Friday Morning Worship: Choosing the Better Part, General Assembly 2018
General Assembly 2018 Event 302
We are called, always, to listen to one another’s stories, to listen to one another’s hearts, to listen to our own heart’s calling. Our morning together emerges out of bittersweet roots and heartfelt simplicity and will lead us into a place of deep connection and communion.
- Rev. Kimberly Debus
- Rev. Kimberly Hampton
- Kiya Heartwood
The following final draft script was completed before this event took place; actual words spoken may vary. Unedited live captions (TXT) were created during the event, and contain some errors. Captioning is not available for some copyrighted material.
Gathering and Considering
General lighting focused on center stage.
Three rocking chairs set center stage with small table; chairs are draped with quilts and shawls.
Loom racks serve as backdrop to the three chairs; the center one has a quilt hung over it.
The chalice is pre-lit.
PowerPoint preset with the following quote as people walk in:
“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”
—Mary McLeod Bethune
Kiya Heartwood, sitting on one of the chairs, plays instrumental music on guitar/mandolin/banjo, plays instrumentals as the assembly gathers.
Getting Our Bearings
Kim: Good morning. It’s Friday. And some of you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all that is General Assembly. So, in the planning for this service, we thought it might be good to strip things down and “go plain.”
Kimberley: Go plain?
Kim: “Go plain” is a Quaker term. How many of you have spent time with the Quakers? Well, I spent three-and-a-half years with them while I was in seminary. Of the things one learns when one spends a significant amount of time with Quakers is how to be still and listen. Listen to the still, small voice of the divine that is inside. Listen to the still, small voice of the divine in others. And the way to hear the voice of the divine in others, you have to hear their stories.
Kimberley: That’s what today is going to be about. Stories. Listening to, and sharing, stories.
Kim: First though, to get us in the rhythm, we’re going to move into silence. Well… as much silence as we can get in a room this big. Fear not...this silence is a good silence. And, after a time, we will sing a “plain” hymn, “Shall We Gather At The River.”
Silence will last 2 minutes; out of the silence, Kiya begins to play the introduction to the hymn.
Telling Our Stories
Kim: How many of you sang that hymn growing up like I did?
Kimberley: My mother used to sing it all the time while baking pie. She loved the old hymns.
Kim: How many of you know the story behind this hymn? I didn’t until we started working on this service.
It was written in 1864. When I read this, I immediately said “oh this must be related to the Civil War.” Because, of course, the Civil War affected U.S. hymnary in so many different ways. But, we came to find out that Robert Lowry, the composer, was a minister at Hanson Place Baptist Church in New York City and never served in the military.
Yet, at the time Lowry wrote the hymn, New York was experiencing an epidemic—of what, I have not been able to find—and many people Rev. Lowry knew were suffering through grief. Rev. Lowry said that the question of whether he would see those who have crossed over again kept coming to him. So much so that he was moved to sit at the organ, and once there, the words flowed.
Kimberley: There is always a story.
Kim: There are so many types of stories. Myth. Fable. Parable. Allegory. It can become confusing. But, if there’s only one thing to remember is that stories do three things: 1) build worlds; 2) seek truth; and 3) heal.
Part of the reason the world’s great religions still exist is that they offer people a story to enter into. A story that helps them build a world, and a worldview. A story that helps them seek truth. And a story that can heal.
This does not mean that religion is perfect. Too often, those stories break down worlds instead of building them up; seek to deny truth; and cause tremendous pain.
And yet they are still here, in all their imperfections.
In this room, we are writing our own story. Whether that story builds worlds, seeks truth, and heals is up to us.
Kimberley: Let’s have another moment of silence.
Silence will last 2 minutes.
Kimberley: There’s a lesson in the story of Robert Lowry—there he is, watching this horrific war unfold, and you’d think that’s all that’s going on, except that an epidemic strikes down thousands of people and so that takes his attention. Life isn’t a discrete set of events but rather complexity woven into complexity.
It can be really easy to get paralyzed by all the hardships, all the things that are wrong. Yet all of life keeps going on—the sorrows, yes, and the joys, and the connections, and the stories. And sometimes… it’s just about getting back to basics, back to what grounds us.
I’m reminded of a time about fifteen years ago, when
I spent a long January weekend on Topsail Island, North Carolina, at a spiritual retreat. I was one of twelve people gathered in a large beach house to listen, pray, meditate, share, and explore our connections to the Divine. One of our leaders, Donald, was grieving over the loss of his partner due to HIV-related illnesses - yet another epidemic.
Donald was a big bear of a guy with a nurturing spirit, but who also thought ‘why use ten words when a hundred will do?
At several points during the weekend, we would bring back to the group those messages we had gotten through our meditations, and often we too were long-winded as we explored in our limited language the expansive and complex ideas we’d heard. After one such session of sharing, Donald rocked in his chair, wrapped in his shawl, having been unusually quiet. When finally he spoke, he said only this: “Grandmother Bear says ‘eat more pie.’”
At first we laughed, and then we pondered, and then we decided to take her advice. A run to the grocery store secured the final ingredients we needed to make pot pies and berry pies and a chocolate cream pie. As we cooked, we talked, more deeply and intimately than we had the entire rest of the weekend. We got to know each other, share recipes, share stories, and of course, eat pie. Lots of pie.
I think a lot about that moment, and that charge to eat more pie. Clearly.
But I think about some of the lessons pie teaches us:
I love how pie is forgiving. I have had some bland pies, and undercooked pies, and overcooked pies. But somehow, it is impossible to throw away a slice of pie. You scrape off the burned crust, you eat around the uncooked center, and you add a little whipped cream. Pies don’t have to be perfect to be loved. In fact, we may love them more because of their imperfections. Imagine if we approached each other the same way.
And when we bring wounded hearts together over a slice of pie, we talk. Pie gives us something to do while we work out our hurts and frustrations with each other, in a safe, comforting, flavor-filled atmosphere.
Mostly, I think pie teaches us to stop, be still, and give thanks. I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke. In that passage, we learn that Jesus and his disciples stopped by the home of Mary and Martha—and while Martha busied herself preparing a meal, providing a comfortable space, attending to every need, Mary simply sat and listened to the stories this band of travelers told. Martha, of course, was annoyed, and even asked Jesus why it would be okay for her sister to do nothing. Jesus suggested that “Mary has chosen the better part.” Not that the food and hospitality wasn’t welcome—but at some point, the doing has to end, and we all need to stop, be still, and give thanks.
Kiya begins to play something instrumental on banjo as underscoring
Kim: Music plays a part in all of this…. Something as frivolous as pie, or as serious as plagues, and everything in between… Music Shows Up.
Kimberley: (pause to listen)
Listening to Kiya play banjo reminds me of how the banjo came to America. I always thought of the instrument as a European American invention, until I heard musician Abigail Washburn talk about the research her spouse Bela Fleck conducted. She said this, on an episode of On Being:
“As people were being boarded onto the slave ships, the people said “throw your heart down here; you’re not going to want to carry it to where you’re going.’ A lot of the slave masters figured out that if they had a banjo player on board, playing the music of home, more of the ‘cargo’ would live to the other side. So the origins of the banjo in America are the bitterest of roots… and it formed an amazing origin to what became a blend of traditions from Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, when those banjo players from Africa and the fiddlers from Scotland and Ireland started playing plantation dances together. That’s what started what we know as that early Appalachian and that early American sound. That sound is based in this bitter root but with this hope ‘that I can live—I can survive.’
Kim: Let’s have one more moment of silence. And when we come out of it, let’s sing together another “plain” hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing”.
Kiya to lead “How Can I Keep From Singing”
Blessing Ourselves and Each Other
Kimberley: With our time together coming to an end, it seems fitting that we do another thing that brings communities together; eat.
Kim: Food and stories. Two things that go together. As we leave from this place and go about the rest of General Assembly, may you find time to share both stories and food with someone who you never thought you would meet. And may those stories help build new worlds, seek truth, and heal.
Kimberley: We’ll end as we began, with the words of the founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune…
Kim: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.”
Music for Parting: “All Are Called” (Instrumental)