“Let us pray” and authority

A former worship professor of mine wrote a great (if slightly ranting) blog post the other day about the theological and practical difference between “Will you join me in prayer?” and “Let us pray.”  That post sparked a lot of Facebook discussion, which prompted her to post three other really good blog posts.  If you’re like me, you’ll like a lot of what she writes (or at least it will make you think), so you should just check her blog out.

That whole discussion has stayed with me.  Some of those who mentioned not liking “Let us pray” noted that it is a command.  Although the language technically is one of invitation, I can see why people experience it as more command-like.  But it has me thinking about authority.

This morning, as I was doing yoga, my online video teacher repeatedly said things like, “please go into warrior pose” or “if you want to, join me in this pose.”

This evening in German class, my teacher asked us about every 10 minutes what we wanted to do in the class or if we liked the exercise we were doing or if we would rather do something different and what we would rather do.

And all that has me thinking again about authority.

There are times when I want (dare I say, we want?) to have someone lead me (us?) with a firm (though not tyrannical) hand.  There are times when I voluntarily give authority to my yoga instructor and my German teacher, and I want them to tell me what to do next.

Sometimes I think we in certain segments of the church shoot ourselves in the foot by shying away from taking authority or allowing others to have that kind of authority.

Don’t get me wrong — I know of many ways that power has been and continues to be abused, inside the church and outside of it.  But we do ourselves and other church members a disservice, I think, if we allow that abuse of power to be our only example of leadership and power — if we give up understandings of authoritative speech altogether, leaving them only to those who pervert those understandings for selfish ends.

I am convinced that there is place for loving direction and voluntary submission.

So maybe… maybe “Let us pray,” is an expression among many possible expressions of that kind of loving direction, exercised for a particular time, granted by the calling of God and the assent of the people, voluntarily submitted to by others, and held accountable to Christ and Christ’s body.

On Children… A Teaching Philosophy?

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

~On Children, Kahlil Gibran

I’ve been thinking about a teaching philosophy and trying this on for size… reading “students” in place of “children.”  I’m not sure this quite captures it — I’ve not played with it enough yet.  But it does capture something about  being firm in one’s own identity and subject matter, while also allowing room for the hand and aim of God, as well as the identity and momentum of the student.  It does begin to speak to the need to remain humble in the presence of an ultimate impossibility of being able to name an ending point.  At the same time, it  encourages the teacher to take her role seriously, being honed at God’s hand into the best, most stable, and yet most flexible bow possible.

What do you all think?

Quicksand, zombies, and the church

This morning I listened to a RadioLab podcast about quicksand that began with the observation that children in schools are not afraid of quicksand, though people of their parents’ generation were.

The reporter, in his work to discover why this changed, noticed that the height of use of quicksand scenes in movies was in the 1960s.  Whether this was a cause or an effect was not conjectured, but the reporter noted that quicksand references were present in many of the biggest cultural concerns of the time:  MLK, Jr. talked about the quicksand of racism, there was a concern that the moon landing might literally end up in lunar quicksand, and the Vietnam War was likened to quicksand.  RadioLab postulated that the rapid change of the era had people fearful of getting stuck and overwhelmed in unfamiliar territory, making quicksand a compelling image of collective anxiety.

At the beginning of the piece, in almost a throw-away aside, the reporter asks the children this question: If you aren’t afraid of quicksand, what are you afraid of?  Not surprisingly, one of the quick answers was zombies.

So this, then, is the question that has been following me this morning:  If one of our strongest images of collective fear, analogous to quicksand in the 1960s, is zombies, what is the church doing to combat (or, from another perspective, redeem) our “zombies”?  What about “vampires”?

Go ahead and laugh.  I did, when I first thought of the question.  But the more it stays with me, the more I think it’s begging for a serious answer.  Are we being the kind of church that has an answer to “zombie apocalypse”?  What might that kind of church be like?

Sabbath delight

I am thirsting for rest — not just for rest of body, but also rest of spirit. I thirst for a chance to step out of my important work to remember my true place in the delightful work of God. So tomorrow I am determined to begin a Sabbath practice again.

In preparation for that, I am looking again at my practice from a couple years ago. It was inspired by a class on Sabbath in which we read, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath, an exquisitely beautiful book. He writes about Sabbath as a gift of a sanctuary in time, especially needed today in the midst of our modern attempts to bend time to our will.

I was also inspired by Marva Dawn’s book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, in which she works with a Christian understanding of Sabbath to identify four movements in the concept of Sabbath: ceasing, resting, embracing, feasting. With this emphasis, she works to counter the misunderstanding that Sabbath is about prohibitions and obligations by drawing connections to the wholeness and joy that can come from attuning our rhythm with God’s.

Given all of that, I’d like to share the way in which I have imagined and practiced Sabbath (can you tell I’m a list-maker?). This is but one possibility among many, it is specific to my own spiritual needs and life, and it is a practice in progress. In hopes that it might inspire your own practice or that it might inspire you to share your own practice with others…


Day before Sabbath:
tidy apartment (put all work, lists, books away; put everything in its proper place, take out trash if needed)
shop for any groceries or supplies needed (including creative or cooking supplies)
finish any work that cannot wait a day
do all of this with care and intention — as preparing for a guest

To welcome Sabbath:
attend an evening worship if possible
pick a Sabbath quote to post on Facebook, close out all internet activities
make tea
turn on music
light candle with prayer (naming any worries and giving them to God for at least 25 hours; thanksgiving for creation, love,…; welcoming and dedicating the Sabbath)
enjoy tea, candle, music until bed
if desired, think through possible activities — being careful not to attach schedule or expectations on any of them
go to bed, don’t set an alarm

anything that feels like work or has any pressure to perform or produce
using money
scheduled activities, looking at the time
internet and screens
worries and lists
things that make me sad or heavy

outside activities, physical activities with no pressure
cooking playfully
eating intentionally and slowly
prayer and other ways of connecting with God
reading for fun, piano and music for fun
activities with others
playing with cats, play and laughter in general
writing letters (with no pressure)
God hunt (where have I seen God in the last week, where do I find God today…)
general delight
favorite foods (in moderation)

End of Sabbath:
light candle again with prayer (thanks for Sabbath, work, and rest; dedication of work week)
Sabbath ends just before bedtime — set alarm for next day
try not to check e-mail or Facebook (or do work) until the following morning

By far, the most important (and difficult) practices of this have been the lack of schedule (and the freedom from clocks) and the freedom from work and screens. The quality of the space that opened up in me because of these practices was astounding, balancing, and joy-nurturing.

But the hard part is that Sabbath is not utilitarian — it’s part of the foolishness of faith that only makes sense through experience and in the framework of God’s Story. So on the eve of my first Sabbath in a while, I find myself anxious and needing to summon all my courage in order to let go of my grip on my work, schedules, lists, clocks, internet…. I feel as though the world might just fall apart in the next 25 hours… and maybe without all that stuff I won’t actually know who I am… and yet, by God’s grace, I am determined to dive in anyway, sensing the call of Christ to jump in the deep end on this one. Who knows what wonders I might discover there.

One of the things I remember most clearly from the class on Sabbath is this: if I wait until I have time for Sabbath, I will never do it. There will always be more good work to fill the time. The very act of setting apart time for the Holy within the weekly will reorient all time, but beginning must be a leap of faith.

So here I go… I’ll be back in internet communication on Saturday morning. Until then, I leave you with a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

And a question: What do you or would you include in your Sabbath practice, ritual, and spirit?

Questions Reframed, #1

I mentioned in a previous comment that I find myself needing to reframe the typical Protestant questions / debates before I can articulate Church of the Brethren beliefs. Because I have studied ecumenical theology, I understand the questions, but the questions themselves don’t quite make sense in a Brethren context. So, here’s the beginning of a series on “questions reframed.”

Typical question: Which is more important, faith or works? Which comes first, grace or works?

This question is often thought of in a justification / sanctification framework, almost in a court-based paradigm or a mathematic formula. Lutherans and others say grace and faith, of course! Catholics and pietists might put more emphasis on the human works in response. Most everyone agrees that grace (in whatever form) comes first or is the precondition for all human goodness.

But I find myself tongue-tied when I try to answer the question framed in this way. Here’s what I want to say in response…

An acorn grows into an oak tree. What’s more important in the growth, the acorn’s potential and “action” or the sun/rain? Which comes first in the growth process, the acorn’s potential and growth or the sun/rain’s nourishment?

A child and a mother are connected. Which is more important, the child’s personhood and action or the mother’s love? Which came first, the child’s interaction with the mother or the mother’s interaction with the child? When the mother teaches, which is more important, the response of the child or the teaching of the mother? Can you really parse out where each love starts and ends and which love is more important or came first?

I guess what I’m saying with all this, primarily, is that if we think in terms of more organic processes, we don’t have to have a “first” or “more important” but can recognize that somewhere in the space between, the dynamic process happens such that beginnings and endings, firsts and lasts, gives and takes get all mixed up. That, I think, is where God is.

So perhaps a more fitting question is “What is the nature of the dynamic process between God and humans?” or “In what ways can we understand and experience ourselves as part of the flow of grace that connects us with the divine?”

God-talk and dancing

NuDunkers are gearing up for another conversation, this time about how Church of the Brethren folk do our God-talk. The brothers and sister who have so far commented on this have written beautiful and impassioned and historical statements about the Church of the Brethren’s mode of doing most of our God-talk and God-knowing with our bodies — through our service, our witness, our rituals. There are solid historical and theological (and even cultural) reasons for this, many of which are explored in other places and more of which will be explored in the conversation on Thursday (more information here about how to be involved).

This aspect of our tradition is one of my very favorites — we know our theology in our bones before we can articulate it (and in ways we could never articulate). Because of our depth of practice, our theology springs forth like streams of living water from within our common experience.

And yet… I want to provide “the other side,” perhaps more of a vision and hope than a description of what currently is. In the Church of the Brethren, I believe we are now being called to do more thinking, writing, and speaking of our God-talk. I believe that (as evidenced by the NuDunker conversations themselves) God is inspiring in Church of the Brethren members a move toward being able to articulate our beloved traditions in service to the denomination and broader church.

May it never be that we replace our practices with theologizing. May it never be that we flatten our rituals by explaining the life out of them. May it never be that God-talk becomes something that some people do and others do not, rather than being shared by all. And, God help us, may our theology never keep us from loving or being fully in the world, from encountering the mystery of God and the beauty of the daily.

But my experience is that, far from shutting down mystery, beauty, ritual, and discipleship, God-talk that follows joy and awe continually finds itself opening and stretching toward God.

People from the outside are increasingly looking to this ritually-rich tradition, and first we must say “come and see!” but we must also be ready to account for the hope that is within us — ready to uncover together the stirrings of mind (as well as heart, soul, and strength) that are present within the tradition and to seek together the Spirit’s “new thing” among us.

If we are in danger of losing our ritual, it is at least in part because we have not done the theological dance of interpretation that can be an opening for the Spirit to breathe new life into the church. I hear often that study easily becomes stale and keeps us from moving forward. This can be true, certainly of study that is disconnected from devotion and life. But equally, brothers and sisters, practice that is done “just because we do it” can become stale and can keep us from moving forward. Who among us has not heard a brother or sister say “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as a way of closing a door on new possibilities?

Theology and practice are inextricably linked, and either one becomes anemic without the other.

To most of the broader church I would say, put down your theology texts for a while and just live into the ritual and communal life. Let your body do your thinking for a while — seek to experience faith like a master carpenter knows the wood, like music lives in the body of a passionate pianist.

To the Church of the Brethren I say, let’s talk about what’s meaningful to us in what we do. Let’s think about where and how God is in our midst in and through our practices. And, more than that, let’s open a little more room to experience study, learning, and God-talk as devotion and as a dance with mystery.

I read a quote this week that resonated deeply with me — from Serena Jones (a systematic and constructive theologian) a description of how she senses her work in theology in relation to faith:

“In those moments when I am most thoroughly immersed in teaching such things, it feels more like I’m dancing or story-telling or even playing a vigorous game of soccer or poker than engaging in something disembodied and abstract. What is very clear to me, in the midst of it all, is that doing systematic theology is itself a practice — a form of engaged knowing, a disciplined habit of body and mind, a patterned action, a way of embracing the world that is as embodied and ritualized and traditioned and improvisational as any of the other forms of ‘practical know-how’ more typically associated with practical theology.” (For Life Abundant, eds. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass)

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to gather the gifts of the people of God, affirming the worth of all members of the body and encouraging the gifts of all members for the building up of the body. To marginalize a study or articulation of theology, in my mind, can easily perpetuate the same excess (just in the other direction) as ivory tower elitists marginalizing congregational practice.

In truth, all our seeking to know God, all our devotion, all our lives and practices can be caught up in the divine dance of the Trinity. By the grace of God and with the use of the very best of our gifts, this, over all, is what we should seek and continually open ourselves toward experiencing.

(PS, here are the blogs of fellow NuDunkers on this topic:
Discipleship not Dogma by Josh Brockway
Yeoman Theology by Brian Gumm
Ritually Rich by Dana Cassell
Living Theology by Matt McKimmy

And here are a couple other posts that I’ve already written that connect with this one and give a fuller picture of my own understanding of this issue:
Paul and Practical Theology

NuDunkers Meet Prodigal Christianity, The Sequel: Throat Clearing and Corrections

Almost two weeks ago now, the NuDunkers had another hangout conversation, this time with the authors of Prodigal Christianity, Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch. In my world in the mean time, finals happened, along with the quilting-hibernation-letdown of the weekend after. While I’ve been away, the discussion has continued… You can catch some of this discussion at the first five blogs listed in my sidebar, including a post about how to join in with the NuDunker thing, if you’re interested. You can also watch the hangout itself here: NuDunker Chat: David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw

Much of the conversation (and reflections on it) revolved around language, especially Lordship language for Jesus and Kingdom / Kin-dom language, and many have contributed eloquently to that discussion. I don’t wish to explore that too much more here, except to say that one particular statement I made during the conversation has since plagued me and struck me as untrue. I said that Kin-dom language is incapable of bringing about the transformation it seeks. I do have strong feelings about the well-intentioned impulse to declare certain words off limits in the name of tolerance and forward-thinking (see Authenticity for really beautiful articulation of the need for poetry in response), but I know many people for whom Kin-dom language is creatively transformative, and the proof’s in the pudding on that one! My own reasoning for Lordship and Kingdom language is in my previous post about the book. Also, I appreciated the various reminders that language is always contextual and always provisional. See also a previous post here about cataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing that get at some of my beliefs about the importance and slipperiness of language in chasing after this elusive God of ours.

I’ll soon be posting a couple of different musings that have arisen for me in the “aftermath” of the conversations, but for now, consider this a long, overdrawn, and sophisticated *ahem*. ;)

Jesus is Lord! Therefore…

Prodigal Christianity coverI have been reading the book Prodigal Christianity written by Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch, both professors and pastors of Life on the Vine in Chicago. In it, the authors engage with Emergent and Neo-Reformed models and theologies, both affirming and seeking to go beyond or correct them, in favor of a missional model of church that has, at its core, the central affirmation of the Gospels: Jesus is Lord. From there, the authors develop ten signposts of the church in mission, encountering today’s cultural realities.

I read this book from within a primarily progressive Christian context (among my seminary and church colleagues), and thinking much about the realities of urban Boston, a beautiful and very secular city, carrying (as all cities do) much need for reconciliation. Given that context, I found this book to be a refreshing alternative to the extremes I so often see in church life. On the one hand, people are tempted to cling to certainties, close down discussion in favor of proclaiming unchanging truths, and take up a defensive posture. On the other hand (and this is the one I see more often in Boston… have been tempted to, myself), people enter into endless discussions in which minds and hearts are open but the particularity and power of faith in Christ is watered down in favor of “getting along.” Prodigal Christianity offers a language and theology for engagement with others that claims and is witness to the affirmation that Jesus is Lord (and all its implications), neither apologizing for that witness nor forcing or coercing others to accept that witness.

A word is needed here about Jesus as Lord. I have many friends who do not use words like Lord, King, Kingdom in relation to faith. I agree in part with their assessment that those words tend strongly toward the patriarchal and hierarchical, and so I use them with caution. However, as the authors suggest in Prodigal Christianity, the Lordship of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, far from upholding systems of oppression, when understood rightly shed light on how far short earthly systems fall of the model of Christ. This Lordship is a relational one that subverts all hierarchical lordships. This Kingdom is one of reconciliation that subverts all kingdoms built on oppression. If our affirmation that Jesus is Lord sets up divisions, justifies imperialism, or upholds injustice, we have not, in fact, recognized Jesus as Lord but have rather, once again, set ourselves up as lords. If we are truly recognizing the Kingdom of God, justice and reconciliation will be our way of life. God help us all to step that fully into the Kingdom!

Now that we have that out of the way… Geoff and David provide signposts that are just practical enough to be grounded and just theoretical enough to be freeing and flexible. They set forth a model of church that encourages mutual submission and transformation, under Christ, its Head; a church that makes justice a way of life (and not just a set of programs); a church that gathers around central rituals (like the Lord’s Supper) that form a community and shape a bone-deep practice; a church that reaches outward from a place of fearless love and desire for relationship and reconciliation; a church that is neither relativistic nor dogmatic, both courageous and humble. And all of this they base on the affirmation of Jesus’ peculiar and life-giving Lordship.

They set forth a vision of small communities providing an alternative lifestyle together, a counternarrative to the dominant societal narrative. As the mainline church moves increasingly to the fringes of societal influence and gives up the last of its vestiges of hegemony, the vision they have given language to here provides a way forward that sets the church apart but does not alienate it from society. This is a delicate balance, however, as those of us in Radical Reformation based denominations can easily recognize — not one that is easy to do well. So the question this book leaves me pondering is this (especially in relation to the Church of the Brethren): How does the church enact its peculiar faith and life in such a way that it does not edge toward isolationism and make itself irrelevant? How does the church enact its radical, local, communal witness without inadvertently building of its “city on a hill” a fortress instead?

Thank you, Geoff and David, for this thought provoking book. You have given clear and relevant language to a theology I hold dear, and you have provided a vision for practice that allows for that theology to bear fruit in the world.

All you readers of this blog, if you’re interested in knowing more about this or getting other perspectives on this, watch the NuDunker hangout and join the chat conversation, live on Friday at 11am or watch for a link to it to be posted here sometime next week. Geoff and David, the authors, will be joining four of us CoB folks for that conversation.

Other people who are blogging about this:
Andy Hamilton at Hermes Table
Josh Brockway at Collationes
Dana Cassell at Authenticity

The authors’ blogs:
David Fitch at Reclaiming the Mission
Geoff Holsclaw at For the Time Being

Broken Yet Beloved chapel service

Andover Newton Chapel Services

Above is a link to the recordings of Andover Newton chapel services. I was invited to design and lead a chapel service on March 13, and I chose (thanks to some comments of NuDunkers rattling around in my head) to explore the theme of confession and reconciliation, especially as those are embodied in community. My preferred style of worship is to center it around a ritual/symbolic action that is connected vitally to a scripture (or sometimes a story), so there is no official sermon here. The video’s not great and the sound is really not good… but you get the idea.

As always with things I share here, feel free to use any of it. Just give me credit for any words you quote, and drop me a line telling me about it (if you use a whole service or a large concept).

Thanks in this service goes also to Korte Yeo (the monologue actor), Enid Greenhouse (directing consultant for the monologue), Burns Stanfield (the pianist/music director), Willie Sordillo (the saxophone player), and Gerald Liu (the acting director of Wilson Chapel and the person I bounced my ideas off of).

One more musing for tonight…

…a thought I might’ve posted on Facebook, if I hadn’t given it up for Lent!

All you Brethren out there… heck, all you Christians out there…
I think we should revive the practice of calling each other sister and brother.
Just sayin’.

And now I shall sign off and wait for it to catch on… cuz that’s how it works, right?

Or maybe I’ll just wait for you all to theologize about it, since I don’t really want to do that kind of highfalutin stuff tonight.
(By the way, according to M-W.com, highfalutin is the correct spelling of the word that means… well you guys know what it means.)