Posted in Ordinary Holiness

Where Two or More…

IMG_20200210_120916Today, as two first-year students and two staff members gathered for evening prayer (our pattern for Lent), I named something I recognized.

Besides the student who had planned and was leading the service, our organist, and me, who was the cantor, one student came to prayer this evening. It has been raining for what I am certain is 700 days at this point, students are busy, Dr. Shore is away on business (or she would be there), and there are surely other reasons for such low attendance. (Like, seriously, we worship at 11:30 a.m. Mon-Thur all year long…except during Lent, we are gathering for Morning and Evening Prayer on Thursdays, so simply forgetting is easily possible.)

I was grateful for the precious and intimate time we four shared as we prayed ancient words and asked for mercy on our aching world. I really was grateful. And also, I told those two students about times in the parish when one or none showed up. I planned a two-hour Holy Saturday prayer vigil the worship committee had asked me to do. This included asking for prayer petitions in the bulletin for weeks prior, gathering those petitions and writing some prayers around their concerns, setting out candles, and imagining who might come, for whom it might be their first time at a prayer vigil and how I might help them feel comfortable. The day came. The hour came. And I sat in the sanctuary alone for more than an hour before I decided no one was coming.

One December, I planned a Longest Night service. Because Advent is such a busy time for our musicians, I learned to play the hymns we’d be singing, so our organist wouldn’t have to commit to one more service. I crafted a service, printed a bulletin, created a gentle space with candles and such. One person came: a retired pastor who was a member of our congregation. We set the bulletins aside and spent time together talking about our lives – and ended our time with prayer.

I told those stories after worship this evening because what happened in our chapel will likely happen to them in the parish. Even this is formation for ministry. It may not be a worship service. It may be a Sunday school class or a service project, and practicing “where two or more are gathered” is something that takes some getting used to. So, I am, at once, grateful for the gift of Brandy, James, Jim, and Jennifer around the organ this evening and thinking about why worship attendance is often so low – even at a seminary.

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Kim Bryant, United Methodist student

This is not news. I was a student here a decade ago, and we were asking the same question. We don’t make chapel attendance compulsory because, I suppose, that makes it a chore rather than a choice. And that doesn’t feel right somehow.

The argument could be made that chapel is a class, I suppose. Monday through Thursday, we explore various forms of worship from various hymnals and prayer books. At the end of last semester, I counted up all the hours one would be in worship if one never missed chapel during the semester. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, chapel is about 30 minutes long; Wednesday we have Holy Communion, and the service is more like 45 minutes long. Meeting for 2 hours and 15 minutes each week is nearly as much as a 3 credit hour class. It’s the equivalent of 30 hours of practicum.

Those who have attended worship daily have been exposed to the United Methodist

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Amanda Burke Lutheran student

Hymnal, This Far by Faith, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, With One Voice, Taize, Lectio Divina, Campfire Worship, Common Prayerbook, and various other patterns of worship.

They have heard scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary for Sundays, as well as the daily lectionary texts.

They have received communion around the altar, in a line, and in their pews – intinction, common cup, and individual cups.

They have watched as other seminarians lead, seeing what seems comfortable and what doesn’t, how people handle it when they mistakenly jump over a part of the service or ask the assembly to turn to the wrong page.

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Rev. Dr. Melanie Dobson ~ United Methodist Professor

They have heard sermons from seminary seniors, staff, faculty, and visiting preachers.

Since we are an ecumenical seminary, those who attend chapel daily have experienced the leadership of Baptist, Lutheran, United Methodist, AME Zion, Presbyterian (and more) students. This also means they have experienced the worship leadership of students from religious traditions rooted in congregations of people of African Descent, Asian Descent, and European Descent.

If a student were to worship daily in Christ Chapel for the 2 or 3 years they study here (Master of Arts in Christian Ministry and Master of Theological Studies are 2 year programs. Master of Divinity is a 3 year program.), they could have 120 or 180 hours of worship practicum apart from the worship course which

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Amanda Spangler ~ Lutheran M’lilian Scott ~ Baptist

equips them with the proper names of communion vessels, the patterns of prayer the church often follows (how to write them and where to find them), the practice of learning how to preside at the Table, and other matters of worship leadership.

The student who is rarely in chapel misses out on lots of opportunities for learning.

But, of course, chapel is not just a class.

LTSS Chapel worship is the gathering of women and men at the foot of the cross of Christ, who are about the work of teaching, forming, and nurturing one another to be faithful ministers of God’s word. When I am serving holy communion, and I get to look you in the eye, say the ancient words, place in your hands a piece of God, and see you through that lens, I am taught, formed, and nurtured by you…and maybe you by me. When we kneel shoulder to shoulder to confess our sins, we are what we need: the broken body of Christ. When the organ carries our voices like incense unto God who loves us in ways we don’t deserve, we experience what we need: the mystery of God’s presence among us. When we gather, two or more, we join the chorus of multitudes around the throne of the Lamb of God, singing, Holy, holy, holy!

IMG_20200122_120858How great a gift it is to dwell in this place with these people in the name of Jesus.

Posted in Uncategorized

Home

I think I need to let you in.

There are parts of this that are a little too much, and I never really know how much to share…but then, I remember how healing it is to have company in pain and joy and wondering. So, maybe you’ll join me.

Early this morning, my generous daughter got up suuuuuper early and drove me to the airport, so I could catch a flight to Milwaukee for the Church-wide Assembly of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m one of 927 voting members who are gathered to elect leaders, discuss and vote on various resolutions, and conduct the business of our church body. I love the ELCA. I’m proud of the work we do, the social justice initiatives we employ – I love the way we follow Jesus – not perfectly, for sure, but intentionally and with wide open arms. So, that early flight wasn’t a burden; I was happy to fly to Milwaukee.

As I stood in line to have my big, pink suitcase weighed and put on the conveyer belt, things got a little blurry when I realized the last time I took that big, pink suitcase to Milwaukee it was filled to the brim with some of Ken’s precious belongings I thought his family would want. And my carryon held a container of Ken’s ashes. He had requested that some of him would always reside at the summer camp where he worked when he was young.

Landing in Milwaukee brought the odd feeling of coming home to a place that…isn’t. Ken was born and raised here. With Ken I traveled “home” for holidays. I’ve been here many times, enough times that I have a favorite place to buy my cheese curds, but, I don’t travel here anymore. I grabbed my big, pink suitcase from the carousel and caught a shuttle across the city to my hotel. Turns out that hotel was “home” today. It was FILLED with my people. Some wore Live Generously (Thrivent) t-shirts, others had an ELCA backpack or wore their synod t-shirt. Inside, I was giddy, so grateful to have come “home” this way in this city. Hugs and sweet faces with expressions of, “So good to see you!” on every elevator, in every corner of the lobby was the family I love – and needed.

Ken loved Jesus.

He loved the ELCA, too. He would have loved to be here, in his city, with his people, about the work of the church. It would have all been too much for him. And I guess I actually mean that because more than once today I wondered if the height of this event would have triggered a mania for him. Grief is that way: one minute you are remembering fondly and imagining his delight – and the next you are fighting the guilt that comes splashing in when the sweet glow of imagining him so happy reminds you that you are glad you don’t have to live on that edge on which you balanced when you wondered if regular old joy was going to shift into mania. (This writing is difficult. That last sentence is clumsy, but I can’t seem to change it. So, there it sits…all awkward and scratchy.)

Ken went to worship with me today in a ballroom of a hotel where more than a thousand Lutherans gathered to praise the One who insists on love every time.

And you know who we sat by? Kai and Jessie.

And you know who we needed? Kai and Jessie.

Kai is a faithful leader in the church. He pours himself out for the sake of the young people God loves. He is gentle and funny, and he tells the truth. I am always glad when I get to draw near to Kai.

Jessie is a kid I just met. (Jessie is 100% not a kid. He is in his 20s. But, so are my kids…) Spirit tossed us together a month ago at a synod meeting, and we hit it off. He is funny and honest and God’s call on his life is strong and true. Also, this kid can sing. We grabbed some harmony lines during the many hymns we sang today during worship – bliss! The entrance hymn was All Creatures Worship God Most High, and we were singing it like 1,000+ Lutherans can sing while trumpets and percussion and organ do their thing. It. Was. Glorious.Social-Media-ELCA-Logo

And then we got to verse five. And the musicians cut out, leaving us to pray these words with one collective unaccompanied voice…a thousand people who are my home, two faithful young men on my left and right, and Ken’s widow sang:

And you, most gentle sister death, waiting to hush our final breath: Alleluia! Alleluia! Since Christ our light has pierced your gloom, fair is the night that leads us home. Alleluia.

1,000 siblings held me up. I actually love them. I’m so grateful they flew from the reaches of our country to stand in that ballroom sanctuary and sing when I couldn’t. It’s actually what we do. We hold each other up.

Then, we shared the Meal that joins us in Christ, and since I am persuaded to believe that not even death can separate us from Jesus, Ken was at the Meal with us, too.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that when I looked up during the sermon, the photo on the screen was of the gorgeous sanctuary of Christ Lutheran in Pacific Beach, CA, the congregation where I met Ken and where we married at the foot of the cross from which flows the river of life. It was all a bit much, Spirit. No need to work so hard tomorrow. I’ll notice you, I promise.IMG_20190805_153339_exported_792_1565069293981

Posted in Ordinary Holiness

Worship

Whenever I’m on vacation, I get to choose where to worship on Sunday morning. Sometimes, if I’m in town I worship in a nearby town at a church where a friend of mine is the pastor. Sometimes, I worship here in High Point at the Episcopal or United Methodist congregations near me. Last night, I wondered if I might drive the 75 minutes to worship with my parents.

But, this morning I woke up and sneezed my fool head off! Not sure if it was allergies or a cold, I decided not to bring a potential cold to a local congregation. And I’ve heard people tell me many, many times that they don’t go to church because they find God in nature, or they don’t like to be around lots of people, or…they watch a preacher on TV. Well, I don’t have regular television, but I do have the internet, so I decided to try worshiping at home today.

Now, my task list for today (besides worship) was to install a fence, plant 6 shrubs, and transplant a bunch of potted plants.

So, before the sun got too hot, I went out and started working on the fence. The work is always slow for me because I’m not adept at this kind of work. Inevitably, I forget I need (or can’t find) a tool. I spend a LOT of time measuring things many times, so I don’t screw something up. And…now that Roxy and Eleanor live here, it’s like working with a toddler under my feet!

As I set up my work, I thought about how in worship, we begin with confession and forgiveness. So, as I made my way around my shed just loaded with things that I use only occasionally, I confessed that I spend money on things I don’t really need, that my comfort and convenience get my money far more readily than a stranger with a hungry tummy or a sick child who needs medicine or a single mom who can’t pay her bills. And as I measured out where the fence posts would be and drove stakes into the ground, carving into the earth, digging up grass that had grown there, I confessed that my use of fossil fuels in my car and in the truck that delivers my Amazon Prime items means I am complicit in the call for more resources. And if those who are building dangerous and leaking pipelines (like the Dakota Access Pipeline) which threaten our water supply didn’t have customers like me, they wouldn’t be carving into the earth in dangerous ways. And as I knelt in the sun, my muscles already feeling weak with only a few minutes of work behind them, I confessed that I do not care for my body as I should. I do not move it and keep it strong, even when I know it is important and faithful.

Since I am the one who pronounces God’s forgiveness after our confession on a Sunday morning, I stood up and looked around my yard, thinking about declaring myself forgiven. Then a breeze picked up, blowing my hair across my face, and I knew just what to do. I walked over to the stone birdbath which rests on an old stump. It was shimmeringly full today because of the powerful rainstorm that blew through here last night. Reaching out my hand, I saw the dirt under my fingernails as I dipped my God-made fingers into that God-made water and smeared a barely muddy cross on my God-made forehead. And in that moment, I remembered that God didn’t make the cross; we did. God showed up to love us, and we fashioned him a cross for making us admit we weren’t loving each other well. And God did not punish us for such a savage thing. God forgave us. Because God is in the business of forgiving and never grows weary of forgiving me. This, I believe.

Because I am not physically strong, and because I get over-heated oddly easily, I committed myself to taking frequent breaks to come inside, cool off (lying on my tile floor is fantastic for that), drink lots of water, and remember to eat well.

On my first break, I decided to find a sermon. So, I scrolled through Facebook to find a friend’s church with a link to their service. I watched Facebook Live from Pilgrim Lutheran in Lexington, SC. And what do you know, the pastor said that we need the church, that Jesus prayed we would all be one…together. Even though it is inconvenient and frustrating and not always efficient – we need each other in order to be Christ’s church. On the day I decided to do church alone, the sermon I randomly chose to hear reminded me that I need the church, and the church needs me.

I spent the rest of the day in and out of the sun, working hard, resting, petting my dogs, telling my dogs to move out of the way, accomplishing an important task, and remembering that I’m a capable woman. The fence posts are in, and the fencing will go up tomorrow. I didn’t plant the shrubs because I called my dad for some advice, and the suggestion he made means waiting to plant the shrubs until we do some other work in that area.

I sang a little – because we always sing in worship.

I ate fresh strawberries and blueberries from my garden, and while it was not Holy Communion of bread and wine with my sisters and brothers in Christ, it absolutely was a provision from God growing right there in my backyard.

So, I had church on my own today. It was fine. But in 7 days, I get to worship with my beautiful congregation – and that’s better.

Scroll down if you want to see my very helpful dogs being very helpful.

First, I gathered my tools in my very professional construction bucket, and my assistant made sure everything smelled right.


 

…and tasted right.

 

 

Eleanor stood very, very close because it is helpful to have others very, very close when using a hammer.

 

 

Meanwhile, Roxy came over to laugh about how muddy her nose was.
Both girls kept me company while I worked by being very, very close. After all, nothing is more helpful than closeness while using tools.
I’m helping, Mom.  See how close I am? That’s how you know I’m helping.