Thursday, March 29, 2012

Celebrate Palm Sunday with a Passion!

Does that sound snarky?  Celebrate Palm Sunday with a Passion?  It might be a little bit.

Coming up this Sunday is what we call Palm/Passion Sunday.  We, at my current church, like most Methodist churches it seems, lean heavily more towards the Palm side of things.  And for good reason, like other Methodist churches I've had the privilege to serve, we observe the full selection of Holy Week services with Holy Thursday and Good Friday services.  We don't observe an Easter Vigil, but this year we will be offering a Sunrise Service on Easter which will have some close ties to an Easter Vigil liturgy.

Like most churches around this area, our Palm Sunday celebration will indeed be a celebration, with every single one of our children's music ensembles offering their gifts and talents after a semi-raucous Palm processional by the kids.  The children will get us in the mood for worship, for sure, but we often, because we usually bill this Sunday as a 'celebration', neglect the irony of the day: the crowd that greets Jesus as a triumphant and long-awaited King puts him on a cross by the end of the week.

Fortunately, this irony will be on full display this Sunday in worship, as our Pastors have elected to preach to us on the betrayal of Judas. 

We'll be experiencing worship this Sunday in a very profound way with a service that is half full of celebration and half full of the dark night of the soul.

But that's what Holy Week is supposed to be about, isn't it?

Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a hopeful and expectant people, who in a matter of days completely turn on him because he wasn't who they expected.

This is why in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday there is an option for an alternative Gospel Reading: reading aloud the Passion of the Christ.  I invite you this weekend to take out the Word and read the journey Christ took in that short week that brought him to the cross.  This year's passion narrative is from the Gospel of Mark, 14:1-15:47.  Mark is a quick read, so do yourself a favor and pull it out and dwell on the story for a bit.

How does your faith community observe Palm/Passion Sunday?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An Independent Perspective

I'm fascinated by politics.  I've been known to have a CNN addiction, though I fight the urge these days.  I'm a little hesitant to talk about politics, so I won't, at least not exactly.

Something that bothers me these days about current political discourse is how Christianity is used these days, as a tool for one-upmanship.

Uh-oh.  I might step on some people's toes.  But we I think we really need to think about how the Church is portrayed on the national stage these days.  I should say though, I am not writing this blog to present answers in anyway.  Most of what I'm doing here is presenting questions.

So here's one:  Didn't Christ tell the disciples that he wanted them to be known by their love [John 13:34-35]?  I'm pretty sure that what Christ means by that is that we're called to live in such a way that people just know who we are as Christians - without us telling them who we are.  And by that, he ment live in a good way.  Not a judgy one.  We live in a country where the candidates have no way out other than to trumpet their faith, you know, before the other guy does.

Didn't Christ express to us also, that only 2nd to our love of the Lord God, we are to love our neighbors [Matt 22:34-40]?  I say this, not just because it's a huge foundation to the Christian faith, but also, when our politicians talk of their faith, do they ever talk about loving their neighbor?  Not in recent memory.  Though, I could be wrong.  Christianity often seems to be used as a weapon with which to judge other people, to the point where if a candidate doesn't want to talk of their own faith, they're labeled as a Muslim.  And labeled a Muslim as an insult.

Our nation has some super important decisions to make in the next year, and I'm proud to have the right to be able to cast my vote.  I just want candidates to leave the faith I choose to follow out of the equation, because what they have to say certainly isn't doing anything to help the Church ... We shouldn't forget the Christ started a love movement that was meant to reach a global scale; go and make of all disciples, He said.  We are meant to grow disciples by showing them how much we love them, not by showing them how much better we are because of it.  Case in point: Christ's view on the Pharisees, in Matthew 6.  This is the Gospel passage every Ash Wednesday for a reason, y'all.

This is just my independent perspective.  How do you feel about how the Church is portrayed in politics?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Love to Your Sound Guy (or Girl)

If you're blessed like the church I serve, you have a whole mess of volunteers working in your light, video, and sound departments.  Churches with big resources are often able to make these staff positions, hiring professionals to keep the production value in worship at a professional level.

While paid staff can be an awesome way to go, I'll take my volunteers and their incredible servant hearts.  It's foundational to worship ministry, having volunteers (servants) give their time and talents to the kingdom.  But probably the scariest place to serve is in that sound booth.  I mean, you have to love what you do to be back there.  You know why?  Because when things go right, nobody really notices.  But when things go wrong?  Good Lord.  The person better be ready for the looks they recieve.

I was blessed for several years to work in the church that I grew up in with my father as my sound guy.  But I should say that I grew up in sound booths.  I have vivid memories of being a little kid, and being kicked up into the balcony to hang with my dad when I was too ornery to let my mom concentrate on worship.  My little brother and I would sit up there for hours and doodle, and sing hymns, and watch dad do what he loved to do.  So it was great for me as an adult and worship minister to work for with my dad, who was a volunteer at the time.  At least it was great until there was feedback, or a mic didn't come in on time ... Or yadda yadda yadda.  If you've been in worship, you know the problems I'm talking about.  Problems didn't happen often, but when they did, you'd think we were ruining people's lives.

There's any number of reasons why we have problems with sound in worship, and often times it's not operator error.  With feedback in particular, most of our older sanctuaries simply aren't designed with a sound system in mind, especially for what we call 'contemporary' worship these days.  The ideal space for contemporary worship is a simple box of a room, not the beautifully designed spaces that we love to be in to experience worship.  So, we hire sound designers to come in and retrofit our spaces to fit  expectations of current worshipping congregations, and inevitably the sounds bounce around at weird angles and the dreaded feedback occurs.  A good sound person knows when to expect it and can catch it and fix it, but it still takes hours and hours of practice, and even then feedback will still happen.

Or then the pastor/worship leader grabs the wrong microphone, and oops!  Where's the sound?  Or the battery dies mid-sentence.  Darn.  Or the monitor mix is out of whack because we had to move the choir into different seats.

All of these things can lead to stares back at the sound booth.  Sometimes, there's also yelling after worship.

The church universal needs to be reminded what Christ often said, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all."

Our audio/visual people put in countless hours and take their service very seriously.  The Lord never has put on us an expectation of perfection, just that we do our best to do good in our service (and we're all called to serve in some fashion).

We all mess up in our service in worship on occasion.  Just don't forget to tell your sound guy that they're doing a good job, when nothing goes wrong.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Called to Discomfort

Two summers ago, my wife had the privilege to run a summer mission center in South Louisiana, to assist in Katrina relief (work that is still going on).  It was nearly a 24/7 job for three months, so in order to spend any time with her at all I served as her worship leader for that summer.  It was a fun way to volunteer and be in ministry with my wife.

She had a crew of four college interns that helped guide the youth groups that were coming from all over the country to serve and help rebuild peoples homes, people who, five years after Katrina, weren't really remembered on a national-news-scale anymore.  But not only did these college kids work all day, they helped lead worship in the evenings, through leading prayers and offering devotional testimony.  There's one story in particular that I heard every week from a young man who felt a Christ-like call to be 'uncomfortable'.

This kid spent as much time as possible as he could on mission.  As a matter of fact, when he received is one week off during the summer to do whatever he wanted, he went to Mexico for a week to build houses.  If he wasn't on the move serving others with his hands, he felt it was time wasted.  He was particularly affected by what he had seen in the country of Mexico, with how people were able to get by on literally nothing, and still be full of so much faith and hope.  He never knew what kind of conditions he would be invited to stay in either, but he felt that was part of the missional journey ... Being a follower of Christ has nothing to do with comfort, if anything it's about discomfort ... When Christ's earthly ministry started, he never stopped moving, except to heal, teach, and pray.  As my pastor says often, Christ was a true itinerant preacher.

I don't think that I'm off-base in saying that we like our churches to be comfortable.

We like comfy seats.  Beautifully appointed sanctuaries.  Classrooms with full-on sound systems.

We're also comfortable with specific kinds of music ... Music may be one of the things we obsess about the most in our corporate worship experiences.  And it can get pretty contentious.  It's energizing to see, even in a more traditional worship experience (maybe especially) when somebody throws up their hands in praise.  But then we learn a new hymn, and, well, the feedback isn't always great.  Regardless of how the message was menat to be heard that day.

I'm not saying that the Temples we make aren't beautiful, they are dedicated to the Glory of God and we the church need places to gather.  But what would the church, the Body of Christ, be like if we didn't seek comfort?  If we constantly sought new and beautiful ways to make the Word incarnate in the world today?  What if we lived as if the local church was called to discomfort?  What would we build together then?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Let Peace Begin With Me

Sometimes passing the peace in worship can be an uncomfortable experience.

There's hand-shaking.  There's speaking to people.  Sometimes there's even hugging involved.

But is it necessary?  You bet.

For several months now, in our "Traditional" worship service, we've been passing the peace on Communion Sundays.  Not only that, but instead of saying our usual Affirmation of Faith (or Creed) we begin worship with a corporate Prayer of Confession, followed by the Words of Assurance from our Pastors, then comes the Peace.  Rather than trying to hurriedly squeeze it all in after the sermon, when it's Communion Sunday, we make it all about Communion.  As a worship design, I'll admit, I've borrowed it from my previous clergy team; it just makes the service feel whole and it makes the sacrament feel less like an appendage to be added on once a month.

It's been interesting though to sit back and listen to the comments ... There are no objections to public confession, but Passing of the Peace ... Well ... It's not caught on like wild fire.  Which of course, to me signals that we're not Passing the Peace enough.

At our "Contemporary" service we have a formal/informal greeting time every Sunday morning, after the first song of the praise set.  It's an important part of the service for the congregation, and while there might not be a lot of peace-passing specifically, there's a lot of hospitality extended.

Although, when I look up hospitality, it's defined as: 
1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers.
2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.
With the specific emphasis on strangers in the definition of the word, I'm probably going to have to rethink how much hospitality is truly being shown on Sunday morning.  But that's probably for another blog entry, so as to avoid a little snarkiness at this juncture.

To get back to the Peace, we need to be doing more of it.  So, to get us into the habit of reconciling with one another, we've taken it on as a Lenten worship discipline in our traditional service to follow the United Methodist Book of Worship pattern, with the Confession, Pardon, and Peace every Sunday during the Season of Lent in place of our Affirmation of Faith.  We've adopted it in the spirit of the Lord's Prayer, where Jesus laid this one on us:
"And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Matthew 6:12
The people aren't really leaving their pews, which is ok.  Because after all, who do we often need to reconcile with more than our own families?

To complete the Peace, we wrap it up with the chorus to the gospel hymn by Margaret Douroux, "Give Me a Clean Heart".  This keeps our "new heart" theme of Ash Wednesday going, always praying for that renewal of the heart, so that we can keep the ministry of the Gospel moving forward.  And the results have been so encouraging, I mean, they're Passing the Peace.

And if we really think about it, it's fundamental for the local church to be able to Pass the Peace within the church's doors.  Our call is to be a peaceful people, and fulfill the vision of the Peaceful Kingdom that Christ came to bring us.  Christians have to be able to do that with one another; how else are we to show Christ to the world?

Does your church Pass the Peace on a regular basis?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Courageous Singing

John Wesley loved to give directions.  He couldn't help it.

As a matter of fact in Select Hymns (1761), Mr. Wesley went so far as to publish his "Directions for Singing".  He was apparently distraught with how the people were singing the hymns that he and his brother Charles were so actively writing.  The early Methodist hymns had a very revival-like quality.  The Wesleys knew that music was a tool sent to us from God to bring God's people together, so they took the craft of musical composition for the church very seriously.

The wise Hymnal Revision Committee for the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal reprinted John Wesley's Directions just inside the hymnal and I'm always rereading them to make sure I measure up!

My favorite one, number 4, reads like this:

Sing lustily and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
As a worship pastor, it's my job to get people engaged in the songs of the church.  But sometimes congregants just refuse.  That's the half dead people Mr. Wesley was talking about.  How can you not smile when it's time to sing Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee?  Maybe somebody told these people that their God-given voice wasn't worthy.

When it comes to the music in worship, there are as many opinions as there are people.  And I don't have the data to back it up, but for a whole lot of people the quality of the music is a huge decider in the church that they choose.  The Wesley's knew this, and they were writing music to start a holiness movement, a revival.  The congregational singing in our worship is a primary way that the people work together to praise.

So sing with the voice God gave you.  Be courageous!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Let the children come!

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way. - Matthew 9:13-15

At the writing of this, my little boy will be 7 weeks and 1 day old.  My wife only missed two Sundays of worship after he was born ... she couldn't wait to get him to church and show him off!  But more than that, she couldn't wait to worship with our son.  Our little man had been worshipping with us for the nine months previous anyway, getting to know our praise team and choir, my voice, the voice of our pastors.  We would marvel at his movement in worship while he was growing inside of my wife.  He couldn't get enough of it it seemed; and we loved getting to know our little boy in this way.

She hasn't missed a Sunday since those two; and her and the little man don't intend to miss any others.  Sure he can get fussy; but it seems more often than not, he can't wait to share his own, "AMEN!"

My wife and I are personally both extremely grateful that our church has been so open to having an infant in worship; the church loves it, and so do we. 

But there seems to be a phenomenon going on lately, where the children are being separated out, and sent to their very own experience.  An experience that is super-high quality for sure, but without their parents. 

Of course, children's church is nothing new ... Most churches who want young families around have some sort of activity for those in the wiggly-preschool stage. But usually kids at least started out in the Sanctuary with their parents before being sent out to a special time just for them.

It seems more often though these days that children of all ages are being separated out in the narthex from their folks, to be reunited after worship.  My question is, why?

Kids can be loud.  Kids can be moody.  Kids can be wiggly.

But kids can also bring brightness.  Kids are less afraid to sing out.  Kids can be fearless in their prayers.

It can be hard to embrace in worship the disruption a child can bring; but isn't it important for a child to see their parents in worship with the body of Christ?

Christ never turned anyone away, and he was called to gather all of God's children together.  He called on us to enter into a relationship with him as children; to be wholly trusting and faithful.  So, maybe the call isn't just for the children to learn from adults, maybe if we make sure they're welcome in worship we can learn something from them as well.