The Performance

I was reading through something just the other day, when I came across one of the statements of practical theology with which I disagreed most strongly in some time. I hit a fair amount of bad theology – I live on the internet, where the Bad Thinking Mines are – but this particular line really steamed my lobster, enough that I needed to comment on it.

The sentiment was that “worship is not a performance.”

Now, I need to be clear with my biases – I was a theater/performance kid in high school and early college. I’ve been to see more plays in my twenty-nine years than most people will go to their whole lives long, what with the season tickets at four Pacific Northwest theaters in the late nineties and early oughts. I love theatre. I love performance and performing. It’s a part of my matrix that I will never overcome.

Even so, I have a definite stake in the “anti-performance” school of worship, especially as it concerns music. I recall the first time I ever saw a “praise band” that was so loud and so overwhelmed with what they were doing, musically, that the intent of the remainder of the worshippers was unimportant. I’ve been known to deeply and genuinely enjoy what is still, somewhat erroneously, called “contemporary” worship – some of the best worship experiences of my life were one-guitar praise music on an overhead projector.

This is the thing with which I am not down. Where’s the center? The musicians.

So I agree with the sentiment this far – that worship is not, cannot be, should not be, a performance by leaders or musicians for congregations. The purpose of a pastor is not to entertain, but to facilitate or lead. The purpose of church musicians is to point our hearts to God, and not to show off. It is for this reason that I am not a church applauder – it shows up from time to time, but applause (distinct from clapping) in worship really doesn’t work for me.

That said, whoever says worship is not performance is dead wrong.

Every Lord’s Day that we gather together, we are performing*. We are preparing ourselves to do a thing, to act out once again a very ancient script. All the pieces of our service of worship are laid out, and we read and sing and listen and speak once again out of the old, old manuscript. Note those words – a service of worship. Who are we serving, with this service? Are we so self-centered to think that it is merely our own congregation? By no means!

Worship is a performance – it’s a show we’re putting on for God. That doesn’t make it less authentic, less real, or less heartfelt. If we can separate out our own egos and remember that everything we do, every word and gesture and note and breath and child’s cry is meant for – and beloved by – God’s ears, then perhaps we can approach God’s worship with a real attitude of joy.

I don’t know anyone that goes into a performance of any kind out of a sense of obligation. Every musician I’ve ever heard worth their salt, every actor, every athlete, started their career with joy. That’s the attitude I crave when I walk into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, not just for me, but for everybody, that we’re going to dive into our performance with both feet. I don’t care how well we sing or how well I preach or how well the kids pay attention. I care about the fun – the joy of being on the stage God has set up for us.

So, as I remember paraphrasing what I heard as a child, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet our Savior in the worship show – tonight!

Amen!

*This, by the way, is one of the only arguments that I find compelling for appropriate dress in worship. It has nothing to do with “respect,” and everything to do with costume. 

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The Sower

A few weeks ago I was hiking up at Chautauqua Park in Boulder. As we descended a hill, I spotted on the ground the fallen fruit of an apple tree. Mushed and rotting on the way, the apples were inedible, but I managed to leap up and snatch a fresh one from the tree, and I happily munched on it as we continued on our hike.

That was the beginning of a marvelous season for me, this late summer in Denver, as there are apple trees EVERYWHERE. Between my apartment and the church, there are at least three trees conveniently roadside – there’s one tree literally on my apartment complex’s property. On a daily basis, as I wend my way from place to place, I’m plucking apples from the trees and happily chomping on tart and sweet alike. I’m getting fiber and nutrition and an inordinate amount of joy from the simple act of eating apples along the way. 

Now, it is undeniable that I am a Westerner. I grew up in Paul Bunyan country (ol’ Paul’s pile of dirt from digging out the Puget Sound loomed over my mountain home – Mt. Rainier is a deep part of my consciousness), but I have always had much greater affection, personally, for Johnny Appleseed. 

There’s a lot of historical data about a man named John Chapman, which very boringly tells of a man who lived and worked in the lower Midwest. But the idea of Johnny Appleseed reached far beyond his nursery skills, and every time I take an apple tree, I think of Johnny Appleseed and of the spirit that, after the first pioneers passed through, moved the settlers to plant for the future.

Last Sunday, Priscilla Sanchez and I sang a song about planting seeds, paraphrased from a beloved parable of Christ. The thing that truly inspires me about that parable, though, is the idea of a planter who drops a seed in the earth that she will never see grow to fruition. Imagine with me, if you will, planting seeds for the distant future, planting seeds for the generations to come that have nothing to do with you. 

Could we plant God’s word this way? Could we share the Gospel and be ready to share the Gospel not for our children, or our children’s children, but for the unknown generations and strangers that will hold this ground long after we do? Some fifty-odd years ago, some settlers planted this congregation. See how it has flourished, how it still bears fruit for sojourners from far away! Can we plant the seed of the Word of God, seeking no harvest for ourselves, but dreaming of a day when neighbors and friends we don’t yet know will feast and be blessed by the work of our hands? 

I’m pretty sure that we can. 

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The Chasm

Pulpit Rock? Maybe?

Pulpit Rock? Maybe?

I love National Parks. I grew up going to school with park rangers’ kids not half an hour from the entrance to Mt. Rainier NP, and it was certainly monthly entertainment for my family to go hiking up the Nisqually valley. This last trip of mine was a four-NP run – Yosemite (an old friend), Great Basin, Capitol Reef, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, those last three all new stamps in my National Parks Passport. I didn’t see much of Great Basin, and you can see some pictures from Capitol Reef and Tuolomne Meadows at Yosemite on Facebook. But I was particularly struck – sharply so, by Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP.

After stopping in the Visitor’s Center and chatting with the attendant (and getting my Passport stamp!) I started up the Rim Trail, intending to hit the end of the road and walk out to the scenic northwest end of the canyon rim. I didn’t make it past the first overlook, which was called Pulpit Rock.

Or is this Pulpit Rock on the left?

Or is this Pulpit Rock on the left?

As I stood over the sweeping canyon, I couldn’t help imagining what it would mean to preach from this pulpit. I was reminded of St. Francis, sharing the good news to the birds of the air. Sometime, now I want to go back, to stand at that overlook and proclaim the Gospel – I’m not sure what stopped me, since the place was clearly built for it. Or, if I was feeling really crazy, to climb the pulpit rock you see on the left and preach from there.

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Yeah, those fissures seem…very cross?

As I walked away, I thought, great. Nice, theological stop. Now to the end of the canyon!

The next overlook was Cross Fissures. I pulled over.

I will confess that I could not see the eponymous “crosses” in the fissures. Or only just. Clearly, though, unless I’m mis-reading the meaning of the formation’s name, someone on the exploring crew, some grizzled trapper or miner, saw the Cross of Christ in the fractures of the stones.

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Devil’s Overlook, right next to Be’elzebub’s Viewpoint and the Scenic Highway of the Beast.

Okay, I thought. End of canyon! No more lollygagging!

The next overlook was Devil’s Overlook.

I pulled over.

Here my imagination overtook me. I could just imagine the Prince of Darkness, surveying his blood-streaked domain. If I painted a hideous cavern ceiling over my head in my mind, I could purely see the diabolical principality, and sketch screaming souls in torment at the base of the shattered chasm.

As I finally got in my car for the last time till canyon’s end (I gave Rock Point and Sunset View a pass), I thought about a phrase from my seminary days – “religious imaginary,” or, more to the point, “religious imagination.” I imagined, again, my trapper or miner or explorer, and how he saw in the shapes and fissures of the rock walls devils and preachers and the Cross of our Lord. I thought of a time lately when I saw faces in hillsides and animals in clouds, and how our religious imagination shapes our interpretations. Can we look into the stars and dare to see God’s story scrawled across the sky? Can we crack open a tomato and dare to see prayer beads? Can we look into the face of a homeless man begging on a street corner and dare to see the face of Christ?

I challenge you this month – give your religious imagination free rein. See where God is touching and shaping your life and the lives around you, as an early Colorado pioneer saw the hand of God in the carving of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

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The Trailblaze

On Saturday of last week I got roped into going up with a10422670_728048740591995_1510864702_o
group to do some trail work at Genesee Park, west of Denver in the hill above (and I mean RIGHT ABOVE) I-70. We were working with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, one of the cooler and better-organized non-profits I have ever encountered. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 volunteers showed up – we were divided into teams of eight. I could tell you all sorts of cool stories about various parts of the experience – the pure joy of being in the mountains, the familiar sight and scent of douglas fir, the delight of honest sweat in worthy manual labor, but the thing that really caught my mind was the endurance – the deliberate creation of something lasting and meaningful in our transitional world.

The hillside where we labored was subtly covered in old road grades and other signs of human habitation. I thought of the last two centuries, and who with horse or mattock or spade had cut into the earth, “to make” as Kipling wrote, “a path more fair or flat.” I thought of the history of human relationship with this land, miners and trappers and traders. I thought of its current purposes – a new trail to lead from campground to vale, where the bison roam on the hillside above the roadway.

As my pulaski dug into the hillside, pulling down the crumbling dirt to make the bench of a level trail, I thought about my parents. How I would drag them up the freeway into the foothills and walk them on a trail that my dad could manage, mostly flat, no stairs, and point to a few hundred feet and say “This. This was my section. Here’s where I pulled that infernal stump. Here’s where we rested and ate lunch. I made this. It will last.”

I love the building of lasting things. My words on my blog or on my papers will scatter – preaching is an inherently ephemeral act. We speak, and our words vanish into the eternal aether. Taking up axe and mcleod, though, and blazing a trail – a soft place in the earth where folks can find their way, something that lasts…

I’m very fond of this story, one that I think the church needs to hear more and more often. As American Protestants (and I worry, also, about the non-denominational, here) we do not think in these terms. We do not ask what it is that we will build that will last not only through the next pastor, but through the next century. Our mission as Christians is immediate and present – it is also eternal. What gift are we leaving to our grandchildren that will inspire them with a sense of our faith? What path are we laying to guide their feet in the Way everlasting?

I’m not sure, yet. I hope we’ll figure it out soon, though.

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Inspired, or The Day of Pentecost

A little more than two years ago, I was Image
ordained at a service at Mineral Presbyterian Church in Mineral, WA. As part of our process, I commissioned from my family a stole in honor of my ordination, and two banners for Mineral Presbyterian. I’m wearing the stole today, and you can see in this picture the Pentecost banner. the figures in the image have individual flames of fire (Acts 2:3) over their heads.  These tongues of flame are the sign and seal of the Holy Spirit, descending on these disciples. They begin to preach, and in such a way that all who heard them, from many different parts of the world, all understood. The Holy Spirit rested on them, and they were empowered to speak.

After a long struggle with and through the New Beginnings process, we are, today, celebrating the end of the beginning. The discernment is done – now comes the work. We ask, also, that as the Spirit descended on the early church and commissioned them to proclaim Jesus Christ to all the world, that God might send the Spirit on us to live out our new mission. We share with you today this new mission in statement form, a new call to the ministry that we are already doing, and hope to do in the near future.

As St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 
our mission is to share Christ’s love across boundaries
of age, language, ethnicity, and class. 

We have many dreams and plans and ideas and hopes about how this new mission may look, but we ask you to pray with us today that God will bless the mission as we have received it, and that the Holy Spirit may inspire us to new work and new love with our neighbors, across many boundaries.

Pray with me, friends, for the Holy Spirit, and its inspiration, that we may do wondrous things together in Christ’s name.

Amen!

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The Memory

I had a very small (miniscule) debate with some sisters and brothers in Christ on the subject of Memorial Day a few days ago, and I don’t mean to gloat too much, except that I was TOTALLY RIGHT. It’s a problem system-wide in our society, that we’re not really entirely sure what our holidays, especially our civic holidays, are for. Especially when we talk about things like “Labor Day” and “Memorial Day” and, in Boston, “Patriot’s Day,” we’re not quite sure what’s going on, really, except that there are BBQs and beach days and leisure. More on many of those others later, but I wanted to say a word about Memorial Day, and its particular weight and meaning.

You see, on Sunday, I walked after worship up the hill to Fort Logan National Cemetery. I had no one on my personal list (although I was just informed by my father that I may have relatives there), but a few names of folks in the congregation. I had no gifts or flowers to lay – just my own prayers and words. I said hello to a few fellows I had never met, my heart and mind full of the interment of my grandfather, and the friends that I buried in Goshen, New York. I thought of my Canadian heritage, remembering the poppies that would be laid on Remembrance Day in Britain and France and British Columbia and across the Commonwealth.

Remembrance Poppies from Canada, with a soldier’s photograph

I remember the CDs that my dad would play every Memorial Day, especially John McDermott’s Battlefields of Green, and Charge!, which I cannot find online. I think of the Ashoken Farewell from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary and of the songs of our people, and of the loss of our soldiers from this country and its allies.

And that’s what I mean to say today about Memorial Day. We have a day for the celebration of all those people who died – there’s an app for that. But on Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives in service of this country, and those who, having served, have since died. It is a day to remember the graves of of servicewomen and men, soldiers and airmen and sailors who bought for us the precious freedoms of our society. Disagree with a war, disagree with a policy, say that our freedoms are under threat (they are), but these people gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

So if you haven’t yet, visit the grave of a loved one who served, or a memorial to a long-forgotten war. Remember the cost of our nation, and the cost of our freedom, and hold those things precious. Cling to them, and remember.

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Solo Pastors in The 21st Century Church

revmmlj:

An interesting read – what do you all think? What would it look like if I spent less time fishing, and more time teaching y’all to fish?

Originally posted on achurchforstarvingartists:

My denomination defines “solo pastor” as one who does not supervise other blue_solo_cuppastors on a church staff.  He/she might supervise organists, educators, office administrators and sextons, but – at least according to the PCUSA – he/she is not a “Senior Pastor” or “Head of Staff.”  In other words, a solo sings alone.

Increasingly, there are more and more “solo pastors.”  (Attention Multi-Pastor Congregations:  this might be your future.)

According to 2012 PCUSA statistics:

  • About 3100 congregations have less than 50 members
  • About 2400 congregations have 50-100 members
  • About 2200 congregations have 100-200 members

Of all those congregations with 200 members or less:

  • About 3200 of the churches have an installed (‘permanent’) pastor
  • About 2600 of the churches have a temporary pastor (temporary supply, stated supply, interim, supply preacher)
  • Almost 2000 of the churches have no pastor at all (so they rely on guest preachers each Sunday and a neighboring…

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