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Call to Worship

God is telling a story in our lives.
It’s quite a story-
full of the promises God makes
and our struggles to trust;
full of mystery and angels
with surprising news;
full of hard endings
and unexpected new beginnings.

Come, hear the story
pay attention to the angels’ message
in your heart
in this place and time.

Then join all creation
in worshipping the God
who tells it
full of grace and truth;
who comes in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
and makes our story holy.

Prayers of Adoration and Confession

Promise-making God,
your steadfast love and faithfulness
surrounds us all our day.

God of all time, Lord of all history,
you create new beginnings
where we have run out of possibilities;
you make a way
were there is no way.

Glorious Lord of hope,
You come into our lives
among the poor and the lowly.
You enter into our suffering.

For all these blessings to us,
in this season of waiting,
we praise you with open and empty hands.

Be born in us,
be present among us,
form us in your love and truth and life,
we ask in the name of Jesus,
whose coming we await.

Assurance of God’s Grace and Love

We are a people on a journey with Jesus. Along the way, Jesus gathers our lives into God’s powerful, redeeming grace. The work of Advent is to receive that good news with open hearts. Christ’s peace be with you.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Forest United Church, Ontario on April 30, 2017

Scripture:  Luke 24: 13 -35

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by a script, a story. That story tells the community what is important. It tells the people where they can find hope and purpose. It shapes the way its people act in the world.

The Church is a community that is gathered around the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Actually, the Church tells four stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They are all one story but each gospel tells it from its own perspective.

Mark’s gospel says that the resurrection happens as three women are going to a tomb, expecting to anoint a dead body. They are surprised by an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised. The women flee from the tomb “and they said nothing to anyone for . .  .” That’s how Mark tells the story. When you are amazed, perplexed, and terrified, look around for signs that the God who raises the dead is at work.

Matthew says that Easter is a great earthquake. The crucified and risen Jesus invades your life in places that are dead or shut down. He breaks them open and destroys death’s hold. You are in a new world, a new creation filled with God’s grace. There is a risen Saviour on the loose. The Church has to stay on the move if it is going to catch up with him.

John says that Easter happens when the church is huddled in fear, trying to protect itself. The crucified, risen Jesus shows up and breathes new life into frightened disciples and gives them the power to offer a new beginning to others.

Luke says that Easter is an ordinary church service that gets taken over by a stranger and everything changes. The service begins the way our worship services begin: with ordinary people dealing with ordinary lives. They bring with them the tangled webs of their lives — all sorts of emotions and experiences.

There are the women who are struggling to deal with the death of someone they love. They do what they know how to do: they go to the tomb with spices to anoint a dead body. They are met by two messengers who tell them that Jesus has been raised. They, in turn, tell the men in their group. The men don’t believe them, although a couple of the men do go to the tomb to check things out for themselves.

There are two disciples who do not know what to make of all this. They start heading back to their ordinary lives in a small town called Emmaus. On the way, they talk through their broken dreams and shattered hopes together.

All of these people are a lot like us when we gather for worship. None of us has this ‘faith’ thing all figured out. When we show up here, some of us are perplexed; some are disbelieving and unconvinced; some of us are amazed at the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and we want to talk with others about it.

All of us have lives that are not perfect. Indeed, many of us have lives that are a mess— a mixture of broken relationships, shattered dreams, and glimpses of glory and beauty and mystery. We bring all of that with us into worship.

In Luke’s church, you don’t check the mess at the door. You don’t have to pretend that you are doing better than you are. You bring it all with you. Somewhere along the Way, Jesus join us in the midst of the mess.

The chances are that we will not recognize that he is with us, at least not at first. The two disciples certainly did not. They thought he was just a stranger, walking the same road they were. Then, he invites them to tell the truth about their lives. In telling him the truth, they tell him about Jesus. Listen to their prayer of confession:

They say, “When Jesus was around, God was near.”

They say, “Our own leaders let us down. They handed him over to be killed.”

They say, “Now there are stories that he is alive. We are heartbroken. We are confused. We are wondering.”

Jesus takes their stories — all the broken pieces, the hurts, the losses, the hopes, the questions and assures them that God’s mercy and grace is already at work in their lives. He sets those pieces into God’s story, the story of God healing this broken world with self-giving love and amazing grace. As he does that, the disciples find their place in that great story.

That’s what we do every Sunday. We take this book of ancient stories. We set ourselves under them. We wrestle with them. We listen for a word from God in them. For a few minutes every Sunday we live in the strange new world that the Bible tells. We practice living in the country of God’s grace.

As you set yourself under these stories often enough, the stories begin to shape how you live in the world of your ordinary, every-day life. For instance, you are faced with an impossible situation and everybody else says, “We are a dead end. There is nothing to be done but to give up.” You begin to look for signs that God is at work with resurrecting power. You begin to look for the risen Christ to make a way where there is no way.

Or, you meet a stranger and the world says to you, “You better be on your guard. Perhaps she is dangerous. Perhaps he will hurt you.” However, you enter into relationship with him or her and you wonder, “Is she an angel in disguise? Is he a messenger from God with surprising news that will bless my life in unexpected ways?”

You may be struggling to find your way forward and you go for a walk by the lake. When you see the water you remember, “I am a baptized person. I have been claimed as a beloved child of the One who went to hell and back so that I may know that nothing in life or death, in sickness or in health, nothing in all creation can ever come between me and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

These stories tell us where to find hope. They tell us where to find courage. They tell us where to find strength for the day. One of the great blessings of being part of the Church is helping people wrestle with these stories. It is a gift to help them get these stories into their hearts and minds, so that they see the world from inside the Story of God’s action in the world.

You need the stories we tell here so that you can face all that life will bring you. When the bully in the workplace tries to intimidate you, you will face the situation differently when you know the story of David and Goliath; when you know that David found courage to face Goliath because trusted that God was with him. God had been preparing him for this moment and had given him the gifts and skills he needed through long, lonely nights of watching sheep and protecting them from lions. God is with you too, giving you what you need to face the giants that threaten you.

Or, when you are asked to do something that compromises what you know to be good and true and right, you face the situation differently when you have wrestled with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. You remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, figuring out how to live faithfully even while they worked in the Babylonian civil service. Have that story in your heart and you find the courage to live authentically, faithfully even in very ambiguous situations.

You need to know the twenty-third Psalm deep in your bones so that when life takes you through deep valleys, you cling to the promise, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.” You hold on knowing that the Good Shepherd will leave 99 sheep in the sheepfold in order to go looking for the one that is lost and won’t give up until the lost is found. That story becomes the rock where you find refuge and hope and a reason to keep living.

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by some story. Our story is the story of a living God who loves us with death-defying love. Our story is the story of a crucified and risen Saviour who takes and blesses and gives the broken pieces of our lives so that we become instruments of God’s grace and love and hope and peace. Our story is the story of the Holy Spirit who adopts us into a community of faith and then sends us into the world to tell the story of God’s healing, reconciling, redeeming work in ordinary lives.

Easter is formed among the people who worship this God. The risen Christ shows up and gives you hope and purpose and courage. Praise be to the One who meets us on the Way and leads us to new and joy.

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A number of years ago, I was a student minister on a pastoral charge in the Eastern Townships. I was invited for a visit with one of the families who came to their cottage in that area every summer. At one point, the children and I had wandered outside. We noticed a number of mushrooms and circles around the mushrooms on the ground around their stems. I explained to the children that the rings were fairy rings. The children looked a little sceptical so I went on to say, “We seldom see fairies because they are so shy. At night, though, when nobody is around, they come out and dance around the mushrooms. They dance so long that they wear the grass down in a circle around the stems. In the morning, you don’t see the fairies but you see the rings. That’s how you know that these are very special toadstools and this is a very special place.”

The father of the children had come up to where we were and listened for a while. Then, he said, “We have told our children that there are no such things as fairies. We believe you shouldn’t teach children things that they will have to unlearn when they get older because those things were not true in the first place.”

As he talked, all the little fairies — who had just begun peeking their heads out from their hiding places — vanished in a second. We were left with quite ordinary mushrooms with rings around their stems for which I am sure there is a quite rational, scientific explanation.

Ever since then I have felt sorry for those children. I have often wondered about them. With their world rendered so flat and one-dimensional at such an early age, how would they ever learn to hear the songs of angels?

We have two mental operations that are meant to work in tandem: Explanation and Imagination.(Thanks to Eugene Peterson, in Subversive Spirituality, for these ideas.) Explanation pins things down so we can control them and use them. Imagination opens things up. Imagination makes connections between the visible and the invisible world. It helps us touch mystery. If you sever one from the other, you end up with a distorted view of reality. Human life and hope suffer.

Over the past hundred or so years, the balance tipped toward explanation. In the Western world, we were enthralled by what we could know and use and control. We were captivated by technology — the capacity to explain and manipulate increasing portions of the universe.

Few people noticed that a casualty of our rush to explain everything was imagination, and with it, our sense of awe and wonder at what we do not know and what is beyond knowing and saying.

I remember reading somewhere about a father who took his eleven year old son out into the backyard to look at the stars — to wonder at the immensity of the universe, at the beauty of the canopy that was spread out overhead. This was in the early years of space travel and communications satellites. The young boy looked up at the stars and only said, “So, which ones did we put up there?”

A theologian once asked some Amish friends, “Why don’t you have televisions?” She had assumed that they would say that they shunned all modern inventions. Their response surprised her. They said, “We used to have televisions. Then we noticed that our children were not singing songs anymore. They were not dancing and playing games. They were just sitting watching other people. So, we got rid of the televisions. Now, our children sing and dance and play again.”

The evidence is mounting that children who spend their days passively watching television end up with crippled imaginations. They have diminished capacity to envision something different from what is before their eyes. So much of the reality they see on television is violent and corrupt and ugly. Because their capacity to imagine a different scenario gets impaired, they believe society cannot change. The trouble is so big. The world is so out of control that nothing they can do will make a difference. They lose hope. They give up, turn inward, and focus on just taking care of themselves. They look for their own comfort or they act out in rage.

Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth tries to get our imaginations going again. That is not to say that what he tells us is just make-believe or made-up fantasies. Luke is saying, “Touch the mystery of God’s coming to earth in a baby born in Bethlehem.” There is something more going on here than what our five sense can account for. There is something happening in the world that cannot be fully explained.

We know he’s trying to touch they mystery because there are so many angels in the story. An angel comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth and tells them that they are going to have a baby — a baby that all the reason in the world says is impossible.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her she’s going to have a baby. Again, it is a pregnancy that defies rational explanation.

An angel tells Joseph that it is all right to take Mary as his wife. What is going on in her life and in his cannot be accounted for by everything he knows but he can trust it anyway because it is a holy work of God.

Angels — a whole host of angels, angel armies — announce to shepherds that God’s Messiah, God’s Saviour of the world, has been born in a little village outside Jerusalem.

All of this is unbelievable. It is unexpected. Yet, it is so true that two thousand years later we still tell the story and sing praises to the One that the shepherds and worshipped that night.

There are angels everywhere in Luke’s story. They are a healing balm for our imaginations. They open us to the possibility that, just beyond what we see and know, God is at work saving the world.

Did you notice that , in the middle of his talk of angles, Luke insert Governor Quirinius and Caesar Augustus and an explanation about Joseph and Mary heading to Bethlehem because of a royal decree and a census of the Jews? These are the folk who are trying to keep everything nailed dow. They keep adding up all the numbers, hoping that that will keep people in all their proper places. They have some power, to be sure. They saw a word and pregnant women have to travel across the country. But, says Luke, do not be so impressed by them. Luke spends 132 verse telling the story of Christ’s birth. Caesar and Quirinius together — history makers that they are supposed to be — get two verses. And, they don’t get any visits from the angels.

An old couple, a young girl, a worried man and a bunch of no-account shepherds get angel visits and songs and stories. The men who are running countries and empires get two verses and no angels. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Herod was dead in the ground. Quirinius was gone. caesar’s glorious Roman Empire was beginning to crumble and fall. It is the followers of that little baby born in Bethlehem that are making the empire’s foundations shake.

Feed your imagination with Luke’s stories. Learn that you cannot tell what is really going on merely by reading the news. God is at work in unexpected places among the most unlikely of people, bringing new possibilities for which we had not planned. Because God is at work, hope stays alive. Corrupt systems will not last forever. The wicked will not always prevail.

Because God is at work, no situation is irredeemably hopeless. A light shines, even in our darkest nights. There is a force loose in the world that is greater than we are. That force gives hope that is stronger than our despair. It brings peace that is stronger than our conflicts. It gives joy that is stronger than the sadness. There is love that is stronger than all the forces of hate.

On that first Christmas night, we learned that that force is not an impersonal power. That force has a name: Jesus, God saves. Emmanuel, God with us. We know the name because the angels told the shepherds and they were not ashamed to speak of things they could not explain.

Make room for imagination in your life and in the lives of the children you encounter. Help them see that a vast, amazing reality hovers just beyond their sight. Show them a world brimming with glory so that they fall to their knees in wonder and in awe. Encourage them to stay open to the unexpected. Tell them the stories of God’s intrusion into our world. Give them eyes to see and ears to hear the angel’s songs. Tell them, “Unto you is born this night in the City of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This is good news which shall be for all people. Though many do not see it now, one day, all creation will cry, “Glory!”

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In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

First Conviction:     The Church is first and foremost God’s creation and God’s gift. The Church does not belong to us. We do not create the Church. The Church is a gift of God’s grace into which we enter and in which we participate.

When congregations are struggling to survive and when all their attempts to ‘fix’ what is wrong with them do not produce the expected results, it is liberating to remember that the Church is God’s idea before it is ours. In response to God’s grace, we may offer what we are and what we have for the Church’s life and work but, ultimately, the Church’s life and future are in God’s hands. Many years ago, in another time of crisis in the Church, the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote, “We are not the church’s guardians . . . if it were up to us the church would perish before our eyes, and we together with it. But it is another who obviously preserves both the church and us” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings).

Gordon Cosby was the founding minister of the Church of the Savior in Washington D. C. He was often asked, “What do you think the future of the church is?” He would answer, “I have never had a helpful answer to that question. Have no idea. I do not know what the judgments of God are or what will be the breakthroughs of God’s power. . .  I do not need the church to have a visible or successful future in order for me to feel safe as a person. I’m glad to leave it to God’s sovereignty. It is his church —not mine”  ( Elizabeth O’Connor, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures , p. 31).

The Church exists not because of what we do or don’t do. The Church exists because God has chosen to work in and through ordinary people who have been commandeered by the risen Christ and gifted by the Holy Spirit to participate in the Triune God’s work in the world. This conviction frees congregations from focusing on survival. Trusting in God’s care, they can get on with what they are called to be: witnesses in word and deed to the grace and love of the Triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that churches can engage people as people whom God loves and in whose lives the Holy Spirit is already at work. They are set free from treating them as ‘potential new church members’ who will help to fill the pews and balance the budget.

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) Part of the weariness in our churches is the result of people being uprooted from the source of their life and energy. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God; between knowing doctrine and knowing the One to whom the doctrine points; between talking about God and talking to God. “If Jesus is to be anything more than another name, another historical mythic figure for us; if he is to become in any sense “Christ,” “Saviour,” “Lord”; if his name and his story are to arouse in us anything life ‘faith’, then we shall have to encounter him and not merely some ideas about him” (Douglas John Hall, “We Would See Jesus”, The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

In a seminar on preaching, a participant was asked, “Do you know ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’?” He replied, “Yes, I know the psalm. I also know the Shepherd.”

In The Contemplative PastorEugene Peterson writes about three types of language: “Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship . . . Language II is the language of information . . . Language III is the language of motivation. . .  Languages II and III are clearly the ascendant languages in our culture . . . Meanwhile Language I, the language of intimacy, the language that develops relationships of trust and hope and understanding, languishes . . . Prayer is Language I. It is not language about God or the faith; it is not language in the service of God and the faith; it is language to and with God” (pp. 91ff).  Training for leaders will need to include a strong focus on resources and practices that help them attend to God, not just talk about God. It will need to guide them in developing their spiritual lives so that they have spirits that are adequate for receiving God’s truth and life. There is a rich and ancient tradition in the Church of spiritual leaders who were wise in the ways of prayer and in the disciplines of attending to God. Leaders will need to be introduced to these guides and immersed in their practices.
B)  The United Church has largely been focused on the horizontal dimension of Christian life — putting faith into action. Less attention has been paid to the vertical dimension: to who God is. In many congregations, the worship of God has played a secondary role to the action of the participants: “God has no hands but our hands”. If the Church is first and foremost about what God does, then the worship of God is at centre of congregational life. Worship services are the primary corporate events where the community attends to the Triune God who is the source of its life and its destiny. The Holy Spirit gathers the church together to encounter God in the community of Christ’s people and sends the church out to encounter God in the world that God loves. Training for worship leadership will need to attend to the basics of what makes for vital and authentic worship of the Triune God. Worship will need to be something more than ‘what people endure in order to get to the coffee hour’. Worship will need to provide people a way to enter more deeply into the mystery of God and of God’s grace and love.

C) Worship of the triune God at centre of a congregation’s life puts control into God’s hands. This is uncomfortable for churches that are shaped by Modernism with its focus on control and management. Faith in the triune God involves deep trust in the midst of ambiguity. Peterson describes it this way: “All is gift. Grace is everywhere. God in Christ is actively doing for and in us everything involved in the practice of resurrection So what is there left for us to do? Receive. That is our primary response if we are to find ourselves no longer lost in the cosmos but at home in it. For the most part, receptivity is a learned response. Receive the gift” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing up in Christ , p. 68).
Living by the grace of God involves a radical shift of imagination. Vital, robust worship immerses people in Christ’s “grace-sovereign country” (Romans 6:5, The Message) where they are formed to trust in God. Leadership development will focus on curating worship services where people practice receiving the grace of God as well as responding to that grace with lives of suffering love and service.

 

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the worship life of congregations as they find their way into God’s mission.

1) Liturgia (Worship)

The nature of worship is changing. The Protestant Reformation gave us a liturgy whose main focus was the preaching of the Word. The sacraments were celebrated only occasionally. The Reformers stressed the need for an educated clergy as a response to the intellectual laxity of many medieval priests. “Protestant clergy were expected to be well schooled in the scriptures, in order to be servants of the Word(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 1). Now many churches are recovering a balance between the preaching/hearing of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Some Protestant churches are celebrating communion weekly and discovering a deepening and strengthening of faith in doing so. Christ gave the sacraments to the church as the way the Body of Christ is fed and nurtured in the grace and presence of God. Strengthening communities of faith will need to include finding faithful ways in which the sacraments can be received on a regular basis. In the United Church, sacraments elders are becoming more numerous, especially in situations where congregations are without Order of Ministry personnel for extended periods of time.

There is also, in many places, a turn away from liturgies that are heavily weighted toward the verbal. Leonard Sweet’s description of EPIC worship: experiential, participatory, image rich, and connected, is shaping worship services that engage the imagination through story-telling, drama, and the arts. Some churches are recovering the notion of the liturgy as “the work of the people”, not just of the performers at the front (choir and clergy). They are creating worship services that engage the whole person and the whole community. Crafting EPIC worship services requires different skills than our typical highly verbal worship. It is not done best as a solo effort. Leaders in worship will need to be trained for collaborative efforts that elicit the gifts of all the people of God.

Another emerging trend is the recognition that it is not enough that worship be entertaining and relevant. There is a “turn toward the formative”, challenging the worshiping community to grow in grace and to mature spiritually. Marva Dawn has named three fundamental criteria for what happens in worship:
*praising God and immersing worshipers “in the fullness of God’s splendour”,
*forming disciples who follow Jesus and “are committed to God’s purposes of peace, justice, and salvation in the world”, and
*building the community as the Body of Christ, “linked to all God’s people throughout time and space” (A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and being Church for the World , p. 343).

Shaping such worship services will challenge the consumer mentality that shapes much of North American congregational life and worship. Worship leaders need to be deeply immersed in the biblical story in order to acquire the countercultural lenses that reveal how our communities are caught by consumerism and narcissism.

Modernity privileged the rational over other ways of knowing and being. Post-modernity has recognized that there is a transcendental dimension that brings depth and richness to life. There is a turn toward worship services that help people attend to the holy in their midst.

There is also a recognition that the church gathered for worship is also the church sent out into the world. Congregations are looking for ways to make the link between the two phases of the community’s life stronger. People are being asked to speak in worship about their ministries in their lives the rest of the week. New attention is being given to the ‘sending’ portion of the liturgy.

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A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 3. The prayer of confession referred to in the sermon was from The Book of Uncommon Prayer by Steven L. Case. Its congregational response was “We’re on your schedule, not ours.” It was on page 10 of Responsive Prayers.

Scriptures: Genesis 1

What are the calendars that shape your life? For instance, when you say, “Today is August 4th, 2015”, you are using the Gregorian calendar to name the time that you are in. In the Gregorian calendar, the year begins on January 1st and ends on December 31st. It is the way most people in the Western world identify what day it is. It is also a fairly recent way of marking time. The Gregorian calendar is only about 400 years old.

If your family has young children in it, the Gregorian calendar does not really tell you very much about the way you live your life. The year doesn’t really begin on January 1st. It begins on the first Tuesday after Labour Day. “Time” is shaped by the school year and its related events and holidays. It winds up at the end of June. Then, there are two months of freedom, boredom, and family vacations.

Talk with people who work in financial services. They will tell you that the ‘end of the year’ does not happen in December. It happens in March or April or whenever a company’s financial year ends. Farmers live by time that is shaped by seed-time and harvest.

Although we don’t often think about it, the way we mark time matters. It structures our lives. It shapes what we celebrate. It shapes when we are busy and when we rest. It gives meaning to our lives.

The Church marks time by the events in Jesus’ life. The Church’s “New Year” begins in Advent and then moves through the events of Jesus’ life to Good Friday and Easter. Pentecost opens into the longest season: “Ordinary Time”. Year after year, the Church marks those events through which God has called us to be a community that lives in the world the way Jesus lived. Living out of that rhythm is not easy or natural. It takes practice and training for us to get the patterns of Jesus’ living deep into our bodies and minds and spirits.

In this morning’s Prayer of Confession we acknowledged that our culture shapes us into people who are often very busy and who often feel rushed. We live with a 24/7 calendar, always ‘on’, and yet, often feeling that there is not enough time to get everything done that needs to be done. “Time” is a scarce commodity. You have to cram as much into it as you possibly can. Being busy has become a status symbol for ‘successful’ people.

I heard many years ago the story of a man who was always busy, always rushing to appointments and meetings. Someone (his minister?) asked him, “Why are you always in a hurry? Whenever I see you, you are on the run. Where are you running to?” The man replied, “You have to hustle if you want to get somewhere in life. I am running towards the good life, towards success, towards a life that matters.” The minister asked, “What if those things are not up ahead of you? What if they are in the present, waiting for you to recognize them and receive them? What if all your hurrying is simply taking you further away from them?”

The Bible begins with a story of creation The first story in our sacred scriptures is a story about the creation of time. It talks about God creating the heavens and the earth, but mostly it is about God creating the gift of time. “There was evening; there was morning — the first day. There was evening; there was morning — the second day . . .” For six days, God creates in a steady rhythm. Time is not rushed. Hosting that story, we get pulled into a world that is shaped by an orderly pattern. Our life in this world is not just a series of random happenings Everything is connected together. It all holds together by the steady beat of God’s words:

“Let there be light and there is light and God says, ‘There is the good.’”

“Let there be sky and there is sky and God says, ‘There is the good.’”

The rhythm, the repetitive pattern draws us in and makes us participants in God’s creative work.

Every summer in a church that I served, the gymnasium in the church building was filled every morning with children who were participating in drama and dance programme. Over the summer, they would be learning dance routines and singing songs to go with those dances. By the end of the summer, they put on a show, sharing with their parents and friends and the public the routines that they had been practising for several weeks.

Some of the children and young people have been part of the programme for a number of years. They do not know the dances and songs that they will be learning but they know the basic moves and the patterns. There are some children, however, for whom this is all brand new. At this stage, you can tell who they are just by watching.

On Monday, some of the older teens are up on the stage, demonstrating the steps of one of the routines. They were showing the rest of the group what they should be doing with arms and legs and heads and the rest of their bodies. The rest of the children were lined up on the gymnasium floor, imitating them. At first, many of them were making only small steps — hesitant, tentative. As the days go by, you can watch them gradually gain confidence. They begin stepping more firmly. They move their arms with more confidence. Smiles begin to show on their faces. There is more freedom in their movements. The energy in the room picks up. You see them getting in on the dance, becoming part of something that is larger than any one of them could do individually. It will become something that is not only fun but also probably even spectacular by the end of the summer.

That is what is happening in Genesis 1. This is not a story that answers the question, “How did the universe begin? How did the world get started?” The Bible is really not very interested in those kinds of questions. The story is interested in inviting us to live in a time that is full of God’s creativity. It is trying to get us to join in the dance of creation that God is dancing now — in our time, in this place, in our lives. It is showing us the steps: God said . . . and there was. God saw . . . and it was good.  God named . . . God gave, God blessed.

We are like those new children at the drama and dance programme. Living into God’s rhythms can feel new and strange. We are not very sure of ourselves when we are just learning the steps that get us in on God’s creative work.

Being God’s people in this time is different in so many ways from what came before. Genesis 1 begins by saying that the earth was “formless and void” (KJV). It was a “soup of nothingness, bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness” (The Message).  Genesis 1 is a poem for people who live in a troubled times. It is a poem for when things are bad and getting worse. When terrorists blow up innocent people. When the economy hovers in uncertainty. When the environment is under extreme stress and fragile ecosystems are deeply at risk and, whatever we do, it does not seem to be enough. Whatever we try does not make any fundamental difference. It is difficult to discern any hope for the future. That is the “formless void”, the “soup of nothingness”, the “bottomless emptiness” over which the Spirit of God broods like a bird above a watery abyss.

In such a time, it would be easy to give in to the pervasive despair that permeates our culture and our churches. It would be easy to close ranks and just take care of ourselves and just hold on as we try to survive. We could just be part of the despair.

Genesis 1 offers an alternative. God’s Spirit is hovering over the chaos. God is speaking a Word that is bringing a new creation out of a damaged world in a damaged time. God’s people get to participate in that creative, live-giving work. We begin on the seventh day of creation. The seventh day is a day of stopping all our busyness, all our attempts to save the world. We stop and enter into worship which, at its best, is wonder and adoration and awe. We take the focus off ourselves and become aware again of God. We attend to what God is doing and saying. We learn again the steps of God’s surprising, unexpected future-making work.

It is not easy. Worship does not come naturally to us. It does not seem as if we are accomplishing much. These days, especially, we feel unsure of ourselves — inadequate — because God is working in new ways in the world and in the church. Worship, adoration, praise point us towards the future. Worship shows us where hope is found.

Genesis 1 is not an answer to our question, “How did the world begin?” Genesis 1 is God’s question to us: Will you join the dance? Will you be part of the new creation? Will you join in the new beginning, the resurrection, that is happening all around you?

“Let there be” . . . let there be beauty that witnesses to the creativity of our God in this place.

Let every child who enters this building experience their time here as a time when imagination is nurtured and creative potential encouraged and artistic gifts are celebrated. Let the walls of this building be filled with beautiful art; let the pages of Wheels (the newsletter) be filled with profound poetry and thought-provoking writing. Let this congregation be a place where there is music and where musicians of all sorts find their gifts celebrated and their souls nurtured and their spirits stretched toward new horizons.

Let this congregation be known as a place where new ideas are not only welcomed but also freely considered and discussed. Let us be a people who are convinced that God is doing a new thing in our time. Let this community be a place of life-giving possibilities, a witness to God’s amazing alternative to despair. Let our joy be filled to overflowing as we discern what that is and get in on it.

Let all that we do and all that we say and all that we encourage and hope for be a sign and a witness and a foretaste of the glory of God. May we be an invitation to all creation to rest in the the season of God’s grace and love.

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The Turn Toward the Formative in Contemporary Worship (5)

This is the fifth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

One of the topics for the day focused on the “Frames” we use in crafting worship services. Leaders frame worship through the words and actions they use to “focus the attention, stimulate the imagination, shape the perceptions, or form the interactions of worshipers” (John Witvliet in the Introduction to Frames, Deborah Knapp, p. ix). The frames are often made explicit in simple, beautiful ways of expressing why the congregation is doing what it is doing.

In his writings, Robert Webber has suggested framing worship as a ‘dinner party’: you being by greeting all who have been invited, you move into the conversations whereby you catch up with what has been happening with each other, you serve a meal, you depart into the world. Worship moves through  the Acts of Entrance, the Service of the Word, the Service of Thanksgiving, the Dismissal. (Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship)

Johnathan Dobson, Lead Pastor at City Life Church in Austin Texas, frames worship as an alternative to the secular liturgies that seek to form us all week long. “These messages, rhythms, and values create a certain kind of heart posture and longing that drives us away from Christ — individualism, materialism, experientialism, consumerism” (from the handout at the seminar).The gospel’s liturgy focuses us on God instead of self and on the church community instead of the individual. Dodson also notes that their worship attends to the church scattered out in the world. The frame, then, of their worship is: God, Gospel, Community, Mission.

One presenter talked about the basic pattern of Christian living that Jesus gave in the meals he shared: we are a people who are taken up into God’s adventure, blessed, broken, and given to the world. Another described the shape of the journey as ‘singing our way into God’s preferred future” where all God’s children are welcomed home. The introduction to the eucharist could be given as, “This table will one day be a great feast where all people come from north and south and east and west”.

Aaron Niequist mentioned that in Willow Creek’s experimental service, “The Practice”, they do not use a projection system. They hand out paper bulletins. They explain (frame) it this way: We offer you a ‘tactile, analogue experience’ so that you are holding something real.

A way to frame worship intentionally is to ask in the planning process, “What journey are we going on together this morning?” That journey is shaped by the scriptures for the day. The songs and rest of the worship service help move the worshipping congregation through that journey.

I have introduced the Passing of the Peace by reminding people that there are very places in our lives where we are aware of Christ’s peace being offered to us. Then, I would say, “As you pass the peace of Christ to one another, be aware that some people’s lives are so filled with struggle and anxiety that this may be the only peace that they receive all week. What you are going to do is holy work.”

It would be helpful, perhaps revealing, for your worship planners to look at the pattern of your worship services and ask the question, “What is the shape of the journey that happens in worship in our church?”  In what ways could that journey be made more explicit so that your worship is a richer and fuller experience?

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