[Note: I am working on assignment for the Denton Record Chronicle to visit different places of worship weekly and write about my experiences. Those columns can be found here. Full disclosure: I am affiliated with the church described below and both know and am known by many. Several greeted me saying, “It’s our turn to be written about!]
I looked up the steep, stone steps to the sanctuary at First United Methodist, Denton, and thought, “While I know there is an entrance with an elevator somewhere in this massive building, I wonder how visitors with mobility issues feel when faced with such an obstacle to entrance?”
However, such thoughts disappeared when holy shivers went down my spine as we stood at 11 AM and began to sing “Lift up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates.” The choir followed the processing cross toward the altar and choir loft. Their voices, coupled with enthusiastic congregational singing, filled that high ceilinged, traditional-looking space with praise to God, preparing the welcome for the Christ-child.
Preceding the procession, Rev. Deana Mason offered announcements to the unusually full and conversation-noisy congregation. She then led a children’s time, explaining the third Advent candle of joy. Afterward, she invited parents to send little ones who might become restless to a children’s area because of a longer-than-usual service.
With heavily accented English, Rev. Diana Wingeier-Rayo led the pastoral prayer. Having received prayer cards gathered earlier, she included those mentioned, also praying, “We need Your will and Your way.” All joined her in the Lord’s Prayer.
Lead pastor, Don Lee, speaking from a spot in front of the altar, and a bit difficult to see, invited us to stand for the Gospel reading. In Matthew 1:22-25, we saw the story of Joseph being given news about his betrothed already being pregnant. Rev. Lee reminded us that people experience and express joy in different ways. He suggested that after Joseph got over the initial shock, he found great delight in Jesus. He may have said something like, “Yeah –look! Jesus is taking his first steps – – on water!”
This type of humor characterized Rev. Lee’s brisk 12 minute sermon on joy. He reminded us that the word joy or rejoice is seen over 300 times in the Bible and that joy does not equal happiness. Happiness is usually self-made. We never get to take credit for the moments of joy. They just come.
Rev. Lee told the story behind the composition of the Messiah. George Frederick Handel had suffered a stroke, leaving him with blurred vision. He faced financial ruin, having lost a fortune in the opera business. He came across Charles Jennings work, which became the libretto for the Messiah. Legend has it that Handel completed this musical masterpiece in 24 days. It is also said he was found weeping after composing the Hallelujah Chorus, saying, “I saw heaven open and the very face of God.”
Attention turned to John Priddy, the Minister of Music here. Under his expert direction, the choir, soloists and orchestra performed portions of the Messiah, including all of Part One. They ended the performance with, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus.
The words, projected on screen and printed in bulletins, gave opportunity to listen carefully. Slowly, the gospel unfolded in words of Scripture. Human iniquity is acknowledged and God’s response to offer peace in return becomes the source of joy and praise.
When the expertly sung and played performance ended to enthusiastic applause, Rev. Lee, noting the time, wanted to dismiss the congregation immediately. However, the choir and musicians protested, insisting we sing the final hymn.
Rev. Lee laughingly agreed, and we began, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” As the congregation sang, the choir offered a magnificent descant, filling the space once more with joyful praises to God.
I attended this service with others who were there for the first time. One was greeted by the “regulars,” the other ignored. I stayed a bit and was invited to lunch by someone I just met.
Because of the time constraints, there was no “meet and greet” on Sunday. After conversation with some regular attendees, I learned that mostly older adults normally attend this service,This church faces the same problem almost all mainline churches face. These faithful older adults who sustain and serve the church are dying off. Who will replace them? Who will step up as habitual givers and servers? We are moving from a churched to non-churched era. Fewer see Sunday morning worship as mandatory or even a particularly important thing to do.
No one knows what the future brings to churches like First Methodist, a church that chose to stay downtown despite the location challenges. It’s part of a denomination with historic concern both for the good of society and the good of the individual soul. That has long been Methodism’s strength. Now, internal arguments, bloated bureaucracy and arcane methods dilute much of that strength.
And yet, despite the challenges and the uncertain future, they also offered the joyous hope of a Savior on this past Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, just 10 days before Christmas Day.
[Note: this article is slated to run in the December 20, 2014 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]
I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today. During Handel’s time, educated people were far more steeped in Bible then we are today. Their sources of information far fewer, the ones they had were more known than ours. When Charles Jennings put together that string of Scriptures that became the libretto to the composition, he clearly did so with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, of the state of humanity, and of the grace and goodness of God.
Starting with the glorious passage from Isaiah 40, we see the overarching snapshot of the situation: a people in need of comfort, an awareness of human sin, and an acknowledgement of our responsibility to get ready for God to show up:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
What a way to start! This is not about what a great life we can have now, or how we can be successful, rich and loved, or how to be more patient, or many of the other “feel-good” messages I have heard since I started on this mystery worship venture six months ago.
Instead, from the prophet Haggai we hear of the power of the Lord–and it is not always a comfortable power for us:
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come.
And from Malachi how frightening this is:
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
We also see from Isaiah 60 the affirmation of the universality of God’s love:
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
From Zechariah, we learn that God offers peace, not condemnation, to those who are not part of the covenant community:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen. Rejoice greatly.
It sold then–but I am not sure it sells so well today. Not the acknowledgement of human iniquity, nor the fear that will accompany the actual showing up of a Holy God, nor the wideness of God’s mercy which is for all, not just a chosen few who happen to believe a certain way or adhere to certain methods or fit in a binary sexuality.
It also sold then because, again, there was a common core of biblical knowledge that is now almost totally lost. We’ve all got our own “pick and choose” religions–every single one of us. The democratization of knowledge by the explosion of available information has also led to the democratization of religion–each to her/his own.
Somewhere, somehow, we need a new Pentecost, one that will teach us once more how to speak the Gospel in languages others know. I believe that it will come. I believe that God still wants to speak peace to the “heathens,” whom I define as any who have yet to come to the healing language of grace, peace and forgiveness.
Which, in my opinion, is pretty well all of us.