On Monday of this week, I had the honor of presiding at the memorial service of one of my great aunts. It was amazing to stand and look out at the members of the congregation that were made up of cousins that I had not seen in many years, along with family members whom I had never met. All of us were there to honor an amazing woman, and one who lived through hurt and tragedy. She did not let her very humble beginnings define her. Instead, she rose up and had an amazing life. Blessings to you Great Aunt Jessie. May you feast to your heart’s desire with family who have gone on before you. May you smile in their presence, and may God’s light perpetually shine on you, providing you warmth for eternity.
After the service, I visited with people with whom I share a DNA connection. I looked for patterns of behavior, likes, dislikes, even ways to speak. I searched for anything to affirm my connection with this group of people. I shared stories, they shared stories. We laughed, sometimes shocked, but always grateful to be in one another’s presence. The power of my great aunt’s life was alive in this very room. A family can rise above anything and find a connection that is unique and compelling. The discovery of kindred spirits gave way to a lifetime of possibilities, hopes for new friends and new connections.
Today I am grateful for my extended family. Thank you for giving me a little clearer definition of my own self. These amazing people, complete with their own life stories, affirm my own journey. There is nothing quite like being accepted for who you are by people who share the same blood. There is a sense of home, of complete and total affirmation. Praise be to God, when we can catch of glimpse of ourselves in a new and unique space.
Today, I sit in my office, absolutely tired. I notice I sit with a little more pride, a little more strength. I give thanks for the path on which I travel. There are a few more people who eagerly great me with a smile and help me move forward. I am honored to walk my path with new names and faces alongside me. My hope is that we all find companions for the journey.
This week I had the amazing privilege and honor to be one of ten people in a discussion group with theologian Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey. I walked away from this wonderful experience feeling honored and blessed to have had the opportunity to hear her teach and share her journey. She is an incredibly powerful woman filled with God’s presence and light.
As our incredible scholar left the seminary, she turned to me and offered me an amazing blessing acknowledging and reaffirming the full authority that God has given me to preach and teach. She spoke straight into my soul, and I left feeling blessed and renewed. Here was this scholar sharing a special blessing with me. Grateful could not begin to describe how I felt when leaving her presence.
There are people that we encounter that leave us feeling better about who and whose we are, simply by being present. There are no magic words, just a keen awareness of the Holy Spirit. We are left knowing that the Truth is within us, eager to be free. Our joy is renewed and invited to be released into a world that needs to know the source of our happiness.
As I reflect on my encounter with the blessed theologian, I hope that I may be like her with everyone that I encounter. People may be renewed in the presence of divine hope as the Spirit of Truth dances between us all, encouraging us to be the light of Christ for the world. Praise be to God, who constantly reminds us that we are chosen to share the message of the Gospel.
As a pastor, I am privileged to speak with families as they face very important decisions regarding medical care and end of life issues. These are some of the most sacred times in which I am honored to share with members of my congregation. This is hallowed ground and is set apart from any other component of pastoral care.
On Saturday, I went to the hospital to visit someone in the Intensive Care Unit. Questions surrounding how to proceed with medical needs was at the forefront of the conversation. At the heart of my visitation, I heard stories of family connections, and past hurts, and past successes. What came out of his narrative was a picture of a man who struggled to make something of his life, even in the midst of great adversity. It is an amazing portrait.
I left the room, only to catch another glimpse of another room. I saw a dedication of a medical team, working to save someone’s life. At least five or six people medical professionals where giving the best that they had at that moment to make a difference. Here was a beautiful picture detailing the importance of one life. This person mattered.
One of the most breathtaking paintings that I saw that day, was something that usually would go unnoticed. In one of the other rooms, there was an elderly man that was heavily sedated. His middle aged son was rubbing a salve on his lips because they were dry. I wanted to enter the room and tell the man that I hope someone will be that kind and understanding to me if I ever wind up in that situation. I wanted to tell him a million things about his kindness and how it moved me. I said nothing, knowing that he was serving the elderly man out of absolute love and devotion. While he was not aware that anyone saw what he was doing, it was witnessed.
These pictures that I was honored to see are masterpieces, all teaching me that the power of God is an amazing work of art. Love makes its broadest strokes in the hearts and minds of those who serve humanity. It paints with bold colors, inviting the miraculous to witness our amazing connection to and with the Divine and with the community.
Today, I am blessed and grateful to be able to witness these wonderful works of art. How profound. How staggering. How amazing. This is the God that we serve. This amazing One, who leads us in the way of passion and hope.
I once heard a pastor comment on how his congregation “speaks their own language.” The key to becoming accepted into this body of believers is to understand and use the language of the congregation. I started thinking about this bold claim and was a little indignant to say the least. I began to question whether or not this man really understood the people in our church. What was he talking about? There was no secret handshake nor was their unspoken ways that we excluded those who would not follow us in our worship.
Well, I began to think a little bit more about what this pastor said and began to realize that he was not very far off the mark. For instance, many of our congregations say the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) in our worship. It has become a tradition that our congregation recites the prayer from memory and assumes that we will hear most of the voices around us saying the text as one body.
What about those who visit who have never been in worship? This is their first time in a church in years. Maybe there are those who have never set foot in a church. How can they join in with us without being considered the “other?” It is our task to include all to participate in worship. If that is the case, we need to make sure that we have resources by which all people may fully participate.
How about the prayers of the congregation? Once again, we are challenged to include the entire body of believers while continuing our established traditions that transcend the word community and develop our sense of family. We come together to celebrate the risen Christ. In what ways do we lift up our prayers in worship that seem to exclude new comers?
By suggesting that “first time visitors come back so that they may feel more at home” is a way in which the issue has been previously addressed. Unfortunately, that does not work in our modern age. Many times, we have one shot to develop a complete sense of inclusivity in our churches. Is it possible to provide a platform by which everyone present on a Sunday morning, members and visitors alike, will be able to fully share in the good news of salvation?
I struggle as a pastor to provide the space in which all are welcome. I utilize media and worship aides to assist everyone who worships with us, but I am still afraid that there are some portions of our worship experience that excludes people who have never participated in our particular church. The main idea that I want people to take with them is that the Gospel of Christ is for all and not just for those who finally get the language and the unwritten rules of our congregation.
I am not suggesting that we eradicate those moments in worship that remind us of who we are and what it means to be a part of a particular congregation. I believe that tradition is very important in helping us to establish our identity. Liturgy serves to allow us to feel a sense of belonging and a space by which we can call a particular place of worship our home. I want to honor our history by providing others who visit us the opportunity to call my space their home. The central message being that Christ came for all and not just those who pray and worship just like us.
As you attend your church this coming weekend be fully aware of times in your service that may appear exclusive to newcomers. Sit next to someone who appears to be in worship with you for the first time. As the service continues be that source by which they can be made more familiar with your church’s practices and customs. Be the one who is that welcoming spirit that delivers the good news of salvation that all are welcome to the table of God.