The Dipping Part

bread_wine2Children’s time at church is such a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I dislike that the kids seem paraded up front on display, where their unabashed curiosity, evolving faith, and sweet antics entertain the watching adults like an adorable weekly installment of “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” On the other hand, give me half as many adults who exhibit so much excitement and curiosity about their evolving faith. Pretty sure, to paraphrase John Wesley, they alone could prevail against the gates of hell.

We’ve experienced an interesting shift at the church where I serve. Children’s time has gotten younger, with middle school and even most elementary school kids staying in their seats during the children’s message, and a gaggle of small toddlers, preschoolers, and very early elementary kids surrounding me. This only serves to heighten the tendency for unabashed curiosity, evolving faith, and sweet antics. And they do say the darnedest things.

This week, while I was trying and failing miserably to draw their attention to the coloring book in my hands as encouragement to draw outside the lines or color Jesus with purple skin, a preschooler pointed at the altar behind me, set for communion (which we serve by intinction, that is, each person takes a piece of bread, which they then dip into the cup of grape juice).

“Oooh!” she exclaimed. “Are we doing the dipping part? That’s my favorite part!”

Mine too, kiddo. And may we all be so excited about it.

Later, when I began the communion liturgy, I paused to make sure that someone was getting the kids from children’s church. “We don’t want them to miss the ‘dipping part’,” I said, to the titters of the rest of the congregation. “No one who is that excited about communion should ever be hindered from coming to Christ’s table.”

With the children back in the sanctuary, this also gave me more wiggle room, I felt, to tell the story and say prayers for communion in a more kid-friendly way, connecting to their excitement as best I could. Later, adults would tell me that they really “got” communion this week, and felt it was connected to the message of faith that goes beyond the basics.

All because, really, of a child with simple, exuberant faith, and a love for the dipping part.

Fragments for the Fragmented

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.

I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further.  A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.

So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.

Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?

One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.

Is the Table Open?

“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.

My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”

Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.

We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.

Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?

Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.

In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?

This is not a protest. This is a sacrament. photo by UMNS

I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.

There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.

It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.

Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.

At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”

Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.

But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as  “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”

Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”

Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.

Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?

This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.

Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.

Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?

So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.

That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of God that is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.

Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?

And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.

Reflections on Romero

A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.

In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”,  William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”

Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.

Cavanaugh continues:

Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.

That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.

May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.

Diary of a Delegate: TwitterSermon

I had a very strange experience last night. I preached a sermon on Twitter. It had been a very hard day (more on that another time) and I had left the voting area (called the bar– not a social establishment for beverage!), and sat for a time with some friends, members of the GLBTQ and ally community. The music began, and a joyful liturgical dance that moved me deeply, but I felt such a disconnect because my friends and loved ones were cut off from the worship, both by the voting area, and by some of the votes we had taken.

Members of the Common Witness Coalition, as I was writing, the “church”– the broken, internally and externally wounded, frightened church– I was thinking of was not the UMC. It was the Coalition. My word is for us in our pain.

I wavered on the edge, and I began to write:

Having a hard time crossing back into the (voting) bar. #NoBarriersInWorship #gc2012 #GC12love

Okay that prayer changed my mind. Maybe I can worship now. #gc2012 #GC12love #NoBarriersInWorship

I’m having a really tough time with this service. It’s profoundly powerful #NoBarriersInWorship #gc2012 #GC12love

Precisely because of its power I feel the disconnect. #NoBarriersInWorship #gc2012 #GC12love

(we sang the wonderful song “You Are Mine,” which includes the lyric “I will call your name, embracing all your pain, stand up, now walk and live.” and the refrain “I love you and you are mine.”)

How many people want to hear us say “I love you and you are mine”? So much pain to embrace. #NoBarriersInWorship #gc2012 #GC12love

That’s right folks. I’m preaching on twitter. Deal with it. #NoBarriersInWorship #gc2012 #GC12love

The music this evening has reminded us of our boundless love of God & God’s boundless love of us. #gc2012 #GC12love #twittersermon

Would that our love of one another were as boundless, moving us to shout, clap, leap, or sigh and weep. #gc2012 #GC12love #twittersermon

I didn’t preach this week. I’ve got a sermon inside aching to be born, and I’m 1500 miles from my pulpit. #gc2012 #twittersermon #GC12love

(we heard the story of Jesus asleep in the boat as the disciples cried out in fear at the wind and waves, until Jesus awoke– Lord, save us! We are perishing!– and rebuked the storm)

We are indeed perishing. Not as a church or institution- not important. We’re perishing as a beloved community. #gc2012 #twittersermon

We are perishing because we do not adequately love each other, trust each other. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Huddled in our broken, leaky boat, we are terrified. Jesus sleeps on. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

And we think Jesus is sleeping because he doesn’t care. So we yell louder in our fear and distrust. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Hey Jesus! Don’t you see that we are dying over here? Don’t you care? Save us! #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

(I’m having a Pentecost moment. There’s another sermon in this room, and I hear it too) #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012 (The preacher in the room was preaching a sermon that was sort of in conversation with what I was writing, sort of source material, and sort of separate)

Afraid, and seemingly alone, we forget that Jesus hasn’t abandoned us, he’s in the boat with us. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

He’s sleeping, not because he doesn’t care, but because he & he alone is not afraid. He is not perishing. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

When we shake him awake, begging him to save us, he utters a word not of power but of peace. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

He doesn’t tell us who is right. He doesn’t make a theological claim. He invites peace. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Beloved, we are not at peace. We are in the midst of the tempest. A storm of our own making. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Our distrust, discord, and disconnect roil around us. Our brokenness threatens to pull us under. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

(can’t stop now) #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Christ, save us! Do you not see that we are perishing? #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Peace. Peace be with you. Peace be among you. peace be between you. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

May we love & trust God as much as Jesus does, at peace in the leaky, storm tossed boat. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

(I received and replied to another tweet: “@KVG_DC: @pastorbecca Thank you for captioning that wonderful sermon…” lol not captioning brother. #twittersermon is my own words.)

May we love & trust one another as much as we love and trust Christ. Leaping, clapping, sighing, weeping. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

Amen. #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012

I feel lighter & better. I have never done anything like that. I’d say I don’t know how it happened, but… #twittersermon #spirit #gc2012


Seeking Easter Inspiration

Here is my deep confession:

It is hard for me to get inspired to lead worship on Easter.

I face this every year. In part, I think the expectations I place on myself are too high– I want to do something “cool” or “relevant” to get the attention of the visitors; I want to lift up a different part of the story to appeal to the questioning; I want to go deeper to inspire the regulars; I am confronted with the centerpiece and cornerstone of our faith.

On the other hand, I just don’t know what to say. Retelling the story doesn’t seem to be enough (it is for me on Thursday and Friday– the messages of servanthood, connection, commitment to ones principles, courage, loss, violence– these speak for themselves). I personally don’t get enough out of Easter if it’s just a line-by-line reading of the Gospels. Does this make me a bad pastor? A bad believer? I hope not. But it’s not enough for me to read about the empty tomb. So what? What do we do now? How does this change us?

This may be the best thing I have read all season, all year, in all of my ministry when it comes to Easter inspiration. I won’t just preach that, but at least I have a place to start. Thank you, Carl Gregg. That was what I needed to hear, to find what I need to say.

It’s. Still. Christmas.

People of faith, we have a problem. It’s not that people say “Happy Holidays” (as a contraction of Holy and Days, ‘holidays’ actually reveres all of the sacred and special days in this season, from Solstice to Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas to Watch Night to New Year’s Day). It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas.

It’s that there are two Christmases.

One Christmas season starts on the day after Thanksgiving, maybe earlier. It features songs about snowy weather and Rudolph and Frosty and poems about Saint Nick. For it, people decorate in red and green, put up lighted trees and wreaths, and buy lots and lots and lots of gifts. It celebrates in its own way the spirit of generosity, the specialness, even sacredness, of giving and receiving, of being with the people you love in the midst of the cold. Santa reigns supreme on this Christmas, which arrives with tremendous fanfare on the morning of December 25, when households are filled with light and merriment and food and presents. And then the holiday ends. By December 26, the trees are down, the lights shut off, the music off the radio.

I celebrate this Christmas. I will not begrudge you if you do as well, whether or not you consider yourself Christian. It is a fun and good holiday, and teaches good values and practices joy.

But it’s not the only Christmas.

The other Christmas begins not after Thanksgiving, but after the season of Advent. It starts, like all good holidays in the tradition of its ancestral faith, at sundown– sundown on December 24. For this holiday, people decorate first in blue or purple for advent, but most primarily in white and gold. People sing songs about angels, shepherds, and a certain baby. They put up trees and wreaths and lights, yes, but also nativities and candles. This season arrives sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes with solemn prayer, sometimes at 5:30 or 7 pm, or 11 pm (which we somehow call “midnight”), and again on the morning of December 25. On this Christmas, the one who reigns supreme is a baby, born to set his people free. Jesus own this Christmas. It’s his birthday, and as such, it too embraces giving and family and joy, but it also teaches holy expectation, God’s promises, new birth, and the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s ordinary brokenness.

This Christmas does not end on December 26.

From a theological perspective, this Christmas does not end at all, of course, but in this context, I am speaking purely seasonally, practically, decoration-ally. This Christmas, Jesus’ Christmas, lasts for twelve days (there’s a song about that somewhere), and ends on January 6 with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi– traditionally a more appropriate time for giving– as the Wise Ones reveal the global significance of the baby Jesus and present gifts to him out of love and reverence.

I want to pry these two Christmases apart. The “secular” Christmas and the “sacred” Christmas (how I dislike that language!). The Santa Christmas and the Jesus Christmas. I think they should have two separate names. We could name the Jesus Christmas lots of things: Noel, Nativity, the Feast of Christ’s Birth. But I’m not willing to say that Santa can have the name Christmas. Good luck getting it back from him and his holiday, but it’s not his to keep. I mean, it’s got the other guy’s name in it, and the word for church service. Christ. Mass. Christmas. It’s kind of a word owned by the Christian tradition, even if the holiday no longer is.

So I don’t know what we call SantaTide, the Season of Giving, St. Nicholas Day. It’s a great holiday, and I celebrate it with joy and find it holy.

It’s just not the same holiday as Christmas, a holiday that I am still celebrating, with songs of Gloria and twinkling lights. I think we can celebrate both faithfully– those of us who choose to– and I think we can, in pulling them apart, offer up ways for people who dislike Santa’s bent toward consumerism or people who find the baby Jesus a myth from a faith not their own, a way to celebrate their holy day, their holiday, without having to buy into the other.

This is my new mission, as I enter a new year, but not yet a new season of the church (nope, not celebrating Epiphany on January 1 either, lectionary watchers!). How do we tease out St. Nicholas Day (like St. Patrick’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day–  once named for a saint, but now cultural holidays with their own metaphors and themes) from the Nativity of Christ? Come to think of it, how do we reverence the beauty in our cultural celebrations and our religious ones, in ways that allow each to be holy in its own way?

And don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. We’ve got a few weeks before that candy comes out at least, so I have some time to prepare.

Day Off

Mondays are my sabbath days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a day of rest. Sometimes, what really rejuvenates me is getting to do projects I love or to dream about ministry (and maybe even do a little of it, which I don’t consider cheating) without being ‘on the clock.’

So for example, today, on my day off, I:

  • took out the garbage. Okay, it doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s very purging.
  • did some weeding in the vegetable garden and put down some landscape fabric to keep the weeds down in the future. Again, it may not sound like rest, but I was out in nature, getting some (rare) sun, and had a great feeling of achievement.
  • had an impromptu video conference to discuss ideas about a program to help agencies and their resources better interface with people without housing or on the brink of being without housing. A passion of mine, and a discussion made possible by the wonders of internet technology.
  • talked with another group at church about rearranging some space use for a new project, yet to be unveiled. That might sound like work, but it was so uplifting!
  • called the congregant whose dream is the aforementioned new project, and asked him to come in tomorrow and begin the process of making it a reality. I didn’t see his face (no video conference, sadly), but even the sound of his voice was enough to know that moments like that are why I went into ministry.
  • managed to utterly confuse myself with my bills and checkbook, but sort it all out in the end, which again, is such a feeling of accomplishment (and relief!)
  • thought a little more about the ideas I’ve been having for sermons the next two weeks (I’m never that far ahead!) and for a series in September.
  • ran a mile and a quarter.

Now that’s a day that gets me feeling refreshed, revved up, and ready for the week ahead!

It does feel different.

The moment of ordination.
The moment of ordination.

I feel like I missed a lot of Conference. Or maybe it’s just that it’s blurry and I only remember the big things.

I preached Wednesday night for the opening memorial service, a tremendous honor that had me sweating glowing like crazy and more nervous than I remember being. Of course the actual sermon was not exactly like the rehearsal recording I uploaded, but it may have been close. I never felt like I totally got into my groove, but I also heard from literally hundreds of people that they loved it and were touched by it and needed to hear it, so maybe, jut maybe, God spoke a Word despite me. God tends to do that.

I spent much of Thursday coordinating, between legislative sessions, with a friend coming in late. Friday was similar but coordinating with family coming in for Saturday.

And then there was Saturday. Closing motions– our *last* full confernece closing motions. Friends crying right and left, me stealing other people’s tissues (sorry, Megan), and all before we even got near the Ordination service.

The service was surreal. My family sat right behind me, and I was between my two fellow ordinands. In some ways it flew; it seemed tailor made for me, the sermon, the people involved, the music– the anthem was “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” a favorite song of mine from which this blog takes its title. And before I knew it, my sponsors were on either side of me, my DS had offered me his arm, and I was walking to the stage, kneeling before the bishop, hearing the rustle in the room as people got to their feet.

And then three bishops, two board members, the conference lay leader, my District Supeintendent, my mom in law and my mentor all placed their hands on me.

There’s no way to describe it, but I’ll try.

A day before, I received a back massage from a woman who has studied reike. Her hands were incredibly warm and strong. These hands were warmer. They pressed down almost as hard as she did. I expected it to be like other ‘laying of hands’ I had experienced, where people lightly place their hand on you, barely applying pressure. Here was pressure, weight. This was serious prayer, like when you grip a friend’s hand for dear life. I think I let out an audible gasp.

And then (although I tried to stand up because I was in such a haze) my hands were placed on a bible, but I was looking right at the Bishop’s face, and her eyes were bright with moisture. As I stood, I had to stoop to accept the stole from her, and it raised goosebumps on my neck. I stayed on the platform for the rest of the service, and then we consecrated communion together, breaking bread and sharing liturgy (and book-holding confusion) with the three bishops like we were all colleagues, because, guess what, we are. I broke bread and placed it in people’s hands, calling them by name, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I’m sure.

During the call to ministry, several people I knew came forward, and I didn’t have enough arms to hug them all. We recessed, and then the line of clergy, men and women I respect and admire and adore, shook my hand and greeted me, and it was in their eyes: despite the differences in age and experience, they greeted me as an equal.

I presided in worship on Sunday, twice, with a stole around my shoulders, conscious of the weight, but feeling right and at home.

What’s with the Ordination thing?

my commissioning in 2006
my commissioning in 2006

Not everyone who knows me is a church-going Methodist-loving nerd.

I know, strange, but true.

So some have been wondering, what is the ordination thing all about, and if I attend it, what should I do? What should I wear? Can I make cat calls?

No on the last one, please. Clothes on the second one.

What is an Ordination, in non-theological language?

It’s a little like graduation. It’s partially a recognition and celebration of the preparation and work my colleagues and I have undergone these past three, five, heck, ten years or so. The preparation was not just academic, but spiritual, psychological, practical, and deeply personal, and in this ceremony, we conclude that portion of the work, and like a commencement, turn to the beginning of the rest of our careers in our ministries, whatever they might hold. Also, this year is the last of our Annual Conference’s ordinations, and so there’s some saying goodbye involved too. Kind of like graduation.

It’s a little like a wedding. I don’t want to take the metaphor too far and say I’m married to God or to the church to the exclusion of my actual spouse, but it’s one of the closest examples we have. This is both a personal and a communal recognition of a sacred commitment, a commitment that doesn’t start with the ceremony, just as the relationship between two people doesn’t start on the wedding day, but is celebrated in a worshipful setting and vows are spoken, and the covenant is witnessed and therefore in a way, pledged to be upheld, by all present. More on this in a second.

It’s a little like a healing ceremony or a prayer circle. This is the least familiar metaphor for my non-churchy friends, but you can still get the idea. As part of the ceremony, each person being ordained is prayed over by the Bishop, by supervisors in their ministry, and by mentors or friends chosen by the ordinand, who have supported them in the process. To be prayed for– touched and prayed for– is a pretty powerful thing. I’ve been on the receiving end of similar things a few times, and it can take your breath away. My theology of prayer is a little wobbly sometimes, but I believe that so much focused intention, love, support, and prayer to God can’t help but be a wonderful and uplifting thing. I never fail to feel moved and goosebumply when I see it; I can’t imagine what it is to participate in it in this context. It is, for me, every time I watch it, a true God moment.

At that moment, when the Bishop and mentors are placing their hands on the ordinand, something that I think is truly special happens in the room. Everyone there in support of that person, everyone who has been touched by that person and her or his ministry, everyone who would affirm the blessing of this person and pray for God’s Spirit to continue to work in and through their ministry, stands. Just silently stands up. No clapping, no cheering, but with the movement of the body says, Yes. Me too. I’m praying that prayer (or the equivalent in my own personal belief) too. I too affirm God’s work in this person and I want their ministry to be blessed. I bear witness to this committment, and I pledge myself to support this person and their commitment to God and God’s ministry in any way I can.

At least, that’s what I mean when I stand up.

I hope you mean it too.

If you want details about where and when the ceremony is, there’s an event page on my facebook, or let me know. Come if you can, or think of me around 10:30 and following next Saturday, and you’ll be standing up from afar.

Maybe this means the powers that be are listening!

As I posted earlier, the news that the work on a new United Methodist Hymnal has been postponed generated many ideas about what might spring up in the meantime, including a couple of great discussions over on the facebook group for the new hymnal.

This morning, Dean McIntyre from the General Board of Discipleship emailed that group and asked us (all 1800 of us!) what our ideas are. I hope this means they’re willing to take some of ours into account! Here’s my response to his question:

Dean, I am so glad you asked!

A member of this group named Steve has a great post about what he dreams the hymnal might be here: Likewise, Jeremy has another thread about how we might proceed here:

Combining these two, I want to strongly suggest that the hymnal go super-digital. Using open source technology like Wikipedia does, you could have Methodists from all around the world suggest new songs for review, post alternative lyrics to classic tunes (or gender and ethnically sensitive lyrics for classic hymns), submit alternate psalter settings or uses, and write prayers for inclusion in an online-only hymnal supplement, and so much more! Imagine a truly global hymnal for a truly global church! People could tag hymns with keywords for faster indexing (still no index for The Faith We Sing, which is a huge hindrance, and whatever mind put together the 89 Hymnal didn’t use the keywords I want– where do I find hymns about ‘inclusiveness,’ or ‘diversity,’ or ‘mother’s day’ or ‘Native American heritage’ or a slew of other ideas? If I could add keywords or tags, and so could everyone else, suddenly we’d have many more ideas about which hymns might best fit the Word of the day.

As we build an online coalition of ideas and resources, available as it becomes ready, perhaps for an annual or one-time access key fee but produced at very minimal cost, this material could be culled, refined, and gathered for use in a printed hymnal in the future. Churches like mine would purchase probably half as many hardbound hymnals no matter what’s available online (we have probably 200 UMHs but found we only needed 60 FWSs since we use the projector screen now), but would regularly access the digital online hymnal for lyrics to paste into PowerPoint, prayer ideas, to listen to alternate tunes, and to search the ever-expanding index and find a beloved song that fits perfectly with the message that the worship team is trying to communicate through the service. At the same time, nothing would prevent a church from remaining with the hard-bound hymnal, and using the new paper hymnal when it comes out, never needing to spend the extra for the online resources if they weren’t planning on using them. I think you’ll find that even though the median age of this facebook group and other online United Methodist communities is relatively young (compared to, say, the median age of United Methodists in the U.S.), many if not all of us are still very sensitive to the needs of older print-based generations to keep the hymns, tunes, and media formats (i.e. books) that move and shape them in their faith. So while I personally cringe at “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I would by no means recommend striking it from the Hymnal– although I hear there are some lovely alternative lyrics out there that might interest me.

And ditch the hymnal on cdrom. That Folio view format used for the UMH&FWS, as well as for the NIB is just horrendous and unhelpful. Again, better to have it online and ask for an access fee. Then glitches and typos (o so many typos in the FWS!) can be fixed quickly, and the user interface can be improved in terms of searchability, bookmarking, and so on. All of this for the cost of a couple of web developers and some moderators (many of whom might be hanging around this group just waiting for an opportunity to moderate a conversation about sacred music).

While the print version of the hymnal may be becoming less cost-effective and less frequently used in worship, United Methodists are still people who sing in large part so that we can express and grow in our faith. Sacred music is alive and well–hymnody is alive and well–and you have literally thousands (almost 1800 right on this group) of people who are willing to help and share their creative ideas about how best to do that in an ever-changing context. The Gospel the Wesley brothers brought to bar music, I’m betting we can bring to the web database, the iPod, and the mp3 archive.

Blessings to you and your colleagues in this important work, and thank you again for asking. We hope you’re listening to our ideas here. It gives me tremendous hope and excitement about our church and its musical gifts to the world.

Becca Clark
pastor, Troy Annual Conference
Trinity UMC, Montpelier & Grace UMC, Plainfield VT

That Old Time Hymnal; it’s good enough for…

The United Methodist world is abuzz with the news: production on the new United Methodist Hymnal, slated for the 2012 quadrennium, has been halted.

While my congregation rejoices that this means the copies of The Faith We Sing we just bought are not going to be obsolete right away, and I rejoice that people aren’t going to dump a gozillion Hymnals in recycling bins just yet, it’s a great opportunity for us to rethink what a hymnal can and should be in our context.

As usual, my friend Jeremy got me thinking about what such a hymnal might look like. But it was a Facebooker named Steve who wrote down what I was thinking and so much more. His vision for the new Hymnal is something I would like to see embraced by United Methodists at a grassroots level as well as by the publishing house and the General Church.

Join the conversation! What would you like to see in a new Hymnal?

[editorial note: wow! my fingers haven’t had their coffee yet; i caught a ton of typos, but I’m sure I missed some.]