A High Holy Day

It’s hard not to be envious sometimes. So often people point off down the street to that other place of worship that packs people in with upbeat music, cafés outside the worship space, and dynamic presentations.

But today I am joining in with one of those mega-worship experiences. (Yes, I’m writing this during the worship but it’s not disturbing anyone…I’m watching their live stream on my TV.)

The place is packed with worshippers. My own congregation can boast of attendees from two different states (granted we’re pretty much on the border of the two). But this worship I’m watching? People from everywhere! They even arrived early and were waiting in line for the doors to open. I think anyone could wish for their worship attendees to have such energy and enthusiasm.

They are closely attuned to the activities of the worship team. They are so eager for a clear reception of the message that they erupt in shouts of joy and praise when they see one occur. And yet I sense a reluctance on the part of some to receive it. After all, what constitutes a clear reception of the Word? Is it in hearing only, or must our hands and feet demonstrate, by their action, a clear and controlled reception?

And the building? It’s impressive. I mean, our congregation has a beautiful, cathedral style presence with stained glass and an impressive pipe organ. We’ve added some technology with a big screen up front and PowerPoint slides during the service. But it’s no match for what I’m seeing on my big screen. The worship space is in the round (so to speak), altars at either end, separated by what seems like a hundred yards. They have video screens on all sides, constantly replaying especially significant moments of the worship. There are multiple exits from the sanctuary, each one opening out to a café area which promises all kinds of refreshment.

I do have a disappointment in this worship. For years, I have tried to teach that the offering is not an “intermission” but an act of worship in itself. This worship, though, not only takes a definite break as people go out to make their offerings, but the music team takes the stage and practically performs a concert. Not my style but, hey, it’s not a salvation issue.

I guess I also have to admit that there seems to be more law than grace involved. I keep hearing about the “fundamentals” and wish perhaps there was less emphasis on our own efforts and the penalties for failing. There are moments of grace but there also seems to be a lot of competition as the worship team strives to launch its message to the far corners of the turf.

Jesus is present but hardly noticeable. Every now and then, one of the members of the worship team will acknowledge him with a finger pointing skyward. He is present in the congregation in a person who intercedes in prayer when a worship team member appears overcome by the physical demands of leading worship. Another intercedes more directly in a little “church spat” between members in their pew, encouraging them to be “good sports” about their differences. Yet another member takes their meager lunch, purchased with the equivalent of a day’s wage, and shares it with those around them.

Ah, the moment of grace arrives at last as the service concludes with an adult baptism. A full immersion, of sorts, in crystal blue water.

And now, the worship has concluded. (By the way, it was looooong! I don’t want to hear any more about my 75 minute services.) And I noticed something else when the worship was over. Many people were leaving looking disappointed and dejected. Others were joyful and ecstatic. And I ponder: is this what I want worship to be? An experience that seems to have winners and losers? I saw few attempts at comforting the sorrowing or binding up the broken-hearted. Can a congregation like that, focused on success, truly inhabit the Christ-like characteristics that should be the hallmark of the Church?

Perhaps I’m not so envious after all. Perhaps my congregation, on its smaller stage, with its pipe organ rather than drum line and pyrotechnics, has its focus right where it needs to be. Caring for the widow and orphan. Bringing good news to the poor. Proclaiming the good news that the Lord’s favor is for everyone. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what they’re doing down the street as long as we are being true to our call, our giftedness.

And how do we take our gifts and move forward together as a team? It depends on the spot. We are on God’s field, God’s mission field, and God has marked us down at this time and place in order to serve this part of the kingdom. God’s game plan will bring victory and we can be a part of it. As long as we keep our eye on the ball, so to speak.

A Jaunty Vastness

I’m pondering “vastness.” I mentioned last week that I was preparing to attend a preaching workshop and now I’ve completed it. We talked about daring to preach some things that are very hard to talk about and about doing the difficult and courageous things that are needed. I have to admit that I have a terrible problem with comparing myself to others and finding myself lacking. The depth of knowledge, insight, and intellectual prowess in attendance, as well as the courage some have to speak out on controversial issues, causes me to do a self-evaluation that I deem, well, unflattering.

But back to vastness. I was standing at the balcony door of our hotel room looking out over the ocean. It is vast in the sense that it puts the “problems” of my limited slice of life into perspective against the vastness of the world. I always feel small at the beach, in an appropriate way, I think. Its vastness seems invulnerable. Seemed.

I don’t know what shifted my viewpoint but I found myself wondering about the “ocean of humanity” that crashes up against the incoming surf. It’s hard to imagine that our way of living, often reckless and irresponsible, could have a negative effect on the vastness of the ocean(s). And yet, we’ve managed it. A walk along this northern Pacific coastline produces a garbage bag’s worth of plastic detritus. On one morning alone. Within the limited distance I can cover.

I’m also struck by the “vastness” of the assembly I’m part of at this event. No, it’s not that we’re all “pastors of unusual size” but rather it’s the vastness of the diversity in the room that gives me pause. All of us are pastors but some are also deep-thinking theologians, social workers, teachers, linguists, etc. I feel small in their midst as it does not seem to me that I am any of those things. They would likely support their opinions in a post like this with Scriptural quotes and sayings of Luther, Augustine, and some other person I’ve never heard of but probably should have read.

So where is this post going? I don’t know. But I’m struck by the Gospel text for this coming Sunday which, following the theme of God revealed that has been our path in Epiphany, shows us Jesus revealed as the fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of God.

Part of that promise is given in the Epistle lesson that declares that we are all given gifts with which to serve. Some are called to be deep-thinking theologians, some teachers, some with various kinds of tongues (uh, paraphrased). We are to use these gifts of the Spirit, whatever they may be and as they are given to us, to do God’s work in the world. And, I think, to sound a Word of promise to all who hear; an invitation to see God at work among God’s people.

I watched a jogger out on the beach, with his labradoodle, running along in the winter breeze and mist. I don’t know about the jogger but the dog was having a blast! They stopped to change direction and come back up the beach. At the paws…I mean, the pause…the man knelt and the dog came running into his embrace. The joy and happiness was clear even though they were distant enough to appear like the Statue of Liberty pinched between my fingers.

I think there may be something there. Maybe I’m not called to have an effect on the whole world, that is, the whole of the earth. Maybe my call is to have an effect on “my” whole world. What if I could make a difference in one person’s life that resulted in the same joy and happiness I saw between that jogger and his dog? (They ran by our room on the promenade and I can only describe the dog’s gait as “jaunty.”) I don’t have to be a systematic theologian or a biblical scholar to make a particular change to  the world around me. All I am called to do is share the Word, a Word that has, in and of itself, the power to change the world. Or one particular life. And perhaps in that sharing, I might bring a joy that transforms and a hopefulness that renews.

Walking in a Fog

I’m preparing to go to an annual preaching workshop that is usually held somewhere on the Oregon Coast. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking but hey, some of my best reflecting on the workshop is done by walking along the beach. What can I say?

As I’ve been pondering what the still-new year might hold for the congregation I serve, I was reminded of one of those reflective walks from some years ago. The sessions to that point had focused on some of the resurrection stories…an angel appearing to Mary in the garden and Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Stories of Jesus showing up unexpectedly, or up ahead somewhere leading the way, moving everyone and everything forward even in their confusion and misunderstanding.

In my memory, we were walking down a misty beach. We had headed out from the north end of Cannon Beach on our way toward Haystack Rock. We could see an area of misty fog (foggy mist?) ahead of us and paused briefly when we reached it. It felt heavy and the air was thick. Haystack Rock had vanished in the grayness. We stepped forward. Our uncertainty was tempered by the boundaries of water on the right and loose dry sand on the left. We knew we were still moving in the right direction even if the extent of our progress wasn’t clear. Finally, looming in silhouette through the shroud of mist, the image of Haystack began to emerge, still blurry, but definitely there ahead of us.

The verse we had studied before embarking on our stroll was Matthew’s Easter story in chapter 28. An angel says to the women at the tomb: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you” (Matt. 28:7). Sometimes we focus so much on the “go and tell” portion of this passage that we forget to take hold of the important part of it for ourselves…he is going ahead of you to Galilee. Galilee was home! Jesus is leading the way home! He is going on ahead to make sure everything is ready, yes, but also to clear the path. Sometimes as we move forward, a glimpse of him begins to emerge, still blurry, but definitely there ahead of us.

I can’t tell you what the future holds for me or for the congregation I serve. I can tell you that I see lots of possibilities. I can tell you that I am hopeful and optimistic. I can tell you that we have every reason to feel gratitude to God and to one another for what we have accomplished by God’s grace to this point. Not everything has worked out as planned, to be sure. But we believe that God is leading us, that Jesus is somewhere up ahead, laying a path, doing the work God has called him to do, and waiting for us to catch up with him.

The women took the angel’s message and they ran from the tomb to find the disciples. The text tells us: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’” (28:9). (In the Kappus paraphrase, I hear something like an affectionate “Hey there, you!”) That is my hope and prayer for all of you in this still-new year. One of these days, you’ll be walking along, life as usual, down the beach/path/road/hall/aisle, looking into God’s future for you with a hazy vision and, suddenly, Jesus will meet you, right there, with a “Hey there, I love you!” (Try not to act too surprised.)

Epipha-what??

One of the cool things about being a “liturgical tradition” is that we mark the passing of time with church “seasons.” Often, these seasons correlate with seasons of the year and/or “seasons” of Christian life. The easiest season in which to see this correlation is Pentecost: the “green season”; a season where the focus is on growing in faith; a season that happens during spring and summer. Cool, right?

We have just entered the season of Epiphany, the season following Christmas. (The Christmas season is another that has a pretty obvious correlation in the world. 😊 ) The word “epiphany” can mean a revelation, manifestation, or sudden intuitive realization. The church uses the word to describe the way the divine nature of Jesus was made known to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. And so January 6th has become known, in the Church, as Epiphany Sunday when that revelation was made known to travelers from the East.

Many traditions recognize several other “epiphanies” as part of this season. This week in worship we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. Early theologians emphasized two themes for this celebration: 1) Christ serves as a model for Christian baptism, the sacrament that makes frequent appearances throughout the New Testament, and 2) by being baptized in the Jordan, Jesus has set apart all the waters of creation as baptismal water. The big manifestation (or revelation) that happens is the voice of God coming out of heaven to proclaim Jesus as the “beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In coming weeks, we see further manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus (another epiphany) as he changes water into wine at a wedding celebration.

If you consider that an “epiphany” can also be a “sudden intuitive realization” – an “Aha!” or “Now I get it!” moment – then it might be time well spent to take a moment to ponder where God is being made known in your life. Is it in the casual and supportive word you got from a friend? Is it in the impulse of generosity that strikes you out of nowhere? Is it in the unexpected moment of peace during a busy day or the sudden realization that you are, in a particular moment, happy?

The Epiphany season brings us clear, defined moments in Scripture where Jesus comes to us and the love and grace of God are clearly manifest in the story. Nothing in Scripture suggests that those moments don’t happen anymore. I believe that they are happening all the time and all around us. Can we pull our eyes away from the bright sparkly things of the world and see God at work in our lives? Can we tune out the bells and whistles and hear the Word spoken by our neighbor? It’s hard, I know. Will God in Christ come to us and work in our lives even if we can’t quite pull our attention away from all that glitters? Absolutely. God is working in your life. Seeing it, experiencing the epiphany, is an extra blessing. May that blessing be yours, today and always.

"Almost"

Last week I wrote about how some of the songs from “Muppet Christmas Carol” struck me in this year’s screening. Well, I left one out. Kinda on purpose. Kinda like how I wish they’d left it out of the movie.

However I might feel about it, it has something to say to us. The title is “When Love Is Gone,” written (again) by the incomparable Paul Williams, and it is sung by the young Scrooge’s love interest who is tired of waiting for him to achieve his version of “success”…after all, he never has enough…and decides to move on with her life. Belle, for that was her name, with eyes searching the distance to catch a glimpse of the future she had hoped for (ooh, “narrator voice”), sings:

“There was a time when I was sure
That you and I were truly one
That our future was forever
And would never come undone
And we came so close to being close
And though you cared for me
There's distance in your eyes tonight
So we're not meant to be…”

I’m going to try to avoid making too much of a metaphor out of this. But the phrase that jumps out at me here is “we came so close to being close.” And then there are the words of the bridge verse:

“It was almost love
It was almost always
It was like a fairytale we'd live out
You and I
And yes some dreams come true
And yes some dreams fall through
And yes the time has come for us to say goodbye…”

Again, we hear the desperate sadness of “almost.” How many times in our lives have we come so close to something only to lose it? How many times has “almost” described the result of our dreams of success? And let’s not forget the context of this song.

In Dickens’ actual text, Belle accuses that the root of the problem between them is idolatry:

`It matters little,' she said, softly. `To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.'

`What Idol has displaced you.' he rejoined.

`A golden one.' 

Now we can turn the conversation theologically. This is what happens when we allow anything to displace the place of God in our lives. Or, in a practical manner of speaking, “love” in our lives…the love of God for each of us individually and the love God wants to show to the world through us. Who wants to ponder over coming “so close to being close” to God in Christ? Who wants to say it was “almost love” that they showed to their neighbor: that it was “almost always” that they followed Jesus?

My sermon last Sunday, the last Sunday of 2018, ended with three minutes of silence to ponder (with Mary, the mother of Jesus) the working of God in your life. It’s now 2019. Don’t wait until the last Sunday of the year to ponder how close you might be to becoming the follower of Jesus that you are called to be. None of us do it perfectly, of course. Not even close. But the love of God for us is so great that it’s okay when we fall short. 

You see, with God and God’s love for us, there is no “almost” and no “so close.” God’s love for you and for me is complete and irrevocable. So even when we can’t figure out how to make relationships work, or serve our neighbor the way we’re called to, or help and protect those who are displaced, or be the generous stewardships we are drawn toward being…God loves us and saves us and calls us still. How that call is coming to you in your time and space is up to you to discern. Take the time to listen. Draw close (and closer) to God. And may God’s blessing be upon each of you in this New Year.

Holidays - Muppet Style

The start of the Christmas season in the Kappus household is usually signified by a viewing of “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” a fanciful retelling of the Dickens classic starring Michael Caine as Scrooge (played straight out of Dickens’ text), Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit, and the rest of the Muppet crew filling in most of the roles. It is funny and heartwarming and gets the message of love and compassion across to all ages.

It is such a significant part of our family heritage that I may have heard my son say to our grandkids: “Kids, you are biologically required to like this movie.” There is plenty of Muppet shenanigans and some very upbeat and memorable music. I wanted to share a few thoughts that struck me this time around from the songs, written by the incomparable Paul Williams.

The opening number is called “Scrooge” and is sung by the whole town as he makes his way to his office. The final verse states:

There goes Mr. Heartless, there goes Mr. Cruel

He never gives, he only takes, he lets his hunger rule

If being mean's a way of life you practice and rehearse

Then all that work is payin' off cause Scrooge is getting worse

Every day, in every way, Scrooge is getting worse!

We say that to our kids all the time, right? “Practice makes perfect.” Be mindful of what you are practicing. Is it kindness? Is it compassion? Maybe even more significant in our day…is it empathy? Can you imagine what someone else’s journey or plight might be like?

The song “It Feels Like Christmas” has much to say and reminds us, among other things, that “when you do your best for love, it feels like Christmas.” A particularly poetic line describes it as “the summer of the soul in December.”

It is the season of the heart

A special time of caring

The ways of love made clear

It is the season of the spirit

The message, if we hear it

Is make it last all year

The closing line: “It’s true, wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.”

It makes sense because the hallmark of the Christmas season, indeed, the distinguishing mark of the Christian life is love. How do you make clear the ways of love?

Finally, as the cycle of ghostly adventures winds up, we find a Scrooge born anew. The song “Thankful Heart” closes the show. Having stalked with cold disregard through the town at the opening of the show, Scrooge now goes out on Christmas morning to sing (yes, Michael Caine sings) his newfound wonder.

With a thankful heart, with an endless joy

With a growing family every girl and boy

Will be nephew and niece to me

Will bring love, hope and peace to me

Yes, and every night will end and every day will start

With a grateful prayer and a thankful heart.

Scrooge opens up his heart and life to everyone in his community, recognizing that they all have something to bring that could make his life more meaningful.

He closes the song, and the movie, with:

With a thankful heart that is wide awake

I do make this promise, every breath I take

Will be used now to sing your praise

And beg you to share my days

With a loving guarantee that even if we part

I will hold you close in a thankful heart.

Let’s commit ourselves to singing the praises of our neighbors and fellow humans. Or, as Luther puts it in his explanation of the 8th Commandment: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

Go ahead. Ask yourself the question that is begging for an answer: “Who is my neighbor?”

Happy New Year and God’s blessing as you continue to walk the path of Jesus.