Following Jesus to the basement in Indiana

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Those who put together liturgies are ideologues in some respect, with varying degrees of entrenchment.  One thing is constant: as Episcopalians, they believe that the worship experience ought to be well crafted as it is key to faith formation.


Once I was in a cathedral in the Midwest.  Same old, same old with incense. Only this time when I turned around to see who was at my back, it was a crucifer leading a group of children. Every child in the parish processed together.  My heart lifted. The cross was one from Latin America with a sparkling folk art depiction of the risen Christ surrounded by greenery and celebrating villagers.


The children weren’t singing – those hymnals are heavy for them – the equivalent of an adult carrying  an unedited Websters.  The hymn was strophic, no refrains or short tunes that could be repeated by hearing.


Still, they were still included as part of the worship community by virtue of this symbolic gesture.  As they were led to the front of the cathedral – it was one of the few times I experienced genuine anticipation in a mainline church worship service.


My thought was the children would be led to the altar, to sit in seats of honor where they could listen, sing, maybe even contribute.  As Clara Tammany reminds us in her book on baptism, we are only one generation away from extinction.


But when the crucifer got to the end of the aisle, he took a hard right, led the children to a door behind which were the stairs that took them to the children to the basement.


Episcopalians are supposed to put some value on liturgy.  Our corporate prayers – symbolic or written on a page – are to have intention that ripples out, changes us ineluctably and surely as water on stone.  The symbol and intention of this liturgical bit was one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed.  It was a reenactment of The Pied Piper of Hamlin: make the children disappear.

It had thematic integrity, too.  At the Eucharist, the children had gone outside, back around the front, and tiptoed in to receive their bit of the meal last. I was changed forever by the symbolism of that liturgy, and I know those children were too.


And all this happened when the Episcopal Church was putting a lot of energy into 20/20.  Remember that? The membership was going to double by the year 2020?


I wonder if those children will be taking their young families to an Episcopal church in 2020?  More likely, they’ll stay where the Pied Piper led them.

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My pipe’s bigger than yours

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The organ is not an instrument people are ambivalent about. Studies indicate most people under 55 don’t simply not care for the sound of the organ,  they hate it.  And most people over 55 aren’t simply fond of the organ, they love it.  But every week, year after year after year, the primary sound for worshipers in mainline churches, the sonority used for everything from meditation, to expressing joy, sorrow, moments of anxiety and fear, righteous anger (oh, right, we don’t recognize that in church) is the money pit that is the organ.  So every week, come rain or shine, the church is saying “Shoo!” to three generations.


Add to this that the organ is uniquely Northern European and by making it the cornerstone of worship, we do not acknowledge the population of Christians who outnumber the Anglos worshiping around the world.


And to think that one Episcopal priest I know postulates that it is the boomers lack of commitment that keeps them away from church on Sundays; the generation that both fought in the Vietnam War and actively, successfully, protested to end it.  Sure, it’s their problem.


I bet the boomers and anyone else born after 1952 would attend if you gave out those no-contact eyeglasses and offered an alternate accompaniment now and then.


Why organ aficionados aren’t up in arms about this is beyond me.  Besides the extremely important issue of worship by and for the people, having this instrument associated with tepid church music and ice skating rinks, is a turn off.  Most of the population has downloaded a personal internal organ playlist comprised of dirge-like Sunday morning music, horror movies, and Mets sound icons. Charge! How can one believe the organ can be used artistically after that?


There are many fascinating instruments with incredible sounds that have limited audiences.  Crumhorn enthusiasts do not force their preference on unsuspecting worshipers every Sunday morning, and have accepted the instrument’s slide into obscurity with grace.  And crumhorns are a lot less expensive to maintain – just reeds from a store in Utrecht.


Grateful Dead and Phish fans flock to those reunions. The same could be done for the organ. Some careful marketing and in time you organ enthusiasts might find a way to get that instrument back into rock star status instead of alternating between scaring babies on Sunday mornings and eating up millions of dollars in donations.


The creepy background of the organ changes to a kind of “ta dah!” series of chords announcing that something big is going to happen. Oh my – what could it be? The volume increases, there is intensity and purpose to the phrasing. It’s the intro to the first hymn.


The waiting worshipers, forced into isolation by location and social inference, have dutifully entered into private prayer and meditation. We’re expected to switch gears at the sound of this cue.


Now is the moment, we are told by the great organ machine. Ignore being told where to sit by the usher. Ignore the no eye contact awkward moments.  Ignore every isolating message received from the moment you stepped through the church door. We are to be transformed into a community now. A community joined in song.

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No eye contact

The Rotterdam Zoo hands out “no eye contact” eyeglasses that for people interested in watching the apes.  The gorillas perceive direct eye contact as aggressive, and have been known to attack humans innocently watching them. So the zoo has made wearing these glasses mandatory.  There is a hole, of course, so that the person behind the glasses can watch the apes but the apes think that everyone is distracted by a cloud that looks like a bunny or a balloon caught in the branches of a tree.


These would be a great for the ushers to hand out, and unlike the tree-killer bulletins, they’re reusable. Eyeglasses like that would eliminate that awkward fifteen to twenty minutes you’re waiting, mindfully, while the faithful gather around you.


Our social cognition has not quite evolved to the point where we can intuit what is the right amount of time you can make eye contact with a stranger – or even a friend – in church.  It’s a little like there not being a word for that face-on, side-to-side dance people do when they try and pass each other in the hall. Moreover, in church, we’re not sure about the smile, or saying hello, or giving a hug.  These glasses would help a whole lot. We could be contemplating the architecture in a prayerful manner.  Do not disturb – noli perturbare.


Despite all, isolated by pews and aisles and custom from the other worshipers, I can get my bearings and attempt to soften my heart for communal prayer.  When I sit for personal prayer, I get out my Bible, my journal, possibly a book of meditations or theology, and I sit in silence.  There is never really any silence; part of the discipline is to take in the ambient sounds, integrating them in my prayer life.


I sit down with an awareness that there is a sound besides the human ones, persistent, inescapable, and evocative of…what is bubbling up in my memory?


Vincent Price. The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  Ah yes – the organ!

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First Contact

It seems like such a simple question: Where do you go to church?  But when asked, I am flooded with memories that well up like tears but without that pleasant salty aftertaste.  So I repress them and reply “Nowhere right now.”  Right now is a social qualifier – I’m being polite. The person asking the question probably doesn’t know I’m thinking “Nowhere, forever, and happily so.”


This response is typically followed by “Our church has services at 8 and 10!”  Big surprise.  Now I’m getting paid back for my politeness. I am forced to make up some excuse. Inside, there is a little ootch – and a gloomy sigh.  Not at saying goodbye to church, but at the prospect of having to attend one.

I realize that I am one of millions who are dropping away from going to the building with the cross on top but who have rich spiritual lives and are devoted to the work of the Kingdom of God.  And I realize that in a couple of decades people that I love and respect, who do work that is important, will be out of jobs.


Unlike the ice man and the scissors grinder, their loss will not have been necessary or historically over-determined. This too makes me profoundly sad.


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Ironically, my profile puts me square in the big demographic hump of Episcopal Church attendees: grey haired, Caucasian, married to a devoted and competent clergyman, and I have worked on and off in paid or voluntary positions for churches for over twenty years.

Recently, a bishop expressed shock that  on the rare occasion I attended corporate worship I actually go out of my way to avoid Episcopal Churches. For him and others who continue to invite me to come to their church services, and are baffled at how indifferent so many of us are when it comes to the offerings of the 8 and 10 o’clocks,  take a walk through a worship service in our shoes.  And for those who are planning those liturgies and actually care, I hope you will find some way out of the rote, codified self-satisfaction that brands The Episcopal Church and its approach to parish life.


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The arrivee is greeted by greeters – who occasionally double as ushers. Both greeters and ushers have been told that their ministry is Very Important because – and I know this from having been on the staff side of a church – that’s how you get them to volunteer.


This surprises me – I thought people outgrew the shiny stickers as incentives.


In church, volunteerism is perceived as something that must be compartmentalized and fragmented.  Still blinking off the sleep dust from its archaic hierarchy, the church has yet to learn anything from the success of the Obama campaign or dedicated groups of moms reaching out in their communities on a grassroots level: people want to be empowered. If they love a project or a community, with  little guidance, people will fill in anywhere and everywhere as needed.


Once, I mentioned to a priest that if they had a pastoral care listserve where needs could be shared with the greater congregation it would not only take some of the pressure off the small Pastoral Care Committee, but allow everyone the privilege of bringing meals, driving, babysitting, or praying for people.  He told me that the church had a Pastoral Care Committee of three. The members of the committee would take care of all the pastoral duties. Why? Because they had volunteered for the Pastoral Care Committee and it was organized.


It’s much easier for clergy to assign duties than develop a culture of welcome.


The top-down approach to parish culture – the Victorian beehive model – assigns people to be greeters. Only the greeters will greet. Their job as well as the ushers’ job are considered specialized duties. So the greeters tend to be people who know they have to do something, but can only handle this narrow task.


What face would the church be offering if instead of a rota that draws on a small population of ushers and greeters, there was a culture of welcome?  And what if that culture didn’t involve pasting a happy face on everything?  You might  find there is a need to welcome long-time parishioners in ways that are genuine.


There would be a core group of people who didn’t have a greeting routine, but offered breakfast for anyone who wanted to be at the door early to take in the seekers – known and unknown.  If I walked into a church and was greeted by a 5 year old in her p.j.s with some neglected jam on her chin, I’d give that church a chance next week.


Instead, what happens is that the greeters and ushers – the face of the local church – are seniors with nice wardrobes who are well-versed in politeness.


The greeters smile; they wear Sunday Best, which can be intimidating to some, (where are the seniors who don’t have nice wardrobes?) and on too many occasions way too much perfume.  They smile and say “welcome”, a magic word that when spoken is supposed to make me feel welcomed.  I am too busy coughing in allergic response to the perfume and wondering where these seniors got retirement packages that allow them to be such snappy dressers.


Next, I am passed off to an usher.  This happens rather quickly because the greeter has nothing more to say and one of her friends is behind me – got to keep the line moving in the narthex.


First contact with the usher is the beginning of the infantilization of those who attend church.


I am handed a thick packet of paper and begin the internal evaluation every environmentally conscious person goes through these days.  Hoping this pile of paper must be absolutely necessary in these days of global warming awareness, I realize  it is there to simply walk me through a service outlined in books already placed in the pews. The rest is filled with social and calendar notes, put there – I assume – so that the clergy can avoid direct communication with the congregants.


Sometimes there are music notes and even credits for the professionals in the choir. This is a bad omen. The ultimate Don’t bother message.


I am awakened from my reverie about paper usage in thousands of churches coupled with images of this fragile earth, our island home in flames, by the usher who offers a show-no-teeth smile while gesturing silently down the aisle to the pews.  A practiced smile without any cheek or eye muscles. This has a rather sinister effect – as if I’m being escorted to a seat on the barque crossing the River Styx. “Room for one more.” I’m used to finding my own seat, thank you.


But again, to be polite and respect the habits of this tribe (most of whom appear to have watched the Dumont network) I sit where I’m told and look straight ahead.  It’s hard to look anywhere else because of the aisle.  The usher has been instructed to get the bodies in the front, and newcomers are the most compliant, so I’m not sure if those behind me are prayerfully contemplating the altar and the stained glass windows, or staring at the back of my head.


Did I remember to brush my hair this morning?


Until next Sunday, monika55