Why Do I Like Handel’s “Messiah” More than Lessons in Carols?

Cindy and I had a wonderful 40th anniversary celebration this past weekend and regaled in hearing Handel’s “Messiah” on Friday night. This got me to thinking. Why do I love it every time I hear it and never tire of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” On the other hand, and I hate to admit it, Moravian Love Feasts and Lessons in Carols absolutely dull my senses though I am sure that others find them poignant. It’s probably my problem, but do any of these “We’ve never done it any other way” Christmas traditions ever bore you silly? Why do we seldom tire of some and hardly abide others?

Trust me, I don’t get bored at St. John’s. The music, for instance, is fantastic! I heard that I missed a wonderful Children’s and Youth Christmas Musical while we were away. I especially heard about 12 year-old Anna O’Flaherty’s expertise on our huge organ while playing “Away in a Manger.” I am so thankful for Catherine Nance and Christopher Nash and their skills. The same can be said of Jane Timmerman and the 9:02 Band. Our whole Worship Team is extraordinary.

Vibrant worship at this church is a cure for worship boredom and Sunday morning naps! This week’s cantata will yield worshipful chills, I’m sure. But maybe what I just wrote is a part of my dull worship dilemma; i.e., I’m EXPECTING chills this Sunday so the anticipation is building. Perhaps the simplest but most profound cure for underwhelming worship is better individual participation through expectant anticipation.

But, another reason for my worship apathy is self-centeredness. There’s something that I need to get off my chest to prove the point. This year at St. John’s we have said for quite some time that we will have 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Christmas Eve services. There won’t be the usual 11 pm one, and some have thought that it was my idea. Nope. I honestly don’t remember a specific reason, and, maybe, that’s my own apathy at work. My self-centeredness is that I was willing to yield on not having 11 o’clock because I was getting what I wanted at 9 – Holy Communion! I cannot tell you how important that this is to me, but in getting what I wanted some of you didn’t get what you wanted. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem – what WE want.

Sure, I can pull rank since worship is under my purview, but clergy shepherds who disregard the sheep’s needs are in for a rude awakening. I could pick 10 am on Tuesday’s for our primary worship time, but I’m not an idiot. People’s opinions count, but not near as much as God’s. Why did I agree to the switch to 9 instead of 11? I got communion at 9 out of my own self-centeredness.

Christmas Eve Communion at Trinity Episcopal Church in Edgefield shaped and solidified my call to ministry. The understated elegance was magnificent as we sang simple carols and celebrated the Eucharist by candlelight. For me, Christmas Eve without communion is like being United Methodist and saying you don’t believe in church dinners!

God was present in every atom infusing that sacred space with glorious whispers that filled my entire being with purpose, call, and sublime joy. So, yes, I want communion at Christmas Eve. To have candles without communion is a trade-off that comes up short in content and meaning. It gains time at the expense of something way better! My decision, therefore, is that I’ll be at St. John’s at 11 pm on Christmas Eve ready to worship, no choir, and no musical instruments. We’ll sing acapella. I’ll bring the bread and juice; chalice and paten. We won’t need to conjure God’s presence, but we will need expectation to notice it was already here.

In this tell-all, I think the problem for me and some of my worship experiences has become clear. At times my expectation level affects my participation. Other times it’s all about me, me, me, and what I want. So many worship wars are about what we want and me, me, me, and this is an anathema to true worship. We promote that worship is about God when the reality is that it’s often a consumer exercise: “Do I like the minister, the music, and the people?” Worship, however, isn’t about what we like, but what God likes. God is the audience, not us. We’re actors bringing homage in the best ways we know how to God. It’s God’s opinion that counts, not yours or mine!

So, if I can get rid of me-ism in worship and add an expectancy that God is going to show up, then I won’t get bored. I will be a participant that worships the Majestic Almighty Holy Other Creator Incarnate God-in-the-Flesh Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I will be able to hear echoes of the seraphim, cherubim and the whole heavenly host bringing glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship!

The wisdom of Fred Craddock strikes a chord as I write:

“Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic. Sincere Sunday worshipers will confess to welcoming in muffled celebration any interruption of the funereal droning. Be honest: Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew, a bird flew in a window, the lights went out, the organ wheezed, the sound system picked up police calls, or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit? Passengers on cruise ships, after nine beautiful sunsets and eighty-six invigorating games of shuffleboard, begin to ask the crew hopefully, ‘Do you think we’ll have a storm?’ … For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual, ‘But he is really a genuine fellow,’ or ‘But she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling us to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

Ah, “indifference and unimportance,” which are the essence of my duly noted apathy and self-centeredness. To be clear, worship at St. John’s is wonderful, at least that’s how I perceive the way God feels about it. The rest of our opinions don’t really matter that much anyway. Sure, I want us to have a warm-hearted experience every time we’re here. That’s who we are as United Methodists! Our acts of worship carry our theology and what/Who we value, always has. So, see you somewhere, sometime on Christmas Eve, and may our hearts affirm that God is truly pleased!

candlelight_communion_small

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The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!

Holiday Grace

Christmas panic is already here! I am grateful for all those who give of themselves in worship leadership: music directors, clergy, worship committees, altar guilds, choir members, musicians, ushers, acolytes, crucifers, band members, and thank God for good sound technicians. With worship it literally takes a village and that’s the point. True worship focuses on God as the audience, the congregants as the actors, and everyone connected to worship leadership as the stage hands that facilitate the worshiping gifts of the congregation toward a Holy God. Too many worship experiences have devolved into a feast for the parishioners, and a spectacle for spectators. The use of religious language and music has too often become a “production” for show-and-tell entertainers for consumeristic congregants whose primary interest is what’s-in-it-for-me.

Why is this on my mind right now? Well, it’s not Thanksgiving yet and already Music and Worship people have that “look” on their faces about Christmas. It’s a cross between glee, panic, and frustration because in so many ways music does carry the season. I sympathize with all the people who are doing their very best to make sure the holidays are bright and worshipful for everyone. My gratitude for all of the stagehands that help us offer God our best worship should go without saying, but I must say it. I must say it now before Advent and Christmas seasons arrive because the aftermath leaves these selfless people with too little energy to even embrace a hearty “Thanks!”

So I say, “Thank you,” ahead of time. It is Thanksgiving season after all! There’s a great story of the depth of meaning that comes from offering the Christ Child as a gift every Christmas to a world that so desperately needs Him. It is a message of how poignant and important our yearly offering is:

It was Sunday, Christmas. Our family had spent the holidays in San Francisco with my husband’s parents. But in order for us to be back at work on Monday, we found ourselves driving 400 miles back home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

We stopped for lunch in King City. The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. I heard Erik, my one year old, squeal with glee: “Hithere.” (Two words he thought were one.) “Hithere.” He pounded his fat baby hands – whack, whack – on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled and chirped, and giggled, and then I saw the source of his merriment…and my eyes could not take it all in at once.

A tattered rag of a coat – obviously bought by someone else, eons ago – dirty, greasy, and worn…baggy pants – spindly body – toes that poked out of would-be shoes…a shirt that had ring-around-the-collar all over and  a face like none other…gums as bare as Erik’s.

“Hi there baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster.” My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between “What do we do?” and “Poor devil.” Our meal came, and the cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room: “Do ya know patty cake? Atta boy…Do ya know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!”

Erik continued to laugh and answer, “Hithere.” Every call was echoed. Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance. I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said, “Why is that old man talking so loud?” Dennis went to pay the check, imploring me to get Erik and meet him in the parking lot. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik.” I bolted for the door.

It soon was obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to side-step him – and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, all the while with his eyes riveted to his new best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms to a baby’s “pick me up” position. In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide.

The bum’s eyes both asked and implored, “Would you let me hold your baby?” There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man’s. Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, and pain, and hard labor – gently, so gently, cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back.

I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, “You take care of this baby.” Somehow I managed, “I will,” from a throat that contained a stone.

He pried Erik from his chest – unwillingly, longingly – as though he was in pain. I held my arms open to receive my baby and again the gentleman addressed me. “God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, “My God, my God, forgive me.”

God bless every worship leader this coming holiday season. Every year you graciously give “your baby” – “The Baby” to a world that needs to hear the Incarnation’s message afresh. Thanks to you we each receive our Christmas gift. Bless you and thanks for all that you do!

Baby Picture

A Close Encounter of the Third Kind with God

I use the same body for all my clay-throwing which is Highwater brand “Little Loafer’s Glory.” It feels great to the touch, fires and looks like the kaolin based clay of my childhood. It is simply superior. It’s a consistent winner in the battle against thermal shock and takes glazes well. I repeatedly use a chun plum glaze layered with an ancient jasper one. The look never fails even if I dare to do multiple firings of the same piece. This is simply my opinion and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So, yeah, I like what I like and tend to keep going back to it. What’s up with my tendency to do the same things whether it’s the same clays, glazes, restaurants, foods, or recipes? For instance, why do I like to watch recorded football games when I already know that my favorite team won?

Could it be that in all these circumstances I like the certainty that comes from anticipating positive outcomes. Sure, every now and then I take a risk on a new clay, glaze formula, untried restaurant or entree. However I do find that the stress of each day’s uncertainties makes me more and more desirous of the tried and true. There’s very little I can control in life so when I can, I’m going to do it! So risk and reward ratios cause me to lean toward the familiar.

What does this have to say about the life of faith? Where I live there are some packed out high energy contemporary worship services that are making main-liners ponder how to jazz things up. At the same time, however, there are some churches that have excelled at high church traditional worship and they’re full, too.  Then, of course, there are some that do both well!

I prefer the “bells and smells” of what’s good worship in my opinion. I like the ambience of a well-appointed church that belies the mystery of God and re-presents the Gospel in time-honored rituals within sanctuaries that smell like church, look like church, and more importantly act like church. Of course, this is probably where I hit the slippery slope of my own downfall today. I may end up looking for God in all the wrong places while he shows up somewhere else. Worship is for God’s sake, not mine – right? If I keep that straight, it’s all good!

But we all have personal preferences. For me, it’s not a big deal if the church is adorned with simple elegance or has Tiffany-esqe windows. What lights me up is a worship experience that has an enduring appeal to those who want a solid faith experience. It’s not consumer-driven, it’s God-driven. It’s more worship than spectator sport. I want to look like Charlton Heston in the “Ten Commandments” when I leave church with my face glowing from a close encounter of the third kind with God.

So here I am with a dilemma. I definitely have a penchant for contemporary Christian music and worship done well. At the same time, however, I have a love for rituals that take me back to Iona’s Celtic Christianity and the mystics. I want the security of traditional worship with the promise of meeting a God who dares to risk. I like contemporary songs but not the “7-11” ones where you sing the same 7 verses 11 times. Life is crazy enough so please give me some old time religion done well. It must invite me to experience God more than the worship leader.

Because I’m a visual thinker, let me ask you about worship preferences another way. What kind of service would you rather attend on Christmas Eve: candlelight communion with an acapella rendition of “O Holy Night” sung from the balcony by a great baritone, chasubles on the clergy, an elegant chrismon tree, and real candles held high, or a make-shift worship space with a clergyperson in a bright Christmas sweater, colored lights strung haphazardly all around, and everybody holding a neon glow stick?

My prejudice shows even in my description.  If I truly believe that true worship is more about God than our preference does it really matter what worship style works? I personally need more awe than wow to get me through my day, but everyone differs on what produces either effect. What floats my boat might sink yours. I know that and, way better yet, God knows what you need to get you through the tough times and the answer, either way, is WORSHIP, however defined or practiced. After all, the manger was much more awe inspiring than Herod’s palace, wasn’t it? So in the midst of today’s uncertainties I’m just pondering out loud where I can best meet a Certain God. Whatever works for you, seek and ye shall find, and I’ll try to do the same.

UM Call To Action – Don’t Toss the Good Stuff

I have been thinking about the United Methodist Call to Action Report – again! There’s so much to affirm in it, though most of you know that I have problems with the structure that it proposes and plan to vote to change some parts of it. I don’t want to throw out the good stuff though. The CTA and the Towers-Watson and Apex Studies have given us some great information and we need to take advantage of it. Recent news reports say how US citizens have a 62% favorable view of our denomination, far outpacing other faith groups. We want that 62% and more to actually come through our doors and experience Jesus. So we need to pay attention to what these studies have said are important factors for increasing our vitality.

Their findings say that we need more small groups, better programs for children and youth, a mix of contemporary and traditional worship, longer pastorates, more effective exit strategies for underpeforming clergy, lay empowerment, more people and money in missions, and evangelism. The Council of Bishops has said about the CTA, “For the sake of a new world, we see a new church.”  There is no doubt in my mind that we have to do things differently to reach the world for Christ! We all know the popular adage: “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is madness.”

But, we love rituals, especially church ones, don’t we? They give us a sense of order in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.

But don’t most of us also abhor anything that is stale or routine? Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. On the other hand Aesop did say, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.

The world has changed, though. Sure there are tried and true things we need to keep doing, but we better be open to new strategies to reach a culture that increasingly thinks that the church is out of touch. For instance, worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented with new things like contemporary Christian music, screens and projectors in sanctuaries, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others. Children’s Sermons, Advent wreaths and candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have been so welcomed that people think they’re age-old traditions. “Longest Night” services on December 21 are fairly new to me but are an example of creative worship innovation. What a wonderful way to help people deal with holiday grief.

It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. We end up lukewarmly selling out to hip worship fads that promote a consumeristic entertainment “Wow!” over the real deal. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty ritual doesn’t cut it. For instance, George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!

No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – who cares just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized.

From Bethlehem to Bedlam and Back

It was planned as a “Journey to Bethlehem” in my last parish before becoming a District Superintendent, a living village with authentic smells and sights,  with a living tableau of Bethlehem’s manger complete with live animals and a real couple and their very own baby, albeit there was a heating pad under the straw in the manger. I was type-cast as the “Crazy Prophet” quoting Scripture that foretold the coming of Christ. Unfortunately, the craziness went beyond me. There weren’t any problems with the cows and the lambs. The donkeys were fine, too. They played their roles well. Never mind that a camel couldn’t be found. After all, we reasoned that the Wise Men would have parked them out back anyway.

 The goats were a different story. Hindsight is always 20-20. No wonder goats aren’t usually found in crèches. Jesus told the truth when he said that on Judgement Day the sheep ought to be divided from the goats. Together, they can wreck a nativity scene. One year a goat got loose and almost wrecked the whole experience!

 We often turn our experience of Christ’s birth into a zoo. We mix our metaphors for Christ’s incarnation, blend the sacred and the secular, and end up with the goats and sheep butting heads. Our symbols and celebrations have become a hodgepodge of the commercial and sentimental. Santa and tinsel have overshadowed Jesus. Phyllis Diller said it well, “Santa Claus comes to us under many names: Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Mastercard.” We have lost Jesus and replaced Him with a Coca-Cola image of jolly old St. Nick.

 With Christmas customs and live nativities, Bethlehem can easily degenerate into bedlam. What began as an earnest attempt to make the Nativity of our Lord more realistic turned into a somewhat humorous disaster. But that’s nothing new. “Bedlam” often describes how we celebrate Christmas today.

 The word goes back to the 1400s when a London hospital named St. Mary of Bethlehem opened its doors to the insane. According to historians, it was a very noisy and unkempt place. People started dropping St. Mary from the name. Then they eventually contracted and corrupted the last part. Bethlehem became Bethlem and finally bedlam, a place of noise and confusion. A name that was first associated with the mother of the Prince of Peace became synonymous with disruption and despair.

Sounds like our hectic schedule of Christmas parties and commitments, doesn’t it? But, it doesn’t have to be this way. The celebration of Christmas need not become bedlam. Worship ought not cause confusion but peace, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Corinthians 14:33).  This season is best enjoyed in stillness and reflection. Let the hush of this holy season toss out the bedlam of overactivity! Yes, a Journey to Bethlehem is more authentic when you can actually hear the cattle lowing, but praise God for how still and worshipful everyone got when they came to the stable and saw a real family with a real baby. The sounds of the village wafted away and were replaced by the silence of awe. May it be so today!

Worship Wars & Epiphany

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Join an argument I’m having with myself: How do we experience epiphanies when our rituals feel stale? As a church we can get so caught up in doing things right that we forget to do the right things. But, oh, how we love rituals, especially church ones! They give us a sense of order and structure in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.
But most of us abhor any that is routine. Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. Aesop did say, however, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.
But worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented and embraced new things like contemporary Christian music, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others: Children’s Sermons, Advent candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have pretty much been welcomed.
It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty rituals don’t cut it. For instance, George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!
No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – which matters, just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized. I want to always do my worship homework, but I know I need to get out of the way and make room for the Spirit to cut new channels in my brittle bones.

Daisy-Pickers Miss Real Worship

As a District Superintendent I go to church a lot, mostly for meeting or the sneak-in visits that are par for this time of year. Tomorrow is when churches and clergy have to turn in their “Advisory Reponse Form” indicating whether each would rather stay put or try something or someone new so I drop in a lot to see how things are going. This is not, however, conducive to healthy spiritual life. I find myself sitting in church pews this time of year grading rather than sitting in gratitude. I’m plucking petals from God’s daisies of love and essentially saying “I love Him!” or “I love Him not!” with more of the latter than the former.
 
We love rituals, especially church ones! They give us a sense of order and structure in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.
 
But most of us abhor anything that is routine. Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. Aesop did say, however, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.
 
But worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented with new things like contemporary Christian music, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others. Children’s Sermons, Advent candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have pretty much been welcomed.
 
It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty ritual doesn’t cut it. For instance,George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!
 
No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – who cares just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized. No more Daisy-picking for me when I’m in church!