Chair Number One –A love letter to yourself.

by Amanda Petersen

Last week I mentioned Thoreau’s three chairs.  Over the next few newsletters, let’s explore them more closely.  The first chair is solitude.  

I remember the first time I went on a silent retreat.  The first 3 days didn’t feel like a silent retreat because there was so much chatter in my mind. The conversation never stopped.  This is the reality of our lives.  There is an unending dialogue happening every minute in our heads.  Like most consistent chatter there is the gift of tuning it out.  Yet the chatter is there influencing our sense of self and the world.

When the idea of silence is mentioned for some it is a welcomed with a sigh of a longing.  For others, it is a look of panic.  “I could never be quiet for any length of time.”  The thought of being left to ourselves is frightening.  When our inner life is ignored, then what are we bring to the world, to our connection with God?  Where is the depth of understanding? Who is truly dictating our days?

It is in taking the time to still ourselves and become aware of all the conversations that are flowing in our minds and hearts that we begin to really understand our walk in this world.  

“Look not outward but within. Self-knowledge is at the root of all real religious knowledge. And this is why the beginning of true religion cannot lie in a book, or in science, or in arguing or in listening to sermons. To look into the soul is to begin to find God. However able the sermon, however sacred the book, it will teach nothing to the person who has not started to look inward.” Owen Chadwick, Newman: A Short Introduction.

No matter what is found as one sits in solitude, they are welcomed by the Divine with open arms. Whether one feels totally at peace and in the flow of grace, or sees themselves as a total failure with no hope, or somewhere in between, they are welcomed into Love’s embrace. That is the gift of solitude. To realize that Love into one’s bones and then to move out into the world around them.

Try it this week. Spend some time in solitude. What do you notice as you pull up this first chair? After you time in solitude, write a love letter to yourself from God.

2 Ways to Make your Church Exits Less Attractive

by Kenneth McIntosh

Late last summer there was an article in the Huffington Post titled “Are you Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say Yes!” The Writer, Patrick Vaughn, is a Presbyterian Minister and the article summarized the findings of research by Dr. Josh Packard. The full report by Dr. Packard is available from Group Publishing for $25.00. Vaughn’s article can be accessed here:

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the article, but I’m not. Other research—such as the Pew survey of American religious life– confirm similar results:

But the Huff Po article does more than report weal and woe; Vaughn pulls out two lessons from Packard’s study that can be helpful for congregations desiring to be an exception to the rule of decline. The study is basically an exit interview on a mega-scale, finding out why those who are “done” with churches (plus those headed for the exit at the time they were surveyed) are walking away.

Vaughn says, “the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution.” Parenthetically, this contrasts with my own first-hand observations (which are vastly more limited, and confined to my politically liberal college town setting). Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with the majority of people who’ve left my congregations, and the largest single cause has been loss of religious belief; people’s beliefs changed from Theist to Atheist or Agnostic, and they felt incongruent in a Christian worship setting. But again, this is apparently not the case on a larger scale national-scope survey; the broader majority left their churches while still identifying as believers in God.

The first major reported cause for being ‘done’ with church was failure to experience deep and meaningful community. The people surveyed wanted very much to be part of a group, where they belonged, were supported by others, and were connected to other church members in substantial ways—and they were largely disappointed by the lack of such experiences.

The second reason for the disappointment of the Dones was the failure of churches to engage them in activities that were of value to the larger world. While churches were eager to solicit volunteers, the content of volunteer activities was focused on institutional maintenance, such as committees, classes, work days and etc. that were purposed for the continuation of the congregation. In other words, churches were internally focused, rather than seeking to better their cities or planet.

This survey of those leaving churches can be useful for those of us still active in churches insofar as they suggest a dual focus of our energies. There are manifold aspects of church life, and proponents and enthusiasts of each aspect can make good case why more effort be expended in their sphere of interest (I recently blogged in this forum suggesting the neglected importance of contemplative spiritual disciplines). Looking at the big picture of Dr. Packard’s work, it behooves us to focus on two things:  building community, and encouraging participation in social action.

Efforts at building community within a church are sometimes disparaged as “social club,” with the insinuation that they are less valuable than “spiritual” or worship events. This survey suggests that they are, however, essential for continuity of healthy congregations. Worship itself can be re-designed to foster community; by seating people facing toward one another, inviting lay members to share the rites and symbolic actions of worship, inviting prayers from the congregation, framing the sermon as more of a dialogue, and so on. Likewise, all other activities of a church—small groups, classes, and even the dreaded committees—can be re-designed to facilitate fellowship. And activities that smack of “social club” such as dinners for eight, or amateur talent night, or microbrew tasting (for the hipster church) should perhaps be elevated to more valued status.

It’s good news for UCC churches that people wish to be involved in activities that better society. Our churches are premier social justice centers, and even our small congregations tend to be outward-focused. Perhaps we can refine this area of our expertise? Rather than simply posting meetings for the homeless, racial justice, refugee advocacy and so-on, make sure that every notice is an invitation with the clear message that newcomers are welcomed and encouraged to participate. And when mobilizing, make sure that new volunteers can be incorporated into ongoing projects with the least possible amount of hurdles to jump (accountability and safety are always paramount—but sometimes we have rules that are just unnecessary barriers for new participants).

In this age of church decline, it’s a valuable gift knowing that there are ways to make the church exits less appealing. By shoring up our ministries of community-building and mission, we can lessen the flow of members toward the exits and strengthen the Body of Christ.

The Hope Which Springs Eternal Within the Human Breast

by Donald Fausel

The title for this blog was stolen (like in baseball) from a poem I memorized in grammar school, Casey At the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer in 1888.  He in turn stole (like in plagiarism) the line from an essay titled An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope in 1733-34.

Just in case you can’t remember the poem, or never heard of Mighty Casey, here is a brief summary. The baseball fans of Mudville, who were watching their team lose that day, were divided into two groups, the “struggling few (who) got up to go leaving there the rest” and the loyal fans who stayed because of their belief in the “hope that springs eternal within the human breast”, and they were counting on Mighty Casey to whack out a home run and win the day for the Mudville Nine. If you want to know the outcome of the game, click on the link above.

As an example, it seems to me that in some ways, many of us are waiting for “a Mighty Casey like” person or movement to fulfill our hope that climate change isn’t as serious as ninety-seven percent of scientists believe it to be, and we can go about our life as usual. If we’re one of those deniers, I think we need to listen to the wise sage Pogo, who said in a 1971 cartoon, “We Met the Enemy and He is US” Pogo’s declaration has become a universal truth that applies to most organizations, including the church. Like many others, I believe that the laity is the key to change.  Having aired our grievances, and recognized that we are part of the problem, we need to keep hope alive. We all need to become change agents and not just “leave it up to George”. This blog will focus on those who believe that “hope that springs eternal…”, and are willing and able to follow Pogo’s challenge to be part of the solution.


So, here are a few words about hope and hopelessness. I don’t intend to use “hope” in the biblical or theological sense, as in Faith, Hope and Charity, but in a more everyday way, as in “Hope is the belief in what is possible and the expectation of things to come.”  Or as St. Augustine of Hippo described it, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”  Or if we think of hope as a movement, the Chinese author and Guru Lin Yutang described it as, “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.

In a previous blog Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness , I introduced the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. If you want to refresh your memory you might check that same blog in a section entitled The Science of Happiness.  And if you haven’t listened to Dr. Seligman’s TED TALK entitled The New Era of Positive Psychology I think you’d find it very helpful.

The first thing we need to decide “Is hope a feeling or a cognitive process?” In an article titled Hope: A Way of Thinking, C.R. Rick Snyder, a deceased positive psychologist, “…offers a way of looking at hope that goes beyond defining hope as a feeling.”  In an article by Dr. Brene’ Brown, Learning to Hope , she summarizes Snyder’s method by saying hope happens when:

  • We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go)
  • We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes ( I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again).
  • We believe in ourselves (I can do this!).

Dr. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. She is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and the Gifts of Imperfection. She is also the Founder and CEO of The Daring Way and COURAGEworks – an online learning community that offers eCourses, workshops, and interviews for individuals and organizations.

Here is a video by Dr. Brown titled What is Hope?  The introduction to the video reads: “This is a wonderful video by Brené Brown on the subject of hope and how we can all learn to be hopeful.  Watch and learn!” I agree!

I suspect that many of us have experienced hopelessness at some at time and at some level in our lives. A loved one dies. We lose a job. A friend disappoints us. You name it… Well here is an opportunity to listen to a TED TALK by Nick Vujicic. The title is Overcoming Hopelessness. Nick was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1982 to a Serbian immigrant family, without all of his four limbs. During most of his childhood he suffered with depression. It’s hard to even imagine going through life without hands or legs. But Nick decided to “…concentrate on what he did have instead of what he didn’t have.” His first speaking engagement was at age 19. Since then he has traveled around the world “…sharing his story with millions, sometimes in stadiums filled to capacity, speaking to a range of diverse groups…” In 2007 he moved to Southern California where he is president of the international non-profit ministry Life Without Limbs. This is his website and it’s worth checking out.

Three years ago I read one of his books, Life Without Limits.  At that time in my life I had just lost my wife from lung cancer and I was grieving her death. As I read what Nick had gone through I was inspired by this exceptional man. He tells the story of his physical disabilities and the emotional battle he endured trying to deal with them as a child, a teen and young adult.  As he said in his book, “For the longest, loneliest time, I wondered if there was anyone on earth like me, and whether there was a purpose to my life other than pain and humiliation.” He shares with his readers that his“… faith in God has been his central source of strength… and explains that once he found his own purpose—inspiring others to make their lives and the world better—he found confidence to build a rewarding and productive life without limits.

Even though there are fifty five years between Nick and me, he’s one of my heroes.

Do Your Chairs Need Balancing?

by Amanda Petersen

I meet a lot of people who want to run away to the woods and leave society and all its complications behind like Thoreau. Living away from everyone is the way to get closer to God. There is a truth to the power of solitude and its relationship with God and ourselves.

I also meet a lot of people who run away from solitude. The thought of sitting alone for 20 minutes with nothing else but themselves sounds horrifying. They will do whatever it takes not to be left alone with the thoughts in their heads, let alone an Omnipresent God. Often they are wonderful doers of good works.

As always in the contemplative life, there is a need for both solitude (love it or not) and community (love it or not). There is no running to whatever corner we feel comfortable and staying there.   Did you know that Thoreau had three chairs in that cabin? One for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.  In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle states “These three chairs plot the point on a virtuous circle that links conversation to the capacity for empathy and for self-reflection. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to assay that is authentically, ours. When we are secure in ourselves we are able to listen to other people and really hear what they have to say.  And then in conversation with other people we become better at inner dialogue.  Solitude reinforces a secure sense of self and with that the capacity for empathy.  Then conversation with others provides rich material for self reflection just as alone we prepare to talk together, together we learn how to engage in a more productive solitude.”

Now, Turkle’s focus is conversation, yet isn’t the spiritual life fueled by our real connections? Whether with self, others, or the world, it is all grounded in the Source that is our being. Living a life that finds a place for all three with the intention of drawing closer to Love is a very rich life that sees beyond the complications of circumstances or voices that make one want to run and hide. The contemplative life is one that honors the self, relationships, and society. Take a look at your life. Are you exclusive in one area? Is it time to balance your life with solitude, relationships, or service? Let me know your thoughts.

Over the next three weeks, I will look at those chairs individually in the upcoming newsletters.

In fact, I’d love to have a conversation about it. Come join us for one of the Dinner and Conversation Nights: June 17 or July 15 from 6 – 7:30 pm.

Did I Just Read That Right?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I’ve known how to read since I was about five. I picked it up quick and loved it. I devoured books faster than Ms. Pac-Man devoured those Dippin’ Dots with a gaggle of ghosts hot on her tail. When I began to follow a Christian path as a teen, I lived out my appetite for written words by reading the Bible. I was pretty intense about it. This rabid intensity in reading and memorizing the Bible lasted into my early 20’s. To this day, I can likely still quote 200 scriptures, chapter and verse. I’m fun at parties.

I don’t know if you have noticed this, but we humans don’t always read things “right”. We stumble over words.  We find out the word we had been using had a different meaning than what we originally thought, like the time I used the word “fetish” about ten times during a class presentation in High School. I had meant something far different, like “hobby” or “interest”. Yes, those would have been much better choices. As the human race, most of us know we get things wrong. We know this because we live this. We don’t always read things “right”.

For about eight years I was a supervisor of several treatment programs in Tucson. I was on call a lot and had to answer the phone frequently after I went to sleep to work out whatever crisis was occurring. One such night, the call that woke me was from an overnight staff member who was working at a short-term stabilization house. The nature of the house meant people could arrive at all hours if they needed support. The staff member who called me was a phenomenal helper. She got into this work for all the right reasons. She is consistent and awesome still today.

This night, though, she was concerned. She was worried about someone who had arrived on her shift because in his paperwork it indicated that he was a cannibal and she wasn’t sure what to do with a cannibal. She thought she’d give me a call for my expertise. After I didn’t speak for likely 30 seconds, she repeated it: he’s a cannibal. I was having many thoughts and questions come to me.

-Is he a cannibal in theory or in practice?

-How do we know he is a cannibal? Did he go to prison?

-Do you get to leave prison if you eat people?

-I need to say something because I am likely scaring this staff member massively.

So I said, “Hmmm. Did you ask him if he is hungry?” An assessment seemed important. She said, “Well, he’s in bed now.” I talked with her a bit more and we agreed if she had any concerns, even a small concern, we would talk again and I could even come out and be with her through the night. She said she was okay and would let me know if that changed at all. I drifted back to a fitful sleep, what with the visions of cannibals dancing in my head. Around 6 am I called her to check in. She described a hard night of jumping at every sound and checking on him a whole lot. She said he slept through the night and was still asleep. I promised her I would figure out what is safest for this person who was, apparently, a cannibal. I told her she could rest assured we would have some solid answers later in the day.

An hour later, I received a call from the Team Leader of the house who had arrived and debriefed with the overnight staff. The Team Leader was just as perplexed as I was and decided to review that paperwork once more. After a thorough review she gave me a call. I had a hard time, at first, understanding what she was saying due to her laughter that was bordering on hysterical. Finally she caught her breath and managed to say, “Cannabis Abuse”. Cannibal vs cannabis abuse; well that’s a whole different kind of munchies.

What a tremendous misunderstanding of fantastical proportion. What a helpful demonstration and reminder that as we live and be in this world, we get it wrong. Sometimes, we get it very, very wrong. This extends to all aspects of our living, including our faith development and concept of what is Holy and Sacred, what is Spirit and Life. Our lens changes as we have new experiences. That’s a really wonderful thing if we can acknowledge and allow for that. In my own lived experience, absolute-ism does not allow for flexibility, questions, and the mistakes I make all the time. It is too rigid. Absolutes demand that we say we know what we know loudly, proudly, and often regardless of what lived experience offers. Lived experience often leads me to humbly admitting all the things I do not know, all the things I desperately want and all the things I sure do fear. Holding all of that leads to a very different experience with Holy Scripture.

I still read the Bible today. It is the sacred text of my faith and my spiritual development. I just read the Bible differently now because I realized I wasn’t actually reading the Bible that whole time, after all. I was reading the Bible through my own lens, my own bias, my own culture, my own spiritual principles and values, my own church’s theology, my own hopes, my own wishes, my own fears. I was reading the Bible according to Davin.

The Bible is like poetry to me. The beauty of poetry is that it can mean something completely different to you than what it means to me. Clever poetry lets us hang out in the framework, knock around a bit within the walls, slink down into it as it envelopes us, raise us up, lower us down, and on and on and on. When a poem takes our breath away, it is awe-inspiring. This is also what I can experience when reading the Bible now. There’s just so much more room for wonder and questions than how I encapsulated it all before.

I shy away from individuals who quote scripture at me because it really feels like it is something being hurled to harm versus something being offered to nourish.  I don’t get into theological debates all that often because they seem to take me further away from my call: loving God and loving each other. I am not offering my thoughts as the “right” thoughts or the “right” way to read and interpret the Bible.

I am a seeker, a meaning maker, a holder of hope. My faith development in this leg of the journey can best be described as an inclusive Christian. I want to learn how to love better. I want to know how I can hold vulnerability as sacred. I want there to be room enough for your precious self and my precious self as we juggle some love back and forth in a rhythm that is easy and satisfying.

I love to chill inside the Bible with a sense of wonder. I love it when what I read clicks nicely with something I have been contending with or hurting about. I love it when I read something and it makes me more curious and loving about the world around me than I was before I took it in. I am not an authority on the topic of the Bible and theology, I am simply a guy sharing his own lived experience in seeking and finding God. To me, the Bible is a living, life affirming, sacred text that has the power to not only take my breath away, but it also has the divine ability to make me breathe once again in parts I had long thought were dead and gone.

That, my friends, is a pretty awesome thing to receive from reading the Bible. Right?

Family Portrait

by Karen MacDonald

His arm is lovingly draped over her shoulders, his fingers holding a cigarette away from her skin.  She stands close to him with a comfortable smile, holding their cute Chihuahua dog. A handsome pit bull/terrier mix dog stands between them looking at the camera, one ear flopped over.  John and Pepper, Chico and Deuce posed for this portrait in the parking lot of a church where they’re spending part of the day.

Pepper and John met a year ago at a methadone clinic and have been inseparable since.  She says she’s never been cared for like this before.  By the time each of them was six years old, they’d been started on the road of harsh knocks in their dysfunctional and/or abusive families.  He spent many years in jail, she spent many years selling her body, both of them hooked on drugs.  Now their addictions are cigarettes and state-sponsored methadone.  They each have multiple serious health issues, they have survived living on the streets–and they have each other and their canine companions.  

The money they manage to panhandle goes to the dogs’ food, bus passes, and cigs.  Their food stamps go mostly to support the woman who invites them to spend the nights at her apartment.  John hopes to land a job at a pizza joint near where they’re staying, though his felony record doesn’t help.  They’ve been attacked (with the scars to show), they’re ignored by individuals and the system, they’re sick, they’re tired.

And still Pepper says she loves life.  And they love each other and Chico and Deuce.  They’re a family.  They’re astute and compassionate.  The dogs are sleeping on the strip of grass between the parking lot and Wetmore Road.  Looking at Deuce, Pepper says, “’This dog is so judged. It’s because he’s part pit-bull….He’s not judged by the content of his character, but by his species….’”

In a different, though related development, there’s a push to prohibit (homeless) people from selling papers or panhandling on street medians in Pima County.  This would go along with a similar law in the city of Tucson.  The judging goes on, individually and societally.  Our work of compassion goes on.

(The story of John and Pepper and the quote is found in the Tucson Weekly, May 5, 2016, article entitled “The ballad of John and Pepper, hurting and homeless” by Brian Smith.

image ©Johnny Sajem 

Jesus’ Solidarity with the Least of These

by Amos Smith

Jesus’ solidarity with “the least of these” plants him among the prophets. Jeremiah and Isaiah said the measure of a society is how it treats its least powerful. How would America measure up?

How do we treat those without adequate health care? How do we treat the elderly who can’t afford their medicine? How do we treat our poor neighboring countries? What are our priorities? Are they as George Herbert Walker Bush put it, to be a “kinder and gentler nation?” Do we send neighboring countries the food and medicine they need or do we send them fighter planes and guns? Our obligation to the poor and powerless has deep Biblical roots, echoing through the generations of prophets leading up to Jesus.

In the fullness of time, God entered the messiness of history. God entered into solidarity with the human family to show us the way. Jesus walked the dusty streets of Palestine in sandals. Jesus entered into solidarity with the poor and suffering. Authentic Christianity continues to enter into the fray of poverty and affliction. This is Christianity’s legacy—to show God’s love through service to “the least of these.”

Primal Spirituality

by Karen Richter

I just read something in Spiritual Directors International’s journal about ‘primal spirituality.’ Not the spirituality of ancient humans, but the first spirituality: that way of approaching life that sets us off on a path of growth and contemplation.

When I look at my own life and think about where it all started, several memories and experiences come to mind:

  • As a teenager, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and becoming committed to nonviolence.
  • As a college student, coming to terms with the suffering of my 3 year old cousin with brain cancer and the terrible lie that says people get what they deserve.
  • In young adulthood, considering the death of my grandparents and realizing that being healed is different from being cured.
  • During my 30s, realizing that the way I prayed had changed to reflect a different kind of vision for God.

These and many others were formative experiences, along with the slow growth pattern of living in the community of marriage and parenthood. But there’s a particular experience that is on my mind today, which was the primal experience for growing the spirituality of my life now.

I had a miscarriage after my second child. As these events go, it was early, uncomplicated, and ordinary. I healed quickly and moved on.

About 10 months later, I found myself staring at a positive pregnancy test again. I was understandably more reticent about sharing my news, a bit more circumspect about making plans and assumptions about the outcome. At around the 5 week mark, I began experiencing signs of miscarriage again. My doctor’s advice was just to wait it out until an ultrasound at 8 weeks could tell us more.

And that three weeks was simultaneously incredibly difficult and unexpectedly rewarding. Rather than assume the best or the worst, I took an in-the-moment approach to the waiting. This was my mantra during those days:

  • I am pregnant today and I am grateful.
  • No matter what happens tomorrow or the next day, week, or month, I am pregnant today and I am glad for that.
  • No outcome will change the gratitude I feel today.

My joy at the birth of my daughter later that year was all the much greater because of my gratitude practice.

Today, about 11 years later, I have more sophisticated words for this kind of approach to life. I might tell you about my spiritual life… how it’s important to me to live my life as if it were as a gift. I might explain that I have a comprehensive view about life, how good things and bad things happen but life itself is capital G “Good”.  I can talk with you about process theology and religious maturity all day long. Yet is comes down to a primal spirituality:

  • I am alive today and I am grateful.
  • Someday my experience on the earth will end and there’s no way to know what happens next, but today I am alive and thankful.


The days of a human life are like grass: they bloom like a wildflower; but when the wind blows through it, it’s gone; even the ground where it stood doesn’t remember it.* Yes, we are just as fleeting as a flowering weed but we bloom beautifully in our time. Amen.

*Psalm 103.15-16

To Seek With Heart and Soul

by Talitha Arnold

They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul.” – 2 Chronicles 15: 1-15

This May 22 at the church I serve, we celebrate the “Rite of Initiation and Confirmation” with six young people from the congregation. The service marks the end of a two-year journey for the young adolescents and also the beginning of their adult lives, or the “initiation to adulthood,” as we call it.

Right now the Youth Confirmands are working on their Statements of Faith to present to the congregation that Sunday. Each young person will share what they believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. Some of their answers are long, others quite brief. A youth once wrote about the Holy Spirit: “I don’t know what it is or what it’s supposed to do. Do you?”

Whether their answers are long or short, and whether or not they choose to confirm their faith and join the church, the Youth Confirmands are living into the kind of covenant with God that the Book of Chronicles records the people of Israel made centuries ago—a covenant not to obey God or follow God or even love God. It is, instead, to seek God, “with all their heart and with all their soul.”

United’s Youth Confirmands may not be ready, even after two years, to confirm their faith this May. That’s okay. What we truly hope is that they will continue to seek God, with heart and soul.

In so doing, may they know something of God’s presence and grace. As the Greek author Nikos Kazantakis wrote in his book, St. Francis, “What is God but the search for God?”


Thank you, God, for the journey and for the questions. Amen.

The Heart of Worship

by Ken McIntosh

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the United Kingdom, where Christian faith has an ancient and storied history that contrasts with the lack of church attenders in the present day. According to a 2015 survey, Great Britain is among the least religious countries in the world.  In a global ranking of 65 countries, the UK came six places from last, with 30% of the population calling themselves religious. Some churches continue to thrive in the UK, but many rural congregations are only a handful of members.

On a Thursday evening my wife and I entered the Cathedral church in the Welsh city of Brecon and sat ourselves in the section of the building where the choir sings, in order to hear Evensong. There was one other person in attendance there—an older gentleman who greeted us briefly, apparently a local. The lector came, asked us to stand, and the choir processed in—a dozen people of mixed ages and gender, robed in scarlet. After the service began, a group of four German tourists walked into the Cathedral and decided to sit in the larger sanctuary space and listen.

The service was perfect—as I expected in a Cathedral church. The Welsh are famous for singing, and this choir was no exception. The voices, the enormous pipe organ, and the acoustics were out of this world. The readings were pronounced by a speaker whose voice certainly merited a career on the BBC. And I couldn’t help thinking…such a huge place of worship, such a meticulously rehearsed service, yet if the tourists hadn’t wandered in, and we hadn’t made that trip to hear the choir…they would have had one congregant.

Yet there was a sort of beauty to that. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. My life is all about the worship of God and I rejoice when I see communities of faith growing. My vocation is helping churches to increase, and I love it when I see churches at home or abroad flourishing. I dearly wish that the nave had been filled with worshipers that evening. And yet…there was something pure and delightful about that service.

I realized that choir would have sung just as beautifully, the organ sounded just as grand, and the Scriptures read with the same eloquence if only that one gentleman had been in attendance. Or, I strongly expect, it would be the same if there were no human audience.

“O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD,” says the Psalmist (96:1). Thankfully, the choirs and worship groups at our churches usually sound forth praise to the Lord and to a congregation. The participation of those gathered adds to the energy of the worship event. At my own church, the congregation usually claps and exclaims when the choir finishes singing—and rightly so; it’s a good feeling for the choir and for the rest of us to hear that appreciation. I’ve also been in churches where the worship vibe was similar to what used to be the experience at Grateful Dead shows—the crowd and the band sending pulses of energy back and forth, clapping and dancing with abandon.

And the blessing of an audience is also a subtle temptation, because performing in front of a human audience, who are responsive and appreciative, it’s easy to forget that our worship is “unto the Lord.” Hearing their congregation clap or smile, the musicians may not hear God silently applaud, or see the Creator’s smile. But when a choir and musicians faithfully execute their craft for an audience that are half their size—or for no audience—they are touching the very heart of true worship.

When I was ordained as a minister, I was given a charge by the Reverend Stanley Green, then my bishop in the Mennonite Church. In that sermon he kept urging me to discharge the various responsibilities of my calling “for an audience of one.” Over and over, in different ways, he urged me not to base my ministry on either the praise or the disparagement of the people in my future churches; to keep my focus undivided on what best serves God.

That’s never easy to do, because the clamor of yay-sayers and nay-sayers can drown out the still small voice of Jesus. That charge has pursued me for decades now, and it sometimes seems more difficult as I grow older, but I keep trying to focus on Christ despite all the words that press around me. I hope that our churches continue to be filled with active worshipers, adding to the energy of praise. Yet it would be good for all of us who serve God’s people, either as ministers or singers or in any other way, to remember that we are ultimately performing our skills for an audience of one—for The One.

image credit: Ken McIntosh