Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Prayer of Confession in Response to the Prologue to the Ten Commandments

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Deut 5:6).

O LORD our God,
you who identity yourself as our Deliverer,
you who claim our allegiance as those whom you have set free
from bondage, from slavery, from oppression, from sin:

you not only led your people out of Egypt,
by signs and wonders,
answering Pharaoh's genocide against the male infants of the Hebrews
with the death of Egypt's firstborn,
parting the waters of sea,
raining manna in the wilderness and pouring water from the rock,
giving the law to your people that they might be a righteous, godly, and prosperous people,

you also raised up judges to grant them reprieve when they suffered under tyrants,

you sent prophets among them to call them back to your law when they had wandered,

you restored them to the land after they had served seventy years in exile for their sins,

and in the fulness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ,
who "for freedom ... has set us free" (Gal 5:1a).

You identify yourself as the Giver of freedom and us as those whose freedom you desire.

And yet, we confess that we have squandered our freedom,
lashing ourselves to devices and desires that claim more and more of our time and attention, submitting to those who demand control over
our lives, our time, our energy, our actions, our resources, our affections ...

"Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!" (Gal 5:1b)

Yet what have we done, O God? We have bound ourselves in one unholy alliance after another:
taking on the crushing mantel consumer debt,
indulging unhealthy habits,
granting oversight to the most duplicitous and partisan characters;
we have even boasted of living in "the land of the free,"
but we are quickly abandoning our freedoms for illusions of safety and security
—all while you are our one and only true refuge!

Moreover, we have grown complacent as others been captured and languish
in countless forms of imprisonment:
addiction to substances, addiction to gambling, human trafficking, ...

Holy Lord,

forgive our forgetfulness of your nature, of your character as our Deliverer;
forgive our foolish failure to truly love and cherish your gift of freedom;
release us, we pray,
from bondage to the power of sin,
from dependency on those who despise us and despise you,
from the false understanding of freedom as pure autonomy and irresponsibility,

and restore us
to our right minds,
to the joy of your salvation,
to a true, undying gratitude for your grace and mercy toward us,
to our proper and dutiful devotion to you,
to a love for your church,
and to a kindly sense of regard and compassion for our neighbors.

Give us such a zeal and resolve to set others free,
that we might be winsome reflections of
your good and gracious, your restorative and liberating nature.

This we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught us when praying to say:

The Lord's Prayer

"Our Father, ..."

Sunday, March 29, 2020

More from A Journal of the Plague Year

As the word is going out to the country to extend the 15 days to hunker down for an additional 30 days, until April 30, 2020, consider these two concluding paragraphs from DeFoe's classic:
In the middle of their distress, when the condition of the city of London was so truly calamitous, just then it pleased God—as it were by His immediate hand to disarm this enemy; the poison was taken out of the sting. It was wonderful; even the physicians themselves were surprised at it. Wherever they visited they found their patients better; either they had sweated kindly, or the tumours were broke, or the carbuncles went down and the inflammations round them changed colour, or the fever was gone, or the violent headache was assuaged, or some good symptom was in the case; so that in a few days everybody was recovering, whole families that were infected and down, that had ministers praying with them, and expected death every hour, were revived and healed, and none died at all out of them.
Nor was this by any new medicine found out, or new method of cure discovered, or by any experience in the operation which the physicians or surgeons attained to; but it was evidently from the secret invisible hand of Him that had at first sent this disease as a judgement upon us; and let the atheistic part of mankind call my saying what they please, it is no enthusiasm; it was acknowledged at that time by all mankind. The disease was enervated and its malignity spent; and let it proceed from whencesoever it will, let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by, and labour as much as they will to lessen the debt they owe to their Maker, those physicians who had the least share of religion in them were obliged to acknowledge that it was all supernatural, that it was extraordinary, and that no account could be given of it. 
I do not take the author as saying that human action did not matter. Only that human action and innovation alone could not do the trick, not without the intervention of God, not without the acknowledgement of God's sovereignty. Another paragraph makes this even clearer:
In that very moment when we might very well, I say, in that very moment it pleased God, with a most agreeable surprise, to cause the fury of it to abate, even of itself; and the malignity declining, as I have said, though infinite numbers were sick, yet fewer died, and the very first weeks' bill decreased 1843; a vast number indeed!
Surely our job as preachers is to keep God in the conversation, to keep the church, the country, the world looking to God for mercy, acknowledging that—to modify Psalm 127—"Unless the Lord cures the plague, those who would heal labor in vain." By all means, pray for the saints in the medical community, but pray also for prayers to be lifted, for faith to be ever stronger, for glory and thanksgiving to be lifted to God without whom all human effort amounts to nothing. The simple point is this: the longer it takes for human pride to be humbled, the longer it takes to acknowledge God, the more lives will be at risk. As the Epistle of James says: "You do not have because you do not ask." That is not just a word to believers, to individuals and to the church; it is a word to the world.

Hopeful developments

Set aside any personal feelings you may have about the interviewer, and note this hopeful development from a smart doctor putting two and two together.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year

I just finished Daniel DeFoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, which has received a lot of fresh interest for obvious reasons, and though DeFoe (a Presbyterian) was not a preacher, I found his attempt at an objective (if technically fictionalized) account rich with insights that should interest the modern preacher engaged in pulpit ministry, even if online, at such a time as this. The "plague year" in question was 1665, the year before the great fire of London, but the historical novel came out in 1720. The "author" who signs the journal at the end with this initials is not "D.D.", but "H.F."

Among the features of possible interest to the preacher:
  • the portrayal of a number of doomsayers (who largely disappeared after the plague was over);
  • the general consensus throughout the city that divine judgment was at work; 
  • the author's reluctance to judge those doctors and ministers who fled the city; 
  • his appreciation for those who did not; combined with 
  • a nuanced recognition that the latter did not justify a sanctimonious attitude; 
  • his observation that those non-conformist preachers who supplied abandoned pulpits did so in a way that mostly set aside doctrinal divisions and emphasized pastoral care (something he had hoped would, but did not, continue after the plague had run its course);
  • his report that many preachers, however, failed to offer the gospel of grace and peace amidst their urgent summons to repentance;
  • his assertion that, although he does not deny the possibility that someone ministering to the sick and the poor could certainly contract the plague, one had good reason to hope for divine protection in the ministry of compassion;
  • his account of how so many people, after a long period of being humbled under stress and made keenly aware of their mortality, struck a fresh, friendly, unpretentious, and cordial attitude toward one another, inspired by a sense of what a short and precious gift life is;
  • the reverent and pious tone overall;
  • his grateful conclusion: as a survivor, he identifies with the Samaritan leper who alone returned to Jesus to give thanks for his healing.
Much of this, of course, runs quite counter to the ghastly impressions one gains from the cover illustrations on so many editions of this classic. There are also many parallels to today's concerns: the economic effect of the plague on industry, jobs, income, etc.; the reality of what we now call compassion fatigue, et al. It is also surprising how many resourceful measures are reported here among a number of doubtless ineffectual steps people would take to protect themselves. Obviously no one wants to return to the 17th c. state of science and medicine, but one will discover a number of interesting uses for plain old (mildly acidic) vinegar: cleaning coins, inhaling it before attending to the sick, among other things (although vinegar is evidently not strong enough for combating COVID-19).

Added bonus: Monty Python fans will discover here, in the story of the piper, the inspiration behind the familiar "dead cart" scene in Holy Grail

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Good Confession

Released today, The Good Confession, a collection of twenty-one recent sermons and five short table rites for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Prayers of the People on National Day of Prayer (March 15, 2020)

God of peace, we pray for the world,
for all nations, from east to west, from north to south,
for all who are enlisted in the battle 
against disease and illness, pestilence and plague, flu and virus,
for all elected officials, administrators, 
researchers, scientists, epidemiologists, 
doctors, nurses, health care workers, 
including those caring for loved ones at home, 
and of course, we pray for the sick, especially the elderly, 
those in nursing homes, and those with underlying conditions 
and weak immune systems.
Grant your healing and protection to one and all.

We pray for workers asked to work from home, 
students whose schools are closed or who must now study from home,
for teachers who must now teach from home,
for those in need of groceries, household goods, and other supplies,
with no way to venture out. 

We pray for businesses and industries under financial stress, 
and hospitals, doctor's offices, and emergency rooms pressed to the limit.
We pray for first responders, law enforcement, 
security personnel, and our military, 
dealing not only with the day-to-day risks of their calling,
but who now must be wary of possible contagion.

We pray, O Lord, for this nation,
that in this trying time we might come together, 
not fleetingly, superficially, and opportunitistically, but enduringly
with a renewed sense of neighborliness, concern, and mutual regard, 
with a spirit of love and good will, 
with humility, gratitude, trust, and generosity,
and inspire your church to take an exemplary and winsome lead 
in so doing.

Lord, we pray for the just who know you, 
that you may guard and protect, your saints, 
heal and nurture your people of faith, 
that we might be a blessing and bearers of hope 
to one another, to our neighbors, 
and to this confused, declining, and dangerous world. 

Lord, we pray for the unjust, 
that you would guard and protect those who do not yet know you,
that you might appear to and call them as you know how best to do: 
through your Spirit at work in creation and culture, 
through your Word  at work in the church, 
through dreams and visions, by whatever means, 
that you would awaken them to your goodness in Jesus Christ, 
and usher them by the waters of baptism 
into your kingdom of grace, forgiveness, and eternal peace.

We pray for ... 


And we pray for one another as people of prayer, called to prayer,
that each of us might draw nearer to you in faith, 
trusting in you to turn our petitions into concrete blessings 
for all those we name before you;
help us to model and practice the penitence and faith of your priestly people,
that you might heal this land, this nation, and this world 
far beyond our own finite reach. 
All this we ask in the name of Jesus,
who taught us to pray, saying, "Our Father ... " 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Planning and leading worship when the size of gatherings need to be limited or when church is cancelled

A faculty colleague has asked about planning worship and preaching in light of the present CDC recommendations against holding large gatherings—yesterday we were asked not to gather in numbers greater than 50 people, today that number has been reduced to ten (10), an interesting number in light of the Jewish tradition that ten men and a Torah scroll was the threshhold for forming a synagogue.

Until I can respond more fully, I noted another colleague (in pastoral ministry) linked to this article at Hacking Christianity, which explains more of the technical side of things. I gather there will be a number of such logistical suggestions forthcoming and available, so I will not attempt to duplicate that effort. More to follow ... 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Read the actual Apocalypse and calm down

Everytime I run across a cute or quasi-clever neologism that hitches the suffix –ocalypse to some popular impulse to set everyone's hair on fire, I think: Now whoever came up with that very likely has never actually read the Book of Revelation or has not done so recently or seriously. The same is true of the Bible generally. What does panic indicate so clearly and accurately as someone who does not know the Bible, is unaquainted with the promises and the nature of God, and has no sense of the sheer goodness and grace of God and his desire that none should perish? Put another way, when you find that reading the actual Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) has a calming effect on you, when you come away from it profoundly reassured, then you know you are the right track and you can also recognize that all the folks in panic mode over everything are, to put it kindly, not