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

The Heart of Worship, The Heart of Discipleship

"Celebration" by John August Swanson

“Celebration” by John August Swanson

It’s 1:30pm on Sunday afternoon. I’ve finished my lunch and settled in for another routine Sunday afternoon filled with reading and writing and baseball whenever I’m not chasing my 16-month old daughter around the house. By all accounts it’s a typical Sunday afternoon except for the fact that this particular afternoon didn’t follow a typical Sunday morning worship service. You see, I felt the Spirit of God this morning in a way I’ve haven’t experienced for some time. And it all came about because of a simple change in rhythm.

This month at Mulberry we’re changing the rhythms of worship a bit. We’ve asked for people to submit their favorite hymns – preferably ones they haven’t heard in worship in a while. We received a good many submissions so we’ve decided to tweak our order of worship a bit to include more singing each Sunday during the month of July.

Maybe the change of rhythm was at fault, but I found myself noticing things in worship I’ve never noticed.

As we listened to a wonderful soloist, I noticed a mother and her 8-year old son on the 4th pew. The son had his head settled in his mother’s lap for the music. The mother sat and gently stroked the hair on the back of his neck. And for a moment, while everyone around her was focused on what was happening in front of them, she seemed to be taken to a special place. I watched as she stared at the back of her son’s neck gently stroking his hair relishing in a moment where her baby who was too big to be called a baby anymore found quiet rest in her arms. He soon will be much too big for these moments and yet, by God’s grace, they found this moment in the place and space where we worship the eternal God. And I got to peak into this moment where the in-breaking of God’s grace was quietly evident for this family.

My senses must have been heightened after that because I couldn’t help but see grace in other moments during the worship service – in the face of a squirming child; in the quiet dedication of couples who had been married much longer than I’ve been alive who innately know how to worship together; in the faces of families facing loss and heartache and stress and yet know that they need to be in worship even if they can’t fully explain it. Grace, present and palpable all around us.

Holy Communion was especially grace-filled. I found myself noticing peoples’ hands as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.

“This is the body of Christ broken for you…”

Hands of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were young and delicate. Some trembled as they approached and were visibly worn because years of love and work and dedication have a way of leaving its proof on our hands.

“This is the blood of Christ shed for you…”

I saw children bounce up the stairs to our chancel area to join their families around the altar for prayer. I saw young couples at the very genesis of adulthood kneeling together in prayer. I noticed one woman slowly make her way up the stairs with the aid of her cane. Aches and pain and a lack of mobility would not dare keep her from the altar of prayer.

We fit some more hymn requests into the communion time. Soon I heard the words of one of my all-time favorite hymns begin to add even more depth to the tapestry of this scene of grace. 

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!…”

“This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for your sins and the sins of the world…”

I saw faces in the communion line light up as the congregation sang. Everyone began to sing that hymn particularly loud. It was as if we all knew that through this sacrament – this simple bread and grape juice – we were, in fact, sharing in a foretaste of God’s eternal glory.

The sacrament ended and we closed the Table. Timing worked out perfectly to where we had one more verse to sing together before we could proceed.

“Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior and happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above. Filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

By the time we finished no one needed to say a word. We knew this worship service was delightfully surprising. Together we gave thanks for the holy meal and asked God to send us out into the world in the service of others. You could almost hear in the collective recitation of the prayer that this particular sending forth carried with it a certain hope and enthusiasm.

You know, we spend a great deal of time worrying and trying to brainstorm new ways to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We even run the risk of programming and gimmicking ourselves to death. Today I was reminded that our most basic (and primary) act as disciples is to faithfully offer ourselves in worship to the God who alone is worthy to be praised. So I challenge you to consider shifting your rhythms of worship and look around and listen. God is there, active and present, calling us all to be a people of worship. We are called to gather in praise. We hear God’s Word. We share in the holy meal together. And we are sent forth into the world to offer ourselves in service to all of God’s children. Sounds to me like the very heart of worship is also at the heart of discipleship.

Flannery O’Connor and Grace

200px-FlanneryO_Connor_normalI’m just beginning a church-wide Sunday School series on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor. It’s a joy to be co-teaching with Dr. Gordon Johnston, Professor of English at Mercer University. This blog post is a column that will appear in The Macon Telegraph this coming Saturday in their From the Pulpit column in the Religion section.

Flannery O’Connor and Grace

This summer at Mulberry we’re doing a four-week class on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor as part of our Sunday School hour. It’s a wonderful opportunity to gather a diverse group of people together in a setting different from their normal classrooms to learn and share about the extraordinary power of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

If you’re from Middle Georgia, then you’re probably well aware of the fame of Flannery O’Connor even if you’re not that familiar with her writing. Her family farm, Andalusia, in the Milledgeville area is open to the public. And she has long been viewed as one of the most prolific Southern writers of all-time and one of the great gifts Middle Georgia has given to the world of art.

But the literary world is not the only place where the fruits of her writing have been enjoyed.

Flannery O’Connor has made a tremendous impact on the theological world as well. Perhaps no pastor, church leader, or theological thinker has ever come as close to defining the grace of God in such raw and passionate terms. Where most of us would hem and haw and talk about grace in vague or overly sentimental ways, Flannery O’Connor knew how to write about the grace of God in such a way that you could feel it – like a punch in the stomach that somehow wakes you up to a life you never knew you could live.

We can go no further than a couple of her great quotes:

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.”

“Grace changes us and change is painful.”

You see, Flannery O’Connor had a gift that she shared with anyone who would dare call themselves a Christian – the gift of honesty. She knew the temptation to reduce the grace of God to overly saccharine and shallow terms; the sort of theology you might find in a Hallmark movie. While that sort of thing is heart-warming, it’s not nearly deep or strong enough to stand up to the forces of evil, hurt, sorrow, and prejudice we know in our own lives. She knew the only rebuttal for forces that strong is a force equally as strong and sometimes violent – God’s grace. She was also honest enough to admit that God’s grace is so amazing and powerful it could only come from God. You can’t manufacture that sort of thing yourself through money, prestige, or a strong work ethic.

Flannery O’Connor is a treasure for preacher and lay person alike because she calls us all to a greater honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. Her stories are often harsh and grotesque because they are stories about, well, us. But more importantly, her stories are about a God who will stop at nothing to sift through our prejudices and hypocrisies in order to grab us by the shoulders and shake us to our core. All the while shouting and screaming, “You are my child! And damnit, I love you!”

Real Connectionalism: Connected Through Common Mission

photo courtesy of Meredyth Earnest, Bainbridge First UMC

Chapter 1: What the heck do we mean when we say “Connectionalism”?

Connection: The principle, basic to The United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. (found in glossary of terms on umc.org)

As everyone across the United Methodist connection wraps up another season of Annual Conference gatherings, I thought it only appropriate to write a couple of pieces about the meaning of connectionalism as we face the challenges of trying to be a 21st Century denomination. These posts will address some of the challenges of connectionalism as well as critique some of the current ways the term is defined through our shared ministry.

I contend that if we are to truly live into what it means to be a vital church, connected to each other and to the world in the 21st Century, then we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be connectional beyond dollars and structure. It’s high time that “connectional” become a verb that describes the way(s) we engage in ministry at all levels.

Chapter 2: Stop Hunger Now Project, South GA Annual Conference

This year our annual conference gathering focused on the theme of justice. In between the annual reports, budget proposals, and debate over whether or not to cut districts from our annual conference, we were invited to participate in a mission project sponsored by the organization, Stop Hunger Now. Below is an excerpt from their “About Us” page on their website describing the nature of the event we participated in during annual conference.

Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that has been fulfilling its commitment to end hunger for more than 15 years. Since 1998, the organization has coordinated the distribution of food and other lifesaving aid to children and families in countries all over the world.

Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.

The packaging operation is mobile enough to go wherever volunteers are located, and can be adapted to accommodate as few as 25 and as many as 500 volunteers at a time. One SHN packaging event can result in the packaging of more than 1,000,000 meals. The use of volunteers for product packaging has resulted in an extremely cost-effective operation while, at the same time, increasing awareness of global hunger and food insecurity issues across the world.

So how does this foster connectionalism, you ask?

I had the duty of weighing meal packets that contained rice, grains, and the essential vitamins and minerals for the meals we were sending off. The packets had to be in a certain weight range and once they were packed by volunteers, they had to be weighed and adjusted if need be in order to move to the sealing and packaging stage of the process. During this process I had the opportunity to work next to Ken and Gloria.

Ken is a fellow clergy person. In fact, he’s moving to the district where I serve this year. I had not met Ken before this service project even though we both serve as clergy in South Georgia. But serving next to him on this assembly line gave me the chance to have a great conversation with him as our hands were busy doing work neither of us were used to doing.

On my left was Gloria. She is a lay person from a small, two-point charge in an area of South Georgia I doubt I could find even if I had a map. Gloria was a delightful woman with a contagious laugh which I got to enjoy as we fumbled bags of rice together. I realized how annual conference tends to be a setting where the clergy/laity divide is accented. Clergy see friends they haven’t seen in a year and often don’t get the chance to engage laity in-between sessions. But this wasn’t the case with Gloria. Through the power of mission, she and I shared a space together we otherwise would not have shared. And it was delightful!

Chapter 3: When connectionalism should mean more

I worry sometimes that we have defined connectionalism too narrowly. Surely it should mean more than dollars and internal structure. A couple of examples to illustrate my point.

We voted this year to reduce the number of districts in South Georgia beginning in June 2014. One of the arguments against this change was that churches would feel less connected when a district superintendent with a larger territory to cover visited less often. And so I wonder: Do we really depend on district superintendents to fulfill what it means to be connected?

Another example we hear is that we need to be more connectional through giving apportionments at the district and annual conference level. This call for giving is only heightened in a day and age where financial resources are harder to come by. And let me say this is a very important expression of what it means to be connectional. But should it be the primary expression of connectionalism? I know we’re Americans and we can’t help but buy into the rationale that all of our problems can be solved with our pocketbooks. So while connectional giving is vitally important, we also have to be honest about the fact that the vast majority of apportionment giving goes to support our own structure, while a much smaller portion goes toward outside mission. Do we really want to argue that connectionalism means first supporting ourselves?

I am a supporter of apportionment-giving. I believe in the importance of a district superintendent. But I also believe “connectionalism” should be more than structure and dollars. It should also mean relationship and working together at even the local level instead of seeing each other as competition. If we have any hopes of being a connectional denomination in the 21st Century, then we have to learn how to work together — clergy and laity, local churches with other local churches — and not depend so much on a top-heavy structure. We need to foster more collaboration amongst ourselves and not simply expect a structure to do the work of connection for us. [Spoiler Alert: More on this in an upcoming post…]

]That’s what I took away from annual conference. And to think, all it took was an hour or so of joining with others to worry about something other than ourselves.

A Case for Congregational Singing

John August Swanson "Festival of Lights" image courtesy of http://www.eyekons.com/john_swanson_serigraphs/john_swanson_festival_of_lights_s

John August Swanson
“Festival of Lights”
(image courtesy of http://www.eyekons.com)

Before we were known for our massive processes for doing ministry; before our bureaucracy grew to a size rivaling only The United States government; and before our Book of Discipline grew to the size of a graduate school textbook:

Methodists were known as a singing people.

Those were the days when the movement was new and fresh. People were excited to be apart of something new and growing. And thanks to John and Charles Wesley, singing was at the heart of what it meant to be  a Methodist (so much so, Mr. Wesley felt it necessary to print “Rules For Singing” that all Methodists were to follow and which are still found on the first page of our United Methodist Hymnal).

As time has marched on, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution in worship. Styles have changed, some have been blended. We’ve evolved from a liturgical church with an emphasis on disciplined living through class meetings, to a denomination focused on revivals and being a central power in the nation, to a church in decline searching for an identity with various styles and influences vying for our attention. All the while, we’ve tried to discover and rediscover what it means to worship God in such a way that gives proper praise to the Triune God and also seeks to connect us to God and each other in meaningful ways.

In that spirit, I would  like to make a modest proposal:

Let’s have fewer choir anthems, fewer solos, less volume from our praise bands, and turn our focus back to congregational singing. 

I know this may sound crazy at first. Who doesn’t love a stirring anthem or a moving offertory solo? Who doesn’t love hearing their favorite praise song led by that worship band who knows right where the drum solo or guitar riff goes to make the song soar to a new level? Who doesn’t enjoy going to worship on Sundays to hear talented, and in many cases professional, singers and musicians showcase their talents in ways that we only wish we could do?

But worship is not about listening — it’s about participating. 

If church leaders fear that people are becoming consumers of worship, then we need to plan worship that places the average worshipper in the role of participant and not observer. There’s already a big chunk of the worship service devoted to listening to a sermon (15 minutes…or 25 minutes…or 45 minutes). That time needs to be balanced with opportunities for the gathered assembly to offer itself as a sacrifice of praise. And there is very little sacrificed when we’re afforded too much time to sit back and passively listen. Worse yet, it comes all too natural when we’re already formed as a people who enjoy consuming.

Let me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the lights. His best lines for me are when he makes the case to emphasize the priority of the congregation singing together over the individual focused on their own personal time of worship:

It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service.  As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row.  However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people.  I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship.  One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing.  I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord.  Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.

Before you think I’m simply picking on contemporary, praise band style worship, let me also offer a word to the more liturgical worship planners (because I am one):

  • Put some creativity into choosing congregational music and emphasize hymns over anthems. Replace a solo with a congregational hymn from time to time.
  • Find ways to talk about what you’re singing — some of our best theology is found in the hymns we sing. Our United Methodist Hymnal contains theological depth most of us wish we could express in our sermons. Use them!
  • Let music connect the liturgy — work to fit your liturgy and hymn selections together so it doesn’t feel like you just filled in the blanks when you planned worship.

A friend of mine told me recently, “a theology you cannot sing is not a very deep theology at all.” Singing requires we engage our faith with more than just our brains and this can be hard in a culture that says religion is simply a set of beliefs you either agree with or not. True faith, the kind of faith that shapes and forms us in ways we cannot begin to describe, will touch on all of our senses. And congregational singing has the power to reform us from individuals who simply ascend to a set of ideas, into a community that instinctively understands our shared life and faith are best sung about.

 

[For a powerful non-church example of congregational singing check out this clip. The National Anthem is one of the greatest soloist hymns of our time but I bet you’ve never heard it sung with this kind of power and emotion]

 

 

Why I Need Poetry

> “Poetry is thoughts that breathe; words that burn” (Thomas Gray)

Why do I need poetry?

Poetry is the language that puts words on the sounds and silences that make up our lives. It is the power to name that which is un-nameable. It is the grace to name something “Mystery” and to take comfort in that.

Why do I need poetry?

Poetry is the force that allows us to speak with fierce honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. It shatters the glass cases we use to contain things like faith, love, hope, and God. Poetry scoffs at our clichés because it knows those are merely our attempts to avoid life as it really is.

Why do I need poetry?

Poetry challenges me to see that the world is made up of more than just myself and my own junk. It dares to set free that which I try to put in a neat box. Poetry calls me to the silence and beckons me to be present in it.

Why do I need poetry?

Because on days when I am consumed with my own busyness, and pretend like I have all of the answers, I need to be reminded that in order to truly live, I stop pretending, slow down, and learn to sit with my own questions. For that is where God will meet us.

What If…?

It was a hot, June day in South Georgia. The word “hot” doesn’t even seem sufficient. After all, June in South Georgia can bring days when the heat sits on you like a 50 pound backpack.

It was the sort of day when you couldn’t keep water cold for long. But you don’t care because you’d settle for tepid water if it means rehydrating after just a few minutes in the oppressive heat of the day. It was the sort of day when any indoor space became a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey, and air conditioning. On this particularly hot day, the assembly gathered in the convention center, fleeing the heat and anxiously awaiting the start of the next business session.

“Yes, microphone number 1. Do you have a speech for or against the motion on the floor? Please tell us your name and district.”

And then suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind filled the convention center. Some wondered if it was a summer twister – the ones famous for rolling through South Georgia at a moment’s notice on a summer afternoon. But then they saw it – fire. Tongues of fire rested on all who were gathered in that place. All at once clergy and laity alike began to speak in one accord telling of the glory of God. The business of annual conference became a revival where worship and singing sprung forth in true Methodist fashion. And there was no more division between people based on theological stances and worldviews. Friend and foe alike began to praise God and speak of his mighty acts of salvation.

Onlookers began to ask questions about the absurdity of the scene.

“They must be drunk!” one said.

One of those on the floor of conference responded, “We’re not drunk, we’re Methodists!”

In the midst of the singing and praising someone remembered the words of the prophet Joel:

“In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.”

What would happen if Annual Conference really transpired like this?

It can be easy to long for dramatic scenes of revival in the midst of what seems like mundane business sessions. We’re United Methodists, and these days we probably feel less evangelical and Spirit-led and more method-oriented and process driven. Sometimes it may feel like we listen to Robert’s Rules more than the Holy Spirit.

I’m still very new to the ministry (this is only my third Annual Conference session as a clergy-person). But I wonder if we don’t miss the forest for the trees in front of us when it comes to preparing for Annual Conference?

Maybe we long for the return of a past that we’ve romanticized so much that we miss the glory of the present and the future unfolding before us? We swear up and down on our grandmother’s grave that the Annual Conference sessions of 40 years ago used to be simpler and more spirit-filled. In an age of church decline it can be hard to see the movement of the Spirit among us.

Maybe we wonder if the mundane business of Annual Conference sessions – the policies, procedures, and Lord knows, Robert’s Rules – doesn’t serve as the perfect distraction from listening to where the winds of the Spirit are blowing.

But what if the Spirit of God is present even (and especially) in the moments when we aren’t expecting it?

What if the Holy Spirit is present in and guiding our talk of budgets and mission and even district realignments?

What if God’s Spirit is leading us even when we dare to talk about radically changing how we function as an Annual Conference?

What if, by the grace of God, we could see the Holy Spirit’s presence in our agendas and budgets, rules and procedures, reports and motions when we least expect it?

I’m looking forward to my third Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to breaking bread with friends and worshipping with the people called Methodist in South Georgia. But even more, I’m looking forward to being a witness to God’s mighty acts in and among us.

We do not orchestrate God’s redemption of the world – we simply look for the signs and participate in it. And we don’t have to wonder whether we should call on the Spirit to move among us – God’s Spirit is already at work in amazing and unexpected ways.

So I guess our prayer as we approach Annual Conference should be something like this: “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your mighty presence among us.”

Oh, and don’t be surprised if the cool rush of air you feel on the back of your neck at the Macon Centreplex is not the air conditioning at all. It might just be the quiet rush of the Spirit’s wind reminding you that God is indeed among us.

[This post originally appeared in The South Georgia Advocate on 5/3/13]

Some Days…

faith

Some days…I grow weary of cookie cutter faith.

If a grave could not hold God, what makes us think a neat little box of our own making will do it? We would rather spend our energies proclaiming how God rubber stamps our political/social/ideological views and we miss the face of Christ in the stranger we pass by. You see, that stranger is longing for just a few moments from a Good Samaritan. But the only faith we can seem to articulate is meant for bumper stickers and sound bytes. How is it, again, that faith can somehow fit so neatly in a sentence or two? Would someone please remind me how to speak of God in 30 words or less in light of the madness of the world we live in?

Some days…I am bored with “churchy” talk.

It doesn’t matter if we sit in cathedrals and sing 300-year old hymns or if we gather in a storefront and pretend like what we’re doing is somehow new or contemporary — we think faith means severing all ties to the world around us. We say following Jesus means pretending like we don’t live outside the church six days a week. We want to act as though one hour a week (or maybe two if we count our Sunday School/Small Group/Community Group/Life Group/etc.) is the totality of our discipleship. We tell people serving on committees or volunteering to sustain our building or programs is what it means to follow Jesus. We forget that life happens outside of the “praise” we offer in worship. We avoid the tough questions and the messy circumstances because we don’t want to “turn people off” or somehow make others question God. We pray that life doesn’t get too complicated for people so they’ll continue attending and going through the motions of “church.” But life happens. It turns worlds upside down much like Jesus turns tables over in temples where we worship idols of wealth, self-help, and politics masked as faith. Where’s the bumper sticker when you lose a baby? Where’s the clever sermon series that speaks to the horrors of cancer or addiction? What pithy phrase do we dare offer when we learn of abuse or prejudice?

Some days…I get tired of the church’s navel gazing.

I grow weary of conversations where institutional survival is the main topic. Decline drives us to insanity some days. Maybe it’s not decline in size, but decline in influence and prestige? I don’t know. All I know is we absolutely cannot stand the fact that we are not what we once were. It scares us to death to think of a world where we are not the center of attention or the major power broker at the table. If only there were one more program, one more campaign, one more slogan that could “save” us. Never mind the fact that “the Church is of God and it will last until the end of time.” We’re not signing on that dotted line unless it means we remain at the top of the social mountain. Is it possible to be the Church for the sake of the world even if we’re not the church of the nation?

Some days…I want to count myself with the doubters.

Knowing it all can reveal the fact that we really know nothing when it comes to the living God. A faith built on answers leaves no room for mystery. It doesn’t grant permission for struggle. It fails to admit that we might not know everything when it comes to God. I want to struggle with my faith or else how am I supposed to grow? I want to doubt or else how am I to truly appreciate when I am in the presence of mystery? Let other people “know it all” and have the answers. I know it makes things like preaching and teaching difficult. But if faith were simply advice we sought “buy-in” for, then is that really faith at all? Surely there’s more than meets the eye?

Some days I want to write as a writer who happens to be Christian instead of a “Christian writer.”

“Christian writers” too often fear offending others or, God forbid, their narrow doctrine or worldview. Christian writers prefer a Christian world of their own making that’s “safe for the family” and pretends like messy things like death or poverty or cursing or prejudice do not exist. This Christian world emphasizes self-sufficiency and raising well-behaved kids. It has no time for people who struggle because they can’t pay their bills, find adequate healthcare, or who’s lives refuse to fit in the mold called “The American Dream.”

Writers who are Christian want to engage the world around them. They want to open themselves to the world instead of closing themselves off to it in fear. They refuse to be shackled by the narrow world of “church” because they know God is alive and well in the most unexpected places. They know the power at work in our everyday lives and they know how to tell a compelling story. They know God rarely fits into a formula or plan of action. And they trust that a story’s power can speak, by grace of the God, even when they do not have the answers. It’s reckless, yet freeing. It’s exhausting and messy, yet life-giving and strangely beautiful.

Some days…I want to be that kind of writer. I want to be that kind of pastor.

 

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