Twenty Years of Roundtable Worship

Last Sunday was the twentieth anniversary of the Roundtable Worship Gathering at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina. Whether by dogged perseverance, habit, or the winds of the Spirit, a small group has circled regularly in a worship gathering around a table with bread and drink, prayer and song, conversation and words of re-commitment that feed our souls.

Our first gathering in roundtable format took place on February 16, 2003, just when the US was beating the war drums to invade Iraq to destroy its “weapons of mass destruction.” Sylvia and I had been cultivating this kind of worship for over a decade in other settings in Atlanta and Boston. By the end of the 1990s this emerging worship form was clearly embedded in the circle conversations of the restorative justice movement, especially with the JustPeace Center of the United Methodist Church. Its primary focus was and continues to be the work of reconciliation.

In early 2003 we met with our friend Mel Harbin, a retired pastor and administrator, who enthusiastically supported the formation of this kind of worship. Ken Johnson, another retired pastor, soon joined us and Roundtable Worship began to gather, at first twice monthly before settling into its monthly schedule, with a break in June and July. At this date there have been around 225 gatherings. In the early years the liturgy evolved rapidly before settling into its present form, though that form and its particular elements slowly change through annual retreats or consensus-building around particular changes.

Occasionally, we have exported this form to nearby Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, one time for their Vespers Service, other times for Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conferences. It has also been introduced to the youth group at our church. In 2009 I worked with the group to put together “A Reflective Guide” to Roundtable Worship, which you can find on this website. Churches as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in the US have been in communication with us about Roundtable Worship, adapting it to their local situations.

Over the years the focus of conversations has roamed widely, from the warfare at its beginning to issues of sex and gender discrimination, immigration, racism, gun violence, eco-justice, cultural despair, faithful hope, visions of the beloved community, and basic theological and ethical questions. Sometimes we have placed inspiring and provocative art works at the center of our conversation. These conversations gave rise to an ongoing Reconciling Conversations Group at First UMC to foster conversation and action around difficult issues such as those of sexuality, gun violence, and racism.

No one church initiative can produce miraculous changes in the society around us. What has been at work here is a gradual reshaping of the congregational culture in which decisions arise out of the conversation of the people rather than directives from “on high.” It is these leavening circles of reconciling conversation that can, I think, produce enduring changes while also manifesting in their very process the just community for which we long.

Many people have participated in our gatherings over the years. Some have moved on to other locations. Others we remember as they have passed on to God’s wider love. In particular we remember Mel Harbin and Ken Johnson, who were there at the beginning. We also remember with deep affection Jane Young, Wannie Hardin, and Janie Dowdy, whose spirit still informs our worship together. May all these saints rejoice as we yearn for the realization of God’s beloved community. Let me know what seeds of circle conversation might be doing in your own situation.



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A Prayer from Ukraine

In response to my previous posting, my long-time friend Gerd Decke, a retired pastor in Berlin, sent me a prayer he had received through a German church-relief agency from the office of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, in the western part of Ukraine. This is a historically Hungarian speaking branch of the Calvinist (Reformed) movement of the 16th century that has survived repeated changes in empire and government over the centuries. It has about 135,000 members in 103 congregations, with a bishop in Berehove, Ukraine. In the midst of their extremely difficult circumstances, this is a prayer offered by one of their pastors. The prayer was originally in Hungarian, then translated into German and now into English.

(by Rev. Zoltán Laskoti)

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and enlighten us with your grace!

Our candles are burned and burned out, our batteries are dead, we have no reception and no internet – we pray until darkness envelops us.
We remember the times when water reliably flowed from the tap, light lit the rooms and the heating worked and we did not wake up in constant worry.

Our lives are full of discomfort and tension, Lord. Many of us are stressed. You can see it on their faces. Some seek comfort in alcohol. Many men are in despair. Their wives live in fear. Stay with us in the long nights, Lord, find the lost and forsaken and lead them back.

Our children sit in damp, dark basements during the air raids. In our churches we light candles and warm our hands by their flames. When we sing, many have moist eyes. Our eyes and souls are tired from the strain. We often listen gullibly to the gloomy news. We are afraid of winter and the cold. Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, for winter is coming!

We wait for you, Lord, as watchmen wait for the morning, as those who sit in darkness wait for the first rays of light. We wait for you to speak, to act, to guide us.

We hope in your promises and that they lose none of their power. We trust in you.

We thank you for the families that are brought together, Lord, grant that this need will bring people closer together and not apart!

Thank you that our time is in your hands and nothing – neither mighty nor powerful – can separate us from you. In you we trust, for you give us grace and salvation.

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and the night will end, it will certainly end. Amen



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Christmas in Ukraine

There are times in our individual lives, in the lives of communities and nations, and now even on this planet, when a catalytic flash seems to weld together our fitful and ambiguous struggles for justice with the divine intention for all of creation. For many of us, that moment, indeed that apocalypse, that revelation, is taking place in Ukraine. So that is where and how I hear the perennial Christmas story today. Here is how it comes to me as we make our way through the familiar rituals and events of this season.


In the darkened road we come upon a crater by a gutted building

where a baby wails among the dead.

Shrieking sirens drown the songs of Christmas

in the scream of missiles bearing down upon the town.

But we can still feel Herod’s fear and greed,

hear the little ones, defenseless, who will topple kings.

In the ruins of a shattered lie

the Word is crying out.

Beneath the golden onion domes lies a body made of wheat and sky

bleeding for us all.

In the burning tanks lie soldiers writhing in the ashes of a fallen empire

pointing speechless at the weeping mother praising God.



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In the Time of Grace

In the time of grace beyond three score and ten

a clearing opens up before me at the edge of woods

where I have made my fires, built my homes,

and gathered nuts and berries for my journey.

But in the clearing bright with sunlight

I have lost my way,

no towering oak to offer orientation,

no brooklet running down the hill to show the way to river and the sea.

The grass waves this way and that,

the breeze turns flower heads in manifold directions.

The grass receives my pathless footsteps,

thistle heads reach out to grab my shirt,

the ripening blueberries await the bear,

as I stand fixed on edge between the forest and the field,

between the sheltering trees and flowered meadow,

searching for the harvest still to come,

the company of home.

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