08 October 2015

Ages and Stages in Worship

I deeply appreciate this Huffington Post article on children in worship and this blog post from a member of our church community.  Some of the best sounds in worship are those of young children.  Our ministers and deacons often engage with the young ones as part of their sermon, prayers or offerings.  Very often, these interactions open the Scriptures in ways that prepared speech cannot.
I know that some of the sounds of young ones can be distracting for people who come to church seeking a particular kind of silent communing.  Let’s be honest, though: we can have silent communion with our Beloved anywhere at any time.  We simply choose not to employ that reality except in the buildings we label as “church”.
When we come together as Church, (that is the proper use of the term — it means the people, not the building) I pray that we would to come together in ways that welcome even the youngest of our members.  This means, in part, that we do not have the same expectations of them that we have for the eldest among us.  It means recognizing the gifts that come from every age group, from the very young to the very old.  Everyone has something to offer in worship, and everyone has something to receive.
Creative elements in worship engage many ages and personality types.
When we were young, our family sat in the front pew at church.  We were close enough to smell the freshly baked bread; close enough to feel the breeze flowing from the pastors’ movements as they preached and paced nearby.  I often felt that the pastors were speaking right to me, and I felt like I was part of the community from a very young age, especially when I was able to connect with Jesus at the communion table.
I grew up in the midst of a congregation where even the youngest members were able to partake in communion whenever the parents deemed it appropriate for their children.  By the time I was three, I was well aware that Jesus came into us in a special way and connected us powerfully at the communion table.  My father recognized that I was ready, and I soaked up every ounce of Jesus, and I looked at all the people kneeling around that railing and I knew that we were all Family.  That was a profound moment in my faith formation.
We all have different ways of connecting with the Divine.  One of my deepest hopes is that our worship experiences would be shaped in ways that help people from every age and every stage of development to experience connection with the Beloved and with one another.  This is one of the ways that the Cure for the Virus can spread — when we all become conduits of healing and love, opening up together as we practice being Church.

07 March 2015

Talking about Death - Lenten Devotion 3

As we continue our journey through Lent, let us pause for a moment to consider what it is that we are journeying towards.  Approaching the sacred time called Holy Week, we walk the road of deepest shadows.  Each painful step we take brings us closer to the betrayal, arrest, brutality, mockery, rejection, crucifixion and death of our Beloved.  It is a difficult, intense time to be a part of the liturgical Church.

There is something powerful about this time, though.  It is not something that should be glossed over or forgotten.  We cannot jump to Easter celebration without the difficult days of Lent and Holy Week.

As Tommy shares in the video below, our churches in western society, particularly here in America, have a very difficult time approaching the conversation of death.  Just as in our surrounding culture, we often avoid the topic in our pulpits, our prayer groups and our Bible studies.

Lent opens the door to the topics that can otherwise seem rather taboo.  Betrayal, arrest, brutality, rejection by friends and family, the intentional quieting of women and children, the abuse of power and authority in our spiritual and political leaders, the pain of the dying process, feelings of abandonment and seclusion, and death -- all of this and more are found in the Scriptures concerning the time we now refer to as Holy Week.

What does Holy Week bring about in you?  How do you explore these topics with your loved ones?  How do you talk about death, grief and loss?  Does your faith community speak about such things?

As I cared for and journeyed with my father through his decline, time in hospice and death last year, I had many similar observations as the man in this video. We have much to speak about as a church and as a society regarding the dying process. After watching the movie "Departures" I decided that I wanted to wash my father's body after he died. Washing him, as I had for many months leading up to his hospice time, and feeling the heat leaving his body in the presence of my siblings and extended family was one of the most powerful, therapeutic acts I have ever participated in. It felt incredibly natural and helped me to come to grips with the reality of the death that had just occurred in our midst.

No one had told me to do this. I wasn't taught how to be in the midst of death and grief. It was certainly not something that had ever been spoken about in any of the congregations I have been a part of over the years.

The western church, in general, does not prepare us to walk this part of our journey. Despite the pathway of shadows that we call Lent, we don't often come face-to-face with death in our midst. We avoid speaking about the intensity of our pain while we are watching a loved one die. Our congregations have much to learn from Eastern and Native traditions when it comes to the preparation for dying, burial, cremation and the releasing of our loved ones remains.

I hope that in the years to come, we will be more willing to be in open dialogue about death, loss and the dying process, in our society as a whole, and especially, in our congregations. I believe this will be part of our healing, of remembering who we are. We cannot awaken to New Life if we cannot first honestly experience the pain of death and loss.

Walk the road of shadows with me, dear ones. Let us journey together along this sacred pathway called Lent.

25 February 2015

Addressing the Millennial Church Question - Lenten Devotional 2

We are in the first full week of Lent.  It is a time for intense introspection and for watching where and how the Spirit is moving today.  For this reason, I want to direct you to this blog post asking why millennials are not attending church.

It doesn't beat around the bush.  It addresses one of the issues I have struggled with in my love/hate relationship with the way children's and youth ministry has been done for many years.  I have felt since I was young that inter-generational ministry is of utmost importance.  The majority of congregations simply don't know how to do this anymore.  I have heard our elders often wonder why the sanctuary isn't sacred to the younger generations.  It may partially be because, as the blog author reminds us, children and youth have usually been found in the basement of the building while the adults do church in their own way in the sanctuary. 

The future isn't as bleak as it appears in the aforementioned post, though.  Through Sunday School, VBS and Children's Church, our younger generations have learned to connect with the Divine through music, movement, nature, creative endeavors and outreach mission trips.  This means that people around my age bracket are more likely to experience and express our spirituality in our everyday life, not just on Sunday mornings.  It does have the downside that we often do not really feel like we "fit in" on Sunday morning in a sanctuary or church building.  The question I think our congregations really need to consider is not "why aren't millennials coming to our church?" but instead "how are millennials connecting with the Divine, with other people and with the rest of creation?"

Perhaps, when we consider this, we may not be so hopeless when we look at the demographics of our church attendance.  It may be helpful for us to consider that through the Gen-X, Millennial and younger generations, God is at work in a different way than has been seen in recent history.  Belief in God is not absent, nor is spirituality lacking.  What our congregations might want to ask is how we can learn from our younger generations.  What might the Beloved have to show us through the ways our younger generations are doing "church"?

Our congregational leaders are realizing that without the funding of the younger folks, our buildings may crumble.  They may be sold or downsized or shared. But the truth of the matter is, church has never been about the building.  It is about the people.  Perhaps, through the younger generations, we are being reminded of Emmanuel -- the Presence of God is in our midst, in our everyday lives, in our hearts.  The church building and the structured organization may seem to unravel in the coming years, but the truth is Church will remain, for Church is the people of God revealing Christ's love to the world.

Here in the theological zombie realm, we have been working on remembering who we are and why we are here.  This is the fundamental question that we must ask if we are to be infused with new life.  Although it is a question that we all must ask ourselves individually, it is an essential question for the group that is called the Church.  Who are we?  What is our calling?  How is the Beloved working through us in the world today?

Take heart, dear ones.  This is not the end.  It is simply the birthing pangs of a new creation being infused with the Breath of the Holy Spirit.  The Church is remembering who we are called to be.

The American church is obsessed with reaching millennials. Well, at least we are obsessed with talking about it. I’m not entirely convinced we really want to reach them, or…

19 February 2015

Lenten Devotion 1 - What are we Giving Up?

On this second day of Lent, we continue our centering, prayer and devotion.  Many have chosen to give something up for the next forty days until the rise of Eastertide.  Choosing to give something up has long been a way of showing special devotion or respect to our Beloved, or of re-aligning ourselves with Christ's purpose here on the earth.

I recall one year while I was in college that I gave up worrying for Lent.  This took a great deal of energy at first, demanding a large portion of my attention and resolve.  I worked very hard to let go of my need to control the various aspects of my life.  

My marriage, my studies, my work, my ministry, my future, my health, my family -- all of these things were often on my mind swirling in a jumbled mess of worry, chaos or despair.  Each one had to be intentionally released into the arms of One who Loves.  It was sometimes a moment-by-moment act of trust and letting go.

This was incredibly difficult at first.  Somehow in my daily living my mental hands had become like the rubbery tentacles of a giant octopus, tightly wound around each particular detail of my life, then suctioned on with super glue.  I wasn't prepared for the pain in the process that came in the beginning as each individual suction cup was pried away from its treasured possession.  The act could be likened to the detailed work of getting a sweet kitty's claws unstuck from a dearly loved crocheted blanket.  Each fiber in the yarn and each individual claw has to be handled carefully so that the blanket and the kitty both remain in tact.

Photo by TheoZomB
As unprepared as I was for the difficulty of this fast in the beginning, I also was not nearly prepared for how much it would become second nature by the end of the Lenten journey.  I did not realize how much my prayer life would shift after that Lenten fast from worry.  Years later, this devotion still has an impact on my life.

So, when I read today that Pope Francis has a different sort of fast in mind for devoted followers of Christ across the globe, I paid attention.  I have often been finding myself struck by this leader's wisdom and grace.  Today is no different.  Followers of Christ are encouraged to give up indifference for Lent -- to use this time to connect with the pain and suffering of the world.  If you read my Ash Wednesday post, you will see how closely aligned he and I are in this perspective.  I greatly appreciate the way Christopher Hale of Time writes of Pope Francis' invitation:
"...when we fast from this indifference, we can began to feast on love. In fact, Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again. Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—certainly showed us the way. In him, God descends all the way down to bring everyone up. In his life and his ministry, no one is excluded."
Fasting opens us up for feasting.  Lent is the perfect time to learn how to love again.  Truly, it is a time to remember who we are.

So, dear ones, what are you giving up for Lent?  Or what are you taking on?  No matter what it is, my prayer is that our Lenten devotions may bring us closer to our Creator, closer to one another and closer to the whole of creation.  May this be a time of letting go of our old ways of being; may it be a time of remembering who we are.

18 February 2015

A Service of Ashes

Ash Wednesday is one of the most powerful days of the Christian year.  We remember that we are, indeed, mortal beings in a finite world held together simply through the breath, grace and love of our Creator. On Ash Wednesday, everything and everyone is laid bare.

About a decade ago, one of the little babies that I nannied, (the first tiny infant I had held since my own miscarriages) died on Ash Wednesday. I received the news at the end of my preschool teaching that morning, only moments before the noontide service was to begin upstairs in the church sanctuary. My parents were meeting me at the service. My dad look at me when I walked in and he knew what had happened. The sweet infant's heart surgery that morning had gone terribly wrong.

My dad held me close to his own heart as we remained in the narthex listening to the familiar Ash Wednesday liturgy -- words that had swept over me from my own infancy years. We cried together over the poignancy of those words reflecting on our mortality and the suffering in the world. My parents and I walked down the aisle, an aisle we had walked down together in joy only a few years before as I married my high school sweetheart. I walked that aisle knowing that, for me and for all who loved that little baby, nothing would ever be the same.

Walking down that aisle, I faced mortality head on. As I received the sign of ashes on my forehead, the senior minister and I looked at each other through bloodshot, tear-filled eyes. His voice was a trembling whisper. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Even in the midst of my deepest shock, those words struck me to my core.

Now, a decade later, the words strike deeply again, as only a couple of months ago, I held my father's ashes in my hands before they were laid to rest on a sunny day in the midst of winter.

On Ash Wednesday, we remember our mortality. We remember the suffering in the world. We acknowledge our fears, our shortcomings and our sadness.

In our remembrance and intentions during the Lenten season that begins today, we speak of death without hesitation. We cry out at the pain, suffering and injustice in our world. We walk the road of shadows, pricking our fingers on the thorns and getting down on our hands and knees in the mud and muck of life. We remember who we are. And in so doing, we open ourselves up to the possibility of breathing in new life.

The joy and triumph of Easter means nothing without the sting of death. So, my sisters and brothers, may we not be hasty to embrace the light. Walk with me along this road of shadows. Let us stumble together along the pathway of Lent.

05 January 2015

Can a Zombie Fly?

It is an intriguing concept -- the idea that a zombie might be able to sprout wings and fly.  Perhaps it is an unrealistic hope or a pipe dream.  As I contemplate the last few months, however, this time that has now passed since my father died, I am beginning to wonder.

You see, dear ones, it feels as though I have been in a place of cocooning.  At the time, that is to say - in these past six months - I have often felt more like I had lost my way and was stuck, frozen even, in a dark space of anger, grief and despair.  Some degree of perspective has come now, and I anticipate more is on the way.

I am beginning to read again, to laugh a little more heartily, and to breathe a little deeper.  Getting through the first major holidays without my father being physically present, and walking the steep hill towards the interment of his ashes were important steps towards this shifting.  My eyes and mind both feel like they are gaining focus.  My physical body even feels like it is prepared for more mobility, stretching and moving forward.

I suspect that experiencing the darkness of grief and withdrawing from serving in public and private ministry for a time was necessary for my personal and professional growth.  It has been cocooning time.  Although I may not be fully prepared to exit the present darkness, the walls of the cocoon are becoming more transparent.  Perhaps this means my zombie self is shedding an old way of interacting with the world.

"The Old Self" - Photo by Trista Wynne

I am reminded of Paul's words in his first letter to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child.  Now that I am an adult, I put childish ways behind me.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known." (1 Cor. 13:11-12)

I cannot know yet how this experience has shaped me, or how it will continue to do so.  I only know that something rather significant has changed.  In time, I trust that more will be revealed.

Again I wonder: can a zombie fly?

Once more my heart is brought to the Scriptures, this time to an interaction between the Eternal One and the prophet of old named Elijah:
The hand of the Eternal One came upon me, bringing me out by the wind of the Spirit and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. I was led all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. The Eternal One said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Eternal One, only you know." (Ezek. 37:1-3)

 Can a zombie fly?  Only you, O Beloved, only you know...

06 October 2014

The Dark of Night

In the darkest portion of the night, just before the world shifts on its axis to allow light to begin to filter into the skies, the sounds of shuffling is heard.  Halted breaths and deep sighs of anguish are expressed.  Another night's sleep has been disrupted by the vague awareness of pain.

It is the time of the month where my brow furrows at the reality of womanhood.  I sigh again, roll my achy body out of bed and into a pair of slippers so I can tend the flow of the moon.  Now my mind has begun to move.  There is no returning to the comfort of sleep.

As I prepare the morning brew and watch the sun rise over the horizon, I am struck by the constriction of abdominal musculature.  It reflects, in many ways, the feeling that has gripped the top of my sternum over my heart chakra since hospice was brought in for my father a little over three months ago.

The morning progresses.  I start a load of laundry and play with my kitties.  Watching them roll on the floor I find myself chuckling at their playful batting and pouncing upon the soft woven portion of an old shoe lace.  They lift my spirits from the darkness and pain.  I am thankful for the joy they bring to my day.

© TheologicalZombie – All Rights Reserved.

Within the hour, I am shocked and amazed at the swiftness with which the strands of darkness of the night leap forth and entwine me once more.  Something that would normally seem like a small bump in the road, a little miscommunication over the phone, has now depleted my energy supply.  I find myself in the familiar terrain of the zombie virus.

For a time I am hungry for retribution, relying on the rudimentary and reptilian portions of the brain that cause us to be reactive rather than proactive.  Fighting the viral sinews causes physical and emotional exhaustion.  I am spent: a teary, snotty mess, curled in a ball on the floor.

In this moment, I am incredibly vulnerable.  I am glad no one sees me this way.  I am at home.  This, generally speaking, does not happen in public.

It did, once.

When my father was in hospice care, the heartbeat rhythm of the sacred drum as my father-in-law and husband played and sang a mourning song elicited such a response in my parents' home.  The same came out in the public sphere of our church when that song was played at my father's memorial service.  That may be the only time I have shown complete vulnerability in public.

I consider this, the revelation of the bare nakedness of the soul, a gift for those who were there with me.  It is a deep honor to be in the presence of total vulnerability.  It means that the people and the place are perceived as safe enough for the armor to come off.  In such spaces, where the soft underbelly of human experience is welcomed and encouraged, the zombie virus loses its power.

This can be the gift of the church, if we will only let it.  If we make ourselves aware of the spiritual, psychological and physical needs that those who are grieving, then we will be better equipped to be perceived as the light and love of Christ in the world.  If we will not be afraid of the dark night of the soul: the deep, agonizing pain of grief, then we will aid in spiritual healing.

My prayer today is that perfect love will cast out our fear so that healing might be felt within the walls of the church.  May this come to pass quickly, in Jesus' name.  Amen.