They're changing what? So usually begins the verbal exchange whenever anything in a congregation's worship service is changed.
Starting this week, MCC of Topeka sees change happening once again in the words of our Communion liturgy. Now, you may ask, why on earth would a church even consider altering the historic words of the liturgy, so deeply embedded in many Christians from childhood?
The reality is that, when we really think about the meaning of those words, they just don't quite say what they used to. At the beginning of the Communion liturgy, the dialogue usually begins with the minister or priest saying, "God be with you" to which the congregation responds, "and also with you." Already we have hit a rough spot. Aside from being very old English, this is actually an invocation of sorts, expressing the fervent desire on the part of both the celebrant and the congregation for the divine presence to be with each other. The problem is that if we really believe that "there is no spot where God is not," then we are really asking for something that is already an accomplished reality. Instead, we will open our dialogue with the powerful affirmation, "Christ is here!" to which the congregation will respond in equal measure with the words, "The Spirit is with us!"
Likewise, the words "Lift up your hearts" and its response actually reflect a pre-modern understanding which held that heaven existed just beyond the veil of the sky. Having traveled beyond the sky, humans found not heaven but the vastness of interstellar space. So, instead, we will affirm the real challenge before us, to "Open your hearts."
Instead of "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God" we will be challenged to "Let us give thanks to the Infinite One," recognizing that the identification of deity with medieval, autocratic monarchy, while it made sense to our ancestors in the world they occupied, increasingly makes less and less sense to people of faith today. It also affirms that God remains ever beyond full comprehension by our human intellects.
So, why are we doing it? It's important that the words used in worship, as far as possible, reflect accurately our faith as we live it out each and every day. The change will likely take some getting used to. Old habits are hard to break. Overall, the change will be to our benefit and to the benefit of the seekers of spiritual truth who continue to stream through our doors each week.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
— 1 Corinthians 12:26-27
In her book, Sister Outsider, Audre Lewis states that "Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing ... But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion."
Humanity as a species must get past its too frequent tendency of responding to difference with fear and suspicion. Jesus himself points out that "whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do for me." The same would also apply in regard to whatsoever we do TO them as well. A society is most succinctly defined in how it responds to those regarded as the lost, the lowest, and the least.
What happens to any of us affects all of us. If one life is callously extinguished we are all diminished. If one person's talent remains uncultivated, we are all the poorer for it.
In Metropolitan Community Churches, we have learned to embrace our differences and all the attendant diversity that they bring as a source of tremendous strength and enrichment. We have people who hold widely divergent theological positions worshiping together. Community rather than uniformity is the order of the day, and we are all the richer for it. Of course, we don't always get it right on the first try, but we strive nonetheless. In the final analysis, our positive regard for diversity may prove to be the greatest gift we have to offer the world around us.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
— Isaiah 43:19
Last week, I attended our denomination's global General Conference in Acapulco, Mexico. While I was there, I was keenly reminded of just how huge the mission of the Church really is and how it commonly requires us to move beyond our comfort zone and to step boldly into new areas and new ministries.
Far too often, people look to their faith for divine security without being willing also to embrace divine purpose in their lives. One of the great challenges facing us right now is to look at the many wonderful opportunities we have to expand our sense of mission, and the beauty of it is that we don't even have to travel. There is a mission field quite literally at our doorstep.
Many people in our society have written off Church in general as being anachronistic and having very little relevance to their day to day lives. It is up to us to demonstrate that--while some are--not all churches are like that. Part of what that looks like for us in practice is the embracing of music that is often new to us and has a different sounds and a different rhythm to it. But just as Hebrew psalms gave way to Gregorian chant, which in turn became the singing of hymns, the same wheel has continued to turn.
Just as the theology and spiritual music of our ancestors was different from ours, so ours is different from what is currently emerging in communities like Hillsong and our own sibling congregation, CRAVE MCC, which speaks powerfully to many, among them masses of young people, in a way that much of the older music just does not. The thing to keep in mind is that, aside from daring to be different in its approach, much of this new music is still deeply spiritual and speaks to people in our own epoch and our life experiences and our relationship with God in much the same way the songs of our predecessors did for them.
Try some of this new music on; see how it fits your life. It might touch you in places you had either forgotten about or in some cases didn't even realize you had. Don't expect that all of it will necessarily will be a perfect fit, but some of it might just surprise you.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. — Isaiah 55:13
— Isaiah 55:13
Recently at Metropolitan Community Church of Topeka we sang a wonderful song based on this passage from Isaiah. It describes a world that is by nature very different from the one we see around us.
In what may be characterized as a second exodus, God's people step out of the world they have known and into a world of joy and peace. Even the trees of the field applaud. Given humanity's treatment of the natural world, particularly of late, it is difficult at best to imagine such a scene.
As philosopher and theologian Alan Watts has noted, we often speak about our world in terms of people being materialistic, but that is a misnomer. For that to be the case we would need to have profoundly more respect for the material world than we do. It seems the only purpose human beings--as a species--have for the material world is to consume it and turn it all into waste products and noxious substances as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Like the prophet Isaiah, I imagine a day when humanity is able to live in harmony with the world that has spawned us. I long for the day when the natural world is truly happy that we, as a species, are here, a day when justice and peace, along with a true stewardship of the earth, are the hallmarks of our collective humanity.
And I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
— John 13:34
We've all heard that "love makes the world go 'round." That statement is perhaps more true than any of us dare to suppose. In John 13, Jesus issues a direct command to his disciples to "love one another [j]ust as I have loved you." Rather than jockeying for power or position, as so often happens in the world at large, Jesus' followers are to be recognized by one over-riding, distinctive characteristic: the "love for one another."
The sort of love the Christ calls us to have is not a sentimental, greeting card kind of love, nor is it a love that is primarily characterized as an emotion. Instead, it is a love that is best recognized in actions. It is the sort of love that not only feels for others but also cares for others in real and tangible ways. It's the sort of love that takes in a friend, preventing them from going homeless, that feeds the hungry in any of a number of ways, and that considers the needs of others to be at least as significant as the needs of self.
It may sound trite to say love is all you need. But if it is the sort of love described above, it really is all that is needed. It was St. Augustine who, in an uncharacteristically liberal theological moment, mused "Love God, and do what you want." Why? Because when we are securely rooted in love of God it informs our love of neighbor, world, and yes, even self.
In a world so often keyed to spin on acquisition and accumulation, it really is love in action that makes all the difference.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
— Colossians 3:9-11
Lying seems to be everywhere! Of course, nowadays it is more likely to be called merchandising or marketing. In fact, it has become so commonplace that some people don't even give it a second thought anymore. What we fail to grasp in those moments of decision is that Christ is present in both us and the other person. Why we do it is not as relevant as the fact that we place Christ on both sides of our untrue statement, casting Christ as both the speaker and the listener.
Such behavior is what Paul refers to as the actions of the old self, which in its death throes, strives to reassert itself rather than face oblivion. Sometimes we buy into that line of thought, identifying our sense of being with that old self. The hope is always that in embracing Christ we will embrace truth as a cardinal virtue for our lives.
After all, when we lie our words serve to undermine someone else's sense of reality by causing them to believe something that is simply not true. It puts an "un-" in front of "creation" and can be a profoundly destructive rather than creative force in the world. Some people use untruth to draw artificial and arbitrary lines in the world, to separate and divide people from one another, to draw them into believing that their differences are irreconcilable. But the divine Spirit that renews us does not ascribe any reality to these false dichotomies, and Paul powerfully reminds us that, "In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!"
Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.
— 3 John 1:11
It has often been observed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we see the truth of those words borne out in everyday life. From kids at concerts copying the attire of rock stars to sports enthusiasts donning the jerseys of their beloved players to trekkers at conventions dressed in Starfleet uniforms or as any number of aliens, we express our fondest attachments outwardly and openly.
Of course, all of that behavior seems to change when people enter a religious or spiritual context. Now, it becomes too much to expect for us to do the very thing that comes so freely and naturally in other settings. The reality is that it is only really difficult when we over-think it or resist it.
As people of faith, emulating the God we revere and serve should come as naturally and freely as breathing. Unfortunately, many people prefer trying to emulate the power rather than the character of God. It's one of those all too human foibles that so often get us into trouble.
What would it mean for us to act like God would in any number of real life situations? Or as my fellow Christians raise the question, "What would Jesus do?" What indeed. Whatever love and kindness we are able to offer, whatever ways we can seek to include rather than exclude, whatever ways we extend the divine reign of hope and justice in our community and our world, these are the very opportunities for us to wear the face of the Divine and to do so proudly, without reservation, as the adult children of a loving God. Let it show!
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
— Psalm 82:3-4
It seems that everything old is indeed new again. In our own time, we onceagain hear politicians and tea-partiers and others, all raising their voices to blame others for the dilemmas facing our nation and our world.
Generally, it seems that the favored tactic is to blame the powerless and the disenfranchised. From the masses of people unable to afford health care to those who cross the border illegally seeking to build a life for themselves and their families and have to live lives of guarded subterfuge, the blame frequently seems to be ascribed to those without the capacity (for whatever reason) to respond.
Rarely, does anyone ever take those with massive wealth or power to task for the current state of affairs. Could that be precisely because they have the resources to raise a vigorous and vociferous response? Perhaps it is the fashion of our time to direct blame for all manner of ills only at those who can't respond. Why blame the powerless? Because the powerful can and will strike back! Even when the powerful are directly challenged, they find ways to cast the blame in circles until those who dared to raise the question tire of the chase.
As people of faith, we are called to help the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, and the needy and to "deliver them from the hand of the wicked." At a time when corporate accidents like the current oil spill plaguing the gulf coast of the United States, which is still unchecked, frankly I'm a bit more concerned with the actions of the powerful and concerned for those whose lives will be devastated for generations to come.
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
— Amos 5:14
Seeking good and not evil, it seems so obvious when couched in such categorical terms. Yet it can often be a most difficult choice to discern.
We are encouraged to seek good because good is the path that leads to life. We are encouraged to avoid the path of evil, presumably and precisely because it does not lead to life. Every path we choose has consequences attendant to it. Too often, when we make poor choices, we attempt to blame God for the consequences. I hear people say things like, "God's picking on me." Rubbish. I for one do not believe that God runs around like a bully on the playground, snatching the lunch money out of the hands of unsuspecting people.
However, that is not to say that there is not a systematic order to the universe God has created. Some choices then will have beneficial consequences while others will have deleterious ones. The problem arises, when we think we can do harm with immunity from the consequences of that choice. Even when the consequence is not immediately visible, such behavior tears at the very fabric of the human soul.
Choosing to seek good also has an added benefit because the scripture tells us God will be with us. I can't imagine a better spiritual perk for simply doing the right thing than having that reassuring divine presence as a constant companion.
For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven....
— Colossians 1:19
Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile everything, whether in heaven or on earth. God brought humanity into union with divinity through Christ. It pleases God to heal all the divisions that would separate us, from God or from one another. The fullness of who God is was manifest in Christ; that divine fullness can be brought forth in us as well. It's there, waiting to be discovered.
When shrill voices are raised in anger, telling us that "God hates" one group or another, let's remember that "...God so loved the world..." and that "God was pleased to reconcile all things," including us. We are part of the unfolding story, part of the divine plan for the world's well-being.
To experience this more clearly, try an affirmation like this one: I live each day in the fullness of who God is, and I embody the divine character with my voice and actions, in unity with all of creation.