10 More Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

12If you haven’t read the first post, 12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better, read it here.

So when my wife, Courtenay, and I came up with the first 12 reasons “why being a male pastor is better”, I did not expect my little blog to get shared so widely. Many readers submitted even more reasons in the comments. Some are funny, others are heartbreaking, others will make you shake your head, still others are infuriating. Naming them all is important, otherwise they will continue to be the way of silent privilege for men in the church. You can find all submissions for the list in the comments section of the first post, “12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better”.

Courtenay and I have come up with 10 more. The first 4 are ours. The 5 after that are our favourites compiled from the comments. Number 10 is the biggest reason of all.

1. People will never tell me “how professional” I look in a collar. In public, people are only weirded out because a pastor/priest is near by, not because my gender “doesn’t match” who traditionally wears my uniform.

2. I am never asked to be on larger church committees so that there can be a “representative man”. My role on larger church committees is never to constantly remind the group “him, he, his” are pronouns that apply to pastors too.

3, I get invited to the men’s breakfast AND the ladies’ bible study. No one thinks it is weird for me to show up at the men’s breakfast because of my gender, and it is also not weird that I lead the ladies’ bible study. Weird.

4. I can write blog posts on ‘women in ministry’ and even the nay-sayers are fairly respectful in the comments. The best part is that my thoughts about a gender, which I have no experience being and struggle to understand most days, is considered more authoritative.

From the comments on the first post. (some of have been edited or re-written to fit the style of the list)

5. My style, wardrobe or clothing are not up for public judgement. My clergy shirts by default, do not look like a woman’s blouse that I am trying to hide my maleness under. I will never get more comments about my shoes, my hair, my nails, or my makeup than comments on my sermon on any given Sunday. How I dress has never been an item for discussion by a church committee. In fact, my physical body is not the first thing used to describe me when my parishioners talk about who I am with their friends. No one tells me I have ‘nice legs’.   – Nadia Bolz Weber, Amanda Zentz-Alo, Wendy

6. No one expects me to cook or bake. I am not expected to provide cakes or cookies for the bake sale, or salad for a funeral dinner or potluck. If I do supply a dish for a church event, it is OK for me to pick up something at the store instead of making it myself. Most people don’t expect me to be a good cook just because of my gender.  – Dixie Anders, Rev Lisa Jo, Sandy

7. No one treats me like I am not well read, less intelligent or not as professional simply because of my gender. No one questions my scholarship or intellect – “Does the Bible really say that?” “Where did you read that?” – because a man would not know these things as well as other genders might. –  David Corliss

8. It is tolerated, even thought acceptable, for me to show anger. I am not prevented from being direct and passionate in the pulpit because it is unlike my gender. I can disagree with people or call out bad behaviour without being dismissed as divisive or emotional. – David Corliss

9. Most people won’t judge me publicly about my family life. My parenting skills and work/home-life balance is not publicly questioned simply because my gender is supposed to raise children. Yet, when I show openness to children, I am praised for being nurturing, not simply expected to be. I am not expected to be the Martha Stewart of the parsonage because that should come naturally to me. – Kathleen Lambert

And finally, the biggest reason why being a male pastor is better:

10. No one will ever tell me that, because of my gender, God will not call me into ordained/pastoral ministry. I am not excluded from any role in the church, simply because a biological coin toss gave me certain plumbing. I will never be told that my gender is the cause of all sin and therefore I can’t even teach the other. My gender doesn’t relegate me to “silence” in church or “submission” in the home. I will never be told that the Bible “clearly” explains (when it doesn’t) that I can’t be a pastor simply because it “says so”.

This, of course, is the ultimate in male privilege in the church. And this last one is the most aggravating for me. For liberal and progressive Christians, this is one of the ‘big elephants’ in the church. Except that, I see myself as liberal, progressive AND orthodox AND apostolic AND in keeping with the tradition of the church. Because radical equality is the theology of Jesus and Paul. Patriarchy is 1st century cultural baggage…  baggage that men still force women to carry 20 centuries later. For church leaders who claim that the bible prevents women from being pastors – it is a convenient way to exercise control and conserve power.

But institutionalized patriarchy is not faithful to the over-arching theology of the New Testament. It is not faithful to the way Christians have understood how we interpret scripture as a community and with our greatest theologians including Thecla, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, and now Pope Francis. It is not faithful to the witness of Sarah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Junia, Phoebe and all the others who preached the good news.

For those who want to keep women out of the pulpit, it isn’t about being faithful – it is about the fact that being a male pastor is “better”.

For more on women in ministry check out – 12 Years a Slave – Why Women should be Equal in the Church

So what do you think? What points still could be added to the list? Share in the comments!

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12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

priestA few days ago I wrote about the issue of women in ministry. While I don’t think I have ever hidden my views on the topic (I married a female colleague, after all), I also have never written about it on the various blogs I have maintained over the last few years. And maybe recently, I didn’t see it as my place to comment on women in ministry. I am still not sure… I don’t see it as my place to comment on anyone’s “right” or “place” to be a pastor. If anything, I think it is my place to talk about my experience of being a Lutheran pastor or a millennial pastor or a Canadian pastor. It is also to my place to talk about being a male pastor.

So let’s talk about that.

Being a male pastor is kind of like Louis C.K.’s description of “Being White”. (Warning: The video contains offensive language).

Like Louis C.K. says, male pastors aren’t better. But being a male pastor is clearly better.

Like all the advantages of being white and male in North America, there are advantages when it comes to being an ordained pastor. Here are some of the obvious ones:

  1. No one ever defines my ministry by my gender. No one says, “wow a male pastor or a man in ministry, good for you.” I always get to be just a pastor. I don’t have to constantly live with a qualifier in front of “pastor”, and I am not forced to bear someone’s inappropriate shock that I am my gender and I am a pastor.
  2. People expect me to be direct and tell them what I think. They want me to lead them somewhere. I am rarely challenged or expected to defend or make a case for my ideas. I don’t have to apologize for having strong opinions or constantly defend my ideas.
  3. People think twice about fighting with me. I always have a leg up in conflict, bullies find it harder to push my buttons because I have fewer to push. I am never automatically second class because of my gender, so conflict is on equal terms or tipped in my favour. I don’t have to suffer being called “boy” or “son” as way of dismissing my point of view, and I am not accused of being divisive if I disagree with something or anything.
  4. People are used to pastors of my gender. There are no congregations that are unsure of male candidates for ministry, no parishioners who think it is alright to say something like, “I will never be buried by a man.” I don’t have to endure questions about whether I will take paternity leave, or what will happen when I have kids.
  5. People almost never assume that I have a particular gift for ministry before they know me. They don’t automatically think that my gender is suited to particular areas of ministry like preaching or administration. No one assumes that I am not good at pastoral care or being nurturing. People don’t say that I have the gift of speaking with a voice that men can relate to.
  6. I don’t have to worry about my safety. I don’t think twice about being alone in the church or if I am safe on my own. If a man asks to meet with me one on one, I don’t have to question my physical safety or his motives. Men don’t try to share the peace with me by hugging me (or grabbing my ass).
  7. No one assumes that I am the church secretary or the pastor’s spouse. I am never told, “You don’t look like a pastor or you are took young to be a pastor” even thought I am built like a football player and at times have had long hair and a beard like a hell’s angel. And I have a tattoo. And I am 30 (two decades younger than the average age of pastors in our denomination).
  8. Churches are built for men. Pulpits, altars, pastor chairs, vestments are all designed my size and body type in mind. I don’t look ridiculous because the standard garb of my profession is made for my gender, and I don’t look like a cross dresser in a clergy shirt.
  9. All the pronouns are for my gender. God is a he. Jesus is a he. Pastors are almost always referred to as he or him or his. I don’t have to correct people because they never use the wrong pronoun to refer to me.
  10. Being male is the norm in the church. I didn’t have to take classes in seminary about men’s issues, there is no post-modern male theology, male pastors where never brought in to speak about being male pastors as if it was special or odd or a novelty.
  11. I could join the Old Boys Club if I wanted to. Leadership in the church is still overwhelmingly male, and there are no glass ceilings for male pastors in the church. No one pretends it is, “all in good fun” to make sexist jokes about my gender, and none of my colleagues treats me like I am second class because of my gender.
  12. I don’t have to walk on egg shells in ecumenical situations. I don’t have to justify my position and call to my conservative colleagues, because they all have male pastors in their denominations. I am not an oddity or the token male at ministerial events.

All the advantages of being a male pastor are only advantages because women suffer the opposite. So many of my colleagues have to contend with these annoyances, insults, and frustrations each day because they are the reality of life in the church. This fact makes me very angry. I pray for the day when these will not be male-pastor advantages, but the reality for all pastors, regardless of gender.

*** Special thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for helping me write this post, since she knows much more about the struggles women in ministry face than I do. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker ***

Read a Christmas Post here:

I am at War with Christmas

See some more posts:

Putting My Jesus Feminism to the Test

10 More Reasons Why Male Pastors are Better,

So what do you think? Are these true? Are there more advantages to being a male pastor? Share in the comments.

Follow me on Twitter: @ParkerErik

A young male pastor’s thoughts on women in ministry: What is the problem?

WomenPreach2So in my routine, daily internet rounds, I am often on the lookout for articles, blog posts or news stories on the church, ministry, millennials, leadership, social justice, theology, Jesus… basically anything faith related. And lately, I have come across blog posts by women about the role of women in the church. Quite a few blog posts, in fact. This comes on the heals of a book written and published, recently, by my fellow Lutheran pastor and colleague, Nadia Bolz-Weber called: “Pastrix”… a pejorative term for a female pastor. Apparently some Christians don’t like the idea of women being pastors, or preaching in church, or teaching boys over the age of 12 or really doing much else than serving the potlucks. How 1750 of them.

All I can say is… What the hell? Did I miss something?

The idea of “Complementarianism” has come up over and over. As far as I can tell, this is basically a nice word for, institutionalized and indoctrinated, patriarchy. Here are some excellent articles on the topic (written by three women who would be fantastic pastors in orthodox and mainline denominations):

Now, I understand the history of patriarchy. I understand the biblical argument for the “submission” of women (a tenuous argument at best). I have studied the scholarship, the greek and the history of the Bible and Church – a couple of theology degrees worth.  And ultimately, the evidence shows that patriarchy is contextual, cultural baggage. It is not Christ’s design for the church. It is sad that it has taken centuries to figure this out.

Women in ministry my whole life

When I started my Bachelor’s History and Theology degree in 2001 and my seminary MDiv in 2005, I knew that Rome didn’t ordain woman. And I knew those other Lutherans called the Missouri Synod didn’t either. And I knew that some other brands of Christians, called Evangelicals, ordained women and some didn’t.

But my kind of Lutheran had been ordaining women since before I was born. We elected women bishops more than decade ago. One of my friends growing up was confirmed by his Anglican Bishop – a woman. I met United Church of Canada women who were pastors. My Roman Catholic theology professors felt that the ordination of women was on its way to Rome… but it might take a few decades – which is fast for Rome. There were even some wacky Baptist and Pentecostal kids in high school who had women as pastors. For my whole life, as far as I could tell, women in ministry was a completely normal and unquestioned  part of being a Christian. This made complete sense to me.

Not to mention that my grandfather was a pastor, and my great-uncle the Evangelical Lutheran Church Canada president (read: National Bishop) for 15 years starting in 1970. They were the ones that introduced women’s ordination. To me this was hearing about TV or airplanes being first introduced. This was history… not an issue for debate.

Wow. Was I wrong.

For some reason we still have problems with women’s ordination

I remember sitting in a seminary class, where 3 seasoned female pastors were invited to tell us about their experience in ministry. They told us about parishioners struggling with the idea of a woman being their pastor. They talked about condescending comments, bad behaviour, and people having trouble with change.

Hearing their stories made me so mad. I wanted to go back to their churches with them and take these offending parishioners out behind the church to let them know what I really thought of their behaviour. I knew it was of course not a real solution, but it is what I felt. So if people (usually older) having trouble adjusting women pastors was the worst of it… I could begrudgingly accept, and work to change, this reality.

Now, nearly 5 years into ministry, I am now married to a seminary classmate – also a pastor. Whenever I hear about her parishioners treating her with any less than the respect and deference that I can unthinkingly expect as a male, it makes me insane. In fact, when I hear stories I have to work hard to keep myself from wanting to intervene with a few choice words for her badly behaving church members. I know this isn’t the solution. I know that she has to fight her own battles.

But I also know that as a male pastor I have to hold my congregation, my colleagues and all Christians to a higher standard of theology, ecclesiology, biblical scholarship and basic human decency. I, also, have to expect the same from my male pastoral colleagues.

A responsible view of women in ministry

Sarah Bessey, who I mentioned above, has a crowd-sourced project called #Jesusfeminist. She invites people to come out as Jesus feminists. Well, I will certainly come out as Jesus Feminist. And I think it is a noble attempt to claim space for women in ministry. I laud theses evangelical women who are making the case that there is room for women to take on leadership roles in their churches, especially pastoral roles.

But I don’t think making space, for women in the church, is enough. That position implies the old patriarchal model is acceptable.

Well, I disagree.

So I am pulling a Stephen Colbert and putting a few people on notice.

If you are Christian and you think the bible says women can’t be pastors, you have been mislead.

If you are a pastor and you are telling women to go back to abusive husbands, you should resign your call.

If you are a husband and you use the bible to keep your wife in line or to make her obey you, you are a sad man.

If you are a teacher of matters of the church or theology, and you take the “complementarian” view, you are not reading the bible seriously. You are not reading Paul right, you don’t really know what the New Testament is about and you are not listening to Jesus.

And guess what… I didn’t miss anything.

So what do you think of women in ministry? Am I taking too harsh a stand? Share in the comments. 

Want to kill your church? Start a program!

fail-poster-i6ru6okjjf-SUNDAY-SCHOOL

What do programs do anyways?

Every Church I know wants to teach faith to their members, and often struggle to figure out what that looks like. But I am sure that most of us would agree that these things probably don’t work:

  • preventing people from attending worship
  • dumbing down faith into perverse moralisms
  • having ill-equipped leaders lead
  • providing an experience that doesn’t reflect the vast majority of life in the community of the church
  • segregating  members until they are deemed worthy of being a part of the rest of the community

But this is exactly how the most widespread program in churches operates – Sunday School. We just don’t think about what Sunday School is actually doing, and how it is often doing the exact opposite of what we think it is doing. Sunday School is just one of many dreaded “programs” that we use as churches and it is killing us.

Church as Corporation

Churches and Church institutions have been adopting the structures and behaviours of secular organizations for a long time… maybe since the 4th century when Constantine put Christianity in charge of his empire.

In the 20th century and into the 21st century, churches are looking more and more like corporations than ever. Pastors and Bishops are being treated like CEOs. CEOs of companies that don’t pay well and expect a lot. Council meetings are more and more business oriented than community and vision oriented. And it is not surprising. Our North American world is becoming more “corporatized” everywhere we turn.

Besides constitutions, bylaws, policies, budgets, goal-achievment-strategies… the “program” is probably the most pervasive corporate strategy to infect churches. Programs have become the most important thing that many churches think they are doing. We have programs for everything: Sunday School programs, youth programs, young adult programs, young families programs, women’s programs, men’s programs, seniors programs, worship programs, bible study programs, soup kitchen programs, confirmation programs, evangelism programs, volunteer programs, stewardship programs, maintenance programs, VBS programs, music programs, singles, programs, couples programs, AA/NA programs, seeker/new christian programs, and so on…

So here is the thing about programs. They don’t work.

Programs Don’t Work – Communities Do

Programs are for communities that have forgotten how to be communities. Programs satisfy our deep fears about being sufficient on our own to “attract” people to church. I have heard the question so often, “What can we do to (fill in the blank, get the youth back, have a worship band, build a Sunday School, reach out to young families, work with seniors, serve the homeless etc…)?” And the real question being asked is, “What can do we do to avoid the real issue of why we have forgotten how to be a diverse community of real relationships?

Programs seem like silver bullets or magic wands that will solve our problems. But really programs are the best at helping us to avoid being a real community. Programs, literally, give us words to say instead of our own. The map out our activity, our time, or goals and objectives. Only communities that have forgotten how to be real communities need that kind of help.

Programs need to be viewed as what they really are. Crutches for community. Communities that can’t walk on their own use crutches… but only until they are walking again. If we keep using the crutches, we will never walk.

Churches and church leaders should be deciding on their own what the vision, value and goals for community are. We should map out our own activities, time and objectives. We should speak our own words, the words passed on in faith through scripture and the timeless Body of Christ to each other. We need to speak with words specific to our context, our time and place. Programs are killing our community much more often than they are helping us to be a community. So let’s give them up.

Do I mean that churches need to stop doing all those things I listed above? No. But programs don’t teach our faith or serve the poor or “attract” youth to church or help different generations integrate or deepen our relationship with God and others.

Let’s Be a Community

Instead, let’s be churches or communities that teach each other faith and learn together. Let’s serve our neighbour together. Let’s help our young find their place among us together. Let’s grow in faith as we worship and share in fellowship together. Oddly enough doing these things as community might look a lot like a program. And if we do these things well as a community together, other communities might look at us and say, “hey, you guys are doing that well, tell us how” and that is how programs are often started.

Yet, doing these things together as a community means that we are figuring out how it will work – and work here. It means thinking about our people, not any people. It means planning what things will look like here. And we will start looking more and more like a real community that doesn’t need crutches. Because here is the thing about crutches… Jesus didn’t like them. Jesus just created a community that did stuff together… no program required.

One last thing.

Why programs need to die

A word about programs and generations, this blog is called “The Millennial Pastor”, after all.

Programs are a very post-WWII phenomenon. The G.I. generation started all kinds of programs for their kids. Sunday Schools, youth groups, choirs, service clubs, couples groups, singles groups, mom groups, ladies’ groups, etc… And many congregations have a hard time giving up these programs. Soup kitchens, women’s groups, Sunday Schools often have elderly people driving them and doing the work. As often as I am asked the question, “How do we get the young people back?” it is followed by, “They need to come and do their part around here”. Churches and long time members expect their kids and grandkids to come and carry on with the church. Not just carry-on in faith, or gathering for worship, but carry-on the Sunday School, the ladies’ group, the property care, the volunteer programs, the choirs (and their music), the committees and the the financial burden.

But the G.I.’s and the Boomers forget that they had the privilege of founding churches, starting programs from the ground and enshrining their passions in the bylaws of the congregation. These pet projects might have to die for the church to survive. Disbanding Sunday School isn’t a failure, it the realization that something needs to die for something new to start to grow.

So want to kill your church? Start a program or, even better, keep with the ones that aren’t working. Want to see new life in unexpected places? Start killing programs.

What do you think? Are programs bad for churches? Or do we need them? Share in the comments. 

Christians are not good at asking, “why?”

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First off, if you are looking for more reading on Millennials there is a lot out there. If you are looking for some of the ones I find most interesting, click on “Articles on Generations” in the tabs above. 

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Questions are bad

Sometimes I forget that most Christians, most people even, think that questioning something is disrespectful or aggressive on the one hand, or a sign of weakness on the other. We have all been in group situations either at school, work or in the community where a leader, teacher or presenter asks if there are questions in regards to the topic being presented. Often no one does. And it is not because the material has been presented so well that there are no questions, but no one wants to sound like they don’t understand something or don’t know what is going on.

Well, in the Church and among Christians we take this idea to a new level.  In my experience, most Church members really don’t want to appear like they have faith related questions. Worse yet, when they do know something about the bible or faith doesn’t seem to make sense, many believe that questioning it might cause them to lose their faith. Often when I do pre-baptismal visits with families who are bringing their child to be baptized (too many times because grandparents want them to, not because they are active church folk) they end up asking questions about the Bible and God and the Church. Usually I am told that grandma and grandpa, other older relatives, previous pastors or other church folk have to told them not to ask questions – just “accept it on faith”.

A new generation asks why?

In an article I recently read on Hiring Millennials for tech startups, it suggests that Millennials are more likely to ask “why?” than previous generations, and therefore more valuable in helping companies finding focus and direction. I have no idea if this is true or even measurable, but some of my experience supports this claim.

As a strong ENTJ on the MBTI, my deep need and compulsion to ask “why?” may very well be a personality trait more than a generational trait. However, my need to ask “why?” is precisely why I am still a Christian. The fact that I asked “why?” and questioned my faith is at the foundation of why I became a pastor.

Even from a young age I had the feeling (or idea) that the Bible didn’t always make sense. As a teenager, I knew that things like creation, the flood, jonah and the whale, and many other biblical stories as presented by some fundamentalist church members didn’t jive with science class at school. Fortunately, Lutheran doctrine and a pastor who didn’t want to take a stand on anything, allowed the rest of us in my home congregation to feel like it was okay to be members and not buy into the literalism stuff.

But still, I could feel the questions beginning to stack up when it came to the bible and faith by the time I was finishing high school. I had great youth leaders who were introducing us to all sorts of ideas like helping the poor, the effects of poverty and our systems of wealth that enable it. They were one of the important pieces that kept me in church. I also stayed connected by being involved with music in worship, going to the Lutheran Student Movement in university, and working at Bible Camps in my summers.  My family was great, they left my questions room to be asked, even when my parents didn’t have the answers.

Questioning the questions

University was sometimes a struggle to keep up my faith. It seemed very ‘in vogue’ in 2001 for historians, political scientists and other liberal arts profs to dump on Christianity and the Bible. And if I hadn’t been fortunate to grow up in a church and family that was steeped in scripture, I might have believed their criticisms. But as much as my questions were stacking up in regard to the contradictions in the bible and contradictions in the church, the criticisms weren’t making sense either. I was taking history and religious studies, and I could tell that I wasn’t getting the whole picture. I would feel sick as profs described Christianity, not because my beliefs were being questioned, but because a fundamentalist Christianity, that wasn’t the faith I knew, was being questioned.

I soon became tired of religious studies and searched the course catalogue for something that I wanted to take, something about faith. And then I stumbled onto the small Roman Catholic faculty of theology at the University of Alberta. Half way through my Bachelor’s degree, I started taking as many classes as I could. Classes from professional theologians (not historians and religious studies profs). Classes on science and religion not science classes that referenced the bible. Classes on Christian doctrine and theology not a social science of Christianity. Classes on real biblical scholarship not English literature that included the bible. Classes on real church history, not history in which the Church was marginally present.

The profs and classes made me feel like I finally had a reference point for my questions. It was like they gave me the box with picture on it of the puzzle I had been working on. I finally knew what I image I was putting together.

Theology became a serious discipline. Biblical studies finally showed me a hermeneutic that made sense. Church history filled in gaps of the secular history I had been studying. But most importantly, no question was disallowed. Everything was on the table. And the questions we couldn’t answer, like “does God exist?”, were given a framework to know why we couldn’t answer them.

My last two years on my undergraduate degree were like the last half of a Survivor puzzle, everything was coming together faster and faster.

Questioning Faith

Add a Master of Divinity and 4+ years in the parish, and I know that I don’t have all answers, I never wanted them. What I do have is the tools to ask the best questions and then make my way through them… which usually leads to more questions.

What makes me so sad is meeting people my age who are only loosely connected to their faith because their questions were shut down. They were told to fall inline and stop causing trouble by questioning the bible, the church, faith. I don’t know if that tactic really ever works, but I think Millennials have wanted to ask “why?” more than our parents. I think it is growing up in a world where we have been bombarded with media, marketing and sound bytes. I want something deeper, something with meat. Something that has room for questions.

Ask Us Anything

The Church has led the way in the “Don’t question us” department for decades. Maybe one of the things politicians and corporations have learned from us is that it is a lot easier to suppress questions than it is to answer them.

Maybe it is time for the Church to lead the way in “Ask us anything” department for a while. Maybe some of my Millennial peers might find getting the chance to ask “why?” is a compelling reason to try church.

Just remember, “just accept it on faith” is always a bad answer.
“I don’t know, so let’s find out together” is always a good one.

If we are serious as about sharing our faith, it is time for the church to allow room for a lot of “why?” questions. Everything has to be on the table… and it is not just Millennials who need to have some “why?” conversations – we all do.

A Sermon for the riff raff and huddled masses of the Saints

m.5111_all-saints-dayLuke 6:20-31

Sermon

Each year on November 1st, All Saints Day, St. David’s would hold a short service in the cemetery for those who had died. Father Angelo would meet, usually, a dozen members at the gate and they would sing, pray and share in the Lord’s supper in the cemetery as a reminder that we are always connected in worship to the whole Body of Christ, alive and dead.

This year, the new young assistant priest, Father Michael, decided he would hold a youth event the night before. An All Saints Eve or Halloween Vigil. The youth and young adults would gather in the cemetery to play games, eat candy, sing songs, and keep vigil through the Eve of All Saints Day. They wold pitch tents, camp out and join with All Saints worship in the morning.

As the Halloween Vigil was announced in the weeks prior, many members came to Father Angelo, voicing their concern that such and event would be ‘disrespectful’. And Father Angelo always encouraged them to be patient and see how things would go.

(Pause)

All Saints Day is an important day for Christians throughout the centuries. It has been a day of prayer to remember the saints and pray for those who have died. All Saints Day is even transferred to Sunday when it is on another day of the week so that we can all observe the occasion.

All Saints Sunday is a herald of the closing year and the coming of Advent. In only two weeks, comes Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of this church year. And so in this regard, All Saints takes us to places of beginnings and ends, birth and old age, life and death.

So perhaps it is worth asking, what exactly is a saint?

A saint is someone who is holy and blessed right?

Well that has something to do with the sermon that Jesus is preaching today. It is the familiar sermon on the plain or Beatitudes. However, not to be confused with Matthew’s more spiritual version of the sermon on the mount. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, where as today in Luke, Jesus simply says, Blessed are the poor”.

As Jesus announces blessings, he names conditions that don’t seem like blessings. Poverty, hunger, weeping, hatred. We can try to feel poor, and hope that in a room full of middle class Canadians we are poor enough to be blessed. But imagine if we were at the soup kitchen or mental hospital. Could we really hope that we are poor enough, hungry enough, weeping enough, hated enough to receive the blessing?

Normally we think of blessings as good things. Wealth and health mostly. But Jesus blesses the opposite. And Jesus curses conditions we consider blessings. Being rich, being full, laughter, being well liked.

As Lutherans we say we are sinners and saints, but Jesus is pretty clear. Maybe we are more sinner and less saint.

(Pause)

On All Saints morning, members of the congregation gathered at the front gate of the cemetery. They could see the youth and young adults scurrying about, getting cleaned up and ready for worship. Father Angelo arrived. He sensed the discomfort among the members gathered. Many who came for All Saints worship had loved ones buried in the cemetery. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People were whispering to each other and pointing into the cemetery. They seemed agitated. Father Angelo was suddenly worried, maybe the Halloween Vigil wasn’t a good idea after all. It was time to begin, so he led the procession to where the youth and young adults were waiting.

(Pause)

It is easy for us to get wrapped up in who is blessed and who is cursed, who is a saint and who is a sinner. We like these neat categories, they allow us to define and control the world around us. We can justify ourselves and pass judgement others.

 

But Jesus is not interested in our categories. Jesus wants to muddy the waters. Jesus wants to upset and overturn our nice and neat boxes.

 

Blessed are the poor

Cursed are the rich

Blessed are the hungry

Cursed are the full

Blessed are those who weep

Cursed are those who laugh

Blessed are the hated

Cursed are the well liked.

 

And if today were just about the beatitudes, it would be enough to say that Jesus redefines blessings and curses. But today is All Saints day and we are forced look at the mortality, the death of loved ones and our own death. And so we expand these blessings and curses to include life and death.

 

On All Saints we might add another set of blessings and curses to the sermon on the plain.

 

Cursed are the living, for they will face death head on.

Blessed are the dead, for they will be given New Life.

 

We add this set of blessings and curses because that is what All Saints day is about. The Messiness of death and the messiness of life. Today, we are reminded that God likes to mess with the categories, and where we can only see the clear distinctions of life or death, of being dead or alive, Jesus sees both. Jesus says we are both. Sinners and Saints. Both dead and alive.

 

(Pause)

 

As Father Angelo led the group of worshippers through the cemetery, they began to notice just what the youth had been up to. There was a small candle on every headstone, flickering in the early morning sun. And some headstones, there were notes. Notes that said things like, “Thanks for taking care of our church. Or thanks for letting us stay the night. Or thanks for sharing your faith with us”. Some had art work, others had flowers. The worshippers looked all around as they made their way to the place of worship.

 

The youth had set out folding chairs and prepared a table for communion. They were waiting with blankets and hymnals. As the group finally met the youth, Father Angelo was worried the worshippers would be upset. He held his breath.

 

One woman, whose husband had died just six months before marched straight up to the nearest youth she saw. Father Angelo could see a conflict about to erupt. Instead the woman wrapped her arms around the unsuspecting girl and said,

 

“That was the first night my husband hasn’t been alone since he died. Thank you. Will you stay with me one night when I am gone”.

 

The girl didn’t know what to say, but Father Angelo simply smiled to himself.

 

(Pause)

 

Jesus’ sermon about blessings and curses do more than overturn our categories. On All Saints Sunday the sermon reminds us what the Kingdom of God, what the company of saints truly look like. It is not an uniform group of holy and blessed people. But rather a diverse, rag tag, group of misfits and sinners. A group of people who wouldn’t otherwise be lumped together.

 

Today we remember those who had died, and Jesus turns that category on its head too. God proclaims that we, the living, are dead from the moment we come into this world. We are on our way to death, and in the waters of baptism we are drowned to sin. But in Christ, who is the first of the resurrection, God declares that the dead will be raised to new life. God declares that we, even though dead, are alive.

 

And on this All Saints Sunday, as the categories of blessed and curse, of sinner and saint, of dead and alive are muddied and confused, Jesus makes clear that we are all a part of the One Body of Christ, which is not limited by time or space, and nor by life or death. And so today, we may remember the saints in prayer, but it is God who gathers us together with them into the worship of the heavenly hosts. And as it happens each Sunday, the veil between us and them, between earth and heaven, between creation and God, is a little thinner.

 

This is what the radical sermon on the plain is all about, and this is why we hear it today on All Saints day. As we are faced with the categories of sinner and saint, of dead and alive, God is breaking down those barriers. God is reminding us that the difference between cursed and blessed is not as vast as we think. That life and death are not the great chasm we imagine. That sinners and saints don’t go to opposite places, but rather we are made one in Christ. Christ who brings us all into the One Body. Into One Body that worships together, prays together and cares for each other across boundaries that seem unbreakable to us, but are easily set aside by God.

Amen

So… what really does make for good worship? It is not what you think.

allsaintsorthodoxchurch3Christian worship can be a vague and nebulous experience. Worship planners and leaders undertake the Herculean task of facilitating worship that works for people who need concrete experience to be engaged, people who need mystery to feel connected, people who need emotion to feel included, people who need things to make sense and words to be carefully chosen to participate.

Worship wars over style, content, music, leadership erupt all over the place. If you spend any amount of time close to the worship planning systems of a congregation, you will know that it is one of the most volatile, sensitive, political, emotional parts of being a church. Everyone has a opinion and preference when it comes to worship. Christians fight over music, style, liturgy, non-liturgy, sacraments, preaching, musicians, leadership, prayers, planning or anything else imaginable when it comes to worship.

And in my experience most people making their way to church on Sunday mornings, and especially those involved in planning and leading, miss the point of what makes good worship. We get so taken up by personal preference and opinion that we forget why we are worshipping in the first place.

And if anyone says, “Worship is to glorify God” that is code language for “My preferences and opinions are next to divine”. God is not so narcissistic that our worship needs to be constant praise and adoration of the divine. Worship is so much deeper than that. Worship is a much more tangled mess of interaction between human beings and God. 

So what makes for good worship?

Indulge me for a moment:

Imagine yourself caught up in a big crowd, jostling, movie along, being pulled to an unknown and unseen destitution. It is a hot summer day, yet people are relaxed and easy going. Simmering underneath is a sense of excitement among this big, big crowd. Finally, you stop moving and there are people as far as you can see in all directions.

The event you have been waiting for all afternoon finally begins. And you hear a voice projected over loud-speakers across the wide-open outdoor space. And unexpectedly the voice is not really that exciting to listen to “I am happy to join with you today…”. The voice continues, but all you can feel is the glare of the sun, bodies breathing, sweating, moving, twitching, coughing all around you. It is hot and bright and uncomfortable. You are not engaged with what you have come to be engaged with.

And then you hear this, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…” and suddenly you no longer standing in the hot, sweaty crowd a the Lincoln Memorial, but you are on the red hills of Georgia. And then you are in the sweltering humid heat of Mississippi. And then you are in Alabama, surrounded by little children, of all skin tones and races, playing together.

Most people don’t know this, but the first 3 and half pages of the I have a Dream speech were… well… not as memorable as the last 2 pages. It wasn’t until Martin Luther King Jr. left his script and preached a sermon he knew well that the crowd actually was taken up by his words.

The speech was a defining moment for the civil rights movement. But the transition in the speech from delivering an address to preaching a sermon is an example of two aspects of Christian worship.

Two sides of the same coin that pastors, worship planners and leaders struggle to achieve, and find hard to grasp. The first part of the speech shows worship just “not really working” and the second part is worship at its best.

Think back to my description of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Or imagine reading your favourite book, or seeing a great movie, or going for a great run/walk, or listening to fantastic music. All of these things make you forget you are doing them, while are you doing them. You get lost in the content, lost in the world that they create. You forget you are watching actors on a screen, forget you are reading an author’s words on a page, forget you are out putting one foot in front of the other for exercise, forget that musicians are making sounds with instruments. You start watching stories and characters and worlds come to life, sound and movement transport you to a place different than the one you are in.

Worship at its best makes us forget we are watching a pastor leading liturgy, or hearing an organist hits keys on an organ, or hear a member read words from a book. We are transported into the ever flowing worship of the saints. We are taken into the story of God’s people and we become characters who have a role, not audiences watching actors.

And how do you know you are there? Only when you are rudely jolted back to reality. It is that loud cougher that reminds you that you are in the theatre. It is eye strain that reminds you that you are reading a book. It is fatigue that reminds you that you are out for exercise. It is a wrong note or cramped leg that reminds you that you are watching an orchestra in a concert hall.

It is so hard to know what about worship will pull us out of our grounded self awareness and into that new world. But it is easy to identify the things that pull us back to reality. The running commentary by the pastor between prayers and hymns. Interrupted flow by the worship leader getting lost. The organist missing a cue or starting some liturgical music part way through a prayer. The band leader deciding to give a short mini-sermon after the sermon to fix what the pastor said. A children’s message gone horribly wrong. A reader who misreads ‘sexual immorality’ for ‘sexual immortality’.

Now this is the part where I tell you that I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to plan or lead worship that will feel like we are all watching our favourite movie for the first time, or like we are getting lost in a great book, or like we are going for that run where our body just moves effortlessly.

I have some suspicions of how to get there. It means getting out of the way as planners and leaders. It means dropping the commentary about worship while you are in worship. It means being deeply concerned with and aware of movement and flow, and knowing that worship is not a to do list, but a story that has a beginning, middle, climax and end. It is knowing that ‘Worship is to glorify God’ in the sense that when the Body of Christ gathers, we are taken into the story of God and God’s people, and the biblical narrative shapes us and becomes our story. It means being relaxed about the music styles that we use, being okay with many people participating even if they aren’t perfect, being joyful that the Body of Christ has another chance to gather this week and getting it right means simply being together.

All I can say is, enjoy the moments when you are lost in the worship of the saints, and pay attention to what jolts you away and snaps you back to that almost crushing awareness of yourself and the world immediately around you. And remember the best movies, best books, best music, best art are the best not because they are a certain style or only 60 minutes long. Nor the best because of who created it or because of the instruments that were used. They are the best because they draw us into their new worlds, even if for a moment. Just as God draws us into God’s world each week when we gather for worship.

So… what really does make for good worship? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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