Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remember the Jazz

I have to start this blog by saying that I am not a historian, and I was not taking notes as I talked to people, so forgive me if a few details are not exactly correct. They will not take away from the value of this adventure.

Jimmy White is an elderly gentleman, self described as the strongest Episcopalian in Georgia. He may well be. But his route into the Episcopal Church is one of the most fascinating you will ever hear.

If you come to Christ the King Episcopal Church in Valdosta, it is probably because you have heard of Jimmy's son Stan, the rector and founder of the church. What you don't know at first is that Stan was raised in the Assemblies of God, the son of several generations of Assemblies pastors.

Jimmy White was a well respected pastor, not only in Georgia, but nationally in the AofG community. But Jimmy had some strange ideas, especially in the South, and he had the audacity to be the first minister to integrate his congregation there. Not just the first Assemblies minister, but the first. Period. This did not go over very well.

Stan learned these strange ideas from his daddy and his momma Anna (You have to meet Anna because I'm not sure if Jimmy will tell this story quickly; it doesn't seem to be in his nature to brag on himself.); but Stan went even further. After time in San Francisco learning from the likes of Matthew Fox and others (I am greatly condensing the story here), Stan came back to Valdosta, started working in his daddy's church, and espousing radical ideas about God's love for humanity. He was, of course, promptly fired along with younger brother, Michael, then the youth pastor. Basically none of them could get a job in the denomination at this point.

So Stan, good Pentecostal that he was, simply started another congregation. And a whole bunch of folks followed him to it. And Stan did not stop learning. Along the way, he found the Book of Common Prayer and discovered that he was an Episcopalian underneath it all.

And the next amazing part is that the congregation trusted him in this. If you want to read about it, there is apparently a record in the Christian Century (sometime in 1990), about the time when the bishops came to town. Five of them. For confirmation. Of 200+ people. Including Jimmy and Anna and Michael.

But then what was the bishop to do about leadership? It was obvious who the pastor was, but they needed a priest. And it was obvious who that should be, but there were the matters of seminary, CPE, Commission on Ministry, General Ordination Exams, etc.. How could Stan leave for three years to do all that?

He couldn't and he didn't. He did a version of what is known as reading for orders. Some local classes, some correspondence--this is before any really significant online learning existed, remember--some study with local priests. And (I'm guessing here.) a lot of really interesting discussions in the Commission on Ministry.

So flash forward a few years. This congregation has been in existence about a decade, worshiping in space on the edge of the city, and ready to build a 'proper' church building. Brother Michael is gone by this time; he's also an Episcopal priest, now at Christ Church in Savannah (That's a story for another day, but you can read about the court fight on line if you wish.). Stan has a vision and an encounter. The vision points him to downtown Valdosta, and the encounter--a woman he meets twice on opposite sides of the country in vision and in person--who tells him 'Remember the Jazz." More on that later.

The congregation once again followed his leadership and purchased  a four story office building in the heart of the city. On the first floor, the put a coffee shop and bookstore named Hildegard's. On the second floor is the worship space. The third floor is church offices and storage, and the fourth floor is rented out.

So, if you are wondering why I came to Valdosta in the first place, now you know. I heard Stan two years ago, and I knew I had to visit the congregation that voted to go downtown rather than stay in the burbs. Something right had to be happening here.

It would be nice to say all of this has gone without a hitch, but that would be a lie. The powers of this world have fought back. There has been a protracted battle with the city about Hildegard's non-profit status, despite the existence of such ministries all over the country. Heck, one local congregation owns a warehouse that no one tries to tax. So you know it's not about tax status. Sadly, it seems to be the same issue that got Jimmy White in trouble a few decades earlier.

Or maybe worse. Because now Christ the King does not just welcome Black and Brown people. It welcomes gay and lesbian people too. And tattooed people. And pierced people. and, well, it welcomes anyone who wishes to come.

So Hildegard's only opens on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday now, and food is served as an offering to the prayer groups and Eucharist that are held on those days. And People give donations for the food if they wish. Ironically, this means no sales tax if collected, so the city get less money they they would have if they had stayed out of it. But, remember, this fight was not about the money. Stan's office used to be down there. Now that space has been converted to a chapel. It is there that the Wednesday Eucharist is held, a glass sided room right on the street for passersby to see.

I have to say that lots of people welcomed me when I visited this past Sunday. Granted, the bishop (my old friend) was visiting. And I got introduced. So much for going incognito. Even before that though, several members of the community introduced themselves to me. And no one played the "I can't ask if he's a visitor because I don't want to embarrass myself if he's not" game.

Nine adults were confirmed or received. The congregation is about as diverse as they come in race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Pretty close to what many congregations wish they could make happen.

For you Episcopalians, this is the first congregation outside of St. Mary's House that I have ever been in that made free use of Enriching our Worship on Sunday morning. The music combined several sources--Hymnal 1982, LEVAS, contemporary, etc. The band (electric organ, piano, drums electric bass, trumpet,and singers) helped us to sing rather than giving us a concert.

And they figured out how to place and use the projection screen so that it was not distracting but enabling of worship. It was on the wall behind the altar, which was out at least 8 feet from the wall, just high enough to see over standing people (I was in the back row), but not so high that you were looking up instead of forward. When words were needed, they came up. When words were not needed, a cross was projected. No constant imagery distracting us, and no live feed of whoever was talking. (Granted, this was a space for 220, not a megachurch theater).

There was no bulletin, but I am beginning to learn how little I care about bulletins and knowing exactly what is going to happen next. There were Prayer Books in the seats if you wanted one, but you did not really need one. Which means non-Episcopalians could feel right at home too.

In fact, I took a few pictures of the space after the service. They are not good shots, so I probably will not post them, but they may help me rework a few things at St. Mary's House when I get back from sabbatical. As I walked the sanctuary area, the thought I had was "This is like jazz." Now, I had not heard Stan's story at this point, so "Remember the jazz" was not in my head.. What I meant first was that the musical setup was one of cooperation and unity designed to draw us in and to free us to explore. I quickly realized that the music area was integrated into the sanctuary so that it all seemed to work together as a piece. So much of contemporary worship seems to hinge on word and music as separate items, so much so that the pieces never become a whole. Jazz. A worship team, not worship leaders. Liturgy as cooperation.

So Christ the King is learning what it means to carry the cross today. And they have decided that Christ is to be found in the city, in what were neglected streets that are coming back to life in large part due to their presence.

This is not to say that Christ the King has it all worked out. My sense is that they are at one of those crossroads. It's not that there is anything wrong. The congregation is healthy, the ministry is certainly doing Gods' work. It's more like the next chapter is about to be written, one that will be built upon the life they have built. Valdosta, watch for it!

And if you are ever in town, find your way there. You will meet Stan White and the people of Christ the King, to be sure. But make sure you meet Jimmy White, the strongest Episcopalian in Georgia. If Stan has been a Moses (I know he will bristle at the comparison!), Jimmy is surely the Abraham of this story, the man who wandered where God told him to go, not knowing what would come of it.

And Anna makes a darn good Sarah too, but I'd probably have to get Jimmy and Stan alone to hear just how important she was in all of this.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Grace in SDA - But not Evangelism!

Okay, it should go without saying that I am somewhat different from the Seventh Day Adventists--in theology, in style, in politics, you name it. We understand things differently. But right now, I have a warm spot for this Saturday denomination.

 I spent Saturday morning in Atlanta. My sole purpose in being in Atlanta this time was to worship in a community known as Fusion. Don't get confused; there is an Atlanta Fusion Church that will show up on Google. Look further down for the one that meets in the DeFoor Centre on Saturdays.

The cafe opens at 10:45, the worship starts at 11:30. I'm not sure what it is about coffee and emerging, but there is definitely a link. Somebody please tell them all to start buying fair trade!

Sorry, that was an aside. The Arts Center (Note to emerging people. Arts centers like emerging apparently. Think of them when you need space.) where Fusion meets has a separate cafe' that you can grab a cup of coffee and a pastry in then wander into worship. Or, you can enter the doors to the building and find the Keurig system that the congregation I assume has set up for one shots. You will find this first. When I arrived, it was jammed and a group was attempting to solve the problem. How many emergents does it take to brew a cup of coffee...?

Okay, bad joke. Well, at least one of them, Keith(?) introduced himself to me. The rest, I assume thought I was always there. So, eventually I got a cup of Newman's Own coffee and wandered in the presumed direction of the worship. No signs anywhere. There were seats for about 75 people, though only about six or eight there.

On stage is a mike and guitar stand. About 4-5 are gathered in conversation. I walk past them, sit down and wait. Nothing happens. None of them group looks up and notices me. Other people wander in. No one says a word. Kids come in and wander somewhere else. 11:30 comes and goes.

Finally, I get up and wander in the direction where I see some other people headed. And that's when I fine the real cafe! You mean I could've had a cup of real coffee!? Not happy.

Eventually I head back to the worship space. More people come in. Finally, the service actually begins. By this time, there are about 30 adults and 15 kids present. Finally emerging church that remembers there are such things as children!

Hipster worship leader (black glasses, black t-shirt, skinny jeans, and untied high tops) says, "We're gonna start now" and begins singing "Blessed be your Name" and then another song I did not know. When he is almost done, Keith wanders right in front of him to grab a mike. At the end of the music, it is time for announcements. Kids are to leave after the next music segment, adults get to stay for the message, sermon, you know. Thank you Ricky, our worship leader. He tells us to stand up again for the music.

Time for another aside: What is this business of calling music leaders worship leaders? Or is the music the only time these folks think we are worshiping? Ricky was no more in charge of that event than I was. I think this has become a case of bolster their egos while continuing to pay them nothing.

Of course, the next two songs are slower and really don't make most of us want to stand. Some last through the first of the two, but by the second one, everyone is seated. Both songs are forgettable (At least, I forgot them.). The kids walk out. And out comes someone named Chris that we have not seen until now. Another hipster, this time with faux hawk, untucked in black shirt and baggy pants that are a little too long.

Chris give the message. Apparently, we have been doing something called the New Testament Challenge, the challenge being to read it. And we have been giving messages about it. Oh, I should mention that Chris brought out his own podium, complete with laptop notes and Bible. He places it right next to the center staircase which he climbs on frequently as he talks. So, we are at the end of the New Testament challenge which means what? Yes, I shuddered at the thought of a Revelation sermon. But no, Chris punts and says Revelation would require much more time, so he's going to talk about eternity instead.

Now I know I am in a strange land. An evangelical who doesn't want to talk about Revelation!!?

Here's what I learned about eternity. If you want to participate in this gift of grace, you must do three things: 1) Recognize that you are made for eternity. 2) Secure your place in eternity by the gospel of grace (I am coming back to that one in a moment). and 3) Invest your life in eternal pursuits.

 Chris has plenty of stories and that folksy style that makes it look like he did not really want to polish this up too much or it might begin to sound like an actual sermon. At one point, he thinks of a different passage of scripture than the one he has prepared and spends several minutes trying to find it, eventually giving up until a member of the congregation locates it via her smartphone. In the middle of the second point, Chris starts talking about how not everything you hear referred to as the gospel is really the gospel of grace that he is talking about. Then it get interesting.

He tells about going to a Georgia Tech game and seeing the folks with the "God hates f---" signs out there, and he uses the word I just skipped through. Not once, but three times. I'm looking for the way to make a quiet exit. There is none. Good thing too because even though I would never actually say that in a sermon--I don't use the word n----r either--his point is fascinating. Chris goes on to recall Jesus on the cross, lots of blood and tearing skin imagery, as some folks are wont to do, and says, "Now imagine that Jesus saying God hates anybody." I thought, "This guy's gonna get drummed out of the Seventh Day Adventists so fast"....

Now, I will let you work on tying that back into securing your place in eternity. Chris's points were not always direct. And he stopped short of just saying, God does not hate gay people. Nevertheless, I had to give him credit 'cause he led all the horses to the water and practically shoved their snouts down to drink. If they did not make the final step, it was because they chose not to.

So, he sums up with what sounded to me like a benediction. By the time of the third point, Ricky was playing background music on guitar. Chris offers a prayer of Recognition of the sermon(?) and says that during the next song, the basket will be passed. Don't feel obligated, but.... Chris wanders to stage right and Ricky steps up to sing.

We get the song, Keith wanders up at the end again, more announcements. Chris talks extensively about a housing project where they built a playground and are looking to do more work, about how one woman there had reclaimed a crack house and put a church in it. Some stirrings of social action and social justice, not just personal piety! Even a dig about how the need is not all over seas. Keith gives some messages to visitors. And a final prayer ("Father we just thank you...") and goodbye.

The fascinating thing is that, in many ways I kind of liked it. Maybe you can't quickly tell, but I liked the effort, and I appreciated the fact that this was not the same old song repacked in contemporary Christian Music. They just need to get over their fear of just letting worship happen instead of feeling like they have to tell everyone exactly what is happening, thereby removing all formality--and mystery--from the experience.

But no one talks to me. Keith does, saying he never got my name--not true; he just went off to do something else immediately after saying hello. When I said I was from out of town, and all interest in me fades. And where exactly did Chris go, in case I might want to ask him about his sermon? Probably off to the cafe, which was the opposite direction from where the visitors were being sent. At least, I am assuming he went there.

Folks, if this is how we are going to reach out to the unchurched, it's a dismal failure. If we are reaching out to those who have left the church, it's not much better. I left there glad at what I heard, tired of songs that are more about me than about God, but mostly feeling that if I wanted a community, you were not doing any better at reaching out to me than the churches you left. Suddenly, I was missing Adam from the megachurch parking lot (see last blog).

As I write this, though, I have an even more interesting story about the Assemblies of God to tell from Christ the King, in Valdosta, Georgia. One you will like even more. Let's just say it is about jazz too.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Must. Resist. Temptation.

Okay, I announced on Facebook yesterday that a blog was soon to come about my trips to Via, an emerging community in Winston Salem on Palm Sunday, my Easter visit to the Episcopal cathedral in Asheville, and my time at Westover (a Rick Warren style mega-church in Greensboro) on the Sunday after Easter Day, otherwise known as low Sunday because attendance tends to drop off dramatically. And I gave a teaser about how I never realized one could preach on Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats, without in any way mentioning its call to serve those in need.

That comment, of course, was aimed directly at Westover. The senior pastor did just that as part of a sermon he called "Jesus, the Great Divider." Mostly, his text was Luke 12:49-53 ("I come not to bring peace but a sword."). In the course of the sermon, though, he managed to mine the New Testament of several texts designed to show that Jesus brought division. Along the way, he talked about the sheep and the goats, but left out the criteria for determining who was who, and instead substituted those who believe in Jesus (sheep) from those who do not (goats).

Forgive me, but isn't the biggest point of the sheep-goat comparison to move conversation away from an intellectual or emotional place to one in which our actions are considered to show what we really believe? You might wonder what good news there was in this message; at first I did too. Then I realized he was able to reinforce a traditional understanding of heaven and hell, establish to a congregation made up of largely, White middle to upper-middle class families that they were, in fact, a community under siege by the surrounding culture, and even slip in penal substitutionary atonement for good measure. Take that, Rob Bell.

Pastor Dan also made clear that Jesus was the only way to God, and that our modernist notions of all religions containing truth were against genuine Biblical teaching. Not actually mentioned but not-very-deeply hidden in the subtext was the notion that not all lifestyles were acceptable either. Make sure that certain people know that what they are doing is not acceptable--you know who you are. Maybe I should say that they know who they are because I doubt many of them were sitting in that audience! Oh, and by the way, vote for Amendment One. No, he didn't say that either, but in North Carolina these days, every sermon that touches on who or what is acceptable to God has the marriage amendment dead in its sights.

But this is where I have to stop going down that road, at least for this entry. It would be so easy to write a snarky critique of Westover from my lofty perch as a single African American Episcopal priest. And maybe I will end up doing that before this journey is over. I have barely restrained myself already. But not today. Let's leave the snarkiness for after a few more worshiping communities.

 Let's consider instead those three questions I mentioned in the last entry. And specifically, I want to focus on the third question, "What idols do we need to smash today?" I believe all three of these communities may have something to say about idols, but the messages are very different. For the people of Via, the idols first and foremost are all the perceived excesses we have built up around worship, including the formality of it, and any hint of pandering to people to get them to join. Let's meet in the downtown arts center. Grab a cup of coffee. Sit at a table. Wear whatever you want. No pulpit, we can do the sermon sitting down. Let's have a prayer conversation in the middle of worship. Yes, we'll have communion, but the person leading it does not need to be a minister--priesthood of all believers and all that. I'll teach you this new song as I am doing it in the middle of the service. Let's not do anything that smacks of theatricality.

 Now, in many ways, the cathedral represents everything that Via holds up as the idols to be smashed. Definitely modern (Rite II for you Episcopalians), but also definitely mainline Book of Common Prayer. The great thing about being an Episcopalian is that you can go to any Episcopal Church in the country and know exactly what is going on, even if the music is foreign to you. For members, we make it extremely easy to join in. Heck, most of us do not even need to open the Prayer Book for a typical Sunday morning because we have memorized the responses.

 If an idol is the thing we want to avoid allowing into our worship at all costs, the the cathedral's idol must be enthusiasm. Look, I love a nice intellectual exposition of the meaning of the empty tomb for Mary Magdalene as much as the next guy, but I can't help thinking that she was a bit more excited about it than our preacher was. Well organized, points carefully researched and made, and dull as dishwater. And on Easter no less. You want to know why they are not coming back the next week? It's cause they can sleep at home. You have the most amazing event in the history of the world and you bored us through it.

 At first glance, Westover defines idolatry much the way Via does, but a closer look reveals more. An idol for Westover would be anything that makes people not want to come to church. So similar rules apply. Keep it informal. Wear what you like. Nice, comfortable theater seats. Overheads--Jumbotrons practically--for those who cannot be close up (though watching a giant pastor take his shot of grape juice during communion was a bit weird!). No bulletins or pages to turn, except in your Bible, and, if you are the visitor who did not realize you were supposed to bring a Bible, worry not. The words will be on the screen.

Where they depart from both Via and the Cathedral is dramatic reconsideration of space use. Let's face it. Westover does not look like a church but more like a very well kept auditorium and arts center. If not for the giant cross hanging on the stage, you would never know the worship center had anything to to with Church. No stained glass (or windows at all), no altar, a lectern that disappears when not needed.

When you show up as a newcomer, you see signs pointing you to the newcomers' parking lot right next to the building. You get greeted within five seconds of getting out of the car and are walked into the building and shown where to go; Adam, you did your job well. And, lo, the choices, not just of seating in the orchestra or balcony, but whether to go to worship at all. There were six or eight other classes you could attend at the same time as worship, for singles, men, newcomers, you name it. This is church as supermarket or mall. One stop shopping.

You know what, though? All three of them have idols they do not see. And here are the few I observed:

 1. Stubbornness. Maintaining tradition or abandoning it for their own sake serves neither the worship life nor the health of a community. Neither is responsive to the needs of those outside of the community.

 2. On the same lines, attachment to numbers and size or refusal to consider numbers as in any way important can both be idolatrous. Both are focused more on ourselves than on others.

 3. Rock bands and traditional music can both be idols. Sorry folks, the baby boomers grew up on rock music; it's not just for the young anymore. The gray hairs at Westover love the rock band. Still, the band had the sense to jazz up a version of "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand." It was the most popular thing they played.

4. Informality. Sorry, but talking about coming to the table when there is no table is silly, and, anyway, you're bringing me the communion on trays so I am not coming to the non existent table. Musicians who start talking about when and why they chose the hymn, or worse yet, just decide to interject another one (with long explanation of why) is not worship. It's a concert. Reading your New Testament notes is not a sermon. That's not informal, it's sloppy liturgy and it suggests to visitors you don't really care about what you are doing.

5. Musicians. If we are clapping after every song (hymn?), is it really worship? After all, if our first response is to praise the band, not God, what is that saying?

That's enough for now. Notice this only refers to worship, and the life of a Christian community can reflect idolatry in so many other places, so I will be coming back to this question in the future. For now, though, it's on to the South. See ya in Georgia and beyond.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A New Start

Okay, if you have looked, you can see that I have not been at this blog for almost a year. Why not? Very simple, unlike most people in cyberspace, I do not think I have an endless supply of interesting things to say here. Oh, and it got to be too much work, quite frankly.

But now I have started a sabbatical, so I cannot claim lack of time. And I have some great ideas for what I am going to do with it. I will be in and out of town, going to visit sites of new ministry. So, if you know a parish, worshiping community, new monastic community, or any other group who is doing worship and community life in a way that is relatively new (last decade or so), emerging, emergent, postmodern, successful with young adults, reaching SBNRs (Spiritual But Not Religious, for those who are not up on the hip lingo), or frankly just different from the norm, please tell me about them, especially east coast to midwest.

I am planning driving trips mostly (the sabbatical grant people chose not to fund my all expenses paid trip to the West Coast. The Southern route is first on the schedule so South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, even Louisiana folks tell me where to go. How often am I going to make you an offer like that! The rest of you can also fill in now, but I have a little more time for you. Oh, and anyone who has a spare bed for me will be be treated to dinner somewhere in your fair city or town (or I will cook for you if you prefer!).

I will be reading stuff too. First up is Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. She is doing an on line book discussion with the Diocese of North Carolina on Wednesday evenings during Easter, so it seemed like a good place to begin. (If you want to join in, go to the diocesan web page for info).

I gave the folks at St. Mary's House three questions in my last three sermons to think about during this time. I will be thinking about them as well, and you may see the themes appear in my blogs. Here are the three questions for you to consider. First, what does it mean for Americans to take up their cross? Just when you thought you were about to escape from Lent!

Second, where and how do we meet Christ today? See if you can avoid the temptation to quickly talk about the poor or homeless and reflect on your everyday life a bit. Where else might Jesus be hanging out, and with whom?

Finally, what idols do we in the Church need to smash today? My sermon mentioned the Bible and John 3:16 for starters. I bet you can think of others, and hopefully I will while doing my traveling thing.

I almost forgot: While St. Mary's House will not be seeing me for the next few months, two 'projects' are ongoing. First, I am a deputy to General Convention, so I will probably comment on that once and awhile, like mentioning that no one is buying the absurd idea that we should gut the children, youth, college & young adults budgets because they are 'best done on a local level' while simultaneously adding to the administrative budgets for the PB and the president of the House of Deputies. I bet you the Program, Budget, and Finance Hearing gets an earful on that one!

Don't know how much blogging I will do during GC (early July) because I am on the Committee on Liturgy and Music. Yep, we're the ones getting the resolutions on same gender blessings, revising and finalizing Holy Women, Holy Men, and, apparently a revision of the Book of Occasional Services. And yes, North Carolinians, I will be pushing to include Pauli Murray and Manteo & Virginia Dare on the HWHM calendar.

The second thing on my plate is the Nominating Committee for the Bishop Suffragan in North Carolina. You will probably hear less about that other than basic updates, since I obviously cannot mention anything having to do with potential candidates. I will just say that the rest of the committee is great and working hard; if you have not filled out the survey, you can also find the the link for that on the diocesan page. You have only until April 9, so please go on line and fill it out. Just as important, watch the video of what Bishop Curry is looking for. This could be a very different kind of Suffragan!

So that's it for starters. By the way, there is no book in the works, no DMin. on tap. This blog (and probably a few sermons when I get back) is what you get. If I started thinking that way, this would become a little too much like work, and I much prefer the ability to ramble and not have my ideas well thought out while I do this.

And, in case you are wondering, this first week is going to involve relaxing in Asheville. I am giving up Holy Week for Lent and going pub crawling instead. However, I will want a good place to go for Easter day or vigil. Ideas, anyone?