Baptism: Old Testament Roots

This is a series of sermons I am doing on Baptism. For the first blog, go HERE. For my series on Communion, go HERE.

There is no baptism in the Old Testament, but there are two Old Testament symbols that get wrapped up in the New Testament symbol of baptism. These are baptism and ceremonial washing. These were very important to the Jewish people. If you wanted to become Jewish when you were not born Jewish, you could. You had to be circumcised and you had to be washed clean. Understanding those symbol brings light to the meaning of baptism.


A few days after birth, a male child would be brought to the temple to be circumcised. To understand this moment, you have to understand the biblical language of covenant. You did not make or write a covenant. You cut a covenant. Normally you would cut an animal in half and each take part as a sign of the covenant.

In circumcision, the covenant between the child and God was more literally cut into the skin. This marked physically who that child was and to whom they belong. Namely, they were part of the chosen people and belonged to God. They were part of the covenant and part of the promises God gave to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David.

Ceremonial washing was a means for spiritually cleansing after a person was made dirty. Examples of needing to wash in the Old Testament included when a person touched a dead body, when a sick person got better, and when a woman went through their menstruation cycle. In these cases, and numerous others, people had to wash before they could enter the temple again

But where would this washing take place? There is not a lot of water in Jerusalem. It would have to be in a river, or more likely it would be done in one of many washing pools around Jerusalem. These pools had steps that would go down and then back up, so that you could walk the steps and be fully submerged in the middle.

These two symbols do not carry on into the New Testament for Christians. Instead, their meaning is swallowed up into the imagery of baptism. Baptism is a spiritual mark that is cut into a person much like circumcision. It is a sign of acceptance into the community and the place as a child of God. Baptism cleanses of evil and sin and washed the person.


Communion Thoughts: Blogs about the Lord’s Supper

Here are the links to my blog series on communion, all in one place.

Communion Thoughts #1- What is Communion?


Communion Thoughts #2- What Happens During Communion?


Communion Thoughts #3- Traditional Practices of Communion




Communion Thoughts #5- Seven Great Images for Communion


Communion Thoughts #6- Tips for Making Communion More Meaningful



Baptism: What does the Word Mean?

This blog is the first in a series I am doing about baptism and is a follow up to a number of blogs I did on communion. You can check them out at

The word baptize is actually a Greek word. The word is not translated, but rather transliterated right over from the Greek to English. The word is used after the New Testament almost exclusively of the Christian practice. The only other real English usage of the word is to baptize as in to name something. This comes from the tradition that many people would change their name when they were baptized.


But before the word was used for the Christian sacrament, the word was used for other meanings. It could be understood as putting something in water. It could be translated or understood in context as plunge, drench, inundate, flood, submerge, or dip. It is used of ships being consumed by the sea. It is used of drunkenness—as if you are so inundated by alcohol that you are baptized. It is used to describe the time Herod drowned another man. He baptized him until he suffocated.

The word also had a metaphoric meaning. As we might say today, you are “trying to keep your head above water” or you are “in over your head.” You could be baptized and not be able to get out.

The use of this word for the Christian rite is an interesting choice. Yes, it aptly describes the act of being put into the water, but it also describes a consuming moment of finality. There was no turning back from baptism. It changed everything.


Please comment and ask questions on the website or on social media. I want to know your thoughts and questions.

For more info on Baptism and its uses in Greek, see Robert Gagnon’s contribution to the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, available at:


Ask your Questions about Communion and Baptism

I am finishing a blog series about communion and getting one started about baptism. In light of this, I wondered if I could ask help of my readers. What questions do you have about the sacraments?

  • What questions do you have about communion or baptism?
  • What are your beliefs about communion or baptism?
  • What do you think actually happens at communion or baptism?
  • What was the most special experience of communion or baptism that you have ever had or witnessed?

You can comment on my blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter. I want to start some good dialogue and be able to focus my material on what people actually think about and have questions about the sacraments.


Update on my Doctor of Ministry

I wanted to give everybody an update on my Doctor of Ministry.  A doctor of ministry is not a Ph.D. It is an applied doctorate. Think of the difference between a Ph.D. in biology and a Medical Doctor. A Ph.D. might know all the bones of the body or how the circulator system works, but if you break your leg you want the medical doctor. They are the ones trained in fixing the leg. A doctor of ministry is not a study in abstract theology or philosophy of ministry. It is an advanced degree in how ministry works.27214779480_cf35fa8ad6_kMy particular program is through George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, OR. ( The focus is on Semiotics and Future Studies. (  The term semiotics comes from the Greek word semion meaning sign or symbol. It is the same word the Gospel of John uses for signs that Jesus does. The study of semiotics is a cross between the fields of philosophy and linguistics that looks at how people and cultures express their values and ideas in language, metaphor, and symbolism. It is the study of meaning making—how we communicate and understand symbols. This can range from studying actual signs of advertising or the ways words change over time and are used for different things.

The Christians study of semiotics involves looking at the Bible and Christian tradition through its symbols. It also reads the signs of culture—the ways that the values of the culture come out in media and in language. This leads us to think about the world of the future and what the church needs to do to prepare to do ministry in that world.

My program has a number of components. My cohort of 14 people gathers once a year for an intense learning experience. The orientation happened in Washington, D.C. Last summer we spent a week in Cambridge, England. I just went at the end of May for my last gathering on Orcas Island, WA.

I have had two classes at all times throughout the program so far. One class is an ongoing mentorship with Leonard Sweet. ( Len is the author of over 60 books and a frequent speaker around the world. He has taught at Drew Seminary in NJ and United Theological Seminary in Ohio. For Len we have weekly online chats on Monday mornings were we have video, audio, and typing going on simultaneously.  We also read about ½ a book a week and do ongoing conversations via online posts. The goal of these class elements is for Len to mentor us and develop our thinking.

The other class that is ongoing is a series of independent studies that we do researching whatever we want to write our dissertation about. We each have a professor at the seminary that guides us and challenges us through this process. In my own research I have been studying pastors—how they form and follow their identity and how unhealthy identities can lead to stress and burnout. I am proposing that the idea of story could be a helpful paradigm and identity for pastors today. I don’t just mean telling stories. I mean thinking in stories. I have done some preaching and teaching out of this study. (In fact, I confess that much of what I have learned in this program has been tested on you.)

The end of June marks the end of the classwork phase of the program. I am now shifting to working very hard on my dissertation. To graduate in the spring, my dissertation needs to be done in the beginning of January. This sounds very fast, and it is. Only about ½ of student make that first graduation. Still, the research is largely done and large pieces of the dissertation has already been written in the independent studies.

The program also gives me the opportunity to do a non-traditional dissertation. In my case, half of my writing (20,000-25,000 words) will be academic writing explaining my research. In particular, it will describe the problem of pastoral identity and the proposed solution of story. The other half (another 20,000-25,000 words) will be a book proposal and several chapters of a writing sample. I am calling “The Story Pastor.” If all goes well, by January I should be turning in the dissertation and have a book proposal and book started that I can send to publishers.

I want to thank you for your support on this journey. So many people have asked about my program, wondered how it was going, and supported me through it all. You may see me at Starbucks and Panera a lot more as the year moves on. I am planning to take one of my days off each week to camp out and write all day. Please continue to pray for me as I finish this marathon.

And thanks for letting me experiment with this stuff on you. I believe I have grown a lot from this program and I hope you can feel the benefit from that as well.


Mountains and Valleys


There is a very interesting theme of mountains and valleys in the Bible. All kids of high points happen on mountains. Moses gets the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Mount Zion is the site of the Jewish Temple. We have the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration on a mountain. The Psalms refer often to mountains. For instance, Psalm 98:8 says, ”let the hills sing for joy together.”

All kids of low points happen in valleys. The Valley of Jezreel is where Jehu killed Jehorum and where Hosea 1:5 says that judgment will come upon Israel. The Valley of Siddim is where Sodom and Gomorroah were located. Achan was stoned in the Valley of Achor. The place that Jesus used to speak of hell was called Gehenna and it is a valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as the city dump. The Psalmist tells us that we sometimes “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

This is one of the areas of scripture that is truest to life. We have mountains and valleys. We have high points and low points.

This week I am coming off of a major mountain top. I spent last week on Orcas Island in upper Washington state. It was the last gathering for my doctor of ministry program. It was a beautiful place spent laughing and learning with great friends. It was also the first time since our honeymoon that my wife and I had more than one night away from our kids. My wife even got to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing Orcas in the wild.

And now it is over. I am back to life. And it feels like a valley. I am tired. I am a bit down. I don’t have enough energy and motivation to get ahead on things. I have been doing the things I need to do, but I am also taking time to recover.

Here is the thing I am clinging to- the feelings of mountains and valleys are not representative of how close God is. God is the Lord of the valleys and the mountains. Psalm 95:4 tells us-

         In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.

God is with us in both. In fact, they are often related. Anytime you come off the mountaintop it feels like a valley. Anytime you climb out of a valley it feels like a mountaintop.

So cling to mountain experiences—sometimes they don’t come back around for a while and they are your chance to get a larger perspective. And be patient in the valley because those are the times that can shape your character most. And realize that wherever you are Jesus is Lord there too.


Communion Thoughts #6- Tips for Making Communion More Meaningful

I have been writing a series of blogs about Communion. I talked about WHAT IS COMMUNION and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I also blogged about HOW IT IS SERVED. I did a blog about WHY I AM NOT DOING COMMUNION BY INTINCTION ANYMORE. In my last blog I gave SEVEN GREAT IMAGES FOR COMMUNION. In my next blog I will give seven specific ways I have tried to enliven communion. Here I just want to list some general tips for making communion more meaningful.

Use different names- If you call it communion, then explain the other terms and use them. Serve Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper next time. This will help take people off of automatic pilot and get them thinking.

Use different images- Communion is not just one image or metaphor. It is loaded with different aspects, images, and thoughts. Don’t get in the habit of saying the same think every time you do it.St_Michael_the_Archangel,_Findlay,_OH_-_bread_and_wine

Decorate the table- The table itself provides lots of opportunities for imagery and creativity. The experience automatically changes if the table is covered in flowers. One time I preached about Daniel in the lion’s den. When people came forward, the table was covered in plastic lions. I read about a sermon that talked about Christ being our safety and security. The image they used was of a kid’s blanket. The table was decorated in children’s blankets. I even think the table can change. What happens if the table is actually a door set up like a table?

Flow from the sermon right into communion- In most of our services the sermon is set up to be the highlight and communion is a response. But what if we reorient the service so that the sacrament is the highlight and the sermon is part of the sacrament. I have even preached from the communion table.

Build an action into coming to the table- Have people pick something up or lay something down on the way to communion. Have them write sins on rice paper and dissolve the paper in water on the way to the table.

World Communion Sunday This is becoming one of my favorite Sundays of the year. I have ANOTHER BLOG with ideas on making this day special. We normally serve lots of different colors, textures, and shapes of breads to represent world Christianity.

Do bread together and juice separately- I really like this imagery. I ask people to hold the bread so that we take it together as one body and remember that God saves us corporately. I then ask people to take the juice individually when they get it. Here they are asked to reflect on Christ’s saving work for them personally.

Serve on mirrors- I love the imagery of the sacrament being a reflection of Christ and that we are in some way “lifted up” into His presence. Mirrors help show that.

Have people stand around the table- We have done this a few times in my church and people always find it very special. We have everybody come up and crowd around the table. We then take the elements and pass them around as a family would. I realize not every church can do this, but this is one that small churches need to try. I also recommend have some chairs or the first pew available for those with mobility issues.

What other things do you do to liven up communion?


Communion Thoughts #5- Seven Great Images for Communion

I have been writing a series of blogs about Communion. I talked about WHAT IS COMMUNION and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I also blogged about HOW IT IS SERVED. In my last blog I talked about WHY I AM NOT DOING COMMUNION BY INTINCTION ANYMORE.

Here is my big point with this blog series: I love communion. I don’t want to get rid of it. I don’t think we should just change to fit the culture. But I do think that we need to take a hard look at the symbols and words that we are using. Sometimes they don’t mean now what they used to. Sometimes they actually mean something else that represents the opposite of what they were intended. Sometimes our practices do not accurately represent our theology or our intention for an act.Jesus communion

With this in mind, I want to shift this blog series from a theological and theoretical focus to a very practical focus. So here are seven images and symbols that I like to use or emphasize during communion. I might use these as I am serving the elements or as part of my introduction. Sometimes I use them in sermons leading up to communion.

  1. The Gathered Loaf– One of the oldest communion liturgies that we have comes from the Didache. It uses this line: “As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.” This is such a beautiful image. The bread was once many different grains on many different fields but they were mixed together to make the one loaf. This is what the church is. It is a collection of people God brings together.
  2. Ordinary Grape Juice or Wine– I love the idea that we do not use special or super-holy juice or wine or the sacrament. Somebody went to the grocery store and bought grape juice. The person who bought the grape juice in front of ours just wanted to drink grape juice, but our ordinary grape juice was pulled out for a sacred use. It was used to represent the covenant of Jesus. That is our story. We are ordinary and called out to represent God’s covenant in this world.
  3. Broken and Pressed– Sometimes people pre-cut the loaf of bread so that it is easier for the pastor to break. I sometimes like for that to not be done. I emphasize that it was not easy for Jesus to pay the price for our sin. He did so with His own broken body. It is not easy for us to follow Jesus either. So I emphasize the difficulty as I work to break the bread. A similar image is found in thinking about where the juice comes from. The grapes have to be pressed. This also opens up the imagery from 2 Corinthians 4 that we are “pressed but not crushed.” Communion reminds us that Jesus was pressed and broken for all the places where we are pressed and broken.
  4. The Table– My teacher Leonard Sweet has written a great book about the idea of table called TABLET TO TABLE. We fail to understand the importance of tabling with others because we don’t eat at dinner tables very often anymore. Jesus was crucified in great part because of who He at with. To eat with someone in Jesus’ day was to accept them. The table is the place where we are accepted by God.
  5. Lifted Up– One of the common images in the communion liturgy is to lift up your hearts to the Lord. This is such a great image. We are, at the table, lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit into the presence of God. Think about that—God is not brought down but we are lifted up. What are the things in your life that you need to be lifted up from? Sometimes communion is served on mirrors to represent this idea that when we look at the table or look at the elements we are peering up into heaven.
  6. Communion Tokens– I bought a couple of communion tokens on Ebay and get them out every once in a while. The idea was that before communion you would meet with the elders of the church who would question you to see if you were living faithfully to Christ. If you were, they would deem you able to take communion and give you a communion token. You would then give that token on your way to the table. The practice did not hang around because it was cumbersome and judgement. We have enough problems nominating elders in many churches. It was a little antithetical to the grace of the table. But it also showed the importance of judging your heart and your faith before you go to the table.
  7. Show forth the Lord’s Death– These words are Paul’s commentary of his retelling of the first communion in 1 Corinthians 11. They orient the focus on the Lord’s death and the meaning of that sacrifice. These words also mean that we show forth. We carry on the image. We bring it forward. But the time is coming when we will no longer do communion. We do it until the Lord comes again. It is a place holder. When Jesus comes it will no longer be necessary to have a symbol because we will have the Lamb.


Intinction is the style of communion where a person takes a piece of bread (often ripping it off of the loaf) and dips it into a communal cup of wine (or often grape juice). This practice is seen as early as the writing so Julius I in around 340 A.D. It way predates our use of individual cups in the pews, which don’t date until the 1890’s.

Recently I have become aware that the practice of intinction bothers some people. People are touching the loaf and sharing germs. People often end up putting their fingers (and fingernails) into the cup, especially if they only rip off a small piece of bread. If we used wine it would kill more germs, but not all. The other problem is that some people rip off a very large piece of bread and have to awkwardly dip it and take a long time to consume it. Some people don’t care for the texture of soggy bread, and I always end up having to wipe juice off of the floor after we have intinction. I am just glad that we do not have carpeting.

stained glass 4

When I first heard about these complaints from people in my church, I brushed it off. These people just need to get over it, right? But the more I thought about it, the more that I found that needing to “get over it” to come to the communion table is contrary to the message of the table. Communion should be a symbol of welcome, of love, and of gratitude. You don’t have to “get over” the junk in your life—sin, bad habits, guilt, shame. The whole story is that Jesus paid for those on the cross. He “got over” those things for you.

For many people, intinction becomes a time of stress, worry, and disgust. The symbol is backfiring. For many people in the pews today, communion by intinction represents the opposite of what it is meant to represent.

We could change the practice. The bread could be pre-cut. The server could dip the bread. But, in the end, I think I am not doing it anymore. I am doing communion, but that particular expression or style of communion is leaving my practice. I know that some people will love this decision, others won’t understand it, and still others will dislike it. I am personally sad to see intinction go. But the symbol is such a problem for so many people that I am willing to let it go for their sakes.

This is important not just for the practice of communion. This is exactly the kind of discussion that the church needs to be in right now. The church is full of symbols. We have hymns, liturgy, architecture, personal disciplines… We have stories and metaphors. But the problem with all language and especially with symbolic language or practice is that it changes.

Different words, actions, and symbols mean different things in different place and at different times. For example, if I wear a shirt with a rainbow on it, it means something today that it did not mean just a few years ago. The word artificial used to mean “artfully and skillfully constructed,” but now it basically means the opposite.

We have lost touch with our symbols. Do people in our churches know why we light candles at the beginning of worship, why we pass the peace, or why we do communion after the sermon? Do people know that our worship spaces are modelled after the Jewish temple, that our ceilings are meant to look like the inside of a ship, or that stained glass was at one time the only Bible people had?Last supper icon

The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?

This is scary for people, because it might mean we have to change. Here is the reality: many of the things we hold as sacred are not actually sacred. They may represent something sacred—like communion representing the saving life and work of Jesus. But their particular expressions are not. We know that Jesus served communion with a meal in between the elements, so it was clearly NOT inctinction. They were developed to signify the sacred for a particular time and place. Maybe they don’t work as well or mean something else for our time and place.

If others want to do intinction then that is fine. I might revisit it again later, perhaps with some adaptation to help people accept it. But for now, I am going to set it aside.

What are your thoughts on intinction?


Communion Thoughts #3- Traditional Practices of Communion

I previously blogged about WHAT COMMUNION IS and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I now turn to how we actually do communion. Communion has as many practices as it does names and theological perspectives. There are lots of different ways to do communion.

In the early church, communion was a less structured and more organic part of the church gathering. There were no church buildings so people would meet in homes for a meal, some teaching, and the sacrament. If you were not a baptized member of the community, you would be excused from the meal before the bread and wine. In fact, the early Christ-followers were accused of being cannibals because it was said they meet secretly to eat flesh and drink blood.

communion 3

We don’t know much about how they took the sacrament, but we can be sure that they did not have little individual cups that could be passed around or little wafers with crosses on them. They used whatever bread or wine they had at the meal. The little cups that many protestants are mainly aware of do not show up until the late 1800’s. Until then, you either did the bread and wine separately or you might have dipped the bread in the wine (called intinction). Some traditions even mix the two together before you partake of it.

Sometimes the elements are served by the pastor or priest up front. This can be done standing or on kneelers. The bread or wafer can be placed into your hand or directly into your mouth. They can also be individual cups or everyone can drink from the same cup.

Many protestants have the elements delivered to them in their pews. Plates of bread come around, followed by a tray with individual cups of juice. Less frequently, everybody comes forward to rip off a piece of bread and dip it into the juice.

I have found that a self-service style of communion works very well. I set a table with the elements on it, and people come up and help themselves to them. For a more intimate communion experience, have everyone come up and stand together around the table so that it feels more like a shared family meal.stained glass 3

The elements themselves can vary also. I personally like the imagery better if the bread is tasty, but some traditions use a wafer or unleavened bread. I just find it to be a better experience if the bread is enjoyed and not survived. Most of Christian history and much of the world today uses wine for communion. In America, there is a tradition stemming from Prohibition where juice is used. In fact, Welch’s grape juice was invented by a Methodist name Thomas Welch as an alternative to wine for the sacrament.

Why is all this important? I have been arguing that communion is a rich and diverse metaphor and tradition. The depth is somewhat lost if you have only ever had communion one way or with one style of elements. There is no reason for it to become routine when there are so many traditional ways of doing it. I will be proposing in the coming blogs some new and creative ways to do communion, but a great place to start is to try it in a way that is different from what you have experienced but is still traditional.

How do you typically do communion? What do you like and not like about doing it that way?


Communion Thoughts #2- What Happens During Communion?

In my first blog in this series I looked at what communion is. In this blog, I take on the question of what happens during communion.

The problem with this is that the church does not generally believe the same thing about what happens during the sacrament or even that it is a sacrament. There are generally four views.cups

Memorialism is held by many independent and Baptist churches. It is a view that there is nothing particularly sacred and nothing especially spiritual happening during communion. It is simply a symbolic act.

Catholics believe in transubstantiation. In this view, the elements change into the actual body and blood of Jesus. These are sacrificed by the priest and then received by the congregants. This does not mean that it tastes different. The bread and wine remain in appearance and to the senses as it was before. But its substance is in a miraculous and unexplainable way into the body and blood of Christ. This helps explain why Catholics are only supposed to receive communion from a priest.

The Lutheran tradition generally follows the idea of consubstantiation. Though Luther never used that term, he did talk about the communion elements as being special. He thought that we do not need another sacrifice since Christ’s sacrifice was complete. This means that the elements do not become the actual body and blood to be sacrificed again. But Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements.

John Calvin moved the spiritual activity of communion away from the elements of bread and wine and toward the table. His view is called real presence because God is present in a special way at the table. Calvin loved the liturgy that says, “Life up your hearts” and is answered, “We lift up our hearts to the Lord.” For Calvin, that is what happened. We are met in a special way at the communion table as we are lifted into the presence of the Lord.

Not everyone fits neatly into one of these perspectives. The Orthodox church see the sacrament as a mystery of special presence and does not try to explain that. The Salvation Army and the Quakers do not even have a practice of communion.stained glass communion

We can say a few things for sure. We know from 1 Corinthians 11 that communion is centered around remembering. Jesus says to “do this in remembrance of me.” (vs 24-25) Paul adds the words that, “as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you show forth the Lord’s death until we come again.” (vs 26) Clearly we are remembering and showing the Lord’s death in the sacrament. Yet the seriousness with which Paul treat the practice of communion makes it clear that more is going on than just remembrance. (vs 27ff) You bring judgment on yourself if you are not careful going to the table.

I personally am in the Real Presence camp. I think the sacredness makes more sense biblically associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit at the table.

What is your view? Why do you hold that view?

How do your practices of communion jive with your view?


Communion Thoughts #1- What is Communion?

I have decided to take a few weeks to blog about the sacrament of communion. This is a special part of the church, but there is lots of disagreement in the church about what to call it, how to do it, and what actually happens when we do it. I think it is also time for some creativity and experimentation with the images and practices of communion that I would like to share.

So what is communion? Communion is a practice that was begun by Jesus and carried on throughout church history. It is at its core a ritual reenactment and a participator symbol in Christ’s death. I will leave the nuances of what exactly happens during this practice to a later blog discussion, since there is disagreement as to what happens and exactly how much this is more than a symbolic act.communion 4

I want to focus for this first blog post on what we call communion. When we take a look at the names of communion, we get a sense of the rich and complex set of ideas of what communion is. This has a great sense of past, present and future.

Some traditions tend to use the term Eucharist. This term comes from the Greek word for grace. It has a sense of celebrating and remembering Christ’s gracious act for us on the Cross in the past.

Some traditions tend to use the term Communion. As you can see from the title of this blog, my tribe tends to use this one. Communion gives the event a sense of community and relationship. This works on two levels. One the one hand, we are communing with God is a special way in this moment and we obey Christ and remember His sacrifice. On the other hand, we commune with one another as the body of Christ. This has a very strong sense of present as we communion vertically and horizontally in the present and we believe Jesus is present with us.

Some traditions tend to call this ritual The Lord’s Supper. This has a strong sense of future as we look to the end of time when Jesus will lead a great banquet here on earth. We are meant, then, to look forward to this event and long for it.

The other term that is sometimes used is the idea of a Love Feast or an Agape Feast. This is actually an early way to talk about communion, especially when it is done in the context of a shared meal. It represents the meaning of the sacrament as a symbol of love.

In most traditions we call communion a Sacrament. This word represents the sacredness of the event. It testifies to the inward spiritual activity that is going on in the outward symbolic act.communion stained glass 2

What we can see right away as we think about the names of communion is that it is not a single note symbol. It is a rich chord of different ideas, concepts, and symbols that can mean different things in different times. I will explore this further, but I want to right away challenge you to think about and appreciate the richness.

Here is the question I want to build to: Does your practice of communion at your church represent this richness, or is it always done the same way with the same words and the same ideas highlighted? Maybe your tradition says that it has to be done a certain way, but in most traditions there is a lot of opportunity for some freshness to communion. We need to explore some of these contemporary and original ideas.


Finding Your Identity in Christ

I have been thinking a lot about identity of late. I have come to believe that how you and I view ourselves has a huge impact on how we act and react in different situations. If I see myself as passive and a victim in certain situations, then I am likely to get pushed around. If you see yourself as powerful and in control, then you would react totally in the same situations.

There is a lot of research that has been done into the idea of identity. We have different kinds of identities. Personal identities are ones that you and I hold for ourselves. Role identities related to jobs or responsibilities. Social identities are ones based on our relationships such as who we know or who we are related to.


This means that we all have multiple identities that we move in and out of in different contexts at different times. Have you ever mixed your social groups? Have you ever mixed your college friends and your church friends? It may have been awkward because you have different identities with each of these groups and you don’t know who to be when they mix.

These identities change over time as we change, our contexts change, and as we test out our identities in real life. For example, if I see myself as the boss but nobody listens to me, then I have a problem. Either the people supposedly working for me are losers or I have to adjust my identity to acknowledge that I am not the boss I think I am.

While Paul does not talk about identity in our modern psychological terms in his letters, I think it is an underlying theme in his works. He writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Paul’s theology of identity relates to the resurrection of Jesus. He lays it out in Colossians 3 that we have died with Christ and have been raised with Christ. We are considered to be new in Christ. Yet we still have some of our old self in us. We need to put to death all thee selfish actions and destructive behaviors of our old selves. We cannot walk in them anymore. Paul does not think that you are earning your new status. Actually, as Christians we are supposed to become what we already are in Christ.

The idea of Christians finding their identity in Christ is especially difficult in the world we live in. We live in a world where everything is an identity. I know people who find their identity in their job, their kids, who they hang out with, the car they drive, the neighborhood they live in, their sexual preferences, the color of their skin…

We make anything and everything an identity today. But the problem with all of these things is that they cannot hold up to the pressure of life. Identities quickly become idolatries, and idols always let you down because they cannot hold the weight of your life.

The only hope is to find your identity in Christ. That is the only thing that will hold up to the pressures of life. That does not mean that you lose all of those other aspects of your life. They are reordered to less importance. They are less defining when your identity is truly found in Christ. They are arranged to fit around Christ’s purpose for your life.

But all of these parts of your life also become more beautiful in Christ. I am not my kids and should not find my identity in them, yet when I look at being a father in Christ the value of that work and the purpose of that responsibility takes on a whole new meaning. Your job is not a good identity, but it can be a holy calling if you see it in Christ.

Your life because so much more in Christ. If you are finding your identity in anything other than Christ, then you are selling yourself short.



Easter is on a Jewish Holiday (and it is amazing)

It was a special Sunday- that first day of the week after Passover. Imagine how devastated the disciples and the followers of Jesus must have been. A week before they had marched into Jerusalem with palm branches waving saying Hosanna- Save us please. Now their savior was dead. And not just dead- Crucified. Killed publically and brutally. Could they be next? Are the Romans going to silence them also?

We also need to understand that Jesus died during a very important season for the Jews. Jesus died on Passover.  Friday was the holy day of Passover, which was celebrated in homes the day before. The death of Jesus was bathed in this imagery. Jesus was the blameless lamb that was slain without putting up a defense. Jesus purchases his people from slaver. Jesus is the broken bread. Jesus is the promised Messiah come to save the people again.Firstfruits

What most people don’t know about that Sunday is that Jesus actually rose from the dead on another Jewish holiday. I did not know until I heard it in this blog post by Ron Cantor–a Messianic Jewish pastor from Israel that I follow on Facebook.

The actual day was debated between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but at the time the Sunday following the Sabbath after Passover would have been The Festival of First Fruits. This is a festival that many cultures had to some degree or another. In that part of the world, many things would be harvested in the spring. God calls the people of Israel to a special festival at this time of year.

In Leviticus 23 God tells Israel to celebrate:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the LORD.   (Leviticus 23:9-12 ESV)

This was a day was set apart to celebrate 2 things. First, it was the beginning of the harvest season. The people gathered together to give God the first 10% of their harvest and pray for a bountiful remainder of the harvest season. This was also a celebration of the giving of the law at Sinai. The Law was seen as the beginning of a great harvest in Israel. It would be fruitful for the people and for the nations around them.

The celebration was the beginning of the Festival of Weeks or sometimes called the Festival of Reaping. Over the next 7 weeks, farmers could come into Jerusalem to present their offering. They would bring a sheaf of grains, sometimes on the end of a stick, and people would cheer and sing on their way to the Temple. People would bring offering from the 7 harvested plants Israel was known for—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. (Deut 8:8)

The sheaf would be brought before the priest, who would wave the sheaf around the altar. There would be dancing, praying, and singing. It was a great moment of pride and gratitude for the farmers, and it was especially esteemed to be there on the very first day of firstfruits.Sheafs

The book of Ruth was read from and sung on those days for a number of reasons. The events of the book of Ruth occur during the harvest time of year. Ruth is the great grandmother of David, and it was taught that David was born and died on the day of the bringing of the firstfruits. Ruth is a book about loving-kindness which is what the law was supposed to be about. So Ruth became associated with this festival.

This festival would go on for 7 weeks and end 50 days. In fact, the reference to 50 days in Latin is why we call this festival Pentecost.

Perhaps it is this festival that Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28 ESV)

Paul does not speak specifically about the Festival of Firstfruits to his Corinthian audience, but he very well may have had it in mind as a Pharisee. Either way, think about the stunning connection between the day of this festival and the resurrection of Jesus:

  • Jesus rose from the dead, just like a harvest. He even used the image of a grain of wheat falling to the ground so that it can grow again.
  • Jesus is the First Fruit. Just has He is resurrected, so too those who are dead in the Lord will be resurrected.
  • Jesus is the new law. He does not replace, but fulfills the law. His new way brings new fruit—the fruit of the Spirit.
  • Jesus from the line of David who is remembered on that day. In fact, Peter makes the connection in his sermon in Acts 2 when he compares the death of David and the hope of immortality with the Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Jesus the Kinsman Redeemer that saves just as Boaz saves in the book of Ruth.
  • The Resurrection of Jesus is connected to Pentecost. Though He ascends to God the Father He is with people after Pentecost in a new way.

When you think about it, this imagery is striking. Easter is the Day of Firstfruits. We may not grow our own crops anymore, but the fruit of that Easter morning can be viewed in our lives. We are an Easter people. We are a people of first fruits. May that fruit be shown in your lives this day. Amen.


The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt. 4- Fear and Lack of Confidence

I have been blogging about how much of a struggle it can be to be a church today. It is based on a “State of the Church Address” I preached earlier this year. After an introduction I have talked about our struggle to know what to change and how much to change. I also talked about the financial struggles that many churches find themselves in today.

The questions of how much to change and the financial concerns have exposed the bigger problems that we as a church are working to overcome in our quest to thrive. The deeper problems are issues of fear and a lack of confidence.

old church new castleCan we afford things exposes the deeper question- are we good enough? Are we worth fixing? Are we strong enough to make investing in our church worth it? Can we grow? Will our church die off when those currently over 60 years pass away? Will our church be here in 10 years?

One the one hand, we are encouraged by the scripture that Jesus will build His church and that the gates of Hell will not stand against it. We know that God is bigger than the trends, the culture, and the current attendance and offering numbers. But it is another thing to truly believe that about ourselves. That our church can be vibrant again. That we have a future.

What do we feel this way? There are many reasons. There is a sense that what we are doing now worked in the past. When you had a church people came and when you needed volunteers they stepped forward. I am not sure that is actually true in all cases. We often remember our past either better or worse than it actually was. But reality does not matter. We feel as though what used to work doesn’t work anymore.

I am also a big believer in momentum. Momentum is the term in physics for the reality that objects in motion tend to remain in motion and objects at rest tend to remain at rest. I think this is true for churches too. When a church is not moving it takes great effort to get anything going. Any change or any action will be difficult.

This is the area where pastors and church leaders need to focus the most. We need to help churches trust God and believe in themselves. We need to help our churches see the good things they are doing. We need to teach our churches to celebrate small wins so that they can lead to bigger wins.


The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 3: Church Finances

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE. In the first blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. In the second blog post I talked about how hard it is to know what to change and what to keep the same in the church. Now I look at the challenge of church finances.

Church finances are one of the big challenges in many churches today. Or, at least, it is one of the most felt challenges today. Church buildings are looking very worn because there is not a lot of extra money to keep them up well. More mainline churches are cutting staff and moving to part-time ministry. Churches that used to have financial reserves are looking in the bank at empty accounts.


Why is my church struggling financially? There are lots of reasons. There are less people than the church used to have. People have more debt and therefore less “disposable” income. Many of those who were big givers are on fixed income in retirement, paying medical bills, or supporting kids and grandkids.

It is also important to note the radical increase in nonprofit agencies that are also vying for charitable contributions. This includes hospitals (like St. Jude’s), relief organizations (like Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse), colleges and seminaries, and environmental and animal causes (like the Humane Society). These organizations depend on giving to support their work and are highly motivated and skilled at getting donations.

The church needs to understand that we have let a lot of these other agencies begin because we have not done our job of caring for the poor and the disenfranchised. We have let the government do part of that work, too. So people support these other non-profits and pay taxes for things the church should be engaged in. I am not hating on or disapproving of these organizations. I am simply trying to explain that this has an impact on church giving.

The church, on the other hand, is not very good at talking about money. I have done a previous blog about why people make choices to give charitably. We avoid talking about money. It has become, like sex, appropriate to talk about anywhere but the church. Compare that to Jesus, who talks about money all the time and makes it a part of many of his parables. We preach it timidly on stewardship Sunday or ask for it when we need more.

The church has also had a poor relationship with money. We have tended to live on our reserves and find our hope and security in our money. Reserves are a good thing. They allow a church to respond to emergencies and to have time to make decisions. Unfortunately, they also allow churches to take time and avoid dealing with issues that really need dealt with.

Many churches have lived off their reserves. They have not learned how to be a smaller church and live within their means, and they have instead try to continue to live in “the good old days.” I am seeing a number of churches that are now running out of reserves and are being forced to have very scary conversation. Many of these conversations should have happened years ago. In god we trust

The answers to such a complicated problem are not likely to be simple. Here are a few ideas to start.

  • We definitely need to better define and attack our mission in the world.
  • We need to talk about money in a healthy way—as spiritual significant and not just for keeping the lights on.
  • We need to teach our church people how to look at and relate to money personally.
  • We need to learn to be small churches. That means having less staff and more volunteers, simplifying our buildings, and becoming nimbler as churches.
  • We have got to put our hope in Jesus and trust Him to sustain and provide for our ministry.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 2: How Much to Change

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE.

In a previous blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. Now I continue to talk about one of the most challenging parts of being a church today.

I think it is challenging to balance how much to change and how much to stay the same. We are a church based in tradition and history. We are God’s people and live a very old story. At the same time, the church has always changed to fit its culture, the way the church is spoken in the language of the place where it exists. German churches speak German and Spanish churches speak Spanish. So to churches in Western culture in the year 2016 need to speak like a Western church in 2016.

Many mainline churches face the same obstacle. While the world around them has changed dramatically, the church has been the one place that has stayed the same. It is the one anchor in many of our lives. Our world has changed. Our kids have moved away. Our parents are gone. Our work has closed down. But at least our church is the same. It is our safe haven. The last bastion of hope and stability in our radically changing world.

SwingThis is why when a church makes some changes they are sometimes met with overly emotional responses. People are responding to more than the change in carpet or the paint color. They are responding to all the other changes in their lives. If you change the music in the church, you are changing one of the things that has helped them cope with the changes in other areas of their lives. You stir up feelings not only about the music, you also stir up feelings of anxiety and grief about all those other changes.

Pastors and church boards are sometimes blindsided by these reactions, but they are understandable and should be expected. But the church cannot stay the same. We are a church of multiple generations. That means that people have different personalities, preferences, and needs. We are a church for all those people. A church that still looks like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s is simply not being faithful to God’s call and plan.

We have probably felt this tension the most in music. Some people only want to do hymns on the organ. Some people want more praise music and a band. Sometimes we blend those styles so that nobody is totally happy.

But this is one of the big questions for the church—how much should we change and how much should we stay the same? Some people are fighting to change nothing in the church. Others are arguing for a total rethinking of what have been call the essentials of the faith. What do we need to hold on to tightly and what do we need to let go in the church moving forward?

The church has always had the tensions of looking forward and looking back. The early church debated the issues of circumcision and dietary laws. The reformers debated the mass and theologies like confession, communion, and indulgences.

Len Sweet says that the church needs to be like a kid on a swing. We need to kick our feet both into the future and into the past if we are going to keep the ride going. That is not always easy to negotiate, but we are working in that tension.


The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 1

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE.

How many of you have heard or said the following about life and church today?

  • What happened to our church?
  • I can remember when the church was full. When Christmas Eve was packed.
  • I remember when the parking lot was full.
  • I remember when people dressed up for church and were quiet during the prelude
  • Why don’t my kids or grandkids come to my church? Why don’t my kids or grandkids go to church at all?
  • Why is technology changing so fast?
  • Why are so many people going to such large churches instead of small churches where they can know everyone?
  • People asked what church you went to instead of if you go to church. You were expected to go to church.
  • People used to care about their denomination. You were Presbyterian because you weren’t Methodist.
  • I think we are going to close. Just trying to keep the doors open.
  • Don’t spend any money. We might need it someday.

Churches that used to thrive are now surviving. Certainly the world around the church is a challenge. It is not an easy time to be a church. Many are shrinking. Some are closing. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted.

The rate of change today is astonishing. The technology we have in our pockets would blow away most scientists of 50 years ago. Our thinking is changing. What we believe is not based anymore on the testimony of authority figures but more on our own experiences. Tolerance used to mean that we could agree to disagree. Today it means that everybody’s beliefs and ideas are equally true. We have multiple generations in the church and these generations are very different from one another. Churches, like people, also go through natural life cycles. Like a Bell Curve, churches grow, plateau, and decline. Many churches are in the decline portion of their life cycle.

One of the biggest challenges for the church today is a major change in the expectations over church attendance. It used to be that you were expected to be in church. The stigma of not going to church is no longer around. It also used to be that regular church attendance meant being in the church building 2-3 times a week. Now a regular church member comes 1-2 times a month. People get sick. People have to work. People go visit family. People have trouble leaving the house. It is understandable, but it makes the church feel more empty.

These external challenges have led to some difficult challenges inside of the church. I think that, in our quest to be a healthy and thriving church, we have face 3 big obstacles.

  1. How much to change and how much to change the same.
  2. Financial Struggles
  3. Fear and a Lack of confidence.

I will explore these issues in my next few blogs.


5 Tips for Getting More out of Christmas (especially pastors)

Christmas gets crazy. There is so much to do: gifts to be purchased and wrapped, travel plans to be made, and work goals to accomplish. This is even more challenging for pastors who have extra worship services and visits to do. The pressure during the holidays is so much higher. I admit that the first few years that I was a pastor I totally missed personally experiencing Advent and Christmas. I did it. I went through the motions, but it was not a heart experience.

Over the last few years I have worked to be intentional about getting more out of Christmas and Advent. Here are my best suggestions for you:


1. Create a good soundtrack.
All great movies have great soundtracks. The music sets the emotions for each scene and each character. Christmas has great music. There is also now some great music related to the themes of Advent. Here are some of the albums in my playlist:

Advent Albums- Daniel Renstrom’s On the Incarnation, Robbie Seay Band’s December Vol. 2, The Brilliance Advent, Vol. 2

Christmas Albums- Vince Guaraldi Trio, Holidays Rule Compilation Album, David Crowder Band, Joy Electric, Citizens & Saints, James Taylor, The Rend Collective, The Piano Guys, Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Find ones that work for you.

2. Get some good movies.
Movies have this amazing ability to get you out of your own head and get you to live vicariously through another character. A great Christmas movie can do that for you. I am not a Hallmark Channel guy. At my house the big one is Elf. We also watch the old clamation movies like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph. We watch both Grinch movies. I also love to watch classics like White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and some version of “A Christmas Carol.”

3. Get a good devotional
I find that a good devotional can help me in any season. Here are a few I have used the last few years:
Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr is incredibly thought provoking.
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas including readings by people like Bonhoeffer, Dillard, Eliot, Lewis, Luther, Merton, Nouwen, and Yancey among many others. This book is loaded with great people and great insights.
Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers together with Nouwen’s Own Words– This book is a series of readings from the works of Nouwen compiled around the themes of Advent and Christmas.

I have also written 2 devotions for the month of December. You can download them at

4. Create Margin in your Schedule
This is a tough one, but I think that it is really important for people to create more margin in their schedules during the holidays. By margin I mean creating more gaps in your schedule. Keep distance between meetings and schedule times during the week with nothing in them. I get all my home visits and meetings done very early in the week. I like to be ahead and coasting for the few days before Christmas Eve. I want to be at my best for my kids and family, but I also want to be at my best for my church. I have found that in order to do that I have to slow down.

5. Make some good family traditions
There is something powerful about traditions and experiences. They provide anchors for stories the way symbols do in movies. Anymore I try to be intentional about creating some of these movements.

Decorating– We decorate the tree after Thanksgiving. Every year we let each of our kids get a new ornament for the tree. It is fun now because it is like a little history of their childhood every year.

Nail in the tree- Every year we hang a large nail in the middle of the tree to help us remember why Jesus came to earth. It is covered by the ornaments, but we all know it is in there.

Elf on the Shelf- We have gotten into the Elf on the Shelf. We don’t do it as a behavior management tool but as a fun way to build expectation for Christmas.

Date- We celebrate Christmas a day early on Christmas day. We open presents the morning of the 24th, hang out all day, and then have Christmas Eve that night. The next day we travel to see family. I think this a good way for pastor families to do the holiday.

Bonus: Stick with the story.
I never get tired of reading and studying the Christmas story. I use it as the anchor to keep me in the holiday. Read it over and over. Notice specific words, phrases, and images. Imagine what the characters were feeling or thinking.


2 Free Advent Devotionals that I Wrote

I have written 2 different Advent devotionals for my church. They are both very different but I wrote both to be helpful for people who want to get a better experience of Advent.

The AdThe Advent Hours Experience Covervent Hours Experiment is a devotional that I put together with my dad. It is a journey from December 1-25 that uses a simple liturgy of hours. If you are not familiar, this is an ancient style of praying primarily the Psalms throughout the day. Each day has morning, noontime, and evening hours that varies but can include Psalms, Bible passages, creeds, prayers, and Christmas carol lyrics. There are also nighttime prayers called Compline that are written for every week in Advent. If you have never prayed this way before then this is a great place to start.


The other devotion is title adventhistorycoverChristmas Reflection from Church History: Readings about Christmas and the Incarnation from the Creeds, Church Fathers, and Great Thinkers of Church History. For this volume I compiled great quotes and insights from all kinds of different figures in Christian history and laid them out. This is a great way to reflect on what Christmas and the incarnation means as well as experience some of the great figures of our faith.