Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worship vs. Social Justice?

When I arrived at seminary and my classmates started to ask me about my interests, they were surprised when I mentioned both social justice and liturgical arts. I wondered why, until I attended a church with a very strong social justice emphasis. This church wrote its own liturgy to meet its unique needs, but it eschewed more formal elements of standard UMC services like processionals/ recessionals, always saying the same words during communion (it liked improvisation), and even the usual expectation that everyone stay quiet during worship. It was a church that reached out to people who were homeless, mentally ill, had developmental disabilities, were deaf/blind, and who had been assaulted. The church was proud to welcome others just as they are, including any distractions that might come along with these guests.

I enjoyed my time at the church, but I missed some of the elements of liturgy that this church left out. Surely, I thought, United Methodists can conduct a church service that is beautiful and meaningful while still warmly welcoming those who are different. But some of my classmates seemed to think that embracing formal liturgy means a church has a cold atmosphere and strict behavioral guidelines.

A church doesn't have to have a formal liturgical style to decide that "outsiders" are too much trouble to tolerate, as Rachel Held Evans remarks in a recent blog post. It makes me so sad to read her story of a young man asked to leave worship because he has Cerebral Palsy. Rachel acknowledges how hard it is to welcome others, especially because they don't only disturb the decorum of services- they disturb our sense of self:

We have one place for the un-cool people (our ministries) and another place for the cool people (our church services). When we actually bump into one another, things can get awkward, so we try to avoid it... The truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Aspergers sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping that our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests.  For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear. Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, others on the outside. But we’re all broken. We’re all un-cool. We’re all in need of a Savior.

I wonder if perhaps the sense of decorum projected in formal liturgical church services has come to signify more than "the work of the people" (leitourgia). Perhaps it represents the way we like to view ourselves: proper, put-together, acceptable to others. But as Rachel points out, even if we're put-together on the outside, we might be a complete mess on the inside. We need to remember that liturgy does not exist to make us look good, or to make us acceptable to God. God already accepts us just the way we are.

Liturgy, as "the work of the people," is our communal response to God. In a word, it's worship. We are not truly worshiping God when we try to put up an attractive front for others. We are freed for true worship when we stop trying to keep up appearances (including "decorum" in church) and come to God just as we are. When we are fully present in worship- in all that we are, good and bad- we are better able to experience God's love and show God's love to newcomers.

However we worship, we have the opportunity to shed our pretenses and be open to God and to others. Here in Boston, the Paulist Center is a Roman Catholic parish that does a great job of doing formal worship well, and also being a warm and welcoming community. Even though the words spoken and the symbols used are in "High" liturgical style, they are spoken with a warm tone of voice and signified with an open posture. I felt so welcome when I visited, even though as a Protestant I could not fully participate in the service. My experience at the Paulist Center helped me realize that social justice and hospitality do not need to be sacrificed for a beautiful worship service.

Both social justice work and well-executed liturgy are responses to God's love for us. God reaches out to us in so many ways in our everyday lives, and we can respond to God in many ways. The fluid, dignified movements of a pastor in worship and the simple movement of sharing a sandwich or a handshake are really the same movement on the inside: our hearts are moving toward God. And in turn, we are called to show God to others- through our actions in worship and through our service to the community.

Have you ever found it difficult to welcome someone in church who is somehow different? How do different worship styles help you feel close to God?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Methodist Connexion

Yes, you read that right: this post is about the Methodist connection, or as John Wesley used to say, the connexion. This is the time of year that seemingly normal Methodists around the world turn into nerds, take vacations from their jobs and travel to Annual Conference to legislate. Well, Annual Conference season isn't just about legislation. It's about Methodists gathering by regions (aka Conferences) to worship, greet old friends, share our favorite foods at table, and have Bible study.

In East Ohio (the Annual Conference in which Ashland is located), conference is held each year at LakeSide, OH, a chatauqua on Lake Erie. I have many fond memories of LakeSide from the time I was a young teen until I left for seminary in Boston. I remember long talks on our porch (and my friends' porches), passing bags of candy around when legislation got boring, daily trips to Cokesbury, putt-putt golf, and Bible study on the pier.

LakeSide's pier. Photo credit: Cheryl Duell, EOAC 2011
And of course, there's the food: Patio Ice, Sloopy's pizza, Moose Track ice cream, and freshly made donuts and orange juice at the Patio each morning. Even if it was cold cuts in a friend's kitchen, each meal at LakeSide was special because it was spent with friends. The highlight of every Annual Conference is the ordination service, when pastors and future pastors are ordained and commissioned for ministry. The bishop and their friends and mentors lay hands on them and pray. Then they are presented with new red stoles (for Pentecost!) and either a chalice and patten set (Elders) or a bowl and pitcher set (Deacons) to symbolize their new roles.

June is a poignant time for United Methodists everywhere, whether or not they can make it to conference. Whenever we gather for Annual Conference, we sing a classic Charles Wesley hymn, "And Are We Yet Alive?"
And are we yet alive,
And see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
For His almighty grace!

Preserved by power divine
To full salvation here,
Again in Jesus’ praise we join
And in His sight appear.

What troubles have we seen,
What mighty conflicts past,
Fightings without, and fears within,
Since we assembled last!

Yet out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford,
And hides our life above.

Then let us make our boast
Of His redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost,
Till we can sin no more.

Let us take up the cross
Till we the crown obtain,
And gladly reckon all things loss
So we may Jesus gain.
 These are just six short verses, but  they tell our story as a people of God. Each year we look back on the hardships we have faced and remember those who have gone home to be with God (there's a hymn for that too, "For All the Saints"). Though we have come through "troubles, mighty conflicts, fightings, and fears," we are still "preserved by power Divine." We're still here, by the grace of God, and we meet again. God gives us strength to endure our trials and continues God's saving work in our lives "to the uttermost." We reaffirm our commitment to give our lives to Christ, forsaking the world, and strive toward Christian perfection.

Annual Conference reminds us that we are not alone in our walk with God. We are connected to a larger community of believers who support us in our faith in life, and in death, inspire us to deeper faith and holy living. They remind us of what is most important in life: our relationships with God and with others. In our special traditions as Methodists, both the sacred and mundane moments we share in community draw us closer to God and to one another.

Have you ever been to Annual Conference or another event in which you set apart some time to be in community with other Christians? What are the moments you remember and why are they important to you?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's Pentecost!

As you may or may not know, this Sunday will be a Church holiday unlike any other for the whole year: Pentecost. On this feast day, we tell the story of how the Christian Church began its mission in the world (see Acts 2). When I attended Christ UMC in years past, I remember Pentecost being explained to the children as "the birthday of the Church." Well, it's true that this day is the day we celebrate how the Church began, but it is not the whole point of celebrating Pentecost.

Pentecost is the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives with the transforming power of God's salvation. The Spirit dwells within us all the time and empowers us to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world. This coming of the Spirit is the big news of the day of Pentecost!

This is my absolute favorite holiday of the year because I used to be a Charismatic Christian. Yes, that means I was one of those weird people who would speak in tongues in worship: I was the definition of a Jesus Freak. Even though I no longer speak in tongues, the times that I did it as a child made a strong impact on my spirituality. I experienced God in a physical way that most other Christians have never had. I believe in the Holy Spirit and her power because of the time I spent in prayer using a personal prayer language given by the Spirit. I learned in a very tangible way that the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts is definitely something to celebrate.

Recently, I have seen "Happy Birthday Church" cakes and heard Pentecost sermons focusing on the gifts of the Holy Spirit... all except for speaking in tongues, of course. These things make me feel disappointed because the Spirit of Pentecost cannot be contained in the late-90's spiritual gifts fad or a brief historical lesson. The coming of the Spirit in our lives is the result of God's saving grace and the means by which God's sanctifying grace transforms our lives and beckons us toward greater personal holiness.

As Methodists, for whom sanctification after salvation is very important, we cannot afford to miss the most important part of Pentecost. After the departure of Jesus from this earth, the Holy Spirit is now God-With-Us. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms us from Christian to Even-More-Christian. And the Holy Spirit sends us to do God's mission in the world, empowering us to do the hard work of ministering with those whom society casts aside.

By the way, I will be baking a cake for this Sunday's coffee hour. It will be a Pentecost cake, but it will not say, "Happy Birthday Church." It will say, "Come, Holy Spirit!"

UPDATE 6/11: I seriously did bake a cake! Here it is

What can I say? I love cake. :o)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Being a Friend

My good friend from seminary will be coming to visit this weekend! I am so excited that Joy will be here in just two days. We decided to read a book together and discuss it when she arrives. The book we chose was recommended by one of my Facebook friends: Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World by Lynne M. Baab.*

I have, in all honesty, had to cram this book in the last couple of weeks because I've been so busy. But I am so glad I took the time to read it. I'm almost finished and will certainly be done by the time Joy arrives.

In her book, Baab discusses what it means to be a friend in today's world, when friends are far-flung across states and even continents, and so many different forms of communication are available to us. She shares her wisdom out of a lifetime of experience being a friend across the miles. Baab discusses lots of elements of being a friend, like acceptance, forgiveness, taking initiative, giving, thanking, and praying. She also devotes one chapter to the image of Jesus as our friend.

When I was a youth in East Ohio, one of our CCYM presidents said during a Thursday night devotion, "Knowing that Jesus is my friend is what gets me out of bed in the morning." That's a powerful statement, and I'm not sure I can say the same thing for myself. I consider my relationship with God important, and I look forward to my morning devotions, but it is hard to consider Jesus my friend. All of Baab's excellent suggestions for keeping up earthly friendships don't quite translate to a relationship with the Divine.

Baab does a good job of describing the Godhead as relational in nature, and states that the relationships among the members of the Trinity serve as an example for human relationships. She then cites John 15:12-15 (NRSV):
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
This verse nicely illustrates Jesus' relationship with us. Christ is not over us, ordering us around, but is sharing his life with us and taking part in our lives.  I love this theology, and I understand her point that God's example teaches us how to be better friends.

But still, I have to ask: how are we to be Jesus' friend? There is no audible voice of God with whom to have a conversation. There is no tangible body of Christ to hug; the closest we come to that is during communion, when we experience Christ's presence among us in ritual. We can't friend Jesus on Facebook (well, OK, we can, but that's not really Jesus behind that Facebook account; it's a regular person).

So what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? Well, I think Baab's elements of friendship can serve as a guide: acceptance, forgiveness, taking initiative, giving, and thanking. We can accept God's grace and thank God for the blessings in our lives when we pray. When we give to others and do the difficult work of accepting and forgiving them, we are forgiving Jesus too (Matt. 25:40). By making time to read the Bible, we are taking taking the initiative to get to know Jesus.

I've just come up with the ways in which we can befriend Jesus. Even so, I don't really think of my relationship with Jesus as a friendship. It just... is what it is. I don't really try to describe it to others.

How do you think about your relationship with Jesus? How do you maintain it?

* I was not given this book and I was not paid to write about it in this blog. This blog post contains my true opinions about the book.