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With help from its youngest attendees, PAM conference ends on a high note

‘Let the children come to me,’ Jesus said, and youth take center stage at the Worship and Music Conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The youngest attendees of PAM’s Worship and Music Conference played a big role during Friday’s closing worship. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — Since Friday’s closing worship at the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship and Music Conference focused on communion, dozens of loaves of bread from all over the world were spread on the communion table before worshipers. For this service, children were also front and center — right where Jesus wants them to be, according to Mark 10:13-16, one of the texts selected by the conference preacher, the Rev. CeCe Armstrong of St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C.

“Here Jesus seems to say, ‘Have all the debates you want, but you better leave my children alone,’” Armstrong said. “Let them come to me, Jesus says.”

Indeed, children sang and clapped during the closing hymn, “Amen, We Praise Your Name,” and held dramatic poses during one of the readings.

The communion table was brimming with loaves of bread from all over the world. (Screenshot)

“It only seems right,” Armstrong said, “if we plan to eat at the welcome table that we welcome those whom Jesus said, ‘Come to me. Bring the children down.’” She asked adult worshipers to “find a way to fill [the children] with the things you have learned this week. Let them see you do the work God has called you to do.”

Armstrong also read Psalm 26 (“Yep, the whole psalm,” Armstrong quipped).

“These two passages together remind us the clarion call is one of engagement to those who are othered in judgment,” Armstrong said. This call for engagement challenges churches to “step outside the comfort zone beyond the stained-glass windows” which can obscure the view of what’s happening outside the church.

“’Go to them,’ I hear Jesus saying,” Armstrong said. “I’ll take care of the kids. Y’all go to them.”

This week’s Music and Worship Conference was filled with glorious music. (Screenshot)

If our churches aren’t as full as they might be, “sometimes it’s the overzealous bodyguards who protect Jesus from the people who need him the most,” Armstrong said. “Those who have not yet come to Christ will need you for a guide. You may need to be a GPS for somebody to help them come back to Christ.”

the Rev. CeCe Armstrong

“Take your elbows off the table,” Armstrong said in a bit of a scolding voice, “and make room for those who aren’t seated there.”

“In the name of the triune God, go in peace,” Armstrong said during her benediction. “But let our children lead us.”

Wrapping up a study of Matthew 18

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, who teaches New Testament Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, completed a weeklong study of Matthew 18 with an exploration of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

After students discussed the parable in small groups, Aymer asked what emotions they’d felt. “I felt kind of jerked around,” said one student. “It’s a nice story of forgiveness at the beginning. Then it takes a 90-degree turn, and then a bomb drop at the end,” when Jesus says God, too, will hand us over for torture if we can’t forgive one another.

the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer (photo courtesy of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary)

Asked by Aymer what through lines they see throughout the chapter, which includes stories about millstones around the neck and a lost sheep being found, students talked about relationships, forgiveness — and the topic that opens the chapter, becoming like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

They Aymer asked, what does the text about the unforgiving servant have to say about being the church? Ideas included “We need to advocate for those suffering injustice” and “We all have debts and we all need forgiveness.”

“Freely you have been forgiven. Freely forgive,” Aymer said in bringing the study to a close. “Go into the world with the humility of children … Restore the lost, trusting that when you are lost, you will be found … Go in faith and love. Go and do church. Amen.”

Routley Lecture

Routley Lecturer Tom Trenney noted that when a troubled student needs to confide in a teacher, “they don’t often go to their history or math teacher. It’s usually the music teacher.” Himself a music professor and a minister of music, Trenney said the reason may be that “music helps us become vulnerable to one another and reveals our humanness. Music lets us know we belong.”

Trenney used concentric circles to frame his five talks this week, starting on the outside circle with “my voice” and moving to “music,” “text,” “context” and “community.” What would the inside circle hold? “This will be perhaps our most disappointing time together,” Trenney said while drawing a question mark in the center.

“I cannot tell you what this is for you,” Trenney said. “But God knows.”

Tom Trenney

“How can we be transformed to be and do what God is calling us to be and do,” Trenney asked the class, consisting both of in-person and online students. “Maybe your center is hope. Maybe it’s sanctuary, so people know they have a safe place to be.”

The question on everyone’s mind, of course, was, “How do we get to that place in the center?” Trenney had four ideas:

  • Discipline, especially as it relates to discipleship. “We have the choice of making the effort, or not,” Trenney said. “It’s not self-motivation. God is always there with us.”
  • Humility, the kind where we don’t think less of ourselves, but we think of ourselves less. “If we make ourselves the center, I think we will be disappointed and discouraged,” Trenney said. “Humility is something we choose. It’s not something people impose on us.”
  • Trenney said he now tells his children they can’t do something they want to do only if he has a specific reason why not. “We don’t suffer over every choice, but we have some reason for why we did what we did,” Trenney said.
  • Grace, the most important of the four ideas, Trenney said. “Thank God we have nothing to do with this,” Trenney said. “We may lack the other three, but there’s a chance God can come and make everyone experience an oasis of joy and beauty. That’s a miracle, and we have no way to control that.”

“We’re about to go back to a whole new world,” Trenney said while wrapping up his final lecture. “All those little changes we were afraid to make, all those things we bickered about — our whole world changed and we didn’t get to vote on it.

“Let’s go back with a different spirit. Let’s not be afraid to make simple changes that indeed might help us grow.”

His prayer included these words: “Help us to keep the door unlocked and not be afraid of who might walk in. Help us to be open, help us to be healed and help us to be beacons of your light and love.”

“Bless you and thank you,” Trenney told students, who applauded his efforts.

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