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Posts Tagged ‘worship’

We should err on the side of grace.

Our Psalm this morning is, at first glance, a simple one of praise. The phrase “Praise the Lord” bookends it on either side. The author sings God’s praise and speaks effusively of God’s goodness. And it is in lining out how good God is that the psalm shows its importance to the overall message of Scripture. We can see its echoes in the Old and New Testament alike. In the song of Hannah, in Mary’s Magnificat, in Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, in his sermon on the mount, in his parable of the sheep and goats on the day of judgment, the themes of our morning psalm arise again and again. God lifts up the powerless and humbles the powerful. The hungry are fed, the prisoners are freed, those on the margins of the world are brought into the brightest light of God’s healing grace and presence.

And we, as the church, as the body of Christ, as those who seek to be faithful in light of these Scriptures, are called to mirror that message in the way that we speak and act and live. In other words, we should err on the side of grace.

Throughout the summer, we have been taking a closer look at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, our shared meal at this table. Today, we continue that exploration, looking at the meaning of the cup. The cup (or, to be more accurate in this case, cups) is a reminder of the cup that Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. If you have been with us at the table before, you know that we have both wine and juice here. It is wine that would have been on Jesus’ table. And yet, we recognize that alcohol can be a stumbling block to the table for many.

As a historical side note, unfermented grape juice didn’t become an option until the late 19th century. It was then that Methodist layman and prohibitionist Thomas Welch discovered how to use pasteurization to stop the fermentation process.

In any case, the cup is meant as a historical reminder. And yet, it is more than that. As we often say here, we are fed at the table so that we might go out and feed. If this table is a means of experiencing grace but we do not share that grace beyond these walls, then we have turned this holy meal into an exclusive function. If even Judas broke bread with Jesus, then who are we to decide who is worthy to be nourished?

I’m reminded of a phrase from a different psalm, Psalm 23. As the author imagines feasting at a heavenly banquet at God’s own table, their own cup overflows. That, to me, is the image that can focus our attention. Our literal and metaphorical cups are filled with blessings, filled to overflowing. What runs over is not ours to keep and hoard. Instead, it is to be shared with the world. After all, we are not arbiters of God’s grace, but instruments of it. And so, we should err on the side of grace.

I hope that this will as true for us outside the walls of this church as it is for us within them. I often share with colleagues in ministry how blessed I feel to be a part of the life of this congregation. There is a strong sense here that we can be honest with each other, and that we do so with love. I don’t know if you can appreciate how rare that is within the church these days. I think one of the legacies of Oglethorpe Presbyterian is that we continue to aim for this balance of truth and grace. We know we can disagree; but we also know that we can do so agreeably. There are times when our Session leadership has robust debate on issues that face us; and yet, once a decision is made, we are clear that we are all on the same page. In other words, losing a vote is not a reason to distrust the process.

And while this kind of emotional health might be woefully rare among congregations, there are times when it seems to be completely absent in our national conversations. We live in these political and cultural bubbles. Politicians and pundits and pastors scream at the walls, apparently loving the sound of their own voice much more than the voice of reason and truth and mercy. Whatever you may think about the appropriate connection between faith and citizenship, I think there is a critical role for Christians to play as people who can speak the truth in love, err on the side of grace, and trust that, even if we cannot see the hand of mercy for the moment, God is at still work.

The past few weeks have been significant in our shared national life. The brutal shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston reminds us that we are still struggling with the reality of race and have not yet been purged of our original sin. The response to the shooting, the overwhelming show of solidarity and the powerful witness of forgiveness, have given us hope – even as three black churches have been burned by arsonists.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality just over a week ago reflected a significant cultural shift in our national understanding of sexual orientation. As I have shared before, I think the real tipping point happened not last Friday, but five years ago when the military removed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” as official policy. The biggest gap of opinion is not between conservatives and liberals, but between generations. Here is the most telling statistic to me: 51% of white evangelicals under the age of 35 support marriage equality. In other words, those raised in a culture that has vocally opposed same sex marriage not only don’t oppose it, they support it.

Whatever the short-term political gains to be made by those who continue to advocate for “traditional” marriage, the debate is, for all intents and purposes, over. That is true not only for the American conversation, but if the numbers are accurate, for the Christian conversation as well.

Here is the thing you might not know: five days before the Supreme Court ruling, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took the same stand. In other words, our denomination’s constitution officially declares marriage as a covenant between two people, regardless of their gender. What this means practically for pastors and congregations is this: pastors reserve the right to officiate any wedding or not; and sessions reserve the right to host any wedding or not. That has always been the case, and both situations have arisen in my time here.

But here is what I want you to hear from me: I will gladly welcome any two people who wish to covenant together in marriage. I will still reserve the right to officiate or not, but I will not consider gender or orientation in that decision. And I do so because I believe it is the faithful thing to do.

When Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia that within the church there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, I believe that the Spirit may have been offering us a glimpse at inclusion that not even Paul himself would have imagined. And when two people desire to live together in marriage, no matter their orientation, they are going to need God’s help to make it work. More than anything else, though, I want to err on the side of grace. Because if the example of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that those whom society might deem unworthy are among those whom Jesus himself welcomes to the table of fellowship of grace.

And that is where we gather now – not because you agree or disagree with me, or because we are necessarily all of one opinion about this issue or that – but because we know that it is right to be together. We make more beautiful music when we join our voices and hearts together in song. We are God’s people when we are focused on God whom we know in Christ rather than on our own agendas and certainties. And we are more faithful in community than when we are alone in those bubbles that tempt us to self-righteousness.

Friends, we declare that this bread is the body of Christ. And we say that this cup is the blood of Christ, the cup of his new, unbreakable covenant. When we are fed by this bread and cup, among everything else we believe about what that means, we are also meant to remember that we ourselves are the body and blood of Christ.

We are the feet of Christ, moving out into the world as messengers, ambassadors of God’s limitless love. We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to the world in compassion and mercy, feeding those who hunger and giving water to those who thirst. We are the lifeblood of Christ, agents of God’s always beating and oft-broken heart, making this table a place of welcome, wholeness, healing, and embrace. And we do so because we know that, no matter who we are, no matter our station in life, no matter how much or little we bring to this table, that we are all in need of God’s help to make our lives faithful ones of gracious witness.

Amen.

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Use your voice to give God praise!

I will be spending next summer in Chicago. And I have you all to thank for that. Many of you know that Oglethorpe Presbyterian recently received a generous grant as part of the Lilly Endowment’s Pastoral Renewal Program. This grant will allow my family and me to spend the summer in Chicago, and will also cover any expenses related to pastoral, programmatic, and worship continuity here while I am away. It is a highly competitive program, and fewer than 100 congregations across the United States are chosen in any given year.

I mention all of this because of how it relates to our conversation today, about music and worship. The application we submitted to Lilly centered around creativity, and how engaging in creativity connects us to the One who is always creating and re-creating. In other words, creativity is a holy experience.

But you know that already, how the creative arts can speak to us in ways that words never can. When we see a painting, or hear a song, these things can take us to places that can be difficult to describe – and yet, they can be places of intimate sacredness.

It’s one of the reasons that some churches have come to be marked by the so-called “worship wars”. These are the battles over whether traditional or contemporary music ought to be used. Dividing lines are drawn, the world becomes very black and white, and the place for grays is squeezed out. I’m not surprised that this kind of thing happens, actually. If music speaks to us in sacred, non-verbal ways, no wonder we tend to get wrapped up in the kind of music that ends up in our worship services.

A few years ago, we surveyed our congregation about worship styles and music preferences. It was clear that we love our traditional music – that is, organ or piano accompaniment with traditional hymns. However, it was also clear that we see ourselves as a blended worship community. We mix things up with drums and guitars, with handbells and choirs, with gospel choruses and praise songs.

And when you think about it, that’s not too surprising, because we are blended community. Think about our communication styles for a moment. There are those of you who do not have a computer or email. And there are those of you who will tweet during this worship service. We know that about ourselves and about each other, and we appreciate it. So when it comes to music, we know one thing very clearly: we know that we are not the audience of our worship music. God is. As the preacher once replied to the member complaining about song selection, “It’s a good thing we weren’t singing to you.”

Music is a very subjective art. And while a particular song may not connect with me in a sacred way, it may be the most intimate, Godly moment for a fellow worshiper. Who am I to deny that experience?

All of this goes back to our overall conversation for the past few months, as we have looked back at the history of our congregation here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow. And when we speak of music, there is far too much to say. It is clear to me that we are a congregation who has a high regard for music and its place in worship life, and that we value good music in all its variety. If you have been listening to our worship compilation CD, you know what I’m talking about; if not, you can find it streaming on our website.

That is all true. What is also true is that what our worship music looks and sounds like changes through the years, sometimes dramatically. And it has its life cycles. There are ups, and there are downs. Our choir knows this better than most, as we have met many times over the past few years to figure out what we can do to recruit more choir members. John Cox has personally asked every visitor, and maybe even some complete strangers, if they can sing!

Let me pause here and just make a quick commercial: participating in the choir is not like being the boatman on the River Styx. You don’t have to trick someone else into taking your oar in order to get off the boat. Come when you like to Sunday morning practice at 9:45. Sing once a month, twice a year, whatever works for you. They’re nice folks, too, for the most part.

OK. End of commercial.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who works with a lot of churches across the country about our choir numbers, and her reply was, “I don’t know of any smaller church who has a growing choir program.” I’m not sure how reassuring that message is, kind of the churchy equivalent of “yeah, times are tough all over.” And yet, I don’t know of a church our size who is blessed with a thriving handbell choir like we are.

For that matter, I don’t know of any other church our size that creates the kind of music we do. Friends, we have been blessed with an amazingly talented and inspired music staff. They arrange familiar songs. They compose new ones. That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in a church our size! And that gift extends beyond Tim and his predecessors. It’s in the congregation! We – you – have written songs we have sung in worship.

Forgive me for patting us on the back a little bit here, but this is the unique gift of music at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: we create our own joyful noise. And nothing will speak more directly to our heart or to the heart of God than the words of our own mouth!

The psalmist encourages us not just to worship the Lord, but to do enter into God’s presence with singing! I don’t think it’s any accident that it is called a joyful noise, because not all of us are blessed with the gift of pitch. Even so, on into our reading from Colossians, the faithful are taught not just to teach one another with words, but to sing psalms, hymns, songs of gratitude and thanksgiving. Music, our music, has always been a vehicle to reach the divine.

I think there’s a fitting tale from history in all of this. 500 years ago, a young monk named Martin Luther staked his life on the idea that the people who worship should be able to understand the words of Scripture. Even if it wasn’t an original thought, his radical idea to translate the Bible into the language people spoke was earth shattering. It changed the balance of power and interpretation in European churches. He then took this idea of vernacular worship even further, composing songs in native languages. Most galling of all, he took familiar tunes – beer hall anthems, folks songs – and wrote sacred words to them as a tool to teaching the people how to give praise to God.

I’m convinced that this is the stream of tradition and history into which Oglethorpe Presbyterian steps: the church using its own voice to give God praise. Tim Hsu has composed numerous pieces in his two plus years with us, and arranged even more.  The refrains we sing at Advent and Lent are his, as is one of my favorite pieces, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Mandarin. We have used Ted Kloss’ song “Take Flight” in worship as well, and I know he has others we have yet to hear. Our summer music has featured original compositions of simple prayers, even an “Alleluia” set to a song by the band Arcade Fire. You all have even tolerated some of my original music, which is the truest sign of your grace and patience! And when I head off to Chicago in June, one of the things I will get to do is take a songwriting class. I have always loved music, but have never had the courage to write it. It is you, Oglethorpe Presbyterian, who have inspired me to do so.

All of this leads me to my question for you today: How can you use your voice to give God praise? What a fitting topic for our stewardship season, as we look for ways that our gifts of time and ability can fulfill God’s desires and serve God’s purposes! For some of you, there’s a very linear, literal connection here. Maybe you sing and would give the choir your time. Perhaps you play an instrument and would do so as part of our worship. Maybe you have a song you’ve written that speaks to you of God that you would risk sharing with us, or a poem that cries out to be set to music, or a melody that’s seeking words.

For many more of you, that voice you give may not be one of music at all, but you would know that better. Maybe you have an aesthetic eye, or a listening ear, or a patient heart, or a generous presence, or a joyful spirit. Perhaps you have keen insights or understand numbers or people in ways that few of us can, giving wisdom to our ministries and vision to our lives. Maybe you have had a financial windfall that can help serve God’s purposes. Or perhaps you simply have the luxury of time, a precious commodity in Brookhaven in 2013, time you can share with those who find it difficult to leave home, or time you can spend in prayer on behalf of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that each one of us has some God-given voice that can be raised up to make that joyful noise! That’s what it means to be one of God’s children, what it means to be part of Christ’s church. What is it? And how can we be a part of helping you connect those dots?

My prayer today is that this gives you a sense of focus to your daily prayer, that God would stir up within you the divine spark that God alone has placed there.

Amen.

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All paths lead to prayer.

This morning, as we continue our look at the 23rd Psalm, we find the shepherd leading us down the paths of…righteousness. Hmm…That’s not incorrect, but other translations render it differently. Let’s try…

“paths of justice.”

That’s also correct, but when we change it, it seems to be missing something…Maybe we need a new English word that means both justice and righteousness:

“paths of justeousness!”

No…not really. How about the Hebrew?

“paths of צֶדֶק”

Clearer? The word is Tzedek, and it encompasses both righteousness and justice in its meaning. Is that too disorienting, going right to left? Well, the same is true in Greek:

“paths of δικαιοσύνη”

So both of the original Biblical languages have words that mean both righteousness and justice. In English, we think of those as very separate ideas. We tend to associate righteousness with individuals. Someone who is righteous puts a priority on personal morality, making sure that they do what is good, correct, right. And justice, well, we think of communities, nations. A society that is just treats everyone fairly. Both ideas are ideals. They’re more aspirational than anything else, in that they are perfections for which we strive. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it best when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We can aim for righteousness and justice, and we will fall short. But at least it gives us a goal. It’s fair to reflect on these at this time of year, when we pause and remember the many gifts of the nation in which we live. We are fortunate, no doubt. But are we righteous? Are we just?

And while we’ve been at this for a couple of hundred years, we can appreciate the complexity of the questions when we look to the birthing of new democracies. I’m sure that many in Egypt are wrestling with the meaning of righteousness and justice. There is a struggle for what is right and just in the midst of the imperfections of the moment, a struggle that lays bear pain and agony for all the world to see. The easier thing to do, when looking at righteousness and justice, is to compare ourselves to others. I’m not sure that’s the correct thing, though. It’s one thing to say that we are more righteous than others, more just; it’s another thing to look at the absolutes of righteousness and justice, and ask ourselves, how do we measure up?

All right. That’s enough amateur linguistics and politics for today. Let’s go with a compromise:

“paths of righteousness and justice.”

The bigger point, I hope, is what we come away with: in Scripture, in the vision of God, there is an absolute connection between personal righteousness and communal justice. One needs the other not just to thrive, but to exist. It is not that one comes first; it’s that they feed off of each other.

We can see that relationship in our lessons that morning. In Deuteronomy, we find the people of God getting ready to cross over the Jordan and into the land of promise. And before they do, their moral lives begin to take shape. Even here, though, even in the rugged wilderness, we are reminded of the connection that the individual has to the community. “Do not take bribes,” they are told, because even then, temptation had a strong attraction. Why not take bribes? “Because it blinds the vision of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.” The corruption of the individual keeps the society from being noble, and so their goal is nothing short of justice, righteousness. These are not things they simply aim for; they are to pursue them. There’s a relentlessness to the call, to chase after these moving targets, with single-minded focus.

And when we turn to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ parable points out many of the same things. The selfishness of the unjust judge is meant as a counterpoint to the mercy of God, and the point seems to be that, if even a loathsome jerk like the judge will give the widow what she deserves out of impure motives, how much more likely is it that a loving God would answer us when we call out for what is fair?

All of this is laid out before Jesus even begins speaking, as the author tells us that the purpose of the parable was to teach the disciples about “their need to pray continually and not be discouraged.” So while the story Jesus tells is related to righteousness and justice and all of that good stuff, the meaning behind it has more to do with the importance of persistence in all things, especially in prayer.

All paths lead to prayer.

Even in Deuteronomy, where we have the beginnings of a justice system being shaped, even there, we see the emphasis on prayer, on worship. No sooner have the people been reminded that the pursuit of justice and righteousness is their part of keeping up this covenant with God than they are also warned against worshiping trees or sacred poles or stone pillars. Justice, righteousness, lead back to worship; and worship, like all paths, leads back to prayer.

All of this is right there in our phrase from Psalm 23 this morning. The shepherd isn’t leading the sheep in these paths for the sake of the sheep, though that’s probably a good consequence. The sheep are led there for the sake of the shepherd. Or as the psalmist puts it, “for his name’s sake.” It’s a reminder of the divine name, Yahweh, the one first revealed to Moses, calling to him out of the burning bush. It’s the name that means something as vast as being itself, a reminder that this God whom we worship, not through rocks and stones, but through prayer, is at the very center of everything that was, is, and will be. And we also remember that this same immeasurable God is the one we know in the person of Jesus Christ.

So what about prayer, then?

Prayer is, at its root, conversation. We cry out to God, yes; and as we do, we know that God hears us. That’s the promise of the parable. And we also make space to listen to God. There’s no such thing as a one-way conversation, just as there’s no such thing as a one-way covenant. And when we listen, then we give God the chance to recalibrate us for righteousness and justice, correcting and loving and gracing us.

So here’s your homework today. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two things I’ve assigned you this summer: one is rest, and here’s the second. Pray. And pray persistently. Prayer is a discipline, and disciplines take practice. Start with five minutes a day for a month. Begin in gratitude and praise, then end in silence and listening. And then give yourself a moment to journal what you sense. One month.

All paths lead to prayer. And prayer leads to God. And God leads us into justice and righteousness for the sake of the kingdom.

Amen.

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Life (Jacob's Well)The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

In the heart of the West Bank lies the Palestinian city of Nablus, a teeming, crowded center of more than 200,000 people. Of that number, approximately 500 are Christian, worshiping at the Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches of the city. Even with this small community, Nablus remains a city of pilgrimage for the hearty few. Nablus is a mispronunciation of Neapolis, the new city the Romans gave name to. They were rebranding Biblical Sychar, also known as Shechem, the capital of the northern Samaritan kingdom. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they brought Joseph’s bones with them, they buried him here. And it is also here that the spring known as Jacob’s Well sits.

Jacob’s well is housed in a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The current building, the third one in history, was built in the last twenty years by a Greek national named Fr. Justin who worked alongside Palestinian refugees from the Balata refugee camp right across the street. The massive sanctuary stands empty much of the time. Orthodox pilgrims come to visit, filling up the worship space on feast days. At the far end of the sanctuary is a set of stairs descending to an underground chapel that houses the well. On slow days, you can enter, draw up the bucket, and drink a cup of water from the same spring where Jesus met the Samaritan woman.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

The city of Nablus sits at the foot of Mt Gerizim. Its peak is home to 500 Samaritans who live there today, a continuous presence dating back thousands of years. When political tensions run high in the region, the Samaritans tend to keep to themselves; but it is not unusual to see them in Nablus. They own property and businesses there, and even have representation on the city council.

For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim is the holy mountain. Their ancestors built an altar, their site of worship to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew people. The Judeans, or Jews, of the kingdom of Judea and the Samaritans of the kingdom of Samaria worshiped the same God, but disagreed about where to do so: Mt. Gerizim in the north, or Jerusalem in the south?

King David united the two kingdoms as one, and called the new kingdom Israel, the nickname give to their common ancestor Jacob after he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. This political unity only lasted a couple of generations before petty rivalries divided the kingdoms once again. Eventually, Babylon attacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took the Judean people into exile. Samaria was defeated too, but there was no parallel exile for the Samaritans, who stayed at Mt. Gerizim and continued to worship the Lord.

When the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people access to Jerusalem again, a rumor started that the Samaritans who had stayed behind had intermarried with the conquerors and were no longer pure in their bloodlines. This rumor persisted, alongside theological and geographical arguments over holy sites and proper worship of the Lord God Yahweh. And it was into this animosity that Jesus stepped, telling crazy stories of the Samaritan who saved the life of a Jew on the road to Jericho, and drinking water from a Samaritan well and speaking at length with a Samaritan woman.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is not just one of personal devotional interest, but of historical importance. After what we read today, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim is the right place to worship. Jesus replies cryptically that we worship God not in one place or the other, but “in Spirit and truth.” When the disciples return to the well, they are baffled as to why such an important person like Jesus would stoop to chat with a lowly Samaritan – a Samaritan woman, no less. Jesus gives us a living parable for generations of Christians to come about overcoming prejudice and not getting caught up in petty details that separate tribe from tribe. It’s a lesson that generations of Christians have failed to learn. Even we enlightened, 21st century Americans would do well to revisit this message again and again, to be reminded of how much we still need to grow in spiritual maturity.

Even with all of this weightiness, the whole story of Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman hinges on, of all things, a pun. Jesus tells the woman that he can draw “living” water. In Greek, the phrase “living water” also means “running water”. That’s why she asks Jesus about a bucket. If he had one, he could draw up the running water that comes right out of the spring far below, not the still water that sits in the well. And even by the end of our reading this morning, she still misses the point, wanting Jesus to give her the miraculous running water so that she doesn’t have to keep coming back to this well again and again to draw well water for her constant thirst.

The reality is that when our thirst is quenched by living water, the water that Jesus gives, we will still need to drink the plain old water. We will still have to come back to the well day after day, lower our buckets, and draw up what we need to continue on. You see, if it weren’t for the well, the woman would never have had the encounter with Jesus that changed her life. It was her normal, physical need for daily water that led her to this astonishing encounter with the living Lord.

The ordinary gives way to the extraordinary.

When we read in Psalm 23 that the Lord, our shepherd, leads us beside the still and quiet waters, it’s a lovely, pastoral scene. At the same time, it is ordinary – extremely ordinary. The shepherd leads the sheep here…because the sheep needs to drink. That’s it. And the waters are calm and still, because the shepherd doesn’t want the sheep to get too carried away by any turbulent waters. There is peace in this scene. God desires that kind of peace for us, the comfort in knowing that our needs are met. And yet, there is in the ordinary a chance for the extraordinary to take place.

Where is your ordinary? Where is your well? Where is it that you go again and again to meet your need for the still, peaceful waters?

Is it here in worship? We have been talking a lot about worship recently here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Your suggestions have been our music choices. The prayers you write down on these simple blue cards are the ones we share together. We imagine together how we might shape this space differently to improve our worship experience. In many ways, these are ordinary conversations. After all, we are ordinary humans. And yet, there is something about being here – together – in this thing called “worship” that allows room for the extraordinary to break in, surprise us, and move us.

Have you had that moment where you are convinced that the preacher was speaking directly to you? Or has a prayer lifted up been just the one you needed to give you peace? Have the lyrics of a hymn cut you to the quick, or the right combination of notes played wordlessly on flute or piano or organ transported you? Has it been at the font or the table that you have seen and experienced faith in a whole new way? Has it been the noise of people greeting one another with signs of peace, or the chaos of children coming forward for conversation, or the pause of silent prayer where you have heard holiness speak?

It is not that these things are going to happen week after week. That would be wonderful, and that may even be the case for some of you. For most of us, however, the truth is that we need the habit of worship more than we might admit, especially if it doesn’t happen every time. If we don’t return to the well of worship again and again, then we don’t give the opportunity for the ordinary to give way to the extraordinary.

Do you want to know the secret about worship? It’s not meant to be a weekly practice, but a daily one. The purpose of weekly worship is to fine-tune us so that we will recognize the risen Christ in our daily encounters. Our spiritual thirst, much like our physical one, is a constant reality. It runs deep – deep enough to thirst for that living water that Christ offers.

Worship styles are supposed to give way to a worship lifestyle. Worship practices are meant to give way to worshipful encounters. And the ordinary, ultimately, gives way to the extraordinary. Let us pray together that it would be so.

Amen.

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

There’s a difference between playing church and being church…

A few months ago, there was a video making its way around the internet, with the curious title, “Baby Preacher with Subtitles”. The video takes place in a Pentecostal church, and the preacher in question is about 18 months old. He holds a microphone in one hand, and gestures with the other, while his voice builds to a dramatic crescendo. It’s impossible to understand what the child is actually saying, thus the subtitles, though I’m pretty sure someone has taken some liberties with the translation: “Hot dang! Extra! Extra! I fixed it! I’m sensitive! And it’s good! That’s that! I rule! I’m serious! Ostrich!”

The congregation responds with clapping and encouragement. The child takes a break to walk around the pulpit and then starts up again: “I’m seething! I’ll try! I’m strong! I forgot our song! I’m done! Hold your own!” It goes on this way for about two minutes before he finally hands the microphone back to a grown up, gives them a hug, and heads back to the pews.

Now, you may call me a doubting Thomas, but I’m pretty sure that this video doesn’t represent any kind of early anointing or call to ministry. Instead, it looks to me like a child who is doing what children do: mimicking the behavior they see in adults. He has learned to “play” church.

For you parents out there, you’ve had your own moment of recognizing this kind of copycat behavior in your own children. It’s how they learn, by playing grown up. You know what I’m talking about, when those words come out of their mouth. There are those, too, but I was thinking of something more innocuous, like, “Oh, man!” or “Bye, ya’ll.” Suddenly, you realize that they’re paying more attention than you had hoped…

Children learn what it means to grow up by watching, and then imitating, the adults that are around them. Whether it’s language, or TV habits, or food patterns, or faith practice, or church activities, they are watching us closely – perhaps more closely than we’d like.

For young children, there is very little distinction between play and reality. When you watch an infant learning to crawl and grab, they’re working hard; and they’re playing; and they’re learning. It all gets rolled together. There is something, at that young age, about “playing” church that is crucial to faith development. We stand, we sit, we sing, we pray, we read, we listen, we question, we answer, we shake hands, we hug. It’s all rhythm; it’s all ritual; it’s all practice; it’s all play. And it’s all worship.

Eventually, though, it’s time to stop playing church and start being church.

That’s the very problem that Isaiah is facing when he preaches to the ancient Israelites. They do very well at playing the people of God: they do great at the trappings of faith: they follow the sacrificial ordinances, they fast appropriately, they make a great show of humbling themselves. But when it comes to being the people of God, apparently they don’t do so well. And Isaiah let’s them know that they have completely missed the point. The ritual serves its purpose, yes; but if it doesn’t change lives, then it’s useless. “You fast,” he says, “but you oppress. You humble yourself, but you fight and quarrel and attack.”

“True fasting, true faith,” he says, is “loosing the bonds of injustice. It’s letting the oppressed go free. It’s giving bread, shelter, clothing to those who have none. That is where your light will shine – not in the fires of burnt offerings, not in the making of ashes to cover yourself in showy grief – but in the divine light of goodness. That’s when you stop playing a role and start changing the world.”

How do we make that transition? How do we move from playing church to being church? What are the things that we do out of habit, and what are the things we do because they make a difference?

Isaiah does a great job of putting a mirror to Israelite hypocrisy. What would that mirror look like today? What does it mean when we dress up for church, but then gossip about those whom we see at church? What do we say about ourselves when we read these words about injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, but then spent the other six days – or even the rest of this day – focused on ourselves? Does Isaiah make us cringe, because these words sound too politically loaded, or do we take this as a cringe-worthy opportunity for self – and community – examination?

I am grateful to be in a community like OPC. Churches are notorious for tearing themselves apart over unimportant issues – the trappings, rather than the practices, of church. In the past few years, we have named the vision that has always been a part of who we are: “the community is our congregation.” And we constantly live out that vision into a reality.

And yet, are there things that we do, are there sacred cows we protect, that end up being the habits of church rather than the habits of faith? Is organ music the only music that can give glory to God? Do we have to have the notes in front of us to sing praise, or hold a piece of paper in our hands to celebrate the life we share?

Why are Presbyterians the only ones who say “debts” during the Lord’s Prayer? Is it only a real worship service if we read the Apostles’ Creed or sing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology? Do those that lead worship have to dress differently from the rest of us, and sit separately from us? Should a sermon be a lecture, or a two-way conversation? Does Sunday School have to happen on Sunday morning?

Everything we do as a church happened at a particular time for a particular reason. How do we recognize when that reason has faded away, that the times have changed, and that we need to do something differently? And in doing so, how do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Perhaps the answer lies in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. But if we hoard that salt and light, if we keep it hidden away, we have missed the point. And if we think that salt and light are things that we have to share, then we have also missed the point.

Jesus doesn’t say, “You have the salt of the earth.” Or, “You own the light of the world.” He says, “We are” those things. We are a seasoned, enlightened, people. We are the spice of life! We are the ones who light the way! And when we live into that, we give glory not to ourselves, but to the whole world!

The things we do to play church can be the very things that entrap us, that prevent us from living our lives as people of faith. It is when they give us the energy, the focus, the flavor, the vision, that is when we have moved from playing church to being church.

Or, let’s ask the question this way: what happens when baby preacher grow up? Will this two minute video remain a parlor trick, a memento to bring out to embarrass him when he’s a teenager?

Will it be a viral video memory, something to kill a few minutes at work, to share on Facebook, to forward to friends and co-workers? Or will this child grow up to know what it means to love God, to serve God, to be salt and light, to be Christ’s hands and feet? Will what he does change lives, bring salt to the bland, light in the darkness?

Those questions, really, can only be answered by his church and by his parents. But we, too, have the same questions facing us, just not on YouTube. How do we become the kind of community that changes lives, that teaches children how to play church, yes, but more importantly how to be church?

I’d like to invite you to take a moment. Think back on your own life. Who are the people, the moments, the experiences that moved church from the realm of play into the realm of being? Was it a family member? A Sunday School teacher? A neighbor? Was it a particular worship service? A moment of crisis or celebration? An interaction at a homeless shelter? Halfway across the world? What was it that gave faith its flesh and bones for you?

And perhaps more importantly, how can we be those people for others? How can we shape those moments, those experiences for others so that they, too, can know what it means to take faith from the kingdom of ideas into the fact of reality?

May it be so.

Amen.

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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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