Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Baptismal Mishaps

Some faith traditions embrace infant baptism. These are memorable occasions for everyone except the child, who is too young to remember anything, and only later knows of the event's significance through photos, stories and certificates.

For Baptists, however, baptisms are always memorable for each candidate as well as family and congregation. Baptists only immerse those who are old enough to have confessed Christ publicly.

Sometimes Baptist baptisms are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

My maternal grandmother's church believed that baptism should take place as soon as possible after one's public decision to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, she chose the middle of winter to walk the aisle.

Her North Carolina church had no baptistry, so they used the local river for baptisms. The pastor broke river ice the day he baptized my grandmother.

The rural Mississippi church my dad pastored when I made a public profession of faith had no baptistry either, but at least they had sense enough to wait until Spring to baptize candidates. When the weather was warm enough, the congregation gathered at a local creek for a Sunday afternoon baptismal service.

After checking the area for snakes and other critters, folks stood on the small bridge overlooking the creek banks where others had assembled near the line of baptismal candidates.

First, everyone sang gospel hymns accompanied by my mother on her accordion. Then the baptizing commenced.

When the service was done the youth swam, swinging out over deeper waters on a tire roped to a tree limb. Country baptisms were always fun events.

The day of my baptism I was seven years old. There were several other candidates, so my dad put me at the front of the line, thinking that since I'd seen other baptisms, I would set an example of proper decorum for everyone. Wrong.

I didn't know how to swim yet and had never had my head entirely underwater. When he dipped me I got strangled and emerged sputtering and crying, generally disrupting the entire service.

Since then, I've seen many other baptismal ceremonies go wrong:

My current pastor once entered the sanctuary baptismal pool too early during the congregational singing, creating large shadow effects as he moved around behind the lighted stained glass window before it was rolled aside for baptism.

On another occasion he was late returning to the worship service after baptism because his waders had leaked, soaking his sock and pants leg.

Another of my pastors was nearly always wet when he returned to the service. Invariably, he rolled up the wrong sleeve of his dress shirt prior to immersing candidates.

On several occasions I've seen short children suddenly "disappear" from the congregation's view because someone forgot to put a stool or cement block in the baptistry for them to stand on.

My dad once lost his balance during a baptism, nearly dropping a morbidly obese candidate.

Several times choir members in the loft have gotten splashed during baptisms. At one church a candidate accidentally sloshed the baptismal waters enough to create a tidal wave, thoroughly soaking the back two rows of the choir.  

At another church the new baptismal robes were discovered--too late--to be extremely opaque when wet.

One winter we discovered during Sunday School that the baptistry water heater was broken. The candidate decided to go ahead with her baptism anyway, since extended family had come for this special occasion. The water was so frigid her teeth chattered as she proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord."

In my former church the opposite happened. The baptism planned for the beginning of the service had to be postponed to the end (after the ushers added ice) because the water was practically boiling. The candidate would've been cooked like a lobster.    

When the heavy velvet baptistry curtains finally opened, a huge cloud of steam rolled out into the sanctuary.

Several years ago a video made the rounds on social media. In it the pastor was shown baptizing candidates, then reaching for a young boy who was next in line.

Rather than taking the pastor's hand and stepping into the baptismal waters, the boy impishly did a cannonball instead.

It took several minutes for the drenched pastor, shaking out his microphone and soggy Bible, to regain any composure.

Sometimes I think God does a belly laugh at some of the mishaps that occur as we try to have meaningful worship experiences together.

Despite our best planning, things often go awry as we Christians attempt to balance celebration and reverence, spontaneity and ritual in baptismal services and other spiritual events.

When things go wrong, it helps to remember that God only looks on the intents of our hearts. It is our sincere effort, not our perfection during worship that is most important to our Creator.

After all, God does know we're only human.


See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Worship: Taking God's Name in Vain?

Most parents go through several phases of correcting inappropriate language their children have picked up somewhere--never from home, of course.

A former pastor of mine, trying to reframe his four-year old daughter's undesirable vocabulary, admonished her that whenever she used the word "God," she'd better be ready to pray…or else.  

One day she was riding with him in the car, and he again heard her exclaim, "O, God!"

Immediately catching his accusing glance out of the corner of her eye, she quickly bowed her head, closed her eyes and intoned, "Thank you for …," listing several of her favorite things, followed by "Amen."

He couldn't help but chuckle at her resourcefulness.

My first college roommate and I were both raised in devout Southern Baptist homes. As I look back, we were pretty conservative even for the late 1960s.

At the Christian-based college we attended there were many students who shared similar values as ours. There were also a lot of students who either rebelled at their fundamentalist upbringing and sowed wild oats during that tumultuous era, or who came from families barely recognizable as Christian.

One day my roommate and I were having a discussion about the preponderance of swearing on campus--there was a whole lotta cussin' goin' on.

True to our conservative upbringing, we believed that having a "dirty mouth," while undesirable, was not as bad as swearing, i.e., using God's (or Jesus') name as an expletive.

Since childhood, we'd been admonished that taking God's name in vain was a "thou shalt not" from The Ten Commandments. In other words, don't do it…or else.

Part of our discussion that day centered around the meaning of the phrase "taking God's name in vain." My roommate said that her dad once told her it meant to use God's name "insincerely." That definition has stuck with me through the years.

Not that every word that has ever poured from my lips has exactly been worthy of broadcasting, but generally I am not prone to using salty language (probably due to lack of usage during my formative years) .

The list of society's "bad" words is still evolving, but those words don't come to my mind very often, even when I'm angry or upset.

However (lest I appear annoyingly pious), according to my roommate's definition, I am definitely guilty of taking God's name in vain. This sometimes happens during worship, most often when I am singing.

Now, as a musician who has been "churched" all my life, I could probably be a successful contestant if there were ever a church music version of the old TV game show, Don't Forget the Lyrics.

I can sing verse after verse of dozens of hymns and gospel songs, sacred solos and oratorios, mostly from memory.

The problem is, it's too easy to sing only notes and words. To sing without engaging voice with mind and heart. To sing glibly or insincerely. To "take God's name in vain."

This is not just a "musician's curse"; it happens to non-musicians, too. In order to worship authentically, worshippers must focus on God, not just on matching notes and words correctly.

Author Gary Thomas (Sacred Pathways) reflects, "It amazes me how casually I can sing songs of deep, almost heroic commitment. It's as if I think, 'As long as I'm singing, the words I say don't really matter. God knows it's just a song.'

While my mind wanders I promise to bow before the Lord, to proclaim His name, …to go so far as to die to express my faith. Yet these words may be sung with scarcely more emotion than I feel when I'm ordering a hamburger."

Singing words glibly or just going-through-the-motions on Sunday mornings is not worship at all. Worship, like being Christian, involves much more than just showing up at church.

Authentic worshippers can't simply walk into a church building and slide into a pew with an indifferent attitude toward God: "Hey, I'm here, aren't I? What else could you possibly want?"

True worship is akin to active listening vs. passive listening. True worship requires intentionality and sustained effort--and God is worthy of our true worship.

Matthew 22 says to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." We are to offer our whole selves to God as an acceptable sacrifice during worship. To do less is to dishonor God.

"You are worthy, Father, Creator; You are worthy, Savior, Sustainer. You are worthy, worthy and wonderful; Worthy of worship and praise."*

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi


*from Worthy of Worship, in Celebrating Grace Hymnal




Friday, 9 August 2013

Cave Song

During seminary around 1990, I served a Louisville, KY church as Associate Minister of Music. In addition, I had some Children's Ministry responsibilities that included assisting our on-the-ball Children's Sunday School Department director with her annual 2-day educational/fun trip for older children.

One summer her itinerary included a tour of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. Our group of 30 or so gathered with about 70 other tourists for the historic tour of this national landmark.

As everyone began the descent down the long stairway into the massive rotunda, I covered the rear flank, rounding up any stray children from our group.

A friendly Assistant Park Ranger fell in step with me as we followed everyone down the narrow staircase. He began asking questions about our group, and at some point I mentioned that I was a seminary music student.

He immediately said, "Oh! Would you like to sing in the cave?" Oddly embarrassed, I quickly blurted, "No!", and we moved on to other conversation.

The Senior Ranger had already begun his narrative as we reached the bottom of the stairs. I quietly found my group and edged into the crowd, forgetting all about the Assistant Ranger. This was my first tour of the cave as an adult, so I became really engrossed in its history as an ammunitions warehouse and later as a tuberculosis hospital.

The Senior Ranger soon began telling a wonderful story about the gigantic "Methodist Church" boulder prominently featured in the rotunda. Long ago, a congregation used to gather in the cave for Sunday worship services, and the preacher would stand atop the boulder to deliver his sermons. No microphone needed, for sure.

As the Senior Ranger wrapped up his presentation, I noticed that the Assistant Ranger had circled down to the front. He leaned over to interrupt his boss, whispering something in his ear.

A moment later, the Senior Ranger announced, "I understand someone wants to sing." At first I looked around to see who it was, but after what seemed a long silence, one of the children poked me in the side, and I suddenly realized he was talking about me!

Within a split second, my thoughts moved from "How embarrassing!" to "I'm gonna git that Assistant Ranger!" to "Oh, my, what song would be appropriate?"

An instant later I thought of a hymn I had memorized as a child. I quickly reviewed the lyrics in my head. Then as the crowd stood silently, I inhaled deeply and began to sing a cappella:

"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee…"

My self-consciousness quickly evaporated as I relished the experience of singing inside that wonderfully acoustical, historic landmark. I'm sure the notes are still resonating somewhere deep within the cave.

Afterwards, as we continued on the tour, I thought to myself, "You just never know when you're going to have an opportunity to do something special for God!"

We all prepare ourselves for God's service every time we fill ourselves with "spiritual things": Learning songs of the faith. Memorizing scripture. Praying. Reading books and articles about discipleship and Christianity. Discussing matters of faith with friends and family.

Observing master teachers and engaging ministry mentors. Taking seminary classes. Studying to teach Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Practicing conducting or sermon delivery or…the list goes on and on.

Then suddenly, God puts a new opportunity right in front of us. And we discover we're ready!

Unknowingly, we've been preparing for this "God moment" all along. We are amazed at how the Spirit has been at work in our lives.

All that remains now is for us to step forward boldly with a resounding "Yes!"  

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Shifting Paradigms for Church Musicians

What is the purpose of a choir during a worship service? Are church musicians even necessary for worship? Do they function primarily as leaders or as performers--or both?

Music has always been an integral part of worship. There are over 200 references to singing in the Bible. It was common practice in the Early Church to include singing--and playing instruments, dancing--whenever worshipers would gather.

Robert Mitchell, in Ministry and Music, once wrote that the primary purpose of a church choir is "to prompt and enable each worshiper to worship; each choir member is at the same time prompter and individual worshiper before God."

Contrary to popular perceptions, the main function of a choir is not to perform, but to enable congregational singing. 

Some in the congregation may scoff, "Well that's fine for some folks, but I've been told all my life that I can't sing, so I don't even try."

What a shame. 

Every human being has innate musical abilities, whether they realize it or not. Singing is simply sustained speech on varying pitches. Technically, anyone who can speak can also sing.

The difference is that some people are born with "musical ears," i.e., the ability to discern and match pitches. Others need a little coaching to train their ears and discover their "singing voice." From there it's just a matter of practice.

But God doesn't really care whether or not everyone sings on pitch during worship. The Psalmist says that we are to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord…come before God's presence with singing" (Psalm 100). What is important to God is our sincere participation in worship.

Time and again, I've heard people with "undiscovered" musical abilities comment that when they are surrounded by good singers, their inhibitions vanish and they enjoy singing along. While they may never be offered a microphone, that synergy describes the main role of the choir: to inspire everyone to worship through singing.

In addition, the choir (or praise team or soloist or instrumentalist) has priestly responsibilities during worship.

Because of choir members' advanced musical skills and commitment to preparation, when the choir sings an anthem, it is doing something that the congregation cannot do by itself.

Thus, the choir enables corporate worship by offering music to God on behalf of the congregation--a priestly function.

It is easy for choirs and congregations to become confused about the difference between secular musical performances and sacred musical presentations. Each has a distinctly different purpose:

Secular musical performances are designed to showcase the performers themselves. Their purpose is to entertain.

Sacred musical "presentations" or musical "offerings" (either term seems more worthy than "performances" when describing church music) should be designed to showcase God. Their purpose is to lead in worship.

Several years ago I came across an article by Dave Williamson, titled "Worship Leading Choirs." He noted a shift in paradigms regarding the primary function of church choirs and other musical worship leaders:

Outward Signs of Earlier Paradigm        Outward Signs of Emerging Paradigm

  ●Sings horizontally, to the people                ●Sings vertically, to the Lord

  ●Practical role: Spiritual Entertainers          ●Practical role: Lead Worshipers

  ●Performs for Jesus                                    ●Worships Jesus

  ●Celebrates the Gift (music)                       ●Celebrates the Giver (God)

  ●Hopes to hear, "You sang great!"             ●Hopes to hear, "God IS great!"

  ●Engenders emotion for the moment          ●Engenders significance for eternity

The differences between the paradigms are subtle, but important. Both apply to all styles of worship and church music--gospel, contemporary, traditional, liturgical, global, formal, informal.

The earlier paradigm is performance-oriented, though it does have some merit. The emerging paradigm is more worthy because it is biblically-based and worship-oriented.

Admittedly, there are horizontal aspects to our worship (ex., giving personal testimony about how God is working in someone's life), but our primary focus during worship should be vertical: from God to God's people, and from God's people to God.

As church musicians, the ultimate goal of presenting our best talents to God during worship is not to draw the spotlight on ourselves, but to reflect the spotlight so that it shines on God. Not to hear, "You are so talented!" but to hear, "You really helped me praise God today!"

So the only question that remains, for both church musicians and congregation, is: "What will be my focus today during musical worship?"

"Sing praise to God who reigns above, The God of all creation,
The God of pow'r, the God of love...To God all praise and glory.'"

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Pest

I was twelve; my brother was eight. We rarely got along. We lived in a big house which my family had converted into a mission chapel in Grand Island, New York.

Sometimes, my brother and I played together--or tolerated each other, at least--for a while. "War" was an ever-present threat.

I was the bossy older sister. He easily earned the label, "The Pest." I was still mad at him for demolishing my doll collection when I was six. He'd done a lot since then to aggravate me, too.

We weren't allowed to hit, but sometimes we'd shove each other a little. Mostly, we just argued, becoming quite adept at "murder by sharp tongue."

(Later, as a chubby teenager, I discovered that the best way to control his pestering was to get him down and sit on him until our parents arrived.)

He got home from school before I did. I didn't like the fact that I had no control over what he did to my "stuff" for an hour or so each day. He delighted in the opportunity--as long as Mom didn't catch him.

Walking home from the school bus stop one day, I could see that my bike was moved from where I'd left it the day before. The Pest had been at it again! How dare he ride my bike!

Mad, I flung open the front door. My mother was playing the piano in the "sanctuary" (our large, extra living room, set up for chapel services). The Pest was standing near her. Startled, they both looked up as I began my tirade.

Suddenly, without a word, he walked toward me, thrust something in my hand, and quickly left the room. I looked down and opened a card he had carefully made in school that day. Inside were scrawled the words, "I love you, sister."

Speechless, I looked up and silently shared one of those memorable moments with my mother, who was looking at me with teary eyes. I was a changed person.

Today, as I continue my Lenten pilgrimage toward Holy Week, this childhood memory prompts my reflection on God's transforming love.

Throughout history, we mortals have given God a lot of reason for dismay:
     •Israelites complaining on their way to the Promised Land
     •crucifixion of Jesus, dissention in the Early Church   
     •murders, bombings, wars (often "in the name of God") 
     •domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, unkind words
     •self-centered, God-blaming "pity parties"
     •…the list goes on and on...

Yet, amazingly, God's response to the dark side of our humanity is always: "I LOVE YOU. After all, I created you. You are my beloved."

Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, says: "God's unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. …It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God's ever-present love."

We mortals are sometimes able to change our outward behavior because of a strong will ("I will not do that again!") or external forces (parent to teenager: "You will not do that again!").

But those who are enlightened know that real, lasting, satisfying change is always internal. It is the transformation of one's Inner Self that brings serenity to one's soul.

Recovering alcoholics speak of serenity as the difference between being dry (living without alcohol through determination) and being sober (experiencing internal release through surrendering to a Higher Power).

Only God's expansive, overwhelming love has the power to transform us completely, from the inside out. Christians speak of this process in a variety of ways: sanctification, spiritual growth, redemption and conversion, among others.

Popular spiritual author Richard Rohr says: "God's love is total, unconditional, absolute and forever. The state of grace--God's attitude toward us--is eternal. We are the ones who change. …We have to allow God to continually fill us. Then we find in our own lives the power to give love away."

God is not only loving, God IS love (1 John 4:8). Ultimately, it is only to the extent that we fully realize the depths of God's eternal love for us that we are able to become thoroughly changed persons.

"What wondrous love is this, O my soul . . ."

See you in worship this Sunday – Naomi




Monday, 4 February 2013

Take A Slice

Why do we worship?  Whom do we worship?

Worship is the primary action in our relationship with God, who initiates even our desire to worship. Through worship, God reveals Godself to us in a multitude of ways. We then respond to that revelation with offerings of gratitude and praise, service and testimony.

This dance of revelation and response doesn't just take place on Sunday mornings. God is present in every breath we take and in every person we encounter throughout our lives.

God is everywhere, and our response to God's revelation reveals whom we worship. We image God by our actions. People can tell who (or what) is our God by observing how we live our lives and arrange our priorities.

When we enter the sanctuary on Sundays, each of us must be intentional about connecting with God in order for our worship to be authentic. We are not there to be critics or "pew potatoes," expecting to be entertained.

Authentic worship will be "awe-full" as we enter the sanctuary, anticipating that God will speak to us personally as we seek God's face together.

Generally, those who approach worship glibly will not experience worship at all, only mindless moments filled with shallow emotion--something that could easily be experienced at a club meeting or sports event or patriotic rally.

There must always be an obvious difference between a worship service and a secular gathering. Our purpose for Sunday services is to worship God, never just to gather with friends and enjoy a nice, clean, inspirational program. A worship service is not a civic club meeting with entertaining music.

Attending well-planned services can help us worship, but that is not enough by itself. Authentic worship requires sustained effort by each individual, even when there are distractions and obstacles to our focusing on God. It is our continued effort at worshiping that is in itself pleasing to God.

Of course, God's Spirit can break through our psyches at any time, despite poor worship planning or good planning gone awry. But that is no excuse for leaders to throw worship services together carelessly.

In Word and Sacrament, D. McLeod says (though a bit stridently): "People who would hiss a play which was so ill-planned that the order of the acts and scenes was of no importance or would throw into a wastebasket a novel which was so utterly without form that chapter 3 and chapter 16 are interchangeable, still pathetically go to church on Sunday morning to take part in a disorderly medley of music, hymn singing, scripture reading, praying and the sermon. …Many church services today are a quaint mixture of concert, lecture and prayer meeting."

"Paul, writing to the Corinthians concerning worship, said, 'Let all be done decently and in order' (I Cor. 14:10). This can be accomplished by incorporating unity, movement, and design into the worship service." (Howard W. Roberts, Pastoral Care Through Worship)

Thoughtful, well-planned worship services should have a flow, a reason for various elements to connect with each other. This does not mean rigidity. Giving shape to a service does not preclude spontaneity. In fact, a well-planned worship service can be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit's initiative in the lives of God's people.

The Scriptures provide models to assist us: Old Testament (Isaiah 6) and New Testament (Acts 2). Both are based on a sequence: God reveals/God's people respond. [More about these worship models in future articles.]

There are many doorways to God. So it's important to plan as much variety as possible, opening many doors in the hope that individual worshipers will encounter God uniquely and meaningfully.

As a worship leader, I delight in enabling others to worship, teaching people how to worship authentically, planning services that help people focus on God rather than themselves, "creating space in which God can act."

Overall, my guiding principle is: If someone were to "take a slice" of any part of any worship service, she or he will find God there and be transformed.

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A Boy Named Chris

His name was Chris. I don't remember his last name. He was about 8 years old and lived a few blocks from the Louisville church where I served as Associate Minister of Music. I only knew him a couple of months.

Chris had the husky build of a future football player. His eyes shone bright blue, and he had freckles sprinkled on his nose. Wild sprigs of cow-licked blond hair stuck out all over his head—the result of a bad haircut made even worse by classroom scissors.

Chris' friendly smile and pleasant temperament were charming, and he was unusually comfortable with engaging adults in casual conversation.

I don't think Chris was ever really clean. He always had more than the normal childhood smudges on his skin and ill-fitting clothes. He never seemed fresh, often looking seedy and smelling bad.

There was no doubt that Chris was neglected. What was unusual was the absence of some typical behavioral problems for a child in his situation.

I first met Chris when he wandered into the church parking lot one day, little brother in tow. He approached some adults, and they steered both boys towards our children's activities.

On his own, Chris began to attend older children's choir, which I directed. He seemed oblivious that the other children were openly reluctant to sit by him. I'm not sure he ever sang on pitch, but he would smile and participate intelligently, and just looked "happy to be here."

Ministering to his family was difficult, despite our repeated efforts. We never could figure out the situation. Our impression was that they moved frequently.

During choir one Wednesday evening, Chris asked us to pray for his family because his dad was in jail for trying to kill his mom. (I hoped he and his brother hadn't witnessed it.) Their house was vacant soon afterwards, and we lost track of them.

A few weeks earlier, I was introducing a new song to the choir. When I asked the children to think of reasons why we love God, their responses were typical, mostly having to do with creation and God loving us first.

Suddenly, Chris' face lit up as he waved excitedly, gushing, "I love God because God gives us second chances!"

I thought to myself that if there was ever a child who was going to need a million second chances just to survive, it was Chris. He already had so much to overcome.

My encounter with Chris was brief, but God often uses my memory of this special child to remind me of the many grace-filled "second chances" I've been given.

By now—assuming he's still alive—Chris is all grown up. Odds are, we will never meet again here on earth. But I will always remember him. I will always wonder how he's doing.

Most of all, I will always wonder if our brief ministry to him—sowing the seeds of God's love--ever took hold in his life.

I can only hope that Chris has already experienced enough of God's abundant love and grace to overcome his adverse circumstances and grow into the fine young man that God created him to be.

"Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children…"

See you in worship this Sunday! ~ Naomi