What are your core values?

A few days ago I was at a meeting at a church that is not part of my denomination. We were looking at how they use technology to enhance their worship. That part was interesting, but what really caught my attention was something the primary presenter said early on.

They want to make sure that the technology doesn’t become more important than the worship…that it is used to enhance the worship. And in order to ensure that, they have five core values related to their ministry.

  1. They value excellence over perfection. Perfection is not attainable by human beings–but excellence is. While I don’t think I’d thought of it in those terms, I’ve always said that if you are doing the best you possibly can, then you are bringing ministry.
  2. They value worship over performance. This one is a big one for me. When I’m sitting, and listening to someone sing / play / preach, I can tell whether the focus is on providing / leading worship…or whether it’s on “Look at me and what I can do / say.”
  3. They value engagement over observation. In other words, are members of the congregation taking an active part in the worship experience? Or are they being preached at or sung to?
  4. They value content over style. This one is an interesting one in light of so many battles that are fought today over whether a church should use hymns, praise songs, classical songs, etc., etc., etc. For them no style is off limits. If the content fits and speaks to the worship experience of any given service, then it’s usable.
  5. They value integrity over ability. At first glance, this one may make one go “Huh?” But for me, it’s tied in with the first one. When one uses a lot of volunteers–as this church does–they pair young people with adults who can help them learn. They provide practice materials as well as physical practice times–and they expect those volunteers to be committed to doing what they agreed to–and to practice so that they can do the best job possible.

There are a lot of different ways values can be expressed. My own faith tradition has what we call Enduring Principles.” These are principles that describe the “personality” of who we are…and they also provide the foundation for how we worship and–hopefully–how we live in community.

But I love these core worship ministry values and think that whether they were to ever be officially claimed by my faith tradition, they are still valuable for every individual involved in worship planning to consider and hold to.

And perhaps not just worship planners and leaders…but all of us in our attempts to build and live in community.

Do we ever really know someone?

Last Sunday morning our congregation held a memorial service for one of our congregational “characters” who died last Christmas Eve.

She was known as “the can lady” because every time she came to the congregation, she hunched over her cart which was filled with cans to donate to our fundraiser.

She was deaf…gruff…cantankerous…stubborn (she refused to let anyone give her a ride anywhere and walked all over town in all kinds of weather, hunched over her cart)…but she considered our congregation her home church.

We didn’t know much about her. We knew she was a hoarder because we helped move her after she had been evicted. We knew she had been homeless. We knew that when she married a few years ago, it was in many ways a marriage of convenience for both her and her husband–but that it also brought joy to her. We didn’t know if she had any other family. We knew that our congregation meant something to her and that she wanted to give in return. We knew that we missed her when she had to move into the nursing home.

At the service, there were folks who shared from the nursing home she had had to move into as well as the community center she had gone to as often as she could…and we found out more about her because each group knew something a little bit different about her.

We learned where she had been born…where she moved with her family…why she ended up in our part of the country. We discovered she had gone through four years of college (although we don’t know where or what she studied for sure). We learned she had worked at one point as a CNA–and that she had gone on disability about 35 years ago with extremely severe scoliosis. She had had back surgery for something else and it never took, so she was living with constant pain. We learned that because of her evictions, she was not eligible for subsidized housing, so she had to pay rent from her disability income. Her income was only about $1200 a month and rent and utilities left her only about $350 to live on. One month she lost even that, and so then she carried it in quarters–figuring no one would steal that bag of quarters because it was too heavy! But that also explained why she wanted so much of the extra food we were able to provide to those who needed help, courtesy of a local grocery.

But we also learned that when you were able to connect with her–which took time and perseverance–you were a friend forever. We learned that there were things that really tickled her…and that occasionally she would just let go and laugh in joy. We learned that she loved going to devotions and Bible study…

And so by the time the service ended, we realized how much she had touched others…and how much we had been touched. We learned something important as well…we never really completely know someone else…and grace is important!

 

“Miracle at Midnight”

We watched “Miracle at Midnight” on Disney+ last night…and I had trouble sleeping.

Told basically through the eyes of one family, it’s the story of the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 after plans were made for mass arrests and deportations beginning at midnight on the start of Rosh Hashana. It’s an incredible story–and resulted in the survival of 99% of the Danish Jews.

It’s a Disney movie…so while there is violence that is an integral part of the story, the violence was not what kept me awake.

No, what kept my mind stirred up were questions of how I would have reacted. Would I have had the courage this family (and the many other families) did? To have risked the lives of my loved ones in order to shelter someone I didn’t know?

I hope so.

In some cases they were friends…neighbors…business associates…teachers. But in many cases, they were strangers–taken in because that was the right thing to do.

They weren’t demonized as faceless “others.” It didn’t matter that they believed or worshiped differently. They were part of the community.

Those who took the Jews in and hid them until they could be moved to safety did so because they believed in living out their faith. They took to heart the words in their sacred scriptures (Matthew 25:35-36):

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

Could I have done the same? Can I?

 

Time for a change…

 

See the source image

There’s a song by Natalie Sleeth that I have loved since I first heard it as a children’s choir anthem. It seems particularly appropriate right now–I have lost two friends at far too young an age and will be using this at yet another memorial service this coming weekend.

In the bulb there is a flower;
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise:
butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter 
there's a spring that waits to be, 
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

There's a song in every silence, 
seeking word and melody;
there's a dawn in every darkness 
bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future;
what it holds, a mystery,
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing; 
in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection;
at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

Words © 1986 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188

But it also seems appropriate at this time of year–when everything seems dead and gone…the days turn into darkness too early…there’s sickness around…

And it seems fitting as well in this political climate–when there seems to be so much darkness and I find myself wondering when (or if!) things will change before it is too late.

It’s a song that gives me hope…hope that even in the darkest times and situations, there is yet new life that will spring forth.

It gives me hope in Anne Frank’s words: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

And I am also reminded that it always seems the darkest right before the dawn.

I don’t know how soon the dawn will come. I don’t know if I will still be around to see it–I hope so!

But this hymn helps me walk in faith…in trust that the ultimate source of life that I call God will bring new life–perhaps in ways and forms I cannot now imagine. But the new day is coming!

Following Jesus … no turning back

Something I’ve been thinking about for myself and all of us who claim Christianity…

Jesus said “Follow me.” Not just when it’s convenient…or easy…or when everyone else agrees.

He said “Love your neighbor.” Not just when they’re easy to love…or when they’re the same background / race / religion / ethnicity / gender identity…

He said “Take up your cross…and follow me.” Sometimes I don’t want to follow him–because I know it may lead to persecution…or death. Sometimes I don’t want to follow him because I want my life to be easy. I want to get along with all the people around me.

But if I say I am a follower of Jesus…if I claim the mantle of Christianity…then I am called to challenge the status quo…to stand up for and with the marginalized…to speak out against injustice and violence…no matter what.

There’s a song in my denomination’s hymnal that goes like this:

I have decided to follow Jesus (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, still I will follow (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me (x3);
no turning back, no turning back.

The story goes that it was sung by a man in India who came to know Christ and left the head hunter tradition of his tribe. He was challenged to deny his faith or face execution. He stood firm–even though his wife and children were killed in front of him before he too was killed–and left this song as his testimony.

May it also be mine.

Blessed are…

Yesterday the theme suggested for use in my faith tradition was “Light shines in the darkness.”

As I was thinking about that, it dawned on me that in order for that light to shine, those of us who follow Jesus are called to be mirror images of his life and ministry. But how?

In my journaling last night, I felt a strong sense that the answer to that question lies in the part of scripture that is commonly called “The Beatitudes”…the “blessed are…” verses.

I’ve read them before…heard them. Yes, they’re nice words. But what do they really mean? So I decided to read them in a different way. Rather than using the traditional translations, I wondered how they would read if they were being spoken today. Would they make more sense?

There are a lot of modern translations and versions. In this case, I decided to see how they read in The Message–and wow! did they pack a punch! I’m going to have to spend some more time unpacking these words–but I think they’re going to be my challenge for this year. Here’s Matthew 5:1-12:

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” 

What about Mary?

This is the time of year when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus…the appearance of the shepherds…the magi…and sometimes on into the flight into Egypt. But what if we heard the story of the nativity from the perspective of Mary? What would it sound like? What would it look like?

What would it have felt like to ride on a donkey for 90 miles while 9 months pregnant? With the last couple of days feeling the twinges of early labor…and wondering when and where you were going to give birth?

Mary was separated from the circle of women she might have expected to be around her to support her in the birthing process…to assure her that things were going properly. Instead, she was surrounded by strangers–and in many ways, even her husband was still a stranger to her.

Most of the paintings and illustrations we see show her calm and serene, clean and with every hair in place, holding the baby right after the birth. But that’s not how it is. Any mother can tell you that’s not how it works! You’re exhausted…weepy…sweaty…and exhilarated. But you’re certainly not feeling or looking your best…

Nor are you ready for visitors…especially not strangers, dirty, unkempt. Strangers who come with a story of a visit by angels telling them to come find your child. Who are they? and what do they want?

I imagine that all Mary really wanted to do was to lie back and try to get the new baby to nurse…and then to sleep.

I wonder what she felt like when Joseph came to her later and told her that they had to leave quickly and flee into a different country because an angel had told him that the child was in danger? She had just gotten used to being in a strange place–and now they had to leave again?

So what if we saw a real nativity scene? What if we saw Mary as a real person? What if we saw Mary and Joseph as a real couple…who undoubtedly had some arguments about what they needed to do…about how to raise this child…who were doing their best but who probably still didn’t understand how this was all going to turn out.

What if we saw the baby as a real baby…who nursed…and pooped…and cried…and drove his parents crazy at times?

Would that change anything?

I wonder…