Four Parts of Worship: Word

Devotional for Thursday, May 28

People who learned to worship in other eras and places might be surprised at where modern American worship leaders locate the reading of Scripture and the sermon in a service.

In the ancient fourfold worship structure, “Word” follows “Gathering.” Let’s be certain Scripture is fully present and driving our worship once we’ve gathered!

Hearing God’s word is the best way to encounter God routinely in a group setting. When a direct encounter with God occurs early in worship, the rest of worship happens in a highly focused manner.

Rearranging a church’s long-standing order of worship is usually a battle not worth fighting. But I do try to get worship leaders to think creatively about getting people’s minds on Scripture early in a service. Particular Bible stories, verses or themes should be the basis for each worship service, shaping its decorations, music and prayers.

Use of God’s written word to reveal God’s truth goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, when the words we translate as “scripture” or “word of God” were references to the Jewish Bible, the writings we now group under the Old Testament.

Consider these references from letters that later became part of the New Testament:

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

James 1:21-22: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

In these verses, we see God’s word as living and powerful, something that flows through the pages of a Bible and into a reader. Open the Bible, use what is there, and you’ll find yourself equipped in new ways. God’s word will dissect you, exposing what is of God and not of God.

It will even implant itself in your soul, bringing you face to face with salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that God’s word has long been the driving force behind worship.

Root worship in Scripture, and we encounter the Holy Spirit as a group, an experience that should always strengthen us.

Fail to root worship in Scripture, and I think it is safe to say we have not worshiped at all.

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the way we most enjoy, help us to remain deep in your word, committing ourselves to it now and for the worship days to come. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Gathering

Devotional for Wednesday, May 27

We still don’t know when we will return to worship in our building, but I thought we could use the rest of this week to consider worship’s four big “parts.” Regardless of when and where we worship, we should have these stages in mind as we go before God.

Worship experts use different terms for these four parts of worship, but I like these: Gathering, Word, Celebration, and Sending Forth. We’ll begin today with gathering, of course.

The gathering time is perhaps the most confusing of the four, simply because many Christians don’t consider it part of worship at all. Much of it happens before we’ve officially “started.” When we neglect it, however, we’re like a traveler who begins a journey by tripping in the first few steps and cracking a kneecap. The rest of the journey will be painful, and the traveler may never reach the destination.

At the latest, the gathering should begin somewhere near the church lawn, before we ever enter the building. It begins as we ready ourselves for why we have come to this place—to encounter God, and join with others seeking to do the same.

Even in our current online environment, we need to ready ourselves for what we are doing. I turn on the technology about 20 minutes before our official start time for a reason. It helps us to see each other’s faces, greet each other, and know we remain a church.

If you’ll pause outside a church building for a moment and breathe, you’ll see there is so much designed to put you in the right frame of mind. The exterior design of Luminary UMC and many other church buildings is intended to point you toward God, to say to you, “Lift up your eyes! Look up!” We’re granted a moment of perspective, remembering  where we stand in relation to God.

If you’re blessed with church bells, as we are, the ringing is a call to the faithful and a reminder to the lost that something special is about to happen. And we’re particularly blessed at Luminary with beautiful grounds and a view. I’m often able to center myself before a worship service by walking outside.

You may have noticed that I said the gathering begins near the church lawn “at the latest.” I’m probably stretching the concept of gathering a little, but I would argue it begins long before we cross the church property line. Are you preparing yourself for worship through encounters with God during the week? Was your Saturday night an appropriate prelude to an encounter with God, including plenty of rest?

Once inside the sanctuary, the gathering continues as the service formally begins. Our individual readiness becomes a group readiness, and when we gather correctly, great things begin to happen. We feel it in the recitations and the singing. The prayers bind us together.

And we should expect great things. Just look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20, words given to us very clearly in the context of church life: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

God is present when we gather. Not only that, the holy decisions we make as a church align us with events in heaven.

When worship is properly understood, the question regarding church attendance should never be, “Am I going today?” Instead, it should be, “How will I prepare, and how will I ever leave?”

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the way we most enjoy, help us to consider what it means to gather in your name. Amen.

Pet Heaven?


Devotional for Tuesday, May 26

I noticed something unusual in the last couple of weeks while scrolling through Facebook. At least six of my friends lost beloved pets. From their posts, all my friends obviously were grieving. Back in 2010, I wrote a newspaper column along these lines for the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune, and I offer it here again as today’s devotional.


Do all dogs go to heaven? And what about cats, parrots, ferrets and all the other critters we grow to love?

These are questions we might hear from any child grieving over the loss of a pet. A few years ago, I used a charming children’s book, Cynthia Rylant’s “Dog Heaven,” to help comfort my kids after the death of our 17-year-old Sheltie mix, Sullivan.

But as a pastor, I have to ask myself—were my actions theologically sound?

Through the centuries, clever theologians have debated the question of an animal afterlife. Their arguments tend to be rooted in whether an animal has a soul and whether such a soul would have the potential to be immortal.

I wonder if such arguments miss the point of the larger promises in Scripture, however. These promises seem to hold out hope for all of our animal friends, be they furry, feathered or finned.

First, we see assertions that God does care about the fate of such creatures. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God,” Jesus says in Luke 12:6-7. “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Jesus’ words focus mostly on how important people are to God. Implicit in them, however, is the warm feeling the Creator has for the tiniest of his creatures.

Second, in considering the animal afterlife, we have to keep before us a full and complete understanding of what Scripture says about our own eternity with God. Too often, we reduce the notion to a purely spiritual heaven, a repository of disembodied souls.

The scriptural afterlife ultimately is much more, however. The idea of a resurrection at the end of time points us toward a very material existence for eternity with God, one similar to our lives now but made “paradise perfect” again.

Resurrection isn’t just about the remaking of human beings; it’s about the remolding of all of creation into the sinless state God originally intended.

Revelation speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth.” I feel safe in presuming that the new earth will include animals in their purest, holiest forms.

Isaiah 11:6-9 also gives us visions of such a day. In it, we see that all sorts of once-deadly animals will live in harmony with their former prey.

Surely, the pets that already have demonstrated the ability to love and be loved will be with us, too.

Lord, bless us with a deeper sense of how you love your creation in its entirety, and how we will see creation fully restored. Amen.


Sin and Sacrifice

Devotional for Monday, May 25

Before we launch into today’s devotional text, I am mindful it is Memorial Day. Let’s spend a few minutes in silence and reflect on those in the military who have given their lives in service to our country. As individuals come to mind, lift up those names out loud. Without these people, we would not be citizens of the United States. It’s unlikely we would be free to do what we are about to do, openly explore our relationship with God.

Leviticus 9:1-11 (NRSV)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron, “Take a bull calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. And say to the people of Israel, ‘Take a male goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain offering mixed with oil. For today the Lord will appear to you.’” They brought what Moses commanded to the front of the tent of meeting; and the whole congregation drew near and stood before the Lord. And Moses said, “This is the thing that the Lord commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.”

Aaron drew near to the altar, and slaughtered the calf of the sin offering, which was for himself. The sons of Aaron presented the blood to him, and he dipped his finger in the blood and put it on the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he poured out at the base of the altar. But the fat, the kidneys, and the appendage of the liver from the sin offering he turned into smoke on the altar, as the Lord commanded Moses; and the flesh and the skin he burned with fire outside the camp.

A pen full of animals, carved up and burned in a variety of ways, along with some grain and oil—it’s not a sight we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. What can we take away from an ancient and bloody text like this?

It is a worthy effort to make a detailed study of what’s going on here, exploring the precise purposes of the different sacrifices and how the people would have understood each one’s significance. I want us to take a step back today, however, and consider something simpler.

Look at how seriously these people treat sin!

In their world, sin clearly mattered. They understood how sin separated them from God, and their lives revolved around how to better please God and how to escape the deadly repercussions of sin.

Part of this sacrifice was to atone for the sins of the priestly leader, the one who had to draw closest to God. Leading in such an environment was very dangerous business. What is unholy cannot survive long in the presence of the one who defines holiness.

And I am struck by how, in comparison, Christians often don’t take sin so seriously, either as leaders or as “the people.” Perhaps it is because Christ has made forgiveness relatively easy, from our perspective.

Animals no longer have to cry out in shock, collapsing as they bleed to death. Massive altar fires need not be stoked. We hear the story of the cross, we believe, and we are saved from sin.

But let’s ask ourselves a question. Have we fully considered Christ’s perspective as he made forgiveness possible? I think of the story of Jesus praying before his arrest, and I am struck by how the spiritual weight of all the sins of the world likely was far more painful than the physical suffering he experienced. And there’s no doubt the physical suffering was horrible.

Considering Jesus Christ’s deep suffering on our behalf, can we learn to look at our own sins, committed or contemplated, and perhaps learn to recoil from them in horror? Such a thoughtful reaction would be a step toward holiness.

Lord, make us daily aware of the price you paid so we can escape sin and eternal death. Amen.

Psalm 51, Day 6

Devotional for Saturday, May 23

Psalm 51:16-19
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Look with favor on Zion and help her;
    rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
    with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
    Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

The end of this psalm reminds us it was written in a place and time. Burnt offerings were the order of the day for relating to God, and would continue to be so for a long time.

But we also get a glimpse of what was to come, what was to make possible the healing of broken and repentant hearts even today. Sacrifices were a means to an end. To demonstrate this, God came in flesh to provide the ultimate sacrifice, atoning for every sin committed.

Fully divine, Jesus could not be repentant, but he could demonstrate how terribly broken God’s heart is when we sin. Through Jesus, God experienced a painful and humiliating death, bearing the weight of all the world’s sins while nailed to some timbers. All this to help us break free from sin’s grip.

To take advantage of this great gift, all we have to do is be contrite and repentant enough to believe. We have to humble ourselves, finding our place in the great design of the universe. We are the created, God is the Creator.

As always, there is good news in this story. The Creator loves his creation dearly. The joy and freedom God offers far exceeds what we could find on our own.

With all his power and all his wealth, King David believed it, and we should, too.

Thank you, Lord, for the process of repentance and salvation, a gift freely given and undeserved. Amen.

Psalm 51, Day 5

Devotional for Friday, May 22

Psalm 51:13-15
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
    and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
    then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
    that my mouth may praise you.

With restoration comes responsibility. We speak to the “rebels” knowing we are people who have been part of the rebellion. This is not an arrogant “I will teach.” This is a humble desire to show others the way home.

We also are reminded this is King David’s psalm of repentance, and that the king knew his sins went beyond lust and adultery. Through abuse of power, he had shed the blood of Uriah, and perhaps he also felt the weight of having killed with his own hand.

Even with dark pasts, forgiveness is possible, as is life beyond our sins. Drunks and addicts become counselors, once God has worked on them. Thieves become respected advocates for the downtrodden, if they let God in. Killers may face a lifetime of worldly punishment, but with an understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, they also can become remarkable conduits of grace in very frightening places.

Teach! Sing! Praise! It is your right—not a right you have earned, but one earned for you by Jesus Christ on the cross.

Lord, give us visions of new paths and our lives restored for the benefit of others. Amen.

Psalm 51, Day 4

Devotional for Thursday, May 21

Psalm 51:10-12
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
    Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
    and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and make me willing to obey you.

The Creator didn’t stop creating—the work goes on. Jesus demonstrated this when he used dirt and his own spit to create vision for the man born blind. Our inner life and being, symbolized by the heart, are new creations of the Holy Spirit, who remains at work in the world today.

Loyalty implies alignment with the will of God. The goal of opening ourselves to sanctification is pretty straightforward; we hope to be so aligned with God that sin becomes as unnatural for us as it is for our creator. At that point, we are again fully made in God’s image, a small-but-perfect reflection.

The psalmist was rightly anxious, though. Few experience holy transformation all at once, even as we profess our faith in Christ more and more. We remain mindful of our past sins and our tendency to return to sin. Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.”

We sense the fool still living within, and we seek protection from that part of ourselves as we trust this transformation to continue. Oh, for the day when obedience to God is as natural as breathing!

Lord, we submit ourselves to be guarded and contained, knowing you ultimately will give us boundless freedom and eternal life. Amen.