“Give Ear, O Shepherd of Israel…” (A Meditation on Psalm 80)

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel…”
So many declaratives!
Do this, God,
do that…
Shine forth,
stir up,

Our lives are lived in declarative sentences.

Life sentences that are lived declaratively,

O God!
Restore us,
see us,

Your flock awaits,
your people listen,
in silence,
in longing,
in peaceful advent of surrender.

Shepherd, give ear to us!
Give life to us!
and we will receive.

“O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (Meditation on Isaiah 64:1-9)

Come down, O God!
Tear the roof off, rip open the skies,
disembowel our enemies,
bring fear and trembling upon the earth!

We know the enemy,
and the enemy is us.
We are like unclean hands,
in need of a good scrub.

Cleanse us, O God!
Pour out your Spirit,
and we shall be created.

We seek violence,
a sure and swift end,
a decisive victory.
But it’s never that clear, is it?
Hard to tell who are the winners,
who are the losers,
when we so often fit the double bill,
both sinners and saints.

Instead of violence,
you offer us pottery;
shards of dried clay
re-worked into something new.
You are about renewal,
re-formation, always
re-shaping, always
re-creating in the midst of our mess.

We are all your people
We are all yours
We are all
We are,
and you are ours.

O God, come down,
tear the roof off of our pride,
rip open our hearts,
disembowel our notions of ourselves,
bring fear, yes, but also love.

–Advent 2014, Day 2


Why We Worship This Way…

This year in Chapel, we have decided to take a slightly different tack in worship than we have in years past.  To begin with, we are starting each hour of worship with lunch.  In the past, lunch was offered at the end of the hour, but people were very rushed to eat and get out before their noon classes started.  In starting with lunch, we can let people enjoy their food and fellowship, have announcement time, and start worship in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Another change that we’re adopting is that we have a very simplified format for worship.  At our spring and summer staff retreats, the Religious Life staff identified three “core values” for our worship together:  Quality Music, Communal Prayer, and Relevant Messages.

Quality Music

Music speaks to the current generation of young people in ways that are different from previous generations.  This is not to say that music hasn’t ever spoken to young people, but the current generation seems to put an especially high premium on music that “speaks.”  As technology consultant Derek Baird wrote on his blog in 2008, for Gen Y, “music is oxygen.” (http://tinyurl.com/62lj6w)  Many students that I have spoken to have indicated that they prefer music that lets them reflect on life, their relationship with God, and their many (and sometimes complicated) human relationships.  So, we’ve decided that we want to produce quality music that will “speak,” while maintaining integrity within the service (i.e., the music will go with the theme of the service, and we will not just repeat a song week after week because it happens to be popular).  We have revived the concept of a “chapel band,” which will provide consistent musical leadership, and we have incorporated times for congregational singing and for reflection times that have music as a key component.

Communal Prayer

Students have shared with us that they value the opportunity to pray together for one another’s joys and concerns, but that it can be difficult to share those prayer requests in a traditional “raise your hand and tell it out loud” kind of format.  So, we’ve decided to have as many ways to share prayer requests as possible.  In the chapel building, you’ll now see a bulletin board that is dedicated to prayer requests.  We also have “prayer pots”—flower pots that sit on the tables at lunch—which give people the opportunity to turn in prayer requests at worship.  Also planned this year are opportunities to “tweet in” prayer request via a Twitter feed, and e-mail prayer requests.  All of these opportunities will hopefully give people the chance to have their requests heard and prayed over by the community.

Relevant Messages

By “relevant,” we’re not suggesting that messages in chapel worship should have nothing to do with eternal truths and everything to do with what’s hip, popular, and current.  On the contrary, we envision worship messages that are biblically-based, but which apply the often-difficult to grasp messages of the Bible to the context of a modern American university.  By relevance, we also mean that messages will be consistent throughout a single worship service (meaning that there should be unity among scriptures, preaching, music and prayer), and throughout a defined series (three to four weeks that cover roughly the same theme, but utilizing a different preaching text each week).  Finally, relevance means that the messages we hope to convey in chapel this year will help participants go deep into the Christian faith, and drink from the wells of our tradition and scriptures in a way that will help them to grow in their personal faith.  We wish to counteract the popular notion that worship should be “a mile wide and an inch deep” by focusing our efforts on conveying messages that will have an impact on the ways we think and live.

So there you have it, a manifesto, if you will, on why we’ve chosen to worship the way we do.  By emphasizing quality music, communal prayer, and relevant messages, we hope to be able to better define the “brand” that is chapel worship at ONU.  If you haven’t already, give us a try on Thursdays at 11 a.m.!

God’s Peace to you,


Announcing “Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition”

Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition:
Drawing on Resources from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian,
Lutheran, Methodist, Taize and other Liturgical Traditions.

Introductory Prayer Service:
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
5:00-5:30 p.m.
English Chapel Sanctuary

Please join us for this time of prayer and contemplation.
Sponsored by: Chaplain’s Office (Chaplain David E. MacDonald)

Starting on September 5th, we will be offering “Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition,” a prayer service designed for those who enjoy a more traditional/liturgical/contemplative time of prayer.  Drawing on resources from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Taize, and other liturgical traditions, this service will closely resemble Evensong, Compline, or Vespers (for those who are comfortable with such words!)

The goal for this experimental community of prayer will be to provide a space where the ancient words of the Christian faith become the deep wells from which we may all draw inspiration, refreshment, and comfort.  As Christ said to the woman at the Samaritan well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13b-14, NRSV)

Please consider joining us for this new venture in prayer, which is really a new expression of the ancient practices of the Church!


God is Bigger Than Our Fears

Two stories have gotten stuck in my head this week.  The first is the horrific shooting that happened in Aurora, Colorado, when an obviously troubled young man opened fire on a theater full of moviegoers.  The second is the NCAA sanctions against Penn State in response to the Freeh report, which uncovered a massive cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young children.

In the first case, twelve people died, and fifty were injured.  In the second, fifty-two children’s lives were irrevocably damaged.  Both are tragedies, and both represent two of our greatest fears as a society–that our children are not safe, and that violence can happen at any moment.

In the face of tragedies like these, our gut reaction often tells us that what we need to do is protect ourselves–find a hole somewhere, grab a gun, wrap your arms around your kids, and keep the evil of this world at bay.  But that never works in the end, does it?  If we hole ourselves up, all we get is a groundhog-view perspective of the world–the world is a scary place, and I’m not gonna have anything to do with it.

Well, of course the world is a scary place–it always has been!  Sure, we’ve designed new and inventive ways to be cruel to one another, but we’ve always had to contend with a world that seems mean, arbitrary, and violent.  A cursory glance at history will prove to you that the world has ever been thus, and anyone with any amount of intelligence would tell you that it will probably continue this way for quite some time.

That’s why Jesus, the ultimate Victim of the violence and arbitrary nature of the world, came in the first place.  Christ died at the hands of angry, violent, sinful, very human beings.  He died to show us the folly of our quest for power through violent means.  He rose again to show us that there is a different way–God’s way.  Christ calls us to love God and love our neighbors–to him, all the law and the prophets hang on these two commands.  But he has already won the victory over evil, sin, and death.  Christ has managed to overcome violence through the final act of nonviolent resistance–his very resurrection from the dead, and the promise of eternal life to those who love him.

I don’t want to seem like I’m negating the tragic nature of either Aurora or Penn State, but what I am saying is that these tragedies are reminders to us that our hope doesn’t rest with guns and ammunition, or in powerful and long-standing institutions.  Our hope is in God, through Christ Jesus the Lord, who overcame evil so that we might face the world unafraid.  The world is a scary place, but God is bigger than all our fears.



Thoughts on Worship (Part 2): Worship in Scripture

Wow!  That last blog post was huge!  I guess I had a lot to say about what worship isn’t.  If you have any more ideas about what worship isn’t, please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/davidemacdonald)  or Twitter (@ONUchaplain).

Today, I’d like to focus on the purpose of worship—a response to last week’s post, in the form of exploring what worship is.  As is the case with these sorts of things, making the argument in the positive has proven to be much more difficult than arguing the negative.  So, I expect that there will be some disagreement with me on some of the points I will make, and that’s o.k. with me.  What I want to do is start an honest discussion about worship that may help in our work here at the ONU chapel, and might spark some discussions in other communities of faith, too.

Let’s Begin with Scripture: This is obviously not an exhaustive list–if you have other suggestions, let me know!

Psalm 122:1  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD!’” (NRSV)

When was the last time you felt “glad” about going to worship?  (Especially if you lead worship, and never get a chance to sit back and just worship without worrying about what’s coming next!)  Worship is intended to be a joyful expression of gratitude and praise to God.  Now, some people express their joy through moving liturgy, symbolic actions, and sacramental acts.  Others express their joy through music, movement, artistic expression, and spontaneous expressions of worship.  Everyone expresses joy in his/her own way.  I once criticized people who had “long faces” when they worshiped, until I spoke with several such people and realized that the joy they felt in worship was no less deeply felt than mine, simply because their facial expressions were staid and stoic.  What brings you joy?  How do you express that joy in worship?  Are you “glad” about worship?  If so, how do you share that joy?  If not, what’s stopping you from fully experiencing joy in your worship?

Psalm 8:1  “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens.”

Worship is an expression of awe and wonder in the face of the Creator.  Look around you.  Where did all this come from?  Who created all this?  How does the bird stay in flight?  Who placed a particular strain of DNA inside that tree to make it look just the way it does?  If you conclude that creation has a Creator, then you can’t not be impressed and awed by the complexity of God’s grace and love for creation.  God’s handiwork is all around us—God’s fingerprints are left behind in the sacredness of the earth and all the gifts of creation.  Worship is a natural response to the feeling that God is something/someone bigger than you or me—and is an opportunity for us to be in relationship with that Creator.

Psalm 29:2  “Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.” 

God is holy.  Only a holy God would be worthy of our worship.  Who would want to worship an unholy God?  Not me!  Worship is our way of standing in the presence of our holy God, giving praise for God’s mighty acts of salvation in our midst.  Worship is an opportunity to recognize that we human beings are not the be-all and end-all of the universe—that there is One who is greater, One who created us all, and One who redeems us from sin and sustains us through life.

James 4:8a  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Worship is about proximity on two planes.  One plane is more noticeable to us—the horizontal plane—this is our proximity to one another.  Worship is about rubbing elbows with other believers (and even with some non-believers and skeptics from time to time, depending on your context).  In worship, we sing together, hear the Word of God read and interpreted, and respond through acts of prayer, giving, and sacramental or symbolic actions.  All of this is done in the context of community.

The other plane on which worship takes place is the vertical plane—our “drawing near” to God.  When we worship, we come closer to God, not so we can puff ourselves up as “God’s chosen people,” or wall ourselves off from the world.  We come closer to God so that God will come closer to us.  Or perhaps more accurately, so that we may recognize that God has already drawn near to us, and that we are in God’s presence, not just in worship, but in every moment of our lives.

Revelation 4:11  “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” 

Above all, worship is wrapped up in the mystery of God’s grace for humanity, and is our recognition of God’s love for us.  God created us, and everything around us, and God continues to love us, even when we disrespect the creation we’ve been given.  The above scripture from Revelation also shows that our worship is part of the heavenly worship of God, which makes us part of God’s kin-dom of worshipers who have lifted up their voices in song and praise for millennia.  Worship makes us part of something that is bigger than any one of us, and together, we form the body of Christ, the family of God—the Church.

I have some more thoughts on worship that I’ll share at another time.  For now, I’d like to hear from those who might read this blog–What scriptures inspire you to worship?  What is your definition of worship?  Do you feel a part of the body of Christ when you worship?

Taking Down the Porch Decorations

I finally got our Christmas decorations from the porch taken down today!  Well, mostly–I still need to get up on the step ladder and take down the icicle lights–the staples go in so hard that it takes a pair of pliers to pry them out!

Part of the reason it’s taken this long to get this job done is that I went away for two weeks earlier this month, during the time when “normal” people take their decorations down.  Part of it is that I deliberately chose not to take them down the day after Christmas, as so many people seem to do nowadays.  We have forgotten that the “12 days of Christmas” BEGIN with Christmas day, and end at Epiphany.  Hence, we have always kept our decorations up and lit during the 12 days.  Actually, Kelly chose to keep the porch lights on until sometime late last week, because she liked them, and they cheered her up.  I say, good for her.

Looking at my calendar yesterday, I realized that we are just four weeks away from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  “Wow,” I said, “it seems like we just recovered from Christmas, and it’s time to start again.”  But that’s the joy and the challenge of the Christian year–we move by a rhythm of fasts and feasts, of preparation and celebration.  While it is good to “keep Christmas in your heart” all year long, it is also good to be reminded that Jesus’ work on earth didn’t stop with his being born in Bethlehem.  He grew up (though we know frustratingly little about his childhood and adolescence), taught his people how to love, healed the sick, raised the dead, challenged the powers that were, was crucified, died, and rose again.  And, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he lives today in the body of Christ, his people the Church.

So, though I am sad to see an end to the Christmas lights for another year, I am glad that we are preparing to enter another season of waiting and watching and preparing ourselves for the coming of the King.  For it is in the preparation and the journeying and the pilgrimage that we ultimately find ourselves again, and in so doing, we find God.

Grace and Peace,


Preachers, Pulpits and the Blogosphere

Recently, there has been a lot of hullabaloo about Love Wins by Rob Bell, pastor of the emergent Mars Hill Church.  I haven’t read it (yet), but in it, Bell apparently questions traditional Christian beliefs about Heaven and Hell, in his typically provocative and thought-provoking way. 

Even more recently, the ‘Net has been abuzz with news that a United Methodist pastor has been “fired” by his church because he agreed with Bell’s notions in a blog posting

First of all, let me say that no United Methodist pastor can be “fired” from his or her church–the Bishop and the Conference have the authority over who is and is not appointed within the Connection.  As this press release from his conference states, it was a mutual decision between the Psator and his congregation that he leave early–he was a student pastor, and was slated to leave in June, anyway. 

Second, given the above, let me say that I’m glad that blogging wasn’t big when I was in seminary, or I could have found myself in a lot more hot water than I did anyway back then.  Blogging has become a way for many people to work out their thoughts in an environment where they might receive feedback, correction or encouragement from others.  I know that if I had blogged my way through seminary, I would have been declared a heretic for the kinds of questions I asked back then. 

One of the questions I asked back in seminary, which I am still struggling with today, is the question of Hell.  Hell was not a big topic of discussion in my growing up years, other than the fact that we knew that it existed, and that “bad people” went there.  I went through a period of my teenage years where I spent a lot of time obsessing about my own salvation, and wondering if I would go to Heaven or Hell when I died some day.  I have preached funerals for people whose state of salvation, or whose relationship to Christ were, at best, questionable.  I have struggled to answer the questions of teenagers who wanted to know if their relatives were waiting for them in Heaven, or if they had gone to Hell because they might not have known Jesus as their personal Savior.  I have witnessed profound faith and wisdom in the writings and teachings of other religions.  All of this has led me to know that I don’t have the answers about Heaven and Hell. 

So, I keep asking the questions.

I think that the difference I can discern (so far) between Rob Bell and the UM pastor who was asked to leave because of his beliefs is that Bell doesn’t really come to any definitive, once-and-for-all conclusion about Heaven or Hell.  No one who has read anything else by Bell could reasonably call him a “Universalist.”  But, this young pastor, earnest and well-meaning as he may be, seems to have drawn the conclusion from Bell’s (and others’) writings that Hell doesn’t exist. 

I struggle with that, because I’ve always seen Hell as being a separation from God.  No fires and pitchforks in my vision of Hell, just eternal separation from the One Life Source that created, creates, and re-creates us all.  The pain of that separation is felt in a temporal sense here in this life, but an eternity of that would be excruciating, even for those who might not acknowledge in this life that they know or need God.  Bell seems to make the point (at least in the teaser video for the book) that the question of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell is bigger and more complicated than a matter of belief or assent to a belief.  He seems to be asking the question that all of us need to be asking:  “What does my belief about Heaven and Hell say about my belief in God?” 

I thank God that I am not God, and that I don’t have to judge such things as the eternal disposition of souls.  But I also thank God that God is God, because I know that such judgments are in good hands.  God’s grace extends beyond my knowledge, and beyond even the accumlated human wisdom of all the ages.  In the end, perhaps the questions of who goes to Heaven/Hell, and if Heaven/Hell exist aren’t the right ones to be asking. 

But what are the right questions? 



Pathological Christianity?

I’m thinking about giving up Church for Lent.  Not that I want to really give up Church, I’m just thinking about it, in the sense that it’s been on my mind. 

Here’s why:  I think that sometimes, we who are heavily involved in the Church become “pathological Christians.”  “Pathology” in reference to the practice of the Christian faith seems to be a harsh word, but at its root, it means “the study of suffering” (pathos=Greek for suffering, logos=Greek for “word” or “study”). 

So, can the Church make us as Christians suffer?  You bet it can!

It happens when we let ourselves, our sense of identity and vision, get so wrapped up in the Church, or in our particular practice of the faith, that we exclude others, or even God, in order to protect it. 

It happens when we become rigid or narrow-minded about others, because we can’t imagine that their practice of following Christ could be as holy or valid as our own. 

Yesterday, in a conversation I had with a community leader, I was struck by one comment she made.  She observed that sometimes churches can become like high school football teams.  People ask, “What church do you go to?” and when they get an answer, they automatically judge the other person based on what church they attend, and automatically assume that their church is “better.”  What does that mean?  How can one church be “better” than another?  I could sense her frustration with Church as she shared this with me, and I grieve, not because she said this, but because it’s so true, and strikes at the heart of what can happen when we become pathological about our particular way of experiencing God.

What can really hurt, though, is when we idolize our Church so much that when the Church doesn’t live up to our expectations, we’re devastated.  The Church, after all, is made up of human beings.  Its not God.  So, there are bound to be imperfections, and even sins, that will creep in from time to time.  What we need is to be forgiving of one another’s faults, and find ways to move forward together, rather than become disillusioned when the Church falters or fails because of our very humanness. 

So, in order to help heal the suffering that our attachments (even to Church) can have, I encourage others to think about “giving up Church” for Lent–or at least, your attachment to it–and cling to God alone for salvation and comfort.  In the end, when the Church is no more, and we’re all gathered into God’s kingdom, that’s all that will matter.



Bear with me for a moment.

So, over the past week or so (I’ve had some time off, and my mind wanders…) I’ve been reading some interesting things on the internet about Christians.  There’s a group of us operating at the US Air Force Academy who are part of what’s called the “Shepherding Movement.”  Essentially, this group believes that women are “sheep,” and need to be guided by their “shepherds,” who are, of course, men.  Many of the women in this group have chosen to leave their careers in the Air Force in favor of “proper” womanly pursuits like having babies and staying at home to take care of their “shepherds.” (1)

There’s another group of us who’ve infiltrated some Army bases in the South who are holding evangelistic rallies and concerts and forcing all the soldiers–Christians and non-Christians alike–to attend.  Those who didn’t attend one concert at Fort Eustis were taken back to their barracks for a “GI Party”–cleaning and maintenance duties, while their counterparts enjoyed the concert.  (2)

Then, I read about a group of us who practice what’s called “dominionism,” which is the belief that the command of God in Genesis that humanity should “have dominion” over the earth applies specifically to Christians, specifically Christians of a specific fundamentalist belief system, and that said fundamentalist system should be the basis of all law and political systems in America and around the world.  According to prominent dominionists, homosexuals, adulterers and blasphemers should be stoned to death.  (3)  Way to go, us!

Finally, there’s a bunch of us who are on the radio, the internet, and on street corners around the world talking about how the day of judgment is near (May 21, 2011, to be exact), and that only those who fall into their category of what  a “true believer” is will be saved from God’s wrath. (4)  I’m pretty sure that leaves out me and just about anyone who’s reading this blog entry.  

All of this is not to mention the ones among us who preach doom and gloom, hatred and intolerance, and who wrap particular brands of political ideology (liberal, conservative and otherwise) up in the cloth of the Church and call it “God’s way” or “the Truth.”  (As if any one of us has the lock on that…)

That’s us. 

And the thing I’ve been struggling with is this– That is us.  Us.  Christians.  At least in the eyes of the world–or those who don’t know much about the vast diversity that exists among people who follow (or claim to follow) Jesus.  News accounts about nut-jobs like Fred Phelps (5) and his ilk do more damage to the gospel of Jesus Christ than any so-called sinner ever has.  And the thing I’ve been struggling with the most this week is that we’re called to love them.  They’re us…not some fringe out there that we can ignore.  Nope.  Jesus calls us to love them.  Even them.  Because they’re us. 

And so are all the low-lifes and ne’er-do-wells and down-and-outers in the world.  We’re all made in God’s image, deep within our souls, and we’re all seeking something–we call it salvation, or righteousness, or centeredness or mindfulness, but we’re all seeking it.  And some of us claim we know the answers about everything, including the day the earth will die, and some of us try to sound humble while at the same time talking about how the other ones are misguided creeps.  And that’s us.  And “us” is who Jesus came for. 

So, I’m struggling with this, and I hope you’ll understand.  But most of all, I hope you’ll join me in praying for Us.  Even those of us who are creepily misguided. 

For you and me, and all of Us,


(1)  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-rodda/cadets-for-christ-solicit_b_800382.html

(2)  http://www.truth-out.org/spiritual-fitness-concert62563


(4)  http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110103/ap_on_re/us_rel_apocalypse_soon

(5)  Westboro Baptist Church;  Nasty, nasty stuff.  These are the people who do anti-gay protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers.  Not cool.