LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM JACK WELCH

The Cabinet and I have been pondering our role as personnel officers of the church. It is our job to recruit, evaluate, and to place clergy. We believe that there is much that we can learn about personnel matters from those in business or other organizations. Hal Nobel, Superintendent of the Northwest District, has recently read Jack Welch’s book on leadership, Winning. Welch is the turn around king of American business. Hal shared with me some of the insights that have relevance for our Superintendents and as pastors:

Think of yourself as a Gardener, a watering can in one hand and fertilizer in the other.” This is what I am doing here in my District and I understand you to be saying in Cabinet meetings. There are some great metaphors about gardening, watering, fertilizing in the scriptures. And then there’s Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree that speaks of grace as cultivating, watering, fertilizing one more year, and then if there is not fruit, cut it down.

These are the one-liners in the book that excite me:

1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach and build self-confidence.

2. Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it.

3. Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.

4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency and credit where credit is due.

5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.

6. Leaders probe and push with curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.

7. Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.

8. Leaders celebrate the achievements of others in the organization.

Here are some quickies from the sub-heading “On Hiring-Inspiring”

  • Hiring good people is hard. Hiring great people is brutally hard. Yet nothing matters more in winning than getting the right people on the field, then guiding them on the right way to succeed and get ahead.
  • Before you even think about assessing people for a job, they have to pass through three screens:

1. Integrity – People with integrity tell the truth

2. Intelligence – Candidate has a strong dose of intellectual

3. Maturity – The ability to handle stress and setbacks, and enjoy
success with equal parts of joy and humility.

  • Then the passion – a heartfelt, deep and authentic excitement about work.
  • When you actually interview somebody for a job, make sure every candidate is interviewed by several people. Over time, you will find that some people in your organization have a special gift for picking out stars and phonies.

    Will Willimon

KIERKEGAARD ON PASTORS WHO ARE SERVANTS OF THE TRUTH

One of our talented young candidates in ministry, Christopher Barnett, is at Oxford University writing a dissertation on Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the “Solitary Dane,” had some tough things to say about pastors of his day. He firmly believed that pastors are not called to run errands for members of the congregation or to be the freelance therapist for everyone in need. Pastors are, in Kierkegaard’s words, primarily “servants of the truth.” We must cultivate an attachment to the truth, which is Jesus Christ, and to speak that truth no matter what.

Here are some of S.K.’s demands for pastors. I’ve been meditating upon them this week and have found them helpful, and sometimes painful!

  • Pastors who can split up the “crowd” and turn it into individuals.
  • Pastors who are not too much occupied with study and have no desire whatever to dominate.
  • Pastors who, though able to speak, will be no less able to keep silent and be patient.
  • Pastors who, though they know people’s hearts, have no less learned temperance in judgment and condemnation.
  • Pastors who understand how to exercise authority, through the act of
    sacrifice.
  • Pastors who have been prepared, trained, and educated in obedience and suffering so that they will be able to correct, admonish, edify, move, and also constrain not by force, anything but that, but rather through their own obedience; and above all will be able to put up with all the rudeness of the sick person without letting it upset her any more than a physician allows herself to be disturbed by the curses and kicks of a patient during an operation.

– Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1959).

THE MAIN THING

“The Main Thing is to keep your eye on The Main Thing.” That’s what I heard a distinguished business leader say awhile back. It is so easy, when you are in a leadership position, to be overcome, swamped with trivialities and distractions and to lose sight of “the main thing.”
How do we keep at ministry, amid the myriad and deep demands of the pastoral ministry? I think there is only one way – with a deep conviction that God really is present in our ministry, doing more than we can think, say, or do. Bill Easum confirms this with this affirmation of the need to keep our pastoral focus on “the main thing” – the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

My experiences with the “deeps” have taught me much about myself and how God works. What really separates authentic leaders who soar from those who do not is a vision or mission worth dying for. Those who have this kind of vision or mission are able to go in the face of impossible odds. They are able to focus on the goal so fully that it must happen.

My “deeps” have taught me that my little successes in life have little to do with me and a lot to do with the gracious gift of a mission from God. The mission is what saves us and drives us on – not our ability. The mission is what both drives us down and brings us up. People with a vision don’t burn out, they just keep on going and going and going in spite of it all.

— From Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Rediscovering Ministry, Bill Easum, with Linnea Nilsen Capshaw, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004
p. 18.

William H. Willimon

I hope to see you at the Inaugural Bishop’s Lecture in Faith and Ethics at Birmingham-Southern College on Tuesday, April 17 at 11:00 a.m., in the Norton Campus Theater. Dr. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Distinguished Professor at Emory University, will speak on “Three Ways of Imagining Good and Evil: The Bible’s Internal Conversation”.

The Last to Believe in Easter

Preparing to preach on Easter I note some curious truths. The first to experience Easter, and the first to preach Easter were women (take that, those who think that women preaching isn’t “biblical”!). And to whom do the women preach the resurrection? The disciples of Jesus.

Preachers and lay leaders of the church please note. The disciples don’t believe the women. They think they are hysterical. The disciples dismiss their news as “an idle tale.” As Kierkegaard noted, how curious that those who were closest to this event, those whom Jesus had been carefully preparing – his own inner circle, the disciples — are the least prepared to believe. Those who were the most prepared, who had a front row seat in the class – Jesus disciples – were as dumb as anyone, dumber, actually.

People who teach in theological schools take note: Even the two Jewish religious groups who at the time were the most sophisticated in thinking about resurrection, who were working the most diligently from the Scriptures to prepare an adequate theological foundation for the resurrection – the Pharisees and the Essenes – missed the whole thing. As Karl Barth once said, when it comes to the gospel, everybody is an amateur, everyone a beginner.

Luke makes the intellectually marginalized – in this case, women who were denied participation in the educational systems of the day – play so prominent a role in perception of resurrection. Mary Magdalene – maybe the most marginal of any of the early followers of Jesus – is the chief resurrection witness and the only person to appear in all four accounts. All we know about Mary Magdalene before she joined Jesus is that she had previously been possessed by “seven devils.” The “seven devils” could refer to an utterly dissolute moral life or to an extreme form of mental illness. Either or both of these pre-Jesus conditions, coupled with being a woman in a patriarchal society, put her at the far edge of marginality.

If you were Luke and trying to convince people of the truth of the resurrection, would you make your chief endorsements come from those whom the majority of people are least likely to believe? Given the importance that we in our society gives to celebrity endorsements, it’s more than a little disconcerting that the main witness to the resurrection is a woman on the margins.

Unless that was exactly how it happened. Here is a God who tends to work the margins rather than the center, who does not limit divine revelation to the “in crowd.” You can’t get much more in the center of the “in crowd” of the church than being a bishop, and a male bishop at that.

I think in this early testimony to the resurrection that we read in the gospels, a parable is here for those of us, all of us in the church, Jesus’ closest friends, the Jesus “in crowd.” We may be the slowest to apprehend the full, frightening, wonderful truth of the resurrection. We may have to listen to the testimony of those whom we don’t consider to be on the “in crowd.” We may have to admit that the resurrection is both our hope and our judgment as followers of Jesus.

Happy Easter. He is risen, he is risen indeed.

William H. Willimon

The Violent Bear It Away

Maundy Thursday
Tonight we begin the enactment of a story, Jesus’ last hours. I don’t know what most impresses you about the story of the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion of Jesus. What impresses me is its sheer bloodiness, the violence. I pray to God that I’ll never get so hardened of heart, so inoculated to the violence, that I cease to flinch as Jesus is nailed to the wood.
It’s a very violent story. Jesus foretold this night in a parable (Mt. 21). A man had a vineyard. He improved it, built a wall around it, a tower too. He leased his vineyard to some tenants, allowing them to collect and keep the fruit of the vineyard, never charging them rent. One day, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect the rent that was due. The wicked tenants beat the servants, killing one, stoning another half to death. The owner thought, “Unbelievable! This time I’ll send my own son to collect my rent, that will surely shame them, or bring out the best in them.”
The owner failed fully to reckon the depth of wickedness, the potential for violence among the tenants. They say to themselves, “Well, here comes the son, the heir to the vineyard. Let’s bash in his head, kill him, so that it will be ours.”
And Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is just like that. He who never one time used violence, or even self-defense (wouldn’t let us use our swords tonight to protect him), was the cause of violence. He, who embodied the best, brought out in us, the worst. The gospel is a violent story.
So is ours. We are a violent people, we tenants of the vineyard, and most of the stories about us, if they are true, are bathed in blood. Historian Stephen Ambrose says that 1945, the year before my birth, may have been history’s bloodiest year. In every corner of the world, the sight, says Ambrose, of a half dozen teenaged boys, walking down a street, would strike fear among the people. They were armed to the teeth, young killers in uniforms provided by old men in government. I was born one year later, the year of the last lynching in the South, in my hometown. I was conceived in blood.
And weren’t we all? Creation is but six chapters old, says Genesis (6:11), when God notes that something had gone terribly wrong. The earth that God intended to be filled with birds and beasts and humanity, is “filled with violence.”
And hasn’t it always, at least our part of the earth? A few years ago was published a three volume, Violence in America.[1] A brief perusal proves it really is as American as apple pie. We were born in blood, what we call “The Revolution,” others call it the genocide of the natives. 168 people killed by a young man, U.S. Army trained, in Oklahoma City. The crazed Unabomber, a Harvard man. Most of our children have seen something like a thousand TV murders by the time they are ten. And so many of our heroes, Kennedy, King, Lincoln, assassinated by their fellow citizens. I confess I only made it for about twenty of the encyclopedia’s nearly 2,000 bloody pages.
And he gathered us, the night before he was whipped, beaten and nailed to the wood. And taking the bread said, “This is my body, broken, for you.” And then the cup, “This is my blood, shed, for you.”
For you. Because if there were not some blood to it, some brokeness, it wouldn’t be for me, for you.
“We don’t really believe that the cup actually contains the blood of Christ, do we?” he asked. Well, why not? What did you think it meant when it said, on Christmas, that “the Word became flesh and moved in with us”?
“I will, having failed at all else, send them the Son,” said the Father, that will bring out the best in them, shame them, change them, surely.” Well, tonight we see that, he came into the world, the world (in the words of Genesis, “filled with violence”) and brought out the worst in us.
Any Savior who wants to save us, must be willing to get bloody in order to get to us, for our story is one of broken bodies and shed blood.
Earlier, in Matthew’s gospel, when they came and told Jesus that John the Baptist had been arrested and was awaiting execution (Mt. 11:12), Jesus commented that, since the first days of Creation, since Genesis, since John, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent try to take it by force.
What’s new? Well, what’s new is this night, that the kingdom should come to us, the violent, not by violence, but by One willing to turn his cheek to the smiters, to shed blood, body to be broken, for us, for us.
[1] Violence in America: An Encyclopedia, Ronald Gottesman and Richard Maxwell Brown (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001).

The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry

Bill Easum, our consultant in ministry in North Alabama, has a provocative word about the need to empower the laity to do ministry:
“You know, one of the issues here is that everyone relies too much on the pastor to do all the ministry.”
Before I could finish the man blurted out, “I’m aware our pastor needs help, but we can’t afford to hire any more staff.”
I couldn’t let that one go unanswered, so I responded, “I’ve never met a pastor who needed help. You don’t need more staff. All you need to do is equip your congregation to do ministry.”
For a brief moment the man looked at me dumbfounded and perplexed. Then with a hint of sadness in his voice he uttered the most despicable statement a Christian can make: “But we’re just laypeople. We’re not called to the ministry and we certainly aren’t professionals.”
(From Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Rediscovering Ministry, Bill Easum, with Linnea Nilsen Capshaw, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2004, pg. 14)
One of the regrettable results of our United Methodist stress on careful preparation for, and collegial accrediting for our pastors is that there have been a steady “professionalizing” of ministry. Easum makes the flat, direct statement, “I’ve never met a pastor who needed help. You don’t need more staff.”
We pastors ought to see ourselves, not as the “ministers,” but rather as coaches and equippers of those who are called to the ministry of Christ – the laity, the People of God. Years ago, my friend John Westerhoff said, “If you are a layperson and you are spending more than fifteen hours a week at church, you are wasting your time. That is not your ministry. You are not to run errands for the pastor at church, you are to join in Christ’s ministry in the world.”
Westerhoff continued, “And if you are a pastor who spends more than fifteen hours a week working in the world, you are wasting your time. The work of the laity is too tough for them to do that work without being equipped and enabled to do that work. Your job, as pastor, is to equip them for their baptismal work in the world.”
So that implies that the test for our pastoral ministry is not, “How much have I been able to accomplish at my church?” but rather, “How much have I enabled the laity to accomplish at their church.”

William H. Willimon

The Dream of Pastoral Leadership

Most contemporary accounts of leadership imply that the leader is the one who asks questions, moves toward answers, and clarifies where we are and what we are doing. However, Lewis Parks and Bruce Birch note that the Christian leader may be the one who helps us live with mystery, to follow the Dream, to find meaning and direction, even when our final destination is left up to God:

By most contemporary accounts the leader should ask the sort of questions that clear up the fog and reveal a clear path forward to a specific destination. What traits do I need to be successful? Where are the models of excellence? What information must I process? What corporate culture must I penetrate? Where are the landmines? How accurate is our feedback system? What nostalgia is holding us back? What vision will propel us forward? What may we extrapolate from the present to prepare for our future?

According to the books of Samuel leadership is not about clearing up a fog or, to use a preferable word, a mystery. Leadership is about learning to accept that mystery and to live well within it. In the fecund language of William Cowper’s 1774 hymn on providence, leadership means being absorbed by the questions arising from one overriding fact: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Are the ominous clouds on the horizon actually “big with mercy,” and will those clouds “break in blessings” on our heads? Can I stop projecting the fears of “feeble sense” on the Lord long enough to glimpse the “smiling face” that lies “behind a frowning providence”? Am I strong enough to break rank from those who “scan his work in vain” because of their unbelief? Will I allow God the courtesy of interpreting what God is up to because I hope that one day God “will make it plain”?
Leaders are normally consumed by action. By one well-known contemporary account the daily activities of a chief executive are characterized by “brevity, variety, and discontinuity.” Barely half of their activities engage them for as long as nine minutes. They may average 583 activities in an eight hour day, mostly collecting, processing, and transmitting soft information; negotiating potential or actual conflict; and attending the rituals and ceremonies of the organization.Only 10 percent of these activities will last as long as an hour.
Yet every leader carries some ultimate interpretation of who they are and what they do. It is a portable inner vision of self in the world. It is the stash of the pieces of their lives and the weaving together of those pieces into a narrative that gives perspective to the relentless daily practice. For some church leaders the interpretation of self in the world is still beneath the surface of speech. All they know for sure is how much they are not like the persons being described in some of the most popular literature of leadership and management. They hunger for an interpretation that has more to do with mystery and drama than those glib profiles of success.
For most leaders the interpretation of self in the world is a positive exercise of the imagination, even if only carried out at the edge of consciousness. It has the character of what one prominent writer on leadership calls “the Dream,” a vague sense of self in the world that generates energy and a sense of life as adventure. The Dream is “more formal than a pure fantasy, yet less articulated than a fully thought-out plan.” For the church leader this might mean viewing herself or himself in such a character as a rescuer, defender, mover and shaker, midwife, wizard, gardener, or coach.
For church leaders the Dream must be placed within a narrative of providence, the fabric of God’s larger purposes and movements. The Dream is more than a self-referenced project of determination and action. The Dream is a gift of experience and reflection that arises out of the drama of leading the people of God. It is God who gives to church leadership its integrity, and God’s actions in real time that give to church leadership its weight. To be a church leader is to theologize; to lead well is to theologize incessantly. The books of Samuel have modeled the practice throughout. What power behind the stars responds to social chaos by sending a leader? Who ultimately calls leaders and coaxes them toward their futures? Who finally judges leaders when they err and holds them to account when they repent? From whom do leaders receive their visions for a just society and their inspirations for compassion? How shall leaders manage their hungers and order their loves? [Here] we raise the God question once again, this time as the ultimate factor in the practice of church leadership.

— Excerpts from Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly: A Biblical Model of Church Leadership, by Lewis A. Parks and Bruce C. Birch, Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 149-151.

Blessings upon all you pastors as you attempt to help God’s people to live the dream.
William H. Willimon

Meeting and Being Met by God

Two people meet one another on the sidewalk. Their eyes meet. Will they greet one another, encounter one another, or only pass by silently?

One person extends her hand, the other responds. They shake hands, embrace.

“How are you getting along?” he asks.

“Fine,” she responds. “And you?”

The handshake, the embrace, the traditional words of meeting are a ritual that enables us to meet one another. Without the ritual, without the familiar, predictable pattern, we might not risk the meeting. We would not know how to come into the presence of another. The ritual helps us overcome the distance between the distance between us. It ends the separation.

The church also has a pattern of familiar words and actions whereby we are enabled to meet both other people and God. You might think of our Sunday morning worship pattern as a drama, a drama of meeting. On Sunday we follow a script–a pattern of words and actions that begins, moves from one act to another, and then comes to a conclusion.

Who are the actors in this drama of worship? The minister, the choir, the organist or pianist, and the ushers? This makes the congregation the audience. Is that the way it ought to be? No. The congregation are actors in this divine-human drama. We are not to come on Sunday morning as if we were going to a movie or play, as if we were coming to passively watch the stars act their parts. We are there to join together in prayer and song. We are the actors rather than the audience.

Our worship leaders, like your minister, choir, organist, and ushers, are to help us worship, not to worship for us. They are there to invite us to sing, to cue us when it is time to kneel or pray or speak, to lead us so that we can all join together with one heart and voice in the praise of God. When we experience Sunday worship as a time to walk in, flop down in our seat, and passively watch someone else meet God, we have not experience the fullness of Christian worship.
Why do we have a set pattern for our worship services? Why do we often print an order of worship in our bulletin that you follow on Sunday morning? Why does your church usually worship in much the same way every Sunday? Because it is easier to gather for worship if we have some predictable pattern, some familiar pattern that brings us together.

If you sing a solo, you can “do your own thing.” You can sing in your own style and temp. But if you are in a choir, if you want to make music with more than one voice, you must get together. Everyone follows the same set of notes, sings the same words. Private, solitary meetings with God have their place. But congregational worship, usually Sunday mornings, is a group time, it is a time for meeting, gathering in the body of Christ, joining together with one voice and coming before God.

To that end, we sing hymns together because it is fun to join our voices in shouts of praise. We pray together because our deepest needs and highest joys are generally those we share with others and so we now join with others in sharing those needs and joys with God. We listen to God’s Word together because the gospel is not simply addressed to us as solitary individuals but as the body of Christ. We respond to the Word by saying a creed because our beliefs are not simply the private thoughts of our hearts but are nurtured, corrected, expanded, challenged, and supported in fellowship with other Christians in the church. This is why we generally find it helpful to have a pattern for our Sunday worship–so we can get it all together.

You hear your voice, raised with others in the congregation, singing the hymn. Now, you feel that a veil has been thrown back. You see what you were unable to glimpse in your work-a-day, Monday through Saturday world. It is as if heaven comes very close to you and a new, wondrous world has been opened to you. You are able to say with your wondering ancestor Jacob, when heaven’s ladder was lowered to within his reach, “Surely the Lord is in the place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16).

So much of the time in church is spent using words like “should,” and “ought,” and “must.” Sunday, we keep a burden of greater responsibility on your shoulders, the day when we gather and the preacher tells us what we ought to do.

The “service” that we offer to God, but worship is also the service that renders to us. While we are busy praising God, God is responding to us. Faith is a gift, not our achievement. As we are praising God, we are being formed into God’s people. We are practicing the presence of God in way that, as God becomes more apparent to us on Sunday; God is surely more available to us on Monday.

Why do we do it? We do it because we are in love. The modern world teaches us to ask, of every event and relationship, “Now what good will this do me?” The modern world teaches us to make ourselves the center of the world. We have no more important project than ourselves.

Christian worship is counter-cultural to all this. We do it, not primarily to “get something out of it,” but to give something to it. We do it because we are in love.

Try this example. You are walking hand-in-hand in the park on a beautiful spring day. At some point, you lean over and kiss the one with whom you are in love.

Now, if someone asks you, “Now what good does that do you? What good do you get out of it?” It would be stupid question to ask. Gestures like kissing, hugging, are the actions of lovers. We do it out of love. We do it, not “to get something out of it,” but rather to offer something to the one with whom we are in love. Christian worship is a lot like that.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

“This is the day which the Lord has made.” (Psalm 118:24). Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! – Psalm 100:1-2, 4.

William H. Willimon

Be sure to register to attend “Costly Discipleship” with The Rev. Dr. Peter Storey at Canterbury UMC, March 23, from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m!

Worship: Acts of Love

United Methodists join with the majority of the world’s Christians in celebrating the sacraments of signs of God’s near and present love to us.

“Don’t tell me, show me,” pleads a song in My Fair Lady. To say “I love you” is to say something wonderful, but sometimes we want more than words. We communicate not only by speech but also by action. “Actions speak louder than words,” we sometimes say.

God knows this. In the Bible, God not only says, “I love you” through the words of the law, the prophets, the sermons of Jesus, and the letters of Paul; God’s love is also demonstrated.

God’s love is demonstrated through signs. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manager” (Luke 1:12). The babe at Bethlehem is a sign that God is acting to redeem his people.

God’s love is demonstrated through symbols. At a wedding, words of love are spoken by a man and woman. Rings are also given with the explanation, “The wedding ring is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The rings become symbols to those who wear them of the covenant they have made. To the detached observer, the rings are only pieces of metal. To those who wear they, they are powerful symbols that express, in a visible and tangible way, some of the deepest and most inexpressible feelings in their lives.

A flag, a handshake, a kiss, a cross, a wedding ring–these are the symbols of love that say more than mere words can express. Jesus himself became the supreme visible and tangible symbol, which expresses and reveals God’s love for us.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,

full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory,

glory as of the only Son from the Father…And from

his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace…

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in

the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

John 1:14-18

God’s love is demonstrated most powerfully through sacraments. Sacraments are sings and symbols:

Bread–Fitting symbol of hunger and nourishment, human needs and divine gifts.

Water–Symbol of birth, life, refreshment, death, cleanliness.

Wine–Rich and red symbol of spirit, vitality, life, blood.

Paul told the divided church at Corinth, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread?” (I Corinthians 10:17). Elsewhere, Paul spoke of baptism as if we were drowning our old lives so that we might be born to new life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized

into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were

buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that

as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the

Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

-Romans 6:3-4

Not only objects like a loaf of bread or a cup of wine can be symbols. Actions can also convey deep meaning. A hug, a kiss, a handshake, kneeling for prayer, applause, a shout of joy–all are ways of letting actions speak louder than words in our worship of God. Sacraments are everyday objects like bread and water and everyday actions like eating and bathing, that, when done among God’s people in worship, convey our love for our God. They are means by which we express feelings too deep for words.

We not only use these objects and actions in worship to show our love for God, God also uses sacraments to show his love for us. Our Creator knows that we creatures depend on demonstrations of divine love. So God uses everyday things we can understand to show us love that defies understanding. God gives us the Christ.

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by

the prophets; but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son.

Hebrews 1:1-2

Jesus, at the end of his earthly ministry, gave us a powerful symbol of love–a meal of loving friends.

The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had

given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this

in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. do this, as often as you drink it,

in remembrance of me.”

I Corinthians 11:23-35

Jesus also gave his followers a sacrament of his love to share with the rest of the world–Baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Christian faith.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the

name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19

We United Methodists observe two sacraments, two “acts of love” that Jesus gave his disciples; Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion). In these sacraments we taste, touch, fee, know, and experience the grace of God. We know the love of God to be a present reality in our lives.

We believe the sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of

The Christian’s profession and of God’s love towards us. They are means of

grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and

confirming our faith in him.

The Book of Discipline, par.68, page 634.

What do sacraments mean? Admittedly, the sacraments speak of mysteries too deep for words or mere understanding. As one person said of the Lord’s Supper, “I would rather experience it than understand it.” In another sense the meaning of the sacraments is close to the most common, everyday experiences in life.

The Lord’s supper means everything that any meal means: love, fellowship, hunger and nourishment of life, hospitality, joy. These mealtime meanings are given added significance because, at this meal, we commune with the risen Christ who joins us at our table.

Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, birth, power, refreshment, life. These natural meanings of water are given added significance because his baptismal water is given “in the name of Jesus.”

You can think of other acts of worship beside the sacraments that are also acts of love: confirmation, a wedding, a funeral, sermons, prayers, hymns, altar calls. In all these activities, we reach out to God in love, only to find that, in love, God has been reaching out to us.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

– Matthew 18:20

William H. Willimon

Continuing with our discussion from January at Clearbranch with Tony Campolo, please be sure to join Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa, and me at Canterbury United Methodist Church on Saturday, March 24, from 10:00 a.m.-2:30 pm, as we continue to explore what “costly discipleship” means.
Because of Dr. Storey’s prophetic ministry in South Africa, involving prison chaplaincy to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, and three decades of preaching against the apartheid regime from his pulpit, Storey was blacklisted by the government, arrested more than once and his church tear-gassed and invaded by armed police.
Come and hear how we can be better disciples and practice prophetic ministry here in our context!

What’s the Point of Worship?

During the Season of Lent, for the next three weeks, I’ll focus my e-mail messages on worship as the central art of church.

Frankly, I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? I would think that being a Christian is more than sitting and listening. It is also doing. What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and listening?

What is the chief end of humanity?

The proper answer from the Westminster Confession: The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

The Christian faith is a matter of God’s offer of love in Christ and our response to that love. We respond to God’s love with our loving acts of service toward those in need in the church and in the world. And yet we respond to God’s love, not only by loving deeds of service to others, but also by simply doing the things we do for God because God is God and we are God’s children. We are called not simply to obey God but also to glorify God. Above all, we are called to enjoy God.We are called to worship.

Love is not love if it is simply a matter of obeying rules, running errands, and performing duties. Some things we do just because we enjoy being in the presence of our loved one. So we sing songs, write poetry, dance, clap our hands, share food, or simply prop up our feet and do nothing but enjoy being with one another.In these purposeless moments of sheer enjoyment, we come very close to what love is all about.

If someone asked a Christian, “What’s the purpose of your worship? Why do you gather on Sunday and sing songs, dress up, kneel, march in processions, clap your hands, shed tears, speak, eat, and listen?” We could only say, “Because we are in love.”

The most serious, most delightful business of Christians, when you get down to it is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In other words, to worship. Whether we are glorifying and enjoying God in church in our music, sermons, baptisms, and prayers our outside of church in our social concern, witnessing, and charity, it is all for one purpose: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

I can’t put it better than in one of the most “pointless” and wonderful of the psalms, the very last psalm:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Psalm 150

Here is the heart of Christians at worship, pure praise done for the sheer enjoyment of love of a Creator is loves and is therefore beloved.

William H. Willimon