Let’s Have a Parade!

For Christmas, my parents gave me a jar filled with over six hundred small slips of paper written with conversation and writing prompts. This is the one of my responses:

“Seventy-six trombones led the big parade, one hundred and ten cornets came straight behind…”

There is just something about a parade.

We watch the holiday parades in New York and Pasadena, we celebrate with the small town displays of hard work and gleeful extravagance, we get excited because a parade is coming.

And then maybe, just maybe, we get the chance to be in a parade: directing a float, handling a balloon, or simply able to wave out at all the people watching and waiting to see what is next.

A parade is almost like a piece of music. You cannot experience the entire parade all at once, it has to pass by you, letting you see the disparate parts, the different elements of color and sight and sound. If the whole parade was all at once, then you would miss the fun of it. If they were all gathered in a field at one point, and you had to look at them all from a single vantage point, then there would be details that you would certainly miss. Part of enjoying the parade, in the same manner as enjoying a piece of music, is in the extended experience, rather than condensed into a single painful crash of noise or vision.

You get to look forward to something, as you watch a parade. Each time something passes, something is coming right behind. And if we are lucky, then the grand finale is at the close, and it will make all this waiting worth our time and patience.

And so we wait. Perhaps, if it is cold, we wait with a thermos of hot chocolate, or if it is desperately hot, we wait while fanning our faces, and trying to keep in the shade. Sitting in lawn chairs, or in the tail gate of a car, or simply on the curb, we wait and hope that the waiting is worth the coming celebration.

But even if it is not, if the parade is not what we hoped, perhaps we tell ourselves that we enjoyed it anyway. Maybe we make it worth our while, because of the time that we spent. We make the experience of a parade more than just the parade. It’s partly the waiting, the expectation, the watching, rather than the string of people and things displayed before us. It is the camaraderie of the spectators, the gleeful cries of children who watch and wave from their parent’s laps.

We go to a parade, and enjoy our time, regardless of what happens, merely because we were there.

Perhaps for some of us, I would certainly hope so.

Pardon a metaphorical leap, for a moment, as we consider that parades are like music, and that possibly, a worship service can be like a parade.

See, in worship, there are people who will show up who merely came because they felt that they had to, and maybe they will sit on the curb and wait for everything to pass by them so they can leave. But the folks who enjoy worship, who truly come to worship and to celebrate, they see the time as a gift. It doesn’t matter if they are on the side or on the route streaming by the people; some people, when they come to worship, will find that they have worshipped when they leave, regardless of what happens. It can be a celebration complete with incense and chimes, liturgies and hundred voice choirs, or a simple time of congregational hymns and prayer and preaching, but worship will be worship for them.

Part of the joy is in the participation. It is in the decision, when you go, to know that you will enjoy it, you will find it has worth, that you will have been there, and it was good.

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Vulnerable Singing

I’ve been watching the SingOff these past two weeks on television. If you don’t know it, it is an elimination competition between a capella groups. A collection of purely voices lifted in song, producing a myriad of sounds and rhythms. Sometimes the group is so good that it gives me chills and I have to grab my husband’s hand. It is just that good. Whatever note, or chord or transition that was pulled is absolutely beautiful.

The competition has three judges who are professional musicians with a significant critical musical background. So they can listen for the chills, but they also listen for the chinks. They can define why something might not have given me chills. And rather than say it was pitchy, they can say exactly where a tempo was lost or a transition in dynamics was too abrupt or needed and executed poorly. It is helpful to hear these things. But what I find especially enlightening about the feedback of the judges is when they give advice to the singers about being vulnerable on stage.

It has become a theme for them this year. Perhaps not intentionally, but, still.

Be vulnerable they say. Let your performance extend from your deepest feelings and touch the hearts of the audience. Come up and lay it all down on the stage. Reveal your weaknesses, reveal your struggle, reveal your nerves and we will honor all that you bring.

If you don’t, they say, then the audience will know. If the performance is too clean, if it is too blocky, if it is too automatic, the hearers will know it, even if they do not understand why.

Be vulnerable.

As a preacher, these words hit directly to my heart.

I am not standing on a stage with thousands of people watching me. I am not dancing in sync with four or fourteen other people. I am not belting a pop song into a microphone.

But I am telling a story. I am delivering a message. And the message is not my own. I have been given the gift to proclaim this message as an instrument of God. I use my voice. And I know that if I am not vulnerable from the pulpit, then the people who are listening will know that something is not quite right. They may not know what it is, but something will ring false to their ears.

Vulnerability is dangerous. I might reveal something that I am not ready to show. If I show where I am not perfect, will they ignore the message? If I show my nervousness, with it distract from the message?

I cannot help but think that this is the most vital part of preaching, behind being true to the Word. The Spirit will take care of the message, of the Gospel, the truth will be revealed, but as a preacher, I want to make that message as accessible as possible.

I lay it all down. I reveal struggles that I have faced. I challenge my people with the same things that challenge me. I speak the truth in vulnerable love: ready to share, and ready to receive.

Be vulnerable. 

Trust

One, two, three. One, two, three.

Last week, I went dancing after a terribly long day. I pushed myself too hard, for too long, and in too much heat. And against what should have been better judgment, I went dancing anyway. I go Contra dancing every so often, and it is a lot of hard, good fun. It is lively, energetic, and fast paced. Not for the feint of heart.

And I went, after a day at a theme park, in the middle of the summer, with a high heat index, and I didn’t do such a great job at getting all my meals in either. Like I said… possibly against my better judgment.

I went because I knew that one of my favorite live string bands would be playing. I was fairly certain that at least two very good friends would be there. I was not having a migraine day. So I went to go dance.

After an hour or so of spinning up and down the room, we break for a waltz. I was in dire need for water, but I really like the waltz as well, and so when someone offered to dance, I took him up on it.

A waltz, if you’ve not had much experience, is something that needs to be felt just as much as danced. Dancing in a waltz is more like an experiential expression of the pulse of the music than a forceful counting of steps and beats.

I have had enough practice in dancing a waltz, and in following the lead, that even though I was barely hanging on, I was easily led around the room in a gentle, graceful weaving motion through the song.

There are two roles in a partnered waltz. There is lead, and there is follow. I generally dance the follow, though I’ve practiced the lead in the main contra a few times. I have found that if you dance follow to a lead that is exceptionally good at communicating, then it becomes beautifully easy. I could have danced it with my eyes closed. I may have a little while there. I was being led around the room, flowing with the music. The music and my partner helped me journey gracefully through the dance.

Even though I was tired and worn out, the dance gave me energy. My partner helped me experience the music, not by force but by a gentle leading. I was able to walk through the simple steps, weaving in and out of a full room of people, now this way, now that way, twisting and turning about in concert with my partner. I danced to the music. I spun. I was practically on my final bits of energy, but I was filled with the music.

I think, sometimes, that I learn more about the church in a group of contra dancers than I do in Sunday morning worship. I learn about God and love and following a lead through the example of a gentle guiding hand. I practice the fellowship of community in dance and in celebration of our lives. I use my entire body to feel the music and respond to the melody and harmony and beat. I wish that the Church would look like a contra dance more often. Everybody listens to the caller, and we all respond to the music. When someone missteps then those around them gently guide them back into the rhythm. The dance would fall apart if we all chose to stop listening. We are all moving in concert, but we also are all doing something slightly different, we are responding as individuals and doing different spins and turns, but we all come back together. We move and flow through the dance, and it works because we work together.

For a dance to feel smooth, you have to give weight. Do you remember as a child clasping hands with a friend and leaning back and spinning? The main element of contra uses the same type of motion. It is difficult to give into this spin when you are a beginner. If you don’t have practice at it, and if it has been a while since you were playing and spinning as a kid, then it’s tough. It is difficult to give in and let your partner support your weight. It is difficult to take your partner’s hand and support their back at the same time.

There has to be a time when you just give in. You have to have faith that your partner will support you, and hold you up. You have to trust your partner.

It works best if you trust.

When We All Get to Heaven

This is my first funeral sermon, that I preached today at the second funeral I have done as a pastor. The Homily text was Matthew 20:1-16. I was blessed by the family, and by the short time I got to know Fred. 

The first story I ever heard about Fred was how he decided to be baptized when he was eighty-five years old. It is one of my favorite stories.

The way that his son, Jimmie, tells it, is that something had been working in Fred for a while. And about nine years ago, Fred asked how he could be saved. And so, Fred was baptized, asked Jesus into his life, and became a member of this church. And, his life was changed.

The Holy Spirit had been working in his life, and finally, he had responded to the call of God.

Unlike the laborers in the vineyard, he had not spent his live idle, no, he was a hard worker, but he had not responded to the call of God. God, in infinite wisdom, kept calling him. I know part of why Fred was able to respond to the call of God was because of the love of his family.

See, Fred had a rough life. And those laborers who were waiting all day to be called to work somewhere, that was rough, too. Living outside the promise of God is a rough life.

It is not easy, and sometimes the longer you live outside the promise, the harder it is to believe that the promise is true. It becomes difficult to believe that there is any hope. But that is the Grace in this parable, and in the story of Fred’s life.

We rejoice with God that Fred asked to be saved, and we rejoice that he became a part of this blest community. Because, see, the promise is that Fred is now rejoicing in Heaven, in paradise with Christ, with the almighty, forgiving God.

After Fred was baptized, he began to sing hymns. Jimmie said that the nurses on staff at Bethany Woods would hear him singing at all hours of the night. They would go in and tell him he can’t sing, it’s the middle of the night. He’d say ok, but then he would keep on singing. It’s like he had released a stopper, and had to get eighty years of singing hymns out.

I went to see him last week, and spent some time singing with him. I couldn’t be sure what exactly he was singing, but we sang Amazing Grace, and some other old gospel hymns.

He sang with me.

I believe that he is singing now, in heaven. He has joined the chorus, and is singing with more joy and exuberance than any of us can have. He has received the gift of living eternally with God.

We look for that time, whether we have been workers in God’s vineyard since we were small children, or if we became believers as teenagers or adults. Even if you have not yet accepted Christ as your Savior, you have not missed your chance.

God opens the door, and all we have to do it enter into the promise.

Once Fred entered into the promise, he was a changed man. And his change impacted everyone else in his life. He became the one known for singing hymns, rather than the one who was troubled by his life. His troubles may not have ended, but his view of them most certainly changed.

When asked about his baptism, and celebration of his salvation, he said: “I recommend it.” It altered his life, and it changed his view of the world. He became part of the Kingdom of God, and celebrated being part of that Kingdom.

And so we celebrate with Fred’s family today, over his life and salvation and the glorious and generous over-abundant grace that we all receive from God. None of us deserve to be members of the Kingdom, but we all have been offered places in it as a gift from God. We all work together for the Kingdom of God, and we receive the gift of grace from God. This is the gift and the eternal promise that we have in Christ.

And this is the promise that we celebrate as we celebrate Fred’s life. We have been given the promise of resurrection. It is appropriate that we celebrate his life during Holy week. On Sunday, we will come together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

We celebrate that Christ defeated death.

We celebrate that through Christ, we have received life.

Not the life we deserve, but a life of joy, hope, and eternal wonder. And we look forward to singing with Fred again, when we all get to heaven. What a day of rejoicing that will be.

Amen.

Lament of Hope

This is another installment in my series on modern psalms. And I will continue to seek them out. 

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat my blood runs weak

Let me learn from where I have been

Keep my eyes to serve my hands to learn

—Mumford & Sons

In my continuing search for the sacred in the midst of the secular, the new Mumford and Sons album delivers most satisfyingly. I have observed that psalms continue to be written in the 21st Century. They may be psalms of lament, or psalms of joy, or psalms of prayer. To me, Below My Feet is a psalm of prayer, a psalm of hope in the midst of being lost.

Keep me grounded. Keep me established, and do not let me sink into deep holes. Keep me from slipping and stumbling along the way.

I am weak. I have tried to do much more than I can. I am worn and weary from working so hard in the midst of every day going in and coming out.

Teach me, let me learn from the path I have taken. Let what I have done not be for waste, but for the instruction of your principles. (and I would have said precepts… but I think that’s only a “bible word.”)

From my doing let me learn. and through what I see, keep me in service to you.

As a prayer, it is very honest, and open. As a song, it fills me with joy. As a psalm, it is filled with trust in a promise.

It is art, it is poetry. For that, it is left up to the reader or listener to determine the meaning to himself or herself.

To me, it is a psalm, in the midst of the explosion of psalms that I have heard coming out of artists and composers and writers in the last few years. We are hungry for something. We are looking for something, and it seems that in some ways, there is no legitimate answer being offered. Mumford and Sons is not a Christian band. They have not presented their music to a Christian audience. They use explicit language in their songs, not excessively, but where it makes sense. Their explicit language intensifies the lyrics as other, more mundane or acceptable words could not do.

And yet, as a folk rock band from London, Mumford and Sons has managed to write music that speaks to my spirit, and the spirit of many others. My FaceBook feed in the last week and a half has been littered with lyrics from the new album, Babel. Their single, I Will Wait, that released before the album, brought me to tears nearly every time I heard it, in part because of the introduction that I had to it that Cathleen Falsani wrote in August.

And we listen, because we are hungry. The words of our 21st Century artists are becoming our psalms. Our cries of lament and our prayers for peace spread across the world, and it seems that the Church has shut her ears.

While the Church cries out because the Mainline is shrinking, my generation cries out that the Mainline has ceased to respond to its needs, hungers, and dreams. The Kingdom of God is not in the budget. It should be. The work for the Kingdom of God should be the driving impetus for every single action of the Church. Unfortunately, the Church has become famous for petty infighting and exclusion of the least, the last and the lost.

I suppose, that this is my lament. And this is why Below My Feet speaks to me so deeply. Because in it, I find the hope that is set deep, unshakable, in the midst of what seems to be utter lostness. Yes, I find that also in Scriptures, and in the presence of God around me, but I do not presume to limit where God may speak.