Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why have you forsaken me? A Liturgy of Doubt, Good Friday

Inspired by the Liturgists "Garden" sequence,  I developed this service for Good Friday in 2015, for Elk Grove UMC. Since our Easter Sunrise service is a joint effort with Point Pleasant UMC, I proposed that we join forces on Good Friday.

Side note: collaboration is itself a worthy goal in worship planning.  It fights insularity, practices hospitality and humility, opens the door to creativity through exposure to new ideas.  I say this because unless you explicitly value and work toward collaboration and cooperation, it's almost always easier to just do things yourself.

"Garden" is actually an Easter sequence, but it explores doubt as an expression of Good Friday.  Like a cinematic story split into multiple films, the Good Friday service was "Part 1," and would focus on doubt.  My overarching goal was that this service would be a safe space to express and vocalize doubt.

This was so counter-intuitive for me, as a practiced arguer and apologist.  I have spent much time and study exploring and articulating reasons for faith.  I had to live with my own discomfort, at times, of  planning something that did not give answers and indeed invited questioning.  And it took some digging, for sure, to find materials to use, since churches are nearly always trying to nurture and encourage belief, rather than undermine it.  But I kept asking myself this question: would an atheist or skeptic feel welcome here?  Would this engage the "nones" or the "dones?"

Here is the order of Service:

Opening Prayer
Tonight, we are going to walk through the story of Jesus’s last hours before his death, and in doing this, explore the ways in which the God we thought we knew has died.  Some of you are walking through this right now, and you are welcomed as you are and where you are.  Tonight is not about answering questions, but holding them, hearing them, and honoring them.  For some of you, tonight you will remember a time in your journey like this.  Some of you are here to walk with us, to support us in our search, to be in solidarity.

As you came in, you should have gotten a card that looks like this, with three prompts for reflection.  At various points in the service tonight, we will invite you to respond and give you some time.  And at the end, we’re going to have an open space to respond with them.  

To begin, please join me in the opening prayer.

Opening Prayer: 

Readers Theatre- Gethsemane

Card Reflection
As you came in, you were given a card with three opportunities to respond.  Now is the time for you to consider the first question: Who have you stood with as they questioned God?  Who needs or needed you to “keep watch,” so to speak, in their time of spiritual darkness?


Readers Theatre – Arrest and Interrogation 

Card Reflection 
Now again you have a chance to reflect and respond on your note card.  In the story we just heard, Jesus gets asked many questions, but doesn’t answer many of them.   So it is with us, as well.  What questions have you asked, but not found an answer to?


Readers Theatre – Sentencing and Crucifixion 

Card Reflection 
Many of the words of the song we’re going to sing now are taken from the Journals of Mother Teresa.  As we sing, you’re invited to respond to the third question on your card.

Readers Theatre – Death and Betrayal

“Saturday” (turned into a dramatic reading with multiple readers)

Open Space
Now we come to an open space, where you can reflect and respond in a number of ways.  We hold our questions and our doubts as sacred.  They are yours and, because we are all together in this, they are ours.  

You can come and attach your card to the cross.  This can be a way of leaving the unanswered questions to God, for God to receive and wrestle with. They can be a form of protest, like when the reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses of things he opposed in the Roman church, to the church door in Wittenburg.  If you don’t want others to read them, you may fold it shut, and noboby will read them, ever.  

But I also encourage you to consider leaving the questions visible.  In our communities, questions are not frowned upon or seen as a deficiency of virtue or character or faith.

And more than that, we want to give voice to these questions. No doubt, Jesus’ disciples left the events of that Friday with a million unanswered questions.  So before you attach your card to the cross, put it in a basket next to one of our readers.  They will read your question or response aloud, for all of us to ponder, to ask with you, to hold and keep watch.  You can take your card after they are done or leave it there.

The third way I invite you to respond is to go to one of the tables and fill a sachet, a little pouch, with burial spices, to carry with you.    

At the end of this time, if you will find your seat again, we’ll close with a responsive reading of a Psalm.

Instrumental Music – Were you there? 

Special Music – "On the Willows" from Godspell

Responsive Reading: Psalm 137 
Liturgist:  Psalm 137 is a Lament from when Isrealites had been exiled to ancient Babylon, away from their religious identity in the land they believed was promised to their patriarchs.  Zion represents their political and religious hopes and identity, and to sing a song .  Please sing with us the words of the refrain in italics.  

By the rivers of Babylon,
    we sat and wept
    when we thought of Zion, our home, so far away.

How can we sing
Sing the Lord’s Song
In a foreign land?

On the branches of the willow trees,
    we hung our harps and hid our hearts from the enemy.

How can we sing
Sing the Lord’s Song
In a foreign land?

And those that surrounded us
    made demands that we clap our hands and sing—
Songs of joy from days gone by,
    songs from Zion, our home.

How can we sing
Sing the Lord’s Song
In a foreign land?

So cruelly they taunted us—haunted our memories.
How could we sing a song about the Eternal
    in a land so foreign, while still tormented, brokenhearted, homesick?
    Please don’t make us sing this song.

How can we sing
Sing the Lord’s Song
In a foreign land?

O Jerusalem, even still, don’t escape my memory.
    I treasure you and your songs, even as I hide my harp from the enemy.
And if I can’t remember,
    may I never sing a song again—
    may my hands never play well again—
For what use would it be if I don’t remember Jerusalem
    as my source of joy?

How can we sing
Sing the Lord’s Song
In a foreign land?

Sending Forth

Sunday, January 11, 2015

There is no perfect church

I am now attending the (counting them up) 10th church of my life, and the first 20 years of my life were spent in the same one.  That means since becoming an adult*, I've moved around to a lot of churches.

*I'm not sure there's a point at which you "become" and adult.  Maturity seems like a continuous path, and it's only later you realize, "hey, that thing I did and those things I thought were kinda immature."  But I'm still not sure I'm an adult. Maybe 40 will feel like there's really no debate about it anymore.

The reasons for moving to different churches have mostly been geographic or professional, though not always.  The reasons for leaving are for another post.  All this is to say is that I've been at my current church for a little more than a year now and, for the second time, I'm officially the music director at a church.  I came to this church because they offered me a job, and I thought I could do it and enjoy doing it.  And so far, both have proven true.

There are churches that have major problems, huge structural deficiencies, like where people serve in the very places their broken parts have the most exposure and impact.  Those places can be toxic.  On the other hand, there are churches that get many things right, but have annoyingly persistent shortfalls.  Moreover, churches go through seasons of plenty and want, and I don't believe any church is doomed to stay toxic or guaranteed perpetual health. And--as if I needed another qualifying statement--I'm not omniscient:  what is a glaring error in my eyes may be a non-issue to another person.

I am more convinced than ever that it's very tempting, but very destructive, to make one's congregation an idol. This is tough to sort out, since I believe the God we know through Jesus is now made known in his body--His followers who gather and proclaim and practice God's reign on earth.  So God is known through and worshiped in community.  But the community is not God.

(The same can be said for many things--God can be found in nature, but nature is not God.)

I came into my current position as a professional, recruited to do a job--lead the music at the church.  I can do that competently, and have been able to improve the level of musicianship and expand the palette of songwriters from which we draw.  But the community is not radically different from when I started, and I don't have ambitions to change it.

I spoke with someone today who knows me well and knows the community, and clearly yearns for a different kind of worship--one that is more emotionally honest, even raw, one that is more personally reverent, one that, musically speaking, ranges both toward more aggressive and more tender styles.

I accept that our music is more cerebral than visceral, more playful (even goofy, at times) than reverent, more folksy than hip.  That is how this community worshiped before I came to it, and to minister to this community means to do the best worship in that spirit.

There are practical reasons why we do the songs we do, and play them in the style we do--we have progressive theological commitments and a limited talent pool.  We want everyone to join in singing, and so the songs we know can't be swapped out wholesale for unfamiliar ones.  And unlike when previously I have filled in for someone, or have created one special service with months to plan, I don't have the creative energy to craft music and liturgies from scratch.

And yet, there is a deeper reason why I do not push for radical change: I do not yearn for a different talent pool or a different theology for this community.  It is imperfect, but I am not here to make it perfect.  I am here to make music in this context, for this week, with these people.  My influence is real, but it is finite.