Holding onto hope through worship


Just Worship gathering concludes with a splash

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Phillip Morgan sings “How Long, O Lord?” as the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long looks on during the final plenary of the Just Worship gathering on Wednesday. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

AUSTIN, Texas — During the closing plenary of Just Worship, the director of the event, the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long, confessed that “in the face of so much injustice and suffering, it was hard to keep despair at bay and not be ruled by rage.”

As those words seemed to linger in the sacred space of the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Long asked, “How do we hold onto hope?”

That question, and those feelings she described, came to her as her heart was bursting with joy — and then breaking — during a visit to Atlanta to see her granddaughters.

Early one morning awake in the guest bedroom, she listened quietly for signs of life. And then she heard the first sounds coming through the bedroom walls. It was three-year-old Harper singing.

Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me,” Long sang.

“It was the song I sang to her father,” she said softly, “and now he sings it to her.”

But shortly after that, Long heard another sound. The news was of yet another mass shooting, and the sweetness of the morning was gone.

A few hours later, Long and her son were driving home after picking Harper up from pre-school, when the girl excitedly pointed out the window, “Look! Skies of blue. Clouds of white,” she exclaimed. “What a wonderful world!”

Long said that her heart burst and broke all over again. One day, she thought, the girl “will find out the world is not as wonderful as all of that.”

“She will learn the world is full of hate, suffering and violence. That life is sometimes a matter of unspeakable pain. I do not want her to go through active shooter drills at her school.

“I don’t want her to know that children can be separated from their parents at the border; that families are torn apart by deportations; that refugees from a hurricane disaster are turned away for lack of visas. She lives in a world where her friends and relatives whose skin is darker than her own are treated differently sometimes with devastating consequences.

 “I do not want her to know that because of the generations before her, the planet she calls home is in peril. And that teenagers from every part of the world, some only a decade older than she, are having to stand up and call the leaders of the world to account for the devastations of climate change.

“Is it any wonder that we need to lament?” she asked.

She then invited Phillip Morgan to sing the words of Psalm 13. “How long, O Lord, will your people continue to suffer?” she said. “May these words become our own.”

“How do we hold on to hope?” she asked again. “We do it by worshiping.”

The Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long speaks Wednesday during the closing plenary at the Just Worship gathering held at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

Long said she believes that whenever we worship, the vision of what God intends for the world is kept alive.

By telling the story of Jesus Christ — what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do when he comes again — “we proclaim and enact the coming reign of God,” she said.

For Long, this happens when we

  • Baptize people into the death and life of Jesus Christ.
  • Proclaim that neither death nor evil have the last word.
  • Share bread and wine at a table, where everybody has a place.

And when:

  • The bodies around us look different than ours
  • We hear voices other than our own.

It also happens, she said, “when we sing of the coming reign of God, for our songs can say more than our words alone.”

With that, Long asked those gathered to sing with her the hymn that expresses this better than any other she knows — and to make the words their prayer:

Pelas dores deste mundo,” Glory to God #764

 For the troubles and the sufferings of the world,
God, we call upon your mercy:
the whole Creation’s laboring in pain!

 Lend an ear to the rising cry for help
from oppressed and hopeless people:
Come! Hasten your salvation, healing love!

We pray for peace,
the blessed peace that comes from making justice,
to cover and embrace us.
Have mercy, Lord!
We pray for power,
the power that will sustain your people’s witness:
until your kingdom come,
Kyrie eleison!

We sing and pray for mercy, peace and power, she said, so that we might witness to the promise given in Revelation 21:1-7, which refers to a time when

 “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Verse 4)

For Long, this promise “that Christ will restore the world to all that it was created to be” is why we are called to just worship. This kind of worship “engenders hope,” she said, “the kind of hope that is dangerous, like Mary’s Magnificat, which can turn the world upside down.”

A few green sprigs and a full baptismal font were all the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long needed to put a memorable wrap on the Just Worship gathering Wednesday. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

According to Long, no one put this better than her liturgical hero, Robert Hovda.

“Hovda once said that a ‘good liturgical celebration [or “good church” if you prefer] like a parable takes us by the hair of our heads, lifts us momentarily out of the cesspool of injustice we call home and puts us in the promised and challenging reign of God, where we are treated like we have never been treated anywhere else.’”

Long said she wants to worship and live like that, to bet her life — and ground worship — on the promise that was given to each of us in our baptism.

“Let’s do that,” she said. “Let’s just worship.”

 Then she invited those gathered to turn toward the baptismal font. As Dr. Tony McNeill played “Take Me To The Water,” Long took sprigs and water up and down the aisles of the chapel, dousing those gathered and offering them these words: “Siblings in Christ, remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

Just Worship, which concluded Wednesday, is a cooperative effort among Austin and Johnson C. Smith seminaries, the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship and the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.


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