Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Birthday Church

John Howard Yoder and his student Stanley Hauerwas have convinced me that the nature of worship is political—or that worship shapes the way we live and structure our lives through our common prayer, confession, singing, studying, and table fellowship. I have been in a church long enough to learn that worship is also shaped by the narrative of our culture and North American Christianity—that is consumerism, capitalism, efficiency, and instantaneous gratification.  In other words, I have yet to see the fruit of worship’s slow work. I hold on to the hope that worship shows up, even in disguise, to provide our lives with habit, balance and direction.

Our United Methodist Women (UMW) created a wooden “birthday church” piggy bank in our sanctuary.  On your birthday you are expected to put money in the piggy bank, which goes toward missions or other special UMW projects. It sounds something like this, “Happy Birthday! Now where is your special offering?” 

Typically we suspect that the world owes us something on our birthdays, namely, lots of money and presents.  Our women have begun to overturn that consumerist mentality. At Plains we owe the church something on our birthdays. The birthday church is a basic lesson in stewardship; a reminder that every gift is of God, and we give to God a portion of what we have been given. The birthday church offers a visual reminder that each person has something to contribute as we drop our dollar bills into the piggy bank. Wesleyans call this responsible grace. You have been blessed to live another year, so we expect you to give your life (and your pocketbook) in response.

 I couldn’t care less about how much money is in the birthday house. Yet, I do hope that this small act of subversion fosters a habit of giving, that it leads to the transformation of our consumerist minds, and we might learn how to give our lives to one another in the polis called church. Or, maybe, if we have enough birthdays, then our ‘birthday wants lists’ will shrink and our ‘birthday thanksgiving lists’ will grow. It’s a small act, slow and deliberate, but it’s also subversive.

There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Odysseus. The story of Odysseus is the story of a man who tirelessly tries to get home to his wife. Along the way, Odysseus meets much opposition while he sails across the oceans. At one point he comes across the Sirens.  The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms of death. Odysseus decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax that the Sirens might not lure them.

But finally, he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?

Worship is often frustrating to plan and lead. There is not much immediate gratification in the job.  I don’t really see changes after my sermons, even when I am really proud of them. But that’s not really why we gather. We gather every week because we trust that we are singing a much more beautiful song—and that a more beautiful song will subvert the ordinary and steer us in a more beautiful direction.