Sunday, August 25, 2013

Worship for Progressives

HEBREW BIBLE READINGIsaiah 58:9-14     
Progressive theology has not simply introduced us to new ideas. It has caused us to consider the implications of those ideas.  For instance, conventional prayers address God in ways that assume God is a being to whom we speak and make requests, but since some of us no longer think of God as a supersized person with super powers, progressive Christians are considering ways our theology might lead us to pray a bit differently. 

Similarly, progressives might need to align our worship life with our theology.  For instance, many of us no longer worship a super-human deity with super powers who also has a super ego requiring our adulation. Yes, yes, I know we can worship in ways that emphasize our need to praise God rather than God’s need to be praised.  Anyone who has seen a child come into this world or heard the softer sounds after a snowfall or tasted a ripe summer peach has expressed the “Wow!” prayer that Anne LaMott recommends. That’s praise at its most authentic. But some forms of praise in worship seem at odds with progressive theology. 

I invite you to infer, based on the worship services you’ve participated in here at Open Table, about some characteristics of progressive worship.

First, what aspects of traditional worship seem absent from our services?
Congregation responds.
Next, are there nontraditional aspects of our services that we’ve added?  Any theories about their purposes? 
Congregation responds.
Nobody crowned me Queen of Progressive Worship.  But I think progressives should maintain some Christian worship traditions while introducing new liturgical practices or retrieving or adapting some long-discarded liturgical practices –so that our worship is consistent with our theology. 
But here’s one hurdle I face in making more explicit my view of progressive worship: worship preferences run deep and are often fiercely defended.  I think the way to avoid the worship wars of the last few decades is to ground our worship life in substance rather than style. So we make our worship choices based on our theology.
Here’s another challenge in commending to you a particular approach to worship: unlike private prayer, worship is a communal experience, so you can’t order up a worship service as if you’re at Burger King and can “have it your way.”  When I preached a few weeks ago about how progressives pray, I assured you that if your private prayer life is working for you, then you don’t need to change how you pray. I explained I was trying to expand the meanings and methods of prayer for those who found it difficult, as progressives, to pray as they once had.   

But our worship life is shared.  What no longer works for one member of the congregation might still satisfy another’s spiritual needs. So we’ll try to offer enough variety and thank God for the elasticity of metaphor. But my bias is for worship ways that reflect and reinforce progressive theology because Open Table’s mission is to offer this option to our city and because progressive Christianity will be, I believe, the way Christianity survives into the next century.

Elsewhere in Mobile you may attend a beautiful Greek Orthodox service or a heady Unitarian service.  Elsewhere you’ll find a high church mass, or a moderate “mainline” Protestant service or a charismatic worship experience or a “contemporary” service for youth and young adults.  Those are excellent options. But our worship is distinctive in the perhaps subtle ways we express and live out our emerging theology.  Believe me, the words you and I say and don’t say in this place are far more “progressive” than the electric guitars or multimedia presentations in the worship services held in bars and coffee houses across the country.  
Our worship life is formed primarily by theology rather than technology or fashion or personality.  Our theology and worship make affirmations like these: God is love; God offers extravagant welcome; God calls us to do justice; God is still speaking.  That is the Good News we progressives preach and teach and try to live.
Perhaps one of the most important theological statements our worship implicitly affirms is this: God is holy mystery.  Doesn’t sound very earthshattering, does it? But when I assert that God is holy mystery, I must worship in ways that prevent me from arrogant claims that I own God, that God does my bidding.  Acknowledging God as mystery allows me to admit doubts and offers me the spiritual capacity to appreciate paradox: that God is as intimate as the very breath we draw and as unknowable as the universe’s vastness.

Therefore, our worship life should not oversimplify the profundity of the Sacred, should not treat the unnamable Force of Life and Love too familiarly as our buddy or, worse yet, our servant, but should nevertheless support us in paying attention to this presence. We then hope that sometimes, somehow, in this place and time, earth and heaven embrace and we can see through to things far deeper and more mysterious than words can say. Right through to the Really Real, to the Things That Matter. Which is the mystical oneness behind all the seeming separateness of this world.

Frederick Buechner describes such an encounter with the Holy Mystery while out among a stand of maple trees: 

I remember a spring or so ago walking with a friend through a stand of maple trees at sugaring time. The sap buckets were hung from the trees, and if you were quiet, you could hear the sap dripping into them: all through the woods, if you kept still, you could hear the hushed drip-dropping of the sap into a thousand buckets or more hung out in the early spring woods with the sun coming down in long shafts through the trees. The sap of a maple is like rainwater, very soft, and almost without taste except for the faintest tinge of sweetness to it, and when my friend said he'd never tried it, I offered to give him a taste. I had to unhook the bucket from the tap to hold it for him, and when he bent his head to drink from it, I tipped the bucket down to his lips, and just as he was about to take a sip, he looked up at me and said, ‘I have a feeling you ought to be saying some words.’

Well, my friend is no more or less religious than the next person, and we'd been chattering on about nothing in particular as we walked along until just at that moment as I tipped the bucket to his lips, he said what he said, and said it partly as a joke. He had a feeling I should be saying some words, he said, as I tipped the bucket to his lips so he could taste for the first time the taste of the lifeblood of a tree. And of course for a moment those unsaid words fell through the air of those woods like the shafts of sun, and it was no joke because the whole place became another place or became more deeply the place it truly was; and he and I became different, something happened for a second to the air around us and between us. It was not much and lasted only for a moment before it was gone. But it happened—this glimpse of something dimly seen, dimly heard, this sense of something deeply hidden.”

My friends, this is a holy time when holy words must be spoken. This is a holy place where glimpses of God might be seen. We are a holy people, not because we are superior to other people but because our intention here in this place and now in this time is to seek together what is worthy of our whole lives.  

Beauty and goodness burst into our lives unbidden. We cannot summon them to us. But we can, at regular intervals, pause from our harried, disconnected lives to do the things that human beings have done since Evolution awakened the worshiper within us and taught our ancestors to paint their praise on cave walls and bury their dead with reverence and hope and tell stories that connected them to one another and to something at the heart of it all.  We are not experiencing our full humanness unless we are listening for some holy words to accompany the beauty and terror of our lives.

We have a need to create and participate in rituals that mark off some moments in our lives as different from others. These rituals (and I use that term loosely) aid us in the human enterprise of meaning making, train us to delight in beauty, teach us to aspire to goodness. Yes, we have other means of finding meaning and beauty and goodness. Yes, nonreligious rituals exist.  But worship is regular, intentional practice in being fully human and being connected to what is ultimate. That is why we gather weekly, as Christian tradition prescribes, and listen again to the Jesus Story for words that save us from despair and greed and hatred.  And through the Jesus Story and the stories of one another, we glimpse a God who is both mysteriously aloof and intimately ours. 

Beings like us believing in a God like that need worship that opens up rather than closes off possibilities.

So progressive worship includes and welcomes not only a breadth of ideas but a diversity of people.  That means our language and symbols must be inclusive and varied. Yet it also means each of us, from time to time, has to accommodate the language needs of others in this congregation and the language of the founders of our faith.  Perhaps it seems inconsistent that we don’t jettison all vestiges of patriarchy, for instance.  We rarely address the Divine as “Father” here, but we still sing the ancient Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy.”  To address God at all runs counter to what our minds may say about this sacred Source of Love. To address God as “Lord,” the archaic title of a nobleman, gives us no cultural foothold and few positive associations. To plead for the Lord’s mercy implies God has to be persuaded to care.  This is an imperfect prayer.  Like all prayers.  And all instances of language.  But the Kyrie is one example of a simple, ancient prayer that allows a congregation to give voice to some shared longing and, especially when those words are sung, to transcend literalness into an experience of mercy and grace.

Progressive worship also has moments of silence and stillness that respect our own roles in holy encounters.  Likewise, we make room for the faith stories from the community itself as if they are new scriptures added to the biblical story. We listen to sacred words not only from the pulpit and from the Bible but from one another.

Progressive worship balances sameness and surprise, ritual and experimentation.

Progressive worship speaks poetically rather than dogmatically, depends on art rather than indoctrination, honors nuance and ambiguity and even doubt, uses sacraments to carry meanings that cannot be carried by language.

Progressive worship celebrates the full gamut of human emotions but avoids manipulating feelings or preying upon the pain and fears of worshipers.

Progressive worship appreciates solitude before God—but is fundamentally a communal experience, centered in a communal meal that contributes to community formation, reconciliation, peacemaking, selfless love. In worship we must give up some of our self to participate fully in the shared experience of the Sacred.  Again, we PRACTICE for a brief time the communion and union to which we aspire.

Progressive worship sometimes draws from other (nonChristian) spiritual practices and sacred writings—but remains rooted in the story of Jesus the Christ and the biblical story that formed his life.  It is the life and death and mysterious life-again of Jesus that is our guide and goal.

Progressive worship sends us out into the world as agents of Love and Peace and Justice, God’s holiest names. Nothing here matters unless we’ve discovered what really matters in the world.

Progressive worship sensitizes us to the sacred outside these walls and teaches us holy words in case our lips one day taste the dripping lifeblood of a maple tree.

Churches like ours are reforming Christian liturgy.  Maybe years hence Christians will worship in a stand of maple trees, looking very like the ancient Druids.  Maybe years hence Christians will gather exclusively in “online” communities using a technology offering potential for more extensive connections than our species has ever known.  

 In the meantime, our worship life will evolve here at Open Table.  I hope you and I are ready to preserve and experiment, to honor the past and to pioneer into the future in ways consistent with a healthy, healing, hopeful Christian theology.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Gospel Text: Luke 12: 49-53

49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 

After this week’s bloodshed in Egypt, today’s Gospel reading explodes with violent metaphors.  After this week’s divisive politics of race in our city, the nice Jesus we’ve come to expect declares today that his purpose is to foment division. After this week’s experiences of our own everyday strife and conflict with friends, family, and coworkers, this ordinarily cozy contemplative service injects MORE conflict into our lives.  I wouldn’t blame you if you left now, you seekers of peace and quiet. 

But the thing is, I hear the Gospel calling us to be makers of peace and justice, not seekers of peace and quiet. I hear Jesus pulling us into conflict.  Because true peace does not exist until there is real justice.

We’re going to start our exploration of conflict with a free association game.  In the margin of your worship bulletin, list words that first come to mind when you think of conflict.  Don’t censor your thoughts. Write quickly.[i]
Examine your list.  Are all of your words negative? Why is that? Is conflict always a bad thing? Does anything positive ever come from conflict?
Think now about how the family of your childhood dealt with conflict.  (Did they avoid it at all cost? Jump into heated battles at the slightest provocation?  Stake out rigid positions?  Or did they flexibly and creatively seek solutions acceptable to all?) How did YOU deal with conflict in that family?  
How do YOU deal with conflict TODAY?  What are benefits of that response to conflict? What are drawbacks?

One reason the “spiritual but not religious” folks give for dropping out of church is the conflict they experienced or witnessed in past churches.  I understand how badly churches handle conflict. But conflict is part of life and is, in fact, necessary for growth. Some say they don’t like the messiness of church, so they worship alone on a sand dune at the beach at sunset.  I say we have to make mistakes and get our feelings hurt sometimes and "waste our time" on people who may never change . . . because WE might change.  Here is the best curriculum for life--right here in the messiness, divisiveness, brokenness, contentiousness of community life, in the problems we work through, the solutions we discern, the mistakes and triumphs we experience. You cannot learn alone what you can learn here.  Messed up people are your best textbook. And your messed up self is a textbook for others. There are times to sit on the sand dunes at sunset and rest your weary soul.  But here is a place to grow and learn and be transformed and be part of transformation out in the world.

Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, who died last month, warned about privatized spirituality: “The way 'spirituality' is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. [Privatized spirituality] . . .  idolizes the . . . individual as the prime reality in the world.”[ii]  We as a faith community value and care for each individual, but we do not see the isolated individual as “the prime reality in the world.” We who live “in Christ” are part of a larger reality. We are learning how diverse individuals manage our distinctiveness while functioning as a cooperative whole.  We may have been taught that the Christian way to handle differences is to deny they exist or to let some patriarchal figure or system standardize our actions at the expense of those on the margins.  But that’s not what Jesus taught.

The song we sang earlier[iii] describes Jesus provoking those to whom he preached, confusing those who heard his voice.  You may have found Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel lection provocative and confusing, so at odds with his usual peaceful message and manner.  “What’s gotten into him?” you might wonder.

But of course the Jesus we’ve come to know in Luke has been provoking the religious and political establishment all along.  You may remember that Jesus began his ministry (Luke 4) by insulting the people in his hometown, which so riled his former neighbors they nearly hurled him off a cliff. 

Even before he was born, his mother was talking trouble. We may think of Mary as demure and quiet, a good girl who pondered a lot of stuff in her heart while smiling sweetly.  But the song she sang upon learning she was to bear a child was seditious (Luke 1: 46-55).  Her song says God favors the poor and sends the rich away empty and lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful.  How can we be so surprised to hear the son of Mary vowing to bring division and pit son against father, daughter against mother? We’re right to feel a little uneasy with this talk of conflict.
A newly published book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, became a source of controversy last week after a disrespectful Fox News interview backfired and made the book a best seller overnight.[iv]  Unlike the antagonistic Fox reporter, I have no problem with a Muslim writing a book about Jesus, and I agree with most of Aslan’s points that dismay conservative Christians.  In fact, one critique that scholars make is that Zealot contributes nothing new to our understanding of the historical Jesus.  But Aslan does get one thing very wrong and it's his titular point. Jesus was not a Zealot with a militant agenda. (Find arguments against the Jesus as Zealot thesis here:
It IS troubling to hear Jesus say his purpose is to bring division.  But let's understand the context. And appreciate ironic, metaphorical, and dramatic rhetoric.  And recall that Jesus, who protested the religio-political system of his day, had deep commitments to the goal of loving even the enemy, forbidding retaliation, and relying on creative nonviolence.  He was also realistic: the Way of Jesus often upset relationships--from the family unit on up through the social strata. Some people today understand what it means to form a family of choice when the family of birth cannot accept them as they are: beloved children of God.

Reza Aslan’s misunderstanding of Jesus is understandable.  We all tend to operate in either fight or flight mode.  We speak in either/or terms.  We are deaf to nuance and irony and ambiguity and novelty.  We polarize our political and religious discourse especially.

No wonder some found Jesus threatening. But he did not threaten them. His understanding of God’s ways were threatening to the status quo. Jesus was called to bring division—but not through violence.  This distinction is one that his contemporaries misunderstood.  And it’s a distinction that Reza Aslan has also, I believe, misunderstood.  One can challenge and promote change and even make people uncomfortable in the cause of justice—but through peaceful means and for just ends.

Even as his contemporaries misheard his message, so people today continue either to keep Jesus’s bold message bound in the swaddling cloths of the sweet baby Jesus—or peg him some aspiring emperor who continues to inspire the crusaders of each new generation to enlarge their empires.

Jesus did engage the conflict of his day—but not with violence or triumphalism.  Conflict is not always negative.  It depends on why and how you enter the conflict.  Conflict can be an opportunity to recognize different perspectives and needs in order to work for the good of all.

But it is hard to know if, when, and how to engage in a situation of conflict.  Most of us are conflict avoiders.  And even though we see Jesus as a model of someone engaged positively in conflict, well, we also see where conflict led him.  There is great risk.  

I’m going to offer a short and certainly not exhaustive set of guidelines for entering into,, perhaps even provoking, conflict in transformative ways. You will have other thoughts to add to these. Much more can be said about how to listen to others with divergent opinions and how to present your needs and ideas to bring about solutions and lasting harmony. But first I invite you to call to mind a conflict that might be looming on the horizon for you--perhaps a difficult conversation you're anticipating or a situation on which you may need to take a controversial stand. Think through how you might respond to this conflict. Might these guidelines prove helpful?

1.     Know your own motives and tendencies. Be wary, for instance, if you are assigning yourself the role of hero in a cause. Take your ego out of it. You are not responsible for righting all the world’s wrongs. 
2.     Be humble. Even after researching a topic and praying about a situation, you have limited perspective, and problems are always more complicated than they seem.  Listen more than you speak.
3.     Be confident. You may be the only person who can offer this perspective or speak on behalf of someone who can’t.  Speak directly.  Use “I” language.  Don’t apologize for your stance. Being “nice” is not a Christian virtue.  You’re not responsible for someone else’s feelings. Act with conviction.
4.     Critique an unjust system or actions; don’t demonize a person. You earn the right to work through conflict with someone else when you can sincerely regard that person with kindness. Seek their good.
5.     See conflict’s potential for good. Look for common ground. Move through the conflict toward the change. 

Are there other guidelines you have for determining when and how to use conflict for positive transformation?

PRAYER: O God, we ought to be good at conflict because we have lots of experience with it.  May we learn the way of Jesus that offers peace through justice.

[i] This activity comes from Kraybill, Ronald S. and Robert A. Evans and Alice Frazer Evans.  Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators.(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001) pp. 10-11.
[iii] Bell, John. “First Born of Mary” There is One Among Us: Shorter Songs for Worship
First born of Mary, provocative preacher,
Itinerant teacher,
Outsider’s choice;
Jesus inspires and disarms and confuses
Whoever he chooses
to hear his voice.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to School Liturgy

We are beginning a series on Second Sundays of each month featuring guest speakers from our community who share ways we can be more engaged in working for the betterment of our larger community.  We then give a donation to the community organization. Because we annually collect a special offering of school supplies for local school children who wouldn't otherwise have the notebooks and backpacks and other supplies necessary to start the school year, our guest speaker yesterday was a representative of the Mobile Area Education Foundation ( Ms.Janell Finley offered many ways we as a congregation and as individuals can volunteer in our public schools. Below is part of yesterday's liturgy from a service dedicated to honoring God's wisdom and caring for ALL of our children.

CALL TO WORSHIP,   adapted from Psalm 107: 1-15                     
One:   We gather as a people who hunger and thirst not only to know more but to do better.  We gather in the name of the Source of Wisdom and Truth.
People: We are thankful for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to enlighten the world.
One:   Let the redeemed say so, those redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in the desert wastes of ignorance; some hungered and thirsted for knowledge and truth for their minds and spirits.  They cried out for help.
People: We are thankful for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to enlighten the world.
One:   Their hearts were bowed down; their minds were closed off to new hopes.  Then they cried to God, who saved them with a bright vision. Divine Truth shined a light on a new path out of darkness and gloom and broke their bonds asunder.
People: We are thankful for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to enlighten the world. 
One:   As a new school year approaches, we pray a special blessing for the students in this community who face new challenges and await new learnings.  We also pray for the teachers and parents whose daily responsibility it is to guide and instruct those who carry tomorrow’s hope.  May we recommit ourselves to prayerfully and   actively support children everywhere.  

OPENING PRAYER                                                                                                    
O God, teach us to love all of your children: the motivated and the misguided, the bullies and the bullied, the favored and the forgotten.  Teach us how to teach them so that they may grow intellectually, physically, and spiritually.  Help us support and appreciate those under-appreciated professionals who have committed their lives to educate the next generation.  Help us to be knowledgeable about our public schools and thus better able to support their aims and constructively work for improvements.  We pray in the name of Rabbi Jesus, who teaches us still.  Amen.

SONG                             “Strong, Gentle Children”                           TWILIGHT
            Strong, gentle children, God made you beautiful,
            gave you the wisdom and power you need.
            Speak in the stillness all you are longing for;
            Live out your calling to love and to lead.

            Strong, knowing children, utter your cry aloud;
            Honor the wisdom God gave you at birth.
            Speak to your elders till they have heard your voice;
            Sing out your vision of healing on earth.
Dan Damon. ©1993 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved.  Reprinted under A-718273.

Pastor: Jesus was brought to the Temple as a child. There Simeon blessed him and his parents as the prophet Anna praised God.  Scripture says that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him”(Luke 2:22-52). Here, too, is a sacred place where children feel blessed by God, are encouraged to pursue wisdom, and find support from a loving community to become instruments of blessing for others.  We mark the start of a new school year to pray for our young people and commit ourselves to supporting our children and youth, their families, and their teachers.

Families who are guiding these young people, will you recommit yourselves to providing these students both the encouragement and accountability they need to succeed in their intellectual and spiritual formation?  Will you work for healthy communication and cooperation with your child’s school?  Will you recognize the potential within your children?  Will you provide them the love and model for them the self-discipline they will need for that potential to be realized?
Parents and family members:  We will.
Pastor:  Teachers who are educating these young people, you who teach within
our schools or in this congregation, will you recommit yourselves to enlightening young minds and ennobling young hearts?  Will you speak hope to the dispirited and inspire excellence in all?  Will you let your life be the clearest lesson of all?
Teachers:  We will.
Pastor:  Students, look around you and see all these who are praying for you and committing to support you as you strive to grow into God’s fullness for your life.  Will you honor God’s good gifts to you by developing your minds, bodies, and spirits?
Students:  We will.
Pastor:  Congregation, you who are like extended family to these students, will you encourage our teachers, parents, and children? Will you lend your wisdom and support, your time and your patience, your prayers and your resources to the communal work of guiding young people?  Will you further commit to recognizing that all children in our wider community are our children? Will you seek ways to support quality education for every student?
Congregation:  We will. 
Pastor:  May God bless all of us in the many ways each of us learns and teaches.