I love when my wife brings the Prayers of the People in our liturgy. They are prayers that live in that uncomfortable space between pastoral nurture and prophetic nudging. This was her prayer from our service this morning, Sunday, December 29, 2019.
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The first time I stepped into a Covenant Church in December 2003, I was struck by how it felt both evangelical and liturgical, like a Baptist Oreo cookie with a Lutheran Center. Afterwards, a man explained that one of the denominational distinctives is the reality of freedom in Christ. Essentially, what that means is that, on many issues we can agree to disagree agreeably. Our new Brazilian friend, Fabio, on the Serve Globally Europe team, calls the Covenant, ‘the Dog with the least fleas.’
This morning, instead of the Lord’s prayer, we’ll close with lyrics written by U2. Bono, the lead singer grew up in Dublin in the Catholic south of Ireland the product of a scandalous marriage during the height of IRA terrorism. His father, Catholic. His mother Protestant.
From our side of the pond, we can see the fighting has little do with Christianity, and everything to do with religious tribalism. Because he’s seen the human cost of not seeking peace, his background uniquely shaped him to write songs about it.
“One” was written at a time when the band were fighting over their direction. The core lyric, ‘we’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.’ It makes Bono an ideal Covenanter!
Will you join me in prayer?
Carry each other – a prayer
Our beloved Father in heaven,
We’re closer than ever before in history to people all over the world, and yet there are growing divisions and the rise of tribalism where once there was peace. Help your church in the world to answer conflicts and divisions with love and justice. Send workers where needed to bring physical and spiritual healing, and help Christians who live in places with surplus to provide for those who go without. May the smallest pinprick of light we bring swallow much darkness (thanks to my hubby for that line!).
It seems each time it’s my turn to pray, our nation is more divided than the previous time. Across our nation, churches and communities, Lord, we thank you for those who serve graciously and honestly. We pray that where leaders fail to do their tasks well, or uphold the oaths they take, may they be replaced.
Whether we identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, let us each conserve the rule of law, be moderate in our judgement of others and wise of those who seek to use the church for their own political ends. Let us be liberal in our love toward each other, especially those who aren’t part of our tribe.
Lord, in this time of division, let us hold onto hope and not be hijacked by our fears. Let us be wary of those who tell us who is out to get us and who we should blame. Let us remember those who seek to froth up our grievances with a paycheque attached to promoting those views. Help us to remember that conflict sells.
Lord, let us remember our nation is built upon the separation of church and state and that history shows us again and again when the church gets too close to power it is weakened. Therefore, help us to be cautious of Christian leaders who have become intoxicated by the proximity to power.
And we pray for those in our own church across the nation who once attended but have lost their way. Many see the church being committed partisans, blaming others, instead of committed Christians. May we show them, Lord, that our allegiance lies to Christ above all else, and that despite our differences, in you we are one. We are not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
On the eve of a departure, likely the most significant one we’ve yet taken, we stick out our necks and push our faces into the unknown. Eyes are open but unsure what they’re meant to see. In that “light” I give you the perfect word for our upcoming explorations in France and the UK: “coddiwomple.”
The first time I ever prayed alabyrinthwas many years ago now. It was with good friends of ours in a concert hall on the Linfield College campus. He had made it himself from fabric not unlike a painter’s drop sheet. He laid it out carefully on the stage, being careful to smooth out any unsightly wrinkles (a rather good picture of what we seek to do, often with little success, in our own lives!)
Candles dotted our prayer landscape like a fisherman had caught the Milky Way in his net and simply repurposed his catch of stars for our purposes. Quiet, contemplative music of Taizé aurally framed our time. Then, with only the briefest introduction, we slowly set upon our inner pilgrimage.
I had my journal with me that I might capture my impressions, however fleeting, and return to them as needed or desired. An amateur, I simply followed my more experienced friends around the simple concentricity, ever pushing toward the center, meant to represent union with Christ.
Unlike a maze, which is designed to confuse as it amuses, labyrinths have a single entrance. One way in. One way out. It is impossible to get lost in the labyrinth. It is designed for prayer, contemplation; all picturing a pilgrim’s journey into the magnetic center, the heart of Jesus.
One is safe there. Found. Home. The way there and the way back are equally special.
I walked away from that experience deeply satisfied. But, I cannot say in honesty that I heard any holy whisperings. No lightning. No still, small voice. No goosebumps. No angelic shoulder-taps. Not even an email address! It was just…nice. As we drove home, we did so knowing something holy had transpired, though not burning-bush or eastern-star holy.
Then, inexplicably, after a couple weeks, I began to notice things. Little things. Things so inane and banal that they hardly warranted a second thought. But, it was as if my “spidey senses” were on full alert. My antennae were set on high. When a person would speak, I would instantly hear something of God in their words.
Aha! So THIS was the gift of our labyrinth experience. Hearing. My spiritual ears had hearing aids and God’s voice suddenly showed up everywhere. Loudly. Insistently.
As Rae and I make our way to France for the Serve Globally EuroRetreat, it is our labyrinth pilgrimage. It is a journey into a vast, cosmic mystery of “what the hell are we doing?!”
However, if what we glean from it is less immediate than we’d like, I return to the profound difference I experienced in that first labyrinth prayer journey, even if it was weeks later. We’ll take whatever direction comes our way. Or not. As long as we can hear even a little more clearly what God is saying.
Therefore, in this clumsy coddiwomple into the future, we proceed not cautiously as much as expectantly. Our ears are full-cocked to hear whatever voices may be forthcoming; voices that comprise, ultimately, The Voice.
Lord, in your mercy, as we listen for your voice, hear our prayer.
I’ve spent a lot of time seeking. Looking. Perusing. Questioning. And then smiling when I found what I was looking for (or thought I was looking for), whining when I didn’t. Either way, I loved the pursuit.
I am at root a ridiculously curious guy. A poster-boy seeker. The entire world is fascinating to me in some way. As a kid I collected everything from rocket and dinosaur models to rocks, books, musical instruments, record albums (remember those?), jade things, Scotland trinkets and memorabilia, maps, miniature totem poles, strange friends, and much more. I was fascinated by astronomy, theoretical physics, geology, ornithology, folklore and mythology, quantum mechanics, languages and cultures, world religions, time travel, metaphysics, and the funky ideas of weird people.
I never doubted the universe was a grand, spacious, and basically good place. It was a veritable playground of cool stuff to discover; full of mystery and mayhem and magic and material to gaze upon and wonder. I saw God everywhere. And I believed God saw me. We had a thing. Buddies. It was a sort of comfort between two schoolyard pals with utter trust for one another.
I knew no theology, at least in any book learnin’ way. I had no language with which to describe this experience, this thirst. My discoveries of the world gave me all the words I needed to understand what hidden hands might have molded it all into being. I was perfectly happy just being curious and finding out stuff on an as needed basis. With anything close to an answer, I was gifted with a hundred new and better questions that got me started all over again.
That curiosity grew into something rather epic by the time I made it to high school. A gangly, broody, class-clowny, artsy guy, I was clever enough to hang out with most kids. But, I was more interested in the periphery. It was one great social experiment. Like a chameleon, I changed to suit my environment and, like a sponge, soaked up all I could.
I hung out everywhere. Belonged nowhere. It was fun. It was lonely. It was confusing. But, it all led somewhere. I was about to make a huge discovery, perhaps the biggest yet. Christianity. Not God necessarily. I knew God already. Well, someone I believed to be God. I suppose I met God, specified in Jesus; Jesus, housed in the church.
At first it was deliriously wonderful. I made the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that I was finally among kindred spirits with whom I might share the wonders I’d seen in the visible world. More so, perhaps this was where all my fellow curiousers were to be found. My peeps. This was to prove only partly true.
Those early days were full of acquiescing to the authority of church teaching and the closely protected parameters into which it was meant to be understood. I gobbled it up like I had everything else. My gigantic study bible became a holy junk-drawer for copious margin notes, underlining, highlighting, circling, questions to pursue, books and articles for further study. The Internet would have been handy back then!
Life became about not just consistent, but constant, church attendance. It was bible studies, prayer meetings, small group discussions, college and career cookouts and church campouts, discipleship training, evangelism training, and learning all those Christian songs I had no idea even existed. Friendships that once mattered now were to be discarded in the interest of holier pursuits. My extensive collection of apparently demonic record albums, totem poles, t-shirts, and socio-cultural ideas were summarily hurled into the salvation garbage bin. My life was changed. I knew it. Everyone around me knew it.
A problem began to present itself, however. Once one had a good enough handle on the manual for this Christian thing there seemed little left over for my curiosity, which only continued to grow. It grew well beyond the subject matter of my recent conversion.
I was still fascinated by other religions. Jesus was the only way. Alrighty, toss that.
Spirituality and metaphysics. Hellish new age nonsense. Okay, ditch that.
The far-flung reaches of space and the cosmos. Five days in the making. One for us. One left over to catch his breath. A few thousand years old. Headed for destruction. Fair enough, moving on.
My numerous artsy, gay friends with whom I’d always shared life and laughter. Distracted and damned, respectively. Hmm. Now what?
As I’ve grown older in years and wisdom (c’mon, work with me here), I’ve come to see that much of what passed for faith in my experience was saddled up to a rather small donkey called Evangelicalism. To be fair, that little steed was more accurately called Fundamentalism. But, as I’ve walked this faith road now for some thirty-five years, the former is, sadly, well suited to bed itself with the latter.
Why? One word: certainty. Well, one more word: information. For the post-Reformation, contemporary Evangelical, theology is the equivalent to the right information in pursuit of certainty of salvation. My problem? I’m not really interested in certainty. And, for me, information alone doth not wonder bring. I’m less interested in being a dictionary than I am a children’s pop-up book, full of surprises and gurgles of joy.
This is my longstanding love-hate relationship with Evangelicalism, at least as I’ve come to experience it. To overstate my case, it is like the cosmos being shoved through an eye-dropper. The vastness of God stuffed into a propositional, mechanistic framework designed for pragmatic outcomes. Like writing a paper about sex without ever getting laid.
The intervening years have seen my spiritual journey take me on a wild ride through numerous faith iterations and denominational platforms. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, again, I hung out everywhere, belonged nowhere. It was no less baffling than any other pursuit. At least, in some of those settings, hearty questions – many without good “answers” – were encouraged.
Theology that doesn’t breed curiosity is merely ideology with God words affixed to it. It is platitudinous porridge that shows all its ingredients at once in a quaint, glass bowl. If my only aim is to say some creed from memory and attach that to my existential experience of the cosmos, then religion isn’t for me. I’d rather just be a euphoria-seeking hippy who prefers singing to studying, casual running to constant repenting. At least “God” is big enough to handle my doubts, questions, fears, heresies, and all the rest that comes with being human.
Then, I met the Covenant. Well, the Evangelical Covenant Church to be specific. A spunky little group of exceedingly friendly folks (they were originally called Mission Friends) who love the bible, Jesus, personal conversion narratives, culture and justice, a broadly-lived gospel, and the freedom to disagree. Then, as a bonus, I discovered their love for good beer, wine, laughter, connection, and passion for peace in the family. And, better still, the overweening requirement of picture-perfect theology generally expected in denominational religioso, gives way to the well-lived in shoes of narrative theology. Questions that belie quick quips are tossed about like hacky-sacks. But, they never wander far from the few simple items which unite them.
So, in my journey of questioning everything, accepting little as definitive except the asking itself, I can still be more curious than certain. Or, stated differently, I’m certain enough of the main things to be footloose and fancy-free in the cosmos-at-large. The whole bibliocentric Evangelicalism thing is old for me. I think it will always feel like an ill-fitting hat, holding TV personality hair at bay.
But, if that is where I’m to live and move and have my being, then I can think of no better place to do so than the Covenant.
Today, I proudly welcome my wonderful writer wife, Rae (her nom de plum: Wren Kenny) as guest blogger. What follows is a prayer she spent many hours composing to pray during the “Prayers of the People” segment of our liturgy.
These are always tricky, especially in our present environment of toxicity and constantly germinating hatred. But, she wrote it. Prayed it. And the people – well, at least the many who showered their praise – loved it.
So, with that, I give you:
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The first time I visited a Covenant Church, I adored the blend of liturgy and evangelicalism. A man I spoke with after the service told me, “the Covenant allows for differences of opinion over non-essential theological issues.” He gave the example of baptizing both infants and adults.
This really appealed to my moderate personality, which bristles at extremes in either direction. I fact-checked with Pastor Dean. This denominational principle is called The Reality Of Freedom In Christ—where we focus on what unites us as followers of Jesus instead of what separates us.
It’s with this spirit I bring the prayers of the people this morning.
Dear Lord, as we pray for the world, a popular culture phrase resounding through our nation right now is Lordy. And Lordy, what a time we live in!
We might be sitting in the pew next to a leftist, a rightist or an orchardist. The news, the Internet and social media have splintered us into tribes where we seek affirmation to support our own world-views rather than for information or friendships.
Everywhere we turn, there is division and labelling. Our Presidents have been white, black and orange. Our States are red, blue, or purple. Our parties are elephants or donkeys. The elephants have Liberals, and Blue Dogs and Progressive Dogs and people concerned we’re culturally-appropriating-cats-for dogs. The donkeys are divided over conservatism. If you’re not conservative enough you’re a RINO and excluded from a Tea Party. Then there’s the Alt Right suspicious of the Deep State and the newly formed Republicans for the Rule of Law. Amidst all of this we have a growing number of Independents and third parties and people of the just-make-it-all-to-go-away-so-we-can-party party.
Lord, how do we pray for the leadership of our nation, fraught with such divisions? Borrowing words of U2‘s Irish prophet, Bono, we pray: Lord,“Heaven on Earth. We need it now. Jesus can you spare a dime and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.“
Conflicts escalate around the world. Most recently we think of chemical weapons attacks on the people of Syria—and we know that “no one cries like a mother cries when her children are living in the ground.” We turn on the television and the pundits fall everywhere, from ramping up military action, to peaceniks worried about a war because of a tweet sent from a toilet. For the leaders in governments around the world, we pray,
“Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”
In our National leadership, we have those energized to seek election for the first time and others gearing up or fearing for their re-election campaigns. We have an unprecedented rate of retirements, resignations, firings, and indictments. The news comes at us fast and furious, and it’s spun to fit every ideology.
And it’s exhausting.
The days ahead only guarantee they’ll be filled with more division. For the principalities and powers that govern us we pray,
“Jesus can you spare the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”
Lord, your word in Galatians 3 tells us: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, for we are all one person in Christ Jesus.” But in our nation, we’re fighting over whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter. We fight over the rights of the unborn, and the born. We fight over the rights of school children and guns. And then we have gay lives and straight lives and Muslim lives and Christian lives and alternative lives.
“Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”
Our sports are divided over standing or kneeling. Our bakeries may or may not serve you a cake. We avoid our friends and relatives if their views don’t align with our brand. Your word tells us to encourage one another and build one another up, to be kind, tender hearted, and to forgive one another in Christ. If we’re honest. We’ve failed.
Bigly. For those estranged from others we pray:
“Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”
And we pray for those who once dwelled among us but are struggling in their faith. The divisions around us have affected the church. But today, let each person present think of those people who are no longer seated beside them. They might have been elders, deacons, singers, scripture readers.
Many find their faith shipwrecked by the challenges in our nation. From conversations, we’ve gleaned these words which will sting – the word Evangelical in the public perception has become: evangelical – all thoseassociated with Twitter rants, adult entertainment, and attacking teenagers whose friends are laying in the ground.
The church across the nation is hemorrhaging members. “Evangelical” is not a word with which they want to be branded. Instead, life gets in the way and they give themselves an I-have-better-things-to-do-on-a-Sunday mulligan.
Help us, Lord, to find ways to address the palpable anxiety, put aside our petty differences and reach out to those we no longer see. Help us embrace the freedom in Christ to be comfortable with differences of opinion.
Please, dear Jesus, throw your drowning church a line and let us remember that the gospel is not fake news. It’s the good news, because your word teaches us that “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers in the world as it is, or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Peace on Earth.
Rae is presently putting the finished touches on her debut novel, Miss Adventured, published likely this year. Stay tuned!
In much of the incendiary debate (a generous term, frankly) surrounding matters of human sexuality in the church, one is often led to believe that there is now and has always been a single view with which all faithful souls must immediately and consistently adhere. This is an unfortunate proclivity for the prevailing church, to make assumptions out of a majority view and, on that basis, unquestioningly consider it biblical.
When my wife and I first moved to the U.S. from Canada almost fourteen years ago. I recall numerous conversations that went something like this, “oh, you’re a Christian. So, you must be pretty happy about getting a Republican in office then, huh?” Now, given that we are not American citizens and cannot vote, and wouldn’t automatically vote one way or the other dependent on a party name, this still strikes me as disingenuous at best, dangerously misinformed at worst.
The Church has disagreed on almost everything since Pentecost. Even the big stuff. The great Councils helped build a consensus, not a unanimity on matters of deepest concern to the gospel. Even the very scriptures from whence we derive our most treasured theology was a canon of strife and woe until well into the fourth century C.E. There is not even universal agreement to this day on what books even belong in the canon!
Perhaps the most diverse “rag-tag fugitive fleet” of souls ever assembled were the original twelve. Levi/Matthew, a materialistic, corporate yes man on one end and Simon, the Zealot, a leftist revolutionary on the other. It certainly was not ideology that united these two apprentices of Jesus! It was their Rabbi, and the self-giving love he exemplified that cut through to the core of all matters.
Since the Reformation, something I see increasingly as The Giant Overreaction, the church has fractured into 40,000 denominations, more or less, most claiming sola scriptura of one form or another. Hence for me, the question becomes not if sola scriptura but whose? It leads us to ask the yet bigger questions related to the spirit in which we disagree on secondary matters. Is there room for loving disagreement, or “faithful dissent” as my colleague would say?
Despite the fact I’ve spent my entire Christian experience in that narrow hallway of Protestant enterprise, in at least one of those 40,000 denominations, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), I’m finding hope that, in the LGBTQ discussion at least, there may be room for such faithful dissent. And it is here where Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom is at her best, bringing home her point within that shared context where we both live, move and have our being.
This has been a threefold exercise for me in stretching my spiritual legs a bit. It is a rarity for me to engage in these, shall we say delicate, matters on a blog designed more to journal my journey than document my ideas. That said, I can think of few better to assist me as I stick my head out of my cell long enough to sniff around and discover places suited to engage the world with what I’m learning down there.
You can find her final installment here. I did, and Dr. M…it’s been an honor.
Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois where she has served since 2002.