Dear Hallmark: Moms are people, too.

Today is a slightly different topic than the usual…

A few days ago while shopping at Target, I walked past the aisles of cards and realized my mom’s birthday wasn’t too far away, and I should probably pick up a card while I was there.

I headed to the “birthday cards for mom” section, and started reading through cards to see my options. If you’re anything like me, this process usually takes some time, because I want to be sure to find one that says just the right thing for my totally awesome mom.

This time, though, I quickly ruled out card… after card… after card. With each one I put back, I became more and more dismayed. There was nothing wrong with them, exactly, but they were so exactly not right.

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I’ll never, no, never forsake.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Hands-down, one of my favorites right here. Yes, I know I say that about every hymn….

Hymnologists have not been able to identify the author of this hymn: it was first published in a 1787 hymnal in London by John Rippon, with the only identifier as “K”. In subsequent editions, it was attributed to “Kn,” “Keen,” and “Kirkham.” Now, Rippon had a close friend named Robert Keen(e) who served as a song leader for him from 1776-1793, but other hymns ascribed to him were attributed “R. Keene,” and had this one been penned by him as well, one would think the attribution would have been similar.

Regardless of the authorship, we can be sure this hymn was written by a Christian who was very knowledgeable of the promises of God found in Scripture, who had most likely called upon those promises for strength in times of tribulation. And because the text of this hymn comes directly from scripture, we can find the same solace as we sing it over 200 years later.

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10,000 reasons for my heart to find.

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing Your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me:
Let me be singing when the evening comes

Matt Redman wrote 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) in 2011 with a Swedish friend of his, Jonas Myrin. We’ve talked before about hymns that are based closely on scripture; here we have a band-drive “contemporary” worship song that was inspired by and based on scripture. In Redman’s account:

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Thematic worship.

We generally have thematic worship at Middletown United Methodist, which means that we have a focusing theme around which the entire service is centered. As in many other congregations, we usually preach by sermon series, which allows us to be responsive to the needs of the church. Planning series also lets us be deliberate about having some Sundays throughout the course of the year that are teaching sermons, some that call the church to mission, some that are practical how-this-scripture-changes-my-daily-life sermons, some that inspire the church to hope or compassion, etc.

For an example of a recent series, in the 4 weeks leading up to the 15th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we had a series titled “The Decline and Fall of Israel.” This was a primarily a teaching series. We learned about the time recounted in the Old Testament when God’s people demanded to be led by a king, to be a monarchy rather than a theocracy, and in the Sundays that followed we saw the parallels between the people of Israel and the people of God today, exploring what we could learn from their story. Next Sunday, we’re beginning a 3-week series titled “I’d Rather Not Talk About It,” where we’ll address mental health issues including addiction, anxiety, depression, and suicide. We’ll be talking about the roots of these issues– and why the answer is not, “well if you just had more faith, you wouldn’t be depressed.” We’ll look at what scripture says to us, and what the church can do to support those with mental health struggles.

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What joy shall fill my heart.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation,

And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!

Then I shall bow in humble adoration,

and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!

The story behind the hymn How Great Thou Art is one that speaks directly to the heart of the optimist, the silver-lining, bright-side-of-life crowd. This hymn teaches us to recognize God’s beauty wherever we are, whatever may come– and that’s exactly what the author of the original text was doing when he wrote it.

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Come running.

There’s a song by Sidewalk Prophets, a 2015 release, that’s been popular on Christian radio the past 6 months or so. It’s called “Come Running Like a Prodigal,” and the major message it has is pretty great:

Wherever you are, whatever you did,
it’s a page in your book, but it isn’t the end.
Your Father will meet you with arms open wide;
this is where your heart belongs.

But their connection of this important concept- that our mistakes don’t define our worth– with the story of the Prodigal Son has got me thinking. Well, first: so they distort the parable a bit to make it support this message that they started with (which isn’t cool, guys). But we’re going to leave all that aside for today. What’s got me thinking is that if you read the story closely, it wasn’t the son who ran, it was the father. Check it out:

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One Bread, One Body

Last Sunday was Communion Sunday for many United Methodists, and we sang one of my favorite hymns to come out of the 1970s: One Bread, One Body. What’s remarkable about this hymn is that it doesn’t sound all that dated to me. Sure, it definitely has a 1970s feel to it, but it’s not obnoxious and tacky like so many of its contemporaries are. I was thinking about why that could be– what is it about this hymn that’s given it staying power and relevance, compared to others from the 70s and 80s that usually cause uncontrollable eyerolling and cringing these days?

As I was looking into this hymn, I discovered that most of the text comes almost verbatim from scripture, which is really cool! And maybe that’s part of the explanation. See what I mean:

Here’s the refrain of the song:


One bread, one body, one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many throughout the earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.

And here’s 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

Here’s the first verse:

Gentile or Jew, servant or free,
woman or man, no more.

And Galatians 3:28:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The second verse:

Many the gifts, many the works,
one in the Lord of all.

And 1 Corinthians 12:4-5 (though there are several other passages that talk about spiritual gifts):

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.

The third verse is the outlier:

Grain for the fields, scattered and grown,
gathered to one, for all.

As best I can tell, it alludes to the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4, but the imagery of faith and of God’s people being a grain to be gathered is a common one throughout scripture. Without talking to the author, and with no explanation that I’ve been able to track down, your guess as to which scripture he used is as good as mine. But it definitely fits with the other verses, because even if we can’t pinpoint an exact passage, it still clearly comes from scripture.

Scripture adaptation is a common hymn writing technique; in fact, I’ve written before about the different adaptations of the Psalms that were the songs of the church in the days before hymns. In some ways it’s easier: you don’t have to think up a text, you start with a one already and you work with it to fit it to music. But in other ways, starting with scripture can be harder. You might have to change a word to make something fit, but you don’t want to distort the meaning of the passage, or you might get everything to fit except one thing and have to start over.

But the biggest benefit of setting scripture to music is that scripture is timeless. It can speak to the church for generations to come. Hymns that are written about personal faith experiences can have the same kind of staying power, but it’s sometimes harder. For example, they may be more connected to a cultural perspective that speaks to the church of the day– such as many of the hymns written around WWII– but that the church future might have difficulty relating to. By contrast, One Bread, One Body still speaks to the church nearly 30 years later, because the text is still culturally relevant.


Are Christians in the US allergic to community?

Are Christians in the US fundamentally uncomfortable with community?

I’ve been reading a book out of the excellent series of worship texts published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship called A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne Van Dyk. The book explores what our liturgy says about our theology, and how our theology drives our liturgy– and sometimes, what we state as our theology can be belied by what we do with our liturgy. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in why we do what we do in worship.

I have a natural interest in the historical practices of the church because I’ve never quite felt comfortable clamoring to take down a fence until I understood why it was erected. And once I learn the reasoning behind something, perhaps it’s theological or symbolic, the historical nerd in me frequently says “well isn’t that cool? We should do that!”

There are, however, some historical practices of the church that I find harder to swallow, and I’m noticing that my resistance seems to be, at times, related to how much I identify in my individuality and independence. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where that part of my identity comes from.

Many people have noted that individualism is an essential part of understanding American culture. For better or worse, the political philosophy upon which this country was founded, establishing historical levels of freedom unheard of in any other country and now emulated by countries around the world and used as the measure of fundamental human rights and basic human decency, permits the individual with considerable ability to chart his or her own destiny. (For argument’s sake, I’m glossing over the not-shallow pool of legitimate justice issues that have often stemmed from historical prejudices and oppression, left to run rampant thanks to this freedom. They’re very important, but peripheral to my contemplations.)

If you think about the heritage of the country, with pioneers and cowboys and explorers traveling to map a new land, and folks packing up their belongings and traveling to parts unknown on the rumor of employment or better fortunes, it really makes sense why independence is so tightly woven into the fabric of our country. You had to be able to make it on your own, or you wouldn’t make it at all. Even after the country was settled, America has had a seriously difficult time with anyone trying to tell them what to do. The defense of independence, frequently labeled as “freedom,” is often a knee-jerk reaction in our country.

few have questioned whether individualism is such a good thing. When one begins to see how the theory of individualism tends to prize a certain ruthlessness over compassion, grace, and forgiveness, they might have a point. And honestly, if individualism has in any way caused this matchup between Hillary and Trump, I think I’m comfortable saying that it might not be as great as we suspected.

Be that as it may, individualism and independence are so fundamentally tied to the American culture, reinforced by shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent where anyone can be a star if they work hard enough, that they’re not going anywhere soon.

To top it off, growing up as a girl in the 1990s, we were surrounded by these strong, independent female role models who preached that true feminism was total independence: you didn’t need anyone’s help, much less a guy’s, and it was all about embracing your awesome individuality. I was never really into soccer, but every girl had a poster of Mia Hamm on their wall, and so did I. I remember watching Xena and [that other girl] kick some serious butt, and Clarissa was so awesomely sassy as she “explained it all.” And on the music front, Gwen Stefani did not take any nonsense from anyone, and do I really need to mention the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child? These women were female role models for a generation of girls, and defined feminism in a very particular way for that generation.

So this is where I’m starting from. I have 2 parts of my identity, my culture, that are fiercely independent. And in a lot of ways that’s good! It makes me step up and be a better version of myself every single day, because no one can do it for me. It’s made me resilient, and it gave me the confidence to follow a call to ministry without worrying whether I could take care of myself. I’m capable and smart, of course I can!


A few weeks ago my senior pastor preached on the community of believers in Acts, and I can’t say that I’m ever particularly comfortable when that passage comes up. He used Acts 2:42-47, but a few chapters later in Acts 4 there’s a more complete description of what it was like living in that community:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Reading about this group of folks is uncomfortable because it sets up expectations about the big-C Church and those who are members of it. And they’re expectations that are directly counter to the ways I identify as a strong, independent person, both in my identity as an American and a woman.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the culture of independence in our country, and the strain of independent-individualistic-feminism in which I grew up, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of Christian community that we find in the book of Acts. Both of these cultures value pride in oneself above all others, and as Christians we’re called to sacrifice that self, to die to self for Christ.

This is a challenge that’s unique to the Christian church in America; I don’t know of any other culture that celebrates freedom and individuality to such a degree, nor can I think of another culture that has such a severe automatic response to being told what to do. We also don’t have a vast legacy of relationships that have been steeped for generations the way many older countries do, though we have a few. So if Americans don’t like something a group or community does, they usually leave it: they end the relationship. They boycott (Chick fil-A, Target), they sue, they torch it and find another community. There is no effort toward investing in living in an imperfect community. There’s rarely any value placed on the relationship that’s greater than the irritation of disagreement.

And everyone does this! We self-segregate more than ever, because more than ever we have the ability to do so, and it’s not healthy or beneficial to individuals or to our country at large. We pick colleges where we’re going to feel comfortable and not challenged, we live in neighborhoods with “people like us”, we go to churches where everyone agrees with us, which is seriously not healthy for Christians or for the Church– and we often shun those who attempt to be a part of our community but are different than us, or who disagree with us.

But that’s not how you live in community. When you live in community with others, at the level of these Christians in Acts, you live with them through the agreements and the disagreements. You love them in the times when you totally understand them, and in the times when you totally don’t get where they’re coming from. You appreciate them despite- and perhaps because of- your differences. And you don’t bolt from the community at the first sign of unpleasantness.

This country’s culture has made us allergic to living in true community like the example that was set for us. It is a naturalized cultural tendency to bolt from a community for any number of reasons, and be our individualistic, independent selves. But a Christian faith calls for a different response.


Open hearts, open minds, open doors, open table.

This Sunday’s scripture is the story of the prodigal son, which most of us are pretty familiar with. But I don’t always pay attention to how Jesus sets up this parable in verses 1-3 of the 15th chapter of Luke:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable:

He then tells the parable, and towards the end, when the son returns, the father says to his servants:

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

This Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, our church will celebrate Communion. As Methodists, we welcome to the communion table anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and to lead a new life of peace and love. Our Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.” This practice of an “open table” comes from the Methodist understanding of Holy Communion as Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation, and the recognition that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.Read More »

We sing together.

The church is one of the only places in our culture today where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities gather together for one hour on Sunday mornings and sing as a group. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly listen to soloists singing songs that highlight their skill as individuals, whether it’s pop, country, rock, even contemporary Christian radio, or we watch soloists compete on shows like The Voice; even if we go out to listen to live music, it’s all lead-singer driven.

This increasing cultural focus on the solo singer, and the pursuit of flashy, individual talent and show-offy singing to the exclusion of all else (e.g. the national anthem at ball games), is tragic inasmuch as it marks the demise of group song. Singing with a group is one of the most profoundly unifying activities in which we can engage. Singing together unified and empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. Singing carols brought together the two sides of the Western Front during the cease-fire on Christmas Day in 1914. And lifting our voices together in worship unites the church in the same way: it is an essential practice that strengthens the community of the church in a way nothing else can, which is why from its very beginning, the church has sung together.

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26)

John Wesley, like the other hymnists of the Great Awakening, realized the power of a singing church; from the beginning, the people called Methodists were known as “a singing people.” In his 1761 hymnal Select Hymns, Wesley included “Directions for Singing” to encourage congregational song, and these can still be found in the front of our hymnal today.Read More »