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Losing My Song

I have lost my song, as you can tell from the nearly 2 year break between the last post and this. In re-reading, I think I was on to something…and perhaps I will come back to it. But it’s a process, and one I’m not sure I want to take.

In the two years since I last posted, I went to a new church where I worked for about 8 months. When I was summarily dropped from the praise team, it really hurt–no one seemed to notice I was gone.

Ultimately, that’s what life on planet earth really comes down to, but it made me realize that I probably could never work at another church again. It doesn’t mean that my ideas for creative worship are gone. It just means I no longer have a place to express them.

Not sure what is next. Is there a reason to keep this going? Should I remove it all and imagine it as never having happened?

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I can remember being pretty little–four, five maybe. Digging my fingers into the dirt in my mother’s garden, my sisters pudgy hands playing right next to mine, her face (and likely mine as well) covered in streaks of mud. We “helped”, you know. Helped with the planting, helped with the weeding, with the harvest.

In those days, the farm was about 40 acres of horses, steers, cotton, and alfalfa with a little garden patch. As multi-generational agriculturists, my family was somewhat offended by the idea of Earth Day. In our world, where the land and the animals were a sacred trust, every day was earth day.

People who live in cities think they know more about how to protect the world than farmers and I will admit that the two or three corporate farms in America are not really doing their part. But the real farmers and ranchers, the men and women I grew up with, protect the earth from you every day.

Did you know that agriculture is truly the green buffer between the city and the wild? I mean, bless you, if you are a city-dweller, for trying to do more–for recycling, reducing your carbon footprint, buying locally, etc. But look out there and tell me that if the city ended at the edge of wilderness, and not in agricultural land (as most cities do), that you would be able to better protect the wilderness from yourselves?

Instead of having to worry about it, you have a buffer zone cared for by thousands of people who love the land in a way you can never imagine. You can argue if you haven’t been there, but I can tell you that the farmer and rancher loves the land like a family member. Don’t talk Monsanto to me–talk about the folks whose children have dug their hands into the black soil and eaten the produce from that same soil. Talk about the people who get up with the chickens every morning to make sure you have food on your table. Talk about the new farmers who are leaving the city for the truly better life in the country, many with absolutely no idea that the endeavor is as heartbreakingly difficult as it is heartily worthwhile.

Talk to me about the G.B. Olivers who, long before any study proved it to be a good practice, methodically rotated his cattle from pasture to pasture for the good of the grass. Talk to me about the Willie Koenigs (and other multi-generational farmers) making material changes to reduce water usage in their irrigation and packing procedures. Talk to me about the Tom Spaldings, creating alternatives to pesticides by breeding good insects–all without government influence or interference.

(Yes, you’re right–the government has stepped in to make some improvements in these areas. But don’t forget that it was the government who originally gave us things like pesticides–and who convinced the farmers that they were safe!)

So have a very happy Earth Day! Re-examine your priorities in light of what you can do in your life, be it country or city, to protect the earth. Have a happy Earth Day, but never forget that for about 2% of the population of this country (the two per cent that keeps you clothed and fed), every day is earth day.

 

The Prick of Doubt

Here is an excerpt from one of the papers in my Masters Portfolio which I think has some interesting things to say about what might be emerging in this movement of God (very much from my personal perspective). I apologize for the length of some of the paragraphs.

The Prick of Doubt

Something strange happened to me in 2005. I woke up. I realized I had changed, that my heart and life were different, that my spirit was awake to the world. It started with a trip to the mountains, and ended with a piercing. And in-between, I found a new identity in doubt where I had once found my identity in faith.

I drove up I-25 past Santa Fe, NM, deep in conversation with my friend Jennifer, wondering aloud about my doubts for the first time in many years. We were attending a Gathering of like-minded believers who broached many topics which were not being explored consistently through the mainstream church. Being at the Gathering felt like sitting next to a well, drinking deeply of the doubts and uncertainties that troubled and defined my own faith, and finding a wild collection of other believers (and many non-believers) who were as interested in the questions as they were in the answers. This open expression of doubt turned me on. A crisis of faith I had been submerging suddenly burst to the surface and was welcomed into the light. I was given an opportunity to express my uncertainties and the strange ideas I had harbored about faith. And I was surrounded by fellow seekers: evangelicals, published authors, atheists, and theologians who were all embarked on their own spiritual journeys through doubt. As the week progressed, I felt a growing and desperate need for some physical manifestation of my internal change. I wanted to pierce something.

An acquaintance recently told me that this preoccupation with body art as spiritual expression is very postmodern. I can’t back that up with scholarship, but I can tell you that I became obsessed with finding a symbolic representation of the changes in my spiritual processes. In many ways, I’ve embraced a postmodern view of belief: I’m more interested in the stories of faith experiences, I’m willing to deconstruct how we come to our beliefs, and I’m more vocal about the need for the church to truly help people and involve itself in social justice issues. So I wanted something that could be seen as both a postmodern expression and a spiritual one, something that would allow me to explain myself to both the secular and spiritual worlds I inhabit.

Identity and Belief
Can a believer’s identity be separated from her faith? I recently asked a version of this question in an online discussion forum peopled by doubters, believers, seekers, agnostics, and others interested in the conversation happening within a movement of Christianity called the “emerging church.” As the rhetoric of faith evolves through post-modern, post-colonial deconstruction, the conversation must include the way in which believers identify themselves and the labels that will be given to the new belief structures.

Many modern evangelical Christians follow the traditional belief that an unbroken lineage of faith began with Abraham, continued through Jesus and culminates in today’s believer. Individually, evangelicals tend to imagine that their identity of faith corresponds to a moment in time, the moment they were “born again.” The emerging church offers a different perspective: that faith is not a static thing, but flexible and changing, an opportunity to explore all that being a believer might mean to an individual, and should include the evolution of beliefs over time as more questions are asked in the search for God.

Personal identity is tied to the public/political groups of which an individual is a member, according to Renato Rosaldo, and as such the development of identity is more likely to be a process of evolution than the product of a single crisis event (118-119). Rosaldo writes that the process of identity can include a person’s “entry into already established social processes” (119), which, in the case of the believer, might include either the established church, or a movement such as the emerging church. The movement provides a “consciousness-raising” aspect as it allows its members to discover “that their individual issues were in fact collective” (119). Newcomers to the emergent conversation often express surprise that they are not alone when they encounter a member blog or discussion forum. The move from difference to acceptance opens a channel for communication that in many cases has never existed before.

Among the tenets of this new form of faith, an important theme is replacing dogmatic language with more accessible, plain spoken words. I can remember riding in the truck with my father, taking his version of The Good News Bible from the dashboard. As we drove to horse shows, we read. I learned to read aloud from that simple rewriting of scripture. A more recent version, The Message, has taken the idea of simple language and incorporated slang and cultural re-interpretation of certain passages to make them more understandable in a post-modern context. The Message has been heavily criticized by the evangelical church, critiqued as using “terms…analogous to those used in New Age and Occult literature (MacDonald, 1).”

Conversely, the exclusionary language of the conservative church has been dubbed “hate speech.” Many of us have come to agree–not that the intent behind the words is hate, but that the exclusionary nature of the words makes them analogous with hate speech. The Jesus that I follow doesn’t exclude people, but instead is known for his tolerance and welcome. The way I express what I believe (or doubt) should be as easy for my best friend, who is Hindu, to understand as it is for someone raised in the same religious tradition as myself. But my friends who remain in the evangelical church worry that I have opened the door to heresy, that I may be swayed from what they sincerely believe is the only way to experience God.

Scriptural Piercing
The ad begins with images of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most of the businesses that are shown are tattoo parlors or piercing salons. Other images show people with obvious piercings, close-ups on a piercing or tattoo taking place, or clear tattoos. Some of the people in the images speak, as if answering a question: “Because I like them,” “It’s a way that I can express myself,” “Because it hurts.” The question has obviously been “Why?”–why inflict this pain, why undergo the needle? As the image of the man giving the final answer (“Because it hurts”) fades, the word “pierced” emerges on the screen followed by a crucifix.

Piercing is a spiritual concept, whether within the context of my Christian tradition or in any of numerous other religions. The book of Isaiah, taken by literalists as being predictive of Jesus’ crucifixion, says “he was pierced for our transgressions” (NIV Isaiah 53:5). And Jesus was indeed pierced in many ways–by the nails that were placed in his wrists and feet, by a centurion’s blade when he was discovered to be dead. The ad implies that Jesus’ experience creates an affinity with someone seeking self-expression through piercing or tattooing. Long before I saw the ad, I had determined that I would express that prick of doubt, that gorgeous, excruciating passion, with a piercing. So I began looking for a scriptural reference that would let me base my decision in both sides of the world I inhabit.

In the Hebrew scripture, ear piercing represented lifelong servitude (NIV Exodus 21:6). In modern Christian parlance, the phrase “my ear has been pierced” is often symbolic of a way in which God might communicate with the believer. Unfortunately, pierced ears are purely ornamental in our American culture, so getting my ears pierced seemed meaningless. Then I rediscovered the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac, Abraham’s son, sent a gift of jewelry to his future wife, which consisted of a nose ring and two bracelets (Genesis 24:22). The nose ring seemed symbolic of a promise, a relationship, perhaps even the potential of love. I made the decision to pierce my nose as a symbolic love offering to God.

Piercing my nose was looked on as a triviality by some and a sinful mutilation of my body by others. One commenter on my blog called it a “new circumcision” (Whitewave, October 20, 2005). The little old ladies at church looked askance, questioned me and, in some cases, lectured me. To this day, my mother will not take a picture of or with me. And yet for me it is nothing more than a physical manifestation of this feeling that I am changed, that I am more myself. It ties me to my faith. It ties me to my life outside of church.

Coming out of an evangelical Christian tradition, my evolving sympathy with postmodernism has made me suspect in the churches where I used to worship and work. When I decided to pierce my nose, I also decided to stop self-identifying as a Christian. I still have a desire to follow the teachings of Jesus, I still believe in “God-capital-G,” but I no longer feel the need to view God through an evangelical lens, or to believe in a divine Christ. Changing the vocabulary for myself has been confusing.

You see, who I am–how I explain myself to the world, what I see when I look in the mirror, what my friends reflect back–is all tied up in what I believe. Am I really any different? I have a nose-piercing which represents something that I felt change in my spirit five years ago. And yet I have described that moment as a re-awakening, which seems to imply a return to something already known. Am I discovering/rediscovering the self I have always been? I seem different to myself. I seem more myself than ever.

As of today: the distance I’ve come in five years can’t be marked by a pierced nose or a change of heart but by something I see in many churches that are embracing the change from within–a safe place to ask questions and express the doubts. We’ve had that safety in this group. Now, perhaps, we are girded ourselves to go back into the church at large and provide a safety net for others.

Some of you may know that I am once again playing with a praise band at a church. Well, we won’t go in to that. This post is about slam poetry.

One Saturday night a few weeks ago, the video following the music was a slam poet doing scripture. Good stuff! The pastor happened to be playing drums that night (we are a talented bunch!), and I slipped over behind the fiberglass and whispered, “We should do that.”

In the weeks since, we’ve talked about it several times. The thing is–I could wing it, but I really want to learn this!

So here’s an interactive question for all four of my readers: what should I do? I know Mark Scandrette of “Soul Grafiti” fame is a great slam poet within the EC movement, but I can’t afford to bring Mark to us. Should I call up the local university slam poetry team and see if they would teach a workshop? Or is there someone else in or coming through Albuquerque or the surrounding area who would want to help a sister out?

This is something I don’t want to teach. I tend to be an overachiever in all things creative, but this is one thing I want to learn. I want to learn it and practice it. I want to bring it to our services. I want to encourage other people in our congregation to flex their creative muscles. But I don’t want to “figure it out.” Your ideas would be most welcome.

“One of the reason sinners are so eager to be at the table is because they’ve been excluded. What if inclusion is what makes transformation possible.”

If unity is going to be possible, it will only because we love. I’m so thankful for this sweet, southern lady who came to us and spoke truth today. I will allow her words to speak:

“Saving is God’s business. Loving is our business.

“Your personality is not who you are. What if we focus on the personality of the church and miss who the church really is?

“Forgive your brothers and sisters so that we can all come to the table as brothers and sisters.

“Clergy, we need your help.
Layity, the great gift of liminal space is that it teaches that we can survive not being in control.

“Clergy, preach the gospel for goodness sakes.
Layity, quit getting mad at them when they do.

“Clergy, be as holy as you can be.
Layity, let this be your definition of holy: Holiness is having an open heart and pure intentions. I thought “shoot, I can do that.” I was wrong again!

“We are all of us experts–it’s OUR church! let’s allow something new to emerge. We are going to have to be patient and work together.”

If dualism is indeed as bad as we claim, perhaps we should find a scriptural way to define what it is that is better. It seems plain to me–that solution is “unity.” And I was very glad to find that at least one of our conference speakers understood the importance of returning to this idea.

Brian’s lecture was titled “Unity beyond dualism…” Yes, elipsis and all. For the first time all day, we took a peek at what we all actually claim–faith based in a certain canon of scripture. No matter how we interpret or view that document, it is the starting point of all the rest of the agreement or debate.

Brian talked about how Paul had to learn, from Jesus’ teaching and example, that dualism was completley unacceptable in this new paradigm. But he didn’t do it by bashing those who disagreed with him (take note, Richard Rohr). He did it by simply pointing out what scholars love to philosophize today: that differences don’t really exist! (scholars would say that the differences we perceive are constructs. Aren’t you glad I went to grad school?)

Paul, the most black and white thinker in the history of the early church, wrote these shocking words in the letter to the Galations

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But he didn’t just say it once–here is what he told the Colossians:

“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

But this conference is all about the “how”, supposedly. And Brian asked that very question. If we are going to reach this beautiful unity–a unity that is not “colorblind” but fully colorful and diverse–how do we do it?

The answer, Brian says, can also be found in scripture. Try 1 Cor 13, the so-called “love chapter.” Although this is read at every wedding in the history of evangelicalism, it was actually written to the church as a guideline for unity! Who doesn’t understand that? And yet, we see vitriol and lovelessness throughout the church and in all its guises.

If you haven’t read this chapter in a while, I recommend it very highly. Read and reread. Think carefully about what each line says, and compare it to those words from Galations and Colossians. Brian had us sing-chant the entire chapter and I’ve recorded a small sampling for you. It was lovely and heartwrenching and convicting. Let’s get back to this simple basic.

Oh my goodness I am going to pee my pants.

Yes, I am a little embarrassed to admit I was laughing like a five-year-old. Ted Swartz, one of the fabulous actors of the group “TheaterWorks” joined the conference yesterday and brought a new twist to some of the most over-sermonized stories in scripture.

He began as God, a hugely approachable being completely delighted by the possibilities of his latest creation. Next he portrayed Paul, an angry man still reeling from his experience on the road to Damascus and a bit shocked at his new calling. (side note: between this portrayal and Brian McLaren’s loving presentation of Paul’s writing, I am willing to give this commentator another chance. I haven’t read Paul in several years.)

Next Ted played Peter at the wedding in Cana. Oh, the Peter we all love…opening his mouth and inserting his foot. Peter who wasn’t actually invited, but was “called”…not so funny when you describe it, but absolutely beautifully rendered in comedy.

And then Ted was a cow. Standing in a field. Or perhaps a meadow. Eating, ruminating. Because, you see, we are all cows in a field. Meadow. And faith is like the hay and the grass. “Chew it up and pass it on.”

Sometimes we need to laugh–at ourselves and our idols. Sometimes our doctrines qualify as the latter.

“In the essence, centering prayer is almost idiot-proof.” The conferees titter, but Cynthia explains. It is an “inner gesture”, letting God know that you are open to any message.

“If you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go,” she says. It is a beautiful practice of letting go! What a lesson for me!

This type of prayer can help us recognize what we need to let go of in our “return to God.” As the centering prayer movement has taken off within the Catholic church, it seems to open a whole new way of thinking about things–not what people think, but how they think. It creates a capacity for “non-dual thinking”, embracing the both/and rather than the either/or. Sounds like a conversation we’ve been having on Facebook recently.

Apparently there is data on why this sort of meditation works this way: how we respond initially to a stimulus in the outer world is tied to which part of our brain reacts. In general, this is the reptilian brain, the deepest and oldest part of our brain. This is where we get violence and dualism.

However, if the brain is trained to open and soften, the neocortex gets involved much earlier in the stimulus-response process. Good stuff. (Is it possible to force violent people to practice centering meditation? That probably wouldn’t work; or at least it would be against the intention of prayerful contemplation.)

To be able to listen “through the still and open heart”–what a beautiful image! I am excited to practice this more. Cynthia compares the inner reality created by this practice to Jesus’ term “the kingdom of heaven”.

I’m not going to take the time/space here to discuss the historical nature of this meditative practice–nor am I going to get too much deeper into the issues of reality (spiritual sight of things “unseen”). But I welcome an opportunity to center. I’ll let you know what happens.

We opened with Veni Sancte Spiritus as prayerful chant, begun on the heart beat. By focusing on our collective heart and listening to one another, we wove a tapestry of sound that filled the room even at its most quiet iteration.

Welcome to Emergent Christianity, this year’s Emerging-Catholic offering from Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation.

“Slowly blooms a rose within/slowly blooms a rose within.”

As new layers of harmony are added, I can’t help but be who I am–more caught with the sounds than the message. However, I have some ideas about chants…ideas that seem to go against what I was taught as an evangelical. I would love to lead a chant like this with enough voices to cover every harmony (very softly, of course–not showing off voices, but allowing the notes to sing themselves), but for much longer than we sang them today. This is the sort of chant should continue beyond comfort, to and past understanding, to a place where something deeper might be reached by the supplicant.

There is something almost narcotic about this kind of music. It can lull or awake. Will you allow the moment to sweep you away?

Some of you know that I grew up in the church of Christ, a denomination which believes that by eschewing instruments in worship, they are reading the NT perfectly literally. Setting aside the theological issues, I know this–I appreciate a capella singing in a way that few others in the world can!

This past Sunday I joined my parents at their church and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me as the song leader blew into his pitch pipe and the congregation “tuned up.” Seriously. By the second or third note of each song, we had full four-part harmony, typically with no books or written music because they are now posting song lyrics on an overhead. It’s a new church plant with nearly 200 members and boy can those people sing!

For me, the purest moment in God’s presence happens through music. It doesn’t matter if I am signing, playing, listening to something, writing a song, leading worship or Christmas carols–God is there in a tangible way for me.

So it was quite a shock when a dear friend at a former church job confessed to me that she didn’t like music and found ways to avoid the “worship service” at our church.

That was the moment I became enthralled with the idea of immersive worship–finding ways beyond music to help people meet God in the same way I do with music. I’m afraid a lot of the worship pastors at churches don’t give much consideration to the people who are not musical. It takes more work than some worship pastors have time to put in, honestly. But I am dedicated to those ideas.

So I asked my friend what would help her worship. This particular lady loved to write short dramatic scripts. I worked with the pastor to create a position for her on the worship team in which she wrote and directed a short play or skit in every corporate service. Many more people wanted to be involved in her drama ministry than in my worship ministry! That was compelling to me.

Yes, I know. Drama ministries are not new. The big difference was that this one wasn’t slick, professional, or paid. Nor was it run by the youth group and simply tolerated by the church. It was fully implemented into each worship service and themed series. She called on different members of the congregation each week to be a part of it. Every piece was original–written by my friend or someone else in the congregation. We immersed people in the creative experience and week after week someone new asked if they could get involved.

Being creative doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel–maybe simply redesigning it to fit the group you work with.