Thursday, April 19, 2007

How do we Design Worship Together?

Recently, I was speaking with some church leaders about two critical worship concerns. As is commonly the case, they had experienced some tension in their church around worship and how staff members worked together, and how lay leaders felt a need for more support in their roles as worship committee members. Here's what I heard from these church leaders:
  1. How to plan vital worship for a healthy congregation?
  2. What does vital, healthy worship look like? What are some marks of healthy, dynamic worship that are easily grasped?

One marvelous resource I suggest for those two questions and many others is the recent book

Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning by Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell, who are affiliated with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I attended the Calvin Symposium on Worship, a yearly event, a couple of years ago and found it to be an outstanding event. It's held in January of each year.

In their book, Malefyt and Vanderwell make a strong case for collaboration in worship planning, a practice often missing in many churches and sometimes not handled all that effectively. They also note some common obstacles to collaboration:

  • Incompatible views of worship. Some have a particular view of what traditional worship looks and feels like, while others have a certain notion of what contemporary worship means. Often, either assumption can be narrow or idiosyncratic.
  • Insufficient available time. When key worship leaders, musicians and pastor, don't make the needed time to work together, along with lay leaders, worship planning suffers.
  • Failure of partnerships
  • Unwillingness of some to carry their weight
  • Political poll taking. Those with different points of view, or with anxieties about fresh approaches, defensively start taking the pulse of the congregtion.
  • Failure to plan ahead.

Malefyt and Vanderwell believe that a congregation's worship life will be richer when more people are involved in planning. At the same time, they recognize that bringing in more people presents challenges. Teams must communicate clearly and fully with one another. An important question they raise is, "Will all of the participants have adequate training in matters of worship?"

I find the suggestion to work on a Worship Purpose Statement to be quite valuable. It offers the opportunity to test our assumptions about worship in light of biblical, theological, and local customs. In my own Presbyterian (PCUSA church) we have an excellent "Directory for Worship" in our Consitution that offers much help in dealing with these theological and practical concerns.

In the course of reading Designing Worship Together, I came across a summary of vital and faithful worship offered by the well respected Presbyterian worship theologian, Tom Long, who teaches at Emory University. Long says that vital and faithful congregations:

  1. Make room, somewhere in worship, for the experience of mystery.
  2. Make planned and concerted efforts to show hospitality to the stranger
  3. Have recovered and made visible the sense of drama inherent in Christian worship
  4. Emphasize congregational music that is both excellent and eclectic in style and genre
  5. Creatively adapt the space and environment of worship
  6. Forge a strong connection between worship and local mission- expressed in how God's word calls us to service and discipleship
  7. Maintain a relatively stable order of service and a significant repertoire of worship elements and responses that the congregation knows by heart
  8. Moves to a joyous, festival experience toward the end of worship
  9. Have strong, appealing pastors as worship leaders

This is just a taste of the rich abundance of materials to be found in Designing Worship Together. It's one of the best resouces I know of for learning how to collaborate in worship planning, and it shows a real understanding of some of the common obstacles.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Compass Point #9 What's Christian about family values?

This past Easter Sunday our church offered up a wonderful brunch between worship services, featuring what I considerd award winning egg and sausauge casseroles. I told the Presbyterian church I serve that if they weren't careful about it, they'd be rivaling the Lutherans pretty soon and our next target would be the tuna hot dish casserole competition. They laughed. We all enjoyed the food and fellowship.

At one table I noticed four generations of a family gathered together. Now you don't see that everyday. Great-grandmother Evelyn was in town from out of state. I could tell she was greatly loved. Her daughter had shared a newspaper article about her mom after a recent sharing time in worship, when I asked people to say something about people who had shaped their faith. "I want you to read this about my mom," was the comment I heard as a copy of an old newspaper article was handed to me after worship. It was a moving story about her mom and dad and the difference their lives made to foster children through the years.

Evelyn and her husband Roy began caring for foster children in 1945 stated the newspaper article I was reading. The article also showed them at their kitchen table, with a pile of pictures spread out. Here's what I read:

"Children's faces-infants, toddlers, teenagers, spill over the table s the graying grandmother picks through them, a collection going back 37 years. There are hundreds of pictures but for every face there is a name and a special memory" 'This is Maggie, the first little girl we had...Bob, we had him the longest, 10 years...These are the five babies under 2 that we had at one time. I had just dressed them to go to church.' Eddie, Judy, Danny, Butch, Susan, Penny, Jane, Joey- the names, more than 800--go on and on."

Evelyn and Roy ended up providing care for 823 children. The governor of South Dakota issued a special proclamation noting their service quite a few years back, commending them "for opening their home and their hearts in lifetime labors of unusual understanding, uncommon devotion, and unbounded love to the young people of South Dakota."

Their foster children came from family backgrounds that included abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, economic hardship, parent separations and other problems. "We had children with physical problems too," said Evelyn, citing allergies, cleft palate, impetigo, respiratory disease and a child who had been accidentally burned.

I think of my own three sons and how it was, shall we say, occasionally stressful to deal with certain issues, like ear-aches or banged up shins from a soccer game , and I marvel at the capacity for love and care that Evelyn and her husband Roy shared. In the article, Roy (who is now deceased) remarked: "When I went to work in the morning I never knew how many children would be there when I got home at night."

Evelyn tells about one young boy named Bob who came to them as a youthful gang leader. "I hesitated at first, but then I thought, what if he was my son." "At first he was always getting in trouble at school and I made many trips to the principal's office." Young Bob lived with Roy and Evelyn until he was 19, finishing high school and college. Some years later he brought his wife and two sons back for a visit with Roy and Evelyn, "to meet the people who raised me," he said.

I thought about that story as I sat down for a visit on Easter Sunday with a four generation family table. This is what it looks like to be a Christian. I'm rather dubious when I hear that contested phrase "family values" used in political and religious circles, but if I had to venture a description it would look something like the families shaped by Roy and Evelyn.

"Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus asked. And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3: 33-35)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Compass Point #8 Doubt and Disbelief in the Life of Discipleship

What does it mean to be a Christian? That's the question I've been exploring now for several weeks, after I saw a CNN program with Anderson Cooper that explored that very issue. Some of those profiled by Cooper were Christians whose faith I recognized and identified with. Others, particularly those from the Christian right, offered up statements and commitments about faith that I reject. Does that sound harsh?

Consider these statements from Christopher Morse's book Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics (theology) of Christian Disbelief:

"To believe in God is not to believe everything. In fact, it is hard to imagine what believing everything would mean....Surely a tendency to trust everything without awareness of what is untrustworthy is not the faith in God to which we have been called by the gospel. But are there some things that Christian faith refuses to believe? And if so, how do we come to recognize what they are?"

"Running through the traditions of scripture within the Bible there is what may be termed a call to "faithful disbelief" A key instance of this is most simply expressed in words of the First Epistle of John: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (I John 4: 1)

"Faithful disbelief" occupies an important place in the life of faith. As Morse rightly points out, how could we believe everything? Over a year ago, while I was visiting in Rome, my son and I visited the church where Galileo stopped to pray before facing the rather terrifing trial regarding the orthodoxy of his faith. Galileo had the temerity to suggest that the sun does not revolve around the earth. Not a smart thing to say at the time! It took the church quite a while to acknowledge that Galileo was correct and the church was wrong. That would not be the last instance of a courageous soul facing up to the power of a church bent on obedience, even when the solitary, courageous human spirit was in the right.

It's becoming more prevalent to hear state governments making official apologies for complicity with slavery in our nation's history. My own home state, North Carolina, recently issued a statement of "contrition" for condoning slavery in its past history. That sounds rather biblical, that word contrition. The psalmist knew something of what it meant to seek a "contrite heart". On occasion, I think it would be good for most every religious body to make a clean admission of error.

Many times the church has called for obedience and assent to certain aspects of supposedly right belief that were later acknowledged to be wrong. Church bodies in recent years have made statements of repentance for tacitly condoning slavery. Southern Baptists have done so. Some have admitted limited understandings of ministry in years past by not calling women as well as men to all offices of ministry. Others like the Southern Baptists continue their intransigence on that topic.

And now, some church bodies are expressing regret for a profoundly inadequate appreciation for God's good creation, the planet earth, which more and more Christians now realize is a sacred trust that we must manage with tender care and reverence. The current debate over global warming is part of that ongoing dispute. I admired the National Association of Evangelicals for backing its Vice President, Richard Cizek, who was under fire by the likes of James Dobson of Focus on the Family, after Cizek led the NAE in addressing such issues as global warming and for issuing a declaration opposing the use of torture in war. A process of doubt and examination of previous assumptions about the core of faith "undoubtedly" played a role in this evolution of evangelical understanding by the NAE.

The upcoming lectionary reading for this Sunday is John 20: 24-31 which includes the story of "doubting Thomas". Mention the word doubt in Christian circles, ask people their initial reaction to that word at a gut level and wait for the responses. Rarely do people first express an appreciation for the place of doubt in faith. The Apostle Paul celebrates the triune virtues of "faith,hope, and love", but I would add another to that list, "faith, hope, love and doubt." Without a place for doubt, I know I could not be a Christian. There would be no place for me to have faith in such a worldview.

How is doubt a powerful aid to confront false belief? I find that question to be crucial in the practice of discipleship and faith. Look around you and see the beliefs and practices that ought to be doubted. Some courageous people have been distinguished by the fact that in the face of universally accepted falsehoods, they dared to stand up and cry: "I doubt that." Without doubt, as many have observed, only an oppressive status quo and its established dogmas would exist.

What I appreciate about this Sunday's lectionary is how Jesus treated Thomas. Jesus does not shame Thomas for his questioning faith. Rather, he invites Thomas to reach out with his hand and touch the wounds in his hands and side. Doubt, it seems to me, is sometimes a wounded faith or idealistic trust that needs acceptance and healing. Doubting people recognize the credibility and authenticity of those who have suffered for what they believe and trust and are willing to risk.

Someone has written that Thomas is the "apostle from the show me state," almost the official slogan for the state of Missouri. Having lived in Missouri for almost ten years, I find that comment humorous. But I don't think it was just stubbornness on Thomas' part. He was willing to stand apart from a conventional faith that doesn't question; he was also willing to engage in an earnest search for Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life." Call him the first seeker!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

Several months ago, I read Madeline Albright's recent book The Mighty and the Almighty,
in which the former Secretary of State under President Clinton explored the intersections of religion, politics, and foreign policy. It's an excellent book for reading and discussion. Given the volatile nature of religion and politics in the world today, Albright sought to address what she acknowleded to be a long neglected topic in foreign affairs, that can no longer stand.

Recently I've come across another significant resource for relating religion to politics and world affairs, located at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The website is as follows A brief description of this university program follows:

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs
The Berkley Center explores the intersection of religion with contemporary global challenges: relations among states and societies; global development; democracy and human rights; and culture and identity. Two foundational premises guide the Center's work: that scholarship on religion and its role in world affairs can help to address these challenges effectively; and that the open engagement of religious traditions with one another and with the wider society can promote peace. The Center was created in March 2006 through a generous grant by William R. Berkley.

The Berkley Center also offers major databases for education and research, one of which I particulary found interesting: Faith 2008 which explores the following questions-

  1. Will faith play the role in the 2008 election that it did in 2004 ?
  2. How will candidates articulate their personal beliefs?
  3. How will they relate their beliefs to public policy issues ranging from education and social policy to terrorism and the war in Iraq?

I think you'll find this site quite interesting and valuable.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

World Affairs: It's unavoidable for us all to care and learn

My high school son wanted to talk one night recently about his new course in "world affairs."
He needed help in selecting 3 topics to read about and research on a weekly basis. Did I have any ideas? he wanted to know. I did, but I also wanted to draw out his interests, and so we talked about a number of topics. World affairs is an unavoidable topic for us all anymore, but it is a concern that so few Americans spend much effort trying to learn about a topic that just can't be ignored any longer. My son finally selected these topics:

  1. The Iraq War (see below for an introduction to a deeper look at this concern from the excellent Catholic journal "Commonweal."
  2. Global Warming (Al Gore's Academy Award for "An Inconvenient Truth" has spurred lots of discussion and debate, right down to younger adults, who do increasingly care about the environment. Although one family member in another state, asked, "How can there be global warming when we've just had a snow storm in the spring?" That's a question for another day.)
  3. Hugo Chavez and Venezeula, the admittedly controversial leader of a nation we are currently at odds with.

Each of the research topics my son selected bears enormous consequences for the United States and the world. All too often, I shared with my son, our public discussion of such topics gets refined down to slogans, cliches, and political manipulation for partisan advantage. It's an old American propensity. Take one example. President Bush spoke a few years ago of a "global axis of evil". It places the United States in the role of white knight and defender of freedom. But that's not how the rest of the world views us anymore.

Benjamin R. Barber in his book "Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy" frames the issue in another way, identifying what he calls a "global axis of inequality". Nations and peoples around the world look at the United States with a mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment for our military and economic dominance. And that has led to a dangerous situation. We can no longer turn a blind eye to that reality.

So take a look at Andrew J. Bacevich's introduction to the current hot topic: The war in Iraq.

Downsizing: From the April 6, 2006 issue Commonweal Magazine

Andrew J. Bacevich
War, we must always remind ourselves, is the continuation of politics by other means. Understanding any war requires first understanding that war’s political basis. What brings the parties into conflict? What are they fighting for?
The challenge of grasping the politics underlying the “Global War on Terror” begins with its very name: it obfuscates rather than clarifies. To contend that the United States is currently engaged in a worldwide military campaign to root out terrorism is to perpetrate a ruse. Generically classifying our adversaries as “terrorists” or “killers” obviates any need to examine their actual purposes or, for that matter, our own. It encourages politicians to spout clichés about “good” and “evil” while permitting them to dodge any serious discussion of power and interests.
In any war, political purpose finds ultimate expression in geopolitics. This war is no exception. The contest fully joined on September 11, 2001, occurs in a concrete and readily identifiable context: the “Global War on Terror” is actually a struggle to determine who will control the Persian Gulf and its environs.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Death on a Friday Afternoon

Quote from "Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross" by Richard John Neuhaus, in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon.

"Good Friday is not just one day of the year. It is a day relived in every day of the world, and of our lives in the world. In the Christian view of things, all reality turns around the "paschal mystery" of the death and resurrection of Christ.
As Passover marks the liberation from bondage in Egypt, so the paschal mystery marks humanity's passage from death to life. Good Friday cannot be confined to Holy Week. It is not simply the dismal but necessary prelude to the joy of Easter, although I'm afraid many Christians think of it that way. Every day of the year is a good day to think more deeply about Good Friday, for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained."

Neuhaus' book has been part of my Holy Week reading for a few years now. I come back to it during the course of this week for the keen spiritual, pastoral, and social insights that Neuhaus provides from this sustained examination of Good Friday.

During the course of Holy Week, Good Friday forms part of what Christians have long called the Triduum Sacrum, the three sacred days of: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Some scholars speculate that "Good Friday" comes from "God's Friday", as "good-bye"
was originally "God be by you." But as Neuhaus remarks, it is just as odd that it should be called God's Friday, when it is the day we say good-bye to the glory of God.

In "Death on a Friday Afternoon," Neuhaus offers reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, although they are really Seven Statements of varied perspective:

  1. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
  2. "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise."
  3. "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother."
  4. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
  5. "I thirst"
  6. "It is finished."
  7. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

In the course of reading "Death on a Friday Afternoon," each year, I find honest reflections about the strength of faith and the struggle for faith offered up by Neuhaus. There's a fierce honesty about the presence of evil and suffering in the life of faith, no shrinking back from looking at this challenge to the goodness and power of God. And yet there's an equal and courageous presentation of the mystery and "awe-full" power of God's redemptive work in the suffering of Jesus. Personally, I need to hold on to both sides of this examination of the cross and human suffering. I need the freedom to question and doubt how the cross of Jesus is relevant and effective for human salvation. And I need the strong courage and illuminating insights provided by the resilience of a theology offered up by Neuhaus.

Neuhaus shows how in touch he is with the honest struggles of people to apprehend the meaning of the cross and Good Friday:

"I suppose I should not be surprised anymore, but I am. With remarkable frequency I run into people who admit that, when it comes to this business abut the cross and curcifixion, they just don't "get it." Some of these people are lifelong and devout Christians, others are inquirers and still others are devout unbelievers for whom the bloodiness of Good Friday is just one more reason for not being a Christian."

Neuhaus doesn't shrink from addressing any of these doubts.

Toward the very end of the book, in a chapter titled "The Scars of God", Neuhaus speaks of how a soldier pierces Jesus' side with a spear, and how "at once there came out blood and water." It is the wound of Christ, but it reminds us that in the very heart of God a scar was left that heals.

Years ago, when I was in seminary preparing for ministry, news came to me that my mother had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It was during the Easter Season that I received this news. I remember the shock and difficulty of coming to terms with this news about a woman who was not just my mother, but a person of deep faith and love. I was angry at God. It was so unfair. It was, as Neuhaus has so poignantly observed, a reminder that Good Friday is not limited to a day or a single moment in time.

I remember what one of my seminary teachers said at the time, "If the cross means anything at all, it means that God can take human sin and suffering and human anger into the divine heart, and heal and transform us." God's own heart has been scarred in the crucifixion.

When the soldier pierced Jesus' side, Neuhaus professes, one strand of devotional thought in later centuries saw the piercing of the very heart of Christ, and in that action "the invitation to all humanity to enter into the Body of Christ, which is the Church."

But with that invitation comes a powerful call to discipleship and faith:
"Then (at the time of crucifixion) the body of Christ was on the cross, and now the Body of Christ, the Church, is on the cross, and with it the whole of humanity."

Everyone has a heart. Neuhaus concludes by affirming that in the heart of Jesus, "every heart is broken, and every heart is healed."

God's heart is big enough and strong enough to bear both scars and healing.