Good Friday 2011

My Lenten discipline for 2011 was to say “I honor the Christ in you” prayerfully, to myself, to everyone I encountered. I slacked off, but it was enormously helpful and humbling at those moments when I tend towards the judgmental and self-righteous. I am my own Miss Bossypants.

Starting with Shrove Tuesday, it became a Lent without a church building to go visit. The early church was comprised of spiritual communities, communities that held each other accountable in study, worship, and action. More of us are finding our community in other places. One from column a, two from column b, a little introspective dim sum and you have a meal. No longer content with the prix fixe banquet dinner choices – chicken, fish, or beef? – offered in the brand-name church.
I remember well the Shrove Tuesday pancake battles. Yes, battles, not batters. Everything cooked with that secret ingredient: resentment. There were years when the cook staff was manned by people who volunteered solely to stand sentry on the kitchen ramparts, ensuring the Mardi Gras and gumbo contingent didn’t pollute the purity of the Anglophilic pancake supper. There is the irony of extra pancake mix, syrup, and butter that goes home after a meal originally intended to clean out the larder.

Taking into account the real tradition of Shrove Tuesday, I made a supper of what was in the pantry. Half of those two-for-one purchases of red sauce, pasta, beans, and Costco discount quality grains, went to a food pantry. Such a simple resolution to the Shrove Tuesday wars. And we can’t all get together and do this in church?  If only….

In our home, Holy Week was marked by daily meditations. Each of us kept private counsel, pondering in our hearts the events that occurred in Jerusalem. We made it a focus to carry those meditations into the mindfulness of our days. The Holy Spirit will call your attention to what needs to be heeded if ye but have ears to hear away from the pulpit.

Today, at noon, we turned off the Internet, phones – even the washing machine – and began by reading the Passion according to John. It was followed by the BCP Good Friday liturgy. Mid way, I was affirmed that it was a good and wise decision to stay far away from church today.

Why? Because for the past two weeks, my prayers had brought me to a place where I wanted to know what Jesus would have me do – specifically – with his sacrifice and resurrection. I don’t think he would want me to leave it at the modern perfunctory equivalent of nard and tears. Facebook was filled with posts like “Good Friday service at noon, then on to MOMA and a terrific late lunch in NoHo!”

For a moment, I yearned to be part of a spiritual community where every Friday there was a liturgy for the social justice and human rights; where the faithful sit in discernment, worshiping with a call to action. If only…

I remembered the rector of a church I attended who did not want to go ahead with tolling the tower bells, prominent in the community, when there was a state-sanctioned murder (execution) without Vestry permission because the death penalty was “controversial”.

I remembered an Easter Eve walk with families when the brutality of the crucifixion was brought home not by words, but by the sound of a hammer on wood. An informal group of children and parents sang “Were you there?” and yes, yes we were. That year, the children from one family went home, retelling their visiting grandparents the most wonderful story they had ever heard – begging them to go to church with them on Easter morning so they could witness how their church made this story live! But Easter morning was the adult-oriented service and instead of parading with Jesus, chanting and drumming and waving palms; praying with him in the garden; standing next to him as he argued with the money changers and Pharisees; and hearing the hammer, there was a formal choir and a trumpet. They apologized to their grandparents during the Easter Egg hunt.  The candy paled when compared to the living story.

We know that 2,000 years out of the starting gate, this story still sets our hearts on fire. Roils our compassion, and opens our eyes to its reoccurrence all over the world. It calls to you – the loudest shout of the liturgical year.  If only….

As our family sat, listening to the prayers from Good Friday’s liturgy, we got to the part where priests, deacons, bishops, and the president were prayed for. Fortunately we weren’t silenced in church pews so we could offer up our own voices in the Good Friday litany:

for those in prison

for those with degenerative diseases who are frightened

for the caregivers

for those who sacrifice for the common good

for those who live with needless shame

for the lonely

for the hungry

for those being tortured – particularly on this day, Private Bradley Manning

for those who cannot tell their story of pain, whose very life narrative has been taken away

for the mothers and fathers who have lost children

for those who die publicly, painfully and without dignity

for those who die alone

for forgiveness as we allow these things to happen around us

On Good Friday, at least, can’t we ask the bishops, priests, deacons, and the president to pray for those who have no voice?   If only….

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:

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.

All Saints Day 2009


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.

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….


General Convention Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music Part 2


There are a lot of commissions and committees that will be convening, offering formal  reports of their work at General Convention this year.


Let’s check in on the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music. In The Episcopal Church, a Standing Commission begins when the elite in a bureaucracy choose a select group of people – other elite – who then make all the decisions when it comes to how The Episcopal Church worships.

How the Episcopal Church worships is the main experience of church for the Average Joe or Jane. It defines Sunday morning, bringing people in the door. Yet no matter what the purpose of a commission or committee, when The Episcopal Church operates under the assumption that it “knows better”, it is one of the diagnostics indicating a church in stage IV cancer. It’s time for hospice or radical therapies.

Closed groups are passé and obsolete. Eighteen people, no matter who they are or where they came from, are not enough to keep their pulse on what’s happening out there.  Moreover, the flow of communication and power structure is all wrong. The Holy Spirit blows where she wills with chaotic power. She doesn’t know from Standing Commissions.  She continues to inspire writers, poets, singers, preachers, composers, musicians, dancers, artists, and those who sit in holy silence.


The sun set long ago on the notion that prayers have to be “okayed” by a select group. Yet the gate keeping continues. The results can hurt. Gifts are ignored.  People leave, going where they can grow and be appreciated.

If a Standing Commission truly valued its work, and truly valued the Body of Christ, it wouldn’t spend any time generating liturgies and songbooks, but figure out where the disconnect is happening; working to empower all, working to respect the dignity of all. Its members would value curiosity and keen listening skills over resumes and power connections.  It would be scouring the world for resources, creating a lateral network of relationships and ideas.

The leadership of The Episcopal Church needs to be more grassroots than Astroturf.  More of a scout with an ear to the ground than a couple of generals looking at a map. Isn’t that what got Custer into trouble?

The reality is, people are indeed hungry for ways to make corporate prayer more relevant and responsive. People want a spiritual community in which they can be accountable.  All they need are guidelines and the opportunity for dialog. If these standing commissions were doing their jobs, there wouldn’t be the need to publish any more prayer books or hymnals. A BCP Kindle is a dead idea but I’m willing to bet good money it’s being discussed as an “important next step.”  The last thing we need is more codification.  That’s like Western Union working on an improved Morse Code manual while the telephone lines were being put up.

The new Christianity requires more nimble responses, a leadership that evokes and inspires instead of dictates and explains.


This is not a generation waiting with bated breath for the new prayerbook.

Prayer happens every day all over the world in the lives of believers, seekers, and atheists.  We are all discovering that when it comes to God and living righteous lives, we have more in common with our Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and secularist/atheist sisters and brothers than we do with some fellow Episcopalians.

Jon Stewart defines shared principles in America more than the obscure leadership of The Episcopal Church. (Would someone please tell Gene Robinson that this is not an invitation to do yet another sound and lighting check?)

Instead of the top-down imparting of prayers, follow the other mainline denominations.  Build sites loaded with resources, interconnected, not set in some virtual Siberia on the ECUSA website. Even better, join the party of poly-denominational boards where prayers, practices, videos of services, and repertoire are shared in the spirit of collaboration.

One wonders: has anyone on the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music been to the Workshop Rotation Model web site?  Educators in every denomination from around the world share curricula and implementation. Sure there’s some sketchy theology, but no commission, bishop, priest, or deputy is my theologian. Like the rest of God’s children, I am working that out with my Creator every single day.

And don’t pass on the guff about standards and theology yada yada yada.  Yes – there’s a whole lot of wacky stuff going on in different churches.  There are churches that don’t have the energy to split, but use the 1928 BCP and have idolatrous relationships with Rite One, sometimes in the shadow of a cathedral spire or a quick public transit ride from 815 Second Ave. There happens to be a system in place to deal with this nonsense: put the bishops to work and actually have them supervise parishes in their dioceses. What a concept. Maybe if parishes had been supervised over the past decade or so, leaving things like pronouncements on sexuality up to psychologists, or do-gooder world tours to Angelina Jolie,  the obituary for the Episcopal Church wouldn’t be on file ready to run.

General Convention, Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music, Part 1

Know business

Mr. Watson, come here, I need you.

There is a story that goes like this: After developing the telephone; Alexander Graham Bell brought his invention to Western Union.  Western Union turned it down, saying they were in the telegram business, not the telephone business.  Had Western Union realized they were in the communications business, there might be an elegant W.U. logo on cell phones.

What business is The Episcopal Church in?  Is it a publishing house, collective of do-gooders, political party, MDG cheerleader, gate keeping hierarchy, or any number of other businesses described in the output from Episcopal/Fox News Service?

What does The Church do that no one else can do?

Answer that, and if The Episcopal Church goes down, at least it will go down knowing its corporate identity and keep some integrity.

Answer that, and maybe, if answered with honesty and accuracy; intention, budget, energy will follow; the whole tide will turn and The Episcopal Church will survive. God willing.

Crossing the “t’s” or dotting the “i’s” of national church publications with exclamation points and smiley faces may distract momentarily, but keeps everyone in denial.


In July, a few hundred members of the leadership of The Episcopal Church will gather in Anaheim for General Convention.  Those attending will labor hard, there will be a telephone-sized book of resolutions published of which less than 2 per cent of the 700,000 Episcopalians in good standing will be aware.

The head count of members in good standing at the 2000 General Convention was around a million.

We are in an era where a New York minute has been replaced by the nano second, and that sense of change and immediacy is felt on every level of society.  The growth in sharing information collaboratively has brought about a new sense of populism, and global awareness. The organization and success of the Obama campaign is a model for communication on a grassroots level.  Not only has the entire culture shifted, but our neurological wiring has changed.  Our brains are different.

Yet The Episcopal Church conducts business and works on resolutions in a very old-fashioned and frankly silly manner.  At issue is not the collaborative deliberation of the House of Deputies or even the House of Bishops. Bidden or not, God is present. The core of the problem is elitism.  The assumption that in a world of growing populism and collaboration, we, the faithful, are passively waiting to hear from those with positions higher up the Church food chain in order to proceed in our spiritual journeys is foolish. The Episcopal Church accepts it at its peril.


Another key point: America has evolved into a consumer society.  Unfortunate as this is, it is a reality.  We’re also working harder for less, thanks primarily the inevitability of corporate greed and hierarchical entitlement. So, we don’t invest – time or money – in things in which we have no interest, and we are increasingly skeptical of, if not outright angry at, mega bureaucracy.  Don’t waste our valuable Sunday mornings with dead worship produced by corporate elite. We are leaving without looking back.

Until the next post here’s a message to the leadership of the church: That big fat book will sit on a shelf in a parish office, unopened, until the next triennium.  And when the 2012 book is published, there will be fewer copies to print.


Strength to run the race…not sit and watch

church map

Meaningful spiritual gatherings happen daily.  One of the most simple is the sing along. Today is D-Day. The American Songbook is a touchstone for families affected by World War II.  These songs – in the US and the UK – embodied hope in the midst of loss, nobility of the human spirit, vigor, and more. Crafted with accessible melodies and inventive harmonies, drawing on musical cultures that represent the broad scope of the American experience, they inspired generations to run the good race.

If it is possible to re-market the prayer of Morning Resolve from Forward Day-by-Day so that it can be carried around in the pocket of memory like a piece of dark chocolate, the American Songbook from the 1940s might be just the way to do it.  Try and find a time when the “Greatest Generation” sings the songs that defined it and witness a community transformation that cannot be explained by sentimentality alone.

Then there is our music program in the Episcopal Church.

In most churches, it seems entirely divorced from spiritual journey; emphasizing tradition more than history, rigidity more than responsiveness, personal taste of a handful of people more than collaboration and generosity. Sentimentality as an indulgence is scoffed at by the staff – unless the hymn or prayer is a personal favorite.  The anniversary of the priest’s ordination in one local church is celebrated by that priest choosing all her personal favorites. Interesting message to the parish she is supposed to serve.

Here are the questions that need to be asked every year: What is the mission of your church when it comes to music? How honest is that mission?

In other words, if you are in a rural parish, where people are getting hard hit economically and  probably losing the culture that helped their great grandparents get through the last depression , would initiating the Royal Church School of Music chorister program to bring quality Anglican choral music to the “poor ignorant people”? (Some of whom may play fiddle like Eck Robertson and sing in four-part harmony by ear better than the Whites backing up Emmy Lou Harris) be an honest music program?

Is it honest for a bishop born during the Truman administration to preside at a Hip Hop Mass, including language like “my homies and my peeps” in public prayer?

Music programs in the Episcopal Church need to be determined on a parish-by-parish, community-by-community basis.  Liturgy idealogues are cutting the legs off The Episcopal Church. And taking a lot of money with them.

In most urban areas of the United States, there is great emphasis on choristers and chorister programs and chorister traditions which includes hiring at least one professional section leader for the choir.

At a minimum of a hundred dollars a head, the choir is enhanced by professionals who sole purpose is to give this message to parishioners: You’re not good enough.

There will be organists – if they’ve read this far – who will argue about music quality in the service of the Lord.  Take that one outside. Seriously. Take it outside the church.  We could use more musicians in concert halls and nightclubs who glorify the Lord in their music. There are certainly enough nurses, carpenters, teachers, chefs, and caregivers who do when no one’s watching.

These same organists would mock the Hip Hop Masses and the U2charists without realizing they are no different than in intention than their “quality” choral music: they are designed to exclude and make liturgy a performance.  With 20,000 of us leaving The Episcopal Church each year – how’s that working for you?

The church is the gathered faithful looking to renew themselves so they may do the work of  God’s kingdom.  The church is a faith community. And if you look up the roots of community, you will find it means to share one’s gifts.   That means the gifts of the gathered faithful. Not your friends, family, or colleagues.

Too many times, I have had to endure services with choirmasters who put on a show Sunday mornings using our tithes. If I want to throw money at a musician, it will be in a basket for a busker, not for a church music program that excludes the very people it is intended to serve.

The church is not the place for someone to play maestro, or impresario.  If a parish church offers a concert series it should be in the context of  music mission.  Liturgy should not be made like sausage or  by a cabal like Dick Cheney’s secret energy commission meetings. Liturgy and worship belong to the people the clergy and staff are hired to serve.

At the end of the year, the average church that indulges in this expenditure only minimally, could build two schools in Pakistan; offer seventy micro loans for hopeful small businesses in third world countries; save 250 children from dying of malnutrition…you get the picture. Of course during the announcements, after we’ve sat through a performance which costs more than a weekly minimum wage salary before taxes, we all may be asked to listen to a plea for donations towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Your soloists out of that extra cash? Give them a nice send off party and encourage them to get a day job and sing for free – or better still run an intergenerational music development program.  Charles Ives sold insurance and William Carlos Williams was a general practitioner.  Richard Feynman managed to do a lot of teaching about physics and play the bongos. Sheila Jordan worked in an ad agency, using her four-week vacations for international tours.

There are churches who have sincere and wonderful music in their worship.  These are almost always poor churches with no money to build or repair an organ, who encourage faith in families by offering solos to everyone, or  spontaneously break into songs of thanksgiving and praise  in Spanish, Tagalog, Haitian Creole.  Gifts are generously shared here because no one has come and told them their music isn’t “good enough”.

God is always a surprise, always in the least obvious place we look.  These churches will hang on in difficult times because they don’t need more than each other. This gives this Episcopalian hope.  What would offer more hope is when diocesan leadership  listens to how these churches run instead of thinking the best they can do is  offer noblesse oblige by “gifting” the smaller parishes with  advice.

The historic liturgical compromise…past and present


The following bits in italics were in the latest newsletter from an Episcopal Church.  They have been excerpted and paraphrased from a very long piece.

Participation in Liturgy: The Episcopal Church, being a body which straddles the line between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, has inherited liturgies which include various types and variations of congregational participation.

Clearly something is not happening on Sunday mornings.  There is An Issue. The organist/choir director is going to change everything with a message in the newsletter.  Anyone who has assembled something from Ikea, knows first-hand reading instructions alone do not get the job done. Any parent or teacher can tell you the same thing.

From the beginning of the English Reformation, The Episcopal/Anglican Church has had to live within a tension that originated in the liturgical compromises that were made at the creation of the English Church.

Thanks, organist guy! That explains everything.  There were compromises made among the ruling elite 500 years ago.  Why with this explanation, I’m now ready to leap off the couch and show up Sunday mornings.

How does the congregation participate in the service?  The first and most obvious way is to respond vocally to the clergy during the spoken parts of the service.

Count me in!  Are we allowed to go off script?  What’s the culture of worship in your parish?  If a parishioner were to say “Tell the truth!” or a simple “Amen”, would that make it as a chuckle – or even a scandal – at your Tuesday morning staff meeting?

The second way is to sing joyfully (and loudly) during the hymns; if you don’t know the hymn very well, read along during the first verse and give the second verse a try. Don’t just stand there!

While the organist accepts that not many people are literate in music, he doesn’t realize that an important part of the congregation does not read at all.  John Bell of the Iona Community is very clear about how powerful it is to employ songs and hymns that are accessible to all, and admonishes us to lead people in song, teach the congregation before the service.  This article also implies that the wagons are circled: if you didn’t get the newsletter, if you didn’t read the newsletter, if you walk in off the street, your voice is not important. And if your voice isn’t important literally, then I would guess your voice isn’t important to this Episcopal church anywhere else.

When the lectors are reading lessons, or the clergy is praying, don’t just listen: pray with them.  When the choir is singing, read the text and lift up your heart in prayer.

Maybe because the clergy and musicians are set up next to the cross and not down with the congregants, they’re unaware that people pray all the time during a liturgy.  “Dear God, don’t make it be Howells again.” Or “Lord, will the sermon address living a Christian life…for real?” Or “Could the choirmaster blow the dust off the one parish copy of Lift Every Voice and Sing?”

What he’s really asking the majority sitting in the church nave to do is make our interior prayer life line up with that of the staff.  Don’t have your worship in the Episcopal Church be transformational, creating an environment where everyone is changed “from glory to glory”. And whatever you do, don’t make space for The One who inspires worship.   No silence, no call to hear the voice of the faithful unless it’s a response from a book or a licensed lector.


The tradition of participation in our church is beautiful and multi-layered. Let us come together to make our worship as meaningful and inspiring as possible.

Who is the “us” that this earnest organist/choir director wants to come together?  It seems to be just the staff.  In this message, he even refers to having the psalm performed by the choir (coupled with a reminder that this is not a performance) while the congregation is told to meditate on the words of the psalm. These are our psalms, handed down to us from the time of David.  Why take them out of our mouths and limit our participation?

How could anyone consider this participation multi-layered?  We are welcomed only when we do what we’re told by the Nanny Church. Sing when told, listen when told, read the script but not the scripture.  Don’t just stand there, but don’t dance or clap either.  Where is the beauty?  Not in the variety of ways God’s faithful people are inspired to worship, only in those who are trained to worship “correctly”.


The saddest irony in this well-intentioned but misguided piece is that people do not learn or change by reading something.  There is a part of the brain that yearns for the spiritual, the liturgical, and it’s not the part listening to a run down on Post Reformation history.  What’s next? Glebes?

From a 2007 interview with Elsie Rempel, Director of Christian Education and Nurture for Mennonite Church, Canada:

How does insight into brain activity shed light on worshiping with children?

Elsie: Sometimes we talk about worship that connects with our left and right brain. But our brain also has a stem and an inner brain that control our actions and emotions. The inner brain is the part that connects with our passions, intuition, relationality, and our awareness of metaphysical connections. It is in this brain part that recent brain research has attempted to track spiritual experience. The inner brain appears to be hardwired for spiritual activity from birth or before, and remains resilient even in the face of Alzheimer’s and other brain disease. We connect with these parts of the brain in the ritual actions, prayers and musical parts of worship.

The readers of this blog are smart enough to know that Mr. Rempel is talking about active participation and that this has implications for all generations who may be seeking a community for their faith.

The Mennonites: I’m so glad The Episcopal Church might be in communion with this denomination. Let’s really listen to what they have to say to us. That would be another thing to give this skeptical Episcopalian hope.

The spine of liturgy and faith


Some good liturgies:

  • During a beach service, the preacher stops his homily mid-way, encouraging everyone to come back with breakfast and eat together. They do, and discuss the meal in the context of John 21: 9 – 4.
  • During the prayers of the people at a different beach service, the children get together shaping an area of sand, placing stones and shells in rows and groups while whispering to each other “For my grandma, for all the dead animals, for frightened children.”
  • A family camping far away from the ambient light of cities and suburbs waits every night for the fire to die down and watching the stars goes through their day together in gratitude.
  • An urban church offers an Agape Meal where everyone shares food.  The hungry attend because they know it is a meal in a welcoming atmosphere.  The prayers of the people include a slide show of a family’s newborn, and a home movie of a man at a piano in his living room singing show tunes as a memorial. The priest shares that this church has made the cross a banquet table.  The wine is blessed and passed around at the tables.  They even offer seconds. 
  • A priest at a very visible, historic parish offers an interactive sermon. A sermon grounded in the lectionary reading for the day, but one that is shaped by questions posted on the Internet and asked by those attending the worship.

Episcopalians at their best respond to the environments the Holy Spirit has brought to them, many times just by opening their senses. At our worst, we are controlling, trying to shoehorn every bit of antiquated Anglicanism into environments which should be open to God’s surprises. 

Experience indicates this is about job validation. For clergy it’s also about validating seminary tuition:  all that money to take liturgy classes…must use everything in the tool box all the time.  

But what if Episcopalians walked in faith, trusting our unique grace?  The grace of responsiveness marrying history.  What if our history, rich in language and music, instead of tradition was the touchstone?  Then every liturgy would be like a sacred jazz concert or poetry slam.  Every person attending an Episcopal Church service would be able to reconstruct the sense of the sacred and holy in daily life. No one would be waiting for the show to start.

Jazz musicians know theory (theology), develop their chops, (liturgical specifics), and ground themselves in the chord changes and melody of a tune (BCP). They collaborate; through improvisation reveal the gifts of each musician as he or she plays.  There is structure, a flexible spine of intention and skill.  Over time, musicians interact with the basic structure of a piece creatively, allowing it to inspire their responses in the moment. It is skillful mindfulness. Each performance changes according to the musicians and the audience.  Every jazz aficionado knows it’s better to see someone live, and that the live recording is different from the studio recordings. 

As for tradition and history, jazz is filled with it yet remains fresh with every performance.  The entire collaborative process itself reaches back into prehistory, encoded into our development as without it, the human race could not have survived.  Riffs and references from all sorts of music make cameo appearances, reverently funny or respectfully acknowledging the communion of musical saints. 

Imagine every Sunday being like a jazz concert.  Those in charge of the liturgy confident enough to be collaborative and allow The Spirit to make herself known.  The entire atmosphere like that of a cabaret. What if the clergy, instead of being the ones on stage, took on the role of supportive club owners and impresarios?

One wonders: with the end of passive, consumer worship, would the trend of passive, opinionated Episcopalians come to an end?  Imagine a church where everyone cares so deeply about worship and mission there is no boundary between Sunday morning and walking a life of faith. 

That’s a church this skeptical Episcopalian has hope in seeing some day.


Church Vestments & Christian LaCroix, not to be confused


So we’re up to the point in the service where the average congregant looks over her shoulder to see a gang of people coming up behind her.  “Smile! You’re a worship community now!”

 There’s the Gospel, held high, with great solemnity.  I muse on what would happen if a congregant ran up to kiss it or touch it in some way as I would see in a synagogue. Is it held high out of reverence for the Word of God? The vibe I get is more like my the memory of Great Aunt Agnes putting her Hummel collection on the highest shelf. “Don’t touch!” 

 Now comes the clergy in their vestments. Formally walking in a straight line, a flotilla of fabric. 

One year, every Sunday, one of my kids took a class just that began just when the worship for an African American church was over.  My daughter was a style conscious teen and as we walked by, watching the display of unique pride and style, she would exclaim “I love this church! Can we go there? It looks like a party.”

Title Image

Personally, I love fashion – particularly as an expression of the inner, unique self.  The florid hats in Harlem on a Sunday morning express the theology of uniqueness, creativity, and community. When a Buddhist monk in orange robes and shaved head passes, the world around him or her is changed a bit to contemplate mystery and simplicity.  Similarly the robes of those in other intentional orders express mission and devotion.

An email report on the ordination of a bishop cited the beauty and high drama of the service.  Such pomp – the bishops in all their vestments! – it was “thrilling” she wrote.

First – pomp is not an aesthetic that really works dramatically.  It is the first syllable of the word pompous.  As for dramatic, beautiful, thrilling, and even spiritual – have you seen Julie Taymor’s “Lion King”?

Episcopal clergy have their own seasonal outfits – and that’s fine.  However, many I’ve met imagine this to be a priority – there’s fussiness and attitude about vesting that really needs to be rethought.  Vestments are primarily functional, their presence may not be entirely necessary.  They are a portal to tradition and history and not to be made into idols.

Then there’s the fact that celebrating the Eucharist is not about “look at me” vestments.

We live in a visual culture that morphs every twenty four hours.  The church shouldn’t try to compete, but re-understand its place without losing integrity. And yes, slow down time a bit with symbolic representations of the faith, but cut out the personal preoccupation.

It is with great dismay that we observe too many clergy frequently referring to their love of “playing dress up”; that at Diocesan Conventions the line out the Almy’s booth is a long one and the social justice or faith formation booths have tumbleweed blowing through them; that clergy have consumer identification and self elevation according to whether they use Wipple’s or Almy.


This is playing dress up

This is playing dress up


This should not be playing dress up

This should not be playing dress up


...or this

...or this




You want to turn around in the driver’s seat and say “Cut it out back there!”  Inject a bit of humility to the discussion.  Stacy’s and Clinton’s makeovers on “What not to Wear” have more theology and mission behind them than the fussiness of some clergy. There have been instances of bishops flying to precious medieval European towns to buy particular fabrics for their vestments.  

Let’s consider the lilies of the fields.


....or this

....or this


...or this

...or this

And when a bishop dresses up as a homeless person, equating the outfit with the real condition, something has gone, horribly, obscenely wrong.

Clergy, deacons, choirs – it really doesn’t matter.  When all is said and done, the man-on-the-street who walks into the church does not see the tradition or fine weave on the stole.  He or she is more interested – perhaps driven – to understand cope as a verb instead of a noun.  The internal slide show of pop culture images makes a connection not with the history or tradition, but with science fiction.

Vested, to the average Joe or Jane, most of you look like alien overlords.


To Serve Mankind

To Serve Mankind

And that’s ok. Because as John Wimber said “I’m a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you?”

Green pastures…because the trees are gone


A bit of back story here:

This blog began as a detailed, provocative response to the question “Where are you going to church now?”  The conceit, if I can stretch the definition of that word, is walking the reader through a typical Episcopal Church service through the eyes of one of the de-churched.

So, if you’re new to this blog, you may want to scroll down and begin reading chronologically.  We’re only up to the processional.

I’m off schedule because last week I actually had to be in church.  It was Good Shepherd Sunday.

There is nothing more direct or guilelessly reverent set in words than Psalm 23.  No bit of scripture more popular and beloved. The prayer is known, and maybe even used, by the unreligious, and it is a recommended text for contemplation in a book on meditation written by an observant Hindu.

The messages contained there may be simple, but they have resonated with seekers throughout history.  Listen for God’s voice.  You are loved. You are cared for. Feel no shame, no fear. Lead a balanced life. All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the well-heeled Episcopal Church with the expectation of entering in to the simplicity this psalm and the message of the Good Shepherd and got handed a 10-page service leaflet on high quality, bleached stock 11 x 14 inch folded paper, fruit of forests and former home of spotted owls.

Can’t make it through the Good Shepherd Sunday without a playbook. He maketh me to lie in green pastures because the trees are gone.

The identical service probably took place in hundreds of Episcopal Churches all over America.  Someone opened The Episcopal Musicians’ Handbook to the appropriate day, choosing personal favorite hymns, ignoring more evangelical or emotional pieces that related to the lectionary readings.  The choirs sang anthems selected by choir directors who asked themselves “What is the most sophisticated piece we can learn by May 1st?”

Remember in The Flintstones when one of animal tools would turn to the fourth wall and in a nasal tone say “It’s a living.”  I can’t help but imagine that’s what’s going on for so many staff members in so many churches.  Liturgy is plug-and-play.  I first heard that expression from a High Church organist/choir director.  That was his goal: plug-and-play.

It's a living

It's a living

In the service I attended, the opening hymn was to the tune of Old 100th (listed as “song of praise”…apparently we must praise with a limit on joy) accompanied by the organ.  Did anyone think to invite the pastoral sound of the oboe, bagpipes, a volunteer cantor shepherding us in song, a simple Iona or Taize congregational chant alternating with readings or poetry?   Did anyone ask the congregants if there was something meaningful to them that they would like to share?  Heck – invite a farmer in to talk about sheep. Or did the resident “expert” clergy serve as an interpreter of this most personal of texts?

Good Shepherd

I remember when my Uncle Carlo died; the viewing was at a home specializing in Roman Catholic funerals.   His widow, Aunt Rita, had chosen the Good Shepherd prayer cards to be distributed that day.  She had prayed it from the moment he had died of a heart attack while taking a nap in the back yard. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear the quickening in her voice as she told me about the Holy Card.  It gave her surety about Carlo’s life after death, and surety about her own life until she could join him.

The plastic laminated prayer card with the kitschy Northern European Jesus was pressed into our hands by her as we left the funeral home. I have mine still not only because it reminds me of that memorial and the passing of someone in the family, but because there is a kind of lateral charism there. The Holy Scripture, the reality of it healing in someone’s life, the treasure that I need to hold on to in case I need it in mine some day.

How many millions have stories about this psalm? Think of how fast, strong , and deep these words have traveled.  Like spiritual DNA. And we go to a worship service to ignore the inner voice of the shepherd, the One who knows us by name, who has knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and knows our stories better than we know them ourselves.

The Episcopal Church worship experience is a little bit like hospital food. The industrial kitchen will whip up a meal for you and even if you don’t enjoy it, have faith that it’s nourishing and healing.

Hospital Food

What can I say about the rest of the service? Dull, robotic worship skirting the most tenderly deep concept in the walk of the faithful: This is a God who cares and with whom you can have a relationship.


David and Jesus had real sheep in mind when they communicated, not sheeple.

After the service, I took a walk with my Bible and prayed David’s psalm with joy, and reverence, and song. I found the still waters, thanking my Creator for every blessing I could, particularly the one of relationship.  Then I went online to see what I missed from Meet the Press.

I won’t make the same mistake this week.

Until then, monika55