Tuesday, January 17, 2017

They'll Know We Are Christians by our Love

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that our unity may one day be restored.

We sang “They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” yesterday at our “Circles of Grace” meeting, a conversation intended to get pastors and lay people talking about human sexuality. I think the ultimate hope is that The United Methodist Church somehow will find a way through the impasse we are experiencing over the “homosexuality issue.” Will we ordain self-avowed, practicing gays, and will we (pastors) officiate at services of union and we (churches) host those ceremonies? The U.M. Church is threatening to split over the issue.

As an aside, The Faith We Sing hymnal we use in church changes the word "our" unity to "all" unity in verse 1. "How interesting," says Cheryl the amateur theologian.

Participants in the Circles of Grace meeting (there were about 20 people at our meeting) are held to a covenantal silence about the specifics of the meeting. It’s too bad when we can’t be open and courageous about the specifics.  

Because the meeting was held in Chapel Hill, the majority of pastors and lay people were in favor of what we call “full inclusion,” meaning the answer to the above questions is a resounding yes. I’m fairly sure there were several folks who were not “for,” but I think probably were intimidated by the rest of us.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand, 
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.

The group heard lots of highly emotional stories about people who have not felt fully included in the life of the church. 

I don’t think it would violate the covenant if I reveal what I personally feel about it all. I think it’s time to steer away from heart-wrenching stories; the people who feel that “sin is sin” will not listen, as they have proven time and again over the last 40 years. To me, the underlying issue is how we interpret scripture – who gets to say how we, the U.M. Church, must interpret scripture? Who gets to say which Bible verses are true for all time, and which might have been influenced by a cultural context?

We can either stop proof-texting or allow it, but I think that we have to allow it.  My personal favorite verse to use as a proof-text is Luke 14:33, when Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Perhaps we could make a rule that no one can vote at General Conference unless he or she is a disciple, as defined by this verse! Another of my favorites is 1 Corinthians 13:4 – “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” Anyone who blatantly violates this verse could be kicked out of General Conference – permanently. Or would that be rude?

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
We will work with each other, we will work side by side, 
and we'll guard human dignity and save human pride.

Here’s my best idea: Let’s pass a rule that a person cannot be a General Conference delegate more than once. That should change things.

Being serious now, I would like the see the Church’s conversation veer in the direction of “sin.” Clearly, some people feel, and use the Bible to support, that the practice of homosexuality is sinful. Okay, so let’s talk about sin. We can start with coveting, failing to keep the Sabbath, and not honoring our parents. What would happen if we turned these into chargeable offenses? Because gluttony and greed are sinful, being overweight or too wealthy could be a chargeable offense. No overweight people could be married in church! Clearly, I could not be a pastor because I’m a woman, and the Bible says I cannot speak in church. All of our divorced pastors would have to go, too.

No speaking in church, woman!
So, seriously, let’s stop talking about things the Biblical literalists don’t care about (like people’s feelings), and let’s talk about sin. Let’s talk about scriptural interpretation. Our bishops should lead the discussion because teaching is part of their job description. I hope they remind us – repeatedly – that the only people Jesus condemned were the religious authorities. That should keep us all humble, an alien state of being we could use a bit more often.

And they'll know we are Christians
by our love, by our love; 
yes, they'll know we are Christians
by our love.

My favorite rendition of "They'll Know We Are Christians by our Love" ... 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Selah: Family and Holidays

Thanksgiving 2016 - Rachel, Eric, Keith, Jonathan, Katherine
The holidays are family time for us, although now that our children are married, we must share them with their in-laws. This is relatively easy with Katherine's in-laws, as they live near Greensboro. It's a bit trickier with Eric's, who live in Fairfax, VA. We've sort of settled into a routine that has our children and their spouses with us for Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and away for Christmas. I have to work on Christmas Eve anyway.

This year, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday evening, which meant Christmas Day -- and New Year's Day -- fell on Sunday. Aldersgate had wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services; I was pleasantly surprised by the number of folks who came to both. Katherine and Jonathan stayed in Columbus for Christmas, so Keith and I drove to see them the day after Christmas.

We had such a good time, hanging out, eating out, eating in, playing cards, visiting, doing a wine tasting, and going to see the Christmas lights at the Columbus Zoo. It was cold in Columbus!

Zoo lights!
Katherine and me at the Columbus zoo
My birthday is Dec. 29, and we planned to return home on Dec. 30 because Keith and I were hosting a New Year's Eve party, not to mention church the next day. However, a forecast of snow in Ohio and West Virginia forced us to drive home a day early, on my birthday, which left me feeling surly and sad. A surprise visit by Eric and Rachel (who were on their way home from Virginia) improved my mood tremendously. By New Year's Eve, I was feeling celebratory -- good-bye, 2016!

We're hoping when Katherine graduates this May, a new job as a small-animal veterinarian will bring her and Jonathan back to North Carolina. Meanwhile, I'm planning a mountain/tennis vacation this spring for the whole family!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Away in a Manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, 
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

A small group of singers from Aldersgate went Christmas caroling today to several shut-in members who live around the corner from each other.

The first home we visited belongs to a couple who were long involved academically with UNC in Chapel Hill. He can no longer leave the house, while she is still able to come to church.  Their affection for each other is sweet, and it’s obvious the love between them is still bright and strong. He always has interesting things to say and fascinating questions to ask me, and I enjoy visiting him.

Martin Luther
Today, I told him that “Away in a Manger” was written by Martin Luther, and I was quite sure our Hymnal listed Luther as the author.  The song also is known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”  He did not know Luther had written it, but as it turns out, Luther did not write it. The Hymnal says the author is anonymous.  Wikipedia claims that “Away in a Manger” probably was written in the United States around 1883, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth. No German text of it exists before 1934, and no mention of it is made in any of Luther’s papers.  I only discovered this ten minutes ago.

“Away in a Manger” is one of my favorite carols, and I’ve often ended Christmas Love Feasts with it. My favorite verse is 3, which apparently was added to the hymn around 1904:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay 
close by me forever, and love me, I pray; 
bless all the dear children in thy tender care, 
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

However, part of the second verse of “Away in a Manger” always annoyed me (even as a child!) because of its implication that Jesus would not cry like an ordinary human baby:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, 
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

However, thanks to Wikipedia, I realize now that babies don’t always cry when awakened by the lowing of cattle, and the no-crying behavior is fully human, after all. I’m glad Wikipedia cleared that up.  
No crying he makes.

Our Christmas caroling today ended with “Away in a Manger,” followed by the serving of hot apple cider and cookies. We sat around the Christmas tree and were charmed to receive our cider in tiny Christmas teacups on tiny Christmas saucers. Our hostess knew I couldn’t have sugar and so she had (fabulous) crunchy peanuts from Bertie County for me.

Guess I’ll return in a few weeks and eat humble pie instead, admitting that Luther did not write “Away in a Manger.”  

Monday, December 12, 2016

O Holy Night

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; 
it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining 
‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices 
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Today, I am trying to put together three bulletins, including the one for Christmas Eve. Our musician asked for the hymns early, so I’m attempting to provide them. Once again, I am aggravated that my favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” is not in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Not in them!

This beloved hymn is not in the Hymnal! It is not in The Faith We Sing (which Aldersgate has) nor even in the old Cokesbury Hymnal! Why?

I have this vision (a fantasy, really) of a robed choir slowly processing into a darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, carrying candles and singing “O Holy Night.” Over the years, this has seemed increasingly unlikely to happen in churches where I am pastor, and not just because the hymn is not in the Hymnal. I have discovered (the hard way) that it is too difficult for many-a-singer to sing, walk, and carry music and a lighted candle all at the same time. Fortunately, I discovered this during Christmas Eve choir practice, and not on the holy night itself.

I have been a part of church choirs
I’m speaking of the past like it’s the present. Aldersgate doesn’t have enough of a choir to sing on Christmas Eve.  The congregation cannot sing “O Holy Night” unless the words are printed in the bulletin, which is what I’m going to do. I’m hoping the musician will be able to locate the music.

“O Holy Night” has several legends associated with it which may or may not be true. “Cantique de Noel” allegedly was written in 1847 in a small French town by a commissionaire of wines known for his poetry. He wrote the words (a poem) at the request of his parish priest.

The author (sources can’t agree on how to spell his name) asked a friend to set his poem to music. The friend did it as a favor, even though he was – or maybe wasn’t – Jewish. The song apparently was performed three weeks later at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

“O Holy Night” quickly became popular in France (fact), even after the Catholic Church banned it because the author turned out to be a socialist and the music composer a non-believer (disputed fact). It didn’t matter – the people still loved it and sang it. An American abolitionist brought “O Holy Night” to the United States because of its third verse:

Truly he taught us to love one another; 
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; 
and in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night” was an instant hit in this country, at least in the North.

It is still a hit, based on the number of times it gets played on Christmas radio. The hymn is so beautiful, and the words are so right. When I hear it and when I sing it, I really do want to fall on my knees and worship the newborn King.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! 
O night divine! O night when Christ was born! 
O night divine! O night, O night divine.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Selah: Nativity Scenes

              I dislike nativity scenes in the sanctuary, although I’ve never tried to stop their annual appearance in the churches where I have been a pastor. Not all the churches had one, but the ones that did mostly had pieces that were small, old, handmade, and broken. I always figured the scenes were just part of the church’s quirky traditions. However, I’ve been reconsidering my dislike of church crèches since the installation of the large manger scene at Aldersgate.  When I saw it still in the boxes, I asked the Advent decoration squad to please wait a Sunday or two before setting it up in its customary place on the floor in front of the Communion table.
          Last Sunday morning long before the worship service began, two ladies dragged the boxes into the sanctuary and began to set up the pieces.  
          I watched with disapproval. Before long, I stepped over and swiped the pious-looking infant out of the food trough. “Baby Jesus is not yet in the manger,” I said, as I squirreled him away inside the pulpit. The ladies seemed flummoxed. “He’s not born until Christmas Eve,” I explained.
          Those (prissy) wise men and their camel can go in the back of sanctuary on that shelf, I instructed. The wise men don’t arrive until Ephiphany. “They’re on their journey,” I explained. I can’t help it if one of them is kneeling.
 “I love the camel,” one of the ladies said, holding it gently. “Isn’t he beautiful?”  My only experience of a real camel was being bitten, so I said nothing.
             “Won’t people wonder why the wise men are on the other side of the sanctuary?,” they asked me. I replied, “I’ll explain it during worship.” I did, and you know what? The congregation actually laughed. I'm glad they can be playful about it. 
             Eventually, I asked the ladies: “How did the church acquire this manger scene?” The pieces were purchased by individuals just a few years ago, I was told.  
              Then I said something I would not normally say, which was, “Susan would never have allowed this in the sanctuary,” invoking a beloved, now deceased former pastor. They were silent, eyes downcast. I felt like a bully. Susan probably would not have allowed it, but she would have explained it all theologically without being a bully.  
            The first time I remember seeing a nativity scene in church was at the large United Methodist church in Charlotte where my friend, Reta, was serving as associate pastor. It was an enormous crèche, set up on top of the Communion table, of all places. Surely they had another Communion table somewhere on the chancel; I can’t remember.  I recall feeling queasy at the sight of the ornate figures and surprised that it didn’t seem to bother Reta.
           I recently told a different friend about my dislike, which she could not understand. “Church is one of the few places we can display them,” she reminded me. 
            Of course, we can display them at home, too. I have several nativity scenes, all of which have been given to me over the years. Every now and then, I set one of them out, usually the creche that my sister gave to me (below right) -- it reminds me of her, which is why it is my favorite.       

            Am I bothered with a nativity scene in the sanctuary because the figures are “graven images?” The larger ones surely do seem to be this. However, I can remember, as a child, feeling that even small nativity scenes were silly.  I used to move the sheep onto the roof of the stable of my mother’s crèche, an action bordering on blasphemy in my family. I must have been an iconoclast even back then.
My mother's creche, now my niece Emily's
             Confession: I still find them silly. And that’s where I suspect my discomfort originates. The figures trivialize the Christmas story. Or perhaps they sentimentalize it. They definitely sanitize it. Or all three.
             The real Christmas story, the story told in the Gospels, begins in the darkness of scandal, poverty, and violence. Jesus was born to young, unwed parents, in a dirty stable, far from the comfort of home.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus didn’t look like these little clean, holy, white figures.  They were part of an conquered, oppressed minority in a pagan empire.  After Jesus was born, the paranoid King Herod murdered the children of Bethlehem. This is not a sweet and sentimental story. The Christmas story is, in the end, a story about God loving humanity enough to come dwell among us, in the flesh, knowing from the start that we would reject the little Lord Jesus and ultimately crucify him.  The sweet little figures just don’t seem to convey that.
                      For now, the nativity scene will remain until Ephiphany Sunday, when the wise men will join the crowd at the manger.  Will the crèche ever just “go away”? I doubt it. But in the coming year, I hope to start a discussion about why we might move Mary, Joseph, baby, angel, shepherds, wise men, and animals into the parlor.