Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The center of faith


And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

Chances are pretty good that you've heard the above passage at some point.  Chances are more than pretty good that it was at a wedding.  I think 1 Corinthians has occupied the number one most requested Bible passage for wedding now for decades.  It is the crowd favorite.  And because of the setting, it is easy to miss that middle word, "hope".  When in the world did "hope" come into play?  When was the last time the minister at a wedding went off on a tangent about "hope" being an important ingredient in marriage?  Forgiveness, you bet.  That is a daily need in a relationship.  Love, well duh, why else get married?  Yet, hope not only under-girds our relationships; but ultimately our connection with God.  Hope is the chewy, caramel center of the faith candy bar.  

Wait...you might say...shouldn't that be love?  After all, Paul says above the love is the greatest.  Love is number one...love is number one...feel free to chat along with me.  Hope actually helps keep love grounded in reality.  If all we do is talk about love, it can be a slippery slope.  We can sound naive or easily fall into sappy sentimentalism.  Yes, it is true, all you need is love.  But a healthy dose of hope can help keep love going and growing.  Hope is like fuel.  Often, I think marriages fail as much because the couple falls out of love, as they fall out of hope.  Hope that they might rekindle the love or hope that out of this difficult time a deeper love might be found.  When we stop hoping that our best days are before us and instead are behind us, we've lost not only that loving feeling, but also our sense of hope.

Hope is (as Emily Dickinson wrote) a thing with feathers.  It is light and flighty...it is hard to pin down.  Love seems easier.  I either feel love toward someone or I feel indifferent or I feel hostility.  Hope, being like the Holy Spirit of Paul's trinity of words, holds out the possibility that I was wrong.  Hope teaches me that my first impression about someone can be way off base, especially when I learn an important truth about why the person seems cold or indifferent.  Hope teaches me to hold on and hold out for more understanding.  Hope keeps searching and probing.  Love can come and go in waves; but hope keeps asking us to hang in there.  

Maybe it does not need to be only hope at the center of the faith candy bar.  There is plenty of room for love too.  But the two seem to need each other in wonderful, even delicious, ways.  I think for love to last there needs to be hope.  At the great end, when God's realm is fully realized, I am with Paul, love will be the greatest.  Until then, I am hanging on to hope as equally as important for the living out of my faith as love.  Together, they may just help us taste more than a trace of God's grace today and in the days to come.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

But WHY do we worship?



This is the third, and final, post about worship.  And our focus question is, why gather at all?  I suspect we have all heard someone say, "Oh, I can worship God in nature...or on the golf course." (although usually the way I heard God's name evoked in that particular setting does not seem very worshipful).  So why get together?  I recently heard Brian McLaren say that, "It is not as though God every seven days goes itching for an prelude."  Or a sermon either, I might add.  

I think part of the problem is that we think worship is only about at God.  But in some ways, worship is also about the participates.  Worship says a lot more about us and our understanding of who God is.  Consider the all-too-tired-now worship wars over "contemporary" music.  I put that in quotes because this debate has been going on so long, that some of the initial music is no longer contemporary at all!  Some find it easier to worship God with drums and guitars, others with organ and choirs, still others in silence and chants.  Too often, we approach this conversation as a zero sum game...one of the above options HAS to be right (or more right), so the others can only be wrong, right?  I actually think that approach is wrong.  Each of the proponents of the particular worship style, I think, has found something meaningful there.  People who like drums and guitars often say they feel this type of music reflects what they listen to in their car so it connects with their daily life.  Perhaps they feel more authentic singing along with such music in church.  Others believe passionately, that worship music should feel and sound differently, hence they gravitate more to organ and music that we are not surrounded by so frequently in our every day lives.  And still others say that what really speaks and sparks their souls is God's still singing voice, so we need extended quiet in worship.  And I am sure there are options D, E, etc... out there too.

So, the starting place is to accept that we like what we like.  And yet, if worship is about something other than just consuming a product, and I think many of us can agree that we want worship to be something other than a play we pay to see, one way we jar ourselves out of the consumerist culture is to make sure every worship service has elements we don't like.  You read that right.  If worship is not all about you, then at some point you need to say, "That particular moment does not get it for me, but I am glad that my friend here finds it meaningful."  And maybe even deeper, "The meaning of that prelude, is that it mattered so much to Sally."  Worship is a dance where we get to participate fully, and sometimes we sit watching as others dance.  There is a give and take.

Too often, I wonder if we have missed that.  We have made worship an "all or nothing" zero sum game.  Far too many meetings have been spent chasing this issue, when we could have said, "It does not get it for me, but I am glad, truly glad, it gets it for you."  And even more so, "Can you help me understand how this type of music, prayer, style of preaching and worship is meaningful for you?"  Then listen to the answers and thoughts the other gives...hopefully s/he will ask/listen the same of you.

One of the reason, I think we argue, is because we do want to be right and we want to feel our preferences affirmed.  Second reason is because worship is art.  Remember the last time you wandered around a museum?  Chances are good that you liked the Picasso, but not the van Gogh.  You cried in one wing and whizzed through another.  And did you go to the museum curator and demand they only have your preferences?  I hope not.  I hope you noticed that the museum was not only for you, it was for others.  And while you walked through one room quickly, you maybe saw someone else linger there for a long time.  So, here is my invitation to you; talk.  Talk and listen to others about worship more.  We cannot have this conversation enough with our friends inside...especially outside the church.  We need to move from arguing and trying to score points to coming to find the beauty in worship through a variety of styles.

If you can, ask why don't your neighbors...or children...or grand-children come to church?  What do they find meaningful and what kinds of music, prayers, sermons, and rituals would help each group feel alive?  Then how can you, yes you, work with the pastor and church to make that happen?  What is at stake is helping people connect on a deep level with the grace of God together, with each other and for the sake of each other!  I believe with my whole heart, the more we ask "Why", the more we sense a trace of God's grace.

God's blessings on your conversations with each other!

Peace ~

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Divine Drama of Worship


You arrive in the parking lot frazzled.  The morning had not gone according to your plans.  Maybe you are late because your children refused to get dressed or you got a distressing phone call or some how time just slipped away.  Now, parked out in the Boonies, you hurry trying to get to the sanctuary.

Stop for just a moment and consider the threshold of the sanctuary doors.  I know many people talk about the divide between the secular and sacred; as though the sanctuary is God's home turf and outside the four walls of the church is a playground of another sort.  But, how in the world is that in concert with Genesis 1, where God creates all that is seen and unseen?

Why does it feel like there is a gap between the world we live in Monday through Saturday and the world we enter on Sunday morning (or whenever you worship)?

One reason might be because of communal singing or organ music...not necessarily things I do on a daily basis.  Another reason are the pews...not exactly the most styling seating (or comfortable) ever constructed.  Another reason is the architecture.  Or the simple table set with an ordinary loaf of bread and cup of wine.  Or the task of shaking hands as you enter, putting on a happy face.

Most of the rituals surround worship happen only in worship.  That makes them unique and particular and peculiar.  Worship has a different vibe and that vibe grates at some people.  The rituals were emptied of their meaning for some people, not necessarily because of the church...but because we have sometimes failed to talk about why we do, what we do, when we do it.  We just assume that everyone knows why a call to worship is first and what an invocation is.

But the difference of space and rhythm and language is what creates a gap between Sunday morning and every other day of the week.  In some ways that is good.  It is good that worship has that feeling of other.  On the other hand, those differences can become obstacles too tall to get over for some.  Since worship is central to our faith and our identity, it is good to look at the movement of worship.

In the last post, I mentioned Soren Kierkegaard's vision of the divine drama.  If worship is a drama it needs to tell a story, it needs a beginning; middle; and end.  The beginning needs to introduce everyone to the cast of characters (which remember Kierkegaard said was YOU).  The introduction happens by passing the peace, by settling in with music, and through some entry prayer that I believe needs to provide people of God with a drawbridge between the world outside and inside.  Opening prayers that do not acknowledge we live in a beautiful and broken world in the majority of our life, are asking people to take a leap of faith to enter into worship.  The middle part of worship is engaging scripture and usually a reflection on scripture by a pastor.  You might think that is the climax of the drama.  But I believe the offering is.  NOT because I am interested in money and how much you put in the plate, but because I believe God is interested in our whole lives that you metaphorically place into the golden rimed plants as they clank by you.  When we offer all that is in our hearts, it is a powerful moment.  Maybe, offering could be first in that respect.  To offer your prayers, your gifts, your hopes/dreams for the coming week, could be the first part of worship.

Like all good stories, the point is not rigidity and that you always have to follow the same format.  Some of the most beautiful and creative stories, come out in fresh ways when you tell the story backwards, or start in the middle, or shake things up.  Story structures are permeable and our best worship is too.  So, let me ask you arm chair worship planners again.  Would you like the offering first and why?  Would you like the sermon last and why?

Obviously, what I am most interested in is your answers to "Why"?  I pray it causes you to reflect about what is at stake.  The  more we can do that, be honest, the more our worship can bless us with a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why we do what we do when we do it...Worship


26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. 1 Corinthians 14:26-32

Today is Sunday.  This morning, for a little over an hour, our church worshiped together.  We came together...as Paul says.  We sang a hymn...well actually three hymns.  But really hymns are like potato chips...you can't just have one.  We had a scripture lesson from Exodus.  Then...well, I am not sure if the sermon was a revelation or an interpretation?  I pray the words I offered were done for building up the people there and those who watch online. At this point, the rest of Paul's advice might as well been, "Talk to an alien, spin in a circle, and stand on your head."  Because we did not do anything else Paul suggests in worship today...OR ever!

What is it that we expect when we enter into church for worship?  Does Paul's words fit with our expectations?  We can start with an honest statement: when it comes to worship, we like what we like. For some it is a guitar.  For others, you just turned up your nose.  For others the sermon should last forty minutes. For others, you just rolled your eyes.  We like what we like.  

There is nothing wrong with that.  Except.  Except, well, the focus of worship is not really about us, which is really hard to accept in a culture of consumerism.  Everywhere else we spend our free time and give our money is about us.  And if it is not, well then, we just go somewhere else.  Which has happened more times that we can count in the church today.  Rather than trying to work through our disagreements, usually over worship, a faction breaks off and forms a new church.  It is a lot easier than dealing with those people who like (fill in the blank here).

But if worship is not about us, if worship is about God, are we assuming that God prefers one style of music or preaching or praying?  I think we all fall into that trap.  Over the next few posts, I want to explore worship.  Why we do what we do when we do it...in worship.  I will look at my own reformed style, but also other styles too.  But before we dwell with that...I think it is best to start with you.  I know this is a contradiction from the above, but stay with me here.

If you were in my robe/stole, what kind of worship service would you design? What is most meaningful in worship for you?  Would you sing a lot or little?  Would you pray?  How many times?  How much scripture?  What about a sermon?  Communion?  

Soren Kierkegaard once observed that worship is a drama.  But rather than seeing the preacher or the choir as the actor/actresses, Kierkegaard said the CONGREGATION is the main actors/actresses.  The preacher and choir were like stage managers, prompters.  And God is the audience.  I also believe there are times when God moves in our midst and becomes the actor/actress in our midst.  Those are some of the most amazing moments.  

So, now is your chance to play armchair preacher.  How would you design a service?  And once you do, ask yourself why?  May there be a trace of God's grace guiding you as you do this...I know for me as I plan worship God's grace is what I lean into every single moment in planning...especially on Sunday mornings!

Blessings ~

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Frozen Part Three



This is my third, and final, post about Frozen.  The comic relief of the movie is Olaf, the talking snowman. Which by the way, is any movie not made better by a talking snowman?  I think not!  Olaf has but one dream...to experience summer.  We, of course, know the irony of this, even if we are full time Floridians.  The moment summer awakens around us, with its humidity and relentless sunshine and rain which adds more humidity to the air...snow does not stand a chance.  It starts to melt away.  

Yet, even as we laugh at Olaf's dream to some day experience the beauty of summer, how many of us cling to dreams that are far-fetched?  On the other hand, how many of us had a dream that we persistent, persevered and waited patiently until...wait for it...it came true!  When is a dream worth pour our sweat and tears into pursuing and when do our dreams have a snowball's chance in...well you know the cliche?

That is the rub.  Throughout Scripture God calls God's people to do unthinkable things and take huge leaps of faith.  Abraham and Sarah leave the only home they know.  Noah builds an ark when there was not an ominous cloud in the sky.  Moses goes back to Egypt, the very place where he is a wanted man.  Deborah, a great judge, uses her wisdom to thwart a foreign army.  Ruth bucks conventional wisdom and goes to a land that had just suffered a famine.  I could keep going, but God seems to be a God who nudges us toward what is difficult.  

At the same time, people do resist.  Every single prophet, starting with Moses, initially offers a reason why she or he cannot possibly do what God is calling her/him to do.  The best example is, of course, Jonah.  Who turns tail and runs in the exact opposite direction of where God called him to go.  Thus starting a long line of men who refused to ask for directions when lost.  The disciples are famous for this too.  Think of all the times after a parable they said, "Um Jesus, we don't get it."  Or Peter walking on water for a split second until he saw what he was actually doing and sank.  Or Peter denying he even knew Jesus in the middle of the night.  Or Paul thinking he knew exactly what to do with Christians, until he got stuck by a blinding trace of God's grace.

Yet, there are also moments when it is not wise for us to risk everything.  Think of the woman who put her last two coins in the temple coffers.  While most preachers really like that image, especially at stewardship time...I actually read Jesus words as condemning practices that prey on the poor and religious institutions that have unending appetites for more, more, more.  Despite what we may think, Scripture is not a divine rule book.  Or if it is, the rule book is about as clear as NCAA rule book is today.  The contradictions of Scripture are not there to disprove Scriptures' wisdom, but rather to invite conversation into the wonderful diversity of life. 

Too often today we want religion boiled down into simplistic steps we can apply to our life.  Yet, too often our lives are wonderfully complex and uniquely messy.  Such that, for some of you, I could say, "Risk, dream, get out of your comfort zone and do something different."  Others reading this, I could say, "Slow down.  Breathe.  Rest for your endless Martha-like tasks are making your soul restless."  And others, I might say, "Well, it is a little of both."  And still others, there might be a fourth way yet to be explored.  

Original Christians were not named after Jesus, rather they adapted the identity as, "The People of the Way."  While there was one destination (whole/holistically following Jesus), there were multiple and endless ways to reach that destination (which honestly most of us do not reach in our life times).  So we, like Robert Frost, stand at countless pathways and forks in the road.  Sometimes we need like Olaf and Rev. Dr. King and Bishop Tutu and others to dream impossible dreams.  Other times, we need to face reality.  And here is the good news that supports us no matter where we are in life's journey: there is more than a trace of God's grace found down ALL pathways.  Sometimes, even if we missed the road where we could have taken a leap of faith, there is always another exit ramp and another way the dream manifests itself.

By the way, eventually our good friend Olaf does experience summer with a little help from Elsa.  You will have to see the film to appreciate that fully.  Which reminds us that when we dream dreams, it is good to listen to the wisdom of the Beatles, we all "get by with a little help from our friends."

May the traces of God's grace in your life guide you this week as you listen to where God is nudging you to go.  And may our dreams and hopes and deepest desires find a taste of reality in our lives this week.

Blessings ~  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Frozen Part Two


The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I'm the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in;
Heaven knows I've tried

Don't let them in,
don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel,
don't let them know
Well now they know

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway!

These are some of the lyrics to the ubiquitous anthem from Frozen. The second time we saw this movie was on a Disney Cruise.  When the moment for this song came, half the theater began singing along.  And while I agree that a Disney cruise is 'preaching to the choir', I also think there is something about these words and the point they come at in the movie that has captured the imaginations of so many. If you have not yet seen the movie, the words will be out of context.  Although, I would be curious to hear responses to these words without the benefit of seeing/experiencing the whole movie.  

It is difficult for me to go back to that second naivete and try to read these words without the plot line of the movie playing out in my imagination.  Yet, I think what the words give voice to are moments when we feel like we cannot be authentic or be our true self.  We hid something away.  Our Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual friends have done this for a long time.  They have felt controlled by the reality of judgement and violence.  Beyond that, I think we all have things about ourselves that we hide from others.  Even people who post everything to Facebook are still hiding somethings, perhaps even trying to write a narrative of their life that even they do not fully believe or understand.  

We also have moments when we are forced to hide.  Maybe because of fear.  Maybe because of past experiences.  Maybe because we are uncertain or unclear about who we really are.  And in those moments, even if we are surrounded by a thousand people, we still feel alone.  Or as Elsa sings, "A kingdom of isolation...and it looks like I'm the queen."  We've all been there.  Feeling alone; feeling misunderstood and a case of mistaken identity.

As I said in my last post, like all Disney movies, on one level Frozen is about identity.  Elsa, for good reasons, believes she will not be accepted by others for her powers.  Her powers have hurt others and the linger grief that has caused her has totally dictated the narrative of her life.  Take a quick exit ramp with me and connect to another popular movie, Spider-man (Toby Maguire version).  Early on Spider-man is trying to figure out his powers and his uncle gives him some great advice, "With great power comes great responsibility."  The two are interwoven.  Elsa believes she cannot fully be herself with others around.  I know of very few people who don't at one time, or another, in their lives question both who they are and who they are in connection with others.

So we do conceal and we numb ourselves (usually through addictions or medication or food).  Yet, Elsa needs to understand that her powers and her relationships (especially with her sister Anna) can co-exist.  It is not easy.  The easy path would be to stay in her ice castle brooding and believing that she cannot have both her powers and her loving relationships to others.  In some way the modern dilemma has always been how much of ourselves do we "let go"?  Of course, some discretion is good.  We don't need to over-share our whole lives.  But we also cannot be so closed and contained until one day we burst.

Perhaps this is too much credit/analysis/over thinking of a cartoon.  But I believe that stories are one of the ways we communicate, really communicate, what is valuable.  In the 1980s movies about wealth dominated the box-office because we truly worshiped money.  In the 1990s movies about friendships started to balance that as a generation of latchkey kids started having disposable income.  Now, movies like Frozen and the Hunger Games trilogy cause us to reflect on what is entertainment and identity in cultural systems.  I believe God works through creativity.  God works through art, poetry, music, and movies to help us hold a mirror up to ourselves.  And if we are willing to stare into that mirror, seeing dimly at times, we may just find wisdom that truly is a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Frozen Part 1


After all the posts on Abraham and Sarah...it feels like time for a vacation or at minimum something not so serious.  So in a huge leap, I will spend a few posts focusing on the movie Frozen.  If you have not seen the movie, it might help to have a brief synopsis.  It is about two sisters, Anna and Elsa.  Like all good Disney movies, someone has to die early on in the movie.  Think here of Bambi's poor mother or Carl's wife in Up.  But this time, Disney is more equally opportunity, with both mom and dad dying...real progress if you ask me. 

Anna is the eternal optimist; Elsa holds the secret power of being able to make winter appear (totally should have typed "spoiler alert" first).  Eventually, Elsa's powers are discovered and not by some careless blogger.  So, she goes off on her own, which is where the ubiquitous song, Let It Go comes into play. Trust me, if you have not heard this song, ask any eight year old girl, she will sing every word.

Anna goes after her, meets Kristoff and his pet moose.  By the way, is there any movie not made better by a pet moose?  I think not.  And...well the rest, you will have to watch the movie.  It has received well deserved praise.

First, unlike previous Disney movies, neither Elsa or Anna need "saving" by any man.  There are men in the movie who play important roles, none of which include the trite and cliché role of saving the princess.  These two princesses are perfectly capable and brave.  Second, the movie is just good story telling.  The movie reminds us why we go to movies, which is to be enthralled with a narrative that captures our imaginations.  But stories are not simply escapism.  The best stories shine a light or hold up a mirror to our lives.  They reflect back to us who we are as a people and our deepest desires.

One of the reasons why Disney movies are so successful is not only marketing, but they almost always center around the question of identity.  Think of Toy Story, where Woody has to come to terms with what it means to not be the favorite toy any more and Buzz Lightyear has to come to terms with truth that he is just a toy...not an intergalactic space ranger.  Think of Cars where Lighting McQueen has to deal with whether friendships or fame are more important to who he is.  Same is true here, can Elsa really be a good sister given her powers or is it easier just to form an ice castle where she is an island by herself?

The question of identity is paramount today.  And if you don't believe me, watch commercials.  Companies no longer just sell a product, but a sense of who you are.  Are you a Mac or PC kinda person?  Do you drive a Chevy or a Mazda (zoom, zoom)?  Are you the kind of parent who cares enough about your kids to give the best kind of peanut butter?  Seriously, when did my choice of cereal become a defining moment of life?  The honest answer, never!  It does not matter.  Only identity is the only thing that does matter in some ways today.  Theologian Andrew Root points out that our identity use to come from our family at the turn of the 19th century and previous to that.  You were a farmer because your dad, grandfather, uncle, great-grandfather, etc. were farmers.  But around the mid 20th century, we started letting our job define who we are.  But one of the marks of the post-modern era is that we no longer want we do for a living to be so central; we do not want to be confined by our paycheck.  But where does that leave us?  We continue to question if it is not family primarily and it is not our job that defines us, what does?  Our consumerism has been all but delighted to say, "You can buy your identity!"

I fully realize the irony that Frozen is a financial boom to Disney, so in some ways they are selling us a sense of identity.  But I also think the movie asks questions about family and about who we are and who we want to be.  In the next post, I will talk about some of the music from the movie.  But for now, I invite you to ponder prayerfully where is it that you find your deepest sense of identity, how do you see yourself?  Who helps define who you are? 

I pray as we ponder this, we will find a trace of God's grace in our lives to help.

Blessings ~