Happy Easter! Expect the Unexpected

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood. Henry Miller

My transition from sleep to wakefulness comes as a result of a solid internal clock –courtesy of age – and the ambient sounds of the world around me – birds, the Latino radio station from the man delivering newspapers,  the family stirring. On Easter morning the hotel alarm buzzes me awake at five in order for my husband and myself to attend a sunrise service.

The location of the service is St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Hyannis.   The staff at the motel can’t recall where it is located.  It’s not in the telephone book and online references are fuzzy.  Through the Massachusetts diocese home site we get a street, but no no parish profile or web site. Programming this spare information into the GPS we set out before sunrise on a literal quest for the sole Episcopal church in this town.

Navigating a warren of roads that pass darkened summer homes closed in off-season, we happen upon a police officer who escorts us, headlights on, past the skeletons of privet hedge to the dead-end street where St. Andrew’s stands high on a bluff next to a local beach and yacht club.

We don’t know what to take in first : the location of a church that must have a dramatic view of the Atlantic once the sun is up or the fact that there is barely a place to park.  The road dead ends at a local private club with a capacious parking lot but it is barricaded in off-season. And most likely barricaded in-season to the hoi polloi.

St. Andrew’s is closed as well. At least the doors to the building are closed.  There is a gathering of 60 or so eager to witness and reconstruct in our own humble way the event that shattered the world.  Easter fest 2010!  We wait on a small patch of ground next to the stone building.

The service begins with a lone trumpet leading the hymns.  Everyone sings along.  The invocation and prayers are direct – nothing precious or overly intellectual.  As I say the words out loud in community I feel changed, lighter inside, a greater sense of understanding which quickens commitment.  It is terribly cold on this bluff by the Atlantic and I am not dressed for it.  My husband takes off his jacket, wraps me in it, and holds me firm and strong.  We had argued on the way here. In his loving, intimate action, there is proof of resurrection and healing. I think – no I know – this one of the best Easters ever.

The homily is short and one of the best ones I’ve heard. Here’s what I remember: Expect the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected exposes Christ in others.

The prayer that follows the homily begins like this:
God of such amazing surprise, put a catch in my breath today. Put wings on my heart.

This Holy Week, on the dune and ocean landscape of New England, the site of new buds on thorny bushes has caught my eye. There are rows of these dotted about the small patch of ground next to the closed Episcopal church.  

The church building is still dark as the sun rises over the cold Atlantic. The Church turns to see the morning fog begin its dispersal, chatting about where to go for  a warm breakfast and cup of coffee. Continuing the fellowship.

This worship was hosted by a confederation of Baptist churches in surrounding towns.  The participating pastors will be going off to their respective churches for indoor Easter services. One announces that there will be six baptisms that morning.

In the light, it becomes clear why no one knew where the church was: those who attend it want it for themselves. It is a seasonal church, intended for the people with summer homes. Most likely it is a summer cure for a priest who gets a small stipend, a place near the beach, an honorary membership at the yacht-beach-tennis-dinner club, and regular invitations to cocktail parties.

Peeking through the front window we can see that it is well-appointed: crisp volumes Lift Every Voice and Sing side by side with the 1982 Hymnal.  Although it is possible the volumes look crisp because they are held for a few minutes each week, 4 months out of the year, by people who are used to taking care of nice things.

The week before Easter the House of Bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas. Part of their time together included two days spent on the Emergent Church.  From what I’ve heard there was an amusing awkward tone to all this as the Emergent Church is anti-hierarchical as well as anti-institutional.  The bishops listened to presentations and were given a book to take home so they could read about about the Emergent Church.  The book has two introductions: one by Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the other by Rowan Williams.  The other chapters are written by people who, while insightful about the enormous transition going on in Spirit and Faith as well as the dissolution of the institutional-hierarchical church,  rely on its financial resources for their livelihood.

The bishops were also given two CDs with examples of Emergent Church music.  The music, skillfully executed and even occasionally sincere, was intended for soloists and bands.  Not a single song that could be sung by a congregation on either recording.

The readers of this blog are too wise for me to have to explain the irony of all this.  But two caveats for any bishops or canons or program people trying to understand and evolve:  First, buying the program is not the program.  If you need this verified, ask the hard-working and resourceful director of your formation program.

Second, there is an army of clergy in your diocese deeply invested in the status quo of their seminary training and the reality of parish politics.  The House of Bishops may meet as an International Entity but church is local.

In a culturally synchronous moment, Holy Week was the week that Priest Barbie became a fetishistic fad among certain Episcopalians.  The Facebook page garnered thousands of fans.  Priest Barbie showed up with a bitchin’ liturgical wardrobe, including a miniature sacristy at her imaginary Malibu parish.  People thought a plastic priest with an anatomically impossible figure, the most hated and tortured toy in recent memory, was a hoot, a role model, and a signal of the The Episcopal Church’s “coolness”.

Can’t we stop pretending?

It is a natural human inclination to stave off the difficult but necessary aspects of transition with totemic figures, programs, and magic thinking. During Easter we not only honor Jesus, but the lifetime journey of mindfully, reverently nurturing the Christ in ourselves and others. Miracles not magic thinking. The truth – the Word – is so very near us.  It’s in night blossoms, and buds in thorns, the narratives of our prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs, our relationships. There are portals of sacred transformation among us.

The Emergent Church has been around for two plus millennia. It is not “out there”.  Unless the leadership of The Episcopal Church considers a confederation of Baptist ministers leading the faithful to worship at dawn “out there”.

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.

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

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

Picture1

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.

588-1

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”.

1077072_yawn_1

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.