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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Acts 2:41-17 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Michael Kinnamon

I got to hear Michael Kinnamon preach a little over a week ago, at the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church of Northern California Nevada. Michael is probably best known in Disciples of Christ circles as the nominee who didn’t get elected and as a leader in the ecumenical movement. It’s a little surprising for me to realize that it was 25 years ago, but it was 25 years ago when Michael was nominated to serve as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ.

The biennial General Assembly was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that year, an area of the country where the density of DOC congregations is much higher than it is here in Northern California. Because each congregation can send delegates to General Assemblies, it was possible for the opposition to Michael’s nomination to bus in delegates from area churches to vote against him, and his election fell short by 87 votes.[1] The opposition to him serving as General Minister and President was a reaction to his belief that the Bible doesn’t forbid the ordination of gay and lesbian people.

Michael went on to teach at several seminaries across the United States. He served as the General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, the leading ecumenical organization of mainline Protestants looking at potential reunification of Protestantism in the USA in the 80s and 90s. He had leadership positions in the World Council of Churches. And he was elected the General Secretary (the leader) of the National Council of Churches in the USA in 2007.[2]

Michael’s sermon from a week ago focused on the Annual Gathering’s theme: discerning what is next in the life of the Region. One of Michael’s points was that our memories define us, that is, that our sense of who we are is grounded in our memories.

Desmond Tutu

He pointed out that our memories are not always factually accurate, but it is the memory as we remember it that defines us, not what actually happened. He offered a wonderful example of this. His daughter, who is an African-American, understands herself to be a worker for justice and that this identity comes from the early childhood experience of meeting Desmond Tutu at a General Assembly. Michael knows that she was in the children’s program at the General Assembly when Tutu spoke, and they she couldn’t have met him. Nonetheless, her memory of meeting him is an important part of defining who she is. There is no point, Michael said, in correcting her memory to make it factually accurate (and hopefully she won’t read this sermon online). Her memory as she remembers it defines who she is.

The same is true for the church. Our memories define us. It might be memories of the recent past. For instance, I remember the many people who pitched in a few years ago to help a family in our congregation and that memory helps define this congregation as “compassionate” for me. It might be memories of a half-century ago of an adult who made a special effort to welcome children, giving us an identity as a safe and welcoming place for kids. Or it could be an ancient memory, passed down to us in stories – even in the stories we call scripture. And I want to turn to those memories now.

During this time of Easter, we’ve been looking at the uprising that began with the resurrection. I’ve talked about some of the hallmarks of that uprising. A couple weeks ago, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a fellowship of scared, scarred, doubting people. Last week, I talked about how the uprising is marked by it being a collection of learning teachers who make mistakes and keep on striving to faithfully follow Jesus. Today, we turn to how this uprising is marked by worship.

One of the things that is peculiar about this uprising that started with the resurrection is how we gather. Our reading from Acts is the end of the Pentecost story. I won’t go into much background on that because we will return to that story in a month. For now, you need to know that this is Luke’s telling of how the church started – the Holy Spirit blowing through a gathering of disciples, empowering them to share the story. Peter takes the lead in speaking to a crowd that gathers and people respond. 3,000 people, Luke claims, responded by being baptized. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s factually accurate; it’s the memory that defines us. Once they became part of the community, one change in their lives was that they became devoted to learning, the breaking of bread, and prayer. In other words, they became devoted to worship, for these are three of the four elements of worship in the early church, four elements of worship that continue today.

Historians have pieced together some of what worship in the early life of the church was like. Much of this description I’ll give you today is based on a summary written by Brian McLaren.[3]

The community of Jesus-followers gathered frequently. They called their little communities ecclesia, borrowing the term from the Roman Empire. For the Romans, an ecclesia was an exclusive gathering of local citizens where they discussed the affairs of the Empire of Rome. For the early Jesus-followers, an ecclesia was for common people, and they discussed the affairs of the Empire of God. The ecclesia of Jesus-followers were held in all kinds of places – in homes, in public buildings, in outdoor settings, even in catacombs. They were held whenever possible, but at first mostly at night because nearly everyone who come then, even slaves. It appears that the initial gatherings happened any day of the week, though remembering that the resurrection happened on a Sunday drew some groups to gather on that day.

There were four main functions or parts to the worship service. Worship began with teaching, usually teaching from the original disciples. This might be the disciples themselves or a letter from one of them. Through these teachings, people could learn about what Jesus taught, what he said, stories about his life and death and resurrection, the parables he told, the character he embodied. In this way, people who never met Jesus could think of themselves as followers of Jesus, walking the road he walked.

It seems that it was in this first element of worship that the ecclesia in Corinth was having problems. We don’t have the letter from the Corinthians to Paul, but we can interpret what it might have said based on his response. There seems to have been some quarreling about how worship should go. Some people must have thought that too many people were speaking in tongues. Maybe there weren’t any interpreters of the tongues, so speaking in tongues added nothing to the worship experience of the rest of the community. “Let all things be done for building up,” Paul writes to them.

If there are people who have a prophecy to share, some word that they believe is coming from God, they should share it – and it is the responsibility of the rest of the community to weigh what they share. I think he’s saying that we need to give prophecy a sniff test to see if it smells funky. And take your turns, Paul says. It sounds like it may have been a bit of a contest of holiness at times.

The next element of worship was prayer. [4] In at least some communities, prayers were offered while the community was standing. The content of the prayers is largely lost, but I can’t help but wonder if those early Christians found what I have found: that “it is far better to share our worries with God than to be filled with anxiety about things that are out of our control.”[5] I wonder if they prayed for boldness and wisdom to share God’s love beyond their community. I suspect they brought needs and sorrows of others before God, joining their compassion with God’s greater compassion. And I suspect they offered their thanksgivings and praise.

If they prayed the prayer we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” then we know they were praying for justice and peace. We also know that they would be praying prayers of confession, opening themselves to reconciliation with God and each other. Perhaps they were bold and faithful enough to pray for their enemies, as Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus taught.

2DC81B7ACFA24E14A5BEA31617BC8F49.ashxThe third element of worship was the meal around the table. In the early church, it appears to have been a full meal. According to Paul Bradshaw, the pattern of this meal mirrored “the common custom followed at all Jewish formal meals.”[6] This seven-fold shape began with the head of household taking bread in his (and it would have been a “he” at that time) hands, offering a blessing, breaking the bread, sharing it with all present; and at the end of the meal, taking a cup of wine in his hands, offering a blessing, and sharing it with all around the table. Bradshaw points out that this is the description of the Last Supper in several New Testament texts, which means that Jesus wasn’t instituting a new ritual, but reinterpreting an old one, giving it new meaning.[7]

The meals around which the Last Supper was remembered were also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are fed and none are hungry. The thing that was different about this feast was that all divisions fell away. All were welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, city-born and country-born. Everyone was treated as an equal, a shockingly anti-social act. Imagine someone from the merchant class treating a slave as an equal.

By the middle of the second century, it appears that the main meal disappeared from at least some of the Christian worshiping communities and the meal was simplified to the bread and cup.[8]

Though the agape feast (as it was called by some) ended, the radical nature of the Eucharist remained. All were still welcome: rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek. And this radical equality and inclusion was just as shocking to the social order as it had always been.

The fourth element of worship in the early church was an offering. This is how Justin Martyr describes this portion of the service: “And the wealthy who so desire give what they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president [of that ecclesia]. He helps orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause are in need, and those in prison, and strangers sojourning among us; in a word, he takes care of all whose who are in need.”[9]

The wealth gap in the United States today is troubling, but it is nothing compared to the wealth gap that existed in the Roman Empire. Then, most people (who weren’t slaves) had subsistence lives, growing barely or not quite enough to feed their families, or working for only enough to feed themselves and their families on those days when they were lucky enough to find work. Anyone with any expendable money would have been considered wealthy, and they supported, through the church, those who were in need.

Our memories define us.

I started this sermon by saying that our memories define us. The disciples’ memories of their experiences of Jesus – before the crucifixion and after the resurrection – defined who they were. The memories of coming together to worship defined who the early church was. We are inheritors of those memories. We still gather for teaching, prayer, communion, and offering. This peculiar action is part of who we are and it is a mark of the uprising that began with Jesus. We are a people of the table where all are welcome – and all means ALL.

During the communion hymn today, we will be moving to the fellowship hall and we will gather around the tables there. It won’t quite be like the earliest celebrations of communion, which bookended the meal. We will celebrate communion and then move into our potluck lunch. When we get to that part of the worship service, we may discover that there are not enough chairs for everyone, so if you can stand around a table, I encourage you to stand and allow those who need to sit to sit. I know that not everyone will be able to stay for the lunch and the Day of Discovery program that follows, but I hope most of you will. And now, I’ll stop getting to far ahead of myself. I’ll return to the sermon.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about anything in today’s sermon that struck you, or to simply reflect on a time in your life when your heart was full of worship.
Consider how do you respond to (and how are you fed by) the four ancient functions of gathered worship – teaching, prayer, the meal, and offering.
Choose one word that points to an attribute of God (glory, wisdom, justice, kindness, power, grace, etc.).  Hold that word in your heart and mind, and in silence worship God.  Then choose another word and hold it together with the first word in silent worship.  Then add a third, and so on.

[1] Times Wire Services, “Disciples of Christ Name Interim Leader …” Los Angeles Times, (posted 2 November 1991; accessed 16 April 2016).
[2] “NCC Biography: Michael Kinnamon,” National Council of Churches, (accessed 16 April 2016).
[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 36. Retrieved from
[4] I am basing this on a quote by Justin Martyr [a second century Christian apologist] describing worship in his day (mid-second century) found in Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 41. Brian McLaren says that prayer came after communion, and it may have been some for some communities or for the earliest Christian communities – or he may have based his order on the order of things in the reading from Acts. Nonetheless, I will go with the more scholarly work for determining the order of things in early Christian worship.
You can learn some basics about Justin Martyr at
[5] McLaren, op. cit.
[6] Paul Bradshaw, 40.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 41-42.
[9] Justin Martyr, quoted by Bradshaw, 41.

You have heard our prayers – those we’ve spoken aloud and those we’ve held in the quiet recesses of our hearts.  You have held us tenderly and we have shared our grief, given you praise, voiced our hopes, even when we have offered up prayers that we can’t even put into words.  Thank you.

As we look back over the years of our lives, we can see and name the wise women who were there for us, even when I did not realize it at the time, wise women who have opened our vision to a higher level, loving women who have deepened our sense of compassion, radical women who have showed us how to stand for what is right even against the odds.  These were and are women of dignity, conviction, and courage.  They are our guides, our teachers, our mentors.  We give you thanks, Holy One, for the many ways they gave us life.

We remember, too, children who have been left to their own devices.  We remember those left physically unable to be biological mothers when they wanted nothing more.  We remember mothers so overwhelmed by the tasks they become unable to function.  We remember those mothers-of-the-year who seemed to make it look so easy.

We hold each of us and all the emotions associated with this day – from celebration to mourning, gratitude to anger, deep joy to indifference, the warmth of inclusion to the isolation of exclusion – in your holy light.  Love us all into your kin-dom.  In your many sacred names we prayer, Amen.

Based on/inspired by Facebook posts by Bishop Steve Charleston and the Rev. Lizann Bassham.

An introduction to the worship service held at
Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Because, as you will see, the service today didn’t have a “sermon,” there is no sermon to post.  Instead, we post this manuscript of the introduction and explanation of the service the community was about to experience.

In 2010, I took a 3-month sabbatical.  The focus on the sabbatical was “sacred space.”  I went to some places that have been sacred space for me.  I went to some places and was surprised to discover a sense of sacred space there.  And I went to some places I had long hoped to go to, thinking they might be sacred space for me.

Two of the places I had long to go to were in France:  Chartres and the Taizé community.  Chartres has an amazing cathedral that dates back to the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Taizé is an ecumenical community of monks – Catholics and Protestants – that focuses on being a place of prayer for teens and 20-somethings.  Being over 30, I had to apply for permission to visit.

I know some of you have experienced worship that utilizes Taizé music.  The worship might have been called “a Taizé service.”  It wasn’t – unless it was held three times a day while living in community.  There is no way to truly duplicate the experience of worshiping in Taizé with the brothers.  Instead, a service can use the form and the music from Taizé, and that’s what we’re going to do today.

The center of life at Taizé is prayer offered in worship.  Three times a day, the brothers and the visitors (in the summers, there can be thousands of visitors) gather in the church to pray.  Bells call the community together.  People enter the church in silence.

When the ringing of the bells fades away, a number lights up on a display like you’d see in a deli – “Now serving number 137.”  The monks, seated in the center of the sanctuary, and the visitors seated on the floor, turn to the song the number denotes in songbooks.  The monks start singing and the visitors join in.

Because the community is ecumenical and international, many of the songs are in Latin – that way no one’s language or tradition is favored.  The songs are usually just a couple lines long and are repeated and repeated.  The idea is that the singing goes on long enough for everyone to feel comfortable with the tune and lyrics, and then to be able to sing it without needing to think about it, and then to sing it a few more times.  This way, the song becomes a prayer that is not only thought, but is also felt and embodied.  The song ends and a new number shows up and a new song begins.

In addition to the singing, the community worships in other ways.  A prayer might be chanted by one of the monks over humming and a sung response.  The Eucharist is shared daily.  Scripture is read, typically in two or three languages.  It is followed by a song and a long period of silence.  That silence is – or at least it was for me – the sermon.  I used the silence as an opportunity to meditate on the scripture reading, to listen for a word from the stillspeaking God.

When I started my week at Taizé, I found myself thinking, “What? We’re worshiping again already?”  And I found the silence long and even a little uncomfortable.  Just to give you a warning, our silence today will last about 10 minutes.

By the end of the week, I was really enjoying this way of praying and the silence didn’t always seem long enough.  On the afternoon of my second-to-last day at Taizé, I actually looked at my watch and though, “I have to wait how much longer until we pray together?”  My experience of this way of worshiping changed.

Today, we’re going to have one experience, modeled after the worship at Taizé.  It is part of our sermon series on spiritual practices.  This is an opportunity to experience praying and worshiping in the Taizé style.  After the worship service, I invite you to get a cup of coffee and come into the Guild Room to talk about your experience.

And now, let us more into this time of worship as they do in Taizé: with church bells ringing, calling us to prayer.

*     *     *     *     *     *

After the service, I invited those who chose to stick around to discuss these questions:

Thinking both of what happened in the service and what happened inside you:

  •     What caught you by surprise?
  •     What made you to “Oooo” or “Hmmm” or “Ahhh”?
  •     What helped you “be present” with God?
  •     What hindered your being present with God?

This is a very different form of worship from what we do most Sundays.  What did experiencing this form of worship teach you about worship as a spiritual practice?

The Taizé songs/chants are a unique form of prayer.  What did experiencing them teach you about your prayer practice?

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 14, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 16:16-30 and Matthew 26:26-30
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Worship planning poses certain challenges.  For instance, some weeks finding time to do all the reading and prep for sermon writing can be hard.  Other weeks, I can find myself challenged by picking hymns or writing prayers for the bulletin.  This week, it was about current events.

For the past few months, the Pastor Parish Relations Committee and then the Ministry of Spiritual Life Team have been discussing with your pastors various pieces of feedback we have heard about worship.  Together, we decided that we would offer a survey about two of the topics and that the survey would be given as part of a sermon.  This Sunday was picked for the survey.

Then last night, the jury’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin homicide case was announced.  George Zimmerman was found not guilty of all the charges presented to the jury.  Even after a decent enough night’s sleep, I’m feeling sad and angry about this decision.

It may have been the correct legal outcome, given Florida’s laws and the way the case was presented.  Yet, it feels unjust to me.  Based on no evidence, Zimmerman decided that Martin was “up to no good,” so he trailed him.  I don’t know who initiated the confrontation, but if it was Martin, wasn’t Martin just standing his ground when this adult stranger was trailing him?  And if it was Zimmerman who initiated the confrontation – after being told to stay in his car by the police department – doesn’t he bear responsibility for the results of that confrontation?

And I can’t help but wonder if we as a society will really acknowledge how white-skin privilege played a role in this tragedy.  If Martin had been white or Zimmerman black, how would the story have been different?  After all, fourteen months ago, a woman’s “stand your ground” defense was denied in Florida after she fired warning shots to defend herself from her abusive husband.  She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  And, yes, she is an African American.[i]

So, last night, I wrestled with the question:  should I chuck the sermon I had planned and talk about the Martin homicide and the Zimmerman trial or should I go along as planned?  What I decided is that, because today’s sermon includes the surveys in your bulletins and we’re planning to share the survey results with you in August, I’ll go ahead as planned today.  Then next week, instead of preaching on the subject announced in your bulletins (that will wait until August), we will have a conversation about race, privilege, and justice.  I hope you’re okay with that decision.

Now, let me turn to today’s scriptures.

We’re familiar with the reading from Matthew.  It’s Matthew’s retelling of the Last Supper.  The thing about Matthew’s version of the story that struck me for today is what happens immediately after Jesus and the disciples share the meal.  The NRSV says, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Right there, as part of their community practice, was the singing of a hymn.

And then, as I looked closer, I was really excited.  “When they had sung the hymn, they went out …”  The hymn.  Maybe hymn selection won’t be as hard any more.  Just figure out what the hymn is and sing that every week.  So I checked other translations, and all the other reliable ones say, “a hymn.”  I’m no Greek scholar, but looking at the Greek, I don’t see an article at all.  So, I guess all we can say is that hymn singing was a practice of the community of early Christians.

Our second reading probably isn’t as familiar.  The book of Acts tells stories about the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Today we heard about Paul and Silas getting into trouble for interfering with a business that was exploiting a female slave.  That’s essentially what the beef was.  When Paul exorcized the “spirit” that gave her the ability to tell fortunes, he took away her ability to make her master money.  And Paul’s motivation wasn’t all that pure.  He was annoyed with her.

Well, you mess with commerce, you go to jail.  So Paul and Silas were thrown in jail.  And what did they do in jail?  They prayed and sang hymns.  And in the midst of their praying and singing, God caused an earthquake that was severe enough to unlock the door and chains that held the prisoners.  The jailer knew he was in trouble, so he decided he’d better kill himself.  But Paul stopped him, essentially saying, “Yeah, we could have run away, but we didn’t.”

I’ll come back to other aspects of this story in another sermon.  Today, I want to focus on what Paul and Silas did when they got thrown in jail.  They prayed and sang hymns.  [Sung to The Beatles’ “Let It Be”:]  “When you find yourself in times of trouble, maybe pray and sing a hymn.”

And metaphorically, the story is saying that prayer and singing hymns is powerful.  God’s intervention didn’t come by getting the slave to leave Paul and Silas alone.  It didn’t come when they were arrested and charges were leveled against them.  It came when they were in chains in the innermost part of the prison – once they started praying and singing hymns.  Well, our survey is going to focus on these two aspects of our worship:  our worship music and our prayer time.

Colleagues have heard it.  I have heard it.  It’s a common suggestion:  “We need contemporary music in worship.”  Sometimes it comes as a curative to a lack of “young people” at worship (whatever ‘young people’ means).  Sometimes it comes as a plea for personal connection.  Sometimes it comes simply because someone wants to have something to complain about.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that people aren’t always exactly clear on what they mean by “contemporary” music.  Most of the time, I think people who say this are talking about musical style, but what musical style?  Are they asking for electric guitars and drums?  And if they’re asking for electric guitars and drums, are they talking about the Beatles or Guns and Roses or Justin Bieber?

Or maybe they mean Big Band.

Hymn 10, “Bring Many Names,” was written – words and music – in 1987.  There are almost as many years between the Beatles release of “Please Please Me” and the writing of “Bring Many Names,” as there are between the writing of “Bring Many Names” and today.  I think that makes “Bring Many Names” a contemporary piece of music.  But it is appropriately accompanied on the organ.  Is it what someone means by “contemporary”?

Question 1 of the survey offers a very incomplete list of musical styles.  I invite you to think about what musical styles you like and to list one as your favorite – not necessarily for worship – just your favorite style of music.  Then, I invite you to list three styles of music that you think are appropriate for worship and Niles Discovery Church.  Go ahead and do that now.


Musical style is just one consideration when it comes to selecting music for worship.  You’ll see in question 2 that I’ve identified six things to consider when selecting worship music.  Let me explain what I mean by each of them.

Theological content focuses on the lyrics of the music.  As a church that identifies itself as being “progressive,” the music we sing should reflect that theology.[ii]  In other words, the music should emphasize praise and justice and the fullness of human experience.  Not that every song has to do this all at once, but in the worship life of the church, the music can’t focus too much on just one of these.  The music should use inclusive language – language that includes all people and is expansive in the images used to describe God.  Including all people goes beyond avoiding “Rise up oh men of God” because it excludes women.  It also means including people from various walks of life and positions in society.  And expansive God language includes avoiding “he” for God, since (as a t-shirt put it) “God” is not a boy’s name.

Having a progressive theological content also means the lyrics need to avoid penal substitutionary atonement theology and associated buzz words.  Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that says that someone had to suffer horribly in order for God to be able to forgive our sins, that Jesus was the perfect substitute for us, and that when he was crucified, suffering of the cross, spilling his blood, the “price was paid.”  Since that belief has been rejected in Progressive Christianity, we shouldn’t sing about it.

Similarly, progressive Christian worship music needs to take the Bible seriously, though not literally.  It needs to respect other religious traditions beyond Christianity.  It needs to focus on the joy of being loved and received unconditionally by God, and on the gift it is to be called into a loving and radical response to the amazing grace of God.  It needs to emphasize both the individual and the community, moving from “I and me” to “us and we.”  And it needs to have fresh images, ideas, and language.  So, the theological content of the lyrics are one consideration.

Another is musical style, which I’ve already talked about.

Another consideration is language style.  Some worship music is filled with ‘ye’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ and ‘thou.’  Are we comfortable using archaic language in our hymns?  Put another way, ideally, our songs will use contemporary English so they are accessible intellectually and emotionally.

Another consideration is emotional attachment.  Let me use a personal example to explain what I mean.  When I graduated from Seminary, we had a class photo taken.  As we stood on the steps to the PSR chapel and the photographer started arranging us and we started getting bored, I started singing “Amazing Grace.”  That song is meaningful to me for many reasons, one of which is my emotional attachment to it because of that day.  My bet is that many of you have hymns you love even though, if you really looked at them, you wouldn’t like much – because of their theological content or language style or maybe even musical style (though musical style and emotional attachment are often linked).

Another consideration I have as someone planning worship is thematic consistency.  If I’m preaching on the songs we sing in worship, then I’d like the songs we sing in worship to have something to do with singing or worship.  Once today’s service is over, you can decide how good a job I did.

Finally, there is the consideration of singability.  Consider Hymn 7.  “When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried, ‘Alleluia!’”  This would, thematically, be a great hymn for us to sing today.  But I have a note in my office hymnal on this page in big letters:  “Very difficult to sing.”  So I didn’t pick it.

In questions 2 and 3, I ask you to rank from 1 to 6 these considerations in order of importance – for question 2, when it comes to picking hymns that the congregation is going to sing; and for question 3, when it come to picking other music (that the congregation does not sing).  Let me give us a couple minutes to complete that.


Now, I’d like to turn to prayer.  To start with, for question 4, I’d like you to simply write down some words or phrases about what you need to connect with God in prayer.  I’ll give you a little time to jot those down.


There are many times when we pray in our worship services.  We have unison prayers printed in the bulletin.  Sometimes our hymns are addressed to God, and in those cases they are prayers, too.  We pray at the communion table.  We recite the Lord ’s Prayer.  And we have a time of prayer that is longer and more free-form.

This time of prayer has three movements to it.  It starts with people being able to give voice to their prayers.  It moves into quiet.  And then there is a pastoral prayer.  My suspicion is that, because we are all different, different parts of that time of prayer are more important to different people.  And that’s what question 5 is getting at.  So, please answer question 5.


I wish I had included one more question, and here’s why.  To my ear, sometimes the prayers of the people sound more like announcements than prayers.  If we remember who we are speaking to, that we are addressing God, that probably helps.  I don’t need to introduce myself, because God knows who I am.  And I don’t need to give all the details, because God knows them already.  My prayer can be, “Thank you, God, for the opportunity to connect with an old friend.”  I don’t need to add, “from high school that I got to see as she flew from New Zealand to Maine, stopping over in San Francisco.”

But, the more we move away from announcements and toward prayers, the less we will be sharing details with each other.  That doesn’t bother me, personally, because my assumption during the prayer time is that you’re talking to God, not to me.  If you want me to know the details, you can find a time to tell me.  In fact, I don’t even need to understand what you’ve said to say in response, “O God, here our prayer.”  I trust you, so I can support your prayer even if I don’t understand it.

But that might not be true for you.  So, I wish I had added one more question.  If you don’t mind, would you add a number 7 below the spot for your name, and then write a letter next to the number 7 for the statement that is most true for you about our time of prayer in worship?

a)    It is important to me that I hear and understand the content of the prayers others in the congregation offer.

b)   It is important to me that others hear and understand the content of the prayers I offer.

c)    I would like for there to be a time to share joys and concerns separate from our prayer time.

d)   I do not need to know the details of what people are praying about; being in prayer with them is enough.

I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions.  Please answer question 6 if you want to, and read the instructions about getting follow up and including your name.  You can turn in the questionnaire by placing it in the offering plate or you can give it to me or Pastor Brenda during coffee hour or the Town Hall Meeting.

And now, I invite us to turn to God in song and prayer, as we sing hymn 70, “God of the Sparrow.”

[i] CBSNews, “Fla. mom gets 20 years for firing warning shots,” (posted 12 May 2012; downloaded 13 July 2013).

[ii] This list comes from Bryan Sirchio, “My New ebook In One Chapter,” (posted 8 May 2011; downloaded 13 July 2013).

Yesterday (August 22), I worshipped with the Olympia Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers in Washington.  Every gathering of Quakers is called a “Meeting” (or so it seems).  Quakers have regional Quarterly Meetings, and monthly Meetings for Business, and each week a Meeting for Worship.  In fact, this congregation isn’t even called a “Congregation;” it’s called a “Meeting.”

The Meeting for Worship was very different from worship services I have experienced in my tradition, the United Church of Christ.  In the UCC, we have a very active worship services that are filled with words and singing.  Quaker Meeting for Worship is filled with silence (at least this Meeting for Worship was filled with silence – I learned that there are also Meetings with worship that is “programmed” and Meetings with worship that is filled with music).

We gathered around 10:00 – some came earlier; some were “late,” but that didn’t seem to matter.  The worship space consisted of about 70 chairs in rows around the center of the room, facing each other.  There were probably 30 people there when I arrived just a couple minutes before 10:00, all sitting quietly.  Some had their eyes closed; some were looking around.  I took a seat in the third row, which was also the back row, and quieted myself.

Interior of Olympia Friends Meeting house

No one said, “Okay, everybody, we’re worshiping now.”  People just entered the space to worship and held the quietness.  It wasn’t long before my eyes were shut in prayer.  I wasn’t praying anything in particular; I was just practicing being in the presence of God.  About 20 minutes later (I’m guessing; I didn’t have a watch with me), I heard a wrestling and opened my eyes.  The six youth who were in the worship space got up quietly with the Sunday School teachers for their class.  I shut my eyes and re-centered myself.

Some time later (I have no idea when) a man stood up and shared very briefly about an encounter he had had with a neighbor and how it moved him to, again, deeply appreciate being a Friend (Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends).  A moment later, another man shared, though I could not hear him.  And the community settled back into the quiet.

Eventually the youth returned from their class and it wasn’t long until a man sitting a few seats down from me announced that he was calling the worship to a close.  He then invited everyone to introduce herself/himself, to make any announcements, or to share anything that was “left over” (I think those were his words) from worship.

As we went around the room, people shared the typical church announcements and some made comments about what was going on for them.  I was fascinated by how what the man shared resonated for many people (it was nice to hear why he was so grateful to be a Friend, but otherwise it wasn’t very interesting to me).  One person made a comment, something like, “I had this thought, but it didn’t rise to the level of a message.”  An interesting distinction, I said to myself, between a ‘thought’ and a ‘message.’ A thought, it seems, is for yourself; a message is for the community and is to be shared aloud.

After everyone had introduced himself/herself, we were invited back into some silence, and then we all briefly held hands.

You will notice in this description that there was no pastor present.  This Meeting doesn’t have a pastor (it’s my understanding that most Meetings, at least most non-programmed meetings, do not have pastors).  Instead, everyone in the congregation is a minister, and people minister to each other.

Quakers are known for their strong peace stand, often being activists for non-violence and almost universally being conscientious objectors during a draft.  I am struck by the contrast between these people sitting together in silence on Sunday and these same people standing vocally for peace and justice on the capital steps during the week.  I can’t help but wonder if that weekly practice of silence and listening gives them the strength to be vocal in ways that challenge societies status quo in favor of what Jesus called the Empire of God.*

Quakers are also known for their consensus decision-making style.  This is a difficult process, consensus decision-making.  It requires everyone to listen carefully to each other and I’m sure the practice of listening for the Spirit of God with each other each week is extremely helpful in making this possible.  In fact, I was a little inaccurate at the beginning of this essay.  The Olympia Friends Meeting does not have a monthly Meeting for Business.  They have a monthly Meeting for Worship for Business.  They do their business in the context of worship.

I think the UCC could learn something here.  What if we were to see our business meetings as acts of worship?  What if the central focus of our business was the praise and glorification of God?  Would that change how we decide things?  Would that change how we listen to each other in the deciding?

My congregation is in the process of deciding if they will merge with a neighboring Disciples of Christ congregation.  It is my fervent hope that they will make this major business decision worshipfully.

*Jesus actually called it something else because he didn’t speak English.  The traditional translation is the Kingdom of God, but I prefer the Empire of God because he was contrasting it with the Empire of Rome.

I’ve been preaching a sermon series to my congregation over the past few weeks on how the church needs to change in response to two major cultural shifts in North America – the end of Christendom and the end of the “modern era.”  You can read or hear the series, “A Whole New World,” on the church’s website.

I summarized the modern to post-modern shift like this:

We have gone from the era of Modernity, a time when reason, optimism, universality, objectivity, and “the grand story” were the hallmark values, to a post-modern era, when intuition, emotional intelligence, and mystery are valued and when each particular point of view has validity.

I was reflecting on communion the other day (an occupational hazard) and realized how important the two sacraments recognized by churches in the Reformed tradition – baptism and eucharist (communion, the Lord’s Supper) – are in the post-modern church.  The sacraments are experiential and the experiential is vital to post-modernity.

In my church, baptisms happen infrequently.  This is because not many people in my church are having babies and because we have few converts to Christianity joining the church.  Communion, on the other hand, is a sacrament we celebrate at least monthly and could celebrate weekly.

There is some resistance to weekly (or even bi-weekly) celebrations of communion in my congregation.  This resistance most frequently gets expressed as a fear that more frequent celebrations of this sacrament will lead to it becoming “less special.”  I wonder if there might also be a resistance based in modernity – because sacraments are essentially (in their essence) mystical and the modern mindset resists the mystical, the unexplainable.

The modern mind wants to know what communion “means.”  The post-modern mind asks, “What does communion mean to you?”  My answer to this post-modern question varies from experience to experience, depending on what’s going on in my life in that moment and what’s going on in the life of the community.

I hope that, as our church becomes more deeply rooted in post-modern sensibilities, we will be more open to the experiential in worship, especially the experience of communion and of God experienced through this sacrament.


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