Weekly Worship Thought – Slow Down

I’m finding myself in the middle of one of the busiest seasons of my year. Probably even the last decade. I knew this time was approaching, as all of these events were on my calendar for months in advance. Sometimes the deluge of stuff arriving at the same time sneaks up on you.

I am preparing for our fifth annual TUNE UP worship gathering this Saturday. Around 75 church musicians are coming together for training and networking. I am also preparing video content and workshops for the ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering that starts next week. And I’m in the middle of an online Greek course at Wartburg. And I’m trying to work ahead at church so I’m not too far behind when I get back late next week.

It is hard to sustain focus with so many things needing attention. It feels like there are lots of little fires burning – and it is hard to remember which ones I need to fan and which ones I need to put out. The most helpful thing for me in a time like this is lists. I have a weekly task list for church that helps me prepare everything needed for a Sunday morning. And I have a punch list for the TUNE UP gathering that I rolled over from the previous year to help me remember all the details that lead to a solid event.

In the midst of working ahead at church I peeked at the first reading for next Sunday (tenth Sunday after Pentecost). It is the story of Elijah seeing God on the mountain. Not the wind. Not the earthquake. Not the fire. It was the silence. God was made known to Elijah in the silence. Not the power and the activity, but the stillness. That is a hopeful story for me this week.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Cultivating Discipleship

rgypr4aysma-zbysiu-rodakBrothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Reflecting on the upcoming second reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I think about the process of disciple making. The church in Corinth was getting a word of rebuke from brother Paul because of their lack of spiritual maturity. What was the sign of their immaturity? Dividing and separating themselves into factions. Not only were they splitting up based on which leader helped ignite their spiritual flame, they were also not treating each other with respect because of socio-economic differences (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We might think we are so much farther down the path to maturity than the folks of Corinth were, but are we?

Then Paul gives this terrific agrarian image of what really happens in the process of discipleship. We are God’s field. Some people help plant us. Other people help water us. Some people make sure our soil is rich with fertilizer. Other people help prune us to ensure the best overall yield. Some people help us keep the pests away. God is everything else: the solar system, the earth, the seasons, the environment, and the atmosphere. Every bit of growth hinges on God. No growth is possible without God.

I cannot make a disciple. I can help cultivate discipleship in others.

I cannot be a disciple without others cultivating me.

Weekly Worship Thought – Counter-Cultural Baptism

river“Baptismal unity will never be that of an “insider” group. Baptism, which constitutes the Church, also calls Christians to identify in solidarity with all people. Its celebration will therefore have certain counter-cultural elements as well. The poor will be baptized with a least as great a dignity as the rich. Women and men, children and adults, and people from all ethnic/class/caste backgrounds will stand here on equal footing, equally in need of God’s mercy, equally gifted with the outpoured Spirit. Baptism, which creates members of the local community, also at the same time creates these people as member of the one universal Body of Christ. Baptism calls us to unity, not to division.” Chicago Statement on Worship and Culture, Lutheran World Federation, 2.3.

Weekly Worship Thought – Crystal Fountain

photo-1452797355799-63a396b67aadToday I was reflecting on the text from the hymn “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer.” The text was written by William Williams in the 18th century (read more about him here). The second stanza reads, “Open now the crystal fountain where the healing waters flow; let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.” The biblical imagery is stark. The crystal fountain refers to Revelation 22:1, “Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear.” The healing waters of this river nourish the trees of life planted there whose “leaves are the cure for the nations” (Revelation 22:2). These healing trees are a recapitulation of an idea from Ezekiel 47:12 where, “this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal.” A river of healing, life, and wholeness is opened when we draw near to God in worship.

Weekly Worship Thought – Spiritual Gifts

giftWhat are your gifts? What do you bring to the table? What are your spiritual gifts? We believe that God gives the church every thing she needs to grow and thrive, through the spiritual gifts of the assembled body of Christ. What gifts has God given you that make you uniquely useful and beneficial to God’s people and for the good of the world? Have you ever taken a spiritual gift inventory? If you haven’t I invite you to take the one in the link. Obviously, church musicians are usually gifted in the area of music and worship leadership. That is why we do what we do every Sunday. But what other gifts might you have? What do you bring to the table that makes you unique and makes the church better? We can’t do the work of ministry unless we have resources. Our biggest resource is you – and God has gifted you to be a resource.

Weekly Worship Thought – Sung Prayer

clayton guitar smallAll of our worship is prayer. All the music we offer in worship can best be understood as sung prayer. This gives me hope, because I suck at prayer. Most of the time I feel self sufficient in my life and not needful of God’s assistance. My problem is pride, the sneakiest, most original sin of all. I am encouraged when I think about singing my prayer to God. All my prayers of praise, confession, lament, and intercession can be carried on a tune from our heart to God’s ear. Jesus told a story in Luke 18 about a pesky widow who would not leave a judge alone. She pestered the judge day after day, and he finally bent to her pleading to avoid the insanity. So may our songs never stop ringing in God’s ears.

A Warning Against Careless Worship

I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel today.

3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. (Genesis 4:3-5)

the-offerings-of-cain-and-abel-1429.jpg!BlogAbel offered his sacrifice of meat. Cain offered his sacrifice of grain. God found one of them pleasing and the other not. Why?

The text suggests that Abel’s offering was accepted because of the sacrifice that accompanied it. The firstlings were the oldest, most developed, most favored of the flock. They were most costly. Cain’s offering appears to have been nothing special, just a portion of the crops he cultivated.

The text doesn’t suggest that the style of offering was what God found offense with. This story is a precursor to the sacrificial practices of Israel’s worship (perhaps a model for both grain and animal offerings). God was not pleased with the heart behind the offering that Cain brought. Abel offered his offering out of a place of grateful thanksgiving for what God had done. Cain offered his offering out of a place of manipulation of power.

Cain believed in power and wanted to manipulate God to be on his side and offer him favor. Cain’s true motives come to the surface after he murders his brother. We see the kind of power Cain is driven by.

The warning is to not offer careless worship (careless=not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm). How does this story relate to modern worship in the church today? What reason do you come to worship? What is the motive behind your offering? Cain wanted something out of his worship. The error of his offering was that he wanted God to do something for him. How does our worship seek to get something out of God? How does our worship manipulate God? How does our worship fail to give something (everything?) back?

How does our worship become the pure offering that Abel offered? By being full of care in what we offer to God. The church should take care, too, in setting the table for worship that unleashes the good and humble offering of all gathered. Perhaps asking what I want out of worship is more akin to Cain than Abel.

(artwork is Jan van Eyck, The Offering of Cain and Abel, 1429)

Hold Our Gifts Loosely

HandI try my best not to be snarky on Facebook. Honestly, I do. But sometimes I’m caught on an off day and my inner snark-beast is awakened. By the way, you can always tell when I’m joking or having fun because I’ll add a winking smiley face with my comment. 😉

So a colleague of mine posted this on their Facebook page several weeks ago:

“Rest easy my friends, to think that the Holy Spirit would pour out gifts on the church only to steal them back a few decades later is just plain ridiculous. Even half decent people don’t work like that, why would we even consider that God would?”

I had a sort of immediate, knee-jerk reaction to this post. To clarify, the post was referring to spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit imparts to us such as artistry, teaching, administration, hospitality, and discernment (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4). These would be different than the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc., Galatians 5:22-23) that are produced in us through the Holy Spirit. It goes without saying that God gives us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). Obviously God’s spiritual gifts are good for us and are ultimately good for the body of Christ.

I have two difficulties with this thought. One, that we assume to know what God will and will not do. Two, that instead we should hold our gifts loosely.

First, only God is God. We are not. God can do whatever God wants. To assume that we know what God will and will not do is fundamentally troublesome. I would confess a reluctance to say I have a certain understanding about how God works. We can know what God will do as much as we can know what a consuming flame or torrential wind will do. There is an untempered quality to God. This is the major point of the book of Job in the Old Testament (one of my favorites). Job loses every good gift God had ever given him. Job questions God’s motives and why bad things are allowed to happen to good people. God’s response? “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed!” (Job 38:4) God lets his own snark fly with a, “Who do you think you are?” (my translation)

Then we have stories that Jesus told like the parable of the talents that prepare us for how the economy of the kingdom of heaven works. Matthew 25:29: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The one who hid his gift had it taken away.

Second, we should hold our gifts loosely. A quote from Nancy Beach:

An_Hour_On_Sunday_Zondervan_large“We aim to ‘hold our gifts loosely.’ Such an attitude grows out of a deep awareness that I did not choose my gifts, and they really don’t belong to me. A gracious heavenly Father distributed the gifts, ‘just as he determines’ (1 Corinthians 12), and intends for us to use these gifts to build up the church. My gifts – and yours – actually belong to the local church. As we learn to hold our gifts more loosely, we become far more open to feedback that helps us not only improve our skills and contribute more effectively but also grow closer to one another and advance Christ’s cause. It’s not all about me; it’s all about the church!” (An Hour On Sunday, Zondervan, 2004, p. 112)

“Christ our Mother” Benediction

If you are in the Lutheran world and use Sundays and Seasons resources, you probably have noted the blessing/benediction prescribed for the season of Lent:

God our Father bless you and shield you. 
Christ our Mother shelter you and carry you.
God the Holy Spirit guide your journey 
+ both now and forever.
Amen.

If a few eyebrows raised, not to worry. If people revolted in violent protest, worry. Ideally, people will engage, enquire, reflect, and theologically wrestle with the concepts and images in our liturgy. You’re lucky if you have people that do this.

hen and chicksIn responding to one parishioner, Pastor Kerry offered some insights:

I assume that the language in the benediction during Lent has something to do with the image of God as a mother hen longing to gather her chicks as was referred to in a gospel reading.  

We use words that carry both gender and relational connectedness when we refer to other people.  So “father” and “mother” refer both to a biological connection and to gender.  When it comes to references to the Trinity, God has no gender.  Referring to God as “Father” or “Mother” is about using relational terms to describe our relationship with God. The earthly Jesus was clearly male.  The resurrected Jesus?  Mystery to me.

I offered some explanation as well:

We have to start from the perspective that God has no gender. God is spirit. The roles that God plays, however, include both mother and father. “From the Bible: In Isaiah, God says (about God’s self), “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). In a prayer of desperation, Moses uses similar womb imagery, speaking of God as one who gives birth, asking God, “Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth…?” (Numbers 11:12). Hosea describes God as a mother bear, attacking those who steal her cubs (13:8) Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks together under her wings (Matt. 23:37, one of the gospel texts during this season of Lent).

The saints of the past also have more to say: St. Augustine observes that just as a mother’s body transforms ordinary table food–too complex for a baby’s delicate digestive system–into milk that is tailored to the baby’s needs, so does the Lord convert Wisdom into “milk” appropriate for our limited understanding. Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria, devotes an entire chapter to this mysterious process of mother’s blood becoming milk, musing over the various ways this connects to the spiriutal world. In one example, he views Christ as the nourishment that flows from the “Father’s breast,” feeding us with the milk of love. St. John Chrysostom writes of Christ as a mother who does not farm her babies out to a wet nurse but rather feeds them personally and tenderly.

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother,” wrote 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich. “To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God. . . The mother can give her child a suck of milk but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself and does. . .” (I think she was speaking of the Eucharist here?)

St. Catherine of Siena compared Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to a mother who takes a bitter medicine so her nursing baby can get well again.” (quoted from Julie McCarty)  So, throughout the history of the church there is a rich heritage of understanding God as having mothering characteristics.

I would argue that the title “Mother” is not a gender specific title and that Jesus’ actions and very words recorded in the gospel warrant the title “Mother.” Consider the context of single parents or same-sex couples. Regardless of gender, a single parent fulfills both the title of “mother” and “father” (possibly not with the greatest ease, possibly better than two opposite gendered people). Actions and titles are too closely related to disassociate them. I mother my children when they need to be mothered. Does that make me a mother? Maybe temporarily. That’s why we like the term “co-parent.”
 
Also, historically the church is referred to in the feminine as “her” or “she.” If the church is the body of Christ, wouldn’t that be inclusive of Christ (as head of the body) to be called “her” or “she”? There is some mystery there. I’m comfortable living in the tension.

(HT: Spiritual Drawing Board)

Devotion on Romans 8:31-39

Romans 8:31-39: 31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

In sports, it is easy to size up an opponent. In basketball, if you’re fast and tall you have a natural leg up on the other person. In football, if you have agility and a rocket for an arm you will have an advantage at quarterback.

In the spiritual world, however, sizing up an opponent isn’t as cut and dry. We have an advantage on our enemy that defies logic and the natural order of things. That advantage is provided through the sacrificial love and humility displayed through Jesus in his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Even though we may face suffering in the present, our hope is pulling us through this life and into a glorious future of new, resurrected life. And not only pulling us as the children of God, but all of creation also. Who can stand opposed to God and God’s people as a result of the incredible work of Jesus, God’s own Son? The clear answer is, “No one!” What can remove God’s love from his children? The clear answer is, “Nothing!”

And because there is never a separation from God’s love, because we have nothing to fear, our hearts rise within us, full of adoration and praise for the One Great Love. 

 

Prayer: God of all love and compassion, bless us with the courage and strength to face any day, any situation, any trial with the grace that comes from being your child. Give us an everlasting hope, through Jesus, and in his name. Amen.