Finding Jesus

find-jesus1Every week, I have a to-do list for the various aspects of my job (Worship Service, Visitation, Meetings & Administration and so on).Yes, I realize that’s very type A of me. Mostly I just like to be able to cross stuff off. Parts of the list are pre-written, and copied so that some recurring things (like picking hymns or setting the altar or writing a sermon) are on every list, and then there’s space for me to add the specific tasks for that week, people to visit, and meetings to go to.

Like I said, Type A. I know.

This week, the handwritten portion of my worship list looks like this:

  • Find Jesus
  • Divide texts for readers
  • Pick time for Sonrise service
  • Begin Holy Week liturgy
  • Get noisemakers

Yes, that’s right, at the top of my list is ‘Find Jesus.’

Now, I mean that in a liturgical sense, as in find a person to act out Jesus for the little dramatic thing we’re working on. But it seems to me that I might want to add that to the list of things that stay on the to-do list all the time. Right at the beginning of the week, first thing off the bat: find Jesus, and don’t plan worship till you do!

Wonder if I’d ever cross it off? I don’t think we’re ever *done* finding Jesus.

Split Personality

Sorry, gentle readers, about the black hole of post-Christmas, post-family-crisis time I slipped into. Thanks for tuning back in.

Christmas Eve services at my two churches were special, each in their own way. The sermon was the same, and a lot of the hymns were good old standby Christmas hymns, and each ended with candle-lighting and “silent night.” But the spirit of each service was unique and, in its way, perfect for them and for me.

At Trinity, the service was a celebratory affair with about 120 people. There was a lot of music, sing by a large choir and a few soloists. There was a children’s time, where I had all the kids (and all the congregation) make animal sounds to imitate the chaos into which Jesus was born (and I made my family be the camels). We read a litany of Las Posadas, making room for the Holy Family. There was a visual projection with text and modern pictures representing the Christmas story in some interesting ways. After “Silent Night,” we sang “Joy to the World,” and people chattered together down the stairs and out into the icy night, lit with luminaries.

At Grace, it was a different service. Not better; not worse. Different. It was a traditional service of Lessons and Carols, telling the story of God’s promised deliverance and the birth of Jesus. Readers stood where they were and read their passages, and nearly everyone had one to read, since there were about twelve people present. We sang a few verses of eight different hymns. At about quarter of midnight, we formed a small circle and lit our candles from the Christ Candle, and sang “Silent Night.” I gave a benediction, and people filed out of the anctuary silently, extinguishing their candles only after they crossed the threashold into the foyer. Several people stayed behind to strip the altar of the Christmas Eve stuff and reset it for Sunday. They too worked in silence, and only when the last person left the sanctuary was the Christ Candle finally, reverently, extinguished.

In the car on the way home, my husband (who had been to Grace for the first time that night) laughed and said, “This really is the perfect match for you. About 75% of the time, you are exuberant and justice-oriented and go-get’um, and about 25% of the time you are prayerful and reverent and contemplative.”

It’s true, and in that sense, these churches and I seem perfectly matched. Except that I think I need to challenge by exuberent congregation to be more contempletive and my reverent congregation to be more go-get’um. So maybe I have my personality inverted for what I need to do.

And each of us have those tension in us– we’re all a little Martha and a little Mary, a little service and a little contemplation. The question is, how to we nurture our lesser gifts, and build wholeness and balance in our spiritual lives? How do we do this in the lives of our churches?


Feedback wanted

Hi folks, when you have a few free minutes (this week? ha!), could you do me a favor and check out my ‘Virtual Worship‘ link on Trinity UMC’s website?

For the second week in a row, we had little or no heat in the sanctuary, and this week there was a severe weather warning, so we went home from church early. I wanted a way for people to feel like they’ve participated even if they couldn’t make it to church or had to leave early due to weather (or temperatures below 50!), but I also wanted it to be engaging, and I’m finding text to be a hard way to do that.

This was something I was planning to leave up all the time, only changing prayers every once in a while (the sermon will be updated because it’s a link here), so it’s relatively low maintenance.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

Murphy’s Law Sunday

Well, I posted my most recent sermon, Handful of Sparrows. Sermons are now in 64kb, which means longer download time for anyone on dialup, but a more standard podcast quality. Which of course means you can hear my mic feedback at a higher quality now. Yeah, sorry about that.

Some Sundays the world just seems not to want things to go well. Microphone problems and PowerPoint problems were in full force. I felt distracted and out of sorts, and still a bit mopey. Maybe it was the weather, because a tremendous thunderstorm erupted about a third of the way into the sermon.

I’m never sure. Should one interpret thunder claps as applause or dissent when one is preaching?

I’m bloody exhausted.Thankyou thankyou thankyou for Sabbath Mondays.

That Tingly Feeling- Troy AC blogpost 1

Troy Annual Conference was called to order last night at 7 p.m., but that was not where it started.

I arrived (later than I had hoped) at around 11 a.m. to help set up with the worship team and the communications team, and generally settle in and talk to my friends and colleagues. One of the things I love and will dearly miss about my little Conference when we merge with another (or others), is that I feel like I know so many people. I don’t mean that in a sort of small-town we-should-be-insular way, but I’m relatively new here (six years) and every time I turn around there’s someone I know, someone who wants to greet me, give me a hug, someone who will literally cross the street to say hello to me.

This is my church. I don’t get to be a member of a local church; I’m a (probationary) member of Troy Annual Conference, and this is my church home. For four days, I’m immersed in my church home.

As a last minute stand-in for a reader who didn’t show, I took the stage with the worship leaders last night (oh no! I’m in a knee-length skirt for an hour and a half in front of 600 people and I didn’t shave my legs!), and read a selection from Acts 2 while my mother-in-law interpreted in American Sign Language. I couldn’t see my other handiwork from the stage (the visual liturgy I’d put together– I really wanted to make sure the contrast, font, and size was working from the back of the room), but the service seemed to go very well. It was marred for Mom and I by a personal concern (about which I’m not going to talk just yet), which made it that much more poignant and meaningful in a lot of ways.

Later in the service, I was one of the people serving communion. Our station had a huge, twisting line, and even without looking at the name tags, I knew about half of the people in the line (including every DS except mine) by name. As each person came forward and I tore a lagre piece from the loaf, held it up, looked in their eyes and called them by name, I said, the bread of life, broken for you, and felt more moved with each person. By the end of the line, goosebumps had broken out on my arms, and I shivered as I placed the last piece of the bread in cupped hands. This is what ordination means to me: to serve my collegues (lay and clergy) as one of them, to bless and break and share the body until we all tingle with gooseflesh.

After the service, we went out to a bar, a tradition here at Troy, and usually my favorite part of the Conference– not because of the booze, sillies– because we take a place over, kick back, and laugh and dream and fellowship until they throw us out. I connected with some old friends and told stories with some new friends, and left the bar at midnight, still deeply engrossed in a conversation with a good friend, a District Superintendent and a man whom I deeply respect about the future of the church and “my generation”‘s hesitancy to enter ministry or indeed join churches.

As I reflected on it and thought, ah, my favorite part of Conference, a little memory of goosebumps flitted across the bare skin of my arm and I remembered that for me, for today, my highlight was not the fun and the conversation as it so often is. Today I worshipped in ways I so rarely get to do. Today I placed the Bread of Life in the hands of sisters and brothers and knew that God’s presence breathed between us.

Today, I was with my church.

Woking Vacation

This weekend, I got out of town and back to my roots in Vermont, as I gathered with my extended family to scrape, power-wash, stain, and trim my mom’s house (and garage!).

My family normally gathers for Memorial Day weekend, which used to be the weekend of the dance recital for my sister and I. we have long since stopped having dance recitals, but the cousins and aunts and uncles still come out of the city (mostly New York Metro area) to spend the weekend in Vermont. Past years we have gone on hikes or to the movies, but this year we painted.

My increidibly talented younger sister was our official photographer for the weekend (and these shots are courtesy of her), and was also able to lend a hand in her soon-to-be professional area of expertise. Ru is halfway through her medical studies to become a doctor of chiropractic, and about a dozen people painting a house are in great need of adjustments and massages. It was wonderful to have her be able to give the gift of her particular skill, and I didn’t even really have to be jealous.

Sure, as I’ve said before, halfway through *my* master’s degree, I could write my own prayers and she can relieve people of long-held physical pain, but everyone’s gift is special. Plus, I’m really good at detail work like painting trim.

But it seems there was another gift I was to offer.

My extended family, in which we now include both my husband and my brother in law, runs the religious spectrum from devout Catholic to former Catholic, from former would-be-nun to spiritual agnostic, to atheist, with some Lutherans and a wacky United Methodist pastor thrown in the middle. Church Sunday morning is always a bit of a challenge, as people pick their sides (there’s a Catholic carpool and a Methodist one), children waffle about whether or not to attend their parents’ choice of church or assert their independent religious views, and we all try to meet up for brunch. 

Add to that particular drama the fact that I had specifically left my own church for the weekend so I wouldn’t have to subject myself to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the minor detail that a bunch of people didn’t want to give up the cool morning hours of painting to rush into town for church.

So I was asked to hold church at the house. And I did.

After a campfire-side consultation with my youngest cousin, I selected a passage from John 14 as my text, because it contains one of my least favorite passages from the gospels: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to God but by me.” I shared some of my struggles with John 14:6 and the way it seems to be so condemning of other faiths or paths. I also shared some context for the statement (some of which I gleaned from Borg, and discuss toward the end of an earlier post), which, read against the absolute claim of the first century Temple priests to be the One Way to God, may in fact be a liberating message: I am the way, says Christ, not those priests and their expensive, exclusive rituals. You don’t need their rites and their permission to approach God. You just need me.

I then invited my family to join in a favorite ritual of mine, the Organic Altar. This is something we did a lot in the women’s center in seminary at our retreats and things, but I didn’t name it the Organic Altar until my third year when I was in charge of a huge worship service for a conference and nothing went according to plan and nothing got done when it was supposed to, so we started calling it organic, as in still living, as in not at all planned ahead of time. Not surprisingly, those organic moments are when the Spirit seems to break through most powerfully.

Anyway, for the Organic Altar, each person is invited to place an object of significance on the altar. It might be a piece of jewelry or a picture or something they carry with them; it might be something they find in the space around them (in this case we were outside), but it has to be something that communicates God or Sacred or Importance to them. Then, of course, we share what these objects represent for us, how they are part of finding and living the Way.

We closed with a meal of remembrance, because I couldn’t actually call it communion, and then we sang the first verse of Amazing Grace, because we all knew it.

So I did lead worship on Sunday, and I did give of my particular gift. I was proud and blessed at the same time.

Birthdays all Around

The church and I shared a birthday this Sunday, and what a celebration it was. The sermon, “Variety Show” is uploaded in my sermon archive.

I struggled quite a bit with this service, because I really like to make Pentecost special. Unlike Christmas and Easter, there are no traditions, no expectations, and in many ways no limitations. It’s just me and my congregation and one of the best stories in the Bible. Honestly, there’s so much to preach about and talk about and reflect on in Acts 2. This year I was particularly struck by the diversity of the church, and the thought that the strength of our body is in that variety, that uniqueness. Sure it’s a real pain in the butt sometimes to have to acknowledge that the person spouting what sounds to me like the most unChristian, unMethodist, unhelpful theological or social perspective is a brother or sister in good faith, but it’s the truth (most times– I reserve the right to say that some people are, as one congregant offered mid-illustration, ‘crazies’). It’s the reason that we can be a global church, a worldwide body, relevant in many places to many people. The broadness of our reach is only limited by the broadness of our inclusivity. What that means for a denomination that consistently refuses to acknowledge that we do in fact disagree and this year has decided (by a decisive and rousing 12 vote margin out of a thousand delegates) that our inclusivity can be limited at the pastor’s discretion, remains to be seen. But the fact remains, in my opinion, that we are only relevant when we are relevant everywhere, able to trust that the Gospel of inclusivity and grace and transformation is conveyed in every language and every worship style (and every theological expression?).

Obviously, I’m following the old mandate of never preaching a sermon you don’t yourself need to hear.

And for a gimmick an experiential element of the worship service, we made a mosaic, having people come up and glue a unique, rough-edged, broken, somewhat dangerous piece of glass to a heart-shaped piece of plaster (which reminds me I have some grouting to do– didn’t know pastors were also, er, grouters, did you?). Hey, I thought it was fun, and beat my other idea, which was making a soup from many ingredients. Fun, but it would have required open flame in the sanctuary, and that’s taking the Pentecost theme a little too far even for me.

Oh yeah.

They came back!

And we had another visitor who is ‘looking for a church.’

And we had a vocal soloist who did a really good job. And a pretty decent crowd. And a really decent collection. And a good gathering after church for coffee hour.

And my Earth Day themed sermon, “To a Known God” (see left hand sidebar in my new, improved, sermon archive) was pretty good.

In husband’s words, “To call that one of your best services, ever, might be an understatement.” And he’s a pretty tough critic.

Oh, and one more thing. On a hunch, I videotaped the whole thing, just in case I wanted to send this one to the Board of Ordained Ministry. Good hunch.

A Very Happy Easter

Despite my complaints at the time, I actually do think I like Easter better than Christmas. At least, I definitely liked this year’s Easter better than the most recent Christmas.

You will, of course, remember that Christmas 2007 was less than stellar. You may also remember that I have been thinking about Easter and ways to make it more friendly to those non- and semi-believers who attend and more interesting to the whole crowd.

Dare I say, it worked.

First, Palm Sunday was great; although my sermon wasn’t recorded, I had several people tell me it was one of my best, so you’ll have to take the word of my congregants on that one. I based it largely on Crossan and Borg’s chapter on Palm Sunday in The Last Week, and described the clash of two parades and two worldviews: Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem as the embodiment of Roman power and authority, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the embodiment of God’s power– a power that is not about keeping others down, but about lifting others up.

Maundy Thursday was very similar to last year, with five stations (this time the handwashing station was in the foyer, and I washed everyone’s hands. next time, I’d let them wash each other, but still keep it in the foyer): Handwashing, Communion, Confession, “Crowd” Litany, and Vigil at the Cross. It worked very well, despite a last-minute change in the “Were You There?” soloist, as my usual came down with a horrid cold and sounded like a frog who had swallowed a dying cat. I had two others offer to stand in, so no shortage of singers.

Friday, we watched “Godspell” on the big screen with a new subwoofer that a congregant donated. Boy did the bass make a difference! We had only a few, but it was fun. As I threatened, I broke into song. Turn back, O man!

So Easter Sunday, my altar was set up to look like a garden path I hope, and there was no sermon. Rather the Word was presented in a series of five monologues which I had written.

First was Peter– played by a man with lots of acting experience, he set the mood and got people’s attention. Peter was overjoyed that his best friend was alive, but deeply worried that Joshua (that’s Jesus for you Greek-speakers) would be less than happy to see him.

Later in the service we heard from a centurion, played by a retired Navy man recently returned from Afghanistan. He carried the part well, and add libbed a bit, but was pretty convincing as a soldier doing his job, but beginning to question the justice of his people. Had he picked the wrong side? Was it too late to change his mind?

An older, deeply spiritual woman played Jesus’ mother, and I don’t know if she was acting or terrified of the size of the audience (we had great turnout!), but she was shaking from head to toe and her voice cracked with emotion as she described watching her son suffer and die. She was glad he was alive, but she was paralyzed by the fear of losing him again.

Thomas made an appearance as a teenage boy, skeptical and feeling left out. He didn’t want to hear about Joshua being alive– he wanted to see him too.

The choir did an anthem. Well. I’d heard them practice, and they never got it quite right, even to my untrained ear. Yes, a musical layperson can tell when you’re not coming in on the same beat. This time, and only this time, they nailed it. So to speak.

Then yours truly wrapped it up with a long monologue as Mary Magdalene: broken and diseased, she was loved into being her full self, told she was special to God without rituals or temples or high priests. She witnessed how this got her dear friend into trouble, and if I say so myself, moved the crowd to tears with her description of his death, and her joy at finding him again. She invited the crowd to see this news as good for all of them, whether they were doubters or skeptics or late to the party, or made some mistakes or were afraid to love and be hurt again.

An hour and a half, and not a mumble (except from my husband), not a distraction, not a complaint. We’ll take it.

Good News, or t’Hell With Ya

Ever since my disappointing Christmas Eve service, I’ve been thinking about the C&E (exclusively Christmas and Easter attendees) crowd and what it might mean to tailor a service in a way that reaches them. What is the ministry of the church in the context of these services? The first, perfectly valid question is whether or not such a thing is even desirable; it’s possible to structure my Christmas and Easter services in a way that is meaningful for my congregation and myself, hold a unique, beautiful, inspiring service that rallies the base if you will, and go about my business. If visitors happen to come, they would see the church as we really are– no more, no less– and they can love it or hate it, but even if they love it, we won’t see them for another 51 weeks, and even if they hate it, we won’t miss their $2 in next year’s Christmas special offering. So screw ’em. Take it or leave it, but this is the Christmas Eve service I designed, and you chose to come, and next time you can either help plan the service or not complain. Oh, and if you could refrain from talking during the service, that’d be good.

Hey, it’s tempting. Especially given the garbage I dealt with this past Christmas.

But the other way to look at it is that we have a unique opportunity once or twice a year. We have a room full of people, most of whom won’t darken our doors again for another 3-9 months (depending on if it’s Christmas or Easter next!), who might be looking for a little joy or hope or invitation or message or welcome for whatever reason. Sure they might just be looking to put a checkmark in their list of things to do to make sure grandma’s happy, but maybe they’re looking for a bit more than that. Maybe they want to know about this love stuff those whackjob christians are always blathering about, and this is our one chance to get a portion of the message across. In short, the second way to view the C&E crowd is that we have a small opportunity for good old fashioned evangelism– that’s in the biblical sense of the word: telling the good news.

What is the good news? Well, at Christmas we do a pretty good job of telling it. God loves the world. The whole world. God is present in the world for the whole world. Whether you’re a member of the holy family and in on the secret, or a stinky poor shepherd or a foreign heathen astronomer or an alleluia-singing angel, the good news is here for you. Tidings of great joy for all human kind. Unto you, all of you, God is born. The message comes through for many people.

But the good news of Easter is different. In Christ, the power of death is broken– darkness and death are not the end, not the ultimate, not the final authority. Life wins! For those who believe, the resurrection of Christ means hope and joy eternal!

Did you catch that? For those who believe. The Easter message comes across to some non-churchy types as an inherently insular one. A Christian one. The one that separates the believers from the heathens. The one that celebrates the best news we’ve ever heard, while simultaneously thumbing our noses at– or worse, ignoring– the ones who are the least bit unsure whether or not they believe in hocus pocus resurrection tales. On a day when easily three quarters of the church falls into the category of those who are at least the least bit unsure.

I talked to some colleagues about it. Some of them agreed and said that Easter *was* an insular holiday and there was not much we could do about it. But other colleagues– and my own worship team, bless them– began brainstorming with me. How could we explain the Easter joy in a more inviting, inclusive way? How could we make it clearer that, as at Christmas, God’s love is universal, the blessing unqualified, the joy for all people? We talked about the people around whom the Easter story centers: Peter, who had turned his back on Jesus, afraid of what the resurrection might mean; the women at the tomb, confused and afraid and running away; the disciples, huddled together in fear, unsure of what to believe. Just as there are shepherds and magi at the manger, there are fear-filled women and doubting Thomases at the tomb (figuratively speaking on the latter, of course, as there was only one Thomas and he wasn’t at the tomb, ergo the doubting).

I’ve started working on a series of short monologues for the Easter service, attempting to tell the story of what’s happened through the eyes of the doubters, the fearful, the ones unsure of what has happened and what it means. My hope is that this will create a service that invites the doubters and fearful and unsure ones in the congregation to feel that this is their good news too. You may not know whether or not to believe it, or whether or not it’s good news, or whether or not it means anything in your life, but you’re not alone in that feeling. Plus, it’s a really fun creative outlet. Who knows, maybe I can publish it as a worship resource someday. I’m sure there are 8 million variations on this theme out there already, but I haven’t found ones I like that invites doubters to be welcomed and affirmed as they are, rather than on the condition of conversion. Which is actually what I think Easter is about. That separation from God and one another– call it sin, call it death, call it fear or anger or estrangement or darkness– that rift is healed for all of us, between all of us. It’s arrogance to assume that we can put qualifiers on so transcendent an action.

I know, I know, my little liberal heart runneth over.