Opening Hymn: “And Are We Yet Alive” (Charles Wesley/Johann Naegeli)
A prayer of blessing: O God, like a good shepherd searching for a lost lamb, like a woman looking for alost coin, like a father redeeming his son, your love is rich beyond our deserving. You never forsake us, no matter how far we move from you. We thank you form all you have done for us. Strengthen us by the Holy Spirit, that we may grow in faith and increase in love for you. May our service and witness bring you honor and glory; in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. (UM Book of Worship)
This has been a year of transitions for me, spiritually speaking. The year began with the closing of one church, and that chapter of my faith journey, and ended with the opening of a new church and a new chapter. I’m still not certain where the road ahead is going to take me, or what new challenges and opportunities lie in my future, but, to paraphrase an old saying, “there, with the grace of God, go I”.
Growing up as the son of a Methodist minister, I’ve felt the pull to ministry since my early teenage years. However, as the son of a Methodist minister, I also knew intimately what that choice required and, while I could certainly obtain the necessary education to become an ordained pastor, I didn’t have the right combination of skills and gifts to be able to last very long in an appointed charge before I’d suffer a compete breakdown. So, I resisted the call, serving instead in choirs, as a trustee, as a liturgist, helping serve Communion, and, eventually, helping to plan worship. Then, a good friend and United Methodist pastor, Harry Smith, suggested the UM Lay Speaking program to me. I was skeptical at first, but signed up for the training course, anyway. It was about halfway through the first day of the course that I had one of those “epiphany” moments, as I realized that this was the path that God had been calling me to all those years. Even without becoming a fully ordained pastor, I could still be a leader in ministry, within the limitations of my gifts. In the seven years since, I’ve served as a worship leader, filling in when asked, at two different UM congregations. It’s been a grace-filled experience, as I try, in my small ways, to help lead others to Christ, through worship, music, and liturgy.
For about five years, I had been a part of a small congregation, Scruggs Memorial UMC, that had already been hanging on for almost a decade when I joined them. Led by a lay pastor, Velma Hawkins (who is truly one of the saints of the church), and with an average of about twelve in worship, I became the youngest member, in my mid-forties, other than the Nigerian refugee family that had joined the church shortly before I had. Having served as a trustee, vocal musician, and worship leader in my previous church, and being a lay speaker, I offered my talents to this small group, who gratefully accepted my humble efforts. By my second year with the congregation, I was serving as the unofficial “associate pastor” to the appointed lay pastor, filling in for her when she needed a vacation, attended annual conference or other meetings, or became ill. For the next four years, I was leading worship several times a year, and assisting in worship several times more, in what was essentially a very “traditional” style of worship – very plain, Wesleyan order of worship, with most parts of the liturgy spoken, and the only hymns taken straight out of the UM hymnal.
The title to the church building had been transferred years earlier to what was supposed to be a Hispanic ministry that never took off, and was being maintained by a free medical clinic that had taken over most of the building (except for the sanctuary and a couple of classrooms) who paid most of the bills, while allowing the congregation to continue to gather for worship there for a nominal rent. With the downturn in the economy, the clinic’s charitable funding dried up, they were forced to close, and the church building was sold to a non-denominational congregation, who wasn’t interested in sharing the building with our little Methodist group. With no other place to meet that we could afford, the congregation was dissolved after the last Sunday of December, 2009.
In January, I began attending The Gathering, a new United Methodist church that was started a few years earlier, about the time that I joined Scruggs Memorial. I’d worshipped with them a few times, on the occasions when Scruggs didn’t have a service, due to weather or other circumstances. They have what might be described as an “ancient future” style of service, after a fashion. The music is very contemporary and the atmosphere very casual and relaxed, but the order of worship and the liturgy is essentially Wesleyan Anglican high church – if you know what you’re looking for. For many of the members of the congregation, they probably have no idea that it’s an Anglican service, because most of the elements of the mass are done with contemporary Christian praise song style music and “modern” language. A lot of the music was unfamiliar to me, but I soon picked up most of it (there are advantages to being a church choir member off and on for almost 40 years), and Andy, the director of the worship team, even throws in contemporary arrangements of “classic” hymns every now and then. It was a bit different for me, just being another member of the congregation again, after nearly a decade of leading worship, either as a leader in a choir or in leading the service itself. But I appreciated the novelty of how creatively the liturgy was worked into the worship, and Matt Miofsky, the senior pastor, leads a challenging and thought-provoking ministry, and so I began to settle into a new routine, and starting thinking about how to serve this new church, beginning with helping to serve Communion at the large Easter service.
Shortly after Pentecost (and after this year’s Missouri annual conference), I received an e-mail from a good friend, the wife of a retired Methodist pastor, saying that the bishop had appointed a new pastor to the church in our neighborhood, Shaw Ave UMC, which had also been a small, struggling congregation for many years. However, with this new appointment, the conference was going to treat the church as a “new start”, with one of the large suburban churches acting as a “mother church” and providing substantial grants for the first few years. I contacted the new pastor, Keith Scarborough, and offered my help. They’d planned an “extreme make-over” on the sanctuary, with workdays every Saturday from late July until the planned re-launch of the church on Christmas Eve. I walked up the six blocks to the church the last Saturday of July, and have been part of the launch team ever since.
Keith and I have had several long talks about his plans for the congregation, and I’ve offered my insights into the neighborhood he’s moving into, and some suggestions about various things – the building, the planned ministries, etc. His vision for the church are very different from what I would have done, but it’s based on a model that’s been successful in at least two suburban churches in recent years. The style of worship is very “contemporary” – more of a praise service than even an abbreviated Wesleyan liturgy – with a modern, electrified band and high tech audio-visual effects, but the planned congregational emphasis on service and small group ministries is something that John Wesley would have recognized and approved of. With an amazing group of volunteers and clearly the presence of God, the planned re-launch on Christmas Eve of “The Word at Shaw” went off almost exactly as planned nearly a year ago. While there is still a great deal of work to do on the rest of the building, regular worship services and other ministries will begin in early January, 2011. How exactly I’m going to fit into this new congregation as something more than just another “person in the pews” is still a work in progress, but, with the grace of God, it will be revealed in it’s appointed time.
Which brings me to the purpose for this new venture – as a place to continue to explore my faith journey. For the past several years, I’ve been planning worship services several times a year. Mostly for the occasional single service where I’m filling in for the pastor on Sunday mornings or for special occasions, but I’ve also done “seasonal” evening services weekly during Lent and Advent which I’ve led.. While I find joy and spiritual fulfillment in leading worship services, I find even more in the researching and planning – discerning the meaning of the Bible texts for the day, looking for the deeper meanings in the Word, then translating that into music and teachings that will share what I’ve found with the rest of the congregation, to help them on their faith journeys. I probably won’t have many (if any) opportunities to plan and lead worship at The Word at Shaw in at least the near future – Keith has surrounded himself with an amazingly talented worship team – but I need an outlet for this call that I’ve felt to worship ministry. And I also recognize that I need to grow more in my understanding of scripture, with more intentional and more frequent study. Thus, I plan to use this space to share the messages that I would have given, along with the music and liturgy I would have used, had I been actually leading worship that week.
The basic plan is to use the Common Lectionary as the basis for my postings. Even after multiple repeats of the three year cycle, I still find something new every time I re-read and re-examine the now familiar texts. However, I’m not at the point in my life where I can readily commit to doing this every week, consistently – the workload at my “day job” just won’t permit it. Initially, I’m going to aim for at least once a month, and hope for every other week, plus the occasional special day on the church calendar, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. While my basic grounding is Wesleyan Methodist, I’ve often referred to myself as a .”closet Anglican”. In the last few years, I’ve been discovering older and more ancient Christian practices and observances, and I’ve been intrigued with the “ancient future” movement of Robert Webber, which I plan to learn more about in the next few years. And I’m finding much in the contemporary Christian worship elements that can be melded into the traditional liturgy in creative ways.
As I currently envision this site, each posting will be based on that week’s texts from the Common Lectionary, with a few music selections (mostly from the United Methodist Hymnal and “The Faith We Sing” – I’m still looking for a good source for contemporary Christian music recommendations to match the lectionary), a prayer and possibly a brief liturgy, if appropriate, and then a message relating to the lectionary texts, with a closing blessing – very similar to what I’d plan for a worship service.
That’s the plan – we’ll see what direction God lead me in the coming months. To paraphrase a quote from the Disney animated movie “The Road to Eldorado”, “There’s your plan, and then there’s God’s plan.”, and, in the end, God’s plan tends to win out. I hope that these offerings of my reflections on the Gospel provide some useful insight to other seekers on their faith journeys, as I hope that they do for mine.
“And now, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen” (Psalm 19:14)
Yours in Christ,