What Worship Really Means

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This past Sunday, during the 9:45 Emergent Worship service I lead, I was preaching on the Minor Prophet Zephaniah, whose prophecy emphasized the deterioration of worship by God’s people, and the ways in which the leaders had contributed to this decline.  There are other messages in the book, but worship kept jumping out at me each time I sat with the text.  Through the discernment process over the course of the week before, I kept thinking that I often hear people incorrectly interchange worship with private devotion.  I address this in my sermon, an educational moment if God ever presents one.

Worship is corporate in Christianity, and underscored by Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NRS).  Christ tells is that when two or more gather in his name, as we do in communal worship, then he is present too.  Not only is Christ in our midst, but he is made manifest in a miraculous way: the transformation of a group of Christians into the Body of Christ.  This transformation and real presence of Christ is one of the things that cannot be duplicated by an individual Christian, and I suspect that Jesus thought it would be hubris for any one person to think they could fully manifest God the Son on their own.  As clergy, I cannot do it all by myself either.  My God appointed role is to lead others in worship, and whether that is just one other person or a thousand, my purpose is the same, but requires at least one other person to fulfill it.  Honestly, I enjoy being able to lead a large gathering in our worship, but mostly because it is powerful to hear many voices united in proclaiming the mighty acts of God, singing the praises of the Lord, and lifting up their prayers as one.  It is not about me, but us together.

Personal devotion is just as important, and bridges the gap that would exist between Sunday worship of one week and the next.  Acts of devotion include: reading Scripture, being part of small groups like Bible Studies and prayer meetings, family and personal prayer, spiritual disciplines like fasting and abstinence, and singing hymns and other sacred music.  While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does give some insight into the kinds of religious acts and activities that are important for individual Christians to grow their faith, deepen their wisdom, and sustain them over the course of time and during the midst of tribulations.  God gave us these means of grace knowing that worship once a week for an hour or so would not be enough.  A decade of ministry and a lifetime as a Christian confirms this.  Worship is crucial, but it also needs additional commitment and fuel of personal devotion.  Just as no personal devotion could ever fill the void that exists when we do not come before the Lord to worship together in community.

We worship together to give glory to God and praise for the blessings we have received.  We also benefit from God graciously granting us God’s presence during worship, offering us insight into God’s Word through its proclamation and expounding in sermons, and being in the midst of others like us.  As I said Sunday, we are not perfect or worthy to be in worship before God.  We are those who recognize our need for God and God’s grace, and come to give our gratitude for receiving it through Christ Jesus.  We come together with other imperfect and sinful vessels to be filled with hope, God’s love, and the limitless grace for those who repent, which we also do in worship.  It is in the context of worship that we take part in the sacraments, those tangible signs of God’s grace: baptism and holy communion.  During both sacraments, God cleanses us of the guilt we incur from our sin and discover justifying grace, which empowers us to go forth as renewed people freed from sin and death.  However, we will all sin again, even if it is only unintentional sin, so we can come back to worship, continuously take holy communion, and receive the grace that comes from confessing our sin and receiving forgiveness.

As clergy, I can see the vast difference between the time when I am clearly engaged with my personal devotion and when I am not.  My personal devotion fuels my passion and productivity in worship.  It strengthens my connection to God through the Holy Spirit and that bond bears fruit.  I come to exist in a framework of theological reflection, filtering everything I hear, see, and encounter through the lens of Christ.  It provides me with limitless material for sermons, lessons, worship series, and blog posts, not to mention prayers.  It becomes a means by which I provide current, contextual reflections for my congregation.  It makes me a better pastor while making me a better Christian.  When I am in a vibrant, healthy place in my personal devotion, then I am able to take the worship I lead to the next level also.  I believe this to be a reciprocal statement for lay persons as well.  I notice who sings with passion, singing the words as if they were your own.  I hear those who speak the creeds and affirmations of faith with conviction.  I can see the engagement on your face when I am preaching, and see the Holy Spirit moving through you as we worship.

So worship really isn’t about us.  It has always been about God, and the community within which God is calling us to take our rightful place.  We come as individuals to be melded into the Body of Christ, and we depart to carry that experience back into our lives, the spheres of influence that comprise our world.  While back in our daily lives, we partake in the various means by which God connects to us, and sustains us until we can all come back together again in worship, and share in the rejuvenation that it brings to those who yearn for God.  Worship and personal devotion are not the same, nor can one be a complete substitute for the other.  They complement one another, and bring us to a fuller faith, a more mature relationship with God.  The Church must respect the vital role of personal devotion and individual Christians must honor the place of worship in their faith.  Together we will all grow into the Body of Christ God has called us to from the moment of our creation.

It’s Alive!: Bringing Scripture to Life

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(Image by Sarah Wastella)

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

You may have heard someone refer to the Bible as the “Living Word of God,” or some variant of that.  At a time in human history when Mainstream Christianity is atrophying, I find myself wondering why Scripture seems so dead to an entire generate of young adults.  In a study completed by the Barna Group in 2013, it was reported that Americans between the ages of 18-28 read the Bible less than three times a year, if they read it at all.  That same study discovered that 88 percent of the households who completed the survey report owning a Bible.  I suspect there are a lot of neglected and dusty Bibles on shelves and in drawers all over the country.  Are we treating the Bible like a piece of memorabilia, a collector’s item?

God always intended for God’s Word to be internalized, becoming part of the very fabric of our beings.  We need to read it, so we can know it.  We need to know it, so we can live it.  At this point many people will immediately think of all the boring or often abused portions of the Bible.  I know the long, very long genealogies can seem over the top and filled with names no one wants to even attempt to pronounce, but they all make sense when you read the genealogies at the beginning of the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke that trace Jesus all the back to Adam and Abraham.  I know the 613 commandments contained in the Torah/Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament, and mainly in Leviticus, seem antiquated to say the least, and abhorrent in certain cases, but Jesus illuminates much of that for us, as do the prophetic books crying out for social justice.  Do we really case off all 66 books that comprise the Bible because of some admittedly large chunks of difficult to digest portions?  Where is the justice to the less read and almost completely uncited texts that celebrate life, turn even our modern societal norms upside down, and expose the injustices we perpetuate?  There are a lot of wonderful things to be discovered within the pages of the Bible.

For me, the most crucial things to be gleaned from its pages is this: God loves first and foremost, and God’s love is the only thing that will last.  Even sin, evil, suffering, and death will pass away, but God’s love is the eternal constant in all the universe.  When we love, loving God and others, then we enliven the text of the Bible.  It lives in us, and lives on through us; our lives become the vehicles for that love entering into the world in new and relevant ways.  Otherwise the words of Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek are meaningless to the everyday lives of modern-day Americans.  The wisdom of God’s Word is not limited to the people who first received it and their several subsequent generations afterwards.  It has a core truth rooted in the omniscience of God, and the view of all the world from on high in heaven.  From there God can see all the way into the hearts of human beings not yet conceived and born.  God has never been one to only see the bad, the sinful inclinations that lie in wait there to be unleashed in our lives.

From the very beginning there was this faith in us, a confidence in we who are created in the divine image, that we could make decisions to walk in the ways of the Lord, to turn aside from sin, and embrace the grace God would continuously pour out.  That faith is cataloged in every page of the Bible, sometimes in bold text and sometimes whispered in the spaces in between.  When we read the Scriptures, and meditate on the divine wisdom therein, we begin to embody that trust God has in us.  Perhaps this is how we will once again regain the trust of the future generations, and bring revival to the Church Christ founded to be a means of grace, not gatekeepers of it.

Grace and Love, Not Shame and Hate: A Reflection on Legal Gay Marriage

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I had never been to a Pridefest before.  I knew it was a communal event to show support for the LGBT community, and I knew that the one being held last weekend in my city would be celebratory in the wake of the monumental Supreme Court decision to allow for legal gay marriage in every state.  When I was invited to attend, I thought to myself that I had never been to one, and so I wanted to experience it for myself.  Even getting dressed to go became a difficult endeavor, because I don’t have a lot of rainbow apparel.  I decided to focus on my jewelry: two cuffs that are precious to me.  The first is from India, made by women who used to be objectified and used in the sex trafficking industry through heterosexual sexual sin.  It is embossed with one simple word: LOVE.  We all need love, and no matter what anyone says, I think we all yearn for it.  The second cuff is a recent acquisition from Annual Conference, that statewide gathering of United Methodists from all over Virginia who descended upon Roanoke two weekends ago.  It is up-cycled from leather remnants and an old spoon.  It was hand stenciled with the phrase, “SAVED BY GRACE.”  The combined statement of those four words on my wrists made me feel ready.  I may not be gay, but I do have numerous family members and beloved friends who are.  As a heterosexual person, I wanted my only statement to be consistent with Christ: grace and love for all.

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

I do not believe that I have to agree with everything about you to love you.  Yet I do not like the implication of that old adage, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”  I mourn sin, but I think hatred is a seed planted in the heart that is antithetical to the love Christ calls forth.  If God wants to hate sin, then that’s God’s business, as God cannot be corrupted by hate as humans can.  I’m focusing on loving and granting grace, leaving space for transformation, as I feel called in Christ’s name to do.  I have many people in my life whom I love with all that I am.  Some of them practice a lifestyle that can be harmful at times.  Some sin regularly and openly.  Some are trying to change their ways and their life.  They are all in different places, and I consider myself a vessel of God’s presence when I love in spite of sin.  I seek to be one who looks beyond the brokenness to search out the potential in each person to magnify the Lord.  I do this because I want someone to do it in me.  I want to forgive as I know I need to be forgiven, and I have been by God through the grace of God.

So it was that I walked into the park where Pridefest was being held.  It was a plethora of rainbows, and flamboyant apparel.  None of that bothered me, as I am rather colorful and flamboyant myself.  The rainbow is an ancient Biblical symbol for peace.  Genesis recounts how God, the Father, hung his bow, his weapon of war, in the sky after the flood that destroyed all the earth except the life preserved within the ark (Genesis 9:8-17).  It was to be a perpetual reminder of the loss that had occurred and the promise never to destroy the world with flood again.  The rainbow has been used by the LGBT community as they have struggled against constant threat of violence, both physical and verbal.  They long for the day when their heterosexual adversaries would hang up their weapons of violence, and let them live in peace.  Since we do not round-up other sinners and subject them to this kind of abuse and torture, I see their point.  I regret the suffering they have endured, and the deaths that have been for no other reason than a hatred unleashed.  This is not who God created humankind to be.  While people argue that God did not create us to be gay either, I believe that I can only control how I react to what is before me.  I reject violence.  I renounce the forces of wickedness that allows one group of human beings to dehumanize and seek to destroy another.

I am not without internal conflict about the practice of homosexuality.  I know the nine references to the act in the Bible, five in the Old Testament and four in the New.  I have read them over and over for a decade now, and I remain as confused and overwhelmed as ever.  I also consider that four of my top ten people in my life are gay.  They have done for me, when heterosexuals have not.  They have loved me in spite of my sinfulness, too.  I cannot hate them.  I will not hate them.  I wonder if we would treat them this way if their sins were struggles with addiction, stealing, or another form of sexual sin.  I think not, because I know we do not treat other sins this way.  We have singled out one sin and elevated it above others.  We have set ourselves against an entire group of people, and for what end?  Have we changed hearts to look like Christ’s through this?  Have we revealed the grace of God in transformative ways this way?  No, we have created enemies of the Church, and turned an entire generation sympathetic to their LGBT loved ones away.  We are losing our image of Christ embodied in our grace and love, and it is being replaced with one marked by judgment, hypocrisy, and hatred.  It makes my heart-break.  I suspect that God is not pleased with this course of events either.

I stayed quiet and did a lot of observing.  There was a lot of public displays of affection, but less than I observe in the heterosexual population on Valentine’s Day.  There were LGBT people of all ages, multiple races, and any other signifier I could conjure up.  They were human and expressed the same flaws and fabulousness any heterosexual might.  There was a lot of talk about the marriage equality ruling.  I think it was time.  As someone who is tasked with presiding at weddings, I think we made a linguistic error in the Church.  We allowed Holy Matrimony, a life-long covenant made before God and ratified in the Church, to be referred to in the terms of legal marriage.  I officiate Holy Matrimony.  It just so happens that the Commonwealth of Virginia accepts this Holy Matrimony as legal marriage.  But not all heterosexual marriage is Holy Matrimony.  We have untold numbers of heterosexual couples who have been wed legally outside of the Church, and many of those unions would not have been performed in the Church, at least not by me.  I refuse to perform a wedding for a couple when I know there is abuse going on.  I will not perform a wedding at a drive through for people I do not know.  I will not perform a wedding when people spent a wild night in Las Vegas and decide to get married to someone they just met on a whim.  Yet all of these happen and regularly so, and they are legal.  So those heterosexual couples have legal rights that unmarried couples, heterosexual and homosexual do not.  I don’t see the justice there, if we deny homosexual couples the right to marry legally.  People who have been dedicated and committed to one another should have the ability to share in healthcare insurance, property rights, and end of life decisions.

The book of doctrine for my denomination, the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating a homosexual union.  Regardless of how a clergy person feels about that personally, we vow to uphold the Book of Discipline professionally as part of the investiture of Apostolic power and authority in us.  If that is ever changed in the course of proper Church polity, then every clergy person will have to decide how they will live that out, but this is not the case today.  So while I cannot and will not perform a homosexual union of Holy Matrimony, I can still see where a secular, legal change to marriage outside of the Church can be a good and joyful thing.  I see people who have been together longer than I have been alive, and now they can enjoy legal rights denied to them solely because of their sexuality.  The day could come when the State no longer recognizes Holy Matrimony as legal marriage, but I would still perform them, because that is my charge as clergy.  Sometimes we need to recognize that the affairs of the Church are not synonymous with affairs of the world.  When people articulate a fear that this will destroy marriage, I tell them that I have yet in the past five years to perform a single marriage where the couple was not already cohabiting.  There is an all together different threat going on to Holy Matrimony, and it is the ease with which we are willing to cast off the vows for divorce or adultery, and forsake the biblical parameters of celibacy before being married.

In the end, I attended my first Pridefest, and tried to see a people who were not truly any different from me like I see myself.  We all sin.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We all need grace, and we all want to be loved.  I am done shaming someone for one sin, when no one does so for a different sin.  I am done allowing hate, when we are a people born out of God’s redemptive love.  I choose to love.  I will love in spite of any and all sin, because I want God to do this for me in spite of mine.  I will grant grace that every person I know will grow in their love and deepen their relationship with God, who alone can transform us from the unrepentant sinners of our birth into the beloved saints of the Kingdom to Come.  There is no sexual identity requirement for Christ’s forgiveness, and if we keep acting like there is in the Church, then we will have sealed our fate.  It is time we let God do the interior work in the hearts of all humankind, regardless of their sexual status.  This is the purview of the Holy Spirit, and we are wholly unqualified to co-opt it.  The grace Jesus gave to sinners during his earthly ministry was not about judgment and condemnation, which was abundant in the Pharisees, but divine encounter and love.  I pray the Church will become more about the latter, and forsake the former.  May God work in all of our hearts, and change us to be more Christ-like.

A Prayer of the Exhausted Servant

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Lord, who rested on the seventh day of creation,

In your infinite wisdom, you call me to rest.

To take the time to stop my rushing about seems like insanity.

But I can sense my exhaustion seeping into my body and infecting my spirit.

I do need to take time to rest, and rest in you.

I recognize that I cannot do it all, by myself, and non-stop.

I need you.

I confess that I have not always looked to you, as if I did not fully trust you.

Forgive me that slight.

Help me to recognize my limits, and appreciate your limitlessness.

Rejuvenate me with your Spirit.

Wash my aches and pains, my burdens and my sins in your grace.

Cleanse me even as you restore me.

May I wake up tomorrow refreshed and ready to serve you, and others in your name.

I pray this day will be a time to reconnect to you,

For you alone can carry me when I fall exhausted.

You will never let me down.

You never have.

Thank you for that.

Amen.

Corporate Mad Libs Prayer of Peace & Patience

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Yesterday I shared a new way of praying we practiced in the Emergent Worship service I lead in my church.  The next week after we did the individual Mad Libs prayer cards, we did a corporate Mad Libs prayer.  This time each person was invited to take a strip of card stock and write their name upon it.  Decoration and personalization were encouraged.  The prayer text was posted on the wall, and people were invited to add their name wherever they wanted.

Before

Before

Soon people were doing multiple cards with their names on them, and then people started making name cards for others who were not present, but in need of prayer and support.  Children were getting help from adults, and those who were not tall enough to place their name where they wanted were assisted by the taller ones.  It was a perfect example of peacefully working together and everyone was patient to take their turn at the prayer wall.  Sometimes we are given experiences that underscore precisely what God is conveying in Scripture, and this was one of those blessed occasions.  Before I knew it, the wall had been transformed into this:

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

After

Maybe this is something you can offer where you worship.  Or perhaps it is something you want to erect in a private space of your own, to keep a visual prayer for your beloved.  I offer it here, so that it might bless others as it has been a blessing to us.  Here is the prayer itself:

God of the Meek and the Strong,

The Poor and the Wealthy,

The Sick and the Healthy,

We, your people, lift up our prayers to you…

__________ needs your peace to wash over their relationships.

__________ is thankful you are patient with them.

__________ asks to feel your presence more fully.

__________ wants to become more patient with others.

__________ desires to experience a deeper relationship with you.

__________ asks for healing.

__________ wants your grace to wash over them.

__________ needs your help with a struggle.

__________ needs your strength during a time of stress.

__________ yearns for direction and divine guidance.

__________ seeks your comfort as they mourn.

__________ is grateful for forgiveness.

__________ gives thanks for your love.

__________ celebrates a triumph over adversity.

__________ seeks the peace that comes from you.

__________ wants to grow in love.

__________ wants to follow the path of Jesus Christ more fully.

__________ asks for the power to resist sinful inclinations.

__________ desires to embody the Risen Christ for others.

All the people say amen.

Mad Libs Prayer of Love & Joy

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We are in the midst of a worship series in our Emergent Worship service on the Fruits of the Spirit.  Our Scripture for each Sunday is “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other” (Galatians 5:22-26 CEB).  Each week we focus on one or two of the fruits in detail.

The week we did Love and Joy, I wanted us to ground those concepts in our relationship with God and emphasize that is maintained through prayer.  However, after one person told me that praying is boring, I decided to search out a new way of praying.  I made a Mad Libs prayer card that we handed out during worship, filling it out during a time of musical reflection.  It was a big hit, so I’m sharing it.  You can do it like a traditional Mad Libs, plugging in the blanks, then going back to read it.  Or you can read along and fill it in as you go, with some notion of the prayer you are composing.  There’s no right or wrong way, and it can be a different prayer each time you do it.  I and the people of #Emergingat945 hope it will be a means of grace for you, and nontraditional one at that.  See?  Prayer can be fun and exciting.

Mad Libs Prayer Cards

Mad Libs Prayer Cards


Loving God,

You pour out blessings upon me,

and offer me a joy unlike any earthly happiness.

Help me to _____(one of the five senses)_____ this truth.

Let me be grateful for what you have done for me,

and may I show it through _____(a way of loving another)_____.

There is nothing that can replace your infinite love for me.

I want to know joy, instead of _____(a negative emotion)_____,

which threatens to overwhelm me at times.

Open my heart, and speak your truth of hope and salvation into me.

Uplift me from the depths of _____(a painful place or situation)_____,

and let me discover a whole new way of being in this life.

Out of the darkness I rise in an upwelling of your love,

And though I am not without burden,

I can sense you in _____(a positive influence, person, or place in your life)_____,

and I know you are with me always.

Thank you for knowing me by the name _____(personal name or title)_____,

and calling me back home to you.

Amen.

Shaking It Up: First Starbucks, Then the World

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It’s not uncommon for me to stop by the local Starbucks and grab a coffee when I’m out and about in the morning.  Even though I’ve already had one cup of coffee at home, I enjoy the diversity of a tall Pike Place coffee from the flavored k-cups of my domicile.  So yesterday morning I had to run a few errands, and then I hit up the Starbucks which was on my way back to the church office.  I was driving a larger rental vehicle, a minivan no less, rather than my normal peppy mini-SUV.  It obviously wasn’t set up for my phone to bluetooth in my various music caches, so I was listening to the satellite radio Electronic/Techno station rather than my mix tape equivalent of eclectic music I set aside specifically for driving.  At least the minivan had some surprisingly good bass.  I felt slightly out of my element, slightly off kilter.  As I walked into the Starbucks, one of the regulars, Shawn, noticed that my five year old son wasn’t in tow, and asked where he was.  I told him that the Little Man was out and about with a friend.  Everything was not normal, and it was obvious.

As I waited in line, I made the decision to not get my regular order.  I cast aside the notion of getting the tall Pike, and embraced one of my former favs: the grande nonfat Misto.  When it was my turn and I placed my order, you could see the shock register on the barista’s face.  But she didn’t say anything to me.  I could not help but smile as she placed the order with the other barista at the helm of the espresso machine.  His head whipped up, “You mean she doesn’t want a tall Pike?”  She shook her head no, and he glanced at me, then cast a look her way as if to say, “Are you sure?!”  He shrugged and started on my steamed nonfat milk.  A third barista walked by and wished me “Good Morning.”  She noticed that I didn’t have my tall Pike and started to grab a tall cup to make it, when the first barista had to tell her that I had ordered something else.  The third barista actually asks if something is wrong.  Now I’m chuckling, “Nope, God is doing a new thing, and I decided to follow suit.”  They are all smiling, but it’s tinged with confusion and maybe even a little discomfort.  Maybe it was my decision to speak the name of God.  Maybe it was my breaking with tradition and established routine.  Either way, with my Misto in hand they all wished me a good day and I departed.

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

As I got into my massive human being hauling rental vehicle, I took the first sip of my Misto.  The creamy taste was alien to my palette, which has become accustomed to pure, black coffee.  The second sip was better, almost nostalgic.  I used to drink that beverage all the time several years ago.  It was a my “go to” at Starbucks, but that was before I gave up cream in my coffee and embraced the world of black coffee my parents always enjoyed.  Things had really changed in a couple of years.  Maybe the rest of the world wasn’t rocked when I shifted my crucial coffee routine, but going back was not as easy as I had imagined.  I had settled into a new norm, and had apparently taken others there with me.  Those baristas are used to people who constantly mix it up with their beverage orders, but those of us who are stalwarts, drinking the same thing with regularity make things easy, predictable, and comfortable.  I shook things up today, and for no other reason than I was shaken up by circumstances outside my control.  My mention of God had more to do with what God is doing in me and my life than my beverage.

I got engaged when just a month ago I was telling people I had no intention of getting remarried ever.  My son who had been adamant up to two months ago that I should not ever get married again much less date, is telling everyone he encounters that he is getting a new step dad, and he loves him.  My Emergent Worship service is bearing fruit, and touching lives.  I am preparing next month to begin the final phase of the ordination process, and hopefully culminate in my ordination next June, thus ending a journey that began seventeen years ago with a call from God.  Through all this change, this flux in my life, my faith is growing stronger.  I am praying more, and with greater gratitude than ever before.  I am writing again, and it feels like coming home, but moving into a different room than the one I left.  Maybe this one has more closet space and a better view.  God is always at work in the world, the question is whether we are willing to let God work in our lives.  I want even more than that.  I want God at work in me, so that one day God will be free to work through me in radical ways.

Life is change.  It is evolution, growing, stretching, and adapting.  It is about dealing, coping, and even embracing that change.  Change can be scary.  I choose to look at all these insane changes in my life as occasions for God to work, and bring me into the Promised Land where I am looking more and more like Christ everyday.  The Promised Land is more than a geographical place with GPS coordinates.  It is a state of being where we are in a profound relationship with God the Father, doing the work of discipleship in God the Son’s name, and allowing God the Holy Spirit to perfect us in God’s almighty and endless love.  It is not an easy journey, but worthwhile doesn’t being to convey it.  It will take everything we have, and give us more than we can imagine.  I suspect there will be a lot of tall Pikes along the way.  It starts with a sip and step.