Damage Report!

Like a lot of congregations, First Christian has been worshipping apart since March. It’s been going okay, though I’m glad I had some skills in video editing before this all hit. I wanted to share with you a sample from last week’s service. The first is a video from the sermon by my friend Rob. The second is yours truly giving the prayer. If you want to see the full video, go over to the church website. I hope it’s good news to your soul.

Why We Worship

IMG_0740One of my first memories is being a kindergartener at St. Agnes Catholic School in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  We would line up and leave the school building to enter the church building.  The sanctuary was wonderland for five-year-old me.  Banners were placed at the front of room indicating what time of the liturgical year it was or to help us give praise to God.  It was 1975, so this was when the Catholic folk mass was in high gear.  The whole experience was exciting and I wanted to come back.

I couldn’t say that about my regular church.

My parents and I went to New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Flint which is an African American congregation.  Now, there was some excitement at times when people were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and started screaming and dancing.  But the services were anywhere from 2-3 hours long.  Then there were the Sundays where there was the regular 11:00AM service, followed by the 4:00PM service and then the 7:00PM service.  This meant trying to sit through some very long sermons that I never really understood.  Aside from the screaming and yelling, the sermons were long and seemed boring to me.

Worship is a vital part of our Christian faith, no matter if it excites us or bores us to tears.  It’s also vital to churches like ourselves that are redeveloping themselves for the new times we live in.

There is a temptation in the effort to be relevant to not focus on worship, but mission.  The seeming prevailing wisdom is that we should be involved with mission with worship having a supporting role- if it has a role at all.

Pastor Kazimierz Bem thinks we have this all backward.  If we are looking to revive our faith it has to start with worship. This is how he describes worship and how it influences mission:

Worship is a central act of proclamation of God’s grace to us — in preaching and in faithful administration of sacraments. It needs to be robust, faithful, engaging — but its focus must be the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, God’s free, abundant, deep grace and love shown for us on the cross.

Yes, service is vital. I agree with Nicholas Wolterstorff that service is the part of worship after the assembly disperses into their daily lives. But unless our service is grounded in worship and an understanding that what we do is in gratitude for what God has done for us first, then we will end up as the all-too-familiar “Church of revolving doors.”

Do read the rest of the article when you have the chance.

As we continue to retool our churches for the 21st century, we need to be mindful that the central part of our faith community has to be worship, that time when we encounter God and give God praise.

First Christian-St. Paul is not giving up our commitment to service.  We are making a difference in Washington County.  But it has to be grounded in our worship, in the time when we meet God through the bread and the wine, through the preaching of the Word and through the melodies of music.

Let’s go to worship God!

Tragic Church?

An interesting meditation on the role of the tragic in life of Christian worship and in modern culture:

The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power…

Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Repost: Autism and Contemplative Worship

From the summer of 2012. In this post I share how a contemplative worship experience can be a benefit to those with autism.

Last night at church we held our first Summer Evening Worship. As many of you know, First Christian shares space with a UCC congregation and a Lutheran congregation. I shared an idea with the pastor of the Lutheran church about having a contemplative worship service during the summer and she took to the idea. We decided to do service based on Prayers Around the Cross, a contemplative worship service designed by Lutheran musicians at Holden Village in Washington State.

The service includes times of silence, songs, prayers and visual imagery….perfect for someone with autism.

It was today that I realized that I love these kind of services. Most contemplative worship is filled with repetition- repeating phrases, words and songs over and over. There’s also the visual- in our case, it was a four square boxes filled with sand and placed in the shape of a cross. During the time of prayer, one can come forward to light candles which make for a wonderful image that appeals to me.

What I noticed last night was how calm I was, how still I was. If you really notice me, you will find that I really don’t sit still. I am constantly moving and fidgeting. During a Sunday worship service, I’m not still. But last night, I was calm and focused on what was going on.

I happened to stumble across this blog post when I googled “autism and taize.” She writes about how her two sons, who are autistic love Taize-style worship:

Before my husband and family burst into my life Taize was always a place of retreat and silence for me. Many young people come enjoying the international community as much as the life of prayer, but after by first visit to Taize I always came and spent the week in silence….

Returning with my family was therefore a challenge and the first time I came, 7 years ago, with just the two boys I found the week almost unbearable. The contrast between my memories of Taize and the reality of being here with two autistic boys aged 4 and 5 was too harsh. I also had, foolishly, come on the week when there was no family welcome so I was managing the boys on my own.

But even in the midst of that difficult transition I remember being moved by the way the boys responded to the beauty and the peace of the prayers. They were children who never stayed still yet I sat with them through the silences as they lay, hidden under a large scarf I had brought, peacefully calm.

My boys, like most autistic children, struggle with language based teaching. For many, many years we would always back up anything we were telling them with visual aids, with images and pictures. Reformed worship with it’s language based liturgy is probably the worst style of worship for them and traditional ‘Sunday school’ is no better. Here at Taize the children’s work, and particularly the afternoon ‘show’ that follows the story of the theme, has to be visual and not language based because you have children from so many countries – it is perfect for my children. The regular monastic life with the rhythm of the bells gives them a sense of structure and security and the worship is experiential not verbal.

I think I’m going to like these services. And I’m hoping that maybe it can be a place for other aspies to have a place where they can really worship God.

Autism and the Ministry

From the blog, Autistic Me:

Following a panel discussion I was asked if my autistic traits made me a better teacher.

I replied, “No. They are a disadvantage for much of what I teach.”

The mother asking the question was puzzled. I don’t believe I offered the answer she wanted. This led me to ponder the question and the answer further.

I teach a literature-writing course this semester, “The Study of the Essay.” The course is a survey of major essayists and requires students to write personal essays and reflections weekly. The essay is by nature an author’s attempts to persuade readers in a personal way. The essayist is a character in his or her own work.

Like many autistics I’ve met, I read a lot of nonfiction and historical fiction. There are great nonfiction writers, most of whom use the same techniques any novelist or short story author would harness. But, I don’t analyze the style while reading: I’m interested in devouring facts. Literary analysis is not my strength.

If I taught programming — which I’d love to do — my perfectionism and passion for orderly, elegant code might make me a better instructor. If I taught science — which I have done — I could focus on the beauty that is a predictable set of laws and theories. There are many subjects that might suit my inherent personal quirks.

But I teach in an English department. It’s as confounding at times as teaching in an art department. I love English and I love art, but teaching them is a challenge for me.

This blog post has made me think about my own challenges as a pastor and how they connect with being autistic. For a while, I’ve been thinking about what advantages I have being an autistic pastor. I’ve tried to come up with some strengths, but really there aren’t any advantages.

Being a pastor means dealing with people. There’s just no way around that. I’ve had to learn how to interact with folks; learning to listen to them, learning how to make sure they are heard and the like. None of this came easy for me and God knows, I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

So, why am I a pastor. Other than the obvious God-called-me response, it’s that I like the church. I like this gathering of people who come to worship and understand God. I love preaching and taking part in communion and hearing the sermon and all of that.

But liking it doesn’t make it easier.

There are certain jobs that persons with autism are going to thrive in. But this doesn’t mean that every person with autism is going to be a computer programmer. Some of us are going to be in professions that don’t come easy to us, but we are in them because we like it.

Autism doesn’t make me a better pastor; they are just part of who I am as this particular (and peculiar) pastor.