Sunday, October 27, 2013

Expecting God

This weekend I worshipped at Hughes Memorial UMC, which if I have my geography straight, is barely in Northeast and barely in DC, nearly in PG county. I don't know the history of the community -- today it is an African American congregation.

I was stepping out of my comfort zone attending. My congregation is far from "diverse," but it is multi-ethnic. At the seminary, I have been in community with lots of different ethnicities, denominations and traditions. That I was a stranger was not what was intimidating. More intimidating was the knowledge that I would be "other." The anxiety of being a visitor for me was amplified by the knowledge that I would be obviously different...obviously out of place...

But wow...what a worship experience it was.  These people showed up expecting to meet God in worship. They showed up expecting to move God with their prayers and praises and petitions. These people knew there was heavy lifting to do and they knew that THEY ALL would be doing it. This was the people's church and the people's worship, where many hands made "light" work (by light I only mean diffuse...there was no simplicity or lack of real effort...whether making announcements, reading liturgy, praying, singing, being summoned to stand with others during the altar call...it was all intense and real and powerful).

There is a classic Annie Dillard outtake that goes like this:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

At Hughes, I am pretty sure there were life preservers and signal flares under the pews. 

It was an experience that made me long for worship that invokes the true presence of God and evokes our genuine response in relationship to the divine. Maybe it's a midlife thing for me...On my yoga retreat in September, I became aware of the powerful embodied presence of God in yoga as prayer. And sitting in the pews at Hughes, I was once again aware of the tangible desire for God and the faithful influence that draws God near. Prayers in this place were heard and answered. It wasn't the pastor telling you that (I will point out that the pastor, Rev. Constance Smith, did not speak until about 70 minutes into the service [yes, 70 minutes in...and no one was checking their watch but me]). It was knowable in the deep reverence, in the praise, in the unvarnished petition, in the ways that brothers and sisters in Christ stood with one another during the altar call. 

I know not everyone wants to lift their hands in praise or shout amen. But I hope that when we show up in worship, we really do expect God to show up. That is our work as beloved children of God. The responsibility of both expectation and response rests with the gathered. God's waiting for US to show up.  Not the pastor. Not the organist. Not the choir or band. Us. All of us. With expectations and willingness to do the hard work.

How does this happen? I don't know the history or the operation at Hughes. But I am pretty sure that it happens because people have expectations, and they expect to participate and feedback, name their needs and dive in to helping one another. They clamor to share their news during announcements, to share the Word during the scripture lesson, they expect their brothers and sisters to share in their petitions, they are truly giving a portion of what God has given.

Is this a big church? No. A rich church? No. Do they pay 100% of their apportionments? I don't care. Is it a vital church? By my count, yes. An alive church? Yup. A church struggling to keep the next generation? I would guess yes. But I witnessed young people request and receive powerful prayer. They know there is living water in this place. Living. Key word

I pray that when we show up in worship, we can feel our role in that place. I pray that we feel the need to be present with one another in our joys and our concerns. I pray that we see the space and place and tone and theme as ours as community. I pray that we all know this church and these prayers and hymns and and litanies and even messages are our work. Our praise. Our hope. Our expectation. Our offering. We are the church. Worship is our work. We are fed and comforted and refreshed SO THAT we can go out and love the world with God's love.

Let it be so.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Living WORD: seeking welfare in the midst of exile

29:4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

29:6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is instruction to the Israelites in a season of exile. It does not encourage lament or mourning or wringing of hands. It does not encourage  rebellion or discontent.

No. Quite the opposite. It encourages living a full life (which in the context of the day, was potentially a peaceful rebellion I suppose). It encourages building communities, growing families, tending crops. And perhaps most importantly, it encourages seeking the welfare of the very place into which you have been exiled.

Recently, I have felt winds of exile. It touches me in a couple of different realms. With our government in deadlock, with our political system log-jammed, with strident critique from differing perspectives that seems to be focused on creating greater distance rather than finding common ground, I feel like my call to shed light in dark places is fruitless. What difference can I really make? There doesn't seem to be much room for listening or speaking truth.

Similarly, the church feels more and more at odds with the world. It feels at times like institutional preservation has overtaken the mission to make disciples by sharing the love of Christ in tangible ways. And I see it both in the church as a whole and in my local congregation. Cannibalizing our faithful because we can't agree on common ground seems to be the way of the world.  As a person who has spent the past eight years preparing to serve the church, I suddenly feel shut out by a rigid, distracted, quarrelsome environment.

And so the words of Jeremiah give me hope and direction and purpose. How can I encourage others, stay in dialogue with those with whom I disagree,that I hear them as multi-dimensional people who are similarly called to serve? What does it mean to build community in this time? To invite people to break bread, to listen to one another, to really seek understanding, to pray individually and communally for wisdom and vision and grace?

We are at a tipping point, both in the church and in American society. Change can feel uncomfortable, exclusive, exiling. I feel shut out sometimes. But here's the deal. I am here and was created and called for a purpose. And so were you. So in the midst of change, there is no hunkering down and hiding. It is time to gather community, to be fruitful, to love generously, and to seek the welfare of the time and place in which we find ourselves.