Amen and Amen

Come, let us sing praises to the One who hears every prayer,
to the Holy One whose love never fails:
Amen and Amen! With the host of saints and angels,
we worship and say: As you are, so let it be.

As you are full of mercy,
let mercy be abundant
to those who live in the streets
and those who faint with hunger,
abundant for children who live with fear
and for those whose lives are surrounded by warfare.

As you are, so let it be, O God of grace.
Do not hold back peace from those who are persecuted,
nor light from those who wander in need of a vision,
nor comfort from those exhausted by mourning,
nor justice from those in power.

As you are, O God Most High, so let it be.
With the host of saints and angels, we sing,
Amen and Amen!

Amen and Amen, O Alpha and Omega!
You have walked beside our ancestors for generations,
you have given us stories to guide our ways,
you have kept our endings and our beginnings
secure within the palm of your hand.
Blessed are we, for we have known your joy and still
you call us to new heights of wonder and disbelief
to greater depths of discipleship and incarnation.
How can this be, O Living God?

May we have the honor of continuing the song,
teaching the heart of it to our children and
our children’s children’s children:
Amen and Amen! With the saints and angels, Amen!
With all of creation, Amen!
Forever and ever,
Amen!

This prayer is cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Monday Muse: Priming Pentecost

It’s Memorial Day in the US, but now that the parade has passed me by (literally), I need to plan Pentecost — that great holy day on the Christian liturgical calendar when we try to be surprised by the Spirit (“What??! Tongues of fire?! We haven’t heard of such things…since last year on Pentecost Sunday!”) … just like we try to be surprised by the unconventional form taken by God in Jesus and celebrated at Christmas (“No. Way. God as the out-of-wedlock son of a Jewish couple living under Roman occupation??! I can’t believe that God is being born into such circumstances…again!”).

How to be surprised once again this Pentecost? How to make room in worship for the Spirit to startle us? How to increase our knowledge and understanding of a familiar faith story?

I am tempted, as I reread Acts 2:1-21, to suggest that our Pentecost worship services include disorienting elements to unsettle our Sunday spiritual routines — oscillating fans blowing loudly (“the rush of violent wind” in 2:2), multiple languages spoken in simultaneous cacophony (2:4) — but the liturgiophile within me cannot quite bear the thought of completely chaotic worship.

So instead, as I plan and prepare for several Pentecost services on my own calendar, I am leaning toward to the activities and images of chaos that appear in the Revised Common Lectionary readings themselves:

– the eclipsed sun and the blood-red moon that accompany seasons rich with prophesy and a poured-out Spirit (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32), and what may be dissonant to us: that these dire images are signs of good news;

– the less-familiar story of Numbers 11:24-30, and the truer-than-we-admit actions of Joshua who wishes to control the message and the movement of the LORD’s spirit;

– the monsters of the sea, both small and great in Psalm 104:24-35, cavorting through the waters and responding to the Creator like lap dogs who play and whine and rejoice and beg from their companion-owners;

– the manifestation of the Spirit — not just the gifts of the Spirit to make us all feel special, but the full demonstration of the Spirit within each and every one for the sake of the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) — which compels us into the worst and most complex chaos of all: community.

Somewhere within this jumble of Spirit-inklings and Spirit-stories, I’m praying for a sermon, a liturgical script and some prayers to emerge. How are your Pentecost plans shaping up for Sunday, June 8th?

Monday Muse: How Soon Will We Forget?

Monday morning, and I cannot put this thought to rest: we have consumed the names of the kidnapped Nigerian girls for the sake of our own piety.

If Facebook is any indication, yesterday (Mother’s Day) many American churches prayed for the Nigerian girls and young women who were abducted from their school on April 14, and many of those churches prayed for the students by name using a list that was circulating online. Churches took extra time in worship to read the names as a litany, or distributed the names on pieces of paper for individual prayer. Some preachers used the occasion to call attention to the dire treatment of women globally, daring to preach about justice on a day when the pews brimmed with corsaged women and their families en route to Mother’s Day lunches.

If Facebook is any indication, yesterday we American Christians felt good to have joined the cause, prophetic to have added our prayers to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

Never mind that many of us didn’t know about the abduction in Nigeria before last week. Never mind that many of us don’t understand & didn’t bother to research the economic, political, religious, tribal, and historic dynamics of the country.

Never mind that the abduction itself happened one month ago, unnoticed by American churches and barely reported by the media.

Never mind that the girls’ mothers and families in Chibok, as well as Nigerian activists and writers, were already rallying and demanding action from their government.

Last week, Americans took notice and determined that the world needed us to come to the rescue, and American churches vowed to bedeck that bandwagon with prayer.

Forgive my cynicism.

I believe that prayer is powerful. I believe that churches prayed yesterday with sincere faith and genuine concern for the fate of the Nigerian students. I believe that my colleagues in ministry planned the prayers for worship thoughtfully, carefully, not meaning to exploit the girls’ stories or names.

I also believe — I fear — that we did just that.

We called them “our girls” — a casual familiarity especially problematic in white American Churches — as if we were their mothers, thus abstracting the girls from their own mothers and families (like a viral child sponsorship program for our time of prayers). We splashed the face of a brown girl (any brown girl would do, we didn’t need to know if she was one of the kidnapped or even Nigerian) across Twitter and Facebook and maybe even on the projector screens in our churches. We pretended that the girls’ names and their faces were ours to distribute, ours to wail over, ours to make into poster children whose brown eyes would teach us to pray.

Now it’s Monday morning, and the worship bulletins have been recycled. The slips of paper have been posted on our refrigerator doors to collect dust. Next Sunday’s worship service will return to its usual habits and hymns. We’ll share the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag a few more times, but otherwise in pulpits and in pews we believe that our duty to the Nigerian girls was accomplished; the girls served their purpose to help us feel — for one Sunday — that faith has an urgency and an impact. Next Sunday, we’ll again prefer our faith to be sweet and consoling.

Next Sunday, I fear the girls will still be missing.

Next Sunday, I fear many American churches will forget them.

Next Sunday, I fear we will neglect to repeat our prayers for girls and young women who are abducted, abused, raped, sold — not only the Nigerian students whose names we consumed in faith, but many other Nigerian girls and young women, many Native American women in both the US and Canada, many women in war zones around the world, many women cis and trans* alike, women who live next door and women who attend our churches.

Next Sunday would be one too many Sundays in a row to cry for justice from the pulpit and raise a lament in the pews.

. . . In fairness, pastors plan weekly worship with the whole life of the congregation, the whole span of local & global events, and the whole work of God in mind. We do not pray or preach every Sunday with only one village in mind any more than we pray or preach Sunday after Sunday with only one scripture passage in mind . . .

Yet I suspect that our fervent prayers over the Nigerian students may be revealed as self-righteousness if, in retrospect, it becomes apparent that we intended only to name the girls once so that God could soothe the lament in our own souls.

When the girls’ names were released — and who bothered to double-check them, because we were satisfied that they sounded foreign — we gobbled up that list without so much as a pause to consider the over/undertones of our centuries-long American habit of devouring Africa. My discomfort with the fervent rush to pray for the girls reflects my suspicion that our flash-in-the-pan interest in acquiring their names for the sake of our prayers is paralleled in the shadows by our inability/unwillingness to examine critically the relationship between our faith and our American white savior complex.

I don’t intend that we should backtrack in guilt over yesterday’s prayers, sermons, and worship services. I’m observing the need to move forward with care, minding the ways in which we consume and appropriate others’ stories for our own spiritual fodder … with a particular caution to predominantly white congregations, because good intentions and sincere faith do not extricate us from participation in systemic racism.

I’m suggesting that our prayers (and our political action, if we connect the two) remember with humility that we are not spiritual patrons or great American rescuers in the effort to #BringBackOurGirls. At the forefront of the protest are the mothers, fathers and families in Chibok; we are their supporters, not their saviors.

And I’m suggesting that maybe — just maybe — we practice remembrance more than forgetfulness next Sunday in worship, and for many Sundays to come.

Monday Muse: Red Flagging “Easy” Theology

Oh my, but the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday resonate with me like fingernails down a chalkboard! Today’s Monday Muse for your worship preparation is less encouragement and more caution: beware the pitfalls of easy ecclesiology, of simple theology, of one-dimensional faith!

Acts 2:42-47, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

In my mind, the Muppets are dancing in war costumes and singing, “Why can’t we be friends?” There’s a trending critique — not new, really, and certainly not unfounded — that Christians’ behavior turns off many people from participation in the Church and even from belief in Christ. Many of those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” do so in protest and reaction to painful encounters with Christians and congregations. Those in the pews and in the pulpits are not unaware of the injury and hypocrisy; within the church walls, we too can testify to unchristian behavior by Christians.

But then a passage like Acts 2:42-47 comes along and we’re tempted, if only for this one Sunday, to declare in worship that Church is easy — singing and preaching and praying, “Why can’t we be friends?” with an extra chorus of kumbaya. But if we’re honest, Acts 2:42-47 belongs in that category of stories about the good old days when folks didn’t argue, pews were packed, and budget woes were the stuff of mythology. Ahem.

Woe to the congregation (and to the preacher) who believes that Church should be easy, that Church was ever in its history easy, and/or that ease of a congregation’s life, habits & relationships is the goal and measure of Church!

Why can’t we be friends? Because fear. Why can’t we share? Because power. Why can’t we sit at the same table? Because -isms. A relevant vision of Church needs to give an accounting of these, challenge the engagement of these, and call the Church to move forward — not centuries backward to the “good old days” of the Early Church.

Psalm 23, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

I know, Psalm 23 is much-beloved, a picturesque poem of the life of faith. But let me tip the sacred cow and observe: the world is not exactly a green pasture and a few too many still pools have the putrid air of cesspools. No offense to the world.

Even if we maneuver Psalm 23 and our theology to affirm, “God the Shepherd leads us to spiritual green pastures and to metaphorical still waters,” in truth we Christians get a little grumpy when God doesn’t bestow actual green pastures upon us. We resent any path that takes us within sight of the valley of the shadow of death — whether personally or congregationally or globally. And if God did present us with an actual banquet table in the presence of (or with!) our enemies, not many volunteers would take a seat at that table.

We want a cup that overflows just for us, a green pasture to satisfy us right where we are. What if the overflowing cup and the green pasture are not blessings that come to us, but rather blessings/spaces to which we must journey … or more likely, be herded with great bleating and resistance?

1 Peter 2:19-25, “It is a credit to you if you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”

Do not admonish those suffering pain and injustice to endure their circumstances because Jesus suffered too. Just don’t. Not in sermons, not in hymns, not in prayers, not literally, not figuratively. Stop it stop it stop it. In doing so, you cause actual harm to your sisters and brothers.

In addition, the affirmation of suffering is a misreading of the text. Look again at the start of verse 21: “For to this you have been called…” (NRSV). It begs the question, “To what have we been called?” — assuming, of course, that we’re ignoring verse 18’s reference to slaves and hearing ourselves as the intended audience.

To what have we been called? Surprisingly, we are not called to Christ’s suffering; no, in verse 21 Christ suffered because of and for the thing to which we’re called … but that thing isn’t suffering. Suffering is an experience that has been and is endured (again, don’t preach that!), but the endurance of suffering itself is not our calling. Christ endured suffering so that we might live for righteousness, so that we might be healed (verse 24). Christ’s example (verse 21) was not suffering, but right living in fellowship with others and with God (verse 22). Living fully, without harm to others, is our call.

John 10:1-10, “Anyone who climbs in by another way is a thief.”

Here’s a nicely pre-packaged theology: “Jesus is the right way! Everything else is bad!” (Or, for that sheep effect, baaaaad.) All we have to do is know Jesus’ voice and watch out for fence-climbers. “Yay God! Boo strangers!” That will make our faith journeys easy, right?

If only life didn’t get in the way and complicate things. 

Thankfully, scripture is complicated too, including John 10:1-10. Jesus is both the shepherd (verses 2 and 11) and the gate (verses 7 and 9). The shepherd enters through the gate (Jesus enters through himself?) with the admission of the gatekeeper (verse 3). The thieves and bandits enter by another way (verse 1) and/or before the shepherd arrives (verse 8); no mention of what to do about those who arrive after the shepherd. The thief’s actions are life-destroying (verse 10); the gate/shepherd/Jesus’ actions are life-giving (verse 10). The sheep’s primary actions are listening and following (verse 4)…except to the stranger (verses 5 and 8)…and we’ll go easy on the disciples who have trouble listening to and following Jesus (verse 6), because that would make Jesus a stranger. Yikes!

In that fun tangle of metaphors, it’s tempting to pick an end of the string, give a yank, and call the mess solved! It’s easy theologizing to pick one image of Jesus, pretend that everything else in scripture and in life agree, and declare “This is who Jesus is!”

But even if that were true, even if Christology could be so easily resolved … who are we in this mix of metaphors? Again: beware easy answers! Are we the sheep (and when we tell one another “Here’s the right voice! No, here! No, it’s over here!”, aren’t we playing the role of shepherd)? Are we the thief, always stealing and destroying life to gain security for ourselves? Are we the gatekeepers, welcoming — or discouraging — others from finding rest and life in the sheepfold? Are we the hired hands (skipping ahead to verse 13), easily scared and unwilling to tend to one another?

This Sunday in worship and preaching, are we willing to tell the more complicated stories of ourselves, of God, of faith?

Monday Muse: Emmaus Questions

Some stories are so familiar that they are hard to hear afresh. Some stories are so familiar that we need to hear them afresh.

(My friend and colleague Casey FitzGerald at Faith and Wonder offers encouragement for telling scripture in such a way that our ears & souls are newly fascinated by familiar stories.)

Ideally, the whole of worship supports a fresh hearing of a familiar biblical story and — more importantly — a renewed understanding of God’s ongoing story! No matter how familiar certain verses may be, in and through worship we discover our stories within God’s story.

This coming Sunday (May 4th, the Third Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary), we dare to recognize our own stories and questions in that too-familiar story of two disciples walking and talking together en route from Jerusalem to Emmaus following the resurrection.

As I hear them, these are the familiar questions of our daily lives, as told in Luke 24:13-35 —

What the heck just happened??! (“Two of them were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” 24:14)

Doesn’t the whole world see life from my/our point of view? a.k.a. Isn’t it all about me? (“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 24:18)

How can we make sense of what others have said? (“Some women of our group astounded us” and “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them…” 24:22 and 24:27)

How did we miss seeing what was in plain sight? #foreheadslap (“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” 24:32)

The familiar human story: We are full of doubt and worry over the unknown, skeptical of what we see and hear, suspicious of the perspectives of others. In fact, we can be so caught up in disbelief that Jesus himself cannot talk us into faith.

The good news of God’s story: Jesus is with us all the same.

The call (or lesson) of God’s continuing story: The ability to welcome a stranger precedes understanding. Our doubt, distraction and skepticism should not overwhelm our hospitality; even when we do not recognize God, we must not fail to welcome God. (“Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” 24:29)