Archive for the ‘liturgy’ Category

Loving and perfect God, every time we gather at this table we repeat the words that have been handed to us from our Lord Jesus: “In remembrance.” Today, these words have added meaning, as so many in our nation gather today to remember the horrific and tragic events of ten years ago. So many bodies broken, so much blood poured out, so much life and promise cut short as so many of us looked on in fear.

And in the ten years since, there has more destruction – the numerous deaths of combatants and civilians, the countless wounds to body, mind, and spirit. What has become clear is that what happened in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania ten years ago were not an anomaly. If we are honest, we know that the one real difference was in their proximity to us.

It is true that we have come to this table in memory, yes; but we also come because we want to be close to you, closer than global agony, closer than national tragedy, closer than even our own breath. And so, O mighty and merciful Lord, may your body broken and your blood poured out for our sake be the very thing that fills our voids and heals our wounds, binding us close to one another, to all who share in this feast, to all those who have come before and surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses.

We pray all of this in the name of Christ our Lord, the bread of life, who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Starfish or spider?

Five years ago, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. In it, the authors compare the biology of starfish and spiders. Both have multiple legs with a central body. But there is one key difference: if you cut off a spider’s head, it will die. The starfish, on the other hand, has no head. If you cut off one of its legs, it will regenerate. And some species can regenerate from just a leg, because the genetic code and the vital organs are all there.

This difference becomes the central point of their book as they compare organizations, especially with the dawn of the 21st century and the explosion of internet technology. Every industry is changing dramatically as a result. If you are working in a business which has not been changed by the internet, please raise your hand.

The most interesting example of this is the music business. As of 2000, it was primarily in the hands of four major record labels. But this four-headed arachnid has since been crippled by internet file-sharing and piracy, a starfish with no centralized organization. The results have been financially devastating. And every time the industry wins a court-case against one form of piracy, another one springs up, each one more anonymous and harder to shut down than the last.

There is bad news in this; but I’m not sure it’s all bad news. The music industry has had a spotty record, at best, in how musicians fare financially from the top-down model. But the argument has always been that record companies, because of their size, can be trusted with the charge of distribution and promotion. And so musicians need them. Otherwise, how else would people know about them?

But as websites like MySpace and YouTube have taken off, musicians have recognized that the old way of doing things is changing.

In 2007, the English band Radiohead released its album In Rainbows. It was posted on their website without a record company present at all. People could pay whatever they wanted. It entered the charts at number one, and within a year had sold three million copies. And even though they offered it as a “pay as you like” download, most fans paid for the record, and the band made a mint.

As I’m reading this book, I’m thinking to myself: what about the church? Are we more spider, or starfish?

We Presbyterians love to talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that God is, simply put, in control. And when we talk about the church as the Body of Christ, we are always sure to make it clear that Jesus is the head of that body. That sounds like all spider to me.

Think of the Godhead at work in Genesis, forming stars and planets and grass and trees, and animals and fish and birds, and male and female. There is a center out of which everything emanates, and everything owes its life to that center. It’s a top-down hierarchy. God makes, things are made.

Or what about the “Great Commission” that comes at the end of Matthew? Jesus, the early church’s CEO, gives the disciples their mission: go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so they go, following orders from the head of the organization.

We are inheritors of this Scripture, and so it is not surprising that churches would be spider-like with a centralized organization, such as a Session, or a Presbytery, or, in the case of the ancient churches, Patriarch or Pope. We are spiders in a world full of starfish.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why the mainline churches are struggling. We struggle financially and numerically as we work to sustain, transform, maintain, evolve our forms of worship and governance and physical plant. And our evangelism approach seems to be borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Spiders seem to be going extinct. Is that our fate, too?

But before we go too far down this road, let’s be clear about one thing: we are, indeed, inheritors of Scripture; and we are, indeed, inheritors of the church. But we are also heirs to much, much more. We are influenced by culture and language and philosophy and biology and worldview which are outside (and in some cases even trump) the influence of Scripture, of theology, of ecclesial DNA. Which is which? And how can we possibly know?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day we set aside to deal with the complicated and confusing doctrine of God as three-in-one, one-in-three.

This is my sixth Trinity Sunday as your pastor. And with this Sunday approaching, I went back and looked at the Trinity Sunday sermons I’ve preached since my arrival. And so, let me sum up the sermon I’ve preached every year in a couple of sentences:

The Trinity is the doctrine the early church created to explain the confusion of Scripture where God, Jesus, and Spirit are all described as divine. What it teaches us, ultimately, is that God is mysterious and that God exists in relationship.

But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if the Trinity can actually shed light on our starfish-spider debate…

For starters, there is no hierarchy in Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. There is no “head”.

Look at the creation story. At first glance, it is God – the Creator, the Father – who is at work, fashioning and shaping. And yet, there is this curious pronoun at the creation of humanity: “Let us create…” Not singular, but plural. Who else is there?

Well, let’s jump back to the very beginning of Genesis. Before anything else happens, there is wind, breath, spirit, moving over the face of the waters. The Spirit is there.

And in order for there to be creation of something out of nothing, there must be Word: “And God said…” And that word of God, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Creation can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

And as we look at the end of Matthew, where Jesus is once again with his disciples after the resurrection, he gives them the Great Commission, sending them out to baptize. But while Jesus is the divine mouthpiece, all of divinity is present. Don’t baptize in the name of God, or in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

The Trinity, the very nature of God, is actually far more starfish than spider. But it’s not about the curiosity of chopping off body parts; it’s about part of God containing the fullness of God.

And that’s the gift to the church. We, whether female or male, are created in the image of all of God, that weird first person plural that pops up in Genesis. And the church is baptized in the name of all of God, not just one part. And we, the church, and individually members of it, have that divine genetic code within us.

The question that lingers with us today is, “What do we do with this?” What do we do in a world that is becoming more starfish and less spider?

I think the truth is that we Presbyterians are in a good position to adapt. We have always been suspicious of too much power being vested in one person, whether that be pastor or elder or treasurer or staff. And I think we’ve been sadly vindicated by the evidence we see in church scandals. We are not immune from the headlines, but we are fortunate that the essence of our structure is one of both support and accountability.

When we celebrate communion, we must have at least three people present: someone to receive, an elder (representing this congregation), and a pastor (representing the wider church).

When I go to visit one of our members in the hospital, or to a community gathering, wherever I go, I take the name of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. See, it’s not just me that goes; it’s all of you. And you have given me the trust to carry all of that, the fullness of God’s OPC DNA, with me.

But the same is true with you; each of you. When you leave this worship service today, when you leave the physical confines of our physical plant, you have not left God behind. You carry the divine imprint within you. At work, at home, as a parent, a neighbor, a student, a teacher, wherever you go, you remain part of the starfish.

If you’ve bothered to read this far, I want you to do something. Click on this link. Print it out. It’s made up of three cards (appropriate for Trinity Sunday). In the next few days, give them to someone. Hand it to a friend, someone you meet at the coffee shop. Tack it to a bulletin board at the restaurant where you have lunch, the grocery store where you shop. Mail it to a family member. Put it in a neighbor’s mailbox. And as you do, may it remind you of your Godly DNA, that you are part of the body of Christ: now and forever!


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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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From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band and choir play the U2 song to close our worship service. That’s me on minimalist-effect-laden guitar. Lyrics can be found here.

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Daily Reflections

In my sermon this past Sunday, I suggested that folks might try a daily practice of devotional, even the first 5 minutes of each day.

Special thanks to my friend Linda Hawthorne for this site, which I have now bookmarked for future reference. For a person who finds themselves “plugged in” much of the day, this is a great resource:

Sacred Space (Irish Jesuit prayer site)

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We left Palestine in 2003. Until 2005, we continued to work on behalf of education and advocacy in the region, though we were in the States. So for three plus years, I have more or less disengaged from the issues therein. I stay informed, I keep in touch with friends, I attend peace vigils and work at building interfaith relationships locally. But I have not said much on the issue for several reasons.

The first is personal. I was burned out. I was heartbroken and exhausted trying to work for peace in a region where it seems like it would never actually happen. On top of that, the criticisms we got were deeply personal. If you want to know what I’m talking about, Google my name. You’ll get a sense of why I haven’t done that in 5 years. The labels stung. They cut me to the quick. I have done my best to be very careful about the language I use and have worked to examine my assumptions about the conflict because I didn’t want to fall prey to the horrific traps that others do when advocating for Palestinians. But it didn’t matter; the accusations came anyway.

The second reason was pastoral. I am in a new role, pastor of a congregation. I have a prophetic role, yes, but I also cherish this community and the fact that we don’t disagree. I am also aware that my voice has an inordinate amount of power in this role, and the possibility of being misunderstood as imposing a point of view looms large.

One member in particular approached me not long after I arrived, expressing concern over my history. This is a member whom I have come to cherish a great deal. I promised them that I would be honest to my conscience, but that I would never ask the church to take a stand on this (or any) issue, since that diversity of voices is so important. And that conversation has kept me grounded. I do not want to be an ambulance chaser, responding to this crisis or the other as a way of doing ministry. But I don’t want my ministry to be so limited that I’m not giving theological voice on issues that I think are important, even if most of my congregation thinks they’re too secular.

That being said, I’m aware that my preaching about the politics of Palestine is tricky business. It’s an emotional topic anyway, and my proximity to the issues (despite my in-depth knowledge of them) means I might lose my perspective.

So when I look at Gaza, my first reaction is horror and disgust. There must be something to be said about all of this. But with the caveats above in place, am I the right person to speak on it? Is it up there on the list of the world’s greatest issues and therefore worthy of theological comment?

I remain unsure in the face of it all. But I will blog.

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I’ve had this tune and chord progression bouncing around for years – at least 15, by my count. Gathered with a group of friends last spring in the north Georgia mountains, I strummed the chords for a while. This is what emerged.

Now: I’ve recently gotten a copy of Mac’s Garageband software. It’s addictive. So this is my amateur attempt at arrangement. Enjoy!

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John 5:30-47

I never have considered myself much of an artist. I’ve told the story before of how I nearly failed a non-credit art class in high school. We were supposed to produce three pieces by the end of the summer term, but I couldn’t even finish the first.

But I remember distinctly loving to draw perspective drawings: endless horizons, hallways seeming to go on forever, a road narrowing into nothingness, a creation revolving around the center of the page as though it were a black hole slowly drawing the rest of the world into its gaping maw.

There’s something about our Scripture readings this morning which reminds me of those childhood artwork. We begin this journey with the prophet Isaiah; and as much as we might want to linger and hear him, he shoos us on down the road: “Keep moving. There’s nothing to see here. But up ahead, there’s this guy. Now that you’ll want to see. A voice crying in the wilderness!” And so we move on.

And it’s worth the trek: this wild figure with wild hair in wild clothes gestures wildly. And so we are drawn to this John the Baptist figure, ready to stop and rest, take in the scenery. But he scoots us along. “You think I’m great? Just wait. This is nothing. I’m not the main attraction. Keep going. It’s just over the hill. That guy is, well, he’s the one. What more can I say?” And so we keep going.

And then we get to this Jesus; not nearly as dramatic as the last guy, but John was right about him. This is the kind of guy you want to follow. Surely we’ve now reached that unreachable horizon, right? But as soon as we catch our breath, Jesus points off down the road toward this one he calls his Father: the creator, the one who shapes us to begin with.

We’ve just begun this season of Advent. And it, too, parallels these travels. It’s a season of preparation, four weeks leading up to those brief twelve days of Christmas. But we don’t stop there. Once we arrive at the manger, there is still more to come on down the road: there is ministry, crucifixion, resurrection. And then there is church, the body of Christ, us gathered here: more ministry, more journey, more signposts down that path toward the endless, eternal center of the page.

But isn’t that what this is all about? We don’t do what we do – whether it’s preach, or sing, or ring, play, or pray, or teach, or serve – because we think that we deserve to be the center of attention, do we? Everything we do, whether it takes place in this building or not, should, in its own perfected imperfect way, point the way to others. “Keep going. Stay on the road. You can’t miss it.”

The funny thing about perspective drawings is that they can play tricks on your eyes. Just as soon as you think that road is moving away from you, that’s when you squint; your focus was somewhere else, and for a second, just for a second, you think you see the center point popping up out of the paper, not going further into it.

We are on this journey just as much as we are sharing the road with others. But the destination isn’t the unreachable depths of the page. It’s the artist, the everlasting creator, who first drew us and continues to draw us, to beckon us ever closer.

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We had a wonderful, intense meeting with the Worship Ministry last Sunday (September 28), talking about Advent and Christmas as liturgical seasons and musical touchstones. When I arrived here at OPC, the custom had been in recent years to hold off singing Christmas hymns until Christmas Eve. I continued this practice, largely because I thought it was a good one. However, it has become patently clear that there are a variety of views on this topic. So: we met, everyone got their feelings, thoughts, opinions out on the table in ways that were very, very powerful and gave, I think, powerful testimony to the open nature of listening and respect that should be at the heart of all church conversations. I left the meeting with my eyes, ears, and heart open in ways, I will admit, it had not been before to other ways of seeing this conversation.

So: following the meeting, I promised to summarize what I thought the main conversation was about, post it here, and invite feedback. I can claim no ownership for any of the thoughts below except my own, so where I miss the point, please do correct me. I want honest, direct, thoughtful, respectful feedback.

The conversation raised one important clarifying point: there is no issue about the Season of Advent. All are agreed that, prior to the coming of Christmas, there is a need to engage in thoughtful (some would say joyful) preparation as the busy-ness and commercialization of Christmas continues non-stop. The issue, rather, is about the musical selections.

On the one hand, there is the point that the liturgical seasons are reflected in the music we sing (e.g. we don’t sing Easter hymns during Lent, or Advent hymns during Lent, etc.). To sing Advent music during Advent is a way of connection with ancient traditions and ancient longings for the Messiah. It is also a prophetic witness to our wider culture that Christmas is a religious feast, not an occasion for sales. It begins on December 25 and lasts twelve whole days. Ecumenically speaking (at least the “higher church” side of things – Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic), we are also making a statement about unity in Christ. We stand in that Christian tradition of being counter-cultural and disciplined by waiting. And in a culture of instant gratification, waiting is an important Christian discipline to nurture. As Lent is for Easter, so Advent ought to be for Christmas. And worship, at the center of our life and witness, ought to reflect this witness.

On the other hand, we are already being bombarded with Christmas secular music everywhere we go in December (and even earlier – I saw Christmas decorations already up at Lowe’s the other day). What we really want is to put Jesus back in Christmas. Singing them in the car, or at home? We want to celebrate the birth of Christ with our faith community, singing joyfully together. And waiting until Christmas officially comes is no good. The wider culture has already so bombarded us with red, green, tinsel, and santa hats that, by the time 12/25 finally gets here, we’re sick of it. The last thing we want to do is to sing “Away in a Manger.” It’s no longer joyful; the culture has killed the possibility of joy by then.

As I said, I don’t claim to have touched on all of the important points above. So please do give me feedback. What have I missed? What do you think about the conversation? How can we continue the conversation? How do we move forward from this?

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