Archive for the ‘emergent’ Category

Genesis 1:1-2:4
Exodus 14:10-31;15:2-21
Isaiah 55:1-11
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 28:1-10

The U2Charist, as I understand it, began as a practice in several Episcopalian churches. Recognizing that the band U2 often used images of Scripture in their lyrics and a public engagement to making the world a better place, they put together creative worship services. Apparently, the band is fine with that happening and doesn’t worry about their copyrighted lyrics as long as any collection taken up goes to support the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and that awareness be brought to those same goals.

So: what are the Millennium Development Goals and why should we care? In 2001, these were targets set to be reached by 2015. 192 nations, including our own, are signatories to the goals, which are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

So…how are we doing? Well, there is some good news, but not much. “Extreme poverty” is defined as those living on less than a $1 a day. And while that’s down to 15%, that’s still over a billion people. Meanwhile, some of the progress that has been made has been set back by severe natural disasters, including the Tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. And then with the worldwide economic collapse of the last few years on top of that, it seems unlikely that these goals will be met in time, which makes me wonder if they will ever be met.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Aren’t things supposed to get better? Isn’t life supposed to be an upward progression? We’re living in the 21st century! We’re way past 1984 and 2001. We’ve had a man on the moon and we’ve built the internet. Aren’t we supposed to be moving forward constantly on the horizon to new and improved?

Remember jetpacks? Where are the jetpacks? We were promised jetpacks!

The future was supposed to be full of this stuff. Flying cars, robot housekeepers, and a jetpack in ever garage. What happened to bigger, better, faster, stronger? Each generation was supposed to do better than the previous one. A bigger house, a better salary, an earlier retirement, a life made easier by technology.

I think the heart of the problem is one of faith. To put it more clearly, we have confused optimism with hope. So when a crisis hits, we lose our trust in optimism. But because of our confusion, we think that we have actually lost faith. But if it was in optimism, then maybe we never had it to begin with…

How long will we have to talk about these things? How long will we have to push ideas like the Millennium Development Goals because the world simply isn’t getting better? And what about those who truly suffer? How long, they must be asking, is life going to be more like death? How many of them are living their own Good Fridays, nailed to their own crosses, wondering where God is and why God has forsaken them?

There’s a reason, I think, that so many of U2’s songs have these themes of yearning. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”…”How long must we sing this song?” How long, indeed?

And yet, there remains throughout this thread of hope in their songs as well. Optimism assumes things will always get better. Pessimism assumes they’ll get worse. Hope believes that God has not abandoned creation; that Christ is there suffering with those who suffer and offering another way to those who cause that suffering. There is hope.

Bono, talking about their lyrics, had this to say about faith:

“We’ve found different ways of expressing [faith], and recognized the power of the media to manipulate such signs. Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.”    U2 at the End of the World

He’s referencing the practice of the early Christian community who latched onto the fish as their symbol. There were so many stories of Jesus and fish on which to draw: the multiplication miracles, the fishing scenes on the Sea of Galilee. It was less obvious than the cross as a sign of Christian faith at a time when Christians were being persecuted. And the Greek word for fish was an acronym for “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”

Early Christians, not knowing if the person they were meeting was a Christian, could draw an arc in the sand. If the second person made it into a fish, then they both knew that they were safe.

The evidence of U2’s faith is there in their music. You might have to look carefully at times, but it’s there. The same is true of optimism vs. hope. If we’re looking for optimism, we are certain to be disappointed. But if we’re looking for that arc drawn in the sand, we’ll see it and know that there is hope all around us.

Tonight we have followed in the footsteps of millennia of Christians who have moved from the despair of crucifixion to the hope of resurrection. Our Scriptures are reasons for hope, songs that have been sung far too long, perhaps, but glimpses of hope if our eyes are open to them. And above all, we are on this side of the resurrection. Optimism was buried in that tomb. And when the stone was rolled away, optimism imagined that it had all been a dream, like the Wizard of Oz. Hope knows that Jesus suffered horribly and yet is still able to recognize the angel when it comes.

If we are followers of hope, we should run to show the others, not just tell them, but show them, what we saw. We should make the resurrection as real as possible so that there is no question about hope. We should live it in our lives.

How? Well, the plug might be an obvious one, but the Presbyterian Hunger Program, for whom we took up an offering at our service, is one way. They have an impressive resource you can download for free called Just Eating. It’s a curriculum and study guide on food. I highly recommend it. I promise you that you won’t like or agree with everything in it, but if that was our goal, would we ever open the Bible?

One story in particular leapt out at me. It is of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a city of 2.5 million people. In 1993, they decided to make food a right of every citizen. The best parallel in the U.S. would be public education – it’s available to all. They decided to do that with food. And they have done just that through a variety of programs, including more farmer’s markets (which means better food in more places), competitive open markets in poorer neighborhoods, creative restaurants which are cheap and draw clientele from all economic levels, three free meals a day to Preschoolers, and so on. My assumption would be that this would simply mean more free handouts, but here’s the stunning truth: it costs the city exactly 1% of their budget.

What will you do? How will you feed the world? OPC has its own commitments to making the world a better place, to building the kingdom of God, including our support for Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Outreach Home, and the Druid Hills Night Shelter. And now, in the coming months, our Food Pantry, after 40 years, will be joining forces with other churches in the area through the Suthers Center in Chamblee. What would it mean, for example, if we worked to commit ourselves to food access in all of our communities? Could we do that for 1% of our budgets?

Ultimately, it’s a question you’ve got to answer for yourself. It takes prayer, of course, and listening – the two go hand in hand. And it also means keeping your eyes open for those arcs in the sand, wondering where exactly it is that they are pointing. And when you see them, go. And don’t walk. Run. Run!


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You can click on the arrows below to listen to live versions of the music played at the U2Charist service. Keep in mind that they were not recorded professionally, so they have a bootleg-ish quality to them. There. You’ve been warned.

There are more links at the church website, including my reflection on the evening’s theme. You can also subscribe to the OPC podcast, where the live versions can be downloaded.

The band (AKA U6):
Tim Kromer – vocals
Rachel McDowell – vocals, keyboards
Seth Hammonds – guitars
Marthame Sanders – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Ted Kloss – bass
John Gunter – drums

All Because of You (God’s welcome)
lyricsiTunes download

lyricsiTunes download

New Year’s Day
lyricsiTunes download

Drowning Man (Our confession)
lyricsiTunes download

Grace (God’s forgiveness)
lyricsiTunes download

lyricsiTunes download

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Our prayers)
lyricsiTunes download

“40” (God’s table)
lyricsiTunes download

With or Without You & Yahweh
lyricsiTunes download (With or Without You)
lyricsiTunes download (Yahweh)

I Will Follow
lyricsiTunes download

Beautiful Day (God’s blessing)
lyricsiTunes download

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Every now and then, we get glimpses of God; if our eyes are open, we will see them. And that connects us to the disciples of Jesus’ time. They, too, saw glimpses of God. Jesus told parables as glimpses of the kingdom, of God’s desires for the world. He himself was a glimpse of God’s character and mercy. Paul writes about how we see in “a mirror darkly” now; we have these unclear glimpses of God’s triumph, glimpses which will be clearer in the full presence of God.

The story of the Transfiguration strikes me as an example of these glimpses. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain with him, and he is transfigured before them, and alongside him stand Elijah and Moses. These two were the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, and because of the odd nature surrounding their deaths, they were understood to be precursors of the promised Messiah. This is a huge moment, a holy moment, a purest of the pure glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. And then, it’s over. They head down the mountain and return to the ministry they had been doing.

We may be tempted to think that there is a separation between earth and heaven, that the kingdom of God is something beyond us, only available when we die. But Jesus is constantly offering examples of seeing that kingdom in the here and now. There is this constant inbreaking of the heavenly realm in earthly reality.

Have you had a glimpse of heaven? I had my own, in a small way, this past week.

We have been talking about an outreach ministry to Oglethorpe University for some time. And as talk has turned to capital improvements, some of us have imagined a coffee shop hangout spot in the courtyard breezeway, right across the street from the campus.

This past week, I was on Emory’s campus, when I ran into a friend of mine, Chip, with whom I went to school back in 4th or 5th grade. He’s an independent pastor and his ministry has intrigued me for some time. It’s called “Bread,” and it’s similar to the kind of thoughts we’ve had here about a hangout spot for college students. It’s a small yellow house, just across the street from the parking deck for Emory Hospital. I dropped in the middle of a book study. Chip has been meeting with some students for much of the year, reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Lewis’ book is a satire, a series of letters written from one demon to another, revealing something about the nature of evil, and, therefore, the nature of goodness.

As I walked in, they offered me some black beans and rice as well as some coffee. I sat and listened to the discussion, and as I did, I took in the atmosphere. Above a large couch, one wall was covered in writing. It said, “What do they want from us? To join a cult? To vote Republican? To give them money?”

Nearby, it said, “Talk is cheap. Hospitality is our sermon.” Elsewhere it talked about the ministry, how it really was a free place to drink coffee, how there were no strings attached, and that all are welcome. It also noted some offerings, such as the book group and some work trips.

One of the students raised a question about a sentence in the book. Chip started on an explanation that wove gang violence, Star Wars, and a couple of other cultural references in there. “Marthame?” He turned to me. “Do you have any thoughts on that?”

I noted how it reminded me of the Samaritan Woman at the well, asking Jesus for the wrong kind of water. I was impressed with my spur of the moment Biblical and theological insight. The student looked at Chip. “What’s the story of the Samaritan woman?”

Here was a ministry where young people were reading theological texts of profound insight, and these were folk for whom the stories of Scripture were unknown. At that moment, the heavens might well have split open with Elijah bearing black beans and Moses pouring espresso. I got an amazing glimpse of the kingdom of God, reaching and touching people that most churches never will.

But here’s the question: what’s the right reaction to these glimpses? In the Mark text, Peter wants to hang onto the moment, stay forever. He wants to build huts. He never, ever wants to leave. “If this is heaven,” he might have reasoned, “Why go anywhere else?”

But the moment passes, and Jesus heads back down the mountain, moving on with the disciples to continue this ministry.

Do you know these glimpses I’m talking about? It could be a moment of listening to a favorite album, or reading a gripping book, a film that captures your imagination, a conversation with a friend that looks as close to holiness as you can imagine. If we’re anything like Peter, our reaction is probably to hang on tight, to put the album or song on infinite repeat, to watch the DVD extras and even listen to the director’s commentary, to stay up late to read a few more pages, to spend as much time as possible with this person with whom moments are near divine.

One of my favorite musicians is Sufjan Stevens, a man who creates simple music of incredible beauty. I remember the first time I heard him, I immediately went out in search of everything he had ever recorded. I listened to the music over and over again. I read anything I could find on the web about him. I was, in a sense, like Peter, trying to build my little tent to stay as long as possible.

My reaction these days is a little different, though unfulfilled. When I hear his music, I want so desperately to create music like his. But I can’t. I can play, I can even compose a little bit. But I can’t come close to his subtlety and brilliance.

And yet, somehow, that’s very close to what I think the right reaction is. When we have these glimpses of the kingdom, when we touch that moment of holiness, the right reaction is to head back down the mountain and continue to work to create that kingdom we have glimpsed.

Here’s my challenge to any readers who might be out there: what one thing can you do this week to help create the kingdom? Maybe we won’t write a great album or create an immortal work of art. But perhaps we could do something small, like offering a word of kindness in a heated moment, or being generous in the face of a world which tempts us to hoard.

I’d love to hear what you do.

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God’s Pies

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Troy Bronsink has been a good friend and mentor to me in embracing my inner post-modern self. The link below is to an article Troy wrote for Fuller Seminary’s Theology, News & Notes. I encourage you to read it:

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For the past few days, I have been at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in Long Beach, California. PGF is an organization which exists to “to transform mainline congregations into missional communities following Jesus Christ”. It tends toward the conservative, especially on hot-button denominational issues such as ordination of homosexuals. Many are concerned about the recent actions of the General Assembly to change the Book of Order for full inclusion, seeing it as a change from traditional Presbyterian standards.

I need to say up front that I am as comfortable – and as uncomfortable – among this group as I am among the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, a notably liberal group within the denomination. I take Stanley Hauerwas’ description of the “resident alien” not only as a personal feeling of exile within the wider society, but also many times within the church itself. I worship as well in an emergent church as I do in Orthodox liturgy. I’m never quite at home in any context.

There is the threat, after this summer’s General Assembly, that there would be a split within the denomination. However, I am encouraged that much of the conversation among the leadership here at PGF is about how to live into that tension and division within the denomination, rather than finding a “way out.”

One proposal is to re-shape the denomination with non-geographic governing bodies that reflect the divisions over key issues, and would still maintain a wider unity of the denomination. I think there is great wisdom here, and I do hope that it gets some traction. I think it is far more fruitful to the health and faithfulness of the church and its witness than any kind of split we might find. Speaking very broadly, and from my point of view, we need the evangelical passion within the denomination for its insistence on the uniqueness of the gospel and of Jesus Christ. We also need the progressives’ zeal for justice and fairness. There are places where the two find common ground, but they are seemingly rare. “Mission”, in conservative circles, most often means “conversion.” “Mission”, in liberal circles, most often means “compassion.” For me, at least, the division is a false one. Thus the broader denominational tension is a healthy one.

As soon as I say this, though, I know that any such proposal will cause a personal crisis for me. If we are divided along these traditional lines, I’m not sure which way I will fall. If I could do “both/and”, then I’m probably good. But if it’s “either/or”, I remain in a more permanent exile.

And here comes the flaw that I see in the conversation here at PGF: there is an assumption that we are all systematic theologians, that there is no intellectual gap between our assumptions about God and God’s character and the positions we take on the positions of the day. In other words, a conservative theology leads to a conservative worldview; a liberal theology leads to a liberal worldview. I do not think that this is necessarily so, and I do think that there are many of us who cross lines quite fluidly. Two more academic illustrations of my point:

  • In South African theologian John de Gruchy’s book on art in liturgy, he examines the view that John Calvin had about the use of iconography by the church. Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand against idolatry and his radical focus on God, and thus opposed the use of religious icons. But what if, de Gruchy wonders, Calvin saw icons in the light of his strong stand on God’s accommodation toward humanity (e.g. incarnation, human language, etc.)? In other words, what if icons were a part of the way that God chooses human ways to communicate heavenly ideas? As systematic and logical and legally minded as Calvin was, even he had tension in his interpretive, intellectual lenses.
  • Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School has written profoundly on the “What Would Jesus Do” ideal in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In it, before he digs into the controversial issues of the day, he sets up his hermeneutical/interpretational lenses from the New Testament. He sees three important ones: cross, community, and new creation. When he looks at the issue of sexuality, for example, he is ultimately convinced by the need for the church to present a different way of being as new creation as a call to traditional standards of sexual behavior. But what if he were to choose another lens, namely community, to be primary? What if it were Christ’s radical call for inclusion and expansion of who is “in” on this particular issue? Would this cause him to look at this issue differently?

I am not a systematic theologian. My theology is strongly evangelical. But the conclusions it leads me to most often (not always) look a lot more like those of so-called liberals. Perhaps I am confused. I am definitely post-modern. But here’s what I’m convinced of theologically: none of the divisions of the church have a monopoly on truth. The PC(USA) cannot be our ultimate eschatology. I myself do not claim to have any authority to speak on “truth”. And, most importantly, I know that living in the tension of friendships with different parts of the Body of Christ has been the most powerful way for me to continue to seek that truth. Dividing in these ways would simply reinforce the fact that we self-ghettoize along theological lines, rarely seeking friendship and/or conversation with those with whom we disagree.

Whatever the future of the denomination might be, my hope is that there would be an intentional way to encourage – and, perhaps, even force – us to seek relationships across traditional boundaries. That, to my mind, would be the best way to benefit from the challenging heart the gospel offers us.

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I don’t know why I haven’t posted this before.

Back in August of 2007, I started an amazing journey with three fellow pastors in the Presbytery. We applied for, and received, a grant from the Lilly Foundation to enroll in the S3 (Service, Study, and Sabbath) program. Since then, we have gathered around the themes of the arts, reconciliation, and retreat in moving and powerful ways. We are getting ready to wrap up our time together officially, though we are eager to continue in whatever way we can.

The video below is a bit of fun from last August. We had five minutes to introduce ourselves and our project to the other S3 recipients. We decided to riff on the idea that we were ordinary mild-mannered pastors who were suddenly granted super (artistic) powers. There’s also a surprise cameo in there.


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Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 89
Romans 6:12-23

If you were paying attention to the Genesis lesson this morning, then if you’re anything like me, you were probably shifting uncomfortably in your seats. And it probably left you with more questions than answers. It is, truly, one of the most difficult passages in Scripture with which to wrestle. And as the lectionary brings us here this morning, it strikes me as fitting. This morning’s reflection takes me into territory that I didn’t expect. It makes me uncomfortable, and leaves me with more questions than answers.

A cursory glance at the lesson might leave us thinking, “Who is this God, anyway?” We might read this as God’s cruelty, dangling Abraham around on a string, like a puppet. Either that, or God’s fickleness and unreliability, changing the divine mind when the situation suits it.  God has called Abraham out of retirement and onto a journey, has urged him to send his first-born son Ishmael out into the wilderness, and now is threatening to take away his remaining son, the one who is the fulfillment of a long awaited promise? What kind of God is this, anyway?

This morning, I want to suggest that there are three different ways to read this passage. The first is the personal. And that centers on understanding Abraham’s character in the midst of this story. Abraham, after all, is the one who responds to God’s “get up and go” by getting up and going. There’s no equivocating. And the story has wound around so complexly that Abraham may, very well, now see this as another step in a journey on which God has been every step of the way. The problem with this is that it is so personal as to be irrelevant to us. How many of us have that kind of unquestioning, innate faith where we can say “yes” to God at a moment’s notice? How many of us would have that kind of simplicity? And how many of us, rather, wrestle and struggle with the demands of faith on a regular basis, knowing that we never quite pass muster?

This brings me to the second reading, which I’ll call a philosophical reading. It is the one that dates from the earliest Christian interpretation, one in which the story is seen exclusively through a Christian lens of the New Testament. The story then becomes kind of a metaphorical foreshadowing of the crucifixion. The Father is willing to sacrifice the Son. The Son is bound to the wood for the sacrifice. And God provides the lamb of God, Christ himself, to substitute for the child and so that human sacrifice becomes unnecessary. Again, helpful. It focuses our attention back on the cross and its meaning for our lives. But it doesn’t answer the most troubling questions at the heart of the story. Did Abraham understand all of this? Should Abraham have understood all of this? And what does God’s character look like to those who don’t have the benefit of foresight?

Which brings me to the third possibility, which I’ll call the contextual. It is the reading which is most accessible for me. This requires living into Abraham’s time a little more fully. And in that time, there was a whole array of gods; gods of war, gods of fertility, each tribe worshiped its own god. In this pre-nation time, each nation had its own deity. And it was not unusual for the practices around each god to include child sacrifice. Think of the practices of Central and South America around the temples there. What God appeared to be asking Abraham to do was absolutely par for the accepted course of the time. And so, when God stops Abraham, it is a moment where God says, in a very dramatic way, I am not that kind of God. Remember that this is still early on in the revelation of this “new” God called Yahweh to the world. And perhaps God could have said, “Abraham, follow me, but don’t sacrifice your son. That’s not who I am.” But if Abraham was anything like us, saying it is one thing; taking it to the brink of reality is something else.

Now I don’t know if that is helpful to you at all, especially as we live several millenia on this side of the story, with the benefit of hindsight and generations of children of Abraham so ingrained with the idea that child sacrifice is not the character of the God we worship. But maybe that’s the point. We are at a point of worshiping this God Yahweh down through the centuries where this different, defining character of God is so assumed that the questions Abraham would have had to wrestle with in his time strike us today as nothing short of barbaric.

So: here we are, with this incredible gap of time between us and our ancestor Abraham. What, possibly, could this archaic story of a god who doesn’t demand child sacrifice have to teach us today? We know that lesson, don’t we? So, lesson learned, we move on? Or could it be that there is something to the essence of this story that transcends, that moves through the centuries, that builds a bridge to us in the present, 21st century that can help us look at ourselves? Perhaps it’s a bit of a leap, but as we continue our conversations about stewardship this summer, I am drawn to the possibility that this lesson might teach us something about the parent/child relationship, about what it means to worship, and about how God provides.

There is perhaps no more pressing topic in the church these days than the question of children and worship. And before I move any further, I want to offer up a couple of caveats (don’t you love reflections with caveats?). First, this is part of a conversation. This grows out of conversations with you all in various capacities over the past three years. And I intend this not to be the final point of the conversation, but rather as a way to continue the conversation. I say that with full recognition that I’m the guy who gets to stand up on Sunday morning and speak uninterrupted for twenty minutes. So I really invite your responses to this conversation. Tiffany and I will find ways in the coming months to continue it. For those of you that are technologically inclined, I have begun blogging my sermons as a way to make them more interactive. And for those of you that prefer more traditional modes of communication, let’s get together – beyond the brief conversations that fellowship allows for – to speak in intentional ways. The second caveat is that I recognize that my reflections today might reflect that Abraham story a bit too directly; uncomfortable and with more questions than answers. But that is intentional, so that we might engage in more conversation in the years together that we have.

The third caveat is that I know I approach this conversation as not only pastor, but parent. I have no desire to make my own parenting some kind of canonical standard. My ultimate Biblical stand is that the parent has the final say in the faith education of the child. After all, the parent has the child throughout the week. We, as a church, have the child for one, maybe two hours out of that week. And what Elizabeth and I choose to do as parents now may change in the years to come, as our child’s needs change and grow, or as other children come into the picture. I don’t want to appear so foolish as to think that I am now an expert on the subject. And I do not want for my son to be the poster child for Christian parenting. Preacher’s kids have enough pressures of the public life. I have no desire to add to them.

And the final caveat is this: as the uninterrupted guy, I want to be clear that while I recognize that my voice has a certain role in the conversation, I want to make it clear that I do not believe it is the only voice by any stretch. Presbyterianism allows for a fuller conversation in theological ways. Elders are gifted as a means by which the Spirit speaks. And I also believe that each of you are drawn here by that same Spirit; it is our common voice which gives voice to God’s desires.

OK. Caveats out of the way. On with the show.

 I begin with my own story. As many of you know, I was raised at First Presbyterian, just eight miles down Peachtree from here. My mother was in the choir. My father attended Bedside Presbyterian (right next to St. Mattress Episcopalian). So I sat between my grandparents in the corner pew. At some point, I must have been in the nursery (I don’t really remember when that was), because I have a few fuzzy memories; but early on, I ended up in worship. I was bored and restless. The sermon was agonizing. I don’t remember actually hearing any sermon that was preached. My grandmother would give me paper to draw on. Sometimes I would rest my head on her lap, and she would scratch my back. If I coughed, she’d dig into her purse for a cepacol lozenge. Sometimes I’d fake a cough just to get one. I didn’t learn much during the sermons. But what did I learn? I learned the songs, the prayers, the rhythms of worship.

When worship was over, and the pastors headed for the exits to greet us, Pastor George would walk down our aisle. I’d lean out, and he’d tossle my air. That was something else I learned: I was welcomed, and I was loved. It was a church that took seriously the baptismal vows it made for me up until and past seminary.

Our context here at OPC is different. We don’t have any unanimity on how to answer this question of children and worship. Some parents prefer to have their children in worship so that they, too, would learn these rhythms. Others prefer to have them in the nursery, so that they themselves can focus and worship; it simply isn’t fair to expect children to sit still for an hour or more in worship. Others come rarely, and for some it is because we don’t make our expectations clear. They don’t know what to do with their children, and the choice itself is exhausting. It is because of this lack of clarity we have that I want to propose, in parallel to our three views of the Abraham story, that there may be three ways to view this topic.

The first is the personal approach. Many churches take this way. Children go to children’s church, where the lesson is age-appropriate. There is a contemporary service for the youth, a traditional service for the adults. And there is much to recommend this approach: the gospel isn’t for adults alone, and people of different ages and developmental stages get the lesson in a way that is age-appropriate. But it has it’s limitations as well. What does it mean to be one body of Christ when we are segmented? What does it mean that those who volunteer to run the other services don’t themselves get to worship? My own experience at churches where this has been the practice is that children are alienated from traditional forms of worship. When they do attend later on, it’s like being dropped in a foreign land without even a phrase book.

The second approach would be this philosophical one. In it, the worship space is radically altered so that all ages are in the same room. The children’s sermon is longer and much more focused on the children. There are dedicated areas for children. Congregants act as surrogate parents. And children are not expected to sit still for an hour. It, too, brings much to the conversation. The community is in one place. Christ’s desire that the “little children come to me” is enacted. But it, too, has its downsides. There is noise, and distraction from that and movement can crowd our ability to concentrate on what worship asks of us. The sermon, which is so central and adult-focused in our tradition, becomes shorter or stripped down so that there is more than just adult conversation taking place. It is an approach which has it’s limitations, too.

And so, there is a third way, which is more contextual. It recognizes who we are and what we bring to this worship and to this community. It leaves intact that desire that parents ultimately make these decisions for their children. And in a sense, it is what we are already. But here’s the difference: it’s intentional, and it’s clearer. There is a deep desire that the community of faith be the place where parents can be resourced and supported to provide for the spiritual nurture of their children. There is an embrace of children and parents, meeting them where they are, and giving them what God needs for them to grow.

What does it look like? Again, this reflection is more about questions than answers. And I really don’t know the answer to this one. But I do know this: we will come to a place where we will learn, as did Abraham, that the God we worship has a very different character from that which our times might want us to believe. And in that moment, we will feel the draw to worship that God. And like that ram in the thicket, God will provide all that we need to make it possible.

Friends, I do hope that this is the beginning of the conversation. Please respond with honesty. Email me or put a comment below. Call me and let’s get together. I trust that God will speak through the wisdom we gather together.

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I forgot one of my key discoveries on the journey. Much of what I’ve shared thus far is pretty mellow musically, which doesn’t speak to the need to rock! that infuses my soul.

Again, Paste Magazine turned me onto Derek Webb as well. I need to traverse a little sidebar here to point out that Paste is not a “Christian” magazine. They review art (music, books, film, tv, video games) across the board, and the same issue that would cover Sufjan Stevens might also have an article on the notoriously atheistic and seminal punk band Bad Religion. The difference is that aesthetics, not hipsterism, rules at Paste. So Sufjan or Over the Rhine or Derek Webb aren’t caste aside because of their spiritual-tinging.

Derek Webb is an on-again/off-again singer with a Christian contemporary band called Caedmon’s Call. His most solo recent album, The Ringing Bell, was recorded in the midst of the Iraq War. In it, I heard echoes of the growing group of evangelicals who are tired of having their theology and worldview hijacked and limited to issues of personal piety while calls for justice, mercy, and peace are ignored. Webb’s song “Love Stronger Than Our Fear” speaks pretty blunty to that:

“What would you do if someone would tell you the truth, but only if you tortured them half to death? Tell me: since when do the ends justify the means, and you build the kingdom using the devil’s tools? There’s got to be a love stronger than our fear…”

The song that closes the album, “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” is a solo acoustic piece with a fierce indictment of the horrors of life in their breadth, acknowledging genocide, hunger, war, etc. In the final verse the outward indictment turns sharply inward:

“I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door. I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore. I’ve traded in comfort for human life, and that’s not just murder. It’s suicide.”

And yet, each of these indictments ends with this gnawing, yearning, unfulfilled hope: “This, too, shall be made right.” Amen. Amen.

I’ve tried to find videos on youtube to embed here, but there ain’t. That being said, there a couple of other places to hear these songs (as well as other Derek Webb stuff):

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So then last November, another issue of Paste Magazine (seeing a common thread here?) arrives at my doorstep. But as I read through, I was struck by one article. Linford Detweiler, pianist and songwriter for Over the Rhine (a band I had never heard of), wrote this incredibly articulate, moving piece detailing the genesis of their most recent album. A brief glimpse:

“Since there is all this music that could only have happened in America, are we foolhardy enough to believe that the music of Over the Rhine—our music—is, at its heart, an only-in-America tale of some kind as well? And if our music isn’t deeply connected to who we are and where we’ve come from, if we don’t believe our songs have the potential to be an authentic footnote of some kind in this larger unique story of American music, aren’t we just wasting everyone’s time, including our own?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this music we are about to make will be our life’s work. Let’s pan way back (even farther back than backstage). What if we were brave enough to actually tell the story of how we got here, our very own only-in-America tale? Where would we start?”

He goes on to detail the intersection of faith, instrumentation, and jazz that have marked his own career trajectory, and quotes the lyrics to “The Trumpet Child” to where my heart is pounding. Later that night I sit in front of my laptop perusing their webpage and listening to the webplayer for the new album over and over and over again; I listen to that one song about seventeen times in a row, reading the lyrics and emailing it to as many friends as I think will care in the least. It is jazz, it is hymn, it is Spirit, it is America.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen for yourself:

 The Trumpet Child – Over The Rhine

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