Thursday, December 24, 2009

The miraculous scandal of Christmas!

As I write this, it is Christmas Eve -- and the Christmas season is about to BEGIN! We've been waiting throughout the weeks of Advent for the coming of Christ. Tomorrow we begin the 12 day celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ.

Think about it -- God, the creator of everything we see, chose to enter into our world, taking on flesh, blood, skin, and bones. We call this incarnation. It's bizarre, isn't it?

What's more, God didn't choose a noble birth. Mary was no queen. Joseph was not a wealthy man. They were peasants in a rural town -- out in the sticks, so to speak. Worse yet, they were far from home that starry night, and couldn't even get a respectable room. Instead, Mary ended up giving birth in a stable -- where the inn keeper kept his animals. It was likely little more than a rough cave in a rocky hillside with the thick sent of manure in the air.

It's scandalous -- don't you think?

I mean, God could have worked out a system where it wasn't necessary to be so lowly. Yet, God choose humanity. Jesus was a little baby, crying and soiling diapers in a dirty feeding trough! Once we find God in a stable, God could be anywhere!

We can turn our back on God: walking away from the hungry woman; ignoring the homeless man. God put God's-self at our mercy.

Incarnation is messy. It means that God cares about human flesh -- about our bodies. Christianity isn't merely about some heaven we can only imagine. Jesus came to show us how to live in our world - in our time. God has walked the earth, been scolded by parents, spent time starving in a desert, loved people, made friends, been betrayed, been tortured and executed. God doesn't merely sympathize with our daily struggles -- God empathizes, suffering with us, because God understands what it is like to be human.

This is the miracle of Christmas, and it's a scandal. The revolution of hope and love beginning in a no-place with people that were not otherwise notable.

So take heart that God can use anyone -- and wants to use you!

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Praying for friends and praying for strangers

I had a discussion last night about how tragedies in the news are so much harder to digest when someone you know is involved. We've been so desensitized by TV crime shows, violent movies, and the constant media coverage of murders, violence, and fires, that they all start to feel the same, regardless of whether they are real or fictional.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that real people are involved. Each day, people's lives are turned upside down and their reality is shattered as loved one's are lost to violence, as memories burn in home fires, or as something else happens that makes everything else seem inconsequential in comparison .... yet when it show up on TV, we tend to either process it as entertainment, or get bored and change the channel.

Then you see a friend in the news, or a relative of a friend, or a friend of a friend. You recognize the name and it suddenly hits home. You are in shock. You remember once again that these stories are about REAL PEOPLE. You aren't watching another episode of NCIS, Heroes, Bones, Psych, Law & Order, CSI, or whatever fits your fancy. It's your friend fighting to stay composed on TV. It makes me more attuned to the daily tragedies of those I don't know too, as I'm trying in fits and starts to remember to pray for everyone in the news that I hear -- to remember that everything on TV isn't about fictional characters.

This type of thing has happened to me several times this year (too many times). This week, it happened as I saw Pastor Lowell Michelson on the news talking about Dr. George Tiller, an usher that day, being shot inside the church building as worship was beginning on Sunday (text version):

I know Lowell from his days as a traveling musician, and his seminary years when he was involved with the Lutheran Campus Ministry at The Ohio State University. My heart goes out to him at this time, as I pray for the family of George Tiller, the community of Reformation Lutheran in Wichita, and for Lowell and the other leaders there as they share God's grace and peace during this time of tragic upheaval.

Echoing their prayers:

Oh God, in this time of tragedy and sorrow we give thanks for your comfort in times of need and loss. We pray for the courage to be peacemakers, rejecting violence as a means of resolving differences. We trust your promise that neither death nor life nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. We trust in your promises of: forgiveness, hope, love, and new life, even from death. In your promises there is healing and hope for the whole world, in Jesus Christ we pray, AMEN.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pentecost + Psalm 104 rewrite + Young Adult Ministry Conference

The worship service we helped plan for the DC Young Adult Ministry Conference went really well.  At least, the feedback I got was all positive.

As people entered the sanctuary, fans hung on the walls were blowing, and an industrial fan blew from one corner while a video of flames dancing looped on a projection screen in the another -- reminders of the Spirit's presence as we were about to celebrate Pentecost.  The music playing on the sound system cycled among percussive, meditative, experimental, and chants -- all barely audible over the fans and the people gathering.  It was the beautiful ambiance of divine chaos!  

One of the really cool things was distributing the spoken lines from the service among some 24+ participants, mostly asked if they would be willing to lead a line as we handed them their bulletin.  Some read prayers or multiple paragraphs of scripture, while others had wonderfully short lines like "Come, Holy Spirit".  The participation was fabulous!  Young and old, clergy and laity, those who knew their parts in advance and others who hesitantly accepted the last minute call to help lead worship.  We liked how lines spoken from assorted points in the Sanctuary integrated with our understanding of Pentecost.

I kicked us off with a little bit of how the changes in worship that some young adults seem to be jiving on isn't boiled down to styles of music, and isn't necessarily an abandonment of any things Lutherans know and love, like sacrament, symbolism, paradox, or liturgy.  (It may favor tearing out the militarized pews for a more flexible seating, but we showed today that you can sit in pews while having worship that is experimental, experiential, and so much more!)  What is really on the agenda is the priesthood of all believers rethinking how worship is planned an implemented...about bridging ancient practices with post-modern creativity that looks to the future.

Our reading from Ezekiel was about the dry bones being called to get up and walk, and Ben shared these great thoughts groovin' about how the younger generation sometimes thinks the older "is as likely to change as dry bones", while the older generation sometimes views the younger as being like dry bones by lacking in substance and commitment to a religious community.  Then fortunately the Holy Spirit shows up to bring us all together as one body -- the Church -- putting sinews on our bones.  Such great stuff!

Sarah led everyone to in one of the big hits of the day, our activity where we each rewrote at least one verse of Psalm 104:24-34,35b while some upbeat meditative music played for a few minutes.  Then she asked for 12 volunteers, one volunteer for each verse, and we lined up in the front of the sanctuary, reading through this recreation of the scripture passage through our eyes.  It was wonderful to see how the Spirit worked through everyone to give an powerful and insightful vision of how the substance of this Psalm still holds so much meaning for us today -- we really can relate.

A few of us planning worship rewrote the whole thing ahead of time in case there were verses that no one picked, or was willing to volunteer to read.  Here's my complete version:

24God, I am in awe of Creation!  I am blown away by the diversity and variety of the world that surrounds us – the ever-changing biodiversity astounds me.

25There are oceans, lakes, streams, and ponds teaming with sharks that prowl, fish that blend into the sand, algae that glows at night, and more -- so many creatures that our scientists still have not counted them all!

26Beneath the yachts and trading barges, there are octopi and massive whales at play.

27Generation after generation, your Creation provides them with food to sustain in the rhythms of the seasons;

28they gather your food, bellies are filled; the chain of life continues.

29Without your presence, life unravels; bodies fail, decay, and become nothing but food and fertilizer.

30Yet life continues, seasons of creation when new life springs forth; and the young are weaned and grow – life is renewed again and again.

31Oh that your Earth would thrive forever; may you constantly enjoy the handiwork of all that you have made —

32we see how we harm the Earth and tremble in fear that we might be capable of unraveling all that you have made; yet when we see unblemished portions of your Creation, our jaws drop in wonder and we have hope for the future.

33I cannot contain myself; I will sing, shout, and dance for joy all of my days; Life continues against all that would destroy it, and every atom in my body shudders and rejoices as I worship you with every fiber of my being.

34May my thoughts and actions be according to your will, as I wish to be your joy as you are mine, for my life is in the Lord.

35bMay my heart crave what you desire. May I always live for the glory of the Lord!


It's a powerful exercise to do sometime.  Pick a Psalm that seems to resonate with you and try rewriting it.  One Pastor essentially told me afterwards that this activity was basically worth the price of admission (OK, not in so many words).  (Credit to CT for inspiring this with the Psalm 1 rewrites we did a few seasons back.)

The next reading was the spirit descending in Acts 2.  Mike talked about the chaos of Pentecost -- how it was downright messy, and how coming upon people are talking across each other in numerous languages where no one is in charge or knows exactly what is happening can make us uncomfortable.  He talked about how the things young adults might be inclined to try in worship might feel like chaos, making analogy to Acts 2 that it might feel like they were drunk to come up with their ideas.

Then he started asking questions at the heart of this conference on how congregations might better understand and minister to young adults:
  • Is there a way to find common ground...ways that we can still have intergenerational worship?  
  • Is there a way to gracefully accept new ideas of spirit-filled young adults experimenting with worship, even when the implementation might be messy and full of "mistakes"?
  • Can we allow young adults to contribute to our worship services in ways that might sometimes make us uncomfortable...or seem less polished than we would want?
  • Can we embrace that the Spirit moves in strange and unexpected ways?
Then came the Gospel of John.  I asked what responsibility established generations in the Church have to today's young adults, teenagers, and future generations.  I've heard that some feel their job is to maintain the status quo, so that they can pass the Church on to succeeding generations "as in" when they go -- I asked if that was really the goal, or if something else was on the agenda.  I talked about how Jesus seems to choose to step aside to let change occur, letting others take over.  He says the Advocate is coming...and as U2 points out, "she moves in mysterious ways."  So how do we enable natural transition and progression in our congregations?

We then had several minutes for people do discuss the questions that Mike and I posed.  The responses I heard resonated with me, especially one about how our responsibility is to give future generations opportunities for the same freedom of expression that we have brought to the table.  Wow!  How spot on the money that is!

We prefaced our time of prayer with Romans 8:26-27, talking about listening to the prayers of each other trusting that the Holy Spirit is moving through both older and younger generations.  We then had a time of prayer petitions.  After a little hesitation, people started to confidently offer their prayers into the silence in voices that could be heard throughout the sanctuary over top the numerous fans we had blowing to help remind people of the Spirit moving in our midst.

We confessed our faith using a statement from the United Church of Canada, talking about how "We are not alone, we live in God's world.  We believe in God .... who works in us and others by the Spirit ... We are called to be the Church ... to seek justice and resist evil ... God is with us.  We are not alone..."

It was great to hear everyone claiming these words as their own.  We are not alone, God is with us, and we are with each other!  Thanks be to God indeed!

After the chaos we created during the bulk of the service, the simplicity of communion was strikingly refreshing.  There was no music as the 60+ people in the room filed single file down the aisle to hear that "This is the body of Christ, broken for you" and "This is the blood of Christ, shed for you."  Simple words.  So powerful...even after years of hearing them.

We closed with one of my favorite prayers.  One that I learned at Holden Village
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  

And then, nothing was left by the sending:
Go in peace: love and serve the Lord.
Thanks be to God, and we will!

The last three words, which I learned to add as a camp counselor and as a student involved in campus ministry, are tied up in the second part of the sending.  We thank God that we can go in peace; we pledge to love and serve the Lord.  It felt like those present noticed the addition, and really got it, as "and we will" thundered off the sanctuary walls and ceiling before U2's "Mysterious Ways" faded up and a video started, juxtaposing the dancing of flames with the dancing of a woman who certainly evoked the sense that she moved in mysterious ways...

Yes, the Spirit moves in mysterious ways, and I'm so glad!  This was one of the most complex services I've planned, and it went off without a hitch.  I feared that too many of our ideas would seem uncomfortably foreign compared to the traditional Lutheran worship services frequented by most of the participants.  Instead the feedback I've heard so far was not about how strange things seemed, but rather about how certain aspects of the service moved people, how well paced things were as we moved quickly and comfortably from element to element, even though most of the lines were being delivered by people who didn't know they would be "leading" until they walked into the sanctuary!

The students who went with me seemed to agree that it was a refreshing afternoon -- the kind that rekindles an electric hope for the future of the Church.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hassidic Hip-Hop Reggae

I love this song by Matisyahu, as he expresses views of G-d from his Orthodox Judaism in a way that I think many Christians could really learn from.  (I'm using "G-d" in this post to be respectful for his tradition.)  

He talks about G-d as water for his soul and the very air that he breathes.  He thanks G-d with joy and passion.  He expresses how the love he feels out of this relationship is so big that walls cannot contain it -- it will rip a hole in the ceiling!  In response, he gives himself to G-d from "the essence of his being" and sings songs of "songs of love and healing".  

How beautiful and powerful!

He also talks about our need to strip away our ego and the things that hinder our relationship with G-d.  Our pride keeps us from relying on G-d.  It's a great reminder at this point more than half-way through Lent that once we've been introspective and identified the ways we wall off G-d, we need to strip them away!  We need to release ourselves into G-d's care and allow our joy to overcome us -- to bubble out in song and in loving action towards those around us!

Take a listen: 

Lyrics - "King without a Crown" by Matisyahu

You're all that I have and you're all that I need
Each and every day I pray to get to know you please
I want to be close to you, yes I'm so hungry
You're like water for my soul when it gets thirsty
Without you there's no me
You're the air that I breathe
Sometimes the world is dark and I just can't see
With these, demons surround all around to bring me down to negativity
But I believe, yes I believe, I said I believe
I'll stand on my own two feet
Won't be brought down on one knee
Fight with all of my might and get these demons to flee
Hashem's rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe
Hashem's rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe
Out of darkness comes light, twilight unto the heights
Crown Heights burnin' up all through till twilight
Said, thank you to my G-d, now I finally got it right
And I'll fight with all of my heart, and all a' my soul, and all a' my might

[Chorus:]  What's this feeling?
My love will rip a hole in the ceiling
Givin' myself to you from the essence of my being
Sing to my G-d all these songs of love and healing
Want Moshiach now so it's time we start revealing

Strip away the layers and reveal your soul
Got to give yourself up and then you become whole
You're a slave to yourself and you don't even know
You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow
If you're trying to stay high then you're bound to stay low
You want G-d but you can't deflate your ego
If you're already there then there's nowhere to go
If you're cup's already full then its bound to overflow
If you're drowning in the water's and you can't stay afloat
Ask Hashem for mercy and he'll throw you a rope
You're looking for help from G-d you say he couldn't be found
Searching up to the sky and looking beneath the ground
Like a King without his Crown
Yes, you keep fallin' down
You really want to live but can't get rid of your frown
Tried to reach unto the heights and wound bound down on the ground
Given up your pride and then you heard a sound
Out of night comes day and out of day comes light
Nullified to the One like sunlight in a ray,
Makin' room for his love and a fire gone blaze


So I lift up my eyes where my help comes from
And I seen it circling around from the moutain
Thunder! You feel it in your chest 
You keep my mind at ease and my soul at rest
You're not vexed
I look to the sky where my help come from
Seen it circling around from the mountain
Thunder! You feel it in your chest 
You keep my mind at ease and my soul at rest
You're not vexed