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Being as Communion

Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the ChurchBeing as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church by John D. Zizioulas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Introduction and opening two chapters gave me an intellectual orgasm as they discussed a eucharistic ontology of the person, including a review of key theological developments in the Patristic era. I've long struggled with elements of this orthodox Trinitarianism, and Zizioulas gives the most profound presentation of it I've read.

From chapter three on the focus is on issues that were of less interest to me as someone rooted in the Free Church tradition--apostolic succession, catholicity, ordination, the structure of the church, ecumenical issues between the Roman and Orthodox churches. But I was convicted by his vision of a local church which should be all Christians in a place celebrating communion together, overcoming all divisions. American pluralism has quite clearly created a radically new and different experience of the Christian church.

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Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul WorldBlue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Otis Moss, III was lecturing at this week's Festival of Homiletics he encouraged all of us to study preaching from traditions that are not our own. I had already picked up this book of his, based upon his Lyman Beecher lectures. I like reading the books from Beecher lectures.

Also interesting in this volume are four sermons, including two delivered after key moments in the Michael Brown saga, which give insight into his moving and successful homiletic style.

There are some techniques I will borrow from.

He talks about preachers as "artists and academics, weaving together poetry and pragmatic wisdom for daily living." He declares, "We are called to place a word in people" and then emphasizes how words and sounds are the craft of the preacher. One thing I like about his lecturing and writing is this emphasis upon the artistry and upon the sound and not simply upon structuring a written text. He also says that you must be authentically you and deliver the words God has given you through your imagination. So, for instance, he resists those who encourage him to slow down in his preaching, for it is not authentically him.

He urges us to preach with a Blues sensibility, addressing directly what he calls the "Blue Note" moments of people's lives.

He also explores what lessons we can learn from Hip-Hop to apply to preaching in a postmodern age, he specifically focuses on "the embodiment, the space, the appropriation, and the rhetorical proficiency of the person who is communicating."

A quick read, an enjoyable book, with some profound insights.


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Visual Arts Takeaways

Visual arts

Last night's session on the Visual Arts at the Worship Design Studio generated ideas among the six First Central members who attended (myself, Joyce Wilson, Bud Cassiday, Carolyn Baldwin, Judy Bouma, and Kendra Delacadena). After some general comments I'll list my takeaways.

Dr. Marcia McFee said that the visuals in worship should immerse us in the story.  Symbols are the first language of worship and allow us to grasp ineffable realities. 

The seven visual elements to consider when designing the space for each series are: light and dark, transparency and opacity, pattern, texture, scale, movement, and color.

In her color discussion I noted two comments that were new and interesting to me: Orange is perfect for calls to action, and Purple stimulates problem-solving.

Now for the practical takeaways. Some were Dr. McFee's ideas and others arose from our group conversations.

  • Share as much of story and backstory as you can with your visual artists in order to stimulate their creativity.
  • The visuals should be multi-level.
  • In a long space like ours the visuals need to speak to the entire room, so more use of visual in the narthex, at the back of the sanctuary, along the length of the room.
  • Visuals need to move.  Process them in to set up the altar table. That also connects the visuals better with the back of the room.
  • Judy commented how the visuals are often lost on the choir and sometimes even block their view, inhibiting their worship. Make sure that some of the visuals are visible the choir. Maybe hang more things from the balcony, for example.
  • Dr. McFee recommended looking at the Worship Design Studio Pinterest page for different series and seasons. Our group discussed how we could use Pinterest in the brainstorming phases of worship planning and anyone in the congregation could pin an idea to our design board.  So, use a virtual design board instead of creating a physical one.
  • Dr. McFee recommended purchasing your stock of items you know you'll use a lot--lanterns, vases, material, etc.  Think of them as your "little black dresses."
  • But when you want something unique for one series and don't plan to keep it, you can announce that the items will go on sale after the worship series.  She said that this has been successful in churches who have tried it and has allowed them to be more creative without breaking their budget.
  • Don't use the word "decorating," so Carolyn wants to change the name of the Chancel Decorating Team.

Maybe the idea I was most excited about was using Pinterest to engage a wider swathe of the congregation in brainstorming design ideas.


Life and Labors of Rev. Reuben Gaylord

Life and labors of Rev. Reuben GaylordLife and labors of Rev. Reuben Gaylord by Mary W. Gaylord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last month I finally finished this book I started almost two years ago and have been reading slowly through, often with long gaps in the reading.

Rev. Reuben Gaylord was the founding pastor (1856) of the church I currently serve, and this book was compiled by his widow in 1889 from his and her written remembrances plus letters, sermons, missionary reports, and comments of other notable figures.

Rev. Gaylord grew up in Connecticut, attended Yale, and taught in frontier Illinois. He then became the leading Congregational missionary to the west, first in Iowa, then Nebraska, and ultimately with responsibility for church planting and oversight along the Transcontinental railroad and Colorado. One of Omaha's first leading citizens described him as the man who brought Sunday to Omaha.

So, this book is of interest for not only church history but the lives of early pioneers. In particular his story is deeply interwoven with the founding of this city and state and the other major figures of his time.

The writing is more engaging than one might suppose for a 19th century amateur work. But you also have to endure lengthy reports and letters that hold little interest and deserve a quick skim.

My intention is to prepare an edited and much slimmer version for our congregation's 160th anniversary this year.

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Life & Labors: Mormons, Railroad, Civil War, & Indian Raids

So, it appears that I sat aside Reuben Gaylord's Life and Letters for two years, as this was the last post. I plan on editing an abridged version and publishing it for our congregation's 160th anniversary this year.

In 1864 we catch up with the Gaylords still living in Omaha as they record their impressions of various events and daily life ministering on the frontier.

Seven hundred Mormons came up the other day on the boat.  They came on the deck, furnishing their own provisions.  But on their arrival their stores had failed them; they had exhausted the boat's supply, and scattered themselves over our town, begging food.  What must they suffer before they reach the Mormon paradise--Salt Lake City!  It is sad to think of what is before them.  Many of those that have come over from Europe this year are without means.  They are brought through by the church emigration fund.  Wagons have been sent down from Salt Lake to take out their baggage, while men, women, and children are compelled to walk the entire distance from here to Utah!  Surely, it is a pilgrimage.  Some have had their eyes open to see their error, and have concluded to go no farther.

Here's another of historical interest written by Mrs. Gaylord:

Mr. Gaylord was greatly interested in all public improvements and was especially happy over the advent of the Union Pacific railroad.  It was what had been long desired, expected, and waited for.  The very greatness of such a gigantic enterprise as this "world's highway" was uplifting and stimulating to thought and action. . . .  He looked at it in its local bearings upon us, so isolated and needy, but much more as an inestimable boon to our beloved country; and, both higher and deeper than all, as helping forward the progress of that Christianity which he longed should be hastened on, until multitudes more would yield joyful allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

And then this observation in Rev. Gaylord's hand:

Little, as yet, do we conceive of the wonderful changes that are to be wrought in the regions between us and the Pacific by this gigantic undertaking, or the work that is to be rolled upon the church, to give the Gospel to the future millions of the mighty West that is just springing into life.

Mrs. Gaylord opens a new chapter with this inauspicious paragraph:

The year 1864 opened with brightening prospects for our beloved country.  Through the smiles of a kind Providence upon the valor and heroism of our soldiers the dark clouds of war were being lifted, and the people saw with prophetic vision, the sunshine of peace beginning to dawn upon them.  Omaha, too, was feeling the inspiration of better times and of returning prosperity.  The prospect of peace in the near future, and work begun on the Union Pacific Railroad, stimulated a revival of business and gave our citizens courage to undertake new enterprises for the general welfare.  But early in the month of August this bow of promise was suddenly obscured, and Omaha intensely excited by a rumored invasion from guerrillas and Indians.  Roving bands of Sioux, said to be led by rebel white men disguised as savages, had been committing depredations in the Platte and Elkhorn valleys.  The remembrances of raids in Kansas by Quantrell's band, which had destroyed the city of Lawrence only a few months before, helped to increase the excitement.  But those fears were not realized, and before winter came on, the city had again settled down to the peaceful pursuit her wonted occupations.


The Evolution of a UCC Style

The Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of ChristThe Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ by Randi Jones Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Refreshingly not a straightforward history, this is a series of theological reflections upon the history of the United Church of Christ arranged around a series of themes--the four-tradition origin myth, becoming a multiracial, multicultural church, the influences of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Pietism, the development of a liberal style, and finally congregational polity.

Her main thesis is that the UCC has developed a particular style and that this is more important than any of the traditional central features, like polity or theology. This style is an attempt to hold all the various branches of the Reformation together in one body while also expanding to include postcolonial, African-American, Native Americans, feminist, postmodern, LGBT, and other voices/communities of critique.

She contends that this remains an ecumenical effort, but different from the vision of the denominations founders, who completed much of the difficult work of the union just as the civil rights, women's, and anti-war movements began to shake the foundations on which the union was based.

The two things I missed were more detailed discussions of those alternative communities and their influence on the church and the fact that the book is a decade old and thus doesn't discuss the more recent developments and trends--the God is still speaking campaign, the growing number of Pentecostals in the church, and our movement toward more environmental activism.

But I liked it so well I think I'll use it to teach a class here at church on UCC history next year as we begin preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World

Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern WorldBeyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Beyond Resistance is a newly published book by the brand new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. I ordered the book in hopes to understand him and his vision better. The book was mentioned in the midst of an article about his radical vision to focus the church on ending white privilege. Oddly, nothing about that topic appears in the book.

The content is derivative and seems aimed for an audience that has read nothing for the last twenty years about current trends in the church. I kept wondering if such an audience even exists, but then I run into clergy who seem to be in that audience.

As with any book about ministry, I can always find one or two suggestions that feed my imagination and give me ideas for use in my own setting, and that occurred here for a couple of practices he discusses.

But otherwise reading the book left me unimpressed.

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A Day in the Life

As I drove back to the hospital for the second time that day, I thought "This day would be a good example of what a 'day in the life of a pastor' can sometimes be."

Metz mansion icy

I had walked across the street in order to get a better look at the century-old mansion, now apartment house, which had burned the day before.  As it burned, we stood in the entryway of the church watching.  As late as midnight, the fire department had been hosing the structure down.  Since the temperatures were in the single digits, the mansion and everything around it were now covered in ice.  I wanted to get a better look.

When I saw the smoke the day before, I was alarmed because a congregant lived there.  Did she and her little dog make it out, I worried?  We still hadn't heard from her, but had heard the dog did not survive.  Multiple calls had gone unanswered.

As I walked across the parking lot toward the once beautiful and now eery structure, I saw her talking to a fireman.  When I approached she didn't recognize me at first, as I was bundled up against the cold.  When she did see me, we hugged and she cried.  The dog was dead.

I took her arm and we walked back to the church building.  We had to cross fields of ice, stepping over big chunks.  The run off of water had frozen in the curbs and on the sidewalks.  The city had been clearing and treating the streets around the fire all night long.  The church building was itself surrounded by a 1-2 foot berm of ice chunks, making it difficult to approach the building on foot or by car.

We came inside and the other staff hugged her and she cried some more.  After a cup of coffee (always coffee, one of the sacraments, really), she shared her story, and we listened.  Then we began to help.

***

I'd already been to the hospital once, to see two congregants, one a senior and the other a teenager.  The senior was unconscious.  I held her hand for a moment and prayed.  I chatted with the teen and his parents.  The doctors were still trying to determine what was wrong.

It was him that I drove to see the second time that day, after I received a text that he was going into surgery.  I called his mom and asked if she wanted me to return and pray with them.  She said she would like that.  So I held hands with them, and we prayed for healing and calm.

Then I went to have a margarita with another church member whose mother died a few days ago.  She texted me asking if I would join her for a drink.  I eventually had to leave our "happy hour" in order to return to the church for a Worship Ministry meeting where we discussed mundane things like how to clean the chancel, attendance trends, communion team leadership, and more. 

***

That morning I had read and studied for this week's sermon on Justice, part of a series on the virtues I'm calling "The Good Life."  A Nebraska sign with the slogan "The Good Life" is the image I'm using in promoting the series.

Good Life

My lunch appointment cancelled, so I was able to attend the Keystone XL pipeline protest at our new Congressman's office.  He voted for the law allowing it, which was consistent with his earlier positions, even though he is a Democrat.  Because our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has called for divestment from fossil fuels and for greater climate change advocacy, I felt compelled to participate.  

So, in 15 degree weather I held my sign and chanted with others as news crews recorded the event.  In groups of five we went into the office and spoke with aides.  I delivered our denomination's understanding of the issue, as I had in an e-mail before his vote, and thanked the aides for listening.  As I left a church member saw me and said hello.

Intending to grab a few moments for leisurely reading, I went to Chipotle with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas' latest book, where I ran into a friend who works for a local non-profit, and one of her co-workers.  I sat with them.

Later in the afternoon I attended a meeting of Heartland Clergy for Inclusion.  Over coffee (always coffee) and cookies, we prepared a campaign to demonstrate clergy support for marriage equality.  

***

After a late fast-food dinner, I had to work on the final touches for my college class beginning in the morning.  My husband sat on the couch beside me, doing his own work.  That was our time together for the day.

I never did get to read my work e-mail.  I did, before lunch and the protest, return a couple of phone messages that had piled up from the days before.


Hymns to the Stillspeaking God

This is the thirty-ninth, and final planned post, in this series on the hymns I've sung during my lifetime.

Cate's Eye Nebula

When I began this series in early May, I did not expect to write so much or for it to be such a rich topic of exploration.  But as I wrote, other stories and ideas came to mind.  This has been an opportunity to examine my own faith development, enter into theological reflection, and share some of my favourite stories about worship, the church, and spiritual experience.

To draw this series to a close, I have saved some of the God hymns that have become common in my hymnody in recent years.  These reflect an appreciation for the myriad names and aspects of the divine, a greater focus on the Spirit, and an appreciation for God working through the created world in a way that is in tune with science.

But first, a mention of a hymn that appeared in the Southern Baptist hymnal of my childhood, but which we may have never sung, as it was already an artefact of a different age.  But it was one that always stimulated my interest when I read it.

God of earth and outer space,
God of love and God of grace,
Bless the astronauts who fly
As they soar beyond the sky.
God who flung the stars in space,
God who set the sun ablaze,
Fling the spacecraft thro' the air,
Let man know your presence there.

I did quote that hymn in my pastoral prayer the Sunday closest to the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight.  But the third verse is even more interesting:

God of man's exploring mind,
God of wisdom, God of time,
Launch us from complacency
To a world in need of thee.
God of power, God of might,
God of rockets firing bright.
Hearts ignite and thrust within,
Love for Christ to share with men.

I'm drawn to the exploring mind (and fascinated by the strangely erotic imagery in the final lines).  The exploring mind connects well with hymns in our New Century Hymnal, such as:

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
to notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:
O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your Word.

This lyric (from 1853 no less) is based upon the 1620 sermon of John Robinson to the Pilgrims as they departed Holland for America in which he told them to expect that there was "yet more light and truth to break forth from God's holy word."  Listen to these words from the second verse of "Come, Teach Us, Spirit of Our God:"

Excite our minds to follow you,
to trace new truths in store,
new flight paths for our spirit space,
new marvels to explore:
new marvels to explore.

This spirit of the Stillspeaking God is central to the faith and worship of the United Church of Christ.  Thus, one of our favourite hymns is this:

Praise to the living God, the God of love and light,
Whose word brought forth the myriad suns and set the worlds in flight.
Whose infinite design, which we but dimly see,
Pervades all nature, making all a cosmic unity.

But it is the second verse which still startles me for its inclusion of a word and a concept that would have never appeared in the hymnody of my youth:

Praise to the living God, from whom all things derive,
Whose Spirit formed upon this sphere the first faint seeds of life;
Who caused them to evolve, unwitting, toward God's goal,
Till humankind stood on the earth, as living, thinking souls.

Not only does it still startle me every time, it excites and inspires me.

There is this emphasis upon God's Spirit working within us and within creation, in hymns such as "God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian" (which is such a great name).  Here is the fourth verse:

Triune God, mysterious being, undivided and diverse,
Deeper than our minds can fathom, greater than our creeds rehearse:
Help us in our varied callings your full image to proclaim,
That our ministries uniting may give glory to your name.

While serving at CoH-OKC I gained a greater appreciation for Pentecost, and the celebration of the Spirit.  This was partially because of the influence of CoH-Dallas where Pentecost is one of the biggest Sundays of the year, usually involving fun pyrotechnics during the opening hymn.  I haven't been able to convey that joy in Pentecost here at First Central, but they have adopted the tradition of wearing the colours of the flame--red, pink, orange, and yellow.

Come, O Spirit, dwell among us,
come with Pentecostal power;
give the church a stronger vision,
help us face each crucial hour.

***

Wind who makes all winds that blow--
gusts that bend the saplings low,
Gales that heave the sea in waves,
stirrings in the mind's deep caves--
Aim your breath with steady power
on your church, this day, this hour.
Raise, renew the life we've lost,
Spirit God of Pentecost.

***

Spirit, spirit of gentleness,
blow through the wilderness, calling and free,
Spirit, spirit of restlessness,
stir me from placidness, wind, wind on the sea.

You moved on the waters, 
you called to the deep,
then you coaxed up the mountains 
from the valleys of sleep;
And over the eons you
called to each thing,
"Awake from your slumbers
and rise on your wings."

Again, this concept of God's Spirit working within us and within creation, and it is the diversity of nature that reveals the myriad forms of God.  This is clear in one of the most unusal hymns in our hymnal, which is also a favourite here at First Central:

God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise

The note in the hymnal says, "Jaroslav Vajda wrote this text to provoke answers to how and why we serve God.  By creating new poetic forms and adapting ageless ideas and expressions, Vajda speaks in the language of his time."

And this diversity within the divine is made most explicit by a hymn that I only learned here at First Central, which is one of their favourites.  We sang it two Sundays ago, and I could feel how it worked within this congregation, inviting their imaginations to engage with the divine in play and praise.

Bring many names,
beautiful and good,
celebrate, in parable and story,
holiness in glory,
living, loving God.
Hail and Hosanna!
bring many names.

Strong mother God,
working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation,
genius at play:
Hail and Hosana, 
strong mother God!

The next three verses celebrate "Warm father God," "Old, aching God," and "Young, growing God."  What delight in imagining God as old and aching and young and growing!  Of course many religious folk would somehow view these images and concepts as contrary to divinity, thereby strangely limiting their concept of God.  Thus, there is a great divide in what and who it is we are worshipping.  

The final verse expresses the great mysteries and paradoxes of our faith:

Great, living God,
never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing,
everlasting home:
Hail and Hosanna,
great, living God!