More reason to hope: We are not alone

I have heard that Sidney Sanders, former bishop of East Carolina and much beloved faculty at Virginia Seminary, had written about the theology of the Broadway Musical.  Certainly Broadway has given us much more than jazz hands and emo singing cats. It embodies story, hope, social justice, reflection, epiphanies, as well as the glory of the human being fully alive.  Anyone who has been close to the theatre knows that there is no better community for accepting brokenness, and enveloping fellow seekers in the embrace of fellowship.

In the words of one of Sondheim’s most simple lyrics: No One is Alone

This blog began as a kind of personal therapy – a place to detox from the harshness of church work and disingenuous church community.

That season is done.  Today I had a wonderful conversation with Kenny Moore – aka Kenny the Monk.  His book, The CEO and the Monk carries high ratings on Amazon.  I’m embarrassed I haven’t read it, because a conversation with Kenny is a revivifying experience filled with insight, reverent irreverence, generosity, and lots of laughs.

So in the days to come, when this Hopeful Episcopalian reclaims the path of hope rather than its abstraction, look for the deletion of some of those more therapeutic posts, a revamping of  About this Blog, and a chance for the thousands of us out there to start calling out and finding each other.

After all, Anyone Can Whistle.

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Everything is everything

blog dance

Liturgical dance. Looks good on paper.  Sounds like a good idea in theory. Yet even in the most high-profile worship services it has never successfully been integrated into the liturgy.

Years ago, a priest friend said “Every time I hear the words ‘liturgical dance’ I know there is going to be a LOT of this…” he put his arms out in a form of the yoga sun salute, tilted his head back, and put on a insipid smile.  Over the years, every time I am exposed to liturgical dance I remember his imitation and think “Nailed it!”

What makes the liturgical dance issue so irksome is that despite its potential, it never makes it past a lukewarm imitation of bland modern dance.  The costumes alone look as if they were first used at a high school sorority initiation night or the dance scene from Roger Corman’s “The Undead”.

The Corman analogy isn’t far off track: the emperor of B movies shot it in an abandoned supermarket, shrubbery strapped on the shelving making for an  unusually tidy forest glade.  It is in aisles that liturgical dance takes place, limited not so much by the space of a nave, but by the imaginations of those who are in charge of how the space is used.  Sylph-like dancers in u-necked pastel leotards, floaty chiffon skirts for the girls, long hair pulled back, do the tip toe running step up and down the aisles with their arms in that yoga sun salute.  Always smiling as if in competing for Miss Teen Milwaukee.

It’s not the fault of these dear, young, innocent dancers.  There’s a creepy feeling that the primary agenda is that of the Cathedral matron who underwrites the liturgical dance program and will be acting out in future Standing Commitee meetings, terribly pissed off because no one used the dancers on call.

During one prominent service at the National Cathedral, the poor dears had to carry in flagons the size of stout first graders filled with water,  hoist them over their heads, and stand on tip toe to pour them into a font big enough for an Andean Condor to bathe.  Smiles turned to gritted teeth as the jumbo flagons remained poised over the font until the bishop in charge moseyed down for the aisle for the next bit of the service, oblivious to the pain of the dancers. My long-standing irritation that the Church overlooks workers’ rights – no unions for lay employees with the exception of organist guilds – roiled up. Actors Equity would never allow this.

Like organ music alone, “look at me” vestments, plug-and-play readings and prayers; liturgical dance as it is typically practiced limits our expression of the divine.   We don’t feel like smiling all the time. Most of the human race does not cavort about like three-year-olds at their creative dance recital.

The disingenuousness of liturgical dance was most visible at the Eucharist at General Convention.  The sprites of dance were waving shiny flags, running on the balls of their feet in a manner that would have an early childhood expert call the parents in for a conference to sign up with a physical therapist  for motor development.

The House of Bishops followed with a heavy tread, like coal miners after a day in the shaft.  They had spent 7 to 10 days, working non-stop, no Sabbath in sight – not even on that Sunday.

Instead of the mindlessness, the Episcopal Church needs to embrace mindfulness  particularly in liturgies of which it claims to be so proud. Integrity and integration is not only about The Other – it is about looking around you.

Of all the performing arts, dance in the 20th century stands out as the form devoted to collaboration, strongly evoking the spiritual journey.  Merce Cunningham with John Cage, Lucinda Childs with Philip Glass, grassroots organizations that build community through spiritual dance and drumming circles, drawing on the cultures of  the world.  Even choreographers and companies with an aesthetic bent towards the purely beautiful or predominately emotional have more liturgical fibre to their presentations than what The Episcopal Church is subjected to.

Integration of the arts can be done. A friend called me after a service in late Lent – quickened at the use of liturgical dance.  I thought the call was a joke. “No…it worked. They actually thought about what they were doing instead of bringing out the tippy toe fairies in chiffon.”

The reading was the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  The scripture was passed from person to person in the congregation, each reading different passages,  bringing home the impact the death of a loved one has on family and community. Up front, was a dancer wrapped in a shroud who slowly and intentionally began to break free of the binding cloth.  When the reading was over, she was free from her “grave clothes”.

When David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, I bet it was big and wild – percussive and lyrical; joyous and contemplative and angry; high and low and serpentine.  And I bet he didn’t wear pastel chiffon even though he promised to make himself even more ridiculous in the eyes of the Lord.

My pipe’s bigger than yours

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internal-organs

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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