Part 2 of 3
Acts 6:1-7 is about cultural conflictBut the story is not just about providing food for another person; it is about caring for someone from another culture. Hansung Kim in “Rereading Acts 6:1-7” and Justo L. Gonzalez in “Reading from my bicultural place: Acts 6:1-7” focus their interpretation on the cultural clash between the Hebrew leadership and the Hellenists. Kim suggests this story is the church’s first struggle with intercultural conflict (Kim 57). He finds it interesting that biblical scholars are thinking of the administrative issues, while mission scholars are focusing on what is a cultural and political conflict (Kim 58). Gonzalez identifies his Cuban heritage, and Spanish accent as fundamental to his reading and understanding of this scripture (Gonzalez 140).
From a cultural standpoint Kim notes that the Hellenists and Hebrews may have had different rituals and the Hellenists may have been denied table fellowship because of that (Kim 59). While the Hebrews would know Greek, the language of the empire, the Hellenists would not know Aramaic, the local language (Kim 58). Gonzalez suggests “[t]he Hellenists are looked upon with suspicion by many of the more orthodox Jews. Their faith and religious practices may not be entirely orthodox” (Gonzalez 142). Kim notices “the Hebrews were likely to have greater access to the decision-making process than the Hellenists” (Kim 60). The result was unequal treatment. In Kim’s experience Western missionaries generally speak the organizational language as a first language, know the decision making ins and outs, and engage in organizations that are designed around western cultural sensibilities (Kim 60). Similarly Gonzalez notes that even today churches create structures that unintentionally block access to people of different cultures than that of those in power (Gonzalez 141). The selection of Matthias in Acts 2—and the rule that the new apostle must have known Jesus—limited the twelve to only Hebrews (Gonzalez 143). And yet the twelve were Galilean—outsiders to the Jerusalem community—that may have made them more understanding of the Hellenist’s complaint (Gonzalez 143).
Gonzalez is impressed that the early church did not put a token minority into a position of authority, but rather changed the structure of the leadership, with the seven now in charge of all the resources of the growing church, a position that is administrative, but with great authority (Gonzalez 144). Still more remarkable, these seven administrators are then filled with the Holy Spirit to become significant preachers of the word (Gonzalez 145). Kim is equally empowered, finding the story will lead members to speak out and encouraging leaders to make a space for people from other cultures to speak (Kim 61). He notes that this will require people with authority to recognize what they don’t know about other cultures and that the right response to grievances is to change the systems (Kim 61). Kim argues this text calls for existing leadership to recognize and listen to other cultural voices, and make a place for leadership alongside, rather than under, the western leadership (Kim 62). Read as a story of cultural clash, Acts 6:1-6 suggests that the people who have been neglected must be part of the resolution, not simply allocated an equal share of the resources, but also encouraged to be part of the leadership. In the cultural divide between people who have enough food, and those who need more food, the response that Acts 6:1-6 offers is to put the people who need food in charge.
Kim, Hansung “Rereading Acts 6:1-7: Lessons for multicultural mission organizations” in Evangelical Mission Quarterly January 2009 Vol 45, no. 1 pp 56-63.
Gonzalez, Justo L., “Readings from my bicultural place: Acts 6:1-7”, in Reading from this Place Vol 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
 While traditionally this pericope goes through verse 6, both Kim and Gonzalez include verse 7 which describes the continued growth of the community.
Part 1 of 3.
Unlike Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 6:1-6 is not at the tip of anyone’s tongue when discussing charity, although it may be a story of early church food ministry at its best—and of course at it’s worst. In the midst of adding more and more followers, a group of widows have been neglected perhaps in the rotation to serve, perhaps in receiving charitable handouts. The whole church is gathered around this challenge. New leadership is recognized and in the verse after this pericope, the church continues to grow.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6 NRSV).
More recent scholarship on this text falls into three broad categories. Feminists engage the widows themselves, and wonders if widow necessarily means poor. Post-colonial scholarship identifies this as a story about the interaction of two cultures. Reta Halteman Finger and Andrew McGowan focus on the way this text contributes to our understanding of shared meals in the early church. First I’ll provide some of the traditional critical background to Acts and to this story. Most critique suggests this is a transition story intended only to introduce Stephen and other new leaders in the church.
According to Robert Wall in the commentary “The Acts of the Apostles” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Acts was written by the same anonymous author Luke, and addressed to a new or immature believer, Theophilus (Wall 5), to consolidate the diverse membership of the church, to be a Christian apologetic (Wall 8) and to deepen the faith of new believers (Wall 9). It is likely that the writer (who scholars call Luke) was not present for the stories found in Luke and Acts and thus is dependent on stories that were handed down (Wall 13). Of the many theological purposes of Acts, most relevant to this project is to help believer’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to join this community that shares everything in common (Wall 23).
Acts 6 continues the image of sharing material belongings from Acts 2:42-44 (Wall 71) but addresses conflict arising out of the sharing: the widows have been neglected (Wall 112). While Wall identifies that diakonia is translated “distribution” when referring to widows, and “ministry” when referring to the apostles (Wall note 244 p111) he still accepts the traditional reading that the widows have been overlooked in the distribution of charitable handout (Wall 111). While the story is about a break-down in the equal sharing of goods he finds good news in the decision to show solidarity with a full community meeting (Wall 114). Wall defends the apostles by noting that the existing leaders cannot “preach and do bookkeeping at the same time” (Wall 115), although it is hard to see how the criteria in Acts 6:3 (“men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”) could point to bookkeeping. Wall’s argument is that here, and in the pastoral letters, the requirements point to the Greek ideal of choosing leaders based on character rather than skills (Wall 115). It still seems to me that these requirements imply leadership more than simply keeping the books, and at least some of the seven do go on to be church leaders, more than managers of a meals program.
Bruce Malina and John Pilch in Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts suggest that the purpose of Acts 6:1-6 is to introduce these new leaders, especially Stephen (Malina and Pilch 55). They note that each narrative in Acts begins with everything fine in the community, introduces a disturbance, and then neatly resolves the disturbance to ends with the restoration of “equilibrium of life, their collectivistic life story” (Malina and Pilch 10). The disturbance is created in part by the cultural differences between the civilized Hellenists and the barbarian Hebrews (Malina and Pilch 29), the Hebrews are insiders and focused on Judean customs, while the Hellenists, returned from the Jewish Diaspora, would have adopted Greek customs and language (Malina and Pilch 56). The seven appointed new leaders are Hellenistic based on their names, starting with Stephen, who is critical to the next story in Acts; the last is Nicolaus, a foreigner (Malina and Pilch 56). Thus the story of the widows exists mostly to introduce leaders, to carry the story forward, and to show the growth of this new Christian community.
Acts 6:1-6 is about widows
Gail R. O’Day in The Women’s Bible Commentary focuses on the failure of the community to name women to solve the widow’s neglect. She notes that Hellenistic women are likely to have high standing since we know that the women Paul meets in Greece are identified as leading women of their communities (O’Day 396). O’Day accepts that the story is about almsgiving (O’Day 397) but notes that Luke is reinforcing the concept that table ministry, assigned to seven men, is identified as less important than the preaching ministry of the twelve (O’Day 397). The value of the widows is further downplayed when we see that the widow Tabitha is identified as doing good works (not ministry) later in Acts, while the work of the men assisting widows in this text is identified as ministry (O’Day 399).
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, on the other hand, is certain that this is an argument over the Eucharist. In Memory of Her explores the biblical language around service and finds that “serving at table”, found also in Acts 16:34, Luke 10:40, 12:37 and 17:8 is not giving away money but is table service at a meal, “most likely the Eucharistic ministry” and includes all the prep, serving during the meal, and clean up, which we know from Acts 2:46 was happening every day (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Schussler Fiorenza argues that to be overlooked the widows could “were not assigned their turn in table service or they were not properly served” (Schussler Fiorenza 166). She notes that it is likely that Hellenistic women would have expected to be included ‘breaking of bread’ while the Hebrews may not have allowed it (Schussler Fiorenza 166). The solution of assigning the twelve to do the diakonia of the word, and the seven to do the diakonia of the table (Schussler Fiorenza 162) adds to Luke’s earlier Martha/Mary story which also makes clear that diakonia of the table is the lesser ministry (Schussler Fiorenza 165).
Once the conflict is about serving rather than eating, it becomes clear that the widows who feel neglected may not be poor. Schussler Fiorenza notes that the text does not say either way (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Certainly women involved in this new church movement were not all poor, for example Mary, mother of John Mark, who was cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10) is likely in charge of a Hellenistic house church in Jerusalem (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Her argument is that Mary would not be named if John Mark’s leadership that was most important, and Schussler Fiorenza wonders if Mary is not one of the dissatisfied widows in the story (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Thus this is a story about identifying the importance of table service, not about charitable giving, and the widows complaint is about not getting a chance to serve, rather than about whether they are given charitable resources.
Scott F. Spencer in “Neglected Widows” notes that it seems to be hard for scholars to stay focused on the widows themselves (Spencer 718). As we have seen in our study of food ministries, it seems to be hard to stay focused on the people in need. Spencer traces the widows throughout Luke-Acts, starting with Anna in the birth narrative (Luke 2:36-38), the widows at Nain and of Zarephath (Luke 7:11-17 and 4:25-25), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4, 20:27-40, 45-47), the neglected Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1-7), and ending with Acts 9:36-43 and the supported widows at Joppa (Spencer 718). “These scenes featuring four individual widows accumulate over the course of the gospel to constitute a group of Lucan widows in the reader’s mind” (Spencer 719 italics original). He notes that while widows certainly are women whose husbands have died, biblical studies generally assume they are all also destitute and unappreciated, which fails to recognize the biblical widows who are not (Spencer 720). Still Spencer notes that Hellenistic widows, by virtue of being far from home, are cut off from family support (Spencer 728). He disagrees with Malina and Pilch that this story is neatly resolved, instead he notes that the apostles are more concerned about being distracted from preaching than about members going hungry, and they refuse to be part of the solution (Spencer 729). Spencer argues the apostles fail at the test to act as Jesus would act (Spencer 730). For Spencer this is a story of a community failing to make caring for one another a top priority. They have failed to provide food for the hungry, and then failed to let needs of people who are hungry trump the authority of the leaders.
O’Day, Gail R., “Acts” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed C.A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe; London SPCK; Louisville Westminster John Knox 1992 check all this 305-12.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her A Feminist Theological Reconstructions of Christian Origins, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.
Spencer, F. Scott, “Neglected Widows in Acts 6:1-7” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no 4 Oct 1994, 715-733.
Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X, Leander Keck et al, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
 I have not included the related arguments made by some scholars that this story must not be about widows but about an underlying dispute between the Hellenists and Hebrews. Recent Scholars, including Wall and Finger, show those arguments are unsupported, but they do not add to or take from my arguments about food ministries.
From Apr. 2nd, 2012. Palm Sunday was on April 1 that year.
The forecast was for rain, and the clouds certainly were dark. It's a first Sunday and that often means low attendance at the Worcester Fellowship lunch line. I was late for morning church and and then late to Worcester Fellowship. All in all, a start that did not prepare me for a wonderful day.
Despite the forecast, the sun was out, the wind was warm, and lots of people were present. We had cheeseburgers for lunch! Both St. John's and St. Andrews brought lots of palms. Several of our "regulars" who had been inside due to rain last week, and cold the week before, and who had this pressure and that to deal with, they were back at Worcester Fellowship. It was like "old-home day".
We marched to "we are marching in the light of God", parading around the common like the fools that we are. Occupy Worcester folk turned their head and smiled, waiting for us to finish our song so they could continue to meet. Six folk from our congregation and one youth from Yarmouth, Maine, took part in the reading of the passion story. We had silent prayer after the woman anointed Jesus, and prayers after Peter denied Jesus. And then a delightful reflection on how appropriate it is to look at the passion on April Fools day, how foolish all those actions are, how foolish we all are, to follow this faith, this foolish faith that trusts that no matter what, love wins out.
At the peace I foolishly interrupted the occupy worcester discussion, several folk turned as I whispered and signed "peace". At the Eucharist I foolishly misplaced the bread, but not the love that is communicated in the sharing of the body and blood, the brokenness and the forgiveness.
And then we handed out Palms at the 701 Main Street shelter, where we were called foolish for confusing public and religious spaces. And we handed out Palms at the hospital atrium, where people grinned at our audacity, and a man wearing a Johnny and sitting in a wheel chair put down his coffee to grab our hands and say thanks.
The passion story certainly calls for rain and dark clouds. But somehow it was good news this week. Foolishly good news.
See more about worcester fellowship at www.worcesterfellowship.org.
We had twelve people for Ash Wednesday service. The sky was gray but the weather was pleasant and the sun poked out a bit behind the clouds. Brian brought another deaf friend, and a friend who can sign. Pablo just happened by and decided to stay. We waited until five after 11 to start and were done by 11:20. My worries about being encouraged to leave by the city did not materialize. It was just nice.
Joel 2 and Psalm 51 were both about the ways that God is looking to pull us back, looking for us to return to the fold. We shared stories of God being there, even when we thought that God was not. A story about how we think God has moved away, but really God is there and we have moved. A story about how we can wander further and further from God’s path, and then, when life seems at its worst, can realize that we’ve had God with us all along. A story about how choosing to follow God doesn’t solve anything, and yet it makes everything better.
And we received our ashes and we blessed one another and we were on our way. A small group of us stayed on the common to hand out ashes to those who were passing by. Right away we figured out that it was awkward to offer: it felt pushy in a way we didn’t like to say we had ashes, but there was no other way for folk to know it was available. Next time we’ll bring a sign! But we fell into a routine of asking “do you want ashes for ash Wednesday?” and then smiling and saying have a good day to those who said no.
And a surprising number of people said yes.
There is debate out in the social media as to whether “Ashes to Go” is a short-cut, an inappropriately simplified offering, a giving in to the non-stop motion of the secular world. I agree with the need to ask whether it is a good thing to offer ashes on the forehead without appropriate liturgy, without prior relationship, without the focus on seeping into the season of lent.
Indeed, at least half of the people who received the ashes on Worcester Common took off their hat, accepted the ashes with a quiet amen, and moved on with their life. It was truly “Ashes to Go”.
But the woman at Worcester Common who turned to me and said "Ashes? I haven't had ashes since I was a kid" and then told me about her life since the last time she'd been to church, and how the church had hurt her, and how she was now thinking about God again for the first time in a long time, that woman? When I put ashes on her, she understood what was happening in that ritual as well anyone who had time to sit inside.
And the young man who said "No, thanks" and then came back and said, "Can I change my mind?" and told the story of the fight he'd had last night and how he was ruminating about that when I offered ashes, and realized that he has to get right with God if he thinks he is going to get right with his girl friend. That young man, he understood enough to accept ashes without going inside.
People really told stories. People really cried. People really reacted like this was an unexpected gift, unexpected because they weren’t sure they deserved it, weren’t sure that the church could offer it, weren’t sure that God was with them. And the ashes said “yes, God is here” and “yes, you are deserving” and “yes, the church is in the world with you”.
Yup, it’s a short cut. It’s a short cut to God available to those willing to take it.
[From Feb. 24th, 2012 See more about Worcester Fellowship at www.worcesterfellowship.org]
At Worcester Fellowship's leadership meeting last month our congregation discussed what it means to worship during Lent and named hymns and readings and other changes in our Sunday Liturgy. Then Terence asked "What about Ash Wednesday?"
Mary turned toward him. "I don't know! What do you think about Ash Wednesday?"
"We should have a service. We should have ashes. Churches have ashes on ash Wednesday." Many from the meeting chimed in.
"What would that look like?"
People shared stories of services they'd been to and reported what they already knew other churches were doing. Mary managed to lead the group to Wednesday morning at 10am, since that is our standard time for "non-sunday" events. She could hear Liz's anxiety in her head "we always get kicked out if we are on the common on any day other than Sunday", and she knew that SHE was busy, so she was promising Liz's time, not her own.
Despite her anxiety, Liz thought it was a good idea. The area is saturated in Catholicism, even for people who were not raised in the tradition, so it is likely that some people would respond to the idea. And if no one came to worship, she could walk up the street offering ashes. "Yup," she said, perhaps a little too strongly, as if convincing herself. "Yes, we'll have a 10 minute service at the common at 10am, and then I'll walk up the street to hand out ashes."
Liz announced this for two Sundays, but did little else to prep for the service. Which is why Tuesday afternoon she was in her back yard standing in a foot of snow, with the grill open and a pan of palms, and a box of matches.
If you are ever in the Holy Lands, threatened by forest fire, be assured, you can use Palms to protect you from the oncoming heat. They do not burn. Obviously that is not completely true, you've seen the burnt palms at Ash Wednesday services for years. But it is true that a lit Palm will not stay lit. The ashes only burn if there is a heat source aimed directly at them. After an hour of frustration and very wet shoes she brought in the scrapings of ashes and a lot of chunks of partially burnt leaves. "I wonder what paper looks like when it is burned" she asked her partner, Ken.
Luckily, Ken does not sleep much, and finds such challenges interesting. So at 6am the next morning he turned the sad bunch of scraps into half a teaspoon of ashes, using some combination of the oven, the grill, and the stove top. Liz didn't ask for details. He ground the final bit in the spice mortar, and left for work.
For some reason Liz was concerned that this was sufficient quantity and decided to burn a page of the newspaper. Since her shoes were now dry, she opted for the stove, and lined a frying pan with aluminum foil, dropped in a crumbled piece of newspaper, and a lit match.
For those of you who don't already know this, newspaper DOES burn easily. With huge flames. Up into the microwave above. Up into the vent, which she had (wisely?) turned on first. Moving quickly, Liz found a lid, plopped it onto the pan, and went to take the battery out of the now blaring smoke detector. She wondered how long she had before the sprinkler system went off.
The paper had burned nicely however, so those ashes where mixed with the palms, and ground with the pestle, re-burned to get rid of still readable news items, and then transferred to two tiny tupperware containers. There were now two teaspoons of ashes!
So prepared, Liz printed off bulletins and readings, and found a stole and raced out to Worcester. She had printed 10 bulletins but promised herself not to be disappointed in the attendance. She found parking at the Library lot and was pleased with herself for being on time. Then she saw Terence across the park, heading up to the plaza where Worcester Fellowship worships and she smiled to herself. This was going to be great!
When she got to the plaza Terence was gone, but Rose assured her he'd be back. The wind made the wait cold, and there was still 10 minutes to start. But Rose and Liz shared stories and then Brian came by and showed off the pictures of his sister's wedding and rambled on and on about how beautiful it had been. At 10:05, Rose tapped Liz on the shoulder and said she was leaving.
"Wait, you have to get ashes." She reached into her plastic bag, past the bulletins, and readings, and the stole, and grabbed the tupperware and opened it. Ashes immediately flew into the wind, into their eyes, into the sky, onto the ground. Finally, holding the lid at an angle over the container, Liz got some on her finger and onto Rose's head and then Brian's.
"Thanks!" They offered and were gone.
"Ok," liz reassured herself. It's ok. We didn't need a service. "I wonder where Terence is?" Putting on the stole, and her gloves, tying her hat under her chin, and holding the tupperware with the lid firmly on, she headed over toward the bus stop. She asked if anyone wanted ashes? No one replied, and several people moved away from her. Moving on to another stop the bus arrived just as she did. At the street corner she got pulled herself together and asked again "Anyone want ashes for ash wednesday?" Sideways glances and people moving away.
Walking the next block the voices in her head were louder than before. "Really, why did we think that *I* was the person to do this work?" and "I've never really been good at this part of the ministry" and "I can't keep walking down the street with this stole on" and "why didn't I ask Ellie or Georgeanne or SOMEONE to come do this with me?" and " We know this isn't what I do best!"
She turned toward the library, but then realized that if she took this shortcut she wouldn't even run into any people she KNEW. So she put away the stole and ashes and headed back to the main road, still headed home. "At least I'll get some work done when I get home" she consoled herself.
But there, on the main street was Juan-Louis. "Juan, hi!" Liz walked over quickly. "Do you want ashes?"
"No, but I'm hungry. And I've got an apartment. Look, here is my key."
"That's wonderful!" Liz exclaimed, inwardly feeling huge relief. THIS is her strength, creating deeper connections to people she already knows. Listening to people's lives, helping them make their own next steps.
"I'm hungry, too. Why don't you tell me all about it at Dunkin Donuts?"
(From Mar. 11th, 2011. See more about Worcester Fellowship at www.worcesterfellowship.org)
*Names and details of this story have been changed.
I met Patty in a small group Bible study. She heard me ask people for stories about leading from the side and pulled me aside afterward to tell her story from early in her relationship with Church.
Patty moved to a rural area for her husband's job and went to the church nestled in the hamlet, her three young kids in tow. The only worship service was at 8:30 am, the sanctuary was cold so as to save money, and her children were the only ones present. She was the youngest adult present by a couple of decades.
"Even for the adults the worship was boring. I was a never going to keep my children interested."
After a few months Patty realized she needed to speak up rather than complain to others. So she met with the leader of the congregation and asked for a family service later in the day. He was kind and caring, listened fully, and clearly was not interested in creating another service.
It took some weeks of reflection for Patty to realize that she might be able to create the alternative worship herself. She got support from another elder in the congregation and buoyed by that support asked the leader again, this time if she could do the work herself. He said yes.
"I was new in the area, and new to rural living, so I had no idea how hard this would be. There was hardly anyone coming for the first six months." She was used to working with teams and expected other parents to offer help, but that didn't happen. Still, Patty was not deterred and somewhere along the way realized that if she asked the children to help with the worship she might get more response.
Starting with the connections her own kids made at school, slowly kids accepted her offer of opportunities for leadership. The kids were young so their parents came along. As the children’s leadership team grew, parents and other adults began to volunteer and eventually the whole ministry was run by a lay team.
"It's easy to get frustrated," Patty told me, "but I had the motivation that I wanted my kids to enjoy Church the way I had growing up."
I asked Patty what she learned about leading from the side. "Mostly I learned that my voice is important. I thought this could work, and it had a lot of struggles, but in the end I was right. We offered something that was needed and so it worked."
Do you have a side-ways leadership story? Use the contact page to share more leading from the side stories!
(From 2008. All people's information is changed to protect their privacy.)
For the offering every Sunday Worcester Fellowship has a ceramic vase. We invite everyone to share with one another just after the prayers. Sharing includes "peace" with your neighbor, money in the offering, but also promises for oneself and for each other. Wooden tokens marked with peace, hope, faith, love, confidence, sobriety, prayer, and trust are sitting on the altar. Anyone can pick up a token and use it as offering.
Will is a steady volunteer who comes every week for set-up and walks with us to hand out sandwiches on Main Street. He always has every pocket stuffed full with collected items, including things he's picked up to hand to someone in the congregation who might need it. He always has a coffee mug in a pocket, a bag, or in his left hand, and nearly always a cigarette in right. When we say "thanks for helping, Will" he always replies "I try!"
I was a little surprised one week to see Will pulling tokens out of the offering after worship. As I watched he found the one he wanted and walked over to Jose, who was sitting on a bench, eating a hard-boiled egg. We had met Jose before, out on the street, but this was his first Sunday at worship. Jose was so high or drunk I was afraid he would fall down during worship, so I was glad he'd found a seat. At the prayers he had sobbed, but he wasn't ready to talk. Now he and Will were talking; I returned to packing up lunch.
Later, as we headed out for street ministry, and Mary and Will had gone ahead, I moved over to sit by Jose. He was clutching his hands to his chest.
"Are you Ok?" I asked.
"Oh yes" he assured me. "Will gave me hope."
"Do you need hope?"
"I needed hope so much. But Will gave me hope. I came to church and Will gave me hope."
"Can you keep the hope up this week?"
"Yes!" Jose opened his hands just a bit, like he was holding in something that might escape. He held them toward me so I could see the little wooden token he held. "Will said I could keep it. He said I could take hope with me. I have hope."
"Can you hold it in your heart?" I asked.
"I have hope in my hands and I have hope in my heart. Thank you."
And so now I have hope, too. In my hands and my heart, I have hope.
Worcester Fellowship began having outdoor worship on Easter Sunday, 2007, so in many ways, this Sunday felt like our one year anniversary. Of course, Easter was much later last year, but still!
The day was glorious: brightly sunny, a bit of wind, and warm enough to remove our gloves and hats. We had scarves, gloves and hats in the donation bin, but no one even looked inside to find something. Our visiting musician brought a drum with bright red and blue ribbons on it that snapped about gaily. Worship opened with energizing music and in the announcements bob shared that he may be getting his taxi license on Monday. Mary reminded us that now that it is Easter we can shout Alleluia whenever we want.
And so we alleluia-ed Justin.
As we waited for lunch to arrive, I wondered if we'd have any colored eggs to hand out.
Tall-man-with-hat was back, we hadn't seen him since last fall. It's hard to do worship with him there... he stands next to me and preaches throughout, but it was good to see him and he seemed in good spirits. His first language is Hungarian, I think, and I can't understand anything he says, but he loves to share, and shouted Alleluia throughout our worship. Several times the whole congregation responded with their own Alleluia!
Evan was off to Easter dinner with his family, but sent word that an apartment has come through and he should be moving out of the shelter on Monday. Alleluia again.
Joan looked left and right to see if the guys with her were looking, and then smiled at me as she took a condom from the altar, and a pair of socks, and stuffed them in her pocket. Later she asked if you could have as second condom. I helped her hide a handful and checked to see if we need to buy more. Alleluia!
First Church in Marlborough, Congregational UCC, came up with sandwiches, chips, juice boxes, and raisins, and declared they had brought 4 dozen colored easter eggs! Alleluia!
And then Bob came with another 4 dozen dyed eggs! Alleluia? (How many can we possibly give away?)
Alleluia! I shouted as he tucked them under the table. Oh, he said, I have more in the car. Alleluia??? Yikes. How many eggs can we share?
28 people for worship with a few more added as lunch began. Many preached, and many prayed, and many pulled Mary or I aside to listen to their stories. And then off to streets, Liz and 2 volunteers found a new street with many people who longed for socks, sandwiches, and stories. As we handed out eggs to the men on one corner, a woman driving by hollered, wait, I want eggs, and pulled into the parking lot. I'd like to have eggs for my kids, she smiled. Is six enough? Yes, oh thank you, bless you. Alleluia.
We met Mary and two more volunteers behind the homeless shelter. Mary scooted off to find Rose, whose husband is in jail again, while we offered the last of our eggs and cookies.
In the end we gave away 200 colored Easter eggs. Alleluia!
It snowed when I visited Bethlehem in January 1983. I remember this clearly not because it was beautiful, in fact the small amount melted before we had finished breakfast. I remember this because the hotel I stayed in did not have heat, and so I was miserably cold, and I remember it because snow in the holy lands is a very rare occurrence.
And so, at a Christmas Season worship the other day, I found myself giggling a bit at "In the Bleak Mid-winter" with its snow filled images, and then laughed out loud as we sang about Mary wrapping the little baby in a fresh-killed rabbit skin. Christopher Duraisingh, presently teaching a contextual theology course, turned and smiled, and we commented after worship on the words, and on the use of a minor key that gave a plaintive tone to our alleluias.
What about our music? What is the role of music in the success or decline of mainline parishes in the United States? There is research that says that most growing churches use drums in worship. Is that what we've done wrong, not enough drums? I went to the emerging worship service at the Episcopal General Convention, it was awesome, inspiring, uplifting, and God filled. It was not, however, an Episcopal Eucharist, suitable for Sunday morning worship. Another Sunday evening I visited, with my parish, a Methodist folk service in Western Massachusetts. This is the music I love, and pay money to hear, and in fact this worship service attracted many from the community. It attracted people just like me, white and aging.
The answer to music in worship isn't about what I like, or what you like, or what, on average the people in the congregation like. The answer to the music question is this "what will help us find God, feel God, connect to God, worship God?"
There is not a single answer to that question. The answer will vary based on our cultural heritage: our race, class, education, and connection to our ethnic heritage. And the answer will vary based on our generation. It also will vary based on our spiritual type: are we looking for God by being uplifted, by being reflective, by being exuberant, by being quiet?
As a congregation, our answer is also affected by who we want our worship to reach. Do we want to be sure that group of women in the back left corner are satisfied? Or is the choir our most important demographic? Or perhaps it’s the values of the pastor or priest, or of the altar guild or worship team that drive our music selections.
Another possibility is to ask about who is missing from our worship, and to ask what "those people" might find will help them in their search to find God. This is hard, of course, because "they" aren't here, and because "they" don't have a single answer. Some of them will want to hear drums, or rock, or rap, or techno. Some will want to hear taize, classical, easy listening, folk, some will appreciate silence.
The question about music in worship is not a question about taste, or about what is "right" in God's mind, or about tradition, nor is it a question about being modern or young. The question about music in worship is a theological question: who do you want to feel welcome in your worship, and how do you help those people to experience God. Those aren't simple questions, you won't answer them in an afternoon worship team meeting, or even in a month where you send out surveys and tally the results.
The question about music in worship is part of the formation and outreach efforts of your congregation. It is part of what you discuss in small groups, and in worship, and at committee meetings, slowly getting at how people who are "us" experience God. And it is part of what we ask as we go out the in the community and get to know your neighbors and learn from them how they experience God.
All of this means that your music in worship needs to be open to change. I'll dare say it, it needs to be open to music that is not in your hymnal, and open to drums, and open to the fourth grader who is learning to play the violin, and open to music that sounds wrong to some of us who have been here forever.
Worship should help people find God, and that means that every time a new person is part of your worship you will need to consider new music, new words to old tunes, new tunes to old words, even new words and tunes and rhythms. You'll need to experiment, and ask for feedback, and respond to the feedback by trying again, not by giving up.
You'll need to tell those who think they are in charge of the music that they are not in charge, that there isn't a single answer, and that the music will keep changing as long as people keep changing, and that the music will meet the needs of those who are here, but also to meet the needs of those that are not yet here, but are looking for God.
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