Holy Wind

Man it’s only Thursday and I am getting fired up for Pentecost…. I think, in fact, that Pentecost is one of my favorite celebrations of the church.  And this year, it has been made all the more meaningful through the conversations that I have had the privilege of being a part of.

One conversation that sticks out for me most strongly is really a conversation that I have had with many folks that I care about, and for whatever reason they have clustered this week.  And that conversation has to do with community and belonging.  As I was reminded this week, the consequence of blogging about one’s loneliness is that suddenly one is likely to receive a lot of phone calls, emails, and personal check ins from people that care making sure that a person is alright.  Some of those check ins have become important conversations about the experience of true belonging to a place or a people.  Moreover, many conversations have also dealt with the importance of invitation to a person’s sense of belonging.

And as someone who spends her days as a pastor, all this talk about belonging and invitation, of course, got me thinking about the church.  Because ultimately, what is the gospel other than an invitation to community?  What does Christ do, if he does not welcome outsiders into the family?  Consider Pentecost.  The way I read it this week, the Holy Spirit’s appearance on the scene is primarily a radical invitation to all people.  Scripture says in Acts 2 that every person who was in the room, no matter what their native tongue, heard and understood the words of the disciples as they spoke through the power of the Spirit.  Every person was acknowledged by the Spirit’s presence; no one was left out.  How often does that happen in our daily lives?  More often than not, our common experience is one of being left out rather than brought in, and yet the Spirit makes a space in which the exact opposite is what is possible. That invitation, the offering of the gospel to all people regardless of their language, shifts the conversation from one where the focus is inward to one where the focus is outward.  All those people have heard the invitation:  how will they respond?

Ultimately, what I take away is the following:  we cannot control how people will respond to our message, what they will decide to do with it.  That is between them and God.  But if Pentecost teaches us anything, it is that we are called as the church to offer the invitation that is the Gospel to everyone who has ears to hear, no matter what divides or separates us, to give them the chance to accept or reject the invitation.  This work will take us out of our comfort zone, but the HOly Spirit will be with us.  We will not be alone.  And what’s more, what we offer is so important, because it essentially amounts to us saying, “You don’t have to be alone.  We can be a community, together.  We can work out our differences.  Our language may be different, but the gospel is the same.  The good news is for all of us.”

Not a bad antidote to a lonely few days.

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Today’s Subject is Loneliness

Difficult, difficult, difficult.  It has always been so difficult for me to acknowledge and embrace the part of myself that can suddenly be overcome by loneliness, whether I am alone or not.  The person who, in the midst of a room full of people, many of whom she knows, will become increasingly aware in the midst of that room that she feels invisible, unnoticed, passed over.

Perhaps it has to do with who I am and how I see myself.  I am the eldest, and I have always wanted to be liked, to make my parents and those I admired proud of me.  I have always wanted to be someone that other people knew and that folks liked to be around, and I think it would be fair to say that I have coveted the approval of others throughout my life.  But I also know that I like to forget the part of me that was so lonely as a child–I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I often was picked on in school (I was a bit of a nerd, and before that, I liked “little kid” games like make-believe well into middle school, and before that, well, I was sort of a tomboy).  The friends I had were closely held, and often not very many at any given time.  As I got older, I had more “friends,” but almost all of them were not the sort I shared your life with–more the kind that I ate my lunch and took my classes next to.  We were more like friends by geography than choice.

I wonder if that hasn’t persisted to some extent into my adulthood.  Sure, my sister commented in college that I seemed to know everyone, but I rarely felt as though anyone knew me.  MOre often, I felt like folks knew my name, and knew what I did, but didn’t really share my life.  Same with seminary–I was a decent schmoozer, but I left seminary really with one good friend, and I didn’t meet her in school at all.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I am struggling these days with the profound gulf that I will sometimes find myself trapped in.  I know I can’t be alone in this, but I can’t help but feel alone in the midst of it.  My job is one where being extroverted and knowing everyone is good, but one drawback is often that you know a little bit of everyone, and they know less of you.  And given my education I sometimes find myself struggling to analyze my experience, but I am not sure that is the best antidote either… is it really going to help me, for example, to try to try to diagnose my loneliness, or is that just another way to avoid acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, this is a part of who I am?  Maybe I would be better off just sitting in it and feeling it, rather than hiding it away.

I do have to say though, I find it amusing that today I was feeling lonely in, of all places, a church in which the mission statement could probably decently be described as welcoming all people in so that loneliness diminishes and community increases.  And here I am feeling like the odd man out.  I have my reasons, I suppose, but I did find it to be unexpected territory.

If someone brought this problem to me, I suppose I might be tempted to wonder, “Where is God working in this,” or “what lesson might we learn,” or maybe something more clever that connects the spiritual to the emotional.  And I do believe they are connected somehow–I almost never worship myself, these days, and I find it interesting that I feel so lonely when I do.  But I gotta be honest, I don’t feel like answering the questions right now.  If I could be blunt, I just want to feel less like the island I experienced today.  I want to be a part of things, and for others to want me to be a part of their lives, rather than just a number or a person who can give them something.

P is for Praise

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 148

I have been fascinated this week by the words of praise offered by the Psalmist above… drawn almost viscerally to the images of everything from sea monsters and topography, weather and celestial bodies singing praises to God.

It got me thinking about praise, ultimately, and its role in Sunday worship.  I know, at least for myself, that the first image that comes to mind when I hear the word praise is praise bands, conglomerations of too-happy pregnant women with one hand in the air as they sing and pimply teenagers rocking out to cheesy love songs for God, all in the name of contemporary and “lively” worship.

But praise has such a richer texture than my, and not doubt many others, gut reaction to the word. The word praise actually comes from the Old French preisier, which means “to value” or to set a price to something. Which I find interesting, since the word worship, from the anglo saxon wurdscip,traditionally indicated reverence given to something that is worthy, or worth its value.  Taken together, then, the words praise and worship seem inseparable:  Worship consists of praise, and praise is the essence of worship, which offers us a strong clue as to what we ought to be engaged in on Sundays.  We ought to be praising God.

Of course, that sounds deceptively simple.  Many of the things we do on Sunday seem obviously praise-y, while others are more difficult to connect to the concept.  Add to that that each person finds meaning in different aspects of worship, and we arrive at a place where people are asking one another:  if it is all meant to lead to praise, then why do we do the boring stuff, or the stuff that I don’t like?

Well here is where I like the Psalm above.  The psalm doesn’t tell us what each part of creation does to offer praise, but it does offer a vision that I think is worth emulating in our worship: the value of both unity and diversity offered in the praise of God.  Certainly mountains and sea monsters could not offer praise in the same way, and I imagine that the heavenly host’s means of praise is completely different from that of the snow and the frost.  Nonetheless, when each offers their true voice to the project of praise,  the harmony is strengthened. In a similar way, our worship offers innumerable ways for each worshipper to find a voice to praise God with.  Whether that person needs to praise God for the act of gathering, or for the grace that comes with sin forgiven, or needs to be reminded by hearing the word, or simply wishes to belt out a hymn by literally singing, each aspect of worship is a path towards praise.  They may not all work for every person every week, but the opportunity is there, waiting, every time we gather.  And what is more, when we gather together we are reminded in song, in spoken word and in prayer that we do not praise God alone, but are joined by our neighbors and the heavenly choir which sing praise eternal.  We can even find comfort in knowing that even the sea monsters sing with us.

Pretty awesome if you ask me.

further thoughts…

Questions that have been on my mind:

 

  • what is the purpose of church?  is it the same or different from the purpose of Christ?  
  • what does it mean, I mean, REALLY MEAN, to serve?
  • what is, really, salvation?  Is it possible to, as many churches would have you believe and do, save other people?  This prospect makes me uncomfortable, as I tend to think that is God’s job alone, but what is our role as fellow human beings?  What shape does salvation take in a life?  Is it feeling loved and wanted by others and by God?
  • How does one truly love one’s neighbor?
So yes, I know these are all big questions, but they have been on my mind, especially given my experience on Sunday with that church… the experience was so wrapped up in the needs and experience of the community that had already been welcomed (the insiders, if you will), which seemed so out of step with Christ that it made me wonder what the point of church is at all… because if it ain’t Christ, then what is it? Furthermore, who am I to judge where Christ is?  What if I am wrong?  Do I want to be a part of something that closes itself off and isolates itself from the real world?  Is that the kind of love that I would want to receive?  
So if you have any ideas or ruminations, I would love to hear them… these are big questions, and it is my suspicion, as with many things, that big questions are best wrangled with in community rather than alone, for it is in community that we face one another and open one another to our own experiences and form a more complete picture of how God might be working in our contexts.

What is Communion for?

So this summer has been cruising along at a hellish blast out here in philly at BSM.  I have found myself quite comfortable in this funky church.  The people who work here all care deeply about what it means to live and be a church in Philly, and it definitely shows–in the friendliness of those who come here, in the posture of openness of not only the staff but also many who come here for meals and worship and fellowship.  And it has been quite a bit of work as well, but I have liked it.

One thing that has also been nice about BSM has been that worship is in the evenings, which means that I have had the opportunity to both work at a church and explore other church communities in the area.  So far I have attended 4 other Presbyterian Churches in the area, and while I haven’t felt quite at home at any of them, my experiences at each have left me mulling over some interesting questions about what it means to steward a church and to be a church in a city like this.

One that has come up most sharply relates to an experience that I had at a church this past week.  The church was a sort of wacky mix of traditional and contemporary, with a praise band and an organ, and a whole lot of “Lord Father God” language.  Their pastor, a supply pastor, was extremely exuberant and unabashedly Reformed, which meant there was a whole lot of things like “we come here not to receive, but to give gratitude and worship god” being said, and a whole lot about depravity and sinfulness as related to our inability to see and worship God being implied.

I didn’t mind all that so much.  In fact, I was sort of interested in the church because other than BSM they are the only PCUSA-ish church I know of  that has communion every week.  I happen to think frequent communion is a beautiful thing, so I was excited.  So we get to communion, and the pastor gets up and does the invitation, which goes something like this: “we welcom to the table all those gathered here among us today who have been baptized into the faith.  If you have been baptized, please come forward now to receive communion.”

Did I hear that right?  Did he just say that communion is only for you if you have had water sprinkled on you by a minister?  Did he MEAN it?  They aren’t going to police that, are they?  I was caught between surprise and anger by what I had heard.  I mean, what is communion for?  Everything this church said indicated it believed that communion was a feast for believers to pat themselves on the back and celebrate their gratitude to God… but what about everyone else?  Jesus’ memorable meal was one shared with the “everyone else,” the prideful, broken, sinful, young, unprepared clan of young men and probably some women who had  been rejected by everyone but Christ, who unlike anyone else gathered them in and welcomed them to a table where they were filled and provided for.  It was radically inclusive, as I read it, nothing like the closed table of this church.  In contrast to Jesus’ meal, this church seemed guaranteed to leave anyone who took communion illicitly feeling deceitful and probably guilty for nothing more than seeking to be fed by Christ.

So those are my thoughts, but seriously, what is communion for?  Is it right to close a table?  What does it mean for a community to choose to close a table to outsiders?  Is it necessary that it always be open?  I imagine anyone reading this knows my thoughts, but I wonder what others might think?  What would it mean to offer communion to anyone who comes to the table?  What is at stake?  What is the risk?  What might be gained from a completely open table?

Off to SF we go.

Yesterday morning I suckered my ‘rents and my bro into driving up to San Francisco with me to scope out Mission Bay Community Church (I billed it as an “excellent family bonding opportunity” in “sunny SF,” which was incidentally far enough away from the Santa Cruz fires that the air didn’t smell like a campfire or make one’s eyes tear up).

 

So we piled in the car around 9:45 and chugged up the 101 (yes, I went to undergrad in SoCal and YES I picked up and have held onto that nasty habit of adding an article to freeway numbers).  We got there early, or at least got off the freeway early… only we had a bit of trouble at first finding the church.  Actually, what happened was that we blew past the church altogether, missing the sign which was shaded by some trees on the side of an industrial looking building.  I should have known better than to look for something blatantly “churchy” but obviously not.  Anyways, my dad spotted the sign, we snagged a parking space and skipped on in (at least I did) in time with the sound system with 5 minutes to spare.  

 

The church was pretty neat, in terms of aesthetics.  BRC and Co. have created an awesome atmosphere that feels instantly welcoming (which was precisely what my dad pointed out when we sat down).  There were big couches interspersed with pews and folding chairs, some of which were organized around cafe tables.  There was an open kitchen in the back with coffee, tea, and donuts, and the mostly 20-30 something crowd was clustered about throughout the space engaged in conversation with one another.  It felt almost like a friendly, industrial coffee shop.  We snagged a table and some coffee and chatted with some of the people around us, who were also quite friendly.

 

Worship itself was, as I heard BRC say before, not all that different and yet different all at once.  There was a definite emphasis on music, which was a good mix of old and new led by a worship band, and a definite lack of emphasis on individualism or anything that moved people away from the communal aspect… so there were no hymnals to stare at or bulletins to get lost in, and everything was projected on the front on a screen.  Again, my dad seemed to like that a lot.  I felt as though, if you were looking for community, it was pretty hard to miss it there (gawd I sound like an ego-booster for BRC right now, I bet.).  Overall, the coolest for me was the rationale for why they encourage people to move around or engage the service however they feel comfortable, that being that they want to celebrate and affirm that people process information in different ways, and that it is important to facilitate an atmosphere that encourages people to see church as a home and not a place that asks that people deny who they are (at least, I think I got that right…)

 

Sermon was decent, I had a question or two, but then again that was welcome in the room as well.  Generally, it was a great experience and my brother, someone who would rather do almost anything rather than go to church, gave possibly the best compliment he could: “well, it wasn’t boring, thats for sure.”

 

So way to go, MBCC.  You failed to bore my bro, and my ‘rents loved it–all in all a success in my book.  It was fun, it was interesting, it was genuine.  I look forward to hearing about how things are going as this fun and welcoming church continues to grow and discover itself.

Generational Name-Calling is Getting Old

I have been reading more and more blogs lately that have a tendency to blast those who were born after 1981 as having no culture or no class or no sense of theology.  These bloggers call us the “Dissillusioned Generation,” or accuse us lacking any unique culture ” or of whining too much, or finally of being silent (not always a bad thing in this case, but the implication seems to be that we lack passion).  I can’t help but feel troubled by these accusations–I mean, we are a generation that has faced many challenges but also one that has grown up in a world extremely different from that of our parents.  

Mostly, I am still trying to sort out a coherent response to these blanket-statement claims regarding the twenty-somethings of my time period– but I can’t help but observe that, based on the line that is drawn by most (1981) we are only 27 tops, and it strikes me that the cultural contributions of most generations aren’t fully felt until we get OUT of our teens and out of school and into the world…. and besides, is it really fair for some 35 year old who has a vested interested in his or her own experiences to run around judging what a 15 year old finds meaningful?  Is it fair for the older folks to chastise an 18 year old for using the language of his or her generation to express a desire “hang out with Jesus” without considering that language is so contextual to the group that uses it and that it might mean something different for that generation than for another?  Is it right for the adults whom my generation ought to be looking up to to simply write off everything we do as “not good enough” rather than seeking to journey along with and attempt to understand more fully the experiences of those younger than them?

Maybe my opinions will change, but it is my suspicion that this tendency to write off an entire generation as a failure is a bit premature….and unloving and unChristian and anti-community.  We ought to be using our energies to understand and uplift one another, not tear one another down just because we don’t like what they do.  Sure, reality television and most media culture bothers me, but that doesn’t strike me as a legitimate reason to write off an entire age group as useless… if I am right, in fact, it could be thrown back that it is the Generation Xers who are in fact “producing” and “promoting” that junk, and that Generation Y folks are more consumers who have grown up in a pre-existing media culture that encourages their consumption.  Not that I would throw back… I’m just saying.

 

Anyways, my preliminary challenge, before I have had a lot of time to think this through, is that as people seeking to live in community and in faith with one another, we are called to journey with, not against, those beside us, particularly those who will be here long after we are gone.  Because like it or not, we are here to stay, and I think the world would be a whole lot better off if we could seek to uplift and love and understand and celebrate one another rather than looking for excuses to ignore or disparage our neighbors.  Just a thought.