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Words Mean Things: Christmas Edition

December 9th, 2013 · 4 Comments

I know it’s not Christmas yet, and I know there are a few souls left who try not to sing the “Christ is born!” type songs until Christmas Eve (and continue singing them throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas), so consider this a part of your Advent preparations.

Words mean things: the words of Christmas songs are no exception. The songs we sing about Christ’s birth tell a beautiful story, so it matters what we sing. You can write this off as a “Christmas songs pet peeve list,” but some things are important enough to get right, and I think the Christmas Story falls into that category.

Silent Night: First, the English translation of “Silent Night” that most of us know is a tortured one, as poetic translations often are, with strange word order and strange word choices, but it does make sense if you think about it. “All is calm, all is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child” means “Around that Virgin Mother and her Child over there, everything is calm and bright.” Takeaway 1: “‘Round” is short for “around”: it is not a description of the woman’s shape. Takeaway 2: Don’t breathe between “Virgin” and “Mother”: the two words go together.  The next line is a prayer: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace!”  The stanza that we often sing third is even harder to parse: “Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” Let me try my best here: “Son of God (a.k.a. Jesus, a.k.a. Lord), love’s pure light, which accompanies the dawn of redeeming grace, beams radiantly from your holy face.” I heard a country version of the song recently that contained the line, “Jesus, Lord of thy birth.” Someone completely missed the point of the line.

The First Nowell: This song narrates the Christmas story as found in Luke 2 and also in Matthew 2. In Luke 2, you may recall, we read that “an angel of the Lord” appeared to the shepherds. An angel. One. That’s why the song says, “The first Nowell the angel did say …” Not “the angels did say …” It was one angel who told the shepherds about Christ’s birth. After the angel finished this announcement, he was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host. And it is “The First Nowell,” not “The First Noel.” “Nowell” in the first stanza comes from the Latin novellae, which means “news,” so, “The first [good] news the angel did say …” In the refrain, it does say “Noel,” which is from the Latin natalis and means “birthday.” So there have been puns in songs long before there was country music.

Angels We Have Heard on High: Gloria in excelsis Deo means “Glory to God in the highest,” which is what the angels said in Luke 2:14. No big mystery there: it’s just important to sing with understanding.

Joy to the World: “The Lord is come,” not “The Lord has come.” This one doesn’t really change the meaning, but “is” is what Isaac Watts wrote, not “has.” “Is come” reflects the Germanic roots of English: in German, the present perfect of “come” (kommen) uses sein (”to be”) rather than haben (”to have”). Aside: this hymn is really an Advent hymn instead of a Christmas hymn. It speaks of the Second Advent of Christ, not the Nativity. But everyone enjoys singing it at Christmas.

Away in a Manger: “Stars in the bright sky” fits the meter of the tune. “Stars in the sky” is one syllable short. A lot of people have theological issues with this one. “No crying he makes”? Really? If Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then he did, indeed, cry. It’s still a nice song: just sing the “no crying he makes” part very softly, or with your fingers crossed behind your back.

And finally, a question for you all: Inclusive language: help or hindrance? Does altering the words to familiar Christmas songs to be more gender-inclusive help, or does it get in the way? For example, in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Wesley wrote, “Born to raise the sons of earth; born to give them second birth” and “Pleased as man with men to dwell.” Many of our modern hymnals have “Born to raise us from the earth; born to give us second birth” and “Pleased as man with us to dwell” (or “Pleased in flesh with us to dwell.”) What think ye of such alterations?

→ 4 CommentsTags: Holidays · Holy Days · Liturgy · Music · Theology

We have a winner!

November 21st, 2013 · 1 Comment

The winner of a copy of Rekindling Advent is: The Cap’n! Congratulations, Cap’n. I’ll be emailing you shortly with details.

Remember, you can get copies of Rekindling Advent at the book’s website, at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and from other booksellers.

→ 1 CommentTags: Books · Holidays · Holy Days · Theology · Writing

Book Giveaway: Rekindling Advent

November 15th, 2013 · 5 Comments

rekindling-advent----cover-8b-lo-resReaders of this blog have a chance to win a free copy of my new book, Rekindling Advent: Rediscovering the Season of Joyful Waiting, published by Doulos Resources.

What? You haven’t heard of it yet? Well, here’s your chance to check it out.

What? You’ve already purchased a copy? Well, if you win, then you’ll have an extra copy to give as a gift. (Don’t wait to give it as a Christmas gift: Advent begins December 1 this year, so you’ll want them to have it before then.)

To enter the drawing, just post a comment. I will draw one name at random and send you a copy. Be sure you have a valid email address registered here so I can contact you if you win.

I’ll leave the comments open through Wednesday, November 20. On Thursday, November 21, I’ll draw the winning name and post the winner’s name here on the blog.

In case you didn’t see the notice on Facebook today, Devotions for Rekindling Advent, a FREE booklet of daily devotions for the Advent season, is now available on the Rekindling Advent web page. Just scroll down to the words “Other Relevant Links” and there it is!

Also, the Kindle edition is now available on the book’s Amazon page.

So, comment away!

→ 5 CommentsTags: Books · Church · Fun · Holidays · Holy Days · Liturgy · Theology · Writing

Rekindling Advent: Digital Edition now available!

November 3rd, 2013 · No Comments

Update: The Digital Edition  of Rekindling Advent is now available! If you use Kindle, Nook, iPad, or pretty much any other reader, you can download a digital edition directly from Doulos Resources. The paperback edition is $9.95 and the Digital Edition is only $2.99. Here’s the link: http://www.doulosresources.org/store/estore/rekindling_estore.html

→ No CommentsTags: Bible · Church · Holidays · Holy Days · Liturgy · Music · Theology · Writing

New Book: Rekindling Advent

November 3rd, 2013 · 1 Comment

rekindling-advent----cover-8b-lo-res

Many of you who read this blog probably also follow my posts either on Facebook or Twitter; however, in case you don’t, you may have missed my announcement this week.

My new book, Rekindling Advent: Rediscovering the Season of Joyful Waiting, has been published by Doulos Resources. It was officially released yesterday, November 1, 2013. That’s just one month before the beginning of Advent.

So, why another Advent book? After all, there is not exactly a shortage of Advent devotional books. Well, this is not a devotional book. It’s about about the whys, whens, and hows of Advent, and of the Church Year in general.

Since Advent consists of four Sundays (and the weekdays in between), the book is in four sections. The first is entitled “Should We Observe Advent?” and answers the sorts of theological questions I’ve fielded from fellow ministers, elders, and church members over the years. Questions like, “Why are there Advent candles in a Presbyterian (or Methodist, or Baptist, or non-denominational) church?” It looks at the observance of Advent and the liturgical year in general from a sola Scriptura perspective. You may be thinking, “That’s not possible.” Well, read the book and draw your own conclusions.

The second section is “Why should we observe Advent?” In other words, are there scripturally sound, compelling reasons to incorporate this season into our worship at church and at home? Does it help us proclaim the Gospel, and does it help us live out that Gospel? I believe it does, and I explain why I believe so.

The third section is entitled “When should we observe Advent?” That may seem like an obvious question, but we’ve seen the “Christmas season” creep back further and further each year. Some Christians think we need to adjust accordingly and start Advent sooner. My take is, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if we only tell one part of the story, we’re not telling the story at all. By giving Advent its due, we in turn give Christmas its due. We let the story unfold.

The final section is “How should we observe Advent?” This section includes material from my big manila folder of “Advent stuff” that I’ve collected over the years. Ideas for Advent candle lighting liturgies, Advent hymn suggestions, and more. There is a special section on the Jesse Tree, incorporating the symbols that my wife has designed and digitized for machine embroidery. (You can get the digital files to embroider them yourself and/or purchase ready-made sets of these ornaments at her website.)

There’s a bonus section of Frequently Asked Questions about Advent. I try to cover it all: I’ve reached into my big manila folder and pulled out the questions you have asked me over the years. If you have a question that isn’t covered, I’ve included a special email address so I can answer your questions personally.

Please consider ordering a copy today. That will give you plenty of time to read it, recommend it to others, and begin to incorporate its ideas in your church and home, during this upcoming Advent season and in the years to come.

→ 1 CommentTags: Bible · Books · Church · Holidays · Holy Days · Liturgy · Music · Theology · Writing

Halloween, Reformation Day, and the Devil

October 31st, 2013 · No Comments

Today is Halloween, which is short for “All Hallows’ Even,” or the evening before All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas. Today, October 31, is also celebrated as Reformation Day by Protestants, because on this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, in which he argued against the sale of indulgences by the church. This act ignited the movement that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. One of the “banners” of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine teaches that Scripture alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Not the only rule, but the only infallible rule. Tradition and reason have their place too, but, according to the Reformation principle, they are always subject to Scripture.

Except, it seems, when it comes to the devil. Every year on or around Halloween, it becomes apparent that many Christians have a very detailed “theology” of the devil. They are convinced of the devil’s origins, the devil’s power, the devil’s, name, etc. But, if we subject this detailed “devilology” to sola Scriptura, we see that many, if not most, of these widely- and deeply-held beliefs have no foundation whatsoever. Here’s what we do know, from Scripture, about the devil:

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (I Peter 5:8).”

“Such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds (II Corinthians 11:13-15).”

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).”

Scripture affirms the existence of a creature called the devil or Satan. Scripture describes this creature as one who would tempt God’s people to sin; however, the apostle James seems to indicate that the normal way we are tempted to sin is when we are “dragged away by our own desires” (James 1:14), which makes sense, given that the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the human heart is “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). In Job, a character simply called “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew, not a proper name per se) urges God to test Job, thinking that Job will abandon his faith. We read in the Gospels that Satan puts it into Judas Iscariot’s heart to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3). I Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan incited King David to conduct a census of Israel, and that God is displeased with David’s taking a census.

Going by sola Scriptura, these are the clearest passages we have about the devil or Satan. There is also this passage in Revelation 12: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” However, this passage begins with the words, “A great sign (or portent) appeared in heaven” (Rev. 12:1), so this passage is, by its own admission, a symbolic one. This causes me to speculate about its meaning. Are we to take it as a newspaper-article description of a historic event, or as symbolic of something else? Is the event (or are the events) described in this vision something that happened in the ancient past, or during the earthly ministry of Christ (strongly suggested by the timeline of the vision)? Could it instead be a depiction of what happens as the Gospel is advanced throughout the world? Is it a future event? Or is it possibly a combination of all the above? When a passage tells us at the beginning that it is a sign or portent, we need to treat it as such and not as straightforward narrative.

In Luke 10:18, Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” but it seems pretty clear (at least to me) that he is responding to the words of the seventy disciples, who have just returned to tell him that they have cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus is saying that the realm of evil had indeed been dealt a crushing blow. Jesus seems to be saying that Satan is “cast from heaven” (that is, from a place of authority or power) in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Satan was certainly cast from a place of power through the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ: “When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:13-15).” Christ, in his death and resurrection, “bound the strong man.” He cast out the accuser (ha-satan). He triumphed over the rulers and authorities (in “heavenly places”) and made a public example of them.

Here’s what the Bible does not say about the devil:

  • That his name is Lucifer. The name “Lucifer” is actually the Latin version of the Hebrew word in Isaiah 14:12 that is best translated into English as “day star.” This name is not applied to the devil or Satan. In this passage, it is clearly a name for the king of Babylon. God says in verse four, “You shall take up this taunt against the king of Babylon.” If we go by sola Scriptura, that seems pretty clear.
  • Satan was the most beautiful angel of heaven and was cast out because he wanted to be like God. This is also derived from a misreading of Isaiah 14:12, which is not about the devil at all but instead is about the king of Babylon. The symbolic passage in Revelation 12 mentioned earlier does seem to indicate Satan’s being cast out of heaven, but it says it was because a “war broke out in heaven.”
  • Satan was the worship leader in heaven. This was a new one on me just a couple of years ago. Apparently, this is based on the aforementioned misreading of Isaiah 14, along with a misreading of another passage, Ezekiel 28, which is directed at the king of Tyre, not at the devil. Ezekiel 28:13, in the KJV, makes reference to “pipes,” leading some to misinterpret this to mean that instrumental music (particularly organ music) is the “devil’s work.” The words translated as ”tabrets and pipes” in the KJV actually mean “settings and sockets,” referring to the settings of jewels and other precious stones.
  • The devil is the “ruler of hell.” This one seems to come from the cartoons more than anything else. The aforementioned passage in Revelation speaks of the devil being cast to earth, not into hell. The devil is cast into hell later on in the book of Revelation, but it’s as a punishment. The devil is never depicted as being “in charge” of hell, nor are any demons. Marcellus Kik, in An Eschatology of Victory, says if anything, hell would be worse for the devil than for anyone else because all the people he deceived over the centuries would be there! The devil would fear hell just as much as, if not more than, anyone else.

Most of the “common knowledge” out there about the devil comes not only from misreading these passages of Scripture and relying on a mistranslation in the KJV, but also from Milton’s Paradise Lost, from legend, and from popular culture (movies, television, and novels): hardly sola Scriptura.

For all that we don’t know about the devil, here’s what we do know:

  • “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).” There is only one God. There are not two gods: a good god called “God” and an evil god called the devil. Many Christians give so much credit to the devil, it’s downright blasphemous. God alone is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. The devil, whoever or whatever it is, is none of those things.
  • “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (I John 4:2-4).” Believers have the Spirit of God within them, and since there is only one God, then God’s Spirit is certainly greater than any other spirit or spirits God’s people may encounter in this world.

Martin Luther, with whom we began this article, certainly believed in the devil and in demons, to an extent that many modern Christians may call superstitious. But even for all of that, Luther had this to say:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

Some have speculated that the “one little word” to which Luther refers is the name “Jesus,” but according to Luther’s own writings, the “one little word” is actually a short phrase: ”Devil, you lie.” Jesus said, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).” One of those lies is that the devil is far more powerful, and far more important, than he actually is. Let’s not assist him in perpetuating this lie by relying on tradition or legend to inform our theology. Sola Scriptura! And Happy Halloween!

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The Anatomy of Doubt

April 8th, 2013 · No Comments

(A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter)


Poor Thomas. “Doubting Thomas.” That’s all anyone remembers about him. Hardly ever do we hear anyone mention that Thomas went on to evangelize the Parthians, and Persians, and carried the Christian faith to the coast of India, which to this day boasts a native population who call themselves the “Christians of St. Thomas.” Hardly ever do we hear how Thomas became a martyr, being speared to death for his bold and uncompromising witness to Christ. This later history of Thomas lets us know something not only about the man, but about the anatomy of doubt.

Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Doubt is often the path to greater certainty. There is a healthy kind of doubt: a skepticism that wants to check things out. When the internet first began to gain popularity, initially through email, there was an explosion of rumors and urban legends. Nefarious no-goodniks, we were told, were putting infected hypodermic needles in the ball pit at McDonald’s, or under gas pump handles. Congress was considering a bill to ban religious broadcasting from the airwaves. (This one was a revival of a petition circulated in the 70s, blaming atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. No such bill has ever existed.) For every email we forwarded, we’d receive a nickel from Bill Gates, or the Taco Bell Dog would come dance across our computer screen. This exploitation of our collective gullibility led to the creation of many fact-checking sites and to a healthy suspicion, on the part of many of us, to any “facts” we receive via forwarded emails or posts on social media. Thomas was this kind of doubter. He did not dismiss the resurrection out of hand. He said, “I need more information. I need to check the facts. I need to see for myself.” And instead of dismissing Thomas’s doubts, Jesus graciously accommodates them, giving Thomas exactly what he needs. And this leads to an even stronger faith for Thomas. When Thomas does see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and in Jesus’ side, he delivers one of the most explicit declarations of Christ’s divinity in all of scripture, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus accepts these titles, accepts this worship, as true and right. Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is God.

Some grow up in a closed environment in terms of faith. Everything is just so, and questioning is not encouraged. I saw many such people in college. I went to a Christian college, but one that prized inquiry, prized the kind of skepticism that says, “I need more information.” Some of my friends, who had grown up in more rigid situations, were not prepared to hear, at a Christian college, theories that questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, or that noted the differences in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, or the similarities between the story of Noah and the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. For some of them, it was the end of their faith. They had been brought up to follow unquestioningly. They had never been given the freedom to question or the tools with which to deal with questions. For others, however, the process of questioning led them to a deeper, more grounded faith. They now not only knew what they believed, but they understood why they believed it and could defend it. That is the story of Thomas. Honest skepticism, honest doubt, leads to deeper faith, which then leads to worship.

There is, however, another kind of doubt. It is a disbelief that clothes itself in religious garb and surrounds itself with pious words. The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were doubters: they did not believe in Christ, much less recognize their need for Christ. But unlike Thomas, whose doubt was open to answers, their doubt was settled, confirmed, ossified, entrenched. They busied themselves with the minutiae of their religious institutions, and they prided themselves on their knowledge of those minutiae. Even when confronted with evidence of Christ’s divinity, their doubt only grew. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, for example, those who opposed Jesus sought all the more to put him to death. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” they seemed to say. Jesus, referring to these religiously-garbed doubters, says, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

The Thomas kind of doubter and the Pharisee kind of doubter are exact opposites. The heart of the Thomas doubter seeks God yet needs some outside help, some further information. And for this kind of doubter, Christ provides whatever is needed. If the prayer of your heart is, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” God is always pleased to answer that prayer. God is a rewarder of those who seek him. The Pharisee kind of doubter, on the other hand, believes that having everything in order on the outside is all that is necessary, while God says that what is on the inside is death. To these, Jesus says, “First clean the inside of the cup.” In other words, stop focusing on externals and focus on your own heart!

We come to the Lord’s Table. As we say each time, our Savior invites those who trust in him to share the feast he has prepared. That doesn’t mean only those with a perfect, doubt-free faith may come. It means those whose hearts are open to Christ may come, even with their questions and doubts. If you are thinking, “I don’t deserve to come to the Table” or “I’m not worthy to come to the table,” then you’re exactly who needs to come to the Table. The heart that’s open to God, the thankful heart, the heart that longs to worship, is ready to participate in the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. If you are not here to worship God, if your heart is not thankful but instead thankless and critical, closed to God’s grace, how can you come to the Table? How can you proclaim the merits of a Christ whom you deny?

If you come in pride, don’t. But if you come in faith, come. Don’t wait until your faith is 100% perfect. In the words of the old hymn, “If you tarry ‘til you’re better, you will never come at all.” Bring your imperfect faith, with its questions and doubts, to the only one who can answer those questions and dispel those doubts, the one who says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” My Lord and my God! I believe. Help my unbelief.

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“All of you, drink it.”

January 18th, 2013 · 12 Comments

It seems that the Presbyterian Church in America, one of the most conservative Presbyterian denominations, has defeated a change to its Directory for Worship that would have prohibited the practice of intinction. I find this a little surprising, given the PCA’s founding as a denomination dedicated to biblical inerrancy. After all, in instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus took the cup of wine and said, “All of you, drink of it,” not “All of you, dip of it.”

Before I continue, allow me to clarify two things:

1. The denomination in which I am a minister, the Presbyterian Church (USA), does allow intinction, and it is practiced rather widely. I, however, am not personally in favor of the practice, for reasons which will be explained here.

2. Neither the PCA nor the PC(USA) practices actual intinction: instead, what we are talking about is a kind of “self-intinction” where the communicant takes the wafer and dips it in the chalice for himself or herself. True intinction involves the celebrant dipping the wafer in the chalice and placing it on the communicant’s tongue. “Self-intinction” is prohibited in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in many Anglican dioceses and in Orthodox churches.

I don’t think intinction is a good idea for a number of reasons:

1. It strikes me as being somewhere between eccentric and rebellious. Let me explain: imagine you are a guest at our home for a Passover Seder. Toward the end of the Seder, the children search for the hidden Afikomen (a piece of matzo that was wrapped in a white cloth and hidden away earlier). The child who finds it brings it to me. I unwrap it, take it in my hands, and say the traditional blessing for the bread: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” I then break off approximately olive-sized pieces of this piece of matzo, giving a piece to each person around the table, and I tell everyone to eat it. All the guests take their piece of the Afikomen and eat it, except you. You instead push yours aside. After eating the Afikomen, we say the Barech (grace after meals). Then I pick up the cup of wine, which is the Third Cup or the Cup of Blessing, and I say the traditional blessing for the wine: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” I then ask everyone to drink the contents of their cups of wine while reclining to the left. Everyone around the table does so, except you. Instead of drinking your wine, you take the piece of the Afikomen that you didn’t eat when everyone else did, and you dip it in your cup and eat the now wine-coated piece of matzo.

Now, did you participate in the Tzafun (the eating of the Afikomen)? No. Did you participate in the drinking of the Third Cup of Wine, the Cup of Blessing? No. You did your own thing. Why? A more charitable reading of your actions would be that you are just a little “out there.” On the other hand, maybe you’re just a rebel and aren’t going to let anyone tell you what to do, even in the context of something like a Seder.

Now, Jesus took the matzo and said “Eat it,”  then after the meal he took the Cup of Blessing and said “All of you, drink it.” Christians throughout the centuries, and all around the world, have done just that: they’ve eaten the bread and they’ve drunk the wine. Then someone decided–why?–to dip the bread in the wine, which is not really following either one of the instructions of the Host of this meal. He says to eat it, and we don’t. He says to drink the wine, and instead we take the bread that we didn’t eat when he said to eat it, dip it in the wine, and then eat the wine-coated bread, which is not the same as eating the bread and then drinking the wine. Why? Just to be different?

2. Those who are practicing intinction may be doing so in an effort to provide the symbolism of the common cup while at the same time trying to mollify the more squeamish in their midst who wouldn’t want to drink from a common cup. Mission not accomplished: self-intinction is the most unhygienic means of distributing Communion: more so than drinking from the common cup. I Corinthians 10 puts more emphasis one one loaf than one cup, anyway: “Because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake.” Churches that practice self-intinction rarely, if ever, use a single loaf of bread: they use wafers, which are every bit as individualistic as the “wee cuppees” which they deem inferior to the common cup. Furthermore, those wafers are barely recognizable as bread.

3. If the trend of self-intinction comes from a desire for greater catholicity; i.e., if there is an idea out there that “the Episcopalians and Catholics do it this way,” they don’t, as has already been noted. There are some Catholic parishes where communicants do this and the priests don’t stop them, but it is against church law. Some Episcopal bishops allow intinction but for the most part in the Anglican Communion it is either disallowed or at least discouraged.

4. If there is a desire that people come forward for Communion rather than passing the bread and wine among the congregation (as is the practice of most Presbyterian congregations), why not just drink from the common cup? That is a question I have been asking ever since I heard people in the PCA talking about this. Why not just drink from the common cup? If it’s the “ick” factor, as I mentioned above, self-intinction is less hygienic than drinking from the common cup, not more hygienic. If someone has a real problem with the common cup, they can commune in one kind (bread only). Or you can use the individual cups. Back to the Seder: everyone has his or her own cup of wine as a part of the place setting: when we say we all drink of the First Cup, or the Second Cup, etc., that does not mean that we literally must share a single cup. “Join me for a drink” doesn’t mean we have to share a glass. Individual cups do not necessarily have to take away from our oneness in sharing in the wine.

Theologically, practically, symbolically, logistically, hygienically, liturgically: I cannot think of a good reason for PCA churches adopting intinction. And again, it is surprising that a denomination which requires its ministers and elders to confess a belief in biblical inerrancy would embrace a practice which doesn’t seem to me to square with an inerrantist view.

→ 12 CommentsTags: Bible · Liturgy · Theology

Happy Holidays!

November 29th, 2012 · 1 Comment

(Edited from an article I originally posted in 2009.)

A few years ago, American Family Radio (a fundamentalist Christian radio network based in Tupelo, MS) published its “naughty and nice” list of stores that they deemed “Christian-friendly” or “Christian-hostile.”  Top of their list of “Christian-friendly” businesses:  Wal-Mart. I guess things like paying a living wage, providing health care, ethical supply-chain practices, etc., don’t figure into AFR’s criteria.  So what did they base this decision on?  (Wait for it . . . ) Whether or not stores say “Merry Christmas” between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day (the “shopping season”) or  if they say “Happy Holidays” instead.  Those who say “Merry Christmas” get on the “nice” list, while those who say “Happy Holidays” get on the “naughty” list. Whatever.

1) No one “needs” to say “Merry Christmas” during the “shopping season” because it emphatically is not the Christmas season.  It just isn’t.  Look it up.  Now, if I see someone at this time of year and I don’t know if I will see them again before Christmas, I am very likely to say, “If I don’t see you before Christmas, have a Merry Christmas!”  But getting all hot under the collar because a cashier doesn’t say “Merry Christmas” when it isn’t the Christmas season makes no sense.  The Christmas season begins–not ends–on Christmas Eve and runs through Epiphany:  January 6.

2) While it emphatically is not the Christmas season right now, it is indeed the “holiday season” if we remember that the word “holiday” simply means “holy day.”  There are plenty of holy days during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  St. Nicholas’ is December 6.  St. Lucy’s Day is December 13.  Of course there is Christmas on December 25, but there are also the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5), and that period includes St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), St. John (December 27), Holy Innocents (December 28), and Holy Name of Jesus (January 1).  Then there’s Epiphany on January 6.  Add to that the civil holiday of Thanksgiving that has already passed, as well as the civil New Year’s Day (January 1), and you’ll see that it truly is a holiday season, and that “Happy Holidays” is most appropriate.  Then consider that other faiths have their own holy days during this time of year:  Chanukah, Islamic New Year, and many others.  Christ calls us to live in charity with everyone, not only the people who are exactly like us.  Good Christians are good neighbors, and that includes neighbors who are a different religion from you. And if we’re upset that many people celebrate “the holidays” as simply a secular gift-getting time and do not use that time to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, forcing them to use a particular greeting, or shaming them into doing so, will do nothing to bring them to faith in Christ.

So, as a Christian, let me say, “Happy Holidays!”

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Christ the King

November 19th, 2012 · No Comments

This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the final Sunday in the Church Year.

All our hymns and scriptures will focus this Sunday on the theme of Christ’s gracious reign over us and over creation. Matthew Bridges’ panoramic text that begins with the words “Crown him with many crowns” (often sung to DIADEMATA) captures the glory and splendor of this feast. The first line comes from the Book of Revelation, Chapter 19, verse 12: “His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems.”

It stands to reason: a King of this magnitude, whose birthday is celebrated with an annual twelve-day feast* (Christmas), and whose decisive victory in battle is celebrated with a fifty-day feast (Easter), would not just have one crown on his head. He would be crowned with many diadems.

Sadly, Bridges’ panoramic text is often conflated with stanzas from a different hymn by a completely different author (Godfrey Thring). Here is Bridges’ glorious original:

Crown him with many crowns,
The Lamb upon his throne;
Hark, how the heav’nly anthem drowns
All music but its own:
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity.

Crown him the Virgin’s Son,
The God Incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophies won
Which now his brow adorn:
Fruit of the mystic Rose,
As of that Rose the Stem;
The Root whence mercy ever flows,
The Babe of Bethlehem.

Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.

Crown him the Lord of peace,
Whose power a sceptre sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise:
His reign shall know no end,
And round his piercèd feet
Fair flow’rs of Paradise extend
Their fragrance ever sweet.

Crown him the Lord of years,
The Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres,
Ineffably sublime.
Glassed in a sea of light,
Where everlasting waves
Reflect his throne–the Infinite
Who lives–and loves–and saves.

Crown Him the Lord of heav’n,
One with the Father known,
And the blest Spirit through him giv’n
From yonder triune throne:
All hail, Redeemer, hail!
For thou hast died for me!
Thy praise shall never, never fail
Throughout eternity.

*If you refer to 26 December as “the day after Christmas” rather than the Second Day of Christmas or say “Christmas is over” anytime before 6 January, I will have to hurt you. You only get one day to celebrate your birthday every year: Jesus gets twelve!

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