Rituals and Christmas Lists

Black Friday…Cyber Monday… Our Biggest Sale of the Season… on and on it goes, this gift-giving frenzy that characterizes an American Christmas.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those anti-gift-giving rants that invariably pop up every year. I happen to love gift-giving! OK, yes, and gift-getting, too!

However, reading Isaiah 1:10-20 this morning has reminded me how we can get so caught up in the ritual that we completely lose sight of its purpose.

For at least the past decade, my family has employed Christmas lists. They used to be written on paper, then copied and shared. When email came along, we began sending them electronically. This made life simpler because we could also share what we were giving each individual (except the gift recipient, of course) to eliminate wasted time standing in long post-Christmas gift return lines. Then Amazon developed Wish Lists, making it even easier to create our magnificent gift registries, share them with each other, let Amazon keep track of purchases by simply taking the item off the list once it wasamazon-gift-list purchased, and–the ultimate convenience!–now Amazon even allows us to add items to our list that are not found in Amazon’s vast warehouse! Perfect, right?

 

It was really fun for a while, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it the past couple of years. I have become so caught up in this path to gift-giving…so enamored with the tool for facilitating gift-giving…that the method has supplanted the underlying reason for the action itself. The giving of a Christmas gift is meant to represent my love for the person I’m giving it to, and the gift should be a result of thoughtful consideration.

Back to Isaiah… The prophet exhorts us to hear the Lord’s rebuke to the Israelites, who have become so enamored of the rituals of worship that they have completely forgotten what the rituals  are intended to do: remind us of the One we worship, why we worship Him, and what He most desires from us and for us.

I worship in the Anglican tradition, which has plenty of rituals. I’m grateful that we are encouraged to make use of those which are helpful in our worship rather than become a slave to any of them. When we process in for worship, the lead person lifts up a cross. As I follow behind it, I’m reminded that I follow the risen Christ. When I make the sign of the cross, I do it because at that particular moment in the worship service I’m reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for me, or of the mystery of our triune God. After the offering is collected, the priest lifts the basket heavenward as we sing, and I am reminded that all things do come from God and with grateful hearts we give back a portion of what’s been given to us. All of these rituals are designed to help me remember and reflect on God’s goodness, to foster a humble purity of heart for worship and obedience. This is God’s desire for me and from me, so that I will be fitted and ready for the day when the rituals will no longer be needed because the Kingdom has come in its fullness and worship is the continual reality.

Whatever rituals you may use in worship or in celebrating Christmas (I’ll leave you to ponder which might need attention!), take a little time this week to consider whether they are achieving their intended purpose or whether they have become more prominent than they were ever meant to be. If the latter is true, don’t resort to drastic measures. Rather, allow that awareness to guide you gently back to a proper perspective.

I think I’ll take a little break from Amazon Wish Lists and shop locally for one or two gifts that will be a total surprise!

 

Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?

 

The School for Prayer

prayer in community

 

[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.

 

 

Growing up

This week I began reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Practice Ressurection. It’s an insightful work on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,inviting me to ponder anew some familiar concepts.

“This kingdom life is a life of entering more and more into a world of gifts, and then, as we are able, using them in a working relationship with our Lord.” 1

Peterson goes on to talk about how we understand the concept of gift easily enough. After all, we neither make ourselves nor birth ourselves and so life itself begins as a gift. Immediately we begin receiving gifts–food, shelter, clothing, nurture, education, training, etc. Everything we have is a gift when we are a very young child.

“We have been given much. Now we begin exercising these gifts in community.”  2

Growing up…  From early childhood we begin to learn to do for ourselves. We learn through the gift of training to dress ourselves and feed ourselves. We learn through the gift of education how to apply basic skills like reading and math as we mature into adolescence. During adolescence (rightly described by Peterson as “awkward and often turbulent”) we learn how those gifts we’ve been given translate into adult responsibilities. Life leads us into into making decisions–some wise and some not so much–but all part of growing up.

Let’s apply this concept to the maturation process of the Christian believer. There are the “baby” Christians who are just discovering the wonder of a life lived in and under grace–that wonderful gift that sets us free to accept all the other gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Sadly, there are some who never mature past this point. They fill the pew on Sunday only for what they can receive.

Then there are the mature believers who have heard and answered Christ’s call to a life lived for Him. They share freely the gifts the Spirit provides, serving others in their day in and day out lives. They come to worship not for what they can receive–though they do, indeed, receive much–but to offer themselves to Christ in a loving and working relationship.

But what about the adolescents? The ones who are navigating that awkward stage between being a baby Christian (primarily receiving) and becoming a  mature believer (primarily giving)? Attempting to discern their call through exploring the Spirit-gifts, checking out various ministries, trying on different serving opportunities can be confusing and frustrating and…turbulent! These are the ones that require the most from me as an equipping leader. Having parented three adolescents, I know first-hand that this stage requires guidance and structure, not to mention patience.

If you are an equipping leader who frequently “parents adolescent Christians,” having structures and processes in place will be an encouragement to the people you serve. It will help you help them navigate this stage safely and securely. Providing a gifts discovery tool, a structure for exploring serving opportunities that doesn’t require a lifetime commitment, and being available to debrief the process with them are three things you can offer to help them grow up into the fullness of Christ.

1Peterson, Eugene H., Practice Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2010), pg. 46
2 Ibid.

**If you think examining your equipping process with a fresh pair of eyes would be useful to the people you serve, please contact me at www.andeemarks.com.