If you’re waiting to be joyful and thankful for God’s grace until after you’re through life’s curves, you’ll miss the grace that’s ready for you now.
I ain’t losin’ my soul – God is in control!
– Micah Spruance
The church that I support as a Seminarian Associate has been worshiping at a local Elks Club, since they sold their building two years ago. Their church had been on the central green of downtown Middletown, CT for more than two centuries. When budget issues forced them to sell their building, instead of disbanding the congregation, they decided to meet in temporary space, and to see if they could erect a new building eventually. These are some of the bravest Christians I have ever known – they have stuck together through thick and thin for the better part of two years, now, adjusting to a new style of worship that is not found all that often in the United Methodist Church. Every Sunday we put out a simple altar, a projector and a screen, some hymnals, stacking chairs, welcome materials, a microphone – if we’re fortunate that day – and we make the Elks Club a holy place.
A barroom Sunday worship
Some Sundays we’re a bit less fortunate than others. This was one of those Sundays. Normally we worship up in the Elks Club ballroom, which is a nice banquet room, with a decent sound system, lots of light and a certain amount of dignity. But sometimes we get the call from the Elks Club and hear, “You’ll have to use a downstairs room next week.” “Downstairs” means either the “Elks Room,” which houses Elks Club photos and mementos on the walls, poker tables and a pool table, or the “Cafe Room,” an alcove off of the main barroom. This time, we got the Cafe Room, which isn’t so bad, but it’s pretty cramped, filled with tables and a small number of chairs set up for us when we get there, which we then rearrange for our worship service. It’s hardly ideal for people who used to worship in a beautiful Gothic-style church. The great thing, though, is that they are there for faith, and to support one another in faith. So, through God’s grace, it all has a great way of working itself out.
Adding some curves today, God?
This Sunday the Cafe Room had its own special challenges. We had about fifty people instead of our usual 40 or so, in part because of Mother’s Day visitors. We also had invited Micah Spruance, 14, to be our offertory guest artist, doing one of his original hip hop songs. He was our first hip hop artist at our church – actually, maybe the first time ever in a Connecticut United Methodist church. Awesome concept – if you have the room and the right equipment. Well, our Music Director’s portable amp had died, so we had to use a backup amp for Micah’s music, which worked. Kind of. Then Micah’s background music turned out to be recorded in a format that wouldn’t work with our PC or phones. Scramble again. Then the electricity was fritzy – don’t run a slide projector off of the same outlet as a coffee maker and a guitar amp! – and kept on putting the projector to sleep. Then the lector didn’t have the scriptures in print form, and got a little confused on the order of worship. Then the slide software crashes. Then I realized i missed a responsive reading for the slides that was in the bulletin. OK, God, I say to myself as I wrestle with these issues, I am dialing “G” for gratitude, “G” for gratitude, to thank you for whatever miracle is coming from all of these curves…
Hip Hop grace – God is in control!
We manage to get to the offertory, finally, and Micah and his friend Zach Piercy get up to perform. The app for playing his song on my phone had died! But then, as I am praying for grace, he begins by reciting the lyrics of his song to the congregation, poetry with a beautiful Christian witness – and poetry that gives me just enough time to relocate his song and fire up the app to power the melody through the good-enough amp. The music starts, and Micah and Zach are…amazing. They have sharp, poetic rhythm, very good presence, they’re wrapped in the Holy Spirit, and the congregation is getting their message clearly. In spite of all of the problems, or, perhaps, because of them, people had given up their expectations. Everyone is ready for God’s grace in Micah’s rap, and it’s not of our own doing – it is the gift of God. The congregation begins to join Micah and Zach in the refrain: “I ain’t losin’ my soul – God is in control! I ain’t losin’ my soul – God is in control!” Near the end of the song I try to take a photo using my phone, and the music app running on it crashes again. Quickly someone shouts out, “Keep going!” Hardly missing a beat, they finish the last few lines of the rap, and then we’re all doing the refrain together loudly – as loud as this sometimes reserved congregation has ever sung a song together in worship at the Elks Lodge.
Finding grace in the curves
Worship finishes warmly and powerfully, and we settle in to fellowship time, perhaps wondering exactly what it was that had happened in worship. I think that the words of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians captures the “why” of it well. Paul reminded this early Christian congregation in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
I remember the first time that I read this passage on the way home from work on a commuting train many years ago. It was no doubt a day with its own share of curves, and my daily Bible readings brought me to these miraculous words. We cannot work to earn God’s grace, it is a gift – what matters is using that gift joyfully and thankfully as a way of life. Everything that we do in life is an opportunity to say “thank you” to God for the unshakable grace available to us every moment through God’s love for us in Christ. Thank you, God, I know that there’s something around this next curve that’s beautiful, and in the meantime, help me to see what’s beautiful right now – like amazing young people ready to do hip hop with the Spirit, celebrating God’s grace in the curves!
Rejoice in God using your grace
Now, don’t get me wrong – I am going to do everything that I can to make sure that our next visit to the Cafe Room goes more smoothly. But I don’t mistake that “head work” for “heart work” – I will do what needs to be done to set the table for God’s grace in worship, but that’s just burning calories until I allow God to use my heart and soul, at loving rest in his saving hands, so that God can be the miracle. There’s nothing I can do with God’s creation to improve upon God’s workmanship – but I can use what God has given me in creation to live the grace-filled life that God has intended me to live, through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yes, God is in control – God has given us a sure and trustworthy pathway to experience each moment in grace. We are free to choose that path, or not, but God’s assuring presence will be on that path, no matter what. As I got off of that train many years ago after reading Ephesians, the warm and powerful presence of God’s grace came upon me as I walked to my car, and said to me silently, “Yes, John, these words are absolutely true. Never doubt me. I am always with you.”
And so it has been – in the curves, the straight ways, the valleys and the mountains. Thank you, God, for Hip Hop grace on a crazy, beautiful day.