Building A Bridge

Last Wednesday, Union Presbyterian Seminary hosted author Diana Butler Bass for a discussion about her latest book “Grounded.” In this book, Bass discusses the transition from a top-down theology (as she describes it, a three-level universe made up of heaven, earth,  and hell) to a more horizontal theology where we are searching for and asking how God is actually WITH us. To be honest, I had not yet read her book but enjoyed sitting back in our backyard on Thursday to begin.

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I don’t know if it is my love of quotes or the fact that I am spending a great deal of time contemplating how to minister to individuals on both ends of this transition that Bass writes about, but when I began perusing the bulletin at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church (led by Rev. Troy Lesher-Thomas, M. Div. ’99) this past Sunday, I couldn’t help but take notice of the quotes in the left hand column.

These three inspirational quotes got my mind going in those moments before the celebratory introit.  The quotes are not based in scripture, but they can (and did in this case) urge the reader to consider not just what it means in their own life, but how God can be and is experienced in life.

10341496_10101171675465021_4108394520385354890_nQuotes are only found on the first page of the bulletin which contains the Welcome, Call to Worship, and Prayer of Confession.  With this opportune placement, the quotes serve to create a bridge between life outside of the sanctuary and this Holy space and hour of worship. These quotes in the margin can welcome individuals who might feel as if they too are in the margin, offering a new window into how worship can look.

In the moments before worship on Sunday, when I could have easily been freaking out about my first ever Palm Sunday sermon, I was able to relax and begin to let my worries go as I read the quote

“You are the creature of circumstance or the creator.” (Cavett Robert)

 “That’s right!” I thought, and with that I realized that I could create a meaningful worship circumstance by handing everything over to God. I can only imagine how that quote sat with others in the sanctuary as we prepared for worship, or even as they looked over the bulletin on Monday morning before it found its way to the recycling bin.

I do agree with Diana Butler Bass– we are in a period of transition in the way that we approach theology. There is a great desire to know that God is WITH us and not just somewhere looking down on us. There is a great desire to connect the worship hour with real life; to be challenged by worship, but also feel that it is relevant to our lives. Simple things like including a few quotes that might help someone take a moment to reflect on their week and move into the worship mindset can (and I would argue DOES) help us minister to individuals in all phases of this transition.

How do you see this transition in theology playing out in your worship setting?
How do you minister to individuals in the different phases of this transition?

Share your thoughts here!

 


Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

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Anointing Christ

**On occasion, we like to share the sermons that our Church Relations Officers share with congregations they visit. We hope that you will enjoy this reflection from this past Sunday as we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week.**

16Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Isaiah 43:16-21

12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

John 12: 1-11


We are quickly approaching the end of Lent– a season during which we take time to refocus our lives and seek ways to live out God’s call for us as individuals and as the Church. Some of us might still be struggling as we discern where God’s call will take us while others are pulling the final pieces together, preparing for the Easter journey. This morning though, three-quarters of the way through our Lenten journey, God reminds us that it isn’t our job to make the way — God has already created it for us.

20160311_100307I love the language of the text from Isaiah, especially during this time of year. I have enjoyed checking on the progress of my vegetable seedlings that I planted during the first week of Lent, some are even ready to be transplanted into their larger pots where they will begin to flourish, I hope, and produce food that will feed us through the summer. The bulbs that I planted several months ago, on All Saints Day, have begun blooming one by one and offer their own burst of color along our front steps. As I wrote this, I sat on our back patio enjoying the first truly warm day of the season with the smell of our citronella candle pushing away the memories of ice we broke off of the same table only weeks ago. This is the season for new things to “spring forth”, a season that reminds us that we are to live in the present and no longer dwell on the past.

These two texts, though, offer us an interesting dichotomy. The Old Testament offers us hope and excitement, urging us to jump from our beds when the sunlight begins pouring through our windows at an earlier hour and to stop and admire, and of course Instagram, pictures of the flowers that are pushing through the once hard and cold ground. The New Testament text turns our attention to the impending death of Christ.

In the midst of celebration that Lazarus has been raised from the dead, Mary drops to her knees at the feet of Christ. Mary, one of the first to really grasp what is coming down the road, takes the richest of perfumes and after pouring some on his feet she begins to wipe and massage Christ’s feet with her own hair. This act, anointing Christ’s body with these oils, is one that is typically reserved for after someone dies so that the aromas might cover the smell of the body. This personal and physical act clears the way for the final steps of Christ’s journey.

When Mary begins to anoint Christ’s feet, Judas is appalled. I, however, am left in awe.

DSCN4232Think about it— feet are probably the dirtiest part of our body. Most of our sweat exits our body through our feet.  Day after day, our feet sit enclosed in old and dirty shoes or, now that the weather is warming up, they are exposed to all kinds of dirt and germs as we walk barefoot or in sandals.

Mary, however, recognizes the incredible things that feet allow us to do— the incredible things that the feet of Christ have allowed him to do.

Christ’s feet have wandered through the desert, climbed mountains, crossed (and walked on) the waters, woven through towns, entered the homes of those who are ignored and forgotten and soon they will carry Christ up the mountain to his death. When the others still aren’t getting it, Mary does and so she kneels at those feet which have walked the pathways cleared by God, and anoints them not just with oil but with her own body.

As I picture Mary wrapping her hair around Christ’s feet, I remember the many old movies and books that I have seen in which the young girl or woman sits at the vanity and brushes her hair 100 times before she goes to bed. Or the TV commercials that play up the nourishing qualities of a shampoo or conditioner, as well as the reaction that individuals have to the healthy look of hair. Emphasis is put on length, thickness, and color of hair as actors and actresses walk the red carpet, as bachelorettes line up and wait to receive a rose, and even as exhausted mothers weave their way through the grocery store aisles. A person’s hair is what makes them beautiful. A person’s hair makes a statement about who they are. Mary made the statement that she puts Christ before everyone and anything else. Mary let go of the former things and began down the path that God cleared for her, helping to clear the way for Christ.

I wonder, if this story were written today, what would it look like?
If we were playing the role of Mary, what would we do?

That is the challenge; that is the road that has been cleared for us today.

More than bulbs and vegetables, more than bees and longer days– this final portion of the Lenten season ushers in opportunities for us to kneel with Mary at Christ’s feet, anointing Christ with our life.

Last week I had the opportunity to discuss the changing landscape of ministry with two different churches, one large and one small. In both instances the churches were seeking answers, seeking a new path of ministry that appropriately responds to the world today while staying true to their faith. It is in these Holy conversations that we find the opportunity to kneel at Christ’s feet and look with Christ down the path that God has cleared for us.

pathwayAs we begin to move from Lent into Easter, celebrating the resurrected Christ, our path might look similar to what it was before– maybe with an extra stop or two or maybe we have wandered through the overgrowth and found another path to take as we answer God’s call. This morning, no matter where we are in our journey, let us remember that God has already cleared a way for us.

As we make our way down God’s path, how will we anoint Christ’s life in such a way that it is as if we were wiping his feet with our own hair and the most precious of perfumes?

Smiling at our neighbor.

Praying with the brokenhearted.

Offering a bottle of water to the homeless person on the corner.

Working side by side with congregations in our community.

Welcoming the stranger at our table.

Walking with another, gaining new perspective through their feet and eyes.

Throwing a ball with the child who sits on the step alone.

Putting our phones down so that we can really come together around the table.

Welcoming differing opinions rather than taking them as an attack.

Seeking the positive in what is seen as the negative.

LOVING ONE ANOTHER AS CHRIST TAUGHT US, AS GOD LOVES US.

God did make a way for us in the wilderness so that we might move forward, and that way has been shown to us by Christ. As Christ nears the end of this part of his journey, he leaves with us the most important lesson of all and one that is exemplified by Mary in this particular text– love one another.

In all that Christ has done up to this point, he has preached and shown that we are called to love one another. In so many cases these lessons might have seemed unattainable– for the disciples, for the people on the mountainside, and for us. Mary, however, shows us what loving one another means. Mary shows us one of the most physical acts of love, apart from Christ’s death on the cross.

Mary takes her hair and anoints Christ’s feet– she shows ultimate love for Christ in all that he has done, and in all that he is about to do. Mary, having listened and heard what Christ has been saying, shows us what is needed to complete the journey. When so many listened but had yet to hear what Christ was saying, Mary gave her life to Christ who would soon die for her and everyone else. When so many stood around in wonder and confusion, Mary showed that she understood and took the first step with Christ toward his ultimate lesson, his ultimate sacrifice.

Tresemme might add body to our hair but opening and giving our lives to God, anointing Christ with our life, will not only change us, but it will change the world.

In this final portion of Lent, which flowers are springing up in your path so that you might bring them to the cross on Easter? What opportunities will you take advantage of so that you might anoint Christ with your life?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

Seeking Our Place Along the River

If I learned anything this past Sunday during my time with First Presbyterian Church in Wilson, NC it is that individuals are concerned about the Church and the changes that are taking place. In discussions leading up to my visit, Rev. Dr. Tom Watkins (D. Min. 2010) asked that in addition to talking about Union, I talk about what I have seen as I visit different churches through North Carolina and how ministry and the Church are changing. This special Sunday School class was billed as “The Church Today – A study of changes in church and culture.” I was told to expect 5-10 attendees, so needless to say I was surprised when we began bringing in extra chairs and filled the room with individuals who were in their 20s all the way to individuals in their 80s.

The church is changing and people are seeking answers.

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Throughout our discussion, several questions were asked and I did my best to answer. One question sat with me though- throughout worship, on my drive home, as I tried to fall asleep, and all day on Monday.

“What about churches that are multi-generational and relatively large compared to this new norm?  What do those churches do when their work in the community is no longer relevant, or needed? What do those churches do when the focus is being placed on these new churches and the small ones?  Basically, where is our place in all of this?”

I was stumped. In all honesty, I don’t know that I ever even thought about this before. I am very open that my passion in ministry is working with those new and small congregations, so is it possible that I also forgot the larger churches in the mix?

It is easy to think that congregations with multiple worship services, filled pews, active youth and young adult programs, and beautiful websites have it all figured out. When we can look around the corner to congregations that are closing their door for the final time, who wouldn’t think “they are fine” when seeing these larger congregations?

He was right though. These congregations are seeking answers as well and after several days of thinking about this, I hope that this answer (or really, stream of thoughts) reaches deeper than my initial answer in the moment–

 

I urge you to remember why the doors of our church first opened– to share God’s Light with those who would enter in, but also walk past.

I urge you to hold on to that Light, that hope even as the community changes around you. As the calendar pages fall away, the needs of the community shift. What was a successful outreach program five, ten, and twenty years ago may not work today– and that is ok. What brought in the “young people” as recently as last year may not work next week– that is ok as well.

In a changing world, God’s Word remains constant. In a changing world, God’s love and grace has and will always be needed. In a changing world, whether the community recognizes it or not, the church is the cornerstone for hope.

I urge all congregations to celebrate past ministries, but to really begin evaluating the new needs of the community in which you minister. Don’t assume that the ideas presented in a single session meeting are the only answers, but go into the community and have conversations, build relationships.

There might be a family right across the street that struggles to put food on the table each day, but they are ashamed to come ask for help.

There might be children who have no safe place to play or do homework after school, but they might flourish with a little bit of dedicated time on the church playground and around tables in the fellowship hall each week.

There might be another church who has a list of needs around them, but they can’t do it alone.

In a changing world, when it seems that all focus (within the Church) has been placed on new and small congregations, know that you are a reminder of what God has and continues to do in our world. Know that by simply being, you are ministering. Know that by opening your doors every Sunday, you are offering hope to those new and small churches.

 

418436_10100226580702501_333033236_nTwice last week I had conversations with mentors who marveled at the fact that in “doing nothing” at their congregations, they were making a difference; by simply being themselves, they were helping congregations heal from past hurt. To the larger churches who are seeking their place in this changing world, I urge you to continue to be present, offering a cornerstone of light and hope in this dark world through your worship and your relationships with those who both enter and walk past your doors.

Every rock and stick that sits in a riverbed, appearing to be nothing, changes the course of the water.

You are far more than any rock or stick, so imagine the changes you are making when it seems that life, that ministry, has come to a halt. New churches, small churches, and large churches– we are all playing our own role in this changing world even when we feel forgotten or irrelevant, and we are all shifting the waters in some way, whether we see it or not.


Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

Artistic Creations

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The Reformed heritage has called upon people to bring to worship material offerings which in their simplicity of form and function direct attention to what God has done and to the claim that God makes upon human life. The people of God have responded through creative expressions in architecture, furnishings, appointments, vestments, music, drama, language, and movement. 

When these artistic creations awaken us to God’s presence, they are appropriate for worship. When they call attention to themselves, or are present for their beauty as an end in itself, they are idolatrous. Artistic expressions should evoke, edify, enhance, and expand worshipers’ consciousness of the reality and grace of God.

PC(USA) Book of Order, W-1.3034 (2)


Take  a moment and envision a worship space– maybe the one where you worship each week, or where you grew up, or where you have visited– what stands out to you visually? In many sanctuaries there might be the stained glass windows or centuries old architecture. Easter Sunday memories might include a cross full of flowers while an Advent memory might locate a Christmas tree at the front of the worship space. If it is a recent memory, it might be a painting that was created during worship or even a giant coloring page for the children to complete.

The way we decorate and enhance our worship space can, and should, reflect our faith in God and what we see as important in worship. The PC (USA) Book of Order states, “These artistic expressions can awaken us to God’s presence.”

20160228_093415This past Sunday, I had the privilege to worship with the congregation of Efland Presbyterian Church in the small town of Efland, NC. When one walks into the sanctuary, the eye is drawn upward to a beautiful window which allows a view of tree tops and the sky. After taking in the blue sky and the birds sitting in the trees, I began to look around the rest of the worship space. Beautiful purple linens lined the communion table and a small table stood to the left, upon which sat a sand-filled dish with six tea candles in the shape of a cross. To the right hung a quilted banner and just below the pulpit stood a baptismal font decorated with sea shells and filled with sand at the start of worship.

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The candles, the Table, the banner, and the font were all thoughtfully assembled by the hands of members. Each individual item brought with it a new way to envision God’s grace. The purple cloth marks this season of preparation. The sand, with a coarse texture and sound as it is poured, reminding us of our Lenten journey through the desert and the candle extinguished as part of worship, marking another week in that Lenten journey. The shells, vessels for the baptismal water and a reminder that just as the Disciples were called by God, so are we. The cup and plate sat empty and waiting, a constant reminder that we have been and will continue to be fed.

Each element reaches a different sense, a different emotion. Each element reminds us of God’s grace in a season that can seem lonely at times as we slowly make our way to the cross.

How do the decorations in your worship space enhance or detract from worship?
Which element is the most meaningful for you?
I invite you to share your own stories and pictures.


Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer