Do you think your church is kind on Father's Day?
Most of us would say, yes, of course!
Yet, for men who long to be fathers and are not, for any who have a difficult relationship with their biological father, or those who've lost their fathers too soon, Sundays like Father's Day can feel brutal.
When we preach solely to the fathers in the sanctuary . . .
When we ask all the fathers to stand up and receive a gift . . .
When talk carelessly about joyous Father's Day plans after church . . .
Real life is so much messier than this, isn’t it? Death, loss, divorce, miscarriage, failed IVF treatments or adoptions are all a part of what it means to be love a father or be a father.
And the words really do matter. Words we say from the pulpit and church parking lots matter. Words form theology, even if we do not intend them too. (Which is probably how Father's Day jumped from a Hallmark holiday to a religious one)
As a pastor who struggled with infertility myself and listened to others who are struggling with other forms of loss, the words I hear over and over about Father's Day is this: “Please talk about me. Don’t leave my story out on Sunday. If you do, we’ll come to church.”
Churches NEED to acknowledge this Sunday the grief that the day holds for many. And celebrate the vast array of expressions of what fatherhood looks like in our society (not just biological children).
So to help with the words that might be said in your church on Sunday, below is a prayer I have used on many occasions. Feel free to borrow or adapt in a way that fits your congregation’s needs this Sunday.
Fathers meet us in some very different ways, and today we celebrate them all!
Thank God for the gift of fatherhood!
For those men who have left this earth and who we dearly miss.
Thank God for the dads whose legacy remain strong.
For those men for whom we had/ have difficult relationships as fathers.
Thank God for being our Dad when we needed You the most.
For those men raising his children now making sacrifices—rising early to make lunches, picking up from soccer practice and tugging kiddos in bed at night.
Thank God for the dads whose pace is so hectic today.
For those men who have taken in others’ children through adoption and foster care, showing us that the love of God far extends beyond biological ties.
Thank God for the dads with vision to include.
For those men who have lost a child to death or want to have a child and know they can’t without much trouble carrying on with the pain of lost dreams, often not being able to talk about it at all.
Thank God for the dads who carry heavy burdens.
For all the men in our community; who nurture us, support us and guide us in our becoming who show by their example fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.
Thank God for the dads who love unconditionally.
We thank you, Lord, for the men who have influenced our lives in so many ways. And lift our voices in your name, O Heavenly Father in whom we adore.
If you missed the first post in the “Good for the Soul” series, check it out here.
Beauty. It’s a word that we often associate with descriptions of people, objects or even to talk about our relationship with nature.
But more than this, beauty is often beyond words or a qualitative object. Beauty can be something that we experience or hear. And after we recognize it, often the only way we know how to talk of the experience is to say, "That was so beautiful!"
On Sunday night, I found myself overwhelmed by beauty. It was an encounter I didn't plan to attend but just happened. Some friends invited me to a compline service at Christ Church in Rochester, NY (while I was in the city for another event).
If you aren't familiar (I wasn't), a compline is a nightfall service that celebrates the end of the working day. The English word compline is derived from the Latin completorium, as compline is the completion of the working day. It's ancient tradition most likely begun around the time of St. Benedict in the 4th century that was celebrated by monks. But it's a tradition that remains today mostly in Anglican communities but sometimes found in Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. Most of all, it's a service which draws upon several sensory experiences of darkness, light, quiet, sacred space, vocalists and instruments.
When I walked into Christ Church minutes before the 9 pm compline began, the room was dark only lit by candles at the ends of pews and on the altar. The church was packed with worshippers. The only seats left for us to take came on the front right pew. So with a great view of the altar, I quickly turned off my phone as stillness engulfed the room. These weekly worshippers knew to quiet their souls for what came next. I followed their lead.
Out of the stillness, a large pipe organ in the balcony began with a prelude—triumphant but mellow tune. Then, a group of no more than 30 vocalists and accompanist alike processed in through the side doors finding their place in front of music stands lit by candles. More moments of silence preceded their first words.
Then, over the course of the next thirty minutes the congregation heard chants based on Psalms in perfect harmony. Words sung about being “Blessed and kept through the whole night" followed a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer. Then during several sung pieces, the choir kept time by tapping one another with their right hand on the person’s beside them shoulder. But with the darkness all around, never did I focus my attention on a particular musician nor the people sitting beside me. Rather, I found myself closing my eyes and taking in the sounds. Sometimes my gaze went toward a particular candle.
When the music ended, two altar assistants dressed in black robes processed to the front of the church. No one in the congregation moved. Then, candle by candle they extinguished each of the flames. We remained silent until the last bit of light on the altar was gone.
Though no one pastor said, "Go in peace" it was exactly how we left.
I later learned from one of the members of the choir that the compline is the most well-attended service all week.
The richness of this seemingly beloved service made me think again about the constant pressures of our modern lives—phones beeping, appointments every hour on the hour and 24-hour news everything. Our souls must be so tired.
But the beauty of this experience woke us all up.
We realized again that quiet is the best gift we can give our soul.
We were reminded that even in darkness there is light.
We saw signs of unity modeled for us by worship leaders.
Attending the compline modeled again for me that none of us is ever really alone. We belong to each other. We belong to God.
And if this isn’t beauty, I don’t know what is!
It was so good for my soul.
(Maybe this ancient tradition of worship is something your congregation—especially if it has access to trained musicians—is something that might bless your community. You can read more about it here).
I've been around church for years. And I think I've seen so much of what makes church, church these days--
Worship by the Common Book of Prayer
Worship where tongues are spoken
Worship where hands are raised
Worship in shorts
Worship in suits
Worship with shouts
Worship in silence
Worship from the pews
Worship from the pulpit
Is there a correct way to worship?
Is there a way of worship that is more pleasing to God?
Is there a worship style that will get more people to attend your church?
Such are the kind of questions church folks like to ask each other. Such are the kind of questions that church folks like to think they have complete certainty about.
We go to conferences to seek to worship in mass numbers. We go to conferences to learn better ways to lead our kind of worship. And we go to conferences to learn about the latest trends in worship.
But is such worth all our energy? What does God think of all our shuffling around like this? Does "better worship" or "bigger worship" really help us draw closer to the Divine?
I'm not so sure.
We've become good students at the art form of worship, but we've lost sight at what encountering God looks like-- the kind of God that Annie Dillard says we need to wear crash helmets to experience in church. We've lost sight of believing that worship begins with a relationship. Worship begins with a desire for adoration of the One who is greater than us all-- who could never to be controlled
And no fancy templates or worship orders are always needed. We can worship with or without drums, the piano or the organ.
And most of all, it's never about emotion alone as is the most popular trend in so many churches today-- it's about an alignment of our entire being.
And worship most of all is not about us-- not about what we "get out of it." Not about the feelings we leave a worship service with and most of all worship is not for worship's sake. Worship, as given to us in the Christian context is about setting our feet on holy ground. Holy ground which we may "feel" once in our lives-- or if we are lucky maybe more . . . but the emotion is never guaranteed.
Consider this wisdom from Roberta Bondi about the emotional traps of whatever kind of worship practice we choose:
“If we have a powerful religious experience, we need always to remember that just because a religious experience is powerful it is not necessarily from God."
Bondi goes on to ask us to consider these questions in our discernment of worship: "Does this experience make us feel singled out and either superior or not accountable to others in or out of the community because of it? Does it lead us to be judgmental of others, to say who deserves to belong to God’s people and who does not? . . . OR does this experience give us insight into ourselves, others or God? Do its insights hold good over time, or was it simply an emotional high that not only wears off but makes us seek another?”
If an experience of God in church leads us to want more of the experiences (the high of it all) and not God alone, then it is not worship at its best. BUT, if an experience changes us from inside out, turning over in us bone and marrow, thought and feeling, then it is worship that is about to change the world. It's heaven come to earth.
What I most like to tell people as a pastor is: if you feel the need to raise your hands in a "quiet" church: do it. If you feel the need to cover your head in reverence in a "high" church: do it. If you feel the need to sit reflectively in a "loud" church: do it.
I think the sooner we stop trying to manufacture experiences of God, the sooner we'll find the Holy in whatever tradition our worshiping life takes us.
What does joy feel like?
What does a God's ordaining moment feel like?
What does "this is the gospel incarnated" feel like?
What does a "this is why I do ministry" moment feel like?
For me, all of the questions could sum up how I felt about worship and lunch with our friends at Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church yesterday. We gathered together in celebration of their 30th anniversary in their worship space. Though this was the first time we'd worshipped together at 11 am, it was not the first time we'd shared fellowship together. Past events included shared lunches and a Sunday afternoon black history month program last February.
As I sit at my desk this morning, my heart just beams with joy from what our coming together meant in the larger perspective of why it is that we do church in the first place.
We sang out our hearts out (our choirs even practiced together prior to the service on Thursday night for two special pieces), we prayed, we gave our offerings together and we forgot about the time on the clock. I watched from my preacher's chair on the pulpit members of my congregation being moved by the spirit to clap, stand and raise their hands too in praise of God. It was good church!
I was invited to preach the anniversary sermon, by MLK Christian's pastor, Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey-- a very gracious gesture coming out of our shared friendship and belief that the gospel must be lived out in diversity. It was my first time preaching in a predominantly African-American congregation and I loved it! The feedback from the congregation enlivened my spirit and I believe that could really preach like this every Sunday if given more response.
Joy for me came in simply being together.
As themes of my own life story have always included paying attention to racial reconciliation, so yesterday felt again like a moment of "this is what you were made to do." I love building relationships with those who are of different traditions with me and I'm glad when others want to build them back. Friendship is always at the heart of any change. I am proud to call Rev. Jean my friend.
As I said in my sermon, we only really know what Jesus looks like when we are in relationship with ALL of God's children. So in adding some different faces to our worship and fellowship, it felt like another dimension of the gospel was revealed to us all. It was holy ground. And, when we find holy ground, don't we want to walk on it as much as possible?
There is so much of what we do as pastors and in church that feels like grunt work-- filing papers, keeping lists, sending reminder emails about who needs to take the trash out or when Bible Study starts-- that can suck the passion out of us faster than we know it. But, yesterday was a reminder of how powerful our collective experience of church can be when we direct our administrative talents toward the relationships and the reconciliation that really matters.
I believe that the expressions of friendship between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church and Washington Plaza Baptist church that continued and overflowed yesterday have only just begun. I look forward to my continued friendship with Rev. Jean and I look forward to WPBC and MLK continuing to partner together for the glory of God.
Today in worship we talked how BLESSING is one of the themes found in Matthew's Beatitudes-- that as Jesus spoke these words of "Blessed are . . ." he was seeking to tell this followers exactly how he already felt about them. Jesus spoke to the disciples not as those whom he was commanding to act a certain way, but as a loving teacher to a group of people he cared deeply for.
We also talked about how hard it is for us to receive Jesus' blessing on us because we want to assume it comes with conditions that sound like "you must do this first." Could Jesus possibly love us even if we don't come to him in perfection yet?
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, author and professor, tells the following story about how hard it is for all of us to receive blessing but also how each of us hungers for it more than we realize.
While living in the L'Arche community for mentally and physically challenged adults called Daybreak in Toronto, Canada as a resident chaplain, he found himself in the following conversation with a patient there while going about his daily chores:
A woman named Janet came up to Henri and asked for a blessing. In response, he remembers walking up to her and giving her a little cross on her forehead.
But, she said, "Henri, it doesn't work. No, that is not what I meant."
Henri notes that was embarrassed and said, "I gave you a blessing." She said, "No, I want to be blessed." He kept thinking, "What does she mean?"
[Later on] there was a worship service. After the service Henri said, "Janet wants a blessing." He had an alb on and a long robe with long sleeves. Janet walked up to Henri and said, "I want to be blessed." She put her head against my chest and he spontaneously put my arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, "Blessed are you, Janet. You know how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are."
She looked at Henri and said, "Yes, yes, yes, I know. I suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be relieved from the feeling of depression because suddenly she realized again that she was blessed. She went back to her place and immediately other people said, "I want that kind of blessing, too."
Henri went on to recount, "Then, countless people kept walking up to me and I suddenly found myself embracing people. I remember that after that, a man in our community who assists the handicapped, a strong guy, a football player, said, 'Henri, can I have a blessing, too?' I remember our standing there and I put my hand on his shoulder and said: "you are blessed. You are a good person. God loves you. We love you. You are important. Can you claim that and live as the blessed one?"
And this process, according to Henri, went on and on for days as members of the community heard that he gave out blessings."[i]
We all need blessing more than we sometimes know.
So, after I shared this story in my sermon and we had a service of communion with one another, I offered the congregation a blessing if they wanted it. Several deacons assisted in this by standing to the side of the room with hands open wide to give hugs and the blessing of "Jesus loves you." Several folks told me after the service how powerful it was for them to leave worship with the experience of having a blessing instead of just hearing about one for others. I think we might just need to engage in this spiritual practice of hugging more often.
Worship with a hug . . . sometimes it is the smallest gestures that can be so powerful.