Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, I went with friends to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friends in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!

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.

Saturday night spike

I love reading the search terms that lead people to my blog.  Defying the one-way dynamic of the writer-reader relationship, search terms give me insight into the people who find my blog.  Yesterday I read one that touched me more than usual, because the seeker poured their heart out to the query field with these words: “I am nervous about doing a children’s church sermon” – mystery reader, I pray you found something to set your heart and mind at ease.

Since I first wrote about children’s sermons this past May, I have noticed a trend that I call the “Saturday night spike”:  The most hits I get all week are usually on Saturday – many of them via internet searches having to do with children’s sermons.

At first, I was bemused, then concerned – why were so many people putting off planning their children’s sermons until they had less than 24 hours to prepare?  I was upset, wondering if they had just forgotten; if children – those about whom Jesus said, “to such belong the kingdom of God” – were an afterthought.  But yesterday’s “nervous” worship leader reminded me that thoughtlessness is seldom the problem – more often, it is thoughtfulness to the point of alternating panic and avoidance.

I know that when I procrastinate, it is because I fear the task set before me on some level.  I love children’s sermons, so I always start thinking about them right away.  But if children’s sermons don’t intimidate me, that doesn’t mean that nothing intimidates me!  There are plenty of things that I put off out of fear, counting on the panic at the last “do or die” moment to drive me more towards “do” than towards “die.”  Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way for everyone.  I remember learning in worship class in seminary that more pastors commit suicide on Saturday than on any other day of the week by far.  The message:  if you are feeling intimidated by any task that is set before you, get help early on – from a therapist, a spiritual director, a confessor… someone who can help you do your work without relying on last minute panic to drive you.

I wonder if my posts on children’s sermons are helpful.  I hope so.  Particularly given how often they are read on a Saturday night.  I pray that those who find themselves talking to the children on Sunday morning will discover joy in their work, and will rest in the assurance that God loves them very much – no less than God loves the children that they are charged with.

And if you are very nervous about talking with the children in front of the congregation, see if you can think of someone who loved and welcomed you when you were a child.  (And oh, how I pray you had at least one, and hopefully many people in your life as a child who fit that description!)  May their love for you give you courage, and their words and actions guide you as you find your own style of letting the love of God flow through you in your worship leadership and your work with the children.  Amen.