Sunday, February 22, 2015

Improvising

This past fall, I spent time with colleagues in ministry exploring facets of leadership in a program called Foundations of Christian Leadership, hosted by Duke Divinity School. One of the leadership skills we explored was improvisation. At the time, the exercises seemed a little out of place -- at the very least uncomfortable or beyond my natural skill set -- but I find mysel returning to this idea of improvisation again and again, particularly as it relates to worship, and specifically the work of leading worship.

This past Sunday, worship had all the components of complication: first Sunday in Lent, disrupted worship schedule due to snow, lots of visitors and extra worship participants, last minute arrivals and complicated hymnal flipping liturgy. Oh, and baptisms and confirmation. Head spinning stuff. Truly. For a while we feared we would have to toss in the imposition of ashes too, but the weather cooperated and we side-stepped that.

Worship at its most authentic is spirit-led... Sure, It has choreography and order, but we invite the unpredictable Spirit into our offering of adoration and praise to a wily, creative and whimsical God. Yes, there is a timeline and everyone needs to have a sense of where we are headed. The bulletin has to be completed days in advance and liturgists and other participants must be apprised of their roles. But space for the Spirit necessarily opens us up to different movement, keeps us on our toes, makes space for the unexpected divine.

It is hard to let go of a very human need for order and control. I would suggest that most modern churches came to be out of some drive to contain and not free the Spirit. So there is work to be done.

Here are investments and awarenesses that I am experiencing that make improvisation possible and effective from the chancel. 

Leadership needs to be grounded in the Word and in solid theology - especially theology of worship. Worship is the work of the people to honor God. Why do we do certain things? What must happen? What scripture informs and shapes worship in this community and how do we revisit this in our planning and our decision making? How is our worship shaped by our denominational tradition? Our local tradition? This wisdom is not confined to seminary trained and ordination anointed...it is a gift we have to all share. The more people aware, the deeper our community reach becomes in worship. The more who know, the more that will be able to be fully present to the work of worship.

There needs to be a deep trust in the other participants and within the gathered body. Think about the trust that needs built with the music director, the choir, the liturgists, the acolytes. Everybody needs to be able to trust that when the Spirit moves, we can stay true to the Spirit and back one another up. Sometimes watching my pastor lead worship is like watching people play frisbee. When it leaves the pasto's hand, he trusts someone will catch that flying disc. And we all have to be able to trust the next move. And the next. Think of how this grows and builds in a worshipping community...and of the diligent and intentional investment that makes this happen. Sone days it is like watching grass grow, but over time, what a lush lawn it could be!

Then we have to be risk-tolerant. Yes, I know that is not "the way we do" (communion, prayers of the people, passing of the peace, the offering, the procession, the benediction--you fill in he blank), but here's where the Spirit has taken us and we are still moving through this ing called worship. Will you trust me? Will you follow along?

In the hymn "The Summons" (TFWS 2130) we sing:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same? 
Will you let my love be shown, 
Will you let my name be known, 
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

In some ways, our willingness to invite the Spirit of the living God into our act of worship demands we answer this summons with a resounding YES!

The result means there is some unknown element, maybe a little chaos, lots of hard work...that shapes us, individually and communally, into something beautiful if we let it.

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

It is all about the relationship.

This week, these were the words that gave me pause:

Please don't let me be put to shame! 
Don't let my enemies rejoice over me! 
3For that matter, 
don't let anyone who hopes in you be put to shame; 
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame. 
(from Psalm 25)

From the rainbow set in the sky with a promise to never destroy humanity again to the revelation that Jesus is God's beloved son able to resist temptation in the wilderness, to the claim in 1 Peter that baptism is less a washing away of sins than an appeal to God for a conscience....it is about our relationship as humans with a powerful and sometimes intangible God. The psalmist pleads on behalf of anyone who hopes in God. Perfection is not the requirement. Righteousness as understood in second temple Judaism is not the requirement. 

A relationship with the living God is what is required. A real effort. An awareness of what God wants, expects...

Micah had it straight then, yes? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Jesus's command is not far from that - love God, love your neighbor.

At this early point in the Lenten journey, I know that my work is the work described by John Wesley as three general rules:
1) Do no harm.
2) do all the good you can.
3) Stay in love with God.

Staying in love is hard work. It is covenant work. It is give and take, struggle, experience, experimentation, regrouping, repenting, returning.

Patient God,
I know you embrace me even when I squirm.
I know you lay your hand on my shoulder even as I walk away.
I know you speak words of love even when I offend.
Thank you.
Bear with me?
And you will.
Thank you. 
Thank you. 
Thank you.
Amen.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday, Year B


Isaiah 61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; ² to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; ³ to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. ⁴ They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.



The delayed parousia...

A seminary term. 

Scholarly language that is used sometimes to describe the "delayed" Second Coming of Christ.

As we begin Lent, we begin being reminded of our mortality...from dust you have come, to dust you shall return. 

And today, reading from Isaiah 61, the line "to give them a garland instead of ashes" strikes me.

Ashes were an outward sign of mourning or repentance, an acknowledgement of brokenness and ruin.  A garland was a sign of celebration and victory.

Here at the beginning of these 40 days, Isaiah's word promises gladness, praise, a garland. 

Holding together a millennia old promise that Christ will return with the reminder of our dusty lives along with the notion that Gid will comfort those that mourn... Difficult stuff.

And it has me wondering how much we are called to embrace Christ so that the return happens. Is it relational? It seems in some ways that giving our lives over to Jesus as Lord requires us to cede power that our very evolutionary biology can't relinquish.

But as we strive for independence and control, do we leave ourselves unable to reach out to the living, relational God that waits on us? 

This is where my heart lingers today.

Lord, as I enter into a season of reflection, help me be mindful that I cannot change my mortality. And I can let go of the worldly things that tether me to worldliness and keep me from embracing you. Amen.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fat Tuesday, Entering In..., Year B

Here on the brink of Ash Wednesday, I find myself holed up with a snow day -- a blissful gift because my greatest need right now is for thinking and processing and clarity. With each passing year, Lent shows up with different form and function in my personal and communal journey. This year, I am one year past a personal Sabbatical year - a mini Jubilee. Grace is abundant and alive and tangible and its work in my life is truly amazing.

Reading today from 2 Chronicles 7: 11 - 21 there is this direction:
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, ¹⁴if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Now personally, I feel like my harvest has been rich, the abundance I have received, overwhelming. But then, I walk in a world that is hurting -- a society where personal comfort takes precedent over societal good, where people kill one another in some twisted allegiance to the loving God of creation or to mammon. 

Sackcloth and ashes...gnashing and weeping...dry bones that need breath and sinew.

And so today I am pondering how I might focus my Lenten discipline on a broken and hurting world - perhaps I can focus my prayer and attention on one broken situation that calls for humbling, prayer and turning.

We have strayed. We have forgotten. We forget. 

Make our paths straight, our intentions pure. 

God of power and might, heal us all. 

Heal the world.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Year B, the Transfiguration

It is a glittering, blindingly bright day here in Maryland. Powerful wind gusts and an arctic hammer have driven temperatures into single digits and the wind chill is hovering at teens-below-zero. Dangerous, scandalously bright, bracing...

How fitting that this week's focus is on the blinding, brighter-than-bleach revelation of the living God on a mountaintop.

In Mark's gospel, God's voice this time is audible to Peter, James and John. This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased. Elijah and Moses are standing with the glittering, dazzling, whiter than white Jesus. They desperately want to stay in the presence of the divine. They don't know what lies ahead, but they surely are in awe of what they are encountering here and now.

And in 2 Kings, Elisha is devotedly following Elijah to his end, clamoring to stay in his presence to the very end. Elisha knows that he inherits Elijah's prophetic legacy and responsibility. But I wonder if he dreads the reality if that. Just another city in the presence of greatness...

God lovingly seeks our presence and calls us to the hard work of being lovingly present to the world around us. It would seem this is a millennia old struggle, to rest in the amazing presence of a living, moving, powerful God and to be called to a broken, hurting, struggling world.

My house is warm, safe, full of good music and books and food and the company of my love. The world outside is dangerous - quite literally - today. Why would I choose to open the door and step out into the cold?

For right now, I rest in God's presence, giving thanks for the many blessings of this past week. And then, there will be work to do. In the cold. Down the mountain. Gazing up at a glittering sky.