"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Taking Giving Prayer

A week of taking, taking, taking
Worship and word and rest
Of listening and thinking and dreaming

But now back to weeks of giving, giving, giving
More to do than can ever be done
And an unexpected funeral besides

So much for my ivory tower, my protected bubble
Because the very things I went to study are calling.
Funny how that works.

I'm sitting with Isaiah 6 and that nagging question,
"Whom shall I send, who will go for me?"
I eeked out a quiet "me", some years ago.
I meant that, didn't I? 

Go, go, go... or maybe... oh, oh, oh:
Oh, bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee
Oh, bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee
I need Thee every hour, teach me Thy will
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill

I need Thee, oh, I need Thee
Oh I need Thee every hour
I need Thee, I need Thee, I need Thee every hour
I need Thee, I need Thee, I need Thee every hour

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What is Essential?

[Thoughts from the Festival of Homiletics 2012]

I've listened to fascinating conversations this week about the emergent church. I've engaged in thought about the future of the church, and how to reach generations beyod what currently fills (at least my church's) pews. And I've heard people talk about the "post-moderns"-- and though I think I'm of the generation that produces post-moderns, I've never had a big understanding of what that meant. Because probably, at least in thought, this is not the group with whom I identify. I've not yet felt run out of the church because it doesn't fit my needs or expectations. In fact, I'm a little bit cozy with the church. I like (at least to an extent) that people still dress up for worship. I appreciate liturgy that is far older and wiser than I am--words that stretch beyond our present experience. And while I like the accessibility element that our sanctuary's projector and screen lends to our worship, I'd be ok if it didn't work for a week or two. In fact, I guess I'd be ok with going back to the very basics--I'm a big fan of the early church: Groups gathered together to celebrate and wonder at the mysteries of God.

So that got me thinking about a question that I'm at some point going to have to devote a lot of time to. Because some day the church's survival may depend on being able to meet the needs of a new generation. What is it then, that is essential?

I can only start by naming what is superflous. For me:
-pews are not essential. Seating is necessary, but I'm not convinced that all the pews have to face forward. The word of God will still be proclaimed even if people are looking at each other instead of the "preacher." In fact, sitting in the round might just offer a sense of community through which the scripture might be interpreted.
-Bulletins, while nice, are not essential. I'll admit I had a few moments of panic as I've worshipped in various spaces this week when I've discovered that there were no bulletins. I found lost and always wondering what was happening, but the world did not shut down as I supposed. In fact, I'd argue that worship happened in a new way that left room for the Holy Spirit's new workings. I like things carefully controlled but perhaps spontanaeity it is beautiful as well. And under this same heading is carefully constructed prayers and liturgy. I love them both--how I love them. But they are not essential.
-Dress Code. Again, I like the fact that worship is special enough to require a different dress in the minds of many. It helps me worship to feel set apart from the needs of "out there". But at the same time, I both get and truly appreciate that God takes us as we are and it matters very little what we look like.

So then--back to my original question. What could I (and the church) not live without. What elements, if removed, would change worship into "other"?

For me:
-a sense of community. I believe that the "I am the vine and the branches" passage names us as tangly-uppy people who know and value and care--even enough to stick our noses into our neighbor's business. I believe that we must be responsible to God for each other as a community as well as individuals.

-the Word proclaimed. As a preacher, I can't imagine a world where carefully crafted sermons have outlived their usefulness, but what if the Word was something we proclaimed together. People have experienced Christ in powerful ways and they don't need a "Rev" in front of their names to bear witness to that truth. Yet the word MUST bear witness to the love of God in Christ. That's not negotiable.
-Prayer. If a community is not engaging in some sort of communication with God as a people, then perhaps the group begins to bear a resemblance to a social group. That being said, how might we rethink prayer so that it offers space for many voices to join in the conversation.
-praise. There must be a space for the gathered body to say "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" But maybe that can take lots of forms. Could praise be asking the question (and aiming for answers) be "Where has God amazed you lately? Where has God shown up?"

What isn't essential, but might positively shape the ways we worship?
For me:
-art. Maybe it's poetry or art art, or liturgical paraments. Things that both point to and paint a picture of God, while at the same time, allowing one to dream and hear the Word in a new light.
-music. I believe in stillness and silence, but I also think there is a place for the soul to sing out. I do think, however, that the music must make attempts at connecting with as many generations as there are represented in a congregation.

I am certain of little-- except that the church is changing. How do we remain true to what is essential and allow room for what might yet be?


[Thoughts from the 2012 Festival of Homiletics]

I would tell you that I'm "young". Or at least not old. (Nevermind that some days, I feel tired enough to feel 110.) But today, I felt like a dinosaur.

The theme of this year's festival is "Transformational Preaching at the Crossroads" and a word we're hearing a lot about is "emergent." That word hadn't entered my vocabulary very much, as I would also tell you I'm a pretty traditional sort. Yet, I believe that there ought always to be new energy in whatever we are doing. After hearing this amazing speaker that was brilliant, raw, phenomenal...and highly tattooed, do this mind warping lecture, I was excited for the opportunity to hear her preach. And double bonus: the subject of her sermon was pentecost.

But before we could get to the sermon, there was a time of praise music. "Great! I like music! I'm hip enough to appreciate this!" are the things I told myself. Only I wasn't. While the words to the songs were beautiful, the music made me absolutely cringe. It sounded like pure noise to me. And while I think the singer (also one of the speakers, whom I didn't get to hear) might have had some great things to say to the church, I couldn't quite stomach the face he had to make to hit these really high notes. The music felt awkward to me-- and hard to join in with as a congregation. I guess I felt left out. At least for that part of the service, I didn't feel like I was worshipping at all.

But there was an epiphany there too. As a young pastor serving a predominately older congregation, perhaps an epiphany I needed to have. While I've never pushed "contemporary" anything on them, maybe I've pushed them in other ways that made them feel like they were on unknown ground. Maybe what they are opposed to isn't the change or the idea of doing things differently...maybe they just can't figure out how to join the new song. Maybe the things that felt like worship to them have turned into what seems like "noise."

I'm all for new energy, and for trying new things-- but never, ever, at the sake of excluding people from the song.

So my challenge is this-- how can there be new life that invites all people in? I don't mind feeling like a dinosaur, but I'm not really up for extinction either. So...?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sleeping Under the Stars

One of the most remarkable memories of my life was sleeping under the stars in the Masaii Mara in Kenya while I was on safari.  I'd been in Kenya three months by then and my time was coming to a close.  I was beyond homesick and consoled myself with the thought that in not many more weeks, I'd finally be sleeping under the same stars as those I love.  And it was a comfort, because at the beginning of my trip, I would look at the stars and think of my friends and family.  I would think of them when I saw the stars because I told myself that when it finally became night where they were, they'd be sleeping under the same stars.  Only I realized they weren't.  I had gone so far from home that I was sleeping under a whole new set of stars.  That's a long way to go...

I've always loved stars because they've allowed me to dream--to look up into a starry sky is to know that you are but a speck in an infinite universe. To see the stars has always been for me a representation of God-- huge, and un-quantifyable.  And the stars have always reminded me to hope because I've always thought of them as tiny lightbulbs in a very black sky.  Besides that, there's a lot to be said that you have to be in the dark to be graced with the opportunity to see them.  There's something theological about that I think.

When I moved here almost four years ago, I started on my second quilt.  I designed the pattern and I collected blue fabric wherever I went.  And tonight, I will snuggle next to my love, listening to snoring dogs beside us, and we will sleep under the stars.  And I will dream, and imagine, and hope--beautifully, largely, gently.

It's just a quilt.  It's just pieces of fabric.  But it's more than that. It's a travel diary.  It's home. It's love. It's a thin place where the earth and heaven get all tangled up.  A place where God whispers, "You can't count them all.  But there is not a single one that's there without my knowledge."

Me thinks I will sleep well tonight, my loves and me, under these stars.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012