“Being poor sucks!”

I was at a service tonight in which the emphasis was on generosity and stewardship. Sounds boring, right? Well, this one wasn’t!

In the course of the service, the speaker (Presiding Bishop Steve Jones–the top financial officer of our denomination) was sharing about some programs we’ve had called “Designated Giving Initiatives.” The last one was to help purchase and renovate a building for youth work in Chattanooga, Tennessee–in an area that is poor and dangerous. That building will be dedicated this November.

What I didn’t know–and what Steve shared–was some of the background as to why the Chattanooga Kids initiative was chosen!

The focus before them was on raising money to put roofs on churches in Africa. The church’s policy has been that if the African congregations could raise the money and materials to build the church building, the denomination would help with the roofs. One of the letters that came in–with enough money to put the roof on one building–started out “Being poor sucks!” It was from the Chattanooga Kids–and these kids in a poor and dangerous area, meeting in a building whose roof leaked, still wanted to help put a roof on a building for kids in Africa. Some of them had gone without lunches, and they had given up their movie and pizza money for the month (for some of the church activities) so they could give.

Are they poor? I don’t think so.

Maybe they don’t have a lot of what society says they should have–or even what I would think of as basic needs. But I think they are rich! They understand what it means to be loved by God so much that they are willing to give everything in order to share that with others.

Yes, being poor sucks–but the worst poverty isn’t being without “things.”

Make a Joyful Noise

I love to sing–both old hymns as well as new ones. Usually finding a group to sing the old ones isn’t too hard…but singing new ones can be challenging. Many people aren’t comfortable with new tunes unless they’ve heard them many times–and sometimes putting new words with an old tune gets people confused as well.

I think that’s partially why I so much enjoyed the Hymn Society Conference! While not everyone who comes is a musician, there are enough musicians that we can sightread new hymns and sing them well!

And, boy, did we sing!!

We started out Sunday night with a hymn festival celebrating California hymn writers…some old and some new. Some were easy to sing, while some called on the Hispanic tradition and were a bit more challenging. We sang with organ, piano, bass, drums, flute, and dancers… One of our hymns came from the 1893 Parliament of Religions, still a challenge today…

O prophet souls of all the years,
speak yet to us in love;
your far-off vision, toil, and tears
to their fulfillment move.

There’s more to that one, but it was a lovely call to work together to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.

Monday morning there was a plenary session with Thomas Troeger at which I found myself in tears. We sang many of his hymns–but the one that touched me so much that I couldn’t sing was titled “God Weeps with Us Who Weep and Mourn”…acknowledging the pain of watching someone die, and yet ending with a promise of God’s grace.

Tuesday night we shared in a hymnfest focused on the “gift of African American song.” Song…and worship… It acknowledged pain but through it all yet a sense of hope. The notes on the page were there for guidance–but our ears were more important to sense where we were being called. And one thing that intrigued me was the challenge to sing whatever part we wanted to–if it wasn’t on the page, make up your own(!) because the song is not complete until all voices are a part of it.

My tongue got thoroughly twisted Wednesday night! We sang from the Hispanic tradition–going way back! Chant…mariachi…spirituals… Tiring, but also energizing!!

We also shared in morning prayers–focused on worship from the Asian community…and night prayers–from yet other Christian traditions.

318 people–from 38 states and two Canadian provinces, Brazil, and New Zealand…and 27 denominations represented. I know that there are significant theological differences between us–and yet, when we lifted our voices together in praise and prayer to God, I can’t help but think that God was pleased with the joyful noise we made!

There’s no place like home…

I’ve been thinking of those words of Dorothy’s from The Wizard of Oz the last hour or so. I’ve just arrived back home after being gone 10 days…and being welcomed home by my husband and dog is just great!

The first several days I spent at the Hymn Society Conference in Berkeley, California. Quite an interesting place to visit–and the Conference was wonderful!! Lots of music (as you can imagine)–and it was wonderful singing so many new hymns with such ease…lots of musicians make sight-singing much easier!! There’s a lot of fantastic new hymns being written…keep your ears open for them. (I’ll write more about the Conference later.)

Then I spent a week with my brother and his partnerĀ in Palo Alto. We did some hanging out, working in the yard of their house (that they just moved into the week before I got there!), visiting with some friends, doing some of the touristy “stuff”…generally just having a great time.

I’m so glad I went…and so glad to be back home as well. There is something wonderful about being able to visit other places and broaden your horizons–but there is also something wonderful about having a foundation to return to.

Congregational Song and the Arts

I’m going to be heading out this weekend to Berkeley, California, to attend the Hymn Society Conference. The theme is “Congregational Song and the Arts” and there will be a focus on faith, beauty, and social justice. It’s an interesting combination of words, and the publicity has said “we will reflect on some neglected dimensions of justice, beauty, and faith and the interconnections among them. In particular, we will consider the role of congregational song in exploring and voicing them and drawing them together, as the beauty of sung faith awakens us to the power of the arts to express God’s praise and to show us how to work for the healing of the world.”

I am so looking forward to this!

It seems that too often we have identified “the arts” as something nice, but not necessary. When finances are tight–whether in schools or in churches–far too often the arts are the first things cut.

And yet the arts shape us. I can remember growing up hearing the hymnal being referred to sometimes as an additional book of scripture. I still find myself singing some of the old songs I grew up with, even though I no longer agree with the theology expressed in them–and yet, they still provide a connection with the Divine.

And who can think about the Civil Rights movement without thinking of song?

We are what we sing, whether we like it or not…and whether we even realize it or not. Our music shapes us. It comforts us…it challenges us…

Another quote from the Hymn Society brochure:

We do not customarily group these three [faith, beauty, social justice] together. Perhaps we should. All three are rooted in our yearning to draw closer to a holy will and purpose for human living. All three suffer from misues and misunderstanding:

faith can be reduced to dogma;
beauty can be neglected for utility;
social justice can be ignored for the sake of the status quo.

I am looking forward to a time of making a joyful noise…of being comforted…of being challenged…of hearing new ways to express God’s call…

Independence Day

On July 4, my husband and I went to the YMCA to do our daily exercise. (Yes, even on the holiday!)

Anyway, they’ve got new treadmills–ones that have a little TV that you can watch while you’re walking. I was channel surfing, and when I came to the History Channel, they were doing a special on the Declaration of Independence that looked interesting, so I decided to watch that.

One of the statements that really caught my attention–and it was something I had known before, but somehow it made more impact this time–was that when one of the signers (I think it was John Adams) talked about hanging together or they would all hang separately, it was more than just a figure of speech. By signing the Declaration, they had each committed treason and if they were caught by the British, they could each expect to literally hang from a tree. And yet, they felt so strongly in what they believed that they went ahead and signed anyway.

At the same time, there were also inner struggles. While the Declaration of Independence called for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, “all” didn’t really mean all…not then. And it’s still something we struggle with.

But as I was watching, it really came home to me that what our founding fathers went through truly is something to honor. Yes, some of their decisions were not wise (in hindsight)…and left us with continuing challenges. And yes, you can argue that they were advocating treason.

Yet they felt so strongly that there is a right way to live–a way that all can be involved in government–that they were willing to literally give their lives to make it happen. If I had been living then, I honestly don’t know what my response would have been. Would I have encouraged my family to support independence? or stood fast to the connection with England?

Independence Day is a reminder to me that we each have decisions to make every day. Most of them are not life-threatening…but each one challenges me to think about the reason I make them. Because it’s easy? or because I believe that what I am doing would be worth giving my life for?