Sparks

Terry's sermon last Sunday distinguished between reality and fairy tales in terms of the way the gospel message is often realized in our own journeys. A "transfiguring" experience does not always mean a constant upward and blessed trajectory in our lives. The story behind the opening hymn for this Sunday, "Come Thou Font of Every Blessing" (CTF), echoes this very same theme.

I often think of old hymn-writers as penning their odes in ivory towers, perhaps as part of an educated, righteous, and elite class. Yet, we know the writer of "Amazing Grace," John Newton, was actually a slave trader before his transfiguration/conversion. And other biographies suggest that inspired hymns often emerge from less lofty but deeply spiritual circumstances. The 18th-century author of CTF, Robert Robinson, was born into poverty, was sent to barbering school at age fourteen, and there fell in with a "gang of hoodlums and a life of debauchery." As a teenager he attended a Methodist church service intending to heckle the minister and cause general mischief when he was overcome by the minister's sermon and experienced a transfiguration/conversion experience. He went on to become a Baptist preacher and well-known theologian in his day and wrote several hymns, including CTF. Unfortunately in his later years, the words of the third verse, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it," may have been prophetic as his life became characterized by lapses into unrighteous living, instability, and departures from a godly life. At one point, while riding in a carriage with a woman who was humming CTF, she asked him if he knew the tune. Robinson broke down in tears and exclaimed, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote those lyrics, and I would give a thousand worlds to enjoy the feelings I had then."

As Terry mentioned last week, the gospel road is not the Disney road; the transfiguration of Christ did not lead to life happily ever after. Our journeys, individual and collective, are conscious choices to follow the path of Christ, even as we struggle and submit to wandering tendencies. The good news is that we can always come back; that we are always welcome. CTF is one of the great hymns of the church, and it is somehow made much greater by knowing a glimpse of Robinson's humanity as we begin our Lenten journey.

(Source: Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories)

"The time has come," the walrus said, "to speak of many things..."

Maybe Lewis Carroll's walrus knew about the ripeness of issues. Ron Heifetz certainly does and writes about them in Leadership without Easy Answers, my bible for interim ministry. "The ripeness of an issue," he says, "is determined primarily by identifying which issues are currently generating a widespread feeling of urgency. ...The central question is: Has the issue fastened in people's minds?" (p. 116)

An issue that has been hanging around St. Paul's for some time seems to have ripened over the last couple of months-it now has a sense of urgency, and it's definitely fastened in people's minds. I probably don't even need to tell you, but the issue is whether we continue the 8, 9, and 11 a.m. worship schedule or move to a different format.

Among the many reasons this question is picking up steam are two primary ones-

  • there are not enough people to sustain both a 9 and 11 a.m. service, in terms of both attendance and the scheduling of liturgical and other participants, and
  • budgetary realities have so challenged the music program that we can have the choir (and section leaders) at only one of the services.

Many individuals and groups at St. Paul's have been talking about this issue and imagining possibilities for change. Church school leaders, for example, have met to discuss how the curriculum and schedule could be adapted to work with a single main service on Sundays. Betsy Munzer wrote about the question in the Calendar a few months ago. Andy and I have spent a good bit of time talking about the issue from a liturgy and music perspective.

Several times over the last months, the Vestry has considered the need for a change but did not discern that it was time to make such a decision. At its February meeting though, cognizant of increasing interest in and mounting reasons for the possibility of moving to a different schedule, the question was revisited. At that meeting the Vestry and I decided together that starting after Easter we will begin an extended experiment with an 8 and 10 a.m. service schedule, with church school at 9. This schedule will go through the spring, and summer will be 8 and 10 as usual (with the last day of church school on June 7 and the picnic June 14 at Larz Anderson Park). The real difference comes in September when worship continues at 8 and 10 and church school resumes at 9. This will be the schedule for the 2009-10 school year.

So now we have a project-fashioning a service that combines the best of both services into one worship experience. Toward that end, we'll have conversations about worship on two Sunday mornings-March 15 at 10 and noon, and March 22 at 10. The format for these will be the same, so you need attend only one unless you want to come to more. We'll spend some time identifying what might concern us about a single main service, what hopes we would have for it, and ideas for making it happen. You'll also learn how similar the two services really are and how combining them won't be all that difficult.

This is a big step for St. Paul's but one whose time has come. Thank you for being part of the conversation and the future of St. Paul's!

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