The Clear, Though Far Off Hymn

The Universe keeps singing to me.

I read my morning news and I listen to NPR and every conversation I have with friends seems to be about the state of the nation: how it is becoming ever more clearly a nation of the State. Women’s bodies and women’s lives are being neatly ranked and positioned by men in suits who probably rarely even share breakfast, much less conversation, with their wives. Large scale construction companies literally hire mercenaries to protect projects which have no comprehensible benefit beyond profit for the bosses, while city and state governments make free to poison their citizens’ water with no discernible consequence. If you are poor, sick, psychologically struggling or in domestic relationships which are not on the approved list, the institutions which govern your life are finally ready to tell you exactly what they think of you-which apparently, is not much. Racism is in such vogue, people are starting to develop their own faddish names for it while slyly suggesting it doesn’t exist.

But then,

I look outside and the sun is glinting off the black fur of our great big bear. It is gleaming in the dappled, camouflage coat of our anxious, eager little cattle dog. They are in such transports of joy watching a squirrel leap back and forth between the trees.

The kite we hung on the bannister is pulling at her bridle as white colts of cirrus frolic across the sky.

Tree buds have opened an unexpected raspberry color, and the contrast between flower and bark is every bit as spectacular as Snow White’s mother could have wished.

Dawn light and Spring birds shimmer against Iowa’s backdrop of Winter grey.

The air smells like dirt. The dogs come in and they smell like newness and rain. Despite all evidence of climate change and impending ecological doom, the Universe is pealing a concinnity of tones themed “Let there be life!”

And then I remember my friend whose cancer killed her right around this time last year. I recall how little there is to make of political drama when you are dying. How little even a parent’s approval can matter when set out against the unrelenting knowledge that for some things, there simply isn’t any cure.

It feels like holy work to pay attention to these sounds. Yet it feels like a sort of betrayal to turn a deaf ear to the human opera playing out around me. I have been guilty before of choosing a doorless tower to defend over the chancy foray into the mud of human relationships. I don’t want to make that same mistake of confusing retreat with victory; of imagining humanness as a war against the very mortal fragility that makes us everything we ever are.

I suppose it is that “either/or” thinking which gets me in trouble in the first place; that way of organizing perceptions that fails to synthesize body and Spirit as soul; that sees change and loss and death as enemies to hate; that imagines integrity as more rigid and unchanging than its ofttimes arbitrary lines in the sand.

Maybe it is that-a framework of choices that can only be “either/or”-that fails to understand what the Universe is offering: not a weapon for a battle to be fought or a warning for a loss to avoid, but a chord to which I can tune, and a motive I can sing. Perhaps that is why Its hymn is buffeting so strongly against my ears. It reminds me that in music dissonance is often necessary to harmony. The opposition of voice against voice is only important because of the way their movement is entwined. There are moments where the silence is louder than the sound.

Maybe, all the Universe wants is for me to resonate its theme, so that, even the midst of so much discordant clashing, the heart can hear the sound God first sang: “Let there be Life!”

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Salvaged Worship

A friend of mine keeps a blog called Salvaged Faith.  At the top of the page, there is a definition of the word salvaged which reads: “to save discarded or damaged material for future use.” Are you a salvager? Do you use and reuse items? Have you ever turned broken plates  into a countertop mosaic or do you stockpile twisty ties and rubber bands?  

An issue facing many local churches is an inability to find singers for the choir, an organist for the organ or even a pianist to play hymns. I was recently asked by a church leader what a church can do to fix this problem. Despite the availability of hymns on cd, there is still a serious sense that energy, vitality, life, and worship falter when there are no musicians in the congregation.

Assuming that there are reasons why a congregation cannot simply go out and purchase the services of qualified musicians, (which is an option some churches employ), I suggest using a salvage approach. This is more than a “make-do” approach.  It is more than “waiting for Superman.” What I mean is to actively scavenge for used approaches that can be re-purposed, and to actively rescue discarded practices from the landfill of time.

Organs, pianos, and singers with a degree from Oberlin are not necessary for the people of God to worship God. I think we can get too much into a re-creation mode in worship and not enough into a creation mode in worship. Early American churches completely disdained the use of instruments in worship, relying solely on the singing of the gathered worshipers (congregational singing), and this amongst groups of  people who would not have been able to read words, much less musical notation.

Singing is a native activity. It makes use of bodies, our free gift from God. Just because many of us have forgotten how, almost all human beings are born with an innate sense of pitch and tone. We can learn melodies quite well, and the more we hear and use them, the easier they are. Check out Nadia Bolz-Weber’s article on congregational singing at Patheos.com: People Will Actually Sing If You Let Them 

Practically, I think this means that if you have a church which does not have strong music leadership, it may be time to get back into basic singing-focusing the entire community on learning 4 or 5 tunes really well and adapting lyrics to those tunes, rather than trying to cover 60% of the hymnal in a year.

And singing is not the only way people can make music to God. Poetry, sacred movement, tambourines and feet can all express music. This means truly reinventing worship to be a creative expression of praise to the Creator. If that involves a percussion ensemble improvising on home-made drums, walk away from a church organ. You can refurbish, redistribute, or relocate it to the Glory of God. I recently heard that someone was able to “part out” an old piano and made more money than they could have received by selling it outright.

How do people in the mountains of Guatemala worship?  How do people worship in churches without pews, walls, pulpits, and lecterns?  Because people do worship in  a number of ways.  They do worship on landfills, in open fields, at parishioners’ homes and through the grates between prison cells.  When resources are lacking, people come up with creative, innovative and startling solutions.

My advice, if your church is facing a lack of music leadership, is not to seek a pastor who can sing, or even necessarily to invite an organist from another town to pre-record hymns on your church organ.  Instead, reclaim the talents and skills of your own community to make something new out of the materials at hand.

The Shadow and Its Flame

After two days recovering from a post-Thanksgiving meltdown, I feel compelled to offer this:

If you are feeling as though the work you have done to foster the Light is failing, open up your calendar. Look at your plans for this week and steal 2 hours from yourself. With your 2 stolen hours, find a water cooler or a firepit; find a window corner in a bookstore or coffee shop; find a lakeshore or a park bench along a bluff. Plant yourself there. Just show up. Resist the urge to open your phone.

Refuse to be a helper. Be a person instead. Be interested and worried and angry and unsure. Decide not to have a single answer, nor to share a single opinion. If you can convince other people to join you there, great, but if you can’t, don’t worry. Simply show up. If you have to be busy, write a letter to yourself or to a loved one or to that one high school buddy who always made you laugh.

Next, somewhere in that 2 hours, try to find compassion for the Shadow. It is a weak and a twisted thing. It is actually as isolated and alone as you may feel. The Shadow is a howl in nothingness, chewing on its own shackled self in desperation and in fear. It only thinks it is real, and its realness is only as substantial as the deference we choose to give to its forms. If you can, find it in yourself to feel real sorrow for the Shadow and its reflection flickering through so much of the life in this world.

Chances are, 2 hours won’t last long enough for you to find that sorrow. And maybe right now is not the time to find that sorrow. In fact, maybe right now you feel so low and heavy and lost and defeated that all you want from your stolen 2 hours is to be buried in it until Spring. If this is the case, then I offer you this instead:

Take heart. There is only a Shadow because you are shining a Light. Maybe your Light isn’t enough to fill every pit and crater, every sudden sinkhole of despair, but so what? It is still pouring out, even in fits and dribbles, into some of them. It is, if nothing else, creating a soft and simple pool into which any lost soul can pause and look, or dip and drink.

And what better work have we ever been about than this?

 

The Distance Between There and Here

There is a long, long road between noticing there is a problem and actually doing something about it. What’s more, there are a lot of stoplights, potholes, and rest areas between one end of the journey and the other. Still, on that road, when stopped for the umpteenth time, sometimes I just don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

The 2014 Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted resolution 9339 Combating Racism and Sexism. The full text of this resolution can be found here: 2015 Iowa Conference Book of Resolutions, but the meat and potatoes of the resolution are as follows:

“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the churches of the Iowa Annual Conference take the call to repent of racism and sexism seriously by holding quadrennial seminars or workshops on Racism and Sexism in which all pastors and District and Conference staff are required, and church members are strongly encouraged to participate.”

So I was excited to be asked to train as a facilitator for the Healthy Boundaries training which the Iowa Annual Conference requires for all clergy persons. Like many large organizations, the United Methodist Church carries insurance which includes requirements to train staff on sexual ethics, professional boundaries, and power dynamics.

The presenter was Dr. Miguel De La Torre. Dr. De La Torre is a Biblical ethicist whose “academic pursuit has been ethics within contemporary U.S. thought, specifically how religion affects race, class, and gender oppression.”(*) Dr. De La Torre gave the workshop using his book Liberating Sexuality: Justice Between the Sheets. It was a day of lecture and small group discussion which was filmed with the intent that each District of the Conference would use it for the Healthy Boundaries training.

To my surprise, about a month after the class, I received an email letter telling me that my services as a volunteer facilitator won’t be needed. The reason given: The Ministerial Ethics Committee is going to “refocus the curriculum and method of presentation.”

According to the letter, while expressing appreciation for Dr. De La Torre’s training

as it related to sexism and racism. There was also the shared belief that the content did not focus directly on the purpose of our mandatory training: maintaining healthy boundaries, promoting appropriate self-care, and understanding power dynamics. These are important as we seek to promote safe and healthy congregations.”

It is crazy-making that education about sexism and racism are erased from the Committee’s consideration of how to promote safe and healthy congregations! I believe it is that very erasure which led the Conference to pass Combating Racism and Sexism in the first place.

The unequal share of power given to professionals in positions of trust such as pastors is the reason that boundary trainings are implemented in the first place. That power difference between pastors and members of their congregations or between pastors and members of their staff are the same “power dynamics” that form the roadbed beneath expressions of sexism and racism in our society.

Now, if our shared goal is merely to fulfill a requirement to lower insurance premiums, let’s just film a 10 minute training module and put it up on the Conference website and log the views.

If, however, the shared trouble we mean to address-the continued misuse of power by ministry professionals-is understood to be an outgrowth of sexism and racism, it is irresponsible to sideline Dr. De La Torre’s training which dealt directly with the links between sexism and abuses of power; the links between racism and abuses of power; the links between unquestioned religious teaching and abuses of power.

Even though I understand it is merely a stop on the road to a time when all relationships are lived out with equality and respect, this unplanned detour disappoints me deeply. As troubling and difficult as explicit talk about sexism and racism can be, the continued toll actual sexism and racism takes on women and communities of color is a scandalous corruption of the Good News so many of us claim to share.

Of Hypocrites and Judges

Bill Maher makes a good case for the idea that Christians are judgmental hypocrites. I know it is a good case because so many people use it as the basis for their relationship to the church. It is the reason many people I know who used to go to church don’t anymore. The argument is plastered between the lines of Pew Research Polls, and even ordained Elders in the United Methodist Church find themselves on the ropes defending congregations whose attitudes towards the poor, the disreputable, and the criminal better line up with the attitudes of the Economy than they do with Paul (Romans 2).

On the one hand we Christians publicly denounce Muslims such as Malala Yousafzai and Eboo Patel as violent people who adhere to a violent religion, while on the other we are more supportive of torture as a tool of national security than non-religious people. We proclaim an ethic of life while supporting church policies that shame people into closets, prisons, and suicide because we can’t wrap our prudish minds around intimacies that are not our own.

Hypocrisy really is not too difficult to prove.

But what about the judgmental part?

Over the course of our history, The United Methodist Church has made headlines while wrangling whether we are guilty of heterosexism or guilty of failing to sanctify sexual sin. We have held trials, requested declaratory rulings from our Judicial Council, and processed a variety of complaints in attempts at what we call “just resolutions.” People in these processes are accompanied by counsel and, in the case of trials, there are even juries and rulings by precedent. While members of the church swing widely between those who want to see church law evenly applied and upheld and those who believe some laws are unjust and must be confronted with civil disobedience, the whole of the church seems to believe deeply in the rule of law.

Our whole method of accountability is built on judgment.

The Rev. Anna Blaedel here in Iowa is undergoing just such a process of official judgment. A few months ago, some people here in Iowa decided they had to “complain” about Reverend Blaedel, and our Bishop, Julius Trimble, decided that complaint had merit. I presume the complaint was made and received because there are a couple of sentences in our book of church law that say Anna Blaedel, an out, partnered, queer clergyperson, is incapable of bearing fruit, of shining Christ, of discipling others, or of being entrusted to care for the souls of those people the denomination appoints under their charge.

Which is all well in good, except that those statements are demonstrably false. Whether or not our book says they can, I have witnessed Anna Blaedel balming broken souls. Whether or not our book says they can, I have witnessed Anna Blaedel’s teaching inspire others to commit to a life in Christ. Whether or not our book says they can, I have experienced the passage of Grace through Anna Blaedel’s hands into my own flagging spirit and faith.

The Reverend Anna Blaedel is one of those rare, shining souls whose very presence breathes peace and wholeness. They live a life of faithful dedication and unwavering discipline. They exude Holy Spirit. I knew Anna by name before I ever met them. I knew they were brave, kind, compassionate, authentic, deliberate and special simply by the ripples they left in their wake; from their parents, from my husband, from the children at Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, from members of the Osage First United Methodist Church. Over and over and over again, Anna is described as a “beautiful” soul, and that soul ignites and rekindles faith, hope, love, joy, compassion, peacefulness, patience, generosity and kindness in others.

What is that if not fruit? What is that if not ministry? What is that if not a God-given Gift, and what does it mean that the United Methodist Church wants to cast that Giftedness out of its circles?

Bill Maher would say it means we are judgmental hypocrites.

But you know what? Finally, I don’t think it is that we are judgmental, even if we are hypocrites. I think it is that we fear Judgment. People who are filled with faith and the Holy Spirit shine on us, and in that shining, our own meannesses and cruelties become visible. What we thought was our loving is shown to be conditional contracts where we exchange power and control. What we thought was our generosity is shown to be mere grudging pity. What we thought was our hopefulness is a thin veneer of sentiment layered over fear.

It is their shining that exposes our nakedness and it is our own flawed relationship with Christ that has us cowering in fear. John said it,

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (NASB)

And later,

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (NIV)

In many ways, the whole of John’s Gospel spins the story of how desperate people are to escape that Light, to stay out of its beam. So desperate they took their hammers and nails and saws and baseball bats to tear it down and smash it to bits. What makes us think we are any different than those people in John’s Gospel? What makes us think we are immune to the fear? That we are ready and able and happy to stand in Christ’s Shining?

I don’t think it is in judgment that we are casting out our Anna Blaedels. I do not think we are even doing it because we actually deem them unworthy. I think we are casting them out because we deem ourselves unworthy. We do not hate them because we see some kind of darkness in their living. We hate them because we cast shadows in their light.

A Public Ritual

Friends, what a week! What a month. Puh! Who am I kidding? What a year!

I don’t need to list all the events that are weighing me down. It is sufficient to note that President Obama has ordered national flags be flown at half-mast more times than any other President in history. If you factor in the number of times governors have ordered flags be lowered, we have been in official, public mourning for 328 of the past 365 days. (Slate)

I don’t know about you, but I am tired. My soul is weary and my heart is saturated. Angry left town a long time ago. I don’t feel like my life has prepared me for what time, tide, and history are washing up on this shore. My small town upbringing and white bread life haven’t built the kinds of knowledge I need to salvage even a single treasure from the wreckage.

As I scroll a newsfeed full of compassionate faith professionals and all they truly say is “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer,” I get the impression that they, like me, are waving their arms as they pace the living room wondering what they can do. Meanwhile, the religious power mongers flood the public discourse with distrust, apocalypse, despair, and fear. Is it any wonder that The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television?

As I sit and watch another movie where God fails to show up and the religious leader’s response to horror, tragedy and evil is to lose his* mind and point a finger, I see American culture reflecting back to those of us in helping professions, in the humanities, in religious communities, not contempt, but a plea: “Help us! Help us respond! Help us recover! Help us feel better! Help us fix this!”

We United Methodists have a ritual we do for Communion. In that ritual, the group shares a confession of sin. I used to hate this time in worship. I felt like it was coercing me to say that I had done things I had not. I thought it was a way for the holier-than-thou jackass in the pulpit to feel big by making us people in the pews feel like we were somehow small, petty, dirty criminals. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that the world is the kind of place that makes too many of us small, petty, dirty criminals. That confession time is not about me and my individual meanness. It is about how those meannesses added together with his and hers and theirs and yours somehow become the crimes that bury us.

In that ritual, there is also an assurance of pardon. That is the moment where the officiant reminds us that God has already seen and endured the worst things our tortured imaginations can conjure; not just the horrors of our daily headlines, but the whole of human history and cosmic story, forwards and backwards until the end of time. We are reminded that in the face of all that, God has let go of pride, power, grudge, weapons, and righteousness and offered us peace if we choose to take it.

After the assurance, we are invited to share that peace with those around us. In the truest sense, this is the moment where and when we are supposed to seek out the people who have harmed us and those we have harmed. If we are not right with one another, this is the time when we are supposed to let go of pride, power, grudge, weapons, and righteousness to extend a sign of peace.

If that peace is accepted, then we are ready to sit together and the whole relationship is consummated in a meal.

Isn’t that a beautiful ritual? Isn’t that a beautiful dream? Isn’t that the kind of thing a grieving and aching and angry and hopeless people need? An opportunity to put all the hurting they’ve witnessed and perpetrated and experienced out on the table, and simply own their own part in the misery-making? To have that stuff witnessed and then loved into oblivion? To then turn to one another and transact forgiveness-to negotiate with the other what it will take to make things right between them? To sit down in peace and share a meal?

I wonder, what would it mean to offer such a ritual in some kind of public way; in some kind of shared artwork way; side by side with the rituals of peacemaking and love that other traditions and other specializations provide? What might it look like? Who might be involved? Where would it happen? Who would come?

And then I worry that something like that isn’t possible. I worry that it’s a stupid idea and that it couldn’t possibly work. I start thinking about insurance and the separation of church and state and offending my atheist colleagues and friends. And then I look around and listen close, and I feel my heart heaving in my chest and I ask myself, “Really, what would it cost to try?”

* I use the male pronoun not as a default but because I cannot remember the last time I saw a religious leader in a movie portrayed by a woman.

Talk About It

When was the last time you had a conversation with your worship planning group about the theology of worship? Each Christian denomination is built around cohesive ideas about the nature and name of God. There are significant differences in rituals, worship language, and the shape of worship from church to church. There are also the personal theological ideas and beliefs which each one of us bring.
When we plan worship on autopilot, we can sometimes neglect the smaller details which highlight the unique differences between our denomination and the religious practices of Christian neighbors up the road. Yet, it is these differences, sometimes subtle, which help define a Christian culture. Deep dialogue about the history, practice and meaning of the various movements of worship is a simple way to revive worship.  It will turn everyone’s attention to the significance and potential power of everything from a unison prayer to the order of songs within the service. Take some time, and talk about it.