Worship: Beyond Combat to Creativity

WorshipArt

(Artwork: “Free, Indeed” by Laura Gentry)

Someone said to me recently that the worship wars are over.

Do you know what I mean by “worship wars”?

I mean the struggle and tension generated by what are often constructed (unfairly and unhelpfully) as liturgical dichotomies:

  • “traditional” versus “contemporary” or “modern;”
  • “high church” versus “low church”
  • “choruses” versus “hymnody;”
  • “high tech” versus “high touch;”
  • “transcendent” verses “relevant.”

Evidence of the tension that I am describing has been plentiful for many years. We find it in divisive church committee meetings and in passionate pronouncements on social media. We find it in churches’ evaluations of their clergy leadership, in clergy’s evaluation of their churches, and in lay peoples’ evaluation of their congregational worship.

As a pastor who has spent the last thirty years of his vocational life planning worship and preparing sermons, I have experienced my own spiritual schizophrenia related to the variety of perspectives on worship. In the congregations that I have served, I have heard people describe the exact same sermon series as “just what I needed to hear” and “frustratingly irrelevant.” I have heard the “modern” worship experiences that I have overseen (and sometimes spearheaded) described as both “contextually attentive” and “shamefully consumerist.” I have heard my own liturgical leadership described as both “creatively evocative” and “out of touch with the common person.”

If these “worship wars” are indeed over, then thanks be to God. In fact, God help us if we persist in warring over a spiritual discipline that has, as its primary objective, the glorification and adoration of the One who formed our lungs and breathed life into them.

And yet…

…And yet, even if the “wars” are over, there remains the difficult work of clarifying and, in some cases, configuring a theology of worship that can inform and illuminate the current practice of worship in the 21stCentury church. While I do not have the wherewithal to say all that needs to be said about this important matter, I have forged two personal convictions that have become both the primary lenses through which I view the discipline of worship and the foundational priorities upon which my own approach to worship is built. I share these two convictions here, not because I am insistent upon their rightness, and not because I am looking for debate, but because the desire of my heart is to further the church’s contemplation and practice of worshiping God.

A Conviction About Worship’s Purpose:
The Governing Purpose Of Worship Is To offer To God The Only Response That God Deserves

I am prone to subordinating worship to my own narcissism, and perhaps I am not alone in this tendency. I have learned about myself that, if I am not intentional about the way I approach worship, worship can become for me merely another means by which to gratify my own personal preferences and proclivities—like watching television or going to a concert or eating at a favorite restaurant.

Did we sing the hymns or choruses that I wanted to sing? Were my favorite singers a part of worship? Did the flow and feel of worship appeal to my artistic sensibilities? Did the sermon inspire me sufficiently? Was the preacher articulate enough and funny enough and relevant enough? Were the people around me adequately friendly?

To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil about such questions. As I have learned in my own journey, however, when these questions become the sole mechanism by which I evaluate my experience of worship, I end up approaching worship with priorities that are shaped less by doxological impulses and more by my own egocentric consumerism. The glorification of God and the offering of self are subordinated to a checklist of personal preferences.

In one of my favorite biblical calls to worship, the Psalmist tells us that we are to “enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving and the Lord’s courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Every time I read those words, it strikes me that the Psalmist does not express any interest whatsoever in the mood, temperament, or preferences of the worshiper. “But wait! What if I don’t feel like being thankful?! What if I am not in the mood to offer praise?! What if the style of worship or the nature of the liturgy doesn’t speak my heart language?!” The Psalmist does not address such matters, not because the Psalmist is blind to the realities of human preferences, but because he understands that human preferences are secondary to the fact that “the Lord is good” and that “the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5). The Psalmist, in other words, writes under the conviction that the primary purpose of worship is not to gratify the worshiper but to glorify the Creator, so that the worshiper might “know that the Lord is God” (Psalm 100:3).

I frequently re-read Psalm 100 on days when I am headed into congregational worship. The Psalmist’s words are a powerful and important reminder to me that the most compelling and urgent question for me to ask during worship is never “What am I getting out of it?” or even “Am I being sufficiently fed?” but rather “How much more of my life am I subordinating to the transforming and trustworthy Lordship of Jesus?”

There is an objection to this conviction that I have frequently heard:

This is all very lofty. But what about the people we are trying to reach who don’t yet know that God deserves to be worshiped and who are drawn to a certain kind of presentation and experience of music? Your approach to worship seems to ignore their priorities.

Such an objection is not to be dismissed, especially since it forces us to take seriously the evangelical potential of the church’s worship. But I would offer this caution: The varied and unpredictable preferences of worshipers make a far better servant than they do a master. When worship is subordinated entirely to the personal preferences of a congregation—or to what we think a particular part of the population would find meaningful or engaging—the church runs the risk of losing the beautiful strangeness of its liturgical language. I choose to believe that it is possible to generate artistic freshness, creativity, and even relevance in worship without sacrificing a clear vision of worship’s grand and governing purpose.

A Conviction About Worship’s Content: 
The Worship Of God Demands A Mentality Of “Both/And” Rather Than “Either/Or”

I have heard an “either/or” mentality expressed many times in conversations about worship.

  • “If I were to see drums in the sanctuary, I would walk right out the door.”
  • “We don’t sing hymns in our worship because the language is too outdated.”
  • “We don’t have altar calls because that’s too ‘Baptist’”.
  • “We don’t want to hear personal testimonies in worship because they are too emotional.”
  • “We don’t sing praise choruses because they are too repetitive.”
  • “We don’t sing songs that are more than five years old because we want to be current.”
  • “We don’t need printed prayers or creeds because they are too ritualistic.”

The problem with an either/or mentality related to worship, however, is that it limits the creativity of worship to the perceived boundaries of a particular liturgical style. When the church makes the boundaries around liturgical style too rigid, it risks losing sight of of the expansiveness of a God whose grandness demands a rich diversity and flexibility in worship.

I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate to guard or honor a particular liturgical style. (After all, the acoustics of Westminster Abbey might not be conducive to the dynamics of rock and roll!) The point I am making is that perhaps too often the church has settled for a mentality of “either/or” in the worship of a God who deserves nothing less than a “both/and” creativity.

Personally, I want to be part of worship teams that are asking deeper and more creative questions. Not, “How can we create worship that stays within our particular stylistic boundaries?” but rather, “How can we create worship that best communicates the Gospel with the kind of creativity and expansiveness that God deserves?” Not, “How can we create worship that will resonate primarily with millenials and iGen?” but rather, “How can we generate the kind of creatively diverse worship in which multiple generations can find their voice?”

Am I being too naïve when I envision the theological richness of the church’s hymnody finding new musical expression in modern worship services? Am I being too unrealistic when I imagine traditional worship in which both Bach and Hillsong can be held together with both artistic and liturgical integrity? Am I being too idealistic when I picture a church where worship planning is less about what we aren’t permitted to do and more about what the themes of worship require to find their most creative treatment?

I hope not. Because that kind of worship constructs windows instead of walls, possibilities instead of rigid boundaries, and sacred bridges between that which is ancient and that which is modern. When I spend time engaging in this deeper worship, it helps me to remember that worship will always be more about obedience than it is about technique; more about a transformed heart than it is about a particular liturgical style; more about Jesus than it is about us.

When the Church Abuses: A Lament

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(Artwork: “Suffer the Children” by Janice Nabors Raiteri)

As I hold in my thoughts yesterday’s report of the grand jury’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in six Pennsylvania dioceses, I am crying out to God with a lament that feels all-consuming.

Three hundred alleged “predator priests” in the dioceses were investigated and named in the report.

More than a thousand victims, according to the report, can be identified through church records, although many officials believe the number of victims to be much higher than what can be officially determined.

I grieve with outrage over the systematic violence that this report illuminates.

My heart breaks over vulnerable souls violated by the very leaders who had been entrusted with their spiritual and physical care.

I weep over shattered lives, devastated faith, and a broken church (of all denominations, since what happens in one part of the Body of Christ happens to the entirety of the body).

I mourn over a woefully fallen institution that has too often overlooked or even protected both perpetrators and patterns of injustice. (Again, I am speaking about the church in all of its denominations, since ecclesiastical abuse is in no way limited to Catholicism.)

Where is God in this agonizing mess?

I believe that God is where God always is.

Right here.

Right here, intimately and restoratively present with the victims, embracing them with the tenderness that they have been unfairly denied, all the while allowing divine tears to commingle with theirs.

Right here, allowing the divine heart to experience every portion of the agony and anguish of unthinkable abuse.

God is right here, graciously, attentively, and beautifully. Always has been. Always will be.

If we trust what the Bible tells us—that Jesus has the supernatural capacity to experience personally the pain of the atrocities perpetrated against “even the least of these”—then we are right to believe that Jesus was there during every abusive moment, cradling the victims in protective arms while screaming out at the perpetrators, “No! These are my beloved children, and I will not allow your violence toward them to be the end of their story!”

I add my voice to the repentance that all the church’s people must express in the aftermath of these revelations. I also implore all those connected to the church’s ministry to commit themselves both to “Safe Sanctuary” standards and practices and to an ever-deepening diligence when it comes to the care that we offer to all people, children and adults.

Lord, have mercy…

…But, please God, let it be the kind of mercy that unsettles us, brings us to our knees, and inspires us to become a better church, where all people of all ages are valued, cherished, and protected.

Lord, have mercy.

Leading With a Towel In Hand

Ethiopian orthodox art, unknown artist

(Artwork: Ethiopian Orthodox Art, unknown artist)

There are plenty of days when it becomes painfully clear to me how inadequate my leadership has been throughout the various seasons of my vocation. As a leader, my clumsiness has often eclipsed my proficiency.

Still, I spend a great deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and praying about leadership, particularly about the leadership practiced in the ministry of the church. I suspect that I am driven by the hope that I might become a better leader tomorrow than I am today.

In recent days, several convictions about leadership have resonated with particular clarity in my thinking. I share the convictions here, not because I am arguing for their absolute rightness, but because I believe that the journey toward good leadership demands the risk of articulating what one believes ABOUT leadership.

Here are some of my personal convictions in that regard, freshly illuminated by the challenges of a new season of ministry.

Healthy leadership is less about having all the right answers and more about a right engagement with the most important questions. When leaders fall into the trap of believing that leadership is primarily about having right and immediate answers, they run the risk of reducing their leadership to a narcissistic autonomy or a desperate pursuit of techniques and rhetoric. Leadership must certainly lead to some good answers. But the deepest answers come, not through authoritarian pronouncement, but through an individual and communal engagement with the pertinent questions. Such an engagement helps leaders to see themselves, not as autonomous oracles, but facilitators of a deeper and more comprehensive discernment.

Healthy leadership never fixates on a destination at the expense of the journey. Destinations are important. Leaders must have a sense of where things are headed. They must envision a bold and imaginative future. It is possible, however, for leaders to become so myopically focused on the desired destination that they begin to overlook or even ignore the relationships, conversations, and circumstances that form the day-to-day pathway upon which good leadership must travel. Granted, journeys are often messy and unpredictable. Timetables may have to change. Extra conversations may have to be scheduled. Adjustments to the course may have to be made. Even the destinations may have to be modified. Even so, paying attention to the nuances of the pathway is nothing less than essential, since healthy leadership finds its most vibrant and urgent expression, not in the arrivals at destinations, but in a dynamic attentiveness to the journey.

Healthy leadership grounds itself, not in the maintenance of an institution, but in the transformation of an institution’s culture. There is a great deal of institution-bashing these days. To be fair, however, people tend to bash institutions only in those places where the institution is not serving them or providing the things that they personally want. Healthy leadership is tasked with the responsibility of seeing institutions for what they are—broken but potential-rich instruments that groan for redemption along with the rest of the fallen world. Healthy leaders never become preoccupied with institutional maintenance, as though the institution were an altar at which to kneel. Neither do healthy leaders devote their energy to railing randomly against the institution in which they lead, as though the institution itself were nothing more than an enemy to be conquered. Rather, healthy leaders become channels for transformation through which institutions can be reimagined, reconfigured, and reborn. Healthy leaders help portions of their institutions to die with grace when the time for death has come. Likewise, healthy leaders help their institutions to thrive where their institutions are supporting the priorities of their articulated mission.

Healthy leadership does not validate entitlement but entitles that which is valid. There is a common spirit of entitlement that can lead to deep resentment. It often comes from an inflated sense of the uniqueness of one’s own gifts, viewpoints, or trajectory. It grounds itself in a strong sense of what is owed. Healthy leadership seeks to cultivate an environment in which entitlement gives way to the kind of shared covenantal commitment that subordinates self-determined privileges to grander priorities.

Healthy leadership treats vision, not as the property of a charismatic individual, but as the territory stewarded by a missional community. When vision becomes solely the product of an individual voice, the road to egocentric leadership becomes painfully short. Healthy leadership sees vision as something more complex and organic than this. More specifically, it sees vision as the progeny of a creative community seeking to live more fully into its mission. To be a healthy leader is to be an attentive listener as well as a guiding presence—a relational participant in meaningful conversations who helps the community to name, clarify, and implement the route into its best future.

Healthy leadership breathes most deeply the air of confession and repentance. For leaders to lead in healthy and holistic fashion, authentic repentance must become as natural to them as breathing and every bit as urgent. Good leaders become the voice of repentance for the many offenses perpetrated by the communities they lead. They also become vulnerable enough to name their own brokenness, their own insecurities, and their own failures. Only a spirit of consistent and expansive repentance can keep a leader’s heart appropriately attentive to the hearts of others and appropriately broken over the distortions of his or her own leadership.

Healthy leaders recognize that they are secondary characters in the story of their own leadership. Leaders are important, but they are the supporting cast. The main characters are the people they lead. For leaders who follow Jesus, the most central character of all is a Savior who equips our best leadership and who redeems our worst leadership. Remembering this helps leaders to structure their priorities rightly and to value themselves truthfully. Furthermore, a leader who lives out of a spirit of secondariness can more easily subordinate entitlement to gratitude, egotism to servanthood, and resentment to hope.

Hope-Filled Expectations

blog The Good People

(Artwork: “The Good People” by Laurie Pace)

As a recently-appointed District Superintendent, I have spent the last several months prayerfully discerning what it is that I am expecting of myself as both a leader and a follower in this new season of ministry. I have also been reflecting upon what it is that I might be expecting of the clergy leaders with whom I am privileged to serve—and what they might be expecting of me as their District Superintendent.

The following paragraphs are the result of my contemplation about expectations. I shared these paragraphs recently with the clergy leaders of the district I superintend. I offer them here once again. It is not an exhaustive list of expectations, to be sure. Perhaps many others could or should be added. But this list does reflect some of my deepest priorities.

Please know my heart. This list of expectations is not intended to be heavy-handed or authoritarian. Rather, these expectations are the hope-filled expression of a sinner saved by grace who longs to become more fully what Jesus is calling him to be and to become an encouragement to others. Perhaps some of these expectations will resonate with your spirit. I hope so.

A New District Superintendent’s Expectations of Himself
and the Clergy Leaders With Whom He Serves

 1. An Ever-Deepening Love for God and People

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies the greatest commandment in this fashion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind…and a second [commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to physical and emotional health, so that they might be energized and equipped to love God with a whole heart.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the spiritual disciplines (such as prayer, study of Scripture and meditation upon its revelations, confession and repentance, worship, solitude, community, ministries of social justice, and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper), so that they might be enlivened to love God with a devoted soul.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the disciplines of lifelong learning, continuing education, and theological engagement, so that they might be prepared to love God with an active mind.

2. A Commitment to Personal Integrity

The word “integrity” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “intact” or “whole.” People of integrity are people who commit themselves to authenticity, wholeness, and ethical intactness in their relationships, their administration, their self-care, their communication, and their personal conduct. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to living and ministering with the kind of integrity that bears witness to a holistic walk with Christ.

3. Participation in Intentional Community

Communal accountability and collegial nurture are essential portions of our discipleship to Jesus Christ, who once promised to be uniquely present wherever “two or three” were gathered in his name. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to a finding (or developing) and experiencing the kind of intentional community with colleagues that invites mutual prayer, encouragement, and conversation.

4. Tithing and Growth in Generosity

In the church’s ministry, clergy set the tone for generosity and boldness in giving.  It is expected that clergy will teach tithing and growth in giving in the churches they serve. Moreover, it is expected that clergy will model these same disciplines in their personal walk with Christ by growing toward tithing (if tithing is not yet a practiced discipline) and possibly beyond it.

5. Respect for Colleagues in Ministry

An eagerness to tear one another down is antithetical to the spirit of love in which we are called to live. Clergy are expected to encourage and support one another, to pray for one another, and to resist the temptation to speak negatively about colleagues.

6. A Work Ethic That Honors the Urgency of the Gospel

Clergy are expected to be disciplined about their commitment to ministry and the consistency of their conscientiousness, in order that every local church or place of ministry might receive faithful, effective, and fruitful leadership.

7. The Honoring of Sabbath

In the often-frenetic pace of life and ministry, clergy are expected to be Sabbath people, experiencing consistent and intentional time away from work for solitude, time with family, and rest.

8. Participation in District and Conference Ministry

United Methodist clergy are joined by a connectional covenant. District and Conference ministry is an important portion of that covenant. Whenever possible, clergy are expected to support District and Conference ministry with their involvement and participation.

9. A Stubborn and Prayerful Resistance to Cynicism and Chronic Negativity

Nothing corrupts the joy and vibrancy of the church’s ministry faster than the proliferation of cynicism and unrestrained negativity. All too often, even the church’s leadership allows itself to be drawn into this counterproductive spirit, choosing disparagement instead of the recognition of possibilities. Clergy are expected to resist such cynicism and negativity, thereby becoming instruments of prophetic joy and hope.

10. An Unwavering Devotion to Primary Relationships

One’s most important and life-defining relationships are never to be sacrificed upon the altar of one’s ministry. Clergy are expected to give their best time and energy to their deepest friendships and their family relationships, so that their covenantal relationships might always occupy a priority position in their stewardship over their life and ministry.

11. A Christ-honoring Witness in All Areas of Communication, Including Social Media

Clergy are expected to communicate carefully, meaningfully, and graciously in all areas of their lives, so that their communication might reflect their journey of sanctification.

12. A Commitment to Scriptural Holiness, Wesleyan Theology, and Connectional Covenant

Clergy are expected to grow daily in their embodiment of a biblical worldview and in their practice of a distinctively Wesleyan theology that reflects God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. As United Methodists, we are also joined in a connectional covenant that demands a faithfulness to our polity, our parameters, and our practices.

Dementia and Sacramental Remembering

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I hear so many tender stories of people caring for a loved one who struggles with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

A parent or grandparent.

A spouse.

A sibling.

A child.

A friend.

Every story is unique, but there are always common threads of sadness and sensitivity, heartbreak and hope.

Such stories remind me of my journey with my own father. Back in 2002, when Dad’s dementia was officially diagnosed, I remember sitting at the piano in our living room—a place I often go when I am confronted with realities that are difficult for me to process. I started playing seemingly random chords. A melody began to form. Then a phrase. “I’ll remember for you when you forget.”

That phrase became a chorus.

That chorus became a song.

That song became my truthful story, even a personal mission statement, in my relationship with Dad until his death in 2011:

I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you
When you forget

What does one do when a loved one is still here, but different; still with us, but in a way that demands a different kind of communication and attentiveness? What does one do in the gradual grief of surrendering a precious soul to the ravages of dementia?

In a word, one REMEMBERS.

We honor the ones who struggle, not only by blessing them with our attentive and sacrificial caregiving, but also by engaging in the beautiful work of remembering the parts of their story that they might be inclined to forget. We recall significant moments and memories. We recollect the journey and its revelations. We retell the sacred narrative of which his or her life is still a vital part. We remember.

When one experiences forgetfulness in dementia, remembering becomes a sacramental act, the bread and cup of which can be shared frequently and with deep reverence.

In this regard, caring for someone with dementia reminds me of what we call “church.” What is “church,” after all, but a community of chronically forgetful people helping one another to remember what they are most inclined to abandon in their spiritual dementia? What is “church” but a gathering of needy and distorted souls inspiring one another to recall what it means to live by the often countercultural Story of Jesus?

The church is a place of sacramental remembering, which means that the relationship between an attentive caregiver and a person with dementia is perhaps closer to the heart of “church” than either person realizes. In both settings, the rhythms of remembering are as natural as breathing and every bit as urgent.

I recorded the song I wrote for my dad and shared it with him while he was still able to make sense of it.

We wept together.

We prayed with desperate urgency.

We remembered.

Here is the song and its lyrics. May it fall gently upon your heart. And may it help you to remember.

When You Forget (words and music by Eric Park)

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

The memory is just one portion of the person one becomes
And when it fails it doesn’t mean that one’s a failure
I’ll hold your memories as though they were a sacramental bread
And we will break that bread with reverence and frequency

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

I see you in the back yard teaching both your sons how to throw a ball
I see you in the living room reading to your daughter
Your 50thanniversary looking at your wife like you did fifty years ago
I see you in a preacher’s robe teaching about the things of God

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

With the pure water of your outpoured life
You have filled five hundred thousand cups
We have drawn from the wellspring of your decency
You’re who we want to be when we grow up

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

Changes

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Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time

Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.

I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.

Changes.

On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.

My new appointment requires that I  say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.

Changes.

In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.

For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.

They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.

They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).

District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.

My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.

Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.

Bridge

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About a month ago, I woke up at 2:15 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I knew that it was going to be one of those nights–or mornings.  For some reason, in those restless moments, I was thinking about “The Bridge,” our new weekly worship experience that launches this Saturday, May 6, at 7:00 p.m. “The Bridge” is open to all, but it offers a particularly attentive welcome to those individuals and families that are currently accommodating the struggle of addiction or the journey of addiction recovery.

My mind was flooded with both deep concerns and desperate hopes in the hours of my sleeplessness.  “Will people support yet another worship experience in our church and in the city of Butler?  Have we rightly heard the voice of God on this?  How will we sustain this service for the long haul? Do we have what it takes? Do I have what it takes? Will God raise up a congregation that sees the urgency of gathering each week simply to sing praises and to pray and to declare that the Lordship of Jesus holds authority over the drug epidemic of our community? What about the adults and young people of our community who are feeling crushed by the burden of addiction? Will they dare to believe that a place like the the church has a loving and hopeful word that is specifically for them?” Questions. Lots of them. My mind was racing.

Realizing that a return to sleep was nowhere close, I quietly made my way into our basement and sat at the electronic keyboard that we keep there. (A piano or keyboard is often where I place myself when I am confronted with things that are difficult for me to process. I think it helps me to pray.) As I allowed my hands to play some seemingly random chords, a pattern developed.  Then a melody. Then a rhythm. Without really knowing what I was doing, I began to mumble these words to the music, quietly and clumsily: “Grant me serenity, to accept the things I cannot change.” When I paid attention to what I was mumbling, I realized that I was giving expression to what has come to be known as “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, “The Serenity Prayer” is still used by millions of recovering addicts and alcoholics as a spiritual doorway into prayerful surrender. In my sleeplessness, I was thinking about my addicted and recovering sisters and brothers and praying the same prayer that is so often upon their lips.

By 4:00 that morning, additional words started to form in my consciousness as I sat at the keyboard. By 5:10, I had an entire song. Songwriting does not often happen that quickly for me. That morning, it did.

So, as the launch of “The Bridge” draws near, it is on my heart to share with you a very rough version of the song that I wrote in those hours.  I recorded the song hastily this morning on my iPhone.  Please pardon the poor quality of the recording and my pitchiness. I felt a sense of urgency about sharing the song with you just as it is, even in its unfinished and unpolished state. A better recording will come in time.

I hope to teach this new song to the Bridge congregation this Saturday night at our first service. Perhaps it will will give to people a musical way to call to mind, not only a familiar prayer, but also the truth that Jesus is the most trustworthy bridge upon which a person can stand.

Thanks for listening. Here’s the song:

Bridge (words and music by Eric Park)

Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Grant me courage to change the things I can
Grant me wisdom to understand the difference
Grant me strength to stand upon that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to holy ground
You’re the bridge for captive souls unbound
You’re the bridge across a wildly raging sea
You’re the bridge into a serenity

Grant us patience to live one day and then the next
Grant us mercy, that sins will be made clean
Grant redemption, that life will be as you intend
Grant us grace to travel on that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to love that heals
You’re the bridge that holds what God reveals
You’re the bridge that sets a lonely prisoner free
You’re the bridge into eternity

It’s a bridge we know will never fall
Come and see, there’s room for one and all
We will hear the call and come to take our part
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart