Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Power of "You"

I always enjoy leading in worship.  In worship leadership, one speaks on behalf of the congregation, articulating the thanksgivings, requests, confessions, hopes, and convictions of the worshippers.  One also shares the Word of God with the congregation, expressing words of forgiveness, hope, challenge, comfort, and guidance.  There is power in the corporate experience of worship.

There is also great power in personalized, individualized moments in worship.  Some of my most moving moments in worship leadership are when the service narrows its focus down to a solitary individual.  When people come forward to take communion, one of these moments is created.  I look into the person’s eyes, perhaps calling them by name, and say:  “This is the body of Christ broken for You” or “This is the cup of Christ poured out for You.”  In that moment the weight of those words come to bear directly on a single person; the rest of the world falls away, and they stand robed in the mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Another one of those moments can come on Ash Wednesday.  The worshipper leader physically touches the worshipper, making the mark of the cross on their forehead, and says:  “From dust You have come and to dust You shall return.”  These words should be experienced as depressing, discouraging, and diminishing; but they are not.  We experience them as liberating and encouraging; they in some way lighten the load of our lives. Why?

They remind us that life in this world is not the only thing.  It is fleeting and fragile; but that is all right with us.  We were created for something grander, more lasting, deeper and broader.  This reminder gives us permission to hold our lives and ourselves more lightly.  G. K. Chesterton wrote:  “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”  Those ashes give us permission to fly a bit.

The ashes come to us in the shape of a cross.  This reminds us that someone has done something wonderful for us.  It is true that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return, but we are a great deal more than dust.  Through the cross we have become the daughters and sons of God.  The cruciform ashes remind us of who we really are in spite of present dusty appearance.

So we begin our 40 days of preparation for Holy Week and Easter with a reminder of what we are—dust.   We are also reminded of who we are—a great deal more than dust.

James Kelsey
Ash Wednesday 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013

On Cell Phone Coverage and Congregations

Have you seen the AT&T wireless commercial where a man is talking with some young children around a table and he asks: “What’s better bigger or smaller?  Would you rather have a big tree house or a small tree house?”  The kids want a large tree house because they could have a disco and get a larger TV in it.  The assumption is that the question is silly; bigger is always better.  When it comes to cell phone coverage, this is undoubtedly true.  A larger coverage area is better than a smaller area.   When it comes to churches, the answer may not be as obvious.

Steve Willis, in his book Imagining the Small Church—Celebrating a Simpler Path, makes a case for the special qualities of a small church.  He writes that small churches find their “unique resiliency in the loving depths of its people’s relationships and its commitments to the special place where it resides.”  When people in a small church think about their congregation, they see the faces and the specifics of the place.  They talk about love, belonging, and faithfulness (pp. xii-xiii).   People are important in these churches; they remember that great cloud of witnesses who spent a lifetime learning to love one another in that place (p. 34).  “Checking in” with one another is a central piece of congregational gatherings, more important that program (p. 50). 

He writes about the simplicity of life in most small churches; what is non-essential is stripped away.  Willis says that they are not places of pretense (p.18).  Small churches are not afforded the luxury of indulging in things that don’t matter.  They cannot afford to invest resources in things whose purpose is to flatter the image of the congregation.  In small churches people know what is and what is not important.

Small churches are places of remembrance; they elicit memories and feelings that people had in the past.  Conserving the relationship between people, place, and remembered events is a source of strength in these congregations.  Small churches are not against change; they simply feel that conserving memories of the past is important (p. 36).  Conserving the past and preserving the past is not the same thing.  To conserve the past is to protect and honor the memories; to preserve the past is to try to live in a time and place that no longer exists.

Our internet-driven, television-altered minds are addicted to changing scenery, sounds, images, and patterns p. 40-41). Wendell Barry writes that novelty is a new kind of loneliness.  Novelty is the faint surprises of minds no longer capable of wonder (Wendell Barry, What Are People For?, p. 9).  We view continuity as a sign of bored indifference.  Yet small churches provide a sense of continuity to our lives.  Is this not something we long for—to see that our lives are part of a broader web of relationships, a longer story than our short years?  Small congregations can help to heal the fragmentation and alienation that many in our society feel through their attention to people, place, and formative stories about those who came before us in this particular place.

Willis makes a good case for the distinctive and enviable characteristics of small congregations; but they seem so small, so powerless, and so insignificant.  They are so easy to drive by, pass over, dismiss.  Three stonemasons were preparing stone for a cathedral.  A visitor to the stone yard asked them what they were doing.  The first one replied: “I’m busting rocks.”  The second replied:  “I’m making blocks.”  The third one replied:  “I’m building a cathedral.”  This third mason would never walk under the arch of the completed cathedral, but he knew he was part of something bigger than himself and more lasting than his own life.  Small churches are part of something bigger than themselves and the lives of their members.  They are a single block in a magnificent cathedral.  That single block is worth our love and dedication and esteem.

Jim Kelsey
February 2013