Monday, June 23, 2014

Interesting Worship

Yesterday I had an interesting worship experience at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. After five weeks in France, worshiping every Sunday in a language I'm not fluent in and singing songs I'm unfamiliar with, we walked into a stately Presbyterian Church (one I attended in High School during our family's year in Richmond). They just spent over $300,000 refurbishing an organ and hired an organist with a degree from Yale! The bulletin was five pages long filled with liturgical innovations I found intriguing. It was responsorial, confessional, hymnic, fully robed, and quite beautiful. They had a cantor, employed African drums and used many women and persons of color.
The title of the sermon was "Shame-Free Gospel" based on Romans 1. I was ready for worship I understood and would be challenged by.
The preacher of the day (a guest professor at Union Theological Seminary) began with a story of growing up as a preacher's kid (I identified) who loved the church (I identified) but who was uncomfortable with other believers who identified themselves with capital "E" evangelical. Then she began to "punch" a stereotyped cartoon of all the worst of the church world: arrogance, foolishness, simpleminded theology, racial insensitivity, warmongering, and a pie-in-the-sky understanding of evangelism as fire insurance from the threat of Hell.
The congregation chuckled along with her politely as she skewered her straw dog of "E" evangelicals. I have not been so pilloried and punched in worship in a long time...I can't even remember. Her politically correct identity defined negatively by what she "we" all did not believe in was so strong, I could barely hear the rest of her sermon.
I compared and contrasted: everything was there that I normally champion as being parts of a great church...and I left cold as stone. In France I did not understand the language and so, so much, yet I felt a warm embrace from other worshipers in every setting and felt...loved.
It will make me think hard about how we sculpt and lead worship. Is it loving? To whom?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Charged? Rested?

Where is the most frequently claimed space in an airport? A charging station or wall outlet. There you will see all sorts of devices plugged in to get or keep their charge for their next flight. Some airlines now have plugs beneath the seats so you can plug in any device to keep the charge up.
            We (read I) are so addicted to our devices, that the thought of a device running out of juice is terrifying. We must keep a charge in our phones, tablets or laptops so that we can stay in touch, surf and download. So, when I enter a hotel room or a place where I will be staying, I find the plugs and establish my domain. When I travel to other parts of the world, I carry a bag of plug adaptors so that my devices stay charged.
            There is a whole sub-industry of charging systems and battery backups for all of our devices…because we must stay charged.
            This vacation for me was like a long, slow recharging of my mental and spiritual batteries. I have spoken on the phone only once and have received face-time calls only from family. I go to sleep when I’m tired and wake up when I’m awake and take naps in the afternoon, never checking what time it is. I know I’m charged (and charging) because I’m listening and hearing God’s word to me in fresh and clear ways.
            What is it about our culture that perpetuates chronic exhaustion and tiredness? Too many young adults (and young parents) I know respond to my question of “how are you?” with “I’m so tired!” It’s not just a couple, but a cadre, a cohort of always-tired people. Why are they so tired all the time? Is it that they have bad sleeping hygiene and can’t shut down because of addiction to their devices and backlogged shows and games? Is it because they do not practice spiritual listening and don’t have a source of good news and hope funneling into their lives?

            I’m impressed by the number of times the Bible connects “Sabbath” with “rest”. God instructs us to practice and honor Sabbath and, in return, promises to give us deep and genuine rest. Where are the rested Christians? Where are the rested pastors? Where are the rested churches? It’s time.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

We Need Missionaries Because....

I believe in missions and missionaries. I was a short-term missionary for a year in Japan. I have served on and chaired the ECC Board of World Mission. I was part of the pool of candidates for the position of Executive Director of World Missions. I have traveled to a bunch of countries and supported, taught and preached to and for missionaries.
But today, Martha and I were invited to worship with the combined churches of Ales, France at the Ales Arena (built in 1896 for bull-fighting). Under the collaborative leadership of 6 or seven Protestant churches, about 1,000 christians gathered to celebrate God. All the pastors of the area participated in reading Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, prayers and benedictions. Combined choirs, hip-hop artists and youth, dancers and drama were all part of the two-hour festival.
This was healthy and indigenously driven. I asked the question to our hosts, "Why are missionaries needed here when there is such deep health?" That is NOT an evangelical question, but a "third-rail" topic. There was a long pause. Then my friend said "We need missionaries to help us where we have difficulty, like with youth ministry. We do not need missionaries to work alone, buy themselves, outside the church in their own silo."
So, I wonder if a question going forward for places like France, where there are strong and healthy churches, is this: where are you working with, supporting and participating with a local church? That question clearly carries over to the USA with all the great para-church ministries, who sometimes seem to stand alone as their own silos as a substitute for the local church. We pastors and mission committees should be asking the same question: where are you working with, supporting, worshiping with and belonging to local congregations?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Vaison la Romaine (Our Lady of Nazareth) check your foundations

If anyone has been around me for a while, they will know that I have this obsession about Romanesque churches. These are pre-gothic churches built in and around the 11th and 12th centuries before the royal dynasties began building sacred monuments to their legacies. These churches were more like mission outposts and designed to tell gospel stories in pagan outposts.
Yesterday we drove 150 km to the ancient city of Vaison la Romaine in Provence. It is nestled among great vineyards and beneath some large hills. It was a prehistoric site for tribes, then settled by the Romans (great archeology sites available to walk through). Then the vandals invaded and the city fled up the hill into a walled village. The vandals were repulsed and in the 11th century the church of Our Lady of Nazareth was built (see above through the cloister)
Romanesque churches hold a special place in my heart for their simple architecture; round arches, thick walls, small window, carved capitals, big baptismal fonts, stone floors and cloisters.
But what caught my attention (hit me between the eyes) was the excavation on the exterior wall of the church: Roman columns.

 The church was built after the heyday of the Roman occupation. Somehow the builders were able to find excess Roman columns to use as foundation stones for the structure. So literally, this church is built on the foundation of the Roman empire (culture). That is more true than we often realize. The culture of Rome deeply influenced how the church looked and even operated.
If we dig deep enough around our foundations, what are the stones we are built on? What are the underpinnings that support the structure of our lives and our faith? American independence? Individual liberty? The free market? Republican or Democratic principles? Regionalism? Denominationalism?
Just look at how you read your Bible and where you read your Bible. Whose voice(s) do you pay attention to? Where do you spend your time/money? Who gets grace and forgiveness and who does not? Who are your friends and who are your adversaries? All of those are your/our foundations.

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