December 17, 2014

Trained by Longing & The Trumpet Child

Ever since Over the Rhine released The Trumpet Child in 2007, I've wanted to ground an Advent worship service in the title song, which is the most beautiful eschatological pop song I've ever encountered.

(Truthfully, many of the most beautiful eschatological pop songs I've encountered are also by Over the Rhine. There's a reason they're my favorite band.)

This was the year. Our Spirit Worship Band covered the song in worship on Sunday, and they did it so well I was weepy during their pre-service rehearsal. The singer - a sophomore in high school! - sang the heck out of the song, set down her mic, and picked up her saxophone. There were no fewer than four saxophones for the sweeping, all-encompassing culmination of the song. The sound - along with guitars and piano and drums - filled every nook and cranny of the sanctuary and just sort of demanded to be felt. It was extraordinary, truly. I knew they'd do it well but I could never have imagined they'd knock it out of the proverbial park. 

In planning the service, I saved the song for last. I wanted, quite simply, to preach into it. I didn't say a word about it. I didn't really need to, and besides, if I had I know that I would have sounded like the fangirl I am. But the fact of the matter is this: that song means the world to me. It really does. Preaching into it felt like the most natural thing in the world, because it is such an exquisitely crafted expression of eschatological hope. 

I sound a bit anxious and chirpy in the sermon recording; the service was running long and I must have been subconsciously deciding to move things along by speed preaching. Still, if you want to have a little glimpse of one of the most meaningful Sunday mornings I've ever had, you can listen to my sermon, Trained by Longing, here and then follow it with a chaser of The Trumpet Child (thought not our cover; we haven't the rights to publish the recording).


December 13, 2014

Grief, Presence, Absence, Prayer

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the bleachers at my nieces' gymnastics meet in Montgomery, Alabama. In between events, I checked my email. The subject of the email, sent by my senior colleague: A Great Sadness. And A Great Sadness it was and is and ever shall be - a very young and very beloved member of my church died suddenly, leaving a family and community positively shattered by grief.

It was hard to be so far away from my church community when this happened. There are no words to speak in the face of such tragedy; at times like these it is all about togetherness, the ministry of presence, the bear hug. And I was in an exile of sorts, miles away and surrounded by a family deeply happy to be all together for the first time in years - the first time ever, really, since the most of the children hadn't yet been born the last time we were all in the same place at the same time.

I was grateful, obviously, to be with my family, but for several days I toggled back and forth between the conviviality of cousins playing and the sanctuary of my bedroom, where I did a good amount of weeping and praying. I found myself unusually able to pray. Prayer has rarely come easy to me, but this time around I prayed the way one might gasp for breath. I didn't have many words, but I experienced, keenly, the Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words. 

In the midst of this I recalled a retreat I went on in high school. At the end of the weekend you found out that there had actually been a handful of kids there, cloistered in another part of camp, and their whole purpose in being there was to pray for the kids on retreat. I didn't get it at the time, not really. It seemed a little bit silly to me. Quaint. Questionably effective.

I think I get it now. Maybe it is quaint and questionably effective, but it was the only thing I could do, so I did it.


November 20, 2014

I Don't Listen to Serial


I tried. I did. When the umpty-millionth person gushed about how addictive and compelling the Serial podcast is, I tuned in. I listened to two episodes, and even though Sarah Koenig is a fantastic reporter and engaging narrator, I could not past the horror that this is a thing that really happened. This is, of course, the whole point of True Crime. True Crime is bested only by Horror in the contest of genres I can't handle.

Hae Min Lee was a girl who was murdered. Hae Min Lee was a girl who was murdered and who had parents who grieve her loss. Inasmuch as Serial is investigative reporting, demonstrating the vicissitudes about how crimes are solved and unearthing weaknesses in the criminal justice system, okay. Inasmuch as Serial might actually crack (or re-crack) the case, even better. But inasmuch as Serial is entertainment - addictive and compelling and so loaded with suspense that the listeners can't wait until Thursday - nope. Can't go there.

I was recently called insufferably sanctimonious by an anonymous person on the internet. It was about something else, and I was heartened that plenty of people said that this was not in fact a true assessment of me. But maybe it is. Surely, being a Debbie Downer about Serial doesn't help my defense against the "insufferably sanctimonious" claim. So if you concur with that description, I get it. I only ask that you trust me when I say that it's an insufferable sanctimoniousness borne out of an earnest instinct to honor human life.

November 11, 2014

All the Days of My Life

On Psalm 23 and Ephesians 2:17-22

You know that feeling that happens when you can’t think of the word you want to use? You can almost taste it, on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t for the life of you actually conjure it up. It’s bad enough with a mere word; it’s worse when you’re standing in front of a person you know perfectly well yet can’t recall his name. As a preacher, I experience an unpleasant variation of this phenomenon every so often, when I’m sure there’s a sermon I mean to preach, but I can’t quite fish it out of the depths of - well, from the depths of wherever it is sermons arise.

If you’ll forgive me for the rather deconstructed approach, while I grope around for my point, I’ll share some of the things floating around in my heart.

There’s this.

The other day I stopped to talk to Rich for a moment. He’d been planning the service this afternoon for Betty W., and was marveling at the incredible longevity of her life in this congregation. She passed away recently at the age of ninety-five, and because she grew up in this church, she was a part of this community of faith for decades upon decades upon decades.

And then there’s this.

The last time the children’s choirs sang in worship, one little boy told his mother the night before that he didn’t want to sing. She told him that he could quit the choir if he really wanted to, but reminded him, too, that many hearts are lifted when the children lead the congregation in worship. So, she said, if he wasn’t going to do choir, he’d have to find some other way to contribute to the church - after all, every Christian, by merit of his or her baptism, is called to ministry and service. The mom helpfully suggested that he might consider helping clean up after coffee hour. He decided to stick with choir.

And there’s that article I read last week.

It had a title I couldn’t resist: The Number One Reason Teens Keep the Faith as Young Adults. The author was analyzing the results of a new study about faith formation and long-term religious commitment. One factor far exceeded all the other factors.

It wasn’t youth ministry or clergy or service projects or going to a religious school. The Number One Reason Teens Keep the Faith as Young Adults is having parents who keep the faith. The author writes, “Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s... Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid-to-late 20s.”

And then there’s the results from our recent survey. If you didn’t hear the executive summary a few weeks ago, here’s the nutshell edition. We have many strengths. Our results were measured against 500 mainline Protestant churches of our size. We scored incredibly high in almost every category: hospitality, morale, conflict management, governance, equipping members for ministry, engagement in Christian education, and worship and music. The consultant emphasized that these results were truly remarkable.

But there was one category that gave us pause: spiritual vitality. Unlike the other categories, where we were soaring in the stratospheric 90th percentiles, we ranked in the 1st percentile in comparison to other congregations. Which is to say that ninety-nine percent of congregations surveyed scored higher in spiritual vitality.

Now, before you lament that we flunked spirituality, the strategic vision team that coordinated the survey was quick to point out that some context is needed.

Many of the mainline congregations surveyed were Episcopalian and Lutheran - traditions that have more defined theology and faith practices than we do in the United Church of Christ. We are - and again, this is according to our responses to the survey questions - considered to be theologically progressive and adaptable. So, it’s totally possible that “spiritual vitality” is being defined in a way that doesn’t fully resonate with - and here I borrow a phrase from the late Reverend Robert Kemper - “our kind of faith.”

The statements that informed this particular category included the following.

My spiritual experiences often impact the way I look at life. 
My spirituality is really the basis of my whole approach to life. 
I experience the presence of God in my life. 
I work to connect my faith to all the other aspects of my life.
Although my faith is important to me, I feel there are other things more pressing in my life right now.
It’s not that we didn’t affirm the importance of faith. We didn’t collective say, “naaah!” Plenty of people strongly affirmed the central role of spirituality in their lives. But many others equivocated. Perhaps this is a sign of our Congregational unease with theological overconfidence; we are people who tend to be fairly comfortable with mystery, and who do not equate faith with certainty.

But I think we at least have to consider the possibility that it also could be a sign of something else.

You know, there’s certain things you either are or you aren’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead, but perhaps you can be a little bit religious. I recently heard a pastor say that "Churches are filled with people who are just one Sunday brunch away from never coming back."

And then the other things floating around in my head, awaiting proper sermonic treatment, are our scriptures for today. I try to read the scriptures prayerfully, using the method of lectio divina to help me recognize where God is trying to get my attention in the text. And for the past several weeks I can’t get that one line from Psalm 23 out of my head - “all the days of my life.” I thought of it when I heard that story about the little boy who was on the fence about choir. I thought about it when I prayed for Betty Williams.

I thought of it when I read that article and I thought of it when I listened to the strategic vision team present the results of the survey.

I was sure enough that it was the fulcrum on which my reflections would rest that I went ahead and named the message just that - all the days of my life - even though, goodness, we’re halfway through and I’m still trying to conjure that elusive sermon.

I think it has something to do with this.

God is with us through each and every moment of our lives, from our first inhalation to our last exhalation, whether or not we are paying attention. But, I am convinced that it is better to pay attention.

I’m not convinced we’ll be happier if our spiritual experiences impact the way we look at life. Being followed by goodness and mercy doesn’t mean we won’t also experience grief and heartache.

Nor do I think experiencing the presence of God in our lives necessarily makes us better people. We hope that we’ll bear the fruits of the Spirit - you know: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some of the most Christlike people I’ve ever encountered are not people of faith.

And even though I am about as enthusiastic as a person possibly could be about the profound significance of worship in the lives of Christians, it’s not like I think there aren’t other ways to glorify God on a Sunday morning. It makes me nuts that they schedule all those sports on the Sabbath - but then I think about that Eric Liddell quote from the movie Chariots of Fire. The Olympic runner says this: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Why shouldn’t God’s pleasure rest on the shoulders of the kid who plays on a traveling soccer team?

Of course, I could go on about Eric Liddell, and emphasize the part where he refused to run in the 100 meter dash in the 1924 Olympics because the race was on a Sunday. Maybe it was on all the Sabbath days spent not running that the runner learned to identify and revel in God’s pleasure.

Nevertheless, it bears repeating:

God is with us through each and every moment of our lives, from our first inhalation to our last exhalation, whether or not we are paying attention. I am still convinced that it is better to pay attention.

You know, there are plenty of churches that don’t mess around with these equivocations. They operate with a different set of stakes. They offer a specific set of practices and beliefs that each of their members must fulfill in order to be considered faithful Christians. Sometimes they even emphasize the consequences of failing to accept those beliefs or follow those practices.

And plenty of people thrive in such religious contexts. Fire and brimstone is actually pretty comforting if you’re granted the certainty that you’re not going to experience it. And what’s more, fire and brimstone are remarkably effective at generating commitment. If you believe you’re going to go to hell if you don’t think and do what you’re supposed to think and do, well, that’s quite a motivator.

Several years ago I read an article that argued that “the problem with [Mainline congregations such as ours] is the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life.”

In other words, it’s not good enough to believe that you’ll be fine no matter what you do. It’s lukewarm Christianity to say that you’ll be fine if you have a rich spiritual life, and you’ll be fine if you don’t.

But maybe there are degrees of fine.

When I first read that article, I rather wanted to call up the author and sing that old Indigo Girls song at the top of my lungs: The less I seek my source for something definitive, the closer I am to fine.

By now it should come as no surprise that I’ve got no proper ending to this sermon. That’s as it should be, because the fact of the matter is that this matter of our individual and congregational spiritual vitality is far too important to get tied up with a bow.

This work of discerning what God is calling us to do and be belongs to all of us. So come to the Congo Cafe, talk to someone on the strategic vision team, write a letter to the pastors.
And, please, please, please: pray. I hope that we can have the boldness to not merely pat ourselves on the back about the good survey results and wring our hands about the not-so-good survey results. I hope that we can have the boldness to pray for spiritual renewal.

I know that might sound a bit Pentecostal, but last time I checked the Pentecostals do not have the corner on the Holy Spirit.

Personally, I’m praying for our community to embody the vision from our Ephesians reading. Hear it again, according to the Message translation:

“Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals.

Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father… You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”

May this be so today, and may this be so all the days of our lives.




Disqus for any day a beautiful change