Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Children in Worship

One of my best memories from early in my ministry is of the Sunday when two little girls decided they wanted to sit in the front row.  Without their parents.

They weren't sisters, they were friends.  Both sets of parents were in the building, sitting discreetly just a few rows behind them.  The opening hymn was from a supplemental hymnal.  If I recall correctly, it was a rousing contemporary song called "We Are the Church."

We all stood up, including these two young girls, and we all opened our supplemental hymnal.  And they held their hymnals high, singing at the top of their lungs:  "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together".

Yes, we were.

Now granted, this was sort of a special scenario.  This was not "Beautiful Savior" or "A Mighty Fortress is our God" or "Now Thank We All our God."  This was sort of a child-friendly hymn, something we included once in awhile if it fit the theme of the day.  And this was one of those congregations where the children were in worship (all of it, including the sermon) every single week.  This has become rare, for a lot of reasons:  families are busier, and a lot of churches are holding education hour and worship at the same time.  Even more, I hear that there are some churches that hold separate worship services for children and adults.  You walk in, and the children go one direction, for "children's church", and the adults go another direction, for adult worship and teaching.

On one level, I suppose this makes sense. Children and adults need different things.  Children can get bored in an adult-oriented worship service.  And adults can be distracted by the presence of children.  Children don't always behave perfectly.  Sometimes they cry.  Sometimes they fidget.

Yet I think about those two girls, sitting in the front row of their small congregation, singing at the top of their lungs.  And I think about the congregation who was fortunate enough to experience their presence at worship.

It is my conviction that we worship best when we worship together.  And children benefit by being with us.  Even more, we benefit by being with them.

My current congregation went through a long spell when the presence of children in worship was rare.  But in the last two years, a few families with children have arrived, and we have done some things to intentionally involve them in worship.  Some of the children help usher with their parents.  Some of them read a lesson out of a children's Bible.  A few older children help with the Call to Worship.  Occasionally one of the children has provided a drawing to go along with the scripture or sermon theme.  And sometimes we get out a basket of rhythm instruments, and invite the children to play along.  I sometimes feel that I have just scratched the surface of how children can be active participants in worship, and help us remember that we are all active participants in worship.  We do more than sit still and listen.  We sing and we pray, we stand and we sit.  But we do even more than that.

Sometimes, I think, it takes children to help us remember.  One Maundy Thursday I invited people to come up and have their feet washed.  The only people to come forward?  The children.  The next year I decided to make it a little more user friendly, and I invited everyone to come up and have their hands washed instead.  Who came forward?  Again, the children.  And when the children came forward, a few brave adults followed them.

And then there are the unscripted moments that children provide.  These help us remember that although liturgy has a flow and a proper order, it is never JUST proper.  There have been times when a few young girls spontaneously started dancing in the aisle during the final hymn.  And a small child often says, "yay!" at the end of a song she likes.   Once, during a children's message, when I told the children that Jesus was going to die, a little girl gasped!  The news of it broke her heart, and our hearts broke a little, too.

Children also belong in church because they are watching us.  When we worship together, they are finding out what is important to us.  I remember standing next to my dad every week in church.  I still can hear, in my mind, my dad singing harmony on the hymns.  He loved to sing.  I do too.

Some people will tell me that they want children to be in worship so that they will learn to "behave" in church.  But, as for me, I want children to be in worship because they are part of the body of Christ, and their presence enriches me.  I want children to be in worship because they sing loud, say "yay!", share the peace with enthusiasm, and play the rhythm instruments.  I want children to be in worship so that they will know Jesus, and know the people of God, and know that every single one of us, all ages, has a place here.  I want children to be in worship so that they know they belong.   I want children to be in worship because they bring joy, and honesty, and their true selves.

I want children to be in worship because we are not complete without them.   We need all the voices, including theirs.  Especially when they say "Yay!"

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sermon: Faith5: Live to Bless -- Bless to Live

Numbers 6:24-26/Psalm 103 portions
John 15:9-17
            When I was a little girl, I used to go and play at a friends house sometimes after school.  
            We both liked to sing and to pretend, and so sometimes we would spend all afternoon putting on records and singing along, and making up stories that went with the songs.  
            My friends’ mom would check on us sometimes.  She liked me, I remember.  She would see that I was reading a big book one day – I was trying to read “Little Women” – and it was pretty thick – and she would tell me how great that was, and how smart I was.  
            And then she would say, “I wish Cindy would read like you.”  She would say, “Cindy, you should read more like Diane.”  
            Or maybe I had some notebooks, because I liked to write stories, and my friend’s mom would ask about them. 
             And she would say, “Good for you!”  But then she would say, “Cindy, you should write more stories, like Diane.”  
            And it felt good that she thought I was smart – but I always felt bad for her daughter, who never measured up.

            So – Blessing – blessing is the final step of the faith5.   
            And it might feel like an add-on.  If you Share, Read, Talk, and Pray, why do you have to bless?  Blessing seems extra.  
            And in fact, if you just think of bless as the gesture – you know – making the sign of the cross or a fist bump and saying something like ‘Jesus loves you’ – then maybe it’s not so important.  
            Although it CAN be a good ritual in families.  
             To bless each other with simple words.  
            To make blessing a habit in our relationships.

            But Blessing is more than that.  
            The little ritual we can practice is part of something much larger – something I think about when I think back on my friend and her mom.       Those experiences made me realize how important our words are – the things we say to one another --  words aren’t “just words”:  they have power.

            The people of Israel thought that.  
            They thought that words had power.  God’s words, in particular, had power. 
             If God said, “let there be light” – well then, there was light. 
             If God told Abraham, I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… that was going to happen.  
            If God gave Aaron words, “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine on you….”  
             Those words were binding, and God would bless them and turn is face to them, and grant them favor, and grant them peace, that is, shalom. God’s words have power to create reality – and our words have power too.  
            That’s why, in the book of James, the author criticizes the people.  “out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.”  He says.  “This should not be so.” 

            So the last step in the Faith 5 is to do what God has instructed us to do – to bless each other. 
            And to bless each other with both a word and a gesture, and I think that is important, too.  
            Whether that gesture is to say “Jesus loves you and so do I” with the mark of the cross on a forehead – or the gesture is a fist bump or a hug or a high five – to put a word and a gesture together – helps us to remember that our words and our actions TOGETHER have power.  
            And it’s what we talked about in confirmation last Monday night.  The word “Integrity”  -- means that our words and our actions match each other,  that we say what we do, and we do what we say. 

             It’s the final step in the Faith 5, but it’s much more than that.  And there are two things about blessing that I want to highlight right now.        
            The first is from those words that Moses gave Aaron – “The Lord bless you and keep you….” There’s a phrase in this benediction that you may not notice.  I’ve heard it in different ways. 
             “The Lord make his face shine on you… the Lord lift up his countenance to you… the Lord turn his face to you….”  
            The Lord turn his face to you.  
            For God to turn God’s face to us – is to bless us.  For God to look upon us, is to look upon us with favor.   
             Think about that.  That God turns TOWARD us, instead of away – is part of the blessing.  
            And that means that part of what it means for us to bless each other – is to turn toward each other – instead of away.    
            It’s a word – and a gesture – and so I’d like us to bless each other now – turn toward someone near you, and make the sign of the cross in the palm of their hand, and say, “May God bless you and protect you.  You are a blessing.”  

            There’s a marriage counselor, John Gottman, who says he can observe a couple over a weekend and he can predict whether they will stay married or not – by observing one simple action – how often they turn toward one another rather than away. 
             He says it’s a matter of the ratio of positive to negative interactions, and he says it is the small and simple things that are the glue – just whether we turn toward each other, in simple words and gestures. Blessing.  

            And the second thing about blessing?  
            Blessing starts here – among us – and in our relationships and in our families and in our Bible studies and groups.  
             It starts here as we practice blessing each other with words and gestures.  
            But it doesn’t end here. Remember Abraham?  
            God said to Abraham, “I will bless you and I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing.”  
            And that is our purpose as well.  
            We are blessed so that we will go out and be a blessing – to the world.  Our congregation is here – to bless the communities and neighborhoods that surrounds us – to bless the children and the families at the school. 
            It’s why we are here – and I don’t mean just “here” in the world, I mean it’s why we are here in this particular time and place.

            The gospel reading for today helps us to see blessing in this way –Jesus begins by telling his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  
            Love one another – the blessing goes both ways – parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and congregations – love one another – bless each other – “as I have loved you.” 
             As Jesus has loved us, in both word and action.  Ad we can only do it because of his life in us and our life in him – the vine and the branches, rooted in love.    
            To bless each other is to share the love of God which flows through us – to turn toward one another as God has turned toward us  on the cross – to speak words to each other which set us free.  

            And Jesus speaks those words to his disciples. 
             He says to them, “I call you not longer servants, but friends. Because you know me.  You know the father because of me.” 
             He says to them, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” 
            In other words, even if the world tells you, you don’t measure up, in my eyes you do.  Because of my love
            And you know there are so many people who don’t know that, who only hear words of judgment.  
            Who only hear words that tell them, You are not good enough.
            So those words were words of blessing.
            And then he told his disciples to take that blessing, and turn outward, toward the world.   To be a source of blessing in the world.    In words and in actions.  To bear fruit that will last.  

            Blessing.  It’s the fifth step of the Faith5.  It’s sharing a word and a gesture.  And it’s our purpose in life.  To bless each other.   
             And to bless our community.    To be there when the chips are down.  To share our bread with the hungry. 
            To clean up houses after the flood.  To lift up those who are doubting.  
            To tell the children, Jesus loves you – and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads – and to let them do the same to us.  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Faith 5, Part 4: Praying for one another

Philippians 4:4-7
John 15:1-8

            Here’s a secret for you. The choir – up there in the choir loft – doesn’t just sing.  
            On Wednesday when they come, they do practice the songs and they learn the piece they will sing. But, they do something else, too. They pray.  
            Now sometimes they pray by singing – because some of the songs we sing actually ARE prayers…. Songs like “Spirit of God, Descend upon my Heart” or “Open the Eyes of my Heart Lord” --- actually many of our songs are prayers. 
             But that’s not what I mean.  At the end of our rehearsals, we have a devotion, and we ask for prayer requests, and we pray together.  
            We pray for one another. And – here’s another secret – it’s not just me doing the praying.  
            There’s a small group of us who take turns taking the prayer concerns and praying for each other.  

            So – We are on step four of the Faith 5 – PRAYER.   
            First we learned how important it is to share with one another our highs and lows, to share the concerns of our hearts, to build community in our families and in our congregation.  
            Then in step two, we learned to share scripture, share the Word of God with one another.  A verse a day, a story a week.  The word of God grounds us and helps us remember who we are.  
            Then we talk about it – we talk about Scripture and relate it to our lives.  And then finaly – well, almost finally, because there is one more step after this – finally, we pray together.  We pray for one another.  We pray WITH one another.  

            And prayer is so foundational for us – it’s one of the first things we learn, isn’t it?   
            When we baptize a child, as ask the parents and godparents to teach their children, “The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments.”  
            Prayer is first – not just the Lord’s prayer, but prayer in general.  Prayers at bedtime.  Prayers around the table, before we eat.  And in some ways it’s so easy, and in some ways it’s not.  

            What is prayer? There are all kinds of methods – and all kinds of ways to pray.  There are written-down prayers like we have in our worship book.  
            And there is the “five finger prayer” that I taught the children this morning.  
            Prayers can be beautiful and poetic, or they can be simple.    Author Anne Lamott said once that she really only knows three prayers – Help – Thanks – and Wow.   
            Every prayer can be reduced to one of these words.  Perhaps.

            At the heart of it, though, prayer is a conversation.  
            It is not a method, not a set of rules, but a relationship.   
            Prayer is sharing our worries, our cares, our thanks,  our joy – everything – with God.  
            And I know that many of us here have deep and rich prayer lives, and that we truly do try to take everything to God in prayer.  We pray for one another.  We pray for our children.  
            We pray for our congregation.  Maybe you even – on occasion – pray for your pastor.  
            But when I’m talking about the faith5, and the fourth step, “Prayer,” there’s this added layer, because we aren’t just praying for each other, privately, to ourselves.  It’s not like when someone says to me, after worship, “Pastor, will you pray for me,” and I promise to pray for them, and then I go home and pray.  
            This is when – as families, or with friends – we don’t just pray for each other, but we pray with each other too.     
            In choir, in our families, parents and children, in Bible study – we listen to one another’s joys and one another’s concerns, and then we pray.  And in that way, prayer binds us to God – and it binds us to one another. 

            Just as it takes trust to share with one another – it also takes trust to pray for one another -- 
            So one of the things I used to do with self-conscious students was to invite them just to say a word, or a name 
            – just to name a name of someone they were concerned about, or to say a word that named something they were thinking about – that’s the way we started, so that we could get used to hearing the sound of our own names, and know it was okay to speak.  
            Later on, we’d share more deeply, and pray more deeply as well – sharing secrets about friends we were concerned about, about the causes that gave our lives meaning.  

            So – right now, I’d like to try something – something small. 
             I’d like everyone here to think of a name.  Think of a name of someone you would like to pray for, for whatever reason.  Close your eyes and say that name to yourself.  
            Does everyone have a name?  Now – we are all going to say our names aloud – at the same time -- .  When I give the cue – Let us pray.  Gracious God, today we pray for…. (say the names.)  Hold them all in the palm of your hands.  Keep them and heal them and guide them, and do for them what is wise and compassionate.  AMEN.

            So – it is part of the forming of community to pray – and to share prayer.  
            To share the intercessions as we do on Sunday morning --  to share prayers of thanksgiving and praise – to share our confessions and failings – the hardest things, perhaps.  
            But it’s part of how we become community, Christian community – not just here, but in our homes, and among our friends, and in the world.   
            And praying together, and praying for one another strengthens our faith, helps our children have confidence in their praying, and strengthens our community too.  

            But I do have to add one thing – I don’t want to sweep anything under the carpet, in order to paint a rosy picture of praying.  
            And that’s the subject of prayers which are not answered, or not in the way we want.  
            And sooner or later, especially if we are learning to pray honestly, sooner or later that is going to happen to us.  And we have to be honest – that prayer is a great and intimate conversation, and that God guides us through prayer, and that we can come to God with anything – ANYTHING 
            – but what do we say when God doesn’t give us the answer – or the answer we want?  Especially, what do we say to a child?  
            But not just children… right?  We can come to God with ANYTHING, but sometimes, even though God loves us, the thing we think is best doesn’t happen, and we can’t understand.  
            We just have to keep believing that God loves us and will be with us, no matter what…. 

            And keep praying.  There’s a promise for us in the gospel reading today, that I think has to do with prayer.  
            Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches.” That means that always and always, he is holding on to us.  
             He is holding on to us, and because he is the vine, he is giving us his life.  That means that even our prayers, in the end, come from him.       And because he is the vine, and YOU ALL – are the branches, that means that our relationship with God is never just one to one.   
            We’re always praying together, even when we are alone.  
            Prayer bonds us to the one who has given us life – prayer bonds us to Jesus – but it bonds us to one another in the vine too
             – whether we are certain or doubting, whether we are young or old, no matter where we are in the body, we are bound together in Jesus, the vine.