Sent Out into the World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the benediction. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andy Kort

The benediction. It is usually the last spoken piece in worship and is spared the distinction of being the last piece only by the inclusion of a postlude. The benediction is perhaps the shortest element in the worship service, usually only a few seconds to complete. Maybe that’s why people often love it. It is a blessing offered at the end, a simple and wonderful way to remember that God’s help, guidance, and grace goes with us as we leave the sanctuary. I hope that’s actually the real reason why people love it. But in my mind, the benediction and the accompanying charge serves as more than a blessing. I also see it as a line of demarcation, with a before and an after.

What happens before shapes what comes after. Think about the typical Sunday morning and all that happens before the benediction. There is an education hour complete with Bible studies, conversations about faith, kids in Sunday school, prayer in the chapel, and people catching up about their lives from the last week. Before the benediction there are all the other elements of a worship service. We are called together, we praise God, we confess our sins and hear we are forgiven, we pass the peace, and we read God’s Word and then proclaim it in sermon and song. We share our gifts as we are called to generosity, we pray, we sing, and on really good days we celebrate the sacraments. In all of this we hear about God’s reconciling and liberating work in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about love, justice, mercy, compassion, and more. We cannot help but be shaped by this. And in turn this shapes what happens after the benediction.

What usually happens after the benediction? In the congregation I serve, the pastors recess from the chancel and position themselves to greet worshipers at the doors. The worshipers either stay seated for the postlude or get up and begin to disperse. Eventually we all go into our fellowship hall for coffee hour. Then what? Do we all just go home until next week? No. We go into the world as people shaped by all that happens before the benediction, ready to do the work after the benediction. For many of us, that involves mission activity that has been informed and interpreted through our worship, Christian education, fellowship, and even committee meetings during the week.

Many of us love to quote St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands…no feet…no eyes…but yours.” To that I would also add ears. Maybe even before we are the hands and feet, we are the eyes and ears, looking and listening, witnessing and watching what is going on in worship, but also in our neighborhood, community, and world. Once we learn more about what is going on around us, we are in a better position to engage while responding to being sent into our communities to work with our neighbors. This can also save us from imposing on our neighbors what we assume they need, or helping them with things they don’t really need or even want.

I recently spent time listening to church members through surveys and ethnographic interviews to understand what is important to them as it relates to mission, how they understand mission, and feelings on what we have been doing. I also listened to community agencies to hear more about their needs. The results were informative and led us to adjust what we were doing. Some things changed, others were dropped, and a few new things began. One example of a new initiative is our “pop up missions” where we learn of an immediate need and try to help. But we also strengthened relationships with existing mission partners like Montgomery, West Virginia (15 years), a Catholic church in Nicaragua (20 years), and many local groups.

After the benediction we don’t just get coffee in fellowship hall. We are sent out into the world, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our homes to participate in what God is doing. What is God doing? A whole lot. Christian education, the elements of worship help us to understand “who is our neighbor?” it informs our understanding and biblical best practices. We get a reminder that we are called, equipped, and sent out by God. And as we are sent out, we receive a blessing to send us on our way. It’s absolutely beautiful.


Andy Kort is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Stewardship in Today’s Culture

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the offering. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Larissa Kwong Abazia

Let’s be honest: It’s either stewardship season or the congregation’s own sustainability that get our fiscal attention in the church. The act has been expanded to include “time, talent, and treasure” but is this simply a strategy to make people give more, feel good about what they decided to give, or calm anxieties about “the ask” rather than embrace a fuller understanding of what offering is meant to be?

I’m just going to cut to the chase and share these knowledgeable words from Walter Brueggemann: “We live in a society that would like to bracket out money and possessions (politics and economics) from ultimate questions. The Bible insists otherwise. It insists that the issues of ultimacy are questions about money and possessions. Biblical testimony invites a serious reconsideration of the ways in which our society engages or does not engage questions of money and possessions as carriers of social possibility.” As long as we continue to engage in the offering as merely a financial ask for the church’s vitality, we disregard the call to discipleship that requires us to see money and possessions as a disruptive force for change in ourselves and the world.

We must rid ourselves of a few myths:

Myth #1: What you possess is due to the success of the work of your own hands. Need we be reminded who created each one of us, who claimed us in our mother’s womb before we drew our first breaths? We cannot celebrate being created and called by God, yet avoid the required response to give back what was never ours in the first place.

Myth #2: Offering and stewardship are primarily about maintaining, sustaining, or building a legacy. A budget should neither define the life of the church nor its endowments or investments be solely about its own future. It ultimately reflects what we value and where we place our trust (consider looking at the church budget through this lens at the next meeting!). Withholding the money and possessions of the congregation risks keeping us from the exact neighborhoods in which our faith communities reside. We must stop utilizing the first fruits of what we collect for the church, giving only scraps out after our needs are determined.

Myth #3: Offering is what we give inside the walls of the church. We need to act as though what we do inside the church has the power to transform how we live outside of the walls; the concept of giving does not stop at the offering plate but involves every way that we choose to use or cling to our money and possessions.

Myth #4: Offering is just about money and finances. Racism, sexism, other-ing, assumptions, and hierarchies impact our engagement with and participation in Christian life together. We are called to a different kind of community: a diverse gathering of people who create a new lifestyle together. So when our churches say, “All are welcome,” it means that the visitor and stranger transform us, not the other way around. It also means that those who have power, privilege, and authority must share and/or utilize these possessions for the good of the whole.

What would happen if money and possessions were seen as disruptive forces of change for the church and people of faith? We would see Christ in every face and respond with hospitality, generosity, and love. We would acknowledge the truth that, if the marginalized remain in our midst, our money and possessions continue to oppress the exact neighbors we are called to care for and love.

American culture encourages us to clench our fists, take care of ourselves and those we love for first, and celebrate the freedom of individualism. Instead, our faith calls us to challenge these assumptions and live in a community where everyone’s needs are met and all contributions are celebrated, no matter the size. We need to witness to and embody Christian communities where the binary structures of this world (insider/outsider, foreigner/citizen, us/them, have/have nots) are replaced with a true reflection of the body of Christ.


Larissa Kwong Abazia is a pastor, speaker, writer, and consultant with the Vandersall Collective. She is also the project manager and a team member for the Collective Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting research into fundraising practices in Christian communities of color. Larissa was the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly and has served churches in Chicago, New York City, and throughout New Jersey.

Contemplation in a Status Quo World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the prayers of the people. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mary Beene

Yesterday was a very busy day. I had several projects with looming deadlines and an evening gathering at my office. At 8:30 am I still had parts and pieces of an unfinished DIY bookshelf scattered across the office floor and little bits of Styrofoam packing stuck to every surface in the room. So I settled into my still cold room, sat on the hard floor screwdriver in hand, and finished the bookcase. Then I gathered my cleaning supplies, ran the vacuum and by 10:30 am everything was ready for the night’s event.

That’s when I sat on the couch in the corner of the now cozy office and admired my handiwork. I read a psalm and pondered the Lord’s judgment and the Earth’s joy. And then I sat for a few minutes more. Of course, the urgency of the day fell upon my spirit once my hands and mind were free to wander. I almost jumped up to begin the next phase of the day’s work.

But something stilled me, and I sat for many minutes more in silence, admiring the room, marveling at how God has guided me and uplifted me as I started my own spiritual direction practice, and thanking the Spirit for this blissful moment of quiet before the next thing.

When was the last time you let yourself take a moment of stillness in the midst of a busy day and a busy life? We are taught to admire people who rush through the day, accomplishing so much more than seems humanly possible. If we are wage workers, we know that there is no grace from our employers if we are caught staring into space, even if we know that in our hearts we are glorifying God.

Sometimes I even deny myself stillness at the end of a long day. I try to get in that last bit of housework, watch that program everyone is watching, catch up on Facebook, or even play a game on my phone. If I sit there doing “nothing” someone is bound to come and fill that time for me; but no one bothers me if I am still “busy” with anything that looks demanding.

As a spiritual director I teach contemplative prayer. And it is very important, because quieting our minds and opening our hearts to God is a skill that must be learned. It sounds like it should be simple, but even if I close my eyes right now, I can feel the urge well up to run in circles.

I recently learned of a Presbyterian church in Colorado that started an experiment 20 years ago to do contemplative/centering prayer as a part of their everyday church life. Now, two decades later, spiritual practices are a part of every dimension of the congregation’s life: time for deep prayer in worship, session meetings, Bible study, fellowship and mission. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it grew organically from the mustard seed of an experiment: what would happen if we took time for stillness?

This morning my office is in a shambles again. It’s not just the glasses and plates that need washing, the regular remains of a lovely party. Unfortunately, one leg of my cute but ancient loveseat choose last night to shatter and crash my poor guests to the floor.

Though I smiled, apologized for the unexpected dumping, and assured everyone that it was no big deal, my heart sank and my mind started racing again. I really love that couch, though it looks this morning like last night was its final party. It helped make the office cozy. And, of course, there’s no money in the budget to replace it.

After the guests left, I jumped into action. The computer came out – how much would it cost to replace a loveseat; is there any money in the bank, are there local stores I can visit in the morning, is there any chance at all there’s a youtube video on fixing ancient couch legs that are probably well past the “fixing” stage?

But this morning I realize there’s one thing I need to do before I rush into action, before the dishes are cleared, the floor is swept again, and the arduous process of replacing the loveseat begins. I am going to sit in the corner of my still cozy office, read a psalm, ponder the wonder of God’s grace and stay for as long as the Lord can hold me fast in a strong embrace. But I suppose today I’ll do it from a chair.


Mary Beene is a spiritual director, retreat leader and facilitator in Savannah, GA for Openings: Let the Spirit In (www.letthespiritin.com). She has her Masters in Public Administration from American University, her M.Div. from Boston University and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Her special interests include contemplative discernment for individuals and congregations and writing spiritual memoir as a tool for resiliency.

What Do We Bring From the Table?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the Lord’s Supper. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Barb Hedges-Goettl

It’s commonplace to talk about what one person or another “brings to the table” as a reflection of the desire increase the available gifts and skills. However, since at the Lord’s Table, God does most of the bringing and we partake of and participate in what God gives, the question could be turned around to ask: what do we receive and take from the Table?

Historic practices of the Lord’s Supper have attended to the past actions of Christ Jesus in the crucifixion; to the spiritual more than to the physical; to fencing rather than opening. While they have not clearly signified bounty, the loaf is bigger, the cup deeper, and the Table wider than these practices would imply.

Our past, present, and future lie in God. We celebrate what — by the power of the Holy Spirit — God has done, is doing, and will do. The Supper signals not only Jesus’ crucifixion but his resurrected presence today. Christ Jesus is present, incarnate in and for the world, not imprisoned in the past or in the rite. Thus, from the Table we receive and take the present presence of Christ Jesus.

The Supper forecasts our eternal presence together with Christ Jesus in the joyful feast, the great banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb. It participates in the “Not Yet” as well as in the “Now.” From the Table, we receive and take part in God’s ongoing work in the world, proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love.

The meal is not ours. It doesn’t belong to this particular church, this particular community, or this denomination. Since it belongs to Christ Jesus, the lost, the suffering, the different, the “Other,” and sinners (even Judas!) are at the Table. Everyone brings who they are and what they have, and from this God makes a potluck dinner party. And so from the Table we receive and take being present with and for one another.

At this Table, we are offered what is central to life. In Jesus’ time, this was bread. As a Korean friend of mine has suggested, in Asian countries it could be rice. In the USA, it might be meat and potatoes. From the Table we receive and take the “meat” of life: God incarnate shared with all people as made in God’s image.

From the Table we receive and take the sanctification of the physical stuff of life. Going beyond even the best language for worship (as described by the Directory for Worship), what we receive and take is more expressive than rationalistic; a matter of affect rather than just thought; a building up and persuading as well as an informing and describing; ardor as well as order. It is an expressing of the whole community’s utterance, as well as the individual’s devotion. This eucharistic experience of faith is visceral as well as intellectual; active as well as contemplative; embodied as well as inspirited; enacted as well as verbalized. (Like Calvin, we experience it more than we understand it.) And so from the Table we receive and take an experience of faith that encompasses all that we are and have.

The Lord’s Supper is not to be scarfed up by those who get to the Table first so that others have nothing. That’s not how the body of Christ works. The koinonia, the body of Christ, is shared. It includes weak and strong, prominent and lowly, not just as distinct categories, but as the mixture found within each person. And so from this Table of koinonia, we receive and take the body of Christ for all of us.

Like at the meals Jesus shared with the thousands for whom he also “blessed, broke, and gave” bread, there is more than enough for all. All eat their fill with basketsful leftover. Maybe the Table should bear a cornucopia. Maybe the cup — whether little individual cups or the large communal cup — should sometimes overflow, brimming over in wild abandon, for from the Table we receive and take plentitude, wild provisioning, Abundanza, God’s uncontainable overflowingness.

[Receive.]
Take.
Eat.
This is Christ’s body, broken for you.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.


Barb Hedges-Goettl is a Presbyterian pastor and worship geek who loves delving into the Word to find words for work of liturgy. She live in the Philadelphia area and currently uses her writing and teaching (and pastoring) skills with inner-city middle school special ed students.

Youth and the Lord’s Table in the Real World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the invitation to the table. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cheryl Carson

How enthusiastic are you about coming to the Lord’s Table for communion? That was a question I posed to 16 high school students as part of my recent doctoral research. What emerged was an interesting tension between their passion for the sacrament and their boredom with the ritual.

The good news was that nearly two-thirds said they were very or extremely enthusiastic. John, an 18-year old high school senior, who was one of two who were extremely enthusiastic said, “It’s a way of connecting to God… I’m more of a hands-on person (rather) than just listening, so I think that’s part of what I enjoy.” Matt, a 15-year-old 10th grader said he was moderately to very enthusiastic “because I realize it’s important, and it’s necessary to take part in. But, I’ve done it a lot and it’s special but not very exciting.”

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a practice of corporate worship where we join with the risen Christ in a meal of remembrance and thanksgiving. But as the youth discovered during our focus group discussions, there are many additional meanings that are rarely lifted up.

In the book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, the authors proclaim that youth are trying to answer three questions: “Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?” Where can students better explore and discover their identity, belonging, and purpose as disciples of Christ than through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

The youth shared stories of their most memorable experiences of communion. They also, in two focus group discussions, offered their suggestions for making the Lord’s Supper more meaningful. They watched a video available through the PC(USA) entitled, “Communion: A Feast of Grace.” As they watched, they wrote down meanings of communion they heard. The one meaning upon which both groups wanted to build their Lord’s Supper liturgy was the theme of all being welcome. It was important to them to convey that everyone has a place at the table.

The scripture passage both groups selected, unbeknownst to one another, was the feeding of the 5,000. It spoke powerfully to them of the welcome offered by all being fed. They chose to follow the basic liturgical ritual found in the Book of Common Worship. They did not want to dispose of tradition. They wanted to build on it by making communion a full-bodied, sensory experience within that liturgical structure. We need not simply stick to a rote recitation of the Invitation, Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Words of Institution. The youth want to engage all the senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And when we offer a multi-sensory experience, research tells us the memory of the experience is more lasting.

Here is a sampling of the students’ liturgical ideas:

Intinction was identified as a more intimate experience for a number of youth. They felt a greater sense of Christ’s presence by coming forward to be served. And they got a deeper feeling of Christ’s love when the server said, “The body of Christ given for you,” as they pulled a piece of bread from the loaf.

Adding visual elements was suggested by a student based on an experience at a youth conference. Everyone had placed their handprints on a cloth. The cloth was later used on the communion table to symbolize the community gathered at the Table.

One person recalled World Communion Sunday at their church when a variety of breads were served. The different breads provided a representational nod to people around the world who were also participating in communion that day.

It requires some creative thought and extra planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more verve. But, it is effort well spent in order to engage our youth in communion and to potentially reveal Christ in new ways.

If you would like the article length summary of the research project which includes the Lord’s Supper liturgy developed by the youth, please email me at ccarson@cfpresbytery.org.


Cheryl Carson is the Associate Executive Presbyter for Central Florida Presbytery. She advises the Presbytery’s Youth Council, serves as staff liaison to the Leadership Development Committee, resources congregations and their members, and oversees the presbytery’s communications. Cheryl has a Doctor of Educational Ministries degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. She also has her Masters of Christian Education from Union-PSCE (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond and a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida. (Go Gators!) She is also a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA). Cheryl and her husband, Bill, live in Merritt Island, FL with their dog and four cats.

Public Art as Prophetic Word

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the sermon. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Shawna Bowman

When we consider the sermon moment we often think first of the spoken word, whether an extemporaneous litany or carefully crafted prose. In the predominately white and western Christian communities I’ve been formed by, we have historically privileged the voice of a single preacher and depended upon the auditory (and hopefully eager) listening and learning of a gathered community in worship. This method of preaching and proclamation is beautiful, rooted in tradition, and has the capacity to inspire, form, and stretch the theological and spiritual imagination of our people.

And… and… it is only one of so many ways we human beings can engage with God’s dream for us and with God’s dream for the world. Rather than use words alone to demonstrate what I’m suggesting, I will invite you on a multi-sensory journey. Let us move for a moment from a stationary pulpit into the streets and look with fresh eyes and open hearts for a prophetic word preached in the visuals of street arts, graffiti and public installations.

As an artist/preacher, I am interested in cultivating an honesty about our own power and perceptions as we approach either the task of preaching or receiving a prophetic word. I invite you to carry these questions with you as we begin our journey into the streets:

Who decides what is acceptable “street art” and what qualifies as graffiti or even vandalism? Who and what artists are commissioned for particular and planned pieces of art and when does an artist risk a prophetic word or statement over and against the institutions who “own” public space? When is it the right time to break the rules, even the law, to risk a prophetic word or piece of visual proclamation?

YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL

Chicago based artist and designer Matthew Hoffman has been the custodian of a public art project that began in Chicago but has expanded across the globe in recent years. The project began as stickers and now includes public installations with the simple statement: you are beautiful in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It has turned up on the sides of buildings, in parks, along Lake Shore Drive, and has been re-created and imagined by kid artists in public school students and public artists around the world.

You can visit versions of the work here. Take a moment and soak them in! While the artists may not have set out to offer a sermon, take a moment to imagine how prophetic a word this truly is. How does the message “you are beautiful” resonate with our biblical story? How does God’s own voice shine through this particular invitation to embrace our beauty?

WHAT WE DO IN LIFE…

One of the most famous and yet anonymous street artists currently creating and curating work across the globe, known only as Bansky, calls their self a “quality vandal,” and their work appeared first in the UK and recently in Bethlehem, Palestine. The artist offers critiques on the status quo, and observations on systems of oppression and violence often revealing the way human beings in positions of power are complicit in upholding them. I love this because it reminds me of some of Jesus’ best parables. Simple yet prophetic, offered in a way that catches us off guard and invites us to see ourselves and the world through a fresh and potentially liberating lens.

You can visit more of Banksy’s work here. Take a moment to absorb each piece as it moves across your screen. Can you see God’s prophetic words peeking through these installations? How is this artist offering an alternative narrative to what many of us experience and put our faith in, in our day-to-day lives?

LARGER THAN LIFE

We know a prophetic word can change our thinking and can move whole communities towards hope and transformation. Chicago public artist Max Sansing creates public murals that are works of reclamation and representation in his community and across the city. He painted this particular mural in the neighborhood where he grew up. Sansing says, “I know a lot of times we get portrayed as certain things, and I wanted to reinforce we could be larger than life.” Isn’t that often the role of a prophetic word? To give voice, worth and hope to a particular people and in a particular context? To hold God’s dream up for the people to see, not only as a beacon but as a mirror? To say, “look, we have all we need, right here.”

You can learn more about this particular mural here, and explore here how Sansing and another street artist, Sydney James from Detroit, use their artwork to impact culture, encourage diversity, and engage youth in their communities. Can you hear and see God’s invitation to embrace the fullness of our human experience in their work? Do they disrupt, confirm, or challenge your assumptions about God’s dream the world?

AN INVITATION

Next time you encounter public art in the form of murals, installations, or graffiti take a holy moment. Breathe in the color, the imagery, the form and shape and listen for the prophetic word speaking through the work. Let the work wash over you like liturgy and let God’s dream for the world bubble up in your imagination!


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor doing ministry with the creative and justice-seeking folks at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Shawna is co-founder of Creation Lab, an arts incubator and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and prophetic imagination, also in Chicago. Shawna is also Associate Director of Field Ed & Experiential Education at McCormick Theological Seminary.

The Intentional Practice of Imago Scriptura

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the scripture reading. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Edward Goode

“You need to pray the Psalms.”

Those were the words of a prayer partner friend after I had been sharing about some of the most difficult challenges I had faced both personally and in my pastoral ministry. My response was something like, “yeah yeah” because he said once again…

“Ed…You NEED to pray the Psalms.”

That night, he texted me asking if I had prayed Psalm 1. So I opened up my Bible app and read it so that I could reply back that I had. But something stirred as I read “…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by steams of water…”

What stirred in me was a picture I had taken a few months earlier of a tree that looked to be growing out of a lake. As I opened up my photos on my computer and found a picture of it and I felt like I was looking at Psalm 1. It may not have been the way that my friend intended it, but I prayed Psalm 1 at that moment. (Side note – I later found out that the tree is actually dead…oops.)

I copied that photo into my journaling app and wrote a few words about it and what stirred in me. The next day, I read Psalm 2 about taking refuge in God and thought of the overhanging branches of a row of live oaks in South Carolina I had seen. The next day came images for Psalm 3, then 4, and several months later I had gone through all 150 Psalms both in my own personal journal and posting them to my blog. As I did, I began to hear from others about how the images helped them to “see” the Psalms in new ways.

Through this new practice, the Holy Spirit transformed my experience of Scripture. As I read the passage in the morning, I started to make it my practice to take a picture of something from that day that reflected the Scripture. As a result, the words stayed with me and truly dwelt in me throughout. I wasn’t just reading to say I had read it but it was reading it to see it became incarnate in my life. It moved Scripture from being an intellectual exercise to something that engaged me more fully – intellect, body, emotions, time.

One of the struggles that people have with the Bible is finding the places where it intersects with “real life.” This practice helped me to find those intersections. Simply put, it is the practice of intentional looking for where God is all around us. Over the years this practice has grown where I am seeing Scripture around me even when I am not intentionally looking for it. Sometimes it has been a sunrise or sunset and sometimes it has been a cup of tea on my desk or a broken branch on a tree.

In the years that have followed, I have continued this practice in my own personal life but also have begun to find ways to integrate it into the worship life of the congregations I’ve served, to lead people in visual devotional practices, youth group activities with kids and their phones, and so forth.

Within worship, this practice can widen the experience of Scripture for a congregation. Scriptures can be shared with the congregation in advance and members are invited to respond in prior to Sunday or during the service itself with their own pictures of how they’ve “seen” those Scriptures around them during the week. Sermons could be crafted out of the images that are shared by the congregation as well. Congregational members can also share their images on their own social media feeds as a way to share their faith and be invitational to others. Like my own personal experience of it, this practice can allow Scripture to be experienced more fully by a congregation – engaging not simply the intellect but the emotions – engaging not just in an hour on Sunday but throughout the week between the Sundays.

I was asked a few months ago about what this practice has done for me and simply put, it is helped me “see more.” My physical vision hasn’t changed but my spiritual vision has. This, I believe, is one of the core desires God has for us – to widen our vision… to see the beauty and wonder of God all around us, to see Scripture come to life within and through each of us, to help us to see more of the opportunities that God places around us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and to draw upon the life-giving movement of the Holy Spirit.


Edward Goode is one of those PCUSA pastors enjoying the blessing of our denomination’s full communion relationships as he serves as interim pastor at Christ Church UCC in Ft Thomas, Kentucky. He and his wife Amy (also a PCUSA pastor) have three teenagers who keep them humble, busy, and continually in prayer. In addition to being a husband, father, and pastor, he loves to be outdoors with their dog, Scout, and his camera (currently unnamed). You can follow him at imagoscriptura.com, @revdarth on Instagram and @edwardgoode on Twitter.

Hymns as Songwriting

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as a hymn. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Drew Wilmesherr

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” – Richard Wright, “American Hunger”

Songwriting is as much a passion/calling as it is a craft. Sometimes the lyrics are a jazzed up kangaroo, ready to burst out of the writer’s head and into the listener’s ear. Sometimes the lyric is a sedated panda, heavy, unyielding, and difficult to move forward. But catching rainwater of lyrics, when you have the right tools available, can be refreshing and life-giving without drowning in a blunt force flood of clichéd metaphors.

I love a fresh metaphor in worship music. John Mark McMillan writes in his song, “Baby Son,”

The inn is full, the out is dark
Have you no room inside your heart?

What a beautiful line to communicate so much! There’s clever wordplay of “in” and “out” and the space to fill in who we’re allowing in and who we’re locking out.

Or William Matthews’ gracious articulation of a faith journey through grey areas of life and faith, “In the Grey”:

The place, the place, where I love you in the mystery
and you rewrite my history in the grey

There’s honesty and encouragement to sing this as a community of faith, like Jeremiah or Lamentations, to say I have no clear black and white answers, but I still love you.

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” – Orson Scott Card

Pat Pattison (lyric and poet professor at Berklee College of Music) defines metaphor as “… a collision between ideas, one crunched into another…” (Songwriting without Boundaries). Basically, all of corporate worship songs are a metaphor. We’re singing about the Indescribable Divine using the limited language of our even more limited experiences. Having just finished the Christmas season, we probably sang songs about inn keepers without any room for parents with a newborn baby. Even though there are no surly innkeepers in the Gospels, it’s still a great metaphor for the way we treat people even today at our borders, or even the way we allow the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to take up residence in our head and heart. It’s a relatable metaphor, because we can imagine a full hotel on a long journey, or even simply being turned away from a full room.

I love co-writing metaphors for songs, especially with people who have lived through experiences different from my own. They bring fresh language for common experiences, and sometimes they relate uncommon experiences through very relatable images. I once co-wrote a worship song with a hip-hop artist who was using a lot of club and party imagery as a prophetic vision of the Isaiah mountain in Isaiah 2. Peace and abundance in the language of thumping beats and full dance floors. In the book How to Rap by Paul Edwards, hip-hop artist Immortal Technique explains, “Hip-hop was born in an era of social turmoil and real economically miserable conditions for the black and Latino people living in the hood of America, so in the same way that slaves used to sing songs on a plantation about being somewhere else – that’s the party songs that used to have.”

When we engage in worship songs beyond our hymnals (as extensive and deep and wide as they are), we hear the experiences of our common God through the uncommon and current languages of our brothers and sisters who might not occupy our pews with us on Sunday mornings. When we sing the songs of others, we breath and speak as they do, and find ourselves connected in our art. And I usually find a dialogue taking place between groups of people where bridges might not have been before.

“Sing to the LORD a new song, because God has done wonderful things!” Psalm 98:1 (CEB)

Singing a new song, as Psalm 98 instructs, gives us a glimpse into the way God works in the world, the way God addresses our fears (like desiring an escape from poverty). Let’s write our songs, let’s sing the songs of others, and let’s find God in the lives of those living beyond our walls.

For more resources on lyric writing, see Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics: The Essential Guide to Powerful Songwriting.


Drew Wilmesherr is a Top 40 Mashup of West Virginia and Mississippi. He was designed and made in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s made of collard greens, guitar strings, 808 drums and stories about Jesus. He went to Middle-Tennessee State University (go Blue Raiders!), where he studied English and Recording Industry Management. In between classes and projects, he attended the Presbyterian Student Fellowship at MTSU, making lifelong friends, leading worship (the guitars and synthesizers kind), and discovering a passion for ministry and the person of Jesus. He recently graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. And if you get him started on what the future might look and feel like, you have to let the jukebox play the whole song out (he won’t stop talking about it).

Passing the Peace: A Daily Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the passing of the peace. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Heidi Thompson

What does it mean to pass the peace?

What I know is that during Sunday worship, when it is time to pass the peace, I stand and greet those around me with a handshake, a smile, and a phrase that includes “peace.” When my heart is full, this is easy and a real joy to reach out to others with the peace and the love of God. On a day when I am not so full, or I am in a church I have never attended or surrounded by people I do not know, I may hesitate and hope others reach out to me, and feel disappointed if they don’t. I try to remember this when I see others hesitate.

When we pass the peace in worship, we don’t reach out only to those we know or feel comfortable with. We pass the peace to anyone seated near us. Many of us look for those we don’t know, and pass the peace that we may get to know them, and allow them to feel welcomed and connected to our congregation. What if, rather than seeing this as a part of worship on Sunday, we could see passing the peace as how we are in the world?

For me there are two levels for looking at this “simple” worship practice. One level is what actually happens when we reach out to another with a handshake and a smile and the word “peace.” We are making a connection with another; we are weaving the cloth of the church community. There is no greater human need than that of connection and belonging. When we make that effort, when we connect with another, we are doing our sacred work.

The deeper level is what is in our hearts that we communicate in our handshake, our smile, and our words. Are we really passing the peace of Christ?

I am saddened by the divide that is growing in our communities and nation, when I see fear and anger being used to keep us separate and to cast aside so many as having no value. It takes the threads of all of us to address the needs of today’s world. It takes differing viewpoints and an understanding of those we may not agree with. The 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering theme description reminds us that, “Our call is to recognize the value of each thread in all its complexity, each thread’s necessity to God’s design.” And yet, when divisions are deep how do we weave together with those we can barely tolerate?

For me, peace is the key. Jesus taught, “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

I believe that peace is the opposite of fear. And I see fear as the basis of all that is being used to divide and limit us in today’s world. It is the fear we are different and separate and not good enough; and it is the fear that nothing is certain and we will not be okay. I contrast this with what I know of God’s love: that we are more than good enough, for we are the fully loved children of God, and that our needs are, and always will be, met by One who is capable of more than we can imagine. We are not separate; we are one with God, and vitally connected to one another. We know God’s divine peace.

What if everywhere we went, we went with an attitude of passing the peace. If everyone we found ourselves with, whether we knew them or not, whether we felt comfortable with them or not, we would pass the peace in whatever way seemed appropriate – with an extended hand or a hug or a smile, with either spoken or unspoken words, passing on the divine Spirit of peace and love. What if every time we took an extended hand, we in our hearts passed the peace, with love and non-judgment, allowing someone to feel welcome, if only for a moment, in a world that is angry, afraid and divided? Emotions are contagious. Just as fear can spread, so can love and peace.

Is it possible to make passing the peace our way of being in the world? It will take being grounded in our belief in God’s love for us and caring for us, so that we do not fear. And in that place, we will be peace, and our daily practice will be passing the peace and the love of God to all we meet. And this is how we will weave together differing viewpoints and build bridges across the divides.


Heidi Thompson is an elder who worships at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian in Baltimore, MD. For over 30 years Heidi has been a computer software consultant and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University teaching financial modeling. She writes and teaches about the gifts of fear and the dark emotions, and other things that make us uncomfortable.

Confession through a Queer Lens

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the confessional sequence. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Max Hill

As a queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with authenticity.
Not all spaces are safe for full honesty about my identity.

Time home with certain family members just causes stress.

As does living in a seminary community among students with a diversity of theological beliefs about my body, my expression, and those I love.

And so does walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community and not knowing if such a space is one that I can relax in or

if my walls of anxiety are a warning that this isn’t a place where I can be all of who God created me to be.

Photo from Maryland Presbyterian Church Facebook page

So I negotiate.

Not always consciously, but it always happens.

I ask questions about what I need to wear and how I need to perform that day.

Should I paint my nails? Put on makeup?

Those little things that help me to feel like myself – or

is it better to do what’s safer

To wear my boy clothes? To keep my nails and face bare?

And if I do that, do I need to hide the rainbow tattoo on my arm?

This negotiation can be exhausting and draw me away from worship.

So maybe a more meaningful worship is happening amongst those where I don’t have to hide –

my queer family.

I’m lucky to have a queer family of faith.
People that I can go to and it doesn’t occur to me to negotiate outward expression or and put up an internal wall of protection.
People with whom I can just put on “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande and vogue the night away.

The drag queens, butch queens, femme boys, trans persons, and those of nonbinary identity and expression in our churches all negotiate themselves almost to the point of extinction. Not all of us have the strength or opportunity to live authentically in our places of worship.

But what is worship when we hide?

What is confession when we are not giving all of ourselves – when we are not SO honest and authentic that we can feel it in our bones?

The authenticity of queer identity and expression is not the act of confession – because it’s an authenticity that doesn’t hinge on our imperfections.

Queer identity and expression is not an imperfection.

But it’s something our confession can learn from.

In confession we get honest – or we’re supposed to….

We speak together of our failures and admit our faults.
Those of queer identity and nonnormative gender expression know what it means to not always love ourselves. We know how easy it can be to internalize the isolation of not seeing ourselves in the world (or in the pulpit).

Those lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to thrive know what it means to unpack the shame placed on us, to take the harm we inflict on ourselves and lay it down.

And what more is confession than radical authenticity? To be authentic is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to trust and hope for grace.

Confessional vulnerability is exactly what our worship needs. We need to break our liturgy open and examine ourselves.

Because when we do, we can truly experience the grace that Christ shows us.
The grace to dance.

To laugh.

To live.

To be.

Negotiation forces us to examine ourselves deeply.

Examination allows us to know ourselves intimately.

This way, we can harness the strength to accept Christ’s love and grace.

Our confession can learn more about how to know yourself intimately from queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.

We know how to proclaim as Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza do in Paris is Burning, singing, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!”

And we know how to show grace to those that can’t see our authenticity as beautiful.

Thanks be to God.


Max Hill is passionate about relationships, community building, and the intersection of faith and identity. He has recently served as the Student Minister for Contextual Exploration, Community Engagement, and LGBTQ Belonging at Maryland Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore. He has also served as a Student Pastor for LGBTQ Fellowship at Broad Street Ministry and Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Before that, Max was a grant writer and New Worshiping Community founder/facilitator with United Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. Max is in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary.