Worship

In the Room Where It Happens: Public Moments of Worship

By Rev. Mindi

It’s probably been twenty years since I last joined in a public singing of Handel’s Messiah. I was part of a community choir, and we invited the audience to join us on the Hallelujah Chorus. In this particular instance, our choir stepped down from the risers and interspersed ourselves among the people, singing our harmonies among those singing the melody, helping our neighbors find their places in the sheet music so they could sing along. It was a moving moment of joining voices, professional and amateur, to sing this magnificent opus. And it was a public act of worship, of joining our voices to sing these notes and text that portrayed such a moment of praise.

I know that many churches still offer public singings of Messiah around the holidays, but the opportunity to find such moments outside of the church are rare. A few years ago, when flash mobs were the rage, I remember watching the video over and over again of the people singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the middle of a mall, from where they were sitting and standing.

I call these moments of worship because the focus is not on the individual. In these moments, the focus has turned outward. It has turned into a moment of joining together with other voices to make something greater than ourselves.

I have felt these moments of public worship in other spaces. During the 2000’s, attending U2 concerts often felt like acts of worship. I remember during the Vertigo tour, singing Yahweh at the end of the concert, where one by one the instruments stopped until all that was left was our voices on the chorus and the sound of Larry’s hands on the bongo’s. At other times, singing 40 at the end of the concerts was our public moment of joining together. In both cases, those words led us to singing a song of praise to God.

However, it was on the 360 tour, in singing Walk On, that I began crying, when Burmese refugees came forth wearing masks depicting the face of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political prisoner who was finally released soon after that tour after fifteen years of house arrest under the military regime. It was a moment of solidarity, a moment of understanding the plight of the Burmese people. Of course, we paid $45 plus Ticketmaster fees to join in that moment, so I understand the skepticism of others, and I have heard the criticism of using Aung San Suu Kyi to sell concert tickets. But I also know that U2 have worked hard to share the message of the Burmese people during Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, and made their struggle known to the world.

I wasn’t expecting to find this moment of public worship at Emerald City ComiCon this year in Seattle. Of course, being a fan of Hamilton and singing those songs at the top of my lungs in my car sometimes feels like a moment of worship. I am sure for those who have attended the musical there is an understanding of a greater story being told. But at ComiCon, there was a Hamilton Sing Along, and In the Room Where It Happens, it happened.

Sure, we started off with, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence…” and you know the rest. We sang songs with colorful language that we would never sing in church.

But we also sang Wait For It: 

Death doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep living anyway

We rise and we fall and we break

And we make our mistakes

And if there’s a reason I’m still alive

When everyone who loves me has died

I’m willing to wait for it

I’m willing to wait for it…

 In that moment of singing those familiar lyrics, there was a sense of knowing our own mortality, that we all have one shot at this life, and that the best we can do is to come together and try to find enjoyment when we can.

When I looked around the room, there was a moment that surprised me. There were children in the room who knew every singing word without having to look at the power point. There were people dressed up as Spider Man and others as zombies who sang the harmony on Satisfied. It was ComiCon, after all. But it felt like worship. It felt like church.

We didn’t get to sing It’s Quiet Uptown, with the lyrics, “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” but I felt that message in all of our joyous singing, in the raised fists during The World Turned Upside Down, in our insistence that we were not throwing away our shot. And when we sang Rise Up, one by one, people began to rise up together. We began to join not only our voices but our bodies in this movement. I felt a connection to the turmoil that is happening right now in the United States people, one by one, stood up and sang.

To me, it transported me back to that moment twenty years ago, singing the Hallelujah Chorus. We were naming a powerful moment, singing our praise as a people, and while we want a revolution, in that moment, we had a revelation. Hallelujah. Rise Up.

"Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life."

By Rev. Mindi

I was sad when David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each death made me reflect on their contribution to culture and society.

But Prince’s death is still rattling me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because he was younger than the other three, although not by much. Perhaps, because, as a late Gen-Xer, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 80’s.

It’s more than that. Prince was an artist that couldn’t be captured in a single genre, an activist through music and art. A hell of a guitar player—one of the best. And someone who celebrated sexuality and faith, writing “Sexy MF” and “The Cross.” Prince transcended social and musical boundaries.

And while I was sad on Thursday, it was the public singing of “Purple Rain” and the purple tributes across the world that got to me. Public mourning is something that brings us together, that unites us.

We have had too many communal tragedies in the last fifteen years, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and beyond, in which we gather in our sadness, but we are also angry. We grieve and we demand justice. We cry out to God and to each other as to how this could have happened again.

With Prince’s death, for now, we simply mourn. And while we ask why and what happened, and we experienced at first the shock and numbness that comes with a sudden death, we are also free to grieve together, and to celebrate his life. The public celebrations and singing, even the thousands of purple balloons outside of Paisley Park, point to a life well lived, something worthy of admiration, and grief at its brevity.

What we’ve learned since Thursday is that we need to collectively grieve, and Prince has given us the freedom to do that, without the anger and shame that has come from so many other collective memorials in the last fifteen years. Think of all the roadside memorials after car accidents and school shootings. Even when we have come together, it has been incredibly tragic, our feelings of grief meshed with cries for justice. We need a public mourning that frees us to grieve, as well as to celebrate, life.

Maybe that’s why so many churches posted the opening lyrics from “Let’s Go Crazy” on their sign boards. But better yet, we ought to have invited folks to public singings of “Purple Rain,” or at the very least, “The Cross.” Because the church needs to be joining in, if not leading, in collective mourning and celebrating life, death and resurrection.

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You're on your own.

(UN)Resolved Baptism Rites

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By. J.C. Mitchell

This entry is part of the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14 focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The topic for January is (Un)Resolved.

Why did John baptize Jesus?  There are many answers, but the question is how did Mark, Q, Matthew, John, and Luke, handle John baptizing Jesus in the Jordon? They clearly marked it as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and thus the passing of the reigns from the one in the wilderness to the one that would take on our culture’s violence through death itself. 

Having grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I found baptism mysterious.  It was not the ritual or the idea that it may have washed sins away, but because we referred to this important rite that happened before we could establish memories.  This ritual of entrance into Christendom required no participation.  I had issue with this when I found myself exploring my faith in the protestant world, which led me to the Baptist mindset that we of the Christian Church (DOC) uphold. 

I do not believe any human being can do anything to deserve the grace, the forgiveness, and the love that is represented by the water, but I felt it must be much more meaningful if the ritual was engaged by the one being submerged.  I was once invited to Cokesbury to be part of the brainstorming team for their new Confirmation Curriculum.  I was already a DOC Minister, but I had been working as an Associate Minister in an UMC church so they simply assumed I was of their tradition. It became evident when I spoke of making Confirmation something special, like Baptism.  And this is really the only difference, or at least should be, when we baptize.  For we uphold one baptism as a reflection of God’s Grace, not human action what so ever.

So today I uphold our tradition in the denomination I am ordained, but I am not resolved that this is correct.  It is true that we are open to accepting baptism from other traditions and we believe it is God’s work, but what are we saying by doing it at an age of consent? I am aware from baptizing and confirming children that the understanding ranges, but I have felt it essential to commence with the ritual, even if I was not sure they understood.  However, I am not sure how to commence with a person that is not able to profess their faith, for we even call it “believer’s baptism.”  We Disciples understand the submergence is due to the individual’s profession of faith, even if we uphold it is God’s work, not ours.

This is a concern for me because of my son, and my work at the Church Open Gathering, for I know great people that will not able to profess their faith.  I know that many of you pastors and Christians will say there are obvious exceptions and my son and my friends should also be submerged in the Love of Christ.  But that is my point, that they should not be baptized as an accommodation, or worse with an exemption by the elders, for we understand that the work is done by the Divine, not by the pastor, the church, nor the individual under water. 

Unless we truly profess that Baptism is the work of God alone, we may not include everyone as equally baptized.  This may be why Jesus joined us without a profession of faith.  I find myself unresolved about the ritual, but I understand it should truly reflect the Grace for All.  

Receiving the Invitation

By Colton Lott

I can quickly tell you my favorite parts of worship: communion, the pastoral prayer, times of meditation and silence. Even though I don’t attend a church that regularly practices this, I even find significance in a unified confession of sin and an assurance of pardon.

While there are some elements of worship that I question or have difficulties with, none of them parallel the problems I have with the typical understanding of the invitation to discipleship. The offer to make a public confession of faith, otherwise known as the “alter call,” has been at the end of every service of the three churches I have been involved with. I didn’t pay it much mind when I was growing up; if anything, I thought it to be a slight embarrassment or heartache for my pastor, who saw the invitation come back to her empty on average fifty-one weeks out of the year.

When I began leading worship services a predicament emerged. The invitation to discipleship was not only awkward due to the fifty-one rule, but increasingly painful to perform. To cope with my uneasiness, I tried to wrap the time at the end of the service as a catch-all for any need—confess your faith, receive additional prayer, take a seventh inning stretch, or snap a picture with the boy preacher, come on down, you’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!

The core of my discomfort was the feeling that the invitation to discipleship was either about peddling heaven or growing church membership. Either way, I felt like a dishonest used car salesman. I was growing convinced that intellectual affirmation is not a definition of Christian identity and I was especially convinced that maintaining official church membership is a bizarre exercise to keep.

But I began wondering if the emphasis of the practice was wrong. I separated the two words “invitation” and “discipleship” and considered what this phrase could mean if it were reconstructed without the overtones of sinner’s prayers, televangelists, crusades, and hellfire.

When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be disciples, he uses the evocative language of: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mt 4:19, Mk 1:17; New Revised Standard Version). In both cases the two left their nets immediately and began following Jesus to seek out people in need of holy healing, love, and rejuvenation.

Jesus did not say “make a statement of affirmation which will cause you to be saved,” or “shake the right hand of Christian fellowship and be a card-carrying member of my church.” Jesus said, “Follow me.” Taking Jesus up on his offer puts the invitee in a labor that redeems people—hands on, dirty, sweaty, heartbreaking work.

This invitation to discipleship received by Simon and Andrew had teeth and meaning and the threat of hardship. It was not a social formality, it was a life-changing choice. It was the invitation to come and die, it was the opportunity to live life abundantly (albeit not by traditional metrics).

This invitation—one of life-altering work and service—is one I need, and closer to what Jesus may have been intending. This is the invitation to fish for people, not only despite, but because of the unspeakable evil we see in this world, such as: racial terrorism, insatiable greed, disregard for God’s creation, and the mistreatment of children. If we call this time in worship an “invitation to discipleship,” then it is time that the church recognizes and lives into the depth and richness of what these words truly mean.

This Way of Jesus is not an inherently easy way to live and inviting people into such a life may have lower response rates than the traditional confession of faith. I see this in my own life. It is not personally advantageous to speak out against white male privilege. It is not convenient to live a life of sacrificial love. It is not heartwarming to face poverty and brokenness and be virtually powerless to halt the cycles that cause it. But it’s this difficulty in living the Way that demands we recall and restate our devotion every week. The renewal of our vow to live ordinary lives extraordinarily has to be bolstered often.

No matter how long, if ever, those gathered have been disciples of Jesus, all present are being asked to continually accept the call of Christ to “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

 Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Open Doors

By Rev. Mindi

During the entire first half of 1998, from January until June, I attended one worship service. It was the folk mass at my host family’s Catholic Church in England. Before I had left the states for my semester abroad, several people had told me about various churches—Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—that I could attend while I was abroad. But I chose not to. I chose, quite purposefully, not to attend worship the rest of that spring. 

I was at a crossroads in my faith. I had been part of a few conservative Christian campus ministry groups, and found that while I enjoyed the spirit of the music and the community, I could not abide by the legalistic approach to the Bible nor the narrow theology. I was also involved in our campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance group (this was the late 90’s), was reading feminist literary theory and I always claim that my Introduction to Sociology course the fall of my junior year saved me from fundamentalism forever. While I attended a fairly liberal congregation in college, I found my faith conflicted—I loved the spirit of worship among my conservative friends, the relational nature of God in Jesus that was expressed—but not the narrow ideology. During that time in my life, Christian community was stifling. I equated Christian community with conformity, and liberal or conservative, I did not want to conform. So I chose not to attend a worship service.

However, I was in a church, a chapel, a cathedral or other sanctuary at least every week, if not more often. I lit candles in York Minster and Notre Dame, sat and listened to the choir in Westminster and Winchester, and lifted my eyes up to the stained glass everywhere. I sat in the pews and lit candles under the names of saints I had never heard of.

I grew up Baptist, and am a Baptist minister serving in both American Baptist and Disciples congregations. But in those days, having the opportunity in those old Anglican and Catholic churches to pray, to sit and be silent in the presence of God—or even in the emptiness in some of those dark days of my faith journey—helped me in my faith journey.  It is something I lament in the free church tradition, that often we do not have our sanctuaries open.  The few times I have participated in opening the doors of my own churches I have served have been after major tragedies, such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Most of the time, our doors are locked.

In the debates about SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) what often gets argued is the need for community—and the assumptions that those who are not in church do not have community. But I am starting to wonder if those of us in the church have been arguing from the wrong angle. Besides the fact that many people who claim to be spiritual gather in other settings for community, what about those who are seeking, or who are spiritual, or even *gasp* religious, but find community stifling? What about those who have been wounded in community?

Are there ways we can be open, be a place of prayer to the public, where people can come and pray, or sit in silence, or listen to music, or light candles? Our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters, among others, have kept up this ancient tradition, but many of us in the free church tradition have forgotten. We have placed such great emphasis on community that we have forgotten other’s needs. There are times in people’s lives in which community can do more harm than good. But it is the work of the community in providing the space set aside specifically for God, that can reach those in need of solitude.

I still value community and worship together. When I returned from England, it took me a while to get back into church, but I remember clearly the first worship service I attended when I came back was Communion Sunday, and I was never so glad to participate in the breaking of bread and the meal of remembrance with the church I had been raised in, with the people who had always been there for me. But I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much had I not had the time away. I also feel that had it not been for the open churches, the candles in the chapels and the opportunities to pray or sit in silence, I would not have felt as assured of God’s presence even in my own dark valleys.

 

 

Lexicons of Faith and Practice

By Jeff Gill

For those of my readers who are not church folk, may I ask that you bear with me a few lines while I make a bit of a point? Thank you.

So: narthex, sanctuary, chancel, pew, steeple, pulpit, lectern, stole, paraments, chalice, vestments.

Or: doxology, Gloria Patri, invocation, benediction, introit, postlude, homily, offertory, responsorial, collect (no, not that), proper (uh uh), diaconate, cantata, Pentecost.

And then, as if those weren’t enough: redemption, atonement, intercession, incarnation, epiphany, transubstantiation, adoration (well yes, but), confessional, sacramental, evangelistical, connectional, and covenantal.

Yes, church folk use some specialized terminology. The first set was architectural and object names in churches, the second set are terms used in worship services, and the third are theological words. Wait, do I need to explain theological?

Maybe so. And yet . . .

In fields like architecture you run into cornice and architrave and footer; if you go to concerts, you expect to hear about concertmasters and thaumaturges and tunings; anyone who stays past the final credits knows that movies have animation supervisors and gaffers, grips, best boys, and “assistant to Mr. Spielberg” along with various wranglers and caterers. It doesn’t put us off of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” so why do we worry so about how language and lingo can keep people out of our temples?

One difference is that you can enjoy the movie or concert (in fact most people do) without ever understanding what a continuity person does, or all their colleagues. The technical language is kept neatly off to the end or a quick nod at the beginning, but the bulk of the group experience is open to those who have not a clue about the central role of a cinematographer.

In church life, we’ve been accustomed to keeping the lingo and in-group labels right in the middle of things. There used to be assumptions that most people just knew what this all meant, but it may have been that people just used to be more tolerant of those in authority talking over their heads.

Not any longer.

My own weakness is “narthex,” which is a handy word for the room many would call a “lobby,” the space usually the width of the worship space, or auditorium, or sanctuary if you wish, that is separate from a vestibule, which is where you can take off and hang up your outer & dust-covered vestments. The narthex used to be a working part of the church proper, where those preparing to make a confession of faith would worship, until they formally became members of the body of believers.

Adding to the muddle is that this technical language can have different meanings in divergent traditions. Most low-church Protestant congregations I’ve known call the general seating area (usually filled with bench-type seats, or “pews”) the sanctuary, while more liturgical traditions refer to the “nave” while the area up around the pulpit and lectern (reading stands from which prayers and preaching are done) is called the sanctuary.

And in Orthodox churches it has an even more specific definition!

There’s also a chicken and egg question here: is it that faith communities have technical language that is why people don’t go to church, or is it the increasing numbers of people who don’t go to church that makes faith language so problematic?

I’d make an omelet here and just note that there’s room to stir up the whole question. In-group language reinforces those who are in as in, and increases barriers to helping new people feel included and involved, so it’s a problem to be considered and edited carefully.

At the same time, in worship there are acts and ideas that simply don’t just translate into everyday terms, and even when there’s an outward similarity, it makes sense to suggest the differences intrinsically between a table and an altar by using separate terms.

The process of teaching and sharing “this is what we mean by redemption” can be a good way to integrate a visitor into the community, and a few questions in that visitor’s mind as they leave I doubt will make them decide “next week, I’m going somewhere I know the names of everything.”

But if they leave thinking “those folks like it that outsiders don’t know what’s going on, and aren’t interested in helping people figure it out,” I can give you a new technical term.

Non-returners.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what church term has always puzzled you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

[Note: This article first appeared in Faith Works in the Newark Advocate here.]

What is Holy?

By Rev. Mindi

I’m writing on Tuesday of Holy Week, forgetting that a) it’s Tuesday and b) that it’s Holy Week all too often today. I have gone from volunteering at a neighborhood school to preparing for a PTA meeting tonight and in the meantime making signs for our Easter Egg hunt. After I write this, I’ll be helping to stuff about two thousand eggs for Saturday.  I keep thinking that Thursday night is one night I don’t have meetings this week. I have forgotten it is Maundy Thursday, as it is not my current church’s practice to observe Maundy Thursday. I also keep thinking I have a free day on Friday and can take my day off, forgetting that I do have a 6:30 p.m. Good Friday service. All I can think about is this damn egg hunt on Saturday (note: it was my idea this year).  Oh yeah, and on Sunday I’m supposed to celebrate the Resurrection.

Holy Week? What is so darn holy about this week? It’s just like any other week, except with more things to do and I have a fuller scheduled than I anticipated. But it wasn’t always this way. When I first entered professional ministry, I loved the pace of Holy Week. I loved the joy and wonder and the premonition that something different was going to happen on Palm Sunday. I treasured the quiet contemplation along with the preparations that took place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I always felt like I had time to be ready. Thursday’s service was met with darkness, fear, and still hope. Friday was often a day to be gathered with other Christian brothers and sisters in ecumenical services. Saturday was a day of rest. There were no egg hunts then—they were saved for Sunday morning.

There was a pace that brought peace to me, as a pastor, as a Christian, as a human being. That was before I was juggling services with my husband or had a child or became involved in other community activities. Now, Holy Week seems to have lost its holiness for me.

Or is that I am just out of touch with what is holy? Was it just another week back then? Was it just another gathering of friends and family sharing the Passover meal, but then words were shared that were different, actions that went along with those words that turned bread and wine into symbols of remembrance? Was it just another time like so many that happen to the incarcerated today, when a friend betrayed a friend, the authorities arrested an innocent man, and there was a hasty trial? Was it just another death, just another funeral, just another day of mourning and rest?

I wonder if Holy Week felt very holy to Peter, James, John, Judas, Thomas, Mary, Susanna, Joanna, and others. Even Jesus.

It probably didn’t feel holy until they began to remember. Maybe it was on that Saturday when they couldn’t believe that just twenty-four hours before their friend was alive and now dead. Maybe it was when they shared their mid-day meal that they remembered it was just a couple of days ago they had shared the Passover meal together, broke bread and shared the cup with Jesus. Maybe it was on that Saturday night that they remembered it was just six days before when they entered Jerusalem and people were shouting “Hosanna!” Maybe it was only after they got through it that it seemed holy, special, set apart. Memories that they wanted to preserve and never, ever, ever forget.

Or maybe it wasn’t until after they found the tomb empty, after the angels spoke to them, after they saw Christ, after, after, after—maybe it wasn’t until the mourning and crying were done that they were able to rejoice and see how holy the last week had been—how death had died, how sin had died, how love had prevailed.

Maybe for those of us who are church leaders, clergy, lay, committed volunteers—maybe we find the holiness in the looking back, in the memories of washing each other’s feet and the extinguishing of candle flame, in the haunting echoes of “Were You There?” that ring through our head, and in the darkness we leave on Good Friday and the dark cloths we hang on the cross. Maybe we find the holiness in the picking up of broken plastic eggs on Saturdays (or the joy of finding an unfound egg hours after the hunt is over and the kids are gone). Maybe we find the holiness in the living out of these memories, year after year after year, of that time so long ago, when Jesus’ closest friends may have had a hard time finding the holy in the ordinary.

May you find the holy in this week, in whatever act of remembrance, and remember that sometimes the holy moments are found after the week is done.

Practicing Inclusion

By Rev. Mindi

“Inclusive” has become a buzzword descriptor among churches these days. Perhaps you mean it to include LGBTQ individuals and families in your congregation. Perhaps you mean it to include people of different ethnic backgrounds. Maybe it means including people of different economic statuses.

Inclusion means including everyone. It doesn’t mean creating a special program for or a specific mission outreach to a certain group of people.  Inclusion means you actually include someone: you value, encourage participation, listen to and incorporate all people into your congregational life.

Inclusion is actually very difficult to accomplish. Most of us have the best of intentions but don’t actually follow through. Most of the time, our inclusion is actually under another buzzword, “Welcoming.” We throw together a welcoming statement and say we welcome all people. We might even go to the next level and say we welcome all persons regardless of age, gender expression, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, economic status, ability, etc. etc. etc.  However, there are places where we specifically do not include people and we need to not only be aware but acknowledge this.

We often do not include children, whether it be in worship (though many churches do include children to a degree, but we still often send them out after the Children’s Message) or in church business. Sure, we might ask them their opinions or talk with them in children’s sermons about things happening in the life of the church, but rarely are they included in business meetings or given the right to vote (my current church is in the process of revamping its constitution and it still states that members have to be age 16 in order to vote).  We have our reasons—they are not old enough to understand, or they would just vote the way their parents did giving them twice the vote, or other reasons we pass off. We also don’t include homebound members (often still called “shut-ins” in the life of the church) because they are no longer able to attend.  Sure, we visit them now and then, but we don’t include them in the business of the church, or the worship, for that matter.

And we do not include people with differing abilities, usually. We assume persons who use a wheelchair or walker, or those who have long-term illness, mental or physical, cannot participate in the life of the church. Sure, we welcome them to worship and we may build ramps and make our restrooms accessible, but we often do not ask them about participating, assuming they cannot.

Can a person who uses a wheelchair still hand out bulletins and greet people? Can a child carry the offering plate? Can a person who is ill still help make decisions in the life of the church? Can a young teen have a mind-blowing idea that could change the church? Of course!

Look at your congregation’s practice of inclusion. First look at what you say about yourself. Then look to see what you are really doing. Who is in leadership? Who is involved in worship? Who is involved in outreach or other ministries? What is the diversity represented? Even if there is little ethnic diversity in your congregation, look for other diversities. Are people with differing abilities represented? Are people of different ages represented? Economic status? How do you include home-bound members and those who deal with long-term illness?

How are you practicing inclusion in the life of your church? Is it a matter of lip-service, or are you doing your best to include people from all areas of life?  If not, how could you improve?

Here are some recent examples from churches I have known that have made a change to practice inclusion better:

 

-Including a ramp for the choir loft so that singers of all abilities could participate.

-Moving the choir down to the sanctuary floor for the anthem so that others could participate who could not get to the choir loft.

-Inviting a young man using a wheelchair to collect the offering

-Including a teen with Asperger’s on the youth outreach committee

-Making all restrooms accessible and changing the signs to “Restroom” with no gender indication

 

What can you do to practice inclusion better as a church community?

Worship: Making Space for Everyone

By Audrey Connor

It was the fourth and final day of the Gay-Christian Network Conference.  I was there, thanks to an invitation from a friend, to share in the leadership of the Women’s Retreat portion of the conference. I have never been around so many gay people in my life. Nor have I worshiped with so many evangelical Christians. There were many surprises in store for me through the weekend, but the biggest surprise for me was the final worship. They shared that this last worship would be “liturgical”.  I discovered that this meant worship closer to my tradition. As soon as it began, I was amazed by how much that worship allowed me to breathe in God.  For the first time during the conference, I felt myself let go of my surroundings and sink into the presence of God. The liturgy spoke to me in ways that I suspect the liturgy was speaking to the evangelical people the previous nights and mornings.  

Thank you God for this space, I heard myself murmuring to God through my personal prayer. I accessed parts of myself that are normally difficult to bring to my own consciousness, and I worshiped God with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    This is worship, I said to myself.

I am home from the conference and trying to make sense of those four days. As a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, I am grateful for the ability to say to LGBTQI people with authority that God Loves You, No Exception.  (This became an unofficial motto at the last congregation I served as Family Life Minister.)  I am also grateful as a lesbian Christian for a mom who inculcated me with this theology from a young age.  I shared with the women at the conference that for me, coming out was difficult enough without a spiritual landscape that condemned me as sinful.  The spiritual maturity to claim my identity as a beloved child of God and as a gay person would have been much more difficult.

At the same time, I feel incredibly disappointed by my denomination.  So often my beloved mainline denominational saints both clergy and lay will say things like:

 “We don’t want to be the gay church.” 

Or 

“If a person needs a church like that [meaning LGBTIQ affirming], then he or she should go to _______ congregation in our community that is Open and Affirming (or More Light or Reconciling or Welcoming or Whatever-language is being used for that place).”

    Or

“We are not ready for telling people that it is okay to be gay – maybe in time…  The older generation would not be pleased.”

And I want to believe they are right.  

I want to believe that the Spirit is greater than our resistance.

I want to believe that God will help us figure it out.  

I want to give permission for people to discern at their own speed.  

And I want to give thanks for those churches that have figured out how to minister to the gay niche, and to believe that it is enough.

        But it gnaws at me.  I know it isn’t true.

I knew it wasn’t true when I ministered at one-of-the-only open and affirming churches in Lynchburg, Virginia.  People often came to me as the minister of the open and affirming church wanting help.  They needed help learning how to read scripture and accept themselves as gay and Christian.  This was the pattern: such said person would come to church, find people to be in conversation about this topic, find books to read, discern with other Christians on the journey, and then – they would leave.  

    Worship just does not feed me, I heard once from a person.

    There is no one my age, another person said.

And ultimately, they would dissolve somewhere into the body of Christ – but not my congregation.  I ran into one of these people who later confessed to me that she really preferred a more evangelical worship.  She said there was no place in town she felt comfortable worship in her style so she stays home Sunday mornings.  There is no doubt, worshiping with a Hymnal is not the same as with a Stephen Curtis Chapman song.

    And here is the thing – as a minister, I knew it did not necessarily mean my congregation needed to change its worship.  In fact, there is nothing I wanted to change in our worship per se. I knew that the church I served agreed upon the worship that fed them.  I could tell you the people who loved the organ.  I knew the members who loved the choir, and I knew how many people loved the ritual (including me).  I knew that making ourselves more “free” in worship would not serve our needs.  This is how I made sense of those people and their comments: I decided that ministering to people with questions about sexuality and faith was simply part of our church’s mission in the world.  And like serving people at the soup kitchen, the point was not to put people in pews; instead, it was to share God’s love and exercise our faith.  I gave thanks for the ones who found their way into our community and our pews, but I refused to measure the mission of reaching out to that population by counting their membership.

*****

    It was on that Sunday morning of the GCN Conference that I finally got it. I always feel like a bonehead when I hear God speak; God’s message is usually so very obvious.  Here is what I heard God saying:

 If the church is really going to minister to LGBTQI people who are wounded by the church itself, then all the church must make public welcome for LGBTQI brothers and sisters in all congregations.  We can’t confine Christian welcome to the handful or one church in town that we know is welcoming to our LGBTQI brothers and sisters.  We must extend the welcome to everyone.  Otherwise we are missing the boat.  

Here is why: Worship is the place congregations are uniquely called to practice the living relationship with God and God’s community.  When our worshiping communities do not extend welcome to LGBTQI people, they will be absent.  And that is sad for them as well as the church.  They need to come face to face with themselves and God, and their church families need their growth to grow too.  The lone Open and affirming churches cannot be all things to all LGBTQI people.  There must be as many churches as there are as many kinds of LGBTQI believers.  Because here is the thing – sexuality is not a Disciple of Christ thing, it is not a Presbyterian thing, a United Church of Christ thing, a Unitarian-Universalist thing, a Methodist thing, an Evangelical thing, or a Catholic thing… Sexuality is part of all of us.   We all have non-heterosexual members struggling with how to live in a homophobic world. And most of us have non-heterosexual members wishing we had a church community with which to share that struggle.  While O&A Disciples can minister to evangelicals, it doesn’t mean they can make them Disciples.  While some Presbyterians can find a safe space at an Metropolitan Community Church, it does mean that those Presbyterians will ever really feel fed in that MCC worship.  And while I wished to God I could get into the evangelical worships the first three days of the conference, it was the last day that I finally felt at home with my Christian brothers and sisters (no doubt a lot of those people hated it!).  It made me both thankful for a local congregation I can worship, and ever-aware of the loss so many LGTBQI brothers and sisters experience who have none.

So this is my plea to all ministers and lay-leaders in every denomination and each congregation – please remember that this struggle for inclusion in the church for LGBTQI brothers and sisters is yours.  It is not just something that can be passed off to the progressive United Church of Christ church in your town, or the progressive Episcopal church in your city.  I guarantee there are many whose hearts will only be yours and depend on your openness to the Spirit.  And if your congregation does not have the courage to confront the resistance of fear and the misreading of the Bible, those LGBTQI members’ hearts will ache and most probably not find a home in another church family.  I write to you to ask you to consider if you were banished to worship with Christians that you do not jive with – would you show up Sunday morning?  And if you wouldn’t, how would that affect your life?  Your family?

Just imagine if we, who love the church, found the courage not only to love God out-loud, but to love all of our neighbors out-loud.  I believe our church would be changed, and our brothers and sisters who need to hear the love of God would find the space to journey with a real relationship with God in community.

 

The Twelve Days of Christmas

By Rev. Mindi

As you probably know, Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25th, but it doesn’t end there, either. In the Christian tradition, Christmas lasts twelve days (December 25th through January 5th), and then we celebrate Epiphany on January 6th. However, most of our American/Western culture started celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving and the trees and decorations are down on December 26th. Most radio stations stop playing Christmas music on December 25th, and the Christmas specials and movies end their airtime on TV that day as well.  Satellite radio will at least go through New Year’s Eve and most businesses will keep their decorations up until then, but that’s it.  Most people do not know about the Twelve Days of Christmas besides the song.

Advent is a wonderful season, and Advent calendars for children are a great way to learn about waiting for Christmas. Advent devotionals are a great way for families or just adults to spend time reflecting on what the Incarnation means to them. Many churches write their own Advent devotionals with activities to do as a family during this season. But after December 25th, there is nothing.

Seeing how, at least in the United States, most children are out of school for two weeks (almost the entire Christmas season itself), I am proposing we do more to acknowledge and celebrate the twelve days of Christmas.  I will be writing a devotional with activities for families—both children and adults—to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and to spend time together. Plus, let’s face it—the novelty of new toys wears off in a few days and the whole second week of vacation can be spent counting down the hours and minutes until school starts again (at least from a parent’s point of view).  As a parent of a child with special needs, the break in routine and regular schedules can also be difficult to navigate—one or two days is fine; two weeks seems like two months.

And while this is a great idea to take up time while school is out, it’s more than that—this can be a time to acknowledge, celebrate and respond to the Incarnation in our very homes and daily lives. The Incarnation gets swept away in the cultural celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Even in the life of the church, the first Sunday of Christmas is often a Sunday with low attendance, carol-sings, guest preachers or other special activities. The following Sunday is often Epiphany Sunday or looking at the New Year. We end up missing the Incarnation that we waited all Advent to celebrate.

So I will be putting together a Twelve Days of Christmas Calendar on my website, http://rev-o-lution.org, along with some activities before Christmas to help prepare (and to take up those few days of no school before Christmas) and will conclude with Epiphany.

In the meantime, think of how you might mark the Incarnation rather than just recycling your wrapping paper (although that is a good idea). Celebrate the Incarnation not just in worship on Christmas Eve, but in your daily practice. Don't let Christmas be overshadowed by the busy-ness of Advent. As tired as we clergy may be, we also need to remember God's entry into this world in a new way. We all too easily let Christmas fade away after December 25th. I hope we don't this time.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

The Idea of a Creative Worship Space

By John O'Keefe

A Brief Memory of Childhood:

The only real memory I have of church from when I was a child was going one day with my Grandmother, she needed to talk with the Priest and I was stuck going with her. As we walked into the church I was surprised with how big it was, how dark it was, how cold it was, and how weird it smelled (weird, and not in a good way weird). I can remember it being a place where I did not want to be at that moment in time – and mostly because it was dark, cold and smelly. As we passed into the front of the church my Grandmother looked at me and said, “Go sit in the pews,” as she walked into the side rooms to talk with the guy in black. To be honest with you, for the longest time after that when people talked about “pews” I thought they were talking about how bad church smelled.

A Short (I used the term brief before and I do not desire to be redundant) History of the Pew:

Ever wonder why the church has pews? For just about 1,500 years the church had nothing for those gathered to sit on – the pew (probably both the furniture and the stink) came into the church during the reformation. I guess the idea of having to stand for hours while some long-winded minister rattled on about something or another was just too much for people to take – so, sitting became an issue.

It is true (OK, it is debatable) the Reformation brought about two major evil changes to our church life, long-winded ministers and pews (I guess the pews were added so people did not fall on the floor when they fell asleep listening to those long-winded saints.) Let me rephrase that, the first pews where not for everyone; the reformation (even though we like to think it did) never said that equality would enter the church – oh, no – only those with the big bucks and the ability to buy a pew could have a pew, the rich (after all, we can’t have the rich sleeping on the floor – they need a place to sit and sleep). You see, throughout Christendom those with the big bucks got to sit while the long-winded minister rambled (shouted may be a better word) on and on about who was going to hell and how big the hand-basket needed to be to get them there. But the regular people (the “you and me”), those who worked for a living, needed to stand in the back. Never mind, if on the off chance someone would desire to visit the church, visitors needed to stand as well. The idea was, “no cash, no ass” (if I am not mistaken there was something about grass and gas too – never mind, that was much later) But have no fear, change was on the way, and by “change” I mean another way for greed to enter the church.

Soon, many stuffy old church boards and long-winded preachers figured they could bring in some extra cash if they purchased some pews and rented them out – there we have it, the creation of “the cheap seats.” That’s right, many churches in America got the idea of “renting” the pews to help fund the church – I guess the idea of “giving cheerfully” was not something church people did at the time.

SIDE NOTE: I wonder, did the term “nose bleed section” come from people sitting in the cheap-seats falling asleep and hitting their noses on the pew in front of them?

Through the work of somewhat lesser great men, for example Richard Yates, in his pamphlet The Church in Danger (1815) estimated that over 950,000 people could not worship in a parish church. (I tend to think that those 950,000 people had no desire to be in church to hear some long-winded preacher tell them they were on their way to hell.) So, people soon realized that everyone, not just the rich, had the right to be forever uncomfortable in church – so, pews were added for all (they might not have been the best, or padded – but they were there); well, OK, when I say “all” I don’t really mean “everyone.”  In the Edinburgh Review (1853)[1] a man named William James Conybeare wrote an article entitled “Church Parties” where he mentioned that the Anglicans had adopted the slogan "Equality within the House of God.” It seems that they (those pesky Anglicans) decided that each church was only required to offer 20% free seating (no more, no less). That’s right; the Anglicans ran the first church special, “20% off your salvation seat.” In fact, the idea of “renting” pews became such an issue that some new churches, mostly in the USA, started to let people know that they were "free and open churches" where everyone could sit – keep in mind, when they said “anyone” they don’t really mean “anyone” – please, this was still the mid-1850s. By 1866, Samuel Ralph Townshend Mayer founded The Free and Open Church Association[2] (again, it was 1866, so it was not truly “free” and not even close to being “equal.”).

Generally speaking, pews have a mighty, soughed, weird, greed-filled past within the church. Yet, it took forever to get them into the church, and in some cases it will take hell freezing over to get them out.

Moving Past Pews and Into Fresh Air

Not too long ago I had a very nice conversation with a pastor from the New England area who asked, "Why would you remove the pews from the church and replace them with couches, tables and chairs?" I thought for a moment, and replied, "Well, have you ever noticed how a courtroom and a church look the same? Since one is for judgment and the other is for forgiveness, maybe we should not look like a courtroom."

The idea in creating a worship space that is comfortable for all, not just those who hold to the old tradition of pews, or even folding chairs, seems foreign to the staunch followers. For many, church should not be a comfortable place. I remember once talking with a church leader in Pennsylvania and mentioned that we should get rid of the pews and put in couches. You would have thought I suggested we kill that Jesus guy. He said, “No way. If people want to sit on couches they can stay home.” I said, “They are.”

 If the worship space is where we gather, and God lives, I think it should look more like God’s house, and less like God’s courtroom (I have a feeling God does not have pews in the living room – I see couches, chairs, tables and a killer big screen plasma TV). For this to happen we have to realize that creative people do not do their best work in large, cold, dark smelly places. Here are some thing’s I think we need to do:

First, make the space intimate. Large caverness spaces are not the best places to have an intimate moment with the Divine, or with others. I am pretty sure there is less intimacy in the football stadium church, than in the coffee house church. I do realize that this goes against everything we think of when we think of church. For many, if not most, the idea is that “the only good church is a large church.” I’m not sure that is the case. I have Pastored both, and I can tell you that intimacy is better achieved in a smaller setting. What is important to know is that intimacy also breeds creativity.

Creativity requires that people connect, people share, people talk, people listen, people touch. Without it, without intimacy you will never have the foundations of creativity.

Second, get warm. Now, I am not talking about setting the thermostat at a certain level (though that helps) I am talking about opening up to others. At some level this is related to the idea of having an intimate space, because in that space you are able to connect with others. When I walked into that church when I was a kid, it was cold. Yes, it was physically cold, but it was “cold” – it lacked a human dimension. You see, warmth comes from human contact and seeing that there is human life in the building. We have to get past this idea that everything needs to be spotless, and everything needs to be in its place. When humans enter a space, chaos ensues. Humans bring with them “stuff” (crap, if you will – physical crap, emotional crap, and spiritual crap). Let that “stuff” be, let it form, let it birth the creativity in others.

Third, turn on some lights. I like darkness, and yes it is easy on the eyes, but I have no desire to live in darkness. Let the light shine in; let the light disinfect the space. For many, it is creepy to walk into a dark place, find a spot on a wooden bench and try to connect with others. When I sat waiting for my Grandmother, I keep looking under the seat because I just knew there was some freak monster under the seat – and it was going to grab me and eat me alive.

Lastly, air it out. Now, when I talk about “smells” I am not talking about incense, or candles – those are cool (and let’s be honest, they can hide the smell of the crap that comes in) I’m talking about that musty, rank smell of old. I’m talking about that smell everyone knows about but has no desire to talk about. That weird smell; the one when you ask “what is that smell” everyone says “We have no idea, but it’s always been here.” By letting the light in, by airing out the place, by making it more intimate that smell will go away – that smell could be old books, the ones published long before the oldest member of the church was born and no one reads (dump them – even if you think they are classics – trust me, they’re not) – that smell could be old theology, the kind that hides in the small cracks in the wall only to show itself at the worse time ever (dump it – it has no value and all it does is crowd the room and make it smell). That smell could be old traditions, old memories, old furniture or so many other things. But for the church to truly air out and invite creativity to move in, you have to air out the smell.

Closing

Don’t “think outside the box,” think as if there is no box to begin with. Do not fear change, embrace it and move the church forward.

[1] Sydney Smith (1853). Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal. A. and C. Black. p. 309. Retrieved 27 February 2013.

[2]  "Mayer, Samuel Ralph Townshend". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.