Sunday, 4 November 2012

Thanks Indeed

Seminary J-Terms (3-week courses in January, June or July) are always intense, but the one I took in July 1987 was especially memorable. Besides 3 hours of class daily, professor Don Hustad required us to visit 4 churches, read 4 books, make a class presentation, write 8 papers and complete a take-home final. Whew.

Unexpectedly, during the 3rd week--when all assignments were due--the electricity went off for 4 days in Seminary Village where I lived. No lights. No alarm clock. No computer. No air conditioning. No hot water. No hair dryer…

I freaked.

Thankfully, the good folks at the church where I served as Associate Minister of Music had a soft spot in their hearts for poor, struggling seminary students. They graciously took me under their wing and helped me survive the week, offering an abundance of assistance and sympathy for my loud complaints of extreme hardship.

When the ordeal was finally over, I had a 3-week pile of dirty laundry to wash. As I sat drying towels in a nearby laundromat, I was startled by a harsh, loud voice.

Looking up, I saw two pitiful old ladies struggling to do their laundry. My eyes were riveted on their neediness.

Both were shabbily dressed with sweaty, unkempt hair. The younger one wore a tattered housedress and had bright, pasty rouge spackled on her cheeks. A dazed, vacant look on her shiny face, she took quick, tiny steps as she hobbled about, dragging her laundry bag to an empty washer.

The other--the one barking orders--was literally horizontal from her hips to her shoulders. She couldn't even straighten up enough to see if the washer lid was open.

If I were in her condition, I'm sure I would bark, too.

Obviously, just doing laundry was a major struggle for them. They seemed to cling to each other for survival.

The manager was busily making change, giving them his full attention. He seemed to have everything covered efficiently; they'd obviously been his customers before.

I continued flipping through my magazine, keeping an eye out for an opportunity to assist without intruding. Or getting barked at.

Finally, they got their machines started and sat down to wait. The manager took a couple of drags on a cigarette, then came over to talk to me.

Venting sarcastically, he spoke of "the good church people who always drop these old ladies off in the middle of the parking lot, then drive off to go tell everyone at their church what a good deed they've done for the week."

Sympathizing, I commented that instead of people going the second mile, some only go half a mile.

Easy for me to say. He was feeling dumped on, and the driver had at least provided transportation. I, on the other hand, hadn't done anything to help.

However, I was feeling really ashamed for complaining earlier about my so-called "extreme hardship."

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of how grateful I am for the many good church people who so often have gone way beyond the second mile to see that I am comfortable and well cared for.

And I am humbled and challenged as I remember how often I've been more like the good church people who have really good intentions, but ultimately go only a half-mile or less when it comes to taking care of others' needs--especially the downtrodden who have no resources to return the favor.

As Christians we strive to live humble lives of gratitude. God is pleased when we verbally offer heartfelt thanks for our many blessings. But there is more to being thankful. We are not done.

Our words of sincere thanks and praise to God are only the half-mile mark of what God desires from us. Our expressions of gratitude are not complete until we have also offered God tangible sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.

What kinds of sacrifices? Generosity. Tithes and offerings. Good works. Going the second mile for those who are needy.

"Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God" (Hebrews 13: 16).

"For we are…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Ephesians 2: 10).

May God help us to remember that the depth of our gratitude is always revealed more by our actions than by our words alone.

"Because love has been lavished so upon me, Lord,
A wealth I know that was not meant for me to hoard,
I shall give love to those in need,
Shall show that love by word and deed:
Thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed."*

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

*"Because I Have Been Given Much," Grace Noll Crowell/Phillip Landgrave, Celebrating Grace Hymnal

Monday, 3 September 2012

Soul Work

Soul music. Then sings my soul. Soul searching. I've anchored my soul in the haven of rest. Put some soul into your singing. Deep in my soul. Soul Train. [Wow, I've dated myself with that one!]

We hear the word soul a lot in our society, but its usage has shifted somewhat. Nowadays, when someone says, "He's such a lost soul," we assume the comment refers to someone who acts confused and lonely, having no sense of purpose in life.

Years ago, we might have thought the comment referred to someone who needed to be evangelized. Back then, gospel song writers penned lyrics such as "Lead me to some soul today." Today we rarely hear of a person referred to as a "soul."

No matter how it's used, the word soul is hard to define. Describing it as "our personality" helps children understand, but that's about as inadequate as using a red paper cutout to illustrate "love" or "heart."

Psychologists often use the word soul to mean "The Self," referring to the core of our being, or our unvarnished inner life.

Jungian analyst James Hollis has a recurring theme in his acclaimed books (The Middle Passage, Creating a Life, Swamplands of the Soul): Our lives have meaning and fulfillment only to the extent that we live consciously, i.e., not on autopilot, buffeted by reactionary behavior because of unexamined assumptions about the world around us.

Living consciously is the only reward of a never-ending process of self-examination ("soul work"), which requires honesty, love and courage.

One would think that such an effortful process of self-discovery would at least result in our finding answers to our problems or getting relief from our suffering. However, consciousness (intentionality, meaning) is a greater reward, and is exactly what our souls long for.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says that "Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. …Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be . . . different for our having passed through it."

If consciousness deepens our human relationships and self-understanding, how much more satisfying is our divine-human relationship when worship is experienced consciously. The Psalmist refers to our souls "thirsting" for God. Jesus said to "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind" (Matt. 22).

Simply going-through-the-motions on Sundays is not really worship at all. It is merely pseudo-worship, and its insincerity is disappointing to God. 

Authentic worship requires our being intentional. Being focused on God. Being "soul-full." 

Worship leaders may try to create space in which God can act, planning worship services that help people connect with God. But even the most user-friendly worship format will fall flat for individual congregants unless they are attentive to God's desires rather than to human likes and dislikes or distractions.

Function in worship is more important than form. There is no such thing as effortless worship. The word liturgy literally means "work of the people."

So, what is the glorious reward for all our conscious effort at focusing on God during worship?

Transformation. A closer, deeper relationship with God. An awareness in our souls that God is both with us and for us. Which is what we are ultimately seeking when we enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings...right?

See you in worship this Sunday! ~ Naomi

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Love God, Love Neighbor

The worship at our church is indescribable—i.e., there is no one description that characterizes our "style" from week to week.

Ours is a congregation with diverse backgrounds, talents and church experiences. Our corporate worship will forever be unique due to the makeup of our congregation. As members come and go, so will our worship services continue to evolve.

To say the least, the members of our church have never been shy about expressing diverse opinions about what should or should not be included in our worship services!

Labels like "contemporary" or "traditional" sometimes get tossed about (as if these were the only choices), but everyone defines these terms differently.

Through the years, when we've occasionally tried multiple Sunday morning services, we intentionally tried to make the services different from each other.  Generally, the earlier service had a more informal structure; the latter a more formal structure. We advertised them as "differently blended."

A few years ago I attended a music and worship conference. One speaker commented (sic):

"Blended worship makes everybody mad, because nobody gets enough of what they like in worship, and everybody hates getting so much of what they don't like."

Whatever a church's unique worship style, choices must be made each week regarding what to include in worship services. That responsibility usually falls on worship leaders such as myself.

While listening to the heartbeat of our diverse congregation, I am also mindful of William Willimon's admonition (in Worship as Pastoral Care):

"If we think about our worship at all, usually we think in terms of ''What do I want from our worship?' or 'What do my people want from our worship?' without daring to be so bold as to ask, 'What does God want from our worship?'"

Worship is more likely to happen when both leaders and individual worshippers work at keeping our focus on God, rather than on our personal likes and dislikes.

It is a misconception to think that our church's worship is always "the way our worship leaders like it to be." I, along with others, sacrifice many of my personal preferences for worship services all the time.

In fact, it is difficult to recall any worship service when every element was tailor-made to my desires. My delight is in trying to create services that enable other people to worship. The idea is to have mutual sacrifice.

As a young adult I was inspired by a Joni Eareckson Tada story about what she did whenever she found herself distracted or bored during part of a worship service, unable to focus on God.

Her practice was to observe people, especially strangers, one-at-a-time in the congregation, praying specifically that God would bless them as they worshiped.

I've often done this in churches where I was the worship leader, as well as in other churches where I was a visitor. My reward is always an uplifting feeling of heart connection with each person and with God—which in turn enables my worship during each service.

Jesus, when responding to a question about what is the greatest commandment, also touched on the two factors which are required for meaningful corporate worship:

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." ...And the second is like unto it, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself'" (Matt. 22: 37 & 39).

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi