Worship

What Is the Lord's Justice?

EXECUTE: TO ENACT OR DO. Having grown up in inner-city Chicago, I have fond memories of red fire hydrants, swinging jump ropes, and church robes. During summer, the fire department would open the hydrants. Parents granted the petitions of children to run through the streams of water, soaking our clothes and cooling our backs. And while I never achieved the rhythmic agility to jump Double Dutch, I loved to recite the rhymes, which eventually helped me gain a verbal dexterity like that of my pastor. I wanted one day to have a robe like hers—one that signaled that the words I spoke revealed the reign of God.

Turn the clock back. Some children would hold very different memories of fire hydrants, ropes, and robes. In Birmingham, Ala., in1963, the force of the water injured petitioners for freedom. During the American Revolution, a Virginia justice of the peace named Charles Lynch ordered extralegal punishment for Loyalists to the Crown. The swinging rope became the tool of mob violence. And the “hooded ones” continue to use the label of “Christian” to make a mockery of the vestments of clergy.

Fire hydrants. Ropes. Robes. Execute: to eliminate or kill. Meaning conveyed to the hearer may not at all resemble the intention of the speaker. Often communication requires suspension of what we think in order to listen to the context from which the speaker shares. Reading is no easier a task. Sometimes the same letters forming the same word present entirely different meanings. Justice executed. What does it mean?

The context for the next four weeks exposes what the Lord’s justice requires.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.


[ February 2 ]
Fighting God in Court
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

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Lessons Learned by a Young Priest

Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich Via RNS
Tom Ehrich Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich Via RNS

In the perfection of hindsight, I see that I was clueless when I knelt before the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis on a snowy December night 36 years ago and claimed my prize: ordination as a priest.

I had no clue how to serve a congregation. Other than planning Sunday worship — the easiest of all clergy tasks — I was unprepared.

How to make a hospital visit; how to lead a council whose only instinct was not to spend money; how to grow a church; how to comfort the lost and to humble the found; how to hear what the world needed from us — I knew none of it.

A Garden Toolbox for Schools

 

Catholic Coalition on Climate Change
Catholicclimatecovenant.org

This site has education and worship resources tailored to different ages and settings. The “St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor” can be made by individuals or institutions to formalize their intent to change lifestyles and habits to counter climate change.

Passionist Earth and Spirit Center
www.earthandspiritcenter.org

Lent 4.5 is a seven-week spiritual formation program encouraging deeper care for creation, commitment to justice, and simple living. The discussion guide Christian Simplicity: A Gospel Valuelifts up the same themes but is usable at any time of year.

Veggiegrower Gardens
Veggiegrower.net

This site offers raised-bed gardens made of food-grade resin (BPA-free), as well as garden stands, seeds, and resin rain barrels. Garden beds come in a variety of sizes and colors.

Image: "Mr. Chuck," of Veggiegrower Gardens, shows Holy Ghost kindergartners how to form rows before planting seeds. Photo courtesy of Greta Valenzuela.

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Reimagining Christmas

CHRISTMAS, ON THE surface, looks like the most wonderful time of year—the season of love, lights, carols, candles, and family reunions, the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Look a bit deeper, though, and one might notice a more idolatrous narrative shining just as brightly: consumerism.

From Black Friday to New Year’s Day, we are inundated with the commercial demands of Christmas. For many, the list of things to do and gifts to purchase can seem endless. We buy into the mantra that the more money we spend, the more love we convey. We become lost in crowded stores, endless websites, and credit card debt. Christians often struggle to faithfully observe Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the miraculous birth of Jesus.

While many of us purchase this spurious version of Christmas, a new movement has been born. It’s called Advent Conspiracy (AC), and its participants are seeking to turn Christmas upside down by exchanging consumption for compassion.

“Advent Conspiracy is not a four-point checklist on how to do Christmas. If anything, it’s a chance for us to rediscover the wonder and the mystery of the incarnation and what that means to us personally and what that might mean for the world,” said Greg Holder, lead pastor of The Crossing church in the St. Louis area.

In 2006 Holder and two clergy friends—Rick McKinley, lead pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore., and Chris Seay, pastor and lead elder of Ecclesia Church in Houston—realized that they and their parishioners “were getting through the season with no sense of joy or celebration, with almost a sense of survival.” In response, the three pastors formed Advent Conspiracy to help people turn away from the hyper-consumerism of Christmas.

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Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back

Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com
Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com

I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.

1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.

Mumford and Sons: A Festival of Devotion

Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com
Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com

Mumford and Sons opened with a little introit called "Sigh No More" then a call to worship, "Roll Away Your Stone" and so we did. Understated and, dare I say it, reverent. Polished and yet still "honest" (this is a hipster liturgy, after all), the boys did a great job offering their work to us. They spoke with the audience. Marcus jumped off stage to give a beer to a woman celebrating her 21st birthday and then led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Welcome to a living room that seats 8,500.

The band played most of their published stuff, took a bow, and walked off stage. The encore set is what took it home for me. The stepped away from their usual set-up, unplugged their instruments, stood around a condenser mic and then sang. They dragged us back into devotion. Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" followed by "Sister" sung a cappella did me in. A benediction? Perhaps I'm reaching. 

They closed the night with "The Cave" which had people jumping and singing along. You can find a set list here.

After the concert, my Facebook feed lit up with "it was just like church" or "that was church" by several people including some ordained church types in attendance last night. The Vineyard background has not been wasted, not by any stretch. It has been given a new venue, a new form, a venue where the truth can be sung in quiet tones, where no name is taken in vain or otherwise, where wild passion is replaced with festal devotion.

Keep On Keepin' On

IN ORDER TO imagine the solutions needed for our environmental crises, we must understand the depth and breadth of their severity—but understanding can all too easily lead to guilt, despair, and hopelessness.

Our response to climate change can no longer be about fear. The more overwhelmed, fearful, guilty, or bitter we are, the less likely we are to spring into action. Corporate monopolies, fossil fuel industry giants, and big money lobbyists have succeeded in getting us to be our own worst enemy. Anger and outrage can only get us so far, and no one knows that better than they do. And in my case, only the good Lord, and my loving husband, know the depth of my daily, ongoing struggle with this.

So what is a faithful, God-fearing, creation-loving person to do? One thing that I have found helpful is to purposefully set aside time to immerse myself in nature, appreciating God’s creation in its vast and intricate beauty. Even a 15-minute stroll through a city park helps me to calm down and regain perspective. Watching fuzzy animals, finding colorful creepy crawlies, and overhearing snippets of people’s conversations gives me pause and reminds me that ours is very complex and witty God.

Another thing essential to sustaining myself in this work is to interact with others for whom creation care and eco-justice is a passion or vocation. The interpersonal relationships build community and nurture my soul. And in them we most deeply experience the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit, at work among us, inspired by one another through our faith and common efforts.

Prior to coming to Sojourners, I coordinated multiday workshops for Lutherans Restoring Creation. Each one gave pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to share best practices and resources for integrating creation care into all areas of church life: worship, education, buildings and grounds, advocacy, and discipleship at home and work.

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America's Rough Week

Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com
Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com

Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.

First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.

Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.

In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.

Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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Why Women are the Key to the Church’s Future

Photo: Woman praying, © John Wollwerth  / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Woman praying, © John Wollwerth / Shutterstock.com

I’ll preface this piece my saying I know I am making some broad generalizations based on gender, and that there are always exceptions to every trend. But despite that, I do think there are some cultural trends that can offer us some useful insight.

Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that, of those left within the walls of most churches, the majority still hanging in there are women. Some, like the advocates of so-called Masculine Christianity, see this as a crisis. The Christian faith and its symbols are becoming softened, feminized, compromised into being something other than what they were meant to be.

Granted, when you take a faith whose principal authors historically have been men and then place that same faith in the hands of women, some things will inevitably change. Personally, I welcome the exploration of other, feminine expressions of the divine and values such as embodied spirituality that many female Christian leaders value. But aside from these assets, I think that women bring something far more critical to institutional religion.

Without them, it may cease to exist.

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