Presbyterians Today Blog | One Church, Many Voices
The Presbyterian Mission Agency is the ministry and mission agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Presbyterians affirm that God comes to us with grace and love in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose for us so that we might have eternal and abundant life in him.
Scrabble tiles and a stuffed bird. The museum plaque identifies the artist as Phil Parker. I’m looking at an assemblage of objects presented in a shadowbox, and yes, that is a bird in there, and Scrabble letters.
The wooden tiles stand at attention on two half rings that project like tiaras. The letters on the upper ring spell out “SPOKEN WORDS FLY AWAY,” which no doubt connects with the stuffed bird on a perch.
The tiles on the bottom ring also form words. “VERBA VOLANT SCRIPTA MANENT.” It looks like Latin.
Verba sounds like “verb” and the “a” makes a plural. It could be “words.” Maybe the first two words correspond with the upper letters. “Spoken words fly away.” But what about the other two words?
Scripta sounds like “scripture.” Written stuff. Written words. And manent? Very close to maneo, the Greek word for abide. So “written words remain”? That would make sense of the typewriter key letters preserved under glass beads in the shadow box, and the little chain attached to the ankle of the bird to keep it from flying away.
Spoken words fly away. Written words remain.
It sounds like a proverb, life experience boiled down to a memorable phrase. Forming a business partnership? Buying a used car? Spoken words fly away but written words remain. So be smart. Get it in writing.
But I’m wondering. Do all the written words remain?
Aristotle wrote a book about comedy, but no copies have survived. Maybe it was a real hoot, but we’ll never know.
Clay tablets bearing written words remain from ancient Mesopotamia, but only the few unfortunate enough to have their buildings burn down around them.
These words I am writing now exist only as ones and zeros in electronic storage. Even when uploaded to the internet where posts are reputed to live forever, my words are still subject to loss by hack, by war, by natural disaster.
The great library of Alexandria is still being destroyed. So even written words may fly away.
In retirement, I wonder about the words I’ve spoken and written through the years. It may be the legacy anxiety talking, but will any of them remain?
What I’ve noticed is that sometimes words leave an impression on another person, like heron footprints in pond shore mud. So I’m watching for tracks. Even finding a few.
A listener mentions a bit of a sermon she still carries with her. A reader posts a comment of thanks for a thought that helped in a hard time. Tracks. They give me hope that something of my words survives.
The Scrabble tiles behind the glass declare that spoken words fly away. And, in spite of the little chain around the bird’s ankle, written words, too, can wander off. But sometimes words of both kinds leave a mark, a mud track baked hard in the sun.
My take on the art and the proverb? Writings and speakings flutter off. Word tracks on human hearts remain.
Stop telling them what you believe… Tell them why you believe
by N. Graham Standish
I was knee-deep into listening on the phone to a potential church visitor when I had a sudden insight: We keep telling people WHAT we believe. What we really need to do is tell them WHY we believe.
The man on the phone was thinking of leaving his present church and wanted to visit us. But first he wanted to make sure we believed the right things. He wasn’t happy with his new pastor’s preaching. It wasn’t orthodox enough. It wasn’t biblical enough. It wasn’t “Presbyterian” enough. Five minutes in I knew that we wouldn’t be orthodox or biblical or Presbyterian enough. We’d be worse.
He sounded so much like a character from one of my favorite jokes. Years ago, a man and his wife started their own religion. A reporter writing an article on it asked him, “Is it true that your religion teaches that only you and your wife are saved?”
“Yes!” he responded, “but lately I’m not so sure about my wife.”
By the end of our phone call, I don’t think my caller was sure about my or my church’s salvation.
Why we believe
Our churches often outline “what” we believe on our websites so people can know more about us, but is this what people are seeking? With the exception of those only seeking the like-minded, how much does anyone truly care about “what” we believe? In all the time I led a church, I don’t remember anyone ever saying to me, “I joined this church because I really, really wanted to learn Presbyterian beliefs.” Their reasons were more centered around their liking the preaching, the music, the sense of family and community, the classes and groups, and the fact that we were a church steeped in prayer and discernment.
They wanted to be in a church where they could experience God. Quite frankly, most didn’t pay much attention to what we believed. They cared much more about why we were in the church, and they hoped that they would experience God in the church much like others they had met.
My phone-call-insight led me to change a page on our website. We had a “What We Believe” page that outlined our theology. It looked like thousands of other similar mainline church website pages. We changed our page from what we believe to why we believe. Here’s what we wrote:
So… what do we believe? Telling you what we believe may help if you are looking for a church that only believes what you already believe. We think it’s more important to tell you WHY we believe:
We believe in God because we have experienced God in our lives. We are a community of people who’ve experienced God’s presence and love throughout our lives, and especially in our struggles. As a result, we’ve formed a deep a relationship with God.
We are committed to being a church together because we’ve learned that we can’t just seek God on our own. We need companions who will help us as we struggle and seek. So, we pray, worship, serve, and live lives of faith with each other. We’ve gone through hard times, and in the depths of our difficulties we have found God many, many times in our midst.
We are grounded in a basic question that Jesus asked continually: God, what are you calling me to do? We encourage people to seek God’s guiding voice throughout their lives because we believe God is everywhere, speaking and listening to us.
At the bottom of the page we added a “what” line for those who needed it: If you would still like more information about our denomination and tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), click here.
What if we don’t know why?
If we don’t know why we believe, then perhaps we aren’t really emphasizing the experience of, and encounter with, God in our churches.
At my former church, we constantly tried to emphasize experiencing and encountering God throughout our church. It was expressed through how we worshipped, how we preached, how we structured our education programs and our small groups. Even our mission revolved around attempts to nurture the experience of God, leading to an encounter with God. Most of my sermons were on topics related to how we connect with God, hear God, respond to God and serve God. They were why sermons focusing on why we’re motivated to worship, learn, meet and serve.
Ultimately, with so many people who’ve walked away from church and declaring themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” what’s clear is that they aren’t asking us to declare what we believe. If they were, they would have called themselves “theological but not religious.” They’re seeking an experience that leads to belief. When we tell them why we believe, we’re telling them about our experiences. And we’re inviting them to come and share in these experiences.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He was pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, for 22 years (www.ngrahamstandish.org).
Sunshine and holy sparklesSeeing with the help of partly cloudy by Ken Rummer
Pools of light dapple the landscape, and the shaded places, dark by contrast, add drama to the view. I’m looking out at the ordinary magnificence of a partly cloudy day. Sunbeam and cloud shadow slow dance across the scene, turning a heavenly spotlight first here and then there.
Sights that on other days escape my notice now glow in a circle of sunshine. They appear newly minted, tugging at my sleeve for attention like insistent toddlers. On the horizon, a blue silo in a clump of trees catches my eye. Beyond the trail, wild geese float in a pool of recent rain. And two doors down, I’m seeing yellow iris marking a lot corner with an outdoor bouquet.
I once heard an interviewer ask the director of our state fair photography contest what the judges were looking for in a winning photo. He said, “Show us the world as we have never seen it before.” Partly cloudy is showing me the world that way today.
I wonder how many times Moses passed the bush, or ones just like it, before he saw it as he’d never seen it before. (The full story can be found in the Bible in the third chapter of Exodus.) Moses had been shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep past scrubby bushes for years when he noticed one that seemed to be on fire but wasn’t burning up. And he turned aside for a closer look. And that’s when he heard God speak.
The way I see it, God hasn’t run out of bushes yet.
In her poem Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning sees “every common bush afire with God.” I can’t vouch for every bush, but I’ve seen a few shining with extra light. I’ve noticed their tiny twigs made vivid by hoar frost, their yellow leaves lit as if from within, their branches glowing red at sunset.
A sight like that, familiar but strangely new, hits me like the first cool breeze on a warm summer night, with a little shiver up the back of my neck. It feels like fear. It feels like wonder. It feels like stumbling onto holy ground.
Sometimes I try to write about it. I take myself back to where I noticed the sunny spotlight or the holy highlighter. I point my words in that direction, and I say, “Wow. Did you see that?” And maybe someone has, or something like it. And maybe God has something for us to hear.
So I am glad for the partly cloudy of this day, for the ever-changing patterns of shadow and sunshine. The light draws my attention to a distant barn. Then it invites me to notice two carpenters at work across the way. And now, just outside my door, I see a house finch standing in a circle of light.
Partly cloudy is a moving picture show unreeling in slow motion. What next will catch a splash of sunshine, or a dusting of holy sparkles? And who will turn aside to see?
“Tim, will you please stop sabotaging this meeting with hope?!”
I couldn’t stifle my guffaw as a clergy client shared his recent finance committee experience. Incredibly, it’s what a committee member yelled at him before walking out of the meeting.
Tim has been leading his church through revitalization after 20 years of decline. As part of this revitalization he has intentionally sabotaged them with hope. That’s why they called him to be their new pastor in 2018. He moved across country after serving a smaller church plant that he helped grow for over 24 years. With lazer-like vision he saw the challenge before him: to help them recapture the spiritual after a long enslavement to the functional.
At the core of all church decline is the loss of spirituality and the rise of functionality. I’ve been speaking and writing about this dilemma for over 20 years. My deep frustration over that time has been watching churches slip even deeper into functionality in response to the decline.
What is functionality? It’s a secular style of operating that slowly pushes a deep awareness and embrace of God’s presence and guidance away as we try to do things decently and in order. Functionality cares more about how the church functions than about how well it leads us to deeper experiences and encounters with God.
There’s an easy test to see if we’ve become functional. When you hear people say that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” how do you respond? Do you think they’re lazy, shallow, me-focused or New Age-y? If so, we’re taking up the mantle of functionality, because when they say they’re spiritual but not religious, they’re telling us that we’re religious but not spiritual. They’re pointing out our functionality, telling us that they don’t experiencing God in our churches — that we don’t serve as a conduit between them and God.
We rarely use their feedback as a springboard to becoming more intentionally spiritual. Instead we defend our functionality by proclaiming that they’re the shallow ones. We’re so busy placing blame on them that we can’t hear what they’re saying to us: “Dude! At least do something in your church that connects me with God! Don’t just keep doing the same old things, spouting the same old dogma, all while telling me it’s my fault for not finding God in them.”
Don’t mistake my critique of functionality as advocating a namby-pamby, spirit-only approach. I am a deep devotee of modern organizational theory. What I’ve discovered is that modern organizational theory also decries functionality, although usually not by emphasizing the spiritual. Writers such as Simon Sinek, Daniel Pink, Jim Collins, Gillian Tett and many others emphasize a positive, motivating approach. The difference between them and Tim is that Tim clearly recognizes an added dimension: God’s hand that’s always at work in our churches. The spiritual approach is always hopeful, always looking for what’s possible, always seeking where God is leading, and always walking confidently forward in faith, even if there’s no proof that it will work. For instance, the spiritual approach doesn’t deny budgetary realities. It also doesn’t turn budgets into false gods that must be appeased with the chant, “But we can’t afford it!”
The difficulty with a Spirit-led approach is that it requires pastors and church leaders to develop qualities that declining churches diminish: sincere commitment to prayer, listening for God’s call, developing confidence in the possibility that God is speaking, and forging the courage to follow down roads that are anxiety producing for one reason or another.
In 2005 I wrote this in “Becoming a Blessed Church,” and I believe it even more today: Blessed churches aren’t just awake. They are also aware. They have what I would call a ‘mystical awareness’ that God is present. This mystical awareness may not be a conscious awareness, but it is present nonetheless. These congregations look around and see evidence of God. They sense Christ’s presence in the music, prayers, sermons, meetings, groups, fellowship, ministry, and mission of the church. They have ‘Aha!’ moments during the sermon and are aware that God has just spoken to them. They connect with someone in church, and they know that they have just experienced communion with God. They help another member in need, and at some level they know that they have just borne Christ to that person. This mystical awareness again emanates from the pastors and leaders of the church because they are constantly pointing out where God is present. When coincidences or small miracles occur, the leaders point them out and say, ‘There’s Christ in our midst.’ In blessed churches, the people become increasingly aware that not only is Christ present in every person, but also that they have become the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–31) and that Christ is working through everyone, even the least involved.
Be blessed and always be a saboteur of hope, as well as of love, faith, grace, peace, possibility and Christ!
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, MSW is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program (www.ngrahamstandish.org).
God is good
Yes, but God is definitely not safe.
By Rebecca Crow Lister
Several months ago, I had the pleasure of purchasing a used copy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. Bargain hunter that I am, I was thrilled, as it is it was only $3.50. It is my favorite of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, and this particular version contains lovely color illustrations. I first read the book as a child and immediately connected to the story and the characters. When reading it, I felt as if I were reconnecting with old friends. Once again, I read voraciously about the four Penvensie children — stalwart Peter, resourceful Susan, troubled Edmund and kind-hearted Lucy.
The power of Old Magic draws the children within the parallel universe of Narnia after entering the doors of a magical wardrobe. They learn about the evil White Witch who holds Narnia in perpetual winter, and about Aslan, its creator and emancipator. Aslan is on the move to free Narnia, and the courageous Mr. Beaver explains that Aslan is a giant lion, and not to be trifled with.
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” …
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (Chapter 8, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)
This scene came to mind when listening to passages read from Revelation a few Sundays ago. After the lectionary reader finished reading about the famous throne room scene at the end of Chapter 4, my son leaned over and whispered, “What creatures was she talking about?” I opened the pew Bible and pointed to the beginning of the chapter and watched as he read it silently.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. (Rev. 4:6b-8a NRSV)
He looked up, his eyes wide. “Wow. Those guys sound scary. All those eyes and wings.”
I nodded grimly. “Yes, they do … God is scary,” I added.
Nevertheless, while Aslan is kind and gentle, the other creatures of Narnia — even the White Queen herself — fear him. Thinking she has finally won when Aslan offers his own life to her in the place of Edmund, Aslan claims the ultimate victory over death. Winter is banished, and the hope of spring and peace returns to the land. The story draws unmistakable parallels to that of Jesus and the resurrection, and is the first book I remember crying while reading.
As a child in church, I knew God was good, but the image of a giant lion who is simultaneously good and terrifying resonated with me. On an intellectual level, I understood that Jesus died “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), but reading this book reminded why. Just as Aslan gave his life for the undeserving Edmund, Jesus traded his perfect life for our unworthy lives.
I now understand that I myself am Edmund. This realization still moves me when re-reading this book forty years later. It is a powerful thing to see oneself in a story and to be changed by it forever. I remain in awe of Aslan — God — and am humbled by his movement in my life.
Most of us prefer to envision our God as loving and forgiving, the one who searches for the lost sheep, the one who waits with outstretched arms for his prodigal son, the one Jesus calls “Daddy” in the Lord’s Prayer. This is true. Yet, God is so utterly beyond our tiny minds’ understanding that we try reducing him to a “buddy” or a “pal.” Doing so calms our fear, but simultaneously negates God’s true nature of utter holiness and righteousness.
God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger – according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.”
(C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”)
God is scary, and God is definitely not safe. We are wise to remind ourselves whom we serve — a loving, yet terrible and mighty King, the Lion of Judah.
Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She is a student in the on-line Master’s of Divinity program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and is an Inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.
Slater Cemetery, Slater, Iowa Photo Credit: K. Rummer
Splashdown at gravesideA cautionary taleby Ken Rummer
It had been a particularly wet spring, and clouds again threatened rain as we arrived at the cemetery. An arched-top tent marked the gravesite, just down the hill.
I took my position at the back of the hearse. The pallbearers assembled and, after a few instructions from the funeral director, they extracted the casket and took the weight of it on their best arms.
We slow-walked it down the hill. With a little help from the gravedigger, the bearers got the casket on the rollers over the opening.
I caught a glimpse of water in the bottom of the grave, evidence of an active side-hill seep. This is not something a family wants to think about at such a time, so I didn’t mention it and hoped no one would notice.
With the family seated in the folding chairs, and the other mourners clustered in and around the tent, I stepped to the foot of the casket. I usually started with a few verses from scripture, like “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1 NRSV) and “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25 NRSV).
And somewhere along the way—it might have been during my reading of the Twenty-third Psalm—I felt the earth move, and I heard a splash.
Suddenly I was granted a vision. I could see myself sliding down into a watery grave, mud-sliding it below the casket and wondering how to get out without spoiling the dignity of the proceedings.
In my pastoring, I worked hard to teach that because Christ lives, we shall live also (John 14:19). That as those who are loved, forgiven, and redeemed we can face death without fear. That when Jesus comes, we can take his hand and he will bring us safely through.
I was still believing all those things, but as the ground started to give way, I found myself agreeing with Kenny Chesney when he sang “everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.” (Jim Collins and Marty Dodson).
I gingerly took a step back to what I hoped was more solid ground. After a quick inhale, I tiptoed through the prayers to the final blessing without further incident.
In the afterglow of Easter’s resurrection celebration, we Christians have been known to indulge in a little trash talk where the grave is concerned. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Corinthians 15:55 KJV).
But maybe a measure of respect is not inconsistent with faith. I’m thinking of the kind of respect that is called for around sharp tools and high-voltage electric wires. Not a cowering fear, but a paying attention.
I’ve adopted that alertness now around open graves. When called upon to lead the service, I take my stand in faith with confidence in Christ’s victory over death, and I stand a foot farther back from the edge. Just in case.
Transforming worship from third person to first personDo we care what people are experiencing in worship?
by N. Graham Standish
What’s the most taboo topic in ministry, that one topic that neither pastors nor members like to talk about? Transforming worship. Failing to transform our worship is the main cause for our decline. Why? It’s the center of all church life. It’s the event that holds churches together. It’s where visitors gage who we are. If our worship doesn’t inspire them, we shrink. And we are shrinking.
We face a conundrum: The greatest solution to church decline is transforming our worship, yet it’s the topic we most resist. What needs to be transformed most isn’t our music as much as it’s the fact that our worship is often too “third person” and not enough “first person.” Let’s come back to this.
The musical dilemma
Worship hymns and songs are a microcosm of this conundrum because we don’t like to talk about changing music. Years ago, Bruce Smith, music director at my former church, Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and I began writing worship songs. We wrote because we were frustrated by a growing dilemma within modern Christian worship music.
What’s the dilemma? We’re generally devoted to certain kinds of worship music and pay little attention to how people experience that music. We’re sure that what we love is what God loves. So we see our music’s blessings while ignoring it’s shortcomings. For example, traditional hymns offer spiritually wonderful, rich and deep lyrics too often set to complex, baffling scores — baffling to people used to modern pop songs. Contemporary praise songs offer emotional, inspirational melodies expressing often narrow, uniform and repetitive themes. Our devotion to what we love makes us blind to whether or not others experience God through our music.
Bruce and I tried to write melodically inspiring songs that had greater spiritual depth (you can download the songs for free at ngrahamstandish.org under the “Resources” tab). We found that it’s hard to get traction for songs that don’t neatly fit traditional or contemporary categories because Christians on both sides are now resisting other kinds of music.
What if people don’t like classically-based traditional hymns or country-rooted contemporary songs? Do we care whether or not they experience God through these songs? Similarly, what if people don’t resonate with our worship in general? Do we care whether or not people are experiencing God through our worship?
Experiencing God is the key to engaging worship, but not just any kind of experience. Our song writing revealed a common theme among the songs people cherished the most. They’re overwhelmingly written in the first person. They sing about “my” and “our” yearnings and experiences of God.
Our most cherished hymns are those that get us to sing to God: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “I Surrender All”. The most enduring contemporary songs also sing to God: “Shout to the Lord,” “Awesome God,” “Come Now Is the Time to Worship,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Give Thanks”. They’re all personal, relational and experiential. “Me,” “you” and “us” are prominent pronouns. The others … not so much.
It’s about me, we and thou
Worship wise, I believe we’re too “third person” in our worship. People are seeking “first person” experiences of God. They’re just decreasingly having them in our churches. Look at the explosion of interest in books and videos on near death experiences and non-Christian and non-religious spirituality. Look at how psychology and counseling are now delving into areas that used to be reserved for religion. Why do we need church if we can experience God elsewhere?
So what do we do? At some point we can either simply accept that what we offer will never catch on again as we slowly slide into oblivion. Or we can decide to take difficult steps to transform how we worship, as fraught with danger as that is.
A first step is to honestly ask one, all-important, scary question: Do people experience God through our worship? We can’t just ask our members. We have to invite others to worship with us and honestly let us know — friends, neighbors, kids. Only once we know what people are experiencing can we then start thinking creatively about how to help them actively experience God.
Here are two ideas on generating new experiences from my own pastoral ministry:
The old-fashioned: Send handwritten, individualized thank-you notes to each visitor, and include self-addressed, stamped postcards with these questions: 1) Where did you experience God the most in worship? 2) Where did you experience God the least? 3) What would help you experience God more in our worship? Not all answers will be helpful, but they’ll offer insights and can be used to overcome member resistance.
The “what-do-they-do”: Create a task force to visit a number of churches that seem good at helping people experience God in worship. After each visit, have them discuss what elements of their worship might work in your church. Then have them work with your board and worship teams to slowly implement those ideas.
We can keep tinkering with our mission, ministry, structure, and the rest. But until we boldly reflect on our core event — worship — we may never be able to overcome our decline.
The struggle to comprehend God’s rescue plan for the world
By Rebecca Crow Lister
Palm Sunday is one of the most festive days in the church year. In my own church, we waved our palms joyously. We belted out “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” as our organist pulled out all the stops. We even had a real live donkey walk up the center aisle during the children’s sermon. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the end of Lent and turns our eyes toward Jerusalem and the cross. It is a day that is an unbridled celebration, but that is tinged with the sorrow soon to come.
During coffee hour between services and Sunday School, I joined several others sitting at a craft table set up in our gathering area. On the table were several palm leaves and instructions on how to fold them into a cross. Curious, I decided to try my hand at it. I will confess, I know that one of my many limitations is reading and following instructions to perform tasks. I have an extremely difficult time reading the steps and trying to imagine what the end product will look like, and this palm folding thing was no different.
No matter how many times I read the instructions and stared at the accompanying pictures, I could not envision the outcome in my head. Several of my friends around the table were also struggling, and we tried to help each other, but with little success. Finally, our youth director sat down and said, “Let me show you.” Slowly, painstaking step by painstaking step, he showed us what to do. Even then, I still had trouble watching him, then trying to imitate what he had done.
It reminded me of the scripture reading I heard earlier in the Palm Sunday service from Luke 22. Jesus had just finished serving the Last Supper to his disciples and was explaining that someone in their midst would betray him. Astonished, they talk among themselves wondering who it could be. The conversation then turns into a dispute over who is the greatest of the group.
Picture it: Jesus has just now told them he will be betrayed and has hinted at his future death, and what are the disciples talking about? Not about comforting Jesus; not about formulating a plan on what to do in the next few hours and days; not praying for strength and perseverance…no, they are talking about who among the twelve were the stars, were worthy of the most honor. I cringe when I think of this. How self-centered, selfish and self-aggrandizing can you be? As usual, Jesus sets the disciples straight, firmly but reasonably:
But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
The disciples seem to get all of Jesus’s teachings and lessons hopelessly wrong, and of course they do: they cannot imagine what is to come. They are seeing the situation with their earthly, human, temporal eyes, rather than the heavenly, holy, eternal eyes of Jesus.
Even though Jesus slowly and clearly spells out his mission and God’s kingdom to them, the disciples don’t get it. They see the signs. They have an inkling that Jesus’s life is a culmination of Old Testament scriptures and prophecies; but they can’t grasp the complete picture of God’s rescue plan. The disciples can’t envision what the finished product will look like.
I felt the same way, trying to fold, bend and weave my palm cross. I tried so hard to follow the written instructions and to watch and listen to our youth director, but my palm cross never quite turned out as I expected. Its arms were lopsided and the tie across the center was cock-eyed. “Don’t worry,” smiled our youth director, “Imperfections are part of the process. They aren’t supposed to look perfect.”
In truth, our crosses can never be as perfect as Jesus’ cross. All we can do is accept the invitation to deny ourselves, and to take up our own imperfectly made crosses and follow him.
Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She is a student in the on-line program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and is an inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.
Palm/Passion Sunday, April 14
This week’s theme: The living Word of God
We know virtually nothing of his life before he began his three-year ministry. We do know that he was well-acquainted with Scripture, most likely tutored by his parents. Throughout the Gospels we see how he freely and succinctly referred to the spiritual truths of his ancestors.
As we move into the final days of Jesus’ passion, we will see how the Psalms gave voice to his purposes even until his final moments on the cross. Let’s continue the final leg of our journey.
▲ Visio Divina — Guided Meditation
Holy Week is here. The cross is near.
Now more than ever, we need God’s living Word to give us strength.
Today, challenge yourself to take more time in prayer. If you have been praying with art for three to five minutes, extend that time to 10 to 15 minutes.
Take time to be with God as Jesus often did.
Find a quiet space. Let’s begin.
What attracts you to this picture?
What part of the picture do your eyes rest on?
As you focus on that part, what do you feel?
What are your thoughts?
Now gaze at the entire picture.
What do you want to say to God?
Close your meditation by thanking God for being with you on your journey.
Monday, April 15
From the mouths of babes
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. — Psalm 8:2
In Matthew, Jesus goes to the Temple immediately after his triumphal return to Jerusalem. With fiery zeal, he overturns the tables of moneychangers who have turned its courts into a swap meet. The blind come to him there and he heals them. Meanwhile, the children who were present at entry are still shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The chief priests and scribes, intent on silencing the Nazarene any way they can, exclaim, “Do you hear what they are saying?”
“Yes,” says Jesus. “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
Psalm 8, slightly altered, comes naturally to Jesus’ mind and lips during a time of stress and confrontation. Moreover, his interpretation is fascinating. He defines the bulwark — the protection mentioned by David — as praise. It is a profound reminder that praise and gratitude are what silence the enemies of our spirit.
O God, as we follow Jesus through this week of his passion, let us learn the power of your living word in both his life and ours. Amen.
Tuesday, April 16
The power of the unexpected
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. — Psalm 118:22–23
After spending the night in Bethany just outside Jerusalem, Jesus returns in the morning, knowing full well that his ministry is inflammatory to the religious leaders intent on crucifying him. He tells the parable of the two sons and the parable of the wicked tenants to the crowds, highlighting the hard-hearted rejection of his ministry by those in power. He sums up his message with these words from Psalm 118.
The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. A carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth, born in a feeding trough, has become the Messiah.
Here is the miracle of the gospel story. God can take that which is humble and rejected by the world and use it for great purposes. The voices of those long silenced can become the prophecies that lead us to justice.
Jesus’ rejection will continue until he is crucified outside the city, on a hill over a garbage dump, between two criminals. The story still amazes.
God, thank you for lifting the lowly and bestowing power on that which the world rejects. Amen.
Wednesday, April 17
Children of God
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you . . . ” — Psalm 82:6
Though the religious leaders tried to convince Pilate that Jesus was inciting an insurrection, the most serious charge against him, in their minds, was blasphemy. How could he claim to be the one foretold by the prophets, the very Son of God!
John, chapter 10, shows Jesus arguing with these leaders about his own divine status. He quotes this mysterious verse from Psalm 82. God is in an assembly of other “gods,” which most scholars believe are meant to symbolize the leaders of Israel. “You are all gods,” says Yahweh, “children of the Most High.”
What does the Psalmist — and Jesus — mean? Certainly not that we are gods with a capital “G,” but that we, like Jesus, are both human and divine. It is when we forget our divine presence within us that we succumb to behaviors that harm ourselves and others. We forget to see that we are bound not only by our common humanity, but also by our common divinity.
As we struggle in the flesh of this mortal life, O God, remind us again and again of our divine nature. Amen.
Maundy Thursday, April 18
The bread that sustains us
. . . he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. — Psalm 78:24
On this day we call Maundy Thursday, we see Jesus sitting with his disciples at a Passover seder in Jerusalem. It is at that meal that he inaugurates a new way of remembering him through the cup and the bread.
Bread was symbolically central to Jesus’ ministry. In John, chapter 6, after feeding the 5,000, he finds the crowds following him with expectations of further handouts. He points them to God as their source, using Psalm 78 to remind them of the manna that rained down in the wilderness.
Then he utters these immortal words: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Though the meaning of this symbol can never be theologically exhausted, think of it in terms of our journey into mindfulness. When we learn to live with the trust, love and passion shown to us by Jesus, our cravings for this world are replaced by a hunger for God that can be satisfied.
Jesus, Bread of Life, let your teachings, your actions and your passion fill us with the nourishment of your presence. Amen.
Good Friday, April 19
The darkest hour
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? — Psalm 22:1
There are countless ways to enter Jesus’ passion. Surely, one of these is to feel profound empathy for his willingness to complete his mission. Not even the threat of torture could deter him from proclaiming a new way of being in relationship to God and each other.
In his dark moments on the cross that altered human history forever, his agony reached its peak. Once again, as he did so many times in his short life, he turned to the Psalms to express himself. This time with the opening words of Psalm 22, attributed to David, an anguished cry of one who feels separated from his Creator. The Gospels symbolically describe this as darkness covering the entire earth.
Some believe that Jesus recited these words simply for comfort. How could God incarnate feel separate from God? My response is simple. Unless Jesus had experienced the same terrible aloneness so many of us have felt as human beings, he would not be a Savior who truly understands us.
Jesus, we stand in awe of your willingness to finish God’s mission. Amen.
Holy Saturday, April 20
Into your hands
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. — Psalm 31:5
I see the fullness of the Incarnation in Jesus’ saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Just days before, he had railed at those plotting his death, calling them vipers and whitewashed tombs. Then, after they had him savagely beaten and crucified, he utters timeless words of forgiveness. I believe that in that moment, Jesus understood the completeness of his mission. He allowed his divinity to free him from the age-old karmic chain of action and reaction, giving all of us hope. We see the love that flows from the heart of God, a liberating love that transcends human categories. We, too, are called to love without measure, a lifelong pilgrimage of mindfulness that shapes us into the image of Christ.
It is no wonder that as he released the final restraints of hostility, Jesus quoted from Psalm 31:5, recorded in Luke 23:46: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”
Jesus, we offer eternal gratitude for your revelation of a love that extends to all people, even our enemies. Amen.
On this day filled with shouts of “Alleluia, he is risen!” we come to the end of our journey into mindfulness through the Psalms. How fitting to close with the final song of the psalter, a majestic hymn of praise. Let’s read it in its entirety:
“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
Everything! The stars and galaxies, wind and rain, mountains and seas, trees and vineyards, every living creature! Human beings with all that is within us — our hearts, minds and spirits! Together, let all of Creation glorify our Creator! Empowered by the risen Christ, let us continue to reflect God’s presence to the world around us!
Loving God, on this day that we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, fill our lives with resurrection power! Amen.