A Dead Poet’s Society of Church Readers

A few times now, when talking with youth at church, I have shown them clips from Dead Poet's Society. Though I admit there is something old-manish about showing kids a film that was released years before they were born, the film taps into the power of poetry and of words.

The words we read in church have power. The Word of God is living and active. Not that I want our lectors on Sunday morning reading at a frenzied Robin Williams pitch, I do encourage readers to read clearly and with energy, and as if the words they were reading had the power to change lives … because they do.

Enjoy these two clips from Dead Poet's Society, and may the reading of Holy Scripture in your church give life to words that have the power to give life.




“That was fun. Are we doing it again next week?”

This past Sunday the children of our congregation gathered toward the end of the worship service to bless the Sunday School teachers, who were being installed as part of our Rally Day celebrations. After the blessing, we gave the kids tambourines, shakers, and maracas, and they led us out of the church as the whole congregation sang, "We Are Marching in the Light of God." It was very nice way to start the Sunday School year, and a great way to celebrate the ministry of children in our congregation.

Later that evening, my 5 year-old daughter said to me, "Daddy, that was fun, playing with the maracas in church. Are we doing it again next week?" We were not planning on doing it again, of course, but her question got me thinking about consistency in worship. Kids get routine. In fact, they need routine. Preschool and elementary school teachers know that routine is essential in creating a learning and nurturing environment for children.

Many years ago I wrote about the importance of routine in worship, with a blogpost entited "Variable (or Vagarious?) Liturgical Texts." I do believe that we are formed in life and faith through repeated action. This is especially true for children. How can we offer a consistent, patterned, and participatory environment for children in worship? Children's sermons are good, but are often a passive experience for children. Assisting with communion might be appropriate for one or two children, as would be serving as a lay reader, but these are not ways to include most of the kids most of the time.

However it is done, I believe that weekly worship should include a regular element that actively includes children in doing something they are capable of doing, and which engages them in some sort of repeated, ritual action. It might be a song that is sung weekly, becoming familiar and allowing even non-reading children to fully participate. It might be a liturgical gesture or action, such as the procession we did this past Sunday, that kids can perform week after week. Whatever it is, a repeated action gives our kids something familiar to do, a chance to develop comfort and even expertise at performing an act of worship, and thus allows them to feel more "at home" and at ease with the worship life of the church.

A Prayer for Memorial Day

I noticed that in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of my church, there are no specific prayers for Memorial Day or the occasion of remembering those who died in service to our country. There are prayers for the armed forces and for our nation's leaders and other related topics, but nothing that quited seemed to me to fit for Memorial Day. So, I crafted a prayer for Memorial Day. Feel free to use, adapt, edit, or ignore. 

Almighty God, you are our strength and our shield. We give you thanks for the men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and especially for those who have died while serving. May their sacrifices serve the cause of peace, and may our nation be ever grateful for their service. With your wisdom and strength guide our military's leaders, and give to all people a desire for justice and peace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A good and safe Memorial Day weekend to you all!

Palm Sunday has Enough Passion of Its Own

A Christian Century blogpost by Karoline Lewis (Against Passion Sunday) has inspired a few posts among blogs I read, and a wonderful conversation on my Facebook profile. In her piece, Dr. Lewis recalls her childhood experience of worshiping on Palm Sunday. "It was celebratory, festive, when as child I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like." She then notes that for practical concerns – many people who worship on Palm Sunday will not be in worship for Holy Thursday and Good Friday – it might make sense to read the Passion narrative, but she laments what is lost by that practical consideration.

"I wonder if we need Palm Sunday's moments of praise for what they are, not what they will be in a few days. A celebration of Palm Sunday alone might bring back a pattern of faith that we need: the moments of pain, of suffering, of the victory of the world, are bracketed by hosannas and alleluias, by glory, laud and honor. It's a structure of belief that is inherent in the Gospel story."

I agree that the celebration of our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem – paradoxical as it is, with Jesus the King riding into town on a donkey – needs its own day. In the current practice of Palm/Passion Sunday, we read the Palm Sunday narrative as an entrance rite, but then within minutes we're reading a long Passion narrative, and the tenor of the day takes a quick, whiplash-inducing turn. We hardly get time to soak up the irony of Jesus' royal entrance, before we're rushed to his royal coronation on the cross.

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Do Not Say They Are “Only” Youth

Edited and re-posted from my congregational newsletter.

My jaw dropped.

On one of our recent “Living Faith” gatherings of the Confirmation Class – a Sunday night event that includes dinner and hands-on faith activities – we began with a game of questions. To play this game, the person who will answer a question has a choice – to sit in one of three chairs. If you sit in the small, hard, uncomfortable chair you get an “easy” questions. If you sit in the normal but otherwise unexciting chair, you get a “medium” question. If you sit in the comfortable, high-back, cushioned chair, you get a “difficult” question.

The comfort of the chair is inversely related to the difficulty of the question.

So when one of my youth sat in the comfortable chair – which will likely invite a less-than-comfortable question – I pulled a card from the deck of questions and asked, “How do you feel about euthanasia?” He paused for a moment to think and then responded, “Well, if someone is in pain and suffering, and wants to end their life, I guess that’s their choice. But really, we should help them so they don’t get in that situation in the first place.”

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Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Kneeling During Lent

On Sunday at the closing of our Sunday School ministry – a gathering of all the children's Sunday School classes we call "Closing Devotion" – I talked with the kids about bending down. It was the First Sunday in Lent, and I used this ocassion to talk about what our Lord Jesus does in relationship to us: namely, to bend down to be with us where we're at, in our struggles and our suffering, in our lonliness and our sadness. Thus, rather than use the "we journey with Jesus" metaphor for Lent, I turned it around, and shared with the kids that during Lent we remember that Jesus walks with us and comes to us.

As an example, I had all of the children gather in a large circle in our Parish Hall. I asked one of our Confirmation Ministry students to come into the middle of the circle, and to fall down, as if injured. I then ran to the other side of the room, far from the "injured" youth, and asked her, "How are you doing? Can I help you? Gosh, you look hurt!" Then I asked the children, "is this a good way to help her?" Of course, the kids responded that it was not. So I walked half the distance closer to her, but still 15 feet from her, and repeated the charade. And of course, the kids saw right through it.

Finally, I came to her and knelt down next to her, asked her how she was doing, and offered assistance. Then I turned to the kids and asked if that was a better way to help her, to which they responded enthusiastically, "Yes!"

I then explained that this is how Jesus works. He isn't far off but rather comes to us, bends down to be with us, and is alongside us in our pain and struggle. I rattled off a number of situations in which I hope the children would take comfort knowing that Jesus is near them – when they have nightmares, when they get scraed, when they get hurt, etc. etc..

Then I had them kneel, all of them. I asked them what we can do when we kneel. Several said that we can pray. A few others said that we can help people when they're down. Pray and help. Pretty good things.

We talked about all those people who were knocked down, literally, by the tsunami in Japan, and how there are rescue workers who, like Jesus, are bending down to help those who have been beaten down.

After I was done with the message the kids stood up and sang a song, and we shared some announcements. But when it was time for our prayers, I invited the kids to kneel once more. There was some groaning, of course, but I think that kneeling hightened their focus. When I asked "for what shall we pray," several hands went up with great suggestions – more than usual – from "the sick" to "the people of Japan" to "peace in the Middle East" to others.

During Lent our children will be kneeling during prayer, to remember that our Lord comes to us when we're feeling low, and to form us, through a posture of prayer, for lives of bending down to reach out to those who have been knocked down by suffering.

Trying to Get the Disciples’ Attention

Looking ahead to the Gospel reading for Transfiguration Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9), I'm struck by how calm – clueless? – the disciples are despite some pretty odd things happening around them.

Doratallmountain First, after leading Peter, James and John up a high mountain (as the parent of three young children, I can't help but think of Dora the Explorer when I imagine Jesus and his disciples climbing up a high mountain), Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white." Yet, despite watching some pretty weird stuff happen to Jesus, the disciples say nothing.

Obi-wan-ghost Then, Moses and Elijah appear. Now, we don't know if these appearances were flesh-and-blood appearnces, or more akin to the ghost-like apparition of Obi Wan Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (though, judging from Peter's offer to build shelters for everybody, Moses and Elijah probably looked real to him). All we know is that these two ancients show up in some form, with Jesus and his disciples, on top of this high mountain.

What happens next is strange for both what is said, and for what is left unsaid. Peter, trying to be a dutiful helper, offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (did he think they were going to stay up there for a while?). But what is noticibly lacking from him or any of the other disciples is any surprise or awe that Moses and Elijah showed up in the first place. Two great pillars of the faith from centuries earlier, one who died and the other who had been assumed into heaven, show up atop a mountain, and all Peter can think to do is to pitch a few tents? Surely Peter's offer might reveal an attentiveness to hospitality concerns, but he seems to completely ignore or be oblivious to the completely sacred and momentous moment that is unfolding before his eyes.

To recap: Jesus' face is glowing like the sun, and his clothing is dazzling like a technicolor dreamcoat, only in white, not technicolor. Elijah and Moses show up, and Peter is looking for the tent stakes.

Finally, the voice of God echoes out of a bright cloud, using words to say what Peter couldn't perceive through wondrous, supernatural acts. "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Peter, James, and John cower before the voice of God, and are scared as the dickens. Jesus comforts his disciples with a touch, as if healing them of their fear, and instructs them to "tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Why, after all that they had seen, does the voice of God freak them out? God's voice booms out of the heavens at Jesus' baptism, using similar words, but there's no report that people were scared. Why would a voice from the heavens scare the disciples when a glowing face, dazzling clothing, and the sudden appearance of ancient forefathers of the faith could not inspire even an ounce of awe?

This passage is not ultimately about the disciples, but I find their response to the amazing works of God atop that mountain to be curious and worth pondering in preparation for Sunday's sermon.

God is Doing a New Thing

Baptism of our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Preached on the day following the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

Baptism of our Lord – Year A 2011

A few months ago,
    when comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally on the Mall,
    a lot of people dismissed their efforts as little more than a publicity stunt
    and thinly-veiled politicking just two weeks prior to the election.
Part satire, part political demonstration,
    these comedians lampooned our nation’s broken politics,
    and assailed its hateful, vitriolic political rhetoric.
Comedians did this, because few others had the guts to do so.

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Vom Himmel Hoch

Vom Himmel Hoch is my favorite Christmas hymn (and the only hymn I refer to by tune name, for some reason).  I was in the church choir growing up – I was the bass section for three years – and we sang this hymn on Christmas Eve, variously alternating verses between soloist, choir a capella, and congregation.  Silent Night eat your heart out – this hymn is the high point of my Christmas Eve.

Here it is, Vom Himmel Hoch, in all its fourteen verse glory.  A blessed Christmas to all!

From Heaven Above

From heav'n above to earth I come

to bear good news to ev'ry home!
Glad tidings of great joy I bring

to all the world, and gladly sing:

To you this night is born a child

of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
this newborn child of lowly birth

shall be the joy of all the earth.

This is the Christ, God's Son most high,
who hears your sad and bitter cry,
who will himself your Savior be

and from all sin will set you free.

The blessing that the Father planned

the Son holds in his infant hand,
that in his kingdom, bright and fair,
you may with us his glory share.

These are the signs that you will see
to let you know that it is he:
in manger-bed, in swaddling clothes

the child who all the earth upholds.

Now let us all with joyful cheer

go with the shepherds and draw near

to see this wondrous gift of God,
the blessed child to us bestowed.

Look, look, dear friends, look over there!
What lies within that manger bare?
Who is that lovely little one?
The  baby Jesus, God's dear Son.

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
through whom this sinful world is blest!
You turned not from our needs away;
how can our thanks such love repay?

O Lord, you have created all!
Wow did you come to be so small,
to sweetly sleep in manger-bed
where lowing cattle lately fed?

Were earth a thousand times as fair
and set with gold and jewels rare,
still such a cradle would not do
to rock a prince so great as you.

For velvets soft and silken stuff
you have but hay and straw so rough

on which as king so rich and great

to be enthroned in humble state.

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child,
prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
a quiet chamber in my heart,
that you and I may never part.

My heart for very joy now leaps;
my voice no longer silence keeps;
I too must sing with joyful tongue

the sweetest ancient cradle-song:

Glory to God in highest heav'n,
who unto us the Son has giv'n.
With angels sing in pious mirth

a glad new year to all the earth!

Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. Lutheran Book of Worship

Text © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress.