God the Artist

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Light ray from sun behind cloud blue“Great work, God!” called out Dr. Don Adams, prompting the conference audience to give a standing ovation in response to God’s artistry as Creator. That was many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it, both because of its spontaneity and also because of its view of God as the ultimate Artist of life.

Years ago I preached on “God as Artist” at St. Paul’s UMC in Vacaville, CA. With that theme, the worship team invited everyone to bring in evidence of their creativity. And what a thrill it was! Some people had made jewelry; others had written poems, drawn or painted, or taken photographs. Some worked with wood, ceramics, or recycled materials; others brought pictures of their children, or evidence of a special event they had planned. They decorated the entire worship space with the array, covering tables and leaning against walls. God is an incredible Artist, and gives us gifts to be artists, as well!

So it’s not surprising that one article in the first issue of Catalyst magazine* caught my eye, about Patrisha Gill, Artist in Residence at City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, CA. “Creativity (is) evidence of the divine,” she says. “I don’t know if spirituality enhances creativity or vice versa, but I believe we’ve all been given gifts, and those gifts can be used to transform lives.” Already a musician, she is now learning to create sacred space for worship through her Master of Theological Studies using visual arts, video, music, dance, photography and the spoken word. She states, “I want to take the things that I learn here, add my imagination, and ask God to blow on that creation and bless it, so it lives and breathes to bless others.”

What a beautiful steward of art and life!

* – Catalyst: The Magazine of Pacific School of Religion, Spring 2016.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

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Music as Gift

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Piano hands on keys 2“The one who sings prays twice.” I’ve come to confirm that old adage. There’s something powerful about music that speaks to a deeper place in the soul than words alone can reach.

Music brings joy to my heart! I grew up loving Western classical music and have returned to it in recent years. But I’ve also grown to enjoy a variety of genres, whether it’s Taiko drums, bluesy jazz or a strong rock beat; Taize melodies, Celtic strains or Gregorian chants. Since moving to the country almost ten years ago, I’ve come to appreciate some western and Americana, as well. Last year we had an opportunity to share in music from Fiji, following the leader’s complex rhythm with our bamboo sticks. The music of drums and bamboo filled our space and formed a mystic sense of community.

The Psalms are full of musical instruments, with songs of praise and lament and much in between. In fact, the Psalms themselves are songs, most sung together in worship. As we enter into the U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but recall the first two verses of Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise to [God the Name], all the earth! Worship [God the Name] with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing!”

If this is a season of Thanksgiving for you, may your soul sing for joy, as you delight in and share God’s glorious gift of music!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Offering Tips

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One of the sites I check regularly is Alan Wildes, who goes by the name of Generosity CoaOffering platech. In four brief video clips this past month, he has given tips for the offering which resonate with what I have been teaching, as well.

Two clips deal with the importance of language, which shapes both our thinking and others’ expectations. We do not “take” the offering; we “receive” it. We’re not “taking” it to use in church ministries. People give to God through the church. The offering is a worshipful act where we help all of us give back to God in response to what God has done for us.

The second message about offering language relates to worship visitors and giving. Personally, it sets my teeth on edge when a church leader says, “We do not expect visitors to give.” Who are we to deny someone the opportunity to participate in God’s work in the world? But Wildes make a great point even before that. By calling people “visitors,” we imply that they’re just here to visit and then will leave. But when we call them “newcomers,” we say they have recently joined us and we hope they will continue to be part of the community. What a difference that makes!

The other two offering tips speak of all-important connections. “Connect the dots,” he says, by connecting our constituents’ giving to people’s life changes – changes for the better in who they are and how they live. And connect your church’s vision to (you guessed it) people’s real life changes. “Vision increases generosity,” he states. Surely we can celebrate the transformation we see going on in people’s lives, both inside the church and in our wider community.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Saying God’s Name

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Words can shape our reality by forming tBurning bush Creationhe way we think about ourselves, the world, and even God. I have known and said that all my life, insisting on gender-inclusive words for people and for God. But this week that truth took a step deeper into my soul.

Ever since my first Old Testament course in seminary, I have specially treasured God’s personal name, given to Moses at the burning bush.Thanks to biblical linguist Frank Cross and my Old Testament professor, Dr. Herbert Otwell, I discovered that YHWH is a verb phrase, meaning “He Who causes (gives birth to or begets) all that is alive or becoming.” The English phrase “I Am Who I Am” points to it, but loses a lot of the rich reality. The verb in Hebrew emphasizes ongoing action of being, or becoming, or living. So the personal name of God is as the One Who causes all that is alive, in ongoing being. It’s no wonder that the Gospel of John records all those “I Am” statements by Jesus, as he identifies with this mysterious, transcendent, redeeming Creator.

So for almost forty years now, I have made it a point to honor God by saying God’s personal name – but now I realize I need to honor God by not saying it.

Last week at a retreat after I read Scripture and preached, a longtime friend lovingly challenged me about pronouncing it. It is the sacred name, which Jews (including his wife) do not pronounce. While as a Christian I believe there is no longer a dividing line between the sacred and profane, this makes a big difference at this stage of my life. I want to respect my Jewish sisters and brothers, for whom pronouncing it is nothing less than blasphemy. But along with that, choosing not to say that name reminds me, even now, of the holiness, the vastness, the transcendence of God. Maybe that’s what Jews have meant by choosing to not pronounce it all along.

God is so much bigger than anything we can imagine, even while being the closest of our kin (redeemer), dwelling within and among us. If not saying the name reminds me of that, it is well-worth changing a lifelong habit, hard as that may be. After all, there are other names for God, as well. Like Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And they all hold enough mystery for a lifetime of faith.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Ideas for Celebrating a Local Church Endowment in Worship

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Call to Worship

Song:         “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”        UM Hymnal No. 400

Litany:
Gracious, giving God, You have blessed us with every gift, and especially with the gift of Jesus, who came that we all might have abundant and eternal life.
We give You our hearts and our lives! We seek to follow You through Jesus Christ and to extend his mission by the way that we live.
We give You our passion, our concerns, and our resources – the first and the best of what You have entrusted to us. We also seek to use the rest of what You have given according to Your priorities for all Your creation.
We dedicate ourselves to You, O God, that we may embody Your love for future generations, as well as our own.
Wesley preached the Gospel and put his faith into action. He reached out to those in need, leaving a legacy to transform the lives of people in generations to come. In the same way, we seek to commit ourselves to Your work through the gift of our resources for ministries beyond this lifetime.
May our gifts plant and nurture Your Gospel in future generations. May we continue to be a model of stewardship, so that others may follow in faith. This we pray through Your grace shown us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Naming Our Dreams for Future Ministries

Song:        “Pass It On”                        UM Hymnal No. 572

Prayer:
Glowing Cloud and Pillar of Fire, You raise up in each age leaders with a burning vision to guide Your people toward the land of promise.
We remember before You now those who have gone before us, who have left us a legacy of faith. [The people may say aloud specific names.] They have given us bedrock of values and resources with which to serve You throughout our lifetime.
We thank You also for those who have committed themselves to sharing Your vision with those who will come after us. We consecrate our lives to You, that we may share the greatness of life with You with the generations to come.
This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Offerings

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This Sunday in worship, we received a special offering for Human Relations Day as well as our ongoing offerings for God’s work through the local and connectional (worldwide) church. This act reminded me of a conversation I had this week with a worship staff colleague about the role of the offering in our lives.

The words that we use about our offerings are important because they imply different worlds of understanding.

First, we “receive” offerings; we don’t “collect” them. “Collect” implies a billing approach and a contractual agreement for services rendered. It focuses on taking in money, not on receiving it in order to use it for others.

Second, we “give” our offerings; we don’t “present” them. The verb “to present” is part of the Old Testament language for sacrifices. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ gift of himself for us in his life, death, and Resurrection: thanks to Jesus Christ, no more sacrifices are needed or wanted by God. Jesus’ sacrifice was done once for all people and for all time. (See the Book of Hebrews about this.)

And third, we give “to God through the church,” not “to the church” as an end in itself. By being mindful about our language, we help shape our deeper understandings.

So our offerings are not three things: They are not our sacrifices for God. They are not a way to earn our place with God. (God already loves us as children of God.) And offerings are not just symbolic. Our offerings are meant to be substantial and to come from the substance of our lives: our time and energies, money from our work, our lived-out values, priorities and commitments, all given in gratitude for God’s love already given to us. Our offerings are substantial in another way, as well: they can make a substantial difference in the lives of human beings in this world.

Language is important, but ultimately it is what we do that counts. So when we give back to God some of the resources God has entrusted to us, we come with grateful hearts to participate in God’s substantial work all around us, by giving from the substance of our lives. May your offerings this week of your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness embody the substance of God’s love!

Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

Written 1/18/2011 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Deep Change – Covenant Sunday

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Positive change can happen when we are intentional, but it is still not easy. Many people have followed the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions for the year to come. But the problem we have with resolutions is that they last only a week or two — a month or two at the longest — because they depend upon our willpower alone.

Human willpower is all we have, unless we look beyond ourselves to God to pull us through, especially when we desire long-term, deep change.

Thankfully, John Wesley shaped a tradition that empowers us for real behavior change by emphasizing God’s will, not our actions. In Wesley’s day, Methodists in London practiced his Covenant Service (United Methodist Book of Worship, page 291) on every New Year’s Day, and many current United Methodist congregations in the United States use a version of this as their first worship service of the New Year. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer (United Methodist Hymnal, 607) is dear to my heart. I have carried it with me for decades. As a pastor, I shared it annually with the congregations I served, as does the pastor who serves the church I now attend.

Thankfully, deep change depends upon acceptance of God’s will and grace, not the strength of our finite willpower. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer focuses on God’s purpose and ability, not our own. Whether we are ranked high or low, employed or laid aside, satisfied or suffering, the prayer calls us to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands. So if you plan to make a New Year’s resolution this week, come to it from within the Covenant Prayer. It can actually get you into the deep, positive change that God has planned for you all along.
Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub
Written 12/29/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church