O, Hamsters, let’s go down – down to the river to pray

My daughter was slow to engage with hymn singing tonight, so my husband began playing Down to the River to Pray (United Methodist readers can find an arrangement in Worship and Song, #3164) They had sung it during communion on Sunday morning, and she had been disappointed that they stopped after five verses – she was wanting to add, “O Grandmas, let’s go down.” For starters.

So my husband played it long enough for her to sing verses inviting grandmas, grandpas, great-grandmas, great-grandpas, preachers, and then, with a self-conscious giggle, hamsters. (Public service announcement / disclaimer: hamsters are not meant to get wet. Please do not take your hamster down to a river, whether to pray or for any other reason.)

The self-consciousness is new. A couple of years ago, my daughter would have naturally turned to invite the animals to pray without any embarrassment. Perhaps she has come to realize that most people don’t consider animals in the same way that she does. Myself, I consider her love for non-human animal creatures to be a spiritual gift. Certainly, her love of animals has been a spiritual beacon to me – life with her has been a daily reminder that God’s providential care is not limited to human beings. I say “reminder” and not “lesson” because I learned this truth long before she came into my life – it is written all over the Bible.

The last couple of chapters of Job are the most obvious example of this. Job wants to know if God is paying attention, and God says yes – God is paying attention to Job, but not just to Job. God cares for every creature, and observes their every secret moment. Not just human creatures, but ostriches, hawks, and mountain goats (see especially Job 39). But if this is an obvious place to find God’s providential care for animals in the Bible, this is not the only place. The last verse of Jonah is curious. Jonah is angry that the Ninevites (who were Assyrians – enemies of Israel) were spared God’s wrath, and God is given the last word, asking, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV, emphasis mine)

Of course there is the matter of God going to the trouble (or calling Noah to the trouble, depending upon how you look at it) of rescuing so many animals from the flood. Granted, this is a dodgier example, as these were only representative animals, and the story necessarily implies that a lot more were drowned. But still. Every preschooler knows there were not just people on that boat.

One of my favorite scriptures on this theme is Deuteronomy 25:4. Tucked between a rule on whipping as punishment and an explanation of Levirate marriage, this verse seems almost a non sequitur: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (NRSV) This rule takes “do unto others” to the animal kingdom – you get hungry on the job, right? So does an ox.

In spite of all of this (and so many more), before my daughter was born, I had a tendency to devalue the animal kingdom, relatively. Surely people mattered most of all. For example, I might give to environmental groups, but only because the environment mattered insofar as it mattered to human survival. But her gentle (and continuing) insistence that animals were worthy of a lifetime of focused attention was convicting – my anthropocentric thinking meant that I was putting people at the center – but only God belongs at the center! Some things – most things! (maybe even all things?) – were not created for the benefit of human beings. Animals and all other created things have value not because of their usefulness to humans, but because God made them and called them good.

Recently, the local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers held a yard sale to raise money for continuing education for the member animal keepers. I did something I would never have done eight years ago – I filled up the back of the station wagon and headed to the Duke Lemur Center to donate a bunch of items for their sale. Taking my daughter around to the Museum of Life and Science and the Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue, I’ve met a lot of folks who are caring for God’s creatures with integrity. That’s important work. Not because failing to care for abandoned animals would be an affront to human nobility. Not because lemurs are cute or tigers are awe-inspiring. No, it’s important because these animals are God’s beloved creatures. And if I love God, then I cannot draw the line at caring about animals, plants, and places that are not demonstrably useful to human beings.

What shall I wear?

This morning, trying to find something that was clean, weather appropriate, and still fit me, I was reminded of my Sunday morning struggles ever since taking leave from pastoring.  Ah, the good old days, when I could pick one of a handful of nearly identical clergy shirts out of the closet, attach a collar, and pull on any pants, as they would be hidden under my robe!

As I asked myself, “What shall I wear? What shall I wear?” I was reminded of the meter and scheme of William Walford’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” (UMH 496), and I was off and writing.  (The song works best sung to the tune William Bradbury wrote for it, entitled “Sweet Hour,” but anything in Long Meter Double (LMD) will do.)

As with some sermons, this arose out of a need to address this issue / hear this message myself!  But perhaps you will find yourself humming it next Sunday morning, and it will lighten your mood a bit.  I hope so – because “No wardrobe malfunction can compare / to thy return, sweet hour of prayer!”

********

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Each Sunday morning a world of care!
My dresser drawers have let me down,
Since I have gained this fifteen pounds.
I know that Jesus died for me,
Nevertheless I stand, stymied,
Imagining the children’s stares:
How shall I cope? What shall I wear?

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Will this sweater my belly bare?
Church may not be a fashion show,
But all my blouses are stained, I know;
My tights are torn, my shoes are scuffed.
I must be brave, I must be tough,
Or I shall never have a prayer
Of answering, “What shall I wear?”

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Do other folks my sorrows share?
This cruelty to self, and shame –
We must find someone else to blame!
No, lift from the floor a pair of jeans,
Matched with whatever shirt’s most clean.
Don’t worry, wonder, or compare,
The lilies ne’er ask, “What shall I wear?”

Born and raised in the Briar Patch

I am beginning to understand that worship planning is my briar patch.

I wonder how many of you remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit – a trickster figure in the stories of African Americans in the southern United States, Br’er Rabbit stories are rooted in the storytelling traditions both of the Creek (Native American) and African peoples.  In one of the most famous stories, Br’er Rabbit is captured by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, who are tired of his trickster ways.  Br’er Rabbit begs them, “Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch.”  Naturally, that is just what the two larger animals do, and Br’er Rabbit squeals so loudly that they are sure they have killed him – until they realize that he is not squealing in pain from the thick tangle of thorns, nor from fear at being lost in the darkness under a dense maze of branches – instead he is squealing from laughter!  Br’er Rabbit finally manages to gasp, “I was born and raised in the briar patch!”

Like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, worship planning seems to have little (but necessity) to recommend it to many pastors.  The task can seem overwhelming!  Simply writing a sermon that stays on message, bears some obvious connection to the selected scripture passage, and fits in the allotted time can be daunting.  Now let’s see if we can keep that sermon free from heretical error, avoid unintentionally snarky references to parish business, and avoid embarrassing our spouses or children with a story that is too personal.  While we are at it, it would be great if we could preach something that is easily digested by  a newcomer, without being boring for a long-timer.  Now we just have to select the hymns, write the call to worship, select or write a few prayers… Oh no!  The children’s sermon!  We forgot the children’s sermon.  And a baby threw up on our alb last week and we forgot to take it to the cleaners.

Phew!  Now all we have to do is go up and lead this thing for an hour without any mistakes, or at least to make our mistakes gracefully. Don’t get shaken up when that kid on the sixth row screams during the sermon, waking the guy in the pew in front of him.  Can we locate the encouraging faces of the few smiling nodding parishioners? Great!  As for the rest, let’s find that point just over the tops of the heads of the majority who will be frowning in hopefully deep thought.  Uh-oh, we looked one if them in the eye.  Are they angry?  Maybe they are just misunderstanding.  And now we are just rambling from the pulpit until that one person finally nodded and released us – thank you Jesus!  And now we are running late again.  The organist will want us to cut a verse from the last hymn.  It doesn’t save more than a minute or two, but it makes a big psychological difference – it helps the congregation understand that we do notice that they are disapprovingly aware of the time.

But above all, we must be open to the movement of the Spirit!  If we can somehow dial back the volume on those other 30 concerns that are swirling through our heads.  Such as forgetting to announce whatever that very important announcement was that was told to us just before we walked down the aisle.

Worship planning!  Sermon writing!  Sunday mornings in the pulpit!!! The dread!  The horror!

So why is it I squealed with delight when I opened up the lectionary in order to list all of the Psalms that didn’t make it in, in order to find ways to include them at other parts of the year?  Picking hymns – and finding a way to lift phrases and themes from each hymn in order to more clearly tie them to my sermon – that weekly activity was like play!  And children’s sermons?  Don’t get me started!  I loved doing those so much that I even did them at a church that had no children!

I was born and raised in that briar patch.  My Dad, a United Methodist pastor, brought worship to the Sunday dinner table, asking us to think through how it had gone:  what was the sermon about?  What did we like?  What didn’t we understand?  How were the hymns related – or not? How were the scriptures related – or not?  Worship criticism (in the style of literary criticism) formed the main part of our conversation after church on Sundays.

Dad and I would go to other worship services together from time to time, and then would dissect them together afterwards, figuring out what made them tick.  Starting when I was about six.  And earlier than that, Dad would consult me when he was working on his sermons:  he would read me a bit of scripture or lay out a theological problem and ask me what I thought.   As I grew older and began to play piano, Dad would ask me to play the melody of a hymn he was unfamiliar with when he was planning worship – so that he could decide if he could pick it up easily enough to lead the congregation, or if it he would go find another hymn with words he liked slightly less well.  He would already have checked to see if it could be switched to a more familiar tune with the same meter – which is part of why I knew about the hymnal’s metrical index in elementary school.  Its existence was clearly a revelation to many of my seminary classmates, when it was pointed out by our worship professor.

I want to apologize for my incredulity in that moment.  And also for the time when I responded to a student pastor who was asking “when do pastors get their Sabbath?” with the insensitive remark that leading worship was not work, but the culmination of our work, in which we too were worshipping God.  Yeah, not so much for her.  I was wrong to judge.  I also owe an apology to those students that I implied were unprofessional in wanting to use pre-written prayers, instead of writing their own collects for each service.  I didn’t understand how – unusual I am.

Most pastors were not born and raised in the briar patch.  It is pretty uncomfortable to be thrown into a dark and tangled thicket filled with blood-drawing thorns when it is not your natural habitat.  I take my hat off to you pastors who wrestle each week with your worship preparation in spite of all the fear one or more elements of it inspire in you.  You are martyrs in the best sense of the word: you witness to your conviction that God loves you and your congregation and all the world – and that this love is so great that your very legitimate misgivings about worship preparation (this is, after all, very serious stuff!) are not worth comparing to your deep need to share this love.  Thank you for continuing to toil in the briar patch.