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 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 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, 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., 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.

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.