Return to the Lord your God. Return to community. Return to yourself.
We are so deeply disconnected. In spite of these magic boxes we carry with us that keep us up to date on all of the things, we are left feeling isolated and alone. We are disconnected from ourselves, from our very bodies, from one another, and from God. Our rates of depression and anxiety are climbing ever higher, especially among the generations that were raised with these little (theoretical) connection machines.
This is because, we crave connection. As Brene Brown writes, we are built for it: connection with self, connection with others and connection with God. This is how God made us. God made us for relationship.
Yet so much of what we do as church doesn’t do much to genuinely connect us with much of anything. Within our churches, with our beautiful rites, shared values (again, theoretical) and potential instant community loneliness is alive and well. Perhaps this is because we perform faith instead of living it, keeping ourselves and others from connection and belonging. We say the “right” prayers, do the “right” rituals, hell, many of us practice the rite of communion and yet we lack community. Perhaps this is because we have been taught to bring out best selves to church, which for most of us turns out to be our fake selves. The selves that are great! Just fine, thank you! The selves that know all of the right words to say to keep others at arms length and never let on that we are all fucked up inside. We have created communities where we teach people to fit in instead of creating space where people -- all people -- can truly belong.
Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about when he says to not pray in public, to not show how hard our fasting really is, to not celebrate or bemoan the works of our faith in front of others. Like the prophet Isaiah before him, Jesus is telling us to not merely perform faith, but to live it. He is encouraging us to real faith practice, to real community, to truly engage in these things that bring us into relationship with God, ourselves, and one another.
Somehow our lenten practice of repentance has turned into self-punishment disguised as self-betterment. We give up chocolate, soda, and other things we love and turn lent into a way to diet or give up “bad” habits and do this completely divorced from any sort of self-reflection or reconnection to self, God or our neighbor. We have made dieting religious, and encourage shame and unhealthy views of the body which is the OPPOSITE of or the point of penitence. Penitence is asking for forgiveness and, through that, having our relationships restored. Repentance is about reconnection.
Can our Lenten practice be reconnection? Isn’t that the goal of repentance, to turn away from the things that keep us from God? Can we commit to a radical change in which we bring our full selves to church? To the foot of the cross? Can we spend 40 days sitting in quiet meditation, facing our shit so that we can work on it and heal the wounds that we take out on others because we refuse to admit they are there? So much of the hate and anger that shouts so loudly in our world today is the result of fear and wounds that we don’t want to look at because it hurts too much. Instead, we lash out at those around us who we perceive to be the cause of our fear and pain, hurting other because the pain inside of us is deep and real and has nowhere to go but out. Can we re-learn how to hear God speaking to us through the white noise of everyday life? Can we commit to learning how to recognize that God lives within us, that we are beautiful, beloved children of God and so is everyone else?
Each Lent, I ask myself and my students, “What is getting in the way of your relationship with God, self or neighbor?” Fast from that. Get rid of that in your life. Take up a practice that reconnects you with the love of God. Give up negative self talk, give up gossip, give up that need to show up “perfect” everywhere you go. Let go of the need to be “fine” and live your truth. Show up to church as the beautiful, beloved hot mess you are and create space for others to do the same. Look inside yourself at the ugly parts -- the racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, anger, pain and fear that fester and work towards healing yourself and the world. Pick up books or subscribe to podcasts that introduce you to stories that are wildly different from your own. Engage scripture. Engage your heart. Swim in the depths of God’s love and let it break you so, with the help of Jesus Christ and your neighbors you can put yourself back together again. Go to therapy. Practice radical self-love.
That’s the kind of Lent that God asks for. That’s the kind of Lent that will bring about true healing and work towards the kindom we were designed for.
By Lacey Brown M.M.
Director of Music at Church of the Apostles and Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church and songwriter for Poor Clare.
I have seen the concept of “blended worship” played out many times in well-meaning congregations, seeking to lift up the gifts and breadth of the community. Perhaps the organist plays the prelude, the praise band does their thing for the song of the day, a young musician plays a piano solo during communion - all good things and something I would like to see more of, but I am usually left wanting more - more, connections, collaboration, and intentionality.
I would like to experience worship as a whole composition and not in compartmentalized sections. I would like to see something new happening that can only be produced by the gifts and interests of the people coming together. Of course, this is easier said than done. Not everyone approaches worship this way — and that is definitely okay — but the composer in me is always searching for those threads to pull everything together so that each piece means more in context of the whole.
I grew up in a church called The Evangelical Orthodox Church - a small denomination founded in the late 70’s in effort to synthesize Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy and honor the treasures from both east and west, ancient and new. This was the church that helped formed me spiritually and while it’s not perfect (as no denomination is), I am still very much drawn to this approach. It does not fit into any of those terms out there desperately trying to describe worship style. It is neither “traditional” or “contemporary.” It’s not “blended” or “casual.”
In my church we had icons, incense, ritual, pieces of the divine liturgy, prayers and litanies written by the community, folk music, chant, original compositions, extemporaneous prayer - it (usually) all worked together, beautifully crafted and thought out, ancient and new.
Through this upbringing and my own background in music (orchestral percussionist, songwriter, drummer, lover of Tom Petty and Palestrina), I feel great permission to bring everything to the table, mix things up, synthesize, and create. I have less of a boundary between the polar “contemporary” and “traditional” and see another way to do things - drawing from the rich diversity available in music, liturgy, poetry, and art - honoring it, and making it accessible to whatever community I am in.
This is what composers do all the time. We borrow material (sometimes we steal) but we make something new out of it. Everything is recycled and repurposed and not thrown out just to make way for the next new thing. In a piece of music, each section has to be connected to the other sections, either by key or melodic themes or chord structure...A good composition sets up the next part, borrowing from previous material and hinting at future themes. It is a journey and it is not always wrapped up in a resolved bow at the end. Many compositions leave you with more questions than answers and many compositions or pieces of art have the power to transform us.
I see liturgy as a composition and music as a thread, connecting all of the pieces and providing a unique way to process content and emotions, keeping us engaged. Music has the power to lift our mood, disrupt our thinking, provide space for contemplation, and awaken our imagination.
So why limit ourselves to a certain type of music when designing worship? Why force these categories of “traditional” and “contemporary” and limit our options? Of course each musician has their own areas of expertise and we cannot expect every musician to be able to play both Petty and Palestrina, so this is where we must rely of the unique gifts of the community, create something new out of existing material, and alter a piece of music to fit the context.
So how might this look in a worship setting? The possibilities are endless. It just takes some play and risk. Not everything will work: that is okay. Here are some examples of some recent things I have experimented with at Church of the Apostles in Seattle where I am Music Director:
I was drawn to a couple pieces for Ash Wednesday last year: Funeral Canticle by John Tavener and Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, but I did not have a chamber choir or string quartet at my disposal to perform these pieces. Since the Taverner is twenty-three minutes long, I played the recording as the prelude music to set the mood for the service. I provided the title and composer along with program notes about the composition to provide the opportunity to appreciate the piece and not dismiss it as merely background music. I used the Pärt piece during a time of personal contemplation in our service called Open Space. The piece is perfect for this place in the liturgy as it is interesting enough that some will attentively listen but repetitious enough that it does not require your full attention. The treatment and intentionally in using this music helped to make it accessible to a large variety of congregants.
Each season, I treat the psalm differently. Sometimes I will write a refrain to be sung in between spoken stanzas, other times we will chant the psalm together or we will have the congregation hum a fifth while a cantor chants (either improving or using a chant tone). We always have a band at our services so if we have the right kind of instrumentation like an electric guitar or hammond b3, we will often play a drone underneath the chant. Sometimes we will begin the drone underneath the reading or prayer that comes before or use whatever key the gospel acclamation is in to connect the sections. Whether a cappella, humming, or ambient drone, I find treating the psalm in these new and fresh ways brings the poetry to life and allows it to speak in surprising ways.
Hymns are a great opportunity to breath new life into the ancient heritage of our faith. Since our service is in the evening we often sing Phos Hilaron. Commonly sung at evening prayer, it is the earliest recorded Christian hymn that is still used today. The melody is very straight (quarter notes) and easy to learn, leaving opportunity for playing with chord voicings and arrangement. We have done this hymn with a full band and we have also sung it simply with piano or with just voices in a cannon. Whenever I sing this hymn, I feel a connection to my faith unlike anything else.
I use the music from taize often as it is both easy to learn and sing but also incredibly well composed. Most of these songs have four part harmony that stands alone - no instrumentation need, no creative spin, just simple and beautiful. However, I have also played around using different accompaniment - electric guitar swells, glockenspiel playing the melody, deep bass tones...Taize songs appeal to a large demographic of church goers and are easily done with whoever you might have as your musicians or bands for the day.
And of course, I am a huge supporter of creating new music for the church. Often times, I cannot find a piece of music that will work for my context so I will write something myself or commission someone else to write. This is such an important discipline as we are often starved for new material, for new songs to sing. And when liturgical pieces are written by the community for a specific service or season, I find that is speaks to the community in ways other music cannot.
These are just some of the ways I play with music throughout the service but really this should look different for each person and each congregation. There is no formula for this approach other than knowing your community and being willing to play and create and risk. Each service is an opportunity for transformation and often art is that vehicle. So find that place in the service for the organ piece and the young musicians’ piano solo and the Tom Petty song and connect it to the liturgy. Provide the context and the art will speak whether you are playing The Beatles, your own composition, an ancient hymn, a psalm chant - always think of your community first (both those attending and your musicians).
Make it exciting.
Make it new.
Be true to yourself.
Honor the ancient. To create and innovate is to honor the heritage we come from. Whenever we worship, we are worshiping with the community of saints, with all Christians across space and time.
May these offerings fill in our lungs,
in our very being,
and then may we breathe that out into our world, each note a prayer to God.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
'Tis the time of year for we Christians to talk about light and dark. The time when we remind people that the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. For so many of us, this phrase is about hope. It reminds us that no matter how bleak things may get, there is always a spark, always some brightness from God to help us get through both these short days of winter and these murky, difficult, downright depressing times in which we live. As someone who lives with chronic depression, it is important to be reminded that, even if I can't see it, there is some kind of illumination dwelling with me as I crawl through the shadows, and the shadows cannot block it out.
Language is powerful. It shapes our views of the world, both consciously and unconsciously. So, when we continuously use dark/black to connote bad and light/white to connote good, what are we saying about our siblings of color? What messages are we implicitly sending not just to those with darker skin about their place in the world (and the church) but what are we saying about those with lighter skin? What does it do to our perception of ourselves and others when year after year we repeat again and again that light is good and dark is bad?
What does it do to a person if week after week they sit in church hearing that their skin color needs to be pushed away/out by lightness? That their skin color is synonymous with bad? What does it to to regularly hear that your skin color - light/white - is akin to that which pushes away the bad stuff and is often a symbol for God Godself? Even if it doesn't register, week after week we hear this comparison. It seeps into our hearts and minds and forms how we think about the world and how we see others, though we might not know it. And when I say we, I mean white people, as I have heard from many of my siblings of color that there is a regular sting hearing these words. As we repeat this notion of light and dark as synonymous with goodness and evil, we inflict injury on our siblings of color and contribute to the continuation of white supremacy (a good but a bit dated article on language and race can be found here: https://brooklinecfgs.wikispaces.com/file/view/Racism_EnglishLanguage.pdf ).
The English language is my enemy. It teaches the black child 60 ways to hate himself and the white child 60 ways to aid and abet him in the crime" -- Ossie Davis (actor, civil rights activist)
"But that's what the Bible says! We can't change the Bible!"
In the Hebrew account of the creation of the world, God says, "Let there be light;" and there was light. And God called it good and separated the light from the darkness. In Hebrew, the word used for light has a specific connotation of the thing which illuminates, whether it is the ball in the sky, a candle flame or a light bulb. The same goes for the Greek words from the Gospel according to John -- they refer to that which illuminates, clearly. Were we using the Hebrew or the Greek when we speak of Biblical uses of light and dark, it would be clear that we are talking about illumination and lack thereof. However, the English language uses light and dark to refer to both illumination and tone/color. Herein lies our problem. The translation of our ancient texts from their original languages into English creates a problem that doesn't exist in the original languages.
Sometimes in a parish or a community it is really hard to jump right out there and start talking about white supremacy. There are places in which the walk must be very deliberate and slower than we would like. If we go too fast, we risk closing too many ears to what we are saying, and our efforts are for naught.
However, here is a place we can do something. Here is a moment we can use to gently change the language we use and, hopefully, get some people to begin the journey towards racial justice with us.
We can change the words. Revisit the first paragraph. How does it sound? What do you see? Did you notice that after the words of John I used different words to reflect John's intent? You, dear pastor, dear Christian, dear sibling, can do this too. This may be enough to just slip this in and see what happens, to wait for people to ask you what you are doing, or it may be something you can include in a sermon or do some education around. Regardless, rethink the imagery. There are so many options that are beautiful, poetic, and still hit at what the scriptures are telling us: In Jesus, brilliance illuminated the world, and the shadows did not overcome it.
Get Creative! So many words!
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
So, a couple days ago I wrote a commentary for this Sunday's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (for non-church folk, this is the list of readings most mainline churches get Sunday's readings from), about staying awake, about working on our own crap and being awake to the world. It was rather internally focused. This was in part because that is where I was a couple of days ago, but I also now realize this is because I straight up don't want to be awake to the world right now. I'd much rather be awake to my own emotional/mental/spiritual issues than what is happening outside my door.
I want to sleep. I want to sleep through each and every sexual assault/harassment allegation that is released. While I am glad at least *some* men are getting their comeuppance, I am pained by how long they were allowed to hold their positions, how they influenced the information we receive, the art that wasn't created because women were denied that space, and how many women had to be hurt for anything to happen. Not to mention the daily triggering for myself and just about every woman (and some men) I know. I want it to happen, I just don't want to bear witness to it.
I want to sleep through the policies and laws coming from this current administration. I want to sleep through the myriad ways this tax bill will screw people. I want to sleep through the threat is poses to charitable giving which supports those on the margins of our society with wild stuff like food and shelter and, selfishly, allows me to have a job. Hell, charitable giving allows the (non-mega)church to exist.
I want to sleep through the daily insults to humanity, grammar, and the office that come out of the American president's fingers and mouth. I want to sleep through the constant stream of hate spewed at my siblings of color, my undocumented siblings, my non-Christian siblings, my LGBTQ siblings... I want to sleep through it all. In fact, I am still in my pajamas contemplating going back to bed.
But the needs of my siblings, demand I stay awake. Because my power and privilege demand I do everything I can to stop awful bills from becoming law. Because I can use these things I have been given by virtue of being born white and affluent to lift up the voices of those on the margins and to use everything in my power to help all people not only be safe, but thrive. Because the Gospel commands me to do these things. The prophets command me to do these things. God has, over and over, and over again commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless -- to give our power to those who do not have as much power or have power in the same way I do.
We are the body of Christ. We are God's hands and feet and voice in this world. We are called to use whatever position, whatever pulpit we have to break people open to God's love so that they might be more compassionate, more empathetic, more giving and less afraid. As the body of Christ, we cannot sleep when our neighbors, our siblings, are being forced further to the edges by a world that has gotten so afraid and entrenched in selfishness that they no longer understand how or why to care for others. We cannot sleep when the name of Christ is used in these efforts, when Jesus is maligned everywhere by people claiming his name while letting people die on the streets (by cold, starvation, or an unjust legal system). Unfortunately, we (especially those of us with any form of privilege, power or wealth) do not have the luxury of this kind of metaphorical sleep (but get your 8 hours cause that makes it way easier to fight the good fight).
And herein lies my hope: that there are so many people out there doing good, compassionate work. There are people out there who are so close to having something change their hearts (and maybe that something is a word or action from you or me!). The spirit is moving in the world. The spirit is moving in you. The spirit is moving in me. You will disrupt some people. You likely will piss some people off -- I know I HATE being woken up from a deep sleep, especially if I was in the midst of a delightful dream. But we cannot afford to sleep right now -- for our own sake, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of the world.
Pray with me, will you?
God of waking and sleeping,
You have given us the hope of a kindom without tears, without pain, without fear. Help us to stay awake until your kindom is realized. Give us the strength to bear witness to the pain of the world, help us to take occasional respite in you that we might continue the work to which we are called. Help us to be brave and compassionate as we wake others up. Guide us into community that will feed us for the journey. Be with us now. Be with me now that I might do the work to which I am called in the name of your son, Jesus Christ,
Not long ago, a mentor of mine and I were talking about the life of the church. I can’t remember how this came up, but he said a mentor of his told him that he was trained to make people comfortable – that that was the job of the church. To make/keep people comfortable.
This is our inheritance: a church that exists to make people comfortable.
This is not the point of the Christian faith, at least not for those of us who are relatively comfortable. Y'all know, when we get too comfortable, we fall asleep. Christ clearly commands us to stay awake.
Jesus didn’t come so everyone could be comfortable. Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. To have abundant life – particularly abundant life for ALL – we must be willing to be uncomfortable. We must be willing to let the light of Christ shine into the depths of our soul, forcing us to look at parts of ourselves that are, well, ugly, so that we can deal with them. Abundant life requires we work on our own shit, sometimes spending time really dwelling in it before we can understand it and work to rid ourselves of it.
This puts those of us who work in the church in a precarious place. We have people sitting in our pews who desperately need transformation, who need to have their dirt brought to light so they might be able to examine it, who need to be confronted about their privilege in this world and yet, all too often what they want is an encouraging word, a pat on the head, a wafer and some wine (and I know in some places, they don’t even want that too often) and to be sent on their way to be the same people they were last week. The work of transformation, the path to abundant life requires deep digging, it requires work and pain and self realization and too many people have been told implicitly or explicitly this isn’t the work of the church. So, when leaders take the opportunity to do something that might make people uncomfortable in the name of repentance, we get an earful. We get threats. We get people telling us they will stop giving, stop volunteering, stop coming at all. It’s hard to know what to do.
For many of us, we get an hour or two a week with our people. This isn’t a lot of time. And, when they come, we give them the much same thing they get every week, more or less; the familiar liturgy like a salve for a weary soul. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out if there might be ways within this hour or two to poke our people out of their comfort, to create an opening through which the Holy Spirit might be able to shake and disturb people into discomfort, bringing about transformation. What can we say in our sermons, and how can we say it in a way that people won’t turn off their ears? Are there ways we might be able to use the liturgy this week to address something happening in our community or in our world (and, y’all know, there are like 5 awful things to address every week on the national stage alone)?
This is why we have created the Disrupt Modern Worship Project. We both come from liturgical traditions and appreciate the beauty of the ritual, the timelessness of using words we have used for generations, and the way our rites tie us to Christians throughout time and space. But we also know that, all too often, these rites and rituals can become rote. As a Lutheran who was raised on setting two of the Lutheran Book of Worship, I really don’t need to think about my sins to recite the order of confession and forgiveness. Even before I was a pastor, I could recite all of setting two without thinking or feeling any of it. The occasional new confession, litany, creed, or song can go a long way to shake people out of their faithful slumber. The confession that names things people actually do, the litany from scripture that calls us out on our behavior, the song that deals with the complications of life – these things can all have a deep impact on the people in our pews.
Another way to disrupt worship is to provide preachers access to the kinds of people we may not encounter every day (many of us have super homogeneous communities) and people whose voices are all to often not lifted up and spread around in the church – voices of people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, lay people, people with disabilities and other people who are generally not called upon to write for publications or don’t have enough of a platform to get their thoughts out into the world.
Each season will have a theme, music and liturgical elements to use for the season or for a day that point towards the theme. Each week we will have commentaries for the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary readings written by a variety of church leaders, and if inspiration strikes or there is a holiday we might have a litany, a different confession, or some other liturgical element as well as music suggestions. As we grow, we will look to providing visual art, children’s bulletin illustrations, and original music as well.
We also recognize that there are events in modern life for which the church often doesn’t have words. We are working with people from across the church to provide resources for divorce, miscarriage, infertility, and other life events that would benefit from communal, liturgical rites.
We’re here to help you disrupt worship as little or as much as you want. We are your resources for making holy trouble. We’ve got your back. Let us know what you need. We’re in this journey of making Christ known together.
The blog space is where we'll cover things: why we're using a specific focus during a season, to discuss liturgy, and random things that don't quite fit elsewhere.