Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Virginia Tech

I stood at the microphone in front of the congregation watching the screen. As each new face flashed up from the PowerPoint projector onto the screen, I leaned closer to the microphone and slowly read the name. I read the names clear and loud, not hesitating and not pausing to correct what was probably a wrong pronunciation of some of the difficult names. I simply read each name as clear and correct as possible; the PowerPoint program creating long pauses between each one. The congregation was silent in the candle light of this memorial service. Many of the pictures were obviously, posed, professional senior pictures from high school. Some of the pictures were spontaneous and funny, one girl with a giggling smile and her tongue sticking out, one of a young man in his band uniform hamming it up for the camera, another a casual photograph with a baseball cap and bright smile, another of a man in a military uniform probably from a high school prep school showing a broad, wide smile. Name after name after name; the instructors and faculty were gathered at the end, a gifted group of talented, educated people whose different names reflect our world community. Names, names and names, all different, all unique, all bright and beautiful faces, all Virginia Tech, and now all dead. I pray to the Lord.
My wife, Kris, carried the phone out to me in the yard where I was cutting the grass, encouraging me to take this call. I let the lawnmower shut down, and chatted for a moment with the Rev. Song Kang. I was very pleased and honored to be invited to the Memorial Service for the Virginia Tech shooting victims that very evening at our Harrisburg Korean Presbyterian Church. I had heard that there were some incidents of harassment against their community since the shooter was Korean American. Kris and I quickly decided that we would go to this service as a family. We prepared ourselves for the argument we knew we would get from our sons, when they got home from school on a sunny Friday afternoon, and were immediately told that we were going to church together on Friday evening. But we spent our dinner time talking about Virginia Tech. We talked about the fact that our son Kyle had been accepted into the honors program at VT, and Kyle and I had visited and toured there last year. Kyle could be a student at VT. I described the beautiful campus and the gorgeous mountains of Virginia which nestle the little university town of Blacksburg. So Kris and I insisted that we had to pay our respect, to pray for these families, and we were going together to this memorial service at the Korean Harrisburg Presbyterian Church that Friday evening; (and as a concession to our boys we agreed to go out for ice cream after the service.)
I preached at the service. My message was a brief, heartfelt reflection on Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The congregation then all lit candles, the PowerPoint of photographs was started, and there was an extended time of prayer. These Korean American Presbyterians pray deeply and fervently and at great length. I was blessed by the depth of their prayers. Their perseverance in prayer was much longer than mine.
One particular prayer concern that came from a member of the congregation touched me. Prayers were being requested for the shooter’s family and also for all our children. The children of immigrants to the United States live with unique burdens and stress. They live between two cultures, wanting in some ways to remember and claim their heritage from Korea but also wanting to become full and complete members of America. Living in these two different worlds creates terrible pressure for these children. Combine that pressure with serious mental illness and an incomprehensible tragedy results.
In the midst of an awful, evil tragedy a very small touch of grace happened for our family. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, another family pulled into the parking spot next to us only a moment later, so that we were all getting out of our cars and walking to the church building together. This other family included a mother, father and a teenage son. Our son Michael, who is in ninth grade, immediately called out to the other boy. They are classmates together in Derry High School and sit next to one another in one of their classes. I know how high school boys behave at school. My son and this Korean American young man may have been close school friends, and may have talked about many different subjects and topics together, and may have worked on school work together. But in the context of their high school time together they would probably never have shared the fact that they are each very devout Christians and very active in Presbyterian Churches. But this evening, walking across the parking lot at the Harrisburg Korean Church, these two high school boys shared a new bond and a new relationship created by a shared worship experience in memory of Virginia Tech. I pray these two young men moved a bit closer to each as friends across the cultural barriers and closer to the church which calls us all together in the name of Jesus Christ.
I pray to the Lord.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Scots-Irish and Honduran Presbyterians: Fighting the Established Church.

We have in the Presbytery office a beautiful, first printing, edition of the Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle which was published in Harrisburg in 1889. This work, published in two volumes, offers a fascinating glimpse at both the early history of our Presbytery and our congregations. I was especially drawn to an essay by Rev. W. A. West which discussed the political and religious landscape in Scotland, Ireland and England. What first motivated the Presbyterian migration across the ocean to the wilderness of Penn’s Land in the early 1700s? If one summary statement is possible to capture such a complex and rich history it may be this: The Presbyterians who left Scotland and Ireland for this new world were seeking to escape from the established church with a vision of creating a truly disestablished church. For example, consider this history which reflects the oppressive power of the established church in Scotland and Ireland.

“In 1661, at the re-establishment of Episcopacy in Ireland, the newly appointed bishops, with Jeremy Taylor as their leader, turned all the Presbyterian ministers out of their charges upon the ground that they had never been ordained. This ignoring of Presbyterian ordination carried with it a denial of the validity of any official act performed by a Presbyterian minister. For instance, the validity of marriage, involving the questions of legitimacy and inheritance. This wrong was not corrected until 1782. Second, In 1704 the Sacramental Test Act was passed, which required all persons holding any office, civil or military, or receiving any pay from the sovereign to take sacraments in the established church within three months after their appointment. This, of course, excluded all Presbyterians from civil and military offices of every kind.” (Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle, (Harrisburg: Meyers Printing and Publishing House, 1889), Vol. I, pages 49 and 50.)

The Presbyterians in Scotland and Ireland, our infamous Scots-Irish, responded to an oppressive, established church by moving to a new world, starting new lives and building new churches. Our American Presbyterian tradition was created by their vision and faithfulness, and their adamant rejection of establishment Christianity.

I was recently on a mission trip in Honduras visiting the congregations of the Presbytery of Honduras. As you may know, Honduras is a dominantly Roman Catholic nation. Statistics report that over 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, although there is serious debate about the value and meaning of that statistic. The Roman Catholic Church is a very established Church in Honduras. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church still today has enormous political and economic power. The Moderator of the Presbytery of Honduras told me a fascinating story. In the 1990s the Presbyterian Churches wanted to formally and legally consolidate their connection to one another by creating the Presbytery of Honduras. This required an application to the government for the Presbytery to acquire official standing as a church body within the nation of Honduras. (This is similar to our Presbytery’s legal standing as a religious organization in the eyes of the United States’ government.) But this application was held up for many years within the bureaucracy of the government. The Presbyterian minister who told me this story is convinced that the Roman Catholic archbishop in Honduras intentionally prevented the legal recognition of the Presbytery of Honduras. Over time, government officials changed, the Presbytery continually reapplied for recognition, some American Presbyterians advocated with the government on their behalf and now, indeed, the Presbytery of Honduras is officially and legally recognized as a church body in Honduras. But the Presbyterians in Honduras have an adamant disdain for establishment Christianity, not unlike our Scots-Irish ancestors. (Presbyterian leaders in Honduras were quite aghast when I described the often cordial and cooperative relationship between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in America. The Protestant and Roman Catholic divide in Honduras continues to be very wide and deep.)

Both the story of the Scots-Irish rebellion against the established church in their day and the story of the Presbytery of Honduras’ fight for recognition against the established church in their nation encourage an important theological thesis which I have been pondering and researching: (1) The political, social or economic establishment of the church in any society compromises the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Establishment is a very slippery slope. (2) We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are living through a traumatic era during which our church is being radically disestablished. (3) This may be the best thing that can happen to our church if; indeed, our goal is to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe this may be one of the most important theological discussions we can have in our church. Consider these questions: In what ways do you believe our church has acted as if we are an established church in American society? In what ways has our establishment functioned to compromise the truth of the Gospel? In what ways is our church now being actively disestablished from American society? Are there ways in which this is good for the church?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Transformations in Worship

Transformations in Worship
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church: Pastors Steve Gribble and Kristal Smith
Shippensburg Presbyterian Church: Pastor Denny Finnegan

I had the opportunity in recent weeks to worship at both our St. Andrews and Shippensburg Churches, and on reflection, it amazes me how these two churches reflect some of the creative energy that is happening in our worship today. The worship services in these congregations are very different, and in comparing them, we see some of the vital and sweeping changes that have been blowing through our Church.
St. Andrews had adopted a model of two very different worship experiences. It requires a very gifted pastor and preacher in Steve Gribble to pull this off every week. The St. Andrews early service is fully contemporary with a praise band, and a very informal kind of ethos. An excellent PowerPoint display helps guide the congregation for the whole service. Their large screen hangs prominently above the choir loft. The sermon is preached informally from the aisle of the sanctuary with a more relaxed and engaging presentation which Steve delivers with convincing power and warmth. This service also includes a drama team was presented a beautiful enacted-parable of the Bible text for the day. With their full praise band, and drama team St. Andrews does an excellent job of contemporary worship.
And then it all is transformed for their later service. The screen disappears, and a full, robed choir uses the choir loft, the organist leads the service, and the pastors wear their formal clerical robes. Steve preaches from the pulpit with a more serious but still very engaging style. This is classic, traditional worship and it is done very well.
The thinking behind all of this is, of course, to offer different options and styles of worship for different people. It is a common model but St Andrews does it particularly well since their two services are truly unique and different. The contemporary service is unabashedly contemporary in every detail; the traditional service is fully traditional without apology or hesitation. Both services are very well done, well planned, and carefully expressed. The worship services are very strong at St. Andrews.

Now the St. Andrews model came to mind when I worshiped at Shippensburg which has adopted a very different model for worship. Their one service is truly blended. There are many touches of a contemporary style blended into a traditional order of worship and ethos. There is a full choir in robes but their offering was a contemporary praise song accompanied by guitars. The sermon is traditional, from the pulpit, and very biblical. Denny’s preaching was biblical in a classic, traditional sense which is almost rare today. This was almost a verse by verse commentary on the Bible passage. I found this to be a refreshing and very spiritually fulfilling, deep encounter with the scriptures. I found myself during the sermon reaching for the pew Bible to check out this or that verse which was being preached. In my mind, the best preaching always pushes me back into the scripture for study and prayer. This was preaching as it should be in a classic sense; this deep engagement with the scriptures.
But after this traditional biblical sermon, the Shippensburg congregation moved together into one of most creative expressions of worship that I have experienced in any of our churches. This was an extended time of shared prayer. But this was very different. Members of the congregation shared their prayer concerns at great length, much more than simply shouting out a name and a disease. And Pastor Denny, instead of waiting until everyone was finished sharing, prayed after each person shared. Moreover, as he prayed for each prayer concern, he encouraged the congregation to physically and spiritually turn and reach out to the person being prayed for. This was one of the most powerful expressions of public prayer that I have ever shared. It was truly beautiful. Because each prayer concern was shared at length and then prayed for at length, this time of prayer went on for many minutes. But it was obvious to me that this was an expected and important expression of their worship. The Shippensburg Church is a praying church!
Given all the changes and transformations which are happening in our Church, and indeed within the whole culture of religion in modern America, I believe these transformations in worship are most vital. On one hand there are exciting new expressions of creativity and imagination in our worship services. On the other hand our services of worship are becoming incredibly diverse and different. The good old days when worship in one Presbyterian Church was pretty much like worship in every Presbyterian Church are gone. Worship is the heart and soul of the Church. We need to think, pray and ponder about these transformations. There are exciting things happening in our congregations.