{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Lost at Easter

I debate whether or not it is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt an Easter blog post. I wrote one last year. But for some reason this year isn’t supplying much inspiration. I write this on the evening before Easter and I think, in more ways than one, that maybe lack of inspiration is the tip of the iceberg of what the disciples felt. Where is the inspiration? Where’s the excitement? Tomorrow’s a big day, you know.

As pastors and leaders everywhere have prepared for Easter for days now. Sermons have long been written (or maybe are being written as we speak) and we now wait. There’s no real surprise left. The only thing that separates us from the inevitable is time now. Easter will be here soon and many of us will run the gauntlet of multiple services at God-awful early times. We’ll do our best to look our best and pray that our families make it to church in one piece. We’ll hope for that Easter Sunday bump in attendance and we’ll look forward to the joyous music we’ll share together. So where’s the surprise that is Easter?

As we’ll hear Matthew tells us tomorrow, Easter can come with an earthquake. Maybe the reason this day doesn’t carry more of an impact for folks is that we leaders have talked it out well before the due time. We’ve dissected the day down to its simplest components and left them out on our examination table waiting for some sort of life to present itself. However, no matter how hard we try during Holy Week, inevitably what promises to be an explosion turns in to little more than a fizzle. Why?

Maybe one reason is because we try so hard to “know” exactly what happens, and explain it in its simplest terms, that we don’t give ourselves a fighting chance to get lost in the mystery of it all. We’ll do the song-and-dance of Easter and hope that a few of the visitors present will come back the next week. We may try to keep things simple in order to let the story carry the day. However, I’m afraid that simplifying the story of God’s mysterious love, grace, and power has ever done it justice.

Honestly, I’m not quite sure where to end this post anymore than I know where I misplaced my Easter inspiration. I suppose on this contemplative Holy Saturday we wait for God knows what; knowing that if God knows, we don’t have to. But be careful, sometimes our greatest attempts at “finding” the Easter story in order to present it can lead to our getting lost more than we realize. And allowing ourselves to get lost in the wonder of what might (it’s still Saturday, remember) happen can lead to our being found by a truly earth-shaking reality.

40 Days That May Have Changed My Life

I’ve always felt like my prayer life was lacking. Maybe you’ve never felt this way. But I can’t help it. Every time I would go to pray, my mind would wander. If I prayed at night I would often fall asleep. I hear people talk about how deep their prayer life is. They tell me how they can just spend so much time in prayer, they can get lost in it. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to even find an opening line to say. So during the season of Lent this year I have decided to do something about it. Rather than sacrificing something out of observance, I decided I would add daily prayer to my life in the hopes to make it a new discipline.

I’ve always been taught that prayer is some sort of spontaneous conversation between you and God that wells up within you and just gushes forth in reverent, and yet moving fashion. That’s a great image unless your prayer life is more like a yard hose someone stands on that can’t ever seem to get enough pressure to water the grass, much less burst forth like a river whose dam was broken.

I decided for Lent that I would pray with help. The Book of Common Prayer offers Daily Offices of prayer one can observe throughout the day. In these offices, you can pray Scripture, including Psalms and Gospel lessons, and you have petitions, laments, and collects that guide your prayer. For those not familiar with the daily offices, they include Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Vesper Prayer (evening), and Compline (night) Prayer.

I found a few books that would help give me some variety in prayers as well as my new favorite way to pray: via Twitter. Virtual Abbey offers multiple opportunities for daily prayer via Twitter. You can pray live as they post or you can come back later and read through their postings for your prayer.

A strange thing has happened this Lenten Season as I’ve carried out this practice, missing some days or even doubling up on others. Prayer is no longer a means to an end–praying for reward; to get out of bad places; to feel more righteous. No. Something much more profoundly subtle has taken place. My life has quietly become oriented around prayer. On the days I forget, and that happens from time to time, I notice. And on days when I do observe an office (or even have multiple observances in a single day) nothing more happens than knowing that I’ve prayed; that I’ve had a short experience in a world that the pace of my everyday life can make me miss.

And another thing. I’ve become much more comfortable with mystery. Praying everyday and participating in a framed practice that is much more ancient than anything I know has actually helped me cope with (and dare I say, enjoy) the mystery of life. Becoming comfortable with not being in total control of my life has been one of the most liberatingly transformative experiences of my life. But that’s a post for another day.

Until then, as faithful person (or community) more ancient than I has said:

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Finale?)

Let me begin by thanking everyone who has engaged me in this soapbox discussion via Twitter, Facebook, and this site. Good points are usually never put forth and articulated by a lone thinker. It takes a community to find good ideas and carve them into a shape that best fits a particular context in a particular time and space.

To recap, we have discussed the lack of a common Eucharistic Theology in the modern Methodist Church. And we’ve also discussed a basic theology of worship and how we misinterpret this as an issue of style.

Connecting the Threads
For a moment, let me attempt to address a question I raised in a previous post (and may have not been entirely clear in answering): What does it mean to worship? Plain and simple, we miss the true meaning of worship any time worship is seen as a means to an end. When worship is constructed as a means to an experience, or maybe worse, a evangelistic means to grow our churches, we have missed the mark. So how can we define worship correctly?

Definitions of Worship
Pope Pius X speaks of worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity.” Irenaeus would add that the “glory of God is humanity fully alive.” This does not mean alive for a momentary “worship high” nor does it mean being alive in the so-called traditions of worshipping “like we’ve always done it.” It means that through regular corporate worship, we are transformed by affirming our identity as the Body of Christ. Slowly but surely our identities are changed through the regular practice of worship. Worship is not about creating experiences for participants, but rather about creating space where divine experiences can happen as acts of grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, style takes a back seat to substance and regular practice.

Why Weekly Eucharist?
If the Eucharist is the visible symbol of the incarnation, and the means by which we gather together to share in the grace given through such a mystery, it is only logical to practice the sacrament as often as we can. Maybe logical is a bad word. How about faithful? Practicing the Eucharist is not necessarily the measurement of our faithful worship, but it is an identity marker by which our worship is understood to most visibly and faithfully tell the story of the gospel and share in the grace of God poured out on all of humanity (note: this is one reason why an “open table” is such a powerful testimony to the inclusivity of the gospel).

Final Thoughts?
I’ve wondered lately whether it is better to push for a decision from “on high” that all Methodist congregations should practice the Eucharist every week on the Lord’s Day, or whether we should approach the issue on a congregation-by-congregation basis. I’m still not sure I have a clear answer to that one. I do know that wherever I serve, I will lovingly and firmly push that we creatively think of how to incorporate this practice on at least a weekly basis in various forms of worship. And I know more people like me who are doing this very thing in their contexts as well. At least forums like this makes sure the issue remains a conversation topic. So I guess that’s a start. I guess slowly but surely we’re inching closer to making a reality those wonderful words declaring that we, by the grace of God, “might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

An Exercise in Holy Conferencing

If you are a United Methodist, you might be aware that on April 6 there was a Leadership Summit held to attempt to address the major issues facing the United Methodist Church. The Summit was carried live on the web which allowed anyone to watch live as the conference took place. Many Annual Conferences (including mine) held large meetings where leaders gathered to watch together and discuss the major questions lifted up in the course of the event. The second hour alone was devoted to giving time for remote meetings to discuss questions in their respective room.

While many gathered among leaders on the district or annual conference level around the country, I watched in the privacy of my office at the church. But, I did take part in something very special–maybe even more so than a larger, more formal meeting around this Summit.

For those not familiar with Twitter, this is called a hashtag. If you search hashtags on Twitter you can find trending topics of discussion. Thanks to the hard work of Rev. Jeremy Smith you can take a look at the entire transcript of tweets around this topic. In the spirit of dashboards and scorecards (see major discussion points of the Summit) that’s 32 pages of tweets around this topic! There were so many tweets that this became one of the major trending topics on all of the Twitter for awhile yesterday.

The Rest of the Story…
So what does this mean? Well it means a few things. First, this means that when we attempt to address pressing issues facing the church, we need to take in to consideration that the Internet and Social Networking sites have allowed more people to be a part of the discussion. If more people are a part of the larger discussion, then more perspectives are offered and more time will be needed to truly hear the voices of everyone around the table.

Change on the Horizon?
This could be good or bad for our denominational structure. Again I reference the great work of Jeremy Smith. Have a look at this blog post that includes a word cloud collected from the various tweets. It’s a simple concept, the larger the word, the more often it was used. The smaller the word, the less often it was used. It’s a great visual display of reactions from the Summit. Notice the largest words here? I’ll let you make your own interpretations over the value of the larger words vs. the smaller words. All of this is to say reactions tell a lot of what was heard and also unheard. If technical words (words like “vital”, “structure”, “change”, or “leadership”) are more prevalent than adaptive words (“conversation”, “story”, or “vision”) then it says a lot as to how these issues are being approached. If the larger Twitter conversation does anything, it shows that top-down, technical solutions won’t easily solve adaptive problems.

Wesleyanism at its Best
One theme came to mind yesterday as I sat at my computer, one screen with the conference streaming live and another devoted to the Twitter discussion: Holy Conferencing. I saw connectionalism at its very best when conferencing sprung forth organically among United Methodists from all over the country. We probably didn’t hear much more than we already know. We probably didn’t learn very much at all. But if our leaders want evidence that there’s hope and life in the United Methodist Church, the website is: Twitter and be sure to search #umclead when you’re there. Maybe Wesleyan values such as connectionalism and conferencing aren’t dying anymore than the United Methodist Church is. Maybe it’s all simply changing into something different, new and even more faithful. I, for one, think Mr. Wesley would have been proud had he been on Twitter yesterday.

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Part 2)

What is worship? I know that sounds like an elementary sort of question. But really, what is worship? Why do we organize once a week, at an odd hour of the day, and sing strange songs and say funny words? I ask because I wonder sometimes if whether we really think about teaching a theology of worship in our local congregations.

Thanks to Christendom (and in particular, my context in the southeastern United States) attending worship is a bit of a cultural norm. The irony is that we no longer live in a world where Christianity and the church sits at the center of cultural life. Blue laws are a thing of the past and even my state of Georgia is beginning to ease into the idea of selling alcohol on Sundays. These aren’t necessarily bad, they only point to a larger reality that Sunday is no longer observed by the wider community as a special day set apart during the week for Christian worship.

All of this raises the question, in a world where Christian worship is no longer accepted as the sole cultural norm, what does it mean to worship?

This is why worship as experience has been the driving force behind our theologies of worship for some time now. Seeker Services, Praise Services, Small Group Retreat Services, all of these have an implicit goal of generating an experience between the worshipper and the divine. This trend lays at the heart of the worship style debate that has dominated many local faith communities for 25 years or more.

“We need to worship like we’ve always worshipped, it’s been meaningful for us all this time.”

“If you want new people to come, you need to worship in a different way; one that will be attractive to someone outside of our circle.”

These are common responses in the debate of “traditional” vs. “contemporary” styles of worship. I intentionally put quotes around both terms because they are, by and large, misused by our local congregations.

Traditional worship tends to reflect only recent tradition. An aesthetic worship experience with fancy words and a push toward beauty and art as a focal point of worship is not very traditional at all. This doesn’t take away any of its beauty or grandeur, we just have to recognize that this style is rooted in much more recent tradition that we sometimes realize. It carried some ancient elements but also intrinsic goals of not only allowing the attendee to worship, but also to teach through beauty and art.

On the other hand, contemporary worship covers a wide spectrum of style and tools for worship. The average person in a local congregation may have their thoughts immediately go to screens, projectors, and electric guitars when they think of contemporary worship. But the truth is, the vast majority of so-called contemporary worship reflects a style that is now going on 25 years old. So we have to ask ourselves, how long before something can no longer call itself “contemporary.” Keep in mind, the misuse of a lable does not take away from the power and stirring nature of a service geared specifically toward heartfelt praise and adoration.

The problem with the discussion of style is not which style is better than the other. The problem is in the discussion itself as a whole. Why is style the driving force behind meaning in worship? Why is it that we see it fit to use worship as an evangelistic tool for our local church? Why is the question always posed in an either/or argument?

[My guess it is much of this is symptomatic of a generational divide in our churches and church leadership, but that’s a post for another day]

Worship is about participation in a larger reality; one that remains a mystery and yet where the very transformative power of this reality is found in its mystery. It is an exercise of praise, adoration, lament, proclamation, and fellowship. Faithful worship does not seek to create experiences with God. Instead it’s about creating space where experiences can occur. It may sound like a simple manner of semantics, but please note the emphasis in the two statements: one puts humans and human desire at the center and the other puts the worship of God at the center; the by-product of which can create space where the Holy Spirit can meet us by the surprising grace of God.

Issues of style become secondary to the worship of God. And the worship of God quickly becomes a statement not of our taste or preferences, but a statement of who are and who we long to be.

What does worship mean for you? And how does practicing Holy Commuinion every week fit into this framework?

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