Friday, February 20, 2015

Back to the Start: Dusting off the Invitation to a Holy Lent

Abandon.  Accelerate.  Dust.  These are both similar and dissimilar.  Abandon suggests giving up.  Accelerate suggests conquering.  You can leave something in the dust, you can wipe the dust off your feet and walk away to a new mission.  You can increase your speed and leave whatever else it was in the dust.  There is a unity in these ideas: being elsewhere than where you were before.  Your old anxieties, maybe you conquer them, maybe you abandon them, and regardless it seems as if they are there no longer.  Let it go.  Call it dust.

Sin burning station
On Ash Wednesday, I was an onlooker to chatter about the discordance between the text of the Ash Wednesday liturgy (BCP1979) and the assigned readings for the day.  I have to admit that this provokes me less than the lack of emotional and formational flow.  For years I have imagined it was put together like a group project.  Two or more academic theologians threw it together without ever walking through it. Liturgy by committee, one hand of utter depravity, covered in a glove of returning to prayer and humility.  I could go read up on the history of the liturgy, but I will let my favorite experts contribute those details below.  

It seems to me that there is a huge difference between depravity and humility.  Maybe one of the reasons for the popularity of Ashes to Go is that is skips this troubled mixtape with rather basic symbolism and prayer.  We need both the humility and the acknowledgement of our wretchedness, yet it is worth asking if separating them out would assist in the nurturing we seek to offer.  My youth group describes Tenebrae as death metal without the guitars, perhaps that holds a clue. 

One of the true advantages of regularly retooling liturgies for young people and families is that I feel free to adjust the ridiculous volume of college reading level words, and I can try to make it flow consequentially.  We dwell in the mystery of the sacramental, yet those inner truths of the heart need not be forever in search of a dictionary. If the tween doesn’t know what we are saying, then rest assured he is not alone.   We could certainly have an argument about the quid pro quo of listing sins before imposing ashes.  Yet if the love of God and forgiveness of sins known in Christ is eternal, then could we begin with a chance to consider on our sins through the liturgy before we impose the outward sign of this acknowledgement? Is the hint in Ashes to Go the part where you get the ashes and then you go?

What if we were to go back to the beginning? What if the pages in the prayer book suddenly evaporated into dust?  What would the liturgy look like that is an invitation to a Holy Lent?  What prism do we use to gather hearts and minds toward the cross and Easter?  Is this first step about our dustiness, about how everything we are and have and do belongs to God?  Is it a healthy reminder of our own dustiness, that life has boundaries and this is the natural order of the universe?  Is it that we promised to follow Jesus in word and deed and that we regularly bear no resemblance to that promise?  Is the goal 40 some days in the future, where we find ourselves in re-union with our promises of baptism? 

That free hand I have with liturgies for young people, it took a new direction this year.  Open format interactive prayer stations.  First a video loop including an introduction to Ash Wednesday, a call to service and an illustrated scripture.  Then a short and easy reading level litany with a weaving activity.  Followed by a scripture lesson that uses illustrated pages that must be matched up.  In the middle of the room a writing and burning of sins.  Besides which is an Ashes-to-Go station.   I set them up in that order, yet I expected folks to move around freely.  Our guests did not roam, they chose freely and followed the circle from invitation to scripture to litany to sins to ashes.  This makes formational and theological sense to me.  What would the best theological and developmental flow of the beginning of a Holy Lent look like to you?

I started off this post stating that I hadn’t thought much about the discord with the readings.  Except that with my free hand I didn’t even consider the assigned lessons.  I chose instead the Ecclesiastes 3 lesson that is an option  at funerals.  At least one participant remembered that.  In a funeral we use it to celebrate eternal life.   I chose it to invite the guests to think about the time we are entering and how it is a time to consider the horrors and problems and wrongness that is connected in a dialogical rhythm with the delight of eternal life.  The other lesson was an illustration of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert.  I realize it is the lesson for the following Sunday, but if we are inviting people to a holy Lent, to considering the temptations and uses of privilege, then maybe starting with the lesson about just that is worth considering.   What lessons would you choose to open the journey of Lent?  Is it Ruth?  What about Job?  The groaning in eager expectation of Romans?  The parable of the Great Pearl? 

There is true value in a clunky unfocused Ash Wednesday liturgy.  One that is just as confused and jumbled as we are.  Leaving it as it is may be the path of least resistance.  However, I am a Lent enthusiast.  I want as many of the people who seek union with God in Christ to experience the journey of Lent.  Which leads me to my last and perhaps most renegade question on the matter: is one day enough?  Would any of you refuse the imposition of Ashes to someone who came in the door on Friday morning?  If we can take this outward sign to the streets, can we expand the start time as a pastoral gift to busy schedules and harried lives? 

What wonderings about liturgy and formation and pastoral care did this week bring for you?  
Where do you find unity and pleasurable discord?  
What would you like to leave in the dust as we strive to form disciples?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Inner Alleluia: Transfiguration and the approach of Lent

Before the sermon the congregation has been supplied with paper and crayons and many copies ofthe individual letters of Alleluia.  They have been invited to color and draw and fill in the sheets and at the end of the service carry them to the columbarium niche where they shall be ‘buried’.

The banner hung across the parish hall stage.  Two days a week, 30 some 1st and 2nd graders, and St. Peter’s parish hall for tutoring.  The first Tuesday of Lent my student, Walter, looked up at the banner.  He asked ‘why is it covered up?’  ‘Well,’ I replied.  It says Alleluia and this is the time of year When we hold on to the word, and we don’t say it again till Easter.’ ‘Alleluia?’ he queried.  ‘I thought that started with an H.’  I could not have been more proud.
30 some college students gathered in the
Hallelujah.  Alleluia.  Two spellings.  One word that says so much more than it says.  It is enlightenment and joyful peace.  Alleluia.  It is deeper and brighter and bolder, lives changed, restored, renewed.  Alleluia. It is moment beyond which everyday descriptions can touch.  Alleluia is a word for wordlessness.  It is a divine word like forever or always.  A phoneme placeholder for those moments of mystery that are both terrifying and fascinating.  Alleluia.

Elijah looms large in the prophets hall of fame.  And this reading today is his biggest hit.  If you know nothing else about Elijah, if you know nothing else about any other Hebrew prophet, you might just know that there is a story involving Elijah and chariots and fire and flying.  No other figure of the Hebrew scriptures has an afterlife.  Nobody else in the Hebrew scriptures really has an afterlife at all.  The concept of the cosmos doesn't involve what happens next.  In most of the Hebrew texts and certainly all of the oldest material, the focus is all about this life, not the mystery beyond it.  No one else doesn’t die, and certainly no one else returns from the great beyond.  Yet, there he is, in the last words of the Hebrew canon.  Elijah will return and announce the ‘day of the Lord’.

All this unusualness, fire and whatnot, it may overshadow the main point of the text.  Which is to transfer the prophetic role from one generation to another.  The focus of the text isn’t Elijah.  It is Elisha and his authority to proclaim God’s word for the next generation.  The images of a staff and waters parting, of crossing into the land where Moses died, it reaches back into ages past and hands this authority into the future.  The word of God will have a voice in every generation.  All the wonder and strangeness, it is intense symbolic narrative that draws from Hebrew history and pushes us into that space that words cannot quite express.  Alleluia.

These wordlessness moments in our readings today, are about what God does in us when we are close to him.  The wonders of fire and glowing faces are imagination expanders, holy crayons drawing circles around what words cannot say.  It is tempting to put all this glory and wonder in booths.  Keep it safe and bounded, handy and accessible.  Yet do you really want a miracle, a wonder that you can put in a box?  Transfiguration refers to the illumination of an otherwise mundane phenomenon.    It is revelation, it is inner truth expressed outwardly.  Sometimes it has words with meaning, but often time it does not.  Alleluia.  The Lenten season we are about to enter into is in itself a transfiguration.  An illumination of God’s will for the mundane in our lives.  The mundane good we ignore and the mundane evil we enable.

So we bury the word Alleluia.  Or not so much bury, as we place it in a tomb, of sorts.  We bury this mysterious wordlessness word that celebrates life giving change.  We turn to the mundane.  The corrupt and the broken.  We go where Jesus lives and breathes and dies by the hand of mundane selfishness.  We bury the Alleluia as an outward and visible sign that Lent is the time when we examine the ways in which we let the mundane overrule the Alleluia.   

Theology and scripture and generations of artists have not been able to supply the box for these otherworldly convicting moments. Alleluia.  This wordlessness is in its own way a blessing.  It keeps us from worshiping the signs of God’s presence rather than the God whose reign they highlight. This wordlessness leaves the message of God’s holiness to human lives, our lives.  It places the ongoing transformation of God’s people into the context of human community, this community, this generation.  

This wordless brilliance that is Jesus Christ, it doesn’t color inside the lines, and it should shine through you and me. The real wonders of the prophets, the miracles of Jesus, the disciples and his apostles, which by the way includes you and me, the real wonders are always concerned with the mundane: food, safety, debted-ness, literacy, sickness, discrimination and death.  It is hundreds of bowls of soup and bushels of toast served with love, week in and week out.  Alleluia.  It is 30 some college students, and 30 some children, and books and crayons and a healthy snack in a parish hall. Alleluia.  Wonders and transfiguration, these are mysteries that point beyond themselves.

The word is going to get buried. Yet the wonder and fascination and new life of God still lives.  So I ask you, this Lent,  how can you be a wordless act of Alleluia?

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
Tranfiguration, Year B RCL

Sorry for no recording.  Couldn't decide until the last moment whether this would come from the aisle or the pulpit.  So I didn't have my phone handy to record with. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Remarkable Things Dr. Brown Said at #Forma15

Floppsy hitches a ride in Houston at #forma15
A fine gentleman posted about the most remarkable things he heard at the Forma 2015 conference with Brene Brown and the hardest serving people in the world.  Here are my remarkable things. 

Knowledge is rumor until it lives in the moment.
We can read all the pages and memorize a ream of facts, however it is only a book in hand until we live into the knowledge we have been given.  We need to take it out for a drive, kick the tires, give it breath and flesh.  Maybe you have had a moment like me, where you had 'learned' something, but you didn't really know it until it happened in your life.  Have you had that moment?

Story equals satisfied human biology.
Satisfied is a word that feels good.  It is one of those words that manages to carry the weight of itself, almost as if it were onomatopoeia.  Apparently when we hear a story our whole bodies are drawn back toward a positive and balanced state.  Heart and brain and other physiology follow the path of the imagination into the beauty of story.  Perhaps this is why diving into a good novel can be so 'relaxing'.  How do stories bring you satisfaction?

The brain rewards story, even when we 'know' it isn't true.
The positive physiological responses occur in response to storytelling regardless of the 'factual reality' of the story.  Perhaps you have read a non-fiction book that was written in such a narrative fashion that it was reading a data filled story.  Our biology is so blessed by story that even outrageously false stories can bring a positive bodily response.  

Our brains tell stories for comfort.  
If you spend time around small children you know they do this.  They tell stories to comfort themselves.  As we grow older we learn to process and think inside ourselves; we learn to read silently.  However, the practice of telling stories to ourselves is one of our most inborn and natural remedies.  Do you remember a time where telling yourself a story was a blessing?  What about a time when it kept you from moving ahead?

All of which leads to the most remarkable thing I heard Brene Brown say.  

Curriculum, evaluation, and pedagogy are less important than  telling your story.
She pointed out that what we call motivation is actually closer to manipulation.  This manipulation is exhausting, and the data is clear that we cannot sustain manipulation.  It exhausts us and it numbs 'them'.   Instead she says, we should seek to inspire, to fill with breath and life and love.  We should seek to see something in each other that we need: we should seek to hear the stories of each other.  Rather than dragging our souls down trying to constantly improve our curriculum or pedagogy: we simply need to show up with our stories.  How do you make story happen in your lifelong formation ministry?

All of the fabulous servants and storytellers gathered at Forma 2015

What did you hear at #forma15??

All statements in bold are from my notes from Brene Brown's presentation at the Forma Conference in Houston, Texas in January 2015.  They may not be transcriptionally accurate.  

My BUILDING FAITH post about what we can learn from Dr. Brown.