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”.

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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.

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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