Posts Tagged ‘worship’

Stop, Listen, Remember

I love the site Pray As You Go.  Off and on for ten years I’ve enjoyed their presentations of Scripture, reflection, and world music.

A recent episode asked listeners to meditate on Romans 4.3:
For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  I thought about how simple that sounds.

After all, Abraham’s spiritual practice was pretty simple.  Most of his practice (described in the book of Genesis) consisted of two things:  listening to God, and building altars at places where he heard God’s voice.

Paul doesn’t mention it here, but Hagar also takes on a straightforward spiritual practice.  (She was a woman held in slavery in Abraham’s household.)  In her sadness and subjugation, God speaks to her.  In response, Hagar is the first person in Scripture to give God a name.  She calls God El-Roi (God who listened to me), and the place of the encounter is known thereafter as a place where God was present. (Genesis 16)

Neither Hagar, nor Abraham, nor anyone else in the household, worshiped in an organized or institutional fashion.  They had no temple with priests, choirs, and attendants.  They had no written set of instructions.  All they had were their direct, unmediated interactions with the God of the universe.

I am also amazed at Hagar’s and Abraham’s courage.  Who could listen directly to God and have the courage not only to stick around, but to speak?

I’m not sure about my level of courage right now, but I am learning from Hagar and Abraham.  Stop.  Listen.  Remember.  Repeat.  Amen.

Bench at Lake Susan

Lake Susan at Montreat: a place where many people stop to listen and pray.

Prayers I Like: Funeral Prayer

Yesterday I attended a funeral at at United Methodist congregation.

This prayer was printed in the bulletin.  A number of people have already written about Americans’ discomfort with the reality of death.  This prayer squarely addresses death while proclaiming full hope in God’s creative and redemptive power.

O God, who gave us birth,
you are ever more ready to hear
than we are to pray.
You know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Give to us now your grace,
that as we shrink before the mystery of death,
we may see the light of eternity.
Speak to us once more
your solemn message of life and of death.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(see more at

Advent Week 1: “Tear Open the Heavens”

Last year, I set out on an ambitious project to post something about spiritual disciplines every day during Advent.  I did it, but whew!  What a task.  Those posts are still on this blog if you’d like to read them.

That project turned into an ongoing theme in our campus ministry program.  Several times a semester, if not several times a year, our group talks in a very direct way about spiritual growth and discipline.  Listening to young adults talk about prayer, meditation, and their spiritual experiences has truly changed my life.

This year my thoughts are still with young adults, but in a different way.   I’ve noticed over the years that here in Greenville, people in their late teens to early thirties actually show up for worship on Sunday mornings.  Crazy, I know!

However, we don’t talk much during the week about the worship experience was like.  It seems that we just go back to the same old routine every Monday morning:  our work, classes, clubs, and Thursday night campus ministry program.  So this year I will write during Advent about the Scriptures we read on Sunday mornings during church, the hymns we sing, the sermon, and anything else we do during worship.

I have no idea what seeds might be planted this Advent.  For me, if blogging about Sunday worship gets me to carry the Sunday message throughout the week, I’ll be more than satisfied.

All that being said, here’s Week 1.  You’ll see some thoughts from today’s worship service, and some further reflections throughout the week.

“Tear Open the Heavens”

I could have sat for an hour this morning and meditated on Isaiah 64:1 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence …”)

Don’t we wish that God would just get down here and fix some stuff?  That God would slay evil, abolish suffering, and … well, take away our pain with a sweep of his mighty hand?

In this morning’s sermon, Bill stated the case:  we miss God.  We have come to know and love our Creator, and it hurts to be separated from God.

Yet we also know that God has plans and promises.  That’s why we miss God so much when the promises don’t appear to be working out.

During the worship service on the first Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian, we try to witness to those plans and promises in a tangible way.  The service combines the stark prophetic texts with the joyful “Greening of the Church “, which is a procession through the sanctuary with the elements of the season, such as light, greenery, and banners.  It feels sort of like a pilgrimage, in which we “travel” to our place of worship, singing along the way about who God is and who we are because of Him.  Too bad we don’t parade around the city as well!

I always get the sense from this service that God has truly arrived.  God is in residence, keeping office hours, and ready to get to work.  We, in turn, set out our pretty decorations as a way of saying that we’re here too.  We are ready to sojourn with this Immanuel, the Word made flesh.  We just might even be ready, should Immanuel tear open the heavens this very minute.

More this week on the texts and worship from the first Sunday in Advent.

Spirituality, Scripture, and the Art of Being Irrelevant

Here it goes again.  Someone in my church universe just tossed the word “relevant” into the conversation.

That’s a word I hear pretty often.  The church needs to be relevant, people say.  I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by using that word, but I guess it means not looking old, or never saying something that seems foreign.

News flash:  the church is old!  The church is foreign to every time, place, and culture, because the gospel is a stumbling block to anyone who’s not one hundred per cent connected to God.  If you think about it, something about the church or its holy text has been labeled “irrelevant” somewhere along the road of history.   Consider these:

  • Galatians 3:28?  Irrelevant.  No one cares about females or slaves. (Except Jesus.)
  • Deuteronomy 24:19?  Irrelevant.  No one farms anymore.  (But we still have hungry people, right?)
  • Genesis 3?  Irrelevant.  No one likes to talk about sin.  (But what if I have sinned, and I can’t find anyone to talk to about it?)
  • Classical music?  Irrelevant.  No one finds any meaning in it.  (Except at Christmas.)

You get the point.  Everyone, even if they don’t want to admit it, takes in Scripture and faith and worship through a filter.  My question is, what’s relevant:  the filter or the stuff trying to break through it?

Along the path of spiritual development, particularly Christian spiritual development, one must confront the seemingly irrelevant stuff.  True spiritual development is stunted when we are content to surround ourselves with scriptures, prayers, and experiences that we like.  Somewhere along the way, if I want to grow in faith, I need to ask myself …

  • What does it mean to feed the hungry in 2011? 
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • If I feel connected to God in an expensive environment (plasma screens, poinsettias, orchestras, exquisite guitars) and not in a run-down country church, what is that saying?
  • Why do I sometimes feel that God isn’t there, but other times I feel God all around me?

Perhaps others find answers to these questions in their current cultural/economic/social situation.  Me, I have to go back to the old stuff.  Nothing speaks to me like words I’ve heard a thousand times in church, repeated just one more time for my ears that day.  Nothing brings me out of my bubble like a throwback to some ancient way of doing things.

I think it’s about time for those of us trying to be the church to claim our irrelevance.  Let’s be old, awkward, and weird.  We may just find God that way.

Advent Day 27: Worship

Advent Day 27

Young men and women alike, old and young together!  Let them praise the name of the Lord … (from Psalm 148)

Today is a great day to worship.

Yesterday I wrote about becoming part of a community of faith.  Tonight (Christmas Eve) there will be some beautiful opportunities to participate in a community as worshipers celebrate the birth of Christ.

Actually, for me this night is bittersweet.  In becoming a pastor, I’ve had to give up a cherished childhood tradition.  Some of my ancestors were Moravian, and the Moravians host a moving Christmas Eve service called a “lovefeast.”  For years, my family attended these services in the Winston-Salem, NC area.  I don’t live anywhere near a Moravian church and I miss attending those services.  If you live near one, go!

Yet tonight I get to have some fun dressing up as a shepherdess or Mary or some sort of “Bible woman” for our children’s Christmas Eve service.  Instead of robes, the senior pastor and I will wear the funny little bathrobe-type costumes we keep around the church for this occasion, and the children will dress up as people or animals from the Christmas story.

For me the children’s service is a chance to reflect on the meaning of worship.  By dressing down, I feel that I am putting away all my pretenses.  I am humble before the manger, in which lies a King.  I keep this image before me as I worship at other times during the year.

May your worship be humble and glorious tonight, and indeed every time you worship.

Today’s Scripture readings from the PC(USA):

now is the time to worship

For the first time in a while, someone approached me after the 8:30 am service at First Presbyterian, and instead of complimenting my sermon, she complimented the entire worship service.

That was the best thing I’ve heard all week!  I know the Reformed tradition(s) put  a lot of emphasis on reading and teaching the Word, but hey, worship should be important to us too.

The Sunday before, the importance of worship came rushing in upon me like a gale-force wind.  I was attending the opening worship of the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Minneapolis.  At the beginning of the service, as I saw Commissioned Lay Pastor Fern Cloud ascend to the pulpit, and as we were surrounded by sights and sounds invoking a Native American spiritual experience, it was almost impossible for me to hold back tears.  The service went on to include other musical traditions, and the great feeling just continued.

Why?  Am I just sentimental, swimming in romantic nostalgia for a people and way of life to which I don’t belong?  It’s possible, but I don’t think so.  What I felt was more like relief.

worship by the Bogue Sound, with borrowed communion set

Many times I have experienced worship as if it were a package, neatly wrapped and delivered to my lap.  I’ve been to churches that delivered me a fire-and-brimstone package, or an intellectual sermon-and-classical music package, or a fun and inspirational package, complete with scruffy-looking young men playing electric guitars.

Problem is, when I have received those packages, I have found that all the work has been done for me.  I’ve been told what to think, what to feel, and how to express myself.  And after a while I feel stifled, jittery, and far removed from God’s presence.

But things were a little different at the General Assembly service, and at our 8:30 am service here in eastern NC.  In both these situations, the worship incorporated what local people had to offer, instead of fitting themselves into a pre-packaged mold, and I think that makes all the difference.

It makes perfect sense when you have a big church conference to honor the resources and traditions of all the local churches.  And it is a breath of fresh air here in Greenville to see what kinds of musicians might show up at the 8:30 service.  We have a great school of music at ECU, and lots of local people have musical talent.  So we might have a piano, guitar, bass, flute, mandolin, trumpet, or who knows what to lead us in worship.

In seminary we learned that the original “offering” in Christian worship consisted of people bringing communion bread, wine, flowers, oil for anointing, or whatever was needed for the service that day.  Read 1 Corinthians 12 and you’ll learn more about the emerging tradition of people offering various spiritual gifts.  The early Christians had no one they could hire, or anyone they could fully copy.  There was no package they could wrap up for their members–they were creating worship as they went along.

So I can understand why the church member was inspired by the early service.  The music was authentic, and it came from within our community.  It didn’t have a brand name or particular style.

Worship that incorporates what the community has to offer takes me out of my little bubble and into a wider world–and then it challenges me to do something with what I’ve been given.  So now I’m challenged to think beyond the music here in our congregation, and to think more about worship experiences our campus ministry will have.  I’ve been given the gift of great people all around me.  Instead of trying to deliver them a package, how can I help them bring their gifts to the table?