Watch in Hope

A new Advent meditation book made its way into my library: Stephen Cottrell’s Do Nothing – Christmas is Coming.

In his introduction, Cottrell makes an  analogy between what seasons like Advent can do in our lives and the de-fragmentation of a computer.  A computer stores new information wherever it can find available memory.  Large files can be stored in a number of different fragments so when the user asks the computer to find the entire file, the read/write part of the machine slows up searching for the fragments. Defragmenting programs rewrite files so they are stored contiguously providing foundational decluttering.

We need to defragment our lives in the same way. The time-tested method is to slow down, be mindful, and incorporate prayerful contemplation of history, scripture, daily events that the Holy Spirit brings to us.  So many faithful say that Advent is their favorite time of the liturgical year and it’s because of this slowing down coupled with mindfulness of the themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

On the parish level, this defragmentation process is not always modeled.  Advent becomes a time for ratcheting up special programs, speakers, adult forums, and projects.  One of the most dismaying staff meetings comes in early November when the rector and the organist have their annual discussion about replacing Rite Two with Rite One.

To offer this language because of its formality and distance from the congregant during a time of year when we are vigilant for Immanuel – God with us – and are encouraged go on spiritual journeys that seek out familiarity with chaos, darkness, and uncertainty represents persistence in the delusional by a few in control. It’s like putting snipers on the walls instead of watchmen who tell of the night.

This is the liturgical Christian’s New Year, a time when many of us make resolutions that affect our spiritual journeys. Yet rather than clear the path for us, our churches are cooking up the spiritual equivalent of hospital food.  Either the parish staff goes into hyper drive, colluding with the consumer culture in intention and continuing to send the “don’t bother” message loud and clear, or the small group of church ladies fold their arms to say “We’ve always done it that way.” The one-size fits all sale at Old Navy makes it into the church.

Has anyone out there tried to work with organist/choir directors who tells which hymns are “allowed” to be sung during Advent, for Pageants, and for Christmas?

For more on liturgy and hospital food, scroll down: https://hopefulepiscopalian.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/good-shepherd-sunday/

The churches out there that model the defragmentation process hold the flame of hope as much as Elizabeth and Mary held it in them. They are out there. In those churches….

  • The Advent wreath making takes place on a quiet evening with a family meal. The scent of mulled cider and pine boughs fill the parish hall.  There are no expectations – no production line quota for how many wreaths get into the homes.  And any color candle works.
  • Popularity is not the primary criterion for an offering that relates to spiritual journey.
  • The Advent guest preachers come from the congregation or there is a commitment to interactive sermons and listening to each other.
  • The Christmas Pageant has been replaced with an Epiphany Pageant or Paper Bag Pageant.
  • Lessons and Carols is a community-wide participatory event instead of a show by the “talented” and paid professionals.
  • Instead of special speakers, there are lay-led quiet days. People share their home prayers, liturgies, and other practices – including playlists of Advent music.  The music director listens and responds.
  • Mission and outreach are part of a continuum, not geared up for Advent/Christmas. There are serious discussions about capitalism, the poor, and the Christian faith.
  • A director of faith formation posts a large sheet of paper during coffee hour with the theme of each week of Advent written at the top. People are asked to write their thoughts and memories about Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These thoughts are incorporated into the worship – including sermons – and life of the parish. The parish musician writes a song for corporate and private worship based on this collaboration.

One more thing to be thankful for…

Episcopal Church To-Do List:

Know the difference between Hope & Optimism

…embrace the former.

There’s been a Facebook challenge since November first to post every day something for which you are grateful.  To read everyone’s personal gratitude lists has given me a few epiphanies about my friends and their lives, offering me new perspectives.

Since reading these, I have begun to muse about the times I worked in a church during this season.

Christ the King Sunday arrives and the plug-and-play organist chooses all the kingly songs, a kingly anthem – maybe the kids sing a zippy “Ride On King Jesus”.  The program in the parish gurgles along in its peristaltic reflexive way – throw in a lot of crowns, kings, reigns, and we’ll be doing right by Jesus.

Then Thanksgiving gets into the mix. In my staff experience, this is a thorny hump in the middle of the week. There are digressions into gossip about the parish fellowship meal which morph into analyzing the history of the community ecumenical Thanksgiving service.  The “positive” aspect of these staff meetings is people imagine they’re focusing on fixing everything while complaining,  idealizing stuff that is always going to be problematic because people are problematic. It would be so much more effective – and spiritually mindful –  to just work together on offering a meal and a worship service. It doesn’t seem worth the energy to try to control who cooks what and who eats what and whether the organist at the Methodist Church is as good as the one at our church. Food, fellowship, music, and prayer.  It’s very simple.

This year, Advent 1 falls on the Sunday immediately after Thanksgiving.  Another staff moan fest  – numbers will be down because people are traveling.  The Sunday School teachers will be a week behind on teaching the kids about…what, exactly… Hope? Everyone will make their Advent wreaths a week later.  And one rector I worked with somehow thought this timing meant more work for her. What the what?

For the faithful who have left the church, we are observing the rise and fall of the spiritual tide, being mindful of the waves on the sand.  We observe the lectionary year prayerfully in our own ways.  We will be decorating for Advent, searching the links between Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Advent 1 without waiting to be told what to do or how to do it.

It’s lonely. The faithful are homeless. We dare not go into a church to look for fellow travelers in hope because someone will slap a name tag and a “Smile!” sticker on our lapels.

Christ the King Sunday can be such a tough one to make relevant in the two-thousandies. One year when I was team teaching 6th and 7th grade Sunday School, I was alone with 15 hormonal tweens and teens on this last Sunday in the liturgical year.  Nothing made sense to me in the canned curriculum, which is always a start – unless our teachers, serious catechists, deacons, priests,  bishops, and communications officers, embrace a grounded faith in consort with a willingness to be upended by reality there can be no hope.  We must seek personal transformation, and then the transformation of those around us will happen.

I downloaded about 20 different images of Jesus, and brought in icons and other images I had at home: Jesus the teacher, Christ the king, Jesus the healer, Rasta Jesus, laughing or dancing Jesus, activist Jesus, suffering Jesus, Jesus eating.  Who do you say that I am? We passed the pictures around and talked about which one we related to most.  We talked about what Christ the King is like, questioning if this aspect of Christ was one we could invite into our daily lives.  We laughed when a girl remembered a boy named Jesus in her nursery school who was always hitting the other kids. “Jesus – go to the time-out chair!”

http://www.rejesus.co.uk/site/module/faces_of_jesus/

We never came up with a definitive Jesus for everyone.  It was an enormous gift for me because most of the middle schoolers related to laughing or dancing Jesus. Why? “He seems so free to be himself.”  Now, whenever I see a petulant middle schooler, chip on her shoulder, I remember that dream of those Sunday School kids:  to be free to be who God created them to be. I suspend all judgment and head straight for the conversation.  Had I imposed my own notion of what Christ the King meant, or asked the rector for advice I would never have received this ongoing gift.

A few weeks ago, I saw a montage of a lot of Hollywood moments where the slobs got their recognition.  It included things like rewards to the Wizard of Oz quartet and Han Solo and Chewbacca getting cheered by the crowd as they receive laurels from Princess Leia. This moment is inscribed in our hearts through popular culture time and again – from the justifiable humiliation of Lena Lamont when the curtain goes up to reveal who is really singing in Singing in the Rain, or when Jamal rises out of a pit of offal in Slumdog Millionaire.

This is an aspect of a Christ the King moment.  It’s not only that the Risen Christ rules – or reigns or whatever verb the hymnody spits out at us – it’s that the slobs beat the snobs.  Our King is one of us, we are all victors.

And here is where there’s another light on the road for me:  I can travel from Christ the King to Advent 1 in my own spiritual journey because Christ the King represents not royalty or the One who doth Reign, or golden crowns – but hope.  Jesus as wise, compassionate, deserving King is a core story of hope, the theme of the first week of Advent.

The tomb is empty. The cross is bare.  Are we there yet? Yes we are!

Hope is not optimism.  Hope is anchored in reality, and as a basic human yearning, rises up, infecting our actions so we strive through the pain, and the piles of crap around us don’t matter at all.  Optimism, however, likes to redecorate the crap.  A dead end is renamed a cul de sac.

The greater church is intensely engaged in optimism.  This trickles down, permeating every aspect of how we do business.  Check out whatever ENS has put in your in-box for the week and tell me it’s not optimism.  A Phoenix needs ashes to be a phoenix

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope the one that can keep us above water and urge us to do good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts is something that we get, as it were, from “elsewhere”.  It is also this hope, above all, which gives us strength to live and to continually try new things even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do here and now.

From the politics of hope by Vaclav Hamel

I wish us all hope on the journey, thanksgiving for hope, and pray for the church that it may find its way in understanding the reality around it – no matter how painful that may be.

All Saints Day 2009

All-Saints

This turning of October to November has always seemed to me a pre-Advent season. Something is afoot in the universe. On Halloween we acknowledge the thin veil between reality and fantasy. We mock the power of fear by hyping it up artificially.  I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.  It’s a Carnevale before the late autumn of the northern hemisphere sets in. If October’s colors are yellow, red, and orange – what are the colors of November?

In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a character writes “…visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said ‘Life goes on.’ What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on; Ian is dead now and will be dead tomorrow and next year and forever. There’s no end to that.”

So on All Saints Day, we acknowledge the forever-ness of death by loving through the veil that separates this world from the other.  There have been All Saints Days during which I have had profound corporate worship experiences.  One was a retreat in New England.  The worship space was high on a hill, with a picture window revealing a view of farmhouse, to meadow, to river.  We were allowed lots of silence, space to pray and contemplate those who have gone before.

During the Eucharist, we sang the Taizé chant “Jesus, Remember Me” acapella – harmonies rising up organically.  We were encouraged to change the words as we wished: Jesus, remember him; Jesus, remember her; Jesus, remember us. At times voices joined together singing the same words, at times the phrases were different. It was a representation of a cloud of witnesses in song. The Anglican equivalent of praying in tongues.

But in the area in which I live now, All Saints Day is simply an excuse for the choirmaster to put on a show.  My In Box must have half a dozen notices from the local churches announcing their afternoon requiem concerts. Duruflé (two churches) Fauré, Mozart (three churches).  All with  precious and precise written bits describing why a particular composer’s work was chosen this year, the history of the piece, how the organ would be and should be used.  There is the promise of reading a parish necrology, but it’s more of an after thought.

I have some dreams about how our worship could be, a place where prayerful Christians, activist Christians, conservative Christians, formation-oriented Christians, all have real reasons to be together on a Sunday morning, nourished to live a life where everything we do is infused with the reality of the spiritual, the holy, of God.

If I want to go to a concert, I’ll go to a concert.  Why would I want to hear a third–rate version of any piece – its compositional greatness notwithstanding – when I can go to a concert hall and hear a bang-up version of Britten’s War Requiem, or John Adams On the Transmigration of Souls?  And even if those performances are sub-par, at least they are being done by music organizations where the mission is to perform pieces.
day-of-the-dead

How about making All Saints Day important to everyone in the parish, and not just show off time for the choir? (Not to mention saving the extra money paid for soloists and instrumentalists.)  Make candles, write a litany, have a feast in honor of those in the parish who have died, explore Celtic or Mexican worship, incorporate music from New Orleans, set up community dialog about death with other churches, mosques, temples, and take a moment to invite some Wiccans to the discussion if only to understand the Christian understanding in comparison.

PolandAllSaintsDay (1)

Candles in Poland burn all day and night around November 1

The Episcopal Church is so proud of its bent towards liturgy.  Yet it seems as if plugging in the collects of the day at the 10 o’clock and asking everyone to come back at 5 for the de rigueur requiem is the best we can do.

Is there anyone out there who can give me reason to keep hoping?  What did your parish do for All Saints Day?

Even wizards rely on a cloud of witnesses….

expectro_patronus_copia