy (our wonderful secretary) had the idea to include the theme on the electronic presentations that run before the service, both in the sanctuary and in the narthex. That way, you will have more opportunities to see the theme of the day and to begin thinking and praying about it, even as you get settled in your seat in the sanctuary.

I hope this helps you to worship at Mt. Haley. Worship is one of the most important things we do as a community of faith! Thanks for being part of this experience with us.

Pastor David

Friends, I know the past season in our church life has been very difficult, very stressful.

Since the end of May, we have had three ambulance visits to Mt. Haley, for three different church members. You all remember, of course, that R.H. passed away while working on our church property earlier this summer. Then two Sundays ago, D.S. had a non-epileptic seizure during church, and this past Sunday, D.O. had a small stroke during church. (I’m using their initials rather than their full names because we try to be sensitive when sharing this kind of information online.)

It’s enough to make anyone a little leery of coming back to church next week.

I am reminded of the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, which Jesus himself quoted at the beginning of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)

Interestingly, Jesus quoted Isaiah a little differently than Isaiah appears in our English translations today. In particular, one phrase from Isaiah 61:1-2 is missing from Jesus’s words – not because Jesus didn’t believe this or was somehow twisting scripture, but because translations are sometimes complicated and tricky after hundreds and hundreds of years. The noteworthy phrase for us in Isaiah 61 is this:

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)

We usually think of “brokenhearted” as describing someone who has lost a loved one or who has gone through a painful breakup or divorce. Most often, “brokenhearted” describes something relational, a state of being overcome by grief or despair. The closer the relationship, the deeper the brokenheartedness.

And you know what? If you are feeling a bit brokenhearted by the recent stressful situations at church, that’s a good thing – because it means that your relationships with other people at church are important to you. I would be concerned if you weren’t feeling kind of desperate at this point in time.

I know I am! After this past Sunday’s incident, I was reminded of Rosemary Gifford, who passed away just a year and a half ago. Rosemary always said that bad things always happen in sets of three. If two people close to her died, then she was unsettled until a third person died, and then she could relax a bit. Oddly, that pattern seemed to hold true for a long time.

So now we have had our set of three visits by paramedics to Mt. Haley. That’s it, right? We’re finished with this medical emergency business, right?

I sure hope so.

It’s time for God to bind up the brokenhearted around here. It’s time for us to draw closer to each other, reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ together, and be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. In reality, God has already begun doing that work, and God will continue doing that work for as long as it takes.

There is no guarantee that we won’t have another medical emergency at church in the near future. We could have another this coming Sunday.

But the good news is that Jesus has entered into this world to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

One thing is for certain: Jesus is still in our midst. His presence joins us each time we gather together. And in a special way, we will recognize his presence this coming Sunday when we share Communion together.

So come. Don’t be afraid. Rest in the presence of Jesus. Remember to pray for D.S. and D.O. and all the others. Read Ephesians out loud once again. And allow God to begin binding up your broken heart, to ease your grief and despair, by drawing you close to him and close to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

I’ll see you Sunday.

Pastor David

Homosexual. Transgender. LGBTQ. Human sexuality is a religious question that is tearing church groups apart. I believe it is such a divisive question today because most Christian adults have made up their minds whether or not their understanding of Christianity allows for homosexual (or other nontraditional) relationships and practices. We have no room for discussion, no room for truly hearing the perspectives or stories of those with whom we disagree. If others disagree with us, we assume they are speaking out of hatred. Everybody believes they are standing for the truth. No one is willing to change their minds.

This week, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a document called the “Nashville Statement,” named after the city where they were meeting when they wrote it. This statement was signed by many famous Christian leaders and distributed all over social media. It immediately produced negative feedback among other Christian groups, some of which responded with statements of their own (see the “Denver Statement” for an example). I encourage you to take a few minutes to read both of the statements I’ve linked here. Continue reading

Last weekend, I attended a conference in Rockville, Maryland – where it was sunny and hot, nearly 90 degrees! – hosted by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. As their website says, “Shalem is grounded in Christian contemplative spirituality yet draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions.” I would guess, simply based on observation, that the vast majority of the 150+ attendees to this conference are Christians, but they practice Christianity in a way that is a bit different than how you and I usually practice it.

I attended this conference in order to fulfill a requirement for my current Doctor of Ministry “independent study” course. I designed this course a few months ago, in consultation with my supervising professor, in order to propel me forward into the Professional Project which will be the culmination, the capstone, of my doctoral work. According to the seminary’s instructions, my independent study was to include an “immersion experience” which would connect to this Professional Project and, at the same time, would stretch me in some meaningful, significant ways. Last weekend’s Shalem conference did exactly that. Continue reading

Last year, we introduced a series of banners to decorate our sanctuary with the colors and symbols of the various seasons of the church year. The banners rotate around our sanctuary during the course of the year, with the current season’s banner displayed prominently beside the pulpit. We have green banners to designate “Ordinary Time,” purple banners for Advent and Lent, and red banners for Pentecost and the Lord’s Supper. Starting this Sunday, you might notice that one our banners has changed colors:

The banner representing the current season of Easter, showing a cross on a purple background, now shows a cross on a white background. Why the change? Continue reading

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Wait, isn’t that a Christmas carol? Why are we going to sing it on Easter Sunday morning?

Yes, the song appears in our hymnal in the Christmas carol section (which is named “Jesus Christ: Advent and Nativity”). Before it is “We Three Kings,” and after it is “The First Noel.” I keep track of the days on which we sing songs in worship, and in my years as pastor at Mt. Haley, we have only ever sung “Joy to the World” in the month of December – or, occasionally, in late November. There is no question that this song is a Christmas-time song.

But we’re going to sing it on Easter Sunday, and I’m excited about that. :)

“Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98. Isaac Watts wrote these lyrics as part of his quest to point all of the Psalms specifically to Jesus. Take a few minutes right now to read Psalm 98 – which, by the way, will be our responsive reading on Easter Sunday, as well.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

If there were ever a day for us to celebrate the arrival of Jesus as King, it is Easter Sunday. After all hope seemed to have been lost on Good Friday, and after a quiet day of somber reflection on Holy Saturday, Christians around the world will celebrate with great wonder the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Who else would we claim as our King?

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ, while fields and flocks, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.

All creation joins in celebration of the new life found in Jesus Christ. Remember that Easter coincides with the early days of springtime. Take a look around you: fields, flocks, rocks, hills, and plains are all bursting at the seams with new life. (Well, ok, maybe the rocks are a little stoic. But maybe not: see Luke 19:37-40.)

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

This is what the Easter season is all about: through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made atonement for our sins. The sorrow of Good Friday has been turned into Easter celebrations. The thorns on Jesus’s crown are exchanged for a royal crown that will never be taken away from him.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.

Jesus came into this world full of grace and truth (John 1:14). His resurrection from the dead proves that the world’s greatest powers – religious and secular alike – are no match for his righteousness and love.

We live in an in-between time, between Jesus’s resurrection and his return at the end of the age. During this in-between time, we remember and celebrate the past: Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the grave. But we also remember and celebrate the future: Jesus will come again in glory, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15). Rightly understood, “Joy to the World” is a song about the second coming of Christ. Won’t it be grand to remember Jesus’s future arrival on the day that we remember his victory over the grave?

Come and worship with us at Mt. Haley on Easter Sunday, April 16, at 10am. We will have a sunrise service at 7am and a hot breakfast at 8am as well.

We live in a divided age. Republicans vs. Democrats, rich vs. poor, English-speakers vs. Spanish-speakers, citizens vs. immigrants, Christians vs. Muslims, good guys vs. bad guys, peaceful people vs. terrorists: we have so many ways to categorize ourselves and our enemies. I use the term “enemies” very broadly to cover opponents, strangers, foreigners, people with whom we disagree, even people whom we choose to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Sometimes, given our emotions and our perceived level of risk, we wish harm on our enemies. Sometimes we even enact harm on our enemies. Sometimes we restrain ourselves from physical violence but use words that are quite damaging by themselves.

For people of faith (and Christians in particular), the temptation to harm our enemies is just as strong as it is for anyone else. We fool ourselves if we say we are innocent of this temptation while hating members of ISIS, cheering the latest lethal injection, or even ridiculing fellow church members who voted for the other candidate.

Christians are to follow the example of Jesus, who famously prayed that all his followers might be one as he and God the Father are one (see John 17). We have made quite a mess of Christianity by creating so many divisions, even within single congregations. But church unity is a red herring; God’s real desire is for all people to be reconciled to him and to each other.

The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel writes:

Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:23 NLT)

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die? (Ezekiel 33:11 NLT)

God is pro-life, in the broadest, most universal sense of the term.

Five hundred years ago, a man named John Redford served as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is considered the author of a medieval poem which has been set to choral music, a piece which Tara and I have learned as part of a Holy Week choral service in which we will participate next month. Below are its lyrics:

Nolo mortem peccatoris; Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.*
Father I am thine only Son, sent down from heav’n mankind to save.
Father, all things fulfilled and done according to thy will, I have.
Father, my will now all is this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
Father, behold my painful smart, taken for man on ev’ry side;
Ev’n from my birth to death most tart, no kind of pain I have denied,
but suffered all, and all for this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.

* Translation: “I do not wish the death of a sinner.” These are the words of the Savior.

As far as I can tell, Jesus did not say the words attributed to him in this poem, but he certainly lived out their meaning. Whether he met a woman caught in adultery, ten lepers, or a Roman centurion, Jesus consistently worked toward their life and well-being. Even his greatest enemies, the super-religious Pharisees, were people whom Jesus loved: after speaking strong words of condemnation against them, he expressed how much he longed to gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).

What if we lived our lives after Jesus’s example? What if our motto was nolo mortem peccatoris, “I do not wish the death of a sinner”? How would we live differently?

Who is your enemy, and how can you love him or her today?

(You can read the full text of this medieval poem here.)

“That meeting took forever!” “I’ve been waiting for you all day!” “We’re never going to get to Grandma’s house!”

When we use the language of impatience, we often exaggerate in order to make our point.

But when Jesus says “forever,” he is being very serious and deeply profound.

Let’s walk through five snapshots of Jesus’s life and ministry as recorded, in order, in the Gospel of John. In each of these situations, Jesus uses the Greek phrase εἰς τòν αἰῶνα, which is often translated “forever” (or “never” if its clause is negated). Literally, this phrase means “into the age”; it points indefinitely into the future. In the quotes below, I have italicized the phrase’s English translation so you can identify it easily.

Snapshot #1:

  • Jesus is enjoying great popularity; he has more followers than John the Baptist.
  • “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Snapshot #2:

  • Jesus is still popular, but he begins losing many of his followers because of his strange and difficult teachings.
  • “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
  • “This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58)

Snapshot #3:

  • Jesus is now arguing with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his time.
  • “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)

Snapshot #4:

  • Jesus has now divided the people; some believe in him, but others think he is guilty of blasphemy and want to stone him to death.
  • “I give them [my people] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

Snapshot #5:

  • Jesus is now away from the crowds, grieving the death of his friend Lazarus with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.
  • “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26)

Do you notice a pattern in these five scenes?

On the one hand, Jesus is decreasing in popularity as we walk through these passages. He begins with large crowds of followers, but those crowds slowly fall away and even turn against him. Finally, the crowds disappear altogether while Jesus deals with the painful loss of his friend.

On the other hand, Jesus uses increasingly intense language to describe the destiny of people who follow him. The phrase “will never thirst” becomes “will live forever.” Then that phrase is strengthened as well: “will never see death.” But no, that isn’t yet strong enough: “shall never perish.” Finally, Jesus makes it as clear and as strong as possible: “will never die.”

During the time that Jesus is becoming less popular, he is ratcheting up his language about the value of remaining faithful to him. The long-term rewards of discipleship are enormous and fly in the face of what people anticipate will happen in their lives. We all expect to become thirsty or hungry again, probably within 24 hours; if we are honest with ourselves, we all expect to die someday as well. But Jesus has the audacity to claim that his people will never thirst, never perish, never even die – and this he speaks while on his way to the tomb of Lazarus, who has already been dead for four days.

Jesus raises Lazarus back to life, which caused many people to put their faith in him. In the very next chapter of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem and begins talking about his own upcoming death. Like Lazarus, Jesus would die and be raised to life again. But unlike Lazarus, who eventually died again, Jesus never died again. He lives and reigns forevermore, seated at the hand of God the Father on high.

Jesus uses the phrase εἰς τòν αἰῶνα one last time in John’s gospel: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:15-17)

Whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die.

It’s not a statement of impatience or exaggeration. It’s a statement of faith, a statement of trust, a statement of the orientation of life for people who follow Jesus. We live with eternal hope and eternal purpose by participating in the never-ending love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God, now and forevermore.

Holiness and Confession

What comes to mind when you think of the word “confession”?

Maybe the word reminds you of someone confessing to a crime in front of a judge or jury. Maybe you think of a written statement in a police station. Perhaps you remember a relationship that deepened – or collapsed – when something was confessed.

Maybe the word brings to mind a picture of a person sitting in a closed room and speaking to a priest on the other side of a screen. Maybe you remember a bedtime prayer or a youth camp where you confessed your sins to God.

Maybe the word “confession” makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it just doesn’t mean anything at all to you.

I would like to suggest that confession should play a role in our spiritual growth and development. Confession is part of the way in which we experience God’s love and new life. Continue reading