Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Amazing Feasts of Comites Christi—Praying the Days after Christmas

Christmas comes and in our imaginations we surround the Incarnate Word, the Babe of Bethlehem with star struck shepherds and gift-laden star gazers. The church in its zig-zag evolutionary wisdom of praying with Christ discovered other “companions of Christ” (comites Christi) who confront our mix of culture and gospel with contrasting visions of Christmas: Stephen, the first Christian martyr, John the evangelist, and the innocent children whom Herod maniacally slew as the Holy Family escaped to Egypt.

These characters are like alcohol or hydrogen peroxide swabbed on a wound: they sting our easy and facile revelry with the surface of the Christmas story and invite us into the paradox and mystery of Emmanuel—God with us. They help us to confront our questions about all the things that don’t fit “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night, Holy Night.” In no way am I proposing that we should not celebrate Christmas with all of the riches of its popular traditions. But like the emerging practice of celebrating “Blue Christmas Services” with those who mourn and those who experience the nativity heavy with the sense of loss—loss of a child, a spouse, a parent, a marriage, a job, one’s health or well-being—these “companions of Christ” becomes lenses through which to see expansively the meaning of Christ among us. They expand the story to include our stories--and the diverse voices of those who are also the companions of Christ; sometimes the unlikely companions of Christ.

Instead of further prosaic commentary on these companions of Christ, I invite you to pray these “saints” whom the church has juxtaposed with Christmas. Indeed, they are commemorated on the second, third and fourth days of the twelve days of Christmas. What follow are prayers I composed a decade or more ago for use in The Daily Office of the Order of Saint Luke, Volume I (Second Edition published in November 1998. (See the copyright notice at the end of this blog.) I post them here with the kind permission of the Order’s office of publication.

As you pray, allow the unexpected and the unbidden to appear, dance, and come into your awareness as you pray.

Dec. 26—The Second Day of Christmas: St. Stephen, the Martyr
The feast of St. Stephen can be traced back to the 4th century in the East and from the beginning of the 5th century in the West.

Lord Jesus, when the teeth of rage and resistance threaten us,
fix our vision on you at the right hand of God.
With Stephen, make us free to yield ourselves to you
and ask for mercy upon those who would destroy us. Amen.

O God of stars and martyrs,
we wonder with thanksgiving at the Christian mysteries.
With Mary at the manger and with Stephen outside the city,
we ponder the paradox that we can rejoice and mourn at the same reason.
With the shepherds and the saints,
we bow in adoration at the wonderful exchange:
Christ’s blessedness for our wretchedness.
We give you unceasing thanks for your richness toward us,
and for the mystery that we remain in possession
of Christ’s own inexhaustible riches
though we be assaulted or suffer any hardship for his sake. Amen.
Based on a text from Fulgentius, 6th cent.

God of mercy,
in baptism you call us to share your cross and passion.
In the hour of extreme demand when our flesh and heart would fail,
be our strength and portion forever,
through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Dec. 27—The Third Day of Christmas: the Feast of St. John, the Evangelist
The feast of John the Evangelist also dates back to the 4th century in the East. John, whose symbol is the eagle, approaches the meaning of Christ Jesus, soaring in language of Word, Light, Grace and Truth.

O Mystery!
O Wondrous God,
we thank you for our revelation in the Word made flesh
and for the record of eye-witnesses
who declared what they had heard and seen and touched.
We thank you for the intimacy of community
with all in your church
as we abide in common fellowship
with you and with your Son, Jesus Christ.
We bless you for the forgiveness of sin and all the means of grace by which we remain in the Light. Amen.

Everlasting God,
in the Word made flesh,
we have seen your glory, full of grace and truth.
We rejoice today with John, your evangelist,
who declared the mystery of the incarnation
and wrote of Jesus with the eagle’s view.
Evermore bring us to believe in your son
and to have life in his name. Amen.

God of many names,
bring us again and again to know eternal life
by the One who is
bread from heaven,
light of the world,
gate for the sheep,
resurrection and life,
the way, the truth, and the life,
the true vine. Amen.

Dec. 28—The Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents
The earliest mention of the feast of the Holy Innocents dates back to the city of Carthage in 505. These companions have close connections with the stories of Christmas.

Lord Jesus, from your birth, you are “martyr-master.”*
We thank you for your love poured into our hearts,
even when we do not comprehend the darkside of your blessing.
In this time of Christmas joy,
we are grateful that,
when the darkness of the world comes
with senseless wasting of lives,
you make victims your dearest prize
and enable us to see “sweet heaven astrew in them.”*
Now hear us as we lift dark circumstances
into your holy and perfecting light:
the troubles and as –yet-senseless sufferings of our own lives…
all victims of abuse, political oppression, economic degradation and disease…
the people and leaders of nations who struggle in the world’s present darkness…
the people of God in our quest to be faithful…
those areas of our lives which we lift up asking for mercy and grace….
*Phrases from G. M. Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

O God of mercy and protection,
we thank you that you maintain the cause of the needy
and execute justice for the poor and innocent.
We thank you for every prompting of grace
that enables us to look beyond the shadows of present suffering
to see the Light of your eternity.
We thank you that a day will come when all victims and tyrants,
all innocents and terrorists,
will be “wound with mercy round and round”*
and every knee shall bow to the Babe of Bethlehem,
the Crucified Jesus, the First-born from the Dead.
We thank you for the vision of every tear wiped away and no more death.
Hear us as we pray for
all victims…
all who are advocates and defenders of the oppressed…
the prophetic ministry of the church…
those concerns that present themselves to us now…
*Phrase from G. M. Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

When we have tasted the “cup” of these companions of Christ in our prayers and musings, we return with the church in prayer and praises rejoicing in the festivities of
Christmases’ fifth through twelfth days with a deeper sense of the mystery of what it means to be the companions of Christ in our own time for this world.

The prayers above are copyright © 1998 OSL Publications, P.O. Box 22279, Akron, Ohio 44302-0079 (e-mail: They may be printed, copied, distributed, reprinted in church bulletins or newsletters, or otherwise used for nonprofit local church worship or education with the inclusion of the copyright citation. They may not be used for profit or republication without prior permission. They may not be reproduced on any website without permission, though other websites are welcome to link to them on this blog (

Dan Benedict

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Nativity Story—Digital Poetry 2006?

I skipped Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for many reasons, so why would I buy a ticket and sit through Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story”? In part because the promotional hype was less pushy and MO, my spouse, told me she had seen some good interviews with actors and others involved in the production.

Rather than say that I liked or disliked it, I’ll describe the film from my perspective and invite you to do what you will with it: compare notes if you go, or use this blog as a reason not to go. “The Nativity” is a montage with an overlay of Advent/Christmas sacred music subtly used in a way that reminded me as a viewer that this is a story told through the memory and imagination of the church over two millennia. True to this tradition of conflating the synoptic gospel narratives, the film “tells” the story with restrained imagination. Luke’s canticles (Zachary’s Song and the Song of Mary) are incorporated as speaking parts, but in ways that “sing”—especially the Magnificat at the conclusion as the holy family flees to Egypt over the “Moroccan” sand dunes (part of the movie was filmed in the magnificent but formidable sand dunes of Morocco). Keisha Castle-Hughes' voicing of the text used almost universally in Evening Prayer rekindled my sense of the robustness and emotional dimensions of this song.

In a world where people are more accustomed to cinematic story telling and “hearing” biblical narrative digitally mediated, this film is a moving achievement. Biblical scholars and knowledgeable Christians can and will criticize the abuses of the story (conflation and compression of the Matthean and Lukan events: for example, Matthew’s magi arrive at the Bethlehem cave on the heals of the Lukan shepherds, and Herod’s orders the murder of all Bethlehem’s boys “under two years old” within hours of the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, the film is artfully done and the poetry of the story comes through as a credit to “Hollywood.” In part, this is due to the director’s insistence on "stony" vistas and villages. One of my memories of several trips to Israel is the stony character of the land; no wonder the penalty for so many infractions of the holiness laws was stoning the offender to death!

There were some well placed and modestly nuanced additions to the story by Mike Rich (screenplay): the meeting of very pregnant and cold Mary with a shepherd who invited her to share the warmth of his fire (you know you'll see him again), the banter and teasing of the magi, and the real danger to Mary if Joseph had gone off on her for being pregnant by God knows who.

Am I glad I saw the film? Yes. I might even watch it again next Christmas, though I rarely watch a movie twice.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Art, Church and Life—“Breaking the Narrow Boundaries of the Infinite”

In my online class for pastors on presiding at the Eucharist a student referred the class to a church tapestry (his engagement with Rev. 12) and an related article[1] which contained this quote of Pope Pius XII: "The purpose of all art is to break the narrow boundaries of the finite, and open windows onto the infinite for the benefit of the human spirit, yearning in that direction." (Pope Pius XII in "Address to the First International Congress on Catholic Artist" Liturgical Arts 19 (1950), 3f.)

I replied to the student:

Even though the good Pope recanted this (or the more accurately the impersonal “Vatican” did so for him), I think in this statement he addresses your concern about right and left brain issues. If I am hearing you correctly you are saying, ‘Art, vesture, gesture, music, etc. used in the liturgy and in ‘charging’ Christian faith for the dialogue of the looking out and looking in function to ‘break the narrow boundaries of the finite, and open the windows onto the infinite for the benefit of the human spirit, yearning in that direction’?” Is that putting too many words in your mouth? [Is there any connection between this statement and his successor Pope John XXIII calling for the Second Vatican Council with the words "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."]

You do raise interesting and challenging questions related to the relationship of art and the Word. Certainly enlightenment Christianity and modernity's church has privileged the Word. That is part of what this course is about: attempting to discover in pastoral experience and practice the beauty of the Lord! It is about discovery that grace dawns not just through assertions in words and propositions, but in embodied, sensory expression--in enactment around public symbols. We who are ordained to preach the Word are also called to administer [lead the assembly in enacting] the Sacraments--the sacramental Word becoming flesh. If we don't do that and do it well, the gospel limps and our liturgical gatherings are blind and only mumble the good news that "human spirit[s]" yearn for.

The emergent church and its “emerging worship” approaches seem to yearn for worship and discipleship that “breaks the narrow boundaries of the infinite.” They seek art, symbol and semiotic play in “liturgical” life and in their dialogue with each other. Younger generations and those who are attuned to their spirit (a native postmodern orientation) seem to have developed a sense that to engage life we have to look through some lens at real things to “open windows onto the infinite.” If you go to it seems like everyone is looking through the lens of a digital camera. Much of what is posted is playful, even trivial, but the yearning is to see all of life and somehow get the pulse of the infinite incarnate in the day-to-day. Of course, the blatantly political is there in these days leading up to the election.

How does liturgy of the baptized become for us a graceful lens subverting the assumptions, values and commitments of the dominant, violent, consumerist culture so that we see alternative realities inherent in the gospel of God? Right brain reasoning can take us only so far. Left brain play and artful actions open the way for more adventurous possibilities. Is part of the reticence on the part of the current day churches to embrace the liturgy more fully a fear of such adventure and risk? Are the so called "emergent churches" toying with the ancient-future dimensions of liturgy precisely because of the “yearning” to “open windows onto the infinite”?

Daniel Benedict


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bread on the Table—The Hermeneutics and Politics of Daily Life

On the wall of our dining area is hand watercolor painting of a table grace enshrined in my memory and the memory of my birth and marriage family that reads:

Back of the bread is the Snowy Flour—
And back of the Flour is the Mill—
Back of the Mill is the Wheat and the Shower
And the Sun and the Father’s Will.

I grew up praying it at special and ordinary meals and recall it being described as “our family grace.” I treasure the painting all the more because my grandmother painted it.

In later years I have discovered a similar version by Maltbie D. Babcock, upon which “the family prayer” is no doubt based. I do not know where the family variants “snowy” and “Sun” came from.

What has struck me for years now is the kind of naturalist and “thick” perspective on grace and blessing that this prayer expresses. Instead of the direct causality of the Bible (God giving us bread—manna dropping down in the wilderness of Exodus and John 6), there is an appreciative recognition of the layering of grace and mediation.

In the office of Morning Prayer yesterday, the reading from Hosea 2 included words with a similar layering of words of coming restoration and hope to a promiscuous, now pummeled people:

On that day I will answer, says the LORD,
I will answer the earth;
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel;
and I will sow myself in the land.
And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah [“not pitied”]
and I will say to Lo-ammi [“not my people”], “You are my people”;
and he shall say, “You are my God.” (vs., 21-23, NRSV)

God speaks to the earth (what language?!) and the earth will speak to the plants and the trees and they will say, “God sows!” (the translation of Jezreel). For dramatic effect and to satisfy my enjoyment of story, I like Genesis 1: And God said, “ Let there be…” and “it was so.”

But as a sacramental people we need a mediated sense of grace—an appreciative wonder at the interrelationship of all things and of the mystery that in this web of life, the divine purpose is being fulfilled.

The Roman Catholic Eucharistic rite at the presentation of the gifts (the elements of bread and wine) presider and people pray:

Priest: Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. All: Blessed be God for ever.
Priest: Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
All: Blessed be God for ever. [emphasis added]

Again we name and experience this layering and mediation of gifts. God is involved in and through it all. And, the earth and the plants and the microbes and the interaction of sun and wind and rain have been involved. And, human labor has been involved—indeed farmers, truck drivers and grocers. And, migrant laborers exposed to the dangers of border crossings and pesticides and separation from their families. (See Daniel Groody’s “Fruit of the Vine and Work of Human Hands: Immigration and the Eucharist” in Worship (Sept. 2006, Volume 80, Number 5.)

“Back of the bread” is much more than antique poetry. It is, if we are willing to look deeply and pray dangerously, a reconceiving of how intricate and costly grace is! The bread and wine of the Eucharist are cruciform—they speak of a fullness and layering of grace: the paschal mystery of Christ’s dying and rising and of the mystery of the “work” of the ecosystem and of many who risk and give their lives for the grain and grapes on our tables.

The current American politics of fear and “wallification” of our hearts and homeland pretends not to see, not to notice the layering of grace, not to appreciate how interrelated and interdependent continuing human and non-human life is.

In and through daily life—the good and the grisly—the life of God is at work calling to the earth, seeking in us to “have pity” on those “not pitied” and excluded from the feast and security we, the privileged enjoy.

Do we—will we—pray and see the layering of grace in the Eucharist and in daily life?

Daniel Benedict

Friday, September 29, 2006

Water works

I woke this morning from dreaming about being somewhere where the meeting was going to shift from a meeting as in "business meeting" to the meeting (synaxis) of the baptized to worship God in a service of Word and Table. My struggle in the dream was getting the room set up. It was my responsibility to improvise the movement of chairs and furniture into an arrangement for the assembly. (My dreams are often struggles like trying to find my sermon notes or vestments and get to worship on time.)

Well, why set up the space like a “court room” where the judge is at the front, with table for counsel and a jury box (choir)? Why not create a space that invites the assembly to be around the strong central things? But where and how would they be placed? In the dream, the people’s seats would be around the central things: on one side, lectern with the Bible and presider’s chair just behind it, and the Table on the other side. The seating of the people would be “choir” style facing each other across and open middle. The table was a little distance from the seating so that at the Eucharistic rite the assembly can gather around it.

But what about the font? Would we need the reminder of the water of our baptism at a jury-rigged service? In my dream (and in my waking conviction), “Yes, we would.” The church is always born in baptism and sustained in the baptismal covenant by water and the Spirit.

So, where to put the font or bowl of water? Well, maybe at the entrance to the room where people can touch the water as they enter and make the sign of the cross, one by one as they enter. Or, in the case, since the group was already in the room, in the center of the worship space (as above).

If worship is primarily actions (gathering, proclaiming, eating, sending) around public symbols (assembly, font, lectern, table) supported by words, then what would we do with the font? What are the water works. Maybe there would be words. Maybe not.

I imagine the presider moving to the font, inviting the assembly to stand, and turning while lifting water three times in cupped hands and letting it fall back into the font without words in gestures that say, “Remember who you are…Remember who you are…Remember who you are….” Indeed, then we were gathered and ready for the opening dialogue, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you./And also with you.”

Where would you put the font? Or, in your dream, is it superfluous?

More on water works to come.

Daniel Benedict

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Teaching Online--One Big Classroom!

I have been infrequent in posting lately, in part because I have been preparing for and beginning an online course. This is a brief look at the course.

How is this for amazing: my current class room is 5500 miles long and 2500 miles wide stretching over 7 time zones! I am in Hawaii and students are in Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Last fall I was invited to teach an online course on presiding at the Eucharist. The course took shape around a notion of the presider as icon of the risen Christ as host—in persona Christi—and of the congregation as icon of the beloved community, the holy Trinity. Recalling Hovda’s book and the scriptural text from which he drew the title (2 Timothy 1:6-7) I titled the course “No Cowardly Spirit.” The subtitle, “Grace Driven Holy Communion” was chosen by the host organization for the course, Lumicon, as a not so subtle link to the popular “Purpose Driven” books by Rick Warren.[i] I taught the course in the winter of 2006 and am, as of this writing, leading it again in the fall of 2006. I envisioned a course that would combine readings in pastoral care, liturgy, the arts and practical liturgical sources. I was convinced that it needed to be more than a course in gestures—touch here and rub there. The online context gives the students time that my a-day-or-less “labs” could not afford. The challenge I saw was how to engage learners at a distance, particularly when it came the sharpening their skills at the table and inviting peer feedback.

The course description reads:

A pastoral and practical exploration of leading the assembly’s celebration of the Eucharist. Participants will enrich and expand their sense of the congregation’s sacramental life through reflection on art, explore the significance of the body and of our senses in ritual prayer, and form a deeper sense of self-identity in presiding or assisting at the Lord’s Table, including a sharpened discernment of the grace of their call to preside or assist. The course will employ readings, online media, film, observation and hands-on practice. Access to and use of a digital video camera… will be basic to the course. A high-speed internet connection is essential.

The inclusion of those who assist at table was to remind myself and participants that the role of the deacon (and assisting ministers) should be included in consideration of best practices at the Table.

I structured the course with the intent that participants would:

  1. Deepen their awareness of the factors shaping leadership and participation in the Lord’s Supper as communal ritual prayer
  2. Appreciate the significance of the body and senses in embodying “presence” to God and to the assemblyDevelop an expanded presidential style and practice congruent with their self-identity and their denomination’s theological and liturgical understandings and norms for the Sacrament
  3. Engage with art and film as venues for reflection on the iconic and metaphorical dimensions of presiding
  4. Create a digital presentation of their presiding at the table to be shared with other course participants (real time peer observation and feedback would be preferable but is not possible in this learning venue)
  5. Develop a statement of their “best practices” intention and outline a plan for implementing these practices in their ministry setting
  6. Experience themselves within a distance learning community

The reading for the course includes Robert W. Hovda’s Strong, Loving and Wise, Robin Jensen’s The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community, William Willimon’s Worship as Pastoral Care, and each participant’s primary church statement or directory on its theology and practice of Holy Communion. In both courses all have been United Methodist and so, we used This Holy Mystery (Discipleship Resources, 2005; also online--search Google) linked to the official ritual texts and rubrics in our hymnal and book of worship as the source of norms. Additional readings were drawn from Volume 1 of Worship Matters, ed. E. Byron Anderson. The course includes six sessions with reading and activity assignments for each.

Here are the session titles and flow of the course:

  • Course introduction, including self-introductions and establishment of online relationships and familiarization with the Blackboard Learning System™ and the syllabus.
  • Bench Marking and Stretching: participants prepare and share statements of their current understandings and practices related to the sacramental presidency and of what formative experiences shaped them. They also identify and interact with their denomination’s normative sources, and move further into course readings.
  • Iconography and the Eucharist: participants engage iconic art from the ancient and ecumenical church and explore it as a venue for deepening their sense of biblical and liturgical connections in appreciating the Eucharistic action. Students begin to sketch their understanding of how the presider can be understood as an icon of Christ and of how the whole assembly is an icon of the Trinity.
  • Sacramental Leadership and Communal Liturgical Prayer: participants explore pastoral relationships and how liturgical prayer and full engagement of body gestures, vestments, and attentiveness informs the larger context of congregational prayer, life and witness. This includes interviews of members of their congregation relative to how they experience services of Word and Table.
  • Actions that Pray: here participants move to deeper integration of their reading, listening, reflection and interaction with each other around issues of liturgical prayer. Participants hone their sense of the communal action of the church in the Sacrament and their role as presiders. In a sense, the course culminates in this session as participants make and share a digital video of themselves presiding (or assisting) at the table. Each receives feedback based on the observations of the instructor and their peers.
  • Imagining and Implementing “Best Practices”: in the final integrative session students reflect on and share what they have learned and how they intend to enact it in their ongoing presidential practice in their setting. Each, using the medium of their choice, makes a presentation of how they imagine and intend to grow into a stronger presidential or assisting role in their ministry setting.

In recent years I have been increasingly drawn to the ministry of forming pastors and priests in their vocation of leading the assembly in sacramental prayer. I have led a number of half-day and day long "lab" type events. While I delighted doing those practicums, I love teaching in this more extended conversation with students.

In the two courses I have had the pleasure of working with learners from a variety of settings and stages in their lives. So far I have worked with seminary students, students in graduate programs, seasoned clergy in large and small membership churches, and pastors who lead with quite different assumptions about worship, particularly in matters of style. I even had a few laity in the first course because they wanted to dig deeper and explore what it means to be an "assisting minister."

So far, the level of participation has been high, which is essential for an online course. Much of the “teaching” function happens in the peer relationships over the weeks of the course. It is almost as much fun as being a pastor serving a local congregation!

Daniel Bendict

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reflections on Goodness and Greatness

(The following essay was written by a former colleague, Dan Dick, Research Director in the new Solutions Team at the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dated September 5, 2006, it is part of a regular column he writes for staff of the agency. With Dan’s permission I include it in my blog. I post it without comment, except to say that I am deeply appreciative of Dan’s thoughtfulness and discernment. I will make comment in my next blog entry.)

One of the most popular business books of the past five years is Jim Collins’, Good to Great. The main premise of the book is simple and solid – good enough isn’t good enough. If you want to dominate a field, you must strive for excellence and make the necessary sacrifices to be great.

Implicit in the argument is a cultural perspective that says great is better than good. In the modern world, few argue that great is great and good isn’t as good. But has this always been the case?

When exactly did good become bad and great become better? Tracing the etymology of both terms, it is fascinating to see how they evolved, and to consider the implications when applied to spiritual communities of faith.

The Good – the root of the word good (gōd) is ghedh, meaning to unite, to join, or to fit. In its earliest usage, it described the quality of integrity. When something belonged, fit well, was right and true, it was considered good. Qualitatively, the good = perfection; when everything was in its optimal place and in right relationship with everything else, it was good. (This aligns more closely with the modern definition of great.)

The Great – this root, grete, means course, thick, or bloated. In its earliest usage it described immensity, usually of a natural disaster (i.e., great flood, great quake, great plague). Great was a quantitative term, not a qualitative term. Alexander was “the Great” not due to his charm and intelligence, but due to his power, possessions, and reach.

Throughout the Middle Ages – indeed into the late 19th century – it was preferable in most societies to be “good” than to be “great.” Goodness equated to moral fiber, standards of conduct, and defining values. Greatness was about achievement and accomplishment. Shakespeare muddied the waters mightily, using the word “great” humorously to state quality, while subtly implying girth.

A question raised by Alexander Pope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Benjamin Disraeli and others is a question worth considering today: can true greatness be achieved apart from fundamental goodness? Is something large, powerful, successful, popular, and well run necessarily good?

Many churches strive to be great, but to the exclusion of being good. To strive to be good – to have integrity, wholeness, virtue, and grace – if often denigrated; it isn’t enough to be good anymore.

The consideration for our congregations is this: many, perhaps most, can never aspire to greatness as defined by Collins, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and many others. Leading the industry, squashing the competition, gaining market advantage, positioning at the top – these are not within reach of most of our churches, and in fact divert their attention from their real work.

What is within the reach of every congregation is “the good.” Each local church has the capacity to work for integrity, balance, wholeness, and radical community. Other words that spring from the root of good – ghedh – are gather and together. True good is not the work of any individual, but of the community.

Greatness is fine, and a commitment to excellence is never unwise, but let’s be fair to poor little “good.” Our church might make a world of difference if we were simply able to shift our thinking from Great to Good.

Research Update is produced by Dan Dick for the General Board of Discipleship. Information contained in Research Update is intended for internal use at the General Board of Discipleship and partner agencies UMCom/UMPH. It is not for reproduction without the author’s permission. You may contact Dan at

Saturday, September 09, 2006

dream fragment—mysticism and trust

i was a graduate student in search
of a topic for my dissertation:
the connection between east and west
—lotus land and the doctrine of justification by faith.

where do these night fabrications come from?
what prompts the dreamer’s concoctions?
here a pinch of a week long class in chi gong and yoga;
there a central tenant of christian grace—blend well.

“i am enough, i have enough, i do enough”
we repeat while resting on the floor.
“christ died for us while we were yet sinners”
the presider assures the faithful.

the soul’s mysticism, the perfect form,
a place to be, being in space and time,
being before god, god being for us,
all things connected, all accepted…

Note: I make no case here. I only share the edge of a dream upon waking. Somehow it reflects the ongoing quest for the strong center and the open door.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Daily Prayer: Cloister or Coffee Shop?

In “Frog Liturgy”—my previous blog—I noted two patterns that habituate seekers in prayer: (1) daily prayer (the communal “daily office”) and (2) weekly Lord’s Day liturgy gathered around water, word and meal. Here I will focus on daily prayer as a personal and communal discipline.

One of the primary dimensions of the liturgical renewal agenda of the last thirty years has been recovery of the “daily office”—the church praying at the cardinal points of the day: sunrise, zenith, sunset, and night. Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and perhaps other churches have official liturgical patterns and texts for prayer for these times of the day.

Having these services of prayer in our worship books and acquiring the regular use of them in patterning our daily prayer are two different things. The first is more or less accomplished, but the latter as a widespread practice is far from being widespread.

There is a plan
Robert Benson in a lecture on daily prayer playfully recalls his early years as a seeker when he heard the church insistently say, “Come to worship. Study the Bible. Pray daily.” He recalls that his church had a plan of practice for the first attending worship and studying the Bible, but for praying daily there was no plan. He recalls the church's presumption that he was supposed to know how to do it and to do it. He goes on to share his discovery that the historic church does have a plan; one that is largely unknown to ordinary Christians who know that they “should” pray daily—even want to pray daily—but don’t have a grace filled plan for how to do it. (By the way, Carolina Broadcasting & Publishing, Inc has a very useful resource featuring Benson introducing daily prayer and I commend it to churches and individuals who would like to take up this amphibious practice. Go to for details.)

Where do we pray--monastery or stairwell
If we are to be amphibious, inhabiting the present reality of daily life, and to simultaneously perceive and breathe in the realm of the Spirit, where do we pray? The question is both literal and metaphorical.

I learned Daily Prayer in the context of the monasteries that I regularly visited during my years of pastoral ministry. The faint smell of incense, the icons, the choir seating, the chanting of the Psalms, the periods of silence, and the sense of the holy and sacred were thick, sensuous, and delicious. Prayer in those cloistered settings was deeply formative and memorable. In days following my times at the monastery I continued to pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer with a sense that I was connected to the ongoing prayer of the church and specifically to those monastic communities. In fact, I still do. In pastoral life, I prayed daily prayer (inviting any and all in the congregation to join me--and some did!) in the church worship space. One man joined me daily for five years! In recent years as a worship specialist without local church assignment, I created an oratory in my home or found an acoustically rich stairwell or bathroom in my office building in which to sing the daily office. The monastic model nurtured and formed me in a life of marking the times of the day with the patterns of the daily office. In no way does what follows imply that monastic prayer is inadequate, misguided, or unnecessary.

It did, however, occur again to me yesterday as I prayed Morning Prayer at my table looking out the window at the ocean and neighborhood, that a vision of “secular” prayer might be more in order for non-cloistered seekers. Perhaps, I need an alternative vision and place for prayer that is equally formative, nurturing and delightful. My “oratory” downstairs in a corner of my office is fine and connects me to the monastic context, but sitting at the table upstairs opens me in ways that connect me to the workaday world and God's amazing creation.

Daily prayer in the postmodern context
In our postmodern context, delight, desire and sensuous connections are not to be shunned (as in earlier ascetic spiritualities), but to be embraced. Prayer in a garden, on a deck or lanai, in a bustling coffee shop, or in an office building window allowing a view of the city and its environs may be as connective as the prayer in the cloister is formative.

Thus positioned, praying the daily office allows for sensual connections and delights that evoke thanksgiving and sharpening of the vision of a world drawn up into the love and light of the Holy Trinity. It may provoke in us a deeper yearning for the reign of God in the midst of the endangered creation and the catastrophes of geopolitical conflict. In other words, the daily office context for non-monastic seekers is not the cloister or monastic house (focused on inner connections), but the worldly domain where outward connections are welcomed and delighted in or lamented. This is not to say that inner connections are not also made. In our postmodern context there is no hierarchy of inner and outer, spiritual and worldly, beatific and grisly.

The aim of all our prayer is recognition of God in all of God’s love and mystery. The result or fruit of the church’s prayer enacted in the ordo (pattern) of daily prayer is the divinization of self, community and cosmos. We consistently practice participation in the church’s prayer, whether solitary or gathered, so that our unique visions of God’s love and glory are connected in the concrete instances and realities of “our” experience of being person, society, and universe.

If the monastic or cloistered model fosters discontinuity for us, then the vision of where we are literally and metaphorically located needs to be reconstituted as “secular” prayer. The pattern (ordo) remains; the place and the sense are transformed.

One of the moments of grace and freedom for me several years ago was an article in Sacramental Life (published by the Order of Saint Luke), where Charles Hohenstein suggested that we may not be able to pray all of daily prayer liturgy (morning, noon, evening, night). Dealing realistically with our limitation, he suggested that we can pray parts of it that we have memorized to say or sing. I found it freeing to think that we can participate in the church’s prayer as we drive to work, or prepare the evening meal, or tumble tired into bed. While I usually pray all of Morning prayer, I pray parts of Evening Prayer as I walk the beach or noon prayer as we sit down to lunch.

Is this not a faithful way to hallow life and time and breathe the air of God’s coming reign? Might it be positively amphibious!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Frog Liturgy: Future and Present in Liturgical Prayer?

Just back from some time in southeastern Alaska and observation of the Tlingit totems, I am musing on the frog as one of their prominent figures. Among other things, the frog lives its life on two levels, submerged in the water with its eyes scanning the horizon and its nose penetrating the life-giving air. Evelyn Underhill plays with the same connection somewhere in her writings on spirituality and prayer. Richard Valantasis, in Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age (Continuum, 2005), proposes that the Christian seeker “lives in two worlds simultaneously: the current real world of daily existence, and the even more real, emergent, eschatological, and divinized world toward which the [seeker] works.” (p. 109)

In other words, the church lives in God's future as its dialogue with the present. What an amazing vocation! God calls us into a dialogue of living fully in the world as it presently exists while keeping the mind and heart on an emergent “divinized” world that is yet to be fully instantiated.

What patterns of prayer in our daily lives and in weekly liturgy habituate us in this dialogue that beckons us to embody the future in the present? What wisdom can we take from the frog? In worship, what are we immersed in and in what realm do our hearts and minds breathe and perceive?

Perhaps that is too many rhetorical questions piled up and awaiting reply. So, one at a time with possible expansion in future blogs.

What patterns habituate us in “frog” liturgy? The liturgical tradition invites us (1) to daily prayer (based on the daily office—Google search “Daily Office”), whether as individuals or in communal expressions, and (2) to weekly gathering around font, word and table (the central things) on the Lord's Day. In this way the community hallows its present immersion in daily life and breathes the air of the coming reign of God, which it is called to witness to and instantiate in concrete and specific relationships. Habitual practice has a bad rap in our “spontaneous” culture, but without patterned cycles of prayer grounded in God’s future we have no horizon on which to fix our gaze in the turbulence of daily life. The pond of our existence is seldom calm. Witness: the daily headlines.

Perhaps spontaneity comes in having a fix on the horizon and trying to swim in the currents of daily existence. This moves us to what wisdom we can take from the frog. Liturgical prayer needs to be tensive; otherwise it looses its torque, its grip on the mind and heart. In liturgy, like the frog, we are “floating” between order and outburst, control and out of control, full and empty, centeredness and eccentricity.

In these tensions, John Wesley is one voice who invites us toward dynamic balance. According to Hal Knight in The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Scarecrow Press, 1992) Wesley sought a balance between what Knight calls “the presence means of grace” and “the identity means of grace.”

The presence means of grace are those that enable us to experience the presence and immediacy of God and guard us against “formalism.” In worship terms, I would list these as extemporaneous prayer, praise choruses, Taize songs, periods of silence, narrations of contemporary experience, etc.

The identity means of grace are those practices that help us attend to the “givens” concerning God (the self-revelations of God) and serve as a hedge against “enthusiasm”—mistaking our own perceptions as the will and truth of God. In liturgical terms these include the Scriptures (generally drawn from a lectionary); hymns, creeds and prayer texts from the historic and ecumenical traditions; worship planned in light of the liturgical calendar; and—interestingly—silence (listed above), by which we not only experience the immediacy of God, but also God’s interrogation of us and our feelings, thoughts and intentions.

No church that I know of or have experienced fully balances the presence and the identity means of grace in worship. Some, with frog-like intelligence and awareness, are trying. Many are immersed in the immediacy of daily existence and the present moment, without adequate attention to God's coming reign. Others are breathing heavily of the future, anticipated, “divinized” reality without adequate connections to the present cultural, ecological and geopolitical realities. My hope and trust is that, as the Irish (and Andrew Greeley) like to say, God draws straight with crooked lines.

Bottom line: frog-liturgy is to be our aim in worship.

Daniel Benedict

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Confession of an Ancient-Future Worshiper

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” asks the Psalmist. It was a question the exiles asked. It is my question too as I visit churches in my journeying around the United States. No, I am not a Mystery Worshiper for the Ship of Fools ( You may think that is odd for a Christian to feel like worship in any church is a foreign land. So, I will be specific and charitable, as I mean no harm. Consider this a confessional rather than negatively critical.

Last Sunday I worshiped in a nearly 15,000 member megachurch at the invitation of a friend. The high-tech music, lights and sound was professional and effective. The preaching was strong, compassionate and visionary. On the scale of excellence I would give this congregation high marks for what they do according to their aims and purposes.

Here, however, is the confession: I was not at home here. It was more than the theology that I couldn’t embrace. I was a Christian from another spirituality. And I confess, I am (some would say, a liturgical snob) an ancient-future Christian. I see and sense worship as being the present experience of God found in the tension between the past and the future, between the communion of saints (past and present) and the coming reign of God. The liturgy—the patterned communal enactment of public symbols around font, lectern and table—the public work of the people rendered before God for the sake of the world—is my prayer’s homeland.

So, I was in exile in this setting of Christian worship, because the central things were, except for the lectern brought out only was time to preach. Even when the Bible was read it was from a PDA device—perhaps because the reader no longer reads from a print Bible or to “relate” to the digital age audience.

I wish I could have time to dialogue with the pastor and worship leaders and planners to talk about the central things and how they are gifts and givens for the worship of God whatever the musical style, assumptions about culture and gospel, and our theological understandings.

I would welcome the opportunity to reflect on temperament types: the dominant temperament type of the congregation, the pastor and staff members’ type, and how that shapes worship in their context. Here, is another aspect of why I felt exiled in this service. For more on this online see “Finding Your Prayer Type” ( For print see Discover Your Spiritual Type by Corrine Ware. Simply put, the four types are of spirituality are “Head” “Heart” “Mystic” and “Visionary/Prophetic.” I would fall in the Head and Mystic quadrants—so that what appeals to the mind and mystic grabs me most. Worship that is predominantly “Heart” and oriented to experiencing God through feelings in the moment is too demanding for me. The church I attended Sunday was largely in quadrant two—the heart and emotions dimension, which I am told, fits the largest segment of Americans.

If leadership of this church asked me I might point out some of what I observed:

  • Social analogue: Their social analogue is the rock concert/motivational speaker. All Christian congregations choose some analogue as a model or paradigm for what their worship assembly is about. (See * below. I came across this helpful notion in Gordon Lathrop’s Holy People—Fortress Press.) I have attended churches whose social analogue was a medieval pageant and others whose analogue was a “genuine community” (no formality, nothing but “real.”
  • Cosmically hygenic: There was a kind of “never-never-land” feel to the service. There was no mention in prayers or preaching or songs of anything concrete and specific about our world. No mention of the suffering and war going on in the Middle-East or Iraq. Everything appeared to be generic—prayer, praise, etc. I am sure that this allowed each and all to bring their concerns to the moment. But what of priestly service of the assembly on behalf of the others, society and cosmos? I missed a sense of connection of worship with the world.
  • Music: This was a major part of the service. It was probably “the sacrament” in this service. However, for one like me, I had no clue about the melody, except as I heard it, and only two of the several songs had I sung before. As a newcomer, I felt marginalized by not having access to notation. I felt further marginalized by the volume of the lead singer and praise team. They filled the room, in ways consistent with the rock concert analogue. My question is what does this do to the “crowd’s” sense of being a priestly community? Are believers marginalized in practice?
  • Central things: This church, while center-to-right in the theological and political spectrum, is very much liturgically left. I would like to explore with them what they see as the “central things” and whether or not their worship could include the centrality of bath and table, along with story. I believe that many churches that have dumped substantive attention to our primary public symbols—font/pool, lectern and table—could continue in their style and be strengthened by recovery of the central things.

    Daniel Benedict

    * Social analogues and cultural models figure in our diversity in worship. Congregations elect their analogues in terms of:
    "a choosing, consuming audience”—often unreflective, uncritical adoption—seeker, believer, disenchanted (the rock concert, motivational speaker, or lecture hall)
    • or expressing locality in terms of “dreaming” by resisting modern paradigms (the medieval pageant, royal convocation, ancient mystery play (various archaic, imagination-bearing events)
    • or identify the assembly in terms of mainstream or marginality (the secret society, the tribal gathering, shamanistic meeting for healing or direction) As Lathrop points out all of these are survival forms of non-dominant communities.
    • or in terms of a local or national ethnic group with national costumes or flays serving in important symbolic roles
    • or the assembly may see itself as a genuine community —stripped of all pretense and marked by intimacy, familial speech (a collection of friends and lovers)

See Gordon Lathrop's Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press) for more on these insights.
Can any of these carry the meaning of the Christian assembly? Ritual play is more than social analogues and cultural models.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

“Wild Spaces” in Western Culture and Churches

(In “Ethical Metaphors” I hinted that the metaphors of the liturgy are ethical in direction, but in order to have converting torque in the assembly’s life they need deepening attention to the “wild spaces.”)

I’ll admit I am a contender for the liturgy—the patterned enactment of praise and prayer to the triune God around central public symbols. I will also admit that I and many who find deep meaning and formation in praying the liturgy do not consistently pay attention to God’s heart of love for life in all its forms.

Wherever I worship I am continually struck but the meagerness of the assembly’s prayers—whether or not they are “liturgical” communities. (I will say that those who are liturgical generally engage in a form of encompassing and expansive intercessions. However,...) Liturgical worship or not, the circle usually seems small: family, relatives, friends we know, and maybe our troops or hurricane victims. Seldom are there voices raised for the people caught as victims of war, poverty, genocide, AIDS, addiction, and displacement. Even more infrequent is there a voice beseeching heaven for the earth abused by human over consumption.

Liturgy as cult practice must connect with our shadow side; that is, liturgy must attend to the prophetic voice. Cultus and prophets have always been in an essential tension. Without cult, the prophets have nothing to rail against. Without prophets, the liturgical cultus becomes a wasteland of self-absorption while pretending to be worshiping in the name of God. This interdependence and interaction is what I so often find missing in much of the worship in which I participate. Either the prophet is unleashed and the liturgy dismissed, or the warm familiarity of our liturgy or “our praise and worship” is piously savored and the prophets barred at the door. I feel it is safe to say that is more the rule than the exception.

The prophet’s are the heralds of the “wild spaces.” Wild spaces are where one does not fit the white, male, Western, heterosexual, youthful, educated, able-bodied, middle-class and successful definition of “human being.” (See embedded image above.)

As an retired, aging, increasingly less able-bodied male, I am discovering that I less and less fit this mold. The parts that no longer matches the hegemonic definition is my “wild space.” I just walked up the street from Pike Place Market to my lodging in Seattle. I saw lots of people whose humanity had little overlap with the hegemonic definition. Big wild spaces! (By the way, I came across this concept in Sallie McFague’s Life Abundant--Fortress Press.) Can those wild spaces enter our attention in liturgical prayer? Will our churches find ways to pray the wild spaces?

Watch out for them! They will destabilize your status quo. Wild-spaces open windows to see Western culture from different perspectives and inviting us to reconsider it.

What is so much of the struggle in the North American churches and culture about? It is about God’s inclusion of the bits and pieces of being “created in the image of God” that the hegemonic definition does not include! (“No, Virginia, I am not only referring to sexual orientation!”) This struggle is concerned with the prophetic breaking in upon the coziness with which we like to tame the liturgy. The liturgy itself is not tame; indeed, I am convinced that the God who breathes it into us and empowers its enactment is wilder and more dangerous that our captive imaginations will allow. Remember Annie Dillard's comments about how worshipers act like they are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic when they should be putting on helmets and launching the life boats.

Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the consensus document of the World Council of Churches, summarizes this well when it says: (

E26. As it is entirely the gift of God, the eucharist brings into the present age a new reality which transforms Christians into the image of Christ and therefore makes them his effective witnesses. The eucharist is precious food for missionaries, bread and wine for pilgrims on their apostolic Journey. The eucharistic community is nourished and strengthened for confessing by word and action the Lord Jesus Christ who gave his life for the salvation of the world. As it becomes one people, sharing the meal of the one Lord, the eucharistic assembly must be concerned for gathering also those who are at present beyond its visible limits, because Christ invited to his feast all for whom he died. Insofar as Christians cannot unite in full fellowship around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the same cup, their missionary witness is weakened at both the individual and the corporate levels. [emphasis added]

The resistance to the salvation of God's world—this world, this whole world, this beloved world—requires that worshipers pay attention, not only to the central things, but to God’s open doors and to the wild spaces to which we tend to be blind and deaf.

How will worship around central things in your community enact God’s open doors this coming Sunday?

Daniel Benedict

Ethical Metaphors

In a previous post, “On Doing ‘Our’ Liturgical Thing,” a commentator responded “Your comments are most appropriate for those who were born within the confines of the circle. But what of those who were excluded by birth, by skin, by national edict?” She ("Desert Mother") raises the issue of oppression relative to liturgical texts and practices born of the hegemony of the privileged. Her comments brought a needed word to this conversation about liturgy around the central things (bath, story, and meal) and justly recalled attention to God’s open doors—the wide horizon of God’s gaze upon the thriving of all life.

I will leave to liturgical historians questions of whether or not what has become in our time the historic, ecumenical liturgy (sometimes referred to as the “ecumenical consensus”) was born of privilege and power, or in what sense it comes to us as a gift of the Spirit working among the least ones in the Greco-Roman world (inclusive of Egypt and North Africa). I just read Maxwell E. Johnson’s Liturgy in Early Christian Egypt (Joint Liturgical Studies 33). It opened my circumscribed knowledge to discover how influential that part of the pre-Constantianian church was in shaping the gift of the saints to our present liturgical practices.

Back to the main issue: Liturgical action and prayer is made up of metaphors and images that point beyond them. Indeed they participate in a reality greater than themselves, whether the God of justice and mercy or the god of nationalism and consumerism. Metaphors do matter, whether they are oral, textual, or embodied gestures. My less than explicit point in writing “On Doing ‘Our’ Liturgical Thing” was to caution all of us who write, plan, and lead liturgy and all of our congregations who enact liturgy is this: Beware lest in changing the liturgical texts and actions provided by our denominations, we subject “the liturgy” to our privileged, self-absorbed, self-preserving and self-protecting shadow side.

This is not to say that these texts and rubrics are perfected. They are not. They are pilgrim resources. They are large metaphors anticipatory of the reign of God that we cannot yet fully see. They are meant to shape those who pray them for the reign of God. They are communally constructed and communally prayed as the church, the community, awaits further illumination.
  • At the font: They initiate us into the coming reign of God (baptism and the rites of initiation) as a “holy people, a royal priesthood” for purposes of God.
  • At the lectern/pulpit: They provide context for proclamation of the Word incarnate that became text to be a place of encounter for us so that the Word may become flesh anew in our time and place (my thanks to my friend Robert Muholland for this move). This proclamation populates our imaginations with symbols, archetypes, and narratives that give us hermeneutical handles for interpreting and engaging daily life in its political and economic dimensions as we seek God’s coming justice and liberation.
  • At the table: They nourish our sense of communal embodiment of the risen Christ living as forgiven and reconciled people, rejoicing and grateful for all that God has done and is doing in creation, covenant and Christ.

These central things are powerful metaphors. And the texts and actions ritualized around them are powerful too. The question is in what direction does the power move? And, whose power is it?

The liturgical texts and their rubrics for initiation (baptism) and the Eucharist are rich with ethical metaphors (not moralistic ones) that are God’s call to the church to herald and heed God’s inclusive reign.

Here are a few of them from the ritual of my tradition (United Methodist).
From baptism:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races

(Following baptism and laying on of hands)
Through baptism
you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit
into God's new creation
and made to share in Christ's royal priesthood.

From Holy Communion in the Great Thanksgiving:
[from the invitation]
“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.”
[from the confession]
Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church. [sin understood communally]
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[From the Great Thanksgiving]
“He [Jesus] fed the hungry, healed the sick, and ate with sinners.”
“Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world…”
Our Father…”

These are just some of the metaphors with ethical torque that shape us for living in this world and not some other; for discipleship following the risen One in his “Galilee” (Mark 16::7), not convening in our spiritual “safe houses.”

In the next blog, I will explore how “wild spaces” open up and give teeth to the metaphors of our liturgical prayer.

Daniel Benedict

Desert Mother's Comment and My Reply

I am grateful for a comment made to "On Doing 'Our' Liturgical Thing" by Desert Mother. I responded to her comment.

In part I wrote to her:

Well said and you do my "strait corner" expand. Yours is powerful poetry. I am grateful for your bringing a "wild space" (see Sallie McFague,Abundant Life--Fortress Press) to this matter. I use "wild space" in the sense of where one does not fit the white, male, Western, heterosexual, youthful, educated, able-bodied, middle-class and successful definition of “human being”. Such wild-spaces (you represent one or more in your comment) open windows from which to see the matter from another perspective.

I urge you to read her comment and my reply as context for the next blogs.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Eviction from Our Snug Homes

In “Lecture II” (New and Collected Poems 1931-2001, pp. 493-494) Czeslaw Milosz writes of the banality of 20th century, pre-WWII culture and how it failed to challenge the rise of Nazism and the holocaust. In the poem he lists what Jesus “has” (note the tense) to face (a seemingly harmless list of human artifacts and activities inclusive of coffee, philosophizing, clocks and landscape paintings) and muses that nobody would have taken him seriously. The Jesus Milozs juxtaposes with the culture looks too much like a Jewish drifter—the kind the State catches and disposes of.

If the list of what Jesus has to face were in terms of 21st century churches, what would “Jesus have to face”? Hymns? Praise choruses? American flags next to Christian flags? Sermons without skeptics? Parking lots full of SUVs driven by we who over consume and live careless for the planet? Bible studies without discipleship and accountability? Baptisms without conversion and intent toward ministry? Holy Communion shared in stinginess?

Later in the same poem, Milosz writes a line many of us could take as our own confession: I wanted to equal others, behave just like them./ To shut my ears, not to hear the call of the prophets./ That’s why I understand her [a privileged woman described early in the poem]. A snug home, a garden,/ And from the depths of Hell, a fugue of Bach.

The great lack of much contemporary worship (I use the phrase generically) and spirituality is lack of depth, laziness in reflection, and self referential engagement with the surface of the dominant culture. What would be different in our gatherings for worship if we got beneath the surface where life and death meet? Where existence’s wonder, complexity and ambiguity rise up like a Bach fugue? Where we “see” the hooked nosed, the dirty and suffering? Those disposed of by the state and geopolitics? Where we see God’s threatened rivers, valley’s, oceans, and savannahs and find a will to care in our practice?

Where are the prayers, hymns and songs, preachers, and sacramental practices that stir us from our snug homes? From the false self propped up by consumerism’s myopia? If we more deeply lived the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and didn’t avoid the Jesus who meets us in them, would we hear the prophets? Find the will to give up our snug homes and live on the road to the coming reign of God? I wonder.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

On Doing Our Liturgical “Thing”

Many of us have been tempted to alter or paraphrase a prayer, litany, or liturgical text to “be more accessible” to the congregation. Perhaps we thought the ritual text was opaque to contemporary seekers. And, many of us have suffered (or been delighted by) such at the hands of others. What are we not aware of in these undertakings?

John Donne’s poem, “Upon the Translation of the Psalmes,” (a response to the translation of the Psalter by Philip Sydney and his sister, the Countesse of Pembroke) begins:

Eternall God, (for whom who ever dare
Seek new expression doe the Circle square,
And thrust into strait corners of poore wit
Thee who art cornerlesse and infinite)

Donne, in this little knot of convolution, as I call it, seems to be wrestling with the limits of creativity and human innovation. Might this at least be a caution to us “who dare” to make “new expressions” in the church’s prayer? Is everything our hearts, minds, and words conspire to articulate in song, praise and lament a revelation, a true reflection of the circumference of the Holy? Is Donne, the bard of English poetry, teasing, even himself?

Of course, it is a set up in order to magnify the achievements of Philip and his sister in their effort to translate the Psalms. But even here, he seems to muse on the fact that they did “perform that work again” that the “first author” by a “cloven tongue” was able to sing “the highest matter in the noblest forme.” The translators did the work by “heavens high holy Muse” that “whispered to David, [and] David to the Jewes.”

So what is Donne saying to us in the age of hypertext, instant liturgy, disposable songs and easy familiarity with the divine (“We just wanna” prayers)? Is he warning us that creativity, innovation, and even pastoral “adaptation” of liturgical texts and actions is risky business? I wonder how often in the creation of new liturgical texts or slight changes in the ritual I have thrust the Mystery into confining and silly “strait corners”? I think we are still discovering the challenges involved as we try to live into the so called “inclusive language project.” Of course, not to expand our God and human language is to be blind to how the past and present “doe the Circle square.”

At most, Donne’s caution suggests that we avoid audacity and presumption in making thoroughgoing revisions that only bring out our personal idiosyncrasies and bring attention to ourselves. Every liturgical reviser and committee might well remember the writing on Belshazzar’s wall, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN.” (Daniel 5) Maybe contextualizing a word or a phrase is in order, but to rewrite the whole Great Thanksgiving, for example, may unwittingly shove God and the congregation into a “strait corner” of our own making.

I am certainly not condemning all our efforts at giving contemporary expression to the praise and prayer of the church. Yet could we heed Donne and confess that we need both the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and ever deepening immersion in the inspired sources—the “circles” of Scripture, poetry, hymnody, and art that have created worlds of vision where God is uncornered?

Bottom line: Beware of “poor wit” in preparing liturgical texts.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The blog name—StrongCenterOpenDoor—seems to contradict the postmodern context that I want to address and explore in relationship to liturgy. In the opening blog I carelessly wrote: Postmodernity is increasingly decentered and deuniversalized. It would have been better to say that our world is increasingly decentered and deuniversalized. The two “d” words are synonyms for the postmodern world and experience.

Oddly, my intent for this blog is to affirm central things in Christian worship while also acknowledging the wide horizon and diverse dimensions of psychic, social and cosmic life.

While I accept that Christian worship is diverse and quite messy in each local expression, I am convinced that it is critical that worship find focus in its historic and ecumenical center: liturgy enacted around font, lectern and table. All the candles, crosses, songs, and worship centers in the world will be so much froth on our beer if seekers and seeking communities don’t engage with the God who meets us in bath, word and meal.

“Postmodernity doesn’t accept givens,” is the chant of the chorus. I wonder if postmoderns can welcome “gifts”? Is there room in a decentered world for peculiar tribal practices—gifts given by the Mystery known in water, complex and mysterious stories, and meals crowded with metaphors.

Maybe the deconstructed world dislikes gifts in the abstract. Perhaps, even Christians are dubious about anything that smacks of ancient origins. Perhaps the only way to find bath, story and meal as central to our existence is to be present to them as seekers and enter into what happens there in the fluidity of experience.

This week I was a lecturer for a gathering of seekers on the spiritual path. Eucharist was part of each day’s communal round, along with praying morning and night prayer. Each day we broke bread that we smelled baking. On the fourth day the community splashed the water in renewal of their baptismal covenant and laid hands on each other with prayer for continuing work of the Holy Spirit. Then we ate the Eucharistic bread as communion with the risen Christ, each other, and the saints and sinners of all the ages. It was tribal practice around central things.

Gift? You’d have to ask the participants. Or, ask someone who shares the bath and the meal in the context of the Word where you worship.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In our postmodern context, worship ways are wide open and increasingly diverse. At the same time there a desire for a "generous orthodoxy" that listens, questions, and explores ancient-future understandings and practices in the emerging churches around the world. Postmodernity is increasingly decentered and deuniversalized. Yet there is a yearning for center and attention to global realities.

On this blog I will be attempting to reflect on emerging worship from a perspective that holds in tension paying attention to a "strong center"--the central things that give substance and a centeredness to the worship of God (praise and prayer in bath, word, and meal) and paying attention to God's radically open door to the world. I am indebted to Gordon Lathrop for this tension between center and periphery (See his bookS--HOLY THINGS, HOLY PEOPLE, and HOLY GROUND.)

Liturgically, we are living in amazing times. Churches are experimenting, risking, trying new things, frustrated with conventional worship ways. The range of these ventures is truly diverse. Liturgical renewal continues to explore and offer the inheritance we have from the first centuries of Christian worship refracted through postmodern understandings. "Contemporary worship" continues to explore and employ cultural analogues (the mall, the concert, the motivational gathering) as "worship." The "emerging churches" (postmodernal reappropriation of worship) are engaging in a new ecclecticism in approaching worship. In the southern hemisphere (particularly Africa and Latin America) various expressions of Pentecostalism are shaping worship in specific cultural contexts. This is not an exhaustive list and it may not fairly represent those movements named. (How would you refine any or all of them? What would you add?)

In all of these there is a central yearning for God and the experience of God. Could there be greater dialogue between these yeasty movements? What appreciations and understandings could guide this dialogue? What does each bring to the table? I will try to be generous and frank in what I post. Strong views expressed will be for the sake of provoking thought and stretching horizons. Mine also need to be stetched. In and through all, may the grace of God lead the church to pay attention to God's strong center and God's open door.