Audio service, May 24, 2020

The full text of the service for the Sixth Sunday after Easter, follows. low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Higher-quality audio:

Download: Lower-quality audio file, zipped (1.9 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 24, 2020, the Sixth Sunday after Easter.

Sentence and Votum

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! [Psalm 27:14]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8]

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

O God, the King of Glory, who hast exalted your Son Jesus Christ with great triumph into your kingdom in heaven; we ask you to not leave us comfortless; but send to us your Holy Spirit to comfort us; and exalt us into the same place where he has gone: your own blessed and glorious presence, there to dwell in fullness of joy forever and ever. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 77 [77:1-12, NRSV]

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.
You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the fourth chapter of the first letter of Peter: [1 Peter 4:7-11, NRSV]

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

Here ends the reading.

Address

Today’s reading from the first letter of Peter is good pastoral care in the broader sense of the term: loving-kindness, set in a theological framework.

The letter, whether or not from St. Peter, was written to menaced and derided Christians in what’s now central Turkey. But it was probably not what we think of as organized, official persecution. From the context earlier in the chapter, the blow back comes from people they knew, who did not approve of their new way of life. As Peter puts it, “They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.” Perhaps, the angry people wanted their old party buddies back. And perhaps — this is my imagination — these new Christians were, as we’d say today, preachy and judgy. A revised way of life sometimes does that to you, so be on alert for a spirit of superiority or condescension. But even if you’re minding your own business, living in a healthy, kind, wholesome or moral way can bring out the worst in others, especially if your new life pulls you away from old friends and their hurtful lives. And if that’s the case, the best we can do is say no, firmly but kindly.

Kindly is not optional. Christianity cannot sanctify rude, pretensious or overbearing behavior, or make it acceptable. Peter counseled them to “maintain constant love” and “be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Something had gone wrong; perhaps there was some bad behavior shown by Christians to their former friends, and, and if so that was a mistake.

Remember: we all will be judged, and “for this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (that’s in verse six, just before our lesson) and which has long been a source of hope for Universalists. The plan includes everyone. Judgment follows justice, but in seeking the last and the lost, ends in divine mercy. So we starts with carefully kept humility. “Maintain constant love for one another,” to finish the thought, “for love covers a multitude of sins.” We live, not as judges, but as those who are and will be judged. Don’t make your behavior harder for yourself or anyone else.

Let us then be “good stewards” of God’s love, and from it draw courage and goodness to bear up in hard times with courage and goodness. God bless.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things we know not to desire or for which we are not worthy to ask. And this we ask for your infinite mercy’s sake. Amen. [Based on Book of Common Prayer]

Holy and eternal Spirit, source of life and light, you are our helper in every need, you fulfill all our joy. Be this day the present help of all who turn to you, here and everywhere, whether hurt or ashamed, whether sick or disheartened. And when we are strong, be a light beyond our present thoughts and pleasures, to guide us into ways of larger right and nobler blessedness. Amen. [Von Ogden Vogt, edited]

Eternal and ever-blessed God, who hast made us heirs of many ages and set us in the midst of many brothers and sisters; deepen our gratitude for your blessings as we have received them from our fathers, our benefactors, and our friends. May we never forget the kindness that surrounds us in the present, nor be careless to the treasures we inherit from the past; but in having a lively sense of debt to our brothers and sisters, and a loving remembrance of departed generations, may we reverently carry forward the work of the ages. We thank you for the fellowship of the living; for partners in duty; for comrades in the good fight; for all who feel with our joys and our sorrows; and especially for those by whom we are beloved and whom we love. We also bless your name for the laborers; for the succession of prophets, apostles, and martyrs, continued even to this day; for leaders and commanders of the people, who have made themselves great by becoming the servants of all; and for the nameless multitude of the loyal and devoted, who have fallen asleep in their generations, leaving their memorial with you. Make us of one heart with all these your worshippers; of one purpose with all these your servants; of one communion with all these your saints; and of one will with thine. Amen. [Orders of Worship for Manchester College, Oxford]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Audio service, May 21, 2020 (Ascension)

The full text of the service follows, and low bandwidth users might want to download and unzip the lower-quality audio file.

Download: Lower-quality audio file (MP3) (1.9 Mb)

Welcome

Greetings. This is a service of worship for May 21, 2020, Ascension Thursday.

Sentence and Votum

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. [Hebrews 4: 14, 16]

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:8]

Collect for the Day

Let us pray:

Grant, we ask you, Almighty God that as your best-beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind follow, and with him continually dwell in your glorious presence, world without end. Amen.

Lord’s Prayer

Let us pray, as Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm

Let us praise God with words from Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Lesson

A reading from the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the end of the gospel. [Luke 24:49-53 (end), NRSV]

Jesus said to his disciples:

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Here ends the reading.

Address

The Ascension of Jesus, which we observe today, is not a greeting-card holiday with its own cultural, festive trappings. But it is a natural fit with Universalism, for as we heard in the opening collect, we pray that we “may also in heart and mind follow [Christ] and with him continually dwell.”

Yet many faithful Christians give it less than it deserves. The Universalist point aside, Ascension is an important if bittersweet, moment in Jesus’ life and ministry. His time with his disciples after his Easter resurrection has come to an end. He would no longer be seen on Earth in the flesh. Jesus would return to the heavenly realm, and there prepare a place for us; in his place, the Holy Spirit would come and give life and power to the believers, which we mark in ten days on Pentecost.

I think one reason Christians neglect Ascension comes from the art that depicts it (and in a larger sense they way it gets described) which undercuts the spiritual message and seems rather silly. Here we see Jesus in white robes, blown like a kite out of reach. Or worse, painted stiff as a Saturn rocket, half out of the scene as if he’d just sprung off a trampoline. It’s hard not to smile, even laugh and that’s a problem.

If you’re likely to think that Jesus Christ is some kind of deep space probe, it’s hard to take his departure very seriously, and you’ll miss the point of what’s being communicated: a promise of continuing divine care and connection, even when it’s not standing plainly in front of you. So much of the Gospel comes with this dynamic: “you have heard it was this way, but really this is what happened.” The Gospel frees us from the cruelty of wrong, and gives us hope that God will break decisively into our live as a blessing, countering the hardness and sadness of the world.

So, you have heard that Christ was put up – risen up – on the cross and died. Yet he lives, and now rises himself to glory. You have heard that earthly power establishes what we must believe, but we have seen that might does not make right. You have heard that everyone has a price, but we have seen that some acts of love and courage have no price. You have heard that some people are important, and others aren’t, but we have seen that the Lord of heaven and earth first lived with us, and suffered as we do, and will draw each of us up. Where he goes, we shall follow, and where we live, his promise of the Spirit shall yet dwell.

My blessing at Ascension to you.

Winchester Profession

Let us profess our faith:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Prayer

O God, the Protector of all who hope in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, multiply your mercy upon us, that, being our governor and guide, we may so pass through things temporal so we do not lose the things eternal. Amen. [Services of Congregational Worship]

Inspire our thoughts of a higher life, that we may feel how divine a thing it is to rise above ourselves, by out-growing selfish aims — and how we may be lifted into peace though sharpest suffering — and how the kingdom of heaven comes down to the heart, when the affections are set upon things above. [The Gospel Liturgy for Ascension-Exhaltation]

O Thou Guiding Spirit of the souls of men, whom all worship under many names and diverse forms, we pray for thy blessing upon the great company of those who fain would know thy law and do thy will. Grant unto thy Church Universal, wheresoever it may be found, an increasing knowledge of the truth, a deeper understanding of human need, a more generous spirit of sacrificial love. Where it is weak in the presence of evil, strengthen and upbuild it in the hearts of human beings; where it is in error, re-establish it in the right way; where it is corrupt, purify it, though it be by fire; where it is divided by misunderstanding, jealousy or suspicion, bring it into one spirit of good will. Draw together in one accord the spirits of all thy children until each shall labor in his or her appointed way for thy kingdom of righteousness and love; until the discords of earthly strife and clamor shall be lost in one great hymn of praise. So may thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen. [Composite, in Services of Religion]

Concluding prayer

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. [1979 Book of Common Prayer]

Benediction

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Notices

For more information about these services, visit revscottwells.com. The portions of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

This is Scott Wells. God bless.

Audio services to begin

Update: I’m planning for a May 10 launch. Details to follow.

For six weeks, plus Ascension Thursday, I will be creating short audio services of worship and posting them here. I will start this Sunday (May 3) or the Sunday following, depending on how quickly I can work through the logistics.

Why? As always, I think Universalist Christianity is a word of comfort, sorely needed now. In part to share an expression of Universalist Christian worship at time when other expressions of Christian faith are being distributed through internet-published video, audio and text. Also, I want to offer something to readers, a couple of whom wished aloud that the services of my home church, Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington (UNMC) could be available. In fact, they may be in time (that’s not my decision), but for now they can only be experienced live. Six weeks is all I’m ready to commit to, and that also may see us through this wave of the shutdown. (I hope.)

Even if UNMC starts broadcasting, surely there’s room for two Universalist Christian services. But keeping that possibility in mind, I want to distinguish my efforts in several ways:

  1. The services will be rooted in the now little-known Universalist prayer book tradition. It’s close to my heart and I want it to be better appreciated. I hope to show that it’s approachable enough to learn and adopt where there is no Universalist Christian church nearby.
  2. The profession of faith I will use is the one I turn to the most: the Winchester Profession of 1803. UNMC uses a local declaration of faith based on the 1899 Chicago “Five Principles” Declaration.
  3. I will use the older one-year lectionary rather than the Revised Common Lectionary that I almost always use in my preaching.
  4. There will be no sung or choral music; it’s past my ability.
  5. The services will be pre-produced, not live.
  6. The services will serve more a supplement than as a principle worship service, though that may not be an important distinction for many.
  7. The services will be audio only, probably with a text option. This should make them more available for persons with limited internet access. The digital divide is real, and even in the United States, many people live with no internet or a poor connection; streaming or recorded video is not an option for many people.

Pray for me as I take the first steps into a different mode of ministry.

The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

The perfect ordination

I’ve been thinking about my own ordination lately, though from the excitement that day I don’t remember all that much about it. Specific episodes, such as the laying on of hands, but not a complete narrative of the day. (The same is true of my wedding.)

I do remember other people’s, and usually it’s because they were long, self-indulgent, or both. What might have made them better? (This, of course, applies to the free churches, where ordinations are held in the local church and usually one at a time.)

A better ordination is not primarily about taste, though I think there’s something to be said about a more conservative approach, which at least can be appreciated ironically. Being too novel or eccentric in such a ceremony is like putting salt in soup: you can add more (or not), but not take it out once added.

My rubric: the ordination is about the order of the ministry, not the particular ordinand. You, the ordinand, are entering a stream that has carried the pastoral ministry of the church for centuries. That should give you a chill. You will meet challenges, joys, temptations, horrors and accomplishments. Don’t try to go it alone; as a sign of this, don’t make the ordination about you.

A few practical thoughts. Seek first a good and experienced marshal (master of ceremonies) to keep the proceedings in order. Rely on more experienced ministers for your ordination; you will need them later as colleagues. That goes double for local ministers. Again, the ordination should not be long, because if it’s too long that’s all that people will talk about; I think 75 minutes is about right. If you are called to your first church, wait to be ordained there and not at your home or internship church; this is an old tradition too often lost these days (I’m talking to the Unitarian Universalists now) but it’s one of the few ways that small churches (who often call first-timers) celebrate their place in the communion of churches.

Twenty years ordained

If you will excuse a moment for me to reflect on my ordination, which took place twenty years ago today with the Canon Universalist Church, Canon, Georgia.

Receiving right hand of fellowship
Receiving right hand of fellowship from the Rev. Roy Reynolds

I’ve spent more of that time out of pastoral ministry than in it, but I have never forgotten the vow I made. I try to fulfill those vows through preaching, writing (here mostly) and prayer.

My heartfelt thanks to those who have supported me over the years; some are still living, others have gone before us.

“Gadfly Papers” discussion continues

I suppose it’s a bit obvious to say that “Gadfly Papers” discussion continues because it never ended. But I intend to write here about commentary that is both constructive and public. I have a particular point of view, but I don’t think that keeps me from giving opponents a fair hearing; neither does it oblige me to dignify manipulative rhetoric. Facebook is such shifting sand that there’s little point linking to something. When I find something that passes muster, I may link to it.

I put Dan Harper, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer, into that category. He wrote about The Gadfly Papers, and in reference to my analysis recently. (I’m just now seeing it.) I think he confuses my analysis of Todd Eklof’s work with disapproval, but the distinction isn’t fatal. Yes, I wish the book were better written, but Eklof wrote when others wouldn’t, and that makes it the best of its kind to date.

But we’re past the book itself. Institutionally, the issues have exposed deep fault lines, and whether Eklof’s intent or an incidental development, that’s the real story.

Documents I’ve already posted about the decline of Universalism: ecumenical options

Following up on the request I posted on September 13, I thought I’d collect up the documents from that era that I’ve already posted over the years. These are not all doom and gloom. If fact, Universalists were optimistic, earnest or a least put on a brave face. First, ecumenical actions.

Back in 2006, I posted several documents about the overtures towards a working relationship with either the Congregationalists, the Unitarians or perhaps both. I’ve posted these below.

Was there an interest in the Christian Connection (O’Kelleyites) prior to 1931, with the Congregational-Christian merger? That merger is how the 1920s merger dance seems to have ended. Might be a fun bit of research. For someone else.

And a loose (but now wholly incomplete thought) following up on those: UCC getting the Universalists anyway

Recalling “Economic Sustainability”

One request begets another; my comment yesterday about the situation about the UUA today being different than the Universalists in the first half of the twentieth century must have struck a note.

So, by request, I’m recalling the UUA’s report of The Economic Sustainability of Ministries Summit June 2015. You can download the PDF report and read the summary here: www.uua.org/careers/ministers/economic-sustainability

Sometimes I hear, seminarians should be warned about how bad things are. So it’s worth mentioning that there was another report in 2015 about the “economic realities of the ministry”. You can read that here. (Also a PDF.)

But unless you’re going to say “nobody should be a minister” then there need to be some solutions. A fund for service-dischargeable loans and alternate training models (more about those later) come to mind. Overtures (“CWG Approved Revision To M. Div. Equivalency Process”) in that direction were made in a Ministerial Fellowship Committee meeting at the end of 2018 and that is linked here. (Another PDF!)