Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Worship why: Occasional services

I’ve seen Pastor Paul carry around a little red or green book. What is it?

It’s one of two editions of Occasional Services, a book of rites, prayers, and readings for times in the life of both individuals and congregations that don’t happen often enough to need to be in the pew edition of the hymnal. One hospital chaplain I worked with said she could always tell a Lutheran pastor by their green book. It can be powerful and meaningful to find times in our lives for some of these worship and pastoral care opportunities, including: blessing of a home, renewing marriage vows, remembering the anniversary of a death, removing a loved one’s life-sustaining care, marking a sobriety milestone, commissioning people going on a service trip, dedicating a stained-glass window, or saying farewell and Godspeed to someone moving far away.

Worship why: Patriotism

The 4th of July falls on a Sunday this year. How will we recognize this in church?

The 6th Sunday after Pentecost happens to be on the same day as Independence Day. Whereas we are certainly thankful to God for our country and the freedoms we have, the object of our worship is always God. Our identity as baptized children of God comes before any human allegiances. We let the church year be the church year, so our readings will be the ones normally assigned for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. The time to acknowledge secular holidays is in our prayers of intercession. We will have specific petitions, giving thanks for our freedom and praying for our country, leaders, and military. Some of our hymns will be a brief nod toward patriotism. We’ll sing Lift Every Voice and Sing (LBW 562), which includes the line, “true to our God; true to our native land.” Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem, also wrote hymns. We’ll sing his hymn, Lord, with Glowing Heart (LBW 243, which uses the tune PLEADING SAVIOR). After the 11:00 service, we’ll also have a potluck picnic.

Worship why: Bilingual service

We have a new bilingual worship service coming up. What will it be like?

The reasons for starting such a service are twofold. First, after discontinuing Saturday evening worship last December, it meets some needs for people looking for worship opportunities on a Saturday. Second, it is a way to reach out to others who might not otherwise feel welcome in a Lutheran congregation. It’s an asset-based approach, recognizing that we have bilingual people at Amazing Grace. Let’s use these gifts. It’s also a chance for us to be cutting-edge. Right now, San Antonio is the largest city in the United States without an ELCA congregation that worships regularly in a language other than English. Frankly, it would be much easer to have worship in one language or another instead of both. Bilingual worship is an intentional step toward living together in the midst of differences.

It is be one Saturday evening a month, with Communion. Music will be guitar-led, with some hand percussion players, too. We will use a bilingual setting of the liturgy, singing things in both English and Spanish. The blue With One Voice hymnal has quite a few bilingual hymns that we have sung in worship before. The bulletin will have parts in both languages. The sermon would be in both languages. I find that worshiping bilingually is a creative way to experience the wonder of God and get to know neighbors in new ways. We’re aiming toward the last Saturday of the month at 5:30. Our first bilingual service is July 31. Bring a friend!

Read some of Amazing Grace's website in Spanish: http://www.aglcsa.org/espanol.

A changing voice

For most of my growing up years, I sang in my congregation’s church choir. It was a formative time of learning about music and becoming comfortable having a leadership role in worship. After a few years in the youth choir, I was comfortable, had lots of friends, and knew what I was doing there.

However, one night before choir practice in seventh grade, the director came up to me and said, “Paul, we need to talk. I think your voice has changed on us.” Wearing high-water pants that I had quickly outgrown and desperately needing to borrow my dad’s razor, I was one of the only boys still in the choir, and had been squeakily trying to sing in a high falsetto (like Frankie Valli or Tiny Tim) for the past few months in order to have my voice blend in with the other treble-voiced singers. It was time for me to switch into the high school choir, even though I was not yet in high school.

In the high school choir, I felt weird being the only middle schooler, but I quickly made new friends and started to feel welcome. I no longer had to struggle to make my voice fit. I did have to learn how to read a different set of musical notation in order to follow the musical score and sing the lower parts written in bass clef. It took some time of embarrassing awkwardness, but I eventually become much more comfortable with my changed voice.

At Amazing Grace, our voice is changing. We are in the midst of development and transformation. We are less rural and more suburban. There are new roofs and handicap ramps. We’ve had intentional conversations about hospitality, sexuality, and human genetics. We just finished a Vacation Bible School with a civil rights theme, and are starting a bilingual worship service. With some shifts in leadership and worship styles, we’ve been amazingly resilient. We’ve had more visitors in recent weeks, and I feel a sort of momentum is growing. We’re getting to meet new people and learn to work with each other. Like me shifting into a new choir, we are shifting into new surroundings and a new time in our development.

Getting used to a new voice takes time. Change can be awkward and embarrassing. Once in a while, there are squeaks and breaks. The old voice wasn’t a bad voice, it was just different. From sixth to eight grade, I went from a skinny, high-voiced sixth-grader to a deeper-voiced young man. A lot can happen in two years.

A lot has happened the two years since I first came to Texas for “meet the pastoral candidate” weekend. As a pastor, I’ve learned so much about being in Christian community. As a congregation, we’re still getting used to different voices. I don’t know exactly what our voice will sound like in future years, but that’s part of the excitement as we grow and change together.

(Also appears as my July newsletter column).

Friday, June 25, 2010

My favorite hymns

I’ve made a list of just ten of my favorite hymns. It’s a list of church music that has been important to me in some way. I’ve been intentional that this list is congregational song, not organ preludes or choral anthems. It’s stuff that God’s people can sing together. I surprised myself with how many are from the green Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW)—eight. One is from the blue With One Voice (WOV), and one is from the red Libro (LLC), a Spanish-language Lutheran resource. I realize most of these are in the cranberry Evangelical Lutheran Worship, but my congregation hasn’t switched to ELW, so I’m not as familiar with the page number.

What I look for in a hymn are texts that faithfully proclaim the Gospel without being trite and tunes that are conducive for congregational singing without being maudlin or annoying. I prefer hymns that speak to God, rather than pretending that we are God speaking in the first person. (Another Lutheran pastor, who writes a wonderful column on worship and liturgy, argues much better than me for congregational singing being the primary choir in worship).

At Amazing Grace, we usually have been selecting hymns a few months at a time. I make a list of six or seven hymns that I think would be appropriate for each Sunday and send that list to our pianist and worship chair. We then get together and winnow down the list to four for each week. More often than not, my list is just a starting point; sometimes we come up with something new. My primary criteria at Amazing Grace has been singability. I would rather have us sing a good (or even OK) hymn well as a congregation than to sing a beautiful and theologically perfect hymn poorly.

When it comes down to it, sometimes it is just hard to explain why one hymn works, and another doesn’t.

Well, here’s the list (in no particular order):

Lift Every Voice and Sing (LBW 562). Though sometimes I’ve heard it argued that white people shouldn’t be singing this hymn that speaks so strongly of African American experience, I think it so beautifully address human experience—“weary years,” “silent tears,” “stormy the road we trod.” I try to have the congregation sing this when the lectionary has stories of Israel in exile.

Earth and All Stars (LBW 558). With my geography background, I’ve always liked the nature imagery in this hymn. Can you imagine boiling test tubes and limestone singing to God?

Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service
(LBW 423). The line, “Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread” always haunts me. This American Sacred Harp tune also reminds me of my time singing shape note music.

For All the Saints (LBW 174). We feebly struggle. They in glory shine. Yes.

I Love to Tell the Story (LBW 390). This was the closing hymn at my ordination. What we do as Christians is storytelling as we share Good News with our neighbors.

All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night (LBW 278). I first learned this as a camp counselor in Montana. We would actually chant Compline from the LBW with middle schoolers, singing this hymn in canon. Yes, young people can do traditional liturgy.

Let us Break Bread Together (LBW 212). This was the default overflow Communion hymn when I was growing up. If the assigned hymns finished before everyone was communed, this hymn would often be played.

You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore (WOV 784). I love singing this hymn in Spanish, but I haven’t really found a good English translation for it yet.

Built on a Rock the Church Shall Stand (LBW 365). When there was scaffolding around the steeple of my internship congregation, I joked that “built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.” This hymn became even more meaningful for me as I reflect on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, where a tornado knocked down the steeple of Central Lutheran Church. See my posting from last September. I was a bit surprised to see that this was a very unfamiliar hymn at Amazing Grace. I have tried to introduce it.

What a Friend we Have in Jesus (LBW 439). Many of the hymns on this list I first heard with flawless and beautiful performances. This is not the case here. I grew up hearing this hymn sung out of tune and with no rhythm, but it was sung with love. When I was really little, my mom would sing this as a lullaby.

Did your favorites make the list?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Guess my favorite hymns!

In a few days, I’m going to do a post about my favorite hymns. I’ve already made my list, but I thought it would be fun for my friends and readers to guess what some of my favorite hymns are. I could make a list of favorite Advent hymns, favorite Scandinavian hymns about death, favorite hymns by female composers, but I’m not. I just have a general list of ten hymns (in no particular order) that resonate with my faith experience that are found in Lutheran hymnals (Lutheran Book of Worship, With one Voice, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, This Far By Faith, or Libro de Liturgia y Cantico). I will post my list on Friday.

Can you guess?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Children's sermons

At the Christian Century’s blog, William Willimon recently wrote about children’s sermons. As a pastor, I’m not a fan of children’s sermons for many of the same reasons that Willimon mentions—they’re not usually for children and they’re not usually sermons.

I love the idea of making worship meaningful for children. I often get annoyed when I hear people say, “children are the future of the Church.” That is totally not true; children are part of the church today. 21st century North American Christians don’t always do a good job demonstrating that sentiment. Too often, kids get ghettoized into children’s church or Sunday school during the worship time.

Though nearly twenty year later, I still remember attending a service where the preacher stopped his sermon to sternly invite a woman to stop her child from crying. Now as a pastor, I don't want to be like that guy.

At Amazing Grace, our bulletin usually includes the line: “We find the sight and sound of squirming children in worship to be a beautiful and welcome sign of God’s new life. For the convenience of families who prefer it, however, we do have a cry room near the back.”

I prefer that children worship with their families. That said, I know I don’t do the best job of making children welcome. We have a few second and third graders that regularly acolyte and hold the chalice during Communion. It’s great to have kids at worship (and in leadership roles), but I find children’s sermons to be a difficult task.

I think I’ve done about three children’s sermons since coming to Amazing Grace, and none in recent months. We barely have a quorum of kids. There are fewer things more awkward than giving a children’s sermon to one or two young people. It puts them on the spot, and is uncomfortable for the pastor, too. Far too often, children’s sermons become a chance for kids to become the center of attention when they say funny things to entertain the adults. That’s not a sermon. The purpose of Lutheran preaching is to proclaim Good News. It’s about what God does, not what we do. Moralistic fables that command us to be nice to people are not sermons.

With this in mind, I attempt to have “adult” sermons have some children’s sermon elements. For me, this means that I try to appeal to a variety of senses. This also recognizes that people of all ages learn in different ways. Last summer, when lots of bread imagery was in the lectionary, we had fresh bread baking in the sanctuary as people entered, so the aroma of bread would be a sign of welcome. In January, I stood in a kid’s swimming pool on Baptism of our Lord as I preached about living in God’s baptismal grace. I don’t do things like that every week, but often enough to keep me creative.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about how worship can be more welcoming to children.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I don't really want to talk about this, but...

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago. I used some of my continuing education time to take a preaching and pastoral class back at my seminary.

Besides learning a lot about wedding and funeral sermons, I also got to visit with some dear friends and walk around my old neighborhood—the Hyde Park community around the University of Chicago. I walked near 58th and Ellis—near the medical school—and I saw him. As I had done several times a week during the three years I lived there, I crossed the street early so I would not have to talk to him, or risk making eye contact or getting handed one of his pamphlets.

With his white hair and white beard, this jolly middle-aged man could pass for Santa Claus. But he’s not. In my mind, I think of him as the Circumcision Guy. For at least five years, he has been on that corner in front of the hospital almost every day with his picket signs protesting circumcision. He describes it as genital mutilation. Apparently the U of C Hospitals circumcise about 80 percent of newborn boys, when the national average in about half.

You might be wondering, “Why is Paul blogging about this?”

This weekend, the assigned 2nd Lesson is from Galatians 2:15-21 and is part of a larger controversy about circumcision. It’s actually not about circumcision, but is about whether one must follow the Jewish Torah in order to be Christian. Circumcision is just the most visible sign of the law. I love this passage from Galatians because it so clearly talks about grace and the idea that Christ lives in us, but it’s difficult to have a complete exegetical discussion about Galatians without talking about circumcision. I don’t feel comfortable doing that in a sermon, lest a little kid asks their parent after church, “Mommy, what’s circumcision?” I figure the blog is a better forum for this conversation. I’ll likely focus on the Gospel text from Luke for this Sunday.

Just before Sunday’s lesson begins, in verse 11 Paul describes a conflict with Cephas, where Cephas kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. In Chicago, I crossed the street early to avoid talking to a representative of a very different, but equally fervent circumcision faction.

These pro-circumcision folks (sometimes called Judaizers, but I think that term seems a bit politically charged these days) have infiltrated the community of Galatian Jesus-followers. The argue that one has to follow Jewish law in order to become Christian. Paul does not tolerate this preaching at all. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” he asks in 3:1.

What we learn from this Galatian situation is that there is only one message that can be tolerated—God’s grace. We don’t need to be circumcised, avoid pork, or do anything to receive God’s grace. This is very good news. I pray that I could be as ardent and passionate in sharing this message as the Circumcision Guy is about his.

A white guy in a kufi?

I’m wearing the kufi and the kente fabric in my role as the griot in our civil rights-themed Vacation Bible School, On the Move: God’s Grace from Place to Place. A griot is a traditional storyteller, and in our curriculum, he introduces the day during the opening gathering time and tells the Bible story. The curriculum suggested that the griot wear traditional African garb.

Our education committee thought that would be fun; I was a bit uncomfortable. As a non-African, it feels weird to be wearing ethnic attire from a culture that isn’t mine. I feel like I would be usurping somebody else’s heritage. My thoughts took me back to a conversation on blogger PeaceBang’s site from a few years ago about white pastors wearing multicultural stoles. I felt uneasy, but thought it might be a good opportunity for my congregation to learn about other cultures.

When I was in Chicago last month, I stopped by an African store, wanting to see if there might be anything appropriate for me to wear at VBS. I nervously explained my situation to the woman at the store: “I’m a white pastor of a mostly white congregation, and we’re doing a Vacation Bible School with a civil rights theme. I know that seems odd, but I think it’s really important for us to learn some of these stories. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our curriculum suggests that I wear African garb, and I feel uncomfortable doing it because I’m not African. What do you think?”

She said, “Oh, Pastor, don’t worry. You know Father Pfleger, right? Father Pfleger wears kente all the time. As long you’re trying to stop racism, it’s all right. Go ahead, and try on this one.” I tried on the kufi that I’m wearing in the picture. I do know who Michael Pfleger is, but I am definitely not Father Pfleger. Though I’ve never met him nor attended Mass at his parish, he is a well-known figure in Chicago. As the white pastor of a mostly African American Roman Catholic parish, he has been an outspoken leader about justice issues in Chicago and beyond. With over forty years of ministry in African American communities, he has the credibility to pull it off. I don’t.

Nevertheless, I’m wearing it anyway. I realize that I am pushing the boundary toward taking another’s culture, but I also see it as an opportunity for learning and conversation. I know a mostly white congregation learning about civil rights seems unusual, but it shouldn’t be. African American history is American history. I love that our children are learning about heroes of faith and justice that they might not learn about in school (we do live in Texas). I love that we're combining faith and justice. We’re also starting to learn that justice is not just a race issue. I long for the day when there is no injustice for us to learn about.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's VBS time!

Tonight was our first night of Family Vacation Bible School, with around fifty people attending. It’s meant to be intergenerational—with kids and adults. After some technical difficulties with the sound on our video, we heard some stories about people working for racial justice in the 1960s. Our theme is On the Move: God’s Grace from Place to Place. Every week, we’re in a different place across America, learning stories about civil rights as well as stories from the Bible.

Tonight our theme was justice. We learned about Deborah working for justice against the Canaanites. The people of Israel came to her for justice. We also learned about Gloria Richardson, who worked for civil rights in Cambridge, Maryland. For our meal together, we had Maryland crab cakes. Here are pictures of our intergenerational art project—the freedom bus—and the tree that our kindergarten class sat around when they learned about Deborah sitting under the palm tree giving judgment (Judges 4:5). We’re off to a great start. Thanks to all the people who are making this a great opportunity!

Friday, June 4, 2010

A work in progress...

Here are a few pics of construction at Amazing Grace. The youth building is looking fantastic; we're starting to be more accesible, and the bathrooms are getting remodeled. We also have a new roof. Come to church on Sunday to see more.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sailing the Steward Ship

In thinking about budgets and stewardship, I have been very vocal about my discomfort with lots of fundraisers and raffles. Here is an ELCA document with similar notions: