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Am I Doing this Right?

As I was burning the dead plants from our garden in preparation for our Ash Wednesday services, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Am I doing this right? While we practiced baptism, leading communion, and discussed funerals and marriage ceremonies, we never burned ashes. Perhaps it’s because the celebration of Ash Wednesday isn’t all that common in baptist churches or perhaps it’s because there is ample opportunity to buy ashes already burned and ready for imposition. Perhaps it’s because part as communities of faith, we often assume that the way we’ve always done things will hold up.

As I watched the dead plants become ash while trying to keep our 16 month old a safe distance from the flame, I remembered the first time I had seen someone bearing the mark of the cross on an Ash Wednesday. It was my best friend who I knew attended the Catholic church across the street from my Southern Baptist Church and when she arrived to school, I tried to clean her forehead hoping to save her from embarrassment of having dirt on her head, which is what best friends do in middle school.

She stopped my hand as I tried and said, “It’s a cross. I went to mass this morning because it’s Ash Wednesday.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed to wear my cross earrings to middle school and often hid my WWJD bracelet under my long sleeves, but here she was bearing the mark of the cross on her forehead for all to see. Her profession of faith and confession that she was dust and to dust she would return didn’t match my understanding of Catholics as “the others” and “nonbelievers.”

19 years later, as a I prepared the ashes for our own Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I was overwhelmed with the question: Am I doing this right? Am I including all? Am I welcoming all? Am I remembering that we are all the people of God overcome with our own dustiness at times and wanting only to find the divine breath that made us come to life? As a minister, am I challenging our human tendency to group ourselves into us and them, believer and nonbeliever, faithful and unfaithful? Am I questioning the times that we turn a finger to blame someone else for handing us the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unwilling to admit that we did indeed take a bite?

And as the tomato stalks that had yielded fruit only to be eaten by bugs and plagued by blight turned to ash, so too did my question. Maybe it isn’t whether I am burning ashes “right” or ministering “right,” but rather that I am a witness to the miraculous power of creation to die and rise again. I am a witness that out of dust can come to life because the Divine walks among us.

Waiting to Hit Publish

I clicked “save draft” and forgot about the post. I knew it wasn’t quite right and that my attention was in two or three places, after all it was Thanksgiving week, so I decided not to hit publish, and to come back to it later.

But when I came back to it, it still wasn’t right. There was a tone, a bitterness to the post that I didn’t want in my writing, not here at least. Maybe in the journal I keep by my bed. Maybe my eyes were the only eyes to see these words. Maybe this saved draft would never be published, but instead would live its life out in my bedside journal. Yeah, that was probably a better place for them.

I could have so easily pushed “publish.” The two buttons are so close together. It takes no more effort for me to hit “publish” than it does to push “save draft”, an amazing phenomenon of the digital world we find ourselves living and communicating within, but the editor in me decided not to publish, making the conscious decision that there are words to be said here in this space and perhaps more importantly words not to be said here in this space.

It reminds me of the letters I wrote in middle school when I was so upset by the latest lunchtime seating arrangement drama. I can remember coming home from school and being so upset and my mom suggesting  writing a letter explaining why I was so upset to the person with whom I was upset. Yes! I thought. Yes, I will tell her exactly what I think of her new seating arrangement.

And so I would write, scribbling furiously, and many, many times as I folded the note with one of the special note folding techniques I had practiced at recess, I would decide that the note was too mean, the subject not as important as I had just felt it was, but I felt better having written those words and releasing them from my own self even though they would never be published by giving them to someone else.

Perhaps the most sacred act we can engage in this Advent season is waiting to hit publish or post or send and being mindful of the powerful impact of our words on other people’s hearts.

Prayers of the People

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I didn’t grow up in a worship tradition that included Prayers of the People. Perhaps it was because the congregation was so large that ministers and worship leaders didn’t know how to manage and plan for the time it would take for people to utter prayers before God and their community of faith. Instead I grew up with a Pastoral Prayer: one voice leading a prayer on behalf of God’s people. I’ve found this is common in larger congregations, but I’ve fallen in love with the beauty and authenticity of God’s people uttering requests, praises, and concerns before a community of faith and before God. I love that the role of the minister is not the voice of the people in prayer before God, but rather that the minister or worship leader joins with the people in praying.

This is why at ministrieslab, Prayers of the People are a part of the services we lead. And today the prayer uttered by a first-time attender at our worship service at Transitions was so authentic and so compassionate that it reminded me how important the voice of God’s people in worship is:

I pray for the people who look down on us because we are homeless and think we don’t have faith. I pray that we will continue to have our faith strengthened even when people look down on us.

Lord hear our prayers.

And may this prayer remind us to see and hear God’s people whenever and wherever we find them rather than thinking God’s people are only in our own faith communities.

Let it be. Amen.

When We Withhold Communion

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Yesterday, as we worshipped together at ministrieslab, I offered an invitation to the table. An invitation to anyone who wanted to come. I offered the same thoughts that we offer each week, “It doesn’t matter when the last time you went to church was or what church that was, God’s table is open to all.”

There was a woman who hadn’t been in worship with us, but was waiting at the doorway for the next class. As we wrapped up with the Amen chorus, she ventured into the conference room. She complimented the pianist telling him how powerful his music was and how it moved and encouraged her. She came in where I was packing up the communion elements. I offered her the rest of the communion bread, something we do every week in case there is someone who is hungry and needs a bit more than a pinch of bread to sustain them. She shook her head no. I offered again explaining that she was welcome to it, knowing that to be homeless is to be vulnerable and being offered handouts is often offensive. She shook her head again. Sensing something in her eyes, a question or a hesitation, I offered one last time.

She explained that she wanted to take communion. The juice had already been given to someone else, but I told her I would be happy to pour the cup again, just for her. “I want to take communion, but people have told me I shouldn’t because you have to be a certain kind of person to take communion.”

I looked her in her eyes and said, “I’m a minister and I’m offering you this bread and cup to remember that we are all offered new life.” She took the smallest pinch of the body of Christ I have ever seen and dipped just a little into the cup. After she had eaten the bread dipped from the cup, she took the cup and raised it to her lips. She finished the small amount I had served just for her. As she handed the cup back to me, I said, “Thanks be to God.” “Amen,” she muttered.

When we withhold communion from people who need to be reminded of the sacrifice Jesus made on the night he was betrayed, we withhold new life from them. When we withhold communion from people because of their sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or whether they have a home or not, we are withholding God from them. When we withhold communion, we are withholding God’s love and God’s hope and instead offering them exclusion and brokenness.

When we withhold communion from people, we are forgetting, not remembering. We are forgetting that in the wilderness God offered manna from heaven to God’s people: the people who had faith and the people who were complaining, whining, and had no faith. We are forgetting that Jesus on the night he was betrayed offered the bread and the cup to the very person who was about to betray him. We are forgetting that in the midst of our own brokenness, we were offered the hope and healing in the body and blood of Christ.

Thanks be to God that we are welcomed to God’s table even when we tell others there is no seat for them.

“I’m Not Good Enough to Take Communion”

This week at ministrieslab, we studied chapter 14 in Luke’s gospel where Jesus teaches his disciples a parable about the place of honor at the table:

14:7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 14:9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I told those gathered the story of my family and how growing up, we always had the same seats at our round, wooden table. I told them that the way it had ended up was with the youngest seated next to my mom and the second youngest (that would be me) sitting next to my dad, probably because we were the two who needed the most help. The older children had migrated away from my parents as they had gotten older and younger siblings had come along.

We knew we had a place at the table and we knew that we were welcome to the table.

For so many whom we have worshipped with at ministrieslab, this isn’t true. They aren’t welcomed to a table because they are without homes or because they have can’t see family, children, or spouses because of past choices.

And so when the man said he didn’t feel like he should take communion, I wasn’t surprised, I had heard this often in our worship and work. I said what I usually say, “Here are ministrieslab, everyone is welcome to the table. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church or what kind of church you attended. All are welcome to fellowship with us and remember Christ’s sacrifice.”

“Thank you, but not today, I’m not good enough.”

I looked him squarely in the eye and said, “I’m not saying that and our passage today is not saying that.”

“I know, I’m just working on some things.”

I smiled and nodded appreciating the reverence with which he engages in the sacred act of communion. Afterwards, he came up and asked if we would have chapel next week. I told him we would. He asked if communion would be served. I assured him it would.

“Good,” he responded.

“I look forward to seeing you next week.”

This radical act of breaking bread and pouring wine or juice and offering it to God’s people wherever we encounter them is transformational just as this parable in Luke. Perhaps if we concentrated on sharing God’s table with those who can’t repay us with tithes or designated gifts or invitations to feast together and instead invite those who can’t repay us to table fellowship, we would understand this parable more clearly and in turn we would understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Worship When Life Has Not Gone As Planned

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The call Sam and I felt to start ministrieslab to pop up in the midst of need is indeed a call from God to minister to God’s people, but I didn’t realize it was a call to question my own privilege. Privilege that blinds me to need. Privilege that causes me to think I know how to help people. Privilege that makes me believe I know how to plan an authentic and engaging worship service because I hold a MDiv.

Privilege that’s challenged me every week over the past eight weeks as I walk into Transitions Homeless Shelter. As I walked in today, our pianist was practicing, but this week it was different. He had gathered a chorus with him, a chorus that gladly agreed to sing as part of our service. As they ran through Amazing Grace, more and more people came in the open door and set down as I set the Lord’s table for communion.

And with the music, came worship.

Worship not that I had planned, but that the clients at Transitions led. Worship that came from their hearts, their concerns, their voices, their experiences, their needs. Worship led by God’s people. Worship that transformed my understanding of what worship truly is.

I come from a tradition of carefully-crafted worship services with orders of worships, written calls to worship where the leader and people’s parts are clearly labeled, and where those who lead the service often don’t worship because they are concerned about ensuring that everything goes as planned. Today, I didn’t have to start the worship service, but instead I was invited into worship with this community of faith.

There is a beautiful truth that exists in this integrated community of faith: life has not gone as planned. In this community of faith, race, gender, and sexuality don’t matter because the truth that we are all in need transcends all those labels. It reminds me a lot of our chapel experiences at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity that invited us to worship together, black and white, old and young, male and female, and all kinds of different sexuality.

Perhaps instead of planning worship so carefully, we should instead plan on placing ourselves in the midst of need. Because there in the midst of need, we will surely find the presence of God.

 

 

Roaming Robe

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I grew up in a tradition where ministers wore suits and ties because they were all male. Pastors were considered to be CEOs and so it made sense that their professional attire would match that of the business world. This always bothered me, especially after experiencing worship communities in which the ministers were set apart in clerical collars, robes, or vestments. In these religious traditions, it didn’t matter if you were male or female what mattered is that you as an individual were cloaked or robed in order to serve as the representation of God to God’s people.

Just this week, I saw a minister with his daughter in target cloaked in a ministerial robe and clerical collar. I wanted to stop him and say, “Hey, I’m a minister, too! No, really I have my robe in  my car.” It’s true. My ministerial robe is currently housed in the backseat of my car, which our five-year-old noticed this weekend. She asked, “What’s this?” as she held up the garment bag draped across the backseat. I explained to her  it was my robe that I wear when I preach, the stole I received when I was ordained, and the handmade scapular I received after I had served Emmanuel for a year.

She looked at me and said, “Oh, so it’s kinda like Mommy’s doctor bag that she keeps just in case someone needs a doctor and because she goes to different hospitals.” I thought about that for a moment and realized yes, that’s exactly what it was like. How many times over the past two and half years have I found myself somewhere where I wished I had my robe to wear in order to more significantly signal that I was performed God’s work for God’s people? Perhaps there’s power in a roaming robe, just like in a traveling doctor’s bag. The power to offer hope and healing as we encounter need in our daily lives.

Two Ordained Years: The Good News

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Yesterday marked the second year I have been living this life as an ordained minister. I took time to reflect and read the encouragement offered as I took that step two years ago. I took time to reflect on how I had changed as a person and as a pastor, and I took time to think about how the world had changed.

Can the world change in two years? Can a person and a pastor change in two years? Yes, and those changes can be more than we expected and more than we thought possible.

I look at this picture and see someone who was trying to prove herself as a pastor, as a wife, and as a stepmom. Over the past two years, I have settled into the realization that I don’t have to prove these aspects of who I am because they simply are. I am a pastor. I am a wife. I am a stepmom. I am a mom. There is no need to prove what is.

I also look at the changes that have taken place as MH has grown and changed, especially as she has learned to read and write, and now as she is a doting older sister to her half-brother. I wonder at how she is so sure that she likes Star Wars and spy gear and how she isn’t bothered if other people don’t like those things or think she should like those things. I look at LC and see how much she has grown into who she is as a person and how Kindergarten has captivated her imagination. I wonder at how she is unlocking the mystery of reading and now the mystery of not being the youngest, but being an older sister.

And then I look at the way the world is changing.

Maybe seeing the changes in the world is an aspect of life as parenting. Maybe inevitably, you wonder at how the world is going to be for your children. Maybe you can’t help but look at the world in which you grew up and think that it was easier for you than it will be for your children. Whether this is something that happens to everyone who is a parent or not, the world is changing. The sheer number of mass shootings is surely one way we know this is true. Public discourse has changed drastically with the immediacy and availability made possible by social media and internet access. Radical claims about how we treat people of different beliefs and different backgrounds than ourselves are receiving shouts of approval and those who are speaking out against this mindset are being escorted out and silenced.

As the reality of the world we live in sinks in, I realize that being ordained does not mean what it meant two years ago. Two years ago, as an ordained minister, there was no real concern that someone would come into a church bible study, and open fire. Two years ago the conversation about welcoming and affirming all people regardless of sexual orientation or ethnicity was seen as a way to represent the teachings of Jesus. Now, these teachings are shrouded by a growing number of Christians who want not only to exclude people who are different than they are, but who now want permission to harm those who are different than they are. The scariest part of this mindset is that those who hold these views are finding each other and finding a spokesperson in a presidential candidate.

Being ordained has always meant being set apart. Now being ordained, for me, means speaking out against these changes. This is not what Jesus taught and certainly not what it means to be a follower of Christ.

If the world has changed in these way, then it can continue to change as can our public discourse. In order for that to happen, those of us who believe that what we are seeing and hearing must not be the way our country is ruled or governed, must be roused out of our belief that this too shall pass and stand up and speak out. We must not live in fear of the unknown, but instead live in the reality of the world that we are now in: a world we can indeed transform if we are willing to change ourselves. To change ourselves, we must examine ourselves in relation to our world. Are we truly trying to make the world a better place or are we merely trying to make ourselves more comfortable by surrounding ourselves with people who believe the same thing we believe?

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

If we believe that God did become man and come to the earth, then the world we see needs the good news of great joy for ALL people even more today than it did two years ago or even perhaps two thousand years ago. Thanks be to God that the good news isn’t the news on our TV, Twitter feed, or Facebook feed.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

On Being the Source of Conflict

This post is the second in a series on conflict. Read the first On Ending Up in the Middle of Conflict

It took me a long time to realize I was the source of theological conflict for friends and family when I answered a call to preach. It took me as long to realize that this had very little to do with who I was as a person and instead that my answering a call to preach demanded that friends and family examine their own theological beliefs.

Those of us who are called to ministry and pursue that call with theological education understand that question and challenging our theological framework is part of the process (although I am not sure that any of us know exactly how deep and revealing the process will be). For those people in our lives who aren’t pursuing theological education, we find that our sharing from classes and things we have learned isn’t always well received. Admittedly, it may be the tone with which we deliver that information, which can come across as know-it-all-y and arrogant. In these situations it isn’t us who is causing the conflict, but the process of theological education in general, which makes it much easier for those of us who are students of theological education because the conversation usually starts with “My professor told us today that…..”

But when I, as a woman who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, voiced a call to preach, inevitably conflict was going to follow. In my fragile state of developing identity and wrestling with whether to even reveal this call to anyone, the questions and theological reasons I heard from friends and family about why I couldn’t and wasn’t called to preach were deeply personal. I was turning my whole life in another direction and the people who were supposed to offer love and support were offering questions and challenges. I wish I could say that in these moments I was the one who remained calm and confident, but I wasn’t. I was reactionary and defensive of not only my call, but myself as a person. After all, they were questioning me.

Slowly and surely, as I met women whose stories sounded an awful lot like mine, I began to understand that the questions and challenges I was hearing and receiving from friends and family were not about me. How could they be when so many other women had experienced the same thing? Instead, I was the source of a theological dilemma that friends and family hadn’t asked or intended to question or wrestle through. By answering a call to preach, I was asking them to reconsider the tradition and biblical teaching they had believed. I was asking them to do theological work they hadn’t signed up for or asked for.

This realization transformed my reaction and defensiveness to compassion. I understood to some extent what they were going through because I, too, hadn’t asked to engage in this theological journey that would lead me not only to a new identity, but also a completely different life I wasn’t sure I was prepared for. I was just as scared at what the implications of answering a call to preach and minister s as they were about what would happen at the end of their theological wrestling. As friend and family to them, I wanted to try to walk with them along that scary, uncertain journey. That was going to mean I was going to need to stop talking and start listening a lot more.

I won’t say that I did or am doing this perfectly, but I will say that when I put myself in their shoes, I am much more understanding. In a way when I answered my call to ministry, I was expecting and hoping for love from those whom I loved the most. What I discovered was love and support comes from all kinds of people, and sometimes when love and support come from people who don’t know you and don’t know your story it’s even more powerful than when it comes from those you expect it from.

I am still the source of conflict for the couple who happened to end up in the parking lot of our church and to whom I introduced myself as the pastor of a baptist church. I am still the source of conflict for pastors and congregations who don’t welcome all people no matter their history, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status into their congregations. I am still the source of conflict for some friends and family. I am still the source of conflict for a whole tradition of baptists, but that doesn’t scare me as much anymore. I know people who affirm my call and people who don’t affirm my call both need love and a listening ear.

That’s something I can offer whether they call me pastor or Merianna.

 

The Voices that Are Silenced

I’m reading Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy and in the midst of WWI there is also the story of the Women’s Suffrage movement in England. As I listen to their stories and read of stories around the world of women who don’t have access to education or the choice in whom they marry, I think I don’t have the right to complain about the world in which I live and exist. There are other people who have had to fight harder, other women who can’t type their own words much less send them out in the world of social media.

And yet, I don’t think that the women who fought and the women who are fighting for equal voices would want us to become complacent in pretty good lives when are voices are only sometimes silenced, and so I write.

I write because I haven’t met a women in ministry serving in open and affirming congregations who hasn’t been demeaned, insulted, or belittled. I write because if we pat ourselves on the backs for allowing women to serve our congregations in the same roles as men do, but continue to allow the language of oppression to be in our hallways in those women’s offices and in staff meetings, then we haven’t really done these women a service, but a disservice. I write because 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused in their lifetimes (not women in conservative and fundamentalist baptist congregations, but all women). I write because in order to survive as professional ministers, we must ignore comments about being “cute” and “pretty” and “looking nice” and take them as compliments rather than attempts at objectification.

I write because we have to band together in private conversations passing along information about how best to work around people who say they support women in ministry, but reduce us to our gender. I write because the justifications of “that’s just the way he is” or “she’s like that to everyone not just women,” need to be rethought.

I write because if the comments that are made in welcoming and affirming congregations to women in ministry were made to my daughters, I wouldn’t stand for it.