Saturday, May 24, 2014

I am resisting the urge to call this post "On fire for the Lord"

Photo by Cami Macaya Palma, licensed under Creative Commons.

I was working on my sermon last night when the kids set the microwave on fire.

River Valley Presbyterian is having its "grand opening" on June 8th, but we're having smaller  "dry-run" services until then, and I volunteered to preach for one of them. I've given one or two sermons a year since seminary, which is enough to get over the worst of the nervousness. But I was at that moment in writing a sermon where I wondered why on earth I volunteered for this and wouldn't it be nicer to go hide in the basement instead.

Then my daughter ran into the study and said, "Mom! The microwave is full of smoke!" I ran downstairs and sure enough, clouds of smoke were billowing out of the microwave and filling the kitchen. I told the kids to get out of the house. They stood there slack-jawed. I told them to get out of the house NOW. They did.

I turned off the microwave and when I didn't see flame, I opened the door. One of the kids had tried to warm up a breadstick, and it was a charred, sticky cinder on the tray. There appeared to be no other damage.

I brought the kids back in and we discussed the protocol for getting out of the house if there was a fire. We also discussed microwaves. We opened up all the doors and fanned away smoke till the air cleared. Things settled down, or at least returned to the ordinary chaos.

One of the challenges of starting a new church is that ordinary life doesn't stop. There is a mountain of new work to do, but all the old things - like making sure your kids don't burn the house down - still need to be done too. The Christian faith is support and comfort for daily life, not a remedy for it. One of the least glamorous parts of the Christian life is the way God gives us competing vocations and waits for us to ask his help in managing our time. The holiest pastor you ever met is still a man who schedules meetings and visits the dentist and puts his dirty socks in the hamper (or gets crabbed at for not doing it).

I went back to my sermon and, in the way of preachers, I tried to think of a way to work this story into the sermon. Come by this Sunday at 4 pm and you can see if I succeeded.

In the meantime, I'm in charge of all the microwaving for a while.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Waiting for the city

Today I went to our parent church and picked up the hymnals they gave us. My husband and I carried them in stacks to our van, looking like the strangest thieves ever.

Psst. Black market hymnals. Totally genu-wine. Original lyrics and everything.

Saying goodbye to our parent church has been difficult, especially for our kids. We'll still go back for the occasional visit, but it won't be the same. The new church will be our home now, and that is a bittersweet feeling. The kids don't understand why we would start a new church.

I tell them that we are starting a new church to help us tell more people about Jesus. I tell them our new church will be in a new neighborhood where we can get to know new people. I tell them that the new church will belong to a denomination that tries harder to obey the Bible. I remind them that their favorite Sunday School teacher is coming with us. But they are still sad, and truthfully, so am I.

Endings are always sad.

The Bible uses metaphors to describe what life will be like when Jesus comes back and sets the world right again. One of those metaphors is the city. The picture of paradise in the beginning of the Bible is a garden, but the picture of paradise at the end of the Bible is a city. John says in the book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The paradise of God living with people forever will be a city. A place where people live close together.

It always reminds me of the first Crocodile Dundee movie, when the hero visits Manhattan for the first time and says: "Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth."

You heard it here first, folks. Heaven is a lot like New York.

In ancient near eastern mythology, the sea was the origin of evil and chaos. When John says that the sea is no more, he means that even the origins of evil will disappear. Paradise is people living together without pain or loss or evil, at peace with one another and God.

Sounds good to me.

Every goodbye between followers of Christ is only temporary. This ending is a temporary ending. It still hurts, but I know it isn't really over, even if I don't see these friends often for now.

For now, we work at the projects in front of us, and we wait. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Flannelgraphs and Hymnody

The Sunday school teacher gave my five-year-old daughter scissors and felt and a flannel graph board. Didn't know flannelgraph could be freestyle, did you? Noah's ark never looked finer.

Today I sat with three other women of River Valley Presbyterian and cut out flannelgraphs. Do you remember those? Characters and scenery from Bible stories are printed onto felt (not actually flannel) and the Sunday School teacher puts the felt characters onto a felt background to illustrate the Bible story. Flannelgraphs have never gone out of style. Even in the era of iPads and Minecraft, kids still love flannelgraphs.

But I did not know that we needed to cut them out. It is one of the many labors of preparation that happen behind the scenes. The flannelgraphs come printed on big sheets, carefully positioned to fit as many Davids, sheep and sling-shots on one piece of felt as possible. It takes a skillful hand and a sharp pair of scissors. It also takes hours. Our children's minister had been cutting till her hand was sore, and we showed up to help.

While we were there, we also looked at hymnals. Our parent church has promised us forty of their hymnals, or we could use the hymnals that are already in the sanctuary of our host church. We looked at the two options.

Hymnals are not just books of songs. They are expressions of the beliefs and identity of the church that uses them. The songs in the hymnal will be used to shape the life and faith of congregations for the future. A congregation usually only buys a new hymnal once a decade or so. When a denomination makes a new hymnal, they may reject favorite hymns of the past if they think those hymns have failed to stand the test of time, or are embarrassing, or no longer express the beliefs of their denomination.

My worship professor in seminary (yes, in seminary you take classes on subjects like worship) collected old hymnals, and he said that he had some old hymnals in which half the hymns were about mothers. Mother featured more largely than Jesus. I am glad those hymns were culled (even if my grandmother requested "Tell Mother I'll Be There" for her funeral). I love my mom, but the Christian faith is about something bigger than fondness for her.

But sometimes instead of removing hymns, the hymnal committee decides to change them. They change the traditional words to something they like better. This often has serious theological implications. But even when it doesn't, imagine for a moment what can happen to poetry when it is rewritten by committee. 

I've been through the hymnal wars before, so I knew which songs to look for in the two hymnals before us. I turned to "O Worship the King" and "Be Thou My Vision." These two are favorites for bastardizing lyrics because they both use male imagery for God. Progressive hymnal editors rewrite the hymn to get rid of the male metaphors. 

Gentle reader, this drives me batty.

Sure enough, one of the hymnals had changed the lyrics. God was no longer "true Father" and I was no longer a "true Son."

If I write too much about this subject, my opinions will get intense and I may rant a little, and I don't want to do that. So I'll just say this instead: good hymns are not like computer operating systems, needing to be updated every few years or they're useless. Good hymns are like flannel-graphs; they don't need to change for evey generation. When they get it right, the right lasts a long, long time. 

And unlike flannelgraphs, no scissors are required.

Worship and Belonging

Millenium Mosaic in Covington, Kentucky. Photo by elycefeliz licensed under Creative Commons.

When I was six, worship was something I did in the crook of my mother's arm.

Our sanctuary had its own scent, a mixture of old wood, humidity and dusty institutional tile. My father preached an informal Sunday evening service, and I loved the part when he let the congregation suggest hymns. I would rest my head on the soft skin of my mother's arm and strain my hand up high so that maybe my dad would call on me and I could suggest "Power in the Blood."

When I think of what church should be, that memory rises in my mind. I knew I was safe and loved. I was in a room full of people who wanted to praise Jesus. God felt next to us, holy and loving, and I thought that if we just found the right songs or I sat perfectly without squirming or my mom held me long enough, that feeling would snap into place and become permanent. All the worry and uncertainty of life would slide away, and I would be safe and happy with God forever.

I am in a group that is starting a new church. We begin worship services soon. We have discussed and planned what those services will be like. It can be tricky planning worship with fifteen other people, because each of them carries in their heart a memory or a longing for their own version of resting in mother's arms while singing a favorite hymn.

We all want to belong.

And when we come to a loving, welcoming God in worship, we do belong. No matter who we are. Coming to God is always a kind of coming home.

But worship is also unsettling. God is perfect; I am not. God is holy; I do wrong. Facing God throws my own flaws into sharp relief, and that is not comfortable. Even being folded into the welcome of God makes me realize the effort it costs me to welcome others. Sometimes welcoming others means setting aside my own nostalgic affections to make certain someone else feels like they belong.

The Bible tells us that Jesus left the presence of God - a place where he perfectly belonged - to be born as a baby and grow up in the pains and heartaches of life on earth. He was rejected and killed and then came back to life again. He did all this to give us all a way to belong in the presence of God.

When a church worships Jesus, it praises the God who welcomes us. Our model of worship is Jesus himself, who endured terrible things so that others could belong with God. So in planning a worship service, we look for ways to celebrate coming home, but also ways to show other people they belong, even if it means giving up something dear to us.

Come and join us for worship. Jesus will be here, and we'd love to make you feel like you belong.