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God you are our strength and our shield

and liturgy, and collective experiences, and responsibility

Pslam 28:7 - January 10, 2020 - Heartstrings at First United Methodist Church


God, you are our strength and our shield; our hearts trust in you, in you we have found our courage; our wild hearts dance for joy, and in our songs, we will praise you…. Psalm 28:7

“God, you are our strength and our shield.”

If you walk over to the church just right over there. And you walk inside. And go into Kent’s office. There are some books sitting right next to his computer monitor. If you grab the smallest book on his desk. It’s a small black book… And on the cover, it says United Methodist Book of Worship-Pastors Pocket Edition. And if you open that book. Go to the section on death and dying…You will find a post-it note with the words to the Lord’s Prayer. Written… word for word!

And I know that because one day not that long ago, Kent was teaching me (again) about funerals. Now I’ve done a bunch of funerals over the last decade here at the church. I enjoy doing them. It is an honor to get to walk with a family as they walk their loved ones that last mile home. I get to do them, but I don’t do them often, and it had been awhile, so I asked him for a refresher. We were walking through a service that I was doing a couple of months ago, that included a gravesite service. I haven’t done very many gravesite service… so when we got to talking about graveside services Kent put away his Bible and other books he had out… and he pulled out the Pocket Edition. He said, “I bring this one to the graveside services and it has all you need. And he opened it up and started walking me through the liturgy and when he got to the Lord’s prayer, he showed me the post-it note… The Lord’s Prayer written word for word. Which made me laugh because when I opened my United Methodist Book of worship, Pastors Pocket Edition to the graveside service. We will find… written word for word- A post-it note with The Lord’s prayer.

You would think we would be confident in our ability to remember it when we need it! I mean, we say these words week after week after week. They sit in our soul in a deep way. Not because Jesus said them, Jesus said a lot of things! But because we come together and repeat them together. When one person wanders off or loses their place it’s okay because we have it… together. 

And it’s not like we could suddenly CHANGE the words we say! I mean they become part of who we are and we NOTICE when they aren’t right! I have a friend who was raised in a Presbyterian Church and she’d come to church and sit there and we’d get to The Lord’s Prayer and we’d get to “forgive us our trespasses” and she’d say “forgive us our debts.” Every single time! Because we when come together and say these things, word for word, week after week, year after year, they become engraved in our minds… and deeply into our hearts. We notice when they change. We feel it when it isn’t right…

Collective Experiences

Liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people,” the things we do together, our rituals, our routines, it pulls us together… gives us shared experience, gives a moment and a people to belong to. Human beings have this primal, deep yearning for experiences together.

You remember back when people were allowed to gather in large groups? When flash mobs were a thing? I could not get enough watching flash-mobs on YouTube. You remember what a flash-mob is? People would be going about their day, a group of people would do a random, unexpected thing, and then go on about their day like nothing happened! I remember this one, it was a really crowded mall food court, people were eating lunch and the tune for the Halleluiah Chorus started playing. When it was time, one woman stood, and belted out the beautiful beginning lines… then another person stood and added their voice, and another and another, and another… until there was an entire choir singing to the climax of the song… it brings me to tears, within the first few words… every single time! There is something about the shared, unexpected, powerful experience of the unsuspecting crowd that draws me in to this shared connection.

This deep human yearning for collective experiences is interesting, because it is not in-and-of itself a good thing. It can be a neutral thing… think of singing a song together at a concert when thousands sing together with tears in their eyes. Or when you hear that beat come over the speakers at a sports game and then the first couple of words… “we will…. We will…” It’s not always neutral, or good… when coming together is marred with hate, anger, and fear… crowds of people can drive themselves to do the unthinkable.

It is really easy to judge the events at the capitol this week, to judge the people that were there as “the other” not as smart, or knowledgeable, or Christ Followers… To space ourselves from their actions… to pretend like we don’t also have that very basic human need to have these deeply meaningful shared experiences. When we push them away as “the other” we reject the invitation to look into our own lives to evaluate and heal and repent of the ways in which we get caught up in unhealthy communities and head the wrong direction.

This need to come together as community, to worship something bigger than the individuals or the group, whether it be golden calves, sports teams, politics, cults… God… Unless you are a child, it is your responsibility to put yourself in communities that are healthy, and brave, and focused on something good…. because coming together, in a healthy community, driven by this deep human need for these powerful shared experiences… they can start to heal the wounds of a traumatized community. When we come together to share authentic joy, hope, and pain, we melt the pervasive cynicism that often cloaks our better human nature.

Power of our liturgy

Not all experiences have to make the national news. In fact, the small things we do, our weekly liturgy, it digs itself even deeper into our lives, and communities. Just listen to some of these words and feel the power they hold:

Our Father, who art in heaven….

Go forth in peace….

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;

Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God to witness and bless the joining together of…

Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life…

For those of you that commit to showing up, week after week will be adding one more opening line to the words that grasp us… “God, you are our strength and our shield…” We begin our time together, each and every week by pointing towards the one we come to worship… “GOD, YOU are our strength and our shield.” This is a paraphrase of Psalm 28:7, it is printed in our bulletin, as invitation, to join with us, week after week in the reading of the text… My hope is that reading it week after week after week, it becomes a reminder of who walks with us in the midst of trouble. Because I believe we NEED something bigger than us to turn to… When we are walking through the fears of the wilderness… when we are called to be courageous and when we’re facing hate, and division, and anger… that we might stand in the midst of all of that because we come together, week after week, and together remind each other that it is God that is our center. We come together under this liturgy because every week we need reminding… we are inviting this truth into the depth of who we are… God YOU are our strength and our shield…

God is our strength and shield (New York Times*[TK1] )

Whether we know it or not, whether we see it or not… when it is so hard to remember… (Will you say it with me?) God, is our strength and our shield. When the world feels like it is crushing in around us… God is our strength and our shield. When it feels like pandemic, and division, and hate, and anger will never end… God is our strength and our shield. No matter how dark life becomes… God is our strength and our shield. In the times of life when we forget about God, and look to ourselves, or any idol to be our strength and shield… it is the simple words that we’ve repeated together, time and time again that we turn to for the reminder, that God is our strength and our shield. Liturgy is a reminder of the belief that God is our strength and our shield. Because we need that reminder. We need it this week, we will need it next week, and the week after: God is our strength and our shield.

There is a small town in Alabama. It is the kind of small town built on faith. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone goes to church every week. “This is a place where the song “Jesus Loves Me” has rocked generations to sleep,” and the congregation stands to pray the Lord’s prayer together week after week.

On Palm Sunday (March 27, 1994) in 1994, at Goshen United Methodist Church, the children came in waving their palm branches. Preparing for the passion play, for the entrance of Christ later in the service, the church was packed! More children than they had ever seen filling that little small-town church. The Rev. Kelly Clem wasn’t preaching that morning. Instead she was watching the passion play, this sharing of the story of Christ’s final week… helping lead and guide the kids. Right before one of the kids stood to sing a solo… the power went out! Taking the microphones and background track with it! So, Pastor Kelly poked the young soloist’s sister and asked her, “will you sing with her? You know the song!” The storms started raging outside the thunder and lightning almost bringing more drama to the drama happening that Sunday morning…

Until the storm was no longer strong winds and rain, but so much more. Windows started breaking, the roof was ripped from the sanctuary. One boy remembers looking up and seeing an upside-down car being blown by a massive tornado.

If you would have sat down to drink your morning coffee and read that small town paper the next day, you would have found an entire page of obituaries. Half from that sanctuary, half of those kids… One of those kids, four-year-old Hannah. Pastor Kelly’s beautiful daughter. So young, so full of life. This baby that loved to dance and sing and paint. Gone.

For three days Kelly and [her husband] worked for their friends and parishioners and swallowed their own pain, gracious and strong. The first step toward healing happened on Wednesday as Rev. Kelly, her face covered with bruises from the fallen roof, buried her daughter. Family, friends, the congregation turned to their shared liturgy, familiar words grounding them in something so much bigger than their grief as, together, they walked Hannah her last mile home. Kelly followed Hannah’s tiny white and pink casket up the aisle at the First United Methodist Church […]… Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life… . The 400 mourners stood and said the Lord’s Prayer[TK2] … they sang familiar songs together, prayer familiar prayers…  Then, Hannah’s coffin was moved slowly back down the aisle to the hearse. The organist played “Jesus Loves Me.”

God is our strength and our shield



 [TK1]A version of this article appears in print on April 3, 1994, Section 1, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: Piedmont Journal; Tried by Deadly Tornado, An Anchor of Faith Holds.


 [TK2]This is the moment I knew this story was the right story.

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