Wednesday, August 07, 2013

New Ways to Pray

A Wordle of all the Psalms (World English Bible)
One of my church's unique and beautiful characteristics is our life together in prayer.  Many churches (though not all, sadly) have some part of their church service dedicated to some form of the traditional practice of "prayers of the people."  Ours typically takes the form of an open mic, passed around to those who want to pray aloud.

This last Sunday, I was asked to direct the music (our regular music director was on vacation) for our two "contemporary" services.  This being the first Sunday of the month in a Methodist Church, it was Communion Sunday.  Our typical order of service on these days is:

  • Annoucements
  • Three Songs - two standing, loud, fast; one seated, more reflective
  • Prayers of the people
  • Offering
  • Scripture Reading
  • "Table Talk" - a short sermon
  • Communion, served in the front, by intinction
  • Closing Song
The topic of this service was a continuation of the previous week's lectionary gospel reading, Luke 11:1-13.  Specifically, our pastor said he intended to focus on the obvious problem of what do with with the promise that "whatever you ask for, you shall receive," in the face of many prayer requests that go unfulfilled.

My own understanding of worship is that it does and must include these tough questions.  Few songs in the popular worship repertoire do this justice, but the Psalms give us many good examples of what do to with grief, despair, questions, and anger.  I tried to put together a set of songs that focused on capturing and expressing these things as the Psalms did. 

Some of my favorite Psalm-based songs for worship: 40, by U2, Down in the Lowlands (Originally by Charlie Peacock), Who will ascend (this is the one I know, but there are others from this Psalm). We tried doing Third Day's My hope is you, but it is so musically boring, and we didn't have an electric guitarist.
There are many, of course, based on the more joyful songs--Better is One Day by Matt Redman, Forever by Chris Tomlin--but I find laments much more rare.

I think communion is a very appropriate response to the question of unanswered prayer.  The person, life and suffering of Jesus is the only answer that carries any weight in the face of it, I believe.  To lead into that, then, I chose At the foot of the Cross, a song that speaks deeply about Jesus's solidarity with us in suffering, and his ultimate redemption of it.

But I can't leave it at just music; I'm too adventurous.  So I began to think of how I could invite others to pray in a new way, in the way of the Psalms.  What came to mind was the magnetic poetry you see on refrigerators or espresso machines at coffee shops.  So I put together my own list of words that could serve as a foundation of piecing together our own Psalms.  The Wordle above helped me a bit.

My basic format for creating a psalm was this: 1) Where I am, or what questions I have;  2) Who I acknowledge, believe, or experience God to be; and 3) What I ask or thank him for.  As I talked this idea over my with brilliant, creative, insightful, and practical wife, she suggested that I prompt people a little more specifically.  So for each of these sections of a psalm, I gave a couple prompts:
  1. "My Soul is..." and "How Long will..."
  2. "The Lord is..."  and "Our God is..."
  3. "Grant us..." and "Save us from..." and "Thank you for..."
Instead of our typical prayer time, I invited people to come piece together their own psalm, in the format provided.  I also had blank cards for people to write their own words if they needed.  Our pastor decided that it would work well to have people come take communion right after that, so we did that. It was an open space, a different kind of feel than what we usually do, and took about 15 minutes all total.  

The benefit, I think was encouraging people to think of prayer more broadly, and to give room for other kinds of participation. This format is especially good for younger worshipers, since it is hands-on, and for those who don't feel comfortable praying into a mic for the whole gathered body to hear.  In addition, there is something spiritually formative about having to create prayers with a limited amount of words.  I found the prayers people put up were less specific, but often speaking of deeper things.  This is what art can do--express something deeper and more profound than what we normally express verbally--and this activity allowed everyone to be an artist, if only for a moment.

I am grateful to be at a church where there are enough people willing to try something new that I don't have to worry if people will participate.  One member suggested making these magnetic and making it a permanent installation.  We'll see, but I love the idea.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

"What happened?" Faith seeking understanding as Worship

One year ago, a team of us landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. You can read about the trip here. I remember being so full of confidence that this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing, ready to take on whatever challenges would come. They came, to be sure.

Indeed, we would play a lot of things by ear on that trip, trying to do our best to help those who came in our path without creating or reinforcing a dependency on western aid. The question, "what exactly are we doing here?" seemed, if not spoken, on the tip of everyone's tongue, because daily we faced our limitations--our lack of cultural understanding, of physical stamina, of creativity, or wisdom. My hope as a team leader was that, no matter how dark our doubts or ambiguous our effectiveness, we would at least share the experience, trusting one another for encouragement and wisdom. Every day, we ended with a daily wrap-up, in which I would ask, "what happened today?"

To me, this is the essence of worship. A life lived together before God. We sang songs together, prayed for one another, talked about what we had seen and done and, if we could, point to where we saw God in all of it.

A year later, I still present that trip before God, and ask for his Spirit to help me discern: "What happened a year ago?" I ponder this because, while there are many things to which I can point definitively and say, "yes, we did help there," there are also many things that have not turned out the way I expected. I no longer belong to the church that sent me and my 15 other team members to Haiti, and the manner in which that relationship changed still confounds and saddens me.

But more significantly, I remember as I walked into the muggy heat of Port-au-Prince, I was open to the possibility, even eager to see, that this trip to Haiti would be the first step toward a long-term calling to serve there. It may still be that, I suppose, but the vision for such a vocation is much murkier to me now. I know I thought I would be returning sooner than a year, and now I wonder not just how I will go back, but for what purpose? What do I, a teacher and worship leader, really have to offer the desperately poor in another culture?

Without answers, I present myself as I am--disoriented, unsure of my purpose--before God, and seek his Wisdom, praying that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear, patience to wait, and courage to follow.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What would have been Good Friday, 2011

I've recently stepped away from a church that was my home for the last two and half years. This being a public blog, and the reasons for my departure having interpersonal dynamics, I don't feel like it's appropriate to go into details here, or now.

It goes against everything in me not to explain myself. I hate being misunderstood, and I have felt that sting too many times. It is one of the worst feelings, to think you are being judged, not for things you have done (that's no fun, either), but for misperceptions. I want to justify my leaving. I want to be validated.

Jesus' death on the cross challenges me not to do so.

This, actually, would have been the central thrust of the Good Friday service I had been planning, before my departure: if we follow in the footsteps of Christ, if we take his salvation, then we are justified solely by his death. There is no room for self-justification if we accept his--this is what taking up our cross means: putting to death the self we tried to defend against all attacks, and standing only on Grace for our worth.

That gathering never took final form, but I thought I would share the reflections that were to have shaped it:

"The Woman gave it to me, and I ate"
"The serpent decieved me"

"When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. 'It is your responsibility!'

The desire to defend and justify ourselves is as old as time. Adam and Eve, the archtypes of our fallen nature, do this immediately upon being confronted with their guilt: Don't blame me! It's someone else's fault! Pilate (in vain, of course) seeks to absolve himself, to find some measure of personal peace in telling himself that executing a man he believes to be innocent is the responsibility of the Jews.

The more I am aware of this bent of human nature, the more I realize how destructive it is. At every turn, we are confronted with attacks to our dignity, challenges to our worth. "This is your chance to show how committed you are to the success of this company." "It was your job to take the garbage out." "For what you spend on lattes, you could feed starving children in Honduras." In all areas of life, we could be doing more: we could improve ourselves or our situation or our world; to deny this would be the height of hubris.

I know I myself am constantly trying to outrun the doubts about my adequacy. The whole world is trying to prove itself, all of us trying to build a legacy, have something to show for ourselves and our efforts. We are trying to justify ourselves.

At the cross, however, we are justified by God, through Jesus' death. The price of our inadequacy is no longer ours to bear, but God's to bear and to banish. What does it mean to be justified in Christ? Certainly it means we don’t have to carry the weight of our sin any more--the perfect One has forgiven our imperfection. But it is more than that: it means we are no longer trying to show the world that we are a good person, worthy of love. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.

So we no longer have to carry the weight of righteousness either. Our worth is not determined by an adding up of the good and subtracting the bad, for as Jesus death shows us, God does not value us that way. We are beloved, worthy of the costliest of rescues, the death of the only Son, not because of our righteousness, but in the middle of our inadquacy.

If we crucify ourselves with Christ, we no longer have an independent self to defend. We no longer have to prove ourselves. Being a Christian is not trying to be a good person--the death of Jesus proves that being good enough is impossible for us--he died for all of us. We put to death the whole mess of trying to be good and failing. We put to death the losing game of failing to love others as much as we ought, as much as we want.

My temptation is always to self-justify, always to defend my honor. The world, the accuser, is always on the attack, always saying, “it depends on you, and you will fail.” If you do not love your kids, they will grow up to be miscreants. If you make a mistake at your job, you will be fired, passed over for a promotion, be stuck in a dead-end. You must measure up.

The cross says this: the measure was impossible for you, but it has already been met. If you accept the grace of the cross, there is no more measure to measure up to. God has covered it all. So do not only put to death your sins, put to death also your righteousness. If you accept the validity and worth God gives you, your righteousness is an outflow from him, a sign of his grace in you, not an insufficient effort on your part.

Here are my rights
Here are my deeds
I'm only made righteous
By the wounds where he bleeds,
The wounds of my God, who is gracious, so gracious to me.

So my prayer for myself, this Good Friday, is that God would take this, my desire to be understood and affirmed. Take this, the ache of separation and broken trust. Take this, the need to have been right in every decision I have made. These are my own attempts at righteousness. I lay them down, and again declare that I live under Grace. Amen.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

K-Love Christianity

Every so often, I try to listen to the local K-Love affiliate. If you don't know, their slogan is "Positive and Encouraging." As in, the rest of life/radio/music is negative and discouraging, but K-Love is the opposite. It's not actually a bad slogan for them--the words of the songs they play generally talk about how great God is and how following him is wonderful. I can't stand about more than 10 minutes of it.

Now, I do think Christians should be encouraging people, and I do think following Jesus is a path to joy and peace, and I do think God is great. But my life is not always positive. Singing songs that say it is does not encourage me. And there are times when following Jesus is a long, hard, lonely path that does not yield much in the way of immediate happiness or satisfying answers.

I recently had a conversation with someone who thought it was a good idea to use many of the same songs from K-Love's playlist in worship (and many of those songs, at first blush, seem to fit that purpose) because new Christians could listen to the songs on the radio all week, allowing them not only to learn them but also to start practicing worship as a lifestyle, rather than an event just on Sunday morning. In theory, this seems like a good idea.

The problem is that the path of following Jesus is not positive and encouraging, not most of the time. The people Jesus calls "blessed" do not have much to be positive or encouraged about. They are poor, hungry, empty of power, persecuted, to name a few. Even the pure in heart have to live among the rest of us, whose hearts are full of ugliness and pain and selfishness. Jesus is friend of sinners, but also speaks "Woe!" seven times in Matthew chapter 23. And of course, he suffered humiliation, betrayal, and death--John reminds us at the outset that "his own did not receive him."

I've read many places that at least one third of the Psalms are laments. The book of worship from the pinnacle of the ancient Israel's worship is filled with songs of desperation, sadness, anger, and questioning.

Worship does not pretend. God, who sees all, does not need us to put on our happy face. He does not want us to, because that is lying to him, hiding from him. It is the first consequence of sin, that we run away from God and try to hide our nakedness. The reason Christians are free to worship honestly is because God's approval of us is not dependent on us. We cannot become presentable to God. We do not have to be.

These are not new ideas. From the beginning, the mark of Christians has been sharing everything with one another, confessing and praying with one another, and recognizing, through wine and bread, that our righteousness before God is not of our own making.

There is nothing that can separate us from God's love. Not negativity or discouragement or anger, or any of the other things that are inevitable in a world that fall short of the glory of heaven--and we shouldn't hide these things from God, either. That is the kind of worship I hunger for.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Creativity and collaboration lose a home on the web

This is a quintessenial blog post--a quasi-rant about a really esoteric topic. But it's about a website that has been a great resource and community for me, and I'm grieved by the news that it's terminal. If you've found me from that site, please let me know in the comments below about your response. Thanks.

The change that was to come

For some time (as you have been able to see on my sidebar), I've been a pretty engaged member on CreativeWorshipTour.com. I have had no economic interest in being active--I don't have a speaking schedule, I haven't written a book, I'm not even currently employed in any capacity that relates to creative worship. I just love the subject.

Several months ago, Creative Worship Tour administrators (the ownership and management of the site has never been made clear) informed us that a new site was being developed to replace it. It was supposed to be the next generation.

The disappointment of what finally is
Well, the new site is finally "up," and it's essentially a blog. Though the promises about what Clayfire was going to be were murky, the roll-out this week has been a huge disappointment to me, on two fronts:

First, the new site is not a platform for open-sourced free collaboration. It is a blog run by, it seems, three people heavily involved with CreativeWorshipTour.com site. If you want to share something, it needs to be in the format the site managers are asking for, and something they like. There are no discussion forums. Nobody except the administrators can post a blog. The only content and features that will continue to exist on Clayfire are the blog entries by the site administrators.

Secondly, the communication about and process of developing this new site has been abysmal. There has been little explanation for the decision to shut down CreativeWorshipTour.
Here's one quote (from the Clayfire Facebook page):
Creative Worship Tour was launched as an exploration into the world of creative worship. Over the past few years we have learned a great deal from everyone involved. clayfire is the next phase in this process. While we love the name of Creative Worship Tour as well, know that the principles of the social network site will continue in a more focused way with clayfire. We look forward to moving forward in this exciting new direction. Hope this helps!
The original projected launch date of Clayfire--which we were told would be at www.weareclayfire.org, a site which does not now exist--was supposed to be October. That date came and went with no explanation.

Follow the money?
The most baffling part of this is why this change happened at all. I like CWT. There may have been a few features I would have liked to see improve, but it functioned well. The only explanation of this whole saga that is plausible to me is about the money.

When I first joined CWT, I had one conversation with a friend who seemed to be privy to some of the process that led to the site's creation. Augsberg Fortress, the publishing wing of the ELCA, was looking to create a resource for post-modern worship. They reached the conclusion that a published book would not serve this well--the timeline for publishing a hymnal meant that all resources would be stale by the time the volumes were ready for sale. An online collaborative community would be much more useful. These were, according to my friend, the seeds of CWT.

Fast-forward to today. Clayfire is produced by Sparkhouse, "the ecumenical division of Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in a America (ELCA)." (see here). What's on the lower left sidebar of every page of Clayfire? An ad for their most recent book, Mark Pierson's new book "The Art of Curating Worship," published by, you guest it, Augsberg Fortress.

I don't know who was funding CWT. Ning.com, the company that provides the social network platform that CWT runs on, lists its prices here, and at the least, CWT was costing someone $20 a month (maybe more like $50). But it was not revenue-generating for anyone. The new site is clearly designed with that possibility in mind. But it was not designed for open-source collaboration.

Quo vadimus?
"Quo Vadimus," a term I learned from another cultural artifact that was too short-lived--the TV show SportsNight--means, "where are we going?" And that is the question I am asking myself, and, if you are a CWT refugee, I am asking you. Are you going to be active on Clayfire Curator? Are you going to turn your efforts to another network? Perhaps the Ning-powered Love is Concrete? Do we need to petition to keep CWT alive, under new management? Do we need to start our own site? Please comment.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Art, and the world as it should be

I had a friend of mine joke recently that he didn't believe in "sin." I knew what he meant--the word seems to be permanently moored to its Puritanical witch-burning, Victorian prudish moralizing associations. The various attempts to recapture and renew the word, and thus the concept, are noble, but are fighting an uphill battle. Voices inside the church don't want to see us "go soft," and voices outside the church are happy to scoff at the hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and hopeless naivete of a religion that seeks to set moral absolute standards for everybody.

Most artists, I think, are loathe to embrace the term "sin" since it seems to represent a kind of absolute certainty--a clear boundary about what is "good" and what is not. And artists live in the ambiguity of this world--we reflect on, express, expose--and, yes, celebrate--nuance and double-meaning. Think of Shakespeare's Hamlet--a hero out to set right the injustice and betrayal and murder of his father, driven to near madness and while successful in his primary goal, he achieves it at the expense of his life and the lives of nearly all he loves. The enduring indigenous American musical tradition of Jazz makes it's bed in harmonic dissonance, from the most elemental blues to the most esoteric free Jazz. Irony, ambiguity, tension--these traits make art captivating and human.

And this is what we mean by "sin"--a world of broken symmetry, of seemingly unconquerable adversaries, a world that is impossible to resolve neatly. To those that would close their eyes to the suffering and dissonance of this world, art calls us back to the reality of that.

But art can do something more, too. It can point us beyond this world to the world to come, the world as it should be. That kind of art takes imagination and guts. It cannot be tame. The sometimes violent apocalyptic imagery in the Bible--of wars, of consuming fire, of terrifying signs (play Mozart's "Dies Irae" here)--is saying something about this. The world as it is will not be made right easily. There are too many forces pulling the world into decay for redemption not to be a struggle. It makes sense to me that the final complete redemption of the world would be a terror. Resurrection only comes after death.

It's much easier not to hope for a world set right, because that means facing the huge chasm between that world and the one we live in. It's easier to stop trying to imagine a world set right because it seems too far off, too improbable.

This is the other--and, I think harder and more dangerous--thing for art to do: to those that would not acknowledge or can not see the possibility of a world set to rights, of purity and beauty--the world of the age to come--art can show us that indeed there is something beyond the decay and corruption and failure of the world we see.

In a dying neighborhood overcome by violence and squalor, art can say, "we are human beings, intended for a life of dignity, freedom, and well-being." In a nation of profits and consumers, art can say, "love is stronger than money." In a generation of pleasure seeking, art can say, "the world will be redeemed by self-denial."

This is not art born of an easy, hopeless naivete. This is art of the resistance, and it is dangerous. Where have you seen this kind of expression? How did it interact with your life, your community?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Good Friday, Part 1: Planning and Design.

Brace yourselves. This will be a two-part recap about our Good Friday Gathering. These posts are gonna be long. But when I am reading about others' creative worship ideas, I find details to be helpful. I hope what I've included is the good stuff. And if you want to just see what happened and skip the background and process, go to Part Two.

The Context

I am a member of small Nazarene Church just south of Sacramento, CA. Our meeting space is functional but aesthetically bland. We average around 60 people on Sunday mornings. Except for our children's pastor, we're all volunteers. I'm normally a just band member, but this was an opportunity to design the whole gathering from the ground up (this was my second year doing this).

Our Sunday worship gathering is typically casual-Evangelical: modern-rock style songs in the first half, a sermon in the second half. Our children meet separately during Sunday morning worship, and our youth leave for their own lesson when the sermon begins. .

The Vision
One of my chief goals was to work harder to incorporate more people into the creative process. This comes from my belief that worship created by community has potential to be a dramatically visible sign of God's working in community.

I often see these special gatherings as a chance to cast a different vision for worship than our usual practice, to whet the appetite for something deeper, broader, more eclectic, experimental and unexpected, more hands-on. So I wanted to bring our children and youth into the process of making this gathering, engaging them more rather than separating them out. I also wanted to make this a better multi-sensory gathering, not so focused on words and music.

These commitments are ways of intentionally counter-balancing my own weaknesses. Too, often, I do things all by myself rather than ask other people, mostly out of a
desire for creative control and a fear of trusting someone else's tastes and judgments. Also, I know I am a new music junkie; prone to going overboard on new songs because they fit the story or the message perfectly. That can lead to neglecting other modes of expression, and a lack of silence, listening, and undirected space.

The Process
My brother Phil likens worship design to a Mosaic--you may have a broad idea of what you have in mind, but you really start putting it together when you have the pieces in front of you.

I began this process about 5 weeks before Good Friday, and the first 3 weeks were spent exploring, thinking, and conversing. Collecting the pieces of the mosaic, as it were. Some of the pieces I collected are detailed below, and some, like the ones I mentioned in this CWT discussion on Lent ideas, didn't end up in the final version.

The conversations were a mixture of theological reflection and brainstorming ideas. Being intent involving the Youth Group, I had many conversations with one of the Youth leader. My youth leader friend brought in Max Lucado's book "He Chose the Nails," which she said was speaking to her deeply. Now, I'm not a big Max Lucado fan. So it was a good exercise in humility, listening, and patience for me to take this book and my friend's reaction and see where it would fit in. In the end, the concept--not so much the flowery writing--had a real impact on the direction of the gathering.

Taking these conversations and ideas and synthesizing them into something for our church--this was still largely something I did on my own. About a week and a half before Good Friday, an idea crystallized--an activity that would bring all these musings together. It was a participatory hands-on, full of symbolism but not to abstract. It was kind of thrilling for everything to coalesce, but also a little nerve-wracking, since it meant I had to get everything together in a short time period.

That's when I began bringing in more people to help implement the different elements of the gathering. I asked Youth and Children's leaders to help create some of the visual materials (like a craft project). I organized a musical ensemble--some of them didn't normally play on Sunday mornings, and they agreed to play. For the group activity, I asked for volunteers a week ahead of time to read an overview of the activity and pick one group to lead, based on what resonated with them.

On Good Friday, I went over to the church and, with the help of a few of these friends, set up the space. We did band practice just before the gathering (that's the only time everyone was available), and I asked a few people to do some readings as they came in 10 minutes or so before the service.

The Pieces

Much of my own reflecting centered on how to understand the Cross in today's so-called "post-modern" culture. Judgment is so scorned today, the idea of God bringing punishment for sin upon Jesus might seem to caricature God as a taciturn Victorian headmaster. How would our youth be able to really connect to the story of the cross from a cultural context that says "don't ever judge?"

It seemed to me like the "Don't be Judgmental" mantra really resulted in a "Don't Care" mentality. I wrote this in my working notes:
Sin is what causes us to withdraw, to stop caring, to protect ourselves from getting hurt. But love, Real Love, does care. Real Love does get hurt, because the alternative is a comatose, existence, where nothing matters enough to be sad when it is destroyed. Jesus is God refusing to protect himself,
refusing to withdraw.

I thought how radical it is to die for something, and thought this gathering might be about exploring what Jesus died for, what his intent and purpose was. It was time to start announcing the service, so I put together the graphic at the top of this post for our Sunday announcements, bulletins and website

I read the gospel stories of Jesus' passion, trying to identify some way to organize the story, to find the structure of the narrative. I identified these ways Jesus suffered:
  • Afraid (sweating blood)
  • Alone (disciples sleeping, deserting him)
  • Betrayed (Judas, Peter)
  • Falsely Accused/Misjudged (Sanhedrin, Pilate)
  • Humiliated (beaten, mocked, rejected by his own)
  • Killed (torture and death)
I wrote this in my working notes:

"Christ is the example of how to redeem suffering. We share in his suffering because he sets the example for us: we follow in his footsteps at each point, confronting our fear, facing ridicule, dying (to self), so that we may participate in the redemption of the world."

In past creative elements I had designed, I found that many members of my church were reluctant to do or say anything in front of everyone, but are very open in smaller groups. I wanted to do some activity in small groups.

I made a list of possible songs, and one that I really set on was "At the foot of the cross" by Kathryn Scott (lyrics | music video). I found the language full of rich imagery: "where grace and suffering meet"..."trade these ashes in for beauty, and wear forgiveness like a crown." The idea of ashes for beauty got me thinking about how I might use real ash to make some kind of picture. The end of the chorus became my kind of mission for the service: "I lay every burden down at the foot of the cross." How, I thought, can we actively lay our burdens down? How can we let Jesus bear the weight of sin--all the things the break us and hold us back--as he really did?
I read two descriptions of a kind of group art project, where participants make one piece of a larger picture, often not knowing what the final picture will be. See Linda Sines' blog post on what she created. I did a lot of searching for images, using Google Image Search and Creativemyk, to name a couple. I found this artwork by artist Gregory Eanes using Google Image Search, and I really like the way it abstracted the crucifixion into four different elements. I also was struck by the painting by Emil Nolde shown on the right here.

Music was actually a challenge. I wanted to do my best not to pick a whole bunch of new songs. In the three weeks prior to Good Friday, we introduced "At the Foot of the Cross" (including it twice in those three weeks), but our standard repertoire had little offer in speaking of suffering, of living in the moment of sorrow, of confessing, hurt, shame, grief, anger, and rejection. (Eric Herron just surveyed the 25 most popular worship songs and found some of the same deficits)

One of my favorite hymns relating to Good Friday is "O Sacred Head." I know I'm not going to top Bach's classic chorale harmonization of this, but that kind of music--something I deeply love--just doesn't communicate well in our church, and even if we tried it, we couldn't do it justice. So instead, I wrote a new tune for "O Sacred Head," a kind of scots-irish-inspired folk tune.

Lastly, I checked with our sound/video expert to see if he would be willing to set up the space differently, so that the video would be projected away from the band, letting us in the band stay out of the field of view for people looking at the screen.

Part Two: The gathering as it happened.

Good Friday, Part 2: the Gathering

This is a description of our Good Friday Service. For background about the context, concept and process, see Part 1.

Layout
I set up the room differently, as sketched on the right. The normal setup is on the left, with the band spread across the stage in front. Besides having a communion table, I also set up four stations for the small-group activity: poster-size images for people to interact with (description of this activity is further down). Those stations are the thick lines in this sketch on the right.

Visual Environment
Our ambient lighting is fluorescent (yuck!), so those lights were off. I put together makeshift stand lighting for musicians and speakers (the podium for speakers was between the communion table and the screen). The four images were pinned to black screens, lit by a small reading lamp on the floor, (I removed the shade and taped a piece of paper around half of it, letting the light shine onto the screen).

The Gathering
Here is the "Order of Service." (Four people rotated through the different scripture readings.) We began with a song familiar to our church, Chris Tomlin's riff on When I Survey (The Wonderful Cross). After that, our pastor opened with a prayer, and I followed with a short introduction, encouraging people to listen, watch, and meditate.

To set the context related to the suffering of Jesus, we heard readings: Matthew 26:36-38, John 13:1, 1 John 3:16, and Isaiah 53:4-6, with visuals on screen.

Then I gave this reflection/invitation: "Jesus suffers for our sake; he takes on the suffering that we have caused, and endures the suffering that we endure. Why? Because of his great love for us. The Bible tells us that he went to the cross for us not because we are worthy of it, not because anyone else would say we are worth dying for. But Jesus does. Jesus’ life tells us that God thinks that our salvation is worth dying for.

Tonight, we will look at four ways that Jesus has born the burden of the sins of the world through his suffering. And then we will be invited to follow in his footsteps, laying our burdens on him as he carries them to the cross. Listen to the story..."

Following this, we heard selecting readings from the Gospels related to four ways Jesus experienced suffering: Betrayal (Matthew 26:37-40), Abandonment (Mark 14:66-72), Humiliation (Mark 14:65, 15:16-20) and Injustice (Luke 23:13-25)

Next, we sang "O Sacred Head" (to a new tune I wrote.)

Then I shared a brief reflection about what Jesus accomplishes on the cross for us, why suffering is the way Jesus shows his love, and how his suffering and death are an invitation to lay our burdens at his feet, so that we would not have to carry them.

Then I invited people to go to one of the stations, respond according to the instructions, and then come to the communion table. Here are what the four stations looked like.  Four volunteers from the congregation read short explanation of the station, and invited people to respond:

Betrayal - In the paper hands that are holding Jesus' arm on the cross on this poster, write the names (or initials) of friends (or relatives, or other people) who have betrayed, abandoned or failed you. Or, write the names of friends, family, or other relationships that you have hurt, betrayed, or abandoned.

Humiliation - Around the picture of the crown of thorns, write something that signifies your own humiliation. Perhaps it is the worst insult someone has ever called you, or the cruelest barb someone has thrown your way. Perhaps it is the most embarrassing moment you suffered. Or write something that signifies the worst name you have ever called someone, or a time when you tried to take someone's dignity from them. Jesus' death has paid the price for that guilt, too. Even if the exact words or situation are too personal to write down fully, try to think of initials, a single word, or a simple picture that would be make sense to you.

Injustice - On the sign above Jesus' head, the Romans wrote the accusation against him: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (In Latin, the first letters of each word spell "I.N.R.I."). On this poster of the sign, write the accusations and injustices you have carried with you. Perhaps they are instances you have been cheated or falsely accused. Perhaps they are injustices in the world you have witnessed or have grabbed your heart. Perhaps they are times when you have had the power to make things right, but have acted in your own interests and have not done so. Perhaps they are ways you have cheated others. Even if these things are too personal to write clearly, think of a single word, or of initials, that would represent this burden you carry.

Pain - Jesus sufferers pain and wounds; his body is broken for us, so that when we suffer in our bodies, we can know that he has endured this and that his love is greater. Take an index card and write about the pain, disease, and suffering that you or a loved one has endured. Take a push-pin and stick these somewhere on the image.


The above instructions are excerpts--each group leader was given a few paragraphs to read that summarize the way Jesus suffered, and each instruction ends with a reminder that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; these burdens we have carried can be put to death with him, so that we are freed from them.

After about 15 minutes of open ended time, as people began to take communion, we sang Kathryn Scott's song "At the foot of the cross." Then I wrapped it up with a few parting words. This was the only time I spoke off the cuff, but I said something like this:

"When the disciples left the cross that day, they were full of confusion, sadness, shock. And so we're going to leave tonight remembering that sorrow that Christ took on himself, and leave quietly. But we don't leave without hope. We know what Jesus' death means. Look around. Look at the burdens he has taken from us, that he has suffered for us on our behalf. You don't have to carry them any more. So Go in Peace."

I think what made this really special for me is that even though I had been planning this for months, and had scripted out almost all of it, I was still able to participate myself, to engage in these acts of worship on a very personal level, not just stand and observe or direct from a distance. Seeing people literally giving their burdens to Jesus was very moving.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Why nobody listens

There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Why is this not good news for anyone anymore? Why are we, at least in the Western Church losing generations?

Some of us are quick to point to moral relativism: nobody believes in Truth anymore, Right and Wrong are personal opinions, and the only people concerned about condemnation are those religious fanatics who would make themselves and the rest of us happier if they just stopped moralizing everything.

But very few people really believe in moral relativism. Anarchists, perhaps. But most of us do believe in right and wrong; most of us are outraged at evil, at corruption. What spurred the anger at AIG bonuses? What fueled the recent political protest against the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold the controversial Proposition 8? Why do courtroom dramas grab our attention? Why, in any movie or television series, do we savor the moment when the villian gets his comeuppance in the end? A sense of moral outrage.

So, in the context of all this outrage, why is the Church so laughably irrelevant to most people? Is it the scandal of Grace, where we offer forgiveness and love where everyone else demands blood? Where, against all other voices, we say "no offense is unpardonable?" Hardly. We're doing just fine demanding blood.

Instead, WE have become the outrage. The Guardian recently printed letters in reaction to another clergy abuse scandal. Line after line, the indictment of the Church's reaction to this, yet another scandal, shake with moral outrage. Outrage at the perpetrators of abuse, for certain. But more than that, outrage at the cover-up, the protection of the clergy at the expense of children, and outrage at a lack of "real contrition."

How can we witness to Grace, when we have committed the offense? Apparently, leaders in this case figure that "there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus" means "what I did wrong doesn't matter anymore to Jesus, so I shouldn't have to bother with real apologies to anyone else." This is a perversion, the complete opposite of what the presence of Grace means.

What Grace means is this: because of Jesus, we no longer have to protect our image. We protect our image because we fear condemnation, we fear what people will think of the church if they knew (we like to dress this notion up by talking about "preserving our witness"). But through Jesus, we encounter how fully and completely God loved us while we were still sinners and how he does not seek to condemn us, but to rescue us. If we truly believed that the love of God is eternal, unconditional, unwavering, and that that is enough--if we truly had surrendered our lives into his care--then we could admit to the worst of offenses without fear. There is no condemnation.

But we are still trying to prove ourselves. We are still trying to be Righteous. Don't we know that is impossible? Do we need yet another example of how Law leads to death? How long will we hang onto the impossible hope that we can justify ourselves?

Not that we would not grieve for the offense, or for the consequences, intended or otherwise. We know that since nothing can separate us from God's love, we can endure the worst humiliation, the most wretched rejection. God has already done this on our behalf (though in his case it was entirely unmerited).

So, because Christ has done the same for me, taken the condemnation on my behalf, I can say this: I am sorry. What we did and did not do was terrible, evil, and there is no excuse for it. I'm sorry for the abuse, for the cover-up, for the excuses, for the public shaming of abuse victims, for the incompetence and cruel indifference of church leaders. I am sorry for the spiritual abuse, the violation of a sacred and spiritual relationship, for the wounds we did not try to heal and the offenses we did not redress.

But I am one voice, and there are so many others in the Body of Christ that are quick to blame and slow to apologize, assign punishment and slow to accept penance. No wonder nobody listens to us. We do not really believe in Grace. Our actions say that we are not really forgiven, we are only under the Law, that there really is no good news. God help us.

What I'm talking about, apparently

Thanks to wordle.net.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part II

In Part 1, I described what narrative worship is, and where the process of designing narrative worship starts. Here I'm going to give you a practical example.

In September of 2007, I had the chance to lead worship for Santa Barbara Free Methodist Church. The text for the week was the parable of the lost sheep, and our pastor intended to ponder the question, "How lost is too lost?"

So I asked the worship team to ponder this question: what is it look and feel like when we are aware we are lost? We spent the week as a team sharing our experiences of wandering, reflecting on how God had come to find us when we had gone so far away. The story of the Prodigal Son seemed to fit many of our own experiences, to be a parallel to the text for the week. We thought about what it meant to be a long way off from God, to return.

We asked that, contrary to our usual practice, that people remain seated or kneel, to enact where we start when we return to God: kneeling in contrition, or sitting in refection

Then we began with a reading from the voices of the Prophets:
Leader 1: We all like sheep have gone astray...
Leader 2: ...people lost in the Darkness...
Leader 1: ...Everyone to our own way

1: Even now, Declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart
2: Rend your hearts, and not your garments
1: Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate

Leader 3: (Will you respond in this call to worship--) As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, my God
Congregation: Lord Jesus, our hearts can find no rest until they rest in you
And we began singing "Hungry, I come to you for I know you satisfy..." Our next song, Come ye Sinners, invited us to move from contrition to action, from the awareness of our need to the promise of God's sustenance. We did this by using the traditional minor-key hymn tune for the first two verses, and segued to the major-key version written by Robbie Seay. During the segue, we read this text, from Psalm 51:

Generous in love—God, give grace!
You have all the facts before you;
whatever you decide about me is fair.
I've been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
Going through the motions doesn't please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don't
for a moment escape God's notice.
What you're after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

And as we sang the chorus/refrain after the third verse ("I will arise and go to Jesus...") we invited people to stand. We finished with Chris Tomlin's Holy is the Lord ("We stand and lift up our hands...") and Your Grace is Enough. Musically, these songs move from mellow and reflective to driving and jubilant. Lyrically, we sequence the songs to match our bodily posture, going from sitting or on our knees in confession to standing and lifting our hands at the celebration of God's all-sufficient grace.

There are all sorts of ways to bring narrative structure to a worship gathering. As in the example above, you can consider the content of the message and build a narrative around that. A number of weeks ago, I structured our whole Sunday morning gathering using Psalm 40 as a template (and singing the U2 song of the same name as an opener and closer). For our church's recent Good Friday service, I used the classic Seven Last Words of Christ in a tenebrae service, darkening the room with each reading. The point is to listen to the story before you, structuring your story around that.

One more thing to consider: the more willing you are to treat the liturgy as a living tradition and not a script set in stone, the more freedom you have to arrange and re-invent elements for the gathering, and the more vital I believe your storytelling can be. If you don't follow a formal liturgy, you miss the benefit of being formed by the work of generations of saints before you, of the larger communion of the body of Christ. Worship is then only what you invent yourself. (See Jodi-Renee Adam's recent post for more thoughts about this.) Other other hand, if the liturgy becomes a formula, a law, then you miss the reason it came into being in the first place: to structure worship gatherings in a way that forms us into the story of God. To re-use a phrase of Jesus: the liturgy was made for man, not man for liturgy.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part 1

Thanks to Josh Linman from CreativeWorshipTour.com for suggesting this topic. Part 1, here, will give some of the background on what narrative worship is (and what it isn't), and where we have to start when approaching worship as narrative.

As worship designers, we try to think about putting all the elements of a gathering together so that they fit. Every church does this at the most rudimentary level when they sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" on Easter Morning. Most churches will not end the service with a "gathering" song, nor begin their church service with a "sending" song. The content of our music--and by extension, the rest of what we do in worship--should exhibit some internal coherence within the service and some external coherence with the season or occasion.

But what happens if we are more intentional about the internal and external coherence of our worship design? This is something we value and appreciate from the pulpit: most pastors will seek to organize their sermons well, perhaps outlining three interpretive points and turning to application at the end (internal coherence). And most embark on sermon series, either topical or exegetical, or alternatively follow a lectionary that reflects the Christian calendar (external coherence). So why would we not think to do this in all elements of our worship gathering?

When I am planning worship, I find it most helpful to think as the gathering (the service) as a narrative, a story to be told. When I lead a creative team, my question is, "What story are we telling?" Storytelling, after all, is how God communicates with us in Scripture, how Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear. Next, I often consider three more detailed questions: "What story are we telling," I follow by asking "where do we start?" "where do we need to be in order to hear the message of the sermon?" and "if we hear that message, what would our response be?" (This is assuming, of course, that there will be a sermon. In our recent Good Friday gathering, we did not have a sermon per se, but a series of texts and reflections.)

This is more than just finding songs to fit a theme, though that is an important step. It is about orienting songs, words, and actions toward a focal point in the gathering, and orienting our gatherings toward a focal point in the season or series. It is structuring our worship with spiritual awareness and purpose.

Designing narrative worship also must be a process of submission, like any creative process. Madeleine L'Engle talks about this creative process in Walking on Water:

If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the work of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about....When the artist is truly the servant of the work, then the work is greater than the artist....When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer....We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

So it is with designing narrative worship. We must learn to listen to the particular story that God would have us tell. Unfortunately, we don't often do a good job of listening at a church. One church I'm familiar with always starts with a fast song, and gradually gets slower. To them, you have to start a service with something flashy, exciting. And fast = flashy and exciting. And then to be ready to hear the message, you need something reflective, emotional, introspective; and this, to them, obviously calls for a slow tempo. This rigidity doesn't lend itself to a narrative aesthetic, or rather, it lends itself to only one narrative. And Jesus didn't tell only one parable. The Bible doesn't only one gospel, it has four.

Another example: I remember hearing an organist who always did some sort of modulatory interlude between the third and fourth verses of the hymn, raising the key a half-step, and pulling out all the stops. When we get to the fourth verse of "Crown Him with many Crowns," and we sing "Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways/ From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise," we don't want to sing this like a Sousa March. If we listen to the story of this hymn, we will hear that the reign of Christ culminates when the lion lays down with the lamb. And our music should reflect this.

Narrative worship can only happen if we learn to listen, to pay attention not just to the moral of the story, but the contour and structure of the story as well.

Where does this story start? Dispair? Complacency? Thankfulness? Anger?

How do we get from that start, to the place where we can hear God's word to us today? Where we are open to the possibility of something transformative? Does it require confession? Brainstorming? Silence? Movement?

And what is different now that we have heard? What has Christ made new? What captives has he freed, what mission is he sending us on?