Monday, December 3, 2012

Keeping the Feast

I remember purchasing Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb while in seminary. Subtitled A Culinary Reflection, I thought it would provide an interesting way to look at the Eucharistic meal through the preparation of the Easter Dinner for which he provides recipes.
I never got through it. Put bluntly, I found it way too long on details about the shape of an onion and the proper way to determine if a corkscrew is any good. By the time he got to a recipe, I was long gone. In my cook’s (not chef’s) imagination, I always thought I could do better in reflecting on how food and communion provide so many metaphors for the Christian life. Well, maybe not better than theologian and storyteller Capon, but perhaps more accessible to those who did not want to wade through a couple hundred pages.
I never wrote that book. However, Milton Brasher Cunningham did. It’s titled Keeping the Feast. Instead of long explanations, he provides short meditations on various subjects and ties them to a recipe. The book is short, just ten chapters, each of which is about ten pages long, including a piece of poetry to begin and a recipe at the end. Most are thoughtful, and the recipes are certainly interesting. The Strawberry Shortcake with basil as an ingredient stands out.
Skip the chapter on baseball (unless, of course, you really like baseball). It seems oddly out of place, and the recipe that goes with it is strangely disconnected even from the chapter, much less the rest of the book. The other meditations are great and could be read out of sequence, though be sure to get to the two page afterward which closes out the book.
You will be treated to images of family suppers, community meals, funeral repasts, and the ways in which community comes forth through shared food. Most importantly, Brasher Cunningham ties our more common meals always to their reflection of the sacred meal we share in church. You may never look at dinner the same way again.

Water from an Ancient Well

Much has been written about Celtic Spirituality. I have books of liturgies, prayers, and meditations on my shelf. I love the language, the imagery the idea of entering into a different cultural context than my own in order to try and understand who Christ is.
That’s a great starting place for someone who has been to seminary and work in ministry for over 25 years. If I were just starting out, most of those books would be useless to me. Either they are too different from the Christianity I know, or they have so much churchy language as to be unintelligible. I’m still working on my doctrine(s?) of atonement, for example.
So enter, Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life by Kenneth McIntyre. Drawing on the practices of pre and post Christian Celts, McIntyre gently explains several concepts of Christian faith to the reader, and offers ways to explore major tenets of the faith. Scripture, the Cross, creation, evil are all explored in both everyday language and in reflection on how the Celts wrestled with these concerns. All the people and things one comes to expect from books on the ancient Celtic life are here—Patrick, Brigid, druids, thin places, etc.
This is not a book to read straight through, and not quickly. Start with the introduction and first chapter, but from there choose a chapter that interests you and spend some time with it. You may even read it a few times, pray the prayers located within it, and put the book aside while you ingest the ideas for a few days before choosing your next section to read.
Readers should be aware that they will find things to wrestle with here. For example, one chapter explores the concept of panentheism. Don’t know what panentheism is? Don’t worry; he gives a good explanation before showing how Celtic thought fits in nicely with it. However, you may decide you don’t agree with the concept even after reading. That’s okay too. You will still be exploring what you do believe.
That caution aside, the book is worth your time. If you ever wanted a clear way into Celtic spirituality, this is a good one. A good book for Advent or Lent, I would say—or any time you want to go a little deeper in your spirituality life.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jihad, Anarchy, and Jesus -- not necessarily in that Order

Okay, up front disclosure. I joined Speakeasy. What that means is that in exchange for occasionally getting a free book, I agree to review it on this site. It works like this: they send me a notice about a book they want reviewed, I say yes, and they send a copy. I can say whatever I want, and only have to write 200 or more words. I signed up because it puts books in my hand that I might not otherwise get around to. The titles I have seen so far have included a wide range of topics around Christianity, and I am choosing books that I think will be interesting for those who read this blog to know about. The full disclosure notice is at the end of this blog post, and will always appear for any book I write about for Speakeasy. And, no, I do not get paid, so I really can say whatever I want!

Every time I read a book written by a former conservative evangelical Christian, I find myself getting incredibly smug. I don’t like it, mind you, but it is pretty hard not to feel that way when I watch them wrestle with questions that more middle to left leaning mainline churches have had answers for a long time, mainly because we never threw out things with which the ancient Church had already wrestled. I can usually beat down the smugness by reminding myself of all the crap we mainliners are struggling with, such as becoming utterly irrelevant to the world at large.

Sadly, that was the second response I had to Aaron D. Taylor’s Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. My first response was probably the same one that everyone else who failed to pay attention to the subtitle had. When I picked up this book, I assumed I would be getting a blow by blow description of Taylor’s time spent with the jihadist Khalid. If you want to see that, you should seek out the film Holy Wars by director Stephen Marshall, for which this conversation was taped. I have not yet viewed the film, so the interpretation of the conversation I make here is based solely on Taylor’s description.

Instead, what you will get is one chapter about the conversation, and about fifteen more chapters of what happens to Taylor’s thinking over the following year as a result of the encounter. Admittedly, what happens as a result is hope filling—or it would be if we could get a few million mega-church members out there to have the same conversation and reflection. The truth is, Khalid Kelly, and Irish convert of Islam who lives in London, found a hole in the most basic thinking of conservative Christianity and drove a truck through it. Hmm. Perhaps that is not the best metaphor to use under the circumstances.

Anyway, I really wanted to see some give and take between Kelly and Taylor, with the Christian helping deepen the Muslim’s understanding of his faith and vice versa. The problem is, the Christian Taylor was then practically an unarmed man. He got beaten badly, and he knew it, so the scenario in my head could not take place.

What was his undoing? Kelly asked Taylor to explain how Taylor would use the Bible to implement a government. Try as he might, Taylor could not come up with an adequate answer because Kelly did not want moral philosophy but practical and law based answers to questions of how one responds to prostitution or robbery. Worse, he pointed to Western governments, the ones set up by majority Christians, and declared them wholly inadequate to resolve social problems.

But that’s pretty much all we get of the conversation. If this were a debate, Taylor lost. Big time. And he knew it. Now, readers of this blog who have an adequate sense of the full history of the church—which, unfortunately, too many conservative Protestants do not—might have avoided the trap Taylor fell into, which was trying to justify the failures of Western civilization as being due to people misusing the freedom they are given. Kelly’s answer to that was to recognize that freedom as a failure to carry out God’s will; freedom, he says, is a man-made (sic) ideal, while God demands obedience.

Now, here is where the smugness comes in. My response to Kelly would be to say that Christianity was never intended to create a government, and that his assumption that that is what God wants us to do is not one I accept. I would’ve happily owned to the fact that Christian government has been a disaster, but that is because Jesus never called us to create a government in the first place. And I certainly would have jumped in to say that nothing about Western civilization could be argued as the Christian form of government despite the fact that many people claim it is. In other words, I would have rejected Kelly’s major premises and outlined an entirely different understanding of the relationship between faith and government.

Which is exactly what Aaron Taylor does for the rest of the book. Chapter two outlines his recognition that Kelly was right in his assertions. His biblical analysis is that Christianity has never been called to set up governments, so of course the ones it has attempted not only have failed (are failing?), but those attempts have been a diversion from our call in the first place. From there Taylor explores the uneasy relationship between the Christian and the state, unjust laws, and significantly, the notion of coercion. In short, he not only recreates the model that the early church followed—i.e., little involvement with government and obedience to the laws as much as possible without compromising the faith.

He makes a compelling case for pacifism; admittedly, I am with him on that one, so he does not have to sell me on it. Once again, I am aware that his audience of choice is not me.

But then he steps into the concept of Christian anarchy.

So let me just say now that Christian anarchy is a concept that I have trouble wrapping my head around. Perhaps it is because I chiefly associate anarchy with chaos. So, I did some dictionary work on this. The most benign definition for anarchy is simply the lack of government. All the other definitions have to do with disorder, rebellion, and confusion. Add to that the quick willingness of so many modern anarchists to use violence in the attempt to achieve their aims, and you can understand why I am reluctant to go down the Christian anarchy road.

But let’s go back to that original definition and ignore the ones that have grown up over time. I don’t have a problem with doing that. Heck, I have done the same thing with the word radical, so I cannot be disparaging when others do the same with different words. Is Christian anarchy really what Jesus espouses? Here is where I think Taylor falls down. Jesus’ call to live in the kingdom of God.

The problem for me is that, at its heart, anarchy is a political system that I no way hinges upon Christianity. Once we espouse something called Christian anarchy, we have moved anarchy to the foreground and left Christianity as the adjective. Hence, a political understanding of the world takes precedence.

Besides, I have known anarchist groups. And what I have seen in every case is that, despite the ideal of there not being a leader, they all have clearly identifiable leaders even if they are unwilling to acknowledge who they are. Just watch a group of anarchist for fifteen minutes, and you will know who the leaders are. In other words, they all have developed a form of government.

Is there such a thing as a Christianity that does not have rely on secular explanations to justify itself? That’s a debate I would love to see. Unfortunately, despite a very hopeful writing that demands Christians, mainline and evangelical alike, to reconsider the role of the church in relation to the state, Taylor assumes the answer is no. I still want to make the case that the “Kingdom of God” is not a dependent concept but one that changes the world in ways we cannot yet see. Even if I like much, perhaps even most, of what Christian anarchy has to say. I just cannot go there.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Taking Post-Christendom Seriously

I spent my sabbatical visiting and seeing and listening to what other people do in their worship, especially people who are on the supposed front end of the new wave sweeping the church. Some of the places I visited were indeed forward thinkers. Others were simply providing the same old wine in new wineskins, a reverse on the saying of Jesus. The packaging may look really shiny and new, but the product is the same old thing.
During the past four months, I have worshiped in Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana. I spent a weekend with The Simple Way in Philadelphia, worshiped in Brian McLaren’s home church, ate Mexican food and worshiped with Stephanie Spellers and the folks at the Crossing in the Cathedral in Boston, and stayed a night with the Common Friars, a working farm/commune/new monastic community/household—no one quite knows what to call them—in Athens, Ohio
I’ve been welcomed by a Megachurch right here in Greensboro, listened to a Seventh Day Adventist pastor rail against Westboro Baptist Church’s notion that God could hate anybody, and seen Episcopalians who have figured out a way to use a projector and screen without destroying the sense of liturgical space or forcing everyone to spend the service looking up. I’ve also watched a pastor on a Jumbotron down a individual shot glass of wine during communion. (Note to a/v folk everywhere: This is time to switch the picture to the band even if they are not doing anything.)
On Pentecost, I visited the local Lutheran Church and saw the 9:00am contemporary service, which, like most 9:00am contemporary services is just shorter with guitars and good for accommodating families with small children, not reaching anyone outside of the church. In Pittsburgh, I visited a Methodist/ Presbyterian hybrid known as Hot Metal Bridge, where the ratio of tattoo to worshiper was about the highest I have ever seen, and the band played a combination of bluegrass and punk. I actually liked them a lot.
Oh, and if that was not enough, I was a deputy at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention too, where I watched my bishop take over the place with one 18 minute sermon—look for Michael Curry and General Convention on YouTube if you want to see it; it’s worth listening to his call to go out and be some crazy Christians, And, in the midst of all this, I was attending committee meetings of the Nominating Committee for our new Suffragan Bishop (That’s like an assistant bishop for you non-Episcopalians), reading applications, watching videos of sermons, and interviewing candidates via Skype. This person will be among other things, my de facto boss, so I have a definite investment in s/he being tuned to students and young adults.
I have come to realize that having coffee available before the service does not mean that you are solving the problem of how to welcome newcomers; it just means you have given us something to do with our hands. Placing a greeting time at the beginning of worship does not help either, especially if everyone greets their friends and ignores the visitors; that happened to me more than once. Surprisingly, it was the mainline denominations that responded best to visitors.
I have also learned that a forty five minute message does not beat a twelve minute sermon, especially for those of us who are not audio learners. Most of those long messages were a lot of filler with little actually being preached, and anyway, this overloads the emphasis on the individual preacher as the focus of worship, once again taking away from the sacramental.
Which leads to another learning I had. Evangelicals moving into emerging settings have not yet discovered liturgical forms to make the Eucharist seem as significant as the Word. "Okay, now it's time for communion." does not convey sacred mystery; it reduces sacrament to ordinary. Rewrite The Book of Common Prayer (I mean the Episcopal one, not the very good but misappropriated Title from Shane Claiborne and friends), but find some language that retains a greater sense of the holy, please.
Some of the details about my journey are in previous blog postings, though I have few more that I did not get around to writing up, especially the last trips before General Convention.
The toughest question I have been asked so far has been, “So what have you learned?” It has been hard to put into words, and I suspect it will be my next set of blogs that will flesh that out. But some things are coming clear to me, and one thing kept coming to me with each visit I made.
This is a message that cannot be repeated enough to the Church: it’s a different world out there! The end of Christendom is not happening now; it already occurred while we were sitting in our stained glass rooms paying no attention to what people were saying and thinking. While we have been functioning as if nothing has happened, all the while wondering why we are losing numbers, the world became a new place.
I was not just looking at liturgical practices and the types of messages being preach. I was also spending time with people in these congregations (when they would talk to me at least) and communities. I was finding out who attends the worships and why. What draws them to that space? What if anything, makes them different from us?
Now, at this point, it would be tempting to say that my own community is a wonderful example of responding to the rejection of church as usual, what with all the things we have done to welcome all sorts and conditions of people. Certainly, we have been on the forefront of the issues that are important to younger people, that we are the kind of place that should be attractive to anyone who wishes to think and question and explore. We pride ourselves on not being your typical worshiping community.
Well, I am sad to say that we are more a part of the past than we like to think. We are the past because we still live as though the Church matters to people. And for all intents and purposes, that is no longer true, or, put a better, way, the Church can no longer assume that anyone thinks it matters.
Take, for example, the recent flap around Chik-Fil-A. At first, I thought that we should all be embarrassed that this is the primary reason most people even thought about the church that week. Then I realized that that is exactly the problem. Millions of people, maybe a majority of Americans, saw that incident as being indicative of the value of the Church in their lives and in the world. Conservative Christians think they won a great victory by flooding chicken shops; in reality, they showed the rest of the country just how irrelevant we are. And the rest of the Church got swept up in the tide.
Of course, the liberal Christian response to such events is to show how they are not the conservatives to prove there is another way of looking at the issue du jour. In so doing, they tie their response forever to the conservatives. In fact they give legitimacy to this silliness by being so caught up in it. In the meantime, millions of people are looking at all of us and saying, “Why should I be a part of that group?” and we’re not giving them a very good answer, are we?
In chapter four of Ephesians, the author says “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Remember, he’s talking to the Christians with this statement, not to the victims—I mean audience—who happen to hear what we have to say. In bending once more to the winds, we have given people one more reason to ignore us and no reason to care what we have to say.
That’s because we have forgotten that most people are not attracted to causes unless they are personally affected. The rest of us are attracted to a sense of place, living with a deep desire to belong, to have a community of acceptance, not only for ourselves, but for our friends and family who may not always think, act, and believe as we do.
In her newest book, Christianity after Religion, Dianna Butler Bass describes the process of joining churches during Christendom as the three Bs, belief, behavior, and belonging. One accepted a core set of doctrine, then took on the practices of the community and thus gained a sense of belonging.
In the post-Christendom age, she argues, the order is reversed. People now seek belonging first, a belonging that includes being accepted for whatever beliefs they bring with them. The welcoming church will be the one that makes room for the seeker first and foremost. That acceptance will be followed by the seeker learning how this community lives out its life through their behavior, and finally through those behaviors will discover and begin to adopt the community’s beliefs.
I believe she is right, and that is a profound shift in thinking which demands an equally profound shift in the behavior of most worshiping communities. The days when a community could, for example, say that gays are welcome and assume that statement would attract a certain group of people are gone. Those churches are all over the country now (I personally met two openly gay pastors in nice, small, Midwest country congregations), but so are plenty of other nonreligious communities that do not have the baggage on those issues that we do.
All of this could sound depressing, but I see it very much as hopeful. It is hopeful because we have something to offer a world where people have 1500 Facebook friends and no one to be with on a Friday night. We have something to offer people who think in 140 characters or less, people whose most cherished symbol and strongest theology can be found inked on their biceps.
And what is it that we have? We have Jesus. We have the one who came to say we can have a life of abundance. We have a model of the Kingdom of God lived to the fullest. We have the promise of a different way of life, a community of caring, a place of new beginning and radical friendships, and most importantly, a place of hope in a world that is short on hope. We have Jesus.
We have the Jesus who is bread, not just for our meal today, but the bread of life. We have Jesus, who comes together with us each week in our celebration of bread and wine, the living out of the new Kingdom in sign and in coming together in shared lives. We have God’s table, where space is made for everyone, rich, poor, Black White, Yellow, Brown and Red, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, a table where the only label that has real meaning is beloved child of God and it is applied to all equally because there are no half loved children here.
That’s about all I have at this point. No great plan for the renewal of the church, just some thoughts about the disconnect between the world we live in and what we are doing in the church. In the upcoming months, I will be asking two questions: “Why are we doing the things we are doing?” and “What are we missing?”
Ministry today has become about shedding the baggage we have dragged along for too long and walking the road of the one who says “Behold, I make all things new.” But Christians should stick around to see what happens next. There’s a great big world out there that wants to know the living Christ through us. There are some dos and don’ts I have picked up along the way, but we really have to pave the road to where we are going as we travel. Fortunately, we have Christ’s footsteps to follow. Let’s get out there and see this new world together.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hot Metal Briddge: Why Tradition(s) Matter

Okay, I really should get around to writing about the Wild Goose Festival. Hopefully, I will do that before Tuesday, which is when the Episcopal Church's General Convention starts in Indianapolis. Once I get there, I doubt much blogging will happen amidst the 18 hour days.

In order to get to Indianapolis (thankfully paid for by my diocese since I am a deputy) and make one more venture into the world of new worshiping communities, I decided to drive. (Note - Marlene, that is why I am driving rather than the less expensive plane ticket. I am combining trips and paying for it out of two different funds.). This time the city is Pittsburgh, and the venue is a place called Hot Metal Bridge.

HMB is a community that began in the minds of two Methodist seminarians going to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. They spent three years looking to get off the ground, finding little traction from the Methodists but a lot of interest from the Presbyterians who operate their seminary. Eventually, one of the two became a Presbyterian elder, and Hot Metal Bridge now is jointly operated. (The Methodists climbed on board significantly after HMB started being successful.

Driving to south Pittsburgh from my hotel at the airport (The reason I was that far out of the city will soon be apparent), I had my usual jitters about entering a new community. That part of the city was not making it easier for me. Though very clearly not the posh part of town, it was definitely not the center of the Black community.

The south side of Pittsburgh is a predominantly White working class community. Not a lot of ministry going on here. I am struck by how, in our national branding of urban struggle as a problem of the African American and, increasing, Latino/a communities, we forget areas like this exist. Everyone knows about the west side of Baltimore thanks to The Wire, but few know about the ethnic neighborhoods of east Baltimore because their ethnicities are Polish, Ukranian, etc.

I was early, so I drove around the neighborhood, confident of parking in the 'ample parking' next to the church. Ummm, guys, I think you might want to change that note on your web page. There is a small lot, but most people have to park on the street. Fortunately, not a lot of businesses operate near here, so there are spaces.

Hot Metal Bridge is on the corner. I meant to take a picture of the sign over the door, but I forgot. Church is not the first thing you think when you see it. Corner bar is more like it. That's because it was once a bar or restaurant. Inside, there is the usual coffee setup (Episcopalians, please note. You can carry your coffee into worship and still keep it religious, but only if you stop freaking out about the carpets possibly getting stained. If that's a problem, it is the carpets that should go away, not the people with their coffee!), along with the folding chairs. At this point in my travels, I notice two things immediately. First, the band is not on a stage over everyone else. Second, there are no overhead screens.

Sadly, that's about all I have time to notice--well, there was the greeter who handed me a sheet with info about goings on at the church on one side and song lyrics on the other. And there were the three people who said hello to me. Oh, and there are tattoos around. A lot of tattoos. A whole lot of tattoos. HMB is reaching a bunch of people that no one else I have seen is reaching.

Anyway, as I take a seat, one of the two pastors asks people to fill in the spaces because a bus full of Presbyterians from the PCUSA General Assembly, currently meeting in Pittsburgh, are coming to visit. That's why I am staying out by the airport. You can't get a room in town! Anyway, the Presbys encouraged their delegates to worship in a local church on Sunday, and, lo and behold, bunches of them wanted to come to HMB. Why go to First Pres when you an see something different? I confess, I would've done the same thing. Heck, I've made a whole sabbatical out of doing the same thing!

So the place fills very quickly with people who do not look like the usual crowd, most of them wearing convention name tags so you really won't confuse them (Trust we, it wasn't really necessary!). And worship gets started. Senior Pastor Jeff--the Presbyterian--starts off with a prayer, then leads us in a responsive reading of psalm 103. Then he turns it over to the music team. I'm not sure the music fit the Good Samaritan theme, but at that point, I don't know we are getting the Good Samaritan for the gospel. Three songs, the last one being "Amazing Grace".

Now, I am sure a musician would have known what style to call the music. I said it was a cross between bluegrass and metal. Definitely bluegrass strains, particularly in the harmonies. And not loud enough by far to be metal, but it made a nod to the heaviness. "Amazing Grace" sounded more like "The House of the Rising Sun" (Sing a verse of that and you will get the idea. Not the same tune, but similar.). It was fresh, it was original, and the band encouraged people to sing along using the words they were holding in their hands.

Just an aside--I think I finally know what bothers me about the overheads. It's not the use of electronics. It's not the way they force us to look up rather than at the people or the altar. In the end, it is the feeling that I have to wait to be allowed to see the next words, like someone has the secret knowledge that they will only impart to me in two line bits. I like reading the whole hymn and getting the sense of what it is about, not just the part I am singing at the moment.

The music gives way to a greeting time, which, thankfully, is short. Enough time to say hello to the people around you, not enough time to wander around the crowded room and greet every friend you ever had and hear about their week.

This is followed by an extensive time of people sharing the things for which they want prayers. Some are good things - a new baby was born last week. Some are not - the wildfires in Colorado and the people without power due to the storms. While I know why he cut this off after awhile, it still felt funny to not allow everyone to verbalize these requests. If we can't hear them all, we need a new way to do this. Anyway, we get a summary prayer. At some point in here, the lead switches from Jeff to Jim, the Methodist and other co-founder of Hot Metal Bridge.

An offering is taken and the reading of the lesson for the day is begun. But wait, it's not merely a reading but a theological skit. The Good Samaritan herself makes an appearance, refusing to be the continual rescuer. It is actually very well done; funny, theologically sound, well played without overdoing it, etc. And it gets followed by a short (5-7minutes) talk about our place in the story. Are we the Samaritan? The man on the road? The priest or Levite?

And then comes communion. I should mention that Jeff had begun the service by point to the table and saying that this is why we come together each week. It is about the best blurring of the use of the word communion I have ever seen. Is it the bread and wine or the communing with one another and God? Yes!

Anyway, just as I am getting ready to suffer another non-liturgical--why are we doing this anyway--communion, Jim offers some words of institution and an anamnesis. We almost got an epiklesis too, but this is still a memorial meal for them. At least we got a calling for the Holy Spirit to be upon us! And after the service, I saw Jeff eating away at the bread like he though it should be consumed. Sorry, I am having an Episcopal real presence moment here.

We are not expecting all these people. The music begins to run out, and the practice of standing around the edges of the worship spaces is strained by the number of guests. But we cope with a few rounds of the doxology and people adjust where they are standing. The final prayer gets said, and we are informed that there is lunch for everyone.

I have a flashback to St. Mary's House where I work. Like SMH, HMB has one space in which to do everything. In order to have lunch, the chairs have to be cleared and tables set up. So, of course, I help. Actually, I rarely get to do much helping at SMH because someone corners me about something and it all gets done before I am out of my vestments. So, for once, I get to help.

I eat lunch with Brian, a blind man who is looking at seminary and campus ministry work. Midway through, Dylan comes and joins the table. He is currently the building manager at HMB, an ordained Presbyterian elder. Actually, I saw him down at Wild Goose the weekend before. He and I started talking about how he has come to see the value of denominations. Dylan grew up in a non-denominational church where one pastor was caught with a prostitute and his successor decided to spend the money making the place a megachurch and got rid of everyone who stood in his way (like Dylan's parents). Do denominations make sure such things never happen? No, but they do provide ways to cope and support for such congregations. They do set standards for who can be clergy.

 On reflection, I realized that the same issue occurs around worship. HMB was one of the best I have seen on my journeys; I would probably do a few things differently--does that surprise anyone--but overall, they succeeded in making a coherent service. The congregation knew what we were doing, and why. Most importantly, while this looked very different that what you might see in a Methodist or Presbyterian service, it was easy to see how every element was connected to the traditions. They were not making this up; instead they were adapting the tradition for a new situation.

And that is what liturgical innovation is about in my mind. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to make the wheel fit a new surface, found in a place we have not been before. Isn't that really what emergent/emerging church or whatever you want to call this stuff is all about? At any rate, one of the most innovative and successful communities--apparently it is standing room only for most of the year--thrives precisely because they did not abandon what came before but transformed it for a new place and time.

Next stop: Common Friars in Ohio, an Episcopal new monastic community taking me in for a night before I head to the craziness of General Convention.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Practicing our New Lives in Worship

Okay, I've been making the rounds to various churches for awhile now, and I have to say that anyone who thinks the emerging church is so successful because they have a much better sense of how to welcome people into their midst has not actually visited emerging churches. Frankly, the mainlines are winning on this one during my sabbatical. Whatever the denominations need to do to increase interest/membership, welcoming is not the problem or the solution.

Yesterday, I visited the United Methodist Church of my colleague in campus ministry at UNCG. I know the pastor of this particular church and some of the students who go there. This is one of those communities that have decided to begin the service with a period of greeting one another. The minute the pastor announced that this was what was happening, virtually everyone around me who was a regular turned to me and introduced themselves and welcomed me to church. To be honest, it felt comfortable because they seemed comfortable with greeting me; it did not feel forced. These people have been doing this for awhile.

Wisely, the pastor let this go on for about two minutes tops. The beginning of worship is not the coffee hour (though there was no coffee hour. They might want to consider something like that! But maybe it disappears during the summer.).

Likewise, on Pentecost Sunday, I went to a local ELCA church. It was the 9:00 'contemporary' service--you know, bad guitar music trying to be hip. If you've seen one 9:00 contemporary service, you've seen them all; it does not even matter which denomination it is. But I wanted to be sure I received communion on Pentecost, so the Lutherans were surely going to oblige me (They did.).

Now, you should know that when I go to worship in new communities, unlike most people, I no longer try to blend in. It would be impossible most of the time anyway. I'm the black guy with the deep singing voice that may or may not be on key. And, most of the time, I know all the words. People know that they have not seen me before.

Just an aside. There is always one black guy in these emerging churches; usually he is running the sound. What's up with that? I don't know how to run the tech equipment. Did I miss some class in being black school? Is this a paying gig?

Okay, got that off my chest. Back to the subject at hand. When I am visiting, I want to give the community every chance to realize I am a visitor. This time, I did it by showing inordinate interest in what was on the bulletin boards in the hallway--you know, the ones you don't bother to read with stuff on them that is so old it's written in cuneiform.

Lo and behold, someone comes up to me and invites me to join her in worship--granted, it's the pastor's wife. Still, she makes a point of introducing me to as many people as she can. Remarkably, she was just as gracious when I told her who I was (which means that I am not a potential member!).

So contrast that with the non-denominational emerging church in Bucks County, Pennsylvania that I visited about a month ago. Before the service, the pastor came up to me, and we had a nice conversation. The same happened with the associate; in fact, kudos to him for remembering me and finding me on Facebook. He's actually the first person who has done that on this journey. 

But when we finished the the two songs and a prayer for the members of the community about to leave on a Guatemala mission trip--I am not sure why we did this right at the beginning, but what the hack--the worship leader announced that we would have our greeting time. Everyone gets up and starts greeting each other. Oh, wait. Everyone gets up and starts greeting their friends. Even the ones who were sitting on the right side near me moved to other parts of the room. So there I sat for several minutes--trust me, it went on for at least five minutes, probably more.

Finally, I turned to the only other person left on this side of the room, a woman who is seated about three rows back from me. "So, are you a visitor too?" I asked. She responded, "Oh, no. I've been coming off and on for about a year now." I hope you are getting the point. One would have to be blind to notice the two of us surrounded by a sea of folding chairs not talking to anyone, just waiting patiently for someone to approach.

So here's the thing. I am just enough extrovert to be able to lead worship, and to branch out when I am in my own spiritual house to talk to folks. But my introverted side comes out in situations like this. What I do have is enough confidence not to get anxious about it. I just sat and observed a group of people with no idea that they were suppose to welcome visitors or with such blinders on that it did not occur to them to look.

I also have to fast forward to the end of the service. I'm not sure it's coffee hour when you were allowed to get coffee before the service and drink it during the service. Let's just call it fellowship time. Once again, I had nice conversations with the pastor and assistant. And NO ONE ELSE! I wandered the space for a bit, then decided I had better things to do  than not be talked to by a group of people who obviously appreciated each others company. I left.

Now, my point, believe it or not, is not to put down emerging churches. This is hardly a scientific contrast of traditional versus emerging churches. I've known plenty of frozen chosen Episcopal churches that did not say a word to me too. My point is that none of us--mainline or emerging--has evolved past our natural tendency to group with those we know and like.Chaning that tendency means making deliberate choices.

Which is why we all need to start thinking about worship as intentional practice, Sunday School as it were, not as casual gathering. Following in Jesus' footsteps means leaving behind the thinking and the practices that keep humans separated or afraid of the strangers in our midst. Let's face it, that may be an exaggerated way to describe what is going on here, but it is not off the mark. In some ways, we are afraid to greet the visitor. The most frequent argument, especially in larger communities is the fear to greeting a visitor who turns out to be a long term member of the congregation (Beware the 8:00er who comes to the 11:00 service one Sunday--or vice-versa).

But should this be the safe environment to begin learning new, Jesus-like behaviors? Of course, as we do on Sunday morning, so we should do at other points in our lives. This welcoming the stranger business is counter intuitive, but we can learn through practice to see it differently. In that sense, our behavior in worship is an opportunity to start learning what Christian faith as lived practice is meant to be.

I would suggest that all of worship is intended to do that. Reading lessons suggests the regular practice of reading our Bibles. The sermon or message time suggests that reading the Bible is not enough; we need to take some time to reflect on what we have read. Prayers for Others counter our natural tendency towards selfishness. The Offering is an object lesson in becoming giving people. Maybe we should get away from automatic transfers by our banks and make people actually have to physically put the gift in the basket! And, of course sharing the Eucharist, communion, is all about uniting with one another in common fellowship and with God.

If we viewed worship this way, the greeting time at the beginning of worship or at the peace could never become merely a chance to catch up with our friends if there is someone in the room we do not know. It would be a chance to practice hospitality. And it would not matter if they were members of the congregation or not. If I don't know them, that is enough reason for me to approach. Hopefully, our worshiping community will be a safe enough space for us to learn this unnatural (for some) behavior.

Of course, maybe that applies to me as well, even when I am visiting a community I have never been in before. I don't lose my member of the body of Christ status just because I am not in my home community. Still, I think the larger ball is in the ongoing community's court. And from what I see, a lot of us, young , old, tattooed, three piece suited, gay, straight, you name it, have lost track of this.