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Tabling the Ashes, and Other Religious Choreographies for an Insightful Pandemic

Are you pausing to learn or just trying to get through as fast you can? How much of what we used to call “normal” is worth trying to retrieve? What’s one big “take-away” insight from living in the midst of this pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?

Could we agree that we all just need to take a huge nap before trying to build a new world together and that it might be useful if we all took that nap at the same time?

I think I’m inching closer to a big take-away insight from all this, and I’ll share it below, but I’m intrigued by the intermediate steps to get there, the coping and fussing and experimenting and adjusting and canceling and scheduling and revising—all the time! (Did I mention a nap would be nice?)

I’m also intrigued, having returned to fulltime parish ministry, to find my capacity for innovation strengthened by turning frequently to my grounding in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. This is not unlike the old aphorism about jazz piano—learn your scales first. I used to say something similar in the seminary classes I taught on systematic theology—know first how to operate the interlocking gears and gadgets of doctrinal claims before trying to spin off those whirling bits of novel God-talk.

As many clergy have been discovering (while others are actively denying it), there are some things we can no longer do that we once thought we simply must do for effective liturgy, or more severely, for a “valid” sacrament. I continue to be grateful for my formation in what many consider the “rigidities” of liturgical tradition precisely because they shaped my sense of why we do what we do—and therefore how to omit those things responsibly by either replacing them with something else or inviting people to pray through the gap.

I still have a lot of thinking and pondering to do on the implications of liturgical leadership during a pandemic, but I feel the strong need to write these things down, even when they’re not completely formed. I worry that our (understandable) eagerness to “get through” this pandemic will mean rushing past the many lessons to learn and even “gifts” (if we dare use that word just now) of this peculiar time unless we take the time, right now, to record some of it.

As we lurch into Lent (remember a year ago when we were looking forward to being back in church on Easter—I mean, last Easter?) I’m thinking especially about two broad, gestating insights that could inform how I “do liturgy” even when we begin to gather again in person.

First, don’t pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t.

And second, creed and confession are more entangled than I realized; I’m not sure yet what that means, except it has something to do with healing.

So here a  few observations about both of these, and then a note or two about that bigger “take-away.” And I would love to hear from others, lay or ordained, about your experiences of church over this last year, either in conversation with these insights or others.

Everything is Not Okay and That’s Okay for Now
When I first arrived to Saugatuck, Michigan after driving across the country from Berkeley, California last summer, I kept wanting to create video productions for worship in my new parish that mimicked as closely as possible “real” church. After a few weeks of that labor-intensive effort, I began to wonder what in the world was “real” about church to begin with. I also started to realize that I was trying to pretend everything was still “normal,” except for being online.

Everything is not, of course, normal; hardly anything is, actually, and I stumbled into a space of liberation and relief by acknowledging that to myself and then saying it out loud to the other clergy and lay leaders in the parish. That freed up my energy to start noticing, prayerfully, just how not-normal things are and what this means for we pray and worship.

This past Ash Wednesday is a case in point. I considered, briefly, some of the clever and ingenious ways I was reading about from other clergy for how safely to impose ashes on foreheads, including sprinkling them on tops of heads instead. But I noticed again the hankering in my pondering for pretending that everything is normal when it isn’t. I also couldn’t imagine how anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality right now.

Ludovic Florent Photography

I decided to keep the ashes as part of the live-streamed liturgy that evening, but only in a crystal bowl that sat on the altar. They will sit there for the whole season of Lent, not as a reminder of our mortality but as a reminder of the promise God always makes at that Table: to bring new life out of death. We will then sprinkle those ashes around the parish memorial garden on Easter morning.

During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I blessed the ashes in their little altar-bowl with these words, borrowed and adapted from the Scottish Episcopal Church:

Living God of renewal and hope,
in their life palms draw sustenance from the Earth
and give of their own vitality to the air we breathe,
and to the animals they host and shelter;
in the worship of this community,
they help us mark with joyful anticipation
the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his death:
Grant, O God, that these palms now reduced to ashes
may remind us of the mortality we share
     with your whole creation,
and may also stand as a sign of your love,
     which is stronger than death.
May we recognize that love at work in us even now,
replanting our lives in the sure and humble soil
of your grace and generosity.
We pray all this in the name of Jesus
in whom you have become one with us in our mortal flesh,
and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Presiding this morning at our Eucharistic liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent, I was quite moved to see the little bowl of ashes on the Table as I prayed that we might all “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.”

Creedal Confessions for Healing
For reasons I cannot yet fully articulate, this pandemic has heightened my awareness of the intimate relationship between what I believe and my failure to live fully the consequences of those beliefs. This has caused me to reflect in new ways on what I learned many years ago in seminary: not only sins or faults but also beliefs are items we confess, and both types of confession might actually play a significant role in our healing, both individually and corporately. (That’s a dense sentence because I’m not sure yet what I really mean to say.)

Reflecting in this way prompted me to wonder whether connecting belief and failure more closely in our liturgical language might assist us in deepening our shared sense of trust in God’s presence among us, as the Creator, the incarnate Word, and animating Spirit. “Trust,” after all, is probably the best synonym for faith.

I’ve been working on such a “creedal confession” for some time, and I’m considering using the following draft for our midweek service of Evening Prayer:

I place my trust in the creative power of God,
   maker of all things, known and unknown,
   source and sustainer of life;
       and I confess my failure to respect the dignity
       of every creature God has made.
I place my trust in the Word of God incarnate,
   who gathers us as a mother cradles her children,
   as a father who binds up wounds,
   as a lover who mends broken hearts;
       and I confess my share in the patterns of violence
       that fragment, divide, and harm.
I place my trust in the Divine Spirit,
   who animates the whole creation
       with the breath of life,
   drawing together all creatures
       with the assurance of forgiveness,
       the promise of healing,
       and the hope of communion.
Receive my trust, O God of endless compassion,
and strengthen me for your service. Amen.

Those two insights will continue to evolve, no doubt, and they can stand on their own as “keepers.” But we also just concluded a weeknight adult education class here at the parish (via Zoom, of course) on Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. I knew that Julian had lived during of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe; I had not realized that her entire life was spent encountering wave after wave of that disease.

“Lady Julian,” Evelyn Simak

And yes, I knew that Julian had a remarkably unswerving confidence in both the love of God and the goodness of creation in the midst of unspeakable bodily horrors. All shall be well—she didn’t merely hope this, she insisted it was true. Jesus told her so.

More than all of that, Julian-via-Fox has done something to my thinking right now that feels, if not “new,” then fresh. It’s this: the imperative to notice and address the links between and among climate change, this current pandemic, racism, sexism, misogyny, matricide, and patriarchy, all in a single “mystic-prophetic” posture.

I do believe the world’s religious traditions were made for just such a time as this—for just such a time, that is, for rooting ourselves sufficiently in those traditions to innovate.

Now, about that nap…

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Fresh Hope from the “Cold Storage”

A walk-in closet was tucked away in a basement corner of my childhood home. My parents called it the “cold storage.” It was always cool in there, even during sweltering, summer days in the suburbs of Chicago.

The Cold Storage was lined with shelves, most of them packed with canned goods – baked beans, peas, tuna fish, cranberry sauce. Boxes of dried milk and oatmeal and canisters of flour and sugar lined the lower shelves. The coolness of that space was soothing, a brief respite from a late-August heatwave, and the stocked shelves comforting, blunting our nuclear anxiety over the Cold War with the Soviet Union.food_storage1

Mom and Dad kept close tabs on those shelves, monitoring the inventory, checking use-by dates, replacing spent supplies. I grew up watching this routine, in the 1960s and 70s, occasionally afraid of falling bombs but reassured by the vigilance of my parents, our shared hope safely stashed away in the Cold Storage.

The Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviets became Russians again in 1991. As a young adult, I looked back with chagrin on all that ambient anxiety in my childhood, not to mention the absurd confidence we placed in a basement supply bunker. I also learned that my parents hadn’t been saying “cold” all those years, but “coal.” That little closet had at one time stored coal for the furnace when the house was first built.

smokestacks2I chuckled, a bit ruefully, at the irony: we stored supplies for a war we would not survive in a room built for a fuel that burned us into a climate disaster few of us will survive if we don’t live differently, right now.

And right now I sit in my comfortable California home wondering how far away North Korea is and whether any of its missiles can reach the Pacific shoreline sitting just a few miles from my house.

Nuclear weapons and global warming tap a familiar anxiety and dusty memories. I recall that “cold storage” in the basement with a nostalgic comfort. No matter what might happen, I often thought as a child, at least we have those supplies, and Mom and Dad will make sure we have plenty of them, all of them up to date.

Where does my hope reside today?

More than one answer occurs to me, but I prefer just to say “church.” It sounds so old fashioned, past its shelf life, but I breathe more deeply on my way to worship, walk less hurriedly climbing the church steps, smile at familiar faces and receive hugs from longtime companions, some of them newer. We all gather in our collective Cold Storage, this one warming us in the light of day. We dip into some old, well-worn supplies, often delighted by how fresh they taste, grateful for a bit of comfort food.

We sing together, pray, listen carefully to ancient texts, gather around a shared table and open up the canned goods.

So ludicrous, really, to tend so carefully to these patterns and that building and those people. There must be better things to do with my time and energy.

I never thought like that as a child, as I watched my parents unlatch the door of a strange room and survey their stock of hope. The Cold Storage feels warm to me today, stocked with love and compassion and resilience — fresh bread from Heaven and the life of God.

I stand in it, week by week, certain that it wouldn’t protect any of us from a nuclear war or the effects of climate change; but I couldn’t live without it.

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Good Shepherd, Berkeley

 

 

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Keep on Dancing

I know some churches where lots of dancing happens on Sunday mornings.

I know some gay dance clubs where lots of praying happens on Saturday nights.

Turntables

For many years, I failed to notice the deep intertwining of these spaces, the blurring of the categorical lines and boxes that supposedly mark the difference between “sacred” and “secular.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that treated dancing with a great deal of suspicion and attended a college where social dancing of any kind was forbidden. Even after setting aside that religious perspective, I mostly overlooked the glittering sparks of divinity flying off the sweaty bodies of gay dancers and the spiritual glow of otherwise dingy warehouse clubs where we all felt safe, safe enough to be ourselves.

No, more than that: I learned how to be myself in those clubs. I learned friendship and devotion, comradery and betrayal, ecstasy and grief. I kept my sanity on those dance floors in times of anguish and with friends and lovers who likely saved my life more than once. I understood far better what Christian liturgy meant on Sunday morning – and why I should bother going – by dancing with all those other queers on Saturday night.

For years I enjoyed dancing in gay clubs for more reasons than I appreciated at the time. The light of that appreciation dawned brighter one night some years ago on a dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I wrote about that night in my book, Peculiar Faith, and how odd and transformative it was on that particular night and in that particular place to feel completely at home in my body with all those other bodies. With few exceptions, we weren’t dancing as couples that night but all together, each of us dancing with all the others. It was one of the few times in my whole life when I felt, without any doubt, that I truly belonged somewhere.

I felt the Gospel, in other words. I felt the Gospel residing securely and cozily in my very own body.

I don’t mean that gay dance clubs are perfect slices of Eden. They aren’t, and neither are churches. But I did at least touch and taste that night what I have come to believe is the very hope of Christian faith: to be completely at home in our own bodies without any shame, completely at home among other bodies without any guilt, and completely at home with God without any fear – all at the same time.

Experiencing “home” with that kind of depth is sadly quite rare and perhaps becoming rarer still in a world of so much fragmentation and isolation and violence. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the peculiar faith of Christians can rise to meet these yearnings for home; more oddly still, most churches could use some help in that work from gay dance clubs.

From eighteenth-century English “molly houses” to twentieth-century nightclubs, LGBTQ people have persistently carved out spaces of safe haven, gathering with others often at the risk of physical harm. Far more than venues for drinking alcohol and finding sexual liaisons—though that happened too—these spaces of homeward longing catalyzed shared reflection, strategizing, and deep bonds of affection. All of this redrew the cultural and political map of Europe and the United States.

Someone else just recently noted these things about queer spaces as well – the President of the United States. Responding to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Barack Obama noted that gay bars stand for more than dancing; they provide places of “solidarity and empowerment.”

That sounds like Church, or what church could and ought to be. Consider what a friend of mine reported hearing from a speaker at the vigil held in Oakland, California, the night of the shooting. “When they kill black people, they kill them in church; when they kill gay people, they kill them in the clubs.” A voice in the crowd then responded, “sanctuary is sanctuary.”

The purpose of terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, is to terrify us and divide us. Queer people have known this for a long time – and still we gather. The earliest Christians knew this too; and still they gathered to celebrate the mysteries of faith, often under threat of imperial persecution.

This is scary stuff – the very stuff of terrorism. Yet as a wise colleague of mine once said years ago, “You cannot do Christian theology from a place of fear,” he said. “The only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.”

A second-century Christian said mostly the same thing by declaring that “those who do not dance do not know what is coming to pass.”

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, there are many steps we must take to heal and to guard against still more violence. Whatever else we do, though, let us make sure to dance – and hold hands, and share hugs, and kiss each other.

Dancing is not a luxury and it is not frivolous. Dancing is the bodily necessity of joy and the rhythm of courage. And still more: While LGBT people dance for a host of reasons, a thread of commonality weaves all of it together. In a world of oppressive social structures, unwelcoming religious institutions, and constant threats of violence, we dance for hope.

This – in addition to having lots of fun – is why I find dancing with other LGBT people so compelling. We do live in a world of rampant bigotry, physical insecurity, and risks to personal safety; and still we dance, and at times with joy shaking loose from our bodies and gratitude lighting up our faces.

I dance and I see the luminous presence of God.

No shame.
No guilt.
No fear.

Keep on dancing.

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