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Opening Worship

The last words of Rev. Rebecca Immich Sullivan’s sermon from opening worship at the Young Clergy Women’s Annual Conference on Monday, July 29.

Opening Worship
7-29-19

There were arches

and a peak

made of wood

and polished,

carved with a

clover symbol

for the Holy

Trinity.

 

And feathers were laid

on the altar,

beyond the rail

where the minister presides,

which was draped

with green and white

for ordinary time.

 

And the organ pipes

spread their arms

in welcome

and pursed their lips,

poised to sing,

but yielded

to the lighter notes

of the piano’s

joyous song.

 

And infants nursed,

And toddlers gave

their voices to

the large spaces

between our prayers.

 

And the pews

creaked amicably

beneath us

adding their amens

to the gospel

according to Mary

and to “Martha, Martha,”

too,

 

and “our presence was

gift enough.”

Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship

My boys love going to church. On Sunday mornings, as I’m rushing to get out the door, they are moving quickly right with me, excited to get there. It is amazing and gratifying and humbling to witness, and I do not expect it to last forever. I will cherish it while it does. 

The truth is that Sundays in many homes where people are trying to get out the door to church are not always peaceful and pleasant. But often, as soon as they enter the doors, there is a transformation. Arguments pause, smiles return, and all is well once again. Through unspoken agreement, we participate together in the rhythms and rituals of worship. It’s holy space, but susceptible to the overcrowding of the mundane or the lull of familiar patterns.

Inspired by some musings shared by members of Young Clergy Women International, I present to you “Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship.”1

Read more

Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Bind Us Together

Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Singing “Bind Us Together Lord” as the benediction

I’ve almost finished my first year as senior pastor at a church that is unlike any other I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. Our vision statement is “To be a house of prayer for all nations,” and while we may not have all nations yet, together we worship in Burmese, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. It is beautiful and energizing. When I first arrived church members told me, “In heaven, people are going to be from all over the world and praising God in different languages. We might as well start practicing now.”

I don’t want to romanticize my church, of course: please remember that it is a church, which means it is made up of people, which means that life lived out together in faith can be messy. There are still disagreements and misunderstandings, and now we can have misunderstandings across languages and cultures as well. We are not a church of one single political or theological viewpoint.

We are made up of refugees and immigrants as well as people who’ve lived their whole lives in Kentucky. We live into the tension of having people hug and greet one another on Sunday and post articles about “building the wall” on Monday. And for those church members, they experience no contradiction in that. They see their political beliefs around immigration as separate from the love they show to the people right in front of them. Read more

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

Lament in a Purple Church

person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

Increasingly, I look around at the state of the world and my response is to lament. My heart breaks at all the violence and injustice. In my ministry, I oversee and plan corporate worship every week and, correspondent with my personal desire to lament, I have grown in my desire to create space in worship for public lament.

I serve, however, in a majority-white congregation that is decidedly mixed in its political and socio-economic identities. It has been a challenge at times for me to serve in the purple context of Maumee, Ohio. If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

In August 2017, James Fields, Jr., most recently a resident of Maumee, Ohio, drove his car into a gathering of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed Heather Heyer. In response, I explicitly named white supremacy as sin and condemned it, full stop, from the pulpit. Some people thanked me sincerely afterward, but others were less receptive. One church leader threatened to leave the church because I was “taking cues from the media and not from God’s Word.”

The next week, I was speaking with a church member, and she said to me, “I just don’t understand. There is so much hatred in the world right now.” I nodded vigorously; I was thinking of the KKK. But then she continued, “Why those people want to tear down historical monuments make no sense to me. It’s history!” My nodding stopped. I realized in that moment just how much disagreement there is in a purple church about what hatred looks like. Read more

Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. Read more

Blessing our Caregivers

Third Sundays in our congregation are healing Sundays. During communion, two healing ministers position themselves behind the altar rail, anointing oil in hand, to offer healing prayers and blessings to anyone who approaches them.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for themselves – prayers for upcoming surgeries and for broken relationships and for grieving spirits.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for loved ones – prayers for family members in medical crisis or friends in economic distress.

Some people come forward asking for nothing in particular. They just want to hear again the good news that God binds up the broken-hearted and promises healing for us and for all creation.

Healing ministers lay hands on their shoulders, pray, trace the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads, and remind them, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God, and you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” There is nothing in death or in life that can separate these beloved children from the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

It is a privilege to pray for healing. But as a church we recognize the great privilege it is for so many of our members to be called into the work of healing as their vocation, both inside the church and out in the community.

We have many caregivers in our congregation: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, hospice workers, guidance counselors, and the list goes on. At least once a year, we take the opportunity as a congregation to craft a Sunday morning worship service around themes of healing and caregiving, and to offer a special blessing for all the caregivers in our midst.

We believe that Jesus walks with all who are in need. We believe that Jesus carries us through our times of trouble. In the same way, Jesus empowers those who care for the needs of others and Jesus strengthens us to carry one another through times of trouble. Our experience of healing most often comes through the blessing of human hands and hearts that have been set apart for the work of tending to body and spirit. Caregivers of all kinds do this holy work. Their vocations take them to places of immense joy and profound grief. Their work is vital.

When we bless our caregivers in worship, we recognize and honor their gifts and their work. We involve the entire assembly into the blessing process, whether by using a spoken dialogue, inviting members to raise up a hand in blessing, or inviting the assembly to participate in a laying on of hands. We ask God to bless our caregivers and to give them strength and peace in their vocations. Should you want to include a blessing for caregivers as a part of your community’s worship life, here is a template to help you get started: Read more

Newness of Life: How I Gave Up the Waders and Learned to Love the Water

Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.

I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.

I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.

So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.

Not so for me.

The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt.  My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels. Read more

Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.