Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 25: The Pulpit at the Prow of the World

I have begun to read Moby Dick. It's one of those books I was supposed to read in 11th grade AP English class but opted for the Cliff's notes instead. I realize now this was my loss! But at that young age I wouldn't have appreciated it anyway, at least not nearly as much as I do now. Melville is a master who has written this novel without a single careless word. Every description of people and places has such wonderfully drawn details, and the observations that "Ishmael" makes about the world of whaling are specific to the time and place but universal to the human condition.

I've just finished Chapter 8: "The Pulpit." In this chapter Ishmael visits a whaleman's chapel in New Bedford for Sunday services. I won't go into all the fabulous descriptive detail, but when the preacher arrives to give his sermon, he uses a rope ladder like that used to board a ship to climb into the pulpit, which is quite high and prominent in the sanctuary. When he has climbed into the pulpit he turns and raises the rope ladder, as if to ward off invasion. The pulpit itself is shaped like a ship's bow, with the Bible placed on the foremost tip.

Of this, Melville writes, "What could be more full of meaning?--for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world... Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow."

These powerful words causes me to consider with what authority do I myself climb that rope ladder into the prow of the world each Sunday. Who do I think I am, that I would stand there at the place where the seas of the universe part? What have I got to say that might change the course of humanity?

Well, of course, if it's just me talking, not much. But if God is the Captain in charge then wouldn't the person at the prow be the one to call out what they see, so as to help prepare the deck hands for stormy weather or treacherous iceburgs? If Melville's got the measure of the pulpit, then the preacher does not set the course, but rather keeps her eye on the horizon, scanning for troubled skies, lost ships, and ports of call.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 24: Everybody Singing

I'm still thinking about worship, its importance and relevance, and had this conversation with a friend on Sunday about it. She told me about the church where her mom is a member. It is a very old and established church in the country with traditional worship, familiar hymns and old wooden pews. The congregation is sensing that the energy has gone out of their worship, and has formed a task force to look into ways to revitalize the experience. My friend's mom, who is always open to new ideas, suggested that they try some different music. They are currently working with that and many other ideas to come up with a plan.

My friend said that she disagreed with this approach to making worship "better" and by way of example shared her experience of the Sunday morning worship at 4th United, the congregation that has opened its doors to our house church community. I was there too, so I knew exactly what she meant.

The worship was competely traditional: we sat in wooden pews; the order of worship was much the same as it is in most presbyterian churches. We sang hymns right out of the hymnal. There was a sermon of about 20 minutes after which we prayed decently and in order, and then everyone greeted each other when it was done.

But something about that worship service was very different. It was traditional on paper, but miraculous in person.

My friend believes that what was different was the full engagement of the people. We sang "There is a Balm in Gilead!" and everyone, I mean everyone, sang it at the top of their lungs. It felt like we were going to raise the roof on that place. During the sermon, the occasional person who liked what they heard would exclaim, "Amen!" or "Mmm-hmm!" When it was time to share joys and concerns nearly everyone had something to share. They weren't filibustering or simply enjoying the sound of their own voices; they were lifting up prayer requests in a community that cares for one another. There were babies in laps everywhere. Even my 7 year old daughter said she liked church (and she never, ever says that.) I asked her why and she said simply, "everybody sang." My friend was so moved during the Gloria Patri that she (gasp) raised her hands in praise. And she is decidedly not a hand-raiser.

So when we sit down in committee to talk about worship practices we can be mindful that meaningful worship is not just a matter of "traditional vs. contemporary." It is a matter of the people being fully present to each other and to God. And music in worship, which is usually the most contentious issue, is quite possibly more than just a decision between praise band and choir. It's more a matter of creating a space where folks feel free enough to let loose and sing. Whether it is Thy Word or The Church's One Foundation does not matter. Are the people singing? That's what matters.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day 23: Anointing Jesus at Bethany: the first act of worship!

At our house church meeting today we talked about John 12:1-8, the passage in which Mary anoints Jesus by pouring expensive nard oil on his feet and washing them with her hair. I'm a big fan of Mary for doing this.

Here we have Jesus sitting down to a meal with his disciples and his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It will be the last time this particular group gathers in such an intimate setting before the roller coaster ride of the Passion kicks in, because in this gospel the next scene is Jesus' entry into Jerusalem which we celebrate as Palm Sunday. Aside from the fact that this meal features none other than the Son of God and a man whom he raised from the dead, it is Mary who sets this scene apart.

When she pours the oil on Jesus' feet, Mary performs the first act of worship of Jesus as Lord. All Christians ought to sit up and take notice of this act, because Jesus fully approves of what Mary does, even defending her against Judas' sensible suggestion that the oil could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. ( even though Judas is discounted parenthetically for being a thief in the text, I actually think his suggestion to sell the oil and give the money to the poor is worth talking about at some point. This is an argument we have in churches today, and worth struggling over).

Mary transforms dinner among friends into a sacred happening. She gives all that she has, a very expensive amount of oil (equivalent to a year's salary!). Furthermore, she is physically committed to the act, getting down on her hands and knees to wipe the oil from his feet. This is an extremely intimate and worshipful posture, and in itself a costly act. It was not considered socially acceptable for women to loose their hair in public, so by doing this Mary opens herself to the possibility of ridicule and shame. Yet the rebel Jesus totally approves!

Do we not all hope that our worship will be seen as acceptable in God's sight? If we are to learn anything from Mary, it is that worship ought to be an event set apart, made special in some way, by the costly expenditure of oil in Mary's case, or perhaps by the use of precious time in ours. We also should put our whole bodies into the act of worship. We are used to engaging our eyes and ears in worship, but what about touch, smell, even taste? Are we fully caught up with acknowledging Jesus as Lord?

Coming back to Judas' criticism, Jesus is clear: the poor you always have with you, I am only with you for a time. We talked in our group about the great value of charitable organizations who care for the poor, sick, and lost. The Christian church is one such organization, but we are not only that. It is our worship, that sacred space that we make to honor God as the one divine being whom we adore, that sets us apart. It is the rituals we enact, the stories we tell, the candles we light, and the intention with which we draw near to God that mark us as chosen to serve and love God and the world. Mary recognized her opportunity to worship Jesus when he was there with them at the table. We also believe that whenever two or more are gathered in Jesus' name he will be there.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Day 22: The Prodigal Son

In church this week we talked about the story of the Prodigal Son. This is a parable known by almost anyone who has ever graced the church with their presence. It is nearly as popular as the 23rd psalm.

I began talking to the folks who had gathered for our worship that this parable had caused my aunt and uncle to stop going to church. They felt it was unfair that the younger son was welcomed back into the family with no consequences. They completely related to the older son, whom they called "the responsible one." They felt he had a right to be angry with the father for welcoming back the prodigal, who had been rude and wasteful. It was a stumbling block for them, and I'm sad to say they never returned to church.

But this is a story about grace. Not just grace and forgiveness toward a son who essentially disowned his family and squandered his inheritance, but grace and forgiveness for the older brother whose own self interest kept him from celebrating the joy and relief his father felt when the younger returned. This is not a story about the world's justice, which might have accepted the younger brother's return, but would have exacted logical consequences such as having to pay back the money or work it off. This is instead a story about God's love, which time and time again says, "no matter what you've done, if you decide to come back to me, you have a home. Always."

We all have a bit of the prodigal and the older brother in us when it comes to our relationship with God. It's not so far-fetched to see that we have at some time or other asked God for all his goodness and bounty, and then headed off in our own self-motivated direction without even a second thought to the One who gave us everything. It's also not so far-fetched to see that we have often-times begrudged others their place in the family of God because of some misbehavior that we perceive.

The shared characteristic of the two brothers at the end of the story is this: they are both home, and in the company of a parent who loves them beyond measure. That should be enough for them to love one another. It should be enough for all of us, too. I only wish my aunt and uncle could have known, in their later years, that same comfort.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Day 21: Are all welcome at the table? Facebook edition

As I continue to think about inclusion and the gospel, I wonder how internet communities like Facebook differ or are the same. Facebook has caused a dilemma for me in that there is no distinction between types of friends. What I mean is, all 500 something of my Facebook friends are lumped into the same category, "friend," when what I'd really like is a hierarchy. Maybe something like:

1. Good friend. Friend whose page I want to visit every day, and whose status updates matter to me. I will look at their pictures, post comments on their wall, and actually call them once in awhile.

2. Friend. Someone I know well but not intimately, and want to keep up with them because they're funny, or cool, or I just enjoy seeing what they have to say.

3. Acquaintance. A person I like and don't mind seeing in the news feed on a daily basis.

4. Annoying acquaintance. The friend of a friend who plays Mafia Wars and posts status updates every minute about what they're watching on TV.

4. Old high school person who was a jerk back then but friended me anyway. Don't mind having them as a friend because it's the polite thing to do, but am not at all interested in their daily lives.

See that's the problem. Annoying Acquaintance and Old High School are easy to avoid in real life, but on the internet, 'de-friending' someone is a serious act. There is no really graceful way to do it. I have one relationship with a man at church in which our mutual dislike is so strong we don't even look at each other when we pass, but we are still Facebook friends. Yet something keeps me from making the "de-friend" move. Is it a thread of hope that reconciliation is possible? Or is it our inability to draw those boundaries with people.

Ann Lamott spoke in Atlanta a few years back and I was fortunate enough to be there. She was adamant that we should surround ourselves with people who lift up our spirits rather than those who use us or take our energy away. She said it was a waste of time to be with people whom we don't enjoy and in whose presence we do not grow and learn. She encourged us to clear our calendars of meetings with those types of people and move on.

I thought that was pretty harsh when I first heard the statement, but I do see the wisdom in it. As our lives become more and more complicated, does it not make sense to go for quality in relationships, rather than quantity? And taking that a bit further, when was the last time you were able to sit and talk to a good friend for as long as the conversation lasted, rather than looking at your watch and worrying about making it to your next appointment? Is it worth reducing the amount of "get-togethers" we have so that the ones that really matter can become deep and meaningful.

And thinking about Facebook, could weeding out "annoying acquaintance and Old High School from your friend list improve the quality of that community?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 19: Are all welcome at the table? part 1

In the Presbyterian Church when we celebrate Holy Communion the words of invitation often include a phrase something like, "this is not a Presbyterian table, this is Christ's table. All are welcome in His name." The idea behind this is that at Christ's banquet all of our differences melt away: denomination, race, gender, political persuasion, sexual orientation, economic status. We are all children of God, we are all invited to gather around and partake of his body and blood and be thankful for it.

I grew up with this understanding of the church. Everyone was welcome, regardless of how different they might be. Never mind that the church where I grew up consisted of pretty much all white, upper middle class individuals who were very similar already. Still, I don't discount the message of inclusion that I received. When I was an awkward middle schooler and struggling with friendships at school, the church was a place where I belonged, and it made a huge difference to me knowing there was some place where I would always be welcome.

But have you ever been part of an intentional group related to a church: a small group perhaps, Bible study or interest group, that started as an open invitation but then grew into something deeper? And then have you been faced with the task as a group of deciding whether or not to close the membership? And did that involve telling people they weren't welcome?

I have recently been part of such a conversation in a group which has become a fellowship of sharing on a deeper-than-your-average-book-club level. It started as an open invitation to an entire congregation, but now that we have become so close and like-minded about what we want the group to be, there is discussion of closing the group to new members, and telling those who have been more casual about attendance that they need to look elsewhere for their fellowship.

This is a dilemma for me. What would you do? I have in mind one person whom I think would be devastated to be told she cannot come but who is unable to commit to meeting every week. Is it better to allow her sporadic attendance, knowing it might change the direction of the conversation? Or is it better to be completely intentional about the group, and to draw clear boundaries, possibly leaving some people out and hurting their feelings?

I look to Christ and the disciples that he called. Jesus was very intentional about those with whom he chose to share his daily life. He sought them out and called them by name. He desired their particular set of skills and weaknesses to be current witnesses to his ministry, and he called some of them 'friend.' For the disciples' part, they often drew boundaries, turning away people who were asking for healing, or children, or crowds eager to hear him speak. They argued among themselves which of them were closer to their Master.

But in all of those instances, Jesus always seems to choose the more inconvenient path: taking time to make whole the bleeding woman, embracing the children, and feeding the hungry crowds. These people did not share Jesus' ministry in the same intimate way the disciples did, but neither were they discounted.

So I wonder, can a small group make an intentional covenant to share deeply with one another, while still ministering to others? It seems to me that intentional time together in the Christian context must always be open to the stranger and the inconvenient petition.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 15-18: Washington D.C.

There isn't much to write for these four days because our family took a trip to Washington D.C. I will say, on a personal note, that we reconnected with some friends from long ago and had a fantastic time. They are the type of friends that no matter how long it's been since you've seen them, you can pick up as if it were yesterday. Even my daughter said of their kids, whom she had just met, "I feel like I've know them since before I was born!"

And a shout out to our nation's capitol. Even though the events of 9/11 have taken the joy out of tours of the Capitol building and the White House, the Smithsonian museums are as amazing as I remember as a kid. You can't help but learn something, and where else can you see a stuffed walrus, dinosaur bones, Apollo Ono's skates, a moon rock, and the Enola Gay all in one day?

I am sure, though, that the main event for my kids was riding the Metro. "I just LOVE this underground train, mom!!" There is something exhilirating about sharing a big city with your kids, trusting them to stop at street corners and hang on to their subway tickets. I recommend it to everyone.

It was a great trip. Now it's time to get back to blogging. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day 20: Are all welcome at the table? Part 2

I was discussing this dilemma of whether our small group should become "closed" to outsiders and those who were less committed and my minister friend offered this, "It is easier to expect accountability than it is to expect grace." I find that statement very profound and food for thought. What I take her to mean is that it's easier for groups to rally around 'rules of engagement' with one another than it is for them to rally around the possibility of God's goodness and selfless love working within them. I think she is right.

What was really fascinating is that as we continued our conversation she shared a strong dislike for the following statement made by people who are in the process of forgiving or being forgiven, "I don't want this to be cheap grace." I thought I knew where she was going with that, so I jumped in and said, "of course! Because grace is never cheap, it is FREE!" But she countered and said, "No. All grace is costly to someone. Be it Jesus on the cross, or the pain of letting go, the giving of oneself, whatever it is. There is no cheap grace."

So, which is grace? Free or costly? Or both? I think probably the latter. The forgiveness and wholeness we are given by Jesus was bought with a price, but one that was gladly and freely paid so that we might be freed of our bonds. That kind of grace is meant to be received gladly and freely, without guilt. The same goes for true forgiveness between people. The price is vulnerability and humility on both sides, but when gladly given, should be accepted guilt-free.

What does this have to do with the closed or open small group? I'm not sure. Only I think there is something to be said for trying to create a group atmosphere that is more expectant of grace than of accountability. More expectant of costly intimacy and freely given love than commitment. What would that look like? What do you think?

Days 13 and 14: The Elementary School Terror Drill

Today my seven year old told me they had a drill at school where everyone had to hug the wall as flat as they could for a few minutes. This didn't sound like the typical fire-drill, so I asked her what it was for. "Sometimes people come into our school who aren't supposed to be there, who want to hurt us. We're supposed to try to be invisible." Did she know that this was just a drill, and that such a person was not actually at the school? She said yes, she knew that, but she spoke about these would-be intruders as if they had already come.

I was shocked to hear that this was how the afternoon was spent at her elementary school. Back in our day at school in Florida we had fire drills and hurricane drills, and that was it. Now there is a whole new crisis to add to the list, the gunman drill.

My suspicion is that this new exercise in fear-management was in response to an incident at a school near here, when a disgruntled 4th grade teacher shot the principal and the assistant principal. I heard on a local radio show yesterday that the Knox County School District was being forced to look at the situation in two parts: to investigate how this man was able to become a teacher in the first place, and to implement strategies for how to deal with such events in the future.

That's all just fine, but my question is, why is the Knox County School District not also investigating ways to make the system more healthy, so that teachers don't find themselves overwhelmed, overworked, underpaid, and constantly freaking out about testing standards? Why, indeed, is our response to disasters such as this always to blame somebody and then to put more ineffective yet annoying safety measures into place? Look at how we suffer still from the attack on 9/11. We suffer not because the terrorists are still flying planes around, but because we have isolated ourselves, paralyzed by the anticipation of another attack, and because we are playing the blame-game with the lives of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But I'll back up, because that's political, and apparently it's unbecoming of the clergy to have opinions on such matters. It just makes me mad. I am mad that while I had to sign a permission slip to let my daughter see President Obama's speech to school children a few months back, no one bothered to ask if I was OK with her participating in a school drill where she was told "bad people might come in the school" and to make herself invisible against the wall. We are worried about what our President might say, but we're OK with fear-mongering? People, that is just plain wrong.

So here's another thing I love about the rebel Jesus. He was by no means a fear-monger. He didn't try to sugar coat his message, but he was not in the business of scaring people into faith. I heard a great sermon on Sunday in which the preacher said, "Jesus did not say 'come unto my religious institution so that you might be dragged to me by guilt.' Jesus said, "come unto me.'"

How does approaching the Savior, as he has invited us to do, inform what's going on in our children's schools? I think it's more than just a lack of concern over this world because soon enough we'll be in paradise. I think it's an attitude of love, and trust and faith that will keep us sane. Jesus also said, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." He said this to a people who knew what it was to carry heavy burdens on their backs for miles.

We are also a burdened people. Our yoke is fear: fear of being hurt, fear of being blamed, fear of change, you name it, we're scared of it. But Jesus preaches a different way, a way where with him we can go anywhere with confidence. In Christ we are not made bulletproof, but we are invited into his loving embrace so that we might participate bravely in the world as people who shine with his reflected glory.

If Jesus were to walk among us today, would the little children feel free to come to him? Or would they be flattened against a cinder-block wall somewhere, hoping to God he won't see them?